Virtual Gourmet

  February 26,   2012                                                                                               NEWSLETTER

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On Thurs. March 8, John Mariani will moderate a panel at The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) with César Award winner, former Chanel model, and expert wine producer Carole Bouquet for a special talk on the occasion of International Women’s Day at 7 PM at FIAF’s Le Skyroom. The iconic actress and personality, recently decorated Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, will speak with noted food writer and historian John Mariani about her prolific career as an actress, her passion for gastronomy and art, and her delicate wine, Sangue d’Oro, produced on the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily. Le Skyroom, 22 E 60th Street (between Park and Madison Avenue); FIAF Members $20, Non-Members $25; | 800 982 2787.

On Sunday, March 11, John Mariani will give a lecture and book signing of his book  How Italian Food Conquered the World at Tomasso Trattoria Enoteca in Southborough,  Massachusetts from 5 PM-8 PM;   Call 508-481-8484.



Rancho Pescadero, Mexico
by Carey Sweet


by John Mariani


by Carey Sweet


        “This really is a highway,” my driver said, as we bumped the shiny black town car down the dirt road winding between cactus-studded mountains. We had been navigating our rough course for more than an hour since leaving Cabo, on our way toward the tiny town of Todos Santos, situated on the Pacific coast southwest of La Paz.
    Normally, the surface is a black ribbon of asphalt, he promised, but the passage was being rebuilt, which apparently necessitated its complete destruction. “The resort is right around the bend,” he said, as we thumped down an even more mottled road past fields strewn with piled tree debris in various stages of controlled fire, strawberry and basil plots, and a donkey grazing on weeds. We had seen a hint of civilization a few minutes earlier: the El Pescadero Pemex gas station, and an espresso café tucked into a shack.
    And then we came around that bend, and there sprawled Rancho Pescadero, an extravagant hacienda framed by palapa-topped buildings, palm trees and lush green shrubbery accented by brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea, and a 2,000 square foot yoga pavilion all nestled on 15 acres fronting the ocean.
    To say that this resort is an unexpected jewel in an unlikely spot is a cliché, but there you have it. Since opening in November of 2009 by San Francisco entrepreneur Lisa Harper, buzz has been, well, buzzing, about this destination that combines the intimacy of a bed-and-breakfast with the remoteness of a secluded hideaway, with the luxury of a four-star hotel.
    A valet led me to my accommodations, past an intimate al fresco restaurant accented with elaborate iron chandeliers on its overhangs, a sleek outdoor bar, and a spectacular swimming pool that spanned over several levels, including a raised area set with chaise beds right in the water. Immediately, I felt my sloth gene kick into overdrive.There are only 27 rooms, actually all-suite casitas wrapped in mango-colored pulido, a local adobe of clay soil with cement. My abode spanned two stories, starting with an enormous bedroom and lounge opening to walls that slid completely into compartments, so that the space flowed across polished concrete floors laid with hand-woven rugs to a huge, palapa-trimmed balcony. To the side was a luxury bath with a soaking tub plus a farmhouse sink that could have doubled as a tub, too. A curved metal staircase snaked up from the balcony next to a private bar and plush outdoor day bed, and upstairs, I discovered a rooftop retreat complete with yet another bed shrouded in romantic netting.
    There are no clocks anywhere at Rancho Pescadero. For the first few hours, I checked my laptop for time (the wi-fi was great), and then suddenly realized how ridiculous that was. The 20-some-seat restaurant is open all day and much of the night. A margarita can be had at nearly all hours. The tides and sun would chart my schedule for the next week, except for appointments I’d made for a surfing lesson, and with the masseuse who works with local herb lotions in a gracious, chic little cabana near the ocean.
    When Harper first discovered this property more than a decade ago, her vision was to build a private home as an escape from the demands of her former career as a clothing design executive, and then CEO of Gymboree. That residence still exists, as a second section of rooms with a private swimming pool. But she apparently sought to “share the love,” and I’m glad she did, since it meant that I started each day with a splendid breakfast, easily the best machaca eggs I’ve ever enjoyed.
    Rancho’s executive chef is named Rodrigo Bueno, and before landing in the Baja, he was executive sous chef at chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market Restaurant. For his machaca, he braises the dried beef to juiciness and melds it with fluffy scrambled eggs, ripe avocado and crema, tucked into warm flour tortillas.  Alongside are creamy refried beans stabbed with crunchy tortilla chips for scooping, and a dish of fiery salsa, all served on the patio (right).

