Why are Italians so fascinated with American-style food?

If memory serves correctly, it all began with hamburgers in the 2010s.

That was followed by bacon and (scrambled) eggs.

It didn’t take long before club sandwiches started to appear everywhere as well.

Today, it seems like there’s no end to the continuously growing list of classic American dishes that Italians are making and consuming.

Over on the Facebook, there was a lot of chatter after I posted a picture of chips and guacamole that I was served earlier this week in Brescia. The restaurant actually calls the dish “nachos” (although that’s not what we would call it).

Honestly, I had never even seen guacamole in Italy until this week. On Saturday, I was served guacamole at lunch and then later that evening, when I was invited to a swank spot in the heart of downtown Turin, chips and guacamole appeared again at our table!

And let’s not forget the preponderance and ubiquity of “sushi” in Italy today! That cuisine is from Japan, of course, but nearly everywhere I see it here, it’s served in the American style that we grew up with.

I’ve seen more than my share of “Caesar salad” as well in recent years. Texas-style BBQ has also become extremely popular here.

When it came to the initial wave of hamburgers, the Italians swiftly surpassed us in terms of the quality of ingredients. Where I grew up, the cheapest beef was used for burgers. Italians use top heirloom beef for theirs and they are also expert at mixing pork and beef for their patties. The quality of the bread is also an important factor.

I’m not exaggerating or kidding in any way when I say wholeheartedly that some of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had have been in Italy.

The burger above is from a wonderful, homey spot called 18B in Brescia. It was fantastic! Check out their Instagram here.

The joint is run by a lovely young couple. And even though the focus is burgers and their now famous “pulled rabbit” sandwich (a riff on pulled pork), they also have an extensive sushi menu. Incredible!

I’ve loved the burgers there. I still haven’t tried the sushi (that’s Giovanni’s sashimi above). The avocado was perfectly ripe and delicious but it was more like an avocado purée (like Americans have been spreading on toast).

I’m not really sure why Italians love American food so much. In many cases, they do it WAY better than we do (again, because of the ingredients).

But “Tex Mex” Doritos is where I draw the line! Spotted in an Autogrill the other day.

All the photos are from Italy. The burger, sushi, and chips from 18B. The bacon and eggs are from a lunch many years ago in Milan. The club sandwich is from a place on Lake Iseo from a few years ago. Today’s my first day back teaching at Slow Food U. Looking forward to meeting the students this afternoon!

Robert Camuto’s wonderful profile of Darrell Corti for Wine Spectator, in case you missed it.

More than any others, two people have been the inspiration for my career: my dissertation advisor Luigi Ballerini and Darrell Corti.

While Luigi gave me the academic skills and rigor to fulfill my scholarly curiosity, Darrell showed me how that passion for inquiry could be balanced with making a living in the food and wine world.

Every time I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Darrell, it’s been nothing less than a wholly exhilarating gastronomic and intellectual experience.

That’s Darrell last year when he came to speak at the Taste of Italy trade fair in Houston.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out Robert Camuto’s profile of Darrell for Wine Spectator, “The Wizard of All,” published earlier this week and free to all.

Have a great weekend! Thanks for being here.

The best thing I ate on my last trip to Italy and an old flame rekindled.

Favorite restaurants are always a long-term commitment, kind of like a romantic relationship. Sometime the rapport is fiery and passion-driven. Sometimes the flame is diminished by the patina of time. But when you really love a restaurant, the rewards of your undying devotion can really pay off.

That’s what happened when my Brescian friends took me to one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, the Dispensa Pani e Vini in the heart of Franciacorta country.

From my first kiss with the restaurant back in 2008 to the present, some of the most memorable meals of my gourmet career have happened there. There have been some acceptable yet mediocre experiences as well.

But I keep coming back: when the beet tagliolini with gorgonzola (above) arrived at our table, I thought I was going to faint.

It was the best thing I ate on my last trip to Italy. Simply spectacular, exquisite yet earthy and homey.

As Tony used to say, for Italian cuisine to be authentic, it has to be creative. This dish was all that and more.

