Bitter herb and salty tears for Prince… wishing everyone a good Passover #hagsameach

passover foodsThe bitter herb and salted water will be especially acidic and savory this year.

Tracie P and I are both reeling from the news that Prince has left this world for a better one.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Z., a friend from Australia who works in the music industry, sent me a video from a private performance by Prince he had attended. What an electric, magical entertainer he was, a triple threat as they used to say…

After everyone else went to bed last night (my mom is in Houston for the holiday), we stayed up and sipped some Venica Pinot Grigio as we watched all the remembrances on CNN and listened to our favorite Prince tracks on our phones.

He gave us so much through his music, energy, activism, and charity. Now he’s gone. It makes both of us so sad.

Tonight we’ll be celebrating the Passover with my mom and Tracie’s parents, Rev. and Mrs. B.

And when we dip our parsley into the water and remember the bitterness and salty tears of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, I will also remember how Prince brought us so much joy and light and sweetness in the daily toil of life. The world isn’t the same without him.

Wishing everyone a happy Passover… hag sameach, yall…

Lick, pray, love: wonderful ice cream at Dolce Neve in Austin

best ice cream austin texasPosting in a hurry today because I’m super slammed with work.

But, dulcis in fundo, how not to end the week on a sweet note after having visited my new favorite ice cream shop, Dolce Neve in Austin?

I loved talking to owners and ice cream-makers Marco Silvestrini from Umbria (below, right) and Leo Ferrarese (left) from Lombardy. I didn’t get to meet Francesca Silvestrini, Marco’s sister. But she’s part of the picture, too.

Super nice people and fantastic, wholesome, artisanal ice cream. All made from scratch and served in traditional Italian style with lots of fun flourishes.

Talking to these guys yesterday while I was in Austin for business, I couldn’t help but think that someone is going to make a “feel-good-movie-of-the-summer” about their arc, from the corporate world to ice cream slingers in America’s quirkiest city. Lick, pray, love…

Thanks for being here and buon weekend a tutti!

dolce neve austin marco silvestrini

A mozzarella backwater in Caianello (Caserta province, Campania)

caianello mozzarellaHonestly, I can’t tell you why the small town of Caianello, about 30 minutes north of Naples on the autostrada heading south from Rome, is an epicenter for artisanal mozzarella production.

All I do know is that Tracie P and I stopped there a few years ago when we traveling in southern Italy with our then one-year-old daughter Georgia P and Tracie was pregnant with Lila Jane.

Tra had a case of hunger pangs and so we literally took the first exit we could find. And it was only by chance that we stumbled on to this mozzarella backwater.

caianello caseificioYesterday, when our group of wine writers made a lunch pitstop there, the lines at the (evidently super famous) Caseificio La Pagliara were just as long as the last time. And so we headed down the road to the Bottega dei Buoni Sapori for simple sandwiches of moreish plastic cheese and delicious bread.

If you ever make the same journey, I highly recommend it.

Today, we’re in Lecce, Puglia where we’ll be heading out to taste with my good friend and client Paolo Cantele at his family’s winery…

A FANTASTIC trattoria in Trastevere (Rome) and a Befana to burn

Notes from the eternal city…

best trattoria trastevere romePosting in a hurry this morning for Rome before our group of writers heads to Salento for wine tasting, eating, and touring for three days.

But just had to share the tip: dinner at Tavernaccia in Trastevere last night was phenomenally good. No website but here’s the Google place page.

Not only did we eat one of the best spaghetti alla gricia I’ve ever had but we also had what we unanimously declared the best roast suckling pig in history.

Excellent wine list with lots of natty Friulian.

Thank you to Hande and Theo for turning us on to this amazing place. Some of us cried… it was that good. And the price was ridiculously affordable.

befana italy burnThis morning, my college-days buddy Steve shared this photo from Prato della Valle in Padua (my old stomping ground).

