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  December 16,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"Christmas Dinner, Smithfield, Iowa" (1936) photo by Lee Russell



ANNOUNCEMENT: The Virtual Gourmet's own contributing editor Brian Freedman
now hosts 
“Hungry In...Philadelphia” online at the Hungry Channel. The show,
powered by Citysearch, takes viewers on virtual food tours of cities across the country.
This week, it’s meat and cheese in
Philly--but no cheese steaks!
Watch it at <>



L.A. EATS, Part Two
by John Mariani

by John Mariani

Burgundy’s 2012 Vintage: Small Crop,
Promising Quality, Soaring Prices, All Smiles
by John Mariani



Randolph Scott and Cary Grant

Part Two
by John Mariani

picca cantina
5575 West Pico Boulevard


    "Picca," notes the menu, means "to nibble," and that's the plan behind this very popular  small plates restaurant of 50+ modern Peruvian-Japanese dishes by Chef Riccardo Zarate (below), who also owns two, smaller Mo-Chica eateries that serve similar food..  One of the featured categories is the anticuchos--skewers of food--of which there are a dozen or so every night.  I loved the one made with scallops, aji amarillo aïoli, and wasabi peas. Spice rules here and chilies are everywhere.
    The evening I ate at Picca, there were three of us, so, try as we did do dent the menu, we were only able to try only a baker's dozen of dishes, starting with tuna tartare with avocado, lemon soy, sesame oil, and wonton chips.  The papa rellena was a stuffed potato (the white potato originated in Peru, by the way), with braised beef, boiled egg, and walnut pesto, a wonderfully sloppy dish to savor with a smile on your face. Just as sumptuous in its simple way was patita, a pig's trotter stew with chorizo, potato, aji pancam, and the crunch of peanuts.  Causa (sushi) shrimp came with a yuzu guacamole, salsa criolla, and cucumber, while seco de pato was a confit of duck's leg in a rich Peruvian beer sauce with aromatic cilantro rice.  Also highly recommended to the carapulcra of roasted black cod, sun-dried potato stew, peanuts, and chimichurri.
    There was lots more and next time I'll go with a passel of friends and plough through everything, for everything sounds equally appealing on a menu where some items go for five bucks and none for more than $17. The wines, all from South America and Iberia, are very gently priced.
    The place itself, on two spacious levels, is built for fun and quick turnover, and things get intensely loud throughout, even at our cozy corner table, which was somewhat shielded from the noise. It's also a neighborhood place, right near the 20th Century Fox lot, and most of the people around us were locals who said they never ventured downtown to eat.  I can understand why.  It could take weeks to eat everything on the menu here, then come back for favorites.    

Picca is open nightly.

8360 Melrose Avenue

    First thing you have to know is that, if you think Picca is loud, you'll find  Ink is very, very loud. In fact, when I inquired of the manager if the pounding, piped-in music might be turned down a tad, he said (actually shouting to be heard), "Chef says, if he can't hear his playlist in the kitchen, it's not loud enough."  So much for caring for customers' creature comforts.
    There really isn't much to say about the décor, which looks unfinished--gray walls, gray concrete floor, raw wood pillars, bare tables, all hard surfaces adding to the noise.  This is another small plates place, though here the plates start at $9 and go up to $26, with a tasting menu of the night's specials of four dishes at $85, a tab that puts Ink in a price category with far more posh and consumer-friendly restaurants in L.A. Consider that the 7-course tasting menu at the elegant Valentino in Santa Monica is the same $85, an omekase meal at Matsuhisa is $90, and you could easily dine sumptuously for that amount at Spago in Beverly Hills.
    Chef Michael Voltaggio (right), with long experience at top American kitchens, including Bazaar in L.A., is best known for winning the prize on TV's "Top Chef." At Ink, he calls his cooking "modern los angeles cuisine" intended to "re-purpose the term `fine dining.'"  I can't quite see how this has been accomplished, for while there are many tasty dishes at Ink, including shishito peppers with almond-bonito "sand," tofu and mustard;  an excellent crispy softshell crab with tarragon mayo, capers, and tomato; and deliciously decadent pork belly with "charcoal oil," "bbq flavor" and corn,  there are other dishes that just fall flat, like his already rich, cream-filled burrata cheese complicated with an oozing egg yolk, lettuce, and lemon dressing;  his halibut with cold "embers' of zucchini and potato with sesame, mayo, and black vinegar is pretty weird.  Most dishes fell in between highly appealing and out of the ordinary in a less than savory way, like his "burnt wood ice cream." which tasted, well, like smoky ice cream, not a flavor likely to make it onto Ben & Jerry's roster.
     Had Voltaggio done no more than Picca in the small-plates leagues, Ink might be far more lovable. But where Picca’s food seems a mélange of scintillating, natural flavors, Ink’s often seems strange, and at a much higher price, none of which constitutes a re-purposing of fine dining.”

