Exploring another passion: Italian cinema. Dinner and an Italian Movie with me in Houston, Wednesday 10/13.

Even though our family was as stressed and frightened as any other during the lockdowns this year and last, my work leading virtual wine dinners at Roma restaurant in Houston turned out to be one of the most compelling and rewarding experiences of my career. Especially in the early months, those events were the only way we could keep the restaurant running and feed our families — including my own. And they were also a medium by which we could stay connected with friends and fellow Italian food and wine lovers.

Hearing people tell me, repeatedly, that the events were “what kept us sane” during the peak months of the health crisis has given me a renewed sense of purpose in my life’s enogastronomic mission. Food and wine, we reaffirmed, has a unique power to nourish and heal.

But those dinners and the wines we selected for them were also what led Roma’s owner Shanon Scott to appoint me as the restaurant’s wine director in the late spring of this year.

We began work in May and by June we were already producing a mix of in-person and virtual events for our guests. Since that time, we’ve also introduced a new virtual/in-person hybrid event that people can join from home or at the restaurant. And we even had a winemaker from Italy join via Zoom (there are more events like this in the works).

But on Wednesday, October 13, we are going to launch an entirely new format: “Dinner and an Italian Movie.”

I first studied Italian cinema at U.C.L.A. as an undergraduate with Marga Cottino-Jones, one of the leading American-based scholars of Italian film at the time. Later during my years as a graduate student there, I was selected to be the Italian department’s representative at a now landmark seminar and series of lectures on and screenings of Pasolini’s cinematic oeuvre. The professor was Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, who, among other things, was a translator of Antonio Gramsci’s “prison letters.” He had also met Pasolini and interviewed him in his home in Rome (in EUR).

I was hooked.

By the end of my years as a teaching associate, I had also begun teaching Italian cinema in the undergrad program. Those were the years that Scorsese was involved in building U.C.L.A.’s film archive. It was a genuine renaissance of Italian film studies and Italian winemakers visited regularly. I’ll never forget getting to shake Michelangelo Antonioni’s hand at the first screening in a retrospective of his entire filmography.

Years after I filed my dissertation (on Medieval and Renaissance transcriptions of Italian poetry), Princeton University Press would publish my English-language translation of The History of Italian Cinema by leading Italian cinema scholar Gian Piero Brunetta.

So, I think it’s fair to say that I know a little bit about Italian film.

On Wednesday, October 13, my interest in and passion for Italian cinema and Italian food and wine will collide when we host “Dinner and an Italian Movie” night at the restaurant. For this first event, we’ll be screening Federico Fellini’s 1973 classic, “Amarcord.” As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about Fellini and this wonderful movie. But you’ll have to join us that evening at Roma to find out what! I hope you will.

See details here. And thanks for your continued support.

Heading back to Italy tonight after a Parzen brothers reunion near the Canadian border (and an IMPORTANT NOTE about pre-flight covid testing).

Last Friday found all three of the Parzen brothers in Plattsburgh, New York, about an hour south of Montreal, for a long weekend family reunion. That’s Micah (left) and Tad in the photo above, snapped on the ferry that crosses Lake Champlain and delivers its passengers to Vermont.

Our father Zane, 88 years old, has lived there for many years now. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to but it is beautiful.

I leave for Italy from the east coast tonight from New York City. I’ll be teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences this week and next.

Because Italy now requires U.S. travelers to show both a CDC proof of vaccination card and a negative covid test, I had to schedule a swab while I was on the ground in upstate New York. And getting a rapid antigen test was essential because wait times for the molecular test these days can be long.

It was my understanding that you had to schedule a test no sooner than 72 hours before your flight. But when I began uploading my documents to my airline’s “travel-ready center,” I realized that you actually need to take the test 72 hours before your scheduled arrival (not the schedule departure).

Luckily for me, I was able to find an antigen test at an independent pharmacy and everything aligned.

But it’s something to keep in mind when you’re prepping for travel to Italy or other destinations in Europe.

Dagan Ministero’s room where it happened. Revisiting Terroir SF, a natural wine icon.

De naturali vinorum historia…

My mind teemed with memories as the doors swung open and let me into Terroir Natural Wine Bar on Folsom in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood like an old western gunslingers’ saloon.

The time Tracie and I watched one of the owners chase down a thief who stole two bottles in front of our very eyes. They got the bottles back.

