Virtual Gourmet

  January 22,   2012                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

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"Pat a Cake" by Walter Crane


GOOD NEWS! now has a new food section  called "Eat Like a Man," which will be featuring restaurant articles by John Mariani and others from around the USA. THIS WEEK: Is Cooking Ever an Art?


by John Mariani

Valbella Midtown
by John Mariani

Cocktails Trump White Wine for Aperitifs
by John Mariani


by John Mariani

    The Valley of the Sun certainly lives up to its name, even when prone to dust storms that can sweep across the entire state. When I last visited it was 110˚and you could have baked a tortilla on the patio.
Phoenix and Scottsdale, with histories that date back 1200 years, are quite different cities, though given the way roads and Interstates are laid out in the Southwest, Scottsdale, with 220,000 people, seems like an extension of the larger city of one million. Phoenix is the business center of the region, but Scottsdale has a disproportionate number of the state's finest hotels and resorts, and many of the area's most exciting restaurants among what seems hundreds of national chains.   Here are some new places in both cities, and one older with a new chef.

The Hermosa Inn
5532 North Palo Cristi Road
Paradise Valley

     Spread over six acres of desert and within sight of Camelback Mountain, The Hermosa Inn incorporates  restored portions of the home and  studio of  cowboy artist Lon Megargee back in the 1930s, and the hotel’s walls are hung with his superb paintings of the west, cowboys, horses, Apaches, landscapes—a vast array of Americana by a highly gifted and very successful artist of his day.
The original Casa Hermosa opened in 1936 and became the current Inn, with upgrades in 1941, with various additions and remodeling over the next few decades, most recently in 2009.There are 34 individually decorated suites at the Inn, all done in the adobe brick style and interiors all have fireplaces that might come in handy this winter. Outside the patios are carefully planted desert gardens along walkways and small bridges that lead to the restaurant, called Lon’s.

    Lon’s is of course very much in the style of all else here, and the main building meanders like a household, with a beautiful thousand-bottle wine cellar room (below) seating 12 guests at a trestle table, and spacious private rooms for meetings and dinners.  The 86-seat main dining room is done  (right) with wood-beamed ceilings, a beehive fireplace, Megargee’s artwork, and the Last Drop Bar is a good place indeed to drop by to get out of the Scottsdale sun, which in summer easily tilts well above 100 degrees.

    Chef Jeremy Pacheco has come on as executive chef at Lon’s, after serving as chef de cuisine at Society Café  in Las Vegas,  as well as at other Steve Wynn venues there, like SW Steakhouse. Before that he had been in Phoenix at The Phoenician and the Sheraton El Conquistador in Tucson, so his ties to the American Southwest are deep and his understanding of its bounty broad.

    With four others, I sat down in the cool wine cellar to an extensive tasting menu that began with ahi tuna seared on a heated block of Himalayan green sea salt, served with pickled onions, “ceviche” soy sauce.  A delicious gazpacho with bay scallops and crab ceviche, laced with  lime olive oil followed, along with heirloom lettuce, roasted local beets, crow’s dairy goat cheese vinaigrette.

    The fish courses was succulent pan-roasted Pacific halibut wild mushrooms, snap peas, cucumber salad, and mushroom-fennel broth, and for the meat, a thick, juicy Berkshire pork loin with crisp belly, cheddar creamed corn, spicy broccoli, and grilled organic peach—a terrifically tasty dish with all the elements of the best contemporary cooking about it.

    With these dishes we drank mostly Arizona wines, then went on to desserts like the “cowboy candy bar” of salted caramel, spiced chocolate, marcona almonds, and coco nib ice cream, which really was a perfect paean to western tastes, along with a Mexican “tira misu” of Ibarra chocolate, mascarpone cream, Patron café anglaise, and Kahlua ice cream.  For a summery dessert there was rhubarb and strawberry pie and an upside down peach cobbler blackberry compote, ginger ice cream.

    This is not just the kind of food you’d hope to find in the Southwest but a testament to the refinement you will find in resorts where everything is very much concentrated on a distinct style. Everything fits together seamlessly, with real individuality, and, unlike some resorts that feel contrived, the backdrop of being the premises of a fine American artist, Lon Megargee, makes it all the more indelible.

Lon’s is not overly expensive, with entrees from $22 to $34 for dinner.  It’s also open for breakfast and lunch and weekend brunch.