That’s the Befana, the witch who comes on the night of January 5 each year to bring children presents or lumps of coal. She will be burned later today, sweeping out the old and welcoming the new year.

Here’s the Wiki entry to learn more (really interesting to read up on the tradition’s origins, btw).

That’s all I have time to post this morning. Stay tuned!

Creative Italian cookery is TRUE Italian cuisine: great dinner at Ribelle in Boston

NEWS FLASH: my vitello tonnato research continues this week with an entry on the Milanese version of the dish over on the Tenuta Carretta blog.

due latti latte robiolaThe funniest thing happened last week on my way to Boston to have dinner with a good friend and client of mine at Ribelle, one of the city’s super cool new wave restaurants, opened a few years ago.

After said friend/client emailed wine director Theresa Paopao his request to do a pasta tasting menu, she gently advised that the restaurant’s cooking was not traditional Italian.

She was happy to accommodate his request and our party, of course.

But “I just wanted to put this out there,” she wrote, “so that the only surprises are pleasant ones.”

When we sat down to eat and the first pasta arrived, I was reminded of what my friend and client Tony Vallone always says: for food to be authentically Italian, it must also be creative.

Those are the wholewheat canestri (baskets), above, with robiola due latti (sheep’s and cow’s milk) and sunchoke.

uni pastaIn my view, the excellent food at Ribelle had all the hallmarks of great Italian cuisine: wholesome, fresh ingredients; artisanal food products; al dente cooking times for the pasta; and the creativity and playfulness that sets contemporary Italian gastronomy apart from the rest on the world stage today.

Those are the maccheroni, above, with nori goma and uni (my favorite dish of the evening, especially because the heat was appropriately intense).

You could easily have been served this dish on the Amalfi coast (I recently read, btw, that Campania is now the Italian region with the second highest number of Michelin stars).

agnolotti recipeA poet is someone who takes the elements of a language (a finite set of words and meanings) and combines them in a new and unique way.

In my view of the enogastronomic world, the same holds for great Italian cookery.

As untraditionally Italian as Ribelle may be, this is the true tradition of authentic Italian cuisine today in my view: imaginative combinations of classic and local ingredients that create new aromas and flavors.

Those are the agnolotti (otherwise, a traditional Piedmontese stuffed pasta), above, filled with boar and served with black trumpet mushrooms.

rigatoni seafoodThe rigatoni, above, with octopus and fennel, were another favorite of mine.

I was really impressed by the verve and flair of Ribelle’s cooking and I left the restaurant with a belly satiated and content — I loved the food that much.

Is Ribelle a traditional Italian restaurant? No.

Is it an authentic Italian restaurant? I’ll answer that question with a hearty and al dente “yes.”

Best places to eat in Langa (Piedmont) wine country

piedmont antipasti classic recipesAbove: a classic Langarolo antipasti plate (although insalata russa is missing).

A colleague who’s on his way to the Langhe Hills of Piedmont for vacation asked me about my favorite places to eat in Piedmont. And so I thought I’d share my notes here.

My list is by no means exhaustive and there’s no hierarchy.

I have traveled to Langa (Barolo and Barbaresco country) three times over the last six months and over the years, I can’t remember how many times I’ve been there: these are some of the places I’ve either had a good experience or I’ve heard good things about. There are countless other places worth seeking out.

I know that a lot of folks are headed to Langa in coming months for truffle season. I hope that readers can find this shortlist useful (and again, it’s by no means exhaustive).

If you like, please share your favorite Langa dining destination in the comments and I’ll add it to a future post.

Buon appetito e buona degustazione! Enjoy your meals and enjoy your tastings!

Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco village. 

It’s worth it just for the trip through the Barbaresco appellation. Classic Piedmont cooking with no frills but perfectly executed. Stop in the Produttori del Barbaresco tasting room on your way.

Also, they’ve just opened the newly restored medieval tower with an elevator and viewing platform. No better view of Barbaresco.

