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.

Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix was everything they said it would be… and more.

One of the most exciting things about eating in a great restaurant for the first time is the electric anticipation you feel as you walk into the dining room. As you cross the threshold and the host greets you, you know there’s a culinary adventure ahead of you. You don’t know how that adventure will unfold but you know it’s about to happen. And it’s one of the things I love the most about a maiden voyage at a famous dining destinations.

For years, people have been telling me about pizzaiolo Chris Bianco and his Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. And his brother Marc, the restaurant group’s baker and ancient grain expert, has been a virtual friend for nearly a decade.

Last week, as the Parzen family made its way back to Texas from the west (our first big road trip together), we stopped for a night in Phoenix for dinner there.

Chris and Marc were among the earliest pioneers of wood-burning pizza ovens in the U.S. By the time New York’s Pizza War broke out in the 2000s (only to be followed by the bi-coastal pizza wars), they had already been churning out wood-fired pies for more than a decade (Chris launched Pizzeria Bianco in 1988 according to the restaurant’s website).

I ordered a hybrid (above): the Rosa (red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, Arizona pistachios) and Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami, Gaeta olives). The toppings were great — wholesome, tasty, and elegantly balanced in their saltiness. But it was the crust — the heart of the matter at any great pizzeria — that really thrilled me.

More Roman than Neapolitan in style, the dough was cooked all the way through (unlike the soggy-center Neapolitan style). The edges were toasty but not burnt. And the crust had an immensely rewarding savory character and a firm texture that retained its integrity on the palate without even a hint of redundant chewiness. We paired it with a bottle of Graci Etna Bianco (at a more-than-reasonable price, btw). It was utterly delicious and I highly recommend the restaurant to you.

But beyond the excellent food and truly groovy wine selection by manager Kari Barry, the Bianco brothers’ place has something transcendent about it: an aura of authenticity and genuine hospitality that’s increasingly rare in the U.S. restaurant scene.

Restaurants can be like rock bands: as soon as they become famous and successful, I’ve found over the years, they often lose the soulfulness that got them off the ground. But that’s not the case with Pizzeria Bianco, a Grateful Dead among Jefferson Airplanes Starships.

Chatting with Kari and some of the guests there that evening, I discovered that nearly everyone who works there has been on board for 20+ years, including the pizzaiolo who was (hu)manning the oven that night. Magically, they all seemed to share my exhilaration as a first time diner. And that’s what really took this place over the top for me.

I was reminded of a recently published piece by Tom Sietsema for the Washington Post, “Mass appeal: A taste of the nation’s most popular restaurants.”

In the article, he recounts his visits to the top-earning restaurants in the U.S.

The magic ingredient, he writes, is “hospitality of the warmest order.”

“Diners prize passion and sincerity as much as whatever’s on the menu.”

(Many American restaurateurs would be well-served by reading the column, btw.)

The food at Pizzeria Bianco was everything the critics said it would be and so much more.

I only wish I could go there for the first time… again.

Thank you, Kari, and thank you, Chris and Marc! I loved your restaurant and can’t wait until the next time.

Have Rossese, won’t travel: notes from the Ponente

Americans often claim that the wine just tastes better in Italy.

There are a variety of theories as to why this is (purportedly) the case: the Italians keep the good stuff for themselves; the wines taste better with the food there; the wines don’t travel well

As I drooled over his ample selection of Rossese, I was surprised to hear the sommelier of Bistrot I Torchietti in Finale Borgo (Liguria di Ponente) tell me that “you don’t find these wines in America because they don’t travel well. They need to be drunk here.”

Considering how few bottles of Rossese seem to make it to the U.S., he may have a point.

The enigma of the wine well traveled may never be solved… but Tracie and I thoroughly enjoyed the Cascina Praié Rossese Stundaio that he poured for us on Saturday night in the ancient city overlooking the riviera in western Liguria.

With zippy and balanced acidity and restrained alcohol, this wine was electric and lithe with bright berry fruit and Mediterranean scrub. Served room temperature, it paired gorgeously with the condiggiùn in the photo above (condiglione in Italian, the Ligurian niçoise). It was equally delicious with fried anchovies and fish stew.

