Nothing like lunch at Tony’s, a Napa Cab I actually liked and Aldo Sohm and Levi Dalton

From the department of “Jar, you’re just bragging now” says Jon Erickson

Above: Tony’s foie gras au torchon is one of his signatures and one of the dishes where simplicity and purity of flavor is offset by detail in the presentation.

How could Giovanni’s visit to Texas be complete without a meal at Tony’s in Houston?

Tony is my client (I curate his website and his media relations) but he’s also become one of my best friends in Texas and he is the architect and author of some of the most stunning meals I’ve ever had. Yesterday, Giovanni and I drove to Houston to meet Cousin Marty for lunch and a confabulatio that centered around… yes, of course… food and wine

Above: Orecchiette with seared mortadella cubes and runny quail egg.

The secret to the rich yellow color of his pasta, said Tony, is locally sourced, organically farmed eggs. “But it’s also the fact that I use only flour and mineral water imported from Italy,” he added. Some would argue that sparkling mineral water is key to super pasta like this. But Tony insists that still water (acqua naturale) is a sine qua non.

Above: Halbut and seafood medley “al Mare Chiaro,” named after the neighborhood in Naples.

Tony’s is the only place in Texas where we eat fine seafood (a category we reserve otherwise for our trips to California). This dish was simply stunning in its simplicity and presentation (and my camera didn’t do it justice, frankly).

Above: Lamb chops.

Tony likes to tease me, calling me the chiodo (the nail) because I’m so careful about what and how much I eat. Lamb chops would have been a bit much for me for a Tuesday lunch but Giovanni dove in with gusto.

Above: General Manager and wine director Scott Sulma’s selection was right on.

And the wine? A tall order considering the fact that one of Italy’s top winemakers was seated at our table. And let’s face it, my general disdain for the Californian style is well known to my colleagues at Tony’s. But it also seemed right to have Giovanni taste something from my home state. GM Scott’s selection, Palmaz Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, delivered acidity, earth and gorgeous dark fruit, and balanced alcohol and wood. It was superb with the Bucatini all’Amatriciana that I had as my second course, playing beautifully against the savory guanciale in the dish. Chapeau bas, Scott!

Above: Nobody does it better than Tony.

I can’t conceal my pride in sharing the Tony’s experience with my good friend Giovanni, who made the trans-Atlantic crossing to see, hear, taste, and feel what life is like in Texas, California, and America.

Above: Two of my favorite fressers.

Thanks, again, Tony for yet another fantastic meal and an unforgettable experience. Ti ringrazio di cuore…

In other news…

Question: What could be better than a conversation with one of my favorite New York City sommeliers?

Answer: An interview with one of my favorite NYC sommeliers conducted by one of my favorite NYC sommeliers.

Click here to listen to Levi Dalton’s conversation with Aldo Sohm (pictured above).

Chili cheese fries, Texas style, at 24 Diner Austin

Cousins Joanne and Marty were in town for the wedding of their close family friends but they snuck away from festivities for a few hours so we could visit at 24 Diner, where no one could resist the Chili Cheese Fries.

In Texas, the designation chili is highly codified, denoting chili con carne, a dish which rigorously and canonically excludes beans. The sliced jalapeño took this expression of Chili Cheese Fries, an American classic, over the top.

The food at 24 Diner is always solid and the atmosphere is fun. Great location, next to Waterloo Records, and across the street from Book People and the flagship Whole Foods Market.

BBQ Capital of Texas THE WORLD: Lockhart

To call Lockhart, Texas the bbq capital of the world is simply insufficient in describing its role in the gastronomic state of world bbq affairs.

Lockhart is a true Mecca — by antonomasia — the ultimate and supreme destination for bbq, where the German-Texan tradition of dry rub smoked meats has not only been institutionalized but has become a true religion.