Ink is open nightly for dinner.

Soleto Trattoria & Pizza Bar
801 South Figueroa Street

    Things have been getting more gastronomically interesting in downtown L.A., with the opening in recent years of John Sedlar’s Rivera and Wolfgang Puck’s WP24.  Soleto Trattoria & Pizza Bar, if not unique, is a welcome new Italian place in the Financial District with a really handsome, 1,100 square foot patio outdoors.  Inside there is a huge, 360-degree hickory bar and brick-walled lounge that gets a midday and after-six crowd.
         Soleto is the newest of the Innovative Dining Group’s restaurants, which operate Boa Steakhouse, Sushi Roku, and other spots around town.   Executive Chef Sascha Lyon oversees Soleto’s menu, which features good, crisp, well-topped pizzas, panini, a burger (of course), and bar food type items throughout. One of the pizzas, with fig, prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula, and Gorgonzola dolce is a bit too much of a good thing, but it is indeed a good thing.
         But I’ll go for the generous Italian dishes, none innovative but just about all well rendered, from a good crispy mozzarella marinara in casserole with a basil pesto to impeccably fried calamari with grilled lemon and two sauces.
         You won't find better pumpkin ravioli, with mushrooms and hazelnut sage, in town than Soleto’s, and his  al dente rigatoni with a rich ragù and sweet sausage and escarole is a winner, too. Orrechiette diavolo with spicy sausage, rapini, and chile flakes didn't meld very well.
         My favorite among the entrees was a branzino milanese, with arugula, lemon, and grana padana, a recipe that proves fish, with a crust, can take to grated cheese well.  A herb-roasted half chicken with Yukon potatoes was just fine, if hardly out of the ordinary when roast chickens are everywhere.
         For dessert go with the chocolate budino pudding, creamy and cool to savor as you sit in the L.A. sun, sipping a cup of espresso.
         The wine list is suffused with overly familiar name brands like Santa Margherita and Jordan.  It should be better, but there are plenty of bottlings under $40, which makes  good sense.
         Soleto serves its purpose well, which is to delight downtowners, those who work there, and those about to head home.  Chef Lyon is making sure that the Italian food he produces is in the right groove for the neighborhood, and the place took off fast because it seemed so well poised to do so.

Soleto is open Mon.-Fri. from 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 5-11 p.m.

Bel-Air Hotel
701 Stone Canyon Road

    The two-year,  $100 million dollar renovation of the Bel-Air Hotel has succeeded very admirably in turning a once alluring dowager into a young white swan--think of Ava Gardner transformed into Scarlett Johanssen. In fact swans swim in meandering streams  surrounded by dense foliage. 
    The Hotel, now part of The Dorchester group,  had acquired that patina of age whereby it was beginning to look dowdy, and now it has become one of the most romantic and beautiful designs among California hostelries, with light colors, wall finishes you hardly notice till you touch them, excellent use of modern furniture, sumptuous fabrics, and reminders everywhere of the water and seclusion that the hotel has always provided, hidden as it is up the winding Stone Canyon Road, which  might even defy a GPS. (Its location keeps out the idle curiosity seekers.) Always glamorous, the hotel now has a shiny new posh for a younger crowd.
    The outdoor patio dining area  (left) has always been as iconic to L.A. dining as the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and now, the interior restaurant has been reclaimed as a swank bar and lounge (right), enticing on its own.  Into these spaces, the owners have brought a name brand--Wolfgang Puck, whose track record in fine dining begins with Spago in Beverly Hills but has not of late been among his company's empire-building of more casual concepts.  So, everyone was waiting to see what Puck could produce that would wow the fine dining crowd without copying Spago, itself just recently renovated into something quite different from what it once looked like.
    The Bel-Air's exterior space is as winsome as ever, with director's chairs and overstuffed banquettes ladies sink into at lunch.  I can't say I'm crazy about those huge torchlight heaters that dot the place. If it's too cold to dine out, why not go inside? By the way, the floors are also heated outside.
       The menu plays it pretty safe--Puck and his partner Lee Hefter also run the breakfast and functions of the hotel--and there is a $39 "60 Minute Power Lunch" available.
      Everything, including the irresistible pretzels, are made on the premises.  There are flights of rich man's fantasy here, like the osetra caviar with crème fraîche "snow."
    I dined there early on when it opened, and I thought the menu needed some snap, but I could not have enjoyed more the tortelloni with spring peas that truly tasted as if just plucked from a garden. Fromage de tête showed Puck's enduring affection for French home cooking, sweetbreads were full of flavor, plump Dover sole was impeccably cooked, and the red snapper crudo was a success, tangy with blood orange and shaved fennel with a touch of avocado for sweetness. Goat's cheese-encrusted saddle of lamb was of excellent quality and cooked to a rosy turn to retain all the juices.
    Again, it was early on, so the service staff that evening was lax, cocktails and wines took forever to bring to the table, and the winelist itself is in the stratosphere with its prices.     
    If invited by some Hollywood poobah, I'd certainly return, if only to bask in that quiet pastoral that makes the Bel-Air unique.  I trust, too, that the food may be more enticing and the service staff up to snuff.

