Virtual Gourmet

  May 29, 2005                                                            NEWSLETTER

"Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe" (1862-3) by Eduoard Manet 


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NEW YORK CORNER: Felidia  by John Mariani


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by John Mariani
      I’m trying to think of something better.
    Roast beef with mashed potatoes?  Turkey with stuffing? Lobster with clarified butter? Pork BBQ with cole slaw?  All wonderful examples of American food at its very best.  But I’m having a hard time topping the idea that a slice of New York cheesecake and a cup of strong coffee is the best combo in the world.
     And it’s at its very best as a solitary pleasure, eaten when you’re alone, not watching TV or pondering the universe, but alone with the slice of cheesecake on a nice plate with a mug of freshly brewed—preferably percolated--java sweetened with sugar and cream.
     Since the cheesecake has only the faintest aroma of vanilla and lemon, the steaming coffee must take up the slack, sparking a rush of warm familiarity in the nose, preparing the palate for the first morsel of the cake, which is enjoyed as slowly and with as much sheer pleasure as a Tsar would savor his beluga caviar from a silver spoon.  No one eats cheesecake fast, no one gulps it down.  It’s too rich, and its glory is in the way it changes texture from cool and thick to creamy, smooth and warm on the tongue.  Another sip of coffee, another little morsel of the cake, and you can spend ten minutes of bliss thinking of nothing but what you’re enjoying.
     Hardly surprising, then, that long-legged pin-ups like Betty Grable (above) have been called “cheesecake” since the 1930s.
Of course, when I say “New York cheesecake,” it immediately begs the question, “Well, do you mean one made with cream cheese or ricotta? Jewish, Italian, French or German? With a pastry crust or a Graham Cracker crust?  To which my answer is, yes, all of them.For cheesecakes as we know them are as American as French fries, pastrami, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken, but distinctively New York, even though there may be some antecedents in the Old World.  Like pizza, Americans didn’t invent cheesecake, but we sure as hell popularized it throughout the world.
    Cheesecake as we know it is more or less an invention of New York restaurants.  On the one hand, Italian-American restaurants introduced a version of ricotta cheesecake based on the Southern Italian models back in the 1930s.  Jewish-style cheesecakes, first made with cottage cheese but later with cream cheese, predominated in New York delis and later at steakhouses. But one thing at a time.
     There are a few—very few—references to some sort of cheese-based cake or tart dating back to the ancient Romans in the second century B.C., though no actual recipe for a cheesecake has been found before the Fourteenth Century A.D.  In the Middle Ages cheese was baked into savory tarts by wealthy families that could afford the outrageously expensive spices like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg mixed into such festive confections.   Sugar, also very expensive, was introduced by Arab traders to Sicily and Southern Italy, where pastry making became an art form and the first Italian pastry cooks’ guild was founded in 1492).
     When sugar became cheaper and more available, sweetened cheese confections became part of the tradition of the Easter feast, and it was in Naples that the forerunner of all Italian cheesecakes began with an Easter torta called pastiera, made with a wheatberry crust, ricotta, and colorful candied fruit.  The idea soon flourished throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, so that Greeks, Germans, and French adapted their own versions.  Russians eat a Easter dessert called sirnya pascha, made with farmer’s cheese in a decorative mold (below);l;l, that is a dead ringer for pastiera but without a crust; instead they spoon it onto a sweet bread kulich, itself a close cousin to the Italian Easter bread called panettone.   Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrants—by the millions--brought the idea of the Easter ricotta cheesecake to New York, but it became so popular that pastry shops and restaurants made it into a year-round staple, which it still is today.

      eeThe best Italian-style cheesecake I’ve found in New York is at Patsy’s Restaurant in the Theater District, which has been around for six decades and was Frank Sinatra’s favorite restaurant.  “We used to make our own cheesecake,” says owner Joe Scognamillo, “but we just couldn’t find the quality of ricotta we used to get—not too thick, not too moist.  But we did find one Italian baker in New Jersey who makes fabulous ricotta, so now he makes our cheesecakes just the way they were since we opened in 1945.”  Patsy’s is indeed the paragon of Italian-style cheesecakes, well scented with vanilla and lemon rind, with a luscious, never viscous texture. It goes very well with a cup of perfectly rendered espresso at Patsy’s.

