Lunch at home with Maria Teresa Mascarello

italian gardiniera

One of the highlights of my November trip to Italy was a lunchtime visit Giovanni and I made to the home of Maria Teresa Mascarello in the village of Barolo.

That’s the gardiniera (above) her cousin made her. It was topped with hard-boiled egg wedges and crumbled olive oil-cured tuna. The combination of textures was wonderful, one of the best things I ate on this trip.

salame cacciatora

The butcher who makes this cacciatora is di sinistra, noted Maria Teresa, on the left side of the political aisle. And that was one of the reasons it was so tasty.

In the U.S., we rarely discuss the ideology of people whose food we eat. In many homes in Italy, such gastronomic scrutiny is de rigueur.

barolo vinegar mascarello

Of course, Bartolo Mascarello aged vinegar was offered to guests to dress their lettuces.

Conversation was dominated by the center-left primary elections (which would take place the following day). Maria Teresa was one of the polling organizers.

But it soon turned to the sticky subject of Natural wine.

Maria Teresa expressed her frustration with the Natural wine movement, noting that she doesn’t consider her wine a Natural wine by any means.

The obsession with “zero sulfur,” she lamented, was misguided.

luigi oddero

Maria Teresa’s partner David was geeked for us to taste a Barolo — the Luigi Oddero Rocche Rivera — that he’s keen on.

Traditional in style, this wine showed uncommon balance for a 2003. Its earth and tar prevailed over its fruit but its acidity delivered unexpected brilliance in the mouth. Gorgeous wine.

Conversation also touched upon the recent and ongoing Cannubi controversy.

Political discussion and cultural engagement at the dinner table are considered a responsibility in the homes of many Italians.

In the Mascarello home, of course, the di sinistra ideological legacy of Maria Teresa’s father Bartolo still resides warmly.

And in my experience, there is nothing that pairs better with great Nebbiolo…

Letter to Georgia P on her first birthday

beautiful georgia

My darling Georgia P, today is your first birthday!

Happy, happy birthday to you, my love!

Mommy and I have lots of special presents for you and this weekend nanna and pawpaw and grandma Judy will be coming to Austin to celebrate this special occasion with us.

We’ll be giving you many special gifts. But none of them can rival the gifts that you given me.

Every laugh, every hug, every kiss… every one of them is a miracle… and every day with you brings so much joy into our lives…

But you have also given me something as unexpected as it is wonderful: since you came into our lives a year ago, you have given your father a capacity to love that he never knew before.

I love mommy, of course. I love her more than I ever loved anyone in my life (and I loved her even more for giving you to us).

But you, my precious Georgia P, you have taught me that my heart is bigger than I ever thought it could be. There are days when it swells up with so much love for you that I think it’s going to burst!

But it never does: it only grows bigger and bigger as you teach me that love — unconditional love — has no limits.

There are so many things I want to tell you and so much of the world that I want to share with you.

But today on your first birthday, I just want to thank you for the miraculous gift that you’ve given me.

I love you, precious child. I love you so very much…

Remember this song that we wrote together on the plane back from Italy? It will always remind me of our trip… Happy birthday, sweet baby!

Amazing meal at Miramonti l’Altro (Brescia)

From the department of “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it”…

michelin restaurant brescia

Above: The octopus appetizer at Mirmonti l’Altro outside Brescia.

As tautologous as it may sound, it’s worth repeating: there are so many great restaurants in Italy.

From the glamor of urban Milan to the homey eateries of Langa wine country, from the classicism of Naples’ Angevin-inspired cuisine to Rome’s temples of molecularly deconstructed offal, the sheer number of fine-dining options is overwhelming.

snails

Above: “Vineyard snails.”

But when you scroll the pages of the Michelin guide to Italy, you find that many of Italy’s top dining destinations lie in otherwise anonymous neighborhood, often thirty or forty minutes from the city centers (Le Calandre outside of Padua is one of the first that comes to my mind).

pieropan

Above: This single-vineyard expression of Garganega from Soave, Pieropan’s Calvarino (the winery’s flagship wine), was stunning. So focused and so pure in its mineral flavors. Such a great pairing with the snails.

On my November trip to Italy, my good best friend Giovanni generously treated me to dinner at the two-star Miramonti l’Altro, in the town of Concesio (province of Brescia).

risotto funghi

Above: One of French Chef Philippe Leveillé’s signature dishes, risotto with mushrooms and sweet cheese.

