The best mortadella I’ve ever had. Here’s where to find it in Bologna.

Above: Dario Barbieri’s take on mortadella blew my mind — and my palate — the weekend before last in Bologna. The mortadella is on the right of the cutting board.

Every time Slow Food U. asks me to come teach in Piedmont, my Italian crew and I plan at least one night of enogastronomic adventure.

For this last stint in early October, we headed to Emilia-Romagna where our first stop was the legendary Dario Barbieri’s wine bar Zampa in the city of Bologna.

Dario, whose wine program features labels from both Paolo Cantele and Giovanni Arcari (my southern and northern Italian bromances, respectively), had asked us to come on the later side that Saturday night so that we could all sit, visit, and discuss the finer points — we later learned — of mortadella.

For anyone not familiar with mortadella and more specifically Mortadella Bologna, it’s a sausage made from finely ground pork and pork fat. See the Wiki entry for some useful background info on mortadella. But see also this excellent post by WebFoodCulture.com. And also the Mortadella Bologna PGI consortium’s not-so-easy-to-find website.

Don’t confuse it with other types of mortadella made in other parts of Italy, sometimes not from pork.

Above: marinated fresh anchovies followed our salumi tasting that evening. Bologna and Emilia in general has some of the best bread I’ve ever had in Italy.

It has been considered one of the greatest delicacies of Europe since the 17th century and beyond. Even French cookery books from the pre-modern era describe with great reverence the then highly advanced techniques for making charcuterie in the city of Bologna (the French also loved and learned a lot from Milanese pastry production).

Mortadella is also the inspiration for a poor imitation that we call “bologna” or “baloney” (as in Oscar Myer; but we will leave Upton Sinclair out of this).

As Dario explained that evening, there are “three or so” classic recipes that are still being used by artisanal mortadella producers in Bologna today. They are all excellent, he told us.

Above: the crunchy oven-fired thyme sprinkled on the pâté took it over the top.

But in order to become their clients, he said, you have to be willing to take only one mortadella at a time. The key, he emphasized with his rich baritone, is to consume the mortadella immediately, within a few days after it was produced. Otherwise, it loses the richness of its flavor and delicacy of its texture.

As someone who has been obsessed with mortadella since I first traveled to Italy in the late 1980s, I am here to tell you, people, this was absolutely the best mortadella I have ever tasted.

With great pride, Dario told us the story of Ennio Pasquini, one of the great mortadella craftspeople of our time. He recently passed away and his family is now arduously defending his legacy from those who would cash in on his namesake. For those who read Italian, click on the image below to read their “open letter” to the world of mortadella lovers. Pasquini was Dario’s “mortadella mentor,” as it were. He had refused to sell Dario his sausages until Dario agreed to take only small quantities each week.

Our literally five-hour tasting with Dario was one of the greatest culinary experiences of 2021 for me. I highly recommend his wonderful wine bar Zampa in Bologna (no website, at least that I can find).

How to make eggplant parmigiana (and a short treatise on the origin of the dish).

One of the things that makes melanzane alla parmigiana such a fascinating dish is that it is arguably Italy’s only truly national recipe beyond spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomato sauce).

Yes, you can order pesto at a restaurant in Rome. Yes, you can choose your own style of pizza in Barbaresco. But no savvy, self-respecting italophile gastronome would ever indulge in such a transgression of the Italian culinary canon.

Eggplant alla parmigiana — aka eggplant parmigiana (without the articulated preposition), eggplant parmesan, or eggplant parm — is a dish that can generally be found in homes (although not in restaurants) throughout the country.

As the name reveals, it incorporates what many consider the greatest “food product” of all time: Parmigiano Reggiano, the famed friable cow’s milk cheese from Parma in Emilia (parmigiana is the demonym when used in reference to gastronomy; parmense is the city’s ethnonym).

The name doesn’t reveal however the dish’s connection to Sicily where eggplants were first consumed in Italy thanks to the island’s connection to the Arab and — some will be surprised to learn — to the Jewish world (Artusi, the still highly influential 19th-century cookery book writer from Romagna, writes about how only Jews in Italy ate eggplant at the time; the nightshade was believed to cause insanity but as Artusi points out with an antisemitic microaggression that I will forgive him, Jews have a “good nose” for great food).

To the northern cultural influence of Parma and the southern cultural legacy of Sicily, we must add yet another southern element: mozzarella. A great melanzane alla parmigiana is defined in part by its diversity of texture. The plastic cheese provides a sine qua non light and moreish chewiness to the best expressions of this timeworn and now international recipe.

