Pete Wells gets the Tex but not the Mex. What the American intelligentsia gets wrong about Texans, our culture, and how and what we eat.

Even some of the most informed food writers don’t realize that what they call “fajitas,” the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine, has its origins in Mexico’s discada cooking culture. That’s the carne asada plate, yesterday, at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, Taqueria El Sole de Mexico #2.

“Tex-Mex is probably the least respected of America’s regional cuisines,” wrote venerated Times food and restaurant critic Pete Wells in the paper this week. “In part this is because, like some Texas politicians, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny once it leaves the state.”

His uninformed, puerile mockery reminded me of something one of my close California family members said to me contemptuously after I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

“How can you live there,” they asked, “with all those awful people?”

I wonder how many Texan politicians Mr. Wells or my relative can name beyond Ted C. Maybe Ken P.? Beto, of course. But without resorting to a Google search, can they name one Black politician from Texas? Beyond Ted C. and maybe Julian C., do they know the name of any other Brown Texas politician?

And that’s what Wells and my relative all get wrong about Texans and our culture.

(In all fairness to Mr. Wells, he has famously, although perhaps disingenuously, written that he “likes” Texans.)

No English is spoke at my favorite Tex-Mex place, where “fajitas” are the number-one menu entry. You can also order a burrito smothered in queso. It’s as Tex-Mex as you can get.

I would have never said this to my relative (and luckily neither they nor their spouse read my blog!) but I would have liked to ask them: beyond all the “awful” White people you think you know from Texas, what about the Brown and Black people? Are they awful, too?

And that’s where the American intelligentsia gets it dead wrong.

Yes, there are a lot of “awful” White people in Texas who have disenfranchised Black and Brown people for generations. And those same awful White people continue to suppress the voice of Black and Brown people at the voting box and they continue — less successfully in recent years — to segregate Texans. But that’s because those awful White people are still in power, as anyone who reads the Times surely knows.

And here’s where the Tex-Mex analogy comes into play. The only Tex-Mex that Wells knows is the “White Tex-Mex” of big box players like Chuy’s and Pappasitos and the faux Tex-Mex that New Yorkers eat. He gets the Tex but he doesn’t get the Mex.

Tex-Mex didn’t originate in European cookery. It’s actually Brown-people cuisine that has been contaminated by White gastronomic traditions.

Case in point: fajitas.

Even Wells will agree that the griddle-fired, intensely seasoned meats are the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine. And he shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their origin lies in the discada cooking of the Mexican — not Texan — countryside.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Chef Luis Jiménez de S. whose cloud kitchen brand Bell Pepper Fajitas is debuting in Houston in a few weeks (I was writing a press release for his PR firm). His group is based in Del Rio on the Tex-Mex border. But Chef Luis had joined our call from Mexico where he lives and cooks — you guessed it — Tex-Mex!

We spoke at length about the origins of Tex-Mex and how it is a reflection of classic Mexican cuisine. He was keen to talk about its farming-community and family-friendly character, two elements that inform his menus for Bell Pepper Fajitas and his other immensely popular concept, Amacate.

I remembered our conversation as I dug into my carne asada yesterday at Taqueria El Sol de Mexico #2, which is located in a Tex-Mex row in a Spanish-speaking Houston neighborhood not far from our house. There are roughly 20 similar restaurants along a mile-long stretch of road. I haven’t visited them all but based on my past experiences, fajitas and queso — another pillar of the Tex-Mex canon — are on the menu at most of them.

I took a look around. There were no Texas politicians there (I know where Ted C. eats in Houston btw but that’s another story for another time). There were no awful White people there either. There were no White people there at all.

Just a bunch of Texans enjoying lunch on a beautiful spring day in Houston, the ranchera music blasting away.

The earliest mention of “al dente” pasta in an English cookery book? And a better translation of the expression.

Above: paccheri with seafood in Lecce province. Needless to say, they were cooked “al dente.”

