Why Restaurants Matter (the bourgeois social compact) @EatingOurWords

Above: I spent an obscene amount of money taking Tracie P out to dinner at the Tour d’Argent in Paris three years ago. But when you consider the fact that we still talk about it and how much fun we had, there’s no doubt that it was worth every penny — one of the most memorable meals of our lives. Here’s the link to my post on the lunch.

When I was an undergrad at U.C.L.A. in the late 1980s, my great uncle Ted, a Beverly Hills commercial developer (motels were his thing), loved to take me to his favorite “continental cuisine” dining spot. The only catch was that we had to finish dining by 6 p.m. so that we could take advantage of the “early bird special” (think beef Stroganoff and baked Napoleon). I’ll never forget his anxiety when the bill arrived: did the server already include the gratuity? did he charge us the correct amount? had he cheated us for a dish that didn’t arrive? I was too young at the time to drink legally but there was no way that uncle Ted was going to spend money on a bottle of wine. The prices for wine were “highway robbery,” I remember him saying to grandma Jean (his sister).

I loved uncle Ted a lot, especially for his humor and his loud snorts when we would eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant. “The mustard really helps to clear your sinuses,” he would say to my delight as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

He was from a generation that believed — across the board — that the restaurateur was going to try to swindle their patrons.

It’s important to remember that he was the child of people who never went to restaurants: he was born in the first decade of the twentieth-century in New York to Jews who had fled antisemitism in Austria (and the limited opportunities of their station in society). Even when they landed in the U.S., the thought of spending money in a restaurant was abhorrent in their view.

Today, the culinary landscape has changed drastically. When, in the late 1990s, our enogastronomic culture shifted from Julia Child and James Beard to Molto Mario, Lidia’s Italy, Kitchen Confidential, and Bobby Flay, our food “writers” and taste-makers had become themselves restaurateurs. And a new restaurant culture was born in our country: instead of being taught what we could make at home, they began to teach us how to make the dishes that they made in their restaurants. And they also opened a window on to the inner workings of restaurants.

For my generation (and for yours as well if you’re reading this), the thought of not going to restaurants would be abhorrent. Just contemplate what Sex and the City would have been without restaurants as a backdrop for the soap opera (where a diner was the backdrop for Seinfeld. a show that ended in 1998, the same year that Babbo opened).

This is just one of the reasons that I’ve been surprised and frankly upset by the reaction to my recent post on Corkage, a Privilege not a Right for the Houston Press.

Today, I followed up with a post on Why Restaurants Matter (and Why You Should Tip Generously). One of the things that occurred to me as I wrote it was that for the first time in history, the patrons and servers in the social compact of restaurateurship are social equals and intellectual peers. In other words, where the servers were once proletariat and the patrons bourgeoisie, today both are members of the bourgeoisie.

Here’s the link to the post, which includes some notes on how the Industrial Revolution shaped the restaurant experience as we know it today.

In other news…

Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of Sunday’s earthquake in Emilia-Romagna, which had its epicenter in Finale Emilia (above).

Here’s the NY Times coverage.

As I was looking around the internets this morning looking for information about the tragedy, I was reminded of the terrible 1976 earthquake in Friuli and I found this chilling YouTube video.

In it, a young man, who was taping a Pink Floyd album using a microphone, captures the terror of his family as they react to the shaking of the earth.

Puttanesca is not for prostitutes…

Originally published in January 2008, this post is one of my favorites.

Above: 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.

Love balls & unicorns in the Groover’s Paradise @emmajanzen

“Enchiladas and barbeque, oh baby whatcha gonna do?” sang the legendary father of Tex-Mex music Doug Sahm. The line comes from the title track of his 1974 release, “Groover’s Paradise,” an ode to the River City — Austin, Texas.

Today, in keeping with a long-running tradition of musician-friendly victuals, Austin has become the sui generis trailer park eatery capital of the world.

A few months ago, I visited the East Side Drive-In park (above) with liquid editor for our city’s paper of record, The Austin American-Statesman, Emma Janzen and her beau Zach Rose.

She posted this account of a wine tasting and pairing that I conducted for them.

