98 Poggio di Sotto unbelievable & the “dinner of dinners” @TonyVallone

November 29, 2012

Last night, I had the great fortune to be invited to speak at Tony’s in Houston, the namesake and flagship restaurant of my good friend and client Tony Vallone.

He had billed the event as the “dinner of dinners” for 2012 and he didn’t disappoint.

After the welcome wine, we paired 2001 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello with Alba truffles over tagliarini, my first truffles in this year of drought-impacted foraging.

The 2001 Bartolo Mascarello is simply one of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted and has many, many brilliant years ahead of it. It had been opened a few hours prior and while it wasn’t entirely generous with its fruit, its elegance and balance are unrivaled.

But the wine that really wowed me was the 1998 Brunello di Montalcino by Poggio di Sotto. I’d been very lucky to taste this wine many times in the past and I was surprised when I saw Antonio Galloni’s tasting note in which he advised that it was in decline. (Antonio’s my favorite Italian wine writer, btw, and while his word is not sacrosanct, I do find his palate to align nearly perfectly with mine when it comes to traditional-style wines.)

This wine had what the Italians call grinta, real grit and spunk… Beautiful acidity and the vibrant dark fruit that you expect from classic expressions of the Castelnuovo dell’Abate subzone of Montalcino.

Tony and his general manager Scott Sulma paired with this medley of guinea hen and Taleggio-stuffed tortellini in brodo.

And wow, I just feel like I need to add a chorus of dayenu as I recount this epic meal. As if the previous two dishes weren’t enough to make his guests swoon, Tony thrilled the room (which reacted with a unanimous gasp as the beef enter the room) with a platter of nearly two-month-aged prime rib.

Dessert — sweet zeppoli stuffed with torchon de foie gras (how’s that for fusion!) paired with 1990 Recioto della Valpolicella by Quintarelli…

I like to joke that Tony’s is an oil moguls commissary. On any given night, you’ll a handful of billionaires in his restaurant — at the very least.

How I ever found my way to a seat at that table, I still don’t really know.

As I sit this afternoon, on the outskirts of Houston in a Starbucks using the free wi-fi and listening to Christmas music as I type and type and type at the keyboard for my clients, I can’t help but take a deep breath and contemplate the extraordinary counterpoints of life.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

How I ever got here, I’ll never really know. But I sure am thankful for the many gifts life has given me…


A couple of wine dinners I’ve got coming up…

November 7, 2012

From the department of “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to keep the world safe for Italian wine”…

gaja brunello houston

That’s the flight of wine (above) I’ll be talking about when I speak at Tony’s in Houston on Wednesday, November 28. Tony and I have so much fun working together and I’m thrilled that he asks me to do these dinners. 1990 Recioto by Quinatrelli? The answer is yes.

And this Sunday, November 11, I’ll be presenting Frank Cornelissen at Sotto in Los Angeles. The most valuable nose in this business, Lou Amdur, will also be on hand to speak.

Alice Feiring was going to join us on Sunday but “nature conspired” against her trip, as she put it: Sandy made it impossible for her to get here from NYC.

I’ll also be pouring Sicilian and Sardinian wine on Wednesday, November 14, with Piero Selvaggio and Darrell Corti at Piero’s Valentino in Los Angeles. Chef Steve Samson will also be cooking for the event. I can’t wait to see Darrell!


Carbonara, a new theory for its origins and name

October 29, 2012

origin name carbonara

Above: Tracie P adds onion to her Carbonara, just another idiosyncratic — and delicious — interpretation of this recipe (the above was one of the dishes in last night’s dinner at our house).

Premise

Perhaps more than any other recipe in the Italian gastronomic canon, spaghetti alla carbonara and its origins have perplexed and eluded gastronomers for more than five decades.