The other night after Tracie made a perfectly cooked dish of fusilli al pomodoro for our daughters and me, the girls were curious about my comment that the pasta (or rather, the pastasciutta because these were dried pasta) had been strained al dente.

Although it’s often mistranslated or used a loanword in English (and especially American English), most Americans know it today to mean pasta that is slightly undercooked. As anyone familiar with home and restaurant cookery in Italy can tell you, Italians like their pasta slightly undercooked or “crisp” (see quote below).

For Italians, al dente is the baseline. Only on rare occasions have I met Italians who like their pasta overcooked. And because it’s such a commonplace expression, it’s by no means extraordinary. But here in America in recent decades, it became very fashionable to draw attention to the al dente cooking time for pasta. I don’t have any hard data on when it began to happen, but I can remember the time before the time when mainstream pasta producers began to indicate regular and al dente cooking times on the front of the box. To this day, pasta packaging in Italy simply reports the regular al dente cooking time or cottura (e.g., cottura 9 minuti or cooking time: 9 minutes).

No one really knows when al dente became a commonly used expression in Italy. There’s no doubt that it’s part of the culinary parlance today. But I haven’t been able to find any usage until the late 20th century.

Many food historians point to Ippolito Cavalcanti’s 19th-century recipe for “vermicelli with tomato” as one of the earliest instances of al dente cooking times (nota bene that Maestro Martino’s 15th-century cookbook mentions cooking time but he doesn’t indicate that the cooking time will deliver slightly undercooked pasta).

Cavalcanti, whose homecooking appendix to his Italian cookbook Cucina teorico-pratica is believed to be the first to be written in Neapolitan dialect, writes: “scauda doje rotola de vermicielli, e vierdi vierdi li levarraje…” Translation: “boil two nests of vermicelli and strain them while still very green” [Italics mine]. Most concur that this is among the first mentions of undercooked al dente pasta.

(In his own landmark 19th-century cookery book, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, Pellegrino Artusi included what would become one of Italy’s canonical recipes for “maccheroni alla napolitana” [Neapolitan pasta with tomatoes] but it doesn’t include a specific cooking time.)

An early mention of the use of the expression al dente popped up surprisingly in a British cookbook from the late 19th century by a writer named Julia Anne Elizabeth Tollemache. The wife of an English sportsman and politician, she focused primarily on biography throughout her career. But she also published what must have been a best-seller in its day, Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book With Many Family Recipes Hitherto Unpublished (Bickers 1898).

She writes:

    It is difficult to say how long Macaroni should be cooked. Neapolitans think it more digestible when it is underdone, so that it is rather crisp when bitten, or, to use their own term, when it is al dente. As a rule Macaroni should be cooked in from twenty to thirty minutes. It should be tried with a fork; or a piece may be taken out, and if it is crisp and yet tender, and if it breaks with its own weight, the Macaroni is done. The over-cooking of Macaroni makes it into a soft, pappy mess, which no Macaroni lover could touch.

There’s a lot to unpack in that passage! But to my mind, the big takeaway is that the expression al dente must have already been in common usage in Naples at the time. As an upperclass Brit, she most likely did a “grand tour” of Italy in her youth. The fact that she refers to Neapolitans and their cooking seems to be an indication that she had visited Naples and perhaps even cooked in a Neapolitan kitchen or two during her visit or visits there.

She was active roughly a half a century after Cavalcanti published the first edition of his book. It’s plausible that al dente came into popular usage sometime between Cavalcanti and Roundell.

I still have a lot of research to do here and I suspect that there will be many fascinating layers to this onion (stay tuned).

But in the meantime, please translate al dente as underdone, [slightly] undercooked, or as Mrs. Roundell writes, “rather crisp when bitten.”

Let’s be honest: Texas restaurants haven’t really been enforcing the mask mandate. Abbott’s decision to lift the requirement, while reckless, won’t make a difference.

Image via Adobe Stock.

Let’s be clear: when Texas governor Abbott issued a mask order last summer, it didn’t require all Texans to wear masks in public; it required Texas businesses to require that their customers wore masks while frequenting their places of business.

