Virtual Gourmet

  March 4,  2012

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT

Fin-de-Siècle Hungarian Food Posters



1. 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.

2. 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.



by John Mariani

by John Mariani

Wines of the Rhône Valley Are Difficult to Know But Easy to Love
 by John Mariani



by John Mariani

    It's a reasonable question and one I was asked by friends before I went to Mexico City: "Is it safe?" "Aren't you afraid of being kidnapped?"      
     Having gone ahead with my plans, I can very easily answer the last question and give some perspective to the former.  The idea of kidnapping a tourist on a whim--as in "Hey, Miguel, look at that gringo coming out of the hotel. Why don't we just kidnap him?"--is both farcical at face value and completely unrealistic in fact, simply because the traffic in Mexico City, from early morning till well into the evening, is so terrible that there would be no way whatsoever for a prospective kidnapper to toss you in the back seat of a car and zoom off to a hideaway. Also, the city has installed 8,000 video cameras to aid in crime prevention in high-traffic locations. 
    Every time I got into a car to go anywhere--even half a mile, in any direction--it was a 45-minute ordeal through the worst bumper-to-bumper traffic I've ever encountered. Traffic, thus, is like a security blanket over the city, so that while pickpockets or muggers might lurk in the shadows, Mexico City is as safe, or dangerous, as any major city. In fact, a February 8th traveler's advisory by the U.S. Government notes that
"millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business [and] there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes." Nevertheless, outside of Mexico City, in 14 Mexican states including Chihuahua and Sonora, "crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and can occur anywhere. U.S. citizens have fallen victim to TCO activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery." According to the warning, the reported number of U.S. citizens murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011." Ouch!
    So. Over my recent week's visit to Mexico City I never felt in any way coerced or unsafe, and the pleasures of this great capital (traffic excepted) are as historic as any in the Western Hemisphere.  I stayed at a modern boutique hotel named Condesa DF (above), set in a 1928 French Neo-Classical Building, with a snappy antique car out front, in the neighborhood of the same name, near the Avenida Amsterdam lined with cafés, eateries and shops.  The rooms are not large but they are quiet, and there's a very popular rooftop garden where you can take cocktails before heading out to dinner. (I will be reporting on restaurants in an upcoming issue.)
    Having been to Mexico City--there called Ciudad ("the City")--several times over the years, my first impression on this visit was that, as ever, it is expanding at an amazing rate; the official, probably conservative figure for population is around 20 million, with the average household spending is now $50,000, the highest in Latin America.  Its GDP is based largely on financial and professional services, and there are 844 hospitals and 500 public and private universities. A new Ecobici bicycle-loaning system has been established.  Given its horrendous history of air pollution, the city has implemented a 15-year Green Plan, with 59% of the total area of the Federal District designated as conservation lands, and a new subway system under construction.  

    Assuming all these improvements actually take hold--after all, this is Mexico--the modernity of this 700-year-old city should make what is already so attractive about it much moreso, so that visiting the historic monuments and world-class museums here will become easier than in the past.  The Centro Historico, anchored by the vast Plaza de la Constitucíon (above), known as the Zócalo ("pedestal"), is the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor (accidentally discovered by telephone repairmen) as well as Latin America's largest Catholic Church, the Metropolitan Cathedral, recently stabilized after centuries of sinking into the soil.  Its architecture, reflecting the passage of Spanish colonial rule and the independence movement, is symbolized by the liberty bell by Padre Hidalgo in the Palacio Nacional.

         It is impossible to do more than list a handful of Mexico City’s 160 unique museums, from the Museo Nacional de Arte to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (right) to the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo.

         This time in town I visited the remarkable Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño in Xochimilco, famous for its collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo works (Kahlo is more intimately represented at the Museo de Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House,” her birthplace in Coyocán).  Set within extensive gardens, the museum, built from a 16th Century structure by one of Rivera’s favorite and wealthiest models and patrons, Ms. Patiño,  and opened in 1994, the museum also contains 900 archaeological pieces from ancient cultures, and offers concerts, recitals, and craft fairs.  When I was there, the Museum had an exhibition of the riotously colorful, hilariously eerie Day of the Dead artwork (below), which  extended in dioramas of entire rooms.

         Mexico City is indeed its neighborhoods, each of which has been evolving over the past decade, many to become the most fashionable in Latin America.  (Pick up a free copy of Stylemap Mexico City, published by the city.)   There is a tremendous amount of green space in  Condesa,  as well as grand homes and condos, attracting new cafés and restaurants on a daily basis.

