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.

Continue reading

McChianina? You have to be kidding me! #MakesMeHeave

gran chianina

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

“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.

06 Barolo Garblèt Sué, birthday fiorentina & the aeration condom

This year’s birthday celebration centered around a porterhouse cooked alla fiorentina: the steak is cooked upright so that the T in the t-bone release its flavor and the entire steak heats through without cooking the sirloin and tenderloin. This year, Tracie P bought me the steak three days before my birthday and we dry-aged it in the fridge (you just put it on a plate, uncovered, and let it dry out). It’s the simplest thing but it makes such a big difference in the tenderness and flavor of the beef.

When you see the marrow begin to bubble in the bone, quickly grill the steak on either side at high heat.

We paired with a bottle of 2006 Barolo Garblèt Sué by Brovia, one of my all-time favorite Nebbiolo growers and bottlers.

The Garblèt Sué vineyard is on the Bricco Fiasco and its name comes from the name of the farm that lies below, Garbelletto Superiore. (The dialectal inflection of the toponym, Garblèt Sué, was authorized in new legislation that went into effect in 2010 allowing for added geographical mentions, as they are called in red-tape jargon.)

Honestly, the wine was still very tight, even though I had opened it early in the day to let it aerate. But that didn’t diminish our enjoyment of this classic expression of Barolo from Castiglione Falletto, the township that lies virtually in the center of the appellation and is known for its balance of elegance and fruit (imparted by the more generous Tortonian soils to the west of the Barolo-Alba road) and opulence and tannic structure (delivered by the austere Helvetian soils to the east). Even though this wine wasn’t anywhere near its peak, a Saturday night with a Barolo by Brovia is always an undeniable and unforgettable treat for me (thanks again, Tracie P!). This was the second 2006 by Brovia that I’ve tasted this year and I’ve been impressed with how fresh and bright the vintage is showing from Langa.

Beyond the new flip flops (much needed) and the gorgeous brown agate cufflinks (much appreciated) that Tracie P gave me for my birthday this year, she has given me the greatest gift that anyone ever could: our little Georgia P, whose smile could light an entire city block and whose sweetness can wash away even the bluest blues.

We have so much to be grateful for and this year’s celebration of my birthday (my forty-fifth year!) reminded me of how rich our lives have been in the last year and a half. I love both of them so very much…

In other news…

Over at the Houston Press this morning, I explain why I don’t decant wines like the Garblèt Sué and offered a trick for allowing wine to breath over the course of the entire day: the “aeration condom,” I call it.

Thanks for reading and thanks for all the birthday wishes on the Facebook and the Twitter! :)

Georgia P’s first pasta!

Tracie P has been chronicling our “baby-led weaning” here and it’s been a lot of fun: twice a day, Georgia P sits in her high chair and we offer her different foods to eat. She loves yogurt (with blueberries), her mango phase is already over, avocados are still in, steak is king and chicken is fun, too, and she even likes baba ghanoush!

But you can imagine the anticipation — for two food lovers and Italophiles — on the evening and occasion of her first pasta (above).

Tracie P had picked organic wholewheat fusilli at Central Market (our local crunchy-feely gourmet store) and I made a summer pomodoro using tomatoes, onion, and garlic from our community-supported-agriculture farmer at Tecolote Farm (who delivers a basket of fresh produce each week).

I only lightly salted the sauce and the pasta cooking water (because salt is a concern) and of course, I overcooked the pasta (so it would be mushy enough) and I let it cool before we served it to her.

She seemed to like it and ate maybe three or four fusilli before she lost interest.

It wasn’t the first time she ate something that I had prepared (she DEVOURED thinly sliced steak I had grilled for her the other day). But, man, what an emotion to feed Georgia P pasta for the first time!

Thanks for letting me share…

Pork chops with braised fennel (recipe) and 2005 Vodopivec Vitovska

I’m adding a new category to the blog today: de arte copulandi vinorum…

Photos by Tracie P.

1 bulb fennel, washed and trimmed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 porter house pork chops, about ½ inch thick

Slice the fennel vertically into rounds about ¼ inch thick.

In a wide sauté pan, heat 3 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. When smoke begins to rise from the pan, add 1 clove garlic. When the garlic has begun to brown, add the fennel rounds, sprinkle with salt, and brown on both sides.

Deglaze with ½ cup white wine. When the alcohol has evaporated, add ½ cup chicken stock and simmer over low heat until the cooking liquids have reduced by half. Transfer the fennel to a mixing bowl, discard the garlic, filter the sauce using a fine strainer, and add the sauce to the bowl. Reserve.

Preheat oven to 200° F.

Gently season the pork chops with salt on both sides.

Add 3 tbsp. olive oil to the same pan used to braise the fennel and brown the remaining garlic clove over high heat. Add the pork chops and brown on both sides (n.b.: it’s important to brown the pork quickly over high heat; they don’t need to cook through).

Once browned on both sides, transfer the pork chops to an oven-ready dish and cover with aluminum foil; transfer to the pre-heated oven.

In the meantime, add the remaining wine to the pan over medium heat. When the alcohol has evaporated, add the remaining stock, the reserved fennel and its sauce, and reduce to desired consistency. Remove the fennel from the pan and reserve and then filter the sauce using a fine strainer (n.b.: in the time that it takes you to reduce the sauce, the pork chops will have cooked through).

Arrange the pork chops on a serving dish and then top with the braised fennel and sauce.

The tannin of the skin-contact, amphora-aged Vitovska was ideal with the fatty, juicy chops and its nutty fruit flavors the perfect complement to the sweetness and tang of the fennel.

Buon weekend, yall!

