Frizzante Champagne and Wine Bar in North Stonington may look like it's off the beaten path, but it's actually quite strategically placed. Within about a 10-minute drive, a visitor can reach three Connecticut wineries, Foxwoods Resort Casino and the touristy destinations of Mystic and Westerly, R.I.
That's what owner Stephen Clemente had in mind when he chose the location at the Route 2/184 rotary. At the time, he was unable to secure a space in Mystic because there weren't any available liquor licenses, he said. But then he thought, "Wouldn't it be neat if we put ourselves directly on the wine trail?"
Frizzante, which opened in January, is a playground for wine connoisseurs, with 75 red, white, sparkling and dessert wines all available by the glass. Bottles are carefully chosen, procured from boutique wineries and small producers from around the world. Clemente specifically avoids big-label wines and chooses many with a case production of 1,000 or less, he said, with the intent of pushing guests "out of their comfort zones."
Customers are invited to taste any wine for free before buying a glass or bottle, and they can also design their own flights for sampling. Education is a key factor to the customer experience at Frizzante, with servers on hand to explain components and qualities of each wine.
If a customer says they're a chardonnay drinker, Clemente said, servers will ask follow-up questions to determine what they like about it.
"If you like the French oak flavor, let me show you five other whites that you've never had by the glass that have the same attributes but are going to range from sweet, to semi-sweet, to dry, to bone-dry, to peppery," he explained.
While other wine bars have machines with nitrogen or argon-based preservation technology, Frizzante does not – between tastings and brisk sales, Clemente said, a bottle rarely lasts more than three days. Sparkling wines and champagnes have sold particularly well over the summer.
Frizzante's proximity to nearby Saltwater Farm Vineyard, Stonington Vineyards and Jonathan Edwards Winery makes for a natural partnership between the wine bar and the wine trail. Clemente carries several bottles of each winery's releases, and patrons who bring in a Connecticut Wine Trail passport will be treated to a free glass of Frizzante's choice, with a new featured wine each week.
The "Italian kid from New Haven," as Clemente describes his credentials, also owns two other businesses in the area, motivated in part by a career shift several years ago. The former book publisher left his corporate job in 2010 and took six months off, traveling to Rome and studying food chemistry. While in Italy, he saw people walking into an olive oil store and leaving with bags and bags of product.
Back stateside, inspired, he later opened Extra Virgin in Olde Mistick Village in January 2012, selling imported olive oils and specialty flavored vinegars. Later that year came its sister business, Semolina, featuring fresh pasta and gourmet sauces.
Clemente credits his Italian American upbringing, particularly the cooking of his grandmother, who hails from the Amalfi Coast, and mother, for his passion for food and wine.
"[They] were very influential in my culinary life," he said. "They taught me pretty much everything I know about food."
At Frizzante, wine is the "star of the show," Clemente said, with small plates "providing a way to elevate the wine to an even higher level."
"We're a wine bar. Wine is first, food is secondary," he said. "We spend a significant amount of time making sure the person gets the perfect glass of wine. Then and only then do we say, choose something that interests you. The whole menu is designed to work with everything on our list."
The tapas menu rotates every few weeks, but always includes land and sea proteins, Clemente said. Among recent selections: beef and pork meatballs with roasted red pepper cream sauce; lobster cakes with habanero mango salsa and tequila lime reduction; burratina with basil fennel olive oil and Campari tomatoes; double crème Brie with Greek apricots and dried figs and smoked salmon with pickled beets, crème fraiche and chives on crostini. All plates are $5; larger platters of cheese, charcuterie and chocolate are priced at $5 per person.
Clemente said guests often first take cues from the wines they've chosen, then pick complementing food.
"They become quickly aware that the notes in the wine are driving them to select, versus a restaurant experience where you'll have a bottle well before the food arrives," he said "We kind of invert that process and it works out well for us."
Frizzante's menu is also inspired by his family history, Clemente said. "I'm striving to produce a modern-day twist on the food of my grandparents. It's like 'elevated peasant food.'"
The cozy 38-seat lounge features couches and other comfortable seating, and a soundtrack of jazz music to set the scene. "[Our patrons] will say, for the next hour, I turn off my phone, I just sit here and have wine and relax. That's the atmosphere we're trying to create," Clemente said. "The goal is to slow their life down."
The concept has worked well enough that Clemente plans a second Frizzante outpost, scheduled to open in Mystic at 15 Water St. this November.
>>Frizzante, 138 Norwich-Westerly Road in North Stonington, is open Wednesday and Thursday, 3 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 3 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Information: 860-245-4353 and frizzantewinebar.com.
>>Taste of Hartford continues through Aug. 4, with special prix-fixe menus at more than 30 participating city restaurants. Information and menus: ctnow.com/summertasteofhartford.
>>Wood-n-Tap, with restaurants in Farmington, Hartford, Orange, Rocky Hill, Southington, Vernon and Wallingford, runs a special summer menu through August. The "coastal inspired" menu is heavy on seafood, with lobster bisque, PEI mussels, lobster salad roll, lobster grilled cheese, lobster a la vodka and fried clam strips. Other items include Caprese, Waldorf and strawberry salads; and berries and cream or a J. Foster's sorbet trio with mint for dessert. All items are priced at $4.99 to $16.99. Information: woodntap.com.
>>Restaurateur Aarón Sánchez, who's appeared on several Food Network programs, has opened Paloma in Stamford, in the city's waterfront Harbor Point development. Paloma, described as a "lively, Latin-inspired restaurant," will serve whole roasted meats, wood-grilled seafood, assorted ceviche and raw bar selections and small plates. Information: 203-998-7500 and palomagrill.com.
>>Cavey's in Manchester and Rose's Berry Farm team up for an alfresco dinner Aug. 8 at the South Glastonbury farm. The 6 p.m. dinner begins with a reception on the farm's patio, with sparkling wine or a "harvest" cocktail, followed by a multi-course dinner with fresh local produce, meats, fish and dairy. Each course will be paired with wine; the event also features live music. Cost is $95, plus tax and gratuity. Rose's Berry Farm is at 295 Matson Hill Road. Reservations and information: 860-643-2751 and caveysrestaurant.com.
>>Eight Hartford-area chefs team up for a fundraising dinner at Millwright's in Simsbury Aug. 12 at 5:30 p.m. Billy Grant of Grant's and Bricco, Ryan Jones of the Mill at 2T, Adam Greenberg of Barcelona, Jeff Lizotte of ON20, Scott Miller of Max's Oyster Bar, Hunter Morton of Max Downtown, Steve Cavagnaro of Cavey's and host chef Tyler Anderson of Millwright's will produce a multi-course menu with wine pairings. All proceeds benefit Share Our Strength, an organization that fights childhood hunger. Cost is $135, plus gratuity. Information and tickets: brownpapertickets.com/event/785490.
>>Friends of Boulder Knoll hosts a fundraising dinner at the Cheshire farm Aug. 21. The farm-to-table barbecue-inspired meal will be produced by chef Jason Sobocinski of Caseus and Ordinary in New Haven and Smoke Box BBQ in Hamden. Dinner includes a pairing of wines chosen by Cheshire's Southend Wine and Spirits, along with craft beer from Black Hog Brewing of Oxford. Boulder Knoll is at 875 Boulder Road. Tickets are $125. Information and tickets: friendsofboulderknoll.com/dinner.