Vitello tonnato: a photographic retrospective

The photo above (snapped the other night at Battaglino in Bra where I’m teaching this week and next) prompted a robust thread of comments by fellow vitello tonnato lovers on my Facebook.

My friend Logan Cooper from Austin, a food blogger I admire greatly, wrote the following:

    The first time I encountered this dish I was a young man visiting Milan. I was confused, put off, and generally disparaging that such a thing wasn’t a weird joke on tourists. I was wrong. In the years since, this dish has held delight, surprise, and mystery. So many flavors, so many variations, still slightly baffling. If cognitive dissonance had a Italian mascot, vitello tonnato would be near the front of the line.

I love his candor and exhilaration.

And I love vitello tonnato — roast or boiled veal, thinly sliced and topped with a sauce made from olive oil-cured tuna, salted anchovies, raw eggs, and brined capers — in part because of its deliciously satisfying character and in part because of its easy digestion. It’s a dish that “agrees” with me on every level.

The following are some interpretations I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. And here’s a translation of what is perhaps the earliest printed version of the recipe, Pellegrino Artusi’s. I rendered it into English a few years ago for Tenuta Carretta. Note the absence of egg.

Centro storico vinoteca.

Osteria More e Macine.

Poderi Colla.

Locanda in Cannubi.

Local Bra.

Battaglino (from last year).

Nerello Mascalese vinegar from Etna is sexy (but Ancellotta pudding from Emilia is sexier)

Another cool thing about this year’s Vinitaly was the expanded food component.

I spent most of my time at the fair tasting wines and meeting with winemakers and grape growers. But I also managed to break away and hit up the Sol&Agrifood pavilion where Italian producers where joined by counterparts from Morocco, Iran, Greece, and many other international entries.

One highlight was a vinegar made from a blend of Nerello Mascalese wine- and cooked-must vinegars by Romano, an Etna-based olive oil producer. Their oils were extraordinary as well. But the vinegar, produced for Romano by Acetaia Guerzoni in Modena province, really blew me away with its balance of acidity, sweetness, and nutty flavors.

Wine professionals spend so much time parsing over the nuances of fermented grape must. But relatively little attention or energy are devoted to one of the grape’s ultimate expressions — vinegar. Like wine, vinegar can achieve greatness when produced expertly and thoughtfully (and patiently).

Why do we spend excessive amounts of money on wine at dinner in a fancy restaurant and then dress our salads with industrially produced crap? (Similarly, we serve grass-fed slow-smoked $21-per-pound brisket on hydrogenated-oil white bread. What’s the point? as an Italian food colleague asked me the other day.)

Another compelling taste came in the form of Sugoli d’Uva, a grape pudding obtained by thickening Ancellotta grape must with flour.

It’s a nearly forgotten traditional dish from Emilia where it was typically produced during the grape harvest. It represents yet another way to capture the essence of the vine and prolong its utility and deliciousness.

Older Emilians still remember grandma making the pudding in the fall when the grapes were picked. I was thrilled to see that my friends at Acetaia Guerzoni have revived it.

You eat it with a spoon by itself, they said. But many across the internets suggest serving it with crumbly Torta Sbrisolona. Either way, I don’t think you can go wrong with this dangerously moreish sweet!

Coming away from this tasting, I thought about how important it is to remember that viticulture is part of larger agricultural and nutritional system. To focus solely on wine would be to eclipse so much flavor from your world! [Wine and] food for thought…

Biodynamic traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena! How friggin’ cool is that…

As I prepare my notes for the traditional balsamic vinegar seminar and tasting I’m leading on Monday at the Taste of Italy/Slow Wine fair in Houston, I rang up my good friend Silvia Rossi from Acetaia Guerzoni in Modena province this morning.

In the 1970s it became the first ABTM — aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena — producer to farm its grapes organically and then biodynamically. How friggin’ cool is that?