La Libera in Alba.

This the cool kids restaurant and it’s where all the winemakers go for dinner. Traditional Piedmontese with a modern flair. Great restaurant. Very cool place to hang.

cerequioAbove: that’s the view from the Locanda in Cannubi facing west. You can see the Palas Cerequio in the center left of the image and you can see the village of La Morra in the top right.

Locanda in Cannubi atop Cannubi vineyard in Barolo.

I ate there on my last trip. Solid Piedmontese food, classic, well executed. But the thing is it’s at the peak of Cannubi. I really loved this place because of the view and the food was excellent.

Trattoria della Posta in Monforte.

This is one of the classics and one of the greats. I only ate there once with Franco Conterno but the food was spectacular.

Da Cesare in Albaretto Torre (Alba).

I’ve never eaten there but they say this is the holy grail. I’ve heard that this is where the Gajas eat.

best vitello tonnato recipe piedmontAbove: my favorite vitello tonnato was at More e Macine in La Morra where I ate in June of this year.

More e Macine in La Morra.

If you want to do something more modest, this place was awesome. It’s where regular folks go to eat. Best vitello tonnato I had this year (in three visits to Langhe). Very casual and inexpensive.

Vinoteca Centro Storico in Serralunga.

Also a more toned-down place but very much on tourist radar. Great, classic food but the thing is the list of sparkling wine. Best place for bubbles in Langhe. Make sure you get the Prosciutto d’Osvaldo (cult prosciutto from Friuli).

There are other places as well. I don’t know if they still do lunch there but the Cascina Cornale is the place made famous by Alice Waters. It’s a very simple kitchen but very pure. I had a great lunch there and it’s one of the best place for food product shopping (honey etc.).

My favorite place to stay in Langa is Felicin, where the rooms have an old-world feel to them and the owner, Nino, always cracks me up. He’s a brilliant guy. That’s the dining room at Felicin below. Nino’s kitchen does traditional Langa food but his greatest strength is his creative cooking, which is always a welcomed break from the standards (as good as they can be). You always get a great night’s sleep at Nino’s place, the breakfast is outstanding and the wifi excellent.

best hotel piedmont wine country

Pig ass king: a taste of culatello history at Antica Corte Pallavicina

corte di pallavicina do bianchiAbove: the culatello aging cellar at Antica Corte Pallavicina.

The earliest printed mention of cultatello I’ve been able to find dates back to 1931 in the Italian Touring Club’s Guide to Italian Gastronomy (the following translation is mine):

    culatello, a truly famous product from Busseto and nearby Zibello in lower Parma. It is prepared using the loins of the pig, seasoned with salt and pepper and then aged for six months indoors and outdoors.
    It is sliced raw and it is a highly refined and exceptionally delicious cured meat.
    Its fame stretches back centuries.
    In his History of the City of Parma [1591], Bonaventura Angeli recounts that at the royal wedding of Andrea of the Counts Rossi and Giovanna of the Counts Sanvitale in 1322, “excellent culatello” was sent by the Marquis Pallavicino from Busseto and Count Rossi from Zibello, both cousins of the betrothed. The culatello, adds the author, was one of the most prized entrées in the Pantagruelian banquet held to celebrate the occasion.

Thanks to Google Books, I was able to read the passage from Angeli’s 1591 chronicle of Parma and the note on the 1322 wedding of Andrea and Vannina (her name as it appears in Angeli’s book).

I’m sorry to report that there is no mention of culatello in the description of the banquet (which only occupies one line).

But this apocryphal anecdote has been reported countless times by contemporary chroniclers of Italian food who, like me, found the 1931 reference but, unlike me, did not go back to read the primary text.

The passage is significant nonetheless because it reveals how coveted culatello was in the first half of the twentieth century (at the peak of Italian fascism btw).

It’s also significant because of the mention of the Marquis Pallavicino, whose family figures prominently in Angeli’s book.