         Zona Rosa, also with its bounty of greenery, though not the center of the city, was once the most fashionable district, centered by the beautiful Independence Monument topped by the beloved El Angel figure and flanked by broad avenues including the Champs Elysée-like Paseo de la Reforma.

         Polanca is Mexico City’s high-end, very wealthy sector, with lavish Mission-style homes set behind high walls.  Here you’ll find the best stores, though these days “best” means less indigenous than it does global, with all the international names, from Gucci to Chanel, arrayed along its chic boulevards, especially the Boulevard Presidente Masaryk. An even wealthier neighborhood, Las Lomas, is where ambassadors live, whereas Santa Fe is the quickly developing, high-rise apartment building region on the city’s western edge, said to resemble Houston more than traditional Mexico.

         Change and modernism is inevitable in Mexico City, but the old reasons one came here—glorious Mexican architecture, great artwork, charming strolls along the avenues, and interconnection with the people—are still the main attractions, if you can just get through the traffic. 


An article on Mexico City’s cuisine and restaurants will appear in an upcoming issue.




Iroquois Hotel

49 West 44th Street

    West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has two historic hotels named after Indian tribes--the more famous Algonquin and the Iroquois, which opened at the beginning of the last century. Its Wigwam Bar debuted in 1939, and it's had its share of celebrity guests, including James Dean (who now has a suite named after him), who stayed there for two years in the early 1950s. A decade later its cabaret was a popular venue at which to see the best new comedians, like Woody Allen Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.
    There have, of course, been many changes and upgrades at the hotel, one of which is the intimate new Triomphe restaurant, headed by executive chef Jason Tilman, whose résumé includes stints at Le Cirque, Morimoto, and David Burke's restaurants.  Now, with breakfast, lunch, dinner and room service on his plate, he has his hands full with pleasing everyone, but he is striking some very personal chords of his own at Triomphe.
    The room, just past the lounge, is an oasis of civilized dining in a NYC scene of outrageously loud restaurants.  Here the atmosphere is provided by the sound of people simply enjoying their own company,  the food and wine.  Trim, well-set tables with crisp linens and good stemware stand against rust-colored banquettes and on polished hardwood floors, and wall-sized mirrors open up the small interior beneath a beautiful ceiling of intricate moldings. Inset within the opposite wall are lighted ceramic art, with abstract art on the third wall. The service staff is attentive but not obtrusive.  (Incidentally, the lighting is lower and warmer at night than the photos here indicate.)  The wine list is more than adequate to the menu, with some good, fairly priced bottles throughout the categories.
    Triomphe's menu is wholly contemporary--New York modern with a few Asian flourishes, and there is a richness about Tilman's cooking that nevertheless doesn't come off as heavy. To whit, his creamy but impeccably pan-fried chicken livers with garlic crostini and onions that have been braised in Sherry,  a fine dish that spotlights a neglected ingredient and adds just the right components to remind you how good humble chicken livers can be.  Asian shrimp dumplings are delicate, with a wakame salad and a splash of ginger butter. Lobster bisque shows Tilman's  sure hand with the classics, here served with wintry acorn squash and tangy-sweet roasted apples. Seared sea scallops come with porcini mushrooms and a lush bath of foie gras butter.
    For entrees, another classic is very welcome--sole meunière (below), lightly floured and sautéed in good butter and served with a generous shower of equally buttery almonds.  Australian rack of lamb with a coriander crust came with foie gras-stuffed prunes and a silky Port wine reduction, while branzino is crisped and served with celeriac puree, chanterelles, zucchini chips for texture, and a lush Champagne beurre blanc.  Duck is seasoned with black pepper and served with fried red rice, grilled bok choy and pomegranate nectar.  This is not predictable fare, as it so easily and so often is in a hotel restaurant, and it's an added attraction in that Triomphe has a completely separate entrance from the street.
    Desserts seem more conventional but with items like flourless chocolate cake, Tilman adds the novelty of white chocolate "risotto" and peanut brittle, and his cheesecake takes on cinnamon apples and a honey almond granola.
    Owing to its central address, Triomphe is ideal for a pre-theater dinner before heading west to Broadway and as a good place for a meal in the Grand Central Terminal area. It's ideal for a quite business lunch. Those looking for pizzazz and trendy foods might wander west into Times Square, but those with an enduring penchant for fine food served hospitably will find Triomphe far more to their liking.

Triomphe is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner  starters $11-$18, main courses $28-$40, with a fixed price 6-course tasting menu at $95, with wines $145.