And let’s be honest: Texas restaurants, which have been allowed to offer some capacity of dine-in service for the better part of the last 12 months, have done little to enforce the mask mandate. And most restaurateurs have only cursorily observed the capacity limitations.

But then again, what could have restaurateurs actually done to enforce the mandate? While most are not reckless, people who have frequented restaurants over the last 12 months generally didn’t recognize the importance and urgency of wearing a mask. If they were hanging out in restaurants, they clearly didn’t put much stock in donning a mask for the safety of others. And after all, even with the mask mandate in place, you still needed to take the mask off to eat and drink.

Beyond the Quixotic challenges of enforcing mask mandates and dining capacity restrictions, the restaurants still open are mostly just trying to survive. When you’ve poured your life’s savings and work into a restaurant and you’re barely getting by, what are you supposed to do when someone enters your business without a mask and proceeds to order a $200 bottle of wine?

Our family decided early on not to frequent restaurants (although we support restaurants by doing take-out orders at least a couple of times a week). But I have spent time in dining rooms on more than one occasion over the last year. No one at our house is going hungry and we have little to complain about, all things considered. But the scarcity of work has forced me to take every copywriting job I can get. And sometimes, those gigs require my physical presence, whether to sample the food or take a photo of a chef or restaurant interior.

The bottomline is that restaurants in Texas have done little to enforce or even observe the business mask mandate. Even those restaurateurs who recognize the wisdom of mask wearing and social distancing have had little choice but to accept the fact that guests often refuse to wear masks. Nearly every occasion that I have spent time in a restaurant, masks were overwhelmingly “optional.” And I’m only relating my experience in Houston, a major metropolitan area. When we’ve traveled outside of Houston to visit family, we’ve seen restaurants packed with maskless guests as if there were no pandemic at all.

I believe that Abbott’s decision to lift the mask requirement is as reckless as it is myopic. But that’s not going to change what’s been happening in Texas restaurants over the last 12 months.

Take action on wine tariffs: please sign USWTA letter to incoming Biden administration.

Above: not only could a new round of wine tariffs raise the cost of wines at your favorite Italian restaurant, it would also impact countless Italian wine-focused small businesses and their employees across the country (photo taken at Misi in Brooklyn in January 2019).

According to a report published yesterday by Bloomberg, “the U.S. will soon issue the results of probes into Austria, Italy and India’s decisions to tax local revenue of Internet companies such as Facebook Inc., which could pave the way for retaliatory tariffs.”

The news comes on the heels of the EU’s recent announcement that it “plans to impose $4 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods, continuing a trade war fanned by the Trump administration” (Washington Post).

Both moves are part of ongoing World Trade Organization litigation between the U.S. and the EU over airline industry subsidies.

In October of 2019, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) imposed a tariff of 25 percent on French wines and Italian cheeses among other European products.

Those tariffs are still in place despite herculean efforts by the United States Wine Trade Alliance, an association formed last year in response to the continuing trade war.

The duties have gravely impacted not only French wine growers and Italian cheese makers but also thousands of small business in the U.S. including retailers, restaurants, distributors, and importers. Their tariff pain has only been exacerbated by the health crisis this year.

While Italian winemakers have been spared (so far) from the fallout of the trade wars, the new EU digital tax investigation and the newly imposed EU tariffs on U.S. goods could prompt the USTR to impose new duties on imported Italian wines.

“Biden has the ability to abolish these tariffs on day one of his administration,” said USTWA president Ben Aneff on a Zoom call with hundreds of American wine professionals yesterday afternoon.

Aneff and the USWTA are asking wine trade members to sign a petition asking the Biden administration to “End the Restaurant Tariffs!” Currently focused on the “on premise” sector, the campaign is part of a broader effort to raise awareness in the new administration about how these tariffs are affecting small businesses and their employees across the country.

