Best Meals 2012: w/ Frank Cornelissen @SottoLA

We’ve had so much fun sharing new foods with Georgia P and taking her to eat at our favorite restaurants this year. She visited Sotto (above) in Los Angeles twice in 2012. She ate meatballs, long noodle pastas, burrata, and discovered ragù, one of her favorite dishes of the year.

Sotto was also host to one of my most memorable dinners of the year, an event we hosted for winemaker Frank Cornellisen (btw, Levi, I posted some of my notes from the dinner here).

The squid-ink noodles tossed in uni (below) was my favorite dish for the year, for its purity of flavor and for its inspiration (via classic Sicilian cuisine).

I’ll never forget when Frank took a first bite of the food that night.

“This is the restaurant for my wines,” he said.

Best Meals 2012: Sotto (Los Angeles, November).

We had a truly epic dinner at Sotto last night with Frank Cornelissen (above with chef Zach Pollack, left, and chef Steve Samson, right).

Even though I’ve followed the wines for years, I’d never met Frank, who was visiting the U.S. for the first time with his wines (he had visited before he started making wine many years ago).

With all the mystery and aura that seems to surround him, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I discovered that he’s a super cool dude, very approachable and just fun to talk to.

We spoke at length about what he calls the “zoo of Natural wine.”

“Natural wine hasn’t been defined and so we really can’t call wine Natural,” he said, noting that he doesn’t care for the term.

I was thoroughly impressed by his concept of “high definition” wines and I admired the respectful tone with which he spoke of his neighbors on Etna.

He speaks impeccable Italian, btw.

Levi always gets mad at me for doing this but I’m so slammed today (while on the road in southern California) that I’ll have to post my complete notes, including Lou’s thoughts, when I have a moment to catch my breath…

In the meantime, the seared tuna with raisins, pinenuts, and bread crumbs was INSANE (first food photo). And the squid ink spaghetti with uni was possible my top dish for 2012… amazing… And wow, what a thrill to finally get to taste the (declassified) Magma.

Levi, I promise to post all my notes asap!

Stay tuned…

Best meals 2012: Bacino Grande TY @PaoloCantele

Our first trip to Italy this year with Georgia P was so different than any other either Tracie P or I had ever made. Before our piccolina came along, dinner in Italy was the main meal of the day. But, as our friend Billy (Italophile father to a beautiful toddler) predicted, the mezzogiorno seating became the primary repast of our daily routine.

Lunch at the Ionian with our little bundle of joy was simply one of the most magical experiences of our lives. And the food was terrific: Georgia P couldn’t get enough of the paccheri.

Best Meals 2012: Bacino Grande (Porto Cesareo, Lecce, September).

On Paolo’s recommendation, we headed to Porto Cesareo for lunch today. We wanted beach chairs, umbrella, and a restaurant right on the sea and he pointed us to the west coast of the Salento peninsula to Bacino Grande.

The paccheri ai frutti di mare were one of the best things we’ve eaten on the entire trip. The key to a dish like this is for the jus of the seafood to be absorbed by the pasta. The sauce had just the right consistency and texture and gave the pasta a wonderful savory character, with just a touch of sweetness from the tomato. Superb…

The frittura di paranza: a paranza is a wooden fisherman’s boat used for coastal fishing. This dish is akin to a “captain’s platter” fry. This, also, was over the top good.

It doesn’t really get any fresher than this. I really loved the place, even though the staff was a little bit grouchy.

Georgia P LOVED the paccheri and she had a blast dipping her toes into the warm water of the Ionian. I love how Italians rejoice when you bring a baby into a restaurant and no one ever gives you a dirty look. We are having SO MUCH fun on this trip… She is our joy…

Best Meals 2012: Tony’s with @TerraUomoCielo

Tracie P and I have had so much fun sharing new foods with Georgia P this year. Leafing through posts on favorite meals this year, I am reminded of my friend Melanie Rehak’s wonderful book Eating for Beginners, where she chronicles her young son’s food awakenings along with her own.

The above photo of Georgia P, where she’s eating avocados for the first time, was taken around the same time that I visited one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Tony’s in Houston, owned by my friend and client Tony Vallone. The occasion was bromance Giovanni’s first visit to Texas.

Best Meals 2012: Tony’s (Houston, June).

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…

Best Meals 2012: Scarbolo’s Frasca

Our 2012 delivered more than a fair share of opulent meals. But looking back on our annus gastronomicus, the most memorable repasts — more often than not — stand out in my mind for the purity of their ingredients and the marvel of discovery, like Georgia P’s first encounter with burrata and ripe peaches (above) or this meal at one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Scarbolo’s Frasca…

Best Meals 2012: Valter Scarbolo’s Frasca (Lauzacco, province of Udine, April).

