In battle for fried dough supremacy, Faenza appears to emerge winner

pizza frittaIn Parma, they call it torta fritta (fried pie).

In Reggio Emilia, gnocco fritto (fried dumpling).

In Faenza (in Romagna, to the west of Emilia in the region of Emilia-Romagna), they call it pizza fritta (above).

squacqueroneLast night, we were served what was arguably the best meal of a week of best meals at the Trattoria Manuèli outside Faenza proper.

Here they didn’t serve us the fried dough with prosciutto or other salumi. Instead it was accompanied by squacquerone (below), a creamy cow’s milk cheese.

Even though Hosteria Giusti in Modena (where we ate for lunch yesterday) had some of the best gnocco fritto I’ve ever eaten, it was Manuèli who emerged supreme in the end with its pizza fritta.

tortellini romagnoliManuèli’s cappelletti served with ragù were also among the best things I’ve eaten on this trip — a total immersion into the enogastronomy of Emilia-Romagna.

I’d never been to Faenza before. Wholeheartedly, I recommend it to you.

Now it’s onward and upward: we’re heading out shortly to Modena and then Bologna province this evening. Stay tuned…

Tosone, the fresh expression of Parmigiano Reggiano

tosone what is parmigiano reggianoAfter being stuck for the night at Malpensa airport outside of Milan on Monday, chef Steve made his way Tuesday via rail to Parma where I picked him up and we headed out for a day of winery visits and overeating.

Our last visit of the day was with Alicia Lini, a good friend of mine and producer of some of my favorite Lambrusco. She graciously treated us to dinner at Gioco dell’Oca (Game of the Goose), one of her local standbys, a stone’s throw from the winery.

The salumi and gnocco fritto were impeccable, of course. But the dish that really captivated our table was tosone con funghi porcini (above).

The word tosone comes from the Latin tondeo meaning to shear, clip, or shave.

In northern Italy, a tosa or a toso is a girl or a boy, names owed to the fact that in another era, girls were expected to keep their hair short before marriage and boys weren’t expected to grow beards until manhood. A tosa or toso is someone who is shorn or tonsured.

In Emilia, tosone (the augmentative form of toso) refers to Parmigiano Reggiano trimmings. As the newly made cheese is shaped into the familiar wheel (forma), the rubbery excess is reserved and consumed as a fresh cheese.

Some cheesemakers sell it (see here, for example). And traditionally, it was given to children to munch on.

Last night at Gioco dell’Oca, the chef fired tosone in a hot pan together with sautéed porcini. The resulting dish (above) resembled Friuli’s frico.

It was outstanding… the hit of the night among other delights.

erbazzone erbette recipe emiliaAnother favorite of the evening was the erbazzone, the savory Swiss chard and Parmigiano Reggiano pie of Emilia, where the leafy green is known as erbette.

Although chef Steve and I have been working together at his restaurant Sotto in LA for more than four years now, he and I haven’t been back to Italy together for more than two decades.

We’re only one day into the trip and it’s already been a blast to return to Emilia together as grown-up food and wine professionals.

Last night, we were joined also by our mutual friend Dindo (whom Steve has known since childhood and I’ve known since our college years).

That’s Dindo (below, left) with chef Steve and Alicia in the Lini balsamic vinegar aging room at the winery.

Thanks to everyone for all the wishes for Steve’s new downtown LA restaurant and the new wine program we will be launching there this fall.

Stay tuned: chef and I are about to hit the Lambrusco and overeating trail again today, including visits to two Emilian landmark restaurants…

alicia lini

In Emilia, a new adventure and a new wine list begin

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

cappelletti recipe reggio emilia“G-d made Lambrusco,” wrote the great nineteenth-century poet and essayist Giosuè Carducci (the first Italian to win the Nobel Prize), “to wash down the animal so dear to Anthony the Great,” the early Christian saint who was often depicted with a pig by his side in medieval iconography.

This morning finds me in the land of Lambrusco and pigs: Emilia, where a bounty of the world’s greatest food products — prosciutto, culatello, zampone, Parmigiano Reggiano, traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, and Lambrusco, just to name a few — makes the region a global capital of gastronomic wonder.

In many ways, Emilia is a fantastic illustration of terroir. No matter how hard they try, for example, cheesemakers who work beyond Emilia’s borders have never been able to reproduce the singular crumbliness of Parmigiano Reggiano. Just think of Grana Padano, which is made just on the other side of the Po River: it, too, is a prized food product but it can’t replicate Parmigiano Reggiano’s unique texture.

