Boccaccio’s Marchioness of Monferrato, an ante litteram #MeToo icon

Above: A detail from John William Waterhouse’s “Decameron” (1916). In Boccaccio’s Decameron, young Florentines flee the Black Plague, taking refuge in the countryside and telling each other stories to pass the time. It’s one of the greatest works of Italian literature and it includes one of the earliest mentions of wine in Monferrato (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

As I whittled away at my post today for the Barbera consortium blogging project (“Fit for a King: The first mention of Barbera d’Asti?”), it occurred to me that the main character in Boccaccio’s novella “The Marchioness of Monferrato” is an ante litteram #MeToo icon, not to mention an extraordinary gourmet.

For two years now, I’ve been working on my own research on wine in Boccaccio and (what I believe is) its essential role in the Tuscan humanist’s Italian masterwork. And so it was only natural that I would take a philological paring knife to the description of a feast in the tale and try to uncover what Boccaccio meant when he wrote of the “excellent and precious” wines of Monferrato (where Barbera is famously grown today). You might be surprised by my close reading of the text.

Please check out my post here.

Rereading the text for the umpteenth time, I realized that it had never dawned on me: in using her wit to repel the unwelcome advances of the king of France, who uses his position of power to corner her while her husband is away, she is an early feminist and #MeToo icon. Especially when read in the context of courtly love and its code, she is a victim who rises above her times and cultural hegemony. She subverts that code by means of culinary and convivial artefice, making the tale even richer in meaning in my opinion.

The tale is a shorter one and it will take you just a few minutes to read it (in English here). The ending is even more powerful, I believe, when read in the light of gastronomic wokeness.

Thanks for reading. I just got back an exhausting but great trip to Italy. So many wines and adventures to share! Stay tuned and please come out and taste with me and Alicia tonight in Houston… Thanks for being here.

Vitello tonnato: a photographic retrospective

The photo above (snapped the other night at Battaglino in Bra where I’m teaching this week and next) prompted a robust thread of comments by fellow vitello tonnato lovers on my Facebook.

My friend Logan Cooper from Austin, a food blogger I admire greatly, wrote the following:

    The first time I encountered this dish I was a young man visiting Milan. I was confused, put off, and generally disparaging that such a thing wasn’t a weird joke on tourists. I was wrong. In the years since, this dish has held delight, surprise, and mystery. So many flavors, so many variations, still slightly baffling. If cognitive dissonance had a Italian mascot, vitello tonnato would be near the front of the line.

I love his candor and exhilaration.

And I love vitello tonnato — roast or boiled veal, thinly sliced and topped with a sauce made from olive oil-cured tuna, salted anchovies, raw eggs, and brined capers — in part because of its deliciously satisfying character and in part because of its easy digestion. It’s a dish that “agrees” with me on every level.

The following are some interpretations I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. And here’s a translation of what is perhaps the earliest printed version of the recipe, Pellegrino Artusi’s. I rendered it into English a few years ago for Tenuta Carretta. Note the absence of egg.

Centro storico vinoteca.

Osteria More e Macine.

Poderi Colla.

Locanda in Cannubi.

Local Bra.

Battaglino (from last year).

Roman-Jewish artichokes and other cool stuff tasted this week in Houston

After the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that carciofi alla giudia, the famous fried artichokes of Rome’s ancient Jewish ghetto, had been ruled traif by Israeli chief Rabbinate, the owners of Houston’s Mascalzone swiftly added the dish to their menu.

She’s Israeli and he’s a famous Italian boxer. And I help out with their online media.

100 percent delicious and I’m extremely proud of the photo above, which I took with my phone.

Gambero Rosso was back in town this week with their traveling road show.

I really loved the Tollo Pecorino (above), a first kiss for me.

Pecorino can be a one-trick pony but when it’s handled thoughtfully, it can really deliver nuanced flavor. Great wine, one of the best expressions of Pecorino I’ve ever tasted.

Another stand-out discovery for me was the Costanzo Etna Bianco di Sei (above).

Everyone’s so crazy about Etna red and rightly so. But Tracie and I are mad for Etna white.

