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  April 8, 20012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"Marriage At Cana" (1539) by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen



ANNOUNCEMENT: On Wednesday, April 18, John Mariani will host a book signing dinner at Via Vanti restaurant at 2 Kirby Plaza in Mount Kisco, NY.  Five-course meal at $85 per person, including signed copy of How Italian Food Conquered the World.  Call 914-666-6400. Click here.



Charleston, SC
America's Best Food Festival and
 City of Great New Restaurants

by John Mariani

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
by John Mariani


Charleston, SC
America's Best Food Festival and
City of Great New Restaurants

by John Mariani

The Tented Village at The Charleston Food & Wine Festival 2012

   Charleston has long had a legitimate claim to being one of America's most historic and beautiful cities, but in recent years it has also grown into a formidable dining out city, this after decades when there were only two or three good places amidst a score of fried fish eateries and much ballyhooed spots serving so-so Low Country cooking.  The perennial favorites, like High Cotton, Slightly North of Broad, The Hominy Grill, the Peninsula Grill, McCrady's, and a few others have now been amply added to in the last few years with newcomers that both define the culinary traditions of Charleston and the South while breaking away from the expected cliches of the genre.

    A good deal of ferment has been owed to the remarkable success of the annual Charleston Food & Wine Festival, held in springtime, now in its seventh year. I have happily attended most of those festivals and watched it grow from a darling idea plotted out over café tables to the most serious, but wholly fun-filled, food festival in America. As Aspen, Vail, Los Angles and Miami Beach's festivals have come to rely more and more on the same TV celebrities every year, often in multiple festivals, the Charleston event is very clearly focused on serious chefs (a few with TV creds) and cooking.  The demos are excellent, the wine tastings serious, and the panel discussions thoughtful.     
      There is always a good cadre of Charleston chefs, this year including Craig Deihl of Cypress, Daniel Doyle of Poogan's Porch, Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad, Frank McMahon of Hank's, and many more.  In addition, the fly-ins included Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde (NYC), Anne Quatrano of Abatoir (ATL), Anthony Lamas of Seviche (Louisville), Barbara Lynch of No. 9 Park (Boston), and many more culinary lights, along with authors Gabrielle Hamilton, Hugh Acheson, Nathalie Dupree, Matt and Ted Lee, John Besh, and others.
    The "Heart of the Festival" is the tented Culinary Village, where back-to-back demos, book signings, and music are held throughout each day. Testament to the success and popularity of the Festival is not just that it's grown, led by the ever ebullient founding mother Angel Postell, with enormous support from the City of Charleston itself, but that its various events sell out weeks in advance.  Next year I expect it to be bigger and better than ever.
    While there, I got to eat at some terrific new spots in town.  Here's my report.


479B King Street
Photos by Stephen Cebulka and Leslie McKellar

     Steve Palmer has been one of Charleston's canniest restaurateurs of recent years, always a step ahead of the competition and, maybe, even his own customers. Who knew, for instance, that Charlestonians were ready for a cavernous Japanese sushi restaurant called O-Kuh? He also is behind Oak, an innovative, three-story steakhouse downtown that has packed them in since the day it opened. If his newest venture, The Macintosh seems to borrow from other cities' gastropub current mania, Palmer and his partners have given it a Southern swank (complete with upstairs cocktail lounge, communal tables, and leather banquettes) that is uniquely Charleston, and Chef Jeremiah Bacon (right) goes way beyond the current clichés of examples elsewhere with a menu that is very much his own.
    He plates his dishes with restraint and a beauty that focuses right in on the main ingredient, whether its grilled octopus with a panzanella salad and red watercress or ricotta gnudi with morsels of stone crabs and tomatoes, each element bringing color and textural contrast to the dish. Two outstanding dishes are Bacon's braised rabbit (below), slowly roasted tomato that brings out its sweetness, ricotta salata for a saline edge, a potato cake and caramelized shallots--this is an appetizer!-- and his brilliant use of pork belly in a hot and sour soup with hot kimchee, shiitakes and bok choy, quite possibly the first pork belly dish out of a hundred Ive had this year that had any real difference and cunning.
    Among the entrees I'll remember was a snowy grouper with Swiss chard, parsnip, a brown butter crumble and a shot of citrus puree to brighten the whole assemblage. A bit overwrought but good was a duck confit with bacon sorghum jus, field peas, red pea, frisée and fennel marmalade, which is as good an example of modern Southern cuisine as any dish in Charleston. Grilled deckle, an under-utilized cut, didn't have as much flavor as I'd expected, but it was helped along with celeriac puree, creamed greens, pickled pearl onions, and roasted fingerlings. Bacon is not a chef to cheat you of flavors and textures.
   I think I could subsist on The Macintosh's side dishes quite happily--bone marrow bread pudding of extraordinary richness ( a dish that originated at Oak Steakhouse when Bacon cooked there), "Mac" potatoes, and pecorino-dusted and truffle fried potatoes. What's not to love?
    Desserts, oddly enough, are currently being made outside the restaurants, including spiced apple cake, and sticky bun bread pudding.
    Steve Palmer and Chef Bacon are to be congratulated for giving Charleston a novel restaurant where what guests expect are nudged into something novel, not to be found around town, and they do so with a swagger that is irresistible.