      Meanwhile the development of Jewish-style cheesecake had to wait for the availability of cream cheese and, to a certain extent Graham Cracker cookies.  Fresh, that is, unaged, cheese spoiled quickly and was not easily shipped outside of a region until refrigerated railway cars came along.  Isaac and Joseph Breakstone began producing a packaged fresh cheese they called “Breakstone’s Downsville Cream Cheese” (named after the New York community where it was produced) in 1920, quickly becoming a favorite with New York Jews, who used it as a spread for bagels.
    Then, in 1928 the Empire Cheese Company of South Edmeston, NY, contracted to produce a cheese made with cream and milk by a dairyman named Lawrence and called it “Philadelphia Brand” cream cheese (now a trademark of Kraft Foods). wqq These two brands made cream cheese readily available, and soon Jewish bakers were switching from moist cottage cheese to cream cheese to make their cakes.  And Breakstone’s was the basis for a cheesecake that became the template for all Jewish-style cheesecakes to 2follow when Reuben’s (left), a deli restaurant opened in 1908 on Park Avenue by a German immigrant and later moved to East 58 Street, where it became famous for its overstuffed sandwiches named after celebrity guests, and its exceptionally rich cheesecake made with Breakstone’s, whole eggs and cream on a cookie crust. Sadly, Reuben’s closed in 1966, but its cheesecake is still legendary.  Don’t get a Jewish comedian started on Reuben’s. He’ll do ten minutes of schtick on it.

A guy goes to Reuben's for breakfast,  calls over the waiter and says, "Gimme two boiled eggs -- one of them so undercooked it's runny, and the other so overcooked it's tough and hard to eat. Also, gimme some grilled bacon that's really cold and greasy, burnt toast,   butter so hard it's impossible to spread, and a pot of very weak, cold coffee."
    "That's a complicated order sir," said the bewildered waiter. "It might be quite difficult."
     The guest replied, "Oh, really? I don't understand--that's what I got here yesterday!"  Ba-da-boom!

      Reuben’s claimed that a rival restaurant on Broadway, named Lindy’s (below)--which Damon Runyon immortalized in his stories as “Mindy’s”--stole their recipe and made it famous as u“Lindy’s New York Cheesecake,” baked on a cookie crust and with a filling containing grated lemon and orange rind and vanilla. The original Lindy’s restaurants are gone, though the name was bought by the Riese restaurant company, which still runs three locations in New York and serves the original recipe—which, in any case, was long ago published.
      Graham Crackers came out in 1882, the outgrowth of the very successful Graham flour developed by Rev. Sylvester Graham, a vehement temperance advocate who believed his flour cooled lustful passions.  Nabisco Honey Grahams became the base for Florida’s Key lime pies and also an alternative to the cookie crust of Jewish-style cheesecakes, which were already being popularized by New York steakhouses, where ending a meal with a slice is still as much a part of the New York steakhouse experience as gorging on a tomato salad, grilled sirloin or porterhouse, creamed spinach, and cottage fried potatoes.
      One of the most famous of the New York steakhouses was, and still is, the Palm (now with 28 U.S. locations), which opened as a speakeasy on Second Avenue in 1926, immediately drawing a raffish clientele of guys on both sides of the law, with a significant wedge of newspapermen in the middle—many of whose caricatures are painted on the Palm’s walls.  The  cheesecake served at the Palm has been on the menu since 1965, but you won’t find the recipe in The Palm Restaurant Cookbook; indeed  the owners refuse to divulge where their famous cheesecake comes from, even though it’s the worst kept secret in the world: Everybody knows The Palm gets its cheesecake from S&S, a bakery in the Bronx, and it’s become so much a part of New York food culture that just about every other steakhouse in New York—and nationwide chains like Morton’s, Don Shula’s, and Ruth’s Chris—serve the same S&S cake.
      German cheesecake, when you can find it in New York, is closer to the Jewish original made with cottage cheese, which is similar to the German cheese named quark (in Austria, topfen),  pronounced “qvahrk,” a tangy curd cheese made from skimmed milk.  If cream is mixed in—essential for a cheesecake—it is called Rahmfrischekäse, which in fact means “fresh cream cheese.”  Once you could find a quark cake in the numerous bakeries of Yorkville on the upper east side of Manhattan, previously a heavily German neighborhood, but they are all gone.  Today you can still find quark cheesecake at wwwwwwwYorkville’s Café Sabarsky (left) in the Nueue Gallerie, a small museum devoted to German and Austrian art.
     As for French cheesecakes, they are a total misnomer. I asked one of New York’s finest pastry chefs, François Payard, of Payard Patisserie & Bistro, if he does a French-style cheesecake, and he shrugged and said, “No, because it really isn’t a French pastry.”  The French of course do make savory quiches with cheese, but the occasional reference to “French cheesecake” is usually just a marketing term for a very creamy, light style with more of a chiffon pie texture and perhaps a sour cream frosting.