Silvia is a great friend and she’s one of my go-to experts in the field: I wanted to dot my i’s and cross my t’s before our event on Monday (registration is still open for the Taste of Italy/Slow Wine Grand Tasting and there are still a few spots available for our balsamic seminar as well).

Did you know that most ABTM producers use five types of wood for their Solera aging of the vinegars?

At Guerzoni they actually use seven kinds: cherry, acacia, mulberry, ash, oak, chestnut, and juniper. Silvia shared the image above where you can see the cycles of the planets and sun that they use to determine when they rack the vinegars and transfer them to a new cask (in accordance with biodynamic precepts). Super cool, if you ask me.

Sadly, “balsamic vinegar” is one of the most misunderstood and abused categories in the world of food and wine today.

Did you know that the overwhelming majority of “balsamic vinegars” that you buy at the store (even high-end gourmet shops) is actually wine vinegar that’s been colored with a small amount of genuine balsamic vinegar? In some cases, caramel is used to color the wine vinegar. It’s a complete sham if you ask me. And btw, even in Italy colored wine vinegars are commonly sold and served as aceto balsamico.

I’m super psyched for Monday’s seminar and I hope you join me: Houston-based chef Danny Trace is doing the balsamic-inspired dishes that he’ll serve topped with the sticky icky gooey groovy delicious stuff.

A Freilichen Purim, everyone! Happy Purim! Chag sameach!

Italian culinary renaissance in LA (good things I ate this week in the City of Angels)

This week found me in LA where I checked in on the wine lists I author and co-author at Sotto and Rossoblu. I also spent some time this week eating out around town to catch up with what has shaped up to be a genuine Italian culinary renaissance here.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to eat at the new downtown location for Terroni (above). But man, what a gorgeous room! I’ll actually be eating there next week and am really looking forward to it. Owner and wine buyer Max Stefanelli is so rad. I had a chance to visit with him and was amazed by the restaurant and cellar tour he offered.

He doesn’t serve a Prosecco by the glass in any of his restaurants. How cool is that?

Bestia was completely packed on Monday night. The Monday after Thanksgiving! I had to pull a restaurant connection string to get a table but man, was it worth it.

I loved the mortadella tortellini (above). I also really loved the pâté and the presentation of the dish (below). Great wine list and great overall vibe and energy in this restaurant, which was one of the pioneers (roughly five years ago?) of the downtown culinary new wave here.

But as much as I loved Bestia and as much as I love the two restaurants I consult with here, the all-time king of Italian cuisine in Los Angeles will always and forever be Gino Angelini, owner and chef at the eponymous Angelini Osteria.

That’s his octopus below. Perfection…

The legendary tagliolini al limone (below).

There’s so much good housemade pasta in LA right now. But Gino was the first to really turn Angelinos on to how great it can be. I can’t think of an LA chef who doesn’t point to him as a pioneer and inspiration for her/his own pasta program.

The pappardelle with duck ragù (below) were also fantastic.

As simple as a dish like that may seem, it really takes a deft hand to achieve the balance that it needs.

Wow, Gino, as always, ubi major minor cessat. I really love and have always loved your cooking. It was great to be back. Thanks for taking such good care of us (and thanks Anthony for treating!).

Now time to get my butt on a plane to Houston where I belong…

Best carbonara recipe and dinner with one of my all-time favorite wine writers…

Last night, I had the immensely good fortune of being a guest in the home of professor Michele Antonio Fino, director of the Master’s in Wine Culture program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont where I’m currently teaching a seminar on wine writing.

But as if my stars hadn’t already aligned, my luck only grew: Armando Castagno, one of my all-time favorite wine writers (and my fellow professor in the Master’s in Wine program), prepared a carbonara (above) for us using pecorino romano that he had brought with him from Rome earlier that day.

Armando is the apotheosis of the Roman intellectual and one of the most entertaining and engaging dinner guests you could ever host. And he is not only an expert in wine (among many other fields) but he is also a foremost authority on Roman cuisine.