    Chilaquiles (below) are fantastic, too, reminding me why this simple dish can be so sumptuous when made by a good kitchen. Chef Bueno piles the soft, spicy-sauced tortilla chips with tender strips of roast chicken, adds a silky perfect poached egg alongside, and smoothies a pond of those heavenly refried beans. No matter that each morning began with complimentary fresh fruit, pastries and coffee delivered to my door, I always found room more a second meal.
    Through breakfast, lunch and dinner, Bueno draws on locally grown organic fruits, veggies and still-flapping ocean catches. Grounds have been prepped for the resort’s own one-and-a-half acre organic garden next to a new special events kitchen and casa off the front driveway; besides the set menu, Bueno concocts an impressive selection of daily specials – more remarkable given his audience of diners are often just the small community of a few dozen guests, and savvy visitors who have learned that the restaurant is open to the public.    He’s got a knack for fancy presentations, such as artfully plated catch of the day napped in tamarind coconut broth, Baja shrimp ranchero with corn masa polenta and sautéed Rancho Pescadero vegetables, or Mexican chocolate panna cotta finished in salted caramel.
    Some notable culinary mentors have fallen in love with Rancho Pescadero, too: Jeff and Susan Mall, owners of the acclaimed Zin Restaurant and Eastside Farm in Healdsburg, California,  consulted with Harper to plant the first garden and helped create the opening menus. They now return several times a year to expand the recipes and oversee the plantings for tomatoes, peppers, squash, baby carrots and herbs. Their efforts are surprisingly successful for the desert, aided by a natural aquifer that nourishes abundant chiles, mangoes, avocados and papayas. Given the good ingredients, some of the best dishes are the simplest, like the pasta pestodero made with Mall’s pesto of mint, basil, fresh lime juice, toasted almonds, and roasted jalapeños tossed with pasta, zucchini and cherry tomatoes under a snow flurry of crumbled Mexican goat’s cheese.
    While it’s easy never to leave the resort – indeed, one couple in the casita next to me had been encamped for a month, and told me quite proudly that they had only gone off-site twice – it’s easy to explore, too. Rancho sits six miles south of Todos Santos (left), a tiny, sleepy but packed-to-the-brim town glittering with art, jewelry and clothing shops, a handful of notable restaurants and other hotels like the Hotel California, which some like to say inspired the famous Eagles’ song in 1976, not.
    Rancho reserves drivers to ferry guests back and forth, and it’s worth an afternoon to poke around the eucalyptus and palm lined dirt roads, admiring the well-preserved brick buildings of the “Pueblo Magico,” the square in front of the church, the Teatro Marquez de Léon old-fashioned cinema, and ubiquitous Tropic of Cancer curio stands. My plan had been to take lunch at Café Santa Fe one afternoon, but owners Ezio and Paula Colombo had gone on vacation, decided to stay away longer than anticipated and their eatery was closed. Too bad --the café, housed in a beautifully restored 1850s building in the historical district, is celebrated for its Italian-Baja cuisine. Yet such is the roll-with-it beauty of this sun-soaked region – and certainly another tasty meal awaited me at Barajas Taco/Happy Fish nearby, an open-air casual charmer with carnitas, seafood and carne asada stuffed into just-made tortillas.