I highly encourage all U.S. wine trade members to read and sign the petition. And please share it with your networks. The presidential transition, as Ben noted yesterday, represents a unique opportunity to have these duties lifted with one bold pen stroke.

Click here to read and sign the petition.

Please see also this USWTA Facebook post where Ben addresses strategies on raising awareness of the campaign among restaurant owners and employees.

Thank you for your support and solidarity.

Taste with Marco Fantinel and me this Thursday in Houston and notes on how to roast a bell pepper.

This Thursday, I’m thrilled to welcome my friend Marco Fantinel for the virtual wine dinner I host each week for Roma restaurant here in Houston.

I first met Marco in 2007 at the U.N. when he was launching a wine to benefit humanitarian aid (a lot of people don’t realize that Italy is one of the biggest supporters of the U.N.).

Over the years, he’s become a great friend and his family’s wines have become one of Tracie and me’s go-tos.

Marco is an amazing guy: a soccer club owner, a hotelier, a producer of Prosciutto di San Daniele (Friuli’s classic prosciutto), and first and foremost a grape grower and winemaker.

As you can see in the photo below, he grows his wines in the shadow of the Karsic Alps in the gravelly and limestone soils of Grave and Collio in Friuli. And I bet many of our guests will be surprised to learn how significantly his wines and Friulian culture have reshaped fine dining in the U.S., thanks in no so small part to Marco’s efforts.

Most recently, Marco partnered with Mary J. Blige to produce her Pinot Grigio (no joke!). I can’t wait to see him on our Zoom call and hear all about it as we taste his wines and enjoy Chef Angelo’s amazing cooking.

See the menu and details here. $119 send you home with three bottles of wine and dinner for two. Please support local businesses, including my own, by eating Italian food and drinking Italian wines with the people who make and love them. Thank you for your support.

In other news…

A ton of people had questions about this photo, posted on my social media over the weekend.

Back when I was translating recipes and writing about Italian wines and gastronomy for La Cucina Italiana in the late 1990s, this was how I learned to roast bell peppers.

You just place them on the stove top over medium or low heat and turn the pepper as it chars on each side.

For the next step, most recipes call for it to be placed in a brown paper bag to steam as it cools. I just put it in a medium-sized mixing bowl and cover it with a b&b plate.

After 10 minutes or so, it will have cooled and the charred skin is easy to remove.

After I’ve removed the skin under running water, revealing the beautiful color underneath, I clean the pepper of its stem and seeds. Then I slice it into thin strips that I dress with kosher salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and a kiss of red wine vinegar.

Sometimes I sauté the strips with garlic and chili flakes before dressing them as above. But Tracie and I like them best simply roasted and dressed.

It’s a super easy but classic way to prepare them! We served them with crusty bread and a glass of delicious Lageder Chardonnay (our new favorite everyday white ever since we did a virtual wine dinner with Helena Lageder a few weeks ago!).

Until we meet again, Jaynes Gastropub. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

Above: the Jayne Burger — “Niman Ranch ground beef, aged Vermont cheddar, house pickled onions, garlic aioli, fries.”

The year was 2009 — and oh what a good year it was — when a lapsed New Yorker cum native Californian sat down in a newly opened restaurant in Austin, Texas with his southeast Texan bride-to-be.

“What a great place you have here!” he said to the server as he approached their table.

“Thank you,” he replied. “Have you ever heard of a restaurant called ‘Jaynes Gastropub’ in San Diego? The owners modeled the restaurant after Jaynes.”

The Texan joint was a nearly cookie-cutter version of the San Diego original.

Above: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” wrote Jayne and Jon on their social media yesterday. Jaynes’ opening coincided with the first boom of natural wine in the U.S.

From the “custom millwork, zinc bar, mosaic tile floor all the way up to the 1920′s tin ceiling” to the large mirrors and Anglophilic paraphernalia adorning the walls, Jaynes made you feel like you had traveled to another time and place.

When it opened in 2007, the restaurant rode atop the new wave of gastropubs that opened across the U.S.