      Frankly, I don’t want to think about the adulterations that cheesecakes have gone through, topped with cloyingly sweet fruits in syrup or with chocolate swirled into the mix.  xA few fresh, ripe strawberries or blueberries is all right with me, but I think of such additions the way I do of destroying the perfect marriage of ingredients on a basic pizza—nothing can improve the holy trinity of  tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil on a thin, bubbly, charred crust.
     The very simplicity of a good cheesecake is its greatness, along with the homey, happy look of it, with its light, golden-brown top sliced through to reveal an interior the color of fresh cream. The crust barely matters.

     0And that is why eating a slice of New York cheesecake and sipping a cup of hot coffee is always satisfying each and every time.         
            Junior's Brooklyn Cheesecake
Fortunately you can mail order some of the best New York cheesecakes, which usually come frozen—and which re-freeze very well indeed—by overnight delivery, which is a good thing, because once seized with a desire for a cheesecake, it’s not something you can put off for long.  (See box below.)
omeone once defined eternity as “two people and a ham." But when I think about it, heaven might well be defined as a piece of cheesecake, coffee, and me.

Junior’s—Junior’s has a bakery branch in Grand Central Terminal.  To order a Jewish-style cheesecake, first check Junior’s web site:, which offers several kinds of flavored cheesecake in addition to the plain original. Call 718-852-5257.
S&S—The great Bronx cheesecake found in nearly every NYC steakhouse. It can be ordered from Morey & Dorey. Check out their website or call 1-800-8CAKENY.


