On any given Saturday during the Leavenworth Christmas Lighting Festival, the crowd along and surrounding Front Street can grow to 40,000 people.
“You looked outside the restaurant, and it was just a sea of heads,” Carr said. “If you were looking for a place to walk, forget it.”
Visconti’s enjoys no problem filling the 220 seats for its Italian-themed restaurant, but if you don’t have time for a memorable meal with pairing with award-winning Washington wines, there’s the Leavenworth Sausage Garten next door. Only got time for a snack? Below the fine-dining restaurant there is the meat counter Cured by Visconti’s. Espresso and/or gelato is available at Viadolce. Everything is prepared on-premise.
“This year there will 28 festivals and holidays; that’s one about every other week,” Carr said. “The first two weeks in April and first two weeks in November are about the only down times in Leavenworth. It’s 10 really good months now.”
And there are seven companies in the Wenatchee Valley under the Visconti's Italian Restaurant Group. Soon, it will be eight. They recently purchased a 18,000-square-foot building on Miller Street in Wenatchee for an expansion of their cured meat operation, a commissary, catering kitchen and private dining rooms.
“We are here to please you,” Carr said. “We want to give you something new and exciting to discover every time you come in. And Candy and I were learning and growing so much with the wine industry. It was discovery day every day. This was a food-and-wine culture that we didn’t grow up with.”
Working in the Northwest restaurant industry brought him out from North Dakota, and he returned to the Midwest — for one last time.
"I didn't want to do another summer," he said. "It wasn't the winters that got me. The lack of humidity and bugs were what drew me back here. And the lifestyle is so much better out here."
He worked in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and several spots in Spokane, including the Pine Shed before owning a coffee shop and restaurant in Colfax for 11 years. He landed in Wenatchee, selling groceries for food companies in 1991 when he met Wenatchee native Candy at Visconti's, who had started the restaurant in 1985.
“In 1985, people in Wenatchee didn’t eat spaghetti and meatballs. People didn’t eat lasagna,” she said. “It was steak and potatoes.”
She took full ownership of Visconti’s in 1992.
"I had just the one restaurant in Wenatchee, then Dan came on board, and we started with the wood-fired oven, and we started growing," she said. "Some friends of ours owned this building (in Leavenworth) and asked us to come (there) and run a restaurant in this building in 1999."
A trip in Italy in 2000 proved life-altering, and two years later, Leavenworth Brewing Co. moved out of the Front Street Building, and for a time, Dan played with vinegars.
“We started making pancetta for the company because we couldn’t find what we liked,” she said. “So Dan starting make that, and it grew.”
They also opened a wine shop, which ended up also being one of the town's first tasting rooms.
"We rotated between Eagle Creek and Wedge Mountain and Boudreaux," Carr said. "All of them as they would come on, we were their tasting room. Even Fox Estates, which dates us."
There’s the natural beauty that surrounds Leavenworth, but the evergreen community also has offers other charms.
“The advantage that Leavenworth has over Woodinville is they have the hotels to put people in,” Mecham said. “You can get a hotel room, you can walk around and taste and shop.”
Soon, more wineries came to Leavenworth and opened their own tasting rooms.
"We thought, ‘Let's sell gelato,' " Mecham said. "And at this point, we just started doing wine tastings in the restaurant and selling retail that way."
Along the way, Carr and Mecham began to explore the world of wine, both Italian and Washington. Wines made in the Walla Walla Valley took center stage at Visconti’s just as the second wave developed.
“Back when John Abbott was at Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Marty Clubb, Casey and Seven Hills, Woodward Canyon,” he said. “These were all the old benchmarks. At one point, there were 21 vintages of Woodward Canyon on our list. We were fascinated.”
Their list grew to 600 wines from a handful of countries.
“It got to be too much,” Carr said. “Plus with the core values that Candy and I wanted to instill was that we are in Washington, we cook Washington, only in the style of Italy, so let’s do that with wine, too. Ports and bubbly are about the only things outside of that.”
In 2007, another door opened when the small shop space next to Vidolce came available. By August 2008, it became Cured by Visconti.
“It’s what we believed in,” she said. “This is our food. These are the wines. This is our region. It’s like the Italian concept where you cook within your own area. We just took it from there.”
Five years ago, her daughter, Dawn Mecham, returned home after training with some of the top restaurateurs in the country. A graduate of Eastmont High School, she left town for 12 years and gained hospitality experience in Miami, New York and Las Vegas. She worked for the Mackay Restaurant Group in Seattle at El Gaucho and then Waterfront Seafood Grill, where Chris Sparkman — now of Sparkman Cellars fame — served as general manager.
“Sparky!” he refers to him affectionately.
Then came Myles Chefetz’s trendsetting steakhouse at Prime 112 in Miami.
