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!

incredible dinner @SottoLA last night with my ladies

Georgia P has so much fun in restaurants… she LOVED Sotto last night in Los Angeles (where daddy works).

Involtini di melanzane, classic eggplant rolls cooked in tomato. Chefs Zach and Steve are really reaching new and even greater heights with their cooking these days…

Fusilli di grano arso al ragù di coniglio e porcini, toasted wheat fusilli with rabbit and porcini ragù. This dish was tough to photograph but amazing, balanced in its flavors and textures, and the pasta cooked perfectly al dente. This might be my top dish for 2012.

Rapini (cime di rapa) con collatura, broccoli raab with garum (anchovy sauce), so simple and so delicious.

Sardinian pane frattau, classic Sardinian pane carasau (crunchy, thin, savory flatbread) that has been soaked in water, layered (in this case) with pork innards, topped with an egg (look at the color of that yolk!), and baked. This dish will definitely go in my top dishes of 2012 post at the end of the year.

Many erroneously believe that frattau means fretta or hurry in Sardinian. But it’s more likely that it means grated, possibly akin to franto.

Amazing meal… truly amazing… a note on the wine will follow later today… stay tuned!

Pig’s head ragù, the most important ingredient @SottoLA

What’s the most important ingredient in pig’s head ragù?

Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.

Chefs Zach and Steve carefully carve all of the tender meat around the pig’s head and then grind it for their ragù at Sotto in Los Angeles where I curate the wine list together with my friend and colleague, the inimitable Rory.

I usually have the classic pizza margherita (my favorite) when I finish my shift. But last night I decided to mix things up a bit and had the housemade sausage and broccoli raab pizza with freshly chopped red hot chili peppers. It paired unbelievably well with the Nanni Copè, the new and supremely sexy (read ACIDITY) Pallagrello Nero from Caserta, with the earthiness of the wine holding the spice of the pizza in check.

I’ll be at Sotto again tonight: please come on down and see me and I’ll pour you something great…

The best restaurant in LA @SottoLA (and yes, another baby photo)

I just couldn’t resist sharing this photo of our “little connoisseur”…


2011 has been such an amazing year for us. And among the many “firsts” in this Parzen vintage, I wrote my first wine list for Sotto in Los Angeles.

Learning that the restaurant had been named “best new restaurant of 2011” by Los Angeles Magazine on Friday was the icing on the sweetest cake.

It’s been such a rewarding experience to be part of the restaurant’s talented team and I can’t conceal my pride in the all-Southern-Italian wine list that we put together there.

Here’s a post on Sotto from June of this year… I can’t wait for Georgia to try Chefs Zach and Steve’s Neapolitan pizza (see my note at the end)…

Chefs Steve and Zach literally combed the Malibu foothills foraging for wild fennel flowers — finocchietto — to complete their pasta con le sarde, traditional Sicilian noodles with sardines, pine nuts, raisins, and — de rigeuerfinocchietto.

The occasion was a wine dinner at Sotto in Los Angeles in honor of my good friend Giampaolo Venica who wrote on the Twitter today What a great pasta with sarde last night @sottoLA, probably best ever had.”

Tracie P and I simply adore Giampaolo and Chiara, who are celebrating their first wedding anniversary on Sunday! Mazel tov! :) Photo by Alfonso, who also joined us.

Things behind the bar were getting steamy last night. Amazing cocktails…

I just had to ask the parents of these happy children for permission to snap their photo. Pizza is a wonderfully universal dish, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like pizza?

Now that Tracie P and I are expecting, I find myself thinking all the time about nutrition and Baby P. It was great to see these super polite kids enjoying the wholesome Neapolitan stuff!

Good things we ate and drank at Sotto in LA

The Neapolitan pizza at Sotto is imho one of the best in the U.S. today. Just had to share this photo of chef and pizzaiolo Zach Pollack and his bubby.

Panelle (Sicilian chickpea fritters).

Griddle-fired sardines with Sicilian winter citrus salad, shaved fennel, crushed olive-pistachio vinaigrette.

Grilled mackerel in scapece with cauliflower, cured lemons, pesto pantesco (Pantelleria’s tomato and basil relish for fish).

Grilled pork meatballs. I believe that chef Steve Samson’s extraordinary talent in all things pork-related is owed to his Bolognese origins (he and I have been friends for more than 20 years, stretching back to our college days in Italy).

This was one Tracie P’s favorites and mine, too. Ciceri e Tria, chick peas and long noodles, a classic dish of Apulia. Chef Zach strays from tradition here by deliciously folding in baccalà, adding another layer of flavor and texture.

Squid ink (long-noodle) fusilli with pistachios, bottarga, and mint. This dish is a true show stopper. Extremely difficult to photograph well and utterly delectable.