Most food historians group the currently and popularly accepted theories of the etymon into three groups: the origin of the dish can be ascribed to 1) coal miners; 2) American soldiers who mixed “bacon and eggs” and pasta after occupying Italy in the post-war era; and 3) Ippolito Cavalcanti, the highly influential nineteenth-century Neapolitan cookery book author, whose landmark 1839 Cucina Teorico-Pratica included a recipe for pasta with eggs and cheese.

There is also a fourth theory that points to the restaurant La Carbonara, opened in 1912 in Rome. According to its website, it was launched by “coal seller” Federico Salomone. But the authors of site do not lay claim to the invention of carbonara nor do they address the linguistic affinity (even though they mention that their carbonara was included in a top-ten classification by the Gambero Rosso).

Origins and historical meaning of the word carbonara

The “coal miner” hypothesis is highly unlikely in my view. Carbonari are not coal miners but rather makers of [wood] charcoal (colliers in archaic English). If we agree that carbonara (the dish) began to appear in industrialized Italy (see below), we also have to take into account that the word carbonaro/a also had a different and more prevalent meaning for Italians at that time. The carbonari were members of a Neapolitan secret revolutionary society (similar to the Free Masons) called the Carboneria. The nineteenth-century group took their name from a fifteenth-century Scottish group of rebels who masked their subversive activities by pretending to be colliers.

Read the rest of this entry »


Garganega pairs well with Vietnamese (Thank you! @Femme_Foodie & @TonyVallone)

October 22, 2012

Above: Writer Mai Pham and restaurateur Tony Vallone, two of my favorite people on the Houston food and wine scene.

When the occasion is BYOB at an Asian restaurant, my friends expect me to bring something Natural and stinky, crunchy and funky — a delight for those who like the adventurous and unexpected and a conversation piece for the more conventional among us.

But unforeseen events last night made it impossible for me to dip into our cellar before joining my friends Mai Pham, her wonderful husband Michael, and my good friend and client Tony Vallone and his top staff for dinner at the amazing Jasmine restaurant in Chinatown, Houston.

There aren’t a lot of retail wine options on Sunday in Texas (where wine is not sold until after 12 p.m. on Sundays). And so I figured my best bet was an upscale supermarket, the Kroger on Buffalo Speedway (Kroger is actually a large commercial chain, but it’s Buffalo Speedway location is a “flagship” outpost).

Above: Real wine for under $15? Pieropan delivers.

Honestly, there’s not a lot of wine at Kroger that I can palate. And the European selections are limited to the usual suspects.

But what a fantastic surprise to find Pieropan — Garganega with a smaller amount of Trebbiano di Soave — for $13.99! And they had it already chilled…

The wine — with its zinging acidity and that unmistakable volcanic minerality of classic Soave — was ideal with the fattiness of fried whole catfish.

Above: Mai and Michael showed us how to roll the catfish with carrots, cucumber stalks, and mint in large rice wafers that had been softened in warm water. Catfish doesn’t have a much nutritional value, noted Michael, but it’s delicious.

Great value and great flavor in this wine… and great versatility (the saltiness and fattiness of the catfish reminded me how well this wine would pair with whole fried goby from the Venetian lagoon).

BTW, if you’re having issues with the pronunciation of Garganega, you’ll find it among the grape varieties in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project.

Mai and Michael, thanks again for turning us on to Jasmine.

And Tony, thanks for treating us to a great dinner.


first Alba truffles of the year @TonyVallone

October 17, 2012

I snapped this photo today at lunch at Tony’s in Houston, the first Alba truffles I’ve seen this year.

Tony — my friend and client — talked about how the truffles are arriving early this year because of drought conditions over the summer in Italy.

There is no food in the world with a greater aura. (Does anyone get my Latin paronomasia?)


98 & 03 B. Mascarello, 85 Tignanello, 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva @TonyVallone

July 23, 2012

Where do we go from here?

When my friend and client Tony Vallone opened last Thursday’s dinner (at Tony’s in Houston) with 1998 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, I wondered how the subsequent wines could possibly compete with such a stellar entry.

