Virtual Gourmet

December 20,  2009                                                                 NEWSLETTER

                                                                            Coca-Cola Ad 1947 by Haddon Sunblom

 Merry Christmas, Everyone!


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In This Issue

A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN THE BRONX by John and Robert Mariani

Eleven Madison Park by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Champagne Sales Fizzle, So Bubblies Are a Better Buy for the Holidays
by John Mariani



by John and Robert Mariani

Maybe it didn't snow for Christmas every year in the Bronx back in the '50s. But my memory of at least one perfect snow-bound Christmas Eve makes me think it did often enough that I still picture my neighborhood as white as Finland in those days when I lived along the choppy waters of the Long Island Sound.
          But for all the decorations and the visits to stores and Rockefeller Center, it was the sumptuous Christmas feasts that helped maintain our families' links to the Old Country long after most other immigrant traditions had faded away. Food was always central to everyone's thoughts at Christmas, and the best cooks in each family were renowned for specific dishes no one else dared make.
          The assumption that everything would be exactly the same as last year was as comforting as knowing that Christmas Day would follow Christmas Eve. The finest ancestral linens were ironed and smoothed into place, dishes of hard candy were set out on every table, and the kitchen ovens hissed and warmed our homes for days.  The reappearance of the old dishes, the irresistible aromas, tastes and textures, even the seating of family members in the same spot at the table year after year anchored us to a time and a place that was already changing more rapidly than we could understand.
           It's funny now to think that my memories of the food and the dinners are so much more intense than those of toys and games I received, but that seems true of most people. The exact taste of Christmas cookies, the sound of beef roasting in its pan, and the smell of evergreen mixed with the scent of cinnamon and cloves and lemon in hot cider were like holy incense in church, unforgettable, like the way you remember your parents' faces when they were young.
          No one in our neighborhood was poor but few were rich. Yet we mounted feasts as lavish as any I could imagine in a book, and in the days preceding Christmas people took enormous joy in spending their money on foods only eaten during that season.
          It was still a time when the vegetable man would sell his produce from an old truck on Campbell Drive, and Dugan's and Krug's bread men came right to your door with special holiday cupcakes and cookies.  We'd go to Biancardi's Meats on Arthur Avenue, while the butcher on Middletown Road usually carried fresh fish only on Fridays, but he was always well stocked with cod, salmon, lobsters and eel during the holidays.  The pastry shops worked overtime to bake special Christmas breads and cakes, which would be gently wrapped in a swaddling of very soft pink tissue paper tied up with ribbons and sometimes even sealed with wax to deter anyone from opening it before Christmas.
          By Christmas Eve the stores ran out of everything, and pity the poor cook who delayed buying her chestnuts, ricotta cheese, or fresh yeast until it was too late. Weeks in advance the women would put in their order at the live poultry market for a female rabbit--not a male-- or a goose that had to weigh exactly twelve pounds.
         You always knew what people were cooking for Christmas because the aromas hung in the hallways of the garden apartments and the foyers of their homes-- garlicky tomato sauces, roast turkeys, rich shellfish stews, and the sweet, warm smells of pastries and breads could make you dizzy with hunger.  When you went out into the cold, those aromas would slip out the door and mingle with the biting sea-salted air and the fresh wet snow swept in off the Sound.
          At the Italian homes in the Bronx ancient culinary rituals were followed long after they'd lost their original religious symbolism.  The traditional meatless meal of Christmas Eve-- "La Vigilia"-- which began centuries ago as a form of penitential purification, developed into a robust meal of exotic seafood dishes that left one reeling from the table.  According to the traditions of Abruzzi, where my father's family came from, the Christmas Eve dinner should be composed of seven or nine dishes--mystical numbers commemorating the seven sacraments and the Holy Trinity multiplied by three.  This was always my Auntie Rose's shining moment. She would cook with the zeal and energy of a dozen nuns, beginning with little morsels of crisply fried calamari.  She made spaghetti on a stringed utensil called a "ghitarra" and served it with a sauce teeming with shellfish.  Next came an enormous pot of lobster fra diavolo--a powerful coalescence of tomato, garlic, onion, saffron and hot red peppers, all spooned into soup plates around shiny, scarlet-red lobsters that some guests attacked with daunting, unbridled gusto while others took their dainty time extracting every morsel of meat from the deepest recesses of the body, claws and legs.
          Few children would eat baccala, a strong-smelling salted cod cooked for hours in order to restore its leathery flesh to edibility, and stewed eel, an age-old symbol of renewal, was a delicacy favored mostly by the old-timers. But everyone waited for the dessert--the yeasty, egg bread called "panettone," shaped like a church dome and riddled with golden raisins and candied fruit.