And Kreuz Market is the bbq religion’s pontiff and its most pure expression: no forks, no napkins… just butcher paper, paper towels on the tables, and plastic knives to cut through the tender bounty and plastic spoons for the sides. And most importantly: no sauce… Housemade hot sauce (in the style of Tabasco, to give you the idea) is sufficient to add the desired kick to this perfectly seasoned meat.

That’s cousin Ben in the photo above. He, cousin Marc, Marc’s children cousins Jessica and Jacob, Cousin Marty and I headed down to Lockhart early yesterday morning for a ‘cue crawl.

We did also make it to Black’s, where cousin Jessica took this excellent photo of the signature beef rib using my camera.

There are three destinations for bbq in Lockhart — Black’s, Kreuz, and Smitty’s. They are highly competitive, steeped in familial rivalry and intrigue, and each with its own particular and peculiar nuances and idiosyncratic signatures.

One man’s poison is another man’s meat. However much the families of Lockhart feud and vie with one another to claim the title of best in a village of champions, our family was surrounded by other happy families who come together everyday united by a common cause — great food…

Buona domenica, yall!

Risotto alla Parmigiana my recipe and other news

I just couldn’t resist jotting down this recipe, one of my favorites and one of the simplest things in the world to make. All it takes is the right ingredients and patience. The reward is one of the most delicious expressions of Italy you’ll ever taste. The photo appeared today in my Houston Press post on the Aligoté by Michel Lafarge. Buon appetito!

Risotto alla Parmigiana

Serves 4


3 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. finely chopped white onion
1 cup Carnaroli
½ cup white wine
chicken stock, as needed (2½-3 cups)
kosher salt
Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a wide sauté pan. Add the onion and gently cook until translucent, making sure all the while not to brown the onion (add a dash of water or white wine if needed). When the onion has become translucent, add the rice and toast over medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally (this step is fundamental and ensures that the individual grains don’t stick together or become lumpy). Deglaze with the white wine and when the wine has evaporated, begin adding the stock one ladleful at a time, stirring gently all the while (constant stirring is the secret to evenly cooked risotto). Season with salt to taste (not necessary if the stock is properly seasoned). As the stock is absorbed by the rice, continue adding more liquid as needed until the rice has cooked through (or to desired firmness), about 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat and gently fold in a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano. Sprinkle lightly with minced flat-leaf parsley and top with freshly cracked pepper. (For traditional Risotto alla Parmigiano, omit the flat-leaf parsley and pepper.)

Serve as a first course with extra Parmigiano Reggiano on the side and pair with Lambrusco di Sorbara.

In other news… Happy birthdays…

Today is Alfonso’s birthday. Anyone who’s been following along here at the blog knows the important role he’s played in our lives over the last years. He introduced me to Tracie P, was the best man at our wedding, and he’s our comrade in all things vinous and blogilicious. He has one of those great palates that you can only train and develop over years — decades — of tasting all kinds of wines, from every category. I admire him for how he lives his life, for his career, for his intellectual pursuits, for his natural gift in writing and the amazing stories he tells us about his life in Italy wine, and for the generous friendship that he’s shared with us. We talk almost every single day about everything under the sun and there are days when we seem to communicate telepathically through our blogs and social media (he and I are leading a panel on wine blogging at this year’s Texas Sommelier Conference in a few weeks, btw). And I probably don’t know anyone who can make laugh as hard as Alfonso can. We love him a lot and are thinking of him today on this special day.