It can only be produced here in Emilia, with its unmistakable combination of humidity and the sweet smell of pig shit.

They say that in Emilia, one of Italy’s richest regions, there is the highest concentration of pigs per capita in the world. It’s not a stretch to believe it: the Emilians live and literally breath pork.

I’ve traveled to Emilia this week in search of Lambrusco. Over the next three days, chef Steve Samson, a friend from my college days and the owner of the restaurant Sotto in Los Angeles (where I am wine director) will be tasting scores of Lambrusco as we eat our way through Emilia.

This fall, chef Steve and his team will be opening a new restaurant: a Lambruscheria (Lambrusco garden) in downtown LA where we plan to offer an extensive list of Lambrusco and where Steve will prepare dishes inspired by his Emilian origins (his mother was born in Bologna and he spent summers there as a kid).

Steve ended up stuck at Milan’s Malpensa airport last night after a delayed flight. And so I dined alone in Correggio at the Albergo dei Medaglioni in the township center.

The modest and lovely four-star hotel’s restaurant is by no means a famous dining destination. But between expertly and lovingly sliced Prosciutto di Parma PDO, gnocco fritto (fried dough, below), superb cappelletti in brodo (above), and a glass of Lini Lambrusco di Sorbara (one of my all-time favs), I nursed my loneliness and assuaged my homesickness.

Today, we set out on our tasting and dining itinerary. Stay tuned…

gnocco fritto recipe bologna

Taste with me at Aspen Food & Wine, NYC, SF, LA, SD

From the department of “hello, I must be going”…

jeremy parzen wifeIt’s insane, I know, it really is. Just three weeks after returning from a two-week trip there, I’m heading back to Italy tonight.

This time, it’s for a very special trip to a very special place. I will reveal both next week.

Today, I’m just trying to forget about that sinking feeling in my stomach. It’s just so hard to say goodbye to Tracie P and the girls after so much travel this year.

Tracie P’s uncle John shared this nugget of wisdom today on my Facebook: I travelled for years to work and was gone a month at a time. I learned to have short goodbyes and focus on long homecomings. Saying goodbye just plain ain’t easy. I feel your pain.

You can say that again: Saying goodbye just plain ain’t easy.

In the meantime, I wanted to share details of some upcoming tastings where I’ll be speaking and pouring.

June 19-20: I’ll be pouring a favorite wine (guess which one) at Aspen Food and Wine where Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm has asked me to be part of his “Italy: The Big & The Bold” tastings (on both Friday and Saturday mornings of the fair). I believe tickets are already sold out but if you happen to be going, please come to the event. Tracie P will be with me, too.

And I have four Franciacorta, Real Story tastings lined up for July. I’ll be posting more details in coming weeks but here’s the save-the-date (I’m the Franciacorta Consortium’s official blogger and ambassador for U.S. trade this year, a gig I am really enjoying).

New York
I Trulli
Monday, July 6
11 a.m.

San Francisco
venue to be determined
Wednesday, July 15
11 a.m.

Los Angeles
Friday, July 17
11 a.m.

San Diego
Jaynes Gastropub
Saturday, July 18
11 a.m.
to be followed by a consumer tasting
with light appetizers

And now, as we used to say when I would hit the road with my band, it’s time to sh*t, shower, and shave and get my butt to the airport. See you on the other side…

Je suis juif: a Jew wine blogger in Italy

asolo grave stoneThere are few things that I do well in life. But one of them is my ability to speak Italian with near native-speaker fluency.

Whenever I travel to Italy (I’ve already been twice this year), I interact with Italians seamlessly. And while my foreign accent is often discernible, many Italians compliment me on my language skills.

“You must be Italian,” they say.

“No, I’m not. I’m from America,” I tell them, “I grew up in California.”

“Well, you must have Italian origins,” they counter.

“No, io sono ebreo,” I explain, “I am a Jew. Nearly all of my great-grandparents fled Eastern Europe — Russia and Poland — before the Russian Revolution and came to the U.S.”

This information is often met with surprise. My semitic features are easily confused with Mediterranean physiognomy.

“When asked why he spoke so many languages so well,” I tell them, “the famous Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson would answer, ‘je suis juif’ (I am a Jew).”

