My photo in Forbes and 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva tonight @TonyVallone

Stranger things have happened: last week Forbes contacted me asking if they could use a photo (above) from the blog for the magazine.

Here’s the link to the piece.

The image comes from my of the “most memorable meals” of 2011, a dinner in the restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone.

Here’s the link to my post on the repast, wherein 98 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, 98 Quintarelli Amarone, and 90 Quintarelli Bandito (!!!) were all consumed with great joy.

Tonight at Tony’s, we’ll be opening the 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva: I’ll be speaking about the wines at a dinner for forty persons.

Stay tuned…

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? ;)

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!

Stone crab porn and cousin Marty’s doing great :)

The best thing about the Florida stone crab last night at Tony’s in Houston was watching cousin Marty scarf it down with gusto!

I was in town for a Ribera del Duero tasting and he let me crash a celebratory dinner for his research assistant, who just landed a fancy schmancy federal court clerkship (mazel tov!).

He’s not quite done with his treatment but, man, it was great to see that panache that we all love him for… You should have seen him munching on that crab knuckle (in the foreground)!

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…

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!

95 B. Mascarello and Alba truffles, a marriage made in heaven

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

(the incipit of “The Gentle Heart,” by Guido Guinizelli, 1230-76)

You can keep your DRC, your Bond, your Pétrus… No, those wines are not good enough and do not deserve to touch the lips of the one I love. No, their aromas and flavors are not worthy of her noble nostrils and chaste tastebuds.

No, when I dine with my wife, my signora, my lady, my dame, my donna, my domina… such wines will not suffice.

When I share a special repast with Tracie P, bring me Barolo by Bartolo Mascarello.

Many great wines have been opened, tasted, and drunk in 2010, but perhaps none thrilled us more than the Bartolo Mascarello 1995 Barolo that we shared on Saturday night at Tony’s in Houston. Over these last two years (my first two in Texas), Tony has become a friend and now a client (I write his blog). Over the weekend, he generously treated Tracie P and me to dinner in celebration of our first year as a married couple.

Sometimes a wine is only as good as the person you share it with… Tracie P had never tasted Bartolo Mascarello and it was high time that this travesty in the annals of enological history was rectififed!

Bartolo Mascarello is one of the great icons of Nebbiolo, a steadfast defender of traditional winemaking, producer of one of the greatest wines in the world, and more recently, a founder and promoter of the “real wine” movement in Italy. Like many of the great houses of Langa, the Mascarello legacy began with a grape broker, Bartolo’s father Giulio, who intimately knew the best growing sites for Nebbiolo, as his granddaughter Maria Teresa explained to me the first time I tasted with her at the winery in 2008. Today, their Barolo is still made from grapes grown in four vineyards purchased by Giulio: Cannubi, San Lorenzo, Rué, and Rocche. Extended submerged cap maceration and large-cask aging are still employed at the winery today, a tradition that now spans three generations.

The pairing of great Nebbiolo and shaved Alba white truffles is no cheap date but it’s one of those gastronomic experiences that will literally change your life (and when done correctly, is worth every single penny).

Tony had captain Vinny shave us truffles over a perfectly cooked white risotto by chef de cuisine Grant.

95 was a classic although not great vintage for this wine and at 15 years out, it was drinking stupendously. Bartolo Mascarello has all the hallmarks of great Barolo: the savory tar and earth flavors. But to my palate, its sottobosco flavors, notes of woodsy underbrush, are its signature. Gorgeous acidity and IMHO perfectly evolved tannin for this vintage, although this wine could certainly age for another decade or more.

Regrettably, B. Mascarello is tough to find in this country and Tony is the only restaurateur I know in Texas who features the wines on his list (in a mini-vertical no less!). Thanks to my line of work, I’ve been fortunate to taste a lot of B. Mascarello and I was thrilled to share this bottle with the love of my life.

What else did we eat?

We were disappointed that we missed Tony’s bollito misto (with bollito cart!), but he had reserved a poached capon studded with black truffles just for us. Utterly delicious…

And a night like that just couldn’t end without chef Grant’s soufflé, expertly sliced and served by captain Vinny.

What a night!

Some guys have all the luck and Nebbiolo and truffles are some girls’s best friends. I am one lucky dude to be married to one such lady.

Thanks again, Tony! That was one of the most memorable meals of our life together! We had a blast…

White Nero d’Avola? Come again?

From the “life could be worse” department…

Last night found me off duty after an afternoon of appointments in Houston. So I met up with cousins Marty and Joanne and Aunt Lillian at Marty’s favorite restaurant Tony’s. Marty and Joanne are regulars there and are close with owner Tony Vallone, who always sends something special over to their table. Last night’s special treat was sautéed sea urchin tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and long noodles.

Sommelier Jonathan Hoenefenger paired the dish with Tony’s house white: a Nero d’Avola vinified as a white wine (Tony is Siculo-American). Frankly, I had never heard of such a thing (and neither had Italian Wine Guy when I asked him about this morning on my way back from Houston). In my experience, vanity bottlings like this rarely deliver more than novelty, but this wine was fresh, with bright acidity and minerality, and a surprising tannic note that found a worthy dance partner in the tender, meaty bits of urchin.

With our main course, we opened Quintarelli’s 1999 Rosso Ca’ del Merlo (an IGT for you DOC/DOCG/PDO/PGI buffs and a great example of how some of Italy’s greatest wines are not DOCGs). Man, this wine was killer: still a baby in the bottle, tannic and rich, with a seductive chewy mouthfeel, excellent with my Brooklyn-style thick cut pork chop. And the price was unexpectedly reasonable.

We took Aunt Lillian home (she’s 94) and retired to Marty and Joanne’s place, where we discussed Parzens and Levys, bubbies and zaidis, and even indulged in a little talmudic banter (Marty’s a law professor, after all).

Thanks, again, Joanne and Marty, for a wonderful evening!

Life could be worse, couldn’t it?