A pandemic-era wine sales strategy that works at Roma in Houston.

best italian houstonIn the wake of yesterday’s post (“The age of arrogance is over. Winemakers, please check your hubris at the (virtual) door!”), a lot of people have asked me about the restaurant that had organized the virtual wine dinner.

It’s a “trattoria inspired” independent venue called Roma in Rice Village, the Houston neighborhood where Rice University is located. I help out with its online presence.

Owner Shanon Scott is a Houston restaurant trade veteran and one of our community’s most beloved restaurateurs. A former maître d’ at some of the city’s highest-profile Italian dining destinations, he opened his own place in a classic Houston-style bungalow about three and half years ago. He’s also become a good friend of ours over the years. I love working with him and share his passion for great Italian cuisine.

Every week, he hosts a virtual wine dinner: guests (mostly couples) pick up their food and three bottles of wine between 5-7 p.m. each Thursday and then settle in around a computer or smart phone with a Zoom link. Most Thursdays, a winemaker or winery ambassador from Italy dials in as well and leads the participants through the wines. I serve as event moderator.

The campaign has been highly successful for both Roma and the distributor Shanon’s partnered with, Impero Wine Distributors, a Florida-based importer with wholesale operations scattered across the U.S.

pasta with tuna and capersThe man in the back of the house, Angelo Cuppone, is a classically trained chef from Pesaro (the Marches, Italy) and his cooking style is classic. My favorite dishes there are the lasagne and the carbonara but our 11-year-old cousin (whose family lives down the street) is partial to the grilled octopus. All the prosciutto they serve is sliced on a Berkel — another huge plus in our book. The restaurant is one of our extended Houston family’s go-tos.

For those who have never worked in the food service industry, it may be hard to fathom what a challenging time this is for food and wine professionals. Landlords don’t stop charging rents even when pandemics force lockdowns and catastrophic loss of business. And restaurant workers — from dishwashers to back waiters to line cooks to servers — have rents to pay and kids to feed even when an epidemic forces restaurateurs to entirely reimagine their business models.

Scores of Houston restaurants have permanently shuttered their doors in recent weeks. Bernie’s Burger Bus, for example, an immensely popular independent Houston hamburger chain (the kitchen was housed in a yellow school bus), had just begun an expansion when the virus arrived. No one in our community could believe that such a successful model could fall victim to COVID-19. But it did.

Similarly, the wine trade has been decimated by the fallout. Last week, Southern Glazer’s, one of our nation’s largest wholesalers, laid off most of its sales force according to anecdotal reports. I recently contacted its Houston sales office to help out a restaurant owner friend in Orange, Texas (where Tracie grew up). He wanted to set up an account with company to service his new wine program. The sales rep I spoke to told me that he is the sole agent taking orders for Southeast Texas. I can’t imagine that Southern Glazer’s will share the exact number of fired workers but the fact that there’s just one rep for such a huge swath of Texas is an indication that it’s currently working with a skeleton crew.

In my view, Shanon and his Impero sales rep, Melania Spagnoli, are true heroes. The virtual wine dinner model they’ve created is “moving boxes” (wine tradespeak for selling wine) in a perilous time and it’s helping to feed a lot of families — including my own.

Food photos by Al Torres Photography.

“People are looking for new.” How to succeed in Italian food and wine sales in the COVID-19 era.

On Tuesday of this week, nearly 200 people attended the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central webinar, “Open for Business: The Italian Food and Wine Supply Chain.” It was the first of series of live events presented by the IACC entitled “Challenges and Opportunities in the Post-Pandemic Era.”

For Italian food and wine producers who are either currently working in the U.S. or looking to break into the market here, I highly recommend that you check out what veteran importer Cecilia Ercolino (above) has to say.

“People are looking for new,” she noted, drawing from her own experience as the owner of an “essential” business.

Because of disruptions in the supply chain, she explained, consumers are willing to abandon their loyalty to one particular brand or another. As a result, there is immense opportunity for Italian food producers to break into the market.