The Macintosh is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner. Brunch on Sun. Starters $8-$15, main courses $20-$29.


4 Cannon Street

    Wholly likable, with an emphasis on "wholly," is a good way to describe the generous, warmhearted newcomer The Grocery, where Chef/owner Kevin Johnson is turning out a menu that only a vegan would walk out on.  Not that Johnson doesn't turn out excellent vegetables--in fact, he cans his own--but this is a restaurant that's devoted to big eats, starting with a gargantuan array of charcuterie.
    The place doesn't look like much--it's a converted furniture warehouse--a big minimalist room whose only real decorous displays are cases of Creuset cookware, dark ceiling with exposed duct work, and old brick--but it's a gregarious place the locals have captured early on, and those who have been here invariably ask others, "Have you been to The Grocery yet?"
    For the most part this is a small plates venture, beginning with snacks like charred onion dip with potato chips; delicious chicken liver mousse with sprightly persimmon jam and toast; addictive, sweet fried green tomatoes; and a "piggy plate" of housemade charcuterie in profusion. You could make a meal of these cheaply--none costs more than $6 (the piggy plate is $15), and then you could also draw from the "Bites" section that includes a fine, crispy flatbread with fennel sausage, spring onions, arugula and ricotta--a splendid match-up.  Pork rules here, as in the pig's trotter cake, rich with its own fat, served with a red pea salad and classic sauce gribiche.  Sweet potato agnolotti's only fault is that there aren't enough of them, but at $10 a plate, might as well order two: they come with spiced pecans and brown butter.
    You move on to "Tastes" (I'm not sure why the menu needs all these confusing categories) like tagliatelle with pancetta, pecorino, pepper and a soft egg, a nice take on carbonara. "Plates" encompass items like a flounder with wood-roasted vegetables and clams in a sweet garlic broth that really works.  Best dish of all was an impeccably whole roasted beeline snapper (left) with fennel, lemon and salsa verde--as good a fish dish as I've had this side of the Italian Riviera. Also, consider the side dishes of greens, bacon, pickled onions and chili flakes, and the wood-roasted bulb onions with feta cheese, almonds, and a romesco sauce. 
    Desserts include easy-to-love items like banana trifle with sour cream pound cake; S'mores with Graham cracker crust and fudge brownie over housemade marshmallow; and crisp, hot churros with salted caramel, and chili-orange chocolate.  You'll leave smiling.

  Open for dinner Tues.-Sat. Brunch Sat. & Sun. Snacks and Bites cost $4-$13, Tastes and Plates $15-$3


