A Puritanical Italy: has it come to this?

Above: On our last trip to Italy, this image — a winemaker’s daughter chasing a cat through a field — fascinated me. The cat, hoping to receive a treat, wouldn’t let the girl pick it up. But it never strayed farther than arm’s reach. She was a Pasolinian allegory of purity and innocence, the cat her serpent leading her to edge of the field where she would ultimately move beyond the farm’s borders toward the impurity of urban living and the pressures of modern society.

When we travel to Italy, Tracie P and I are very fortunate to find a host of characters gladful to share the flavors and aromas of the garden of Europe, the fair country, ancient Enotria and Esperya — the land of the setting sun, as the Greeks called it, the “Evening Land.” Blessed with a mastery of the language and endowed with years of experience there, we move seamlessly from the quartermaster of Marco Polo to the trinciante — the carver — of the osteria whom we bribe with veteran smiles and harmless guile, blank verse and syncopated song.

Don’t get me wrong: although we thoroughly enjoy every moment of it, those of you who follow (and have followed recently) along here on the blog know that we are keenly and acutely aware of how food and wine as text — as discourse — are just one red thread interwoven into the fabric of this ancient and fascinating nation.

Above: Most middle-class families by their daily wine at supermarkets or at dispensaries like this one in Favaro Veneto in the terra firma of Venice.

However joy-filled and wondrous our trips seem, we never lose touch with the challenges and ills that Italians and Europeans face every day, particularly in a world where the Italian state provides less and less for the middle-class Italian, while placing more and more pressures on her/him in finding and practicing civic and national pride and ownership.

I’m deeply saddened to report (for those of you who haven’t followed the meager coverage by The New York Times) that Italian society is on the cusp of a startlingly profound peripeteia. In bizarre twist of cultural roles, Italian prosecutors are on the verge of taking down Dr. Evil himself, Silvio Berlusconi… but not by means of legal action addressing his self-serving mediatic tyranny and corruption… He will be taken out, instead, through the application of a puritanical denouement.

In early April (it was announced while I was still there last week), he will be tried for paying a minor for sex.

Above: My last night in Italy, this time around, I shared a pizza and a beer with a colleague and friend (who happens to be a Berlusconi supporter). The pizza was decent but forgettable. Sometimes a pizza is just pizza.

Prostitution is legal in Italy, although organized prostitution is not. And even though the legal age of consent there is 14 years of age, it is illegal to pay for sex with a minor (under 18 years of age).

Believe me: although I am not Italian and have no civic stake in Italian society other than my personal interest in Italy and the many friends I have there, I am thrilled to see Berlusconi go (and I sincerely hope this is the final nail in his political coffin). His racist remarks about Obama or his belief that “Mussolini didn’t send anyone to concentration camps… he just sent them on vacation” provide ample reason to despise him. But the manufactured consent he has generated through his control of television and newspapers, orchestrated solely in the view of his open desire to become richer through the manipulation of Italian legislation (he stated so very clearly in a now infamous interview with historian Enzo Biagi, Italy’s Walter Cronkite), offer us indisputable evidence of what a menace he is to Italian, European, and Western Civilization. Good riddance, I say.

Above: Tracie P and I use all kind of electronic media to communicate when we’re in Italy but we still love postcards.

“Since when did the Italians become puritanical?” That’s what my bandmate Verena asked rhetorically in an email thread the other day. In fact, as Verena knows well, the Italians haven’t become puritanical. Indeed, one of the things I love and cherish about Italy is the fact one is not constrained by the yoke of bourgeois and Victorian attitudes there.

But it has come to this: short of taking to the streets and squares the way the Egyptians have done, Italy must resort to a Republican-inspired puritanical Bill Clinton-era tactic to oust the country richest and most despicable man from its most powerful office.

Above: If you look carefully at the wrought-iron adornment of this well (near Buttrio in Friuli), you’ll see that it is made of grape bunches, leaves, and tendrils.

I hope and pray that gourmets and gourmands of English-language literature will appreciate the allusion with which I have chosen as congedo of this post, a few lines culled from D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Grapes.”

Buona lettura, everyone, and buona domenica. Thanks for reading…

But long ago, oh, long ago
Before the rose began to simper supreme,
Before the rose of all roses, rose of the all the world, was even in bud,
Before the glaciers were gathered up in a bunch out of the unsettled seas and winds
Or else before they had been let down again, in Noah’s flood,
There was another world, a dusky, flowerless, tendrilled world
And creatures webbed and marshy,
And on the margin, men soft-footed and pristine,
Still, and sensitive, and active,
Audile, tactile sensitiveness as of a tendril which orientates and reaches out,
Reaching out and grasping by an instinct more delicate than the moon’s as she feels for the tides.