Don’t get me wrong: I am NO Roman Jakobson. He was one of the most brilliant minds of twentieth-century linguistic theory and his work reshaped the field and informed a generation of linguists and critical theorists who followed him. One of his greatest achievements was his theory of the “six functions of language.”

But it is true: Russian Jews are known to possess a gift in second-language acquisition.

Except for those who have traveled in the U.S., most Italians I meet in Italy have never met a Jew (btw, I prefer Jew over Jewish person, although I recognize and appreciate that many use the euphemism Jewish person to avoid saying Jew, which, in another era, could be interpreted as having a pejorative meaning).

There is a long tradition of admiration for Jews in Italian literature. It stretches back to Dante and Boccaccio, both of whom wrote about Jews in medieval culture in a positive light. Dante, for example, was a great admirer of the Roman-Jewish poet Immanuel Romano, who wrote in Hebrew, Latin, and Italian.

Many of Italy’s greatest twentieth-century writers were Jews: Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani, and many others.

But today, more often than not, Italians have little contact with Jews aside from the American Jews they meet in Italy.

When I visited Asolo for the Asolo and Montello Consortium wine festival last month, I was reminded of another era in Jewish history when Jews played an important role in Italian mercantile and intellectual life.

In Asolo, there was a vibrant Jewish community and center of learning during the Venetian Renaissance. Like the Jewish communities in Venice and Padua, it was part of a movement in the historic “renewal of learning” in Europe until it was wiped out in the “massacre at Asolo” in 1547. The famous Cantarini family was among those who perished in the tragedy.

The Hebrew inscription in the photo above is a sixteenth-century tombstone that has been embedded in one of the walls of the Loggia del Capitano in the historic center of Asolo. I believe — although I’m not certain — that it was moved there from Asolo’s Jewish cemetery in the late nineteenth century, when there was a renewed interest among Italian scholars in Jewish communities in the Venetian Renaissance (at least, this is what I gauge from my research).

I recently asked Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield of the Yeshiva Torat Emet (here in Houston, not far from where we live) to translate it for me. Here’s what he wrote:

This monument serves as a sign for the burial of the lawgiver [is poetic language taken from the Torah’s description of Moses burial place — it literally means “lawgiver” — but it has been used since to refer to the burial of an important personage or man of importance], Gershom son of the chaver [an honorific used primarily in Germany to denote a certain standing in the community]. R[ebbe] Gershom son of Moshe Chafetz of blessed and holy memory. 1528 [C.E.]

I had seen the inscription many times before but I had never sat down to figure out what it meant or why it was there.

Thanks for letting me share it with you here.

A chat with Bolgheri consortium president Federico Zileri about the birth of the monovarietal Bolgheri DOC

federico zileri bolgheri castello consorzioIt’s truly remarkable to see how many high-profile Italian winemakers and power brokers are coming to Texas these days.

When I sat down with Bolgheri consortium president Federico Zileri Dal Verme (above) yesterday evening at the überhip restaurant Underbelly to chat and taste his Castello di Bolgheri wines, he told me that it was his first time in Texas.

“In New York they have so much wine,” he said, “and the market is difficult.”

“But in Texas they want more wine!”

Although there still are many challenges in finding a distribution channel here, the state continues to hold allure for Italian wineries thanks to an ongoing energy boom and exponential growth that many compare to California’s in the 1970s.

I was eager to ask Federico about his tenure as the consortium’s new president.

In 2013, legacy producer Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta (owner of the Tenuta San Guido, where Sassicaia is produced) stepped down from the association’s presidency after eighteen years.

Federico’s presidency represents a new chapter in the appellation’s history. At 50 something, he is a relative young blood.

Even before he became president, Federico led a groundbreaking campaign within the consortium to allow for monovarietal wines in Bolgheri.

Ornellaia’s famous Masseto, a wine made from 100 percent Merlot grapes, he pointed out, has historically been labeled as an IGT because the Bolgheri DOC did not include single-grape wines.

Cinzia Merli’s Le Macchiole Paleo, another historic label that was first made as a blend and then ultimately became a wine made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc, was also excluded from the Bolgheri DOC.

But in 2011, thanks to a proposal by Federico, the consortium members agreed unanimously to change their appellation regulations.

(It’s worth noting here that Cinzia’s Paleo — pronounced pah-LEH-oh — is now Bolgheri Superiore DOC while Masseto is still IGT.)