CARTER'S kitchen
148 Civitas Street
Mount Pleasant, SC

    The town of Mount Pleasant, just five minutes over the bridge from Charleston, is as charming in its small town way as Charleston is in its small city way. Located at the Inn at I’On on Civitas Street (which locals pronounce "Sih-vee-tus") in Mount Pleasant, Carter’s Kitchen looks like it's always been there, but in fact, when the redoubtable Chef/owner Robert Carter (below), formerly the star chef at The Peninsula Grill, took over, he gutted everything, added a room and bar, and made it look as if he'd just applied some fresh paint.  It's an enchanting space, dotted with Carter's collection of copper cookware; napkins are gingham check; flowers sprout from copper kettles.  Otherwise it's all done in pretty hues of butter yellow and cream, and I can only imagine how lovely everything is in sunlight.  On a spring evening, with a crescent moon, it was like a beacon of welcome.
     Carter has a long résumé, with stints at The Inn  at Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN, then a long tenure at before filling that same role at Peninsula Grill when it opened in 1997. As other fine Charleston chefs like Mike Lata at Fig and Sean Brock at McCrady's and Husk flexed their muscles to widen the boundaries of Southern cooking, Carter continued to refine traditional concepts, exemplified by his multi-layered coconut cake that became nationally famous as an icon of Southern baking. The beautiful Peninsula Grill was itself refined in a way that expressed genteel Southern dining, and Carter's leaving worried many that its star would darken. (I have not been back but I'm told the restaurant is in the good hands of Carter's former sous-chef.)
    At Carter's Kitchen, the style is more casual, the food a little gutsier, but every dish manifests Carter's commitment to Southern ingredients and traditions; every dish is also expressive of decades of his own development as a master chef.  Take something as simple as his crispy okra chips (from the abbreviated Tavern menu), an idea I haven't seen before and one Carter makes wholly his own by providing a tomato aïoli dip. His pimento cheese with benne crackers did not convince me of that Southern staple's endurance, but his crispy chicken gizzards with brandy ketchup brought that neglected protein into applaudable focus.
    Among the dining room's small plates, there is a first-rate grilled quail with oven-dried tomato, spinach, goat's cheese, and fettuccine--typical of how Carter adds global idea to old concepts. His cast iron skillet-cooked mussels co-exist with spicy sausage as well as white wine and garlic, while a duck and pork boudin sausage comes with crispy onions and a hot Creole mustard.  Only a plate of seared scallop with a parsnip-potato puree and bacon marmalade seemed a bit strained.
    The main dishes continued to soar: delectably simple braised pork shoulder with crispy cabbage and fresh pasta graced with the braising juices. As good a NY strip steak as you'll find in Charleston is on the menu here, with excellent French fries and a dip of Bearnaise to gild the lily. Flounder and shrimp are cooked crisp--the kind of dish you'll find in Charleston's tourist eateries--but here done perfectly, so the sweetness of the very fresh seafood is the star, supplemented by tartar sauce and made truly enticing with the addition of cheese grits and corn fritters even Mitt Romney might honestly appreciate. Duck confit (below) was marvelously crisp but not greasy in the least, served with lentils, spinach, and frisée lettuce, as classic French as a dish can be.
    I haven't had tuna au poivre in ages and was glad I did at Carter's Kitchen.  By combining the rosy red, black pepper dusted tuna with a grilled leek risotto and a tomato caper butter, he redeemed a dish that long ago fell out of favor.  So, too, simple lamb chops with "Bootleg BBQ sauce." salted pecans and a mushroom pot pie become something unique here.
    Desserts change a lot here (and an agreement with The Peninsular Grill precludes Carter from reproducing his coconut cake for the time being), but I loved his old-fashioned chocolate pudding and the lemon meringue pie.  His new bid as a signature dessert is a peanut brittle layer cake--good but way too sweet right now.
    It is wonderful to see Carter back in business and cooking with more panache than ever. If you visit Charleston, a quick drive across the beautiful Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge into Mount Pleasant is requisite if you want to appreciate why Low Country cooking is some of the most exciting in the nation.

Open for dinner Mon.-Sat. Sun. brunch.  Starters $8-$12.50, main courses $18-$26.50. tavern menu $4.50-$14.50.



cru café

18 Pinckney Street

  For the past two decades I've often dropped into this clapboard house on Pinckney Street, just outside of downtown, for a casual meal. It used to be called the Pinckney Café, but Chef John Zucker changed that to Cru Café a few year back, and since 2002, it's always been packed with regulars and visitors who come for the no-frills but cozy ambiance and the evolving, good cooking.
    It looks pretty much like someone's home from the outside, and the feeling continues inside with trim décor, window draperies, and pretty scones. (The potted plant could use a watering and the staff's white t-shirts a good soak in Clorox.)
  This time I had lunch at the counter in front of the open kitchen where you can watch everything come together with remarkable, graceful dispatch. In one corner a cook is making salads, in another a guy is peeling potatoes. The gas range is fired up high and the sauté pans go from one to another at a clip. It's fun, and such a kitchen shows none of the utter nonsense that people are led to believe goes on in professional kitchens from watching those stupid TV shows starring screaming chefs and emotional cripples.
    Zucker has high street cred in Charleston, having worked at Spago in Vegas and as a consultant to McCrady's, Rue de Jean and other local restaurants. He calls his cooking Eclectic Modern American Cuisine--fair enough if vague, but you'll get the idea from the number of Mediterranean, Asian, and Caribbean influences on his menu.
    I had time only for a quick lunch at the counter, the menu mainly built on salads, small plates and sandwiches, but I was entirely sated by an intriguing little dish of "pork pulled burrata," which was a cake of juicy Berkshire pork whose center oozed mozzarella, dashed with a BBQ demi-glace.  Out of interest in what it could possibly be, I ordered "Cru's General Tso's Chicken" which, though a little sweet, was a very good and very generous portion of that New York Chinese item, served with fried rice and cole slaw.  With it I had a good cold Palmetto Amber beer.
    Just to give you an idea of how dinner changes the equation at Cru Café, here's a list of items I intend to try next time: duck confit arugula salad; potato gnocchi with fennel sausage and white wine cream; four cheese macaroni; swordfish with stone ground grits, shrimp jambalaya, and fried onions; and praline coated mahi mahi with pea, pancetta and fingerling potato salad.
    At the bottom of the menu it reads, "At Times We May Run Out of Certain Items to Ensure the Freshest Possible Product." That's not an unusual statement, but when you visit Cru Café, you'll get a real sense that they mean what they say.