She also spoke at length about how companies that are willing to do “whatever it takes” are the ones that are making gains in the market. It’s a new era in sales and marketing for Italian food and wine, she said. Wine and food producers need to look to their importers and distributors for guidance on what the support they need to move their products. And they need to listen.

The other speakers also offer compelling insights into creative and innovative ways to reach buyers and consumers in the COVID-19 era.

A lot of viewers will be surprised at how many opportunities the crisis has created for open-minded food and wine producers.

I highly recommend it to you and I was proud to be one of the moderators. As soon as we have the details for the next event, I’ll share them here. Thanks for watching. Please feel free to share. There is some solid info in there.

Texas restaurants reopen today and it scares me to hell.

Image via Adobe Stock.

“Let me just say that it is my hope that with the measures that are being put in place that our numbers will not spike… That is my hope.”

Those are the words of our city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, speaking at a news conference Monday, April 27 following Texas governor Greg Abbott’s announcement that the state would “reopen” today, May 1.

Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (our city manager) had planned to keep Houston’s “Stay Home/Work Safe” order in place and they had just announced that masks would be mandatory when Abbott decided to supersede all local measures to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

It was the latest volley in Abbott’s ongoing war on local authority in our state. Since coming into office, he has lobbied assiduously to punish cities like Houston and Austin for their status as sanctuary cities and for their progressive policies on reproductive rights.

This week, he took it a step further: now he’s playing with life and death.

In just a few hours, scores of restaurants across Houston will begin opening their doors for “dine-in” service. Abbott has ordered that they can only operate at 25 percent capacity. But beyond that, he’s given no guidance on how restaurateurs can keep their staff and customers safe and how they can curb COVID-19’s spread.

Some in our city are looking to Georgia’s example. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, issued these guidelines for reopening restaurants last week (Georgia’s restaurants were allowed to reopen on Monday).

But with no official norms or regulations in place, Houston’s restaurant managers are on their own in terms of how they operate and what safety measures they adopt.*

In other words, it’s the wild west when it comes to culinary hygiene. Concerned (however courageous) restaurant-goers have no way of knowing with confidence what safety protocols restaurants owners have put into place, if any.

I understand the economic logic behind reopening. And I recognize that Texas has “flattened the curve.” But on the same day that “Texas reports most deaths in a day from COVID-19” (a story that appears on the landing page of the Houston Chronicle this morning), wouldn’t it be prudent to provide businesses like restaurants — where proper hygiene is always essential for safety — with more robust guidance?

Just like the families of countless wine professionals across our state, ours is struggling to make ends meet in the time of the pandemic. It’s my hope that we’ll all be able to get back to work as soon as possible. But without the proper guidance, Abbot’s order is a genuine gastronomic “go to Hell” to Houston and Austin where local authorities have fought to keep restrictions in place.

Texas reopens today and I am scared as hell for dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, and the customers they will serve.

This isn’t political. It’s just common sense.

I encourage you to watch Mayor Turner’s news conference. His remarks moved me to tears when I watched them in real time. He and Judge Hidalgo are true American heroes.

*”‘Reopened services’ shall consist of the following,” wrote Abbott in his decree, listing which businesses could reopen today, including dining establishments: “Dine-in restaurant services, for restaurants that operate at up to 25 percent of the total listed occupancy of the restaurant…”

He specifies that the order only applies to restaurants “that have less than 51 percent of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages” and he also prohibits valet parking except for “except for vehicles with placards or plates for disabled parking.”

But there is no mention of masks, gloves, hand-washing, or testing, for example.

In all fairness to our heartless governor, he does offer an overarching recommendation that reopened businesses “should implement social distancing… and practice good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation.” But it’s just advice, not an order. “Individuals are encouraged to wear appropriate face coverings,” he writes, “but no jurisdiction can impose a civil or criminal penalty for failure to wear a face covering.”

Taste of Italy Houston festival postponed due to ongoing health crisis.

UPDATE (March 4, 2020): Vinitaly has been postponed until June. See details here.

