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.

Suffer from Jewish Boy Stomach? Eat at Moruno in Los Angeles (and thanks to Sotto team and guests)

david rosoff restaurant los angelesEvery time Sotto brings me to Los Angeles to work on our wine list, general manager Christine Veys and I try to break away to check out one of the new restaurants on LA’s vibrant food scene.

On Tuesday evening, after tasting roughly 30 wines with 6 different sales reps, we headed to my friend David Rosoff’s newly opened Moruno in the West Hollywood Farmer’s Market (a haunt of my youth).

That’s the absolutely delicious albacore tuna conserva in the photo above.

The menu is inspired by Spanish and Middle Eastern cookery and is delivered mostly in small plates and on skewers (as David put it, a moruno is “meat on a stick”).

We had a wide variety of dishes, including the roast butternut squash topped with cashews and sesame seeds, one of the guests’ and staff’s favorites, David said.

And of course, we sampled both the chicken and lamb morunos.

what is a morunoEverything was truly fantastic and it was great to see his energetic team working in the kitchen with such focused skill and decisive sense of mission.

But the thing that really blew me away about the experience was how good I felt the next day (sparing you the details, I’ll presume you know what I mean).

Whenever I travel for my work (and this year, I already have four trips to Italy and visits to New York, Miami, Santa Barbara, Boston, and LA under my belt), one of the greatest challenges I face is the combination of fatigue and distressed digestion (I’ll leave it at that).

best spanish wineEven though Christine and I really dug into our meal with gusto at Moruno, my “day after” was bright and sunny, as it were.

Maybe it was thanks to the superb Grenache Blanc by Cellar Frisach from southern Spain that made the difference. Zinging acidity in this hillside wine from the high lands, vibrant fruit and great balance, with restrained alcohol. I really dug it, especially at just $45 a bottle.

David, from one Jew to another, I LOVE your restaurant. The ultimate mark of a great meal is how you feel the next day and man, I woke up ready to go… as it were…

In other news…

My goodness, what a lovely night at Sotto last night where we launched our new wine list with a guided tasting of five new wines by-the-glass!

I can’t tell you how many times I lead tastings where guests show up only wanting to tell me about how they once visited Gaja.

Last night’s group was one of the best and most fun that I’ve ever tasted with: a very gracious ensemble of wine lovers who asked informed questions and shared thoughtful impressions of the wines. Thank you, everyone, for joining me.

And super heartfelt thanks to Christine for being such a great friend and colleague and for believing in my crazy reboot of our list (which I love).

And I also have to give a shout-out to my Texas family who surprised me by showing up at the tasting unannounced and staying for dinner. It was so fun to connect with them in LA and wonderful to know that I have family that supports me in what I do for a living. What a thrill for me to see Aunt Gladys enjoying my wine selections!

Now it’s time to get my butt back on a plane for Houston and some much needed downtime with Tra and the girls… Thanks for being here.

Bitter herb and salty tears for Prince… wishing everyone a good Passover #hagsameach

passover foodsThe bitter herb and salted water will be especially acidic and savory this year.

Tracie P and I are both reeling from the news that Prince has left this world for a better one.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Z., a friend from Australia who works in the music industry, sent me a video from a private performance by Prince he had attended. What an electric, magical entertainer he was, a triple threat as they used to say…

After everyone else went to bed last night (my mom is in Houston for the holiday), we stayed up and sipped some Venica Pinot Grigio as we watched all the remembrances on CNN and listened to our favorite Prince tracks on our phones.

He gave us so much through his music, energy, activism, and charity. Now he’s gone. It makes both of us so sad.

Tonight we’ll be celebrating the Passover with my mom and Tracie’s parents, Rev. and Mrs. B.

And when we dip our parsley into the water and remember the bitterness and salty tears of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, I will also remember how Prince brought us so much joy and light and sweetness in the daily toil of life. The world isn’t the same without him.