Of which world, the vine was the invisible rose,
Before petals spread before colour made its disturbance, before eyes saw too much.

Dusky are the avenues of wine,
And we must cross the frontiers, though we will not,
Of the lost, fern-scented world:
Take the fern-seed on our lips,
Close the eyes, and go
Down the tendrilled avenues of wine and the other world.

Bombe glacé and 2006 Brunello on my mind…

Just had to share this image of an incredible bombe glacé, captured last night at Tony’s in Houston where I had dinner with a colleague, newfound friend and fellow Italophile.

In other news…

Franco’s first impressions from Benvenuto Brunello, fresh off the presses and translated by yours truly…

The Ronco del Gnemiz Six-Pack is LIVE! Friulian food NOT INCLUDED

The Ronco del Gnemiz Six-Pack is officially LIVE over at 2Bianchi.com, Do Bianchi Wine Selections… if you live in California and would like to taste a little bit of the Colli Orientali del Friuli (the eastern hills of Friuli), I’ll be delivering the wines and shipping on Tuesday… Check it out here.

I can get you the wines but unfortunately I can’t deliver the classic Friulian meal to go along with it. That’s soft (as opposed to crunchy) frico above: aged and fresh Montasio cheese with potatoes fried in a pie.

Grilled white corn polenta.

Fresh Montasio and salame, ossocollo, pancetta, and Prosciutto di San Daniele.

Brovada, turnips fermented and braised in red wine.

The Babbo effect and a visit to the Bastianich winery in Colli Orientali del Friuli

Above: My friend Wayne Young, whom I met in 1998 in New York when he had already been working within the then-expanding Bastianich empire for three years. In the photo, Wayne is standing atop the amphitheater growing site where the top wines for the Bastianich winery are grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli.

Babbo changed everything. It was “a fine-dining Italian à la carte restaurant below 14th St.,” as Joe Bastianich put it when I first met him in 1998 (when I was working as an editor at La Cucina Italiana in the City).

Ruth Reichl’s watershed New York Times review of the place in April 1998, “A Radical Departure with Sure Footing,” marked a point of no return for pseudo-Italian restaurateurship in the U.S.

I remember that Wednesday in August 1998 well: it was the day that Italian gastronomic irony died and the newly minted craze of Italian regional cuisine took firm hold in North America. Whether you liked Babbo or not (and who didn’t want to get a table at Babbo?), from that day forward, if you cooked Italian food in the U.S., you had to do it earnestly: your food was only as good as the authenticity that stood behind it.

Above: Alfonso tasting with the COF2011 blogger team and winemaker Emilio del Medico and winery GM Dennis Lepore.

Wayne Young and I first met back in those heady days of New York’s Italian food scene. We all knew a revolution was taking place even though, from the eye of the storm, we didn’t realize its portent. Today, Wayne — who has worked as a sommelier at Bastianich outposts Becco and Babbo — serves as the Bastianich winery’s “special ops” man on the ground in the Colli Orientali del Friuli (the blogger project there was his idea). He is involved in every aspect of the operation, from winemaking (a wasp in his pants is what gave him the idea to call the winery’s flagship white “Vespa”!) to sales (ask him what it’s like to sell wine in Serbia!) and marketing (he is the only Friulian winemaker to author a winery blog).

Wayne is a remarkable man, with great generosity of heart and a warm gentleness. I’ve never heard him say a nasty word about anyone and I admire him for the way he lives his life perfectly integrated into Friulian society where he is welcomed and beloved by all we met. Despite his nordic locks, everyone calls him “a local” up there in northeasternmost Italy.

Above: In our tasting last week at the winery, my favorite wine was the 2009 Sauvignon Bianco. Fresh and clean, with balanced aromatic character and that bright acidity that I want (and need), it should retail for under $20 in the U.S. The Bastianich Sauvignon has a screw cap, a feature that allows the winemaker to add a smaller amount of sulfite to the wine, because the screw cap allows less oxidation (where a cork, an organic substance, would allow more).