This wine delivered the spectrum of flavor and minerality I’ve come to expect from the top producers in the appellation. What a fantastic wine.

And just in case you were worried that we weren’t eating and drinking well in our adoptive city, Tracie and I attended a dinner last night hosted by Chef Marco Sacco (from restaurant Piccolo Lago in the Lake District, 2 Michelin stars) at a new event space launched by an Italian gazillionaire here.

Chef Marco (above, left) and his sous chef Silvestro had been flown in especially for the dinner. I was the night’s emcee.

Not a bad gig… but not as good as Sergio Scappani’s. He had also been flown in from Italy to dazzle the guests with his midified Roland V-Accordion FR-7X (stage left).

And just in case you still haven’t been tuned in to our groovy food and wine scene, check out this profile of one of my favorite wine programs in the city, Matt Pridgen’s wine list at One Fifth (by my friend Megan Krigbaum, one of my fave wine writers, for PUNCH).

Still not convinced? Hit me up and I’ll hip you to my fave spots.. Seriously. And thanks for reading!

Gualtiero Marchesi, 87, pioneer of Italy’s new cuisine, dies

Gualtiero Marchesi, a pioneer of Italy’s new cuisine and the first Italian chef to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide, has died.

The Corriere della Sera reports today that Marchesi was surrounded by his family at his home in Milan. The cause of death was a tumor.

Marchesi famously became the first Italian chef to be awarded the top ranking by the French restaurant guide in 1985 (published in 1986). He also made headlines when he “gave his stars back” in 2008.

“I’ve had enough with scores,” he said at the time. “From now on, I’m only accepting comments.”

A generation of Italian chefs — many of them now celebrities in their own right — cooked in his kitchens and studied with Marchesi, who is widely viewed as the father of the new wave of Italian cookery.

I only met him once, nearly 20 years ago in New York at an event at the Tavern on the Green. He was extremely approachable and polite, a true gentleman of Italian gastronomy.

In his talk that day, Marchesi, who was born in Milan and opened his first restaurant there, spoke of making a risotto alla milanese while attending a food event in Israel. He couldn’t use Parmigiano Reggiano — a key ingredient — to make the dish, he said, because it had to be kosher. He used olive oil instead, he recounted, noting that the omission of dairy didn’t diminish the authenticity of the recipe.

“You have to cook with the ingredients available to you,” he said. “That’s what makes for great cuisine.”

I’ve never forgotten his advice, nor will I ever.

Gualtere sit tibi terra levis.

Read the English-language Wikipedia entry on his life and career here.

Image via Bruno Cordioli’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

Rossoblu makes TOP 10 list in Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants (Los Angeles Times)

“The tortelloni, stuffed with the traditional mixture of ricotta and chard,” wrote LA Times food critic in his review of Rossoblu, “could illustrate the concept of Italian dumplings in a textbook.” I took the above photo last week when I was at the restaurant to lead a vertical tasting of Nebbiolo stretching back to 1996.

It was back in New York in the late 1990s when my friend from college Steve Samson (we met on our junior year abroad in Italy) first talked to me about his dream to open a fine-dining restaurant devoted to the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, where his mother was born. By the early 2000s, when I was just a few years into my wine writing career, he was already talking about the wine list he wanted me to create for it.

We used to call it “the Dream.”

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news: late last night, the Los Angeles Times published “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants,” including Steve’s Emilia-Romagna-themed Rossoblu, which landed in the top 10 (at number 10). I’ve been co-authoring the wine list there with my colleague Christine Veys since the restaurant opened this spring and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of such a great team of restaurant professionals.

Seeing Rossoblu up there with restaurants like Spago and Providence (one of my all-time favorites) was like a childhood fantasy come true.

And as proud as I am of the wine program that we’ve created there, the credit goes solely, wholly, and rightly to Chef Steve and his wife Dina, who have always stayed true to the vision that they had for this superbly unique restaurant.

Over the arc of my career in the wine and restaurant trade, I’ve been involved with many high-profile restaurant openings. A restaurant launch is always stressful, chaotic, and unpredictable. The only thing you can count on is that you can’t count on anything when it comes to opening the doors of a multi-million dollar venue.

