Sunday, June 25, 2017

Do old Italian-American restaurants hate new Italian wine?

For those whose families emigrated from Italy over 100 years ago, it is a secure bet that we still identify with our roots. In the U.S., we’re Italian-Americans, although many of us prefer to be seen first, as Americans, with Italian heritage. If anyone doubts that, all one would need to do is get on a plane, go back to one of their family towns and see what they call you. Here comes the “Americano,” they would call. And that’s if you were born there and had only been gone for five years, let alone 100.

When one delves into the complicated mesh of food, especially from Italy, there are snags. First of all, where you came from. If from Trento or Alba, you will have your specific traditions and foods. And if you came from south of Rome, you will have another. And, seeing as many of the Italians that came to America 100+ years ago came from the south, their influence on how we perceive Italian food, historically, has been overarching.

One of the most mystifying things I have had to reckon with is the Southerner who opens up an Italian restaurant and calls it “Northern Italian cuisine.” To explain this would take a book. And when I open up a menu in a place like that and see Veal Marsala, I become cross-eyed and confused, wishing I had opted instead for an Indian restaurant and Chicken Tikka Masala.

Oh, to seek solace and refuge in one of those old Italian-American eateries that dot the East and West Coasts, for a simple plate of spaghetti and meat balls, with a never-ending basket of garlic bread and a bottle of Chianti, the one in the quaint bottle wrapped in straw. Ah, comfort…

I had my places growing up in California, like Petrillo’s in San Gabriel, with their flat pizza covered in tomato sauce and anchovies. Or Green Valley Restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, where I supped as a cash-strapped student, craving a little “down home” cooking.

Nowadays, the old Italian-American restaurant is an endangered species, even in places like New York, where rents have threatened places that have passed from generation to generation. But there are some standouts. Pete Wells recently reviewed Don Peppe in Queens, and looking at the pictures and reading about it had me wanting to book a flight to NY just for lunch. Wells briefly mentioned wine at Don Peppe, “A person who knows of Don Peppe only as a scheme of Turtle’s in an 'Entourage' subplot may ask to see the wine list. Everybody at Don Peppe drinks the house white or the house red. Both come in bottles with no cork and no label. Both are well chilled. Both have the carefree good cheer of the very young.”

Chilled red wine – we’ve come so far, in such a short time. I still want to go to Don Peppe, though.

Years earlier, I drove from New Orleans to Houma to do a wine dinner. Along the way, we stopped at Mosca’s, another Italian-American shrine to eating. One of my Italian colleagues lived in the seaside town where the owners came from, and it was one of those nights under the umbrella of an Italian-American dining experience that I will never forget. The wine list, though - even though it tried (and still tries) to cover most of the bases - it’s as if there are irreconcilable differences between (classic) Italian-American taste and the current state of Italian wine. The wine list appeared more as an archeological artifact, evidence of the state of Italian wine at the beginning of the third millennium. Thankfully, they allow outside bottles to be brought in ($20 corkage per bottle – two bottle maximum – no checks- no credit cards).

In an alternate universe, gone are the straw covered bottles of cheap and cheerful Chianti. Gone is Bolla Soave (or was it Soave Bolla?). And more currently, gone is heavy, testosterone-laden Brunello. The scandal at the beginning of the century changed that course. Didn’t the Italian-American restaurateurs get the memo? Oak is out, fruit (and acid) is back in. And natural, the more the merrier, is making inroads. And the millennials are calling the shots. That’s what Donatella Versace is saying. So, why this disconnect?

Recently I was in a restaurant with an Italian motif. The front-man was born in Italy, although he probably needs to go back for a refresher course. I ordered the salmon, knowing, that even though it’s probably farm-raised, it will be predictable, and not over wrought with sauce or garlic.