Wishing everyone a happy Passover… hag sameach, yall…

Lick, pray, love: wonderful ice cream at Dolce Neve in Austin

best ice cream austin texasPosting in a hurry today because I’m super slammed with work.

But, dulcis in fundo, how not to end the week on a sweet note after having visited my new favorite ice cream shop, Dolce Neve in Austin?

I loved talking to owners and ice cream-makers Marco Silvestrini from Umbria (below, right) and Leo Ferrarese (left) from Lombardy. I didn’t get to meet Francesca Silvestrini, Marco’s sister. But she’s part of the picture, too.

Super nice people and fantastic, wholesome, artisanal ice cream. All made from scratch and served in traditional Italian style with lots of fun flourishes.

Talking to these guys yesterday while I was in Austin for business, I couldn’t help but think that someone is going to make a “feel-good-movie-of-the-summer” about their arc, from the corporate world to ice cream slingers in America’s quirkiest city. Lick, pray, love…

Thanks for being here and buon weekend a tutti!

dolce neve austin marco silvestrini

Mamma Roma, you sure know how to throw a GREAT party!

Taste Franciacorta with me in MIAMI Thursday January 21.
Click here for details.

giovanni arcari alfonso cevolaWorking in the Italian wine trade is a gas. The people you meet, the places you see, the things that you drink and eat… It’s not a bad way to make a living.

But when you travel to Italy regularly for wine, you generally head directly from the airport where you land to wine country, away from the country’s wondrous metropoles.

So on a trip to Salento wine country last week with a group of wine writers, to remedy this, the host (my friend and client Paolo Cantele; see below) and I decided to spend the first and last nights in Rome with our fellow wine sojourners.

After we rolled back into the Eternal City on Saturday afternoon on the last day of our trip, Alfonso (above, left) and I headed over to a super fun, youthful restaurant and American-style bar called Porto Fluviale (on the city’s main harbor along the Tiber).

There we met my bromance, Giovanni (above, right), whom I hadn’t seen for an achingly long six months.

Some of Rome’s food cognoscenti may not approve of Porto Fluviale but I loved its spirit and playfulness. We drank ironic-mustache-worthy cocktails and Praesidium Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo as I munched on wholesome tramezzini and housemade potato chips and chatted with the manager about his mostly natural wine list (Occhipinti, Dettori, etc.).

However contemporary, it was a classic Roman experience inasmuch as an expression of Rome’s constantly evolving urban landscape.

hande leimerFrom there, we met up with our group for a truly Roman evening in the truly fabu apartment of a colleague who had graciously opened her home, kitchen, and wine cellar to us.

The taxi ride alone to her home was worth the price of my plane ride. I’ve seen all the main celebrious sites a million times but I’ll never forget seeing them again on that beautiful Saturday evening as our driver took us on an unsolicited but thoroughly enjoyed circuitous route to our destination.

A handful of wine writers, an Italian celebrity sommelier, a wine educator, a winemaker or two… But the star of the evening was the homemade meal itself.

italian veal roast recipeIt reminded me of another time in my Italian life, when poetry and critical theory, not wine, were my foods-for-thoughts…

In those years, we rarely went out to eat. Instead, we always gathered at someone’s house for a home-cooked meal.

The roast, stuffed veal was one of the best things I ate on the trip, as were the lasagne.

Really, a stellar meal and a great coda to the trip.

Mere thank-yous would not suffice to express my gratitude to our host for the many-splendored evening of conversation and repast. So humble grazie di cuore will just have to do.

recipe leek italianOf course, we were still high from the meal that we had inhaled the night before at the newly opened Bros in Lecce, the city’s first entry into the Michelin-style realm.

That’s the “lacquered leek” above.

The young and energetic Pellegrino brothers — those are Giovanni and Floriano Pellegrino to the left and right below of Paolo Cantele, respectively — have staged in some of the top kitchens of the world, Noma among them. And now they are breaking out and reaching for the stars in their hometown.

Here’s my review of our dinner there.