As the water was boiling for the rigatoni, the quintessential pasta for this dish (not spaghetti, Armando explained), he patiently whisked the freshly grated pecorino with the eggs until he achieved the desired consistency: he used a 3/1 ratio of yolks to whites (meaning he added two yolks for every whole egg, just to be clear).

He pointed out that he doesn’t salt water because there is sufficient saltiness owed to the cheese and the guanciale (this is extremely important, he insisted).

Before he began cooking the pasta, he sautéed the roughly one-centimeter-thick slices of guanciale in their own fat. When he achieved the desired crispiness, he strained and reserved the liquified fat.

Once he cooked the pasta (employing less than the recommended cooking time and at low heat, he noted), he strained it and returned it to the cooking pot. He then folded the reserved liquified fat from the guanciale into the pasta; added the pecorino-and-egg dressing and the crispy guanciale; and then he sprinkled with more pecorino as he had me grind the black pepper into the dish. After plating the dish, he topped with more sprinkled pecorino before serving.

One of the most important elements of the assembly, he said, was that the pasta shouldn’t be too hot when you add the cheese, eggs, and guanciale. If it’s too hot, the dressing will become lumpy, he explained.

Just feast your eyes on the dish above… and yes, you most definitely should weep. What a carbonara, people!

For the wine pairing, he told us, you need a white with enough body to stand up to the saltiness and fattiness of the dish. He highly approved of Michele’s Van Volxem 2011 Saar Riesling (above).

Beyond Armando’s skill in the kitchen and his extraordinary abilities as taster (one of the greatest tasters I’ve ever interacted with, hands down), the thing that impresses me the most about him is the breadth and the depth of his knowledge in so many fields — from art history and classical Latin to sports (he’s a huge fan of American football) and, of course, food and wine.

To hear him rattle off anagrams (one of his favorite pastimes) was as hilarious as it was exhilarating (Democrazia Cristiana = Azienda Camorristica; On. Giulio Andreotti = un gelido Totò Riina).

So many of the world’s most talented and highest-profile wine writers and tasters can quibble over whole-cluster versus de-stemmed fermentations — an unquestionably noble pursuit, no doubt. But few can parse the nuance of luminosity of color in American modernist painting.

His polymathy is an example for all of us: our knowledge of viticulture is only enriched by its contextualization within the human arts, experience, and condition.

And man, this dude can make a bad-assed carbonara!

I am so proud to call him my fellow in the Master’s in Wine program. He’s all the more reason to enroll.

Armande magister optime ubi major minor cessat. Vale.

Rossoblu makes TOP 10 list in Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants (Los Angeles Times)

“The tortelloni, stuffed with the traditional mixture of ricotta and chard,” wrote LA Times food critic in his review of Rossoblu, “could illustrate the concept of Italian dumplings in a textbook.” I took the above photo last week when I was at the restaurant to lead a vertical tasting of Nebbiolo stretching back to 1996.

It was back in New York in the late 1990s when my friend from college Steve Samson (we met on our junior year abroad in Italy) first talked to me about his dream to open a fine-dining restaurant devoted to the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, where his mother was born. By the early 2000s, when I was just a few years into my wine writing career, he was already talking about the wine list he wanted me to create for it.

We used to call it “the Dream.”

I couldn’t be more thrilled to share the news: late last night, the Los Angeles Times published “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants,” including Steve’s Emilia-Romagna-themed Rossoblu, which landed in the top 10 (at number 10). I’ve been co-authoring the wine list there with my colleague Christine Veys since the restaurant opened this spring and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of such a great team of restaurant professionals.

Seeing Rossoblu up there with restaurants like Spago and Providence (one of my all-time favorites) was like a childhood fantasy come true.

And as proud as I am of the wine program that we’ve created there, the credit goes solely, wholly, and rightly to Chef Steve and his wife Dina, who have always stayed true to the vision that they had for this superbly unique restaurant.

Over the arc of my career in the wine and restaurant trade, I’ve been involved with many high-profile restaurant openings. A restaurant launch is always stressful, chaotic, and unpredictable. The only thing you can count on is that you can’t count on anything when it comes to opening the doors of a multi-million dollar venue.

