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Thinking, and Drinking, Big at La Foresta

There are some people in life who just think bigger than others. For these people, things are both envisioned and executed on a grander scale. Franceso Lulaj, owner of La Foresta in Killingworth, is one of these people. From his 6,000-square foot restaurant to the portion sizes of his northern Italian dishes, Francesco likes things big. His wine menu is no exception. A formidable tome, simply attempting to find a spot on the table for its sheer bulk caused me to send a bread plate clattering to the floor. My dining companion and I requested we be moved to a bigger table.

La Foresta was recently honored with Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. This accolade is awarded to restaurants that are considered destinations for serious wine lovers and whose wine programs display an excellent variety of winegrowing regions and/or great depth of top producers. These restaurants typically offer at least 350 selections. The wine list at La Foresta includes well over 700 labels, categorized by region and sprawled out over more than 100 pages. All of the major regions are well represented – especially Italy, France, and California – with a few less-often seen appellations claiming some well-deserved space. I was delighted to discover wines from Israel, Hungary, India, and Uruguay on the menu.

Even for the seasoned oenophile, negotiating this wine list before the kitchen announces last call would be a daunting task. I opted to limit myself to wines sold by the glass. With 43 wines from which to choose, there was still some tough decision-making to be done. I chose the Villa Rosa Gavi di Gavi from Piedmont, Italy and the Kettmeir Müller-Thurgau from Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy. Frank Mosca, one of La Foresta’s two wine directors and the person taking the wine order, approved of my choices. After chatting for several minutes, I felt comfortable putting my remaining wine selections in Frank’s capable hands. Although the wine list here attracts many seasoned wine lovers who will delight in pouring through the pages to find old favorites or make new discoveries, a list this size requires knowledgeable staff on hand to help the novice navigate or to offer pairing advice. La Foresta has that covered. Wine education is provided for the staff, but Francesco (who is a sommelier), Frank, and co-wine director Marjan Mekaj (Francesco’s brother) are always nearby to offer assistance. Or one can simply leave all of the work to La Foresta by attending a Thursday night wine dinner, which includes three courses that have already been paired with wines.

My companion and I tasted several more wines, none of which are found on typical by-the-glass menus and all of which were interesting. My predilection for Old World wines found me favoring the Fattoria Sardí, a Tuscan rosé, and the Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino, also from Tuscany. The price point of the Brunello would discourage most wine directors from offering this wine by the glass but, for La Foresta, it’s a matter of bragging rights – it says they are serious about their wines. For fans of New World wines, the Emmolo Merlot from the Wagner family in Napa Valley is definitely worth a try. Lovers of big California cabernets will enjoy it; the gritty tannins and robust dark berry, cocoa, and earthy flavors still have me convinced there’s cab in there.

If you don’t want the imbibing to end with the entrée, La Foresta offers a fine selection of fortified wines to complement their decadent desserts. The Hartley & Gibson’s Blend of Amontillado Medium Sherry and the Presidential Porto Ruby were pleasing companions for gelato and chocolate cake, respectively. But the Taylor Fladgate 30 Year Old Tawny Port stole the show, providing the perfect pairing for the crème brulée. While the dessert wines were like drinkable candy, the glasses utilized throughout the meal performed the function of eye candy. La Foresta serves their diverse selection of libations in a pleasing variety of stemware. The varying shapes and sizes not only complemented the different styles of wine being served, they also added to the overall aesthetic of the meal.

Although the wine list alone is enough to entice the majority of wine enthusiasts to Killingworth at least once, La Foresta offers an exclusive VIP program for those interested in enjoying wine at the restaurant on a more regular basis. Members purchase a row in a climate-controlled room, which is then populated with wines chosen from the restaurant’s inventory. Each time a wine is consumed, it is replaced with another. Members are entitled to use the room for intimate dining experiences for themselves and their guests.  Wines are typically stored around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but the room can be brought up to a comfortable dining temperature for a maximum of eight hours without any deleterious effects to the wine. I had the opportunity to chat with some current VIP members who were enjoying the expansive bar area with some friends. They were serious about their wine, both collecting it and even making their own. So why, I wondered, did they choose to keep wines at La Foresta? They enjoyed the knowledgeable staff, bottle storage, and private entertainment space to share with friends, as well as the exclusivity; once the rows in the room are filled up, membership is cut off.

You don’t have to be VIP to feel like a member of the club at La Foresta, where everyone seems to share a common passion for wine, and where there is something for everyone. Wine prices range from $28 to $7,999. I was curious which bottle went for $8K. In a corner of the upstairs private dining room stood a lone bottle of Moet et Chandon. A really big bottle. Known as a Nabuchadnezzar, it contains 15 liters of Champagne, or the equivalent of 20 standard bottles.

Not surprisingly, Francesco has plans to further expand both the physical space at La Foresta and the wine list. The apex of Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards is the Grand Award. These restaurants feature at least 1,000 wines on their menu. Frank says they are trying to be the first restaurant in Connecticut to achieve this award. Francesco quickly corrects him: “We will be the first.”

I can certainly drink to that.

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