Virtual Gourmet

  April 22, 20012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" (1977)



                                                               TIMES CHANGE. . . EVEN IN ISRAEL
                                                                                                    by Brian Freedman

by John Mariani

                                         NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
The Doglianis of Piedmont
by Mort Hochstein



by Brian Freedman

photo by Brian Freedman

         I’d been walking around Tel Aviv for hours, dodging the occasional rain squall and marveling at how deserted the city was on a Shabbat Saturday morning. Aside from the groups of tourists, their guides a collective Babel of yelling and corralling and attention-grabbing, it was fairly desolate out. I had fallen into a stupor, lulled to calmness by my footfalls on the wet pavement.
         And then it hit me, the last thing I ever would have expected: The smell of cooking pork.

         My first inclination was to disbelieve my nose. The importation of pork (and other non-kosher products)  is illegal in Israel, and though the domestic raising and consumption of pigs is allowed, it’s not something that you see. Or, in this case, smell.

         But it was pig--trayf--and I was powerless to fight its allure. As apparently are ever more Israelis, if news reports are to be believed.  So I followed the scent, Pepe LePew-style, around the corner and halfway up the block, until I was standing outside the massive windows of Delicatessen (left), whose motto is "Welcome Home," on Yehuda Halevi Street, the latest outpost of the R2M group, founders of the Montefiore boutique hotel, the regularly-packed Coffee Bar, and others.
         That’s when I saw
it: A gorgeous display of imported Italian and American sausages hanging in the window, a glistening Iberico ham just off to the side of the cheese counter, all a few steps from an avalanche of prepared foods and breads and pastas. It was like the perfect lovechild of New York’s Dean & Deluca and Paris’s Fauchon. Young families and morning-after couples and grande dames prowled around.  At Delicatessen, they told me that no one gives them a hard time and left it at that. Fuzzy, I know.        
         This was Israel?
         Indeed. Israel, which has always boasted a melting-pot of cuisines, is a must-visit destination for serious eaters right now. What we think of as typical Jewish food in the United States is, in general, limited to two traditions: The Eastern European and the grandmotherly. And Middle Eastern food, for too many people still, is assumed to be of the You Don’t Mess with The Zohan sort: Hummus and baba ghannouj, falafel and shawarma and the occasional kefta.
         But Israel, which finds itself at the almost perfect intersection of Western, Middle Eastern, and North African influences, is home to one of the more varied and interesting food traditions I’ve encountered recently. At Delicatessen, for example, I tucked into a serving of chraime (left) that served as a direct savory conduit to North Africa: a meaty, snowy white steak of fish had managed to absorb all the spice heat and aromatic intensity of its tomato braising liquid. All of it was thickened up with generous chunks of potato, and custom made for the dipping of hunks of bread. Dizzyingly savory kreplach, the pasta skins all slippery and muslin-thin and topped with a frizzle of sweet-smoky onions, would, I fear to say, put any Jewish bubbe’s to shame.
         This, then, is what it’s like to eat in Israel right now: The old and the new, the traditional and the decidedly iconoclastic (that Iberico, for example), co-exist with a breathtaking sense of harmony and excitement.
         From a food standpoint, the timing of this trip to Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and focused on the country’s burgeoning, exciting wine industry (more on that later), couldn’t have been better, especially to a native Philadelphian like me: With Zahav, a fantastic, ambitious Israeli restaurant in my home town and Middle Eastern spices and other ingredients finding their way into food all over town, the chance to eat and explore the foods right now in situ could not have been more fortuitous.
         The most trenchant thing I was struck by in Israel, specifically, both in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, is that so much of its most interesting food is being guided by the same focus on local, artisanal, or otherwise carefully produced components as we’re seeing in the States, regardless of the genre.
         North Abraxas, a relatively new restaurant in Tel Aviv, has generated a love-it-or-hate-it response locally, the hipster-ish vibe and butcher-paper-covered tables turning off some, the rustic décor and simple, ingredient-focused food charming others. I found myself firmly in the second group and couldn’t get enough of the  gutsily simple procession of dishes. It takes baytzim, indeed, to serve a char-blackened head of cauliflower with nothing more than salt and olive oil, but there it was in all its smoky glory: As elemental and satisfying as anything you’d find in Philly or New York or LA.
         At Delicatessen, it wasn’t just the meats that evidenced this allegiance to the artisanal; even the cheeses, from Barkanit Dairy’s “Corsica” double-crème goat's cheese to Schwartz Dairy’s sticky, fruity sheep’s cheese, so much of the product on offer there was directly tied to the efforts of one or a group of dedicated artisans.
         In Jerusalem, the legendary restaurant Eucalyptus, in the arts district, presided over by local Slow Food hero Chef Moshe Besson (left), is generally agreed to be among the best in the country. Hyper-local ingredients--hyssop, pomegranate syrup, date honey, massive Jerusalem sage leaves--are employed in the service of thoroughly modernizing preparations that are often deeply familiar. I still don’t know how he did it, but Chef Besson’s chicken, vegetables, and rice made me rethink everything I thought I knew about poultry in general and traditional Jewish food in particular. In its deceptive simplicity, in its respect for the inherent flavor of each individual component, it was both thoroughly modern and deeply rooted in tradition.
         Then there’s the use of complex spice blends that zips throughout so many meals in Israel, from the seemingly humblest shawarma; I had a particularly cardamom-perfumed example in Jaffa at Bino; their shawarma sandwiches are generous enough for two, and flavorful enough for four) to the most complex dinners. We’re seeing this more and more in the States, too. In recent years, Israeli-born spice blender (and accomplished chef) Lior Lev Sercarz, of La Bôite à Épice in New York, has had an important impact on a number of restaurants--Le Bernardin among them--bringing an intriguing whiff of exoticism and excitement to a remarkable range of preparations. Recently, for example, Chef de Restaurant William DiStefano of the Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia has been employing La Bôite’s complex flavors in his new tasting menus; a grouper medallion tagine, amped up with a rose petal - cardamom - cumin blend, was a wildly delicious success.
         As the world continues to shrink, to grow ever more interconnected, it only makes sense that we’ll continue to see more and more cross-pollination of food cultures from around the world. In Israel, it’s been like this for millennia, which is what makes exploring the country’s food scene right now such an intellectual and gustatory revelation.
         The last time I’d visited Israel was back in 1996--a lifetime in culinary terms, an eye-blink in the history of this ancient land. I can only imagine what it’ll be like in another 15 years or so. Whatever happens, I have faith that it will be as exciting, delicious, and rewarding as it is right now. Perhaps even more so.

