Virtual Gourmet

  October 14,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Kirsten Dunst in "Marie Antoinette" (2006)




For the next three Tuesdays, in NYC, the French Institute Alliance Française, John Mariani, and special culinary guests will be hosting a series of films (with English subtitles) that celebrate the importance of food and wine in French culture. The series is as follows: Oct. 16: "Vatel" (1973) with guest host Chef André Soltner; Oct. 23: "Romantics Anonymous" (2010) with chocolate tasting with Lauren Gerbaud (at 5:30 PM); Oct. 30: "Entre les Bras" (2010) with guest host chef Jean-Louis Gérin. All screenings will be held at at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street at 7:30 PM, followed by Q&A with host. Tickets $10.  For info click here.





by John Mariani

by John Mariani


by Mort Hochstein



by John Mariani


The Four Seasons Firenze Garden

    I  think it highly unlikely that anyone could ever dream of populating a single city anywhere in the world with the number of geniuses Florence seems to grow naturally, like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, Botticelli, Cimabue, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and Boccaccio. And while not in the genius category, fashion designers like Ferragamo, Gucci, Cavalli, and Pucci are certainly among the world's most eminent.  Of the city's charms, it is unnecessary for me to say what has already been said a thousand times of this, the greatest of the Renaissance cities. When Lord Byron visited the galleries, he came away "drunk with beauty."
    But aside from the artistic grandeur and the splendid architecture, I think what I love most of all about Florence is the color of the sky and how the sunlight's intensity gives a particular luster to the city's greenery, best captured in the background landscapes of Botticelli and Leonardo, whose use of ground lapis lazuli gave their paintings the true, glowing brilliance of the Florentine sky and misted countryside.  I was put in mind of this upon entering the garden (above) at the new Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, a few blocks from the Arno.
    This is, I think, the Four Seasons' grandest achievement, though they had the magnificence of both the 15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca and a 16th century, 11-acre convent garden to work with.  Seven years of reconstruction under architect
Filippo Calandriello has restored the structures to a condition as perfect as they must have been upon opening, but now, instead of being home to a few aristocrats and nuns, the space is the quiet remove for anyone who craves the greatest of luxury with a minimum of pretense, which is a very Florentine way of going about life.  There are 116 rooms, which barely adds to the chronic drought of rooms during the ever-lengthening high season, with more than 10 million visitors annually now, but the hotel's remove from the very center of the city is a boon in the high traffic season.  A few minutes' walk will take you to any of the monuments and museums you seek.
    I half expected the garden's lawn to be trimmed by well-groomed roaming sheep, but instead there is a silent roaming robot mower that plies its way around the grounds keeping everything in perfect condition, hour after hour, day by day. Walking out in the garden is reminiscent of those quiet strolls by parasol-protected society ladies in a Henry James novel, with men in white linen suits taking their arms.  The aromas of hydrangea, sage, rosemary, basil, mint and thyme fill the air. Tea seems requisite.
     You arrive at the hotel entrance on a narrow street to find the property hidden behind a tall wall and unprepossessing facade, but once inside that restraint gives way to a refined opulence that has a modern cast of lighting, fabrics, and carefully place objets d'art to force you out of any sense that you will be staying here like a grand seigneur of 500 years ago (at a time when mere plumbing was at its rudimentary worst).  Indeed, The Four Seasons in Milan, opened a decade ago, brought to Europe a spaciousness both in rooms and baths nearly unknown, as if a Renaissance residence (it, too, had been a nunnery) had been plopped down in Bel Air, California.  Since then, all five-star European hotels have copied that kind of largess, but in Florence, they have set a new standard of expansive luxury throughout. 
    The public rooms (above) are every bit as well wrought as each of the individually designed guestrooms, from the
