Taste Mascarello & Quintarelli with me on July 19 in Houston

I never had the fortune to meet Bartolo Mascarello before he passed. But over the years, I’ve become friends with Maria Teresa Mascarello, his daughter (above). We’ve visited at the winery and I taste with her every chance I get (and a few years ago I was thrilled to buy a single-edition collection of Arabic poetry on wine that she and Baldo Cappellano had had translated from the original into Italian, a wonderful book that I cherish).

I love the wines and I love the family and I love all that they stand for — the wines and the people. There is perhaps no winery where ideology and winemaking align so perfectly, delivering wines that truly express the land and the people who grow and vinify the grapes while remaining true to the ideological purity of the people who sacrificed their lives to keep Italy free in the face of fascism (before, during, and after the war).

Above: Large format bottles in the Bartolo Mascarello cellar.

My friend Tony in Houston knows how much I appreciate these life-changing wines and so whenever Tracie P and I visit him together, he always opens something from his deep cellar and picks something special from his ample stash of Bartolo Mascarello wines.

Tony has asked me to host a dinner at his restaurant in Houston on July 19, where we’ll be opening a few wines by Bartolo Mascarello as well as a 1990 Recioto della Valpolicella by Quintarelli (another one of my personal favorites).

The price of admission isn’t cheap but it’s worth every penny considering the flight of wines we’ll be enjoying. And of course, I’ll be speaking about my experiences at Mascarello and Quintarelli.

Here are the details…

Cuttlefish risotto and the “last taboo” of Italian gastronomy @TonyVallone @AldoFiordelli

The Cuttlefish risotto at Ciao Bello in Houston the other night was so good that it nearly made me cry.

And it inspired a conversation about the “last taboo” of Italian gastronomy: the pairing of dairy and seafood.

I was at the restaurant doing a media dinner for my friend and client Tony Vallone, who shared the following anecdote about a luncheon in Naples a few years ago.

One of the guests, he said, an Italian-American, asked for grated Parimigiano Reggiano with his seafood pasta. The waiter politely responded that the restaurant didn’t serve cheese with seafood dishes. When the guest insisted, the waiter acquiesced, telling the patron that he would bring him the cheese. He disappeared, only to return after the gentleman had finished eating his pasta. “You see,” he said, “the dish didn’t need the cheese,” adding “in Italia si fa così,” this is how we do things in Italy.

The Italian taboo of mixing dairy and seafood stretches back to the Renaissance, when widely embraced Catholic customs required abstinence from dairy and meat on the numerous Lenten — di magro — days in the religious calendar. The bottom line: when seafood was consumed, dairy and meat were not. (I don’t have time to post about this today but this element of Renaissance cookery came to mind when I read Mark Bittman’s recent NY Times editorial on faux chicken; Renaissance cooks were obsessed with creating faux food, a gastronomic phenomenon that I called “culinary anamorphism” in a piece I wrote for Gastronomica some years ago.)

Of course, Tony’s cuttlefish risotto was made without the use of cheese (even though so many chefs in Italy and the U.S. discreetly fold some grated Parmigiano Reggiano into their seafood dishes). The secret to its creaminess? Tony had his chef caramelize and emulsify onions and then add them a few moments before the rice (Carnaroli) had cooked through. The viscous liquid gave the dish the all’onda texture that Tony likes in his risotto (whether sea- or landfood).

And it seems that we weren’t the only ones thinking about the “last taboo” of Italian gastronomy this week.

Today, Aldo Fiordelli, one of my favorite Italian-language food and wine bloggers and writers, posted this photo of “Linguine limone sgombro capperi essicati e parmigiano vacche rosse di Cristiano Tomei dell’Imbuto di Viareggio” (linguine tossed with lemon, mackerel, dried capers, and Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano by Cristiano Tomei at the restaurant Imbuto in Viareggio).

Aldo notes that more and more Italian chefs are taking the bold step of using cheese in their seafood dishes, calling it their “last prejudice.”

Tony always says that for Italian cuisine to be authentic, it must also be creative. But I don’t think he would ever serve a dish like the one described by Aldo.

But hey, when in Viareggio, why not take a walk on the wildside?

Truffle porn: black gold or lunar cow dung? @TonyVallone

I just had to share these photos that I snapped yesterday for my friend and client Tony in Houston.

