Rediscovering an old Nebbiolo friend at Jon and Vinny’s in LA

IMG_1067.JPGAll the way down to the pizza crust dipping sauces – ranch, Italian, and marinara (below) – it’s all about the nostalgia and kitsch at the newly opened Jon and Vinny’s, a homage to Italian-American and nuova italiana cookery on Fairfax in West Hollywood in the former Damiano’s (an old haunt from my grad school days).

But when I met a colleague there for a working dinner last night (thanks to an impossible-to-get reservation courtesy the management at Sotto where I co-author the wine list), it was more about my nostalgia for an old Nebbiolo friend, the Mimo rosato by Cantalupo, one of my favorite Novara producers.

IMG_1065.JPGOps and beverage director Helen Johannesen’s list is mostly delicious natty and old school French but her Italian selection is also solid (if red heavy).

The Mimo was the only Italian rosé wine among healthy French options and it showed beautifully with the spicy red thread that ran through the dishes, from the “little gems” (now a pseudo-Italian standby) to the bucatini cacio e pepe (are italics even relevant anymore?).

IMG_1058-0.JPGWaiting for my colleague to arrive, I snapped this image of Canter’s Deli across the street where I spent countless late nights in my 20s when living, teaching Italian, and playing music in LA.

My night ended with me Ubering back to my hotel and soundly asleep by 11, something that rarely happened during that time in my life.

In those days matzah ball soup and beer were the daily victuals. Today Nebbiolo and pizza dipping sauce are the order of the day. But Canter’s still sits there, unchanged and unmoved.

My, how things must stay the same for everything to change.

Memorial Day to remember…

melvin croakerBlogs are about remembering. “Web logs” is what they were called early on. They were and are diaries of their authors’ lives.

Every Memorial Day, I remember Melvin Croaker in the photo (above, right).

Every one in Tracie P’s family made me feel welcome when I first moved to Texas to be with her, to start a new family and a new life together nearly seven years ago now.

On the first Christmas Eve we spent together in East Texas in 2008, Melvin — a close family friend of my now parents-in-law — presented me with a cowboy hat and six-pack of Lone Star beer as he officially welcomed me to Texas.

I still have that hat and I still have one of those six bottles. We drank the others in his memory after he passed away in 2010.

Melvin was a U.S. Air Force veteran. When I wrote about sharing beers with U.S. Marines on their way back from Iraq while Tracie P and I were on our way to honeymoon in 2010, Melvin commented on my Facebook — I remember well — about how important it is to acknowledge their service and sacrifice.

There won’t be any grilling or beer cans popping today at our house. It’s just going to be a quiet day at home for me with the girls and Tracie P.

But today we’ll remember Melvin and all of the men and women who serve and have served our country.

As the Romans used to say, it’s a day to remember and to be grateful… memorem et gratum esse

Arrivederci, Italia. You never cease to amaze me…

asolo villaAnd so another trip to Italy comes to an end.

Every time I pack my bags, whether coming or going, I remember that very first visit in 1987 when I was 19 years old and came for my junior year abroad at the University of Padua. I’ll never forget that sensation and sense of urgency: record every aroma, flavor, view, and sound — I thought to myself at the time — there is something here that will reveal greater meaning in life’s time; I don’t know what it is yet but I know it’s there.

Now I’m 47 and nearly 30 years after that first sojourn, I still experience that same feeling — every time, coming or going.

Yesterday, following the last seminar and tasting at the TerroirMarche festival in Ascoli Piceno (three mini-verticals of jaw-dropping Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi), I made what might have been the most beautiful drive of my life.

Departing from Ascoli, I drove through the Apennines to Norcia as the sun was setting before me in the west. And as I headed on from Montefalco and Trevi toward Pisa (where begin my journey back to the states today), I drove past Lake Trasimeno at dusk. Awe-inspiring!

All in all, it was a five-hour drive but it seemed to go by in a flash.

In another time in my life, it was poetry and literature that opened a window on to Italy and Italian culture for me. Today, it is a wine glass that I see through but darkly.

As for Petrarch who, upon discovering a manuscript of a work by Cicero, remarked that he was enchanted by the words even though he did not [yet] know what they meant, Italy is for me a text that I continue to parse with great and joyous curiosity, scanning each syllable and scratching its surface looking for a greater and deeper meaning in its rhythms.