    If Italian food didn’t seem like a predictable beach town feast, then I had a more difficult time grasping Michael’s at the Gallery, which opened in late 2008 with an Asian themed menu. Yet after my first bite, I bought in.  At this open air restaurant attached to an art gallery, we watched chef-owner Michael Cope cook panko fish with curry sauce in his exposition kitchen on the edge of our dining patio, and when we’re done, we wander his art salon and admire that he his skill with that second, demanding craft.
    With all the joys of the town, one thing to keep in mind is that this area isn’t for everyone. Quite literally. As I wandered about, it struck my how quiet this peaceful part of the world was. Deserted, no, just blissfully silent. Then, bingo!, it hit me: many Todos Santos lodgings, including Rancho Pescadero, are adults-only. Dogs, welcome. Kids? Nope.
    Another day, only one thing, surfing, could lure me from my cocoon of Pescadero pleasure. Oh, that margarita awaited me at my poolside chaise, a siren of fresh fruit and sparkly spice, but Rancho’s sympathetic bartender packed me one to-go for my 20-minute drive a few of miles south to Cerritos Beach. While Rancho’s private beach is beautiful, stretching wide and pristine and solitary for two-and-a-half miles, it’s better suited for a nap on the canopied daybeds arranged on the meticulously groomed dunes. Waves thrash wickedly here, with sputtering whitecaps beneath the graceful shadows of soaring pelicans, and it’s clear that this is no safe place for surfing or swimming. Instead, Cerritos Beach is milder, and also set up with sports gear rentals manned by tanned  male instructors who are clearly comfortable with ladies like me who have never surfed before. “Lie down, hands out, pop up and surf,” said my muscled Lothario, demonstrating on his board. “Easy.”
    He paddled out past the swelling waves with me, and offered helpful advice like, “No, do not fall off. No, it is not good to let the board hit you on the head. No, you do not want to be crushed by the wave as it knocks you upside down and tries to kill you. Just surf.”
    After a half hour, I limped quite cheerfully back to the beach, and relaxed under an umbrella while watching what is apparently another highly popular Cerrito sport: dachshund digging. Indeed, another instructor, bored with waiting for me to “just surf” had cajoled his three tiny pet wiener dogs to do what they love to do: dig holes. Burrows completed, the young man gently flipped each dog on its back into the little pits, and voilá, dog buried in sand with head, feet and tail sticking out, joyful canine grins all around.
    As I said, time doesn’t have much meaning in this paradise that is Rancho Pescadero, so to spend several hours lounging with sandy, salt-water-wet pups felt like heaven on earth.
    Back at my home resort later, I debated: where would my next drowsy margarita sip-a-thon take place? I had my pick of places, from the many cozy cushioned nests all over the property, on the beach, or even in the embracing king size bed that lay draped in seductive canopy netting in my casita.   
    “It's a rough life,” I mumbled to myself, collapsing finally on my rooftop bed with the cooling ocean breezes dancing across my sun-warmed skin. “Really.”