Outer Brescia isn’t exactly the first place you think of when it comes to this level of dining. In fact, the span between Milan and Brescia, including the province of Bergamo, has one of Italy’s highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants.

rinaldi cannubi san lorenzo

Above: The 2006 Barolo Cannubi-San Lorenzo-Ravera by Rinaldi was absolutely gorgeous, however ungenerous with its fruit in this moment of its evolution. Where some would cry “infanticide,” I love following a wine like this — one of Italy’s greatest in my view — as it evolves. Definitely young but wow, what a wine!

The focus of high-concept dining there is due in part to the many weekend villas that dot the countryside here. They belong to Milanese and Lombard “industrialists,” mainly steel money.

But it’s also due to Brescia’s extraordinary tradition of agriculture and wine growing.

milanese

Above: The deconstructed “Milanese.”

By the sixteenth century, the city-state of Brescia, which had already been incoporated into the Most Serene Republic of Venice, was one of Italy’s central hubs for the production of fine wine.

The great Italian Renaissance agronomist Agostino Gallo (1499-1570) was born there and his legacy and contribution to agricultural science — he is credited, for example, with introducing rotating crops and new and highly effective techniques for irrigation — were key to Italy’s emergence as a farming power house.

cheese cart

Above: The cheese cart alone would have been worth the price of admission.

It was a remarkable evening and an unforgettable meal. And my discovery of Gallo — thanks to Giovanni — made the conversation even more delicious. (Gallo’s landmark tractate on Twenty Days of Agriculture, published in Venice at the height of the Venetian typography boom, is an often overlooked window into the world of Renaissance ampelography. What a fantastic find for me!)

Giovanni, thanks again, man, for such a great evening… And thank you for giving me Gallo!

Lake fish & Franciacorta at the “dispensary”

best fish restaurant italy

Marinated coregone (Coregonus lavaretus, European white fish) served with an “ice cream marinade.”

When you really get down to the thick and thin of it, “there’s really nothing unique about the terroir of Franciacorta,” as one prominent producer told me when I was visiting there over the Thanksgiving weekend.

With its marittime influence (thanks to Lake Iseo) and its alternance of morainic (glacial-era) and calcareous subsoils, it is indeed an ideal place to grow acidity- and minearl-driven Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. But in fact, those conditions can be found in many spots of the pre-Alps.

italian perch

Gently fried perch (Perca fluviatilis) served over a potato “millefoglie.”

The tradition of sparkling wine there is owed to a small group of wealthy, industrialist landowners who began making classic-method wines in the 1960s (Franco Ziliani of the Guido Berlucchi winery was the first).

In my view, the thing that really sets Franciacorta apart as a producer of fine bubbles is the local, fresh-water cuisine there.

European white fish

Vittorio called this superb however simple dish “bread and salt” coregone fillets.

And there is no one who can rival the fresh-water fish mastery of chef Vittorio Fusari at his amazing Dispensa Pani e Vini (“Bread and Wine Dispensary”) in the village of Torbiato di Adro (in the province of Brescia).

The restaurant is a temple to locally sourced lake fish and sparkling wine (including many French labels).

Especially when Franciacorta is made in a mineral-dominant style, the pairing can be sublime.

barone pizzini brut nature franciacorta

We paired with Barone-Pizzini Franciacorta Nature. In my notes I wrote: incredible balance, very nuanced nose, some tropical fruit, some red fruit, extreme freshness in the mouth, great balance here.

I had the great fortune of being treated to lunch at the “dispensary” by colleague Silvano Brescianini of the Barone Pizzini winery during my recent and very short trip to Italy.

I love the intelligence and elegance of Vittorio’s cooking (I ate there once before, in 2008, with Franco and Giovanni).

And he expresses his devotion to local fisherman through the eloquence of his menu.

I can’t recommend his restaurant highly enough. This meal alone would have made the trip worthwhile…

Soldera: “I’m not afraid. They picked the wrong man” to intimidate (Italian interview)

soldera vandal intervista

This Italian-language interview at IlCittadinoOnline.it just came to my attention.

In it, Soldera clarifies that he never spoke of mafia.

“I’m not afraid,” he tells the interviewer, describing the vandalism as an act of “intimidation.”

“They picked the wrong man” to intimidate, he says.

You might recognize the photo: they lifted it, without attribution, from my blog.

Posting in a hurry from the road today…

Soldera update: making sense of the unfathomable

montalcino vendetta wineMala tempora currunt (bad times are upon us), wrote Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani yesterday in an email, one of the tide of messages that pulsed across the internets as we all tried to make sense of the unfathomable: on Sunday night, someone entered the cellars of Gianfranco Soldera (left, photo taken during my visit in 2008) and destroyed more than 60,000 liters of his wines, six entire vintages, spanning 2007 (still in cask) through 2012.

According to a post today by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), “62,600 liters” were destroyed and the site confirms that “the entire production from 2007-2012” was lost.

