BLASPHEMY: sea urchin carbonara @TonyVallone & earliest known mention of dish

carbonara best recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s new “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” is as blasphemous as it is delicious.

It was a thrill for Tracie P and me to take our Australian friends, the newly engaged Lydia and Stefano, to Tony’s, the flagship restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone in Houston.

The couple is touring the states, dining their way through our country’s metropolitan culinary hotspots (New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, etc.). So when I learned that they’d be visiting Houston, it was with no small measure of pride that I suggested a double date last night at Tony’s, where Tony and his chef de cuisine Kate McLean (another friend) are putting out some of the best food in the nation imho.

Kobe grade a5 beef is always a joy ride as was a spectacular risotto alla milanese. But the star of our evening was Tony’s new and blasphemous spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pecorino (no Parmigiano Reggiano), lightly sautéed pancetta, crispy guanciale, and raw sea urchin.

To my palate, the dish was a study in savory, delicately briny texture, with each of the “salt-delivery” components delivering a unique and distinct, nuanced layer.

But the addition of the raw urchin gave the housemade spahgetti alla chitarra an ethereal marine note that took the dish into an even higher realm of hedonist fulfillment. It was that good.

Our dinner and enogastronomically driven conversation reminded me of a gastro-philological nugget recently shared with me by my colleague and good friend Chris Reid, who writes — among other things — about barbecue for the Houston Chronicle (you may remember Chris from his 2012 New York Times piece on Texas barbecue outside of Texas).

0044_01_1950_0176_0003Above: an article culled from the July 26, 1950 edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa may represent the earliest known mention of spaghetti alla carbonara in print. Click here for a PDF of the entire page.

A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic (including me) have used the Google Books search engine to find early mentions of carbonara, where the term refers to the famous Roman dish (and not its many other meanings in Italian).

But Chris has found what may be the earliest known mention in print in the newly available digital archive of the Italian national daily La Stampa.

The article describes the Pope’s visit to the Festa de’ Noantri, the colorful summer festival held each July in Trastevere.

In a paragraph devoted to the neighborhood’s top trattorie, the author mentions “Cesaretto alla Cisterna — to name one of the most well known [restaurants] outside of Italy — who boasts ancient origins, being that his osteria rose from the ruins of another famous eatery in the time of Fabio Massimo [Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus]. It was this tavern keeper who first welcomed American officials who had come to Trastevere, many years ago now, in search of spaghetti alla carbonara.”

The passage is interesting for a number of reasons but chiefly because it associates the renown of carbonara with American military men.

American forces first arrived in Rome in 1944 and the fact that the author claims that Cesaretto (literally, little Caeser) was the first to serve American officials would seem to imply that he was the first to popularize the dish if not the dish’s inventor.

Is it possible and even probable that carbonara was inspired by American soldiers’ love of bacon and eggs? The passage above seems to give weight to the American influence theory.

We may never know the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara but I can’t imagine that we will ever stop looking for it, just like the American officials who headed to Cesaretto in search of the dish.

In other news…

Assoenologi, the association of Italian enologists, has published its early harvest forecast and the numbers are grim. After one of the rainest years in our lifetime, some regions will see a 30 percent drop in production. I’ll post about it on Monday.

Harvest dispatch from Friuli by @GiampaoloVenica

As in years past, I gladly publish harvest notes from winemakers across Italy. The following is from my good friend and Collio producer Giampaolo Venica, who wrote to me late last week. If you are a winemaker or grape grower and would like to share a note and photo, please feel free to send it to me (my email).

friuli harvest rain 2014Jeremy, you do not need me to tell you that the vintage is very challenging.

The warmest winter since 1955 gave 20 days of anticipation but that has been overruled because of the rainy, no sunlight and cold of the past months.

Lots of diseases as naturally must be with the highest and most frequent rain ever seen. Last night I had 2 landslides because of a water flood.

What is very surprising looking at vineyards around is that serious organic/biodynamic producers had the same problems of conventional ones.

We will cut botrytis down but mostly on Pinot Grigio and clusters with very compact bunches. Sugar is still very low, we might start harvesting at the end of next week.

Despite the pessimism around I am very confident because we have not had such cold days since at least 10-15 years. This is very good for slow ripening.

I am thrilled to try my 2014 vintage that will be at lest 1 percent alcohol less then 2013 and definitely with more acidity.

