The many “inos” of New York, a visit to Maialino (New York Stories II)

Above: I loved the fried artichokes at Danny Meyer’s Maialino.

It’s amazing to think that restaurant maven Jason Denton opened his Italian sandwich shop ‘Ino back in 1998 — the same year that Batali-Bastianich launched Babbo. Strolling around the West Village last week, I spotted two new (at least to me) “inos”: Gottino and Corsino.

It occurred to me that the Molto Mario paradigm is like al-Qaeda: it’s not just a working method or brand anymore; it’s a concept. And the rash of “inos” that have appeared across the City in the last fourteen years are akin to the self-appointed “cells” of the Jihad (perhaps modeled more after Lupa and Otto than his earlier successes).

I’m embarrassed to say that I still hadn’t been to Maialino (which opened in 2010), Danny Meyer’s Rome-inspired “ino”. And when Alice and I arrived there at 8 p.m. on Friday, the place was slamming packed.

I was geeked to reconnect with my good friend Nicolas, who works there. And we ended up having a nosh at the bar (including the awesome fried artichokes, above).

Nicolas treated us to a delicious bottle of Perella, one of Bruno De Conciliis’s expressions of Fiano. And I was psyched to see 2006 Produttori di Carema by the glass (!) and a truly courageous selection for the Pinot Grigio by the glass: Vie di Romans Pinot Grigio Dessimis — a vineyard designated, skin-contact, tannic expression of lees-aged Pinot Grigio. That’s a pretty gutsy choice for someone expecting Santa Margherita…

I tasted a 1997 Dessimis a few years ago in Friuli and was blown away by the elegance and power of the wine. And although I thought the 2009 offered at Maialino isn’t fully developed (the wood still resided atop the wine), I loved the fact that the wine director Liz Nicholson (whom I haven’t met) is prompting her guests to question the Pinot Grigio status quo in our nation.

OBut no matter how hard courageous and well informed wine directors like Liz try, you still can’t take the “ino” out of Pinot Grigio…

Up next: New York Stories III, Alice and I pay a visit to the “Wine Seer” uptown and “everything is beautiful at the ballet”…

Barolo Villero by Brovia (New York Stories I; @saignee wish you were here)

“My mother was disappointed that I didn’t become an architect,” said Victor Pinkston as he opened and poured me and my good friend Jeff a bottle of 1999 Barolo Villero by Brovia on Thursday night in Manhattan at Otto. “But then I showed her the watch that she gave me [above] when I was a kid and told her that ‘it was meant to be.'”

Victor’s done pretty well for himself: after five years as a company man in the Bastianich-Batali dynasty, he’s landed the job as wine buyer and head sommelier at the empire’s pizza joint.

And while he and I may disagree on the finer points of the modern vs. traditional dialectic, the dude definitely knows his shit.

When I lived in the City, Otto was one of my best-kept secrets: although not a fan of the university and tourist crowd that hangs there (Otto is, after all, “Molto Mario Light,” if such a thing can exist in the rational and sensual world), I knew I could always find some older Nebbiolo there at reasonable prices. Back in the day, I practically depleted an allocation of 1993 Barbaresco Nervo by Pertinace at $75 a pop (there are still some bottles left although at a higher price). And when I asked Victor what trick he had up his sleeve, he suggested no fewer than five labels from the 90s under $150, including an Oddero Barolo (classic) 1996 (wow!).

But it was the 1999 Barolo Villero by Brovia at $140 that spoke to me. (Remember this post by Saignée on our visit to Brovia a few years ago?)

I am no fetishizer of old wine and you’ll never hear me cry infanticide when a great one is opened before its time. But I must admit that this bottling was going through an extremely tight phase.

It was dense and deliciously chewy, with mushroom and earth dominating the fruit. But as Jeff and I slowly nursed this spectacular bottle, the berry fruit began to emerge, as did a delicate eucalyptus note, with the zinging acidity — the nervy backbone, as the Italians say — plucking on the strings of fruit and earth like Jimi Hendrix playing the first notes of “Little Wing.”

