Garganega pairs well with Vietnamese (Thank you! @Femme_Foodie & @TonyVallone)

Above: Writer Mai Pham and restaurateur Tony Vallone, two of my favorite people on the Houston food and wine scene.

When the occasion is BYOB at an Asian restaurant, my friends expect me to bring something Natural and stinky, crunchy and funky — a delight for those who like the adventurous and unexpected and a conversation piece for the more conventional among us.

But unforeseen events last night made it impossible for me to dip into our cellar before joining my friends Mai Pham, her wonderful husband Michael, and my good friend and client Tony Vallone and his top staff for dinner at the amazing Jasmine restaurant in Chinatown, Houston.

There aren’t a lot of retail wine options on Sunday in Texas (where wine is not sold until after 12 p.m. on Sundays). And so I figured my best bet was an upscale supermarket, the Kroger on Buffalo Speedway (Kroger is actually a large commercial chain, but it’s Buffalo Speedway location is a “flagship” outpost).

Above: Real wine for under $15? Pieropan delivers.

Honestly, there’s not a lot of wine at Kroger that I can palate. And the European selections are limited to the usual suspects.

But what a fantastic surprise to find Pieropan — Garganega with a smaller amount of Trebbiano di Soave — for $13.99! And they had it already chilled…

The wine — with its zinging acidity and that unmistakable volcanic minerality of classic Soave — was ideal with the fattiness of fried whole catfish.

Above: Mai and Michael showed us how to roll the catfish with carrots, cucumber stalks, and mint in large rice wafers that had been softened in warm water. Catfish doesn’t have a much nutritional value, noted Michael, but it’s delicious.

Great value and great flavor in this wine… and great versatility (the saltiness and fattiness of the catfish reminded me how well this wine would pair with whole fried goby from the Venetian lagoon).

BTW, if you’re having issues with the pronunciation of Garganega, you’ll find it among the grape varieties in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project.

Mai and Michael, thanks again for turning us on to Jasmine.

And Tony, thanks for treating us to a great dinner.

Wine in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

marcello mastroianni

Tracie B and I have been taking it easy these days, staying in, cooking at home, and just enjoying these first quiet days and nights of 2010 in the last month of our lives together before we get married. :-)

Last night, Tracie B made an excellent dinner of boneless chicken breasts sautéed and deglazed in white wine with mushrooms (fresh cremini and dried porcini), wilted and sautéed curly-leaf spinach (slightly bitter and a perfect complement to the glaze of the chicken) and a light rice pilaf, paired with a 2005 Sassella by Triacca.

Triacca is actually a Swiss winery, located just on the other side of the border in Valtellina. I’ve not tasted its higher-end La Gatta, which sees some time in new wood according to its website, but I like the Sassella, which is vinified in a light, fresh style. (By no means a natural wine, btw, as many would think, since it’s imported by Rosenthal, but a real and honest wine, nonetheless.)

triacca

After dinner, as we continued to sip the Sassella, we watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), in my view, one of his most misunderstood films and not his greatest, although certainly the most famous in the Anglophone world because of its cross-over success and Fellini’s break from neorealism with this work.

I hadn’t seen the movie in years and although I don’t think it’s one of Fellini’s masterworks (in fact, I think it’s a bit heavy-handed, too engagé, and facile in some moments), I do think it’s a wonderful movie that gorgeously captures a fundamental moment — in its beauty and its ugliness — in Italy’s revival and renewal after the Second World War. (La Dolce Vita is more interesting, in my view, for the hypertexts it spawned than the movie itself, but that’s another story for another time.)

I must have seen the movie a thousand times and I used to teach it when I was grad student at U.C.L.A., way back when. But last night I noticed something I’d never noticed before: in the first true speaking scene (there is some dialogue in the first sequence, when Marcello and Paparazzo ask the girls on the roof for their phone number but the first dialogue, in the conventional sense, takes place in the second sequence, the second “episode,” and the first evening scene), Marcello asks the waiter at the night club what wine he has served to a celebrity couple. “Soave,” answers the waiter. And then, one of the transvestites interrupts him (I believe it’s Dominot) and corrects him: they had a Valpolicella, he tells Marcello.

It’s fascinating (at least to me) to think that in Fellini’s view, celebrities on the Via Veneto in the 1950s would be drinking Soave and/or Valpolicella (wines from the Veneto) when today we wouldn’t associate these appellations with luxury and status. It’s also fascinating to me that the screenwriter doesn’t seem to mind that the one wine is white, the other red. It’s clear that the wines are intended to be a clue to the status of the celebrities and that these details are intended to add color to the world in which Marcello moves.

There’s a subtext here and here is where you need to know Italian history to understand what’s going on and why these wines are significant. (So much of this movie is tied to this particular moment in Italian history and in many ways, it is more of a historical document than it is a pseudo-Freudian or anti-religious movie, as so many American scholars would like you to believe.)