Citizen Public House
7111 East 5th Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ

         A trio of very serious professionals give Citizen Public House an edge that a lot of similar casual restaurants in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area just don’t achieve. Owner/partner Andrew Fritz, 
Chef/partner Bernie Kantak and 
Mixologist/partner Richie Moe
have have thought through every detail in this new gastropub, and with its cathedral ceiling, big roomy leather booths, soft lighting, a central bar and family photos, the welcome is warm, the cocktails are impeccably made, and the menu is very tough to choose from because just about everything sounds so delicious.  Add to that plenty of beer on tap and a fine array of spirits and you have a very contemporary American concept.
         There are a lot of snack items like rosemary roasted nuts and—in what is the first of many bacon-inspired foods here— bacon fat flavored popcorn, which is really, really good. They also do a pork belly pastrami with spaetzle and Brussels sprouts; grits and gumbo; and “Bernie’s Mac ‘N Cheese—one of the best I’ve ever tried not to eat all of, a very difficult restraint on my part only because my friends were digging in fast. There's even a welcome take on a modern fondue (left)  that's fun and very convivial for the table.
         There’s a good lamb burger, and the grilled chicken with corn risotto, smoked onions and rich mushroom hash dashed with truffle oil will make you smile broadly at every bite.  Desserts, by Tracey Dempsey, run to the scrumptious—a “black and tan” chocolate pot de crème, caramel pudding, whipped cream, pretzel brittle and brown sugar; bourbon-glazed donut bread pudding; and marvelous chocolate pecan bars with chicory streusel.

Citizen Public House is open daily from 3 PM. Open 7 Days a Week.         



Beckett's Table
3717 East Indian School Road, Phoenix

     Not radically different from Citizen in food style but somewhat more predictable is Beckett’s Table, which has the atmosphere of a handsome family eatery, where Chef Justin Beckett serves a menu with something for everyone on it.  Its location in an unattractive strip mall—not unusual for a restaurant of substance out there—masks a good-looking dining room with open kitchen, exposed beams and concrete floor, kind of like the ultimate rumpus room. The menu has appetizers, soups, mains, sides, and on Wednesday, 3-course family dinners, including wine, at 5:30 PM.
Of the starters I tried I liked most the grilled cheese with pancetta, four cheeses, and a bowl roasted red pepper tomato soup on the side, which just goes to prove that old luncheonette favorites can be done with considerable panache in the hands of a good chef.  The zucchini pancakes are also a good choice.
    Among main courses, I recommend the excellent, velvety pork osso buco confit with vegetable spaetzle and a pepper reduction.  Beckett has a real knack with pork: it shows well in his green chile pork stew, with cornbread and cotija cheese. Grits and sausage (left) will leave no one hungry for more--it's a hefty dish.
    For dessert I liked the gooey fig and pecan pie with cream cheese, but his -s’mores dipped in chocolate are as wrongheaded as any dish I’ve had in recent memory.
    The wine list is a very solid one, printed on one broadsheet, with an app laudable number of Arizona and southwestern wines that includes a terrific Pillsbury One Night Stand Sangiovese Rosé from Tombstone.

Beckett’s Table is open for dinner Tues.-Sun.; Appetizers run $5-$10, mains $13-$19.

Nobuo at Teeter House
622 East Adams Street, Phoenix

  Relocated from a cement block of a small eatery to a turn-of-the-century, wood-floored bungalow, Nobuo Fukuda has been able to deepen the already very broad izikaya-style menu that won him justifiable high praise at SeaSaw, which closed two years ago.   
Fukuda (below) is very much a local hero, especially in a region without many sushi masters. Born and raised in Tokyo, he  first made his mark in Phoenix at the Asian fusion Restaurant Hapa with chef-owner James McDevitt. After wowing everybody at SeeSaw, which really was tiny, he now has more space and time, so that in the daytime Teeter House is a Japanese tea room with snacks and beer. In the evening it turns into a restaurant with  8-course tasting meals on Friday and Saturday, with 24 hours' notice.  As ever, Fukuda does almost all the prep and cooking, working in front of you at the counter if you like, which are the best seats in the house.
      It is useless for me to tell you what I ate when I visited some months ago, especially because the change of seasons changes Fukuda’s ideas, which come fast and furious as he works with whatever he discovered that day to suit his fancy.  I can certainly vouch for the creativity and refinement, the subtlety and the textural contrast of all the dishes he prepared for me by slicing, saucing from an array of tubes and bottles, and composing them with  little microgreens and touches of herbs.  A tasting meal will always include several varieties of sashimi, followed by something like five spice braised oxtail, and ending with an array of pastries. The whole deal is only $40. (Otherwise you can order a la carte at equally modest prices.)
         The best thing is just to go, see what’s on the menu and choose from what’s new and exciting.  There will always be plenty of both, crystallizing Fukuda’s reputation as one of the best chefs in the west. 

