Carbonara (and Matelica)

Yesterday was international Carbonara Day and New York hosted a number of carbonara celebrations organized by the GVCI (Virtual Group of Italian Chefs). The origin of Spaghetti alla carbonara is unknown but the GVCI has put together this relatively well-informed page citing all the theories as to its provenance (I was glad to see that the group referenced my edition of Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina Teorico-Pratica).

I didn’t get to taste Cesare Casella’s Carbonara with Winnie but I did convince Roman chef Salvatore Corea to whip up a Carbonara just for me at his newest restaurant Bocca.

Above: Salvatore Corea’s Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not on the menu at Bocca but it was great.

I paired it with La Monacesca’s 2005 Verdicchio di Matelica: clean and fresh in the mouth, with nice fruit flavors. While Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi, which lies on the Adriatic coast of the Marches, is the more famous of the two appellations, Matelica, which lies in an inland valley, is known for its fruity notes (thanks to the temperature variation of the valley). It’s a wonderfully food-friendly wine and also went well with Salvatore’s grilled scamorza and culatello.

Above: Salvatore also had me taste his Spaghetti alla gricia, a similar dish, also made with guanciale (and black truffles) but no egg. It wasn’t as good as the carbonara but tasty nonetheless.

Above: to be avoided at all costs! The Spaghetti alla Carbonara at Il Mulino in the West Village was by far the worst I’ve ever tasted.

Late last year I tasted the Spaghetti alla carbonara at Il Mulino, in the West Village, where I had one of the worst meals of my life. It’s really unbelievable — inconceivable in fact — that this would-be landmark restaurant has not been exposed for what it truly is: a sham.

Above: another dish of equally dubious origins, Fettuccine Alfredo, also at Il Mulino, and equally bad as its carbonara.

The only bottle I could find worth drinking at Il Mulino was a 1988 Barolo by Marchesi di Barolo (the rest of the list is over-oaked and WAY over-priced). Thankfully (or sadly, depending on how you look at it), I was the guest of another wine professional. We were both shocked by the obscene prices. So, please, don’t ever go there!

Stick to the professionals (hopefully we can get Salvatore to make his carbonara a regular dish on his menu).

Qui si parla italiano

An errand brought me out to Bensonhurst (Brooklyn) this afternoon where I had one of the best espressos I’ve had in long time. The Caffè Italia is a classic Italian bar where coffee is served at the counter.

Caffè Italia
6921 18th Ave. (at 69th St.)
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 234-7010

Italian is spoken at nearly every business along 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst.

Above: the Villabate pastry shop in Bensonhurst.

Pasticceria Villabate
7117 18th Ave. (at 71st St.)
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 331-8430

Guanciale and Barolo in The Times

The Wednesday edition of the The New York Times and its Dining and Wine section is a weekly event for food and wine writers and culinary professionals (New Yorkers and the rest of them west of the Hudson river).

Today’s section caused many of us in the wine world to drool with envy: Eric Asimov published a great story about Barolo and a recent tasting he attended. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime affairs (unfortunately not yet in my life!). I really like how Eric puts Barolo — a wine so misunderstood by so many — into perspective. Check out his post on the tasting at his blog (essential reading for me). It will surely make your mouth water (and bring tears of envy to your eyes as it did to mine).

Florence Fabricant doesn’t have a blog but she did do a great piece on guanciale in today’s somewhat Italophile edition of the Dining and Wine section. She writes: “Guanciale, which means pillow, a description of its shape, has an especially rich, sweetly porky flavor and a buttery texture.” It’s true that guanciale means “pillow” but in another context — that of medieval and Renassiance-era armor — it denotes the cheek pieces that were often attached to helmets (see illustration above, upper left-hand corner). It’s derived from the Italian guancia, which means “cheek” (from the old German, wanga or wanka, akin to the old English wang).

The suffix -ale is very common in Italian (as in nazione, nazionale), hence, guanciale from guancia.

Guanciale — the cured pork — is made from cured pig jowl (the part that runs from the head to the shoulder). So, it’s more likely that guanciale, when used in a gastronomic context, is more akin to “cheek” than it is to “pillow.”

I was so green with envy after reading Eric’s blog that I just had to point that out…

In other news…

I was really glad to see that a Sex Workers Outreach Program linked to my post on Sugo alla puttanesca: “Prostitutes are not responsible for the naming of an Italian dish” (scroll down the page).

