One never knows what a day will bring on the wine trail. Yesterday started out with a snow flurry in the morning followed by a lunch with my wine men's group in a local restaurant. The food was good, but I managed to get in an off-kilter mood by looking at the wine list. For some reason salespeople in large companies just aren’t getting what these small account are looking for. They keep pitching the same old things and the chef who drives the restaurant is looking for more engagement from their purveyors. Passion, not program, fuels the owner-operators of these boutique restaurants in most towns.
Towards the evening, Marilisa and Maria, the angels of the local Italy American Chamber of Commerce, were expecting me and my wines at their holiday bash. I had no idea where I was going or what would await me there.
The snow had disoriented folks in this flat little town which had grown up on the high grass prairie. As I made my way through the toll way toward the center of town, I nearly passed a 23 story building that I had never noticed. The party was at the penthouse way up top.
Once up and inside, Italian antipasti and wines filled the room with warm aromas. People filtered in and the wine started flowing. Outside on the chilly patio a pizza oven was throwing off heat. I made my way outside to see what was going on.
Out there, Enrico and young Raffaele were making all kind of pizza. Margherita, Calzone and a flat bread filled with caponata, prosciutto and mozzarella, Raffaele called Pannuozzo in his Neapolitan dialect (it was very similar to something my Calabrese Grandmother and my mom made when I was a kid). Raffaele fascinated me; he was animated, filled with wonder, with the energy of a child who sees everything for the first time. I immediately took a liking to him. So we got to talking.
Twenty four years old, in America for one year. Married, starting a new life and a family. He made his way from one restaurant to another before he went to work for an educational institution. Health insurance, a possibility to pursue a college degree and a piece of the American pie. It reminded me of another southern Italian who came to Dallas 100 years ago, my grandfather.
100 years ago, Dallas was a little more wild west, and for an Italian, back then, I can barely imagine what he and my grandmother must have had to deal with. Leaving their culture behind. Family, friends, a way of life that was familiar. All for the promise of a dream called America.
My grandfather wasn’t one to pursue higher education, but he had street smarts. And Dallas forged his way into the American dream that was to take all of us off the wine trail in Italy and onto the trail of dreams we call America. And young Raffaele, up on the patio of the penthouse, tending the pizza oven, told me a little about his dream for America.
“I want the possibility of an education that will let me have a family and a life here in Dallas. When I first came here and married my American wife, someone told me my life was like the story of cosi fan tutti.”
What is it about these opera-archetypes? I remember seeing La Boheme at the Met in 2001 not even a year after my wife died and saw the parallel story between the stage and my life. And here we have this young man from near Naples who also has his opera-archetype. The patterns we recognize and bow prostrate before.
The pizza was looking done. Enrico had walked into the warm hall while Raffaele prepared more dough. I stared into the oven and thought it was getting quite done. Confession: I like burned bread, it settles my stomach. Italians from the mainland look at me as if I had just blasphemed Jesus Mary and Joseph when I say that.
We were in this building and there was this pizza oven on the patio of the top floor because one of the tenants, Renato Riccio, lived in this building. Renato has made his life and fortune building pizza ovens all across America. Funny that we had never met all these years.
I went inside for a moment; some folks needed a sip of wine.
I like to stand in front of a few bottles of wine and have people come up and try them. You never know what is going to happen. Oddly, I often get people who want to tell me what they think of the wine. It is like they feel they have to tell me what the wine is. To them. But the impression I get from them is that what they think is what is the final word on it. And it being wine, I have found out that there is no final word on a living thing. Not while it is in this ever changing state. None the less, people love to name something and set it inside their little gift boxes, compartmentalize it and move on to the next thing. I have no quarrel with it, as I know it is harmless, even if it is misdirected. It is wine. It can be a simple quaff. That is perfectly fine for it to be that way. It can be fruity, it can be light. It can even be mellow. It is only a glass of wine, not the Kyoto treaty.
A woman comes up to me and asks me about the Sicilian wine, the Nero D’Avola. “What is it like? Is it like a Cabernet?” Is anything like a Cabernet? I tell her if anything it is similar in weight to a Shiraz. A few minutes later she returns with an aging man who has done something very wrong with a hair product to his hair. “Try this syrah,” she tells him. I ask her why she is calling it a Syrah.”I want him to know what it is.” I want to stick my head inside the pizza oven. But I take a deep yoga breath and say,” It is Nero d’Avola, not Syrah. It is Italian, not French. And it is time for you to know that and accept that.” She looks at me as if I have just landed from another galaxy and just walks off.
A couple come up to me and ask for a glass of bubbly. I pour it in a regular wine glass, like it is done in Italy. “What are you doing? Why are you putting it in a wine glass?” More experts trying to train me to do it the right way. Pizza oven. Deep breath. One more time. “This is the Italian way.” I know of what I am talking about. I walk on the fiery road of the Italian wine trail every day, my whole adult life. But in this town that my grandfather plopped us down onto 100 years ago, we still have more battles to bring the truth and the light and the way of things Italian to even those who have this Italian thing in their DNA.
I thank the powers that be that they just keep sending us Raffaele’s who are fresh off the boat and haven’t been dulled and lulled by the sleep and who still have their dream and their life in front of them. Maybe we might just get it right in this town, once upon a time in the 21st century.