One of my privileges as wine director is that I get to put some of my favorite wines on the list! The 2006 skin-contact, wild fermented, unfiltered, and impeccably Natural 100% Vermentino by Dettori continues to “astound” me (to borrow Saignée’s tasting note). Alessandro Dettori wrote me earlier this year explaining that one of the things that makes this vintage stand out is the fact that he chose not to destem and he macerated for two days with the stems as well as the skins. The wine is gorgeously fresh and bright and its balance of fruit and minerality is stunning. And… It makes you poop good the next day… No joke… I LOVE LOVE LOVE this wine.

Devil’s Gulch fennel-crusted pork porterhouse with green tomato mostarda.

Are those some good-looking cannoli or what???!!!

In case you haven’t heard, I curate the list at Sotto and work the floor there a few nights each month. The list is devoted exclusively to southern Italian wine, with a short appendix of rigorously Natural California producers (chemical-free farming, wild fermentation). My next visit is scheduled for June 21 and 22. Hope to see you there!

How Neapolitan pizza is made in Los Angeles (video)

One last post on my time at Sotto in Los Angeles this week. Just had to share this vid I shot of chef/pizzaiolo Zach Pollack firing the first pizzas of the evening. Here’s an article from LA Weekly with the backstory of how this Neapolitan pizza oven made it to LA.

Tony Coturri, groovy cocktails, friends, and awesome pizza at Sotto

Before I started my shift at Sotto’s last night, I asked the “father of Natural winemaking in California,” Tony Coturri, to talk to the staff about Natural wine and the differences between “organic” and “biodynamic” farming (he was in town for a wine dinner and we feature one of his wines at the restaurant). Perhaps more than any other winemaker I know personally, he is the most passionate about Natural wine and chemical-free farming and he sees his mission as vital to our race and our future — I believe that he is right and thank goodness for him. (Thanks again, Tony, for taking the time to talk to us.)

Über hipster mixologist Kate Grutman was doing her magic at the bar last night. She hooked me up with her concoction, “Il Cattivo,” equal parts of Carpano Antica Formula, Branca Menta, and Genever. That soup is hot!

At the end of my shift, I got to sit down with some of my best friends, who came in to support me in this new project. That’s (from left) Heather and Mike Andrews, Gary Jules, and bandmate Dan and Kate Crane (Dan’s band Quick Hellos just released a super cool record and his release party is next week in LA, btw). I just can’t believe how sweet and supportive everyone in LA has been. It’s really meant the world to me.

I finally got to dig into Chefs Steve and Zach’s Pizza Margarita. Rating: RUN DON’T WALK. This is the good shit, people. I’ve eaten pizza cities all over the U.S. and Italy (including Naples). Sotto’s is in my top 5 and definitely the most authentic Neapolitan this side of the Atlantic.

It’s been super fun to launch my wine program at Sotto and the owners and staff and patrons have been so generous and supportive. We’ve tasted some great wines together over the last few days and the food at Sotto rocks. But now it’s time for me to get back to Texas and my beautiful Tracie P where I belong. Can’t wait to hold her tight and taste her sweet lips! A taste of honey, tasting much sweeter than wine…

My first wine list: taste with me on Tues. and Weds. in LA at Sotto

Above: My friend Giampaolo Venica’s Balbium — 100% Magliocco from Calabria — is one of my favorite wines on the list at Sotto in Los Angeles.

When one of my best friends from my college days, Steve Samson, wrote me a few months ago and asked me to author the wine list for his new restaurant in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance. I’ve always been a fan of Steve’s cooking — his mother is from Bologna and so it runs in his veins — and I’ve followed his career since the beginning, dining at the restaurants where he’s worked (Valentino in LA is one of them).

There was just one catch (two actually): the list had to be ALL southern Italian wine with a handlist of California. I immediately set out sourcing some of the best and best-priced southern Italian wines available in the Golden State and the resulting list is a flight of roughly 50 wines from Campania, Apulia, Calabria, Sicily, Abruzzo, Molise, and Sardinia (including some of my favs like Dettori, Gulfi, Cos, and Venica’s Balbium). And for the California wines, I told Steve and his partners that I was only willing to write the list if we only allowed Natural and chemical-free wines on the list: Donkey & Goat, Coturri, Clarine Farms, etc. — the only Californian wines I’ll drink.

I’m very proud of the list — partly because of our aggressively patron-friendly pricing — and the extreme value that you find in these wines. But mainly I’m excited because southern Italian wine is super sexy and delicious.

Above: The staff at Sotto and I have been tasting and training together during my recent visits to Los Angeles. A fantastic group of restaurant professionals. Right now their favorite wine is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria by Gulfi.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights next week, I’ll be working the floor and pouring wines by-the-glass for a special wine pairing tasting menu that we’re working on right now.

Here’s the info and reservation link for Sotto (which just opened this week). I’d love to see you there! (And I’ll do a post on the food and the space once I have chance to dine there next week.)