Valter Scarbolo makes wines in Grave and so there was no way for me to include him in the Colli Orientali del Friuli 2012 blogger project itinerary. But there was no way that I was coming to Friuli without spending an evening with him at his amazing Frasca. I’ll have to recount our conversation on Pinot Grigio and his 1995 trip — his first — to the U.S. in another post when I have more time. In the meantime, here’s what we ate…

As James Bond would say, “if it’s Prosciutto d’Osvaldo, you must have been expecting me.”

Rosa di Gorizia (Rose of Gorizia), a radicchio cultivar unique to Gorizia that resembles a rose.

White asparagus is in season. Valter served it raw, thinly sliced, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and accompanied by delicately marinated goose breast. “It had to be extremely fresh,” he said, “to serve it raw like this.”

Riso nero Venere (black Venus rice) is a hybrid of Asian and Italian cultivars and, besides being delicious, is purported to have health-enhancing properties. Valter makes his with formadi frant, the truly unique, piquant cheese made from discarded and otherwise imperfect cheese — an ingredient that appears repeatedly in his cooking.

I asked Valter to show me the rice uncooked.

His My Time is always a treat to look forward to. The 2009 was unctuous and richer than previous vintages I’d tasted. And while it will undoubtedly become more elegant with some bottle age, its more muscular expression paired well with blood-rare pan-roasted and thinly sliced Prussian rumpsteak served with herbed formadi frant and montasio cheeses.

I’m posting this from the Colli Orientali del Friuli where the COF2012 trip has just begun… Stay tuned!

Best meals 2012: Le Logge (Siena), first visit

homemade pizza orange texas

Looking back on the best meals of 2012 (a mnemonic indulgence to which I treat myself every year between the Christmas holiday and New Year’s Eve), I can’t help but think about how the standouts were marked as much by the people with whom I shared them as much as the foods we ate and the wines we drank. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

That’s Georgia P, above, eating her first pizza (homemade, by Tracie P, of course), a few nights before Christmas. Whether Parisi eggs and birth-year Barolo or mushroom and peperoni pizza, 2012 delivered some of the most memorable meals of my lifetime. Buona lettura e buon appetito!

Best Meals 2012: Osteria Le Logge (Siena, March).

Alfonso and I met up in Siena yesterday afternoon and joined good friends Laura and Francesco at Laura’s restaurant Osteria Le Logge for dinner.

As I prepare to head up to Friuli today, there’s not enough time to post properly on the brilliant meal and stunning flight of wines. But here’s a “taste” of the “intellectual provocation”… THANK YOU, again, dear friends, Laura and Francesco, for opening your hearts to two weary Americans traveling along the wine trail in Italy…

Atlantic croaker sausage with mineral-water-macerated lettuces sous-vide

veal tongue Carpaccio in salsa verde

vitello tonnato with seaweed and ポン酢醤油 (ponzu jōyu)

Parisi egg with potato foam and marzolino truffles

fusilli with chicken livers and eggplant

Marcarini 1967 Barolo Brunate

Any excuse for Dante: Champagne cheat sheet

From the department of “there’s always a good excuse to talk about Dante’s Comedy”…

bear dalton champagne

Above: The legendary Bear Dalton of Houston, Texas was my Virgil…

The weather outside was frightful when I rolled up to the mothership Spec’s on Smith St. [in Houston] yesterday afternoon.

But it wasn’t half as scary as the demolition derby that was unfolding in the parking lot there, between the old school Caddys, the C-Class Benzes, and the obligatory and ubiquitous GMC SUV, whose soccer mom pilot insisted on backing it into a space otherwise suited for a compact.

The holiday wine shopping scene inside reminded me of Dante’s bufera (you know, the “storm” in the fifth Canto of the Inferno, “Where ‘mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw / Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell / Their sorrows,” as Keats once wrote). Lustfully happy wine shoppers literally flew through the aisles, navigating their passage between scantily clad women with painted faces offering plastic cups filled with all sorts of highly charged alcoholic beverages.

As I descended through the circles of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, “Cab,” and Merlot, many a salesperson asked me graciously if I needed any help in finding what I was looking for.

But my Virgil was to be another…

Click here to continue reading my post this week for the Houston Press.

Parzen Family Christmas Letter 2012

sgt peppers baby

Above: “My little Beatle” Georgia P celebrated her first birthday last week. She’s beginning to talk and can say words like “hi,” “mamma,” “daddy,” and “milk.” Her favorite toy friend is the pink mouse (pictured here). She loves to hug the mouse and she wants you to hug the mouse too.

Wow, what a year it has been!

And, my goodness, how it has flown by… When you become a parent for the first time, one of the things folks tell you is how quickly time begins to pass. It’s so true. Georgia P’s first year feels like it passed in the blink of an eye.

She’s doing great… hitting all her milestones on the mark and doing all the fun things that baby girls do. She loves music and dancing, she loves playing with her mommy and daddy, she loves her pink mouse, and she LOVES eating — a child after her parents’ hearts.

