Corkage and Racism

Corkage and racism… These aren’t two words you’d expect to find in a binomial expression. But they are the words that flashed like burning embers in my mind the other night at Sotto in Los Angeles when two couples (right out of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, facelifts, fake tans, shiny teeth and all) sat down and plopped a magnum of a wine that rhymes with joke (you know what I’m talking about), a Brunello I’ve never heard of, and a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table (no joke).

Before I get to explaining my thought process, let’s begin by revealing how offensive it is when restaurant goers do not follow the etiquette of proper corkage.

Lettie Teague wrote this excellent corkage guide a few years ago. And I also really like this guide by Jack Everitt on his site Fork and Bottle.

When it comes to corkage, there are three things that everyone seems to agree on: 1) find out what the corkage policy is before you visit the restaurant; 2) bring something truly special and ideally rare (not something readily available) and offer the sommelier a taste; and 3) order a bottle comparable in value from the list (and leave a generous tip for your server who’s check is reduced as a result of the corkage).

The couples that came the other night already knew that we have a two-bottle limit. They thought that they could get around this by bringing a magnum (two bottles in one) and a 750ml. (It reminded me of a story about an undertaker who got a ticket for using the carpool lane with just him and a cadaver in the van.) It was as if they were saying (and in fact, they were shouting at the top of their lungs): we love the food (and the A-list celebrities) here but we think the wine list sucks and we can’t drink your crappy wine…

And here’s the part where their attitude became racist in my view.

Our wine captain informed them that the magnum counted as their two bottles of wine and so they were forced to order something from our list. Otherwise, how could they get their drink on between smoke breaks?

A server brought them the list and I approached the table and asked the hair-plugged gentleman who seemed to be in charge of alcohol consumption, very politely, “may I answer any questions about the wine list for you, sir?”

He looked up at me and said dismissively, “no, I think we’ve got that covered.”

He ordered a glass (yes, just a glass!) of Lioco 2009 Indica (Carignan and Grenache blend from Mendocino by one of my favorite Californian winemakers, Kevin Kelley).

It was then that I realized that his fear of “the Other” — in this case, southern Italian wine — overwhelmed any ounce of civility that his parents may have imparted to him during child rearing.* (In case you’re not familiar with the concept behind our wine program at Sotto, it’s devoted to southern Italian wine, with a short list of Natural wines from California.)

On the one hand, here was this slick angeleno, with his trophy wife and his Santa Rita Pinot Noir. On the other hand, our wine list must have conjured every southern Italian stereotype in the western canon.

Granted, our list is esoteric by any measure. Even Italian wine professionals will tell me that they don’t recognize many of the wines I have sourced for the list.

But his gesture was a sweeping dismissal: it was abundantly clear to me that in his view, there was no wine from southern Italy that he could possibly drink.

And that, my friends, is racism in flagrante delicto.

When you work in a restaurant, you have to de-sensitize yourself to rudeness. It’s part of the deal. But this is where I draw the line…

Thanks for reading and please treat your servers and sommeliers well!

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as constituent in self-consciousness. He wrote of pre-selfconscious Man: “Each consciousness pursues the death of the other”, meaning that in seeing a separateness between you and another, a feeling of alienation is created, which you try to resolve by synthesis. The resolution is depicted in Hegel’s famous parable of the master-slave dialectic. (Wikipedia)

Salt & Pepper Shrimp @ ABC Seafood (Chinatown, Los Angeles)

Great lunch yesterday at ABC Seafood (Chinatown, Los Angeles) with our friend Jeff from Austin (who flew in from Texas to eat his way through LA and catch my band’s show on Saturday night).

No website, no fancy sign. Just an LA classic, reasonably priced and always delicious. Highly recommended.

Here’s the Google place page.

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!

Terra di Lavoro (!!!) 2002 and awesome pizza last night at Sotto

Had a BLAST working the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles last night. We still have some kinks to iron out in our newly minted wine program but folks were digging my all-Southern Italian list with a sprinkling of Natural California wines (the Donkey & Goat Sluicebox really wowed a very glammed-out Hollywood four-top). And I am SO GRATEFUL to all my friends who came out to support me and the new restaurant. THANK YOU!

The wine that really blew me away last night (when I finally got to sit down for dinner), however, was not a wine on my list but a wine brought in by my good friend Schachter (Sotto has a very reasonable corkage fee, btw): 2002 Terra di Lavoro (!!!!!). Man, I rarely get to taste this hard-to-find wine from the Terra di Lavoro in Campania, one of the greatest expressions of Aglianico IMHO (here’s the fact sheet). This wine was all earth and mushrooms, black fruit and cinnamon and eastern spices. Fan-friggin-tastic wine… (Thanks again, Schachter!)

