The best tortellini west of Bologna: scenes from the new Rossoblu in LA (where I’m writing the wine list)

Perhaps the greatest compliment came from my friend Barbara in Emilia-Romagna, the region that inspired the menu at Chef Steve Samson’s new downtown LA restaurant, Rossoblu where I am writing the wine list.

When she saw that I had posted this image of the Rossoblu salumi board on my social media, she commented, “are you in Modena?”

I’m biased, of course: not only has Chef Steve been my friend for nearly 30 years (we met on our junior year abroad in Italy), but he’s also the chef/owner of the popular LA restaurant and pizzeria Sotto, where I’ve also been writing the wine list for the last six years.

I couldn’t have been more geeked to try the new restaurant and menu, which is based on recipes from his mother, who’s from Bologna, and the summers he spent their as a kid.

The recipe for the eggplant above comes from the kitchen of signora Valbruna, who still lives down the street from where Steve’s mom’s family lived in San Donnino in Bologna. I’ve sat at Valbruna’s table many times over the years! I even took Tracie P to eat with their family on our honeymoon: that’s how good her cooking is…

And that’s the big secret about Emilian cookery. There are many great restaurants in Emilia and most of the best ones are in the countryside. But nothing comes close to the home cooking. That’s where the real deal culinary magic happens.

I’ll never forget an evening from a couple of years ago when Steve previewed some dishes from the future Rossoblu menu at Sotto. His mother was in attendance, of course. She said she liked the tortellini but “mine are better,” she said (cue Jewish mother/Italian mother jokes here).

Steve’s tortellini were incredible last week. I’ve never had tortellini that good outside of Emilia. It was a sort of litmus test for him and he passed with rosso and blu flying colors, the red and blue of his beloved Bologna soccer club. Complimenti, Steve!

But as much as I was impressed with the tortellini, it was the tagliatelle al ragù that really wowed me.

The dish is the non plus ultra of great Emilian food and I have never — never ever — had tagliatelle this good outside of homes where I’ve eaten in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna.

What a great night and great meal at the new Rossoblu, which is still in the “friends and family” phase of opening. The official launch will happen next week.

Need a reservation? I know a guy who knows a guy…

The website is still a holding page but check out the Instagram and Facebook for updates and images.

Barbaresco Montestefano 04 drinking young, ungrafted grapes from Faenza, and the tree that fell on our house

When it comes to Montestefano (pronounced MOHN-teh-STEH-fah-noh), one of the top crus in Barbaresco, you often hear the Langhetti say that the wine baroleggia. In other words, it resembles, evokes, or aspires to be Barolo-like in character.

This microaggression against Barbaresco as an appellation is misguided and unwarranted in my opinion and experience: it would seem to imply (or one may infer from it) that Barbaresco is the inherently inferior among the two designations.

But there is a distinctive earthy and savory note that sets Montestefano apart from many of the other expressions of Barbaresco, which tend to be more lithe and less austere than their counterparts in Barolo to the south.

The 2004 vintage is remembered by many as classical growing cycle, with an even and balanced progression of the seasons that some compare to the supreme 1989 harvest in Langhe.

When we opened this bottle on Sunday night for a couple of special guests in our home, this 13-year-old wine guarded its fruit jealously, with rich tannin that only slowly began to reveal the wine’s gorgeous dark red fruit and umami flavors. The tannic character and the electric acidity in this wine make me believe that it has many years — even decades — ahead of it before it reaches maturity. What a wine, people!

Earlier in the evening we also opened this bottle of Centesimino, a native grape of Faenza (Romagna), a variety I had never tasted before.

According to ampelographic reports I could find, the vines used to make this wine are ungrafted. In other words, they are the descendants of plants that were not affected by the phllyoxera epidemic of the 19th century (because they were not impacted the louse, they were never grafted to phylloxera-resistant vitis labrusca from the New World). Evidently, the vines’ ancestors were cloistered in a palace courtyard in Faenza proper and were spared from the scourge.

The “A” by Villa Venti, a rigorously natural winemaker (meaning organic farming practices, spontaneous fermentation, and minimal interventionism), was bright, with eye-popping berry fruit and zinging acidity in the mouth. We all enjoyed it immensely.