Open for lunch and dinner daily.



by John Mariani

Photos by Deva Vu Studios

Valbella Midtown

520 Madison Avenue (off 53rd Street)

    The success of a restaurant is more easily counted in years than in branches, but now, with three Valbellas in the region--in Greenwich, CT, the Meat Market District of NYC, and the newest in midtown Manhattan (and another similar restaurant named Tutta Bella in Scarsdale, NY), owner David Ghatanfard has achieved both distinctions. The original Greenwich restaurant opened in 1992 and built upon a clientele from the Gold Coast that came for first-rate, simply prepared continental cuisine and an astounding wine list of more than 1,400 selections. The Meat Market unit is now almost seven years old and going very strong in that location. The newest branch takes over the former Alto space, once run by Scott Conant and Chris Cannon, then by Mr. Cannon and Chef Michael White, still a split last year made the business apparently unviable.
    But it is the rare piece of real estate in Manhattan that goes vacant for very long, and Mr. Ghatanfard has come to fill the bi-level space with Valbella, which, like its namesakes,
is absolutely driven by its ingredients.  I know some of Mr. Ghatanfard's purveyors in the Bronx, and they tell me that he purchases nothing but the finest and what's best in the market that day.  Thus, if there are perfect Nantucket bay scallops, Valbella will have them; Dover sole of the unstinting quality? Valbella offers them as a special; white truffles just in? The most fragrant will be at Valbella.  This may make for a high tab at night's end, but you will get the very best, and the price will probably not be quite as high as elsewhere in Manhattan for inferior ingredients.

    Mr. Ghatanfard has taken the former premises, once rather broken up in design and glowing with eerie blue light, and made the space flow better in a minimalist design that at the moment is bathed in a violet light, which is surprisingly flattering to the complexion. Still, it is an odd choice of color, one that might well be modulated or changed in the future. To the left of the main dining room (above) is the smaller, impressive wine room (left), and upstairs two private dining rooms (below) The service staff needs some seasoning and at this point can be a little to chummy.

    The menu, by Chef Joe Giordano, is pretty much a duplicate of the 13th Street Valbella.  Best way to begin, then, is with a lavish platter of shellfish--lobster, clams, mussels, oysters, and shrimp--for the table, beautifully presented and served with three dipping sauces.  Otherwise you will not be disappointed by the burrata with prosciutto and greens or the carpaccio of beef with arugula and shaved parmigiano.
    Valbella does a fine job with its nine pastas, including, at the moment, a very special trenette with black and white truffles in a cream sauce of daunting richness.  Fat paccheri with garlic, oil and a roasted lamb ragù, a hint of peperoncini and tomato is a fine and hearty dish for winter, and spaghetti cacio e pepe is toothsome but overwrought with a julienne of vegetables and a blanketing cheese sauce. Risotto Adriatico begins with Canaroli rice cooked tender and served with langoustine and crabmeat in a langoustine sauce, a really lavish dish, so  as a main course, its $36 price tag may not seem so outrageous (pastas may be had in a very generous half-portions).  

  For fish, you'd have to have a good reason to go beyond the fabulous Dover sole, and for meat I cannot recommend too highly a massive dish of veal chop stuffed with burrata cheese over baby asparagus and prosciutto in a translucent Madeira sauce splashed with rosemary flakes.  An equally large, pounded scaloppine of veal is breaded, carefully sautéed and served with a light lemon-white wine sauce.
    Mr. Ghatanfard has a long history of stocking magnificent wine cellars, and while this midtown Valbella's is not as extensive as the nonpareil and very beautiful cellar in Connecticut, it is stocked with an impressive array of bottlings, not least in Italian wines, every one at exactly 58 degrees. The prices themselves are not over the top but the listing of so many bottles well above $100 is. There should be far more wines under $60.
    Desserts are very much in the style of what precedes them, big, gooey, and easy to share, like the molten chocolate cake and the cheesecake.
    One NYC restaurant critic cracked that Valbella is a kind of suburban restaurant trying to pass in the big city. In fact, Valbella, which is not cheap, has been long the most successful restaurants in the Meat Packing District for years now, serving a style of Italian-NY and continental food that has never gone out of style.  And the packed crowd on a recent weekday night at the new version in midtown strongly suggests that people will be coming here in a festive mood for a very long to come.

Valbella Midtown is open Mon.-Fri.  for lunch and dinner and on Sat. for dinner only. Appetizers run $14-$25, pastas (full portions)  $28-$36, and main courses $30-$41.