“Miami was the fun and the clubs, but I also got the education — learning the everyday grind,” she said
Next came Babbo, a Mario Batali project in Greenwich Village that introduced her to David Lynch, the James Beard Award-winning wine journalist and restaurateur.
“Babbo was the biggest eye-opening experience I’ve ever had in the restaurant business,” she said.
After Vegas, Dawn was ready to return home and join the family business as general manager of Visconti’s.
“I kind of refused to move back unless we put bars in the restaurants because they were missing the boat so much on cocktails,” she said. “I bar tended in all those locations, and that’s definitely where my heart is. I love wine service.”
She maintains a condo in Leavenworth, but quick trips out of town for globe-trotting or outside consulting on restaurant and bar projects keep her fire stoked. Additions to their two businesses in the popular Pybus Public Market also are in the works for winter 2019.
“I’m always asking, ‘Can we rip this out because I want to put a bar in!” Dawn chuckled.
Carr agrees. “She’s very multitasking, and she’s opened bars, nightclubs, dinner houses across the country for others — and a sausage garten,” he says with a smile amid a table full of laughter. “She’s experienced all of them.”
It’s been five years, and her influence over the 160 employees and properties continues.
“She’s brought new standards for service, for styles and food,” Carr said. “It’s a new world, and we’re starting to evolve again — things such as the proteins and the portion sizes — to fit into the modern world.”
Dawn's arrival came at just the right time. While he looked sharp and comfortable in his chef's apron, a majority of Carr's career these days focuses on wine and his pursuit of salumi — the Italian term for cured, dried or smoked meat. Don't expect him to utter its French equivalent — charcuterie.
They've since taken over control of their building on Front Street along one of the most famous sidewalks in the Pacific Northwest. The top two floors are dedicated to Visconti's and overlook their Leavenworth Sausage Garten by Cured. Street level is Visconti's Italiano Viadolce Gelato & Espresso as well as Carr's pride and joy — Cured by Visconti's. In the basement are his headquarters and production facility for the cured meats. His spice rack is full. All of his meats are from premises more hygienic than any winery and regulated by an on-premise, full-time U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspector.
Beyond the meat counter at Cured is a slogan that Carr now lives by — "preserving history's recipes ... one pig at a time!"
The Wenatchee restaurant remains Visconti's flagship, and the town also is home to Fire at Pybus Public Market and Ice Gelato by Visconti's at the market. All seven retail locations are open seven days a week. Aside from the original restaurant, which is limited to dinner service on Saturday and Sunday, the rest are selling for at least nine hours each day. One sign of his local success is evident each fall in Leavenworth, where Cured by Visconti's supplies all of the brats, kielbasa and sausages for the town's Oktoberfest. However, the Visconti’s Leavenworth Sausage Garten has become a year-round hit.
“If this company is going to continue to grow, that outdoor sausage garden might be the way,” Carr said. “It’s been a wonderful and fun thing for the guests and the staff.”
Regionally, they took the prize for grand champion at the Northwest Cured Meat Championships in Moscow, Idaho.
For a devotee of salumi and wine, few things in the Northwest are more delectable than a tour of Cured and Rob Newsom's Boudreaux Cellars along Icicle Creek. One look at the wine list, and it’s no surprise that the talented and affable Newsom, who appreciates the finer things in life in a folksy way, is a regular at Visconti's.
"My buddy Dan has led the gourmet Italian and natural food scene in Leavenworth for 30 years," Newsom said via email. "His first-hand knowledge of Italian winemakers is staggering. His curiosity is what drives him. He is a brilliant foodie. My chef buddies from Louisiana fly here to see him. I love this guy. Cured makes living Italian in Washington remarkably authentic."
One of Carr’s crowning achievements came in 2013 when the Washington State Wine Commission named Visconti's as its Restaurant of the Year. He still gets a bit emotional when looking back at that evening. Last year, Visconti's earned Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence for the 20th consecutive year. Dawn now is officially the wine buyer for the group and in charge of restaurant operations.
"I don't want to give up my wine judging because I really love it, but Dawn's got a better palate than I do," Carr said. “It’s time to turn over the reins. My full-time passion is making salami - pretty damn good salami.”
The arrival and influence of Dawn is no coincidence, with Daniel and Candy looking to carve out a bit more time for themselves. On a personal level, they plan to remodel their home kitchen, which would open the door to more time with friends.
Carr, who just turned 65, is looking fit and trim as a result of a streamlined diet. He and Mecham unwind via trips across the U.S. with their restaurant focus group — or France or Italy.
“We travel and eat,” she said.
Carr quipped, “It’s research.”