The Royal Suite, rich with  majolica floors, to its more modest but no less luxurious superior rooms, all with fine antiques and enough paintings to keep you perusing them for a morning or afternoon. Frescoes were lifted from walls and re-set in places that required access, and, as every architect who has worked in 21st century Italy knows, removing or compromising a single brick can take years of bureaucratic hell. (It is well to remember that Dante put fraudulent advisers and counselors into one of the deepest circles of his inferno.) There are two Presidential Suites, one on the third floor of the palazzo, the second on the first floor of the convent quarters, both with marble bathrooms. Gallery Suites (right) preserve the original look of the palazzo, with paneled ceilings and ceiling frescoes.  There is a pool and first-rate fitness center, if you can force yourself out of those beds--the weight of the coverlet alone may prevent it.
    Service throughout is as fine as any in Europe, with a gentility epitomized by general manager Patrizio Cipollini, who caters to an international crowd that includes a large number of Americans who feel right at home with the staff's earnest and amiable style.  Anything you could wish for is provided with an acknowledgment that the difficult can be done immediately, the impossible just a little longer.
     The superb restaurant here is Il Pelagio (left), where I was very happy to run into Chef Vito Mollica, 37, whose work I was so impressed with at the Four Seasons Prague when it opened a few years ago.  Looking every inch the Italian chef, with his goatee and white toque, Mollica has fashioned a menu that carefully balances the traditions of Tuscan cuisine with contemporary ideas that are more international and, in the end, personal for him. 
    The night I visited, it was very warm in Florence, so I was delighted to dine al fresco in the garden, letting the Florentine breezes sway the oleander trees.  I left myself wholly in Mollica's hands for the meal, and his eyes sparkled at the thought of composing one for me on so hot a night.  (There is a five-course tasting menu available at 95 euros as well as à la carte.)  A pianist ran his fingers across the keys and the Great American Songbook as I sat by candlelight with  a glass of cold prosecco and nibbled on four different breads, including parmesan puffs, all set on Ginori china.  First came an amuse of prosciutto jelly with morsels of melon and cream of melon, followed by a  tian of
crab meat with  sheep’s milk  ricotta made nearby and Kaluga sturgeon caviar from the Amur River on the Russo-Chinese border (who knew?). Next was fusilli ferretto  pasta with a “batti batti” ragù--a species of Mediterranean lobster only fished in summer. They were so succulent and sweet, playing off against the light tomato dressing.  Next was roasted quail stuffed with apricot, celeriac cream and pan-fried Hungarian goose foie gras.
    A wonderful selection of cheeses from San Cassiano came
before an array of gorgeous desserts that, for summer, were delicate and light with fruit.
    I was surprised, given the prices of rooms at the hotel, that the wines were very reasonable tariffed, with 400 easily recognizable labels, though the list should have more small estates. 
    At lunch that day, a contact from the hotel took me to the ten-year-old--which qualifies as brand new in Florence--Il Santo Bevitore Ristorante (left), though it had more of the cast of a trattoria, simple, unassuming, lively with young people, including the owners who come to every table to tell you what's wonderful that day.  And everything certainly was: the best pappa al pomodoro I've ever had, with the sweet pulp of stewed tomatoes, garlic basil and olive oil made more delicious with shards of Parmigiano. Tuscan-style chicken livers torta came next with a touch of semi-sweet vin santo wine. 
    Conchiglie shell pasta with succulently braised osso buco wasn't nearly as heavy as I feared, especially in that hot weather, dusted with the dried powder of milanese risotto. Pork with strips of chickpea crêpes was a delight, and the roast duck was tender and full of good game flavor. There were two desserts-- a custard tart with bananas and a pineapple semi-freddo. 
    None of it cost very much, even against the weak U.S. dollar, the wines were excellent, and I could not have felt more at home, which is the way I always feel--off-season-in Florence.

