Frito pie, impossible wine pairing?!?

chili frito pie

Above: The other night an excellent Frito Pie prompted me and my dining companions to contemplate the moisture retention quotient of the humble Frito, which, I learn via the Wiki, originated in San Antonio, Texas (where else?).

I think I might have Dr. V stumped. Chips and salsa may be tough, but Frito Pie?

If you’ve never had Frito Pie, it’s essentially a heap of Fritos drowning in Texas chili and then topped with cheese and sour cream.

I had never had Frito Pie before moving to the south. Since my life Texana began nearly 3 years ago, I eat Frito Pie — a true Texan delicacy — whenever afforded the opportunity.

The other day outside of Houston, Cousin Marty and I had what we both agreed was the BEST FRITO PIE EVER.

What did our sommelier pair with it?

As BrooklynGuy occasionally asks of his readers, you be the sommelier!

Please add your recommendations in the comment thread and I’ll provide the answer (it was brilliant, btw) on Friday along with a story about the amazing place where we were served the pie above…

Pizza, an Italian sine qua non (Alan Richman, please call me!)

Above: Doug Horn’s pizza at the aptly named Dough in San Antonio is among the best I’ve ever had — in Italy and the U.S. That’s his margherita: there is a lot of great Stateside pizza but Doug’s is the most authentically Neapolitan I’ve tasted.

Did it all began back in January when Dr. V asked me what vino I’d pair with pizza?

The tenor of the debate seemed to have reached fever pitch by the time I weighed in with my post Pizza, pairing, and Pasolini.

A Solomon of pizza lovers, Eric, the sage among us observed rightly that we don’t have to do it the way they do it Rome.

Above: Doug’s mushroom and caramelized red onion pizza is not the most traditional among his offering but, damn, is it good! I have deep respect for Alan Richman (who also happens to be one of the nicest food writers you’ll ever meet) but his omission of Dough in the top 25 pizzas in the U.S. is a glaring oversight.

But now one of our nation’s greatest food writers, Alan Richman, tells us that “Italians are wrong about pizza… Pizza isn’t as fundamental to Italy as it is to America. Over there, it plays a secondary role to pasta, risotto, and polenta. To be candid, I think they could do without it.” (Here’s the link to the GQ article on the top 25 pizzas in the U.S. but it is a major pain in the ass to navigate.)

Above: Doug also does a wonderful, traditional Neapolitan flatbread. This is probably a trace of the origins of pizza as we know it today. I’ve never met anyone as passionate about traditionalism in pizza as Doug.

Alan has impeccable and unquestionable taste and I agree with almost all of his top-25 selections (at least those I have tasted myself). Anyone who reads Do Bianchi knows that I — like most Italophile oenophiles — have an obsession with pizza and that Lucali in Brooklyn is one of my all-time favorites (a preference that Alan shares).

I know that Alan is just having fun when he says that Italians are “wrong about pizza.” And I agree that Americanized pizza is a wonderful and spontaneous mutation of the ingenious simplicity that the Italians have created — like so many things they’ve given the world.

Above: Doug also does some incredible fresh cheese and traditional Neapolitan cheese antipasti that he learned to make while studying to be a pizzaiolo in Naples.

But to say that “Pizza isn’t as fundamental to Italy as it is to America” is egregious hyperbolism. Pizza — like pasta, like the Italian national football team — is one of the few notions that truly binds the Italians together as a nation — nation in the etymological sense, i.e., a shared birth from the Latin natio. (I have a great deal to say on this but I’m literally running out the door to San Antonio as I write this.)

Alan, Eric, and Tyler, please come to San Antonio anytime: we have much to discuss and the pizza (and the Brunello) will be on me. I promise that the trip will be well worth it.

Dorothy, here you come again

Half-jokingly, a wine publicist and good friend recently remarked to me: “I mean, come on, let’s face it. No offense, but how many people read your blog anyway?” As much personal satisfaction that my blog gives me, I recognize that I’m no Eric, Alder, Tyler, or Franco.

But that’s partly what makes me all the more angry (and I promise this is my last rant for the week) when one of the truly influential sources of food and wine journalism publishes disinformation, like Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s supercilious take on 2004 Barolo, published last week in The Wall Street Journal, or their truly offensive and imbecilic “10 Ways to Save Money Ordering Wine,” published on Saturday. (I apologize in advance to my friend J, a WSJ editor and writer I admire greatly for this second harangue about his colleagues: the poorly delivered humor in my post about the 2004 Barolo piece was simply that — poorly delivered.) Especially in this day and “age of responsibility,” when many of our nation’s restaurateurs find themselves gripped in a day-to-day battle for survival, Dorothy and John’s tips for not being “hosed” by restaurateurs (they actually use the word hose! in the WSJ!) and the accusatory, paranoid tone or their article are no less than nefarious. It’s important to acknowledge that restaurant-going consumers are feeling the financial pinch these days as well: Dorothy and John’s readers would have been better served by “tips on how to find value on the list at your favorite restaurant.”