The bottle that found its way to our home arrived clandestinely. But I hear that it might be making it to Texas via legitimate channels soon.

A truly original and compelling wine and a reminder of the awe-inspiring breadth of Italian viticulture.

In other news…

A tree fell on our house early Monday morning!

Intense winds on our street in southwest Houston brought down a number of old trees and caused havoc on our block, leaving nearly 200 homes without power. Miraculously, the damage to our roof was minimal and our landlords were swift to have the 25-year-old tree removed and the damage repaired.

But, man, what a fright to wake up and find that this mighty trunk had fallen in our backyard!

The funny thing was that no one in our family heard it fall: did it make a sound?

Thanks for all the well wishes. We are all safe and all is right in our home.

Dulcis in fundo…

Georgia P (age 5) and Lila Jane (age 3) had their dance recital on Sunday afternoon. They both took the stage confidently and with gusto. And while their performances may not have been impeccable, the looks on their faces and glowing smiles that appeared when they saw me and Tracie P in the audience were priceless.

They are my heart, my love, and my joy. I’m so blessed that Tracie gave them to us and I have so much fun being their dad.

Writing from the road today in California as I embark on a new editorial project and adventure. Stay tuned… 

La dolce vita and the last day of preschool in #TrumpAmerica

To most Americans, the iconic Italian expression la dolce vita means the sweet life (its literal translation) or the easy life.

Its English-language connotation with glamor and carefree living comes from the famous film by the same name, Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece.

In interviews that he gave in the years that followed its release, the Italian director repeatedly said that its meaning was widely misunderstood.

The title, he explained, came from the final sequence of the movie when the main character, Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), sees the little girl, Paola, whom he’d met earlier in the story. It’s daybreak and he’s on the beach outside of Rome, following a night of hard partying with his jet-set friends. He’s coming to terms with the fact that the world around him, the milieu bourgeois to which he belongs, is morally bankrupt and devoid of purpose other than self-serving personal fulfillment.

But the sight of the beautiful, innocent child brings a smile to his face as he remembers — in Fellini’s telling — the inherent, abiding, and irrepressible sweetness of life itself.

Watch the sequence here. You don’t need to understand Italian to follow the narrative.

I was reminded of that scene yesterday when Tracie P and I went to pick up Georgia P (above) on her last day of preschool. She’ll start kindergarten in September and she’ll turn six in December. Tracie and I both shed a tear as we reflected on this last day in this chapter of her life.

She’s too little to understand words like “special counsel” or “collusion” or “impeachment” or “locker room talk.” She’s too young to ask questions about why the president of our country boasts of his electoral college results or the size of his hands. She simply wouldn’t be able to wrap her mind around why the president told the director of the FBI to go home or why the Senate majority leader has called for a little less “drama” from the White House.

The buffoonery of the 2016 presidential nominating process and election has now carried over into the running of our country and the direction of our nation — there is no doubt about it, no matter where you stand.

To you Trump supporters and loyalists, I ask: how do you explain this to your children? How do you explain that you voted for and support a man who’s irreparably degraded civil discourse in this country? How do you explain your faith in a man whose administration — running our country — is in a “downward spiral,” as a leading Republican Senator put it this week?

What’s a downward spiral, daddy?

Was all of this worth the wall on the border, the travel ban, the repeal of greater access to health care? How do you explain your embrace of moral bankruptcy for the sake of lower taxes for the wealthy and deregulation of big business? Smaller government and state’s self-determination are fair game in the political world. And I respect that. But how can you respect yourselves when you euphemize the Faustian deal you made with Trump to achieve those goals?

My oldest child is only five years old and I still don’t have to explain to her the choice that so many of my fellow Americans have made when they voted for Trump. Maybe they believed that Trump would act differently in the White House. That clearly isn’t going to happen at this point. Maybe they believed that he would act as he has for his whole life and that was okay with them. Maybe moral rectitude is no longer an aspiration we should instill in our children.

Tracie and I have a few more years ahead of us before we will have to explain Trump America to our children. In the meantime, the tears we shed remind us that there is a sweetness to life that no one, not even Donald Trump, can destroy.

