Mario Monicelli, Italian cinema giant, free at last

One of the greatest artists of the last and current centuries, Italian film director Mario Monicelli, father of the commedia all’italiana, took his own life last night. He was 95 and terminally ill.

Please read this obituary in The New York Times, where Michael Roston quotes the director:

    “All Italian comedy is dramatic,” he said in a 2004 interview with Cineaste magazine “The situation is always dramatic, often tragic, but it’s treated in a humorous way. But people die in it, there’s no happy ending. That’s just what people like about it. The Italian comedy, the kind I make, always has this component.”

Please also see this obituary in the ANSA feed, where actor Stefania Sandrelli interprets his suicide.

I studied and loved his films in graduate school and have quoted them often here on the blog. The scene below (with Totò, Marcello Mastroianni, and Vittorio Gassman) is my favorite from I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958).

My favorite gag is when Mastroianni asks Totò if the famous safe-cracker Fu Cimin was Chinese. No, says, Totò, he was from Venice. “Cimin” was his last name. “Fu” means he died, he says.

Frito pie, impossible wine pairing?!?

chili frito pie

Above: The other night an excellent Frito Pie prompted me and my dining companions to contemplate the moisture retention quotient of the humble Frito, which, I learn via the Wiki, originated in San Antonio, Texas (where else?).

I think I might have Dr. V stumped. Chips and salsa may be tough, but Frito Pie?

If you’ve never had Frito Pie, it’s essentially a heap of Fritos drowning in Texas chili and then topped with cheese and sour cream.

I had never had Frito Pie before moving to the south. Since my life Texana began nearly 3 years ago, I eat Frito Pie — a true Texan delicacy — whenever afforded the opportunity.

The other day outside of Houston, Cousin Marty and I had what we both agreed was the BEST FRITO PIE EVER.

What did our sommelier pair with it?

As BrooklynGuy occasionally asks of his readers, you be the sommelier!

Please add your recommendations in the comment thread and I’ll provide the answer (it was brilliant, btw) on Friday along with a story about the amazing place where we were served the pie above…

Raise a glass for Luigi Veronelli

Above: I furtively managed to make a scan of Veronelli’s autograph when I visited the Terlato Wines International Tangley Oaks mansion earlier this year.

Luigi Veronelli, “intellectual, writer, liberatarian, literally the inventor of wine journalism in Italy,” wrote Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani this morning on his new blog Le Millle Bolle, raising a glass of traditional method sparkling wine to remember the architect of the Italian food and wine renaissance on the sixth anniversary of his passing.

Regrettably, very little of Veronelli’s writing has been translated into English (aside from what I’ve translated on my blog, where he appears often).

It’s difficult for the solely Anglophone lovers of Italian food and wine to gauge the reach and scope of Veronelli’s legacy (would Eataly have been possible — even conceivable — without him?).

Check out this amazing video, from 1975, when Veronelli was 49 years old and had yet to publish his landmark catalog of the wines of Italy (1983). It was posted in the comment thread of Mr. Ziliani’s post by the brilliant Giovanni Arcari, one of my favorite Italian winemakers and a good friend (look for Giovanni in the Franciacorta pavilion at Vinitaly this year and he will BLOW YOUR minds with the wines he makes and pours).

In it, he demonstrates how to make spaghetti alla chitarra. Italian is not required for viewing but the Pasolinian implications of the subtle dialectal inflections will not be lost on the Italophones among us.

Please join Tracie P and me in raising a glass tonight to this truly epic hero and sine qua non of contemporary Italian food and wine.

Scenes from Boondocks Road, life on the bayou

Sometimes on the highway of life, there are certain roads you just have to go down…

Driving back from East Texas yesterday, Tracie P and I decided on a whim to find out what lay at the end of Boondocks Road. Yes, Boondocks Road.

A sign told us about Leon’s Fish Camp. But we knew there had to be more to the story.

What we found was a beautiful bayou and friendly people who waved and smiled at us.

Because of the flooding that hurricane season inevitably brings, the houses are on stilts and many are connected to Boondocks Road by bridges.

The extreme weather of East Texas will most certainly put the fear of G-d in you.

Of course, everywhere you go in Texas, folks are proud of their state.