I was also entirely geeked to finally get to try the pizza at Sotto. I had the house-cured guanciale, shaved scallions, and fennel pollen. It was excellent: the dough was baked perfectly Neapolitan style (soggy in the middle, the way Tracie P and I like it).

That’s chef and pizzaiolo Zach Pollack with the Mesquite-fired Neapolitan pizza oven in the background. Zach pretty much rocked my world last night with his pizza. Awesome stuff…

Thanks, again, to everyone who came out to support me last night. I’ll be there again tonight. Hope to see you!

Mountains of polenta and a sea of grappa: Los Angeles circa 1994

Late last year, when I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays dedicated to and inspired by my UCLA dissertation advisor, mentor, and friend, poet, scholar, gourmet, and gourmand, Luigi Ballerini (above), I decided to chronicle the Italian food scene in Los Angeles circa 1994. The Italian regional cuisine phenomenon had yet to explode in the U.S. but the City of the Angels was already awash in a sea of grappa: with Bloomian anxiety of influence, Angelino restaurateurs had embraced two of Italy’s most humble (however beloved) food stuffs — polenta and grappa — and anointed them as queen mother and queen (respectively) of Italian cuisine.

At the time, Luigi and I were working on a wonderful translation of his poetry that would become Cadence of a Neighboring Tribe. And Luigi was just beginning to shift his focus to gastronomy. Among many other articles, translations, and essays, our collaboration led to an English-language annotated edition of The Art of Cooking by fifteenth-century Italian celebrity chef Maestro Martino (UC Press 2005) — one of my most proud moments as a scholar and translator.

    Three of the most powerful and enduring memories of my years working closely with Luigi Ballerini involve food (and/or the lack thereof).

    The one is an image in his mind’s eye, a scene he often spoke of: Milan, 1945, the then five-year-old Ballerini watches a defiant Nazi soldier atop an armored car, part of a phalanx in retreat from the Lombard capital, leaving it an “open city”; the muscle-bound German bares his chest in the winter cold, as if impervious to pain even in the moment of ultimate defeat. The Nazis left behind a broken city and people, who had already known hunger for quite some time and would not know prosperity and plenty for many years to come. At five years old, Luigi knew hunger all too well.

Click here to download a PDF of the essay.

“La tovaglia che sazia: Luigi Ballerini the gastronome and his ‘tablecloth of plenty,'” by Jeremy Parzen, in Balleriniana, edited by Giuseppe Cavatorta and Elena Coda, Ravenna, Danilo Montanari Editore, 2010.

O, Luigi, you can be the king and you most certainly are in my cook book. But may we wear your crown?

Thanks for reading!

Vintage anti-Berlusconi propaganda and other relics

Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.

When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).

Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).

That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.

Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.

It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.

Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.

I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.

Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.

What’s this world coming to?

In other news, Agnelli heir and playboy Lapo Elkann has publicly announced that he is converting to Judaism.

What IS this world coming to?

Boccaccio’s tale of the conversion of Abraham comes to mind…

Nothing like a little Nazi ass kickin’


If you grew up like I did, going to Hebrew school three times a week in La Jolla (twice during the week after school and then on Saturday for synagogue services) and the mandatory two hours of Holocaust studies per week (along with Hebrew language and bar mitzvah prep) and the countless field trips to the Holocaust museum in Los Angeles, then you have probably suffered from the same Holocaust anxiety that I did as a young kid.

So when Tracie B and I were deciding how to celebrate the one-year anniversary of our first date, she took the reins and said, “after the week my man’s had, I think he could use him a little Nazi ass-kickin'” and treated me to a screening of Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds, about a group of Jew commandos sent behind enemy lines to kill Nazis toward the end of the second world war.

I’ve read a lot of disappointed reviewers who say the movie is not “violent enough” and lacks the thriller elements of his other films. And they might be right.

But a closer look at the film reveals that it is not a roman d’aventure (story of adventures) but rather an aventure de romans (adventure of stories): the film is a seamlessly woven fabric of allusions to nearly all the great war movie genres and beyond, with the Spaghetti Western as the frame that holds all the elements together. The conceit of the “cinema that kills” was entirely brilliant.