Tomorrow is Cousin Marty’s birthday. Does anyone remember the scene in Mel Brooks’s The Producers when Gene Wilder gives the speech at the end in the courtroom before the judge? “This man… this man… this is a wonderful man.” That’s how I feel about Marty. He’s the Bialystock to my Bloom. I never knew Marty growing up: he’s my father Zane’s first cousin and because the families were estranged, I didn’t have much or any contact with him and his children. But when he found out that I moved to Texas to be with Tracie P, he reached out to us and made us part of his family’s life. And guess what? It turns out that I’m not the only fresser in the family! Like us, Marty loves food and wine (“I never met a Rhône I didn’t like,” goes one my favorite aphorisms of his) and he loves the theatrical experience of restaurant going. We’ve become so close over the last few years and the amount of fun we have together is criminal, really. There outta to be a law against it! Marty had a health scare this year and even in its darkest moments, I was blown away by the joy and hope and love and generosity of spirit that he mustered — not just for his own sake but for ours as well. Thank G-d that he’s fine. I just can’t imagine a world without him and Tracie P and I are sending lots of love and happy birthday wishes for his special day tomorrow.

In other other news…

Tomorrow I’m heading home to California where I’ll be pouring wine on the floor Wednesday and Thursday nights at Sotto in Los Angeles. If you’re in town, please come down and taste with me. We’re going to be debuting a new Gragnano (my favorite) and Randall Grahm’s excellent Syrah by the glass. Hope to see you!

SP68, pizza, and cousin Marty is doing good…

You can only imagine my thrill at seeing Cousins Joanne and Marty — front and center — last night at my wine seminar at Caffè Bello in Houston. That’s Marty in the foreground at dinner, together with friends Mary Ellen and Dr. Don, FoodPrincess, Delia and VintageTexas, and Tamara and Houston Foodie (Houston Foodie has just relaunched his excellent food blog with a superb post on Neapolitan pizza, btw).

The pizza at Caffè Bello was delicious and I am always geeked to drink Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 — “Strada Proviniciale 68,” an impeccably Natural, reclassified Cerasuolo di Vittoria (Nero d’Avola and Frappato), named after provincial road 68 where it is raised in the province of Ragusa, Sicily.

Marty’s still got a ways to go before he turns the corner on this mean ol’ cancer… but it’s looking good and, man, this dude still runs circles around me… Me and Tracie P love him a lot…

Cancer awareness day

Cousin Marty, whom we love very much, is beginning his cancer treatment today. (Donna Vallone baked him that cake on Saturday, when Marty went to Tony’s for one of his “pre-chemo me” dinners, as he likes to call them.)

In his honor, I’m devoting today’s post to cancer awareness by asking you to check out the “Blue Cure” campaign authored by my colleague and friend Gabe Canales (below).

Gabe, one of the top publicists and marketers in the country, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his mid-thirties and he’s now leading a campaign to raise awareness of the disease among young men. Check out his site here.

Today’s post is also devoted to the victims of the recent tragedy in Japan (I’m currently working on a benefit concert to be held later this month in Austin at Vino Vino — more on that later this week).

@Marty Tracie P and I and the whole family are thinking of you and sending you lots of love today.

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!

What we paired with Frito pie at Cullen’s Upscale American Grille

From the “just for the sheer fun of it” department…

I won’t conceal that cousin Marty and I were a little bit skeptical when we rolled up to Cullen’s Upscale American Grille the other night, not far from NASA Space Center, south of Houston. It’s a huge, sprawling events space, high-end restaurant, and music venue located smack dab in the center of one of those golden triangles of obscene wealth that orbit Houston proper. Honestly, it’s not the type of place that we would seek out. But after hanging with GM and wine director Ryan Roberts a few weeks ago at a very cool dinner where he and Cullen’s chef Paul Lewis cooked for 200 persons on a farm in the Texas plains, I knew that something interesting lay beneath the surface of this shiny, sparkling castle of indulgence in the wasteland of America’s greatest opulence.

You’d think that there would be only California Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cab to drink in a joint like this, but Ryan greeted us with raw gulf oysters and a white blend by one of my favorite Provence producers, Le Grand Blanc by Henri Milan. So salty and with such bright acidity, perfect for the oysters. Not bad, eh?