Tony paired this extraordinary bottle with a porcini mushroom risotto, made with Acquerello rice and prepared rigorously all’onda — an indisputably traditional and ideal match.

Even though the wine had begun to disassociate slightly (i.e., some light solids had begun to form in it), this bottling was the apotheosis of Barolo: earth, tar, and mushrooms on the nose, rich ripe red fruit in the mouth, all “supported” (as the Italians say) by Mascarello’s signature acidity. I was surprised by the solids in this wine (and will revisit the 98 in my cellar) but was nonetheless thoroughly impressed by the balance and nuance of this superb wine.

When I had breakfast with Angelo Gaja last month in New York, we talked about how the warm 2003 Langa vintage was such a great restaurant wine inasmuch as the wines are already showing very well (he declassified nearly 50 percent of his crop that year, he said, noting that it was an “honorable” but not “great” vintage). For producers with great growing sites (like Mascarello and Gaja, however divergent in style), it was still possible to deliver excellent wines from the early and very small harvest. Tony paired with halibut (yes, fish!) dressed with an Amatriciana sauce — a creative and decadent match that worked surprisingly and brilliantly well. I loved the way the richness and ripe fruit in this expression of B. Mascarello worked with the acidity and savory of the sauce and creamy flakiness of the fish. While I don’t think that the 03 will be a thirty-year wine, I was taken with how fresh it was and how nervy its acidity. How can you not love Bartolo Mascarello? Always a great.

The last time I tasted 85 Tignanello was in 2005 in New York. I was blown away by how different this wine was from the 1990 we tasted in 2009 at Alfonso’s. I might be wrong about this but I ascribe the difference in style to the change in winemaker that came about in that era: although the wine was conceived by Giacomo Tachis, who made its early vintages, Riccardo Cotarella took the reins at the winery in subsequent years and he nudged the wine toward a bolder and more American friendly expression.

The wood was perfectly integrated in this wine and it was vibrant and remarkably fresh. Not only was I impressed by its fitness, I also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tony’s general manager Scott Sulma has every right to tease me about my across-the-board disdain for Super Tuscans, given my request for a second glass of this wine with my rack of lamb. A truly original wine — in its twilight but not in decline.

Quintarelli was at the peak of his genius in 1990 when he made this wine… an extraordinary vintage by one of the greatest winemakers of the twentieth century (he even made his rare white Bandito in 1990).

What an incredible bottle and what an unforgettable experience! The 14.3 alcohol in this wine was perfectly balanced by its acidity and freshness and its unlabored, subtle notes of ripe red and stone fruit were answered in counterpoint by a gentle hint of bitter almond. Absolutely brilliant, unique, and thrilling… One of the most memorable wines I’ve ever had the chance to taste…

And dulcis in fundo

For his birthday, Tony surprised cousin Marty with Baked Alaska. I love Tony’s playfulness and his love of baroque presentation, especially when it comes to nostalgic desserts like this one.

Cousin Joanne, Marty, and I were still talking about the dinner when we got back to their place in Houston. And we were STILL talking about it over breakfast the next morning.

Tony, thanks again for a night I’ll never forget.


This woman made me drink Merlot

July 20, 2012

I profiled Houston wine professional Marcy Jimenez today for the Houston Press. Here’s the link (and the story about the Merlot is true; it was a Merlot and Dolcetto blend by Trinchero, one of my favorite Natural winemakers).

In other news…

So many wines and so little time… I haven’t had a chance to write up my notes from last night’s dinner at Tony’s: 98 and 03 Bartolo Mascarello, 85 Tignanello, and 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva. Each one of the wines was fascinating in its own right and I’ll post my impressions early next week.

In the meantime, buon weekend yall!


My photo in Forbes and 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva tonight @TonyVallone

July 19, 2012

Stranger things have happened: last week Forbes contacted me asking if they could use a photo (above) from the blog for the magazine.

