Fabio Picchi, influential Florentine chef and author who reimagined Tuscan cuisine, has died.

This obituary appeared originally on the Taste of Italy trade fair and festival website. The gathering, the largest devoted exclusively to Italian wine and food products, will take place in Houston on March 14. Please visit the site for details.

Fabio Picchi, whose legendary restaurant Cibreo in Florence reshaped the way the world viewed Tuscan cuisine, died last week. According to La Nazione, he was 68 and had been battling a long-term illness.

Named after the classic Tuscan dish cibreo — a sauce made with chicken combs, wattles, and livers — the restaurant has been a gathering place for the Italian and international glitterati since its opening in 1979. The celebrities, intellectuals, and culinary luminaries came as much for the food as the verve and artistry of the larger-than-life chef, author of numerous cookbooks and even a historical novel.

Picchi’s passion for theater would lead him to open the Circolo Teatro del Sale, the “Theater of Salt” dining club in Florence in 2003. Since that time, the venue has combined theater, high-concept cafeteria dining, and retail sales of chilometro zero (“zero kilometer” or farm-to-table) food products, a category that Picchi championed throughout his career.

He was part of the new wave of the enlightened culinary icons who emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s. But he always stood apart from the crowded field of “back to the land” chefs thanks to his artistic flair and literary leanings.

Beyond his revitalization of cibreo, a recipe with noble origins that had been relegated to the dust bin of forgotten rustic recipes, his notable dishes included panzanella croccante (a crunchy version of the typically pliable Tuscan classic) and myriad iterations of baccalà (salt cod).

Many American food lovers will remember his appearance last year in a video from Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” food and travel documentary on CNN. In this short clip, Picchi explains how the quality of the sea salt is key to a great bistecca fiorentina and he reveals that he adds olive branches and leaves to the coals to give the beef greater flavor.

Picchi was active on his Facebook until just a few weeks ago, garnering thousands of likes with each post. His passing has deeply saddened the local and international communities of Italian food lovers.

His son Giulio will continue to run his celebrated restaurant, write the editors of La Nazione.

Image via the Fabio Picchi public figure Facebook page


In 2005, a friend’s Florentine brother-in-law took me for the first time to the Teatro del Sale. I had eaten at Cibreo on more than one occasion and I loved it for the food, for the richly cultural and thoughtful presentation of the dishes, and for the countless Italian and international celebrities you would spot there. But the Teatro was on another level in terms of its combination of classic Italian folk and political theater with a dining program that evoked the workers’ cafeterias of the inter-war era. I never met Picchi but did glimpse him once during one of my many visits to the Teatro, one of my happiest places where I always found a drinking buddy to share the chef’s wonderful box wine. Italy and the world have lost a culinary icon.

A Super Tuscan Super Hero: taste virtually with Cinzia Merli and me this Thursday in Houston.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Cinzia Merli (above, center), the owner of Le Macchiole in Bolgheri for this week’s virtual winemaker dinner at Roma restaurant in Houston where I run the wine program.

Cinzia, producer of some of Tuscany’s most highly rated and expensive wines, is a true Super Tuscan Super Hero.

In the late 1990s, her family owned a humble tavola calda, cafeteria-style restaurant in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. Like many Tuscan restaurateurs at the time, they made their own wine to sell to their guests. And when the Super Tuscan craze of that decade began to take shape, it was only natural that she and her husband would want to throw their hat into the ring. The couple bought land, planted vineyards, hired a top consulting enologist, and began making wine.

To their surprise, their first releases were met with critical and commercial success. The future looked bright.

But then tragedy struck: Cinzia’s still young husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving her a single mother and signatory to the loans they had procured as they expanded their production.

In an era where male chauvinism still dominated the wine world, most of her neighbors expected her to close the winery.

Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and set out to build her brand in Italy and beyond. And the rest is history. Fast forward to 2022: her current release Messorio sells for around $250 a bottle (retail).

I first met Cinzia in 2007 when her star was ascendant. I visited her winery the following year. She is simply one of the loveliest persons I’ve ever met in the wine industry and her wines are phenomenal.

I want to let her tell the whole story tomorrow night. So I’ll stop here.

But I hope you can join us as we taste her Bolgheri Rosso, a blend of international grape varieties, including her celebrated Merlot. Along the way, we are going to talk about the macchia mediterranea, the “maquis” or shrubland biome that makes the wines of Le Macchiole (named after the macchia) so special.

If ever there were a virtual winemaker dinner not to miss, this is it, folks. I hope to see you there.

And on a technical note, this is the last virtual winemaker dinner we’ll be doing for a while. Yesterday, we hosted our first in-person (private) wine dinner for the Houston chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. And next week, we’ll be relaunching our free pre-dinner wine tastings. On March 17, we’ll be hosting our first in-person winemaker dinner since late last year (details forthcoming).