Pizza alla puttanesca and 95 Taurasi

Above: Pizza alla puttanesca paired with 1995 Mastroberardino Taurasi at La Pizza Fresca in Manhattan.

In today’s Italy, pizza is generally paired with beer. Young Italians are drinking more and more wine these days but beer remains the beverage of choice for Italian pizzeria-goers. Although I prefer my pizza with beer, I always make an exception when I eat pizza with my good friends, Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone and his wife Michele, Italian food expert and author of countless Italian cookbooks, including Pizza Any Way You Slice It (which they co-authored). Charles loves to drink Barolo and Aglianico with his pizza and last night found us at his favorite New York pizzeria, La Pizza Fresca, where I couldn’t resist — in the light of my recent posts — ordering a pizza alla puttanesca.

After Naples and Rome, New York is one of the world’s most interesting pizza destinations and the pizza at La Pizza Fresca is very good. It’s done in the Italian (as opposed to NYC) style with Neapolitan (as opposed to Roman) leanings.

Charles had brought a bottle of 1995 Taurasi by Mastroberardino, which showed nicely. Mastroberardino began to oak their Taurasi a few years ago (“they went to the dark side,” as Charles likes to put it) but the 1995 was made in the traditional style. In the spring of 2006, Charles and I attended a vertical tasting of Mastroberardino (led by Piero Mastroberardino) going back to 1968 and we have enjoyed more than one bottle of 68 Taurasi at the Bottega del Vino in Verona. When aged in botti, Taurasi (100% Aglianico) has impressive aging-potential and many call it the “Nebbiolo of the south.”

By chance, Produttori del Barbaresco winemaker Aldo Vacca (pictured below) was also dining at La Pizza Fresca last night and Charles poured him a glass of the 95 Taurasi. “It shows qualities similar to Nebbiolo,” noted Aldo, who was in town for his importer’s 25th anniversary portfolio tasting.

Above: winemaker Aldo Vacca of Produttori del Barbaresco.

I had a chance to speak with Aldo at the tasting earlier in the day and I’ll be posting my interview with him later this month.

Above: two top bloggers in my book, Alfonso Cevola and Alice Feiring also attended Aldo’s importer’s portfolio tasting.

Pizza and Taurasi? Pretty darn good… any way you slice it.

In other news…

A propos Naples, I recently discovered Wikipedia in Neapolitan dialect! I’m not such a fan of Wikipedia but this site is great…

The origins of Sugo alla puttanesca?

puttanesca9bAbove: spaghetti alla puttanesca. There’s one thing we can all agree on: “sugo alla puttanesca” (literally “whoreish sauce”) is made with tomatoes, olives, capers, salt-cured anchovies, garlic, and chili flakes (give or take an ingredient or two). There’s no questioning that it tastes good.

In the wake of my post-new-year’s eve post “Taittinger alla puttanesca”, fellow bloger Marco wrote me, collegially questioning my belief that “sugo alla puttanesca” should not be attributed to prostitutes or their culinary preferences. I promised Marco that I would do some more research and another post. Here’s what I found:

1) the earliest text to reference pasta “alla puttanesca” cited by the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (edited by Salvatore Battaglia) is Raffaele La Capria’s 1961 novel Ferito a morte (translated as The Mortal Wound, 1962).

2) according to a study commissioned by the Unione Industriali Pastai Italiani (Italian Pasta-Makers Union), pasta “alla puttanesca” first became popular in Italy during the 1960s.

3) a search in The New York Times electronic archive revealed that the first mention of “puttanesca” sauce in the paper was made on January 28, 1972 by restaurant reviewer Jean Hewitt in her review of Trattoria da Alfredo (then located at 90 Bank street): “spaghetti Puttanesca [sic], which has a tantalizing tomato, garlic, anchovy and black olive sauce.”

4) in her landmark tome on Neapoitan cuisine, La cucina napoletana (1977), Jeanne Carola Francesconi attributes the creation of sugo alla puttanesca to Ischian painter Eduardo Maria Colucci (1900-1975) who — according to Francesconi — concocted “vermicelli alla puttanesca” as an adaptation of alla marinara or “seaside-style” sauce.

But the definitive albeit anecdotal answer to this conundrum may lie in an article published by Annarita Cuomo in the Ischia daily, Il golfo, in February, 2005: “Il sugo ‘alla puttanesca’ nacque per caso ad Ischia, dall’estro culinario di Sandro Petti,” “Puttanesca sauce was born by accident in Ischia, the child of Sandro Petti’s culinary flair.”