As one of the organizers of this event, I am deeply sorry to have to share the following press release. See also this CultureMap coverage of the postponement.

March 2, 2020
Italy-America Chamber of Commerce
Houston, Texas

PRESS RELEASE: Taste of Italy Houston (March 29-30), Taste of Italy New Orleans (March 31), and Savor Italy Los Angeles (April 2) postponed.

As U.S. issues Italy travel advisory, IACC postpones food and wine festivals planned for Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in March.

The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central has officially postponed its food and wine festivals and trade fairs previously scheduled for March in Houston (March 29-30) and New Orleans (March 31). The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West (Los Angeles) has also postponed the festivals’ sister event in Los Angeles previously scheduled for April 2.

The IACC has decided to reschedule the gatherings in the wake of news reports of U.S. carrier flight cancellations to and from northern Italy and the U.S. government’s newly announced screening policy for travelers arriving in the country from Italy.
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Some of the best NY pizza I’ve had in years (Manhattan and along the New York Thruway)

Manhattan has changed so much in the decade since I left the city.

Nearly all of the cool downtown rock clubs where my band used to play are gone. Nearly all the great dive bars where we used to hang are shuttered. And many of the wonderful pizza-by-the-slice joints where you could get a classic New York slice are sadly and irrevocably no more.

Does anyone remember Salvatore Bartolomeo from Rosario’s on Orchard St.? On July 14 each year (my birthday btw), our French band used to play on that corner for the Bastille Day celebration. Between sets, I would hang with Sal and he would make me an off-the-menu Neapolitan-style espresso after I washed down my slice with a can of seltzer.

During my recent trip to the city, I was determined to find a great slice since all of my favorite places are now closed.

After much painstaking research, I decided to try the “city hall” Little Italy Pizza on Park Place. Those are the slices above.

As Eater New York notes, “all Little Italy franchises are not the same. In fact, some are superb while others awful, with doughy crusts and lifeless tomato sauces. The City Hall branch is one of the great ones, and you can tell the minute you step inside and see the elated diners.”

It’s so true about being able to gauge the caliber of a by-the-slice spot by the clientele.

Little Italy (Park Place) does have a website for ordering. But check out its Facebook to get a better sense of the fare.

The slices were a little bit on the greasy side (the way you like it). This place really delivered (excuse the pun) the flavor and texture I remembered from my years in the city.

I was working all day on Friday but then Saturday I had to head up to Plattsburgh in upstate New York to see an ailing relative (long, sad story but at least he’s not in pain; we had a nice visit).

On the way back I was determined not to eat shitty New York Thruway food. And so, on a whim, I stopped at Saugerties, New York (not far from Woodstock) where I happened upon the wonderful Village Pizza (above).

They don’t have a website but they do have a Facebook (worth checking out).

Man, this place just nailed it. From the stone-faced pizzaiolo to the sullen (however polite) young lady working the counter, it had the old-school feel of the New York pizzerias of yore.

It took me about 10 minutes from the Thruway tollbooth to get there.

As I headed out, I took a puff and tuned into Woodstock Radio where I heard the most amazing country track by Steely Dan, “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me.”

It was just one of those seamless moments, a respite from the melancholy residual of my visit. The trip back to Newark airport was rainy, cold, dark, and lonely. And that pizza and the song were on my mind.

We’re paying for damages we didn’t cause: Italians feel wrongly punished in U.S. trade war.

Late yesterday, I had the chance to speak with Pecorino Toscano Consortium president Andrea Righini about the new U.S. tariffs on Italian cheese — part of the U.S. government’s ongoing trade war with the EU.

See my interview with him (for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Texas) here.

Andrea was stressed, as you can imagine. He’d been on the phone all day with frantic consortium members trying to figure out how the punitive tariffs are going to affect their livelihood.

Over the course of our conversation, he pointed out that Italy has nothing to do with the illegal subsidies that prompted the U.S. “countermeasures” against EU countries. In fact, “France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom [are] the four countries responsible,” wrote the Office of the United States Trade Representative in a post on its website on Wednesday.