Melanzane alla parmigiana (Eggplant alla Parmigiana) my recipe

From my post today for the Houston Press

Slice one medium-sized black beauty aubergine into ¼-inch rounds (I know that you Solanaceae geeks out there would cringe if I called a western variety eggplant). Arrange in a colander and sprinkle with kosher salt. Set aside for 30 minutes to purge its bitter liquid.

Pre-heat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit.

In the meantime, make the tomato sauce by sautéeing 1 or 2 peeled whole cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp. finely minced onion and 1 tbsp. finely chopped well washed flat-leaf parsley in extra virgin olive oil (reserve a tbsp. of flat-leaf parsley to finish the dish). Add your favorite tomato purée (ideally unseasoned; my favorite is the Central Market brand in bottle). Season with 1 bay leaf, and salt, pepper, and chili flakes to taste. Once the tomato has begun to simmer, add ½ cup of white wine. By the time the eggplant has entirely purged its liquid, the sauce will be ready.

Grease a medium-size, oven-ready, deep casserole dish with unsalted butter. Distribute the aubergine rounds in the bottom of the dish and sprinkle generously with freshly grated domestic cow’s milk mozzarella. Pour the sauce into the dish, making sure to cover the aubergine completely. Top generously with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and bake until the Parmigiano Reggiano begins to brown.

Serve hot sprinkled with finely chopped flat-leaf parsley.

In summer, when locally grown fresh basil is available, use the basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley. This dish is best if you can prepare it beforehand and let it cool, reheating it immediately before you serve it.

10 Tips for Holiday Wine Shopping @EatingOurWords & Venison Carpaccio @CanteleWines

My post today over at the Houston Press is devoted to 10 Tips for Holiday Wine Shopping.

The one tip that they wouldn’t let me put in my post: don’t ever buy La Spinetta! (just kidding)

Seriously, I’ve been having a lot of fun posting for Eating Our Words and my editors are the best…

And over at the Cantele Wines blog, I posted my translation of a wonderful recipe for venison carpaccio and polenta medallions topped with braised pork skins and chopped walnuts by one of my favorite Italian-language food bloggers, Appunti Digòla.

I really loved the way author Stefano Caffarri composed this recipe and his humor. Great stuff…

Buona lettura, yall!

Best Piedirosso I’ve tasted this year and the world’s craziest sandwich

It’s been more than a month since I returned from Apulia where I sat as a judge in the Radici Wines festival, celebrating the indigenous grapes of Southern Italy and I still haven’t caught up on all the great wines I tasted during the event. Here’s another one…

The wines of Paola Mustilli first came to my attention back in 1998 when I was writing about wine for La Cucina Italian in New York. I cannot conceal that I’ve been a devoted fan ever since and I was thrilled that I finally got to meet her in early June at the festival, where the first two days included “speed-dating” with producers (although some of those têtes-à-têtes proved to be a little awkward when the wines were less than satisfying or the enologist decided to lecture on “how wine is made”).

I guess I’m thinking about her Piedirosso because when I landed in sunny San Diego this morning and saw the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, I got a craving for this wonderful wine — grapey and slightly chewy, with clean berry and red fruit flavors, sturdy acidity and judicious alcohol. The day I tasted with her she served it slightly chilled and it was perfect. And when I wrote home about it, Tracie P responded with a note of enviable nostalgia, reminded of how she used to enjoy this relatively inexpensive wine during her years on the Amalfi coast. Piedirosso is such a fantastic, user-friendly grape, so versatile and flexible, and when it’s done right, its downright delicious.

The wine was definitely a highlight of the festival for me, as was Paola’s Falaghina, which really stood out for its faithfulness to the variety. Overall, the flights of Falanghina were disappointing (and I got into some hot water after Jancis suggested that I mention my impression in my address to the conference). There were a few solid entries for Falaghina but even those tasted yeasted and spoofed to me. Paola’s really stood apart and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you: it was bright and clean with the white fruit aromas and flavors that I look for in real Falaghina (not honeydew and bubblegum that you find in the tricked out bottlings).

One of the other highlights that day was what I have dubbed the world’s craziest sandwich.

The food at Alessia Perucci’s Masseria Le Fabriche was exceptional and the meals rigorously traditional yet equally and wonderfully creative. But, standing nearly 2 feet in height, no one could quite figure out how to consume this brioche stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. It was a sight, nonetheless, to behold!

In other news…

Vai Sotto! Taste with me “down under” tomorrow and Thursday nights at Sotto in Los Angeles where I’ll be pouring wine on the floor and chatting with guests both nights.

One of the best fish dinners I’ve ever had in Italy

Last night I was treated to one of the best fish dinners I’ve ever had by Giampaolo Paglia (you may remember him from a recent post here). The restaurant was the Oasi in Follonica, a seaside venue where you can rent beach chairs and tents by day and lunch and dine on the freshest of fish. I was completely floored by the quality of the materia prima and chef/owner Mirko Martinelli’s deft hand. Follonica may not exactly be on the conventional tourist’s radar: should you be willing to make the detour, I can assure you that you will be rewarded by Mirko’s magic.

Raw sea bream with tomato, fried basil, and salmon roe.

Sargo with mushrooms and black truffles over creamy polenta. THIS DISH WAS INSANELY GOOD!

The combination of the lightly fried shrimp and the moray eel (see the photo at the top) was truly SUBLIME. The texture and flavor of the moray was ineffably delicious.

Gianpaolo’s skin-contact Ansonica Bucce (bucce = skins) was my favorite pairing of the night. (When I have time down the road, I’ll recount our conversation about Gianpaolo decision to abandon his barriques.)

Tracie P will tell you that I rarely eat dessert but how could I resist?

Chef Mirko, left, with Gianpaolo… simply amazing dinner… I can’t wait to bring Tracie P here…