Parmesan, Neapolitan, and Sicilian traditiones coquinariae combine to create a pan-Italian dish that I have enjoyed as far south as Lecce and as far north as Belluno.

To make a great melanzane alla parmigiana, the home cook must be patient. In the case of our family, the dish must be preceded by a tomato sauce prepared the night before to dress pasta. It’s that leftover sauce, with all of its flavors now perfectly fused and slightly desiccated, that really can take the recipe over the top.

Another important element is the olive oil you use — for both frying the eggplant rounds and greasing the pan. High-quality olive oil makes a marked difference in dishes like this.

For the recipe below, I haven’t included exact quantities. But that shouldn’t be a hindrance in making the dish the way we like it at our house. Years of translating and editing Italian recipes has taught me that the Italian indication quanto basta, an expression rendered in English as needed, is a good guide to all things in life. You just enough of each ingredient to achieve the desired result.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana
eggplant alla parmigiana

Ingredients:

extra-virgin olive oil
garlic, peeled
tomato purée (passata)
white wine
kosher salt
freshly cracked pepper
chili flakes
basil leaves (optional)
eggplant (ideally globe or graffiti), sliced into thin rounds
mozzarella, sliced
Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

Make the sauce:

Over low flame, gently heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the garlic and sauté but do not brown. Just as the garlic begins to turn golden in color, add the tomato purée and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the wine and when the alcohol has evaporated, season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes to taste. Simmer slowly for roughly 30 minutes and as soon as you remove the pot from heat, add 1 or 2 basil leaves (optional). Cool and reserve, ideally overnight, covered on the stovetop (not in the refrigerator). Remove garlic cloves and basil.

Purge the eggplant:

Generously season the eggplant rounds with kosher salt. Transfer to a colander and reserve for at least 30 minutes until the eggplant purges its bitter liquid. (This is an extremely important step.) Use a clean kitchen towel to absorb any excess liquid and reserve the rounds.

Fry the eggplant:

Heat a generous amount of olive oil (roughly 5-6 teeming tablespoons or as needed) to a broad frying pan over medium flame. Once the oil has heated through, add the eggplant rounds. Turn them once they have lightly browned on one side. Once they have browned on both sides, remove and distribute over a clean kitchen towel to remove any excess oil. (Using high-quality olive oil for frying the eggplant will make this dish even more tasty.)

Assemble the dish:

Grease an oven-ready casserole dish with olive oil. Add the eggplant rounds. Top with the sliced mozzarella. Smother with tomato sauce and top generously with the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Fire the dish in a pre-heated oven at 350° F. for 30 minutes or until a golden brown crust forms. Remove from oven and cool.

At our house, eggplant alla parmigiana is either reheated to be served at dinner or served room temperature for lunch or for a late afternoon snack. One of my favorite ways to serve it is as a sandwich on a favorite crusty bread. In my experience, letting it cool (and the reheating it) is key.

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.

A unicorn (yes, we found one) and impossibly delicate baby cuttlefish at Nalin in mainland Venice.

When Giovanni and I sat down at Trattoria Nalin in mainland Venice on Saturday at around 1:30 p.m., we basically just said please start bringing us crudo and please bring us the wine list.

The super professional staff at this historic seafood destination did just that. But at the end of the crudo flight, the owner offered also us an unusual and entirely unexpected delicacy: flash-grilled baby cuttlefish that only appear for a brief window during this time of year. They are called seppioline di porto or harbor baby cuttlefish because these little cephalopods tend to gravitate toward the banks of the port.

They were impossibly delicate and when you bit into them you were rewarded with a “pop” of their ink. It was undeniably the best thing I’ve eaten this year.

And of course it was only natural, after we ordered a couple of dream whites — a 2013 Friulano by Borgo del Tiglio and a 1999 Pinot Blanc from Vigne di Zamò (see below) — that the gracious and generous owner would reach deep into his cellar for a 1995 Radikon white blend.

Now, if that isn’t a unicorn, then I don’t know what is, folks!

Like a pre-CBS-era Fender amp, Radikon’s pre-maceration-era wines are intensely coveted among Friulian wine lovers. This wine was incredibly fresh, with only gentle notes of nutty oxidation and rich notes of dried stone fruit in the mouth. We lingered for at least an hour over this wine and it never lost its vibrant and very much “alive” character. The decade is young but this wine is going to set a high standard to follow! What an incredible wine.

