Thursday, March 18, 2010

Success in America, One Bottle at a Time

Stefano Illuminati "emphasizing" to Jeff Miller

The Wine Waltz across Texas with an Italian goes like this. Start in Dallas. Rent a mini-van. Drive (4 ½ hours) to Houston. Lunch appointments, meeting, dinner event. Next day, work the Houston market with salespeople, usually another lunch appointment with clients, sommeliers, buyers. Then a late afternoon sales meeting. Drive to Austin. Get to Austin late. Long days. Tired. Hungry. That’s where we found ourselves on this particular portion of the wine trail, rolling into Downtown Austin, near the Capitol, in search of some mighty fine pizza.

As we were driving from Houston to Austin we were rolling past one great BBQ place after another. I felt guilty because I know the Illuminati family love roasted meats. Anyone who has visited the Illuminati winery and been invited to eat at the Luperia, their on sight dining room, has had the pleasure of tasting great meats, (not to mention pasta, appetizers, you name it) with the wines of Illuminati. Great hospitality and the perfect way to show the wines of Abruzzo and their place on the gastronomic Italian proscenium

I’m not sure Stefano was thinking about his family’s place in the scheme of things that night. We were tired, we were hungry. He was jet lagged. We had close to a three hour drive and it had been less than 48 hours since he had landed in Texas with barely a moment to relax. “Alfonso, I need to buy my boys some gifts. Do you think we will have time?” Not yet Stefano, we have an appointment with a pizza oven.

Quattro Gatti on Congress in Austin was where we were to meet one of our salespeople. Well not just any salesperson, one who I met through the blogosphere, became friends, introduced to her husband, became their best man at their wedding. In other words, family. Added bonus, fluent in Italian, albeit with a Southern twang (Stefano commented on how she did not look like someone from Campania for sounding so much like one). Any way, the stars aligned, the oven was kicking out pizza, we were set.

A gorgeous pizza arrived, and then another one, the Montanara. A Bottle of Fiano from Mastroberardino appeared, and the Naples-Austin vortex started twitching. We are a few days out in front of SXSW, the annual gathering of musical talent combined with geekdome's most eloquent attenders. A little Burning Man, a little Haight-Ashbury, throw a love-in or two, and a high-speed conduit between the rest of the world and the current center of it, Austin, and, well, you just have to come to Austin to experience it.

Stefano ordered a pasta dish with clams. I was a little worried, because I know where he lives, San Benedetto del Tronto, and clams from there (and the pasta) are a true expression of la cucina Italiana. Yeah, yeah, we give it tons of lip service in the US, but in Stefano’s town, they walk the walk. But hey, the dish showed up and Stefano seemed pleased. I was too busy munching the pizza and anticipating the Branzino Al Forno.

And the Branzino? Well, take a look. It was perfect. Fish, salt, lemon, oil, parsley, five ingredients. Simplicity. Perfection. And with the Fiano? Austin is transmitting the signals from the Mother Ship with perfection.

After dinner (and the restaurant service) we finished up with a tasting of the wines with the owner, heading out around 10:30 to the hotel. The next day, Get up early get to a 9:00 AM sales meeting and tasting and then work the market, concluding with a stop at Fonda San Miguel, and finishing up out in Driftwood with a wine dinner for 80 people with Damian Mandola. Damian and Stefano have known each other for 25+ years. Damian was in Texas before heading out to his other home in Piedmont the next day. “Why don’t y’all come to the house for drinks, I'd love for the kids and my wife to see Stefano. “

Damian lives large. Big house. Lots of them. Big Family. Lots of them. Big restaurants. Lots of them. Big heart. Only one. Now spending half his time in Italy, his understanding of Italian food, especially how to present to America, has made him famous and wealthy. But we kind of remember him like we always have, a good guy with a big heart.

The dinner for 80 (at Trattoria Lisina) for 80 was spot on- great food, great wine, lots of friendly folk out in wine country. You have to experience it to believe it. The other day I got a call from my son wanting me to come out and visit him, near Marble Falls. “You won’t believe it, Pop, it looks like California or Italy out here in the vineyards.” I’m a believer, up until the point comes when it’s 100°F and humidity at 85% and snakes start slithering around between the vines.

Well, I have reached the 820 word point, so it’s time to wrap this one up. I’m sure I’ve lost the scanners and the folks who don’t read past the jump, and I can’t say I blame ‘em. I’ve been pretty wordy. And I’ve gotten a little mommy blogging lately. With Dr. P on the Barbera road, someone had to carry the torch. But he should be back by now, so I’ll get out of here real quick and pass the baton.

Stefano is a trouper. We hung with Damian till 10:30, another late night, and said our goodbyes. We have to get up and leave the hotel at 7:00 AM to drive to Dallas for a 10:30AM appointment. We’re waltzing two days on the road so far, with three more to go, before we skedaddle him back to Italy. More to come.

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