The NEW Chicken Asiago Taco! Available exclusively in Brescia

asiago grating cheeseAbove: I brought handmade tortillas, canned salsas, pickled jalapeños, and black beans with me on my recent trip to Italy. The quality of the photo reflects the brio of “taco night” at bromance Giovanni’s house in Brescia.

From a cultural perspective, Mexican and Italian cuisines have a lot in common. Both are “world” cuisines. In other words, they both represent gastronomic traditions that have traveled beyond their original borders and woven themselves into the fabric of cookery across the globe.

When I first moved to New York City in 1997, it was tough to find a decent taco there. But today, Mexican restaurants — high concept and fast food — are as ubiquitous as pizza by-the-slice.

Despite its popularity throughout the world, la cocina mexicana still hasn’t caught on in Italy, except for a spattering of low-quality pseudo-Mexican joints that cater to foreign students in university towns there.

With two trips to Texas and California under his belt, my bromance in Brescia Giovanni Arcari has had the opportunity to sample some of my favorite authentic Mexican as well as Tex Mex and Mission-style cookery.

So it was only natural that I would pack some handmade flour tortillas from Central Market in Austin, cans of my favorite commercial salsas (Herdez), pickled jalapeños, and black beans in my bag to share with my friends in Brescia where I stayed for five nights.

ferdinando principiano baroloAbove: what did we pair with our chicken Asiago tacos on a chilly night in Brescia? Giovanni’s Franciacorta and Ferdinando Principiano’s Barolo, of course!

For the taco filling, Giovanni griddle-fired chicken breasts and he sautéed some onions.

But because we didn’t have access to the appropriate queso, we decided to grate up some Asiago. And we were pleasantly surprised by how well it worked with the dish.

I couldn’t help but think of the “NEW Asiago Ranch Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwich” from Wendy’s fast food that I lampooned last year for one of my clients.

On hand to enjoy the new Chicken Asiago Taco were Brescia deputy mayor Laura Castelletti, who also serves as the superintendent of culture for the city, and sommelier, novelist, and journalist Adua Villa.

My time spent with Laura and Adua in Brescia was extraordinary and I have much to report on our conversations and visit.

But for now, I’ll merely reveal that Venezuelan-born Adua and I share a passion for la música ranchera and we ended the night listening, despite Giovanni’s protests, to multiple versions of “Canción Mixteca.”

What a night it was!

Dario Cecchini’s Chianti “tuna”: Tonno del Chianti

dario cecchiniPeople around the world know Dario Cecchini, above, the celebrity butcher from Panzano in Chianti in the heart of Chianti Classico. He’s a Tuscan original and a Tuscan classic. A poet and reciter of poetry. A world-class, innovative butcher and a steadfast defender of Tuscan tradition.

rendered lard recipe spicesWhat a lot of folks may not know is that if you stop by his stop in Panzano at lunchtime, you’ll be handed a small glass of Chianti and invited to help yourself to bread, salame, and rendered spiced lard to be spread over bread rounds (in the case above).

chianti tunaOf course, if you’re not having lunch in his restaurant next door, you should purchase something.

I told Dario that I was heading north the next day and that I wanted to buy something unusual to give as a gift to my colleague in Brescia.

He turned down the AC/DC that was blaring on the stereo (no joke) and suggested that I buy some “tonno del Chianti” or “Chianti tuna.”

It’s pig thigh, he told me, that’s been cooked like olive oil-cured tuna.

tonno chiantiThe next night when I gave it to Giovanni (who, together with Arianna, was hosting at his apartment for hamburgers and Franciacorta), Arianna told us that she had tasted the “tuna” previously at a high-concept charcuterie wine bar in Brescia province. And so she knew how to serve it.

She dressed it just like you would olive oil-cured tuna and plated with chickpeas and slivers of cipolle rosse di Tropea.

It was delicious and paired beautifully with a slice of crusty ciabatta and some artisanal beer that had been given to Giovanni.

I don’t really know Cecchini other than the few times I’ve stopped by his butcher shop. But it’s been amazing to follow his career as he continues to riff on Tuscan tradition.

And wow, who knew that AC/DC paired so well with a glass of Sangiovese and some spicy rendered lard?

Vajra mile high: 09 Barbera d’Alba showed no sign of old age, even at 40,000 feet

vajra barbera alba notesBusiness-wise, my two-week trip to Italy had been so successful (and I was so fried from the experience) that I decided to treat myself and cash in some miles for an upgrade on United from Malpensa to Newark.