According to Cuomo, sugo alla puttanesca was invented in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, co-owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant and nightspot, the “Rancio Fellone.”* When asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them, they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,'” in other words, “just make us whatever crap” you have (see my original post for a definition of the Italian puttanata).

“All I had was four tomatoes, a couple of capers, and some olives,” Petti told Cuomo. “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti.” Petti then decided to include the dish on the menu at the Rancio Fellone but “spaghetti alla puttanata didn’t sound right. So I called it [spaghetti] alla puttanesca.”**

Petti’s anecdote is probably tenable but is by no means exhaustive (from a philological point of view). To make matters worse, Colucci was Petti’s uncle and it’s unclear why Francesconi attributes the dish to the painter. But philology is an inexact science: the origin of sugo alla puttanesca probably lies some where between the isle of Ischia and the Amalfitan coast, where tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies, and garlic are ingredients of choice. It’s clear that the dish emerged sometime after World War II when tomato-based sauces grew in popularity among the Italian middle class. My philological sensibility leads me to favor the “puttanata/puttanesca” theory over any other and there is no evidence — at least that I can find — that points to prostitution as the origin of the dish.***

There’s one thing we can all agree on: sugo alla puttanesca tastes good.

* A rancio fellone is a sea spider or spiny crab, a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.

** Like the French à la, the Italian expression “alla” (the preposition a + the definite article la) denotes “in the style of” or “after the fashion of” and is always followed by an adjective (not a noun); alla puttanesca sounded better to Petti because puttanesca is an adjective (while puttanata is a noun).

*** In his Naples at Table (1998), the otherwise venerable but hardly philologically minded Arthur Schwartz reports a number of apocryphal etymologies whereby Neapolitan prostitutes are indicated — in one way or another — as the originators of this dish. He even goes as far as to write that a seemingly celebrated nineteenth-century courtesan, Yvette “La Francese” (Yvette the French [prostitute]), a native of Provence, may have created the dish to assuage her homesickness. The fact that the dish emerged during the 1950s would seem to dispel any romantic notions of pasta alla puttanesca in nineteenth-century Neapolitan bordellos. Brothels were outlawed in Italy in 1958.

Puro and Unfiltered at Jean-Georges

Jean-Georges, the best deal in town? You betcha… $28 lunch menu includes appetizer, entrée, chocolates, nougat, and petits fours. And get this: no jacket required, although I was wearing one, of course (the day I was there, a large group of tourists was seated wearing a mishmash of windbreakers, sweaters, and sweatshirts).

Above: river trout sashimi with sea trout roe, and dill and lemon purée, paired with Movia’s Puro Rosato 1999, at Jean-Georges, NYC.

A business lunch meeting took me the other day to one of New York City’s top dining destinations, Jean-Georges, the Michelin-starred and storied restaurant in the Trump Tower on Central Park West.

Above: bay scallops with roast cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion.

I must confess I was surprised: who knew that lunch at Jean-Georges cost only $28? A great deal. But an even better surprise was a bottle of Movia’s Puro Rosato 1999 at a reasonable price.

Radically natural in style and in conception, his wines are not for everyone and his Puro is no exception (it’s a classic-method Pinot Noir vinified as a white and rosé, as in this case). Movia doesn’t disgorge the wine before release because he believes — rightly — that leaving the sediment (the yeast left over after the second fermentation) enhances its flavor. When a bottle is opened, it has be disgorged on the spot (see video below) and thus retains a lot of the flavor that would otherwise be lost if the bottle were disgorged at the winery.

Above: the sommelier didn’t know how to disgorge the wine and so I asked her to decant it. I love the color of this wine and it was great with the sediment at the bottom of the decanter.

I’ve tasted the white Puro and liked it as well, but the rosé is simply fantastic. When you taste a natural wine like that and experience its natural fruit flavors (in this case, a beautiful note of grapefruit), you just can’t put it down. Frankly, I liked the mouthfeel that the sediment gave the wine and its acidity was a perfect match for the tartness of the lemon and dill purées accompanying the sea trout and the intense flavors of the caper-raisin emulsion drizzled over the scallops. I could drink this wine every day.

Above: the sweat breads were skewered with licorice sticks and served with grilled pear (I paired with a glass of 2001 Vosne-Romanée by Mommessin).

