Slow life in Bra: an Italian university town, the way I remember it from the old days

Before the Parzen family headed to southern California for our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration, I spent a week in Bra, Piedmont, where I taught two seminars at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Food Writing in the Digital Age and Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron).

I really enjoy the teaching (I’ll be back in November teaching wine writing and it looks like I’ll be doing four or five grad seminars, all taught in English, next year).

And I’ve really fallen in love with the little town of Bra where the university is located. It reminds me of my student days in Padua, before the age of Berlusconi and the rise of the hard right in northern Italy. Back then, Padua had countless pubs, inexpensive restaurants, and a vibrant student community.

That’s a view, above, facing west toward the Alps from the highest point in Bra, at the octagonal Zizzola House.

I know a lot of people are curious about the toponym Bra (and the homonymic jokes are as predictable as they are forgivable).

The place name Bra comes from the late Latin braida, meaning open field or arable land. Its origins may be Longobard and it is sometimes transcribed as breda. But regardless of Longobard inflection, most agree that it comes from the classical Latin praedium meaning farm or manor.

That’s the castle in the nearby hamlet of Pollenzo, above. Today, it is home to the university, its staff, and its classrooms and lecture halls. But it was once a country residence inhabited by the House of Savoy. It’s surrounded by rich farmland, hence the Roman name Braida and the Italian name Bra.
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La Jolla, California: our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration

It’s 8 a.m. Monday morning, July 24, and I am back in the saddle and back at my desk after nearly three weeks on the road between teaching in Italy and vacationing with my family in La Jolla, California, where I grew up. Here are some scenes from our vacation (images and notes from my last Italian sojourn forthcoming).

There were so many highlights from our summer vacation this year. But I’ll never forget that magical moment of finally being strapped in aboard a plane bound for California. The folks at Southwest were super nice and everyone was super cool about our car seats on the plane (I can’t say that every airline is like that!).

Here’s the view that awaited us on the other side. That’s the La Jolla Children’s Pool (beach), where I used to swim as a kid.

The Children’s pool has been taken over by the seals in recent years. So I took the girls nearly every morning to search for shells at the nearby La Jolla Cove, where the seals also hang out but still leave enough room for humans.

On Friday, July 14, we celebrated my 50th birthday (!!!) with an all-star hometown show at La Jolla’s sole rock club, Beaumont’s.
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Houston, we have a Lambrusco tasting: on Tues. July 25, I’ll be leading a seminar @ Vinology

For years now, there has been talk of a Lambrusco renaissance in the U.S. And while there have been many valiant attempts to hip Americans to what Lambrusco really is and why it is so great, it’s only in recent years that a confluence of factors — ranging from a new and growing wave of independent importers and distributors in the U.S. to Americans’ expanding and incessant thirst to (re)discover Italian viticulture — has made Lambrusco’s risorgimento possible.

I’m proud to say that I’ve made my own modest contribution to the Lambrusco revival: our wine list at the newly opened Rossoblu in Los Angeles (one of my clients) already has one of the largest (if not the largest) selection of Lambrusco in the country, including a robust rotating and evolving by-the-glass program.

In the light of the new age of Lambrusco, I asked my good friend Thomas Moësse if I could host a Lambrusco tasting and seminar at the excellent Vinology wine bar and shop in Houston where he authors the wine list. It’s one of my favorite wine retailers and wine programs in the city.

“Lambrusco, Karl Marx, and a Proletarian Wine for a Capitalist Age”
Seminar and Tasting with Jeremy Parzen
Tuesday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.
Vinology (Houston)

PLEASE REGISTER BY SENDING ME AN EMAIL HERE.

You have to RSVP by emailing me. The venue won’t be taking reservations. There are a limited number of seats so please contact me soonest to ensure availability.

Vinology
2314 Bissonnet St.
@ Greenbriar Dr.
West University
Houston TX 77005
(832) 849-1687
Google map

Domenico Clerico, pioneer of modern Barolo and later defender of tradition, dies at 67

Today Barolo mourns the loss of one of its greatest grape growers and winemakers, Domenico Clerico, 67, who died yesterday in his home in Monforte d’Alba. According to reports published in mainstream Italian media, the cause was cancer.

Clerico was among the pioneers who reshaped the Barolo landscape when, in the 1980s, he began aging his wines in barriques — new wood, small French oak casks as opposed to the traditional large-format botti made with Slavonian oak.

Not only did his wines appeal to a newly emerged generation of monied American wine enthusiasts, but they also set a new standard for high-quality collectible wines from Italy. At the peak of his “modernist” period in the 1990s, his widely coveted labels fetched previously unprecedented sums for Italian wines at New York’s top Italian restaurants and retailers.

