Best restaurants in Venice for the accidental connoisseur (part 1)

Taste with me:
Houston May 19, LA May 25, Chicago June 6.
Click here for details.

best restaurant st marks squareVenice is a tough town for hungry and thirsty food and wine tourists. It’s the ultimate tourist trap, especially when it comes to the dining scene.

And let’s just be honest about it. The Venetians don’t like tourists. And that applies to Italian tourists as well.

It’s understandable. How would you feel if you actually lived in the Magic Castle at Disneyland?

The Venetians live nearly 365 days a year with a unrelenting onslaught of people, people, people… People who need a bathroom, people who don’t speak their language, people who think pizza is a dish for lunch and cappuccino a beverage to drink after dinner, people who think that Sassicaia is the only Italian wine worth drinking…

And people — egad! — who want to put grated cheese on their seafood risotto! Blasphemy to an Italian of any stripe.

best restaurant rialto veniceThe only way to get great treatment in Venice is to speak Italian with a Veneto accent (which, fortunately, is how I speak Italian). I hate to say it but it’s true. And I write this as a lover of Venice and the Veneto who spent many days studying in Venice (mostly at the Marciana library) and many evenings playing music there back when I was a grad student in Italy.

If you don’t speak Italian with a Veneto accent, try your best to be your most polite and considerate and take in everything cum granu salis as the saying goes. It just comes with the territory.

Here are some of my recent discoveries from the week I spent in Venice earlier this month. It’s the first part of a series I’ll be publishing this week on the blog.

best wine list venice italyThe recently opened Local (above) is a natural wine lover’s dream.

Owner and wine director Luca Fullin honed his chops at Al Covo (previously, the only destination for natural wine folks) and now he’s opened his dream restaurant. Food is traditional seafood (fantastic) with modern touches. Expensive but worth every last cent. I really loved this place, especially the wine program.

Another great discovery for me was ABC Quadri, the Alajmo brother’s casual concept downstairs from their Michelin-starred restaurant in the historic Caffè Quadri on St. Mark’s Square.

The décor is classic 18th-century Venetian, the food was good, the service superb, and the wine list is very reasonably priced for the location. I never thought in a million years that you could get a solid and affordable meal right on Piazza San Marco. But lo and behold, ABC Quadri is the answer to this age-old conundrum.

best seafood restaurant venice italyAnother place I highly recommend to you is Ai Gondolieri in Dorsoduro, which is worth the visit if only for the classic 1950s feel and look of the dining room.

People often think of Venice solely as a seafood destination. But don’t know the Venetian gastronomic canon until you have had Fegato alla veneziana, Venetian style liver, cooked with onions and white wine.

Ai Gondolieri is also a great destination for a steak if you’re in the mood for beef (something a lot of Americans crave when traveling abroad, of course).

But the two things that take this joint over the top are the wine and artisanal beer program and the overall service experience.

Barman and wine director Marco is from Udine and runs a really tight and classically focused wine program. I loved his selection of Collio wines and I loved how he had super groovy crunchy natural beer ready to pop open (this place became my afternoon/before-dinner stop).

General manager Massimiliano is a Venetian dude and not only does he keep Gondolieri humming but he also runs catering for the nearby Guggenheim museum.

These guys are top-flight pros and they make the magic happen nightly. I really loved them and this place…

On deck for tomorrow: my favorite new bacaro will blow your mind!

Taste with me: Houston May 19, LA May 25, Chicago June 6

jeremy parzen wine blogHere are some events that I’m going to be attending or where I’m going to be pouring and speaking about wine in coming weeks. Please join me if you can!

An Evening in Rome with Tony Vallone
Thursday, May 19
Ciao Bello, Houston

Tony’s a client and a friend and a bona fide national treasure when it comes to Italian gastronomy in this country. I have a lot of fun working with him and am very much looking forward to attending his Roman event, the latest in his series of regional Italian cuisines dinner series. Click here for details. Tracie P will be there, too!

Sotto New Wine List Launch
Wednesday, May 25
Sotto, Los Angeles

After five years of writing a wine list devoted almost exclusively to the wines of southern Italy at Sotto in Los Angeles, it’s time to shake things up. I’ll be visiting the restaurant in a few weeks to launch our new list and will be leading a special tasting of five new wines that we’ll be adding. The new list will still be southern-inspired but it will also have new regional focus. Stay tuned for registration info (the event isn’t listed yet on the restaurant’s site but I’ll be posting details as soon as I have them).

Franciacorta Real Story Tasting
Monday, June 6
Perman Wine Selections, Chicago

Now almost midway through its second year, my “Franciacorta Real Story” campaign for the Franciacorta growers consortium has been one of the most rewarding of my career. This will be the last tasting in the series until the fall and I know it will be a good one: I’m a huge fan of Craig Perman and his wine shop and I know we’re going to have a top-flight group of wine pros and lovers for this limited-seating tasting. Please shoot me an email to reserve a spot because it’s already filling up.

