The stars came out for Piero Selvaggio’s 40th at Valentino

best italian los angeles

Above: When Piero Selvaggio finally sat down to dinner last night at my table, he couldn’t wait to dig into the schiacciata alla siciliana (front, center), one of the forty dishes his chefs and guest chefs created to celebrate his fortieth anniversary last night. “This is one of the dishes of my childhood,” he said.

What a thrill for me to be asked to speak last night at the fortieth anniversary celebration of Piero Selvaggio’s landmark restaurant Valentino in Los Angeles!

I first met Piero long before I ever dreamed of writing about Italian wine and food.

One of the top benefactors of the Italian department at U.C.L.A. was a close friend of Piero’s. When I was a graduate student there in the 1990s, I had the great fortune to dine in his restaurants thanks to his generosity to the department and his support of Italian cultural events.

Above: Piero is from Sicily and his executive chef Nicola Chessa is from Sardinia. The enogastronomic theme of the evening was wines and cuisine from their resepctive regions.

I’ve followed Piero’s career ever since. He’s one of the earliest pioneers of regional Italian cuisine in the U.S. and he was among the first to open a fine-dining establishment devoted exclusively to Italian cooking.

darrell corti

Above: Piero, left, with Darrell Corti, my friend and inspiration for my own career in the scholarship of Italian wine.

Of course, the other thrill was the chance to catch up and taste with the Darrell Corti, one of the great wine and food personalities of our generation.

Darrell was the event’s keynote speaker and it was great to watch as he and Piero, along with the many wine and food professionals in attendance, reminisced and reflected on how Americans’ perceptions and appreciation of Italian gastronomy has changed over the arc of their lives.

In my world, they are giants — generous of spirit and ever ready to share their trésor of knowledge with the curious and enthusiastic (like me).

Above: Woflgang Puck was just of the many LA food celebrities who stopped by to pay homage to Piero. He arrived late in the evening and Piero promptly presented him with a doggy bag.

Chef Steve Samson, co-owner of Sotto (where I curate the wine list), began working with Piero in the 1990s and he ultimately became the executive chef at the flagship Valentino before launching his own restaurant. (Steve and I met in 1987 on our junior year abroad in Italy and have remained close friends ever since; he’s a daddy now, too!)

Piero had asked him to prepare some of the dishes and he had asked me to speak about Natural wines from Sicily (Cornelissen) and Sardinia (Dettori).

Above: There was a lot of great wine poured last night but my top wine of the evening was the 2008 Etna by Passopisciaro. What a stunning wine!

At the end of the night, when it came time for hugs and goodbyes, I thanked Piero again for asking me to be part of such an extraordinary event. And I thanked him for his generosity. I couldn’t help but think to myself how Piero — one of just handful of Italian wine and food pioneers in our country — literally made my career possible.

For that, I can’t thank him enough.

A couple of wine dinners I’ve got coming up…

From the department of “it’s a tough job but someone’s got to keep the world safe for Italian wine”…

gaja brunello houston

That’s the flight of wine (above) I’ll be talking about when I speak at Tony’s in Houston on Wednesday, November 28. Tony and I have so much fun working together and I’m thrilled that he asks me to do these dinners. 1990 Recioto by Quinatrelli? The answer is yes.

And this Sunday, November 11, I’ll be presenting Frank Cornelissen at Sotto in Los Angeles. The most valuable nose in this business, Lou Amdur, will also be on hand to speak.

Alice Feiring was going to join us on Sunday but “nature conspired” against her trip, as she put it: Sandy made it impossible for her to get here from NYC.

I’ll also be pouring Sicilian and Sardinian wine on Wednesday, November 14, with Piero Selvaggio and Darrell Corti at Piero’s Valentino in Los Angeles. Chef Steve Samson will also be cooking for the event. I can’t wait to see Darrell!

Rolling with MZ at Jaynes

From the “I may not be a rock star but I get to hang out with rock stars” dept…

Above: we paired Ca’ del Bosco 2001 Annamaria Clemente — one of the greatest vintages for this wine, said Maurizio Zanella — with steamed Baja mussels at Jaynes last night. It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it, right?

Flew in from Austin yesterday and rolled right into dinner with rock star winemaker Maurizio Zanella at Jaynes Gastropub last night. Friend and fellow wine rocker Robin was also in attendance.

I’ve met and tasted with Maurizio a number of times (and I recently tasted a 1979 Ca’ del Bosco disgorged à la volée at his winery). He is a true rock star among winemakers and his appetites and lust for life are stuff of legend. He’s also just a really cool guy who likes to talk about his experience as a student in Europe in 1968, about music, and about what it means to make real wine in a time when the marketing so often overshadows quality among sparkling wine producers.

I was geeked to ask Maurizio about the now legendary trip he made with Luigi Veronelli to California in 1981 (check out my post on Veronelli and new oak aging from October 2007): Veronelli wrote 1982, but Maurizio told me 1981 last night).

    “The real reason behind the trip,” Maurizio said, “was that [the great Friulian winemaker] Mario Schiopetto was suffering from back problems and had to go to Minneapolis to visit a specialist doctor. So, we decided to go with him and help him and from there we decided to California. We got off the plane in Los Angeles and headed right to Spago on Sunset Blvd. When the waiter took our order, I told him that we wanted ‘every thing on the menu.’ There were only four of us. So, Wolf[gang Puck] came out and said who are these guys? We ended up eating everything on the menu and Wolf and have been friends ever since. We asked him which was the best restaurant in Los Angeles and he sent us to Piero [Selvaggio] of Valentino. And it was Piero who organized our trip to visit all the great Napa valley wineries. I was completely amazed by the fact that the Californians were using the same winemaking practices that I studied in France [in Burgundy and then in Bordeaux]. I went back to Ca’ del Bosco and changed everything.”

Giacomo Bologna was with them, too. Bologna returned and created Bricco dell’Uccellone — probably the first and definitely the most famous barrique-aged Barbera. Maurizio made the first Italian barrique-aged Chardonnay. And Veronelli exhorted Italian winemakers to use new oak in his Catalogo dei vini d’Italia and he invited André Tchelistcheff to lecture at Palazzo Antinori in Florence.

Modernity had arrived. All because Mario Schiopetto had a bad back…

Yo, MZ, I like the way you roll…

Some how, some way, you just keep coming up with funky ass shit like every single day…