Although most American collectors will remember him as a visionary of the new wave of Barolo producers, he was also one of the first grape growers there to embrace organic growing practices. Even at the height of his popularity among top America wine buyers and critics, he always pointed to his obsessive approach to grape farming — not his winemaking style — as the secret behind his wines’ extraordinary aromatic character and nuanced flavors.

Many among the current generation of Piedmont winemakers and vignerons looked to him as role model and inspiration for their own work in the vineyard.

“A master and a great man,” posted Barbera d’Asti winemaker Gianluca Morino on his Facebook yesterday (translation mine).

“Thank you for everything, Domenico. We grew up with your Arte,” wrote Morino, referring to Clerico’s groundbreaking blend of barrique-aged Nebbiolo and Barbera “Arte” (art), first released in the 1980s and considered to be one of the first “Super-Piedmont” wines.

No matter where he will be remembered in the modernist vs. traditionalist spectrum, there is no doubt that Clerico produced some of the world’s greatest and most memorable wines over the last three decades.

In a quote reposted on Clerico’s American importer’s web site, leading Italian wine critic and authority Antonio Galloni wrote that “few producers’ wines have given me as much pleasure over the years as those of Domenico Clerico.”

My wife Tracie P and I had the great fortune to dine with Domenico last July in Piedmont. Over the course of our meal, he spoke openly about his decision to abandon small-cask aging and to return to the traditional botti instead. As we tasted some of his top single-vineyard designated wines from the 2000s, he insisted however that their greatness — and man, they were great! — was owed to the quality of the fruit rather than the modernist approach of the winemaker.

A man known for his colorful character and trailblazing work in setting new benchmarks for Italian wine, it was clear to both me and Tracie that it was substance, not style, that had defined the career and life of one of the world’s greatest winemakers.

Sit tibi terra levis Dominice.

Rock with me this Friday, July 14 in San Diego: my 50th birthday concert in La Jolla

After nearly 50 years on this planet, I’m allowed to take a little vacation, right?

Tomorrow Tracie P and I will be taking our girls to La Jolla, California where I grew up and where I will be performing a set of music with one of my old and beloved bands, The Grapes, on Friday night.

We’ll be playing mostly classic country-Americana songs as we celebrate my 50th birthday. And there are a bunch of great bands playing that night as well, including a lot of guys I grew up with and a lot of friends who are coming down to sit in. It should be quite the show.

Beaumont’s is a pretty rowdy club so come prepared to dance (and drink) your ass off.

The Grapes are Jeremy “the Jar” Parzen, John Yelenosky, and Jon Erickson. T-Bone and other special guests will be sitting in on drums this time around.

The Grapes
Friday, July 14
(my 50th birthday bash)
Doors open at 8 p.m.

Beaumont’s
5662 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla CA 92037
Google map

And if you happen to be in San Diego on Saturday, July 15, we’ll be pouring some Nebbiolo from my cellar that night at Jaynes Gastropub. All the spots at the community table are already spoken for but if you stop by, I’ll fill your glass with some groovy Barbaresco (no joke… but be sure to reserve a table).

Tracie P will be there, too, on both Friday and Saturday nights. I’m taking the next few weeks off from the blog to enjoy my time off. See you in late July! Thanks for being here and have a great summer.

Arcari + Danesi 2011 Franciacorta Extra Brut 100 percent Pinot Noir disgorged May 2015

Just had to share a tasting note for this wine by my bromance Giovanni Arcari and his partner, another one of my best friends in Italy, Nico Danesi.

Giovanni and I were still a little blurry on Sunday after an epic day partying lakeside near Salò on Lake Garda the day before. But a late-morning start didn’t stop us from a quick visit to Giovanni and Nico’s cellar in Coccaglio (on the southern border of the Franciacorta appellation, below).

Giovanni generously hooked me up with a bottle of their 2011 Franciacorta Extra Brut for me to take to dinner on my last night in Italy. I was heading to Milan to meet one of my best friends from my University of Padua days, Stefano Spigariol, who’s also celebrating a milestone birthday this weekend. Our mutual friend Gavino Falchi, a Milan based architect and designer, was in charge of the menu.

The wine was made from 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes and was disgorged in May 2015.

Gavino was worried that the wine wouldn’t have the weight to stand up to the richly flavored Guinea hen that he had braised with porcini essence, olives, and nutmeg (note the vintage Richard Ginori plate he brought to serve this superb dish, below).

But, man, the chewy ripe red fruit character of the wine sang with the earthiness and fattiness of the fowl. We were all blown away by how the delicate fruit notes on the nose were transformed into such robust flavor in the mouth. And all the while, the wine’s freshness hadn’t been diminished a bit by the more than 24 months that had passed since being disgorged.

Giovanni and Nico have shared so many memorable bottles of their wine with me and my friends. But this was one of the most remarkable in terms of its glowing, brilliant fruit character. What a wine!