Travel Note: I visited Israel in late February, when rhetoric had reached a rather uncomfortable level in the supposed lead-up to the potential pre-emptive attack on Iran and its nuclear facilities. I felt safe the entire time--security in Israel is among the best in the world--but most Israelis I spoke with privately told me that they were quite nervous. For all the focus on the political instability of the region as a whole, Israel is a remarkably safe place to visit. Still, if you’re planning a trip, keep an eye out for what’s happening geopolitically. If an attack on or by Iran seems imminent, or if the violence in Syria begins to spill over its borders in earnest, then Israel may not be the best place to visit just then. But on the whole, I felt safer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in February than I generally do in certain neighborhoods not far from my apartment in Philadelphia.

Flight Note: I flew El Al both to and from Tel Aviv, and was generally happy with the service. If you’re flying economy class, however, be warned: I purchased a premium economy seat for the flight to Tel Aviv on a Boeing 777-200, and it was among the best $59 I could have spent. The bulkhead seat boasted ample legroom, and made for a very pleasant flight. Flying back to JFK on a Boeing 747-400, however, the same $59 bought me a bulkhead seat with less legroom than a standard coach seat offered. The seat was uncomfortably close to the bulkhead, and, as there was nowhere to place my legs if I wanted to stretch them out, it proved to be a problem. The flight crew was as accommodating as they could be, and friendly the entire time, moving me to an aisle preferred economy seat from my middle one, but my recommendation would be to check the configuration of the plane you’ll be flying before making a spur-of-the-moment decision and spending the $59 at the check-in counter.