Average daily room rates at Rancho Pescadero are $185-385.


by John Mariani

New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (at 77th Street)

    Over the last few years, the chances of getting a good, even excellent meal, in a museum have increased measurably, from  the restaurant in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to The Modern at New York’s MOMA, from the Court Restaurant at The British Museum to Ray & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Now comes Caffé Storico, enchantingly set within the magnificent $65 million restoration of the New York Historical Society, one of NYC's great institutions, very near the Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium. The NYHS has 2,500 American paintings, 40,000 works of art and artifacts, 500 pieces of antique furniture (including George Washington's inaugural armchair and Valley Forge camp bed), 3,000 silver items, and 8,000 drawings, including 500 by John James Audubon. It's one of the city's--and nation's--great treasures. (Merely to suggest NYC's riches, across the park from the NYHS is the Museum of the City of New York.)
    Caffé Storico fits impeccably into the Society's north corner, with tall windows letting in light that bounces off white walls and wood, a gleaming historic brass chandelier, lemon yellow banquettes, a marble counter, open kitchen and a window into the sculpture arcade. .  Fifteen-foot shelves are set with antique chinaware from the museum's vast collection, giving the large space a cheery, homey look, if your home was arrayed with such a bounty of beautiful objects.  The restaurant and menu is brought to the city by Philadelphia's restaurant maestro Stephen Starr (who translated Buddakan and Morimoto to New York, too).
    This being a definitively American institution, the NYHS might well have put in a definitively American restaurant, and some critics have been puzzled by the installation, instead, of a casual 74-seat Italian trattoria, under
Executive Chef Jim Burke (below), who has given the menu a Venetian slant.  I, too, wondered at first about this seeming disconnection, but once I arrived and was greeted warmly, sat on the comfortable banquettes surrounded during the day by museum-goers and curators and at night by a West Side crowd, I left any preconceived notions behind as soon as the Venetian cicchetti starters began to arrive at my table--crisp, hot arancini rice balls you pop in your mouth; meatballs, now ubiquitous in NYC, but these are real contenders; a tempura-like fried langostino, sweet and fat, served with slices of grapefruit and housemade ricotta; and that old Italian-American favorite mozzarella en carozza, in all its crunchy, oozy glory.  The Tuscan-style crostini lavished with a chunky puree of chicken livers is outstanding, certainly the best I've had this side of Florence. You can also order a wide selection of salumi cured meats and condiments. along with good crusty bread.
    And so to the pastas, and they are mostly new to NYC Italian restaurants.  There's a lusty rigatoni with sausage ragù, dressed with salty-sharp pecorino.  House-made ridged garganelli (below) takes a Southern slant, with cauliflower, pinenuts and gratings of bottarga, while ricotta cavatell
i with abundant lobster meat and black trumpet mushrooms comes at a very fair price, $22.  Gnocchi gratinata with black truffles lies under a cheese-rich fondue slipped under the broiler to brown, a tasty dish but the gnocchi were too softened beneath all the sauce and heat.
    For secondi, there is a fine roasted sea bass with cannellini beans and a bright herb salad, and a first-rate veal shank osso buco in a city of great osso bucos.
    There is a certain lightness in Burke's cooking here, so by all means have dessert, maybe the delicate amaretto semifreddo with an interesting sweet squash caramel; a nice warm apple crostata with good pastry and a scoop of vanilla gelato; or a chocolate budino pudding with "drunken" prunes and crème fraîche.
    There are 50 well-priced Italian wines on the list, about half available by the glass, with plenty of bottles under $45.
    I dined at Caffé Storico twice--once on a cold winter's eve, once on a bright winter's day. The lighting changes, of course, but not the warmth of the ambiance or the consistency of the food.  Caffé Storico is a real charmer and the kind of new restaurant that is making the Upper West Side a seriou destination for serious diners.

Caffé Storico is open for lunch Mon.-Sat., for dinner nightly, for brunch on Sunday. At dinner starters run $5-$16, pastas (full portions) $16-$22, main courses $24-$38.



"Even a grizzled police officer can find love on the streets of San Francisco, with its countless cozy cafés and intimate restaurants. If you are in the mood for amoré this month, a stroll through the streets of the Lower Haight, Presidio Heights, Duboce Triangle, or North Beach is sure to reveal an enchanting spot that’s perfect for a romantic interlude or a smoldering encounter."=--James Stolich, "Cafe Society," Nob Hill Gazette (Feb. 2012).


According to two London tabloids,
Gordon Ramsay's dwarf porn double,  Percy Foster, was  found dead in a badger den in Wales, partially eaten. He was found "deep in an underground chamber" by Ministry of Agriculture experts ahead of a planned badger-gassing program.


 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: 5 REASONS TO LOVE VANCOUVER; TOURING YELLOWSTONE BY CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING.

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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© copyright John Mariani 2012