Like Wayne, the Bastianich family has been welcomed in the Colli Orientali del Friuli as winemakers. President of the COF consortium Pierluigi Comelli told us the story of how Joe and mother Lidia came to him asking for advice on where to buy property and set up their facility. Ultimately, on his advice, they revived a winery that had abandoned after the owner’s untimely passing. And they bought uncultivated growing sites where they cleared the woods themselves to make way for vineyards. After a week in the COF, I had a clear sense that winemakers there appreciate the expanded exposure and bandwidth that the Bastianich brand brings with it. “Everyone rises with the tide” seemed to be the consensus.

Above: On Friday evening, the last of our trip in the COF, we took time out to celebrate with a beer in Cividale del Friuli. You can’t really help but smile when you’re around Wayne — it’s contagious. That’s Nicolas, David, and Alfonso to the right.

Spending the week tasting and comparing notes with Wayne (who, as a local winemaker, shared a lot of interesting insights with the group), I couldn’t help but think back to 1998, when we first met and none of us really understood what was about to happen. As Eric the Red recently pointed out to me, it was a time of Italian gastronomic “innocence” (it is Eric whom Mario Batali’s father Armandino credits for having “discovered” his son’s talent in 1993).

I’m glad to know that the fame and the celebrity hasn’t changed my old friend Wayne.

Breaking news: Brunello producers postpone vote to change appellation

In a victory for traditionalists and defenders of Sangiovese and Brunello, the Brunello producers association has postponed its vote on whether or not to allow grapes other than Sangiovese in Rosso di Montalcino.

Franco and I just reported on the breaking news at VinoWire.

We lovers of Brunello can sleep soundly tonight, knowing that the appellation is safe — at least for another 3 months. Check out the post here.

Campari e Soda: time for a break

Man, I’m tired and it’s time for a break. Yesterday, before meeting friends for dinner after a long day of tasting and business meetings, I took time out for a Campari e Soda at the Bar Commercio (you can imagine the 1950s-era neon sign) on the outskirts of Lecce (yes, Lecce!) where I’ve spent the last two nights.

The bitterness of the Campari was tempered by a sweet, tangy slice of blood orange and the briny olives and lightly salted toasted almonds rolled around my tongue enveloped in the bright red bitters — an earthly however immensely rewarding pairing for one tired dude.

Today I head back to Venice and tomorrow to Austin. Alfonso was right when he told me, more than two years ago, that I would miss Texas more than I could imagine: more than ever, I wanna go home with the armadillo.

I’ve been on the road for nearly two and half weeks and I’ve been away from Tracie P for way too long. I can’t wait to wrap my arms around her and hold her tight again… One more longest night before I will see her again but one day closer to her sweet lips and loving embrace…

Thanks to everyone for following along here and at COF2011.com: your visits and comments and encouragement have meant the world to me. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

There’s lot more to tell and there will be time for that, too. But now it’s time for a break…

See you in a few days…

A Natural wine ante litteram: Ronchi di Cialla

Long before anyone ever dared to utter the N word on a blog or in dogmatic marketese, there was a bookish Olivetti typewriter salesman who decided to give up his comfortable job shilling macchine da scrivere, opting instead to make wine from native grape varieties, native yeasts, and chemical-free integrated farming in the Colli Orientali del Friuli. That man was Paolo Rapuzzi (above) whose winery, Ronchi di Cialla, began producing Schioppettino, Refosco, Picolit, and Verduzzo — four of the native grapes of Friuli — in the village of Cialla in the early 1970s.

Of the quindecemvirate of wineries we visited during the blogger team’s stay in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, there was none in situ that I was more excited about. I first began to frequent the wines of this historic estate in the late 1990s in New York, where I happened to stumble upon a forgotten allocation of its wines at Vino. Stretching back to the 1980s, the wines were impressively fresh and they had that classic juiciness and spicy note that makes Schioppettino such a fantastic food-pairing wine.

Founder Paolo and his sons Ivan and Pier Paolo walked us through a remarkable tasting, including 2005, 2001, 1995, and 1985 (all of which are current releases, btw). The 2005 was very generous with its fruit, while the 2001 and 1995 were more closed and tannic. The 1985 sang gloriously in the classic tulip-shaped glasses that the Rapuzzi family recommends for service of their wines.

Over the course of my stay in Friuli, no fewer than three persons told me that their respective families were the authors of the revival of native grape varieties in Friuli. I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in each of their hagiographies. But no family is more closely associated with the revival of Friulian native rootstock than the Rapuzzi. In fact, some of the rootstock offered by the hegemonic Italian nursery Rauscedo is surnamed by Rapuzzi, like the “floral abortion” Picolit that Paolo resuscitated.