Until recently, as I discovered this morning on the internets, Boondocks Road was called Jap Road. The road had been named to honor early-twentieth century Japanese settlers who had taught their neighbors how to farm rice on the bayou. Today, rice is the predominant agricultural crop of this area. The locals greatly appreciated and recognized Yoshio Mayumi for what he had done for their community. But he and his family were forced to leave between the two world wars when the U.S. government forbade foreigners from owning land in our country (the 1924 Immigration Act; sound familiar?). Jap was not a racial slur at the time and was a commonly accepted abbreviation for Japanese (the historical entries in the Oxford English Dictionary provide hard evidence of this). In 2004, after more than ten years of lobbying, local activists were successful in their campaign to rename the road. The road’s residents chose Boondocks, after a catfish restaurant that had once operated there. (You can find all of this in the Wiki entry, including references to articles in the Christian Science Monitor and on the CNN website.)

Another hour down the highway of life, Tracie P had lox and latkes and I had white fish salad at our favorite Houston deli, Ziggy’s. Cousins Joanne and Marty and Aunt Holly and uncle Terry and cousin Grant joined. The white fish was delicious.

I’m glad they changed the name of Jap Road. But I wish they would have renamed it Mayumi Road, to remember the farm and the people that reshaped the agricultural landscape of East Texas in a more innocent and more earnest time.

But, then again, if it weren’t called Boondocks Road, we probably wouldn’t have felt the irresistible urge to go down it.

BTW, with this post, I’ve added a new category to Do Bianchi: de rebus texanis. Buona domenica ya’ll!

Cajun cooking at Larry’s French Market, Port Arthur, Texas

Texas isn’t just one state, really. It’s actually five states. As Rev. B (above) pointed out last night, the drive from San Diego to El Paso (on the western edge of Texas) is shorter than the drive from El Paso to Orange, where Tracie P grew up, along the Louisiana border.

While folks in El Paso may feel more of a connection with the west and the culture and cuisine of Mexico, folks here feel a kinship to the Cajun culture of the bordering state to the east and they often refer to this area as “Coonass country” (a designation not considered derogatory when self-referential).

Last night I had the great fortune to dine at Larry’s French Market in Groves, Texas, not far from Port Arthur. Uncle Tim, the family’s resident gourmet and gourmand, who works at the Total refinery across the road, eats there every day.

Rev. B had the “Captain’s Platter” (above), reminding me of what famous guitarist Jay Leach once told one of my bandmates in a recording session in L.A. many years ago, “Play a high C over a C major 7? Man, that’s a captain’s platter!” (meaning the musical phrase would teem with clams or mistakes).

That’s a fried bun atop a heap of fried crabs (female), crawfish, shrimp, oysters, and French fries.

Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary quotes Hank Williams in the entry for filé (ground sassafras used to season gumbo)?

    1952 H. WILLIAMS Jambalaya (sheet music) 3 Jambalaya and a craw-fish pie and fillet gumbo, ‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio.

Pretty cool, huh? (The OED contains an entry for Coonass as well, btw.)

I had the oyster poboy. Man, that was good! (BrooklynGuy, do you now see the error of your ways and know why you MUST come visit us in Texas???!!!)

I did, however, overdo it a bit with the hot sauce. It was delicious though. And I’ve learned my lesson… Rev. B will probably be teasing me for years about how my face turned red as the sweat rolled down my cheeks!

Enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend and travel safely!

Hang with Gary Jules and the Parzen family on Dec. 10 in San Diego

An Evening Under the Dome With Gary Jules
Friday, December 10, 2010 from 6:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Purchase tickets here.

On Friday, December 10, Tracie P and I and the whole Parzen family are going to be attending a special concert by our old, old friend Gary Jules at the Museum of Man in San Diego.

You may remember how brother Micah became the director of San Diego’s anthropological museum, the Museum of Man, back in the summer of this year.

Micah and Gary have remained close friends from our junior high and high school days and Gary has graciously agreed to perform a benefit concert for the museum.

I’ve known and played music with Gary since we were children. And we used to hang in LA when I was in grad school and then later in NYC, when his band would come through town.

In 2003, he became an international superstar with his megahit version of the Tears for Fears track “Mad World” (2003), produced and performed by another good friend, Mike Andrews (a superstar in his own right).