The Pallavicino family was a major power player in Parma throughout the middle ages and Renaissance.

And today, the Antica Corte Pallavicina estate (run by the Spigaroli brothers) is the spiritual home of culatello.

The estate’s two restaurants lie in the heart of lower Parma province, where the intense humidity (the Po river is literally a stone’s through away) is key to provoking the bacteria needed to produce culatello.

As the sorely missed Kyle Phillips wrote some years ago for, culatello (literally, the little ass of the pig) “is made from the major muscle group one finds in a prosciutto … seasoned and lightly salted, stuffed into a pig’s bladder, tied to give it a pear-like shape, and then hung 8-12 months to cure in farm buildings in the Bassa Parmense [lower Parma], not far from the Po River, where the mist swirls through the windows, interacts with the molds on the walls, and imparts a hauntingly elusive something that makes all other cold cuts pale by comparison.”

On my recent trip to Italy, Barone Pizzini CEO Silvano Brescianini (my friend and client) generously treated me to dinner at the Antica Corte Pallavicina.

Following the opening amuse-bouche, the opening dish was the “podium” of 18-, 27-, and 37-month aged Culatello di Zibello.

Next came the tortelli d’erbette alla parmigiana al doppio burro d’affioramento delle vacche rosse (below): traditional Parmense stuffed pasta filled with finely chopped Swiss chard, ricotta, and finely grated aged Parmigiano Reggiano dressed in double-top-cream vacche rosse butter.

An incredible meal and what a sight to see those culatelli (above)!

Especially after our visit to the Corte Pallavicina, it’s not hard to understand why culatello is legendary among the world’s cured meats.

In the light of this, I hereby forgive the Italian Touring Club for their editors’ folkloristic attribution!

tortelli recipe emilia romagna

WARNING EXPLICIT CONTENT: BBQ porn from yesterday’s Houston BBQ Festival

pork belly corkscrewYesterday I managed to snag a press pass and sneak into the Third Annual Houston Barbecue Festival. The event was co-founded by Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist Chris Reid, my good friend here.

This year’s gathering featured 23 Houston-area smokers according to its website.

While Lockhart in Central Texas is considered the “barbecue capital” of Texas and Austin continues to grow as a hipster barbecue mecca, Houston is emerging as another mandatory stop on the Texas barbecue trail.

In the last five year or so, many new artisanal smokers have appeared and “cult bbq” — with its early-morning waits and long lines — is now an established phenomenon here.

That’s smoked pork belly by CorkScrew, above.

boudin stuffed pork chops corkscrew bbqI didn’t visit every stand but CorkScrew’s was my number one for taste and presentation. I loved the Boudin-Stuffed Pork Loin, above, the best thing I tasted at the festival.

brooks place bbqBigger is often considered better in Texas barbecue. That’s the Brooks’ Place beef rib, above (the cut is often called a “brontosaurus rib,” even though it is now believed that the brontosaurus never actually existed).

pulled porkI overheard one of Houston’s highest-profile food writers say that Patrick Feges’ pulled pork, above, was the best thing he tasted yesterday.
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Fantastic seafood at De Mar a Mar in Mexico City

quesadilla de pescado receta ciudad mexico cityWhen I reached out to our friend Houston-based travel and food writer for Forbes Mai Pham for her recommendations for Mexico City, she got me on the line with Eduardo García, affectionately known locally as Lalo, one of the country’s rising celebrity chefs and owner of Maximo Bistrot Local.

He’s currently in Rioja, Spain, but he swiftly connected me with Alejandra Soto, owner of a wonderful seafood restaurant in the city’s Zona Rosa called De Mar a Mar, where he consults on the menu.

The dish de rigueur, he told me, was the quesadilla de pescado, the fish quesadilla (above).

I split the quesadilla before photographing it to show the filling, btw.

