I had dinner last night with Ron Spogli, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and his lovely wife, Georgia, in the official residence in Rome. And as highly regarded as my fellow born-and-bred Angeleno may be as a diplomat in Italy, Spogli’s real talent may be in his pizza-making. Yes, our man in Rome is a top “pizzaiolo.” And in Italy, as you know, food and wine are almost as important as any international accord between governments or lawmaking in general. So Ron is way ahead of the game in my book.
In fact, I find that Italians would certainly prefer to speak about food and wine than about their own politics!
Spogli is also a serious wine lover, and admits to having an extensive collection of Italian wines back home in Southern California. He is building a showcase 5,000-bottle wine cellar at the Ambassador’s residence, with contributions from a handful of wineries in Italy and in California. More importantly, he has been very involved behind the scenes in trying to resolve the recent controversy surrounding Brunello di Montalcino, and he expects to announce next week, with the Italian Minister of Agriculture, some sort of solution to Brunello’s restricted importation to the United States. Stay tuned.
That aside, according to my contacts in Rome, no American ambassador in Italy has been as well-received as Spogli. The fact that he speaks near-perfect Italian – he doesn’t bastardize the language like I do, nor speak with an American accent – helps a lot. But he also has a deep love and understanding of Italy after spending time as a university student in Florence many years ago and making regular visits to the country ever since. You can see that he just enjoys being in Italy with Italians and takes pleasure in their company as well as their culture, countryside, and gastronomic pleasures, among other things.
This was all more than evident last night when I arrived there and found his mammoth pizza oven glowing in the garden of Villa Taverna, the official name of the ambassador’s residence. And I can assure you that it was burning wood, not official documents or any other classified material.
It took five minutes just to get through the security at the entrance in my car. “I swear, officer, I'm only carrying magnums of 2006 Querciabella Batàr,” I said in jest to the two policemen, who were using mirrors and explosive swabs to check my car. They were not amused!
According to his sommelier – yes, the U.S. ambassador to Italy has his own sommelier – the oven had been burning wood for about three hours before I arrived at 7 p.m. “There is nothing better than having a dinner only with pizza,” Ron said. “It’s much more relaxed. And everyone is looking forward to the next pizza. There is a sense of anticipation in the whole thing.”
I thought the Italian wine producers present at the intimate dinner looked a little worried as we sat down on the terrace. I guess they don’t usually eat pizza and drink their wines with diplomats. There were three Tuscan wine producers: Luca Sanjust of Petrolo, Antonio Moretti of Sette Ponti and Lamberto Frescobaldi of Marchesi de' Frescobaldi. They all brought wines to go with pizza, including a 2004 Sette Ponti Oreno, 2004 Petrolo Galatrona and 2001 Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento Riserva.
Ten different pizzas were served, from a simple margherita to a Tex-Mex pizza that Ron created for President Bush when he was last in Rome. The pizzas came one after another while we sipped the various wines. I have to admit that I liked President Bush’s pizza the best. It which was a thin-crust pizza topped with mozzarella, carne asada and jalapeños. This had nothing to do with politics!
Ron said the key to great pizza is a thin yet not-too-crunchy crust and great ingredients. He also likes chile peppers and spicy sauces with his pizza. Moreover, plenty of red wine is essential. “Forget the beer. It’s too filling,” he said.
The group's favorite wine for the pizza was the Brunello. Ron’s wife, Georgia, fell in love with the wine. It was drinking beautifully, with wonderful aromas of cherry, raspberry and milk chocolate, and a palate that was full yet refined, silky-textured and long and refreshing. It prepared your palate for every succulent piece of pizza. Still 97 points (non-blind) in my book.
As we came to the 10th and final pizza, this one topped with gorgonzola and celery and a paired with an elegant glass of 2001 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Fay that Ron had pulled out of his cellar, I had to wonder whether pizza will continue to take an important role at the U.S. Embassy in Italy once Ron and Georgia leave their position after the election early next year.
And then I had to wonder what pizza and wine combination would presidential hopeful Barack Obama appreciate? Or his competitor John McCain -- would he prefer a Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese blend with a cheese, speck and potato pizza? If only politics were so simple in America.
I noticed a brass plaque on the wall near the pizza oven, etched with a Latin proverb. I'm not sure to whom it should be attributed -- probably the ambassador himself. “In Vino Veritas, In Pizza Amicitia.” Translated: "In Wine There is Truth, In Pizza there is Friendship."
Maybe Ron should add another line: "In friendship, there is diplomacy." But then, that’s something that our ambassador in Rome certainly already understands very well.