Tracie P and I have been very fortunate this year: as my marketing consulting business has continued to grow, she’s become a stay-at-home mom, devoting herself full-time to Georgia P and giving me a hand with our business in her spare time.

And even though our life with a newborn (now a toddler) is just as hectic and upside-down as it for all new parents, this year has been an extremely productive one.

georgia p in italy

Above: We took Georgia P to Italy in September. Even with all the challenges faced by Italians of all walks of life, they always take immense joy in a child’s smile and sweet laugh.

Among other pieces I published in 2012, I wrote a cover story on the Texas wine industry for the Houston Press; an introduction to Italian wine for La Cucina Italiana, and my band Nous Non Plus released a new album, which I recorded and mixed myself (a first for me).

The wine program I curate in Los Angeles at the restaurant Sotto hosted a dinner for cult winemaker Frank Cornelissen in November (a highlight of my wine year). And in Houston, where I continue to work with my good friend and prince of Italian gastronomy, Tony Vallone, I spoke at a series of truly extraordinary wine dinners, featuring some of my favorite wines.

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Soldera: Ex-employee arrested and charged, Corriere della Sera reports

Today on its website, Italy’s national daily Corriere della Sera reports that an ex-employee of the Case Basse winery has been arrested and charged with an act of “sabotage.” (On Sunday December 2, 2012, 60,000 liters of highly valued wine were destroyed when a vandal entered the winery and opened the valves of the large casks that contained the wine, allowing the wine to pour out on to the cellar floor.)

According to the report, the man, 39, had been angered by the fact that he had not been provided with lodging on the estate.

The vandalism, said authorities, was an act of retribution.

The arrest was revealed in a press conference held today in Siena where Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello producers association, and Siena mayor Silvio Franceschelli assured journalists that there had been no mafia involvement.


Above: I took this photo of ripened fruit on the Soldera estate in 2010, one of the vintages lost in the act of “sabotage” by an ex-employee.

Soldera: Rorschach & (probable) resolution

soldera criminal

Above: I took this photo of sunset over Soldera’s Case Basse estate in 2010.

Nearly two weeks after more than 60,000 liters of wines were destroyed in an act of vandalism at the Soldera Case Basseestate in Montalcino, Italian wine industry observers generally concur that the atrocious and senseless crime cannot be attributed to organized crime. The theory that it was an act of retribution for the 2008 Brunellopoli controversy, believed by some to have been sparked by Gianfranco Soldera, has also been discounted by Montalcino insiders.

This week, leading Italian wine blogger Franco Ziliani quoted a private message sent to him by lawyer Bernardo Losappio, who represents many Montalcino wineries and winemakers.

“I am certain,” wrote Losappio, “that the author of the crime will be sought among persons with whom Case Basse has had private relations” and not among “external” actors.

gianfranco soldera montalcino

Above: Soldera (left) with chef Roberto Rossi in 2010.

In an article published online this week by Panorama (a leading weekly), author Gianmaria Padovani, whose family makes wine in Montalcino, noted that the crime is not being investigated by an “antimafia” investigator. This fact, he writes, precludes a “mafia connection.”

In my personal email exchanges with persons on the ground in Montalcino this week, everyone of my friends and colleagues has expressed the belief that it was an ex-employee of Case Basse who committed the crime.

Many have written that it’s only a matter of days before the case is solved.

One thing is certain: this act of heinous vandalism and “intimidation,” as Soldera has called it, has prompted a collective gasp of disbelief and horror that stretches across the world.

As in a Rorschach test, every subject has reacted differently: many saw the hand of organized crime, some called it an act of retribution by “big” wine, and others simply expressed their inability to wrap their minds around this atrocious act of violence.

Our morbid fascination with this episode surely reflects the role that wine plays in contemporary bourgeois society as an emblem of wealth, luxury, and power. Nearly two weeks after news of the crime spread through the internets, we have observed how the power to destroy wine — an act that took just a few minutes — is almost as enthralling as the power to produce it. And we continue to be nonplussed by the disparity between the energy expended to make this wine (six vintages of maniacally cultivated fruit and meticulously vinified wine) and the energy employed to destroy it.

In other news…

This week, the Case Basse winery declined an offer by the Brunello producers association who had called for donations of wine to be given to the Soldera family to use at its discretion. In a statement, published online (and reposted by Franco Ziliani), Soldera thanked the consortium for its solidarity but proposed that the wine be given to the Universities of Siena and Florence for research.

The winery also announced that it is suspending sales of its 2006 Brunello di Montalcino in order to discourage “speculation” in pricing. On the popular Italian wine blog Lavinium, leading wine writer Roberto Giuliani reported today that an Italian wine shop was selling the 2006 for Euro 4,500.