It was served with a tomatillo salsa, a dollop of creamy guacamole, and lemon wedge.

What a fantastic dish! The creamy texture of cheese and the flakiness of the chunks of fish and they way they combined really took it over the top.

ceviche blanco receta ciudad dfEven though I knew I had a lot more eating in store, I couldn’t resist the ceviche blanco.

Alejandra’s chef uses oregano in this dish, an unusual but truly brilliant ingredient. I loved how it played against the cilantro.

The other thing that I loved about the dish was that it was served over a thin spread of creamy guacamole. Again, it was the way the textures worked together that took the dish to another level.

Another thing that impressed me about this restaurant was how knowledgable my server was in Mexican cookery. My Spanish is good enough to carry on a foodie conversation and as I peppered him with questions, I was rewarded by his insights into the regional origins and ingredient combinations in the platos he delivered at my table.

And on a technical note, just to put this in perspective, my bill, with two beers (Bocanegra, clara) and a generous gratuity, was around $30 (American).

My recommendation: RUN DON’T WALK.

On deck: tacos al Pastor at the classic Borrego Viudo (the Widowed Lamb)…

A new and brave culinary language at Oxheart in Houston

sunchokes recipe houstonAbove: “roasted and charred sunchokes with salted cream, jasmine tea, honey, and Meyer lemon.”

Last night, I finally made it to Oxheart in Houston, one of the most talked about and lauded restaurants in the city.

And my retard wasn’t just due to my busy travel schedule: Oxheart is a small restaurant with roughly 30 seats and because of its overwhelming popularity among Houstonians and visitors, it’s extremely challenging to get a table there.

japanese roots recipe houstonAbove: “Japanese roots and a soffritto of dried gulf shellfish, with steamed crawfish, and fragrant herbs.”

If you’re reading this it’s more likely than not that you don’t need me to tell how wonderful owner/chef Justin Yu’s cooking is. He began racking up national accolades and media attention as soon as he opened the restaurant three years ago or so.

And two years ago, Pete Wells gave the restaurant a glowing review in the Times.

Justin, wrote Wells in his envoy, is one of the chefs who is “helping to make [Houston] into one of the country’s most exciting places to eat.”

And Justin, his kitchen staff, and his waitstaff delivered on every level.

gerard duplessisAbove: a brilliant pairing for the gulf shellfish and crawfish (previous photo), recommended by our waiter and authored by Justin Vann, one of the city’s leading wine professionals.

Scores of other writers — local and beyond — have written about the originality and vibrancy of Justin’s locavorism and his boundless world view. It seemed that every dish spoke to his approach in fusing readily available wholesome ingredients with cosmopolitan cooking techniques and combinations. The smoked pork with porc thailande (below), for example, was brilliant.

smoked porkAbove: “lightly smoked Red Wattle pig warmed in pork fat, with porc thailande, turnips, and fermented mizuna.

But the thing that really turned me on about his restaurant was the utter absence of affectation.

The staff was so polite and so gentle in explaining the complicated and unusual dishes. They never talked down to our table nor did they make us feel the burden of privilege (there is no à la carte dining there but the prix fixe was very reasonable at $74 per person).

Their attitude was so refreshing: in a world where tongue-piercings and haughtiness seem to go hand-in-hand with haute cuisine, the Oxheart staff made us feel at ease and comfortable. I was really impressed by this.

The other thing that I loved was the wholesomeness and transparency of flavor in Justin’s dishes.

In so many “high-concept” restaurants like this, chefs seem to tend to transform the flavors of the ingredients. On one level Justin’s cooking is extremely complicated with combinations that would seemingly drag the diner in multiple directions (even geographically).

But Justin’s food championed the materia prima without masking or morphing it. I loved that.

In the same way that a great poet forges a new language by combining the words in the dictionary in a unique and newly meaningful way, Justin has — in my view — forged a new and unique culinary parlance.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that. It just took me a little longer than most to get to the party…