    Back in my room at The Four Seasons, sinking into the broad, soft bed, with the fragrance of magnolia from the garden and the deep blue night sky and moonlight outside my window, I was reminded of the lines Dante wrote of his beloved Beatrice, and as true of Florence itself: "And she is so gentle in her effect,/that no one can recall her to mind/who does not sigh in sweetness of love."
The Four Season Firenze is located at
Borgo Pinti, 99; Tel. 011+39 055 2626 430;  From now through Dec. 15, the hotel is offering "The Stay Longer Promotion and the Truffle Hunting Package," which includes a white truffle hunt at Savini’s Farm and lessons in how enjoy them; 4-course dinner at Il Palagio, 3 nights accommodations; American breakfast. Rates start at EUR 910.00 in a deluxe room, per night. Minimum stay of three nights. Contact or (+39) 055 2626 310. N Squared Productions Public Relations Campaign



ISOLA Crudo Trattoria & Crudo Bar

Mondrian Soho Hotel
9 Crosby Street (near Howard Street)

    Not too many trattorias look quite this swank in Italy, but there's no denying the dramatic effect of walking into this splendid new Italian restaurant in Soho, on the edge of Little Italy (where no restaurant looks anything like Isola).  
    The most striking feature, obviously, are those rows of glistening chandeliers, which throw a white light, though the rest of the room's ambient lighting  could go up a few watts to provide warmth.  Sensible music is kept to acceptable decibel levels, and the conviviality is provided by the patrons, some of whom may be sharing the long communal table in the center.  There's also a lot of foliage, always welcome in an urban setting.
   Isola's menu is of reasonable size and the crudi are seven in number, including excellent hamachi with salsa verde, avocado,
and crispy shallots; fluke with Meyer lemon, radish and a gloss of olive oil; and lustrous tuna with balsamico, jalapeño, cool watermelon and pine nuts (right), which  really work together in taste and textures.
    The press release notes that the menu features the cuisine of the Amalfi Coast and Sicily, though there really isn't much to bolster that claim, but no matter: the cooking is first-rate under
Executive Chef Victor LaPlaca, who has spent two decades opening restaurant for Todd English before coming aboard at Isola, where his food is more expressive of his own lighter style. By all means order the focaccia rich with sweet caramelized onions, Taleggio cheese, and figs; the pizza alla margherita--there are three other options (below, with arugula, sausage, caramelized onions, and ricotta)--was tasty, with a crust of admirable dimensions a Neapolitan would have been proud of.
    An appetizer you might wish to share, the polpette beef meatballs in a beef, veal and pork ragu, is a lusty starter, but don't miss the pastas here. The cacio e pepe, bucatini simply dressed with pecorino, grana padano, and cracked black pepper, is possibly the best in NYC, where a lot of that is going around.  Tagliolini with saffron, blue crab, peas, and hot Calabrese peppers was very good, but mezzaluna pasta stuffed with mushrooms and sauced with a veal ragù got a little clumsy with the additional underpinning of escarole.
    Ordinarily I don't order steak at Italian restaurants (even though Italians pioneered the New York steakhouse style), but Isola's 18-ounce beauty is outstanding beef, dry-aged, with that distinct mineral flavor so hard to come by these days, even when chefs claim to use USDA Prime.  Isola's comes with a fine mushroom polenta and truffled lardo that makes it all even more flavorful.  Sea scallops with saffron fregola, Meyer lemon, and a pinch of mint made for a nice combination, and I liked the way LaPlaca butterflies and flattens a de-boned branzino, then cooks it gently, succulently, with braised escarole that in this case is welcome, dressed with a tangy lemoncello sauce. 
    Pastry chef Matt Buckley shows real talent and finesse in his work, including soft, stuffed biscotti perfect with coffee any time of the day, and a butterscotch cake with blueberry compote and blueberry ice cream. There's also a selection of ripe Italian cheeses.
    The winelist is just extensive enough--100 labels--for a place of this style, and there are plenty of bottles under $50, with 36 wines by the glass.
    On a Monday evening Isola was not hopping the way I expect it is later in the week, and, as I noted, the conviviality of the place is due to the sound of people having a good meal and a good time.  I'd love to see more focus on the seacoast cooking of Amalfi and Sicily, but I'll happily eat what's on the menu from anywhere else at Isola.
Isola is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner appetizers run $9-$17, crudi $17-$18, pastas $20-$28, and main courses $27=$53.