Guests would work their way through appetizers like Gambas al Ajillo, Chips and Gravy Poutine, Queso Fundido, Crispy Calamari, munching away and washing it down with groovy European wines and international craft beers.

You’d ask for a bottle of lithe Nebbiolo or a hearty Mourvèdre as you struggled deliciously to decide between mouth-watering mains like Lamb Shepherd’s Pie, Steak Frites, or the legendary Jayne Burger (above). Or sometimes, you’d just order nearly the whole damn menu and share with friends around the wonderful hand-crafted community table on the patio, the wine and music flowing all the while.

Jaynes was good eating at its best, in a time when Americans were still learning a thing or three from British gastropub culture — comfort food prepared masterfully with the highest quality ingredients.

Above: Jaynes was also a place where great musicians gathered and great music happened — paired with white Burgundy and old Nebbiolo.

Yes, I’m so sorry to say but you read that write: Jaynes was.

Yesterday, Jayne and her husband Jon announced in an Instagram post that the restaurant will not reopen.

The only thing that attenuates our sadness is the tide of warm memories that fills our hearts and minds.

Jaynes gave Tracie and me so much. It was one of the backdrops of our early courtship, the host of our wedding reception, and the place where everyone knew our names when we returned to my hometown. Our children played there together, we played countless concerts there.

Above, from left: John Yelenosky, Megan Yelenosky, Jayne Battle, Jon Erickson, Tracie Parzen, and Jeremy Parzen at Jaynes — where else?

Jayne and Jon, Tracie and I can’t thank you enough for the hospitality, the generosity, the friendship and solidarity that you’ve shared with us over the years. There will never be another Jaynes and the magic of those years will forever be inscribed in our hearts, in the name of joy and love.

We’re looking forward to the next chapter in your lives. Or should I say, all of our lives? For none of our lives will be the same without Jaynes Gastropub.

Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Join Paolo Cantele and me this Thursday for a virtual wine dinner in Houston.

Georgia was about nine months old the first time we took her to Italy. That’s her with Paolo at the Cantele winery outside Lecce.

Paolo Cantele isn’t just one of my best friends in Italy.

He’s one of my best friends, period.

A “road warrior” like me, he and I went on what would turn out to be our last road trip of the year back in February, not long before our countries — his and mine — began to shut down.

We’ve traveled across Italy and the U.S. together, we’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world together, we’ve discussed literature and film (our friendship began with his most amazing story about meeting Ninetto Davoli!), we share a love of music and culture.

I’ll never forget taking Paolo honky tonking in Austin for the first time. That’s Paolo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in 2010 (long before Dale Watson bought the place). We played chicken shit bingo — de rigueur!

In Oklahoma this year, we were even trolled together by a Trump supporter! No shit.

I just love the guy and we’ve had some truly unforgettable experiences together.

Paolo and I also work together: this Thursday he and I will be hosting a virtual wine dinner organized by one of my local clients, ROMA.

Owner Shanon Scott, chef Angelo Cuppone, and I have been doing these since late April and they’ve morphed into a de facto supper club. They are super fun and the regular crowd has developed a bonhomie that’s much needed in these days of attenuated socializing. Tracie and I look forward to them each week.

See the menu and details here. The couples price includes dinner for two and three bottles of wine. It’s a great deal and the week chef outdid himself with the perfect lineup for summer.

Please join us if you can: it’s a great way to support local businesses (including my own) and spend an evening with likeminded food and wine lovers. You won’t regret it.

Call (713) 664-7581 to reserve (these sell out fast so please be sure to snag your spot).

Why most Americans don’t care about wine tariffs.

Above: a European winemaker hosts a tasting of his wines in Colorado in late February, 2020.

“Tariff threats return,” read one of the wine retailer email newsletters that reached my inbox over the last week. “Our business could totally get blown up by a trade Death Star.”