That plate of Umbrian black truffles was destined for a private party at the restaurant Tony’s last night.

Click the images for high res versions.

After our weekly meeting, Tony treated me to his housemade tagliolini tossed with sautéed eggplant and zucchine and then topped with shaved truffles.

Life could be worse, couldn’t it? ;)

Best meals 2011: Quintarelli and Mascarello at Tony’s (Houston)

Curating Tony’s website and serving as his media director has its perks. This dinner, in August, was one of them. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!

From the department of “dreams do come true”…

When we sat down for dinner last week, Tony Vallone looked across the table at me and matter-of-factly said, “I have some special wines picked out for you tonight. I know you’re going to like them.” He wasn’t kidding.

I’ve been curating his blog since October 2010 and our weekly meeting has evolved into a familial kibitz where we talk about everything under the sun, alternating between English and Italian. (Long before Tracie P and I announced that we were pregnant, Tony had intuited that we were with child. “I can read it on your face,” he told me. And, all along, Tony said it was going to be a girl. He was right.)

The occasion for our dinner was an interview with one of the top wine writers in the country and Tony had asked me to join them.

After an aperitif of light, bright Colle Massari Montecucco Vermentino, the first wine in the flight was 1998 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello (above).

I’ve tasted this wine on a number of occasions and it’s extremely tight right now, favoring its tannin and jealously guarding its fruit.

But when the server arrived with a porcini risotto topped with Umbrian truffles shaved tableside, the wine started to open up and its delicate menthol note began to give way to wild berry fruit tempered by mushrooms and earth. The acidity in this wine was singing and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angelo Gaja’s antithetical comparison of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon is like John Wayne, I once heard Gaja say: he who stands in the center of the room and cannot help but be noticed. Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni: he enters the room and stands quietly in the corner, waiting for you to approach him. (There’s a punchline that cannot be repeated in polite company.)

The acidity in the 98 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico was equally vibrant and its melody played a counterpoint against the delicately marbled fat of a Kobi fillet. While I’m sure that the 98 Quintarelli has many, many years ahead of it, this wine is in a moment of grace. Generous fruit set against rich structure and mouthfeel. Here, I couldn’t help be reminded of Cassiodorus’s description of Acinaticum: “On the palate, it swells up in such a way that you say it was a meaty liquid, a beverage to be eaten rather than drunk.” In this wine, meaty ripe and overripe red fruit alternated with savory flavors. An unforgettable wine in one of the most remarkable moments of its life.

And dulcis in fundo, Tony had selected a wine that he had seen me covet. A few months ago, a collector and frequent guest of Tony’s poured me a taste of the rare 1990 Quintarelli Bandito (I wrote about it here). Knowing that I longed to “drink” this wine in the context of a meal, he surprised us at the end with a 375ml bottle. This wine — last bottled by Quintarelli for the 1990 vintage — is one of the greatest expressions of Garganega I’ve ever tasted: rocks and fruit, minerality and stone and white stone fruit, dancing around a “nervy backbone of acidity” as the Italian say.

This was paired with some housemade zeppole and a dose of playful nostalgia.

Carissimo Tony, ti ringrazio di cuore per questi vini straordinari!

California Huevos Rancheros and Wine for Breakfast

I had fun this morning with my Houston Press post, writing about my favorite breakfast — my take on California-style huevos rancheros — and wine for breakfast (in this case, Moscato d’Asti). Here’s the link…

And, hey, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it… Here are a few recent posts I did for my friend Tony (above with screenwriter and winemaker Robert Kamen): an interview with Maximilian Riedel (where he discusses the art of decanting Champagne) and notes from the Kamen dinner at Tony’s this weekend.

Who’d have ever thought that you could make a living as a wine blogger?

Buona lettura e buon weekend, yall!

Gaia Gaja’s cowgirl boots (and my first Alba truffles of the season)

Yesterday found me back in Houston where I had lunch with my friend and client Tony and Gaia Gaja.

To mark the occasion of her Houston, Texas visit, Gaia donned the cowgirl boots she had picked up on her previous visit (above). As the saying goes, you can take a girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl. After all, she does come from a town where they didn’t have running water until 1964.