What do loved balls and unicorns have to do with all of this? Watch the video and you’ll see…

Thanks again Emma and Zach! :)

Carlo Ferrini and me (so many great wines & so little time)

Love him or hate him, legendary and often controversial Tuscan enologist Carlo Ferrini and I sat next to each other on the Sparkling Wine panel at the Viva Vino conference yesterday in Los Angeles.

We had a chance to speak for a few minutes before the panel and he was exceedingly forthright in his answers when asked about Montalcino, his association with Casanova di Neri, and what he considers his legacy and contribution to the history of Italian wine over the last few decades.

I don’t have time to post notes from our conversation today but will offer the following nugget.

When I asked how he feels about the fact that so many in Italy and beyond associate him with Merlot (many in the industry call him “Mr. Merlot,” using the English title mockingly), he said, quite frankly, “I don’t understand why people say that of me, when, in fact, it’s Cabernet [Sauvignon] that I like so much.”

I have to say that I admired his friendliness, style, and earnestness and I plan to visit with him this fall when Tracie P, Georgia P, and I head to Tuscany.

In other news…

It was a blast to connect with the newly formed consortium of Oslavia (Collio, Friuli) producers who visited Los Angeles for the conference and trade events (after stopping for two days in Vegas where they partied their asses off).

That’s Max Stefanelli of Terroni (kneeling, left) and his wife Francesca behind him with six of the seven producers from the village (can you guess the single producer who didn’t come? I’m buying a glass of wine tonight at Sotto for anyone who can!).

Here are the wines they poured for me and a handful of industry folks who attended a late night dinner and tasting at Terroni.

In other other news…

I connected yesterday with Lou (who needs no introduction here) and my new BFF Taylor Parsons, wine director at Osteria Mozza and Tuesday night I had dinner with Anthony and David at Mozza, where the conversation spanned an arc of Mel Brooks Hitler humor, the art of mixing (records), Anthony’s father’s incredible musical legacy (“he’s conducting better than ever at 93,” he said), burrata, anchovies, and Verdicchio.

So many great wine and so little time… So much more to tell but I have another slamming day and evening ahead of me here in Los Angeles.

If you happen to be in town, please come and see me at Sotto where I’ll be pouring wine on the floor from 6 until 9 or so…

Radikon, my visit to Oslavia

Heading to Los Angeles today where I’ll be working the floor (introducing our summer wine list) at Sotto Wednesday and Thursday nights and speaking tomorrow on a panel at the Italian wine fair for consumers and trade, Viva Vino. LA is buzzing right now with the arrival of the group of winemakers from Oslavia (Friuli) led by the young Saša Radikon, whom I’ll be meeting tonight. So I thought I’d post my photos from my visit to the winery a few years ago. Look for Saša and the Oslavia producers at DomaineLA on Thursday.

The skin-contact Ribolla of Radikon first came to my attention in the late 1990s in New York in an era long before the terms “orange wine” or “natural wine” were in vogue. Stanislao Radikon (above with wife Suzana) was the first to experiment with skin-contact starting in the mid-90s. (I highly recommend this profile from the recent Raw Wine fair in London devoted to the Radikon family and story.)

The village of Oslavia lies literally on the edge of the western world, just across the border from Slovenia in the province of Gorizia (in the Collio appellation).

One of the first things that Stanko (Stanislao) wanted to show me was the hill where then Colonel (later General) Badoglio fought the battle of Oslavia, one of the last and most bloody assaults of the First World War (just Google Badoglio and Oslavia to get a sense of the horror evoked by the toponym for a generation that came before us).

Today it is a place of immeasurable beauty, although many of the battle scars remain — topographical and emotional.

Stanko was perhaps the first to recognize the immense tannic potential of Ribolla (above), which, until that time, was used only to make light, white quaffing wine (in much of wine-making Friuli and Slovenia, it is still applied as such, although sparkling wine from Ribolla is becoming increasingly popular).

Stanko’s dense, cloudy, tannic, salty expressions of Ribolla changed the way the world viewed the variety and opened many’s eyes to the potential of “orange” (skin-contact) and “natural” wines ante litteram.

Open vat fermentation and extended skin contact are among the techniques applied to create Radikon’s long-lived, powerful, yet delicately nuanced bottlings of Ribolla.

Note the unexploded bomb from the First World War in the abandoned farmhouse where Stanko built his new cellar in 2002.