But the thing that keeps it together is a shared vision and staying true to that vision. None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the son of schmatta-industry drop-out from Brooklyn who studied medicine in Italy and a wonderful home cook and loving mamma from Bologna.

Mazel tov and congratulations, Steve and Dina. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of it. Thank you for bringing me along for the ride. I love you guys. Well done and well deserved!

L’shanah tovah: may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year…

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

.לשנה טובה תכתבי ותחתמי

L’shanah tovah tikatevi v’taihatemi.

.לשנה טובה תכתב ותחתם

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and wellbeing to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

Xochi is my new favorite restaurant in Houston

Last night, thanks to cousins Dana and Neil (who graciously treated us to dinner), Tracie P and I finally made it over to Chef Hugo Ortega’s new(ish) restaurant in downtown Houston, Xochi, his homage and ode to the cuisine of Oaxaca.

His seafood restaurant Caracol was my previous favorite restaurant in Houston (such a brilliant place, btw). Xochi is my new one!

That’s the queso de cincho, above, topped with a “trio of insects” (fried worms, ants, and grasshoppers) and accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork skins).

Infladita de Conejo — rabbit, black tortilla, raisins, almonds, tomato, and refried beans.

Speaking to our server, he told me that he was so eager to work there that he told the managers he would take a dish-washing position just to get his foot in the door. You can tell by the warm vibe of the restaurant that Ortega’s staff is as inspired by him as they are by what he is doing in the kitchen. And it shows in the quality of the food and the caliber of the service.

Robalo (sea bass crudo) — aguachile verde (green chile water), cilantro, parsley, lime, orange, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, and plantain tostada.

I also really liked wine director and general manager Sean Beck’s smart, value-driven wine list. The Brooks 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon was such a perfect pairing that worked gorgeously throughout the meal, even as a refreshing counterpoint to my chicken mole. Sean should win an award for “best Mexican cuisine wine program.”

Accolades aside, hearing him speak in such glowing tones about his many trips to Oaxaca, you can tell that his passion for the restaurant and its menu are reward enough.

But the best part of the meal…

…was having a night out with my beautiful wife.

Thank you, Dana and Neil, for such a lovely and unforgettable evening. And thank you, Sean and staff, for such seamless, warm, and thoughtful service.

Xochi is a true original: a meal there is a voyage to Oaxaca and a reflection of the best of Houston and its peoples.

Slow life in Bra: an Italian university town, the way I remember it from the old days

Before the Parzen family headed to southern California for our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration, I spent a week in Bra, Piedmont, where I taught two seminars at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Food Writing in the Digital Age and Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron).

I really enjoy the teaching (I’ll be back in November teaching wine writing and it looks like I’ll be doing four or five grad seminars, all taught in English, next year).

And I’ve really fallen in love with the little town of Bra where the university is located. It reminds me of my student days in Padua, before the age of Berlusconi and the rise of the hard right in northern Italy. Back then, Padua had countless pubs, inexpensive restaurants, and a vibrant student community.

That’s a view, above, facing west toward the Alps from the highest point in Bra, at the octagonal Zizzola House.

I know a lot of people are curious about the toponym Bra (and the homonymic jokes are as predictable as they are forgivable).

The place name Bra comes from the late Latin braida, meaning open field or arable land. Its origins may be Longobard and it is sometimes transcribed as breda. But regardless of Longobard inflection, most agree that it comes from the classical Latin praedium meaning farm or manor.

That’s the castle in the nearby hamlet of Pollenzo, above. Today, it is home to the university, its staff, and its classrooms and lecture halls. But it was once a country residence inhabited by the House of Savoy. It’s surrounded by rich farmland, hence the Roman name Braida and the Italian name Bra.
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When food writing becomes a bully pulpit…

Last week, a prominent Houston food writer penned one of the most scurrilous posts I’ve ever read. In it, he upbraided a leading Houston legacy restaurateur with a venom generally reserved for the missives of jilted lovers.