Thank you for your support. And thank you for loving Italian wines as much as I do!

100 years ago, Mussolini marched on Rome. Today, the march of authoritarianism continues with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

peter blume artistAbove: “Eternal City,” oil on composition board by Peter Blume, American, 1934-37.

A century ago, in 1922, Mussolini and his Blackshirt thugs “marched” on Rome and seized power from the still young Italian monarchy in a coup d’état.

By the mid-1930s, Mussolini had launched the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, resulting in the Blackshirts’ occupation of the country and expanding Italy’s already substantial colonial presence in the Horn of Africa.

By that time Hitler had risen to power in Germany and he was watching carefully. In 1938, German forces would cross into Austria, a country he considered to be part of a greater German state.

Later that year, Hitler would annex regions of Czechoslovakia populated by ethnic Germans, a part of his overarching plan to expand the German state.

The following year, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II had begun.

When you look at the myriad lists of “events preceding World War II,” it’s nearly impossible not to draw parallels to what is happening in Eastern Europe today.

And with major U.S. media figures like Tucker Carlson defending Putin’s moves, saying that the Russian dictator “just wants to keep his western border secure,” it’s nearly impossible not to consider that the West may be on the brink of World War III. His recent comments (see the link) seem to reflect a growing movement in favor of appeasement in the U.S. and beyond. Students of 20th-century history know what followed the concession policies of the allied countries in the years that led up to the second world conflict.

What’s undeniable is that the biggest military operation since World War II has begun in Europe. An authoritarian leader, with manifest imperialist designs, has launched the invasion of his country’s sovereign neighbor. Sound familiar?

When our children were born at the beginning of the last decade, the last thing Tracie and I would have imagined was that there would be war in Europe in their lifetime. Today, our girls — ages eight and 10 — know the names of the faraway states where nearly all of their paternal great-grandparents were born. But they can hardly wrap their minds around the fact that the Western world order is in a moment of violent upheaval. I wish their innocence were enviable.

G-d bless our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. G-d bless us all.

REGISTRATION OPEN: Taste of Italy, BBQ & Chianti, Houston Sommelier Competition 3/13-14.

Above: the winners of the Houston Sommelier Competition in 2019, the first and only year of the event to date. At the time, it was known as the Houston Awesomm Sommelier Competition and was only open to Houston-based wine professionals. It’s now open to anyone who would like to compete (except for full-fledged members of the Court of Sommeliers).

Registration for the Taste of Italy, March 13-14 in Houston, the largest food and wine trade fair in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian products, is now open!

Click here to register for seminars, tastings, and grand tasting.

This year’s gathering includes: the Houston Sommelier Competition; a seminar on sustainable wine from Umbria with Steven McDonald MS and writer Dale Robertson (open to trade); a seminar on pairing Texas BBQ with Chianti (open to trade and consumers) featuring pit master Ara Malekian, Italian wine expert Tom Dobson (Spec’s), and food writer Eric Sandler (CultureMap); and the grand tasting all day on Monday, March 14 at the Hilton Houston Post Oak.

The winner of the Houston Sommelier Competition will receive a $750 stipend and a fully sponsored trip to Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair in Verona. The runner up will receive a stipend of $750. The second runner up will receive $500.

This year’s testing is open to any and all sommeliers, from anywhere in the world, except for full-fledged members of the Court of Sommeliers.

The Texas Wine School will also be offering to waive course fees for two candidates beyond the runners up. These awards will be made on the basis of testing results, the candidates’ resumés, and financial need.

Texas BBQ and Chianti is the one seminar open to consumers. It’s the fair’s most popular event and will sell out quickly. Be sure to register to ensure availability.

All the seminars will be moderated by me.

I’ve been working as a consultant with the Italy-American Chamber of Commerce since the second year of the fair. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career: connecting Italian food and wine producers with trade professionals in my adoptive hometown and state.

For many years now, our office of the chamber (South Central) has been rated the number one office in all of North America (sorry, New York!). I’m really proud of the great work we do.

I hope you can join us! Thanks for checking it out and thanks for loving Italian food and wine!

A wonderful wine night out in San Francisco at Birba and Che Fico. Shout-out to Belotti in Oakland.

A guy walks into a bottega in Oakland and says: “Is the owner from Piedmont?”

“He’s not from Piedmont, he’s from Italy,” answers a server.

“He’s not from Piedmont? But all the dishes are piemontesi!” the guy protests.

“Aaaaahhhh! pee-EH-mohn-TEH-zeh! Yes, now I get it,” says the server. “Yes, he is from Piemonte.”

No, it’s not some schtick from Abbott and Costello.

That’s actually what happened when I stumbled upon the wonderful Belotti Ristorante e Bottega on College Ave. in Rockridge. He thought I was referring to the group’s “Piedmont Ave. Bottega.” Owner Michele Belotti is from Piedmont, Italy.