But the thing that keeps it together is a shared vision and staying true to that vision. None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the son of schmatta-industry drop-out from Brooklyn who studied medicine in Italy and a wonderful home cook and loving mamma from Bologna.

Mazel tov and congratulations, Steve and Dina. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of it. Thank you for bringing me along for the ride. I love you guys. Well done and well deserved!

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…

Riso (or Risotto) al Salto, a recipe

riso risotto al salto recipeOver the weekend on social media, a lot of people asked about the photo above.

It’s a risotto al salto or riso al salto. Literally, it means a flipped or sautéed risotto and basically, it’s what you do with leftover risotto.

On Friday, I had made a risotto alla parmigiana and then on Saturday I made the “flipped” version.

For the risotto alla parmigiana, sauté some finely chopped onion in a broad pan with unsalted butter.

When the onions begin to become translucent, add the desired amount of rice and toast for a few minutes (being sure to stir constantly so that the rice doesn’t burn or stick to the pan).

Then add a few ladlefuls of chicken (or desired) stock and a half glass of white wine. Depending on the saltiness of the stock, add Kosher salt to taste (or not at all; between the stock and the Parmigiano Reggiano, you should have plenty of saltiness already).

Continue adding stock, stirring diligently all the while, until the rice has cooked through, 25-30 minutes depending on the grain.

A few minutes before the dish is ready to serve, fold in generously amounts of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

For the riso al salto, melt butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and then add the leftover risotto. Gently pat and smooth it out until it’s uniformly round and flat in shape.

Brown the rice for 10 minutes or so and when ready to serve, turn it out of the pan by placing a large dish on top of the pan and flipping it over (I’ve seen professional chefs turn it out of the pan simply by flipping it, like an omelette; but it takes a deft hand for that).

Dust with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

On Saturday night, I also made a pesto (below).

It drew some criticism (and some praise) on social media.

“A me spiaza ma quer li i ni é pistü!” wrote StaticStrat on Instagram. “R’pistü ga le trenete der 7, patate e fazoin!”

“I’m sorry but that there ain’t pesto. Pesto is served over trenette” and “with potatoes and green beans” on the side.

A Texas-based chef also lamented that the pesto-to-pasta ratio was weak.

My pesto is by no means traditional. In fact, I make it with Parmigiano Reggiano and not pecorino. But it’s still delicious, I swear!

Seriously, isn’t that what’s so great about Italian gastronomy? It’s a canon and a blueprint that allows for infinite idiosyncratic variations.

Hoping everyone had a culinarily rewarding weekend and wishing everyone a tasty week ahead. Thanks for being here…

pesto recipe

Tony Vallone, an American master and an American original

seafood gazpacho recipeAbove: I snapped this image of a seafood gazpacho a few weeks ago at Tony’s, where I meet with Tony Vallone and photograph his food nearly every week. One of the best things about moving to Texas and starting a life and a family here has been getting to work with him. I love it and cherish his friendship.

Week before last, Houston’s paper of record, the Houston Chronicle, profiled my good friend and client Tony Vallone (above, center) for its “History of Houston” series.

Since I moved to Texas, Tracie and I have shared some unforgettable meals at his restaurant, Tony’s, which he first opened in 1965 long before America’s food and wine renaissance took shape.

I wish I could share the whole article here but it’s behind a subscription wall. The following is a snippet.

Part of Vallone’s genius was to make Houstonians feel that the world was at their feet at a time when the city was increasingly staking its claim on a national and international stage. Nothing was too much trouble, from the freshest Dover sole to hulking knobs of white truffle, or the glistening Beluga caviar that Cullen oil heir Baron Ricky di Portanova would, by special request, theatrically toss into a plate of pasta for his table mates.

Another facet of Vallone’s genius was to make his restaurant fun. Sure, he required male guests to wear tie and jacket. But Vallone would cater to favored guests in all sorts of charmingly goofy ways. When developer Harold Farb requested chicken-fried steak, no problem. Did oilman John Mecom crave chili? Vallone made it for him, and the proletarian dish eventually achieved cult status on Fridays.