By the 1970s, when he began making wine, most producers had started using a newly developed clone of Picolit that did not “abort its flowers.” While the newly developed clone delivered much higher yields (and lowered the cost of making Picolit), the traditional “biotype” was ideal for making dried-grape Picolit, he explained, because its natural floral abortion led to less buds and more naturally concentrated fruit. He planted and cultivated his Picolit for 10 years before it produced fruit and then he applied what could essentially be called a massal selection to the plants that ultimately were chosen for the Rauscedo rootstock and that are still used today to make Paolo’s Picolit (50% dried grape vinification, 50% classic vinification).

Cialla is one of the three sub-zones of the Colli Orientali del Friuli and is a monopole, owned by the Rapuzzi family. It is blessed with immense beauty and idyllic tranquility. Our visit with Paolo — a colorful and warm personage, who rests his hand on yours when he speaks to you — was probably my favorite of the trip. In the hour we spent with him (with me interpreting for the group), he never once used the word “natural.”

“We grow are grapes without pesticides or herbicides,” he told us, “and then we try to intervene as little as possible, letting the land of Cialla express itself in the wines.”

No need, in fact, to call this wine “natural”: res ipsa loquitur.

Playing guitar in Padua…

All work and no play makes the Jar a dull boy…

After a week of Colli Orientali del Friuli with the “Magnificent 6,” I took time out yesterday to catch up with some of my oldest and best friends in Padua — both of them extraordinary musicians in their own right and genre.

That’s Ruggero Robin (above) in his studio. Ruggero’s played with ’em all: Zucchero, Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and B.B. King, among many others. And his cerebral, dense style of jazz, jazz fusion, and jazz rock has made him one of Italy’s most admired musical artists (no shit). Ruggero was my “first friend” in Italy back in 1987: we met on the night of my first gig in Italy. And I learned from winemaker Angiolino Maule that Ruggero plays every year at VinNatur. Who knew? We listened to some of Ruggero’s mind-blowing tracks and he also played some tracks by his daughter Sara: she is going to be a huge star… I can just feel it… amazing chops, amazing (and remarkably mature) voice at 20 years old, and SO MUCH soul in her songwriting…

Later in the evening, I caught up with Gabriele “Elvis” Inglesi (above), one of the best friends anyone could ever wish for. The first time I made a real living playing music was with Gabriele (whom we used to call Elvis because of his obsession with life and work of Elvis Presley). We remembered how we played 28 gigs in February 1991 (I was 24 years old): 100,000 vecchie lire (about 60 bucks) per man per night and all the beer and food you could drink and eat… Man, we must have a played a thousand gigs together when I lived in Italy…

Elvis has an amazing voice and since those early days in both of our musical careers, he has become a virtuoso chicken picker, basing his style and technique on the category’s inventor and innovator, James Burton. Just ask McDuff, Nicolas, or Alfonso, who all got to meet Elvis and hear him play… he’s a phenomenal guitar player… we even got to hear a few of Elivs’s legendary jokes!

But dulcis in fundo

I finally got to meet Elvis’s son Ettore (above)… what a great kid…

Looking back on it all, I remembered how music got me through some of the most trying and difficult times of my life and how many rewards it delivered in happy times, too. And most of all, I thought, it brought so many wonderful people into my life, people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, love and friendship, solidarity and camaraderie… I wouldn’t trade any of those memories for all the gold in the world… they’re worth much, much more…

Don’t let the farmer know…

Don’t let the farmer know how good cheese is with pears…

So goes a bourgeois Italian expression: don’t let the proletariat know how good it is to be a member of the ruling class

Julienned pears and shredded Montasio cheese over winter greens, served with a lightly fried pancetta rasher and drizzled with olive oil, were delicious last night in the home of Daniela and Pigi Comelli.

Montasio is Friuli’s flagship cheese.

Comelli’s Pignolo (2007) was my favorite of the trip so far… Pignolo is a wildly tannic however noble grape. While most seem to vinify it in a “massive” and “muscular” style, Comelli’s was more judicious and showed nice fruit, especially when paired with roast pork loin and potatoes. Good stuff…

So much more to tell but gotta run… Follow along at COF2011.com

Fascist-era Berkel slicer with Fascist faggot

Evidently, Mussolini didn’t care for the fact that Dutch-made Berkel slicers were painted red. And so he had them painted black and added the Fascist victory emblem with the Fascist faggot (the fascio, above).

When he’s not busy growing native grape varieties and making wine, Friulian winemaker Michele Moschioni reconditions vintage Berkel slicers.

Follow along at COF2011.com.