Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Dinner with Carmen: The Sequel

People love stories. And I’m no exception. I adore a good story, especially from a master storyteller, like my pal Carmen Castorina. I love his energy, his sense of wonder in things, his early adopter mentality. In fact Carmen is one of the few people I can talk to about things as diverse as politics, wine, photography, technology and talk and talk for hours. We don’t argue, we talk. And talk. And I love to listen. Who can resist when the stories being told are so damn entertaining?

So when we met again for the second year in New York for Vino2011 I knew we were going to have dinner together. Anyone who read the entry from last year, My Dinner with Carmen, might already know a little about the guy. But this year, we aimed to blow it out. And blow 2010 away. And we did.

First, the other players:

Guy Stout- Master Sommelier and long time friend and colleague. Legendary in Texas and sommelier circles. He also blogs, called The Stout Report on the Blend.

Kristina Kelley- Carmen’s colleague and partner in crime. She is also a Communications director for EJ Gallo.

Ben Weinberg- Columnist, Rocky Mountain News with lots if positive and high energy.

Doug Cook- Search technologist, entrepreneur, and wine geek.The wizard behind Able Grape and Twitter Search.

Tony May – The Wizard of SD26. One of the seminal figures for Italian food in America.

Carmen, in the back, on the phone, as usual.
New York had some hellacious weather and the night before our dinner, Carmen and I (and two other people) crammed into the back of a cab for the ride to our event. I sat on the floor (in my tux) and was literally at the feet of the master. Quick ride, thankfully. Not so the next night, as our destination would be Tony May’s SD26.

The next night was a breeze in the rock star “stretch” limo. Good times.

Tony May, aptly suggesting apps
We were ushered upstairs to a private dining nook. Very good for conversation. Good group of wine geeks. Guy, Doug, Ben all very geeked out. Kristina, who owns a vineyard in Oregon, always happy to be in a place where she wont be getting mud under her nails. Not that she is a princess. Far from it. She works for a company with a real work ethic, and all the years I have known her, she digs in. But she is a lady, and likes the fine things too. Can you blame her, when none other than Tony May leads one to a private table?

And then there was Carmen.

Love 'em? Hate 'em? Ipad, meet the wine list of the 21st century

There we was- attacking the Ipad wine list with a vengeance. Tap – Franciacorta. Tap – Soave. Tap – Cesanese. Tap – Timorasso. We were hitting the Ipad like it was a slot machine. But this time everyone won.
Culatello di Zibello with burrata: “Does ham & cheese get any better?”

Beef tartare with black truffles

Menaica anchovy filets-Crostini covered Lardo-.Zeppola di Baccala

Tony disappears and food started showing up. Wonderful food. Culatello di Zibello with burrata, shades of my recent trip to Emilia. “Does ham and cheese get any better?” my friend Chris Zimmerman wrote. If it does, I don’t want to know. Plates of Menaica anchovy filets with crostini covered with Lardo. Sopressata. Sicilian Caponata. Zeppola di Baccala. Beef tartare with (real) black truffles. Oy! Such happiness tonight (such pain tomorrow?).

The famous “uovo”

Linguine di Gragnano al fumo with clams

Then pasta rolls across the table like a North Texas tornado in April. The famous “uovo” soft egg yolk raviolo with (real) truffled butter. Linguine di Gragnano al fumo with clams, charred grape tomatoes and parsley. Sea urchin raviolini with peperoncino. I am officially going into a food coma. So very happy.

All the while Carmen is holding court. Doug is like a little kid. “Can we order this wine? Wow, there's a red from Bea, can we order that wine?”

Carmen waves his hand in an affirmative gesture of “whatever you want, kid.” Guy Stout eyes a Bistecca Fiorentina on the menu and orders one, supposedly, “for the table”. Yeah, my Cowboy sommelier is getting his New York-Italian-Texan groove on - Big Time.

Bistecca Fiorentina for two, or one very hungry Texan

Ben is giddy. Great wine, great food, great place and not only one, but two, three, more storytellers. He’s having a journalgasm in his seat. And we all applaud him with our furtive eye gestures of recognition that this is one Big Night.

And in the catbird seat is the master blaster, the man of many tales, the liquid historian. Carmen regales us with one story after another from his early days as a young man setting up umbrellas on the Jersey Shore in summer (“Al Martino always gave me a fifty cent tip”), to stories of working the mean streets with Ernie Gallo. And say what you will, those of you who think the sun rises and sets on a world with only small, artisanal, garagiste wines – we all live in a world better suited to all kinds of wine expression because Ernie Gallo hit the streets hard while his brother Julio rode horseback on his early vineyards working to improve technology so that more people in America would have access to simple, sound, affordable wines. I grew up in one of the Italian-American families in California. I didn’t grow up drinking German Riesling. Or Lambrusco. Or Moscato. I grew up drinking Hearty red wine. And millions like me did. So a huge shout out and grazie to the Piedmontese brothers who had a vision for America. They changed - hell - they invented the wine game in America. And yes, there is room in this great country for everyone’s wine. From Chardonnay to Timorasso. From Merlot to Cesanese. From Cold Duck to Franciacorta. Think: gateway…

Bea San Valentino

Cesanese DOCG

Timorasso - rare everywhere except in NYC

At the end of the meal, when coffee and amari were passed around, I was beaming. I have dear friends, old and new, and we all were elated to sit at the table of the master storyteller. Man, I love that guy. And not because he bought me dinner, but because he sees wine through the eyes of someone to whom everything is new.

The great 20th century sculptor Constantin Brancusi nailed it: “When we are no longer children we are already dead”.

Let me tell you, Carmen Castorina is very much alive. Just the way we like him. Just the way we’re gonna keep him, for a long, long time.

Thanks Carmen, and Tony May, for a great Big Night!


Marco Siculo said...

Big night alright. Gotta love the old time story tellers.

Sam said...

Damn! What an event! This cuts to the bone especially with the culatello, truffles, anchovies, lardo, uovo, linguine w/ clams, etc. And I am sure the wines were steller.
Nothing better than the addition of a sage story teller!
One of your best events!

Wine Curmudgeon said...

My two favorite Carmen stories: What Ernest told him the first time Carmen judged a wine competition ("If you like the wine, give it a medal") and the retailer in Finland -- Finland, for God's sake -- who came after Carmen with a copy of the Spectator and asked him to show the retailer the scores of the various Gallo wines. said...

Alfonso, i love this story. Long ago, when you were very small, I went to school at Dominican In San Rafael with one of the Gallo daughters. I'm not sure if it was Ernest or Julio's but at that time and in that school all the wine Barons of the Napa Valley sent their daughters so the Dominican's could watch over them. It was a very strict school, as schools were in those days. As a College student my curfew was 6 pm on week days and 11 pm on weekends. The girls figured out how to have fun anyway and it was common knowledge that if you opened the "perfume" bottles on anyone's dresser, you would find, not perfume, but wine. I think that was the one thing the nuns never figured out or maybe they turned their heads. Who knows, it was wine country and it was the 50's. Just a little tale out of school.


Diane Letulle said...

First of all, it was so nice to meet you however briefly at Vino 2011. As for your night out--what a tale! I love SD26 and that egg yolk ravioli is unforgettable. You have reminded me I need to get back there soon. Cheers!

Valerie said...

This is a dream meal! And no, ham & cheese does NOT get any better than Culatello & Burrata. With Franciacorta? C'mon! Beautiful post!

Unknown said...

Wow! What a priceless evening. Compensation for those hard days on the wine trail.

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