This will probably be vintage where only the best will make great wine but these will be unique.

Of course this is just my forecast and we all will be relieved when grapes are safely in.

—Giampaolo Venica

Tuscan authorities accuse grape growers of threatening landscape & environment

This just in: Italian wine blogger Jacopo Cossater has just reported that historic Valpolicella producer Bertani will not produce a 2014 Amarone Classico. “The rainy vintage of 2014 scores its first victim,” he writes.

montalcino tuscany erosion wine grapes“We are being treated like assassins of our environment,” wrote Brunello producer Stefano Cinelli Colombini in an impassioned op-ed published by the popular Italian wine blog Intravino earlier this week. “And everything that we have achieved is being challenged.”

He was referring to the implementation and fallout of new environmental guidelines that were published in July 2014 by Tuscany’s regional authority.

The document, known as PIT (Piano di indirizzo territoriale or plan for territorial oversight), alleges that the widespread development and expansion of viticulture over the last decades has reshaped the landscape and caused grave environmental harm.

“Extended areas planted to specialized vines represent a great threat to the naturalistic value of the agricultural landscape,” wrote the authors of the survey.

“The modifications brought about by viticultural specialization have greatly altered the character of the traditional landscape. The result is banalization and homogenization.”

Vines, contend the authors, create “a risk of hillside erosion… In some cases, there is continued risk that the water table will be polluted.”

Viticulture, they claim, has become a “dominant monoculture” that reduces “ecological permeability.”

(You can download the survey in its entirety here. The quotes above are taken from ambito 17 or article 17, which addresses issues of sustainability and environmental practices in vineyard land. Translation mine.)

In the wake of the survey’s publication, reports Cinelli Colombini, many wineries have already been denied permits that are required by authorities for commonplace, workaday operations, like grubbing up or replanting vines.

Calling the allegations absurd, he points out that the development of viticulture and its infrastructure (including tourist facilities like tasting rooms, restaurants, and lodging) were fundamental in rebuilding the Tuscan countryside’s economy after urban migration significantly reduced the region’s population during the 1950s.

His dismay is echoed today in an interview with Brunello consortium president Fabrizio Bindocci published by the Independent.

“This administration wants to take agriculture back to the 1800s,” said Bindocci in the interview. “We take regular samples from the rivers and streams near my vineyards in Montalcino and we have not detected pollution.”

In a country whose citizens are accustomed to bureaucratic overreach, the survey has caused an uproar among grape growers and Italian wine trade observers alike.

“The world of Italian politics has shown how terrible it is, without even trying,” wrote Intravino editor Alessandro Morichetti on Twitter yesterday.

“The agricultural landscape changes in accordance with economic necessities. And this needs to be accepted,” opined leading wine writer and enologist Maurizio Gily in the same Twitter conversation.

Translations mine.

A slice of Americana at Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston #nostalgia

best cafeteria houstonParzen family enjoyed a lazy Sunday lunch yesterday at the Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston, a classic and wholesome self-service eatery that revels in its 1950s origins without even the faintest trace of irony.

best jello recipeAs you make your way to down the chow line, tray in hand, you walk through a living museum of the pre-arugula-nation era.

chicken and gravy potatoes mashedI had fried, flattened chicken breast, mashed potatoes and gravy (choice of white or brown gravy) and a fresh salad, well washed and tasty.

Tracie P shared her fried haddock, black-eyed peas, and green beans with our girls.

Georgia P wasn’t so keen on her macaroni and cheese (unusual for her, but understandable in the light of the fact that she ate five pieces of bacon and waffles for breakfast). Lila Jane LOVED her baked spaghetti.

lemon meringue pie recipe bestWe skipped dessert but you get the picture.

Beyond the kitsch and genuine nostalgia, the thing that made it an A+ experience was how well-oiled and friendly the service was.

Although it’s is a self-service restaurant, the servers — well appointed in tidy 1950s-era black maid uniforms with white trim — aid elderly guests and parents with small children, offering to carry the trays to the table. And they periodically check in with diners to ask “is everything okay, can I get you something?”

And just as we were winding down, at just the right moment, our server arrived with orange balloons.

sweet potato fries french recipeLest you fret that we’re not feeding our children well, please know dinner was organic sweet potato baked French fries and organic broccoli and cheddar fritters.

We do live in the arugula-nation era, after all.

HAPPY LABOR DAY, everyone!