All in all, it was a trip to remember and will set a high bar for 2016’s subsequent sojourns. I have a lot more to recount from my visit — some of it good, some bad, including an unforeseen overnight stay in Germany.

But right now I’m just glad to be home in Houston with my girls (who have been a joy from the moment I walked in the door) and a belly full of delicious memories… Stay tuned.

pellegrino bros

A mozzarella backwater in Caianello (Caserta province, Campania)

caianello mozzarellaHonestly, I can’t tell you why the small town of Caianello, about 30 minutes north of Naples on the autostrada heading south from Rome, is an epicenter for artisanal mozzarella production.

All I do know is that Tracie P and I stopped there a few years ago when we traveling in southern Italy with our then one-year-old daughter Georgia P and Tracie was pregnant with Lila Jane.

Tra had a case of hunger pangs and so we literally took the first exit we could find. And it was only by chance that we stumbled on to this mozzarella backwater.

caianello caseificioYesterday, when our group of wine writers made a lunch pitstop there, the lines at the (evidently super famous) Caseificio La Pagliara were just as long as the last time. And so we headed down the road to the Bottega dei Buoni Sapori for simple sandwiches of moreish plastic cheese and delicious bread.

If you ever make the same journey, I highly recommend it.

Today, we’re in Lecce, Puglia where we’ll be heading out to taste with my good friend and client Paolo Cantele at his family’s winery…

A FANTASTIC trattoria in Trastevere (Rome) and a Befana to burn

Notes from the eternal city…

best trattoria trastevere romePosting in a hurry this morning for Rome before our group of writers heads to Salento for wine tasting, eating, and touring for three days.

But just had to share the tip: dinner at Tavernaccia in Trastevere last night was phenomenally good. No website but here’s the Google place page.

Not only did we eat one of the best spaghetti alla gricia I’ve ever had but we also had what we unanimously declared the best roast suckling pig in history.

Excellent wine list with lots of natty Friulian.

Thank you to Hande and Theo for turning us on to this amazing place. Some of us cried… it was that good. And the price was ridiculously affordable.

befana italy burnThis morning, my college-days buddy Steve shared this photo from Prato della Valle in Padua (my old stomping ground).

That’s the Befana, the witch who comes on the night of January 5 each year to bring children presents or lumps of coal. She will be burned later today, sweeping out the old and welcoming the new year.

Here’s the Wiki entry to learn more (really interesting to read up on the tradition’s origins, btw).

That’s all I have time to post this morning. Stay tuned!

Creative Italian cookery is TRUE Italian cuisine: great dinner at Ribelle in Boston

NEWS FLASH: my vitello tonnato research continues this week with an entry on the Milanese version of the dish over on the Tenuta Carretta blog.

due latti latte robiolaThe funniest thing happened last week on my way to Boston to have dinner with a good friend and client of mine at Ribelle, one of the city’s super cool new wave restaurants, opened a few years ago.

After said friend/client emailed wine director Theresa Paopao his request to do a pasta tasting menu, she gently advised that the restaurant’s cooking was not traditional Italian.

She was happy to accommodate his request and our party, of course.

But “I just wanted to put this out there,” she wrote, “so that the only surprises are pleasant ones.”

When we sat down to eat and the first pasta arrived, I was reminded of what my friend and client Tony Vallone always says: for food to be authentically Italian, it must also be creative.

Those are the wholewheat canestri (baskets), above, with robiola due latti (sheep’s and cow’s milk) and sunchoke.

uni pastaIn my view, the excellent food at Ribelle had all the hallmarks of great Italian cuisine: wholesome, fresh ingredients; artisanal food products; al dente cooking times for the pasta; and the creativity and playfulness that sets contemporary Italian gastronomy apart from the rest on the world stage today.

Those are the maccheroni, above, with nori goma and uni (my favorite dish of the evening, especially because the heat was appropriately intense).