Chef Steve and his Rossoblu in the LA Times: the new Los Angeles restaurant where I’m writing the wine list

Above: the mural in the main dining room at Rossoblu, which will “hard” open in just a few weeks in downtown Los Angeles.

What a thrill to see my friend Steve Samson profiled this week in the LA Times for the opening of his new downtown restaurant (where I’m writing the wine list).

“Los Angeles is poised for some major restaurant openings in 2017,” writes Hillary Eaton for the paper. “Perhaps one of the most anticipated is chef Steve Samson’s Rossoblu, set to open in downtown’s gorgeous new City Market South development on May 17.”

    While Samson has earned a following for his perfectly blister-flecked, wood-fired pizzas at Sotto, his Southern Italian restaurant in Pico-Robertson, you will not find a single pie on the menu at Rossoblu. Instead, Samson’s newest project will allow him to flex other muscles, crafting a menu that reads as an ode to the Italian cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy.
    Samson’s connection to Emilia-Romagna runs deep. The region is home to his favorite soccer team, F.C. Bologna, referred to by fans as rossoblu (after the team’s red and blue colors). It’s also the place he spent his childhood summers with his mother’s family. Each summer he grew more enamored with the food and culture that would one day drive him to abandon a prospective career as a doctor to become a chef.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Steve and I first met back in 1987 — 30 years ago! — when we were both juniors at the University of California (I was at UCLA and he at UCSD) and we were both spending our year abroad in Italy.

Even though he was studying in Venice and I was in Padua, we became fast friends and it didn’t take long before he took me with him to Bologna, where he spent summers as a kid: his dad studied medicine on the GI Bill at Bologna where he met Steve’s mom. She grew up in the city’s San Donnino neighborhood.

It was such a great experience for me, during my first year in Italy, to experience Bologna and Steve’s family’s life and circle of friends there. Dindo, one of Steve’s best friends growing up, is still one of my best friends, too (here’s a song I wrote for him).

Seven years ago, when Steve was getting ready to launch his first restaurant in LA as chef/owner, I had just moved back to California from New York where I had spent a decade working as a translator, wine and food writer, and musician. He had always said that he wanted me to write the wine list at his restaurant and even though I had picked up and moved to Texas to marry Tracie P by the time he opened, he insisted that I be the restaurant’s wine director.

We’ve been going strong together ever since and I couldn’t more thrilled to be part of the new project and more proud to be Steve’s friend and colleague: it’s so wonderful to see someone you love thrive like this and achieve a lifelong dream.

Congratulations to Steve and his wife and partner Dina on this new gastronomic adventure! I am so stoked to be a part of it.

As soon as the restaurant officially opens next month, we’ll begin planning our first wine dinners and tastings etc. In the meantime, if you happen to be in LA next week, I’ll be leading a tasting of Campania wines at Sotto, Steve’s other restaurant, on Tuesday, May 23 (click here for details and reservations). Please join me!

Thanks for your support, everyone. I feel so blessed to do what I do for a living and so lucky to be surrounded by so many talented and gifted people like Steve and Dina.

In a world with greater wine knowledge than ever, why do we neglect sparkling?

Earlier this year, a wine director at a super cool, nationally renowned American restaurant told me: “You know, the French [sparkling winemakers] tell you that they only do one dosage. But, actually, they secretly do a bunch of micro-dosages.”

By its very nature and by definition, dosage can only be performed once in the life of a sparkling wine.

Also earlier this year, I spoke to a group of roughly 20 fine dining professionals and asked them their impressions of pas dosé sparkling wines. Not one of them knew what I was talking about.

Considering the role the sparkling wine plays in the fine dining experience and considering the category’s popularity in youthful fine wine culture today, a lacuna like that is helpful to no one — neither server nor guest nor to the restaurateur’s bottomline.

Ever since the dawn of the new era in wine connoisseurship in the U.S. and the rise of the übersommelier in the late 1990s, wine knowledge and awareness have exploded in this country. And more than ever, restaurant professionals have a treasure of media assets available to them in their quest to expand their knowledge.

