Mountains of polenta and a sea of grappa: Los Angeles circa 1994

May 20, 2010

Late last year, when I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays dedicated to and inspired by my UCLA dissertation advisor, mentor, and friend, poet, scholar, gourmet, and gourmand, Luigi Ballerini (above), I decided to chronicle the Italian food scene in Los Angeles circa 1994. The Italian regional cuisine phenomenon had yet to explode in the U.S. but the City of the Angels was already awash in a sea of grappa: with Bloomian anxiety of influence, Angelino restaurateurs had embraced two of Italy’s most humble (however beloved) food stuffs — polenta and grappa — and anointed them as queen mother and queen (respectively) of Italian cuisine.

At the time, Luigi and I were working on a wonderful translation of his poetry that would become Cadence of a Neighboring Tribe. And Luigi was just beginning to shift his focus to gastronomy. Among many other articles, translations, and essays, our collaboration led to an English-language annotated edition of The Art of Cooking by fifteenth-century Italian celebrity chef Maestro Martino (UC Press 2005) — one of my most proud moments as a scholar and translator.

    Three of the most powerful and enduring memories of my years working closely with Luigi Ballerini involve food (and/or the lack thereof).

    The one is an image in his mind’s eye, a scene he often spoke of: Milan, 1945, the then five-year-old Ballerini watches a defiant Nazi soldier atop an armored car, part of a phalanx in retreat from the Lombard capital, leaving it an “open city”; the muscle-bound German bares his chest in the winter cold, as if impervious to pain even in the moment of ultimate defeat. The Nazis left behind a broken city and people, who had already known hunger for quite some time and would not know prosperity and plenty for many years to come. At five years old, Luigi knew hunger all too well.

Click here to download a PDF of the essay.

“La tovaglia che sazia: Luigi Ballerini the gastronome and his ‘tablecloth of plenty,’” by Jeremy Parzen, in Balleriniana, edited by Giuseppe Cavatorta and Elena Coda, Ravenna, Danilo Montanari Editore, 2010.

O, Luigi, you can be the king and you most certainly are in my cook book. But may we wear your crown?

Thanks for reading!


O tempora, o Nebbiolo

March 3, 2009

O tempora, o mores, to borrow a phrase from Cicero. Times are tough all around and these days I’m slinging a wine bag on my back and hitting the streets, hawking wine. I’m a traveling salesman like my maternal grandfather Maurice (poppa, we used to call him; my paternal grandfather was a rabbi, our zaidi — Yiddish for grand-père — but that’s another story). But as fate would have it, I consider myself lucky inasmuch I get to sell a lot of wines that I genuinely love (my new gig is with the Austin-based Mosaic Wine Group; check out the new blog we launched here). The other day I got to pour multiple vintages of one of my favorite wines (as anybody who follows my blog knows so well), Produttori del Barbaresco: I led a guided tasting of the 2004 and 2005 Barbaresco and 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo the other night at The Austin Wine Merchant in downtown Austin, Texas.

I didn’t get to participate in the Piedmont edition of Wine Blogger Wednesday, orchestrated smashingly by David McDuff at his excellent blog McDuff’s Food and Wine Trail, and so he graciously honored me with a guest blogger spot writing about Produttori del Barbaresco and my recent tasting notes at his kick-ass web log (one of my daily reads).

To read my tasting notes (including my translation of the winery’s 2006 vintage notes), click here.

In other news…

As my friend and dissertation adviser Luigi Ballerini used to say whenever we ate Japanese: oh tempura, oh soy sauce!


The best pork store in New York (cast your pearls at this swine)

February 12, 2009

Of all the places on earth to open an Italian pork store, the Upper West Side is not the first that comes to mind. But, then again, stranger things have happened…

Two Saturdays ago, Tracie B and I had time for lunch in the City after an overnight layover in New York on our way to Paris and so we decided to experience celeb chef Cesare Casella’s new collaboration with the owners of Parmacotto, the Rosi family: Salumeria Rosi, on Amsterdam and 73rd, in the heart of the Upper West Side (not exactly known for its pork consumption).

For those of us who gave up buying and/or ordering sliced prosciutto and other Italian affettati in the city, our traif dreams have been answered: whether you stay to dine or you take out, the slicing at Salumeria Rosi is performed with a grace and precision worthy of Brescello’s favorite son (that would be Don Camillo to you laypeople). Even my previously favorite pork store, Faicco (on Bleeker in the heart of what was once Scorsese’s Little Italy), has too often dashed my dreams with ineptly sliced charcuterie (although the arancini there are still the best).

The mixed affettati platter (above, including speck, mortadella, and porchetta) was simply the best I have ever had outside of Emilia-Romagna.

Cesare’s leek torte was sublime, the crust flaky and light, the filling balanced with the savory and piquant flavors of the wintry allium porrum. It paired perfectly with an aromatic Müller Thurgau by Terlano.

It’s not easy to photograph eggs but I had to include my attempt at capturing the warm, pillowy mouthfeel of the scrambled eggs matched with crisp and slightly bitter ruchetta in the Pontormo salad inspired by the Renaissance master, who was obsessed with his diet, digestion, and the consumption of eggs — not to mention author of one of my favorite paintings, The Deposition in the church of Santa Felicita (pronounced feh-LEE-chee-tah) in Florence. Cesare created the dish many years ago for a story I worked on with Luigi Ballerini on Pontormo and his sometimes bizarre culinary habits.

The rigatoni were slightly overcooked but the guanciale in the amatriciana was entirely and decadently delicious. (Check out this old and fun post on the meaning and etymology of guanciale.)

Beyond the oxymoronic fact that it is located on the Upper West Side, one thing, among many others, that sets Cesare’s pork store apart from the traditional newyorchese temple to swine is the design by celebrated Italian production designer and Scorsese-veteran Dante Ferretti. The centerpiece is an Arcimboldo-inspired map of Italy, a beautiful expression of culinary anamorphism whereby every region is represented by its gastronomic tradition (it’s done in white stucco but Emilia has been adorned with polychromy). My skills as a photographer proved ill-suited when I tried to capture it in jpg: it spans the back wall and the ceiling. I won’t conceal that I found it to be wholly exquisite.

O Cesare, I cast my pearls at your swine!

Check out Tracie B’s ecstatic post Suino divino.


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