One of the things that impressed me the most was the contrast between ineffable rural beauty and the memory of carnage and senseless sacrifice that linger there. Stanko is a quietly intense man whose soulful winemaking is as much an expression of ideology as it is a pure and natural product of his land.

I’ll be meeting with Saša and his group tonight for dinner and I’m sure I’ll have much to report tomorrow… Stay tuned…

The Story Behind Nascetta (and Anascetta)

I get so many emails from folks saying how much they appreciate this post on the story behind the ampelonym Nascetta that I thought I’d repost it today. Buona lettura!


Romeo, doff thy name!

Above: Valter Fissore of Elvio Cogno (Novello) single-handedly delivered the Nascetta grape from oblivion after he tasted a wine made using this once highly praised grape in 1991. The wine had been bottled in 1986.

It’s regrettable that when I tasted the Nascetta grape for the first time last year, it was served to me ice cold and was described as a “light-bodied white wine.”

While in Piedmont in March of this year, I happily learned that Nascetta is actually a noble white grape variety that can produce long-lived, structured wines. And I had the great fortune to taste Valter Fissore’s excellent 2001 bottling — a nearly decade-old expression of this grape. In my notes, I wrote “rosemary, sage, petrol,” and was blown away by the structure of the wine, its lively acidity, and most of all its gorgeous, unctuous mouthfeel.

Yesterday, in a wonderful post on drinking the last extant bottling of a vintage, Cory nudged me to fulfill a promise to explore the origins of the name. And so here it is.

First of all, a little history.

The name Nascetta was coined by 19th-century Piedmontese enologist Giovanni Gagna (left, 1833-1881), who believed erroneously that the grape was related to the Sardinian grape Nasco (from the Sardinian nuscu, from the Latin muscus, meaning moss). Remember: for the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries, Sardinia, Nice, Savoy, and Piedmont were ruled by the House of Savoy (the Kingdom of Sardinia), with its court in Turin and so commerce between Sardinia and Piedmont was fluid during that period.

In 1877, Count Giovanni di Rovasenda listed the grape using its dialectal name, Anascetta, in his landmark Saggio di una ampelografia universale (Essay on Universal Ampelography). The fact that he uses the dialectal inflection of Gagna’s name for the grape is an indication of how popular the grape was in Piedmont at that time, when it was commonly blended with Favorita (Vermentino) and Moscato. (In Piedmontese dialect, an initial a is added to certain words to compensate for syncopated, i.e., lost vowels; in this case, the acquisition of the initial a would appear hypercorrective, a phenomenon not uncommon in the morphology of Piedmontese.)

Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

Above: The confusion regarding the name of this grape was created in part by Valter’s frustration with labeling requirements. In 2001, he bottled the wine as a non-vintage vino da tavola (table wine) because the grape was not yet authorized for the Langhe Bianco DOC appellation.

Let’s start with some chronology:

1991 – Valter tastes a bottling of 1986 by farmer Francesco Marengo (Novello).
1994 – Valter produces 800 bottles from his own planting of the grape, labeled as Nas-cetta; following this vintage, Valter is forced to stop labeling the wine as Nas-cetta after he is fined for listing an unauthorized grape variety name on the label.
2000 – Nascetta (the grape) is added to the catalog of authorized grape varieties for Langhe.
2004 – Valter bottles the wine as Langhe Bianco DOC but cannot list the grape variety on the label; he labels the wine “Anas-cëtta” using a “fantasy” name because the grape is not authorized for the Langhe Bianco DOC labeling (it’s authorized for the blend but not the label).
2010 – After Valter’s successful lobbying, the 2010 vintage will be first labeled as Langhe Nascetta [sic] DOC.

Above: Valter’s Nascetta is an excellent value for a structured, age-worthy white. Be sure to serve it at cellar or room temperature.

When I asked Valter directly about his use of diacritics (in this case the umlaut and the hyphen), he told me flatly that he introduced them in the labeling for purely proprietary reasons. The mutation of the grape names Nascetta and Anascetta was inspired by his frustration with labeling requirements. The good news is that the confusion has been resolved and this noble white grape will be labeled as “Langhe Nascetta DOC” beginning with the 2010 vintage.

While in Piedmont in March, I also tasted another excellent bottling of Nascetta by Rivetto.

Be sure to read Cory’s post on the last bottle of 2001 and Whitney’s post, too.

… O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.