As you can imagine, Tony pulled out all the stops for the luncheon: I’ve posted my complete notes on the meal and the wines over at his site here.

I wasn’t surprised by the Gaja 2007 Barbaresco: however strange (by virtue of the fact that there was no winter to speak of), the 2007 vintage was generous to Barbaresco and everything I’ve tasted so far has been great to phenomenal (remember when Tracie P and I tasted 2007 Asili and Santo Stefano with Bruno Giacosa?).

But it was Gaia’s family’s 2008 Barbaresco that really blew me away. In a challenging vintage, Gaja was blessed with very juicy, well ripened fruit. Green harvesting and southern exposure of their vineyards delivered mature grapes, said Gaja, and allowed them to pick before inclement weather arrived. The floral notes on the wine were fantastic and although still very young in its evolution, it had that zinging acidity and powerful tannin that makes Barbaresco such a unique appellation imho and one of my favorite wines in the world.

My favorite dish of the meal was the branzino and poached potato tartar topped with caviar and paired with the 2009 Gaia & Rey Chardonnay (a guilty pleasure, I must admit).

Click here for all of my notes, including the 2005 Sperss, and images of the dishes…

Thanks again, Tony and Gaia!

Dream flight: 98 B. Mascarello, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, 90 Quintarelli Bandito (white)

From the department of “dreams do come true”…

When we sat down for dinner last week, Tony Vallone looked across the table at me and matter-of-factly said, “I have some special wines picked out for you tonight. I know you’re going to like them.” He wasn’t kidding.

I’ve been curating his blog since October 2010 and our weekly meeting has evolved into a familial kibitz where we talk about everything under the sun, alternating between English and Italian. (Long before Tracie P and I announced that we were pregnant, Tony had intuited that we were with child. “I can read it on your face,” he told me. And, all along, Tony said it was going to be a girl. He was right.)

The occasion for our dinner was an interview with one of the top wine writers in the country and Tony had asked me to join them.

After an aperitif of light, bright Colle Massari Montecucco Vermentino, the first wine in the flight was 1998 Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello (above).

I’ve tasted this wine on a number of occasions and it’s extremely tight right now, favoring its tannin and jealously guarding its fruit.

But when the server arrived with a porcini risotto topped with Umbrian truffles shaved tableside, the wine started to open up and its delicate menthol note began to give way to wild berry fruit tempered by mushrooms and earth. The acidity in this wine was singing and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angelo Gaja’s antithetical comparison of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Cabernet Sauvignon is like John Wayne, I once heard Gaja say: he who stands in the center of the room and cannot help but be noticed. Nebbiolo is like Marcello Mastroianni: he enters the room and stands quietly in the corner, waiting for you to approach him. (There’s a punchline that cannot be repeated in polite company.)

The acidity in the 98 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico was equally vibrant and its melody played a counterpoint against the delicately marbled fat of a Kobi fillet. While I’m sure that the 98 Quintarelli has many, many years ahead of it, this wine is in a moment of grace. Generous fruit set against rich structure and mouthfeel. Here, I couldn’t help be reminded of Cassiodorus’s description of Acinaticum: “On the palate, it swells up in such a way that you say it was a meaty liquid, a beverage to be eaten rather than drunk.” In this wine, meaty ripe and overripe red fruit alternated with savory flavors. An unforgettable wine in one of the most remarkable moments of its life.

And dulcis in fundo, Tony had selected a wine that he had seen me covet. A few months ago, a collector and frequent guest of Tony’s poured me a taste of the rare 1990 Quintarelli Bandito (I wrote about it here). Knowing that I longed to “drink” this wine in the context of a meal, he surprised us at the end with a 375ml bottle. This wine — last bottled by Quintarelli for the 1990 vintage — is one of the greatest expressions of Garganega I’ve ever tasted: rocks and fruit, minerality and stone and white stone fruit, dancing around a “nervy backbone of acidity” as the Italian say.

This was paired with some housemade zeppole and a dose of playful nostalgia.

Carissimo Tony, ti ringrazio di cuore per questi vini straordinari!

Fernet Branca shakerato, the only way I drink it

Above: Fernet Branca shakerato at Tony’s in Houston.