by Mort Hochstein

      When I told a friend I’d be visiting Littorai winery in Sonoma, he said : “You’re  lucky. Littorai is one of the hottest producers in California and Ted Lemon is definitely one of the great winemakers.”
    This friend was not a p.r. flack, so I took his enthusiasm seriously. And when I finally made it to the winery in the far western corner of Sonoma, his enthusiasm proved out.  What I wasn’t prepared for was an approach to viticulture and winemaking that I had not experienced in years of visiting wineries, touring fields, gaping at barrels and tanks, and admiring bottling lines.  
   At Littorai, we started not in the fields, but in a garden setting, checking off  tier on tier of  colorful plantings that could have been highlights in a botanical garden  but  are planted here to produce nutrients that  protect and stimulate the growth of the vines.  Some, such as chamomile, valerian, yarrow, and stinging nettles are dried and become the basis for  sprays. Others such as dandelions grow to join the compost piles clustered on uncultivated fields on the property. From  seven acres of nearby undeveloped forest, Lemon’s team harvests oak bark, which  becomes a natural fungicide after being added to those compost piles, and horsetails which, like the stinging nettles, contain silica that enables plants  to capture light  despite the  morning fogs that blanket the sky over these coastal vineyards.
      If this suggests that Littorai’s fields are sustainable, natural and chemical free, you are correct. Ramp up your understanding to biodynamic, which means that  Lemon embraces the doctrines of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who created a new  scheme for farmers distressed by the effects of chemical additives on their soil.  Steiner’s radical preachings include planting and harvesting by the waxing and waning of the moon, placing nutrients in a buried cow’s skull and other practices definitely not endorsed by agricultural schools but have been accepted widely in Europe, to a much lesser degree in the United States,  and derided and rejected by many agronomists.
   After a tour of the  garden spots, we visited the fields, not neat and pristine, but with vegetation between the vines,   allowed to grow with little cultivation, and intermittent rows of wildflowers that combine to  become  a habitat for critters and also to steer them away from the vines.  The flowers encourage parasitic wasps which naturally control vineyard pests such as leaf hoppers, thrips and mites.

   Grape clusters are reduced frequently and only the healthiest  grapes survive  frequent  shedding.  Under Lemon’s  exacting  pruning programs, those fields   produce 1 ½ to 3 tons of grapes  per acre, much below normal yields. Lemon sources from a group of prized Sonoma vineyards in addition to his personal three-acre plot, The  Pivot. Here, close to home, he  conducts his viticultural experiments, adhering  scrupulously  to the Steiner program.  Sustainable and organic is the mantra at all fields that provide grapes to Littorai,  though not all  are farmed biodynamically.  A Littorai poster  defines its emphasis on the soil, declaring, “Everything that  matters is beneath  us.”
      From the fields we went into the  winery  where  we saw what happens to those beautiful plants. They are dried and  placed in sacks to soak in barrels, eventually yielding the “tea”  that  protects and fertili
zes the vines.  That is something I never saw on a winery tour.   There’s a small bottling line and racks of French barrels to handle  production, which varies between 4,000 and 5,000 cases annually, depending on the vintage. Ted Lemon, raised in Bedford, NY, visited France while in high school; after attending Brown University, he earned  a fellowship to learn winemaking at the Université de Bourgogne.  He worked in the fields and in the cellars of several French estates, and, in 1982, at 24,  became the first American  to head up a Burgundian winery.  He returned to the states with three years of French experience behind him and worked  as  a winemaker and later as a consultant while seeking the right terroir in which to grow great Burgundian varietals on the West  Coast.  In 1993, he found the site he sought  in a hilly region near the Pacific, and began an ascendancy to the top ranks of California Pinot Noir producers. In 2010, he was named “Winemaker of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
    Adopting practices he observed abroad, Lemon sells much of his production to restaurants and at only  a few favored  retail outlets. Littorai maintains a VIP list  of  buyers who qualify for first crack at his wines only  after purchasing an initial order of more than $800.  The phone rings constantly on the day of release, when much of his production is rapidly depleted. Many of  the bottles on retail shelves have been obtained through secondary markets, not   from the winery.
   Current releases  begin at  $26 for a light and delightful Vin Gris, a perfect summer wine, coupled with three other whites in the $30 to $45 range and a heady, robust  Thierot Vineyard Chardonnay at $60.  Littorai Pinot Noirs range in price from $38 for a regional growth   to  $75 for a Pinot from The Haven vineyard.  In between are five other vineyard-designated Pinots, from $60 to $65. Like  the wines of Burgundy, each reflects the characteristics of the soil whence it originates.     
    Wines currently available today are primarily 2009 vintage. By current levels for top  flight California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they are quite reasonably priced




French Master Chef Joël Robuchon  (left) last week oversaw the creation of the Guinness-approved world's largest vat of mashed potatoes- 200 culinary students created 2,297 pounds of mashed potatoes in less than six hours, in order to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Le Futuroscope amusement park in Poitiers.


The Montreal Gazette reports that police have seized 720,000 gallons of maple syrup worth $30 million from a processing and exporting facility bought from allegedly after 16,000 barrels had been siphoned off from a facility in Quebec owned by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.



 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book--Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.



FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK: ABOVE THE CLOUDS

Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright,  and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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