I’m so proud to count Giovanni and Nico among my closest friends: I’ve been giving them a hand this year marketing their wines in the U.S. and they should be coming to Texas by the fall.

I’m also blessed to have found such a great friend in Stefano so many years ago (nearly 30!). He and I share so many interests in literature, music, and critical theory. And our discussions with Gavino are always lively and thought-provoking as we enjoy Gavino’s superb homey cooking.

All in all, between teaching all week at the university in Bra, a dreamy day of eating and drinking by the lake with my Franciacorta crew, and an excellent confabulatio spent with my Milanese comrades over Giovanni and Nico’s wine, it was a pretty swell trip.

And dulcis in fundo, Tracie P and the girls are coming to pick me up this afternoon at Bush airport back in Houston.

Thanks for being here and see you on the other side…

Partying with Tony on Lake Garda, catering by the AMAZING Gianni Briarava

I rarely indulge in what Tracie P and I call “day drinking.”

But yesterday, after my first morning dip into the chiare, fresche, e dolci acque (clear, fresh, and sweet waters) of Lake Garda, I couldn’t refuse the gin & tonic offered me by my lovely host Tony (see below) whom I’ve known almost as long as I’ve loved my Brescian bromance, Giovanni. It all went downhill from there.

A lot of Facebook folks have been asking me where I was partying on the lake yesterday: we were at Tony’s private rental house just outside the village of Salò, not far from the Palazzo Martinengo, where Mussolini’s secretary once ran the Italian Socialist Republic — the Fascist state established after the Armistice of Cassibile in 1943.

The catering was by the amazing Gianni Briarava, our friend and a Lake Garda legacy chef, winner of Michelin stars but now at the helm of the more toned-down Locanda del Benaco, a lakeside hotel and restaurant. I highly recommend it (it has a jaw-dropping 4.9-star rating on Google, btw; I can’t seem to find a website for the venue but that’s a good sign if you ask me).

Gianni is so rad: that’s his burrata with salt-cured anchovies and summer tomato. Let me tell you, folks, that was a game-changer dish on my palate.

Those are his battuto di fassona (Fassone [or Fassona] beef tartare) “meatballs.” Ridiculous, right?

Brittany oysters paired brilliantly with Pasini Lugana metodo classico (“Trebbiano with a small amount of Chardonnay,” said the consulting enologist, who happened to be on hand).

Locally harvested strawberries for dessert, among many other delights (I only wish I would have taken more photos, Gianni, but the party was too good!).

Tony, my friend, thanks for letting me tag along for your excellent birthday party. I can’t think of better way to get my own birthday week kicked off right. That gin & tonic was the best I ever had and I’m now heading home with the perfect tan…

See you on the other side…

The best school cafeteria? You’ll find it at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences @UniSG

As much I as cherish my memories from my university days in California and Italy, I realize now that the cafeteria food really sucked back then.

The grub at the University of Padua was, hands down, a lot better than U.C.L.A.’s. And getting the small plastic cup of wine that was served with your meal on Via San Francesco — red or white, optional — was pretty nifty. But it was still a far cry from the daily bread offered up in the chow line at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont where I’m teaching this week.

Those are some of “Digital Age Food Writing” students yesterday, above. And the tray below was my own.

That’s tartrà on the right, a savory pudding made with eggs, onions, and herbs, a classic dish of Piedmontese country cooking.

And I know that my wife Tracie P will be glad to see that I got my daily allotment of freshly picked leafy greens! (Well, she already knows because we are constantly messaging each other throughout our days on either continent, but just the same a picture is worth a thousand words…)

Our one Russian classmate and I bonded over the beet soup that was also on the menu yesterday.

She remarked that it reminded her of the borscht that she ate as a kid. She was surprised to learn that it was one of my childhood standbys as well, a staple of Russian-Jewish immigrants like my grandparents (oops, did I just say immigrants?).

We are halfway through our culinary writing class and this afternoon, following our morning session on food blogging and social media trends, I’ll lead my first seminar on “Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron.”

Pane per i miei denti, as they say in Italian! Something [bread] I can really sink my teeth into!

Every day this week, I’m doing back-to-back three-hour seminars with a one-hour break in between. It’s only Wednesday and I’m already fried but nothing could be more exhilarating for me than to find myself back on campus, the habitat where I feel most at home and fulfilled.

And as if I didn’t have a teaching load heavy enough, I’ll be playing a set of music tomorrow night at L’Alfieri on the edge of downtown Bra, a township that lives and breathes the Slow Food ethos. The restaurant/bar is run by a Belgian alumnus of the university who serves a international menu, including great Indian food, together with craft beers and natty wines. Come and join us if you happen to be in this neck of the woods!