The grilled octopus was another standout at our lunch.

Anyone who’s ever worked in the fine dining industry knows that chefs, managers, sommeliers, and owners come and go. The Dispensa, which was founded by one of Franciacorta’s most influential chefs, Vittorio Fusari, has seen a number of ownership and staff changes over the years.

But right now it has reclaimed the grace, verve, and mission of its original chef Vittorio.

I highly recommend it, even on its not-so-great days.

That’s the amuse bouche.

We paired with my friends Giovanni and Nico’s new release from the little known Botticino appellation. It’s a mostly Barbera blend that’s grown in Botticino’s marl- and limestone-rich soils and is raised in large cask. Delicious and with great depth.

As unfamiliar as Botticino may be to many Americans, anyone who’s ever passed through Grand Central Station has seen Botticino marble. Brescia province and the quarries that overlook Lake Garda are the source of that stone.

We didn’t get a chance to say hello to the new chef that day. But my faith was mended, my heart healed, and my belly sated. I can’t wait to make it back to that old lover in the heart of Franciacorta country.

In Turin, a 17th-century villa looks out over the old city.

My Vinitaly began not in Verona but in Turin, the capital of Piedmont and former capital of Italy, one of Italy’s most beautiful risorgimento cities, with the architecture and urban planning befitting a world touchstone.

Not far from its origins in the Cottian Alps, the mighty Po river flows through this majestic metropolis, hugging its eastern border and dividing it from the rolling hills where the Villa della Regina — the Queen’s country house — looks out over the famed Mole Antonelliana, one of Italy’s most recognizable architectural landmarks.

I wish I could tell you more about the 17th-century villa, just up the road from the Queen’s sojourn, where a group of my colleagues and I were hosted by one of the city’s leading citizens.

But I can share the foods we ate.

There’s really nothing quite like vitello tonnato when it’s homemade. Thinly sliced veal topped with a sauce made of anchovies, capers, and olive oil-cured tuna. It’s a Jewish boy’s dream.

Also above, those are the classic tuna-stuffed eggs from the Piedmontese culinary canon, otherwise known as “deviled” in Anglo-Saxon culture.

These stalks of Apium graveolens were slathered with creamy gorgonzola. Please try this at home.

No self-respecting torinese host would end a meal sans fromage. After all, the region is renowned for its pastures, breeds, and traditions.

I wish I could reveal more about our host and the reason we were gathered there in the days leading up to the fair.

But that will all come in time… Thanks for sharing the adventure with me and more to come!

Here’s why every aspiring food and wine communicator should have a blog. Congrats to my former student on her new site!

One of the things I love the most about my teaching gig at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont is that many of my ex-students have carved exciting career paths for themselves after graduating from the school.

But nothing could be more rewarding in my teaching experience than discovering that one of my ex-students has launched a blog.

And that’s what happened last week when a student who took my food and wine communications seminars last year sent me her excellent new site, Sophie Eats (check it out… it’s great!).

Over the years, it’s become clear that a lot of the students want to pursue careers as influencers. For them, social media is the medium where they see a path forward. And one of the things we discuss each year is how social media has reshaped the way we think about food and wine communications. Just think of the restaurant-focused #MeToo movement and the key role social media played in driving the narrative and bringing about social change (it’s always one of the most exciting seminar days when we cover the subject).

But social media, I always point out, doesn’t allow the aspiring food and wine influencer, communicator, writer-for-hire to build an independent space for themselves on the internets. That space is important in part, I tell them, because it helps them to create brand recognition (after all, they are their own brand) and to optimize their search engine results.

But even more significantly, an independent blog serves as their resume and calling card. And this, in my experience, is an essential element for those who want to find work as writers and copywriters. Nearly every young writer I know has at the very least a site where they aggregate links for their recent works and host an about page.

We can argue all day about what exactly a blog is. In my view, a blog is an online journal that is updated regularly. In line with this, I believe that social media is a form of microblogging and thus is also a blogging medium. What is Instagram anyway? A media sharing platform that most users update on a regular basis.