Keep in mind: we are in Rome in the late 1950s and the scars of war were still very fresh in the minds of the characters (let alone the writers and movie-makers).

What was the connection between Rome and Valpolicella (think Lake Garda) that would be immediately apparent to the viewer (bourgeois or proletarian)? (Howard and/or Strappo, thoughts please…)

I’m taking Tracie B to the movies tonight. Guess what we’re going to see? ;-)

Buona domenica a tutti!

Sunday poetry: For You, O Democracy (red, white, and rosé)

Above: We spent the Fourth of July in Orange, Texas, along the Louisiana border where Tracie B grew up.

Had you told me a year ago that I was going to fall in love with a gorgeous Texana and move to Austin, I would have told you you were crazy. But, then again, stranger things have happened. I can’t complain: for all of its surprises, life certainly has been good to me so far. Yesterday, Tracie B and I celebrated the birth of our nation with her beautiful family in Orange, Texas, along the Louisiana border (pronounced LUZ-ee-AH-nah), where Tracie B grew up.

Above: Tracie B’s Uncle Tim — an outstanding cook — used his grill as a smoker. He stuffs his bacon-wrapped jalapeños with cream cheese and chicken (or duck when he has it).

Living in the South has been an interesting experience for the San Diego Kid. There’s perhaps no other place I’ve lived in the U.S. where people feel such a strong tie to culinary place and culinary tradition. And I can’t imagine a warmer welcome anywhere in the world.

Above: “Low and slow.” That’s the mantra of Texas Barbecue. The centerpiece and litmus test of any Texas barbecue is the smoked, dry-rubbed brisket, smoked for 10-12 hours at 200-225° F. The “depth” and evenness of the pink “smoke ring” are two of the criteria used to judge Texas barbecue.

Yesterday, we were the guests of Tracie B’s Aunt Ida and Uncle Tim who were also celebrating their return to their home: flooding and storm damage following hurricane Ike had forced them out last September. What a difference a year makes…

Above: Tracie B’s Mee Maw’s deviled eggs paired beautifully with the Bisson Golfo del Tigullio Ciliegiolo, which has become my new favorite barbecue wine and probably my favorite rosé for the summer of 2009. It was the hit of the flight that Tracie B and I brought to the party.

Tim, an excellent cook (his gumbo is off-the-charts good), made barbecue and Tracie B and I opened a bottle of Inama Soave, Bisson Golfo del Tigullio Ciliegiolo, and Villa di Vetrice Chianti Rufina — a tricolor summertime triptych.

Above: Ida and Tim live on a bayou. They only recently moved back into their home. The backlog of reconstruction in the area kept some people out of their homes for nearly a year.

Yesterday’s celebration made me think of this poem by Walt Whitman.

from Leaves of Grass, 1855

For You, O Democracy

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

Above: At the end of the night, the glow of the DuPont plant down the road lit up Cow Bayou. The image reminded me of the first part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at the original Disneyland in Anaheim.

Happy Fourth of July, y’all! Thanks Ida and Tim and thanks Mrs. B and Rev. B for having me!

BYOB Trailer Park Tacos, Soave, and Sangiovese

Above: Tracie B and me’s favorite wine to pair with Torchy’s trailer park tacos is Inama Soave. It has just enough richness in the mouthfeel to wrap itself around the intense flavors of the spicy pork and salsa.

It’s summertime in Texas and that can mean only one thing: BYOB trailer park tacos.

After we watched The Hangover at a matinee yesterday (hilarious, especially the raunchy closing credits), we headed out to spend the steamy summer evening with Tracie B’s childhood friend Jennifer and her husband CJ (check out their cool wedding photography blog), munching on chips and salsa and tacos, sipping Soave and Sangiovese at the Trailer Park Eatery in Austin — trailer park dining world capital.

Above: One of the trailers at the Trailer Park Eatery makes tacos, one makes burgers, and one makes S’mores — yes, S’mores. How’s that for an impossible wine pairing Dr. V?

Inama Soave is always one of our favorite pairings for BYOB tacos because of its bright acidity but also because it has a certain richness and unctuousness to the mouthfeel that wraps around the texture of steaming hot, soft corn tortilla stuffed with juicy roast pork and delivers ineffable pleasure.

I also thought the 2003 Villa di Vetrice Chianti Rufina Riserva showed well. I was a little hesitant to buy this wine: I’ve had too many 03s from Tuscany that are too stewy. But this wine was a beauty: 100% Sangiovese, grown at proper elevations (your ears pop as you drive up to Rufina), and vinified in a traditional manner. Great acidity, great plummy fruit, and lightness in body balanced by tannin that I just can’t resist. Both of these wines retail for under $20, btw, perfect for BYOB tacos.

There’s no doubt about it: Austin has some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten — from the haute to the bas.