Brian Freedman is a food, wine, spirits, and travel writer, and wine consultant in Philadelphia;



9 Great Jones Street (near Lafayette Street


It is unusual for me to include a negative report in this space for the simple reason that I don't want to waste it on bad restaurants. But once in a while a restaurant opens that is so ballyhooed for reasons that seem more to do with advance publicity and clientele than food or service that I feel readers will want to know about it, good or bad. 
    In the case of Acme, in NoHo, the buzz was all about chef Mads Reflund's coming to America after having launched, with partner Rene Redzdepi, so-called "New Nordic Cuisine" at the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, last year voted the best restaurant in the entire world in the San Pellegrino Restaurant Awards, an event that made headlines everywhere and led to Redzepi making Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of 2012. Noma has two Michelin stars.
         I will say nothing about the credibility of those awards (I was on the panel one year) except to note that the 800 food industry voters are supposed to have eaten at the restaurant they vote for within the recent past. But, given that Noma is booked months in advance, the odds are near impossible that so many voters could even have gotten a reservation.  Nor will I comment on the cuisine at Noma since I am one of those unable to snag a rez there when I visited Copenhagen two years ago.
         But whatever Noma is doing, Acme probably is not.  In fact, Reflund (right) has contended that Acme’s food is not specifically New Nordic, and the current menu does nothing to make me think otherwise, aside from a lot of simply cooked vegetables. What the menu does contain is a lot of uninspired dishes that seem simplistic and, for the most part, taste that way.
    Neither is there anything inspired about the gastro-pub look of the place, for 20 years before a Cajun restaurant of the same name.  Tables are close together so waiters will inevitably knock into your chairs; the bar is set for those who wait. . . and wait. . . and wait for a table or choose to eat there. At 7 PM when we arrived the place was loud, but not impossibly so, but at 8 PM they turned on the music, and at 9 PM they turned the music way up, making conversation impossible.
         The service staff runs the gamut from harried to clueless. When I asked for some used dishes (thick diner china) and flatware to be removed, the waiter snapped, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” We didn’t get any food for 45 minutes, then waited another 45 for the main courses to arrive. Asking for the check took a while too.
         So what about the food? Reviews thus far have ranged from harsh to tepid; I found the food pretty dreary, lacking fat and savoriness, despite flavorings like like bacon vinaigrette and pickled vegetables. There is a "Raw" section full of items like raw, frozen sliced foie gras with a raw langoustine. (Note well: raw crustaceans like shrimp and langoustine can he highly dangerous even if very fresh; if you’re going to get sick on food, those will be the chief culprits.)
         Of the “Cooked” small plates, duck in a jar with pickled vegetables was utterly bland. “Country toast” was merely toast smeared with Brie and butternut squash.  Pearl barley and clams and scallops with a roasted sunchoke broth had very little barley and too much broth, turning this to a seafood gruel.
Then came one of the most offensive things I’ve ever been served--this under the "Soil" section: a “Black heirloom carrot [the menu said carrots, plural], with salted lardo, pine, and blood orange. What came was a single six-inch carrot cut into four slices, dressed and put on the plate—for $12!
On to the main courses, which included bland Arctic char with squash blossoms, sherry vinegar and capers, and an equally dreary black sea bass with green tomatoes, cardamom, vanilla and dandelion. Both needed fat to bring them alive. Chicken and eggs was a juicy but tasteless chicken (was it basted at all?) in a pot with a fried egg on top. Hand-cut French fries with an oyster mayo were very good.
         We were not dying for dessert but ordered dried-out beignets that were eggy tasting, and a scoop of ice cream with a lace-like sheet of chocolate.
         By then, the crowd was no thinner, just a lot louder, We exited into the street noise of NYC, which was quite literally a relief and a release from the frantic, loud atmosphere inside.
     Assuming that Acme at least has its roots in Noma’s revolutionary Nordic Cuisine, I don’t know if Nordic Cuisine is a lot of hype or that Acme is just not a very good place to eat.  I suspect a bit of both.

Acme is open nightly for dinner. Appetizers $10-$18.