The vitello tonnato, my favorite Piedmontese dish, was excellent.

A guy walks into a wine bar in San Francisco and says: “Do you have anything white and oxidative?”

My first glass of wine at the superb Birba was a Montbourgeau, followed by a delicious Terre de Bréze Saumur Blanc from Château de Chaintres (I believe this Rosenthal property releases this wine under a sub-label, Exmuros).

I was blown away by the level of wine culture at this place. My server nailed both wines he chose for me and the apps/shared plates were a cicheti-lover’s dream.

Early evening found me at Che Fico Alimentari, the downstairs join at the recently reopened Che Fico.

My former Slow Wine colleague Deborah Parker Wong joined me for burrata and perfectly sliced prosciutto. It was great to catch up with her and hear about all the success she’s had with the first print edition published since we launched the first U.S.-focused Slow Wine guide. The project couldn’t be in better or more talented hands.

The housemade rigatoni alla gricia were a showstopper. Of the Roman pasta tetralogy — carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana, and gricia — I believe the latter doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. This dish really hit on all cylinders.

And we learned that Che Fico, despite its robust take-out program, does not sell its housemade pastas as take-away. The chef feels that they don’t travel well, our server gently told us (Deborah wanted to take a plate home to her husband but her pleas went rebuffed).

The wine list was small but classic, balanced with fun. We just had to go for the Borgo del Tiglio Chardonnay, one of my top Friulians. I was always pleased to see that they had Mitja Sirk’s white. Friulanophiles will know what I’m talking about.

Man, it was great to be back in San Francisco and the East Bay.

California’s indoor mask mandate is scheduled to end today, February 16.

People here are still mostly wearing masks, in my anecdotal experience. At nearly every place I visited, even the Emeryville dive bar, Wolfhound, where I stopped in for a beer at the end of my night, I was asked to show my vaccine status. At Birba, nearly all the seating was outside, and there were ubiquitous, gentle reminders to wear your mask while visiting the counter inside.

San Francisco, mon amour

Taste one of my favorite Sicilian wines with me in Houston this Thursday. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Please consider giving to this GoFundMe to help a wine industry colleague in need. Ready the story here.

Above: grower and winemaker Fabio Sireci of Feudo Montoni in Sicily. Read this post on the estate by one of my favorite English-language wine writers, Michael Godel.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

As our Thursday night virtual winemaker dinner series at Roma restaurant in Houston continues, I couldn’t be more thrilled to host grower and winemaker Fabio Sireci and cookbook author Melissa Muller of Feudo Montoni this week on our Zoom call.

Not many folks in the U.S. know these extraordinary wines from inland, mountainous Sicily.

While Vittoria and Etna wines have become increasingly popular in the U.S., Fabio, now joined by Melissa, has simply continued to quietly make and release wines that Italian wine insiders have followed for nearly two decades now.

On Thursday evening, we’ll be sending guests home with the Vrucara, his top wine, a single-vineyard 100 percent Nero d’Avola that — in my view — sets the benchmark for the grape variety.

I use to feature it on my list at Sotto in Los Angeles and it was always amazing to watch people’s light up when they first tasted the wine.

The wine alone is worth the cost of admission. $119 sends you home with dinner for two and a bottle of the Vrucara. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Send me an email at jeremy at romahouston dot com to reserve. The menu isn’t online yet but it will be posted shortly here.

Fabio and Melissa are organic farmers. And that’s a cool thing, no doubt. But it’s the biodiversity of their farm — the polyculture or diversity of crops as opposed to monoculture — that really makes these wines sing and speak of place, as we say in the biz.

The story of how they met could have been plucked from a Coppola epic. But you’ll have to join the call to hear them tell it.

I hope you can be there. Thanks for the support and thanks for loving Italian wine!

Wine delivery driver needs our help after road rage shooting.

Chance Kenda, age 34, a driver for Houston-based wine importer Dionysus, “was shot in the abdomen” yesterday afternoon “following a road rage incident,” according to the City of Houston blog.

He is in stable condition and is expected to recover, said Dionysus owner Doug Skopp.

“He’s been working for Dionysus for nearly four years,” added Doug, “a dedicated professional, very good at what he does. We’re looking forward to his recovery, which could take months.”

Doug has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help with Chance’s medical costs.

Please consider giving or sharing.

The shooting occurred just a day after a 9-year-old Houston girl was shot in a road rage incident.

Italian government, major wine consortia partner with trade group AEPI for “best wine shop professional” competition. Includes “professional abroad” category.

Above: Dal Zovo, a legacy wine shop in Verona (image via the Dal Zovo website).