The site WineNews.it also reports the same figure and vintages, noting that “the valves of 10 casks were opened.”

When reached for comment by the authors of the post, Soldera’s son Mauro told them that the wine was insured, including coverage for vandalism (before becoming a winemaker, Gianfranco Soldera made his fortune in the insurance trade in Milan).

The post also quotes the mayor of Montalcino, Silvio Franceschelli, who expressed the town’s “utmost solidarity with Case Basse for this villainous and cowardly act.”

Franceschelli is also quoted as saying that “any allusion to phenomena that bear the mark of the mafia are entirely imaginary.”

I wasn’t able to reach Soldera winery for comment today (the landline was occupied every time I called and a call to Gianfranco’s cellphone went unanswered). But I did speak to a number of people “on the ground” who concurred that the involvement of organized crime is unlikely.

Most believe that the senseless act was inspired by vengeance, perhaps in retribution for the supposed (but never verified) letter that Soldera wrote to authorities who launched an investigation into adulterated wines in Montalcino, an episode that culminated with judiciary action against a number of major players in Brunello in 2008 (the so-called “Brunellopoli” or Brunellogate affair).

(For the record, in 2008, while visting with him under the pergola of his home, I asked Soldera whether or not he had sent a letter to authorities. He flatly denied that he had and I believed him. He was, however, an outspoken critic of many of those implicated in the scandal.)

brunello scandal soldera

Above: Photo taken in 2008 during a visit to the winery. Yesterday, when we spoke, wine merchant Ceri Smith told me that she had tasted the 2007 in cask when she visited Soldera in February of this year.

One person I spoke to this morning (afternoon in Montalcino) proposed that it might have been a disgruntled ex-employee of Soldera.

But everyone I spoke to agreed that it’s unlikely that organized crime was the author of the vandalism. There has been no mafia activity there, said one informed person, and it is improbable that such an event would be isolated if the malavita were involved.

“One thing is certain,” wrote Franco Ziliani on his blog today, “today, all those who called Soldera a ‘poison pen’ or ‘snitch,’ accusing him of breaking the curtain of silence and challenging [Montalcino’s] establishment, should recite a sadly belated mea culpa. They are the ones objectively responsible for having prompted the deranged vandals who violated the cellar at Case Basse as punishment of its owner.”

In a phone conversation today, one of my friends in Tuscany noted how easy it would be to empty the casks of their wine. If you’ve ever visited a winery where large format casks like Soldera’s are used, you know that it’s simply a matter of opening a valve (if the wine were aged in 225-liter barriques, for example, this egregious task would be much more complicated).

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Above: “I let my grandchildren use chalk to draw on the casks,” said Soldera during my 2008 visit. Note the spigot at the bottom of the cask.

“The territory of Montalcino is a small and tranquil territory,” wrote winemakers Alessandro and Fabrizio Bindocci on their blog today, “where many people still leave their doors of their homes unlocked.”

As hard as it is to wrap our minds around this nefarious and senseless episode, it’s easy to imagine how simple it would be to execute the crime. When Tracie P and I stay in Montalcino, we regularly leave our keys in the rental car and the doors to our apartment unlocked.

Italy has a long history of vengeance, spanning ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the twentieth-century, when many towns and families were torn apart by the brutality of fascism, the extreme violence of organized crime, and the envies and jealousies borne out by the gap between those who prospered in Italy’s post-war economic miracle and those who didn’t.

The English word vendetta, indeed, comes from the Italian (from the Latin vindicta, meaning vengeance).

Today, faced with the thought that no fewer than six vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines have been lost, no one among us has an explanation for the incomprehensible violation of — what we must recognize as — one of Italy’s greatest treasures and one of the most noble expressions of its cultural legacy.

United in our bewilderment, we can only express our solidarity for a man who has lost six precious years of his life.

Soldera vandalized, 600 hectoliters destroyed

If you’ve landed here, please check out the update here.

brunello mafia

Above: I took this photo of Gianfranco Soldera in his cellar in September 2010, the last time I tasted with him.

According to a report first published today by WineNews.it and then reposted by Franco Ziliani, “vandals” destroyed more than 600 hectoliters of Gianfanco Soldera’s wines last night.

After entering the cellar, they simply opened the valves of the large-format oak casks and let the wine pour out on to the cellar floor.

The report, which was based on Soldera’s own account, states that his entire production from 2007-2012 was lost.

No other damage or theft was reported.

Observers of the Italian wine industry have already begun to speculate that this act of vandalism fits the classic model for extortion by organized crime.

I’ll continue to report on this tragic episode as more information comes to light.