The Doglianis of Piedmont
by Mort Hochstein

    As a wine neophyte on my first trip to the Piedmont in the early eighties, I had a bare  smattering of knowledge of Italian wine. I knew   about Chianti and Valpolicella and Soave and Riunite, basically low-priced wines, at a time when there was a feeling that all Italian wines were, and should be, cheap.
    And then I was exposed to Barolo and Barbaresco,  which we were told were  the "King and Queen" of Italian wines, and sold in a much more elevated price range. Of course,  a similar  nobility was also applied to Brunello as our wine education improved, but Brunello is from Tuscany and our concern here is the Piedmont.
    I approached  Barolo and Barbaresco  reverently, forewarned that they were slow to become drinkable. In those days, the common belief was that  Barolo needed  to rest in cool, dark cellars  for a decade or more  before being opened.   That was true of many of the venerable great names—Prunotto,  Conterno,  Gaja and Vietti, and the majority of vignerons who structured their product for long aging.      But the eighties were  a time of change in Piedmont,  and producers like  Renato Ratti, Enaudi and Pio Cesare recognized  that few consumers have the necessary deep cellars and deep  pocketbooks to wait for a wine to mature, and  they  adjusted their vinification toward fine wines designed  for consumption much earlier.
   There is a  pantheon of   producers in the Piedmont whose names are familiar to most  wine lovers. Beni Di Batasiolo  is a late bloomer,  having been in production for just a little more than three decades, it still lingers  under the radar, despite churning  out on- tenth of the Barolo  produced by the region’s 800 vignerons. For  generations, dating back to 1875, the Dogliani family had grown grapes, produced and distributed wine. Their own production went primarily into bulk wine, until  they  established the  Fratelli Dogliani  label in 1957 and began bottling the product, then primarily Dolcetto.
     The big move into Barolo came in  1978 when the Doglianis   acquired  the historic Chiola winery in a hamlet also named Dogliani, at  La Morra, one of the  area’s most revered vineyards. They created the current brand, Beni di Batasiolo, beni meaning farmhouses with vineyard, and since then  the   empire  has expanded to approximately 250 acres under cultivation in four growing regions, yielding red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines. Bene di Batasiolo, under a fourth generation member of the family, CEO  Fiorenzo  Batasiolo (above),  is the largest single producer in the Piedmont,  releasing some 400,000 cases of wine annually, second only to giant cooperatives serving  the majority of the region’s 800 growers.  
    Batasiolo produces five single vineyard Barolos, one  riserva and one classico. “Barolo is our  DNA,” says U.S.  sales manager Ricardo Marchi discussing the seven bottlings at a tasting at SD26 in Manhattan that showcased the 2007 Barolo Classico from the storied hills  of Serralunga. It lists at $40, a relatively friendly price for Barolo,  and though still young,  it showed strong black fruit on the nose, well-tamed tannins on the palate, with an intense dark cherry  flavor, and long aftertaste.
    While Barolo may be  Batasiolo’s DNA, I suspect that Dolcetto, an  everyday wineat about  $16, is  its backbone.   A blend of grapes from several Batasiolo vineyards,  it is a "serious” Dolcetto, with greater aging capacity than, say, a typical Dolcetto d’Alba.          The best Dolcettos are fine  for about seven years. Dogliani's ’08 is deep purple with black raspberry and plum flavors and the soft   tannins that typify the winery’s approach,   well balanced and should drink well long  beyond the normal age range.
    In roughly the same price range,  the Batasiolo Barbera  d’Alba 2008 is an intense ruby-tinted quaffer, dry and full-bodied with   balanced acidity and a velvety finish.
    Vignerons  of the Piedmont  often identify Barbera as their everyday wine, and this one is  the house wine in many Italian restaurants.  Barbaresco, like Barolo,  is also made from Nebbiolo grapes, and  is  generally described as more feminine. The 2009, at about $35 retail, was softer and more immediately accessible than its coddled sibling, which matures in oak for a minimum of three years and two years in bottle prior to release.
      I’m a Moscato junky and enjoy every variation of the  grape from the Moscato d’Oro of California to the Batasiolo Classic Moscato D’asti. Sweet on the nose,  honeysuckle sweet and soft on the palate with  an aromatic aftertaste,  at $16 it is a great mate for  desserts or cheeses.  Along with a  range of red and white wines, including a Gavi and an Arneis, Batasiolo also entices visitors with  a 38-room luxury hotel and spa (above).




When should the civilized man eat his pork rinds: prior to the pair of hot dogs smothered in beef-heart chili, or after the dogs, as a palette cleanser, in preparation for the slow-roasted half pig’s head? Emily Post is unclear on the matter. "--Nick Paumgarten, "The Cannibal," The New Yorker (4/9)




Ad Age reports that in the next James Bond movie, "Skyfall,"
007 might switch from "shaken not stirred martinis" to brewskis,
specifically Heineken, thanks to
a deal Heineken USA
has struck with the spy film franchise. Actor Daniel Craig (right)
will also appear in a commercial for Heineken, whose
Chief marketing officer, Lesya Lysyj,  told Ad Age:
'[James Bond] is a perfect fit for us. [He is]
the epitome of the man of the world.'


 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." 

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