Houstonians, please come out and hang with us next week at Tony’s place! And likewise, Angelenos and Chicagoans, I hope to see you soon! Thanks for being here… and there…

Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation? Italy’s natural wine pioneers see the fruits of their labor

organic farming grapesAbove: grapes harvested in August 2015 at Ca’ del Bosco, another one of Franciacorta’s “big three” and another winery experimenting with organic farming practices.

Producing 4.2 million bottles of wine a year, Guido Berlucchi is Franciacorta’s largest and oldest winery.

It’s a powerhouse estate that produces a wide array of wines, ranging from under $15 a bottle to around $65 (according to results retrieved today).

And with Berlucchi’s ongoing conversion to organic farming and certification process, Franciacorta has crossed an extraordinary threshold: today, more than 50 percent of the appellation is organically farmed.

There’s even talk that Franciacorta could become Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation.

Today, I posted an interview with Berlucchi CEO and enologist Arturo Ziliani on Franciacorta Real Story, a blog I author for the Franciacorta consortium. In the post, he discusses the genesis of the conversion and its significance in Franciacorta’s bigger picture, including the likelihood that it will become 100 percent organic.

Over the last two months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with two of Italy’s natural wine pioneers and founders of its leading natural wine fairs: Giampiero Bea of ViniVeri and Angiolino Maule of VinNatur.

In our interactions, each made analogous remarks about the arc of the natural wine movement in Italy: in the 90s, they were considered fringe; in the 00s, they were called crazy; and today, the mainstream has begun to embrace their call for chemical-free agriculture in Italy and across the world.

Both of them pointed to the ViVit and the VinitalyBio pavilions at the behemoth Vinitaly, Italy’s annual wine industry trade fair held in Verona, as examples of this. The fact that “big” Italian wine has included a natural wine ghetto (the former) and an organic wine ghetto (the latter) represents a substantive break from convention and a milestone in their mission to raise awareness of natural and chemical-free viticulture.

And both of them pointed to the fact that every day it seems that another large winemaker or winery group announces its conversion — whether complete or partial — to organic and more environmentally friendly (and human friendly) farming.

Will the relevance of natural wine be negated as more and more mainstream wineries embrace the tenets of natural and organic wine?

Perhaps. But it doesn’t matter because ultimately, having reached for the stars, they will have delivered the earth.

That fact that the “powers-that-be” in Franciacorta are looking at becoming Italy’s first 100 percent organic appellation is surely a step in the right direction.

Click here for the interview with Arturo Ziliani of Guido Berlucchi.

The sun also rises over Slovenia and New York Times on Texas

slovenia wine brda rebulaThe sun rose over Slovenia’s Brda hills yesterday morning as I enjoyed a daybreak walk on the Italian side of the border before heading back to Texas (check out the video below and be sure to turn up the volume to hear the sound of the day’s first church bells in the distance).

After spending nine days as a wine and food sherpa on my friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour between Venice, Verona, and Cormons (Friuli), I was eager to get back to my family and to the place I’ve called home for the last eight years.

On the first leg of my journey homeward from Venice to Newark, I read Manny Fernandez’s compelling New York Times piece on “What Makes Texas Texas” (published on Saturday).

Everything he writes about the Lone Star State is true, of course.

Both native Californians, he and I are faces of the “new” Texas.

And I share his wonderment at Texan nativism and exceptionalism.

And like him, I still can’t wrap my mind around our politicians’ often bizarre and hateful attitudes. While some of the topoi of Manny’s piece are the usual common places that non-Texans love to chide us for, our political class wholeheartedly deserves our (and your) scorn and even ridicule in my view.

But I also think that Manny has missed some of the fundamental things that make Texans Texans.

I’m thinking of Texans’ seemingly innate politeness (despite their political views).

I’m thinking of Texans’ love of gastronomic tradition. It’s so much more than Tex Mex, people! I’m thinking of Uncle Tim’s gumbo but I’m also thinking of Tony’s tortellini.

I’m thinking of Texans’ musical legacy. Just think of how many famous performers and songwriters Texas has produced — and not just country music stars!

I’m thinking of the humanity that I’ve found her in people stopping on the freeway to help me push my overheated car to the side of the road outside of Waco not long after I arrived.

I’m thinking of my father-in-law, Reverend Randy Branch, a Methodist pastor whose political views are diametrically opposed to mine but who embraces me at every one of our family get-togethers and tells me that he loves me.

I’m thinking about so many things that make Texans Texans.

And I’m thinking about how I awoke early and jet-lagged this morning.

As I watched the sun rise over Texas, one of our micro-Texans crawled into bed with me and said “I missed you, daddy…”

Thanks for being here. I’ll be back tomorrow with more tales of Italy…

How should a sommelier react when you tell her/him a wine is corked?

best restaurants valpolicella veronaMy good friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour officially came to an end yesterday (although many from the group, including me, are staying on for a couple of days for tasting and touring in Friuli).