Here are some highlights from their piece…

1. Skip wine by the glass.

I studied Italian literature at university but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that a glass of wine costs less than a bottle. Wine by the glass is one of the ways that we find new wines we like without having to pay for the bottle. Better advice would be: when ordering a wine by the glass, ask your server if you have the option to purchase the whole bottle at the bottle price if you like the wine.

3. Bypass the second-cheapest wine on the list.

A generalization like this is simply stupid, irrelevant, and inappropriate. Honest restaurateurs (and most of them are honest) price their wines in accordance with the prices they are charged by wholesalers. Better advice: figure out what you want to spend and ask your server or sommelier which wines in that price point meet your expectations in terms of style, aromas and flavors, and desired pairing.

6. Never order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

Even Eric and Charles — two palates who really do know something about Italian wine — liked Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio when they tasted it blind in a New York Times tasting panel. Dorothy and John, come on: this is insulting. Better advice: order what you like and enjoy when you go to a restaurant. Whether you like Pinot Grigio by Santa Margherita, white Zinfandel by Beringer, or first-growth Bordeaux (wines many would consider over-priced but coveted and thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless), then go for it. You go to a restaurant to have fun… not to be scared of being ripped off!

9. BYOB.

Dorothy and John, I hate to break it to you but bring-your-own-bottle is appropriate in two cases: 1) when a restaurant doesn’t have a beer and/or wine license; 2) when you bring an illustrious and expensive bottle that doesn’t appear on the restaurant’s list. And remember: whenever you bring your own bottle to a restaurant, be sure to order a bottle of equivalent value. Thrift, Dorothy and John, is no excuse for rude behavior or bad tipping.

Here you come again, Dorothy and John, Just when I’m about to make it work without you.

Ex libris: books that have come across my desk

Truth be told, I don’t really have a desk (although, happily, that will be changing soon!). For the last year and a half, my office has been the Butler (Columbia U) and New York Public Libraries, the La Jolla and Marina del Rey Libraries, and a mixed bag of airport lounges and Starbucks. Here are some books that have come across my virtual desk this holiday season. (Click on the images for Amazon links.)

Puglia: a Culinary Memoir is the most recent entry in a wonderful series of regional Italian cookbooks published by my friend Polly Franchini in New York (I’m currently translating Venice). I really liked the narrative feel of this cookery book and the excellent translation by Natalie Danford is fluid and natural. The regional Italian cookery fad has been around for some time now (since the late 1990s) and while so many celebrity chefs have tried to hang their hat on the Italian regional mantle, few can deliver the way that Italian authors can: look to Maria Pignatelli’s recipes for truly authentic Apulian fare.

It’s never too late to save the world from Parkerization: my close friend Alice Feiring’s book, The Battle for Love and Wine or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, has appeared at Do Bianchi a number of times since it was released earlier this year. I can’t recommend this polemical book highly enough: this is required reading for anyone and everyone ready to cast off the yoke of Parkerized and reified consumerist hegemony (the rhetoric is Gramscian here).

Check out this post on Alice and her book by Craig Camp at Wine Camp: a Points-Free Zone.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything polemical about the industrious Tyler Colman aka Dr. Vino’s most recent book, A Year of Wine, but there is: Tyler has anointed himself as the caped crusader devoted to exposing the often obscene carbon footprint of marketing-driven wines. Even in this primer for the neophyte wine enthusiast, he devotes ample space to the environmental impact of wine and wine consumption. I really liked the innovative format of this book: Tyler leads the reader through the year’s seasons of wine, with useful tips for how to decipher the choreography of wine service and how to pair and drink in an informed and intelligent manner.

I must confess that I am a little conflicted about including this last book, A16 Food + Wine, in my round-up. A16 is a great San Francisco restaurant and Jayne and Jon and I had a wonderful time when we ate there in October. It’s really two books: the first part is an excellent introduction to the wines, grapes, and winemaking traditions of southern Italy, by SF sommelier Shelley Lindgren, who blew the minds of the wine world when she launched an all-southern-Italian list in 2004 (the two exceptions are two of my favorite sparklers, Puro by Movia and Lambrusco by Lini). Her contribution to Italocentric vinography is perhaps the first comprehensive English-language survey of southern and insular Italy. It will reside proudly in the reference section of my new desk.

