Piero Selvaggio is famous for his wines — his cellar has been rated the best in America by Wine Spectator. Valentino, the Houston outpost of Selvaggio's famed Santa Monica eatery, is no stranger to wine dinners, but it takes something truly special for Selvaggio to fly in for the occasion, as he did last week.
The dinner served as an anniversary party of sorts, and the menu served as a culinary walk through 40 years of Valentino history.
Selvaggio also spoke at length of his regard for Houston, noting a particular respect for Tony Vallone and Marco Wiles.
"But with better ingredients!" joked Selvaggio, who is not shy about how much the restaurant has improved since its early years. "We have 40 years of pedigree at this point. So whatever it has been, the evolution of Italian food, we were able to discover and bring through the many decades of seeing California cuisine develop, seeing how the East Coast was accepting new ideas, new product and seeing how the wine and the restaurant business was evolving.
"And that's brought us to today, to the typical, almost cliché saying, 'From the farm to the table,' or from the terrior to the bottle.
"I always like to say that people have been traveling and that has been a blessing because traveling means they have been able to see what is the authentic Italian food there, what is the authentic Italian wine there and they can compare it and distinguish."
For starters, bites of duck involtini wrapped in spinach harkened back to the early 1990s, while a stuffed baby artichoke recipe dated back to the 1970s and a lobster and shrimp cake represented the rise of crab cakes and the like in the past decade.
Somewhere between the mushroom flan with creamy saffron sauce and the bacon-wrapped squab served with creamy polenta, figs and red wine sauce, I asked Selvaggio what era we were on.
"The present," he laughed, before adding that he'd seen a list on Food Network recently of the top Italian chefs in America "and they were all American and they were all cooking things we made at Valentino 25 years ago."
Selvaggio also spoke at length of his regard for Houston, noting a particular respect for Tony Vallone and Marco Wiles. "Between the two Houston now has been exposed to a great array of what's happening," Selvaggion said.
I can only vouch for the no-hangover claim with my own limited experience, but after several glasses with dinner I woke up with a surprisingly clear head.
"When we came to Texas three or four years ago we had all these big ideas . . . We wanted to bring a piece of New York or Los Angles here. And in time we learned that Houston is a different market, very exciting, a growing market, and there is still space to introduce new things, and exciting things and make a discovery out of it. I have always been fascinated by how thirsty this city is."
But while the food winked at the past, the wine service promised something new. Selvaggio brought Marco Scapagnini to introduce Domodimonti, a boutique winery from the tiny Italian region of Le Marche making its Texas debut.
Selvaggio is a legendary connoiseur of Italian wine, and said he was attracted to the brand in part because the story of the founder felt similar to his own. Both young Italian immigrants, Selvaggio found success at 26 in the restaurant industry, while the wine founder Dr. Francesco Bellini moved to Canada and developed the first anti-HIV compound drug ever sold.
Bellini returned to Le Marche after selling his pharmaceutical business and bought the winery, enlisting Carlo Ferrini, one of the world's top winemakers, to develop a wine that he could drink without an adverse reaction. The result is a half-dozen Domodimonti varietals, harvested using organic, sustainable methods and prepared using no acid adjustment, no added sugars, minimal sulfites and no other additives, what they call "natural" wines.
The result is said to be a wine that not only tastes great but won't give you a hangover. I particularly enjoyed the crisp sweetness of the passerino and the smooth, rich complexity of a Montepulciano/merlot blend humbly titled Il Messia — the messiah. I can only vouch for the no-hangover claim with my own limited experience, but after several glasses with dinner I woke up with a surprisingly clear head.
If this is the future of Italian food and wine, bring it on.