But social media gets to keep the clicks and the search engine optimization for itself. By feeding our feeds with our media, we are working for the social media companies. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using social media to build your brand and brand awareness. But I believe those who plan to forge a career in food media need to have their own space where their own stories can have a long-term impact on their career path.

It’s always a disappointment to my students when I talk to them about how there are a dwindling number of mainstream food and wine writing gigs today. But in an age where every food and wine brand needs high-quality content that will engage readers, it couldn’t be a better time for young writers hungry for work.

I just met with a just-turned-thirty writer in New York who currently has apartments in Paris and New York thanks to the amount of writing gigs she has on both sides of the Atlantic. And she even finds time to write the occasional eno-journalism piece. And yes, she has a website that she updates regularly with links to her recent publications (sounds like a blog, doesn’t it?).

Sophie, congrats on the launch of your big, beautiful, loud, colorful, and wonderful blog. I’m looking forward to following along.

Food industry readers, if you’re looking for a writer to hire, I can’t recommend Sophie — and her blog — highly enough.

Calling all Houston food and wine lovers: Taste of Italy (3/6) registration now open. BBQ/Italian Wine seminar tickets going fast.

Above: developed by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce in Houston, the Taste of Italy trade fair and festival, the largest in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian food and wine, now has “chapters” in Dallas and Vancouver.

What do you get when you put a bunch of Italians, a bunch of great Italian foods and wines, and a bunch of hungry and thirsty gastronomes in a room together in Southeast Texas?

Now in its ninth year, Taste of Italy is back in full swing on Monday, March 6 in Houston. I’ve been involved as one of the organizers and the event’s emcee for eight years now. And the work I’ve done together with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, the gathering’s host, is something I am the most proud of. The chamber, which is ranked in the top ten worldwide and the number-one chamber office in North America, genuinely connects Italian and American businesses (see the event’s “Success Stories” here).

On Monday, March 6, we are returning to the swank Omni hotel where more than 50 Italian food and wine companies will be showing their products.

Click here to register for the grand tasting.

And click here to register for the BBQ and Italian wine seminar that I will be leading with Spec’s Italian wine buyer Tom Dobson and celebrity pit master Ara Malekian (this event is close to selling out so please be sure to sign up to ensure availability; see the link for the super cool flight of wines that Tom has chosen).

I’ll also be leading a seminar on Calabrian gastronomy. I’ll share that link as soon as it becomes available.

Thank you for loving Italian food and wine and thank you for supporting the work I do with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce here in Houston. I hope to see you on Monday, March 6 at the Omni!

Some good meals on the road last week…

Man, what a week last week! Four planes in four days!

On Tuesday, I flew up to Dallas to have dinner with the president and communications director of the Abruzzo consortium.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to love Fachini as much as I did. The whole Eye-Talian concept as presented on their website seemed a little bit misguided at first glance. And the waiters in tuxes, while cute, made it seem like it was going to be more of a show than substance.

But the homemade gardiniera that they served as an aperitivo at the bar was fantastic, as were the ricotta and focaccia.

Those are the cappelletti above. I had never seen green cappelletti before and we were a far cry from the traditional way this filled pasta is served (traditionally in capon broth with generous amounts of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano). But the pasta was delicious, the stuffing perfectly calibrated, and the tomato sauce was more of a coulis than a true sauce. The latter was light and not overly acid-driven. I loved this dish.

And after all, as Tony used to say (and I agree wholeheartedly), Italian food is not authentic unless it’s creative.

The next day, I led three seminars at Eataly — Moscato d’Asti, Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, and Abruzzo — over the course of four hours with 15-minute breaks between each one. Huge shout-out to the event staff at Eataly for another job well done and heartfelt thanks to my friends at IEEM in Miami/Verona who asked me to come up for a morning of tasting and sharing notes on some great wines. It was exhilarating but exhausting. I made a mad dash the airport and flew home… only to get on a plane Thursday morning and fly to NYC.