    Christmas Day came too early for everyone but the children, but as soon as presents were exchanged, my mother and grandmother would begin work on the lavish Christmas dinner to be served that afternoon. It was always a mix of regional Italian dishes and American novelties, like the incredibly rich, bourbon-laced egg nog my father insisted on serving before my grandmother's lasagna, in which were hidden dozens of meatballs the size of hazelnuts. Then my mother would set down a massive roast beef, brown and crackling on the outside, red as a poinsettia within, surrounded by sizzling roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding glistening from the fat absorbed from the beef.  Dessert reverted to venerable Italian tradition with my grandmother's prune-and-chocolate filled pastries and honeyed cookies called "struffoli."  And someone always brought panforte, an intensely rich, thick Sienese fruit and nut cake no one could more than a sliver of.
           After such a meal, we needed to go for a walk in the cold air. In other homes up and down our block people were feasting on Norwegian lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, German stollen, Irish plum pudding and American gingerbread. If you stopped and listened for a moment, you could hear the families singing carols in their native tongue.
          By early evening people got ready to leave and leftovers were packed up to take home, belying everyone's protest that they wouldn't eat for days afterwards.
          By then the snow had taken on an icy veneer and the wind died down to a whisper.  I remember how the cold air magnified sounds far, far away, so as I crept into bed I could hear the waves lapping the sea wall and the rattling clack-clack, clack-clack of the El running from Buhre Avenue to Middletown Road. It was a kind of lullaby in those days, when it never failed to snow on Christmas in the Bronx.

This story is excerpted from Almost Golden by Robert and John Mariani (see below).


by John Mariani
11 Madison Avenue

     Having won every high accolade possible in the three years he's been at Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Humm has risen to the top ranks of New York's great chefs. Swiss-born, Humm distinguished himself at Campton Place in San Francisco, but in NYC he has soared and created a style not quite like anyone else's in the haute cuisine firmament.  And he does so within one of the loveliest and most majestic of NYC restaurants, the ground floor  of a 1930s skyscraper with 30-foot ceilings.  Rather than being imposing, the way the huge windows and the chandeliers, the colors of the wood and the well-coordinated booths work in harmony make everything that could be cold, convivial.
      On a recent visit he showed how he has grown in his role, with a series of dishes that were his and his alone, beginning with Sterling royal caviar with morsels of smoked Columbia River sturgeon in a rich panna cotta--this, just to set up the appetite.  Four of us shared two tasting menus, so we had plenty ot judge by.  Hawaiian prawns came as a crisp roulade with avocado laced with lime and yogurt (below); a cappuccino of sea urchin took the texture of Peekytoe crab.  A simple slowly poached egg made a dinnertime appearance with wild mushrooms and frogs' legs (the menu notes that they were from the Everglades).
      Humm knows just when to pull back on a dish--although some of it is looking increasingly fussy on the plate, with a dab of this, a swirl of that--evident in ricotta gnocchi with violet artichokes, olives, and a bit of bacon; anything more and the flavors and textures would be messy.  Dover sole, nice and fat, was slowly cooked too, served with masutaki mushrooms sabayon and nasturtiums, a  dish that seemed a tad precious. Atlantic pink snapper came in a light saffron-endive nage with a subtlety of ginger. Muscovy duck--with real flavor--was glazed with a honey lavender (below), served with tender fennel, cranberries, and spices. Organic blue foot chicken (a current infatuation of chefs) also had a fine flavor and texture, roasted with lemon, rosemary, and welcome black truffles.  By the way, the service staff here, among the very finest and well-trained in NYC, is wonderfully deft at carving these birds, doing their quiet ministry as if no bone dare resist the blade except to get out of the way.
     A "Kir Royale" with cassis, lemon meringue and Champagne emulsion was a witty idea that worked. "Flavors of autumn" came as Amedei chocolate, Piedmontese hazelnuts, and espresso, and then there was, too, Araguani chocolate ganache with a delightful sweet potato dauphine and chestnut honey.  (Usually I sigh when I read so many provenance names attached to ingredients, but the ingredients here are so excellent, you'll probably ask where they come from anyway.)
       I suspect Eleven Madison Park is restaurateur Danny Meyer's proudest achievement, although it runs neck and neck with the impeccably serene restaurant at The Modern. His Gramercy Tavern is superb but has gotten overly casual; Union Square Café remains his most lovable; Tabla has been reconfigured downstairs, and Blue Smoke rolls on with better and better barbecue, while the phenomenon of Shake Shack is getting international legs.  But at Eleven Madison Park, Meyer's finest instincts are at work.  The winelist is stocked and maintained not as a trophy collection but as an adventure for both sommeliers and guests to explore. It's the kind of place that when you order a cocktail, they bring you an informational  note on the liquor used. Nice, and unique touch. If the word "sophistication" has any currency, it might be affixed to the door of Eleven Madison Park--but then, that would not be sophisticated to do.