“[My business partner] and I have spent 19 years building our business,” reported another, “and it could get wiped out in one blow. For better or worse, we’ve tied our love of European wine to the life of our shop. We have 25 employees, many with families; we pay their health insurance; we pay a boatload of taxes. [Our shop] is a micro business, but there are many thousands of employees and owners around the country who will be similarly affected — to say nothing of how this will impact our wine loving customers.”

Across the U.S., wine retailers are mobilizing their customer base and trade networks in an effort to raise awareness of how potentially increased and expanded tariffs on European wines could — literally — decimate their ranks.

Most of the roughly 20 or so similarly conative messages received over the past few weeks weeks point to a portal recently created by the U.S. Wine Trade Alliance (USWTA), an advocacy group formed by European wine-focused small businesses. It streamlines the process whereby the user, whether trade member or consumer, can comment on the U.S. Trade Representative site and express their concerns regarding the tariffs currently under consideration. The deadline for comment is July 26. The decision on whether or not to remove, expand, and/or increase the duties will be announced on August 12.

With so much energy being poured into this campaign by understandably qualmish wine merchants, it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. government won’t take note of the existential threat posed by the potential tariffs and their resulting dismay.

But tradesfolk in our country’s major cities often forget that they remain a minority in our nation.

I was reminded of this when I recently contacted the office of a top anti-tariff congressperson whose district lies just north of metropolitan Houston where I live. The area where he lives and dines (as I discovered) is one of greater Houston’s more affluent. But despite the extreme concentration of wealth in his neck of the woods (Houstonians will get the pun), there isn’t much in terms of haute cuisine in the community he represents beyond the quintessential high-end and highly predictable steak house franchises.

When I spoke to the owner and executive chef of the seemingly lone high-concept restaurant there (where, I learned, said representative frequently eats), the food professional told me that while he was aware of the tariff issue, it hasn’t affected his business at all.

How is that possible? I asked him.

His wine program does include a sizable allocation of expensive French wines. But those lots were purchased some time ago, he said, partly as an investment (a classic restaurant model). Like the guests he serves, he focuses primarily on top California wines.

And when he revealed his overarching approach to his restaurant group’s wine programs, the axiomatic delivery rolled off his palate so mellifluously that I can’t imagine it was his first time uttering the phrase.

“If it doesn’t have the grape name on the label,” he informed me, “they ain’t going to drink it.”

He was referring to pecunious Americans’ well-documented penchant and preference for “varietal wines,” bottlings sometimes even blended using different varieties but labeled with a single grape name, e.g., “Chardonnay,” “Merlot,” “Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir,” etc.

His aphorism rang true when I spoke to said representative’s office. The person on the other line seemed entirely unaware of the heightened interest in European wines that has taken shape in this country over the last two decades.

For the record, both the restaurateur and the government official with whom I spoke were exceedingly generous with their time and both were glad to lend a hand in connecting me with the persons I was trying to reach.

But the notion that the tariffs under consideration would disproportionately affect Americans without achieving the desired result was something that hadn’t previously or remotely crossed their minds.

Wine culture has grown enormously in the U.S. over the last 20 years or so. But for most Americans, it doesn’t really matter where that Pinot Grigio comes from. It might as well be from Australia or Texas, as long as the grape name is inscribed on the package.

Just think of how wine is sold in American airports (or should I say, try to remember the way wine used to be sold in airports). In these transport hubs, where Americans from all walks of life and of all stripes meet (however fleetingly), the sale of wine is primarily categorized, classified, and bartered using its designate ampelonym: what wines do you have by the glass? is commonly answered by Chard, Sauv Blanc, Cab, Syrah, Pinot, and Merlot.

Shortly before the pandemic redefined “living” in America, a European winemaker and I took a road trip that led us from Houston to Dallas to Tulsa to Boulder. We hosted well-attended wine tastings in each city we visited.

But what about all the places and people in between?

Until a majority of Americans dives into the nuanced and subtle differences between Nebbiolo from Langa and its varietal counterpart from upper Piedmont, the threat of wine tariffs will be as ephemeral to them as it is existential to us.

Please visit the USWTA portal and make your voice heard!

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.