Friday found me at the swank and beautiful surf and turf Carne Mare at South Street Seaport in Manhattan where I joyfully dug into the chicken cutlet alla milanese. Again, not traditional but utterly delicious. I really enjoyed and highly recommend this place.

South Street Seaport has been totally renovated and is super fun, with high-end shops and restaurants. It was a beautiful day in New York and the view of the Brooklyn Bridge… as my friend Paul says, it just never gets old.

Also have to give a shout-out to the fine staff at Ulivo on West 28th St. They took such great care of our party and I loved the fried burrata (below). It was as decadent and as delicious as it looks. And man, their kitchen really knows how to slice prosciutto correctly.

All in all it was an amazing week of wines and wonderful italophile folks. I feel so blessed to do what I do for a living. But I couldn’t wait to get home to Tracie and the girls and our chihuahuas.

Thanks to everyone who took such good care of us. The wave of Italian cuisine in this country only gets better and more compelling every year. And it’s so wonderful that New York has opened up again. I can’t wait to get back next week (yep, life on the road keeps on keeping on!). Stay tuned…

Italian growers cautiously optimistic about 2022 vintage.

Posting on the fly this early Monday morning in Brescia where I’m staying. Two more days and many more meetings and tastings before I head back to Texas on Wednesday.

But I wanted to get a quick post up with an update about the 2022 vintage.

Those are Sangiovese clusters, above, in Panzano in Chianti.

Light rain there late last week was just what the growers need as the red grape begins.

As one winemaker pointed out to me, the biggest challenge they were facing wasn’t just the fact that the summer had been so hot and dry.

There was very little rainfall in the early part of the growing cycle, she pointed out. As a result, the summer heatwave and drought could have been catastrophic.

Luckily, the August rainfall seems to be just what the doctor called for. And despite some scattered hail and some reports of mildew, growers are optimistic that this will be a good and even great vintage in certain spots.

I’ll be writing a more detailed report when I get back to my desk. But let’s just all keep praying for mild weather in the days to come.

In other news…

Anyone who’s ever been a working wine trip like this knows what a slog it can be. I’ve been going non-stop.

But on Sunday I took time out to have lunch with Giovanni and a friend from my Italian university years in downtown Brescia.

Man, it was amazing to see the piazzas and restaurants full of happy people kissed by sunny skies! I couldn’t help but remember the time when we were reading about Brescia every day on the cover of the New York Times. We all talked about how blessed we are to be here today after what happened here and across the world in 2020.

Those are the casoncelli I had for lunch at Trattoria Gasparo in the city’s historical center.

And, of course, who could resist a plate of vitello tonnato? Not me!

In Lombardy, they add a ton of sauce to the dish as you can see below. It’s like the Italian equivalent of a “wet burrito.” It was super delicious paired with Giovanni’s Franciacorta.

Wish me luck, wish me speed. Thanks for being here.

Where homage to tradition is transcendent: Cotogna in San Francisco, one of my best meals this year.

Wines for Peace: Brunello Consortium auction benefitting Ukraine, Monday, April 11, at Vinitaly. Click here to learn more.

Since the late 1980s, Italian cuisine in the U.S. has been shaped by a tension between traditional- and creative-leaning forces.

Remember the wave of “northern Italian cuisine” that came around in the Reagan years? “Sunday gravy” was out and polenta was in.

The problem was that culinary interpreters often didn’t see these dishes in historical or cultural context. The rich meat- and jus-driven sauces we ate as kids in this country were a derivative of haute Neapolitan cuisine (vis-à-vis Ippolito Cavalcanti).

Polenta, on the other hand, so popular “rustic” and “peasant” (ugh, I can’t stomach that term) movements of the late 1990s, was a dish that many older people in Italy refused to eat at the time because it reminded them of a time when there wasn’t enough to eat (the 19th-century pellagra crisis in Italy was caused in part because polenta had become a staple for economically marginalized families; in the years following WWII, many older Italians in the north will tell you, polenta was all they had to eat).