As he recounted the appellation’s evolution, I couldn’t help but express my disbelief that every member of the consortium had agreed willingly to the changes.

“Are you telling me,” I asked, “that there exists a consortium where all the winemakers agree in Italy” where internecine feuds are legendary?

Federico laughed and told me that yes, it’s true.

“It’s not an envious consortium,” he said.

best super tuscan texasCurrently, the Bolgheri DOC covers 1,250 hectares including: Bolgheri Bianco (mostly Vermentino); Bolgheri Sauvignon (85 percent min. Sauvignon Blanc); Bolgheri Rosso, Bolgheri Rosso Superiore, and Bolgheri Rosato (international grape varieties, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with smaller amounts of Syrah and Sangiovese allowed); Bolgheri Rosso Superiore (min. aging of 24 months and min. of 12 months in cask); and Bolgheri Sassicaia (which is still a DOC).

The Castello di Bolgheri has been part of Federico’s family’s holdings for countless generations. He’s part of the Della Gherardesca family, a nobile Florentine line that traces its roots to the middle ages and beyond (they’re mentioned, among others, in Dante’s Commedia).

He was the winemaker at Tenuta Argentiera, another Bolgheri consortium member, until he began producing wines at his family’s Bolgheri estate in 2001.

The wines (blends of international varieties) were balanced, with good acidity and wood that didn’t overwhelm their fruit. I liked them a lot.

But more than anything else, I loved hearing about this utopian appellation on the Tuscan coast where everyone gets along. Sounds like a dream, no?

I also have to give a shout out to Underbelly GM and wine director Matthew Pridgen for his excellent new wine list. He’s always had a great list there (I’m a fan) but he continues to expand the wine list genre with his magazine-style format. It’s a super cool, world-class list. Check it out the next time you’re in the area…


From the department of “we have yet to discover how good bread and butter go together”…

ronco calino franciacorta wineryAbove: a view of Lake Iseo from the Ronco Calino winery, one of my favorites, in the south of the Franciacorta appellation looking north.

Four days ago, the acclaimed Italian wine critic Victor Rallo, Jr. (never heard of him?) and his cohort “former professor” and wine critic Anthony Verdoni published their astonishing findings on the behemoth wine blog Snooth.

“Franciacorta is the next Champagne,” they declared in the title of their well researched blog post for the PacMan of wine blogs.

“Northwestern Italy is the world leader in the production of sparkling wines of low pressure; fizzy, crackling, frizzante wines,” they observe authoritatively. “Such wines undergo their secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks called autoclaves. Examples include Moscato d’Asti and Lambrusco.”

Northwestern Italy? Well, it’s true that Moscato d’Asti is made there.

“The tradition for Italian sparkling wines made in what Franco Ziliano [SIC] called the ‘French method,’ they note, “dates back to the 1850’s. None can match what was to come in Franciacorta.”

Their remarkable revelation is sure to be ranked up there with Newton’s universal law of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and — as the Italians would say — the discovery of hot water.

Sadly, the comparison of Franciacorta to Champagne continues to molest consumers’ and trade’s perception of the Italian appellation like lice.

Even outgoing Franciacorta consortium president Maurizio Zanella, one of the appellation’s pioneers, conceded in a recent interview (for a top Italian wine blog) that the analogy was a “venial sin” of the past.

Franciacorta has two things in common with Champagne: the grape varieties (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and the method (the “classic method” or “traditional method”).

The climate is different. Franciacorta has an Alpine climate. In Champagne, maritime and continental climate.

Franciacorta growers like cool summers because it helps them achieve greater ripeness. Champagne growers like warm summers because it helps them achieve greater ripeness.

The soil types are also radically different. Franciacorta is predominantly morainic although there is also a substantial presence of limestone.

“The soil in Champagne is, for the most part, comprised of massive chalk deposits” (see this awesome post on Champagne soil types by Mise en abyme).

In Franciacorta there are roughly 100+ growers. In Champagne, a tenth of the vineyards are owned by merchants and the balance is comprised of 20,000 growers, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.

When it comes down to it, the two appellations really don’t have much in common. Even the fizziness in Franciacorta is radically different than in Champagne, as is the amount of sugar used to provoke first and second fermentations. In Franciacorta, for example, nearly no one adds sugar to provoke the first fermentation while in Champagne it’s an accepted and common practice (although, more and more, Champagne producers are moving away from this).