The time my band was playing Café du Nord and we turned Joachim Cooder onto Muscadet. He was our drummer at the time and he loved it.

The countless times that the soldiers of the new wine, the natural wine, gathered there to banter, debate, and deliberate over the new language and new world that they were simultaneously discovering and forging.

It would be hard to overestimate the role that Terroir in San Francisco played in the nascent natural wine movement. Like its counterpart in New York, The Ten Bells, it was pioneer, progenitor, and in a certain sense an ante litteram avatar of the new natural wine culture.

Looking back to 2007 when Terroir opened, when people were just beginning to wrap their minds around natural wine, it’s clear that the venue and its cast of characters — including some of the wine world’s proto-bloggers, and you know whom I’m talking about — populated an early outpost of natural wine’s fourth estate.

At the time, no one beyond a small circle of the intelligentsia had even heard the pairing of “natural” and “wine.”

It’s incredible to think that a word that we once uttered audaciously as a challenge to the wine firmament is now part of the workaday parlance of broader viti-culture and commerce. Terroir was the setting — the context — for the text. Although the words had been uttered however sparingly before that time, Terroir was at once locus and locution for some of its earliest enunciations.

But Terroir didn’t just provide the proscenium for some of natural wine’s proto-dialectic.

It was also a super fun bar to hang out in and a wondrous meta (in the ancient Roman sense) for the wine-curious. Vinyl spun on the jukebox as eno-hipsters streamed in and out. And the wines… oh the wines! There was always something macerated and/or oxidative (back then it wasn’t so easy to find those wines). And the conversation was as high-pitched as it was catholic (with a small c).

And even though one of the things that made it sexy was the slight sense of danger that you always felt there, owed in part to the hyper-urban environment where it is located, it was also a safe and welcoming space for those who wanted to expand their wine knowledge and experience.

Today, as the natural wine world has revealed its sharpest elbows, Terroir was a place where even a wine neophyte like a drummer in a faux French rock band could hang out and let it all hang out.

I was so fortunate to get to sit down with my old friend Dagan Ministero, Terroir owner and founder, last week for what I can only describe as a pseudo-séance.

We talked at length about the many luminaries of natural wine who have sat in his chairs over the years. We parsed the evolution of the language of natural wine in the 14 years that have passed since I first sat there. And we tasted… we tasted and tasted and tasted… just like the old days.

Revisiting after so many years and after the lockdowns, this space still had the same mystical, magical effect on me that it did when I first visited in 2008 (my band was still extremely active then and SF was one of our top cities in terms of our draw). And the wines were funky, cloudy, and great…

Chapeau bas to Dagan who has remained one of America’s essential hosts, soothsayers, and sorcerers. Natural wine — and wine in general — could more humans like him.

Italians can’t come to the U.S. So we’re bringing them to you via Zoom. Taste with me in Houston next week.

best lambruscoDespite our hopes that Italian winemakers would be able to join us in the U.S. this fall, Europeans are still banned from coming to the U.S. by the Biden administration. They can come here if they quarantine in certain countries for two weeks before arriving. But they can’t come directly from the EU.

When I was in Italy teaching at Slow Food U. in August, my Italian counterparts were optimistically expecting the ban to be lifted. Slow Wine had its tour planned for the U.S. in October, editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio told me over dinner at his house. Villa Sandi’s export director Flavio Geretto, another good friend, was gearing up for the Gambero Rosso tastings also scheduled for October (he was even planning on bringing his son to attend a concert in Houston!).

Italian winemakers had hoped to boost sales with in situ visits during the last and historically most lucrative quarter of the calendar year (“OND” or Octobero-November-December, as it is known in the trade). But all plans and hopes have been dashed by the continued prohibition.

And that’s why we’re bringing the Italians to you.

Next Wednesday in Houston, I’ll be hosting a hybrid virtual/in-person wine dinner with one of my dearest and closest friends, Alicia Lini. She will be joining our group of guests in the dining room at Roma restaurant, where I write the wine list, via Zoom. And other guests will be also be joining via Zoom from their own dining rooms (they will pick up the food and wine beforehand).

For those interested in attending, see the menu and details here. Roma’s kitchen is doing a wonderful seafood — yes, seafood! — menu to pair with Alicia’s white, rosé, and red Lambrusco. It’s going to be super fun. I hope you can join us. Thanks for your support and buon weekend.

Tacos El Gordo in San Diego, how is it possible that I didn’t know you? I’m late to the party but I got here as quick as I could!