Making my way over to Cotogna from my hotel in San Francisco the other night, I couldn’t help but remember a chilly winter evening in the late 80s when I stopped a man on the street and asked him if he knew the way to a certain “trattoria,” a name for pseudo-Italian restaurants that had become popular in the second half of the decade.

He did, he responded, but he would only tell me — and I’m not kidding about this — if I pronounced it correctly.

It wasn’t traht-toh-REE-ah, as I had enunciated it. It was traht-TOH-ree’ah, with the emphasis on the second syllable, not the second to last.

It kinda says it all, right there.

In my view and experience, the greatest Italian restaurants in the U.S. have always found a precarious however brilliant balance between the traditional and creative. And my meal at Cotogna was a fantastic example of how respectful homage to tradition can be transcendent.

The carrot sformato (first photo) blew me away with its ethereal texture and subtle dance of bold but elegant flavors. Sformato — properly called a savory custard in English — is all about the texture. It should be firm but light, rich but buoyant. I know already from my Instagram that people agree with me: this dish was nothing short of show-stopping. I loved it.

The asparagus alla fiorentina (second photo) brought to mind trips to San Francisco with my parents when I was a child in the 70s. They would slurp coffee as they inhaled “eggs Florentine” at a swank hotel restaurant on Union Square.

This truly Florentine-inspired dish sang out to me. The flavor — the bontà or goodness as we say in Italian — of the materia prima was nothing short of spectacular. And I loved the play in texture — again, texture! — between the lardons and American-style bacon (which btw is extremely popular in Italy today).

The finale, garganelli with rabbit, also played on its balance of textures and subtle flavors. I loved that the rabbit was ground, not stringy, and the richly flavored pasta was the focus of this dish, not the rabbit. I couldn’t agree or have enjoyed it more.

Paired with the delicious, spicy Ruché Panta Rhei by Valdisole (thank you, Ceri Smith!), this dish became the synecdoche for the entire dinner. For a generation who grew up complaining that there wasn’t enough sauce on the soggy over-cooked and rinsed pasta, it made me feel like we might finally have adolesced.

Thank you wine director Joseph Di Grigoli and team for taking such good care of me. Your work is as inspiring as it is delicious.

Addio Roma. You really broke my heart.

Please consider giving to Unicef’s Ukraine child refugee fund. This link takes you straight to the donation page. G-d bless our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. Thank you.

Above: in November of last year, I presented a sold-out dinner at Roma in Houston featuring the wines of Alicia Lini (standing).

It’s with deep sadness that I share the news: Roma, the Houston restaurant where I ran the website, e-letter, and social media for nearly five years; where I helped the owner rebrand his business; where I ran weekly virtual wine dinners during the lockdowns; and where I wrote the wine list since May of last year, is no longer my client.

The reason? The new chef, Kevin Bryant, doesn’t believe my marketing skills are up to snuff. Evidently he and his wife are marketing geniuses. Five years down the drain. Just like that. All because of a pig-headed chef who thinks that chicken liver mousse passes for a bona fide topping on crostini toscani.

It was clear from the start that he wanted me out and he wanted his wife in. She’s a high-powered publicist with a who’s who of leading Houston restaurateurs in her portfolio. At least that’s what she and her husband think.

Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in working with a chef who believes “steak tartare” is an Italian dish. (All the previous chefs I worked with there were Italian and had cooked and trained in Italy.)

The thing I’ll miss is the incredible community we built through the weekly virtual wine dinners I ran for nearly two years. It’s hard to believe now but we must have presented roughly 100 Zoom events, often with an Italian winemaker participating on the other side of the Atlantic. It was one of the most compelling and rewarding experiences in my career in wine. So many of my now ex-guests have told me that those events were what kept them sane during isolation. It was a virtual supper club where people forged connections and friendships. I’ll never forget the night that a prominent Houston doctor, the wife of a noted Houston wine blogger, began helping people get vaccine appointments in the early days of availability.

No regrets, coyote. The restaurant business is always full of drama and microcephalic players like “the Kevin,” our family’s apt nickname for him. And this wasn’t my first rodeo, as we say in Texas.

Addio Roma. You really broke my heart.