A chef friend whose opinions I value highly once raised a sceptical eyebrow when I praised La Retrobottega proprietor Pietro Russano's cooking. At the time Russano, a former sommelier at the late restaurant Rino, had just opened his low-key 11ème Italian cave-à-manger and, as is often still the case today, he was manically performing all roles: sommelier, server, host, and cook. My chef friend argued his cuisine was too untutored.
I had no rebuttal, because it's true Russano is mostly self-taught. If the dishes I've received since at La Retrobottega rarely reach the heights of the magnificent pickled squash salad Russano served on my first visit, they're nonetheless reliably soulful, curious preparations: roast aubergine atop couscous, or burrata served with mango, white mushroom and chive. Russano is an improvisation artist, if not in the high-jazz register of the greatest chefs, then in the blustery, street-level manner of a freestyle MC.
This is the best lens through which to understand his new project, a junkyardy wine shop and épicerie on rue de la Roquette that he has rather pungently entitled Squatt Wine Shop. (Two t's intentional.) Russano explains the name is a reference to squatter culture in places like Berlin. I'm unable to resist observing that 'squat' is also what dogs do in the street in places like Paris, or that it's what one finds in one's bank account after too many wine expenditures... No, the word has no good connotations in English. Perhaps Russano's wine shop will be the first, for Squatt is overstuffed with unusual French and Italian selections, not to mention sincere personality, making it the antithesis of Paris' ubiquitous Nicolas chain, one location of which is, amusingly, located directly next door.
Russano is from Puglia. Were he from Abruzzo, he might remember the recent earthquake and invest in more stable wine storage. For now, a severely limited design budget means it's wisest to remove backpacks before entering the tiny, crowded space.
The selection is a 30% - 70% split between Italian and French wines. The Italian proportion is set to increase, with Russano beginning to import more wines directly, and this will represent Squatt's primary draw: Russano, along with Pierre Jancou and RAP's Allessandra Pierini, has for the past four years been one of Paris' only lifelines to quality Italian wine.
My visit to Squatt the other day turned up one unexpected - I might even say unprecented - delight: a balanced, bright Puglian white.
Although slightly overpriced at 18€, the 2013 Polvanera Minutolo Russano recommended was a minor revelation. He cautioned that the wine was merely organic, not natural per se, and the wine was indeed a bit straitjacketed and shut for the first ten minutes after opening. Then it suddenly bloomed, showing herbal aromas and articulate flavours of cedrat and lime alongside a forthright juiciness, maintain acidity even when tasted beside some bass ceviche I'd made.
Polvanera is a 20ha domaine founded west of Bari in 2003 by winemaker Filippo Cassano. Although the domaine is more known for its high-altitude, oak-free Primitivi, I was curious about the Minutolo because to date I'd simply never had a good Puglian white. Nor had I ever tasted Minutolo, confusingly also called Fiano or Fiano Aromatico, despite not being related to Campania's more celebrated grape of the same name. I later learned the grape is the subject of a revival effort that began only in 2000. With the first recovered plantings being made in 2001, I presume the very first wines of this effort were reaching the market just as I stopped working in Italian wine. (God, I feel suddenly old. Older than Minutolo.)
Squatt's French selection is presently a little patchy. While I applaud Russano for consciously avoiding stocking the same limited coterie of natural wines one finds everywhere in the 11ème, something tells me his selection would benefit from a few marquee names, if only for marketing purposes. It's easier for consumers to trust his offbeat discoveries if they're stocked alongside a few recognizeable names. As it is, the most famous French natural wine name in Squatt's selection is young Beaujolais upstart Benoit Camus, not yet a superstar by any stretch of the imagination. (Though, on the strength of his kinetic, blackfruited 2011 Vin de France "Le P'tit Camus," perhaps he is well on his way.)
Squatt also stocks a solid range of Italian and imported craft beers, one of which, Danish brewer Fanø's Rye-nocerous IPA, I greatly enjoyed on tap recently at Ménilmontant bar Les Trois 8.
Russano plans to expand the vacuum-packed Italian charcuterie on offer, and, less promisingly, to exhibit the work of "young artists" in the remaining 2 square meters of wall space. I told him the artists would indeed have to be very young to agree to such a thing. There's a pre-school on my street, for instance - perhaps a good incubator for young artists.
It's a given, anyway, that I won't be returning for the art. I'll be returning for outlier wines and Calabrian chili flakes and for a more inspired, idiosyncratic alternative to his next door neighbor.
Squatt Wine Shop
112, rue de la Roquette
Tel: 01 71 24 82 80
La Retro'bottega, 75011
A 2012 piece on Polvanera at Wine Wisdom.
A 2013 piece on Polvanera at Ole Udsen Wine Blog.
A 2012 piece on Polvanera's Minutolo at Exalted Rations.
A 2010 piece on Minutolo at Italian Wine Review.
A horribly written 2010 piece on Minutolo at VinoWire.
Chez Aline, 75011
Aux Deux Cygnes, 75011