Wednesday, August 3, 2011

FoodTrek: Rumble in the Thirsty Jungle

What's wrong with a little healthy competition? Especially when it's so delicious. I was glad to attend one of Italianissimo Ristorante's special Beer v. Wine events, where they pit a local brewery's beers against a local winery's vintages in an edible bout to knock the other one out! *Ding!* There goes the bell... let the battle begin!

Italy goes on holiday to Thailand with a spicy lobster and peanut sauce pizza - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Actually, there's no boxing gloves involved. Not even a hint of a scuffle. It's about as civilized a battle as you'll see, and way more delicious than chess. For these special dinners, there's several courses of food paired with dueling pours of wine and beer. This time, it was Black Raven Brewing Company and Efeste Winery -- both locally made products that pack a Mike Tyson punch to your tastebuds. Winemaker Brennan Leighton was on hand, as was head brewer Beaux Bowman, to answer the nitty-gritty about beer and winemaking and generally take the Mickey out of one another for the amusement of a filled dining table. All's fair in love and alcohol, after all.

Brewer vs Winemaker vs Chef - can't we all just get along?! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It was five courses of food, expertly prepared by Italianissimo owner and chef, Kent Betts, and the event is organized by the fabulous Caylee Betts -- yes, this restaurant is a family affair, adding further charm to why it's such a great place. If you've ever had the pleasure of a meal at Italianissimo, these Beer v. Wine events are an extra treat, as it gives Chef Betts a chance to play around with dishes and ingredients that step outside of the traditional Italian scope. He's given the tricky task of coming up with food that will harmonize the wine and beer. And while the drinks are smartly paired, it's still a challenge as the flavor components of the two libations are complex, especially with hops from the beer, which adds a distinctive bitterness that needs Mad Chef Skillz (yes, that's an official term) to properly compliment the food.

Tummy, are you rrrrrready to rrrrrumble? I think so - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The food of course rose to the occasion with enthusiasm -- guests were greeted with creamy, sweet crab crepes, topped with fried orange zest, paired nicely with the sweet Feral Sauvignon Blanc from Efeste and the high citrus notes of Black Raven's new Belgian Golden Ale, tentatively called Four Play (they may have to change this, as apparently there's a similarly-titled beer in Oregon, but keep an eye out for it!). The second course was probably my favorite, as the strong flavors of Black Raven's Trickster IPA and Efeste's Evergreen Riesling needed something equally bold, and a slice of a spicy peanut sauce pizza covered with lobster was a unique companion -- definitely something you'd never normally get at the restaurant, but people were already making pleading gestures to Chef Betts to add it as a special item. A bonus tasting included the rare and now sold-out Wisdom Seeker, a double IPA that's like a love letter to Northwest beer fanatics who literally want their beer to smack them in the face with hoppy flavor.

Pulled pork with a Northwest twist - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Another special treat was the third course, a slow-cooked pork shoulder, braised for five hours to butter-softness, topped with the sharp sweetness of a Bing cherry salsa and served with sweet potato chips. Sort of like a Washington-themed deconstructed pulled pork sandwich, minus the bread. Served with Efeste's Ceidleigh (pronounced cay-lee) Syrah and the Tamerlane Brown Porter, Black Raven's first beer (simply called "Batch 1 Brown" in its newborn stage), it was an overall bold-flavored course of food and drinks, with heavy flavor on all sides. The biggest flavor punch was the fourth course, with the Final Final Red Blend and Second Sight Strong Scotch Ale served with Italianissimo's signature house made sausage and meatballs. The sausage was mostly wild boar, lending a rich, sweet flavor, and the meatballs were seasoned with rosemary. The menu had a little check box where you could mark off which beer or wine "won" the course, but I have to say the fourth course was an even tie, as the peaty Scotch Ale went marvelously with the sweetness of the boar sausage, and Efeste's red blend had a fruity acidity that balanced the richness of the rosemary-flavored meatball. At that point, I wished I wore my stretchy pants.

Food and wine, introduced by event mastermind, Caylee Betts - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Not that it matters who got the most checkmarks; it really was a case of everybody winning by the time dessert showed up. Chef Betts made a goat cheese gelato, super creamy and drizzled with their caramel sauce that is pretty much the most addictive substance on Earth. He made it a point to say he likes finishing a meal with a strong wine, and I really liked that. He's totally correct -- you've probably gone through multiple courses, your palate has run a gauntlet of flavors and quite honestly, it probably needs something strong versus some light chantilly cream of subtlety that tired tastebuds won't be able to appreciate. So a rich dessert is nicely paired with the creaminess of a Grandfather Raven Redmond Imperial Stout, and equally cut with the acid of a Big Papa Cabernet Sauvignon. The fatherly themed beer and wine inevitably leads one to the ultimate question of: who's your daddy?

Everyone wins! And oh yes, Put a Bird On It - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Who ultimately won the Beer v. Wine battle, between Black Raven and Efeste? For my own scorecard, it was a tie, and in the end, everyone was so happy and full, it didn't matter. The real winner was the idea that beer and wine can be treated as equals, successfully paired with food without the pretense of something being considered highbrow or lowbrow. Beer can be just as complex and sophisticated as wine, just like wine can be as casual and friendly with a slice of pizza. There is no "best" or "worst," just what you like and how you enjoy food and drink. If you live in the area, definitely check out Italianissimo's food and wine events -- they have something going on every week. For special event dinners, definitely get reservations, they tend to sell out. Their next Beer v. Wine event is coming up soon on Aug 11th, with 21 Acres, details here. For smaller weekly things, definitely head over for their Wine Wednesdays. It's a great way to sample several tastes and talk to the winemaker who's usually on hand to talk to people. And when the weather is nice, they open up their patio and you can sip wine and watch the day ebb away into the early evening. Ah, belissimo!

Bookmark and Share


  1. Fantastic review and great photos. Did you know, they are a Celebrated Chefs restaurant? Your readers may be interested in knowing that they can select a charity to benefit every time they dine. Then when they are kicking back enjoying the battle of beer v. wine and fantastic food they have the additional satisfaction of a charitable donation to their supported cause. It's

  2. um, I LOVE this idea!!! I know very little about either beer OR wine, so the idea of a side by side comparison with food is nothing short of brilliant!

  3. It was a great dinner. It was fun and delicious!

    Fritos and Foie Gras Italianissimo is offering a series of beer vs wine dinners. The next one is coming up this week! Details are at


Commentary encouraged. Fresh baked cookies, super-encouraged. (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)