Here are some snaps of the other things we ate and drank. The cuttlefish julienne and the langoustine (scampi) were highlights among the spectacular crudo lineup. The Pinot Blanc paired magically with the oysters.
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A southeast Texas wine list that needs to be on your radar at Davis St. in Houston.

Last Friday, Tracie and I had our first big night on the H-Town since our 10-year anniversary celebration in January 2020. We were joined by some of our best friends in Houston: a couple we have known through wine since before the lockdowns began and another couple to whom we’ve become close through the weekly virtual dinners I led during the lockdowns. It was an incredible experience to sit down finally with them over a proper meal. That’s something, I believe, a lot of us are experiencing these days.

Not only was it wonderful to connect with great friends, old and new, over a long, relaxed, and decadent dinner. But it was also fantastic to explore the incredible menu and amazing wine program at Davis St. at Hermann Park on the edge of Houston’s museum district (which, I recently learned, is only surpassed in scope and breadth by New York City’s — no joke).

Chef Mark Holley’s menu is focused on seafood and Gulf Coast cookery with contemporary flourishes. The materia prima alone would be worth the price of admission. But it’s his creative approach to haute Louisiana cuisine that really takes it over the top. That’s the Thai-style Gulf red snapper in the image above. Nothing short of phenomenal.

But the biggest and even happier discovery was the excellent wine program there. We started out with a selection from an ample offering of Champagnes, headed to Burgundy for some Bourgogne Blanc and then to Willamette for some richer-style but still judiciously restrained Chardonnay. But the real showstopper was a 2008 Sagrantino by Antonelli. I was so stoked to find that wine on the list and it wowed all of us. For the last wine (there were six of us, after all!), I asked wine director Kevin Jackson to choose for us. He soon reappeared with a bottle of Elio Altare Langhe Nebbiolo (2018, if I’m not mistaken, the brio had eclipsed the note taking by that point!). The pairing with our seafood mains was spot on — Nebbiolo and classic Louisiana cooking. We loved and highly recommend it.

This is Americana cooking at its best imho. Come out to visit us in Houston and I’ll make us a reservation… And wine people, you need to get Kevin Jackson and his wine program on your radar.

In other news…

I’m in Southern California this week, working and visiting a best friend who’s facing some major health challenges right now.

That’s a photo taken from the Las Flores Canyon vista point at Camp Pendleton yesterday.

Please say a prayer for my friend. They have a long road ahead. I know they’re going to make it. But it’s going to take all of our support for them to get there. They will. I know it, they will. But it’s not going to be easy.

Thanks for being here and thanks for the support and solidarity.

Imagine a world without restaurants: an Italian filmmaker did just that.

Above, from left: Scannabue’s co-owner and chef Paolo Fantini and co-owner and front-of-the-house Gianluigi Desana (image via the Scannabue Facebook).

In a brilliant video shared on social media last week, a pair of Torinese restaurateurs imagine a world where restaurants are just a figment of the past.

In the short film directed by Stefano Cravero and produced by chef Paolo Fantini and Gianluigi Desana, owners of Scannabue Caffè, Restaurant, e Gastronomia, a museum docent (with lanyard and all, played wonderfully by Italian actor Francesca Bracchino) leads a group of Italian and foreign tourists on a tour of the “restaurant museum.”

“Just think,” she says to her tour group, “they used to all sit around the same table and share the bread in the middle!”

“That’s disgusting!” blurts out one of the Italians in the group.

“Yes, I know,” commiserates the docent as she notes that “we need to remember: that was more than a year ago!”

There’s even a quip about American dining.

Above: a screenshot from the short film.

After one of the tourists asks the docent whether or not there were restaurants in other parts of the world like America, she doesn’t miss a beat before answering: “Oh, yes, they had restaurants in America as well. But let’s just say they were ‘faster.'”

The cortometraggio has really touched a nerve in Italy.

As of this posting, the video had been shared more than 400 times on Facebook. And it’s been featured in the Italian mainstream media.

The rituals of dining and gastrocentric socializing are key to the Italian identity. So many of my Italian friends have told me about how restaurant closures have weighed on their souls (not to mention winemaker friends who previously depended on independent restaurants like Scannabue for much of their sales).

You don’t need to understand Italian to follow along (although it’s even more funny if you can pick up on some of the nuance of Bracchino’s delivery).

Watch the video here.