When it’s common for sommeliers to be able to rattle off every growth in Volnay or every township in upper Piedmont or speak at length about the nuances of Nykteri, why is that knowledge of sparkling wine production has lagged so far behind?

In my two-year tenure working with the Franciacorta consortium (a partnership that ended in December but that’s another story), I traveled all over the U.S. talking about sparkling wines and sparkling wine production. And frankly, I was blown away by how this category is so rarely mastered by even the best and most successful in the business.

I ascribe the widespread insouciant approach to the fact that sparkling wine is arguably one of the most manipulative expressions of viticulture. Understanding how sparkling wines are made and what makes them unique takes a lot of time and study. It’s one of the most technical forms of winemaking and in many ways, sparkling wine runs counter to our fantasies about the historic natural wine movement. Just consider the sine qua non role of Chaptalization in sparkling wine production. There ain’t anything natural about that! (By the way, sine qua non is not pronounced seh-NAY-kwah-nun, like the wine from California; it’s pronounced SEE-neh kwah nohn).

Before I started working with the Franciacorta consortium, I was as guilty as the next floor sommelier in neglecting my knowledge of how sparkling wines are made and how to taste them properly. But thanks to my work with their bottler association, I had the opportunity to taste with a number of top winemakers and sommeliers and I was also very fortunate to get to taste a lot of above-my-paygrade sparkling wine from France.

The information is out there and easy to access: Jancis Robinson’s online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine and Tom Stevenson’s introduction to Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (print only, I believe) were key resources I used in upping my game (and I highly recommend both).

Another key moment for me was when I asked Bellavista winemaker Mattia Vezzola to share his insight into how to taste sparkling wine.

“Does the promise of the nose,” he said, “deliver in the mouth of the wine? That’s one of the hallmarks of great classic-method wine.”

Unfortunately, we tend to taste sparkling too hurriedly and there’s no getting around the fact that tasting (and learning how to taste) classic-method wine takes a lot of time and patience.

Yesterday, I attended an excellent trade tasting of sparkling wines presented by the cellar master at Gosset here in Houston. I really liked the presentation: he led the group through a flight of monovarietal expressions of their classic cuvée to illustrate the role that the different varieties play in shaping the style of the house. And I really liked the wines, as well.

The export manager also gave a thoughtful and insightful talk on the history of the appellation and its role and place in the world of fine wine (although I took issue with his etymology of the toponym Champagne, which does comes from the Latin campania, as he noted, but campania does not mean chalk nor is it related in any way to the word chalk, despite the role that chalk plays in the appellation).

He pointed out (rightly) that Champagne owes its historic fortune not to the French but to the British and Russians, who embraced the wines as a core expression of their fine dining culture.

In a lot of ways, I thought to myself, Champagne and sparkling wine in general are the result of a series of Bloomian misunderstandings. And that legacy, no doubt, has contributed to the ways that the wines are still misunderstood today.

From the food trucks of Houston to the pizzerias of Naples, wine blogging brings us together

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow Houstonian Shannen Tune (above, left, with his wife Stacey) reached out to me for advice about where to eat on a first trip to Italy.

Even if you don’t live in Houston, you may know Shannen: last year, he was a winner on the Food Network’s reality show “Chopped.” He’s also a super nice guy, a beloved member of the Houston food scene, and owner of the immensely popular Craft Burger Food Truck.

I was happy to share my top recommendations for Venice, Florence, and Rome. But when it came to Naples, how could I not turn to my wine blogging friend, Neapolitan sommelier, wine and food publicist, and now food sherpa, Marina Alaimo?

Before I knew it, Shannen was flooding my Messenger inbox with delicious images from meals with his wife in Naples, like the pizza they shared at Figlia del Presidente above.

In the era of hyperconnectivity, when our overexposure to media often seems to eclipse our humanity, it fills me with joy to think that technology — and a shared love of wine and food — allowed Marina, Shannen, Stacey, and me to interact with seamless celerity. And that connection happily delivered the Houston couple to the doorstep of great enogastronomic experiences in a country and city they had never visited before.

Picture my broad grin when Shannen’s messages began arriving in my inbox and I set about translating them for Marina!

