Virtual Gourmet

July 12, 2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                 Fruit Stand, Nyarit, Mexico (2007) photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery




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In This Issue

A Gastro-Trip TO PUGLIA by Mort Hochstein

NEW YORK CORNER: Veritas by John Mariani

The Closing of Stella D'oro
by John Mariani


A Gastro-Trip

by Mort Hochstein

     For more than a quarter of a century, New York restaurateur Tony May (who will be re-opening San Domenico this fall) has been shepherding  culinary pilgrims on an annual exploration of regional Italian food, wine and culture.   In early spring, 40 chefs, owners, foodies and writers, trekked to Puglia under the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani (GRI) banner.
      For several decades, May (below) has been a crusader   for   the use of imported   ingredients to achieve true Italian cuisine in this country, and the GRI trips are part of his strategy to further the cause. Normally, GRI works closely with a regional authority or consorzio, a locally connected organization,  to do most of the legwork in creating an itinerary. Puglia, however, lacks the well-oiled promotional capacity of regions such as Tuscany and the Piedmont, so much of the trip had to be put together  from New York over the phone and by email with individual wineries, food suppliers, hotels and local agencies.  Stuff happened, and this pilgrimage was   free-wheeling with itinerary changes coming daily, at times, hourly.
       The hills and valleys of the region, which lacks heavy industry, are blanketed with olive trees, vineyards, and wheat fields, and it is Italy’s greatest source of olives, wine and wheat. Puglia produces an astonishing 200 varieties of extra virgin olive oil, which retail locally at ridiculously low prices. I brought home a few bottles.
    However, much of the oil and frequently the wine ends up in other regions wearing a foreign label that does not bring glory to Puglia. The region  also lacks a dairy industry, and while we tasted pillow light, luscious ricotta, high-quality buffalo mozzarella, and caciocavallo, their makings were primarily trucked in from other regions; goat's cheeses predominated.  Menus offered chicken, pork, veal, and, occasionally,  Argentine beef, but I shunned the carne (meat)  to concentrate on the  crustaceans and fish--the frutti di mare, fruits of the sea.
      Fish was featured at  the two restaurants our group found most rewarding.  In this area, with the sea close by on two sides, the range is enormous. At Ristorante da Tuccino, outside of Bari in
the charming town of Polignano a Mare (below), we  sampled  sparkling  fresh fish from nearby waters, shrimp ranging from tiny one-bite size  to gigantic scampi , gamberi, aragosti, cozze, oysters, several varieties of polpo, scallops, snails,  calamari, and many fish, some identifiable,  many  with no American counterparts.
     I gorged  on sea urchins.  The local variety rewarded me with only a slim morsel of tangy orange flesh, smaller but much more satisfying than those I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic.   While enjoying an aperitif, I was indulging myself with those spiny creatures almost as fast as the kitchen crew  could open their shells, departing occasionally to try succulent, giant raw scampi. I’d never eaten raw shrimp before, but the counterman urged me on and I followed his lead to a new gustatory reward.
    I was told that da Tuccino gets first pick from the fishing boats working the waters off the southern Italian shoreline and that seemed to be true, as everything glistened with the fresh sheen of the sea. After feasting standing up at the counter, we were seated, and plate after plate of the morning's fresh catch, most simply grilled, occasionally fried, kept overflowing our table.   Salmon, mullet, and sea bream arrived impeccably prepared in da Tuccino’s seafood extravaganza.  It is a stop not to be missed on a trip through Puglia.
   At Osteria Del Borgo Antica (below) in Gioia del Colle, a hamlet that looks like a movie set for a Fellini film, we enjoyed one of our most memorable meals.  Cavatelli, the standard pasta in the region, arrived dressed in a spicy  tomato and arugula sauce treatment along with that other Pugliese favorite, orecchiette ear-shaped pasta  about the size of nickel. At Borgo Antica, they arrived black from cuttlefish ink, swimming in a sauce of clam, squid and bits of tomato.
     The appetizers included a rich combo of fresh mozzarella, ricottine (cone-shaped ricotta between fried bread), pungent but tasty  Gorgonzola in tubular shape, and for a visual joke, a pig made from caccicavallo, a chickpea pudding, followed by  an assortment of  greens, including wild chicory, broccoli spears, and asparagus in a flaky crust. Secondi included airy  ricotta cannelloni  in  a hot tomato sauce, and zamponi, a peppery local sausage, hot from the grill.
     Pasta variations followed, and the favorite at our table was asparagus pasta with fava beans and strips of grana-like cheese.  Dessert was  a bavarese, an ice cream cake  embellished with a sauce of   fresh fruit. When we entered the simple dining room, few of us expected to dine on grande cucina, but we departed feeling we had been privileged to enjoy great riffs on a peasant cuisine.
    We dined in humble and upscale restaurants and learned  quickly that  expectations inspired by first impressions were not always realized and that even the most simple of restaurants could surprise you  with the freshness of the food and the quality of the preparation. For the most part, haute cuisine was not on the menu at the restaurants we visited  in Puglia. The emphasis was on fine local cooking with ingredients that reflected the best from nearby sources. Tony May emphasized the quality of those ingredients and urged his fellow restaurateurs  to more fully represent  their native cuisine by utilizing quality ingredients from their homeland.