For the Match Maker assignment, Carr stayed within the Cascade Valley for the wines and remained true to his passion with Italian varieties Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio, choosing Jones of Washington Pinot Gris with his Lemon Crab Linguine.
“With white wines, it comes down to two things — either they are crisp or they are buttery,” he said. “The fun part about this dish is that when you taste the sauce, it’s a light cream and it’s got the fresh lemon zest. The weight of the wine goes great with the cream, and the acid of the wine goes great with the lemon. It’s two dimensional.”
The Martin-Scott Winery’s Estate Montepulciano, grown on a northern cliff overlooking the Columbia River, plays up its sense of cherry when meshed with Visconti’s-Style Ribeye Steak, cooked with the flair of Peter Luger Steak House in New York and paired with Arrabbiata Linguine in a pomodoro sauce with beautifully roasted potatoes.
“Dan does a ton of research on old-style cooking and brings it forward,” she said. “You should see our house. It’s full of cookbooks. And he reads them. Some of the things that I’ve had to sit through? A 1952 video of some guy showing how to cut meat.”
Jones of Washington 2015 Pinot Gris, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley - $14
— 1,973 cases, 13.8% alcohol
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same variety, yet the styles of wine made from the grape can differ.
Pinot Grigio, as it is known in Italy, often expresses a theme of crisp orchard fruit rather than the off-dry, richly tropical expression associated with Pinot Gris from Alsace. The Jones family, thanks to its vineyard management, terroir and winemaking talent of Victor Palencia, leans Italian with its Pinot Gris.
And 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of Palencia becoming head winemaker at Jones of Washington. At the ripe age of 23, he was placed in charge of one of the state’s largest winemaking facilities — J&S Crushing, where the Jones wines are produced.
In 2012, the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley became the state’s 13th American Viticultural Area, and work by Palencia and the Jones family helped the petition gain credibility. A few months prior, Wine Press Northwest named Jones of Washington as its Washington Winery of the Year. Neither the family nor Palencia appear to be slowing down.
The Ancient Lakes region is cooler than many others in Washington, and that plays out in the white wines produced there. For the Pinot Gris program, Palencia focuses on the Jones family’s 2 Gun Vineyard, established in 2001 near Winchester in the Beezley Hills at 1,500 feet elevation — one of the loftiest plantings in the state. It is one of three Jones vineyards in the Ancient Lakes, but no others include Pinot Gris.
The 2015 vintage leans toward orchard fruit with enticing aromas and yummy flavors of pear, white peach and Granny Smith apple. Thanks to Palencia’s choice of screwcap closure, there’s a surprising level of freshness that remains locked in. Its delicious balance and dry approach makes it an ideal foil for summer salads, seafood, rotisserie chicken and light seafood pasta dishes.
This vintage marks three consecutive times for Jones of Washington Pinot Gris to have received a gold medal or better at the Seattle Wine Awards. The family also has received three Double Platinums in recent years from Wine Press Northwest for its Pinot Gris program. Fortunately, Palencia’s annual production of about 2,000 cases makes it easy to track down. And the release of the 2016 Pinot Gris is just round the corner, with distribution in 12 states.
Jones of Washington (Quincy tasting room - 509-787-8108) 2101 F. St., NW, Quincy, WA, 98848 and at the Pybus Public Market, (Wenatchee tasting room - 509-888-0809) 7 N. Worthen St., Wenatchee, WA 98801, jonesofwashington.com.
Lemon Crab Linguine
2 ounces butter, unsalted
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 lemons for:
2 teaspoons lemon zest fresh
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
4 pinches fresh parsley, chopped
4 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces Dungeness crab meat
12 ounces linguine pasta, cooked al dente
1. Heat butter, then add ½ zest and lemon juice, salt, pepper, parsley
2. Bring to simmer with zest just bubbling. DO NOT BROWN.
3. Add cream, bring to boil for 30 seconds, then add lemon juice.
4. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.
5. Add crab, put second half lemon zest in, add cooked pasta and toss.
6. Plate by topping with a grating of fresh zest
Martin-Scott Winery 2014 Needlerock Vineyard Estate Montepulciano, Columbia Valley - $24
— 75 cases, 15.2% alcohol
Montepulciano is the second-most planted grape in Italy, yet it is virtually unseen in the New World, particularly in Washington state. It’s turned out to be a young and fun project for Mike Scott, winemaker and grower at bucolic Martin-Scott Winery, high above the Columbia River in East Wenatchee.
“Cabernet is such a dominant feature in the red wine scene, so I wanted to spread our wings a bit,” Scott said. “So I looked the catalog for Inland Desert Nursery and ran my finger down the list. (Montepulciano) was an interesting word, and I wondered what the grapes are like.”
