the best shrimp and grits I’ve ever had

Today at Charivari in Houston, lunch with the inimitable Bear Dalton (who told me they’re his favorite shrimp and grits “in town”).

The grits weren’t overly buttered and their mouthfeel was even and substantive without seeming heavy.

Just enough spice on the shrimp and fried okra in the middle took it over the top.

Thanks again, Bear!

My photo in Forbes and 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva tonight @TonyVallone

Stranger things have happened: last week Forbes contacted me asking if they could use a photo (above) from the blog for the magazine.

Here’s the link to the piece.

The image comes from my of the “most memorable meals” of 2011, a dinner in the restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone.

Here’s the link to my post on the repast, wherein 98 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, and 90 Quintarelli Bandito (!!!) were all consumed with great joy.

Tonight at Tony’s, we’ll be opening the 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva: I’ll be speaking about the wines at a dinner for forty persons.

Stay tuned…

Dream flight: 98 B. Mascarello, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, 90 Quintarelli Bandito (white)

From the department of “dreams do come true”…

When we sat down for dinner last week, Tony Vallone looked across the table at me and matter-of-factly said, “I have some special wines picked out for you tonight. I know you’re going to like them.” He wasn’t kidding.

I’ve been curating his blog since October 2010 and our weekly meeting has evolved into a familial kibitz where we talk about everything under the sun, alternating between English and Italian. (Long before Tracie P and I announced that we were pregnant, Tony had intuited that we were with child. “I can read it on your face,” he told me. And, all along, Tony said it was going to be a girl. He was right.)

The occasion for our dinner was an interview with one of the top wine writers in the country and Tony had asked me to join them.

After an aperitif of light, bright Colle Massari Montecucco Vermentino, the first wine in the flight was 1998 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello (above).

I’ve tasted this wine on a number of occasions and it’s extremely tight right now, favoring its tannin and jealously guarding its fruit.

But when the server arrived with a porcini risotto topped with Umbrian truffles shaved tableside, the wine started to open up and its delicate menthol note began to give way to wild berry fruit tempered by mushrooms and earth. The acidity in this wine was singing and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angelo Gaja’s antithetical comparison of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon is like John Wayne, I once heard Gaja say: he who stands in the center of the room and cannot help but be noticed. Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni: he enters the room and stands quietly in the corner, waiting for you to approach him. (There’s a punchline that cannot be repeated in polite company.)

The acidity in the 98 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico was equally vibrant and its melody played a counterpoint against the delicately marbled fat of a Kobi fillet. While I’m sure that the 98 Quintarelli has many, many years ahead of it, this wine is in a moment of grace. Generous fruit set against rich structure and mouthfeel. Here, I couldn’t help be reminded of Cassiodorus’s description of Acinaticum: “On the palate, it swells up in such a way that you say it was a meaty liquid, a beverage to be eaten rather than drunk.” In this wine, meaty ripe and overripe red fruit alternated with savory flavors. An unforgettable wine in one of the most remarkable moments of its life.

And dulcis in fundo, Tony had selected a wine that he had seen me covet. A few months ago, a collector and frequent guest of Tony’s poured me a taste of the rare 1990 Quintarelli Bandito (I wrote about it here). Knowing that I longed to “drink” this wine in the context of a meal, he surprised us at the end with a 375ml bottle. This wine — last bottled by Quintarelli for the 1990 vintage — is one of the greatest expressions of Garganega I’ve ever tasted: rocks and fruit, minerality and stone and white stone fruit, dancing around a “nervy backbone of acidity” as the Italian say.

This was paired with some housemade zeppole and a dose of playful nostalgia.

Carissimo Tony, ti ringrazio di cuore per questi vini straordinari!

Taste with me tomorrow and next Wednesday…

Taste with me tomorrow evening at Ciao Bello in Houston, where I’ll be leading a tasting of Italian wines together with Chef Bobby Matos who will be preparing pasta table-side and sharing Italian cooking tips with guests. Should be a super fun event and evening…

Next Wednesday, I’ll be presenting one of my best friends in Italian winemaking today and producer of some of my favorite wines, Giampaolo Venica, who will be leading a wine dinner featuring five of his wines (including his Magliocco from Calabria and four of his family’s legendary white wines from Friuli) at Sotto in Los Angeles.

Hope to see you there!

Killer rosé from Grenache on what (already) felt like the first day of summer

Temps had already reached the mid 80s yesterday afternoon when I rolled into Houston. Luckily, my buddy Sean Beck has some AWESOME 2009 Mas de Gourgonnier rosé from Grenache chillin’ for me when I stopped by Back Street Café for an aperitif before meeting cousins Marty and Joanne for mussels and fries last night.

Sean just got some love from Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson after snagging Houston’s Iron Sommelier title for the third straight year. This dude knows his shit! Mazel tov, Sean! Keep that wine cold! It’s gonna be a scorcher!

Tortellini porn and a teaching again (this time in Houston)

Above: Sometimes a tortellino is just a tortellino. Other times, a tortellino can be downright concupiscent.

Posting in a hurry today as I board a plane for Los Angeles where I’m working on a wine list for a new Italian restaurant there — a project I’m really excited about (more on that later).

In the meantime, I just had to share the above food porn, snapped recently at Tony’s in Houston. Tony, the Tony’s team, and I have been having a lot of fun with Tony’s blog.