The tickets are not cheap but they’re for a good cause. Tracie P and I wouldn’t miss it for the “mad world.” (And I bet we’ll all end up at Jaynes Gastropub after the event for some killer wine!)

Hope to see you there! :-)

Lady kisser Pelaverga aphrodisiacal wine for an East Texas Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving yesterday in Orange, Texas with Branch and Johnson and now Parzen families. Mrs. B’s roast turkey; smoked turkey; spiral sliced ham with pineapple, brown sugar, and Coke; Uncle Tim’s cornbread dressing; Memaw’s deviled eggs; sweet potato pie, mashed potatoes; eight-layer salad; Tracie P’s shaved Brussels sprouts salad; pecan torte; and lots more. I wanted to share this story about my favorite wine pairing for this year, Pelaverga by Castello di Verduno, and the somewhat saucy story behind the name. For those with PG13+ status, read on…

The year was 2006 and I was working in New York as the media director for a high-profile Italian restaurant group that also happened to be a direct importer of Italian wines. Earlier that year, I had made the annual trek with my colleagues to the Italian wine fairs, where we met and tasted with a young winemaker at the natural wine fair, Vini Veri: Mario Andrion of Castello di Verduno, producer of awesome Barolo and Barbaresco and a then relatively obscure grape called Pelaverga. I’ve always loved Mario’s traditional-style wines (like his excellent Barbaresco) but all of my colleagues and I agreed that his Pelaverga Basadone was one of the most original wines we’d tasted that year: light in body, bright with acidity, and rich with fresh red fruit flavors, complemented by a gentle “white pepper” note. Later that year, a prominent colleague asked me what my Thanksgiving pick was and I whispered, Pelaverga, the perfect wine to go with wide variety of foods we eat for the holiday, from roast turkey to cranberry sauce.

Don’t ask me how but this vital piece of information was somehow whispered into the ear of the then New York Times restaurant editor Frank Bruni (remember him?). The rest is history: when he picked this wine as his top choice for Thanksgiving 2006, it made Mario’s Pelaverga a household word (at least in Manhattan).

And it’s a highly interesting word at that! No one knows the true origin of the grape name but on face value it means branch scraper, from the Italian pelare (to peel) and verga (branch). Most believe the name has to do with vine training techniques that were used to cultivate this rustic grape.

Of course, verga (and those of you who speak Spanish will immediately see the linguistic kinship) can also denote the… ahem… the male sex. Back in Verduno (Piedmont), the locals say this spicy grape has aphrodisiacal properties and that’s why Castello di Verduno calls it Basadone, the baciadonne or lady kisser.

Tracie P and I hope you had a great holiday! Thanks for reading!

The one I love loves mozzarella

Some women want diamonds and jewelry, others covet big cars and houses, others yet seek power and fame…

And then, there is the woman I love… and she loves mozzarella…

And not just any old mozzarella. I’m taking about buffalo’s milk mozzarella shipped in from Campania… the real deal…

Last night, I surprised Tracie P with some good Campanian mozzarella from one of our local cheese mongers.

To watch her enjoy it with a glass of Falanghina was to fall in love all over again. She ate the whole thing!

Looking in her eyes, I remembered what Petrarch said to Laura: tu sola mi piaciYou alone please me

She’s been blogging again, delivering a wonderful series of posts about the wines of Campania, btw.

Tracie P and I have had an amazing year, personally and professionally, and we have so much to be thankful for… so much, so much more than I could ever imagine or hope for, to be thankful for…

We’re heading out shortly for our family Thanksgiving but I just wanted to thank everyone for keeping up with the blog and to wish ya’ll a happy, happy Thanksgiving.

We’ll see you in a few days…

New York Stories 7: Beaujolais with Eric the Red

The final installment from my “dates with the City”…

Another highlight of my New York sojourn was my obligatory pilgrimage to The Ten Bells, my favorite wine bar in the U.S., where even the grouchiest among the grouchy wine bloggers would approve of owner Fifi’s selection of Natural Wines by the glass.

The weather had turned cold(er) and as Eric the Red noted on the Twitter, “at The Ten Bells. No place better on a chilly night, or any other.”