Mama Judy flew into Houston yesterday and we’ll be celebrating the Passover tomorrow evening in Austin. And last night, the Branch, Levy, Kelly, and Parzen families gathered at Tony’s for una cena da leoni — an epic meal.

And after such a sumptuous and rich meal (see below), I must have a Fernet Branca — shakerato (chilled, shakered, and strained), the only way I drink it.

My relationship with the storied and celebrated digestivo stretches back to my earliest days as a copywriter in the early aughts back in NYC. My first gig was as editor of the Fernet Branca monthly newsletter.

At the time (before the tragedy of September 11, 2001), Fernet Branca had just reopened its bottling facility in TriBeCa. It was an amazing space: until the 1980s, when the US FDA blocked the import of Fernet Branca because it was still being sold as a drug (!), it was so popular in this country that the company continued to operate its 1930s-era bottling facility in lower Manhattan. When the US government blocked its sale, Fernet Branca hastily abandoned and boarded up the place, leaving the entire operation in place. In the late 90s, they decided to reopen it as the headquarters for a relaunch of the brand (which, by that time, was coming into the country legally, classified and regulated as a spirit).

The most amazing part of the facility was the counterfeit detection laboratory. The brand was so popular — before, during, and after Prohibition, when it was marketed as a “tonic” and regulated as a drug — that the company devoted significant resources to its anti-counterfeit operation. The laboratory — like a set from Young Frankenstein — was a museum of Fernet Branca imitators and pirates. Cobwebs and a patina of nearly two decades of dust. An amazing sight…

During my tenure as the editor of the Fernet Branca newsletter (which ended when the tragedy of 2001 reshaped the landscape of that neighborhood), I traveled twice to the Fernet Branca distillery in Milan and it was fascinating experience to learn the secrets and study the history of this brandy infused with mushrooms and herbs — the restaurant and bartending professional’s digestif of choice in this country (just ask any bartender).

Highlights from dinner…

Tony’s famous “Greenberg” salad. (I must confess that besides writing a hit song, I also aspire to having a salad named after me.)

Gnocchi “Primavera” with fiddlehead greens and Washington state ramps. Delicious…

Whole, salt-encrusted Gulf of Mexico red snapper, filleted tableside…

And then dressed in a reduction of guineafowl jus and Barolo… This dish wowed our table of ten…

Tracie P was truly aglow last night… more beautiful than ever… Mrs. and Rev. B drove in from Orange just to see everyone and break bread together (photo by cousin Dana).

Cousin Marty is now more than halfway through his treatment (very tough, as you can imagine, but he’s soldiering through it). He rallied to be with us last night. It just wouldn’t be a dinner at Tony’s without Marty: “If I’m going out to eat,” he exclaimed the day before with the panache that I love him for, “it’s going to be at Tony’s!”

A wonderful, wonderful, unforgettable night… a table of ten, celebrating the lives of our families, remembering how lucky we are to be here and to be together, and dreaming of the future… at the table of a great friend…

Tortellini porn and a teaching again (this time in Houston)

Above: Sometimes a tortellino is just a tortellino. Other times, a tortellino can be downright concupiscent.

Posting in a hurry today as I board a plane for Los Angeles where I’m working on a wine list for a new Italian restaurant there — a project I’m really excited about (more on that later).

In the meantime, I just had to share the above food porn, snapped recently at Tony’s in Houston. Tony, the Tony’s team, and I have been having a lot of fun with Tony’s blog.

And I’m thrilled to announce that they have asked me to teach a series of classes on Italian wine at Caffè Bello, the outfit’s location in “the Montrose,” Houston’s überhipster, artsy neighborhood.

The tastings/seminars should be a lot of fun and we’re launching Tuesday, March 29, with “Italian 101: major grapes, top regions.” (I haven’t finalized the syllabus but the weekly series will be similar to my “Italy: Birth of a Wine Nation” tastings.)

Gotta run… more later…

Tracie P and Tony V

There’s more to come… but first I just had to share this photo I snapped of Tracie P and Tony V, who was our host for the New Year’s eve holiday.

In our family as in his, we love to talk about food and when Tony V and Tracie P get together, I can guarantee that they will engage in finely calibrated discussions of how and when onion and garlic may be applied (never in tandem!) and how al dente al dente should be. The above photo is clear evidence of this phenomenon!

More on what we ate and drank later…