Marina, who has helped me out on numerous occasions when I needed a food and wine connection in Naples, is now expanding her work as a wine and food publicist to include food sherpa services.

She doesn’t have a blog yet but you can nearly always find her on Facebook (Marina Alaimo).

Right now, she’s excited about a new hamburger (above) by her client, Neapolitan amburgheria Sciuè il Panino Vesuviano (amburgheria is Italian for hamburger joint).

Commonly used in the pleonastic and reduplicative expression sciuè sciuè, the word sciuè means in a jiffy in Neapolitan (from the Latin fluens, meaning flowing or fluent [in the literal sense]). It’s a pretty common name for street food venues in Naples, from what I understand. You could (roughly) translate the name of this sandwich shop as Vesuvian panini in a jiffy.

The new hamburger is named Totò le Mokò, after the famous 1949 film by Neapolitan genius comedian and actor Totò, who died 50 years ago this April.

If you haven’t been to Italy lately, you may not know that hamburger mania and the street food craze have taken the country by storm in recent years.

From where I stand, it seems that Shannen should feel right at home in Naples, right? From Houston to Naples, wine blogging brings us together.

From the department of “in case you missed it”…

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story entitled “How Houston has become the most diverse place in America.”

“The story of how his city turned from a town of oil industry roughnecks and white blue-collar workers into a major political centrifuge for immigration reform,” writes the author, “is nothing less than the story of the American city of the future.”

Please check it out and G-d bless…

Meeting the real astronauts… what an emotional and moving experience!

Above: Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (left) was funny and wonderfully engaging at yesterday’s event. To hear him jokingly utter the words, “Houston, we have a problem,” took the iconic phrase into a whole realm of meaning. He is one badass dude and super nice.

All of our social media friends and anyone who’s ever visited our family here in Houston know that our daughters Georgia P and Lila Jane (ages 5 and 3) love “the real astronauts.”

Our monthly (and sometimes weekly) trips to the Johnson Space Center visitors center, about 40 minutes south from where we live, are always filled with marvel, joy, and learning: not only does the center host a wide range of interactive exhibits and media, but its guided tours allow you to see where the current astronauts are doing their training, not to mention the historic mission control and other artifacts from space exploration.

These are no mere museum pieces! In Parzen family parlance, these are the real astronauts!

Yesterday, thanks to my consulting work with Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (the IACC, headquartered in Houston), I had the unique opportunity to meet the next astronauts headed to space.

What an incredible and incredibly emotional experience to shake the hands of these brave men and the team that will guide them on their mission! These affable, funny, and down-to-earth guys are going to the International Space Station in July aboard a Russian Soyuz.

And while the event was entirely free of any and all politicization or international intrigue, everyone in the room was acutely aware of the fact that the station represents “the greatest achievement in international cooperation” in humankind’s history, as one of the mission directors put it.

I’ve met all kinds of celebrities in my lifetime and I’m rarely starstruck. But, man, Beyoncé could have walked into the room last night and I wouldn’t even have noticed her.

G-d bless these courageous women and men. We owe them our greatest gratitude for all that they do to further the human cause and better the human condition.

Click here for my write-up of the event on the IACC website.

Below, from left, clockwise, space-bound astronauts with Italian officials: Paolo Nespoli (Italy), IACC Executive Director Alessia Paolicchi, IACC President Brando Ballerini, Sergei Ryazanzky (Russia), Randy Bresnik (USA), Italian Consul General Elena Sgarbi, Alexander Misurkin (Russia), Joe Acaba (USA), and Mark Vande Hei (USA).

Abe Schoener, Passopisciaro, and Justin Yu’s new kitchen: all in a day’s wine in Houston

From the department of “it’s been a hard day’s wine”…

What an incredible “wine” day yesterday in my adoptive hometown, Houston!

It started with a wonderful trade tasting of Passopisciaro and Trinoro wines at my new fave Houston BBQ destination, The Pit Room (see the spread below).

It peaked with a intensely engaging and delightfully intellectual guided tasting of wines by Abe Schoener of Scholium Project fame.