When I spied a bottle of Vajra — one of my favorite Langa producers — on the beverage cart, I just had to have a glass.

It was winery’s 2009 Barbera d’Alba and it was fresh and vibrant in the glass, despite its age. Just like the family who makes them, the wines from Vajra are always earnest, honest, and elegant. And this was no exception. It paired beautifully with curried chicken and tandoori rice at 40,000 ft.

So much more to tell about my trip, the wines I tasted, the meals I shared, and the people I met. But this is all I have time for today as I try to get back on track with work etc… Stay tuned!

Vin Santo in Siena, ending on a sweet note

best cafe siena italyThis trip to Italy has been one of the best and one of the toughest I’ve ever made.

Tough because it was so hard to be away from my family for so long and tough because I was forced to make some hard choices about my business and the people I work with.

But it was also a great trip: business has never been better and the meals on this journey have been exceptional.

There’s still so much to tell but it will all have to wait until next week when I’m back at my desk and back on track.

As I wind up the trip in the meantime, I’ll think about the Barbi Vin Santo and the ricciarelli (classic Sienese cookies) that my good friend Francesco Bonfio served us yesterday at the Nannini café and shop in the historical center of Siena where he runs its wine program.

Dulcis in fundo… only a few days on the road stand between me and my sweet daughters and loving wife and partner Tracie P in Houston.

Thanks for letting me share the experience with you. I’ll see you next week.

First kiss: harvest 2014

best prosecco 2014I had a blast at the Nino Franco thirtieth anniversary tasting and party last night in Valdobbiadene with Primo Franco (who was amazing).

More on the festivities later but just had to share the above photo: my first kiss with the 2014 vintage in Italy.

It was fascinating to hear the Nino Franco enologists Giulio and Luca talk about the challenges of the harvest.

They’re going to make good and even great wines with this vintage. But, as nearly every winemaker has told me, Herculean efforts in the vineyards are what will make the difference.

“The wines are great,” said Roberto Anselmi, who also attended the party. “But I’ve never had to work harder in my life.”

More later. Thanks for being here…

The future of pizza at Simone Padoan’s I Tigli & a cool wine bar in Soave

simone padoan pizza tigliWhat a blast to get to eat at Simone Padoan’s cutting-edge pizzeria I Tigli in San Bonifacio in Soave township last night! That’s Simone (above, left) with Lisa Anselmi, who treated us to a wonderful dinner at this fantastic restaurant.

burrata pizza recipeSimone is a mother yeast master and he uses different mothers to create a wide variety of flatbreads inspired by the various regions of Italy. The doughs are baked (and sometimes steamed) first and then the toppings are added.

That’s burrata and tomato, above.

creative pizza recipeScallops and chanterelles. This was my favorite but they were all over-the-top good.

mattias muller beerI Tigli is also an epicenter for the artisanal and natural beer movement in Italy, with a thick list of super groovy labels. This was our table’s favorite label of the night.
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¡Oh Tierra del Sol! Suspiro por verte

¡Qué lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido!
inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento;
y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento,
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento.
¡Oh Tierra del Sol! Suspiro por verte
ahora que lejos yo vivo sin luz, sin amor;
y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento,
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento.

Dispensa Pani e Vini: an extraordinary meal, once again #Franciacorta

perch crudoIf pressed to reveal my favorite restaurant in the world, there would be many that could come close but none that could touch Vittorio Fusari’s Dispensa Pani e Vini in Franciacorta.

I wish I had time to recount my meal and conversation with Chef Vittorio in its entirety. But for the time being, these images will just have to do.

That’s a sturgeon pâté atop a tench tartare on a bed of raw tomato, above.

best caviar russiaLombard sturgeon caviar over potato purée in savory pastry.

Did you know that Brescia province is one of the world’s top producers of caviar? It’s a fascinating story that I’ll share when I have more time.

barone pizzini rosato franciacorta bestThe 2010 Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Rosato sang in the glass last night. This wine is going to be a big hit for my friend and client Silvano Brescianini, the winery’s GM.

best spaghetti recipe italySpaghetti with green beans and cured coregone (fresh water European white fish), simply stupendous.

The thing about eating Vittorio’s food is that it’s so thoughtful and so wholesome: you feel great the next day even after over-eating.

Thank you again, Chef Vittorio and Silvano, for an unforgettable evening.

Do you know the way to Valdobbiadene? That’s where I’m heading next…