In many instances throughout Italy, Montepulciano is blended with Sangiovese. Not Scott, who established 1 acre of it six years ago next to Tempranillo in his Needlerock Vineyard.
“People love to say “Mon-ta-pull-channo,” and it often blazes the entry of conversation at the wine bar,” Scott said. “It catches the attention of wine tasters because it’s not widely planted. I like to offer diversity to the folks who go to the trouble of going down our driveway.”
As their vines mature, the Scott family gradually is increasing production of its Montepulciano. The soon-to-be-released 2015 vintage, first offered to the Martin-Scott wine club, will be 100 cases — the equivalent of four barrels.
“I like to pick it quite ripe, which means going into the third week in October,” Scott said. “In that regard, I don’t know that it will really take off in Washington because people are intimidated by that, but as long as we have these warm and long vintages, we should be fine.”
His use of almost neutral French oak makes for a nose of blueberry fruit leather, caramel, espresso and lavender. It’s a very easy drink of ripe Bing cherry, Marionberry and blueberry, backed by chocolate shavings and sweet clove in the finish.
“Some of the gymnastics that I go through in the tasting room is comparing Cab to Montepulciano,” Scott said. “A Cab grape leaves you with flavors of a drying tea bag whereas the Montepulciano awakens your saliva juices. That’s why I think of it in the Malbec category.”
Two years ago, Martin-Scott’s debut commercial vintage of 2013 earned a Platinum from Wine Press Northwest, and that award helped provide validation. Scott and his wife, Judi, enjoy their Montepulciano with poultry, lasagna, Tuscan-style Beef Stew, flatbreads, gyros or a cheese plate with options that include Crottin, Edam, Havarti, Manchego or Pecorino.
Martin-Scott Winery, 3400 10th St. SE, East Wenatchee, WA 98802, martinscottwinery.com, (509) 886-4596.
Ribeye Steak, Visconti’s Style
24 ounces ribeye, bone in, Prime grade preferred
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper seasoning to taste
2 tablespoons drawn butter
1. In a wood-fired oven, place grill rack on top of hot coals. Make sure that your oven floor is at 550 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter. Place a steel plate (larger than the steak) in oven next to fire. Char broiler or charcoal grill, preheat to high temp and place a steel steak plate on broiler rack.
2. Dry off steak then, salt and pepper to taste.
3. Place steak on hot rack and place back on top of coals for about two minutes, then turn your steak half-turn to mark it.
4. After two more minutes, place steak grilled side-up and pour drawn butter over steak and into pan. (Add your vegetables and potatoes to the steak plate to finish with your steak.)
5. Place the steak plate back in the oven to finish the steak to your favorite temperature.
6. Remove steak from oven and allow to rest on serving plate.
7. To serve, plate the steak and drizzle the steak butter over the steak. Arrange the roasted smashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables, serve.
Arrabbiata Linguine dinner a la carte
1 tablespoon olive
2 ounces pancetta bacon, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cracked red chilis
6 ounces pomodoro sauce (see below)
1 pinch fresh basil, torn
4 ounces linguine pasta al dente
1 ounce Pecorino cheese, grated
1. Sauté the pancetta with the olive oil.
2. Add pomodoro sauce, salt, pepper, and cracked red pepper - reduce to caramelize the tomatoes.
3. Add 1/2 pecorino, blend then fold in pasta and plate.
4. Top with the remainder cheese and top with fresh basil.
16 ounces Italian roma tomato, whole peeled
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled then sliced thin
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Break and crush the whole tomatoes
2. Heat oil, sweat the garlic until soft
3. Add tomatoes, bring to boil, then simmer for 45 minutes or until oil floats to top.
4. Use immediately or chill and reserve in refrigerator.
Roasted Smashed Potatoes
1 pound Baby Red or Yukon Gold potatoes
6 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
2 teaspoons crushed red chilies, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1. Steam the potatoes for 60 minutes. It takes that long to set the starch to sugar to get that soft, not crumbly, texture.
2. Blend the oil, rosemary, thyme, garlic, red chilis, sea salt and pepper.
3. Preheat oven, charbroiler or outdoor grill to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Cool potatoes on a sheet pan for a few minutes. Using a towel, smash the potatoes flat enough to break the skins but not crumble.
5. Place potatoes on sheet pan and coat them with the olive oil, saving most of the herbs and garlic for later.
6. Season liberally with sea salt and pepper, then place in oven or on closed grill.
7. Roast the potatoes until they start getting lightly crisp.
8. Turn potatoes, cover liberally with herb mixture and re-season with sea salt and pepper.
9. Roast until crisp. A personal favorite way is to place them directly on bbq grill, charbroiler or wood oven grill rack to finish the last few minutes. Crisp!
10. Keep potatoes warm until moments before serving, return to oven to crisp up.