Tracie B pointed that in my endorsement of the film I am contradicting my credo that there can be no good Holocaust movie with a happy ending. But I counter saying the story is a fantasy and is exaggerated caricatures underline its basis as an oneiric and purely filmic tale. But I don’t want to ruin the dénounement

I do wonder if the e in Tarantino’s basterds is akin to Derrida’s a in differance. Does anyone know the derivation?

Ironically, on this day, one year from our first date, when I boarded a plane and came to visit her for the first time in Austin, I said goodbye to Tracie B today: I’m at the airport headed to California for business and to catch up with a few friends.

I promise: more wine tomorrow (and probably some good stuff, considering where I’m heading) but thank you for indulging me today in a little Nazi ass kickin’… It’ll do a body good every once in a while.

Nous Non Plus (the band I play guitar in) in SF, SJ, and SF

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Oh, LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star

Above: My friend François Gourveneur snapped this photo of a poster advertising our show at Spaceland on May 9 in Silver Lake (Los Angeles), one of my all-time favorite clubs.

In case you haven’t seen the review of our semi-new album Ménagerie in Blender Magazine this month, here’s a snippet:

    [NNP’s] music evokes ’60s Parisian cocktail pop to construct a comforting, sophisticated respite from the coarseness of modern life — flutes and strings augment acoustic guitars as soft and buttery as a croissant. Underneath the sumptuousness, though, nervous romanticism does battle with a prankster streak.

The shows in San Francisco at Rickshaw Stop (May 7) and Los Angeles at Spaceland (May 9) will probably sell out, so please buy your tickets in advance (click links for ticket sales). I’m really looking forward to getting back to California, playing some good music, and reconnecting with friends there. (And Tracie B will be at the LA show.)

The show in San Jose at Nickel City (May 8) probably won’t sell out but here is advance ticket sales info anyway. I don’t know why our manager booked us at a all-ages video arcade, although in all fairness to him, teenagers do like our music. I just googled San Jose and the city’s motto is: “San Jose, the fun never stops.” Who knew?

Hope to see you at the shows!


Do you know the way to San Jose
I’ve been away so long
I may go wrong and lose my way
Do you know the way to San Jose
I’m goin’ back to find
Some peace of mind in San Jose

LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parkin’ cars and pumpin’ gas

You can really breathe in San Jose
They’ve got a lot of space
There’ll be a place where I can stay
I was born and raised in San Jose
I’m goin’ back to find
Some peace of mind in San Jose

Fame and fortune is a magnet
It can pull you far away from home
With a dream in your heart you’re never alone
Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You pack your car and ride away

I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose
Do you know the way to San Jose

Oh, LA is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parkin’ cars and pumpin’ gas

I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose, oh…oh…
Do you know the way to San Jose, mmm…mmm…
Can’t wait to get back to San Jose

Facebook and oxidized stinky Fiano pair nicely

Above: Fiano d’Avellino grapes on the De Conciliis estate in Cilento (Campania, Italy).

Isn’t Facebook a trip? It gives us a view unto the personal lives and sometimes very intimate details of people whose lives would not ordinarily intersect with ours in the real-time world (as opposed to the virtual world). The vicissitudes we witness in this strange new medium are sometimes moving in ways — perhaps because of the degree of separation yet lack of alientation — unexpected and often welcome.

I had never met him, save for a phone interview I did with winemaker Bruno de Conciliis many years ago. After I tasted his 2004 Antece last year at Bacaro in Los Angeles, I looked for him on Facebook because I wanted to write him and tell him how much I liked this stinky, oxidized expression of Fiano d’Avellino, one of Campania’s most ancient grape varieties and one that has a enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades: it’s macerated with skin contact for 7 days, he wrote me, and, as he put it in a Facebook message, “we try for oxidation.” His approach is to “let what easily oxidizes oxidize. The rest is welcomed.” The resulting unfiltered wine (aged in large old-oak casks) is delightful, rich and aromatic, with some tannic structure. It’s a great example of natural wine. Bruno rightly calls it Antece or the ancients (akin to the Italian, antici; the penultimate syllable is the tonic): gauging from my knowledge of ancient winemaking (as described in Columella and Pliny), I believe that this wine is very similar to the wine produced in antiquity (and probably until the 18th century in Italy). (It reminds me of IWG’s excellent post, Interview with the Ancients.)

Bruno wrote that it’s his favorite wine he’s ever made and he sent me these photos. Facebook and wine seem to pair nicely together, don’t they?

In other news…

When is Brooklynguy gonna get a Facebook? Fugedaboudit.