         The restaurant is open  daily for lunch and dinner. A 3-course dinner is $88, with a 7-course tasting menu at $125, and seasonal 11-course menu at $175.


Champagne Sales Fizzle, So Bubblies Are a Better Buy for the Holidays
by John Mariani

     If they’re lucky, the makers of Champagne will have flat sales this holiday season, after a brutal year when overall sales of many of the best-known labels dropped up to 50 percent for non-vintage bottlings and up to 85 percent for the priciest vintage prestige cuvées.
      As reported by, prices have plummeted in the UK, with labels like Bollinger, Moët & Chandon, Lanson Black Label, and Nicolas Feuillatte selling at less than half in some stores. As Bertrand de Fleurian, USA President for Laurent-Perrier, told this reporter, "We have adjusted our prices accordingly. In fact, our prices are lower than two years ago, even with the strength of the euro."
      There have also been reports of Champagne vineyards deliberately left with grapes on the vine, so as not to increase volume.
      All of which is good for the consumer, whose reluctance to celebrate anything during this recession has caused the sales of the world’s most celebratory wine to lose its fizz.  This has also been good for non-Champagne bubblies, like Spanish cavas, California sparkling wine, and Italian prosecco. This last, according to The Nielson Co. marketing firm, saw an increase in sales in the second half of 2008 and first half of 2009 to $24 million, up from $19 million for the same period in 2007-2008.
      A tasting of 15 vintage Champagnes by the Wine Media Guild in New York gave me ample evidence that very fine Champagne is available at some pretty good prices right now. Oddly enough, one of the priciest of the sampling—Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Prestige Cuvée 1998 ($120) was terribly oxidized (I tasted two different bottles to make sure). A week later, though, I tasted a third bottle that it was not oxidized; instead it showed elegance and complexity but was also showing its age and should be drunk soon. The $120 Bollinger La Grande Année Brut 1999 smelled musty and lacked any distinctive vintage character. Some, like the G.H. Mumm Cuvée Rene Lalou Brut Prestige 1998 ($150) had little body, tasting almost watery.
      But there was plenty to love, especially in the 1999 vintage, which is now showing a fine equilibrium of fruit and minerals with that patina of age that gives it character. Here are the Champagnes I most enjoyed and believe worth their price.

Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2000 ($60)—If you like a good burst of citrus in your Champagne, this is a fine example, made from 100 percent Grands Crus Chardonnays.  Ayala, owned by Bollinger since 2005, has had the same cellarmaster for a quarter century, Nicolas Klym, and the creamy style of the marquee is rewarding, especially in this vintage.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($95)—Pol Roger has been aggressive in its global reach over the past few years, not least modernizing its facilities as of 2004. But this, older 1999 vintage shows the richness achievable in an all-chardonnay Champagne.  It begins with a light floral bouquet but really develops on the mid-palate, with plenty of vanilla and lemon flavors.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($75)—For a Blanc de Blancs, this, too, is showing exceptional body. The house is the fifth oldest in the region, and they never produce more than 50,000 cases. Aged on the lees for five years, it has developed a rewarding balance on every count—fruit, minerality, and vintage character.                                           Blending the Henriot Cuvée

Taittinger Millésime Brut 2002 ($70)—James Bond’s favorite marque, Taittinger is one of the loveliest, full-fruited Champagnes, drawing on a vast number of its own vineyards and other growers to maintain the voluptuous house style. The toasty yeast notes, the fresh scent of pineapple all coalesce in a Champagne consistently among the most rewarding.