by John Mariani

Felidia  Ristorante
243 East 58th Street

     A  quarter century in business is an extraordinary feat for any restaurant, but for one to be at the top of its game, and constantly improving after all that time, is true testament to the dedication of its owners and its entire staff.  When Lidia and Felice Bastianich opened Felidia 25 years ago, it was immediately one of the most beautiful Italian restaurants in NYC, not another copy of some trattoria in Milan, with the clichés of white walls, dark wainscoting, and bad artwork. Instead Felidia had old brickwork, archways, fine furniture, and good artwork, along with a terrific bar (left) up front, and a display of antipasti at the end of it.
     eeTime has only improved Felidia's looks, which have been updated in recent years to a more modern polish, but its basic lineaments still have the ideal mixture of sophistication and warmth, which is what you get from Lidia Bastianich herself, yand, since she separated from her husband a few years ago, from her daughter on duty, Tanya.  Lidia (right), of course, is well known for her PBS-TV show--which I think is the best cooking on show the tube by far--and her numerous cookbooks, and she is one of the smartest, savviest, and most authoritative people in the business.  She and her son Joseph are involved with other restaurants, including Becco in NYC, and two Lidia's restaurants in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.  She has never compromised on ingredients, and, though she has had very few chefs over the year in her kitchen, they have all been allowed their own creativity within the general tenor she has set here to be expressive of the cuisine of her own childhood in Istria. The current kitchen occupant is the formidable Fortunato Nicotra, and he cooks with a steady, vigorous gusto evident in every dish.
        The wine list is one of the best in NYC, though it is certainly not cheap.
      When you sit down at the well-set table, you'll be served a basket of warm focaccia and breads, together with a mild bean puree. The you hear the specials of the evening, often from Lidia if she is on the premises.  There are tasting menus that begin at $75 (wine may be added to the tab); otherwise antipasti run around $12-$18, pastas (as full courses) $20-$28, and main courses $24-$34.
      The antipasti are many, from lustrous prosciutto sliced thin to cannellini and chickpeas, mushrooms and peppers in olive oil, to glistening mozzarella.  Soups should never be neglected here (often afterthoughts in Italian restaurants), like la zuppa di cappone, capon soup of rich, deep flavor with Parmigiano-and-breadcrumb dumplings with spinach.  Crispy sweetbreads with roasted cauliflower is deliciously dressed with a pignoli-raisin-caper sauce.  Pastas are, each and every one, among the best in NYC, textbook examples (she wrote the textbooks!) of perfectly cooked whole wheat bigoli with broccoli di rabe, garlic and oil, a touch of tomato, smoked ricotta, and aromatic anchovies.  Lovely gnocchi come with whipped baccalà and Grana Padano cheese, while Nicotra may one night fill his ravioli with pear and fresh pecorino, sautéed with crushed black pepper.  My very favorite--ever since Felidia opened---is krafi, an envelope-shaped Istrian pasta with three cheeses and filled with citrus rind and rum, sauced with a roast veal sugo--magnificent!2
       I like simple main courses at Italian ristoranti, but Felidia's are pretty lavish, from quails stuffed with farro, mushrooms, and shallots, then glazed with vinegar and served with potatoes and roasted endive. No one makes a better classic like seared calf's liver with onions, vin cotto, polenta, and farro, and if you love tripe, have it here, braised with Savoy cabbage and beans--a very heavy dish indeed, but wonderful on a cold evening.  Braised beef shank takes on the sweetness of prunes, while wild striped bass is poached in a tomato-mushroom broth.  I will always be happiest with whole grilled branzino with oranges, fennel, and an olive salad.
       For dessert go with anything--the sweets here are all quite well rendered, both the expected tiramisù and cheesecake and the less familiar fruit tarts and cakes.  Gelati and sorbetti are also excellent.
      There's nothing to make me think that in twenty-five years I wouldn't be writing exactly the same thing about Felidia, for even if I have to be wheeled into the dining room, I know that the krafi will still taste the same, the waiters will know my name, the wine will be at the perfect temperature, and Lidia will still want to know if I was completely pleased.


While on location for the movie "It's All True" in Austin, Texas,  Sandra Bullock (who lives there), Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Kline called to make a late dinner at the restaurant Mansion at Judge's Hill but were told by an employee the kitchen would be closed, after which the employee was promptly fired by the owner.

"Before checking in at the King's Head, Great Bircham, I went looking for Holkham Beach.  If that sounds like a figure of speech, let me disabuse you: I really had to go looking for Holkham Beach. The first bit--the drive into Wells, sharp left, straight to the beach car park--was fine.  Then things got tricky. I sloshed through wet sand, tufty grass and puddles the colour of milky English tea.  Through the descending mist, I made out a sign warning about not getting caught on the wrong side of the tide.  This suggested there was a tide, and probably a beach, very nearby.  But after a half a mile's walking, I began to think that someone had done a Macbeth and moved the woods.  I asked a kindly couple of dogwalkers where the coast had gone to, and they pointed me back through the woods.  I emerged 10  minutes later by some sand dunes. Then there was a beach--then, in the foggy distance, more dunes.  I'd found the beach but now the authorities had shifted the North Sea.  Then I remembered the sign and thought--what if the sea is sneaking up behind me? I dashed back to the woods, got lost twice more, and finally won through to the car."  Mark Jones, "Weekend escape," Financial Times Weekend (April 16, 2005).


