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…

How to cook a porterhouse (upright): why I stand my steak on the T-bone

A tide of Texas jokes followed the posting of the above photo on Monday night.

“Texas carpaccio?” jibed one from the safety of California.

“That looks like an upside-down state of Texas!” opined another from the towers of Brooklyn.

Alas, if only my coastal friends would come and see what a culturally rich, wonderfully diverse, and left-tilting city we have here in Houston! Maybe the Texas jokes would subside then.

One of my best friends in Italy, Renato, a professional chef, taught me to cook my fiorentina like that.

Before you sear it on either side, you cook it upright to let the bone heat through. By doing so, you can still finish it blood-rare without undercooking the meat. The technique also makes the steak even more juicy and flavorful by releasing the flavor in the marrow — again, without overcooking the al sangue steak.

As comrade Howard likes to say, one man’s meat is another man’s Parzen. Ain’t that a beautiful piece of beef? We can all agree on that.

I hope your Memorial Day was swell!

cognà (cugnà) my latest obsession, Piedmont’s cheese friend

One of the perks of teaching at a gastronomic sciences university in the heart of Piedmont wine country is that the food and wine aren’t bad.

Add to that mix the fact the town(ship) where the school is located is also home to the Slow Food movement and an acute interest in wholesome and traditional foodways. It’s a recipe for a whole lotta deliciousness.

After returning from a winery visit in La Morra (Barololand) yesterday following class, one professor settled into his favorite local dining spot, Ristorante Battaglino in Bra (the toponym Bra comes from the late Latin/Longobard braida meaning farm or countryside btw). Following a repast of tajarin with sausage ragù and a glass of Ferdinando Principiano 2014 Barolo, he leisurely nibbled at a selection of cheeses accompanied by crusty bread and cognà or cugnà in the local patois.

It’s a cheese friend that falls somewhere between jam and relish.

Made from freshly crushed grape must (the main ingredient) with the addition of other fruits like apple, pear, and quince (depending on the recipe), hazelnuts and walnuts, and figs (dried or fresh), it’s one of those if it grows with it it goes with it dancing partners for cheese and Nebbiolo (or Dolcetto as the case may be).

Said instructor is no stranger to the wonders of the triptych cheese-Nebbiolo-cognà. Unsurprisingly, he had enjoyed a similar confluence the prior evening, save for the fact that the enoic component was Dolcetto.

Wise and informed humans also report that cognà marries superbly with Piedmontese-style bollito misto as well.

A new favorite wine list in Houston at Nobie’s and a spectacular Canary Islands wine

Travel and work have been so frenzied this year that I entirely missed a wonderful new(ish) restaurant and wine program right under my nose here in Houston.

But one of my best friends in the wine trade righted that wrong last night when he took me to Nobie’s.

That’s the restaurant’s moreish “Dilly Bread,” above, inspired (I believe) by Japanese milk bread and served with everything-bagel-topppings-infused butter topped with roe (trout, I believe). The visit would have been worth the appetizer!

But the real show stopper at yesterday’s dinner was a bottle of Canary Islands 2016 Palo Blanco by Envínate.

Wow, what a wine! And what a great wine list… one of my new favorites in Houston.

Just slightly oxidative in character, the Vino Atlántico paired magically with raw oysters. I loved how the citrus zest notes in the wine played against its own salinity and that of the molluscs.

Owner and wine director Sara Stayer has put together such a wonderful program there, with a balanced selection of natural, classic, and just-plain-fun wines. I especially loved the groovy California wines she’s serving right now.

And I REALLY loved her self-proclaimed “sliding scale” policy.

On last night’s list, one of my favorite Friulian wines was so generously priced that we thought it was a mistake. When we asked Sara about it, she told us that she occasionally marks down wines that she’s particularly excited about.

How friggin’ cool is that?

Nobie’s is just one of the myriad new wine-focused restaurants and wine bars that have already opened or are opening later this year in this southeast Texas town. The wine scene in Houston has only continued to grow and become more colorful in the time that I’ve lived here. Now it feels like we’ve reached a new plateau, a genuine wine renaissance.

Thank you, Sara, for a wonderful evening and dinner. I thoroughly enjoyed the restaurant. And I can’t wait to take Tracie there for a date night soon.

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

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

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

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

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

Note the potatoes among the layered pasta sheets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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