Arrivederci, Italia, you never cease to amaze me. Thank you to all who hosted, poured, and shared their thoughts and impressions. It was a long and rich trip for me. Thank you.

Now to get back to my love and the place where I belong…

Marche, the Italian countryside the way it looked fifty years ago?

One of the things that’s so cool about the Marche (Marches) is that there hasn’t been a lot of industrial development here. Driving to the tasting this morning in Ascoli, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way that the Italian countryside looked fifty years ago.

Here are some photos I took this morning at the Agriturismo Fiorano in Cossignano village where I slept the last two nights (great place, btw).

italian country side wine italy

marche marches vineyards wine agriturismo

marche best hotel country wine italy

The best vitello tonnato I ate in Langa and a fantastic vertical of Cogno Barolo Ravera

best vitello tonnatoNearly every restaurant you visit in Langa serves the Piedmontese classic vitello tonnato (one of my all-time favorite dishes).

Of the three places (in two and half days) that I was served the dish, my number-one, top, best was Osteria More e Macine in La Morra.

Just look at that sexy presentation and the yellow of the tuna sauce (from the rich egg yolk used to whip the housemade mayonnaise).

barolo ravera best ratingAnother highlight of my sojourn was a vertical of six vintages of Barolo Ravera by Elvio Cogno with winemaker Valter Fissore yesterday.

Such beautiful, elegant, and focused expressions of Nebbiolo. My favorite vintages were the 2008 and 2011. Look out also for the 2006: it’s very tight at the moment but I’m sure it is going to deliver in the long term.

Thank you, Valter!

Posting on the fly this morning as I head down to Montefalco and then on to Ascoli Piceno…

The cradle of Barbaresco and happy birthday man

asili martinenga barbaresco rabaja thumbIt’s been a crazy couple of days here in Langa, the land of Barolo and Barbaresco, where the weather already feels like early summer.

In the photo above, you can see the cradle of Barbaresco. From left: the Asili, Martinenga, and Rabajà crus (with the Marchesi di Gresy’s Martinenga estate house in the center; click the image for a larger version).

Note the tower of Barbaresco village in the top right.

Those vineyards are considered by most to be the heart and soul of appellation.

barbaresco map asili rabajaI grabbed this detail from the Barbaresco consortium’s official map.

You can see the t-shaped Martinenga house in the center of the vineyard (compare with the photo above).

I took the photo yesterday from the Cascina delle Rose, the winery and home of Giovanna Rizzolio, one of my favorite Barbaresco producers.

She lives atop the Rio Sordo cru on the other side of this small valley and is a top producer of Barbaresco Rio Sordo (one of my favorite wines). The screenshot of a Google map below gives you a sense of the distance between Tre Stelle, the village where she lives and makes wine, and Barbaresco (about 30 minutes on foot).

best restaurant barbaresco italyLife on the road is often hectic for me and my visit with Giovanna was unfortunately cut short by unforeseen work obligations that came up at the last minute.

I was really bummed about that: I was eager to dig into her new vintages and update my notes on her wines, which I love.

The good news is that new business opportunities will be bringing me back to Langa soon and I’ll hopefully get a chance to catch up with her and her wines in coming months (the wines are available in Texas, btw, via Rootstock).

giovanni arcariI came to Langa this week to celebrate bromance Giovanni Arcari’s fortieth birthday. That’s Giovanni, left, wearing his “Greatest American Hero” t-shirt, and Barolo producer Ferdinando Prinicipiano, who gave Giovanni a 12-liter bottle of one of his top crus (Boscareto in Serralunga).

Good friends Paolo Cantele and Adua Villa also joined for a fantastic dinner celebration and fat flight of wines on Tuesday night in Cissone village (more on that later).

He and I generally speak to one another in Italian. But over the course of his many trips to Texas and California, he’s picked up on my very Californian habit of addressing all my friends as “man.” Everywhere he and I travel in Italy together, people laugh about that…

Happy birthday, man! You’ve been and wonderful friend to me and my family and I am so glad you were born.

What a week it’s been in Langa! Great wines, great times…

So much to tell and so little time. Today is my last day in Langa and tomorrow it’s off to Montefalco and then Ascoli Piceno. Crazy, right!

A “best” restaurant in Italy: Da Vittorio in Bergamo, a classic that keeps on grooving

From the department of “just in case you were concerned that I haven’t been eating well in Italy”…

branzino seabass recipe italyA great day visiting vineyards yesterday in Franciacorta (where I’m working on a post on Franciacorta soil types) was capped by an extraordinary dinner at Da Vittorio in Bergamo province with Maurizio Zanella, Ca’ del Bosco’s founder and the outgoing Franciacorta Consortium president.