The hilarious yet poignant video came to my attention via one of my favorite food and wine blogs, Sapori del Piemonte, edited by one of the most talented people in the trade and a great friend, Filippo Larganà.

As Italy lifts dine-in restrictions, restaurant owners (and winemakers) see glimmer of hope.

Above: a classic Italian trattoria in Florence (image via Adobe Stock).

“Let me call you later,” wrote an Italian winemaker in a text message around 1:30 p.m. Italian time today. “I’m eating lunch in a restaurant for the first time since dining rooms were closed three months ago.”

In all but five Italian regions, restaurants were allowed to open again today, Monday, February 1. In some cases, like Lombardy in Northern Italy where said winemaker lives, dine-in service has been prohibited (intermittently depending on the city and/or province) for the last there months and beyond. And take-away service was only allowed until 6 p.m.

Restaurateurs and café owners will still be required to close their dining rooms at 6 p.m. nightly, although they will be able to continue take-away until 10 p.m. and home delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day where available.

The re-openings are welcome news to restaurant owners, winemakers and grape growers, and brewers alike. Especially in the case of small-scale wineries, independent regional restaurants are a primary outlet for sales. The lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a much-needed boost in orders. Restrictions on tasting rooms and independent wine shops, some of which are still in place, have also slowed recovery for winemakers.

With most of Italy now under “yellow zone” restrictions,

– customers can consume food and beverages inside from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– take-away food and beverages may be sold from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– restaurants may still fulfill take-away orders from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.;
– but beverage take-away from cafés (without restaurant service) and wine shops is prohibited after 6 p.m;
– delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day.

“I walked into the restaurant,” said the winemaker, who was seated in a dining room together with the family of his business partner, “and I told them to make me whatever they wanted. Anything. I just wanted to sit down and enjoy my meal without thinking about anything else.”

Taste with Marco Fantinel and me this Thursday in Houston and notes on how to roast a bell pepper.

This Thursday, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend Marco Fantinel for the virtual wine dinner I host each week for Roma restaurant here in Houston.

I first met Marco in 2007 at the U.N. when he was launching a wine to benefit humanitarian aid (a lot of people don’t realize that Italy is one of the biggest supporters of the U.N.).

Over the years, he’s become a great friend and his family’s wines have become one of Tracie and me’s go-tos.

Marco is an amazing guy: a soccer club owner, a hotelier, a producer of Prosciutto di San Daniele (Friuli’s classic prosciutto), and first and foremost a grape grower and winemaker.

As you can see in the photo below, he grows his wines in the shadow of the Karsic Alps in the gravelly and limestone soils of Grave and Collio in Friuli. And I bet many of our guests will be surprised to learn how significantly his wines and Friulian culture have reshaped fine dining in the U.S., thanks in no so small part to Marco’s efforts.

Most recently, Marco partnered with Mary J. Blige to produce her Pinot Grigio (no joke!). I can’t wait to see him on our Zoom call and hear all about it as we taste his wines and enjoy Chef Angelo’s amazing cooking.

See the menu and details here. $119 send you home with three bottles of wine and dinner for two. Please support local businesses, including my own, by eating Italian food and drinking Italian wines with the people who make and love them. Thank you for your support.

In other news…

A ton of people had questions about this photo, posted on my social media over the weekend.

Back when I was translating recipes and writing about Italian wines and gastronomy for La Cucina Italiana in the late 1990s, this was how I learned to roast bell peppers.

You just place them on the stove top over medium or low heat and turn the pepper as it chars on each side.

For the next step, most recipes call for it to be placed in a brown paper bag to steam as it cools. I just put it in a medium-sized mixing bowl and cover it with a b&b plate.

After 10 minutes or so, it will have cooled and the charred skin is easy to remove.

After I’ve removed the skin under running water, revealing the beautiful color underneath, I clean the pepper of its stem and seeds. Then I slice it into thin strips that I dress with kosher salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and a kiss of red wine vinegar.

Sometimes I sauté the strips with garlic and chili flakes before dressing them as above. But Tracie and I like them best simply roasted and dressed.

It’s a super easy but classic way to prepare them! We served them with crusty bread and a glass of delicious Lageder Chardonnay (our new favorite everyday white ever since we did a virtual wine dinner with Helena Lageder a few weeks ago!).

The Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans needs to be on your radar (“the universe in a cup of gumbo”).

