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…

“Your Friend Bread”: notes from Liguria, the spiritual homeland of pesto and focaccia

Over the weekend a pseudo-pesto was prepared and served over bucatini in the Parzen home.

The Parzen family pesto recipe is delicious. But it’s a mere riff on the traditional recipe, hence the qualifier “pseudo” (we don’t use pecorino and the Parmigiano-Reggiano we use isn’t aged; you could call it a “pan-Italian” pesto, typical of the pesto you’ll find in major cities beyond the Ligurian coast).

It reminded me of the mouthwatering pesto the Parzen family ate during a weekend in Liguria this summer along the Italian coast in Finale Ligure (nearly all of our Italian friends poo-poo’d our beach destination, writing it off as too “1960s,” kitschy, and passé; but we loved it).

Those are lasagne al pesto in the photo above (yes, it’s plural in Italian and thus it’s appropriate to refer to it in the plural in English as well; a lasagna is a sheet of pasta, plural lasagne).

Note the potatoes among the layered pasta sheets.

Tracie had trenette that night with pesto. Both dishes were thoroughly enjoyed but neither compared to the focaccia topped with pesto that we discovered at Il Tuo Amico Pane, a bakery and gourmet shop whose name can be translated as “Your Friend Bread.”

(No website but here’s its somewhat lackluster Facebook, which focuses more on its desserts.)

Liguria is renowned for its superb, deeply golden-colored extra-virgin olive oil. Some would even contend that Italy’s best olive oil is produced there

Made primarily from Taggiasca olives (named after the township of Taggia, also known in English as Cailletier olives), the oil is famous for its almond and pine nut character. The taggiasca cultivar is smaller than most and its stones are relatively large. This makes it unappealing to commercial producers of olive oil who seek greater yield. But it remains a gold standard (excuse the pun) among top olive millers.

Ligurian oil is a central ingredient in pesto. And it’s also a key element in focaccia genovese, Genoa-style focaccia. In Liguria, the flatbread is basted with rich olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. As you can imagine, it’s literally finger-licking good.

And one of the coolest things about focaccia genovese (at least for me, lover of savory as opposed to sweet breakfast) is that the Ligurians eat it in the morning for breakfast with their coffee. As a matter of fact, they seem to eat it at all times of day (which is fine by me).

No user-generated content research went into our decision to frequent Il Tuo Amico Pane. We simply scouted around until we found the focacceria with the longest line.

The focaccia slathered with pesto was sublime, hands down the best pesto we ate during our 36 hours in Liguria. I wish I would have taken a photo of it but my hands were otherwise covered in olive oil and sea sand (we used Vittoria Beach for our beach set up; it was great).

Finale Ligure may not be the sexiest beach destination among Italy’s hipster crowd. But man, it sure hit the spot.

Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix was everything they said it would be… and more.

One of the most exciting things about eating in a great restaurant for the first time is the electric anticipation you feel as you walk into the dining room. As you cross the threshold and the host greets you, you know there’s a culinary adventure ahead of you. You don’t know how that adventure will unfold but you know it’s about to happen. And it’s one of the things I love the most about a maiden voyage at a famous dining destinations.

For years, people have been telling me about pizzaiolo Chris Bianco and his Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. And his brother Marc, the restaurant group’s baker and ancient grain expert, has been a virtual friend for nearly a decade.

Last week, as the Parzen family made its way back to Texas from the west (our first big road trip together), we stopped for a night in Phoenix for dinner there.

Chris and Marc were among the earliest pioneers of wood-burning pizza ovens in the U.S. By the time New York’s Pizza War broke out in the 2000s (only to be followed by the bi-coastal pizza wars), they had already been churning out wood-fired pies for more than a decade (Chris launched Pizzeria Bianco in 1988 according to the restaurant’s website).

I ordered a hybrid (above): the Rosa (red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, Arizona pistachios) and Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami, Gaeta olives). The toppings were great — wholesome, tasty, and elegantly balanced in their saltiness. But it was the crust — the heart of the matter at any great pizzeria — that really thrilled me.

More Roman than Neapolitan in style, the dough was cooked all the way through (unlike the soggy-center Neapolitan style). The edges were toasty but not burnt. And the crust had an immensely rewarding savory character and a firm texture that retained its integrity on the palate without even a hint of redundant chewiness. We paired it with a bottle of Graci Etna Bianco (at a more-than-reasonable price, btw). It was utterly delicious and I highly recommend the restaurant to you.

But beyond the excellent food and truly groovy wine selection by manager Kari Barry, the Bianco brothers’ place has something transcendent about it: an aura of authenticity and genuine hospitality that’s increasingly rare in the U.S. restaurant scene.

Restaurants can be like rock bands: as soon as they become famous and successful, I’ve found over the years, they often lose the soulfulness that got them off the ground. But that’s not the case with Pizzeria Bianco, a Grateful Dead among Jefferson Airplanes Starships.

Chatting with Kari and some of the guests there that evening, I discovered that nearly everyone who works there has been on board for 20+ years, including the pizzaiolo who was (hu)manning the oven that night. Magically, they all seemed to share my exhilaration as a first time diner. And that’s what really took this place over the top for me.

I was reminded of a recently published piece by Tom Sietsema for the Washington Post, “Mass appeal: A taste of the nation’s most popular restaurants.”

In the article, he recounts his visits to the top-earning restaurants in the U.S.

The magic ingredient, he writes, is “hospitality of the warmest order.”

“Diners prize passion and sincerity as much as whatever’s on the menu.”

(Many American restaurateurs would be well-served by reading the column, btw.)

The food at Pizzeria Bianco was everything the critics said it would be and so much more.

I only wish I could go there for the first time… again.

Thank you, Kari, and thank you, Chris and Marc! I loved your restaurant and can’t wait until the next time.

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.