Read the rest of the article here (I believe it’s still available to non-subscribers).

In today’s world of gossipy food writing, where news of hirings and firings and openings and closings and an unabated hunger for clicks often seem to trump the coverage of the food itself, we sometimes forget that that the food arts are driven by genuine knowledge, passion, and creativity.

Thanks to my work and friendship with Tony, I get to watch his artistry up close (at our weekly kibitz, as we like to call our meetings). I wish that everyone could share my bird’s-eye view and hear him as he holds court on the finer points of Italian regional cookery, the differences in grades of caviar and truffles, recipes for French sauces and Americana classics… His energy and excitement are so great that his chef, his general manager, and I can barely keep up with his pace. For all the things that I get to taste and learn, our chats and tastings (where I also photograph his food) are one of the things I most look forward to.

He’s an American master and an American original. Yes, he’s cooked for every president from Johnson onward. Yes, you regularly see international celebrities at his restaurant. Yes, oil moguls spend outrageous sums there nightly as they dig deep into Tony’s wine cellar. But for Tony, it’s all about the science and art of cooking.

If you are a foodie and live in Houston or visit here, his cuisine is not to be missed.

For the month of July, Tony is doing a $59 tasting menu that includes wine pairings. It’s a great deal and a great way to experience Tony’s magic. I highly recommend it to you.

Chef Grant Gordon, rising culinary star in Houston, dies at 28

grant gordon chef houstonImage via Houston Press.

Today, the Houston restaurant community mourns the loss of one of its most promising and beloved stars, Grant Gordon, who died on Monday night.

A Houston native, Gordon, age twenty-eight, rose to prominence as the chef at Tony’s, one of the city’s leading fine-dining destinations, where the kitchen earned a top rating from the Houston Chronicle in 2011.

In 2012, he was a James Beard Rising Star Chef semi-finalist and one of Forbes 30 Under 30.

In 2014 he was selected by the U.S. State Department as a culinary ambassador and earlier this month, he and his business partners had announced plans for an ambitious new restaurant to be opened in 2015.

Click here for the Houston Chronicle notice of his passing and here for Culture Map’s profile. As both mastheads reported, the cause of death has not been determined.

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McChianina? You have to be kidding me! #MakesMeHeave

gran chianina

Above: The new “Gran Chianina” burger at McDonald’s Italy (image via McDonalds.it).

“When will we stop selling off our enogastronomic heritage?” asks my friend and blogging colleague Andrea Gori in a post for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino today.

Andrea, a native Florentine and one of Italy’s leading sommeliers and wine bloggers, is referring to McItaly’s launch of the “Gran Chianina,” a hamburger purportedly made with Chianina beef, the famous Tuscan breed that gave the world the bistecca fiorentina.

Italians are obsessed with hamburgers this year (see this post, one of many devoted to their hamburger mania). I’ve had some great hamburgers with my bromance Giovanni Arcari in Brescia. And my friend Wayne Young, Joe Bastianich’s special ops man, tells me that young Italians love the hamburger at Joe’s new restaurant in Cividale del Friuli.

But McChianina? It touches a raw nerve on both sides of the Atlantic.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chianina cattle, here’s the Wiki entry.

Evidently, McItaly (yes, that’s what it’s called!) is also launching a line of Piedmontese beef burgers.

While the first Italian McDonald’s opened its doors in German-speaking Bolzano in 1985 (according to the Wiki), it was the launch of the McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome that inspired the creation of what would become the Slow Food movement.

This legacy has made McDonald’s the symbol of enogastronomic colonization in Italy, a bitter pill to swallow for a country united only by culinary pride and football.

Here’s a video capture of the Gran Chianina spot from Andrea’s YouTube. It’s enough to make you want to heave…

I can only imagine how offensive this is to Andrea. Not only is he one of Italy’s leading wine personalities, he’s also the wine director for his family’s legacy restaurant, Trattoria da Burde, in Florence. It was the model for the Gambero Rosso (Red Lobster) restaurant in Collodi’s Pinocchio.