And I’m thrilled to announce that they have asked me to teach a series of classes on Italian wine at Caffè Bello, the outfit’s location in “the Montrose,” Houston’s überhipster, artsy neighborhood.

The tastings/seminars should be a lot of fun and we’re launching Tuesday, March 29, with “Italian 101: major grapes, top regions.” (I haven’t finalized the syllabus but the weekly series will be similar to my “Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation” tastings.)

Gotta run… more later…

Mexican wet dream: carnitas and Riesling

Above: Pulpo al Carbon at Hugo’s (Houston), grilled and marinated octopus with housemade salsa and three different kinds of peppers and warm pillowy blue corn tortillas. HIGHLY recommended.

The caliber and quality (and sheer fun) of Mexican food in Texas continues to blow me away (and this comes from a Southern California dude who grew up traveling in Mexico).

Wednesday night found me with cousins Joanne and Marty at Houston’s legendary Hugo’s, where my friend Sean Beck has put together what is IMHO the best Mexican restaurant wine list in the country. From an obscenely low-priced bottle of Taittinger La Française to cru Beaujolais (great with Mexican food, btw) and his hand-selected shortlist of German and domestic Riesling, I was like a Mississippi bullfrog on a hollow stump: I just didn’t know which way to jump! (who can name the song?)

Above: Do you know of any Mexican restaurant with such an extensive and well-thought-out wine list? I had never seen anything like and Sean’s recommendation, Schäfer-Fröhlich 2004 Riesling Halbtrocken, was utterly brilliant with my carnitas. Chapeau bas, Sean. Fantastic pairing!

I’m dying to get to the famous Sunday brunch at Hugo’s and I’m sure we will soon. In the meantime, Hugo’s has now formed the triptych of what I consider to be the top high-concept Mexican restaurant in the U.S., together with Fonda San Miguel in Austin and La Serenata in LA (downtown, not westside).

(RdG+BarAnnie could be included in that list but it’s really a Southwestern as opposed to traditional Mexican cuisine restaurant.)

Even though California — from the Mission burritos of SF and the huevos rancheros of Half Moon Bay to the camaronillas of San Diego — is still the leader when it comes to down-and-dirty greasy hole-in-the-wall joints, Texas has the monopoly on the luxury, regionally themed Mexican restaurants in the U.S.

The carnitas — a litmus test for any self-respecting Mexican restaurant — were moist and perfectly seasoned, reminiscent of those I first experiences when I spent the summer of my sixteenth birthday in Mexico City so many moons ago.

Above: Flirtatious nurses tell cousin Marty (left) that he has “excellent veins.” He is in great shape and is an amazing specimen of the human variety — for his fitness of body, mind, and heart.

If there was a somber note at our excellent dinner, it was because we discussed some of the very serious (although under-control) health issues that our beloved cousin Marty is facing right now. Technically, he’s my second cousin (Zane’s first cousin) but he’s more like an uncle to me and Tracie P. I never really had much contact with Joanne and him before I moved to Texas but since I got here, he and family have welcomed us into their homes and lives with immense generosity and love (it’s thanks to Marty that I know Tony!).

I wish all of you could experience Marty’s lusty appetite for great food and wine, engaging conversation, and intellectual pursuit (he’s a constitutional law scholar, btw). Tracie P is always tickled by his “potty mouth” and I hang on to every word and insight that he shares about our family’s history and evolution (I’m named after his father, Ira Levy, Jeremy Ira Parzen). More than anything else, we love to share meals together and some of the most memorable of my life Texana have been with him and company.

We just can’t imagine a world without him and we’re sending him lots of love and good thoughts in this trying time…

Gnocchi and Barbera, a virtual pairing for someone we love

Anyone who follows along here at Do Bianchi knows how much we love cousin Marty (above) and what an important part of our lives he has become since I moved to Texas two years ago.

Marty and family have been facing some health issues lately and so it was a great thrill for me when he emailed late Saturday afternoon asking me to recommend a wine for dinner at Tony’s in Houston.

As I do often for many of my friends and family (who often ask us for virtual pairings; remember this very early one here?), I jumped online and took a look at the PDF version of Tony’s list: not knowing what Marty and co. would be eating, my “best bet” was a 2006 Barbara d’Alba by Prunotto.

I’m not such a fan of Prunotto and their modern-style bottlings of Nebbiolo (not exactly “my speed,” I like to say euphemistically), but when it comes to the winery’s entry-level labels like its Barbera d’Alba, you can almost always count on an honest wine, bright, with real acidity, balanced alcohol, and approachable prices. Barbera, the ultimate food-friendly grape in our book…

Marty paired with Tony’s Gnocchi over Foie Gras-Guinea Hen Sausage and Crispy Potatoes (which I happened to taste, thoroughly enjoy, and photograph on Friday when I was in town for my weekly chat with Tony).

Reports this morning reveal that the gnocchi were followed by a rib-eye! I guess he is feeling better! :-)

We’re just glad to hear that Marty — our family’s favorite bon vivant, gourmand, and fresser — is back on his feet and back at Tony’s, his favorite hang in the HTX. (HTX denotes Houston for all ya’ll who don’t speak Texan, btw.)

A Bialystock to our Bloom, we just don’t know what we’d do without him.

Buona domenica ya’ll!