In America, there are a number of channels and platforms where aspiring sommeliers and wine shop professionals can access educational resources. But our country lacks educational programs expressly created for and focused solely on wine shop professionals.

In 2017, members of the Italian association of wine shops, Vinarius, launched the national Association of Italian Wine Shop Professionals, known as AEPI (Associazione Enotecari Professionisti Italiani), an organization that fosters education and professional standards for people who own wine shops and work in wine retail.

Last week, the group announced that it has partnered with the Italian agriculture ministry and some of Italy’s leading appellation consortia to create a competition and series of awards for wine shop professionals: the Miglior Enotecario d’Italia awards, including a “best Italian wine shop professional” category.

The goal is “to bolster personal and collective growth,” said AEPI president Francesco Bonfio in a statement issued last week (disclosure: Francesco is a good friend of mine).

The competition is open to professionals, including owners and employees, who work in wine shops, wine bars, restaurants, and all public-facing services that offer retail wine sales (in Italy, where wine professionals scratch their heads at the thought of our anachronistic and repressive “three-tier system,” retail sales have always been allowed at “on premise” venues).

The competition also includes an award for “best Italian wine shop professional abroad.” The category is open to Italians working beyond the country’s borders, said Francesco in a WhatsApp message yesterday.

The following consortia are underwriters of the competition and others are expected to join: Vini Alto Adige, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Tutela Vini Colli Euganei, Vini Cirò, Tutela Vini Valpolicella, Vini del Trentino, IGT Toscana, DOC delle Venezie, Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, Vino Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. Semi-finalists will be invited to those appellations for hands-on educational programs created especially for those who work in retail wine sales.

Visit the Miglior Enotecario d’Italia website here. The portal is now open for applications through the end of February.

My new podcast with Houston wine writer and sports legend Dale Robertson.

Blame it on the Nebbiolo.

Over the course of my 13+ years in Texas, Dale Robertson, the longtime Houston Chronicle wine writer and legendary Houston sports writer, became a good friend and well, um, drinking buddy.

And now I’m proud to share the news that he and I have a new podcast: Sporty Wine Guy.

As Dale recounts in the first episode, he first became interested in fine wine while covering the Tour de France.

Later, a visit to Houston by a top Italian winemaker, a Barolo producer, turned him on to the quality and breadth of Italian wine.

It was around that time, in 2007, that he started writing a regular wine column for the Houston Chronicle.

Not only is he one of the nicest people I know in wine writing. He’s also one of the most interesting storytellers in our field. Over the course of his time at the Chronicle, he’s met and tasted with some of the most famous winemakers in the world, from Napa to Barolo to Bordeaux and beyond.

He and I had been mulling over the idea of a podcast for some time when 2020 derailed our plans.

Now that we’re feeling comfortable about gathering again, it seemed the perfect time to launch this project. And I’ve had a lot of fun recording and producing the shows.

Thanks for listening: check it out here. Stay tuned for more!

Was it possible to make a “great” wine in Italy’s “punishingly hot and dry” 2017 vintage?

Above, right: Gianni Maccari, winemaker and grower at Ridolfi in Montalcino, with his vineyard management team.

“From 1st January to 31st May [2017]” wrote my friend Laura Gray, a grower and winemaker in Montalcino, “we had just 126 ml of rainfall (for comparison in 2015 we received 292 mm… The summer was punishingly hot and dry, the only positive being that these conditions also mean zero issues or intervention for mildew. Deciduous trees lost their leaves months ahead of time; oaks were orange-tipped, cereal crops harvested early and the land was parched.”

For observers of the Italian wine trade, it’s hard to forget about the immense challenges of the 2017 vegetative cycle, especially in Tuscany where a devastating late-spring frost was followed by — to use Laura’s word — a “punishingly hot and dry” summer.

As the 2017 Brunello begins to make its way through the U.S. market, I’ve already tasted a couple of wines that have really impressed me with their finesse and freshness — not what many where expecting.

One of those wines was the 2017 Brunello di Montalcino made by Gianni Maccari at Ridolfi. Gianni, in my view, is one of the most exciting winemakers on the ground there right now. And the wines I’ve tasted, back to the 2015 vintage, have been nothing short of stunning, the 2017 included.

Gianni’s wines are imported to the U.S. by my client Ethica Wines. Today, on their blog, I published my translation of his notes on the 2017 vintage and the techniques he used to mitigate the severe weather conditions.

Check it out here.

Gianni’s notes remind me of what another Montalcino great, Piero Talenti, purportedly once said: There are no “bad” vintages. There are just vintages when we make less wine.

This just in: I just got word from my friend Raffaella Guidi Federzoni, a Montalcino insider, that the special New York edition of Benvenuto Brunello is going to take place February 23-24 (although with limited participants). I can’t find an official registration link or any info on the event. But it is supposedly happening.

Photo via the Ridolfi Facebook.