The whole affair was borne out of a “dispute with the European Union over illegal subsidies to Airbus.” But the only countries who profited from those subsidies were those listed above.

“We need to remember that these sanctions are the result of dealings that have nothing to do with Italy,” said Andrea. [If the tariffs were imposed] “the consortium would pay for damages it didn’t cause.”

He also talked at length about how the new import duties are going to affect the local economy in Tuscany, including Pecorino producers, their employees, and the shepherds that supply the milk. The surplus of unsold cheese and the drop in the price of sheep’s milk will be disastrous, he explained.

“All of these things are connected to one another,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of how much product you sell.”

American importers, retailers, and restaurateurs will also be affected. Last night I spoke to an Italian chef here in Houston who noted how the tariffs will impact his business: the food cost for his Cacio e Pepe — one of the most popular dishes on his menu — will also increase by 25 percent.

Ultimately, consumers will also feel the pinch. We grate a lot of cheese for pasta at our house and our daughters often eat Parmigiano Reggiano for a treat after dinner or after school.

Trade wars seem far-away… until they come to your town.

Click here for my interview with Andrea and be sure to enjoy your pasta with cheese this weekend.

Italian wine spared but top cheeses and other products from Italy fall victim to U.S. trade war

Iconic Italian cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino are just two of Italy’s most popular food products that will be impacted by 25 percent tariffs, the latest volley in the U.S. government’s trade wars.

In a statement released yesterday, the office of the United States Trade Representative announced a long list of “tariffs [that] will be applied to a range of imports from EU Member States.” The focus of American “countermeasures” is “France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the four countries responsible for the illegal subsidies” identified in a recent ruling by the World Trade Organization. But Italy, like other European Union members, is also “subject to additional import duties of 25 percent” on a wide range of food and wine products.

See the complete list of tariffs and products here.

As late as yesterday, there was growing concern among Italian winemakers that Italian wines would be included among the new tariffs. But Italian grape farmers were spared in this round of new import duties.

“The exclusion of Italian wine in the list of products that will be affected by tariffs lets us breathe a sigh of relief,” said Italian Wine Union president Ernesto Abbona in a statement issued via email. “And we’re thankful to [Italian] prime minister Giuseppe Conte, Italian diplomacy, and the efforts of the European Union Commission for that.”

Some of their European counterparts weren’t as fortunate. France, Germany, and Spain were included among those countries whose wines have been included in the new round of tariffs.

“Wine other than Tokay (not carbonated)” from those countries, “not over 14% alcohol, in containers not over 2 liters” are among the products that will be “subject to additional import duties of 25 percent” when the tariffs go into effect in a few weeks.

During an appearance with prime minister Conte yesterday in Rome, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was handed a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano by Italian comic actor and satirical journalist Alice Martinelli (see the clip here).

“It’s something that farmers make with the heart every day,” she can be heard saying (in English) in a video published by the Italian pseudo-news program “Le Iene.”

“We hope you can help us and take it to Trump,” she tells him in the video.

A few decades ago, Italian food products like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino were found only in American speciality gourmet shops and were generally only available in major cities like New York and San Francisco. Today, they are ubiquitous across the country and are widely available even in rural parts of the country.

According to a report published over the weekend by Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy’s leading financial daily, exports of Parmgiano Reggiano to the U.S. grew by 26 percent in the first six months of 2019. Roughly five percent of the total production is shipped across the Atlantic, wrote the editors.

“It’s important to note the absence of [Italian] wine” among impacted products, said Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s agricultural trade association. In a statement issued by the organization, he noted that “we haven’t lost sight of the fact that the ‘nectar of Bacchus’ from France has been repeatedly threatened by the president of the United States Donald Trump.” It’s a “move that represents a de facto attempt to divide the European Union.”

Aglianico and sushi made for magic last night in Houston

Learn how to pronounce Aglianico in Neapolitan and in Italian here.