While there, a group of elderly white gents were sitting at a table. They were in the concrete business; rumor had it they were investors in the place. As a sign of good will and respect, we sent over a couple of bottles of relatively good wine that we were trying out with a client. I noticed over at their table they were sipping on Ruffino Ducale. Nothing wrong with that, after all wasn’t it the favorite wine of Tony Soprano?

On leaving, one at our table who knew several of the gents, stopped by to say good-bye. Asking if they liked the wines, one of the Silverbacks at the table remarked, “Yeah, thanks, but next time, bring some of the good stuff!”

And therein lays the crux of the issue. Everyone wants more. More sauce, more garlic, more cheese, more good, more of anything. An old guy is looking down the barrel of time, sensing (but maybe not wanting to admit it) that there is less and less of the one thing he cannot acquire – time. So, let’s have a really “big” wine. And so, here comes the Sassicaia, the Ornellaia, the Any-aia as long as it is “huge.” Subtlety is lost on a man who is losing a race.

Now, the many folks who go into the many venerable Italian-American spots like Don Peppe and Mosca’s are not all in that boat. But let’s face it, that boat landed many moons ago. And people get “set” in their preferences. Look, I’m kind of glad that Ruffino Ducale is still doing well. It’s one of the few selling missions I’ve been on in my career that is still a “thing.” So many windmills those of us in the trade have tilted at over the years, and what do we have to show for it? A preponderance of Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Prosecco. Meanwhile, over in little ‘ol Ittly, they keep making up new wines from old grapes, hoping to sell them to their Italian-American counterparts here in the good ‘ol USofA.

Well, we aren’t going to change the folks at Don Peppe or Mosca’s. I don’t believe old Italian-American restaurants hate new Italian wine. I just think, for many of them, they’re not anywhere near to being on their radar. But there are those chefs, like Mario Carbone, who along with his partners, get the new Italian wine with the old Italian-American food thing. And there are more and more coming, so this isn’t a hopeless rant.

It’s more of a 7th inning stretch. We’ve come a long way. We’re not there yet. And we’ve gone through a couple of pitchers. But relief is on the way.

I have to believe that. And so do all those hopeful producers, holding their wines up to those on the big steam ship, eager for someone, anyone, to grab up one of their babies and take them to that brave new world called America.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Peter Bernstein said...

Alfonso, I run my family's 90 year old restaurant, Berta's Chateau, founded by my Piemontese grandparents: Santina & Pietro Berta. Our menu has always been a bit of a hybrid between some Italian American classics, more Northern dishes and great meat as my grandfather was an fancy retail butcher in Chelsea NYC. For many years from the 60's to the late 80's we had a French Chef who understood Italian cooking as well. I moved from the dining room to the kitchen in '87 and got more "authentic" but it was hard to escape what had already had been there for 60 years. Of course I have access to ingredients that neither my Nonni nor my Chef Pierre could have dreamed of. So, we are still a bit of of a mix but ... we have always gone beyond Chianti and Valpolicella. From the beginning we had Classified Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo & vrai Champagne. When i started serious, and I mean serious, buying in the mid 80's, I traveled to Vinitaly for 26 years straight (as well as many other trips) to buy or at least get first dibs. Now I only go occasionally but my passion for Vini Italiani has never flagged even if I don't buy Barolo in the insane quantities that I did in the past. Just this past week wee did a fun dinner, a barbecue really, with the following: a Pet-Nat from La Staffa of Verdicchio, two Sangiovese's and Bianco from Noelia Ricci of Romagna, Malvasia Istriana, Rosset Cornalin from Valle d'Aoste, cru Vernaccia & an old vine Cataratto & Carricante from Etna. Plus, a rose from Le Pianelle of Bramaterra & two sparklers from Piemonte (Erpacrife). Who hates the new Italian wine? Not me, not us!

Peter Bernstein


Marco Passorosso said...

Another fine post, amico. I believe it was McLuhan who said that "we are driving into the future looking in the rearview mirror". Your words and images somehow brought this quote to mind.

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