So when are high-profile mastheads going to wake up and smell the wines and realize that FRANCIACORTA IS NOT CHAMPAGNE? If one of these writers would simply try a couple of wines side by side, she/he would realize how incongruous the analogy truly is.

I’ll be pouring a healthy flight of Franciacorta next month in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego for my Franciacorta-consortium sponsored blog, “Franciacorta, the real story.” Please come taste with me!

Bea’s Arboreus: a wine to share with my wife and a top winery visit in Italy

arboreus bea natural wine grapeDuring each of my visits to Italy, winemakers generously offer to give me wine to bring home to Texas.

It’s always a bit of a Sophie’s choice: with so many great wines up for grabs, which wine to pack in my bag, which is otherwise filled with books?

During each stay, I always chose just one bottle and it’s always a bottle that I know that Tracie P will truly enjoy.

On my last trip to the bel paese, I finally made a pilgrimage to the land of Saint Francis to visit the Paolo Bea winery in Montefalco, a quasi-spiritual experience for me.

I’ve known Giampiero Bea for many years now and have tasted with him on a number of occasions and we once had dinner in Houston on one his rare visits to the U.S.

He’s a larger-than-life personage in my world and I have to admit that I’ve always been a little intimidated (in a positive way) by his powerful presence. To see and taste with him at the Vini Veri festival in Italy, where he presides over a group of winemakers that includes some of my favorite estates (Rinaldi, Cappellano, Zidarich, and so many more), is to interact with a true cult figure in the world of Italian wine.

A charismatic and handsome man, he is as outspoken as he is histrionic and he is as true and faithful to his natural wine cause as he is passionate about the wines he makes.

But when I met with him tête-à-tête at his winery, I found him to be one of the sweetest and down-to-earth grape growers I’ve ever encountered in the often holier-than-thou world of Natural wine (with a capital n).

He told me a most moving story about his father Paolo (whom I had the great fortune to meet that day). Before the advent of the current winery and line of wines, his father was a modest farmer and rancher, he explained. Returning one day from Giampiero’s brother’s swearing in ceremony as a conscripted soldier (military service in Italy was mandatory until recently), the family came across another rancher that was having problems calving a cow.

“My father, who worked every day in his life, who never took a day off,” he recounted, “helped them deliver the calf even though this was the only day he had allowed himself a day of rest and celebration.”

That spirit, said Giampiero, was why he abandoned a prosperous career in architecture and took over the family’s winemaking.

“There is a spirit among people like my father,” he told me, “that we must give something back to the community.”

And that’s what’s always impressed me the most about Giampiero, his wines, and his fanatical devotion to the Natural wine mission. Whether you like them or not, whether you believe that the “Natural” label is a mere marketing campaign or a higher calling, there’s no denying that Giampiero and his followers believe wholeheartedly that these wines make the world a better place to live. I believe that, too.

It was fascinating to tour Giampiero’s vineyards and get a better grasp on the altitude, exposure, and soil types of his growing sites for his top Sagrantino.

But even more thrilling was seeing the Etruscan-trained Trebbiano Spoletino that is used to make his Arboreus (which is pronounced ahr-BOH-reh-oos).

Many farmers still train these plants on trees, as the Etruscans did. It’s a form of vine training that you still find in Campania and central Italy in places still left untouched by the new age of Italian wine.

Basically, the Trebbiano grows with no human intervention, the way it has for generations. It’s important to remember that in another era, grape growing was not a priority for farmers in a time when the notion of fine wine hardly existed beyond the great appellations like Burgundy and Barolo etc.

A local clone of Italy’s ubiquitous white grape, Trebbiano Spoletino (Spoleto is about forty minutes by car from Montefalco) grows in enormous, dense clusters, some 40 centimeters in length. Because of their density and size, the bunches are more resistant to disease than other clones. And they require little care when trained high on the tree trunks.

When Giampiero offered me a bottle to take home, I knew this was the one that Tracie P would want. And so I accepted.

We opened the wine last night with dinner and as it warmed up a little in the glass, it revealed layers and layers of stone fruit and mineral flavors. But its aroma was what really captivated me: gentle white flowers offset by attenuated notes of eastern spice.

A special wine to share only with my wife…

Thank you, Giampiero, for a wonderful visit and a wonderful bottle!