Thank you Franciacorta, thank you @SilvanoBrescian, thank you @TerraUomoCielo

vittorio fusariOver the last few years, Brescia and Franciacorta have become my home away from home in Italy.

That’s me (above, far right) with Ben Shapiro (with camera) nearly two weeks ago now, interviewing Chef Vittorio Fusari of the Dispensa Pani e Vini, a focal point for the appellation and the people who grow and make the wines.

Chef Vittorio, you are an inspiration to me in so many things and your cooking is as wholesome as it is thrilling each time I visit.

Sharing a glass of Franciacorta with you on my last day in Italy was a highlight of my trip. Thank you!

silvano brescianiniThat’s me with Silvano Brescianini, left, my friend and client, general manager of the Barone Pizzini-Pievalta winery group and vice president of the Franciacorta Consortium.

Silvano, thank you for your generosity and all that you’ve done for me. I love working with you.

And most of all, I admire and thank you for your pioneering work in organic and biodynamic viticulture.

I really and truly believe that you are making the world a better place for our children and Tracie P and I love your wines (the rosato in particular!).

nico danesiThat’s me with Franciacorta winemaker and consultant Nico Danesi, left, my friend and enologist behind some of my favorite expressions of Franciacorta.

Nico, thank you again for treating us to the extraordinary dinner at Lido 84. A few days after you took us there, I’m sure you already know, the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star.

It was a great and thoughtful choice and we all enjoyed it merrily. I’m looking forward to when you come back to the U.S.

giovanni arcari franciacortaAnd that’s me with my bromance Giovanni Arcari, left.

Giovanni, what can I say? Our friendship has opened up a magical window into the wonderful world of Brescia and Franciacorta.

Your generous hospitality and your fierce loyalty mean more to me than I could ever express. You are part of our family’s life here in Texas, you know and love my children and my wife, and you are the best friend anyone could ever hope for.

I can’t wait to do a shot of whiskey with you in a Texas honky tonk and take a drive up the coast in California wine country listening to wistful Burt Bacharach.

Thank you, Franciacorta. I’ll be back soon…

Truffles like pennies from heaven paired with 04 Giacosa @TonyVallone

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

alba truffles best priceWhen a Texas wine colleague suggested that we have dinner at Tony’s last night, I knew it would be a great experience as always. But I had no idea that Tony — my dear friend and client — would treat us like pashas.

The truffles are so good this year: the rainy, cool summer in Langa (Piedmont) delivered a generous bounty.

When the waiter presented and remove the lid from the rice-lined truffle dome, it was as if a cartoon smoke hand gestured toward me saying, “come hither!”

I’ve had the great fortune over the years to taste Alba truffles on many occasions but this is definitely a stand-out crop, with powerful aromatic character and rich flavor.

Tony served them over a dish of homemade taglierini tossed in Parmigiano Reggiano.

And what better to pair them with than ten-year-old Giacosa Barolo Croera di La Morra (below), a wine from a great vintage when Bruno Giacosa was still working closely with Dante Scaglione. It showed beautifully imho and has many years ahead of it.

Tony, my goodness, thank you! You are too generous! That was one of the best meals of my year… unforgettable! Thank you!

giacosa 2004 white label barolo

Fantastic Roman ruins in Brescia, once a hub of the Empire

capitolium brescia brixiaI just had to share these photos of the fantastic Roman ruins at Brescia, which was once a major hub of the Empire.

That’s the Capitolium or Capitoline Temple, above. It was constructed under Vespasian (first century C.E.). It sits today on the city’s Via dei Musei or Museum Row. It’s part of a UNESCO Heritage designated site, “Longobards in Italy: Places of Power.”

Brescia is arguably more famous for its Longobard artifacts (which can be viewed in the superb Santa Giulia Museum there).

But its Roman ruins, including the Capitolium, Forum, and Theater, are considered northern Italy’s most important Roman archeological site.

roman inscriptions bresciaDuring my recent stay in Brescia, I had the great fortune to be led on a guided tour by my friend Laura Castelletti, the city’s deputy mayor and superintendent of culture.

Over the course of her tenure in city government, Laura has worked tirelessly to reopen the ruins to the public. It’s one of the achievements she’s most proud of, she told me.

That’s the lapidarium, above.

teatro romano theater brescia brixiaThat’s the theater, above.

Brescia isn’t always the first destination that comes to mind when planning a “grand tour” trip to Italy. But I highly encourage you to check it out next time you’re in that part of the country.

It’s a very easy city to navigate, medium in size, with a beautiful city center (the Via dei Musei lies on the northern edge of the historical center).

Check out the Brescia Museum Foundation website, which includes an excellent English-language version.

The NEW Chicken Asiago Taco! Available exclusively in Brescia

asiago grating cheeseAbove: I brought handmade tortillas, canned salsas, pickled jalapeños, and black beans with me on my recent trip to Italy. The quality of the photo reflects the brio of “taco night” at bromance Giovanni’s house in Brescia.