Remember the workers…

Thoughts & prayers for our friends in #NapaQuake

napa earthquakeAbove: my favorite Napa-based blogger Vinogirl posted this image on her blog Vinsanity yesterday.

It’s never a good time for an earthquake.

I remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake well: I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time and it was a terrifying experience (magnitude-6.7, 4:31 a.m.).

Today, our thoughts and prayers go out to our friends and colleagues in Napa and Sonoma, where a magnitude-6.0 earthquake struck early Sunday morning.

See this post by W. Blake Gray for on the earthquake and its effect on the wine trade there. And see also Vinogirl’s post on her family’s personal experience. And see Antonio Tomacelli’s gathering of images he culled from social media on Intravino.

I’ve read a number of accounts where grape growers and winemakers point out that the damage would have been worse had the earthquake come later in the harvest and the 2014 vintage were in the cellar. Tumbled tanks and cracked casks would have results in bigger losses for wineries.

But it’s never a good time for an earthquake.

Napa and Sonoma friends and colleagues, please know that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.

Indigenous grape pioneer Paolo Rapuzzi has died

paolo rapuzziFriulian grape grower, winemaker, and founder of the Ronchi di Cialla winery, Paolo Rapuzzi (above, center) has died.

He passed away in his sleep on August 13, said his son Ivan.

Rapuzzi was a much beloved figure in Friuli, where his legacy as a pioneer in reviving indigenous grape varieties continues to shape local viticulture.

He was among the first in a wave of growers who embraced native grapes in the late 1970s.

And his superb wines — especially his coveted Picolit — are treasured by Italian wine insiders.

Please see this profile of Rapuzzi that I wrote for the Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium a few years back.

Google him and you will find that many of my peers and colleagues were inspired by him as well. He was a sweet and gentle man and he shared a little bit of his magic with everyone he touched.

His contribution to Friulian — and Italian — viticulture played a fundamental role in the current Italian wine renaissance.

Extraordinary Piedmont white: 2004 Malvirà Tre Uve (& harvest updates)

malvira tre uveOn more than one occasion, I’ve heard Angelo Gaja say that white wine is a category with immense potential for growth in Italy.

There are a handful of whites from Piedmont that have captivated the imagination and palates of Italian wine lovers: Gaja’s Gaia e Rey (I remember tasting 1994 with him at the winery a few years ago), Aldo Vajra’s Riesling (he likes to call it “a wife for Barolo”), Ettore Germano’s Riesling (such a focused, brilliant wine), and Walter Massa’s Timorasso (we all remember when this wine hit the U.S. scene and knocked everyone’s socks off) are some of the more memorable.

But they remain just a handful. Unlike Friuli, Campania, and Jesi/Matelica, where white wine is a long established category with myriad standouts and impressive expressions of longevity, Piedmont has yet to make its mark as one of the greater producers of vini a bacca bianca.

I was a little skeptical when my good buddy Nathan hooked me up with a bottle of 2004 Tre Uve by Roero producer Malvirà. I know the winery but, with spotty distribution, you don’t see much of its in wine in the U.S. today.

It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Arneis. According to WineSearcher (and what Nathan told me), 2005 is the current vintage available.

This wine had all the right stuff: freshness, acidity, clarity of fruit (stone and white fruit), and wonderful vibrancy. Ten years out from its harvest, it had depth and nuance and it danced on the palate. Great wine.

It aromatic breadth rivaled some of the great white blends that you see from Collio’s top wineries.

A truly original and exciting wine imho. Could Chardonnay blended with aromatic varieties be the future for Piedmont whites? If this is any indication of their potential, I think the winemaker at Malvirà is on to something great.

In other news…

I continue to receive tragic reports from northern Italy, where seemingly incessant rains have seriously threatened the vintage.

I hate to bear bad news but today I heard about a Lambrusco producer who has virtually lost his entire crop. And a friend from Friuli (Colli Orientali) wrote that some growers are fearful that they will not have any fruit to vinify.

In Tuscany, things are looking up. The vegetative cycle — which started extremely early — is now moving very slowly. The cool weather has helped to balance out the accelerated start (caused by a very mild winter).

If sunny days arrive, one producer told me today via Facetime, they could have a great vintage. It’s all a matter of how much sun they get between now and harvest. She’s in Chianti Classico where they expected to harvest as late as mid- to late-October.

That’s all the news that’s fit to post. Thanks for reading.