Last night, I had the immensely good fortune of being a guest in the home of professor Michele Antonio Fino, director of the Master’s in Wine Culture program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont where I’m currently teaching a seminar on wine writing.
But as if my stars hadn’t already aligned, my luck only grew: Armando Castagno, one of my all-time favorite wine writers (and my fellow professor in the Master’s in Wine program), prepared a carbonara (above) for us using pecorino romano that he had brought with him from Rome earlier that day.
Armando is the apotheosis of the Roman intellectual and one of the most entertaining and engaging dinner guests you could ever host. And he is not only an expert in wine (among many other fields) but he is also a foremost authority on Roman cuisine.
As the water was boiling for the rigatoni, the quintessential pasta for this dish (not spaghetti, Armando explained), he patiently whisked the freshly grated pecorino with the eggs until he achieved the desired consistency: he used a 3/1 ratio of yolks to whites (meaning he added two yolks for every whole egg, just to be clear).
He pointed out that he doesn’t salt water because there is sufficient saltiness owed to the cheese and the guanciale (this is extremely important, he insisted).
Before he began cooking the pasta, he sautéed the roughly one-centimeter-thick slices of guanciale in their own fat. When he achieved the desired crispiness, he strained and reserved the liquified fat.
Once he cooked the pasta (employing less than the recommended cooking time and at low heat, he noted), he strained it and returned it to the cooking pot. He then folded the reserved liquified fat from the guanciale into the pasta; added the pecorino-and-egg dressing and the crispy guanciale; and then he sprinkled with more pecorino as he had me grind the black pepper into the dish. After plating the dish, he topped with more sprinkled pecorino before serving.
One of the most important elements of the assembly, he said, was that the pasta shouldn’t be too hot when you add the cheese, eggs, and guanciale. If it’s too hot, the dressing will become lumpy, he explained.
Just feast your eyes on the dish above… and yes, you most definitely should weep. What a carbonara, people!
For the wine pairing, he told us, you need a white with enough body to stand up to the saltiness and fattiness of the dish. He highly approved of Michele’s Van Volxem 2011 Saar Riesling (above).
Beyond Armando’s skill in the kitchen and his extraordinary abilities as taster (one of the greatest tasters I’ve ever interacted with, hands down), the thing that impresses me the most about him is the breadth and the depth of his knowledge in so many fields — from art history and classical Latin to sports (he’s a huge fan of American football) and, of course, food and wine.
To hear him rattle off anagrams (one of his favorite pastimes) was as hilarious as it was exhilarating (Democrazia Cristiana = Azienda Camorristica; On. Giulio Andreotti = un gelido Totò Riina).
So many of the world’s most talented and highest-profile wine writers and tasters can quibble over whole-cluster versus de-stemmed fermentations — an unquestionably noble pursuit, no doubt. But few can parse the nuance of luminosity of color in American modernist painting.
His polymathy is an example for all of us: our knowledge of viticulture is only enriched by its contextualization within the human arts, experience, and condition.
And man, this dude can make a bad-assed carbonara!
I am so proud to call him my fellow in the Master’s in Wine program. He’s all the more reason to enroll.
Armande magister optime ubi major minor cessat. Vale.