Mort Hochstein, former editor and producer for NBC News and the Today Show, and former managing editor of Nation's Restaurant News, writes  on wine, food and travel for Wine Spectator, Wine Business  Monthly, Saveur and other food and wine publications.

by John Mariani

43 East 20th Street (near Park Ave.)

     Back in 1998, when enophilia was raging in the land, Park B. Smith (below) and Gino Diaferia pooled their considerable resources, which included the former's spectacular personal wine collection of nearly 200,000 bottles, to open Veritas (from the Latin motto "in vino veritas").  The intent was to have a modestly sized restaurant built around that collection and to match the food to it in the French-American style then coming into focus. It was no surprise that Veritas soon was winning awards for its wine cellar and the kitchen raves for its cuisine under Chef Scott Bryan, who has since moved on to he very fine new restaurant Apiary.
      The new chef at Veritas is a Frenchman Grégory Pugin, an eight-year protégé of Joël Robuchon,
opening restaurants with him in Macau, Lisbon, Tokyo and Las Vegas, then was at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons Hotel in NYC, where he learned a style of small plates menu, now reflected in the à la carte bar menu, priced  from $11-$21, with offerings like piquillo peppers stuffed with calamari, chorizo, and pig's foot meat, in a squid ink sauce; frogs' legs with fresh garbanzo bean purée, chanterelle mushrooms, parsley coulis, and fried spring onions; and  sautéed sweetbreads with spelt risotto, morels, and white asparagus. The dining room's 3-course menu is fixed at $85.
       Wine director Tim Kopec now stocks more than 3,600 selections in big books that you could peruse for hours, but it might just be best to let him choose for you, according to your taste and budget. Be aware that Smith is famous for his love of Rhône wines.
       There is no doubt that the current menu is resolutely French, a cuisine that some have  suggested is on the way out of favor, which is as preposterous as saying molecular cuisine is on the way in.  Pugin's style of French cuisine is rooted in classic French technique and respect for ingredients, occasionally too fussy but strong in its essential flavors, as is evident in his signature lobster cooked in vin jaune, with rutabaga and butternut squash, with chestnuts for texture. Fresh foie gras is poached in Madiran wine and served with dried fruit and Sauternes, and well-fatted wagyu beef tartare comes with Spanish pan tomate and yucca chips.
     Red snapper is impeccably cooked through, with glazed vegetables and a tangy-sweet lemongrass emulsion, and if you wish to test out Pugin's classicism, there is a wagyu filet mignon atop pommes boulangère, asparagus, with a beautifully rendered satiny sauce bordelaise (which carries a $15 supplement).  Veal strip loin had plenty of flavor on its own, served with sage-flecked gnocchi, tender morels, summer's fava beans, and the reduction of the lamb juices--a splendidly simple dish.  Not so simple is the roast squab that comes labored over, served with lotus root, baby peas, and a sauce salmis. This dish should be far lustier than it is.
     Classicists will also be very happy with the chocolate mille-feuille with hazelnut dacquoise, milk chocolate, lime mousse and yuzu ice cream, and most assuredly with the Grand Marnier soufflé. Rhubarb tarte Tatin was a pleasant enough idea, but hadn't much fruity taste.  If you opt for cheese, you will receive five cuts in peak condition and with good bread. It is as this point you can consider the scores of dessert wines and Ports on the menu.
      So Veritas carries on, renewing itself and its owners' commitment to the  idea that tradition can be improved upon not through radical twistings but by intelligent design and the kind of personal touch that distinguishes Pugin's cooking.

