Where Jews are unafraid to pray…

Above: the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, Italy (image via the Venice Museo Ebraico [Jewish Museum] Facebook). There’s no big sign outside revealing the presence of a house of worship. And there’s a reason for that.

The text messages began to arrive from Italy via WhatsApp and Facebook around 3 p.m. on Saturday.

“Are you okay? Are you in San Diego? Is your family alright?”

I hadn’t felt my phone vibrate in my pocket because I was playing guitar, loudly, with some of my neighbors.

When I saw the texts, I searched frantically for timely news from San Diego.

One Dead in Synagogue Shooting Near San Diego; Officials Call It Hate Crime, read the headline.

I broke away from my bandmates and called my mom. Everyone in our family was okay, she said.

It turned out that the attack happened in Poway, a roughly 50-minute drive from where my brothers and I grew up in La Jolla and where my mother and older brother still live and where he attends shul with his family. Thankfully, they were never in harm’s way.

My mother reminded me of the first time I went to synagogue in Venice, Italy, when I was a junior in college studying abroad for the first time.

Remember how surprised you were? she asked me. You had never been to a synagogue with armed guards outside, she remembered.

That was back in 1987 and I had never attended a Jewish house of worship beyond my hometown and Los Angeles where I went to school (and the occasional shul I visited in the midwest for bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies and funerals).

I was just a green 19-year-old who was learning about the world. It had never occurred to me that Jews were at risk of violence — simply because they congregated to pray.

But in Italy at the time, the memories of the “Years of Lead” and the terror of the 1970s were still fresh in people’s minds. And although it wasn’t as visible as it is today, anti-Semitism in Italy and Europe was unavoidable.

I can remember so clearly in mind thinking to myself: aren’t we fortunate to live in a country, America, where Jews can worship free of fear? I never imagined, in a million years, that one day synagogues in my country would need to be protected by armed guards outside — like I saw for the first time more than 30 years ago in Italy.

But then again, this is the America we live in today: a place where Jews are now afraid to pray.

Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone who was affected by the Poway shooting. What a world — what an America — we live in!

The shul where the attack occurred is run by the orthodox movement Chabad. In a newsletter it circulated last night, the editors wrote: “Cold-blooded, fanatical, baseless, relentless hatred can be uprooted from its core only by saturating our world with pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding love and acts of kindness, and by teaching that to all our children, in our schools and our homes.”

Words to live by in a dark time for America.

G-d bless America. G-d bless us all.

Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (Francis Petrarch; translation by Robert Durling).

Above: Italian resistance fighters in Piazza San Marco, Venice in 1945 (images via the Archivio Luce).

Today is Italian Liberation Day: Festa della Liberazione, April 25. Established in 1946, it commemorates the end of Nazi and Fascist rule in Italy.

It’s a national holiday in Italy and most Italians are taking today and tomorrow off (an Italian ponte or bridge, as it’s called, a long weekend).

But one of my colleagues, a young man from Tuscany, took time out to write me this morning.

“Viva l’Italia,” he wrote, “unita, libera e antifascista.”

“Long live Italy, united, free, and anti-fascist.”

It’s incredible to think that in 2019 the Italian government is being run by Matteo Salvini, a strongman, would-be autocrat whose political origins are murky with traces of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. He came to power (and continues to run) on a virulent nationalist and anti-immigrant platform. He’s pals with Putin and Orbán. Sound familiar? He’s one of Steve Bannon’s pet projects.

Just last week, the Washington Post ran this story on Mussolini’s grandson and his run for a seat in the EU Parliament. Neo-Fascism is no longer a taboo in Italian political and social circles, notes the author.

Salvini, for example, often cites the “golden years” of Mussolini and the Fascist regime. He forgets that those years weren’t golden for everyone.

Check out this slide show by the Archivio Luce. It features images from Italy after Mussolini’s fall.

Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

Fast vs. organic food in Italy: a battle played out in the streets

Above: Joe Bastianich, one of the architects of the current Italian food and wine renaissance and one of Italy’s biggest television stars, now has a signature line of sandwiches at McDonald’s.

Earlier this year, an itinerant American professor took an old friend out for dinner in Milan. Their friendship stretches back more than 20 years: they met when he was studying philology in Rome and Pisa and she was completing her degree in Milan.

They were joined by her teenage daughter, who’s grown up in Milan where her mother practices law.

The American asked the young Italian what she and her schoolmates like to eat most. The answer? The Double Down at KFC, the “panino senza pane,” in other words, “the breadless sandwich.”
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Good (and unusual) things I ate in Italy where the gastronomic landscape is increasingly globalized

These days, my trips to Italy are all about maximizing my time on the ground and making the most of the days that I have to spend away from Tracie and our girls. Long gone are the times that I would indulge in wandering the halls of a crusty museum or poring over an incunable in a dark seminary library. Instead, it’s always a mad rush to the next tasting, event, meeting, or seminar, with little time to soak in Italy’s rich cultural landscape and to visit with my old university chums there.