(You may remember how Eric got his name “the red” back in August 2008.)

Partly mocking the Beaujolais Nouveau marketing scam here in the U.S. and mostly celebrating how fantastic Beaujolais can be, for the last two years, Fifi has run a cru Beaujolais by-the-glass program concurrently with the advent of the consumerist collusion concocted by Georges Duboeuf in the 1970s. (Tracie P and I actually made the tail end of the festival last year.)

This year he offered 19 cru Beaujolais.

Eric and I tasted the Fleurie 09 Dubost Sans Souffre and the Morgon Descombes 07. Brilliantly savory and delicious…

Topics of conversations were wide and varied but I was thrilled to get a preview of Eric’s new book, “a manifesto and memoir,” in which he will dispel the notion that intellectualism is required to understand and enjoy wine. I’ll drink to that!

Talking about Eataly and the arc of the Italian food and wine renaissance, we remembered his 1993 review of Mario Batali’s Po on Cornelia St.

It took a little digging but I found it in the paper of record’s archive here.

“It turns out that the name Po refers neither to the Italian river nor to the Italian word for ‘little bit,’ but derives from a Polaroid photo taken of the site by a friend of the co-owners, Mario Batali and Steve Crane. The name, with its happy Italian resonances, stuck. The restaurant will, too.”

Mario’s father, said Eric, credits him with discovering the clogged one.

I had visited Eataly earlier in the day: how amazing to reflect on Batali’s legacy (like it or not) since 1993!

And I’d have to say that Eric the Red has done pretty well himself since then… Check out his article in today’s paper on tasting 2005 Barbaresco with Levi

New York Stories 6: lunch with Antonio Galloni at Marea

Above: The cuttlefish crudo at Marea.

There are many in our field who claim to be the world’s greatest experts on Italian wine. You certainly don’t need me to tell you who they are: they have publicists for that!

To my mind, Antonio Galloni is the greatest English-language authority on Italian wine in the U.S. today.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of others important writers to whom we need to listen. But the clarity and purpose of Antonio’s voice and the aequitas of his approach make him stand out among the field of the merely so-called as well as the bona fide Italian wine experts.

Above: Sommelier Francesco Grosso’s list features a lot of the usual suspects (and you don’t need to tell you who they are) but it also includes many gems for the Italian wine geeks among us, like this Blanc de Morgex et La Salle by Pavese.

Antonio was leaving the next day for Italy and the list of producers he is visiting… well, it would make you drool, too.

I cannot conceal that I was thrilled to get to meet him and to talk shop. We discussed Bartolo Mascarello, Beppe Rinaldi, Gianfranco Soldera, Angelo Gaja, and many others, and his insights are always fascinating to me (whether delivered via the Wine Advocate these days or a voce, in this case).

I followed his excellent newsletter Piedmont Report since its early days in 2004 (the original Italian wine blogger ante litteram?) and I think his knowledge and experience in Piedmont in particular are remarkable. His vintage notes are especially vital to our field.

“Every element of traditional winemaking in Barolo is present in Beppe Rinaldi,” he said making reference to the winemaker he goes back to every year and one of his favorites. This was just one of the gems that I took away with me that day. Man, I’d love to taste those wines with him.

Above: The spaghetti were excellent, although the crab and sea urchin sauce was a little too spicy.

I learned that his parents owned a wine store in Florida when he was growing up. I discovered that he’s a jazzer (studied at Berkeley) and a opera tenor (studied in Milan).

But the coolest thing was to learn that this dude, however revered and feared he is by nearly every Italian winemaker and wine publicist in the world today, is a really mellow guy who just digs Italy, Italian wine, and Italian food.

It can’t be easy to work with and for “Bob Parker” and to manage all the pressure and scrutiny that come along with the gig. But somehow Antonio seems to never have lost site of his original mission. He just loves Italian wine. (He speaks Italian with native speaker proficiency, btw.)

The power of the wine press may be excessive at times. But thank goodness that there are folks like him who somehow (miraculously, really) manage to balance the yin and the yang of it all.

Whether tasting with Gaja (yin?) or Rinaldi (yang?), Antonio put it best: “I’ll just never get tired of traveling to Italy,” he said, “and tasting wine and eating great food.”

Ubi major, minor cessat.