* From May 31-June 17 a  Gastronomic Festival of Castilla y León celebrates the culinary traditions and cutting-edge cuisine of this region of Spain, to be held at the United Nations Delegates’ Dining Room, with visiting Óscar Manuel Alonso; Carlos Domínguez Cidón; Victor Gutiérrez; Antonio González de las Heras; Manuel Rey Pérez; Jesús Ramiro; and Julio Reoyo, who will prepare a daily buffet lunch for the UN community, open to the public. $25 pp.  Call 212-963-7625/6.

* On June 7 a 6-Course Wine dinner will be held at San Francisco’s  C&L, with  wines from Far Niente, with the winery’s Dan Dargin.  $125 pp. Visit or call 415-771-5400.

* On June 8 in San Francisco,  McCormick & Kuleto's will hold a Chalone Vineyard Wine Dinner.  $75 pp.  Call 415-929-1730.

* In Laguna Beach, CA,  Montage Resort & Spa is now offering  “The Art of the Sommelier,”  a day behind-the-scenes of  the wine cellars, kitchens and restaurants, incl. a tour of the resort and  meeting with wine Christopher Coon; meeting with an artisan wine supplier to taste and source new products; a food and wine pairing with Chef James Boyce at Studio and Pastry Chef Richard Ruskell; and a staff education meeting, to discuss topics incl. how restaurants and private collectors source rare wines; how to professionally taste and evaluate wine; how to organize and maintain a cellar; theory of food and wine pairing; proper service of wine; the language of wine. Available to individual guests or a group. $500 for the day pp.  Call 949-715-6420 or visit

* From June 9-11 Left California’s Left Bank restaurants celebrate the cherry seasons with an à la carte dinner menu featuring the fruit,  or as a prix fixe menu for $38. Branches are in Larkspur (415-927-3331), San Mateo (650-345-2250), Pleasant Hill (925-288-1222), Menlo Park (650-473-6543), and San Jose (408-984-3500).

* Beginning June 10 at Brennan's of Houston, executive Chef Randy Evans and "Wine Guy" Chris Shepherd are pleased to present “Friday Night Date Night,” a cooking class series for couples  incl. dinner for two with wine pairings. $125 per couple.  Call 713-522-9711 or visit

* On June 12 The Trellis in Williamsburg, VA, will celebrate 25 years in business with a special dinner by chef-partner Marcel Desaulniers. $60 pp. Call 757- 229-8610.

* On June 11 & 12, The Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida, joining forces with the Southern Florida Tropical Growers, Inc. and the Miami-Dade Fruit & Spice Park, announce the chef line-up for the “Tropical Ag Fiesta.”  Chef participants include Allen Susser,  of Chef Allen’s in Aventura, Florida; Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Frank Randazzo of Talula on Miami Beach; Dewey LoSasso of North 110 in North Miami; Jan Jorgensen of Two Chefs restaurant and cooking school in South Miami; Call 305-247-5727. Admission free for children; $6 for adults. Visit

* On June 12 The Club Culinaire of French Cuisine will hold its annual Picnic des Chefs on in Griffith Park’s Crystal Spring Area. Members of the Club will be creating dishes from their regions in France. Partial chef list:  Christian Monchatre (Jonathan Club); Jean-Francois Meteigner (La Cachette); Patrick Jamon (Regency Club); Conny Anderson (Four Seasons); Joe Miller (Joe’s); Akira Hirose (Maison Akira); Berty Siegels (Pacific Dining Car); Christiane Rassinoux (Ritz Carlton Laguna Nigel); Kenjiro Taka (Amanda Club); Michel Blanchet’s Cordon Bleu. $40 pp, children free. Call 949-295-0506; visit


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2005