Something remarkable happened last night after Tracie and I sat down for a splurge sushi dinner at Kata Robata, one of Houston’s premier Japanese restaurants.

Seated at the (cocktail) bar, we had just ordered a bottle of Graci Etna Rosato, a rosé from Nerello grapes grown on the high-lying slopes of the Sicilian volcano, by one of our favorite producers (a classic). The same bartender who had taken our order approached us with another glass of rosé in hand.

“Hey,” he said, “if you like that wine, you might like this one, too.”

It was the Rogito rosé from Aglianico by storied Aglianico del Vulture producer Cantine del Notaio (rogito — ROH-gee-toh — means public decree in archaic Italian; all the names of the labels by Cantine del Notaio are plucked from ancient legalese; the name of the winery means the notary’s cellars; a notaio was a term used for what we would call lawyers today).

Tracie had never had the wine and she loved its bright fruit and freshness. So our bartender, Mohammed Rahman, graciously offered to switch our bottle order to a by-the-glass order instead. It turned out that he is also the wine director at this super high-profile Houston dining destination (and a lovely guy).

The wine worked brilliantly with our meal, including the fatty tuna and Japanese scallops that we ordered. The whole experience was fantabulously delicious.

But the thing that struck me was the ease and grace with which Italian wines have insinuated themselves into an unlikely program. The last time Tra and I visited Kata Robata, one of our Houston special-occasion spots, we were lucky to find an affordable Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

Mo, as Mohammed introduced himself, is a big fan of Italian wine and his list is peppered with some of my favorite value-driven wines from the peninsula and its islands: Winkl by Terlan, Falanghina by I Pentri, not to mention a solid Assyrtiko (from Santorini, Greece) by-the-glass and Hanzell Chardonnay (from California) by-the-bottle.

It’s rare that you find so much affordable drinkability at a place that also sells current-vintage Château Margaux (750ml) for $1,400. Mo told us that he tries to offer a robust selection of wines like the above for budget-challenged food and wine people like us and him.

Chapeau bas, Mo! We LOVED YOUR list. Thanks for taking such great care of us last night.

The best vitello tonnato ever…

Vitello tonnato is one of my gastronomic obsessions.

In part because of how good it is when done right. In part because it agrees with me metabolically. (Ascribe it to the famous “Jewish boy stomach” syndrome for those weened on tuna fish sandwiches and white fish salad.)

My latest trip to Italy included a convivial encounter with what — everyone at the table agreed — was probably the best vitello tonnato ever.

It came from a newish wine bar in the village of Barbaresco called Koki (Facebook; website).

My hosts, who had already experienced this apotheosis of vitello tonnato, had asked the owner/chef for a take-out vitello tonnato.

He instructed them to come to the venue just a few hours before the luncheon they were hosting. Not before, he said. And he also told them to bring their own dishes, which they did.

He plated it for them and sent them home with plastic-wrapped veal and sauce.

The Koki vitello tonnato was pinker than most. It resembled what the Italians call rosbif, a calque of the English roast beef, always served cold and generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

My hosts speculated that it had been cooked sous vide and then finished in a hot oven to make the edges well done.

The quality of the veal was spectacular, not surprising for Piedmont where bovine protein is a supreme victual.

But the thing that really took it over the top was the tuna sauce, which had a hint of eastern spice. My hosts speculated that it had been made with hazelnuts, an admissible and canonical ingredient, although sometimes omitted in my personal experience.

I never had a chance to visit Koki Wine Bar in person but it’s on my list for my next visit to Langa. I can’t recommend the vitello tonnato highly enough.

Last year I published this photography retrospective of some of my favorite expressions of vitello tonnato.

And I have to give a shout-out here to the vitello tonnato I ate, also on this last trip, at Local, the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences food shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra (below). As you can see, there is barely any pink in the meat, typical of most recipes.

What did we drink with our vitello tonnato? A 1996 Barberesco Riserva was the highlight of the flight. But more on that later…

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…