That’s me and Cory aka Saignée (left) with Giacinto Brovia back in March 2009 (photo by Brunellos Have More Fun). And here’s what Saignée had to say about our visit there.

Let’s just hope that Victor saves a bottle of this truly thrilling wine for us to taste next year.

Stay tuned for New York Stories II: Alice and I visit Maialino… or “two Jews walk into a Jew-owned bar named ‘suckling pig'”…

New York Stories 7: Beaujolais with Eric the Red

The final installment from my “dates with the City”…

Another highlight of my New York sojourn was my obligatory pilgrimage to The Ten Bells, my favorite wine bar in the U.S., where even the grouchiest among the grouchy wine bloggers would approve of owner Fifi’s selection of Natural Wines by the glass.

The weather had turned cold(er) and as Eric the Red noted on the Twitter, “at The Ten Bells. No place better on a chilly night, or any other.”

(You may remember how Eric got his name “the red” back in August 2008.)

Partly mocking the Beaujolais Nouveau marketing scam here in the U.S. and mostly celebrating how fantastic Beaujolais can be, for the last two years, Fifi has run a cru Beaujolais by-the-glass program concurrently with the advent of the consumerist collusion concocted by Georges Duboeuf in the 1970s. (Tracie P and I actually made the tail end of the festival last year.)

This year he offered 19 cru Beaujolais.

Eric and I tasted the Fleurie 09 Dubost Sans Souffre and the Morgon Descombes 07. Brilliantly savory and delicious…

Topics of conversations were wide and varied but I was thrilled to get a preview of Eric’s new book, “a manifesto and memoir,” in which he will dispel the notion that intellectualism is required to understand and enjoy wine. I’ll drink to that!

Talking about Eataly and the arc of the Italian food and wine renaissance, we remembered his 1993 review of Mario Batali’s Po on Cornelia St.

It took a little digging but I found it in the paper of record’s archive here.

“It turns out that the name Po refers neither to the Italian river nor to the Italian word for ‘little bit,’ but derives from a Polaroid photo taken of the site by a friend of the co-owners, Mario Batali and Steve Crane. The name, with its happy Italian resonances, stuck. The restaurant will, too.”

Mario’s father, said Eric, credits him with discovering the clogged one.

I had visited Eataly earlier in the day: how amazing to reflect on Batali’s legacy (like it or not) since 1993!

And I’d have to say that Eric the Red has done pretty well himself since then… Check out his article in today’s paper on tasting 2005 Barbaresco with Levi

An Italian, a Mexican, and two Jews walk into a bar…

My lunch with Tony, Manny, and Marty…

Above: At lunch on Friday, I had the great pleasure to break bread with one of the top Italian restaurateurs in this country, Tony Vallone (left). That’s his good friend, and colleague and good friend of my cousin Marty, Manny Leal, right.

Let’s face it: there’s not a lot of great Italian food in Texas. Since moving here a year ago, I’ve found some great authentic-style Italian and Italian-American pizza, notably in San Antonio and Dallas. Otherwise, I cannot honestly say that I have found Italian cuisine that Tracie B and I truly and unreservedly enjoy.

But that all changed when cousin Marty first treated me to dinner at Tony’s in Houston (where, honestly, I cannot afford to dine but have had the great privilege to enjoy many meals now, thanks to the generosity of Marty and wife Joanne).

Above: Following a little cheese-crisp nosh, the medley of regional Italian first courses opened with some wonderful gnudi, “nude dumplings,” ravioli without the casing, a classic dish from the Maremma in Tuscany, traditionally made with nettles.

Tony and his passion for regional Italian cuisine first came to my attention way back in 1998 when I was working as an editor for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana and the regional and rustico Italian cuisine craze was just about to explode. The magazine ran a 750-word piece on Tony in the front of the book. What I didn’t know then (and only would find out later) was that Tony wasn’t doing regional Italian cuisine because it had become hip or trendy. He was doing it because it’s what he had and has always done.

