On a Tuesday evening in early July Serra Alta restaurant is vacant; the cooking staff is in the kitchen busily preparing several courses for a large party. The heat outside is sweltering, but the staff plug away, creating sauces and preparing different courses before the evening’s guests arrive. Despite the heat, restaurant owner Otello Renzi inspects every glass, plate and flower arrangement to ensure its perfection.
A table stretched out under an outdoor canopy is like a flowered landscape filled with glistening wine glasses and silverware waiting for the guests to sit and enjoy the multiple treats that Renzi has prepared for the evening.
Renzi is one of the most influential sommeliers in Italy if not Europe. He teaches others how to evaluate, critique, decant, serve and store wine. He certifies vintages for sommelier associations, restaurants and vintners. But Renzi is not solely a wine expert; he is a gastronome — a person who studies the relationship of food, wine and culture. He does not just critique; he shares with others the rich culture and tradition of wine.
“Wine is not meant to be drunk; wine is meant to be consumed,” meaning tasted and delighted in like a savory meal, he says. In fact, Renzi pairs Italian cuisine and wine together as if it’s a marriage – a happily married couple. One without the other would not taste right.
Casual wine drinkers around the world have been drinking wine in ignorance and denying their palates the true experience of wine consumption. The way that a person holds the stem of a glass or how one chews on the liquid in their mouth can affect the way a wine tastes. Renzi instructs novice drinkers on how to consume wine the correct way, the only way to drink wine.
Born in the coastal town of Pesaro in the region of Le Marche in 1952, Renzi followed in his mother’s footsteps. Teresa Lani was a professional chef who owned a restaurant in Pesaro named Ristorante Teresa, which earned a coveted Michelin Star for “offering the finest cooking.” Renzi notes that his mother was named one of the top 10 chefs in Italy by Italian gastronome Luigi Veronelli. “I am not a cook but I helped my mother develop her restaurant,” says Renzi.
His special love and study of oenology (the science and art of wine making) was borne of his family background and the region in which he lived. Le Marche, he says, is influenced by the land and sea. Traditionally fishermen earned their living at sea but commuted inland to their homes. The seafood they brought home would be combined in dishes mixed with vegetables from their personal gardens.
Renzi mixes classic cooking with innovative twists but he reminisces about his grandmother’s simple recipes. He describes a soup called zuppa di pane, traditionally served during Easter. It is a broth made with bread slices, sausage, eggs and garlic and cooked in the oven.
While he appreciated the region’s simple recipes, Renzi’s curiosity about complex foods and wine led him to travel throughout Europe in search of different vintages and styles of cooking. If a recipe does not meet Renzi’s expectation of authenticity, “I take the plate and throw it against the wall,” he says jokingly.
Renzi has been a professional sommelier since 1980 and since 2002 he has been the president of the Associazione Italiana Sommelier for the Marche region. Italy has an organization of professional sommeliers for each region in the country. To gain certification Renzi completed a three-year-long course of study. Graduates have to pass a test and are then certified as sommeliers by the ministry of agriculture.
The region of Marche and the province of Urbino asked Renzi to be an adviser for local restaurants. In Urbino he oversees 10 different cooking competitions; each one has a specific theme based on seasonal ingredients. There are two categories: overall most creative recipe and most creative recipe combined with the best wine. Truffles are incorporated as an ingredient for each event.
The next competition, held in November, will use a cheese called Formaggio di Fossa. This cheese is aged for three months underground and by November the cheese is unearthed and used for the competition.
A few years ago Renzi added the management of Serra Alta restaurant and hotel to his already full plate of responsibilities.
Guests arrive by driving a scenic route to the top of a winding dirt road that has no name. Serra Alta, nestled in the green hills that overlook the town of Fermignano, faces west toward the sunset. A fountain and a two-story cobblestone building greet visitors. The letters S and A are entwined and etched in the front door that opens into the restaurant.
Elegant ambiance and precision are what define Renzi’s restaurant. Each dish is expertly prepared, each wine is carefully chosen.
In spite of the heat, Renzi and his assistants put on their navy blue blazers; Renzi proudly wears the distinctive emblem of the “AIS” over his left coat pocket.
The sun sets behind the hills of Fermignano; the guests are soon to arrive. Renzi stands at the door to greet them. The last rays of the day add a warm glow to his face. He is ready to share the rich culture of food and wine of Urbino.