Caviar Martinis and Sazeracs
Trump White Wine as an Aperitif

by John Mariani

     Those old enough to remember the ‘70s will recall that the ubiquitous offerings at every cocktail party were onion dip, Brie and cheap white wine. Except for a lonely bottle of vodka, booze was not much in evidence at parties back then; indeed, the whole notion of drinking a glass of white wine as an aperitif was one of the defining marks of being a yuppie, along with Ralph Lauren polo shirts and the 300-series BMW. I also recall one conservative columnist in the ‘80s using the phrase “cheese-eating, white wine-drinking liberals.” Ouch!
         Those white wines got better as the years went on, with a far greater variety of sauvignon blancs, rieslings, malvasias and viogniers to along with California chardonnay and Italian pinot grigio. But as cocktail culture made a comeback in the ‘90s, with myriad martinis, cosmos, and margaritas in fashion, the idea of sipping a glass of wine as an aperitif now seems almost quaint.
    I have nothing against drinking a white wine that really does stir the appetite, like a spicy gewürztraminer, a tangy riesling, or an aromatic moscato. The French wine aperitif Lillet is made from white wines, but with the addition of 14 percent macerated liqueurs made from orange peel and quinine. Champagne, of course, has the virtue of bubbles that tingle on the tongue and throat, much as seltzer does in a cocktail. Adding orange juice (a mimosa) or cassis (Kir royale) improves the prospects before dinner.
    “We only have very few white wines by the glass,” says Alexandre Petrossian, manager of Petrossian Restaurant in New York. “The dryness of the wine puts the palate to sleep and doesn’t go well with our caviar. The only white wine that works well is a Pouilly-Fumé, with a nice smoky flavor that helps bind together the flavors. Otherwise, half our guests order Champagne, and we serve a Caviar Martini (below) made with a cube of pressed caviar in a glass of very, very cold Russian vodka with cucumber. Men first order it and when the women taste it, they order one too.”
    In Paris a meal is likely to begin with Champagne, but, according to the longtime bartender Colin Field (below) at the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, “
White wine has often been the answer when the talents of the bartender are apparently diminished in the cocktail field. But due to the growing excellence of the, already very good, American bartenders, not to mention those French bartenders who often have done up to three years hotel school in order to become a bartender, it indeed would be a shame not to take advantage of the growing talent of bartenders around the world.” The most popular drink at the Hemingway Bar these days is the Raspberry Martini, made with a maceration of fresh raspberries in vodka over 3 months, then filtered and frozen and served in a frozen Martini glass.
         The word “aperitif,” dating in English to 1894 (“cocktail” appears a century earlier) is from French, meaning to “open up,” specifically to waken the palate for the meal to come.  Wine, white or red, can do that—and some rapid enophiles insist that liquor dulls the palate—but they don’t call a cocktail a pick-me-up for nothing.
         The idea of adding bitters to a drink was in fact designed to spur the appetite, and bitter/sweet liquors like vermouth, Cynar, and Campari are the bases for drinks like the negroni and americano. “In Italy having a cocktail is a ritual necessary to a civilized meal,” says Pino Luongo, owner of the two-month New York Italian restaurant Morso. “The French and Italians invented the aperitif. A little sweetness, a little acid, maybe some fizz from prosecco, it is extremely pleasant to the palate and very refreshing.”
         In New Orleans, cocktail culture has been in full swing since the early 19th century. “New Orleans is a Southern town with a reverence for rituals,” says Christopher Ycaza, general manager of Galatoire’s (opened 1905), “so jumping into dinner without a proper cocktail here is like entering an athletic competition without doing the proper calisthenics.” At Galatoire’s (below) the favorite cocktail is a sazerac, for Sunday brunch, a brandy milk punch.
         My own drink of choice before dinner is a daiquiri—just rum, lime juice, and sugar—concocted just after the Spanish-American War by Jennings S. Cox, chief engineer of the Daiquiri iron mines in the town of Daiquiri, outside of Santiago, Cuba. There were plenty of limes, sugar, and Cuban rum around, so he named the drink after the mining town.  By 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald made it the rage drink among flappers in his novel This Side of Paradise.
         Since so many young bartenders these days haven’t a clue how to make one, the recipe is printed on the back of my business card. Try putting your own on your card. You’re pretty much guaranteed a good aperitif. 

John Mariani's 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.


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

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

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).

The Family Travel Forum
 - A community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" and want to make family vacations more fun, less work and better value. FTF's travel and parenting features, including reviews of tropical and ski resorts, reunion destinations, attractions, holiday weekends, family festivals, cruises, and all kinds of vacation ideas should be the first port of call for family vacation planners.

Family Travel Forum

                                                                    ALL YOU NEED 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: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright,  and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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