Ten years had passed since the one and only time that I had the great fortune to dine at this Michelin three star. And I happy to report that legacy chef Enrico “Chicco” Cerea, Vittorio’s son, hasn’t lost any of his delicious groove.

That’s a branzino crudo, above, served with Norcia truffles and toasted Piedmontese hazelnuts. I loved how Chef Chicco served the plate warm, thus encouraging the aromas and flavors of the delicate fish.

caciucco cacciuco recipeI also loved the playfulness of his mise en place and dish names.

That’s his “caccia al caciucco” (hunt for caciucco), a deconstruction of the classic Tuscan seafood stew and a wonderful paronomasia.

tuna tartare recipeTuna and oyster tartare, served with tapioca, Pernod-infused and finely diced cucumber, and Sicilian tuna bottarga.

It’d be hard to call any one of these pittances a standout because they were all so spectacular. But this was one, Maurizio agreed.

amatriciana recipe authenticLinguine with a “fish amatriciana,” made with cod jowl (cocochas).

Both Maurizio and I swooned over this dish.

black cod sableBlack cod over a Salento yellow tomato sauce.

Just hearing the waiter say “Salento yellow tomato” had us giddy.

As we delighted over dish after dish, Maurizio and I remembered fondly a dinner we shared many years ago now at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego.

One of the things I really, really love about him is how he’s equally at home eating a Jaynes Burger (my fav) or dining alongside the world’s richest and most famous.

It was amazing, btw, to hear him share his Playbill notes on the celebrities and big-time power brokers who filled the dining room.

Maurizio, thank you, man! Great wine, great conversation (I loved the Veronelli anecdotes more than anything else). A night I’ll never forget… Thank you!

Poisonous strawberry update: not toxic but evidently unpleasant on the palate

wild strawberry recipeA number of people posted comments on social media or wrote me offline after I posted the above photo a few days ago, taken in Montello (Veneto).

One note came from Michele Fino, professor of food law and policy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo (Piedmont), whom I met for the first time this weekend in Asolo (I enjoyed talking with him immensely; more on that later).

“Did you know,” he wrote on my Facebook, “that according to Local traditions, wild strawberries are edible if the fruit [faces down] at the soil [while] the ones that [face up toward] the sun aren’t?”

His concern was echoed in a more stern warning by Los Angeles-based Italian wine professional Diego Meraviglia, who noted: “Careful, that ain’t a wild strawberry. That’s a ‘fragola matta’ [crazy strawberry]. It’s toxic… duchesnea indica… The difference is in the shape and the fact it has no yellowish seeds on the skin but those tiny protrusions. The red is bright and it grows upwards (wild strawberries grow downwards).”

Diego grew up in the Italian Alps, he wrote, where both wild strawberries and “mock strawberries,” like this one, are common.

As it turns out, the berry I photographed wasn’t a wild strawberry (fragaria vesca) but a false strawberry that was purportedly brought to Italy from China around 1800.

The FDA does not consider them toxic although they can cause allergic reactions.

The good news is that I didn’t eat it!

By all accounts, while it’s not poisonous, it’s not pleasant on the palate.

Posting in a hurry from Brescia this morning as I prepare to head out for tastings and vineyard visits in Franciacorta…

Happy Mother’s Day, Tracie P! Our girls and I love you!

mother and child reunionI’m sad to not be with Tracie P and our girls today.

But knowing that I’d be traveling this week, we celebrated our Mother’s Day last Sunday with red roses chosen by Georgia P, a new purse, lox breakfast, and some silly cards.

Tracie P’s such a beautiful lady, inside and out. And it’s been one of life’s most wonderful experiences watching her become a mother and nurturing our girls.

Whether soothing a tummy ache with three-o-clock-in-the-morning snuggles or simmering chicken into a savory stock that she’ll use to stew the girls’ favorite lentils, lest they digest an unwholesome broth, Tracie P makes their world and mine brim with love, affection, and gentle care.

Happy Mother’s Day, Tracie P! We love you!

When I first got on that plane from San Diego and took you to dinner back in the late summer of 2008, I couldn’t have imagined the joy that you would bring into my life by bringing our girls into this world.