I couldn’t recommend Ai Torchietti highly enough and I’m looking forward to trying the sister fine-dining concept Ai Torchi the next time we can visit.

Paganini Pigato was another wonderful discovery at Osteria Grotesque in the beachside village of Finale Ligure.

This food-happy wine had the mouthwatering minerality and classic muted yellow fruit and gentle almond notes that you find in old school expressions of the variety.

It was recommended to us by the young man who was running this popular restaurant on Friday night. He and the server working the floor of this tiny spot were so kind to our family. You don’t always find such nice people in jaded seaside towns brimming with tourists. These guys were the best.

Those are Osteria Grotesque’s antipasti above. We loved the place and we loved the people- and dog-watching (be sure to get there early to snag an outdoor table as we did; we ended up staying all night, with the girls playing with other children in the pedestrian-only street long after we finished eating).

All in all, Parzen family had a magical micro-vacation before returning sun-tanned and sandy to Bra in Piedmont where I have a heavy teaching load this week.

Finale Ligure, thank you! We can’t wait to see you again…

Italian bacon and eggs: Italy’s obsession with American food (no, this isn’t a joke)

Above: when I first started coming to Italy 30 years ago, bacon was still called pancetta. Now it’s called “bacon” in Italian.

Tracie and I landed in Italy yesterday with our daughters, ages 4 and 6. It’s their first real trip to Europe (since our oldest doesn’t have any recollection of our visits here when she was just one year old; and our youngest only made it here previously in utero).

When we told them about our summer trip this spring, they were concerned — gastronomically speaking.

“Daddy, daddy, we can’t go to Italy!” they protested vehemently. “They won’t have the things we like to eat there!”

“They have LOTS of good things to eat in Italy!” Tracie and I laughed and smiled.

“Do they have pizza in Italy?”

“Yes, of course they do,” I told them. “In fact, the Italians invented pizza! They have the best pizza in the world.”

They seemed genuinely impressed by this historical tidbit but then came the culinary litmus test that would determine their willingness to join their parents in the Garden of Europe:

“But daddy, do they have bacon in Italy?”

Above: bacon and eggs is now commonly found on menus in northern Italy.

It must have been seven or so years ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni took me out for (truly excellent) hamburgers and I noticed that the cured pork belly was cut and smoked not like traditional Italian pancetta but like American bacon.

In the time since, “bacon” — as it is now called in Italian — has become ubiquitous in northern Italy.

Above: a hamburger I ate last month in Franciacorta. Note the bacon.

Italians love LOVE hamburgers. They love them so much that they don’t use butcher scraps to form the patties. They use the highest quality beef they can find. And beyond the myriad fast food restaurants that now sadly dot the northern Italian countryside, the omni-present amburgheria (hamburger house) never uses the hydrogenated-oil buns that we adore in America. Instead, they use artisanal buns.

I’ve had some of the best hamburgers of my life in Italy in recent years. And that’s coming from an all-American, huge bacon-cheeseburger fan.

Bacon and scrambled eggs are also immensely popular now in northern Italy. Two years ago, I snapped the above photo of the dish in a run-of-the-mill trattoria in downtown Milan, ordered at lunch à la carte.

Above: bacon fries with Pecorino sauce (no joke) at the same amburgheria in Franciacorta.

Giovanni is graciously hosting our family this month at his place in Franciacorta. And being the generous and thoughtful friend that he is, he went grocery shopping for us before we arrived. The bacon in the top photo is awaiting our girls in his fridge as they slumber.

Back at home, we spend SO MUCH money on high-quality, wholesome bacon. Here in Italy, even when they cut the bacon from top hogs, the price is still very reasonable.

Leave it to the Italians to “misunderstand” American cuisine and make it all the better along the way. My only worry is: will our children ever want American bacon again?

We arrived safely and soundly yesterday afternoon in Milan and made our way to Franciacorta before the heavy rain began to fall. The girls have already spotted their first bunnies outside of Giovanni’s apartment and they loved the fresh fruit that Giovanni’s mom had prepared for them. Aside from a lost bag (mine, thank goodness, not Tracie’s with all the girls’ things), we’re already having a great time. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti!

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.