Above: The ravioli d’astice (langoustine ravioli) were sinfully good. The sauce for this dish, which could have been prepared in Naples or Venice, was made using the corallo (literally, the coral) of the crustacean: when harvested during mating season, the females carry delicious coral-colored roe that gives the sauce its unique color. True mastery of pastamaking is revealed in the consistency and lightness of filled pasta. Tony’s approached divinity.

“I had to go down to the docks and buy the calamari myself from the fishermen,” said Tony, reminiscing about the opening of Tony’s second location in 1972. “They didn’t sell them: they only used them as bait!” Tony was born in Houston, to a Sicilian mother and Neapolitan father, and has worked in the restaurant industry in one capacity or another since he was 11 years old. While Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects was spoken at home, a visiting uncle — the first in their family to achieve a university degree, in anesthesiology — instructed Tony as a child in “standard” Italian.

Above: The delicious amatriciana at Tony’s is made rigorously with guanciale (the cured pork jowl of central Italy, not prosciutto or pancetta) and dressed with pecorino (not Parmigiano Reggiano). From Tuscany to the Veneto, from Naples to Latium, Italian “regional” cuisine sings like Pavarotti (a frequent visitor to Tony’s) at the restaurant.

Since he first opened the doors of his kitchen in 1965 (originally in one of his father’s gaming rooms), Tony’s top sources for regional Italian recipes, he told me, were Carnacina (the father of “regional Italian cuisine,” whose works were first published in Italian in 1961 and first translated in 1969) and the many itinerant Italian cooks and chefs who would come to Houston, where the oil business lured many easterners and Europeans (and their cosmopolitan palates) early on.

Above: One of Tony’s early supporters was his early landlord, the legendary Houston developer Gerald Hines, who encouraged Tony to develop his skills in French cuisine. This Provence-inspired tuna paillard, dressed with a fresh fava beans, heirloom tomatoes, basil, and a classic vinaigrette, perhaps bespeaks an era when French, not Italian, cuisine dominated fine dining in this country.

A turning point came when Houston developer Gerald Hines told Tony that he was not going to renew the restaurant’s lease because the building was to be razed to make way for construction of the Houston Galleria. Hines was willing to give Tony a new and larger space, the developer told him, on the condition that he cultivate his French dishes. The new menu, unveiled in 1972, included fish bonne femme and beef filet au poivre. “We used trout instead of sole because it wasn’t available then for the bonne femme,” recalled Tony. “We used gulf oysters instead of mussels!”

Above: The litmus test for any great Italian restaurant, espresso. The schiuma (the foam) was sublime.

A subsequent visit from Houston social columnist Maxine Messinger resulted in a nearly 30-year culinary love affair. “You’re in trouble,” Maxine told Tony, “I like your restaurant!” By the mid-1970s, Tony’s had become — and continues to be — Houston’s top see-and-be-seen destination. “I’ve cooked for eight U.S. presidents,” said Tony, “six of them sitting presidents.” (I wondered: did the others eat standing up? I guess it doesn’t hurt that two of the last three presidents were from Texas!)

Above: This man… this man… no, he’s not a rebi. He’s my cousin Marty (my dad’s first cousin) and getting to know him and getting to spend time with him has been one of the most delightful however unexpected surprises since I moved to Texas to be with Tracie B more than a year ago. And the best part? He LOVES good food and fine wine. Marty, I’m so very glad that you, Joanne, Dana, and Neil are part of our lives.

But despite the glamor and limelight he enjoyed by adding Francophile cuisine to his offerings, Tony continued to travel to Italy and to New York, cultivating his knowledge of Italian cuisine and authentic regional ingredients. And most importantly, he remained true to his Italian roots. I believe wholeheartedly that his “linguistic” connection to Italy (the fact that he spoke Italian as a child) is a big part of the his genuine connection to truly authentic and truly delicious Italian cuisine. (Have you ever heard Mario Batali speak Italian?) More on this later.

I’d like to think that Tony enjoyed chatting with me the other day: he promised me another meeting and more tales from the wild west of Italian cuisine in a time long before Whole Foods Market carried Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. I’ll look forward to it.

Thanks again, Tony, for an unforgettable meal, and thanks cousin Marty, for turning me on to great Italian cuisine in Texas! Who knew?