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Pizza Diplomacy

Posted: Jun 27, 2008 12:51pm ET

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.


Albert Jochems
The Netherlands —  June 27, 2008 5:40pm ET
Great story James. I can almost smell the garden and the wood in the oven while reading!

How was the Galatrona drinking?
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  June 28, 2008 8:34am ET
James, thanks for the blog. I'm somewhat surprised that the Brunello was ready to drink. I have 4 bottles of that, but haven't had the nerve to open one yet. How much time would you say it has left?
James Suckling
 —  June 28, 2008 10:02am ET
A couple of decades at least...
Steven Balavender
Tampa, Fl —  June 29, 2008 3:27pm ET
Great story....funny I just made my own pizza today, it's all in the dough...lolol....no brick or professional pizza over but I did just buy a pizza stone and had lessons while I was just visiting Tuscany...it came out very good also, if I do say so myself:) ...cooked it via pizza stone on the BBQ. Washed it down with some 04 Nipozzano...not quite as extravagant as the wines you had;) That Galatrona has quickly become a favorite of mine. During my visit I had the pleasure of drinking the 04 and an 01....man that is good stuff...color thick as war paint. James I also had the 04 and 00 Patrimo....I believe that is also 100% merlot? The Patrimo is new to me as I don't believe it's widely distributed in the US. Brought a couple bottles back with me.
Dr Samuel Goldman
Bedford, New Hampshire —  June 29, 2008 7:07pm ET
-James great story! How was the sette ponti?- I love the stuff.. I have not tasted the 2004 however. Did it go with the pizza?ThanksSam
T F Rogerson
Claremont, CA —  June 29, 2008 9:05pm ET
Thanks for sharing James; you are certainly keeping good company. I'm continually impressed that pizza and wine - not pizza and beer - are becoming synonynous. With so many unique ingredients being incorporated in pizzas, wine is the natural companion. We are planning to add an outdoor, wood burning pizza oven to our backyard, so the tasting and pizza pairing can happen more regularly. Keep the stories coming.Thanks,Trevor
Simone White
NY NY —  June 30, 2008 8:19am ET
If you want to experience similar quality pizza and wine, I suggest a visit to LA PIZZA FRESCA in NYC. Great authentic pizza and great wine list!
Tara Tan Kitaoka.
TOKYO, JAPAN. —  July 1, 2008 5:36am ET
MMMMMMMMMMMMM, Great to know, atleast there is a real ambasaddor around.Keep up the good work.
Joseph Wilde
TX —  July 1, 2008 7:00am ET
James,Great story and it ties in nicely with the WS June 30, 2008 cover story. Coincidence? I was wondering how the wines paired with the different pizzas especially if spicy ingredients were used? We grill pizza on our Weber Kettle (using wood chunks instead of lump charcoal). It works surprisingly well. Cheers.Joe
Antonio Nieto
celaya —  July 1, 2008 2:53pm ET
james this is a very interesting story, also makes me think, who pays for the 5,000 wine cellar he is building at the ambassador*s residence in Rome and for the in house sommelier? tax payers? just wondering.....
James Suckling
 —  July 1, 2008 5:40pm ET
The wine cellar is being built through donations and the sommelier is also the head of the whole household...
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  July 1, 2008 9:13pm ET
Thanks for that James. I usually like my Brunelli with some more age on them, but the WS Vintage Chart is showing the 2001s as being "drink" wines (perhaps many of the normale are ready - would be good news as I'd like to try my Castiglion del Bosco), which led me to believe that I may be holding on to them for too long.
Robert Meister
NY —  July 28, 2008 4:31pm ET
To James and any blog readers,does anyone know the origins of the Latin proverb or have seen it written anywhere else?¿In Vino Veritas, In Pizza Amicitia.¿ Translated: "In Wine There is Truth, In Pizza there is Friendship."Am curious to know more about it.Thanks for the help.RM

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