Here’s the link to the piece.

The image comes from my of the “most memorable meals” of 2011, a dinner in the restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone.

Here’s the link to my post on the repast, wherein 98 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, and 90 Quintarelli Bandito (!!!) were all consumed with great joy.

Tonight at Tony’s, we’ll be opening the 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva: I’ll be speaking about the wines at a dinner for forty persons.

Stay tuned…


A Michelin guide for Houston? @TonyVallone @TerraUomoCielo

July 6, 2012

Photo via Spread Some Awesome.

When I took Giovanni to eat at Tony’s last week, he turned to me mid-meal and asked discreetly, “how many stars does Tony have in the Michelin guide?”

When I explained to him that Michelin doesn’t have a guide for Houston (or Texas for that matter), he was genuinely surprised.

Today I posted my translation of his post on our lunch at Tony’s on Tony’s website (for the original in Italian click here).

In it, he makes his case for why Michelin should come to Texas and it’s a lot of fun to read his impressions of fine dining in the U.S.

Here’s the link.


Nothing like lunch at Tony’s, a Napa Cab I actually liked and Aldo Sohm and Levi Dalton

June 27, 2012

From the department of “Jar, you’re just bragging now” says Jon Erickson

Above: Tony’s foie gras au torchon is one of his signatures and one of the dishes where simplicity and purity of flavor is offset by detail in the presentation.

How could Giovanni’s visit to Texas be complete without a meal at Tony’s in Houston?

Tony is my client (I curate his website and his media relations) but he’s also become one of my best friends in Texas and he is the architect and author of some of the most stunning meals I’ve ever had. Yesterday, Giovanni and I drove to Houston to meet Cousin Marty for lunch and a confabulatio that centered around… yes, of course… food and wine

Above: Orecchiette with seared mortadella cubes and runny quail egg.

The secret to the rich yellow color of his pasta, said Tony, is locally sourced, organically farmed eggs. “But it’s also the fact that I use only flour and mineral water imported from Italy,” he added. Some would argue that sparkling mineral water is key to super pasta like this. But Tony insists that still water (acqua naturale) is a sine qua non.

Above: Halbut and seafood medley “al Mare Chiaro,” named after the neighborhood in Naples.

Tony’s is the only place in Texas where we eat fine seafood (a category we reserve otherwise for our trips to California). This dish was simply stunning in its simplicity and presentation (and my camera didn’t do it justice, frankly).

Above: Lamb chops.

Tony likes to tease me, calling me the chiodo (the nail) because I’m so careful about what and how much I eat. Lamb chops would have been a bit much for me for a Tuesday lunch but Giovanni dove in with gusto.

Above: General Manager and wine director Scott Sulma’s selection was right on.

And the wine? A tall order considering the fact that one of Italy’s top winemakers was seated at our table. And let’s face it, my general disdain for the Californian style is well known to my colleagues at Tony’s. But it also seemed right to have Giovanni taste something from my home state. GM Scott’s selection, Palmaz Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, delivered acidity, earth and gorgeous dark fruit, and balanced alcohol and wood. It was superb with the Bucatini all’Amatriciana that I had as my second course, playing beautifully against the savory guanciale in the dish. Chapeau bas, Scott!

Above: Nobody does it better than Tony.

I can’t conceal my pride in sharing the Tony’s experience with my good friend Giovanni, who made the trans-Atlantic crossing to see, hear, taste, and feel what life is like in Texas, California, and America.

Above: Two of my favorite fressers.

Thanks, again, Tony for yet another fantastic meal and an unforgettable experience. Ti ringrazio di cuore…

In other news…

Question: What could be better than a conversation with one of my favorite New York City sommeliers?

Answer: An interview with one of my favorite NYC sommeliers conducted by one of my favorite NYC sommeliers.

Click here to listen to Levi Dalton’s conversation with Aldo Sohm (pictured above).


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