The second part of the book is Nate Appleman’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along, I-hung-out-in-Italy-for-a-while guide to air-quoted regional Italian cookery. He lost me at “chicken meatballs” (Italians make meatballs with veal, pork, and beef, and chicken is never ground in Italian cookery). I like Nate’s cooking and immensely enjoyed the restaurant (including his superb Monday-night meatballs) but there’s nothing genuine in his claims of authenticity.

I wish this book were just “A16: Wine” but I do recommend it as great guide to the wonderful wines of southern Italy, which represent some of the greatest values for the quality in the market today.

One thing I’ve learned over this last year and a half: it’s not easy to put your feet up on a virtual desk. But as I wait for my real desk to arrive (in Jan. 09), I’m looking forward to catching up on my own reading over the holiday break.

Buona lettura!

Next week: Do Bianchi’s top NYE champers pics!

Apulia in New York and a visit with Obi-Wan

Above: the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone (left), with Tom Maresca, another one of New York’s great wine experts and writers and an authority on Italian wine.

As the newest member of the New York Wine Media Guild, I was asked to help organize and co-chair last week’s tasting of Apulian wines in New York together with my good friend and mentor, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Italian wine world, Charles Scicolone. What an honor for me to get to present Charles! He has been working in and writing about Italian wine since the 1970s, when few connoisseurs were collecting or drinking fine Italian wine. Together with two other now-legendary names in our field, writer Sheldon Wasserman and retailer Lou Iacucci, Charles played a starring role in what can now be called the Italian wine renaissance in this country. Whether selling, consulting, lecturing, or simply tasting, “it’s always a pleasure” Charles is one of the most recognized and respected faces in Italian wine in the U.S.

Above: top wine blogger Tyler Colman and agent provocateur Terry Hughes share a moment for my camera. Also in attendance, a who’s who of New York wine writers: John Foy, Paul Zimmerman, and Peter Hellman, among others.

Charles and I have known each other for more than 10 years: I first met him when I wrote about him and his wife, cookbook author and Italian food authority Michele Scicolone, for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana. Later, I had the great fortune to work with Charles when he was the wine director at famed Italian wine destination I Trulli in New York. (Although he never won, Charles was nominated eight consecutive times for the James Beard Wine Professional award.)

Charles is known for his passionate defense of traditional winemaking and his distaste for new oak aging, especially when it comes to Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico. “They’ve gone to the dark side,” you’ll hear Charles say, referring to once-traditional Italian winemakers who switch over to California-style vinfication and high-alcohol, overly extracted, oaky, jammy wines. Hence, my cognomen for Charles.

Above: we were also joined by Francesca Mancarella, export director for Apulian winery Candido, and Gary Grunner, another Italian wine industry veteran.

One of the things that impresses me the most about Charles’ palate and his knowledge of Italian wines is that he tasted many of the twentieth-century’s great vintages on release and he has witnessed the evolution of the Italian wine sector during its most vibrant periods of renewal and expansion.

Charles, may the force be with you!

See also Off the Presses’ tasting notes from last Wednesday’s tasting.

Above: more than 30 wines were tasted that day, including this show-stopping dried-grape Aleatico by Candido — the only DOC Aleatico passito produced, an “idiovinification” (how’s that for a neologism?). Francesca explained that the wine’s freshness is owed to Apulia’s excellent Mediterranean ventilation.

A great SF wine store, Georgian wine, and some interesting posts

Above: the inimitable Ceri Smith, owner and creator of Biondivino, named San Francisco’s “best wine shop” by the San Francisco Gate the very day I visited her, and Chris Terrell, importer of intriguing Georgian wines.

When I was in San Francisco last week, I had the great pleasure to meet Ceri Smith, owner and creator of Biondivino and one of the top Italian wine experts in our country. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Italian wine simply blew me away and her store — however small — is one of the most delightful places on earth. She specializes in Italian wine but carries a few French, Slovenian, and Georgian labels. Her collection of Italian sparkling wine is probably the best in the country and she sells a few Champagnes as well. She was gracious enough to share a coveted bottle of Valentini 2001 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo with me, one of her favorites, she said. A fantastic wine…

Above: I really liked Vinoterra’s Kisi, which should cost around $20 retail. Look at the beautiful color on that wine. Really great, oxidized, tasty, stinky stuff — the way I like it. It’s high time to take Georgian wine seriously.