After tasting Valentina Cubi’s excellent Valpolicella and Amarone yesterday morning at her estate, we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip down the road at the superb Enoteca della Valpolicella (above), where the quality of the food was rivaled only by the caliber of the wine service.

The Enoteca’s cellar may very well be the best destination in the appellation for those who want to dig deep into verticals and horizontals of Valpolicella wines.

And the food there… my goodness, the food! Just look at the yellow of that egg below!

white asparagus bassano italyBut the thing that impressed me the most was the professionalism of the sommelier who waited on us yesterday.

Her service and wine knowledge were impeccable, from her presentation of the bottle to a pour that featured the label before the eyes of each and every guest. And her hospitality — in the true sense of the word — was superlative.

In a dining room where she was pouring Cubi’s wines for a group of roughly 25 persons, I was at the last table to be poured the last bottle of Valpolicella she opened.

Unfortunately, our table’s bottle was corked. And when I brought this to her attention, she didn’t raise a glass of the wine to her nose to assess the wine or my take on the wine.

She took the glass from me and simply said, “I’m so sorry. I’ll open a new bottle right away.”

It occurred to me that, sadly, many sommeliers often question their guests’ ability to determine the fitness of a wine (often in their guests’ presence) and that some even refuse to substitute it.

At yesterday’s seating, even with a wine that needed to be replaced, my dining experience was seamless, all thanks to a wine professional who holds service and hospitality above one-uppersonship or virtuosismo.

I never asked her name nor did she and I ever lower the tenor of our formal interaction, addressing each other throughout with the lei as opposed to the tu.

But, man, her wine service was, imho, the apotheosis of viticultural hospitality. #respect

Maule, one of my loci amoeni

maule biancara vineyards wineryNot much time to post this morning as I try to catch up with work before heading out for the last day of our Design and Wine Tour.

But I just had to share this photo I snapped yesterday in the vineyards at the Maule winery in Montebello Vicentino, one of my loci amoeni and one of my favorite wines to drink anywhere.

Thanks again to the Maule family for such a great evening.

Looking forward to posting notes from my trip as soon as the dust settles.

URGENT U.S. travelers alert: Italy now requires six months validity of passports

italy us passport requirements changes monthsIt’s with no small amount of urgency that I’m posting today because it was only yesterday that I learned that Italy now requires that U.S. passports be valid for at least six months beyond your planned date of departure from the Schengen area.

This came to my attention because a person who was supposed to join our current Design and Wine Italy Tour was not allowed to board her flight on Friday of last week because her passport would have expired before the required six months from the date of her departure.

Until recently, only three months were required for Italy. I know this because I renewed my passport earlier this year and had been reading up on travel requirements.
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Dispatch from Fantasy Island and my favorite cicchetteria in Venice

lino fritto best cicchetti tapas veniceAbove: dinner last night at Lino Fritto, my new favorite cicchetteria in Venice.

How did I get here?

I awoke this morning at a 5-star resort/spa/hotel on the Island of the Roses, a 20-minute boat ride from Venice.

Am I a character in Fellini’s “8 1/2”? Or am I simply a wine blogger who happened to be in the right place at the right time?

I’m still not sure… What I do know is that the first three days of my friend Adam Japko’s Design and Wine Tour 2016 have been as exhilarating as they have been aesthetically and sensorially fulfilling.

Dinner downstairs at Caffè Quadri. A wonderfully catered reception at the Palazzo Rocca on the Grand Canal. A Sunday morning in one of the most beautiful villages in Italy (and one of my favorites). Lunch at the marvelous Osteria alla Chiesa with one of my favorite winemakers and clients Bele Casel.

And dulcis in fundo, a spectacular cicchettata (above) last night at Lino Fritto at the Venice fish market with my friend Wayne Young pouring wine for our tour group.

wayne young bastianichAbove: and in the midst of it all, I got to have “do bianchi,” two white wines, with my good friend Wayne Young who works with Joe Bastianich here in Italy.

Time away from my family is so rough on me. Tracie P and the girls are always on my mind and in my thoughts and heart.

But I’ve found immense humanity and joy over the last few days in the lovely people with whom I’ve been traveling and the friends — new and old — who have helped me organize our visits so far.

Massimiliano, Marco, Federica, Matteo, Luca, Paola, Bojana, Marisa, Francesco B., Wayne, Renato, Giovanni… I am so blessed by your friendship. Thank you from the bottom of my hear for all your help and solidarity.

The trip has only just begun and there will be so many more people to thank and so many more blog posts to write before we are done.

That’s all I have time to post this morning as I head out for another day of tasting etc.

Please have a look at this insightful post on the nature and direction of Italian wine today by Alfonso. I know that you will find it as compelling as I did.

And if your Italian is up to it, please see this post by Jacopo Cossater (Intravino) on the controversial sale of the Birra del Borgo brewery to the Anheuser-Busch InBev group.

Now more than ever do the notions of “authenticity,” “natural,” and “artisanal” play a role in cultural hegemony and now more than ever do we need to reflect on their epistemological implications.