A boy’s gotta eat though!

Those are nervetti above: slow-cooked chunks of veal cartilage served at room temperature. That was at old-school Osteria La Colonna in downtown Brescia.
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Houston wine professional Joseph Kemble needs our help

It’s with a heavy heart that I share the following: Joseph Kemble, one of Houston’s leading wine professionals, is dying and he needs our help.

Late last week, a friend of Jospeh’s created the “Help for Joseph” GoFundMe.

“For those of you who may not be aware,” she writes, “Joseph Kemble has a terminal illness and has been given only 6 months to live. Due to this prognosis, he has not been able to work for many months. He is unemployed with no income, nor insurance whatsoever. He has also lost his life insurance. After Harvey flooded his home, he was forced to find alternate housing for over a year, which put quite a strain on his savings. In the last 6 months, he was forced to use what savings her had left for medical care. He has been the sole caregiver for his mom, Francis, who still resides with him. He has medical cost that are mounting as well as living expenses that will go uncovered. This has left him in a frightening place, possibly facing the loss of everything he has when he should be able to live out his life in peace doing things he loves and spending time with close friends and family.”

Read her complete post here.
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Chag Pesach Sameach! Wishing everyone a good Passover!

I dunno why but there’s nothing quite like the flavor of Premium Gold Gefilte Fish in Jellied Broth by Manischewitz paired with fiery horseradish. Seriously… I’m not kidding. It’s just one of the memories from childhood whose deliciousness can never be replaced.

Serve with a fresh California rosé (that’s what we’ll be doing).

Chag Pesach sameach, everyone! Happy Passover!

Happy Easter, too!

Enjoy the holidays. See you next week!

cognà (cugnà) my latest obsession, Piedmont’s cheese friend

One of the perks of teaching at a gastronomic sciences university in the heart of Piedmont wine country is that the food and wine aren’t bad.

Add to that mix the fact the town(ship) where the school is located is also home to the Slow Food movement and an acute interest in wholesome and traditional foodways. It’s a recipe for a whole lotta deliciousness.

After returning from a winery visit in La Morra (Barololand) yesterday following class, one professor settled into his favorite local dining spot, Ristorante Battaglino in Bra (the toponym Bra comes from the late Latin/Longobard braida meaning farm or countryside btw). Following a repast of tajarin with sausage ragù and a glass of Ferdinando Principiano 2014 Barolo, he leisurely nibbled at a selection of cheeses accompanied by crusty bread and cognà or cugnà in the local patois.

It’s a cheese friend that falls somewhere between jam and relish.

Made from freshly crushed grape must (the main ingredient) with the addition of other fruits like apple, pear, and quince (depending on the recipe), hazelnuts and walnuts, and figs (dried or fresh), it’s one of those if it grows with it it goes with it dancing partners for cheese and Nebbiolo (or Dolcetto as the case may be).

Said instructor is no stranger to the wonders of the triptych cheese-Nebbiolo-cognà. Unsurprisingly, he had enjoyed a similar confluence the prior evening, save for the fact that the enoic component was Dolcetto.

Wise and informed humans also report that cognà marries superbly with Piedmontese-style bollito misto as well.

Corte Giacobbe Soave, a wonderful discovery at this year’s Vinitaly

You spend so much time schmoozing and taking tasting notes at Vinitaly that sometimes you forget to look out for new discoveries.

Every year, I try to take time out each day of my fair to taste as much “undiscovered” wine as humanly possible.

Yesterday, thanks to my friend Marco Tinello, one of the best sommeliers and tasters I know in Veneto, I was introduced to the fantastic wines of Corte Giacobbe by the lovely Dal Cero family.

Their old-school-vinified, single-vineyard-designate Soave wines were mineral and savory in character (sapidi, as they like to say in Italian), with rich nuanced fruit and the nervy acidity they’ll need to evolve as they age.

Great wines across the board and a wonderful personal discovery for me.

Empson is bringing them to the U.S, I was told. I can’t wait for them to reach me in Texas. I know that Tracie P. is going to love them, too. They’re “our kinda wines.”

If you’ve ever attended Vinitaly, you know that it can often be compared to a Dantean “circle of Hell,” as one of my colleagues put it yesterday. It’s always a jumble of information and sensation. It can make your “brain hurt like a warehouse,” to borrow a line from Bowie. But every once in a while, the magic happens: thanks to a friend and colleague like Marco, you stumble across a wine you’ll love for a lifetime.

Wish me luck, wish me speed. Tonight after the fair, I head to the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont where I’ll be teaching this week and next. Thanks for being here.