And dulcis in fundo, the day’s coda came with a ethereally light and wholly satisfying meal at B[etter] L[uck] T[omorrow], celebrity chef Justin Yu’s newest entry and one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year (see the establishing shot below).

Another one of the day’s highlight’s was the arrival of the current issue of Wine & Spirits magazine wherein I offer a review of Vinology, the wine bar and wine shop that has quickly become the new epicenter for the vinously inclined among us.

That’s Thomas Moësse below (second from left) in a photo that I snapped at the trade lunch where we tasted Etna and Val d’Orcia wines together. He authors the wine program at Vinology and he is the top Italian wine professional imho working in Texas today, although his expertise isn’t limited by any means solely to the Italic peninsula.

Man, what a day of tasting extremes! From the heights of Etna to Abe’s highly thoughtful, provocative California winemaking.

I’d never had the chance to taste with Abe and I found the experience exhilarating, I have to say. He’s one of the best technical tasters I’ve ever sat down with in the U.S. His style and his approach to wine reminded me of the Italian intellectual celebrity, writer, and taster Sandro Sangiorgi, to give you a reference point.

But the thing that impressed me the most about his session was his seemingly innate ability to explain even the most subtle and challenging technical aspects of tasting and winemaking with great clarity. When and if you ever get the chance to taste with this dude, take it. Great experience, where everyone, myself included, walked away with brain cells churning through thought like Saccharomyces cerevisiae munching on sugar.

Houston’s new and expanding role in the American fine wine scene was put into context when we arrived at BLT at the end of our night. James Beard-winner and founder of the superb but now shuttered Oxheart, Justin is arguably Houston’s most well known chef. The new restaurant and bar is his most recent venture with celebrity mixologist Bobby Heugel, another one of the city’s food industry notables.

When we sat down to order, we were asked for our IDs, not to verify our age but to sign us up as members of a private drinking club. Even though the law was overturned in last November’s elections, Justin’s new place stands in a still dry area of Houston, the Heights, where alcohol has been officially verboten since the 1910s. (Check out this super cool article on the subject and its loopholes by Houston writer Nick Hall for PUNCH.)

Ever since a brave restaurateur established the first private drinking club in the Heights in the early aughts (if I’m not mistaken), countless fine dining establishments with world-class wine and cocktail programs have opened there.

But the anachronism is a reminder that history still casts its long shadow on this great metropolis of the South.

That shadow is long but the future is bright, my friends. Come see me in Houston some time. I promise you we’ll drink well!

This is not the Merlot you’re looking for: opening Rossoblu, Chef Steve Samson’s new Italian in Los Angeles

Like a junkie’s first fix, there’s nothing that gets me higher than the first staff training with the équipe of a brand new restaurant where I’m consulting on the wine list.

That’s the new staff at Rossoblu, my long-time friend Steve Samson’s downtown Los Angeles fine dining Italian and Lambrusco garden, which should be opening any day now.

What a great group of food and wine professionals!

What should have been a marathon session of training and tasting yesterday flew by like a bullet train. I’m really looking forward to today’s session this early LA morning as I sit in my cozy Little Tokyo hotel room and write this.

More than six years ago, Steve asked me to author the wine list at his first restaurant, Sotto, and we’ve been going strong there ever since.

As we did with Sotto, where I co-authored the list for the last couple of years with my talented colleague and cherished friend Christine Veys, she and I are trying to do something entirely unique and provocative with the Rossoblu list.

I can’t reveal our raisin d’être yet (pun intended). But did I hear someone say something about Marxism?

Stay tuned for the shocking news…

Christine’s now full-time at Rossoblu and I’m handling the list at Sotto again by myself: in case you’re in town that week, I’ll be leading a wine tasting featuring small bites from Steve’s menu on Tuesday, May 23 as part of the LA Times FoodBowl festival (“Beyond the Volcano: The Wild Wines of Campania”). Should be fun times.

It’s one of the most anticipated openings in LA this year (no joke, people) and it will stand side-by-side next to Charles Phan’s Slanted Door, the legendary San Francisco restaurateur’s first venue in the City of Angels.

I gotta say, I’m super psyched for all of this.

Thanks for being here and thanks for all your support. It means the world to me. Stay tuned…