Laurent-Perrier Brut 1999 ($60)—A very good price for a very fine Champagne, Laurent-Perrier has made a big push into the U.S. market since first arriving in 1998. The style is elegant but the 52-48 mix of chardonnay and pinot noir, along with a light dosage, give this a bold, modern edge that goes with a wide variety of foods, from shellfish to chicken.

Pommery Brut 1999 ($70)—The aroma bolts from the glass, the minerality is in ample supply, and the aging has worked to give this an ideal balance that should be even better in a year or two. I have always found their top-of-the-line Cuvee Louise too bone dry, but this blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier has the light fruit sweetness that for me characterizes a beverage that is, after all, made from grapes.

Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs Brut Prestige Cuvée 1995 ($135)—This was the most expensive of the wines I liked most, and, if you’re feeling flush, this is worth the price.  It has the complexity that comes from its aging and a truly luscious, creamy texture that went well with a dish served at lunch that day at the restaurant Felidia: Ravioli filled with cheese and unsweetened chocolate with tender broccoli di rape and gratings of amaretti almond cookies. A triumph of complex flavors!

     By the way, I’ve found that in most cases, these Champagnes can be found cheaper in stores and online than the posted retail prices I’ve given here.

John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis.


In Winnipeg, Canada, dozens of people dressed in Santa Claus suits headed off to numerous nightclubs for the eighth straight year for a social gathering known as Santacon.  With Twisted Sister's version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" blaring from the audio system, organizer Adam Dudek explained,"It's our way of celebrating Christmas. I don't want to simplify it, but it's basically just an opportunity to get drunk and run amok."


"It feels like some distant corner of the terminal at Reno International, a concrete box with exposed mechanicals and an awkward step-down to seating near a scuffed-up open kitchen. But the food? From an unlikely location in the blandly named Sundance Kitchen, manager Pat Da Silva and her cooks are producing Hawaiian plate-lunch dishes that are among the tastiest, most meticulously plated you're likely to encounter. Maybe anywhere. Take the loco moco ($9.95, available at lunch only), a staple of the rice-and-macaroni-salad genre. A typical version in the drop-ceiling, suburban strip-mall class of Hawaiian joint skews diner fry-up: a pair of fried eggs lapped against a hefty clot of rice with gray, overcooked hamburger patty and pale, starchy gravy. Not here. Sundance Kitchen's loco moco literally rises up, a soft circle of fried egg suspended over the grilled ground beef patty and molded rice. It's a vertical hobbit landscape, a fat toadstool glazed with shiny gravy dark as oiled teak."--John Birdsall, "Hawaiian revival: Sundance Kitchen presents well-conceived island fare," SFWeekly (11/30/09).


IMPORTANT NOTE: Owing to the number of Christmas holiday and New Year's announcements received, QUICK BYTES can only list the most unusual.

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

Starting Dec. 21, and running every Mon-Thu through Jan. in Astoria, Queens, Da Franco Italian Restaurant is unveiling a “pasta fest” special.  The special includes a bowl of home-made pasta, a piece of fresh baked focaccia and a glass red or white wine.  Diners can choose from 5 pastas.  $19.95 per person.  Call 718-267-0010.

* From Jan.-Feb.  Strip House in Houston, is celebrating their five-year anniversary with a special 5 for $55 menu. The 5-course menu features a "best of" compilation of some of Strip House's most famous dishes.   Call 713-659-6000.

* On Jan. 1-2, Kitano New York’s Hakubai Restaurant will feature traditional New Year’s Osechi lunch and dinner, thought to bring good health, fertility, a good harvest and a long life in the coming year. The 6-course lunch selection is $90 pp, and the 7-course dinner $115 pp. Reservations are required and will be accepted from Dec. 1-31. Call 212-885-7111.

* From Jan. 7-9, 2010 in Walland, TN, Blackberry Farm will host “Taste of the South” with the Southern Foodways Alliance, benefitting the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans and Chefs. With the induction of KY’s distiller Julian Van Winkle into the fellowship, Larry Turley of  Turley Cellars.  Courses by Chef Joe Truex of Repast in Atlanta; Chef John Shields and Chef Karen Urie of Town House in Chilhowie, VA;  Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville;  and Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC. $400 pp. in addition to lodging rates at Blackberry Farm, Call 1-800-993-7849.

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: GREAT HOTEL STAYS 2009


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