From a cultural perspective, Mexican and Italian cuisines have a lot in common. Both are “world” cuisines. In other words, they both represent gastronomic traditions that have traveled beyond their original borders and woven themselves into the fabric of cookery across the globe.

When I first moved to New York City in 1997, it was tough to find a decent taco there. But today, Mexican restaurants — high concept and fast food — are as ubiquitous as pizza by-the-slice.

Despite its popularity throughout the world, la cocina mexicana still hasn’t caught on in Italy, except for a spattering of low-quality pseudo-Mexican joints that cater to foreign students in university towns there.

With two trips to Texas and California under his belt, my bromance in Brescia Giovanni Arcari has had the opportunity to sample some of my favorite authentic Mexican as well as Tex Mex and Mission-style cookery.

So it was only natural that I would pack some handmade flour tortillas from Central Market in Austin, cans of my favorite commercial salsas (Herdez), pickled jalapeños, and black beans in my bag to share with my friends in Brescia where I stayed for five nights.

ferdinando principiano baroloAbove: what did we pair with our chicken Asiago tacos on a chilly night in Brescia? Giovanni’s Franciacorta and Ferdinando Principiano’s Barolo, of course!

For the taco filling, Giovanni griddle-fired chicken breasts and he sautéed some onions.

But because we didn’t have access to the appropriate queso, we decided to grate up some Asiago. And we were pleasantly surprised by how well it worked with the dish.

I couldn’t help but think of the “NEW Asiago Ranch Flatbread Grilled Chicken Sandwich” from Wendy’s fast food that I lampooned last year for one of my clients.

On hand to enjoy the new Chicken Asiago Taco were Brescia deputy mayor Laura Castelletti, who also serves as the superintendent of culture for the city, and sommelier, novelist, and journalist Adua Villa.

My time spent with Laura and Adua in Brescia was extraordinary and I have much to report on our conversations and visit.

But for now, I’ll merely reveal that Venezuelan-born Adua and I share a passion for la música ranchera and we ended the night listening, despite Giovanni’s protests, to multiple versions of “Canción Mixteca.”

What a night it was!

Dario Cecchini’s Chianti “tuna”: Tonno del Chianti

dario cecchiniPeople around the world know Dario Cecchini, above, the celebrity butcher from Panzano in Chianti in the heart of Chianti Classico. He’s a Tuscan original and a Tuscan classic. A poet and reciter of poetry. A world-class, innovative butcher and a steadfast defender of Tuscan tradition.

rendered lard recipe spicesWhat a lot of folks may not know is that if you stop by his stop in Panzano at lunchtime, you’ll be handed a small glass of Chianti and invited to help yourself to bread, salame, and rendered spiced lard to be spread over bread rounds (in the case above).

chianti tunaOf course, if you’re not having lunch in his restaurant next door, you should purchase something.

I told Dario that I was heading north the next day and that I wanted to buy something unusual to give as a gift to my colleague in Brescia.

He turned down the AC/DC that was blaring on the stereo (no joke) and suggested that I buy some “tonno del Chianti” or “Chianti tuna.”

It’s pig thigh, he told me, that’s been cooked like olive oil-cured tuna.

tonno chiantiThe next night when I gave it to Giovanni (who, together with Arianna, was hosting at his apartment for hamburgers and Franciacorta), Arianna told us that she had tasted the “tuna” previously at a high-concept charcuterie wine bar in Brescia province. And so she knew how to serve it.

She dressed it just like you would olive oil-cured tuna and plated with chickpeas and slivers of cipolle rosse di Tropea.

It was delicious and paired beautifully with a slice of crusty ciabatta and some artisanal beer that had been given to Giovanni.

I don’t really know Cecchini other than the few times I’ve stopped by his butcher shop. But it’s been amazing to follow his career as he continues to riff on Tuscan tradition.

And wow, who knew that AC/DC paired so well with a glass of Sangiovese and some spicy rendered lard?

The All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger: Italy’s love affair with the hamburger

Today’s post is the first in a series devoted to my recent trip to Italy, the wines I tasted, foods I ate, and people I met.

best hamburger bresciaAbove: Arianna Vianelli’s “All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger,” a masterwork by any international standard.

Italy’s current love affair with the hamburger shouldn’t be surprising to Italian food and wine cognoscenti.

After all, think of how many pillars of Italian gastronomy have been borrowed and adapted from other cultures and places.

Tomatoes, corn meal, and potatoes: all of these foods came from the New World. Can you imagine an Italy without spaghetti al pomodoro, polenta, and gnocchi di patate?

cipolla di tropea recipeAbove: not just any onions but EU-designated cipolle rosse di Tropea from Calabria. Arianna sautéed them with aromatized balsamic vinegar.

