Virtual Gourmet

December 6,  2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                                                       "Angel Cake" (2009) by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery


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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: A Voce, Part Due by John Mariani

by Brian A. Freedman



By John Mariani

    Las Vegas boosters will be the first to tell you that their city now has some of the finest restaurants in the world, and they’re right—with one difference. In most cases, those restaurants are branches of originals from elsewhere, including Paris, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  But in a city of smoke and mirrors and Elvis impersonators, what can you believe?
     To my mind, much of the hype has plenty of ballast.  Las Vegas does now possess some of the great restaurants in America, with some of the most famous chefs’ names on the doors.  In many cases, however, celebrity chefs in Vegas run plenty of mediocre restaurants with very little input of presence from the marquee names that suggest they are in town cooking for you.  In fact, if you come down the escalator of McCarran Airport when you arrive, you’ll see a huge sign with Wolfgang Puck’s smiling face on it and he is dressed in chef’s whites; the sign reads, “Less Celebrity, More Chef,” indicating that Puck will in fact be in the kitchen cooking at all six of his Vegas restaurants. Don’t bet on it.
     This kind of hype was a great part of the first wave of new restaurants opening in Vegas a decade ago, with name chefs given management contracts and lots of money to put their names and not much else on restaurants. Some, like Puck’s own Spago, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino, and  Hubert Keller’s Fleurs de Lys are as distinguished in their own right; others are not nearly so well regarded by critics and foodies, like Emeril Lagasse’s Fish House and Todd English’s Olives. Rick Moonen shuttered his fine dining room at rm while keeping its casual eatery downstairs; and New Orleans’ most famous restaurant, Commander’s Palace, went out of business two years ago, as did Louis Osteen’s Louis, Joseph Keller’s Bistro Zinc, and the extravagant Asian restaurant Mainland at Palazzo.
     The dynamic began to change in 2005 when master entrepreneur Steve Wynn (left), having sold Bellagio, opened Wynn Las Vegas, where he was adamant that there be no absentee celebrity chefs; indeed, on the properties’ websites he promises that “The stars are the chefs . . . and in each case they cook your dinner, bake your bread, and prepare your pastries every day themselves, except for their occasional days off.”
     Wynn had already brought the great Spanish chef Julian Serrano to move to town and become the star chef who cooks—brilliantly--each night at Picasso at Bellagio, one of the most sumptuous high-end French restaurants in the city, as well as convincing the Maccioni family of New York’s illustrious Le Cirque to send their son Mario to oversee the superb Le Cirque and Circo restaurants in the hotel.
     After selling Bellagio and opening Wynn Las Vegas, he brought in Alessandro Stratta to Alex, a sumptuous dining room with a grand staircase for the full glamor treatment.  Stratta has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in he Southwest and has two stars from Michelin.  If you’re feeling lucky at the tables, then the $185 tasting menu is the way to go here, with dishes like hot-and-cold foie gras with Spanish ham, pineapple, Brussels sprouts and spiced duck sauce; American Wagyu short rib with gnocchi, roasted asparagus, Parmigiano and red wine; and toasted vanilla custard with maple rhubarb and crème fraîche ice cream.
       And no one is doing finer Italian seafood than Paul Bartolotta at Bartolotta at Wynn (right), from glorious scamponi (Sicilian langoustines) and cicala di mare (slipper lobster), and moleche (tiny Venetian crabs)—all expensive but priceless.  He combines fresh porcini mushrooms with seared sea scallops, and his frittura of fried fish is addictive, with nothing more than squirt of lemon.
