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.

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!