Wines of the Rhône Valley Are Difficult to Know But Easy to Love
 by John Mariani

The Rhône River Valley at St. Joseph

     I can’t recall the last time I took so much pleasure in the tasting of an array of wines from a single region—the Rhône Valley in France--as I did this past week with dinners at home. As difficult to get to know as any wine region in Europe, the Côtes du Rhône wines do share a hearty spiciness, rich in tannins and acid, that make them so enjoyable without thinking too much about their provenance.
    Bordeaux is relatively easy to know because its better wines are made at individual chateaux; burgundy is tougher because so many vineyards have multiple owners and merchants with their own labels. But becoming familiar with Côtes-du-Rhône wines, with their northern and southern regions (which alone plants 23 grape varieties), and names like Côte Rotie, Condrieu, Crozes Hermitage, Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Beaumes-des-Venise and many others, can be a lifetime study, and there’s not much help out there. Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s Wines of the Rhône Valley has not been updated in 15 years, and John Livingston-Learmonth has not followed up his monumental 720-page The Wines of the Northern Rhône of 2005 with a companion volume on the South.
         Then, too, not until the 1980s did Côtes du Rhône begin to develop anything close to the historic reputation of the more illustrious Bordeaux and Burgundy estates. Starting in the 1970s, forward-looking merchants like E. Guigal (controversial for introducing new oak to the aging), Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Délas, modernized the estates, while winemakers like Gérard Chave, famous for his Hermitage, became local heroes for their rigorous commitment to better Rhône wines.
         This column is not the place to launch into a discussion of terroirs and Côtes du Rhône history—the Gauls were making wine there by the first century AD--but only to mention that the red wines of the north are dominated by syrah while those in the south are usually a blend of local grapes, mostly grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsault. They also tend to have slightly higher alcohol levels than other French wines.
         The wines I chose for my sampling were not random, though a January sale prompted me to try some I was unfamiliar with. All but one was from the 2009 vintage (now in the market for a year), a warm, and drought-stricken year that tended to make for higher alcohol levels, though I avoided any wines above 14.5 percent.  I also tried one 2007, an excellent vintage, to see how it was coming along.

Côte Rotie terraced vineyards

         The 2007 Les Halos de Jupiter Vacqueyras par Philippe Cambie ($31), from the south, was very powerful, still dense in tannins, with a big bouquet and plenty of grenache fruit (about 85 percent), made more enticing by its blending with syrah. I’d hang onto this for another two or three years.  Domaine de la Janasse 2009 Côtes du Rhône ($20) had enormous charm, a joyous nose and plenty of fruit balanced by easy acids, with just 50 percent grenache, making this a fine red wine for just about any meat dish I can think of but not with any seafood that leaps to mind. Janasse is best known for his Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but this lesser offering, using just a little new oak, is a real bargain. Domaine La Milliere Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 ($50) has plenty of spice, from anise to cinnamon, in a dark, intensity that comes from being made from “vieille vignes” (old vines). It can certainly age well but it’s a beauty right now, with the fire of 14 percent alcohol. It’s worth every penny.
         Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2009 ($28) is typical of its northern appellation, a Syrah-dominated wine with well-knit elements of fruit and bold but softened tannins and an excellent edge of acid that makes it so good with food. Its 13 percent alcohol shows you don’t have to go high to have heft. Graillot left a corporate career to buy a vineyard in pig farm land, whose excess of nitrogen was no virtue, but careful upgrading drew praise for his first vintage, 1985 and his reputation has steadily grown.                      Town of Condrieu
         Château Cambis 2009 Côtes du Rhône Villages ($9) is that very rare thing—a beauty of a French wine with little pedigree that sells for under ten bucks. It’s got all the grenache fruit it needs along with body and backbone. And it’s ready to drink right now and for the next couple of years to come. This is one of the best buys out there right now.
         Alain Jaume & Fils Les Valais Rasteau 2009 ($22) is from vineyards around the tiny, picturesque southern village of Rasteau, made from 90 percent grenache, and this 14.5 percent alcohol red is pretty one-dimensional, without much of a nose, though the wine went well with a rare porterhouse steak.

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.



According to the LA Times, the late "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il used to send his personal chef to China to buy mugwort-filled rice cakes and a pack of every single brand of Japanese cigarettes.    He also had his rice cooked over a wood fire, but only  after female workers inspected each grain of rice to ensure they meet the leader's standards. Also, among his favorite dishes was German giant rabbit, weighing 20 pounds.  
His liquor cellar was stocked 10,000 bottles,  spending up to  $720,000 per year on Cognac.


"Pikanha's scratches a deep carnivorous itch, for the unapologetic diner who puts quantity before quality, taste before health. But at the risk of discouraging repeat customers, even Silva advocates restraint: `You should not come here too much,' she says. `It is not so good for you.' "--Jesse Hirsch, "How to Survive a Brazilian Meat Party," East Bay Express.


 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:

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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2012