You could easily have been served this dish on the Amalfi coast (I recently read, btw, that Campania is now the Italian region with the second highest number of Michelin stars).

agnolotti recipeA poet is someone who takes the elements of a language (a finite set of words and meanings) and combines them in a new and unique way.

In my view of the enogastronomic world, the same holds for great Italian cookery.

As untraditionally Italian as Ribelle may be, this is the true tradition of authentic Italian cuisine today in my view: imaginative combinations of classic and local ingredients that create new aromas and flavors.

Those are the agnolotti (otherwise, a traditional Piedmontese stuffed pasta), above, filled with boar and served with black trumpet mushrooms.

rigatoni seafoodThe rigatoni, above, with octopus and fennel, were another favorite of mine.

I was really impressed by the verve and flair of Ribelle’s cooking and I left the restaurant with a belly satiated and content — I loved the food that much.

Is Ribelle a traditional Italian restaurant? No.

Is it an authentic Italian restaurant? I’ll answer that question with a hearty and al dente “yes.”

Best places to eat in Langa (Piedmont) wine country

piedmont antipasti classic recipesAbove: a classic Langarolo antipasti plate (although insalata russa is missing).

A colleague who’s on his way to the Langhe Hills of Piedmont for vacation asked me about my favorite places to eat in Piedmont. And so I thought I’d share my notes here.

My list is by no means exhaustive and there’s no hierarchy.

I have traveled to Langa (Barolo and Barbaresco country) three times over the last six months and over the years, I can’t remember how many times I’ve been there: these are some of the places I’ve either had a good experience or I’ve heard good things about. There are countless other places worth seeking out.

I know that a lot of folks are headed to Langa in coming months for truffle season. I hope that readers can find this shortlist useful (and again, it’s by no means exhaustive).

If you like, please share your favorite Langa dining destination in the comments and I’ll add it to a future post.

Buon appetito e buona degustazione! Enjoy your meals and enjoy your tastings!

Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco village. 

It’s worth it just for the trip through the Barbaresco appellation. Classic Piedmont cooking with no frills but perfectly executed. Stop in the Produttori del Barbaresco tasting room on your way.

Also, they’ve just opened the newly restored medieval tower with an elevator and viewing platform. No better view of Barbaresco.

La Libera in Alba.

This the cool kids restaurant and it’s where all the winemakers go for dinner. Traditional Piedmontese with a modern flair. Great restaurant. Very cool place to hang.

cerequioAbove: that’s the view from the Locanda in Cannubi facing west. You can see the Palas Cerequio in the center left of the image and you can see the village of La Morra in the top right.

Locanda in Cannubi atop Cannubi vineyard in Barolo.

I ate there on my last trip. Solid Piedmontese food, classic, well executed. But the thing is it’s at the peak of Cannubi. I really loved this place because of the view and the food was excellent.

Trattoria della Posta in Monforte.

This is one of the classics and one of the greats. I only ate there once with Franco Conterno but the food was spectacular.

Da Cesare in Albaretto Torre (Alba).

I’ve never eaten there but they say this is the holy grail. I’ve heard that this is where the Gajas eat.

best vitello tonnato recipe piedmontAbove: my favorite vitello tonnato was at More e Macine in La Morra where I ate in June of this year.

More e Macine in La Morra.

If you want to do something more modest, this place was awesome. It’s where regular folks go to eat. Best vitello tonnato I had this year (in three visits to Langhe). Very casual and inexpensive.

Vinoteca Centro Storico in Serralunga.

Also a more toned-down place but very much on tourist radar. Great, classic food but the thing is the list of sparkling wine. Best place for bubbles in Langhe. Make sure you get the Prosciutto d’Osvaldo (cult prosciutto from Friuli).

There are other places as well. I don’t know if they still do lunch there but the Cascina Cornale is the place made famous by Alice Waters. It’s a very simple kitchen but very pure. I had a great lunch there and it’s one of the best place for food product shopping (honey etc.).