In a world where content comes increasingly cheap and where even full-time food editors are paid barely livable wages, why is that the content creators employ such vitriol and stinging hostility in their writing? What’s to be gained other than clicks, ill will, and a degradation of the food community at large when a writer attacks a restaurateur or chef with such churlishness?

And why do the content creators have such little regard for the impact that their writing will have on the restaurateurs and their employees?

After all, it’s not a matter of defending or questioning President Trump’s wisdom in exiting the Paris Accord or imposing a travel ban on Muslims. Evidently, the stakes are higher.

The episode made me think back to my early years in New York when William Grimes — a writer I admire greatly — became the restaurant reviewer at the Times in the wake of Ruth Reichl’s departure in 1999.

In one of his earliest reviews, he panned the newly opened Colina at ABC Carpet, a high-concept and high-profile “rustic” Italian, giving it the paper’s lowest rating of “satisfactory” (“A Rural Italian Stage, a Complicated Script”).

A few short months later (and this was a few years before the Tragedy of the Twin Towers, when the New York restaurant scene was still booming and growing rapidly), the restaurant closed and all of its employees and investors were sent packing. Millions of dollars and years of planning down the drain.

By November 1999, Grimes had downgraded the rating for some of the city’s most beloved dining destinations.

“Mr. Grimes gave three stars to Daniel Boulud’s $10 million reincarnation of Restaurant Daniel,” wrote Frank DiGiacomo for the Observer at the time, “compared to the four stars that Mr. Boulud had been given by Mr. Grimes’ predecessor in the job, Ruth Reichl. On Oct. 20, Mr. Grimes demoted Charlie Palmer’s Aureole down to two stars from the three that The Times‘ Bryan Miller gave Mr. Palmer in 1991. In between, Mr. Grimes has awarded a flurry of one-star reviews — which have long represented mediocrity in this town — to such luminaries as restaurateur Drew Nieporent and Michael Lomonaco, chef of Wild Blue and Windows on the World.”

No one, it seemed, would be spared Grimes’ critical ire. And it was a watershed moment for food writing and restaurant reviews in the U.S.

Grimes told DiGiacomo:

    “Ruth hated the star system and was on record as not believing in it and therefore did an end run around it,” Mr. Grimes said of Ms. Reichl, now editor of Gourmet magazine. “Basically, one star had been abolished, and all sorts of restaurants were getting two stars, and the whole thing became sort of meaningless.”
    Mr. Grimes said one of his New Year’s resolutions was “to reinstate a valid star system in which the stars meant what they said and said what they meant. The one star’s purpose in life is to reward the good, solid neighborhood restaurant that’s operating at a high level, but is never going to be a Daniel.” At one point in the conversation, he characterized himself as “administering tough love.”

Grimes’ “tough love” ushered in an era of the self-righteous and morally puckered food critic in our country, when writers seemed to feel charged with and empowered by an ethical responsibility to unmask mediocrity to readers who couldn’t recognize it on their own.

But the waning of print media and the rise of the blogosphere and user-generated content in the years that followed the financial crisis marked the onset of winter for such high-handed arbiters of culinary excellence.

Scarcely a decade after Grimes’ review of Colina, Adam Martin wrote for The Atlantic: “the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else.”

(I highly recommend Martin’s piece, “The End of the Career Food Critic,” to any aspiring food writer. It gives much needed historical perspective on the rapid evolution of food writing over the last two decades.)

In a world where there is no career for the “career food critic” as Martin put it, why do content creators still cling to such self-righteousness and self-fulfilling and self-propelled pseudo-moral authority?

What was there to gain when the Houston writer so aggressively assailed the restaurateur with little regard for journalistic standards or integrity? What purpose does food writing as a bully pulpit serve?

The answer beats me — literally and figuratively. And it’s one of the topics I’ll be covering for my seminars on food writing across the web at the University of Gastronomic Sciences next month in Piedmont.