We were also joined by importer Chris Terrell who specializes in Georgian wines. He had contacted me after he read my post on the war in Georgia. Chris first fell in love with Georgian wine when he biked through the Caucusus and tasted these amazing bottlings. We tasted through eight Georgian wines by two producers, each unique, surprising, and intriguing. I particularly liked the Kisi (an indigenous Georgian grape) by Vinoterra, aged in amphora. Vinoterra served as inspiration and model for the extreme wines of Gravner, which he began to age in amphora some years ago after he visited Vinoterra.

In other news…

Here are some top bloggers in my Google reader and some interesting posts I’ve read by them recently. As the saying goes, ubi major, minor cessat…

My good friend Alice Feiring just launched this New York Times blog about her experience making wine for the first time. I’m one of her biggest fans.

Dr. Vino by Tyler Colman is one of the most popular wine blogs in the U.S. and a leading resource for tasting notes, wine news and trivia. Tyler’s pièce de résistance is his research on the carbon footprint of wine. I was particularly impressed by this post in which he debunks the myth of Beaujolais Nouveau, “Boycott Beaujolais Nouveau”. It’s hard-hitting stuff and a must read.

Italian Wine Guy aka Alfonso Cevola, another good friend of mine, is hands-down the top Italian wine blogger in the U.S. This guy knows his stuff and his blog is a daily read for me. I love the way that Alfonso bends our genre, always pushing the envelope in ways that surprise and entertain me. His recent post on Luca Zaia’s “mommy blog” is one of his most daring and politically charged. Chapeau, Alfonso!

Required reading: Dr. V’s Wine Politics

What I like even more than the title of Tyler Colman aka Dr. Vino’s Wine Politics (UC Press) is what the binomial title implies: “wine is politics” and “wine is — by its nature — political.”

In North America, where we consider wine a “luxury product,” we are apt to forget the historically political significance of wine and the wine trade. Over at Divino Scrivere, one of my favorite Italian wine blogs, the authors recently reminded their readers that “il vino è politico” in an eloquent post on one of the world’s most poetically engagé winemakers, Bartolo Mascarello, whose “No Barrique, No Berlusconi” labels continue to inspire the enlightened among us.

The leader of the first generation of critical theory Theodor W. Adorno wrote famously that “under the aegis of cultural industry… art and ideology are becoming one and the same thing.” In reading Dr. V’s book, I couldn’t help but think of Adorno and make an analogy to the contemporary world of wine, driven by a new “cultural industry.”

Few winemakers are as overtly political as B. Mascarello, but today more than ever, the act of winemaking and the act of wine writing are inherently ideological and therefore political. More than ever before in the history of humankind, the acts of vinification and vinography are intrinsically ideological and political expressions, whether it’s the Gallo family concocting wines for the “misery market” or Mr. Bob “the difference with me is the impact is worldwide” Parker dictating which French winemakers will be able to sell their wines this year. (Oops, sawwy Mark Squires!)

From his account of the 1960s “‘magic chef’ who could transform bad grapes into good wine” (p. 69) to his excellent Keynesian approach to the hegemony of American wine writers, Dr. V provides meticulous historical background and astute insight into the powers that drive wine trends and sales in our country:

    “As John Maynard Keynes noted in his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, to try to predict the winner of a lineup of one hundred contestants in a beauty contest, the best tactic is to ‘favor an average definition of beauty rather than a personal one.’ Reviews by a powerful critic can organize the wine market into good, better and best, and prices will follow suit. But they may also steer consumers away from wines they might otherwise prefer.” (pp. 118-19)

Europeans are acutely aware of the political nature of wine: just last week, one Italian politician compared himself to a politically charged wine, Brunello, while another snubbed a famous Italian wine with historically political connotations, Lambrusco. Unfortunately, American wine lovers have remained in the political dark and know little about why they drink and even prefer the wines the find in their wine stores and supermarkets. I applaud Dr. V for this excellent scholarly work, sure to become “required reading” in any serious wine education program.

In other news…

Do Bianchi did not publish a review of Alice Feiring’s new book simply because my friendship with Alice precludes me writing an entirely unbiased assessment but I cannot recommend it more highly. Do check out Leonardo Lopate’s recent interview with Alice: I really liked the definition of “natural wine.”

In other other news…

Check out this 1970s Gallo ad for “Blush Chablis”: “It’s what happens when a white wine decides to blush.”