Too bad that all of life’s surprises can’t be as good as $28 for a three-Michelin-star lunch.

Do try this at home… I found the video below demonstrating how to open and disgorge a bottle of Movia’s Puro. Keep in mind that you have to store the bottle upside-down so that the sediment settles into the neck of the bottle.

One more from the road: posoles…

I promise this is the last installment of my Mexican culinary adventures.

Above: a bowl of posoles, a traditional Mexican soup, made with pork and hominy, topped with shredded lettuce, sliced radish, and a small dollop of homemade salsa, and garnished with a crispy tortilla.

Monday evening was family dinner at Micah and Marguerite’s (my brother and sister-in-law’s place) where we enjoyed a piping-hot bowl of posoles prepared by their friend Lucia. I was stuffed after the first serving but couldn’t resist a second helping. From the Nahuatl pozolli meaning “stew” or maize-based drink, the term posole dates back to eighteenth-century Mexico.

In other news…

I’ve been following this interesting thread at on vigilantism in the e-commerce world of retail wine sales in the U.S. It seems that a certain online retailer has been reporting other smaller retailers for shipping wine over state lines. The minutiae might bore you but the original post provides background on the anachronistic legislation governing interstate wine commerce in the U.S.

I don’t know how long this link will be available (before you have to pay for it) but someone just forwarded me this article on interstate wine sales in The Los Angeles Times. I guess it had to come to a head sooner or later… The sad part is the consumer is the loser here…

In other other news…

I was pleased to find this reference to my blog on (in Italian). Here’s the original post.

Southwestern Mexican Culinary Adventures

Indulge me with my indulgences: a photo reportage of my trip out west and what I ate…

Grilled yellow peppers at Mexicali Taco in El Centro, California (no link, sorry; see location info below).

Tacos al carbon are wrapped in butcher paper at Mexicali. The slow-roasted pork was tangy and delicate. So good…

The fresh salsa bar at Mexicali. When I stopped there at lunch, they were replenishing the condiments and the grilled peppers were still warm.

Mexicali Taco catapulted itself to the top of my “best Mexican restaurants ever” list. Definitely worth a trip to El Centro. Mexicali Tacos, 2003 S 4th St, El Centro, CA 92243, (760) 353-4505.

A hot dog “estilo sonoro” (Sonoran style) at El Güero Canelo, Tucson, AZ (“The Blond Redhead,” not to be confused with one of my favorite bands, Blonde Redhead). The Sonoran-style hot dog (perrito caliente) is wrapped in bacon, cooked on a griddle, and then topped with pinto beans, finely diced tomatoes, yellow mustard, relish, and mayonnaise.

The griddle for El Güero Canelo’s awesome Sonoran dogs.

The garnish at El Güero Canelo includes grilled spring onions, sliced cucumber, sliced radish, pickled onions, and roast peppers.

El Güero Canelo now has a second location in North Tucson but I went to the original in South Tucson, near the airport, where his old taco stand is still used to make the Sonoran dogs (above).

A visit to a bar — somewhere in the Sonoran desert — was rewarded with a “Michelada,” made with Clamato, Corona, Worchestershire Sauce, and lime juice. I am not a fan of Corona, which tastes more like water than beer to me, but it was great in the Michelada. Tasty and refreshing…

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) in the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

I had a late-night snack of homemade menudo (tripe and hominy soup, topped with freshly dished onion and chopped cilantro, not to be confused with my not-so-favorite band). It was leftover from a New Year’s day celebration (Mexican families traditionally eat menudo for breakfast on New Year’s day).

A bowl of homemade posoles, a traditional Mexican soup, made with pork and hominy, topped with shredded lettuce, sliced radish, and a small dollop of homemade salsa, and garnished with a crispy tortilla.

Traditional pan dulce (literally “sweet bread”) which I didn’t get to taste but I photographed nonetheless (it’s usually served for breakfast with coffee).

Back in La Jolla, I had a classic “wet” carne asada burrito at Alfonso’s, one of the old-school Mexican restaurants (probably inspired by El Cholo in Los Angeles, founded 1923) where the comfort food will cure even the most dogged hangover and the margaritas are always great. Alfonso’s, 1251, Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037, (858) 454-2232.