My favorite place to stay in Langa is Felicin, where the rooms have an old-world feel to them and the owner, Nino, always cracks me up. He’s a brilliant guy. That’s the dining room at Felicin below. Nino’s kitchen does traditional Langa food but his greatest strength is his creative cooking, which is always a welcomed break from the standards (as good as they can be). You always get a great night’s sleep at Nino’s place, the breakfast is outstanding and the wifi excellent.

best hotel piedmont wine country

Pig ass king: a taste of culatello history at Antica Corte Pallavicina

corte di pallavicina do bianchiAbove: the culatello aging cellar at Antica Corte Pallavicina.

The earliest printed mention of cultatello I’ve been able to find dates back to 1931 in the Italian Touring Club’s Guide to Italian Gastronomy (the following translation is mine):

    culatello, a truly famous product from Busseto and nearby Zibello in lower Parma. It is prepared using the loins of the pig, seasoned with salt and pepper and then aged for six months indoors and outdoors.
    It is sliced raw and it is a highly refined and exceptionally delicious cured meat.
    Its fame stretches back centuries.
    In his History of the City of Parma [1591], Bonaventura Angeli recounts that at the royal wedding of Andrea of the Counts Rossi and Giovanna of the Counts Sanvitale in 1322, “excellent culatello” was sent by the Marquis Pallavicino from Busseto and Count Rossi from Zibello, both cousins of the betrothed. The culatello, adds the author, was one of the most prized entrées in the Pantagruelian banquet held to celebrate the occasion.

Thanks to Google Books, I was able to read the passage from Angeli’s 1591 chronicle of Parma and the note on the 1322 wedding of Andrea and Vannina (her name as it appears in Angeli’s book).

I’m sorry to report that there is no mention of culatello in the description of the banquet (which only occupies one line).

But this apocryphal anecdote has been reported countless times by contemporary chroniclers of Italian food who, like me, found the 1931 reference but, unlike me, did not go back to read the primary text.

The passage is significant nonetheless because it reveals how coveted culatello was in the first half of the twentieth century (at the peak of Italian fascism btw).

It’s also significant because of the mention of the Marquis Pallavicino, whose family figures prominently in Angeli’s book.

The Pallavicino family was a major power player in Parma throughout the middle ages and Renaissance.

And today, the Antica Corte Pallavicina estate (run by the Spigaroli brothers) is the spiritual home of culatello.

The estate’s two restaurants lie in the heart of lower Parma province, where the intense humidity (the Po river is literally a stone’s through away) is key to provoking the bacteria needed to produce culatello.

As the sorely missed Kyle Phillips wrote some years ago for About.com, culatello (literally, the little ass of the pig) “is made from the major muscle group one finds in a prosciutto … seasoned and lightly salted, stuffed into a pig’s bladder, tied to give it a pear-like shape, and then hung 8-12 months to cure in farm buildings in the Bassa Parmense [lower Parma], not far from the Po River, where the mist swirls through the windows, interacts with the molds on the walls, and imparts a hauntingly elusive something that makes all other cold cuts pale by comparison.”

On my recent trip to Italy, Barone Pizzini CEO Silvano Brescianini (my friend and client) generously treated me to dinner at the Antica Corte Pallavicina.

Following the opening amuse-bouche, the opening dish was the “podium” of 18-, 27-, and 37-month aged Culatello di Zibello.

Next came the tortelli d’erbette alla parmigiana al doppio burro d’affioramento delle vacche rosse (below): traditional Parmense stuffed pasta filled with finely chopped Swiss chard, ricotta, and finely grated aged Parmigiano Reggiano dressed in double-top-cream vacche rosse butter.

An incredible meal and what a sight to see those culatelli (above)!

Especially after our visit to the Corte Pallavicina, it’s not hard to understand why culatello is legendary among the world’s cured meats.

In the light of this, I hereby forgive the Italian Touring Club for their editors’ folkloristic attribution!

tortelli recipe emilia romagna