Open for lunch Tues.-Sat., for dinner nightly. Dinner starters $4-$$10-75, main courses $19.95-$24.95.


by John Mariani

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
53 Jones Street (near Bowery)

    The original Il Buco Italian groceria, owned by Donna Lennard,  on Bond Street opened this branch, with attached trattoria, on a hard-to-find slip of street off Bowery, and it's well worth ferreting out, not just for the good lusty food but for a congenial atmosphere where people are clearly having a very good time, without pretense and at good prices.  The only high price you do pay is a very, very loud room with hard surfaces.  But they are quite appealing surfaces at that--lots of wood and brick (the space was once a lumber company), with a loft, good lighting from modern chandeliers, a copper stamped ceiling, marble bar, and vinegar barrels separating the food shop from the dining area.  There is a gelato counter too. You'll be happily greeted by a series of hosts and hostesses led by the always congenial g-m, Luca Pasquinelli.
    Il Buco's is one of those menus, by exec chef Justin Smillie, you could pretty much do family style, beginning with terrific breads--arrayed in baskets on the wall--by on-premises baker Kamel Ferhat (right, with Ms. Lennard), whose handiwork is available in sandwiches topped with salumi, housemade ricotta, porchetta and much more. By all mans order an assaggi of those salumi (all from animals raised antibiotic free) and cheeses, including lardo, culatello, finocciona, guanciale, and more but the appetizers like crispy baccalà salt cod, tender octopus with Corona beans, olives and kumquats, and, especially, the fried rabbit are all winning dishes. The crisply fried Roman artichokes (below) are very good, but be aware that all wines (even water!) take on an odd metallic, sweet taste when sipped with artichokes (as with asparagus).
    Every one of the pastas we tried was delicious, lusty, not over-sauced. Fat paccheri is dressed with braised oxtail, greens and parmigiano; bucatini cacio e pepe is as fine a rendering of this exquisitely simple cheese-and-black pepper toss with thick spaghetti as you'll find in Rome, where it originated. The ravioli are plump and tender, and if you love strong flavors, the busiate pasta with almonds, anchovies, piquant capers, and tomatoes should be your first choice.
    Oversalting marred some of the main courses, which you may not be up for if you've eaten all those antipasti and pastas. Porchetta, otherwise juicy and crisp skinned, suffered from saltiness as did a branzino, which, given that fact it was roasted in salt, was somewhat understandable.
     Save room for Keren Weiner's desserts, which include a fine, simple polenta cake, creamy panna cotta, and bicerin, a hot chocolate/coffee/milk drink that is a specialty of Turin (the name bicerin is from the cup with a metal handle in which it is traditionally served).
    Il Buco adds measurably to the kind of enchanting, bustling trattorias that now dot the American map, reminding everyone that Italian food can be very very good when it's very refined, but it can also be very, very good when it's not.

The Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria is open all day, weekdays from 7:30AM-Midnight, weekends open at
Appetizers $12-$18, pastas $13-$21, main courses $30-$32.



In Melbourne, Australia,  four  unidentified men ordered negronis at the bar of the restaurant Vue de Monde, on the 55th floor. Then, without paying, went to the balcony and jumped off, with parachutes under their suits. They floated safely to ground but local police were not there to arrest them.




Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong, whose nickname is Poo (Thai for crab) has won the Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year. The book's title beat out Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge; The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria; and Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World. The Bookseller magazine, which runs the award, will be making a donation to Urban Neighbours of Hope, a charity that helped create Diwong's cookery program. Previous winners also include Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, Highlights in the History of Concrete and Bombproof Your Horse.


 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: A WEEK IN DEVON; MY MUSTIQUE.

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