They don’t kid around at La Valencia where the huevos rancheros truly “drown” in ranchero sauce. La Valencia is a 1920s, silent-movie era luxury hotel. I wouldn’t exactly call the cuisine “cutting-edge” but it’s always dependable and the views and décor are fantastic. When in town, I can often be found at the hotel’s Whaling Bar at the end of the night.

Sunset in La Jolla. Thanks for indulging me by reading this post (if you’ve made it this far!).

A New and Important Wine Blogger

One of voices I respect most in oenocyberspace, Eric Lecours, weighed in over the weekend with this comment and clarification on my recent post about La Chablisienne:

“Great choice…La Chablisienne produces excellent wines at great prices. The producer is actually a cooperative, considered by many to be the best in France. Despite escalating prices, I find Chablis itself is an excellent value in general. I recently ran across a Domaine (not négociant) Fevre ‘04 Grand Cru Preuses @ 35 euros in Beaune. That level of quality requires 2x+ the price in the Côte de Beaune.

(The best cooperative in the world however…Produttori del Barbaresco, of course).”

I couldn’t agree more with Eric that Produttori del Barbaresco is the “best cooperative in the world” (those of you who read my blog regularly know that it’s one of my all-time favorite producers).

It’s great to know that there are still some good values in Burgundy (especially in the light of the Euro’s rising value).

But the best news is that Eric has published a new blog called The Burgundy Journal. Eric is currently working with Étienne Grivot (of Jean Grivot) in Vosne-Romanée and his insights into the current state of Burgundian winemaking are riveting. His blog will quickly become required reading for a wide swath of Burgundy lovers and wine writers. Check it out…

Chablis by the Sea

Above: a classic Southern California Caesar salad, tossed tableside on a guéridon by Meliton Lescana at The Marine Room in La Jolla, CA – a relic of Cold-War-era “continental” dining (click image for animation).

A trip home for New Year’s conjured up nostalgia of growing up in a sleepy seaside community where the waves are big and the beach is your backyard. Besides an excellent dinner at my mom’s (braised brisket, roast potatoes, and wilted spinach with a López de Heredia Viña Tondoñia 1999 that I found on sale at the local BevMo), great sushi (So. Cal. has some of the best in my book), and a bevy of burritos, tacos, tostadas, and flautas (look for a post next week on Mexican culinary adventures), we made a trip down to The Marine Room in the La Jolla Shores, a blue-blazer, khaki-pants-and-docksiders restaurant that sits right on the beach with floor-to-ceiling waterfront windows.

Above: 2002 Montmain (Premier Cru) by La Chablisienne. Sommelier Jeff Hoover surprised and impressed me with a list that offered some options to those of us who cannot drink barriqued Chardonnay. The shrimp cocktail is no longer on the menu but they made it for me anyway.

The once strictly “continental” menu has undergone some changes since I was a kid and although the surf and turf still makes an appearance (at $70+), most of the classics have been replaced by things like the “Mulberry Kalbi Glazed Organic Pompano,” which I ordered.

The pleasant surprise was the wine list. I wasn’t expecting to find a lot of things that I could drink and indeed the list was comprised mostly of heavily oaked Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon (for the most part, Marine Room diners get what they deserve: at the table behind ours, I heard a gentlewoman pontificate about wine, extolling the virtues of Merlot, which, she informed her companions, “is a blend”). But after leafing through the heavy-handed California chapters of the list, I was relieved to find one of my all-time favorite Chablis producers, La Chablisienne.

Chablisienne makes traditional-style wines that show the characteristic minerality of distinctive Chablis. The wines are very reasonably priced: the premier crus generally retail for less than $30 and the Petit Chablis and Chablis AOCs can come in under $16. I had never tried the Montmain Premier Cru and it went great with a jumbo shrimp cocktail (the latter doesn’t appear on the menu anymore but can still be ordered). I just love these wines…

We also drank a 375 ml of Guigal’s 2003 Condrieu, a 100% Viognier that definitely sees some time in barrique (about a third of the wine was vinified and aged in new wood according his website). It was unctuous and rich, perfect for the Pompano and the fruity flavors of its sauce.

The Marine Room isn’t cheap, the food is somewhat affected and slightly tired, but the views and the Cold-War-era feel are worth every penny (that you don’t put in your loafers).

Above: an image of the Marine Room, battered by the surf in 1949. The Marine Room sits right on the beach and has been closed numerous times over the years because of weather damage. It’s not cheap but the views are worth it. The night I was there, sandpipers scurried and danced across La Jolla Shores beach like ballerinas.