Veritas is open daily for dinner.



Say It Ain't So, Stella D'oro!

  A ccording to news reports this week,  after a federal judge ordered the Stella D’oro Italian bakery in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx to reinstate 134 workers after a protracted 10-month strike,  Brynwood Partners, a private equity company based in Greenwich, CT,  that bought the company in 2006, invited the workers back then  promptly announced that it would close the factory in October. Operations, said a statement, will be moved elsewhere and the products would continue.
     I shall not  comment here on the merits of the strike, which involved an expired contract last August, but I do have some thoughts about the passing away of yet another New York institution, not far from the new Yankee Stadium, which this year replaced the old nicknamed "The House That Ruth Built." Stella D'oro was founded in 1932 by an Italian immigrant, Angela Kresevich and her husband Joseph, specializing in Italian baked goods that included breadsticks, biscotti, and cookies.  Eventually they sold the company to Nabisco, then it passed to Kraft, then was bought by Brynwood Partners.
      My own familiarity with Stella D'oro's products goes back to my childhood when it would be a rare day when a box of their breadsticks and cookies was not to be found in our family's pantry. Frankly, I never thought the cookies were anything special--not nearly as good at those delivered on alternate mornings to our front door by Dugan's and Krug's. Or Linzer's butter cookies. Or Entenmanns donuts. Or Pepperidge Farm chocolate cookies.  Or Nabisco Mallomars.
      But they were part of Italian-American heritage, and everybody had them on hand in case someone dropped by.  My mother would wrap the breadsticks in thin slices of Prosciutto. The anisette cookies were enjoyed with coffee, mostly by the old aunts and grandmas.
      What I do remember, with the same evocative aroma of my mother's perfume, the clean medicinal smell of my father's hands when he got home from the doctor's office, and the scent of the Long Island Sound across the street from where I lived in the Bronx, is the aroma of Stella d'Oro's bakery as it wafted each evening after nine o'clock from the nondescript, squat building that sidled the Major Deegan Thruway. We'd be driving home from dinner in the city, or visiting relatives, or maybe been to a Yankees game, and as you got north of Fordham Road, it hit you, very softly, a warm, sweet aroma that was very Italian, and easily as good as the smell of fresh bread in the morning. We'd stick our noses out the window of the car and breathe it in with quick, long sniffs. A mile further on it dissipated, then stopped.
     I know of no one who grew up or lived in the Bronx who didn't know and love that smell, and I wondered why it seemed to stop last summer.  I later found out that in August the strike had begun, which I guess had something to do with the cessation of the bakery's aroma.  I missed it then, and I will really miss it when Stella D'Oro leaves the Bronx, as finally gone as the Dodgers from Brooklyn and the Giants from the Polo Grounds. 
      It's not quite that dramatic, but when you've loved something so dependable for your whole life and it stops being part of your life, it can be a truly sad thing.



A Denver police officer was suspended after allegedly pulling his gun at a McDonald's restaurant because he felt his order was taking too long.

 The rap sheet alleges two off-duty Denver police officers placed an order at a McDonald's drive-thru at approximately 3:20 AM, then became angry at how long their food was taking.  The McDonald's employee said one of the officers flashed his police badge, then his gun before driving off without paying.

 . . . Meanwhile, in Berrian Springs, Michigan: Authorities said a worker at a McDonald's allegedly spit on a police officer's breakfast sandwich. The Herald-Palladium newspaper investigative reporter a police report that contended the restaurant's assistant  placed the sandwich in the off-duty manager's trash bin, but said it disappeared while she phoned him.

Aye, and we thought we detected a
wee whiff o' Twinkies and Yodels in the 21-Year-Old.

The Glenlivet “Instant Tasting Notes” from Rick Edwards, The Glenlivet Brand Ambassador.

"The Glenlivet 12 Year Old: Floral fruity.

                       15 Year Old: Spicy, nutty

                       Nadurra 16 Year Old: coconut-lemon cream pie

                       18 Year Old: butterscotch toffee

                       Archive 21 Year Old: crème brûlée and raisin pudding."



* From July 13th through Labor Day in NYC, Le Cirque (212-265-6121) and Osteria del Circo (212-265-3636) will extend Restaurant Week specials offering wine pairings with their tasting menus for an addtional $10.