It’s hard to believe that Tacos El Gordo in San Diego wasn’t on my radar before last week. But thankfully, that culinary lacuna has been remedied.

An early flight to California had left me with some free time last Monday before our family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. And although an attempted visit to the legendary and now Michelin-rated San Ysidro taquería Tuétano ended in failure (because it was Labor Day and the restaurant was closed), the taco fantasies of at least one lapsed Californian were fulfilled that day when the Google landed them at the amazing and totally packed Tacos El Gordo on Palm Ave. in an old converted Taco Bell in Chula Vista.

You’d be hard pressed — or should we say, hard rolled — to find an eatery that hews so closely to the tacquerìa model of the Ciudad or Tijuana, both cities where said traveler spent a lot of time as a youth.

Tempted by the brains tacos, said traveler opted instead for the venue’s flagship dish, tacos de adobada: corn tortillas laden with marinated pork that has been fired in a vertical broiler.

cabeza = head

tripa = tripe

buche = pork stomach

suadero = rose meat (so called because it is pinkish in color; see here and here)

sesos = brains

lengua = tongue

Like their counterparts in Mexico City and Tijuana, the chef at the adobada station is as colorful in their delivery as they are histrionic in their carving.

Everything was so tempting, including the loaded fries. But a first visit to this amazing restaurant called for the classic.

Tacos El Gordo opened in Baja California in the 1970s and launched its first location on the U.S. side of the border in the late 1990s.

I can’t believe I hadn’t found this place until now. But I got here as quick as I could and now there’s no turning back.

Hack alert: if you’re not ordering the adobada (which is clearly the restaurant’s most popular dish), you can skip the main (and very long) ordering line and use one of the specialized lines for fries and tacos with other fillings.

2010 Anas-cëtta and 2006 Carema Riserva. What we drank for Erev Rosh Hashanah.

When I spoke to my mom the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah on my way home to La Jolla from the San Diego airport on Monday, I asked her to pick a couple of bottles from the mini-cellar I keep at her house. She opens the wines for her friends when they visit and we enjoy them at family get-togethers.

For the new year this year, she picked a 2006 Carema Riserva from Produttori di Carema and a 2010 “Anas-Cëtta” (Nascetta) by Cogno. Not bad, right?

Back in 2010 when I led a group of bloggers on a tour of Monferrato and Langhe wineries, Walter Fissore of Cogno opened a 2001 Anas-Cëtta for us. It was one of his first vintages of the then newly revived Piedmontese white grape variety. Everyone on our trip was so impressed with the wine, including me, that I bought a six-pack of the 2010 when I got back stateside.

This wine, aged in my storage locker in San Diego for 10 years (!), was incredibly fresh, with rich vibrant fruit on the mouth. I was totally blown away by how good it was. We had opened another bottle this summer when Tracie, the girls, and I were visiting my mom. It was good but this bottle was better. It blows me away how a roughly $25 bottle of white wine can perform like this. Chapeau bas to Walter who had the vision to get behind this grape and make some truly outstanding wines. I really enjoyed this and it went great with the classic middle eastern spread my sister-in-law and brother dialed in for dinner.

As a rule I never — almost never — accept gifted wine when I’m touring Italian wine country. The winemakers nearly ALWAYS want to give you a bottle when you visit. If I took a bottle each time I tasted with a producer, I reckon, there’s no way I could take all the wine back home with me. But when then Produttori di Carema president Viviano Gassino offered this bottle of 2006 Carema Riserva, how could I say no?

Note the artist label and the Alpini Torino 84th convention sticker (the annual gathering of Italian Alpine soldiers where this mountain wine was served evidently). This wine was extraordinary, very youthful and powerful, with dark red underripe fruit and smooth but still evolving tannin. What a wine!

2006 is a maligned vintage in many ways. It is overshadowed by 2005, a vintage that American critics loved. And at the time of its release, at least one high-profile Langhe grower reclassified its crus because it feared that the fallout of the financial crisis was dampening sales of its higher-end wines. So many Nebbiolophile seem to have forgotten this wonderful vintage. Great wine.

As much as I was sorry to see these two bottles go, the pleasure of drinking them — with my mom and brother’s family no less — assuaged the heartbreak of saying goodbye. Isn’t that the fun of collecting wine?

Happy new year, everyone!

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as we hope for a sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Happy new year, everyone.