      Wynn Las Vegas was quite a departure and a challenge to his competitors up and down the Strip to do the same. But in upping the ante, few have took the challenge,  so that outside of Wynn’s hotels, there are few on-premises name chefs elsewhere in town.  What the other hotel/casino owners did was to bring up the level of ultra-fine dining, again with star chefs but with a greater overall commitment to quality and service, including Paris imports from Michelin three-star chefs whose namesake restaurants, Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace and Joël Robuchon at MGMGrand and Twins Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin-Oriental.  You can also easily spend in excess of $150 per person (without wine or tip) at any of them.
     Wynn raised the stakes again upon opening Wynn Encore in December 2008, keeping to his commitment to having on-premises name chefs while developing new styles of restaurant. Wynn Las Vegas’ most popular restaurant is SW, a steakhouse with an aquatic light-and-sound show just beyond its windows, while Wynn Encore’s steakhouse is Botero (below), after the  Colombian artist of the same name, known for his voluptuously fat female nudes, one of which centers the sleek, seductive and shadowy pillared dining room.  They do serve a good steak here but I was more delighted by the appetizers and side dishes, from a lush hamachi tartare with sweet chili vinaigrette and a plate of crispy frogs’ legs with lemon butter and fennel salad to the truffled macaroni and cheese and curried spaetzle with fava beans.
     Sinatra in Wynn Encore is one of the newest restaurants, though frankly (no pun intended) I had hoped I would bowled over by a retro-cool design and menu of a kind Ol’ Blue Eyes would have loved.  The dining room does have blown-up photos of him but little else to suggest those ring-a-ding days.  Nevertheless, Chef Theo Shoenegger has long been one of America’s finest Italian masters, here serving upscale versions of osso buco and pasta fagioli. Caveat emptor: It ain't cheap.
     Also at Encore is Society Café (left, below), which has the swanky look of a Las Vegas breakfast-lunch place (though it’s open for dinner too) but it also has some of the most delectable small plates and comfort foods in the city, thanks to Chef Kim Cateenwalla, who knows how to refine old favorites without too much fuss. So you get perfect textures, first-rate ingredients, and a wow factor in dishes like his braised pork short ribs with gnocchi and vegetable ragoût, the “lollipop” chicken wings with blue cheese sauce, terrific beef-and-veal meatballs with caramelized onions, tomatoes, and horseradish sauce, and irresistible mac-and-cheese “bites” that you dip into a fabulous truffle sauce.
     Among the many lavish and not-so-lavish Chinese/Asian restaurants in Vegas,   Wazuzu (below)  is the best I've seen, skirting the overly pretentious  while not in any way treating the food as merely an ethnic  alternative.   Chef Jet Tila, who is Thai, is doing Pan-Asian food here in an open dining room off the casino floor, and it's a bright,  colorful and fairly casual place serious about its food, which ranges from excellent sushi by Chef Masaru Matsuura, with three dozen selections,  to starters like shu mai dumplings, hot wings, and a fine Thai beef salad. There are several noodle offerings, and then the special main courses, which range from miso-marinated black cod to Korean galibi short ribs and salt-and-pepper prawns.  The prices for this kind of quality and atmosphere are very reasonable, too, with most main courses in the mid-$20 range.
    By the way, given the economic downturn that has affected Vegas’ business, once impossible-to-get-into restaurants are now running on empty—some of the biggest names are only open four nights a week--and unless there is a huge convention in town on a weekend, you should have little trouble scoring a table just about anywhere.