* On July 15 Rush Street in Culver City, CA, is “Thinking Pink” by supporting  the Susan G. Komen Foundation  during Dining Out for a Cure. In addition to contributing 10 percent of their sales from their lunch and dinner service, Rush Street will also be hosting the exclusive Dine Out for the Cure Kickoff Reception in their upstairs lounge, with specialty cocktails at  $6 and the “Pretty in Pink” cocktail in honor of breast cancer awareness will go for $9; this will also mark the kick off for their Ladies’ Night which will take place every Wednesday night at Rush Street from here on out. Call 310-837-9546;

* On July 15-16 in Santa Monica, CA, Le Merigot will hold the first annual Dine Out For The Cure®, supporting the Susan G. Komen L.A. chapter and featuring a cancer fighting menu, with 10 percent of each item served from the Cézanne’s exquisite menu to benefit Susan G. Komen For the Cure®. Visit or call 310- 395-9700.

* On July 14 in Charleston, SCHigh Cotton celebrates Bastille Day with a wine tasting reception of 12 different biodynamic wines from the Loire Valley in France, along with French-themed hors d’oeuvres and music. $25 pp. Call 843-724-3815; or

* From July 20-24 in NYC, Union Square Café (212-243-4020) and from July 27-31, Eleven Madison Park (212-889-0905) offer a $24 lunch menu for one week each to benefit City’s Harvest. For each menu ordered, $1 goes to the hunger relief organization. Visit Additionally, Tabla and Bread Bar (Lunch only), Blue Smoke (Lunch and Dinner), and The Modern’s Bar Room (Dinner) will be officially participating in Restaurant Week.

*  On July 21 Brasserie Beck Belgian in DC will hold a Belgian Independence Day Celebration featuring  importers and brewers from the best Belgian breweries. Stations through-out the restaurant featuring Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s favorite Belgian fare. $100 pp. Call  202-408-1717;

* On July 21 in Houston, at Arturo's Uptown, a 5-course wine dinner spotlighting the cuisine and viticulture of Northern Italy will be conducted by Sterling Minor,  Houston Wine Consultant, and Chef Arturo Boada. $125 pp.  713-621-1180.

* On July 22 in Charleston, SC, a special event honoring the local shrimp industry will take place at the Old Village Post House--"Shrimp Toast!" 4-course wild shrimp and wine dinner with Kimberly Carroll of Raul’s Seafood on Shem Creekand  Chef Frank Lee, Executive Chef and Jim Walker, Chef de Cuisine, with wine pairings by Patrick Emerson, Wine and Beverage Director.  $48 pp. with special room rate for wine dinner guests $100. Call 843-388-8935;

* On July 23 in Berkeley, CA, Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto holds a  4-course "One Fermented Evening” dinner by Chef Devon Boisen, showcasing seasonally fresh wild salmon paired with a selection of California wines. $69.95 pp.  Call 510- 845-7771;

* From Aug. 5-8 in Austin, TX, the American Cheese Society will hold its annual conference at the Hilton Austin, with conference seminars, workshops and panels cover topics from the highly technical (“Starter Culture Cocktails”) to the purely pleasurable (“Texas Terroir: Local Cheese and Local Brews”), along with the annual educational conference and world-renowned cheese judging and competition which culminates in the Festival of Cheese, featuring over 1100 competition entries and more than 1,200 cheeses from more than 30 states and Canada available for sampling.   Tickets available at

* From Aug. 6-9 SF Chefs. Food. Wine. in San Francisco celebrates the diversity and bounty of Northern California. The main tasting tent will be in Union Square, where chefs, wine makers and distillers will offer an exploration of taste featuring local products. Classes and seminars will offer interactive opportunities for the public to participate with local farmers, ranchers, chefs, winemakers, distillers, media, luminaries, authors, vintners, mixologists and culinary experts. Visit

* In San Francisco, Urban Tavern has partnered with Shorenstein Hays Nedelander (the Shorenstein Theatre Group) to offer a pre-theatre dinner package priced at $34.95 for a 3-course meal, a glass of wine and complimentary parking. For an additional $15 pp guests will be transported, via town car or limo, to and from the theatre that they will be attending. Visit or call 415- 923-4400.


NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with 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." 


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).

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: 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.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Bloomberg News, and Diversion.  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 Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

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

My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. It was a beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our
Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

© copyright John Mariani 2009