Next came the now famous Frito pie (check the thread of suggested wine pairings here). Ryan’s pairing was simply brilliant: Étienne Sauzet 2007 Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes 1er Cru. The gentle wood and subtle malolactic fermentation sang beautifully in the key of minerality with this rich and intensely flavored dish. Here’s the menu gloss btw: “Pork & Chairman’s reserve beef chili, Fritos, Texas goat cheese, Oregon cheddar, crème fraîche” (forget sour cream: crème fraîche on Frito Pie?) Chef Lewis’s meats are sourced rigorously from the Jolie Vue in Brenham where the owners employ strict pasture-based farming (Ryan told me that his restaurant was the first restaurant in Texas to be certified “Green,” btw, another surprise in what appears from the outside to be a purely commercial venture.)

The southern-style oysters Rockefeller were pretty awesome, too.

Paired beautifully with a palate cleanser in the form of Ferran Adrià’s new beer, Inedit (the beer is salty and delicious, the website is annoying but I thought I’d include it).

My main event was chicken fried steak paired with Boillot 2006 Pommard-Rugiens 1er Cru, another brilliant pairing, where the power and spiciness of this famous cru was just right against the richness of this dish.

The night couldn’t not end on a sweet note… Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad 2004 Scheurebe Auslese.

I knew Ryan would have a lot of great stuff in store for us: we’ve met professionally and socially a number of times and he’s an awesome guy, with a great palate (and a ton of experience in this business). He has all the usual suspects on his lists (think big Napa Cab and oaky California Chardonnay) but he also has a ton of wines that really thrill me, like the Henri Milan above, and even a 2002 Gravner white, which he sells for a great price. He’s the perfect balance of someone who is trying to do well by his family and get ahead in life but never forgetting what’s great about real wine, all the while turning his staff and anyone else willing to listen on to this groovy stuff…

My only regret? I wish we would have made it down earlier to do the tour of the Space Center! Next time…

Buon weekend, ya’ll…

Unbelievable risi e bisi and other good stuff we ate and drank at Tony’s

Cousin Marty (above with Tracie P) and I often remark how remarkable it is that two schlubs like him and me ended up with such jaw-droppingly beautiful women. I guess it just runs in the family.

Last night, as their wedding present to us, his better half Joanne and he treated Tracie P and me to dinner at Tony’s, the hottest see-and-be-seen table on any Saturday night in Houston. Judge Manny and wife Betty joined us for what, I think it’s fair to say, was one of the most glamorous nights of our year so far: federal judges, U.S. ambassadors, bank execs, top radiologists, and throw in a sports celebrity or two — everyone came by our table to say hello to Judge Manny.

Tony, himself, presided over our table. Knowing our love of regional Italian cuisine, he answered my request for a great risotto with an improvised risi e bisi, a classic dish of the Veneto (where he knows I lived) and a favorite dish of Italian Jews. It was fantastic.

It had been preceded by a burrata drizzled with honey and a balsamic reduction and then topped with freshly grated Alba truffles (SHEESH!).

The tip-to-stalk ratio in the asparagus with Pecorino Romano gave the dish just the right balance of bitter and sweet.

Tracie P’s halibut was served over a sea urchin sauce.

My lamb chops were served over a cannellini “humus” and topped with a crumbled green falafel. Can you humus a few bars?

Sommelier Scott Banks surprised us with a Nebbiolo we’d never tasted, this Colline Novaresi by Fontechiara (Borgomanero, Novara). Extreme value on an otherwise high-roller list, grapey and with bright acidity, fresh on the nose and earthy on the palate, perfect for the wide variety of foods set before us.

Joanne and Marty, thank you for such a wonderful dinner… a dinner-event, really! And thanks, from the bottom of our hearts, for all the support you’ve given me and Tracie P, in this first year of our marriage, as we’ve begun building a life for ourselves in Texas. I can’t tell you how much it means, on so many levels, to both of us. We have so very much to be thankful for and are truly blessed to have you as part of our lives. And who knew my relatives were such fressers and machers?