      This has also had an effect on menu prices, though you’d never know it at those few places daring to charge $40-$50 for a main course.  These days a lot of the big steakhouses like the Palm, Morton’s, and others are featuring $39 three-course steak dinners.  And then of course there are the outrageously well-priced Vegas buffets.  True, once upon a time you paid $7.95 for all-u-can-eat, but the food was dreadful.  Now very good food of every kind—from pasta to sushi—can be found in the best hotels: at the Bellagio, the buffet lunch runs $19.95 and dinner $27.95 for the full gorge, and weekend Champagne brunch is $28.95. Luxor dinner is only $19.99.
      What have remained high are wine prices in Vegas, so tell the sommelier what you wish to spend and order accordingly.


by John Mariani

a voce at Columbus Circle
Time-Warner Center, 3rd Floor
10 Columbus Circle

     When A Voce opened down at Madison Park three years ago, it brought rustic Italian food to a new level of taste, at the time under Chef Andrew Carmellini (now partner at Locanda Verde), then under Chef Missy Robbins, who had been  Executive Chef at the great Spiaggia in Chicago for five years, and before that  at top New York restaurants like March, Arcadia and The Lobster Club, and  a stint at Agli Amici in Friuli. In my article about her appointment this year, I wrote,  "Robbins has translated all that learning into her menus at A Voce, which do not attempt to replicate Carmellini's dishes but continue his legacy of bold, gutsy Italian food."  Now, under the umbrella of the MARC restaurant group, Robbins has opened a second front, uptown at the Time Warner Center, in the space that had been the failed Café Gray.
      First thing MARC did was to remove the kitchen from the glorious window space overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park and put the brigade behind glass, allowing guests to enjoy that view from swiveling chairs beneath a mirror-like ceiling.  The place sparkles at lunchtime and gets shadowy at dinner, with a noise level that edges towards the high decibels.  As I so often do, I would heartily recommend adding white tablecloths at night--the tops are now black composite--which would both brighten the atmosphere and tamp down the noise.
      There are similarities in the menus downtown and uptown, always reflecting the lusty side of modern cucina alla italiana. You should always begin with a selection of fine charcuterie--the beef carpaccio with walnuts and pecorino; the various salumi; and above all the 'nduja, a very hot, peppery condiment you spread on toast.
     For pastas, you won't go wrong anywhere on the primi menu, at least not if you order the terrific pici, hand-rolled pasta with Brussels sprouts, bacon, almonds, and whipped sheep's milk.  The ravioli filled with goat's cheese and prosciutto is outstanding, with sweet leeks and pistachios.  Only by comparison did ricotta gnocchi with zucchini, squash blossoms, and mint seem somewhat bland, despite the presence of saline bottarga roe.
     If you wish to stay simple with your main course I highly recommend the pollo alla mattone--a dish you see elsewhere, chicken flattened with "a brick" or other weight, and grilled--but at A Voce marinating of the chicken in fennel and chili and the side of Tuscan greens, gigante white beans, and Yukon gold potatoes makes this a sumptuous dish.   A massive pork chop is served with roasted abalone mushrooms, arugula, and assertive grilled lemons, while brasato, that triumph of paisan cookery, was a plate of beef braised in red wine and served with farro, root vegetable, and the richness of bone marrow.
      It's hard to pass up the selection of wonderful cheeses with condiments (left) here, so don't: have a plate and let the rest of your table order desserts to share, like the panna cotta with Meyer lemon and a hint of thyme or the espresso-chocolate tart with toasted almonds and cocoa nibs. But do try the crespelle, ricotta-filled thin pancakes with roasted apples and rum-raisin sauce--as good a dolce as you'll find this winter.
     Wine director Olivier Flosse stocks one of the best Italian lists in the city, of which more than half are under $90--still a high break point, but there really are plenty of fine regional wines under $50 too.
      A Voce has made the leap to the third floor of Time Warner very successfully and for all the right reasons for right now: It's not a starchy place, it's got a great view, the food leaves everyone satisfied, it's priced right, and Missy Robbins is in charge.  What more can you ask?
A Voce is open for lunch Mon.-Fri, for dinner nightly, and brunch Sat. & Sun.
Antipasti run $10-$16, pastas as full portions $17-$25, and main courses $28-$38. There is a prix fixe lunch at $29 and pre-theater dinner at $35.