Anyone who’s read the footnotes to Pellegrino Artusi’s late nineteenth-century landmark tome La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) knows that eggplant, a transplant from the Middle East, was just beginning to catch on at the time.

Where would pan-Italian cooking be without melanzane alla parmigiana?

italian baconAbove: Arianna explained to me that Italian butchers have begun to slice pancetta the way that bacon is sliced in the U.S. The curing process hasn’t changed. Only the way it’s sliced has.

And when the food scholar looks more closely at pasta — the crown jewel and sine qua non of Italian cookery — she/he learns that the Italians learned how to make dried pasta from their Arab neighbors. At the zenith of Arab culture during the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II invited Arab mathematicians and philosophers to his court, it’s very likely that they also brought with them techniques for drying pasta in the “August moonlight,” as Maestro Martino wrote in his Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking, probably composed around 1450).

Where would the world be today without pastasciutta?

how to cook hamburgers on a griddleAbove: the thing that sets the Italian burger apart from the rest is the quality of the ingredients. Pasture-raised Chianina beef, artisanal cured pork belly, heirloom onions, and wholesome freshly baked bread. It takes the art of this American classic to a new level.

So it’s only natural that Italians would embrace the hamburger with gusto.

Italy’s Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 after McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Rome at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1987 and I remember those years well.

To many, the thought of an icon of American imperialism in the heart of the Eternal City was blasphemy.

At the time, Italy already had a fast-food burger chain. It was called Burghy (it was purchased by McDonald’s in the 90s). Like McDonald’s, the quality of the beef was atrocious.

Before Burghy, the ground beef patty was called a svizzera di carne in Italian gastronomic parlance, “Swiss beef.”

Today, hamburger culture has come full circle in Italy and it now aligns seamlessly with the Slow Food ethos (as you can see from the burger above).

Italian food blogs abound with hamburger ratings in Milan and Rome, the hamburger movement’s epicenters (see this post, for example, on Dissapore). And a new restaurant category has emerged, the hamburgheria or amburgheria. Even Eataly in Rome has a hamburgheria and I’ve been told that guests go crazy for the hamburger served at the Bastianich restaurant in Friuli, Orsone.

And invariably when you order a hamburger in Italy, when you’re asked whether or not you want bacon, you’ll note that the waiters use the English word for pancetta to denote the way the cured pork is sliced and griddle-fired.

giovanni arcariAbove: Arianna Vianelli, left, creates and executes menus for many of the Franciacorta consortium’s tastings and events. Giovanni Arcari, right, is my bromance in Brescia, the city that’s become my Italian home base in recent years.

On our last night in Italy last week, my traveling companion Ben Shapiro and I were treated to Arianna Vianelli’s superb hamburgers in the home of my good friend Giovanni Arcari in Brescia.

Arianna had made our first proper meal in Italy a few weeks earlier: spaghetti dressed with dried fresh water sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The sardines came from nearby Lake Iseo in the heart of the Franciacorta appellation.

It seemed only fitting that she would send us back home to America with bellies full of All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburgers and Franciacorta wine.

Thanks again, Arianna and Giovanni, for taking such great care of two weary American travelers!

Vajra mile high: 09 Barbera d’Alba showed no sign of old age, even at 40,000 feet

vajra barbera alba notesBusiness-wise, my two-week trip to Italy had been so successful (and I was so fried from the experience) that I decided to treat myself and cash in some miles for an upgrade on United from Malpensa to Newark.

When I spied a bottle of Vajra — one of my favorite Langa producers — on the beverage cart, I just had to have a glass.

It was winery’s 2009 Barbera d’Alba and it was fresh and vibrant in the glass, despite its age. Just like the family who makes them, the wines from Vajra are always earnest, honest, and elegant. And this was no exception. It paired beautifully with curried chicken and tandoori rice at 40,000 ft.

So much more to tell about my trip, the wines I tasted, the meals I shared, and the people I met. But this is all I have time for today as I try to get back on track with work etc… Stay tuned!

Vin Santo in Siena, ending on a sweet note

best cafe siena italyThis trip to Italy has been one of the best and one of the toughest I’ve ever made.

Tough because it was so hard to be away from my family for so long and tough because I was forced to make some hard choices about my business and the people I work with.

But it was also a great trip: business has never been better and the meals on this journey have been exceptional.

There’s still so much to tell but it will all have to wait until next week when I’m back at my desk and back on track.

As I wind up the trip in the meantime, I’ll think about the Barbi Vin Santo and the ricciarelli (classic Sienese cookies) that my good friend Francesco Bonfio served us yesterday at the Nannini café and shop in the historical center of Siena where he runs its wine program.

Dulcis in fundo… only a few days on the road stand between me and my sweet daughters and loving wife and partner Tracie P in Houston.

Thanks for letting me share the experience with you. I’ll see you next week.