Yesterday in New Orleans, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas (IACC) officially launched its new partnership with the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Italian Consul General Federico Ciattaglia (from the Italian Consulate in Houston), IACC president Brando Ballerini, and IACC director Alessia Paolicchi were joined by museum founder Liz Williams and president Brent Rosen for a ribbon cutting ceremony and reception.

While the event celebrated the opening of the IACC’s new outpost in New Orleans, it also marked the beginning of its expansion into greater Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. With new territory to cover, the IACC has also changed its name to “Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central.”

As a long-time media consultant for the IACC, I couldn’t be more thrilled, in part because I’ve always wanted to spend more time in New Orleans, one of the country’s most culinarily compelling cities.

But I’m also eager to do more work with Liz, a noted food historian and author, one of the most talented food writers working in the U.S. today imho.

She and I have appeared on panels together at the IACC’s annual Taste of Italy festival. I’ve been wholly impressed by her encyclopedic knowledge of American gastronomy. But I had never visited her extraordinary museum, which also includes the Museum of the American Cocktail and a newly added kitchen and events space.

If you’re into American foodways, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum needs to be on your radar. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Check out the photo album I posted this morning on the IACC Facebook with images from the event.)

On Tuesday, March 31, the IACC and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum will be co-presenting the first Taste of Italy New Orleans festival. The chamber has held the event in Houston for the last five years and I’ve been the gathering’s emcee for the last three years. I’ll be emceeing in New Orleans as well this year and Liz and I will both be appearing on seminar panels.

The Houston event is scheduled for Monday, March 30. See details for both here.

As Liz pointed out in her address yesterday, New Orleans is home to one of North America’s oldest and most vibrant Italian communities. Following Emancipation, she explained, Sicilian sugar cane workers were recruited to work at the plantations and sugar mills. Many of them laid down roots in their newfound home. It’s only natural that New Orleans cuisine would be deeply influenced by Italian gastronomy.

One of the things that I love the most about my newfound home here in Southeast Texas is how good the food is. My wife Tracie grew up on the Louisiana border where the food leans, understandably, toward the Cajun style. And Houston, in the years that followed Katrina, became home to many displaced New Orleans chefs. They have been a big part of Houston’s food and restaurant renaissance.

Before the event yesterday, I managed to carve out time for the “Gumbo Combo” at the extraordinary Heard Dat Kitchen, walking distance from the museum (see also this write-up here). Many folks won’t know that potato salad is a garnish for gumbo in this part of the world. And this gumbo, served with a small side of potato salad, was hands down the best I’ve ever had and I have had a lot of gumbo since moving to Texas 12 years ago and marrying a woman from Southeast Texas 10 years ago (sorry, uncle Tim; yours is great but this was the one).

A famous Italian physicist is believed to have once said that “the whole universe is in a glass of wine” (he probably didn’t really say it but the quote is ascribed to him).

As our country continues to struggle with its identity and its original sins, Tracie and I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be an American today. Yesterday, on a gray day in New Orleans’ Central City, I realized that the whole of America is in a cup of gumbo on the corner of Felicity and Magnolia.

Horse meat burgers? Yes, that’s right…

A lot of folks have asked about a photo of horse meat hamburgers (above) posted to my social media.

Yes, that’s ground horse meat, a delicacy that you can commonly find in the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

People in Italy and France began eating horse meat in the 1960s. As Europe was still rebuilding after World War II, it was an excellent and amply available source of protein for young people. Meat was scarce then. And horse meat was cheap.

Today, it’s not unusual for people to eat horse meat on special occasions, like the party my friends in Lombardy threw on Saturday night. They regularly visit a specialized “equine” butcher where they buy the meat ground or butchered into steaks.

We also ate air-dried, shredded horse meat, known as sfilacci (threads).

During my university days in Padua (Veneto), we used to go to horse meat restaurants in the country on Saturday nights. Nearly every dish — from the antipasti and primi to the secondi — were made using horse meat.

Horse meat is very lean and rich in flavor. The savory burgers, which we dressed like regular burgers, tasted almost like cooked salame.

We paired with a 1998 Bordeaux blend in magnum from Franciacorta. It was delicious.

Wait ’til the folks back in Texas hear about this!

Today is my last day teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences. All in all, it’s been a great experience. But I can’t wait to get home tomorrow to Houston, where I belong and where our precious daughters, our stinky Chihuahuas, and my beautiful wife Tracie are waiting for me. I miss them all so much. There’s no place like home. And I’m glad to have one. Wish me luck and wish me speed…