by Brian A. Freedman
Photos by Paul Kellerhals

    When Bill Harlan set out to create an American “First Growth” 25 years ago, consumers could have been forgiven for thinking the endeavor was crazy. How, after all, could anyone really believe that we were capable of producing a wine that would achieve the same level of complexity, longevity, and--perhaps the most vexing part of all--terroir-specificity that the greats of Bordeaux had been peddling in for centuries?
    But that’s exactly what Harlan set out to do, and now, all these years later, it is generally a foregone conclusion that his eponymous wine ranks among the top tier in America--and, indeed, the world.
    Which is why the prospect of my flying cross-country for a wine dinner of this caliber was perfectly logical: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of an estate that has arguably done as much to raise the reputation of American wine, and change perceptions of what we are capable of on this side of the Atlantic, as any other, was not to be missed.
    In general, the great wines of the world tend to share a number of important characteristics in common: They express a unique, often idiosyncratic terroir with clarity and honesty; they are produced from top-quality fruit and through fastidious winemaking; they have the potential to evolve over the years into something far more nuanced and elegant than their youth tends to express (but which is typically implied early on); and they do all this year after year, slowing building up what might be called an edifice of reliability, ever-growing complexity, and stylistic character.
    But there are also a number of non-vinous characteristics that the great wines of the world share, and most of these are based in the unique philosophy that is ultimately the wellspring of their creation. For Bill Harlan, he knew exactly what the guiding philosophy of his estate would be from the beginning: It would be a family affair, rooted firmly in the land and created with an eye toward being carried on even after he no longer has a hand in it.
    Businesses that have succeeded for two or three hundred years have three things in common, Harlan pointed out during the dinner. They are based on the land, remain family-owned, and carry no debt. A family, he explained, can pass a culture on from generation to generation, slowly improving without having to worry about quarterly earnings. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to pursue their goals with more freedom, even if the process of achieving them relies more on long-term effort than short.
    With that in mind, he told me, he is trying to instill in his family the importance of the land, his philosophy, and the meaning that Harlan Estate holds for the future.
    The Harlan Estate 25th anniversary dinner, held at the excellent Italian restaurant Poggio in Sausalito, provided the rare opportunity not only to taste a number of Harlan’s wines but to do so alongside beautifully prepared, thoughtfully paired food. The dinner was hosted by Larry Mindel, Poggio’s owner; Peter McNee, its acclaimed executive chef and partner; and the James Beard Foundation,  represented by its president Susan Ungaro, which benefited from the auction that took place that night.
    The Maiden 2005 and Matriarch 2005 led off the meal, paired with a fabulously earthy spit-roasted squab, a tender preparation that highlighted the gaminess of the bird through a generous application of shaved black truffle, well-considered house-cured lardo wrapped around the rare breast, and red wine- and squab stock-braised cipollini whose sweet-savoriness actually threw the earthy notes of the dish into even sharper relief,  accompanied by a lovely crêpinette and mushroom farro.  The Maiden sang with dark, lush berry fruit that really came to the fore when sipped after a bite of lardo-wrapped breast. Even before sampling the food, it showed incredible structure, rich currant and blackberry fruit, notes of fresh asphalt, and a touch of tobacco.
    The Matriarch, on the other hand, was more chocolatey on the mid-palate, its subtle, lush texture lifted by notes of mint, spice, and tobacco. Both of the wines have long lives ahead (a decade or more, surely), yet are wonderful right now with enough time in the decanter.
    (NB: All of the wines served at the dinner had been double-decanted, between 2:45 and 6:30 that day, by Wine Director Gregory Altzman.)
    Next came a single raviolo (above), filled with a tongue-coating, seasoned ricotta, itself topped with a hen yolk before being sealed, all of it plated with brown butter, sage, and enough shaved white truffles to make your average Piedmontese blush; for me, this was the best wine pairing of the night--a magnum of BOND Vecina 1999 that lifted the truffle flawlessly with its fresh aromas of anise and licorice. The palate just exploded with unexpected flashes of sesame, black bean sauce, melted licorice, and an expansive depth that continued to grow throughout the finish. Despite all that, it still maintained a sense of linearity, a core of richness that promises years of further evolution in the bottle.
    Straccoto, red wine-braised short rib and oak-grilled strip steak with porcini, veal jus, and a red wine and marrow butter, were paired with both the Harlan 2000 (the most Bordeaux-like wine of the evening) and the 2004. The former, from a cooler year that winemaker Bob Levy explained made it a bit more approachable, showed an almost Pauillac-like character of soft mushroom notes, sous bois, crushed purple fruits, and excellent acidity. It coated the inside of the mouth and continued to evolve in the glass, picking up hints of caramelized wild strawberries, blackberries, eucalyptus, rich dark cherry, kirsch, and cocoa powder.                                                             Poggio owner Larry MIndel and Bill Harlan
    Levy described the 2004, on the other hand, as possessing more classic Napa richness and power. It’s still young, though, and if I had a bottle in my own collection, I’d find myself conflicted over whether to open it in the next five years or to hold off until it’s a bit more mature. As it stands now, the 2004 looks to have another 15 or more years of evolution left, though at the dinner, with the benefit of double-decanting, it showed magnificent notes of mint, cigar tobacco,  and grilled dark berry fruit, all of it wrapped up in a structure that allowed it to carry on for a 45-second-plus finish.
    The final wine of the night, paired with a Castelmagno cheese soufflé and vin santo-preserved figs, was the Harlan 1997, a legendary bottling and easily one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted--can I give a wine more than 100 points?-- an explosive, palate-coating, almost Port-like mouthful of figs, raisins, scorched earth, and dark sweet cherries. Despite all this richness, though, there was an undeniable sense of place, an exuberance that only could have come from Napa. The perfume of cinnamon, clove, and other warm brown spices wafted up from the glass, the texture such that I had to resist the urge to chew it, and the finish, perfectly balanced, lasted for at least a minute, lingering on with characteristics of sun-warmed wild strawberries, hoisin, and black bean sauce. Even at 12 years of age, it remained remarkably youthful, both magnificent right now and, like the rest of the bottles poured at the dinner, promising a long life ahead.
    First Growth quality, no question--just like Harlan set out to do all those years ago.

Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and food and wine consultant. He is Director of Wine Education for the Wine School of Philadelphia, contributing editor for Philadelphia Style Magazine, wine columnist for Affluent Magazine, and writes the blog for His web site is



Burger King in Tokyo has introduced the spicy "Angry Whopper" with jalapeño peppers, hot sauce, onions, cheese, bacon, tomatoes and lettuce by holding a shouting contest that allows pedestrians to  scream their aggression away, such as,  "I need to get a girlfriend" and "Professor, give me my credits."


Q: In your book "The Nasty Bits," there's an essay in which you state that you would rather put "habitual masturbator" on a visa application than "television personality." You are now six years into "No Reservations." Do you feel more comfortable with the role?

Anthony Bourdain: Nah, not really. It still feels sort of shameful. It's easy work. I know what work is. My expectations of what work is, my concept of work or a profession was formed by 28 years of standing on my feet really working. . . .  Television personality just doesn't sound like a job to me. . . . So, I'll live with celebrity chef, or television personality, but in my heart of hearts, I'd put it on the same level as lighting director on porn film, habitual masturbator, or aspiring arsonist."--
Interview with  Anthony Bourdain by James Leach,  City BNewspaper (11/18/09).



Guidelines for submissions:  QUICK BYTES publishes only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant openings or personnel changes.  When submitting please send the most pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below.  Thanks.  John Mariani

IMPORTANT NOTE: Owing to the number of Christmas holiday and New Year's announcements received, QUICK BYTES cannot publish any but a handful of the most unusual.

*On Dec. 9 in NYC, El Café at El Museo del Barrio, presents guest chef Scott Gottlich of Dallas’ Bijoux Restaurant, serving up Southwestern dishes including Garbanzo Bean Soup, Stewed Lamb Leg with poblano chile, Zamorano with Piquillo pepper and chorizo and Mexican Wedding Cookies.  The menu will be available from Dec. 9-13. Call 212-831-7272.

* On Dec. 13 in Chicago, join Terzo Piano’s chef Meg Colleran and restaurant/beverage manager Ryan Paykert as they lead a holiday-themed cooking and mixology class, showcasing the best winter ingredients, perfect for the Holiday Season.  $25 pp. Call 312-443-8650.

On Dec. 14 in Brooklyn, NY, Bark Hot Dogs will host a special hot dog and sparkling wine pairing event. This guided 5-course dinner will feature both regular and gourmet wieners, each paired with one of Gruet Winery’s multi-award-winning sparkling wines made by the traditional champagne method. Tickets are $30 pp. Call 718-789-1939 or email

* On Dec. 15 in NYC, The Gohan Society Lecture Series & Demonstration at The French Culinary Institute will feature Chef Toshio Suzuki of Sushi Zen, who will  demonstrate a tasting, comparing taste and texture according to the elapsed time after ike-jime, a Japanese fish killing technique.   To RSVP email:

* On Dec. 17, in Riverside, IL, The Chew Chew Restaurant will warm up the holiday season with its  SPANISH WINE DINNER WEEK, featuring  5 courses of Spanish wine & food. $55 pp.Call 708-447-4781 or visit

* From Dec. 21-24 in Chicago, Nacional 27 will present its annual Cuban holiday prix-fixe menu, a four-course, family-style dinner paired with wines.    $45 pp.  Call 312-664-2727;


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."  THIS WEEK: 15 WAYS TO STAY SLIM ON THE ROAD THIS WINTER; David Byrne on Two Wheels.


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

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: 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