Log In / Join Now

Wine Tip: Book Reviews: A Memoir, an Exposé and a Diversion

Three new titles for your summer reading list

Thomas Matthews, Harvey Steiman, Kim Marcus
Posted: June 4, 2012

By Joe Bastianich (Viking, 288 pages, $27.95)

Vulgar but vivid: That's the character of Joe Bastianich's new book about his very successful efforts to make money by feeding people. "We buy it, we fix it, we sell it at a profit. That's the restaurant business."

Bastianich shows us the gritty realities of late-night kitchens, thieving employees and suppliers, and cut-throat financial deals. While he praises a few role models—Drew Nieporent, Pat Cetta, Wolfgang Puck—he settles more than a few scores, demeaning the ethics of critics and the manhood of competitors and former partners.

He also gives himself a lot of credit: Babbo "launched the trend of eating bars in good restaurants." His own Vespa Bianca is "probably the best white wine made in Italy." His shop, Italian Wine Merchants, "led the way for everything else that has happened in the last 10 years" in wine retailing. His restaurant B&B "is clearly the best authentic Italian dining experience in all of [Las] Vegas."

But Bastianich has been one of the leaders in the spectacular success of Italian food and wine in the United States. He pioneered a flat-price wine list at Becco; built a Grand Award-winning wine program at Del Posto; has made outstanding wines from his estates in Friuli and Maremma; successfully integrated shopping and dining, food and wine at Eataly. His book gives us an inside look at each stage in his life.

Restaurant Man falls into the "macho memoir" genre of culinary books pioneered by Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Bastianich reveals all: his confusion and alienation growing up in an immigrant Italian family in Queens; his drug-fueled education and early career on Wall Street; his embrace of the restaurant business and the success of his business relationships with his mother, Lidia, and partner, Mario Batali. It's a wild ride that ends with a richer, happier, healthier man amazed at his survival, emotionally reconciled with his past and committed to nurturing his family and his culinary legacy.

EXTRA VIRGINITY: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
By Tom Mueller (Norton, 256 pages, $25.95)

You wouldn't know it from all the olive oil being poured into tiny saucers at Italian restaurants across America, but the makers of fine extra-virgin olive oil are worried. At a time when demand for their product is booming around the world and modern techniques have made it possible to bottle some of the best oils ever, the author of a fascinating new book on the subject argues that cheap, fraudulent products are making it difficult, if not impossible, for the good stuff to be profitable.

That's because, writes Tom Mueller in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, most people don't know what good-quality olive oil should taste like. Early in the book he quotes one expert, after tasting a poor-quality oil labeled extra-virgin, as saying, "This is what nearly everyone in the world thinks is extra-virgin olive oil! This stuff is putting honest oil makers out of business."

The USDA and International Olive Council require that extra-virgin oil contain less than 0.8 percent acidity, and be free of defects such as mustiness and rancidity. Mueller reports that very little oil is rejected, however, as big producers and those who trade in fraud intimidate Europe's tasting panels. In fact, Mueller argues, so much bad and fraudulent oil travels as extra-virgin that most non-experts think that's what it should taste like, as opposed to the intense panoply of rich flavor and distinctive qualities that characterize true extra-virgin olive oil.

What's more, attempts to control quality might not be universally embraced by producers, especially by those furious that they could no longer use a phrase they spent their lives trying to live up to.

Although bellyaching producers become repetitious, the book also travels back in time for beautifully written olive oil history. You may not anoint yourself with oil, but you'll want to seek out better versions to eat.

By Ben Howkins; illustrated by Oliver Preston (Wine Appreciation Guild, 192 pages, $24.95)

This is a whimsical look at the nature of Port enjoyment from the perspective of Englishmen of certain social strata. Think Downton Abbey meets the 21st century. But Ben Howkins offers enough factual and historical explorations to appeal to budding lovers of Port the world over. And wonderful trivia abounds. How many Port aficionados would know about the story that "Admiral Lord Nelson, Horatio to his friends, dipped a finger in his glass of Port to draw a map for his basic tactics for the Battle of Trafalgar"?

The text is illustrated with humorous cartoons by Oliver Preston. Besides a look at British folkways of drinking Port from the 18th century onward, and activities not traditionally associated with this fortified wine (soccer, skiing and hunting), there are also concise synopses of leading Port houses and quintas, the personalities behind them and top vintages to enjoy or cellar. All in all, this easily accessible beginner's guide opens up the rather dusty realm of Port pedagogy to the light of day. Anglophiles will especially enjoy.

More Helpful Information:

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.