Now you see it. Now you don’t. But you can taste it.
I’ve written several times that we eat with our eyes. Smart chefs know that a well-presented plate simply tastes better. Those of you who watch “Chopped” on Food Network see how many of the contestants carefully clean the outer edges of their plates (if they have time) before presenting them to the judges. Peer into a fine restaurant kitchen and you’ll (hopefully) see the same thing.
But what if eyesight were to be removed from the dining equation? DiFebo’s chef/owner Lisa DiFebo Osias has been exploring that concept over the last few months with her popular Blind Wine Dinners at her Bethany Beach restaurant. And last Sunday she, her husband Jeff and Elevation Wine Merchants rep Jessica Janssen teamed up to serve a complete wine-pairing dinner to diners – who had no idea what was being served or what it looked like. And I had the honor of being one of them.
The ever-so-talented Lisa and her husband Jeff are the proprietors of DiFebo’s restaurants in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach. Lisa also recently opened DiFebo’s Italian Market in Bethany. She was born in Wilmington, where Bob DiFebo (her dad and undisputed Master of the Red Sauce) owned a restaurant. Like many children of chefs and owners, she grew up among the pots, pans, prosciutto and pasta. She relocated to the Bethany area in 1987, and dad’s tiny sandwich shop on Atlantic Avenue eventually became DiFebo’s Café & Deli. Lisa is no slack in the education department either. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and became the first female to do a fellowship at the award-winning American Bounty restaurant (the on-campus eatery at CIA).
OK. Back to the blindfolds: in order to slowly introduce us to the upcoming adventure, last Sunday’s first course was served in plain sight. Given that the theme of the dinner was the cuisine of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, the first course was seeded crostini topped with pistachio honey crema and a slice of some of the best mortadella I’ve ever had. Jessica poured a festive glass of the sparkling La Collina Lambrusco (think prosecco but red).
Then the masks went on. Invisible servers quietly intoned to each of us that food was in front of us and that a new wine was being poured. Lisa and her team stuck with the mortadella theme with over-the-top flavorful tortellini resting in a deeply savory guinea-fowl consommé. A quick side trip to keep you informed: mortadella is sliced off a loaf sort of like boloney. It’s flagrantly fatty and studded with pistachios and sometimes cracked black pepper. It hails from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, with its roots in none other than Bologna. It’s a cousin of America’s boloney.
So far so good: no tortellini in my lap and no wine on my shirt. “There is a warm dish in front of you, I suggest you feel it first,” whispered an unidentified server. Interesting. I don’t think anyone – particularly a server – has ever said those words to me.
I dutifully followed instructions; gently fondling the lightly fried morsels. Ahh! Fritto Misto! I stayed with the fingers and enjoyed flash-fried clams, calamari, fish, crab and smelts. The 2021 Barbera d’Alba from the Piemonte region of Italy left lots of room for the varied flavors. I kept my fingers on the base of the wine glass all the time. I was not going to spill it or break a glass! Not that anyone would have seen it.
The third course was the star of the show, though I never got to see it in person. DiFebo’s is known for their red sauce, and a béchamel-based Bolognese (from Bologna. Get it?) topped a well-constructed lasagna – layered with freshly made noodles and crowned with a grated aged parmesan. The decidedly Tuscan 2019 Montalcino stood nose-to-nose with the layers of flavor. Y’know, they say (whoever “they” are…) that when you lose one sense, the others are heightened. I have several sight-impaired friends who attest to that. I wonder if the food tasted even better because I was more focused on the mouth-feel and flavor without the visual distraction of the room? I will need to research that. It’s a good excuse to return to DiFebo’s.
Italians often serve the salad course after the pasta, and Lisa’s kitchen team was true-to-form with a roasted fennel and arugula salad. The natural bitterness of the greens was gently offset by aged pecorino and a delightfully simple lemon vinaigrette. Again, it would have been nice to have seen it, but the intense interaction between the greens and the sheep’s milk cheese set off a happy bouncy castle in my mouth. Yet another flavorful Tuscan (2022 Ali Rosato) played very well with the salad.
Masks were removed in preparation for a mini-charcuterie platter. Prosciutto took center stage adjacent to a few slices of flaky Grana Padano cheese and of course the wonderfully salty pecorino romano (from the Greek “pecora” meaning sheep). It all was lightly drizzled with a bracing olive oil. Wine expert Jessica Janssen outdid herself again by choosing a straight-ahead 2019 Valpolicella from Veneto. I’m glad they let us join the realm of the sighted; I would have had olive oil all over myself.
It wasn’t long before we were in the dark again – just in time for one of Lisa’s family’s traditional at-home desserts, Soffioni Abruzzesi (translates to “Dandelion from Abruzzo”). A biscuit-like pastry redolent of fresh lemon was filled with ricotta cream was cuddled up to a scoop of just-made pistachio ice cream (you can buy it at DiFebo’s Market across the street). At first I thought it was a cream puff (I was getting into that fondling thing). Jessica topped the dinner off perfectly with a cool, sparkling prosecco.
DiFebo’s restaurants are in Rehoboth Beach at the corner of First and Baltimore and in Bethany Beach on Atlantic Avenue just a minute or so from Coastal Highway, directly across the street from Lisa’s jam-packed Italian market. Like Italian? Give ‘em a try.