Open for breakfast daily; lunch Mon.-Sat.,  Sunday brunch; dinner nightly, Dinner appetizers, $15 to $26; main courses, $28 to $55; four-course tasting menu, $110; six courses, $145.


by John Mariani

61 Lewis Street
Greenwich, CT

If you have never dined at Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT, there’s little time left to do it.  After December 22nd, Jean-Louis and Linda Gérin will close the doors to their little jewel box restaurant that has for three decades been one of the finest in the region.
    My reason for writing about it at all, then, is as a paean to the Gérins for so many years of superb cuisine and service as well as to say something about the state of such French restaurants as this one, tucked away in the increasingly frenetic dining scene of Greenwich. To paraphrase the ending of “Death of a Salesman,” “Attention must be paid to such a chef.”
    The short history of the award-winning Jean-Louis is that he came to Greenwich as a young chef under Michelin-starred master Guy Savoy back in 1983, who a year or so later sold the restaurant to the Gérins. Over the years, Gérin showcased his mentor’s nouvelle cuisine style but eventually made the kitchen his own, and, over that long period of evolution, changed his own style, which ranged from classic French cooking to a fusion of French and American dishes.  There was even a period when he decided to cut out much of the fat from his cooking, but that fortunately didn't last long.
    Back in the 1980s the NYC suburbs had a number of excellent, serious French restaurants, a couple of which—La Crémaillière in Banksville, NY, and La Panetière in Rye, NY—are still around, joined, since Jean-Louis opened, by several others, including Thomas Henkelmann at The Homestead Inn and L’Éscale in Greenwich.  All these are much larger restaurants, while the Gérins never expanded their dining room, which even today has only  50 seats, most filled with regulars who have come here for more than one generation.
    It is a dining room where most men wear jackets and the women dress up in the name brand fashions now sold in the pricey boutiques along Greenwich Avenue.  The lighting is perfect, the noise level civilized. Linda always greets guests and Jean-Louis comes into the dining room several time during the night, knowing most everyone in the room. The wine list is one of the finest in the region, and Jean-Louis’ kitchen has been a graduate school for young chefs over the years.
    The current menu reprises the “Best of 30 Years,” both in a dégustation of 7 courses ($79) or as a 3-course “Anniversary Ballade Gourmande” ($69). My wife and I had the “Best” menu, beginning with an endive salad with caviars, then a terrine of foie gras with salad, fruit and nuts. The fish course was scallops seared on a cast-iron skillet, served with truffled risotto and a poultry jus, followed by Vermont quail with dried fruits and celery puree.  The main course of game was a medallion of venison with a classic, wine-rich Grand Veneur sauce.  For dessert, four different sweets were presented, along with petit-fours and chocolates.
    It was the kind of well-paced meal I had come to expect of Jean-Louis, rich without being filling, impeccably served on fine signature china and thick, soft linens.  Clearly it was a night tinged with a certain degree of sadness and nostalgia but with no regrets.  We enjoyed every minute being there, even when saying goodbye to the Gérins.
    So why is Jean-Louis closing, especially since the restaurant and his ancillary catering business has been doing very well?  It’s the same old story, which is not about the so-called "death" of French cuisine.  It’s about the cold, hard rent, which the Gérins’ landlord has multiplied to a number no restaurant could possibly meet.  By the same token, Jean-Louis has been asked to join the New England Culinary Institute, which will take him for most of the week to Montpelier, Vermont, where he will direct and teach, something he has long wanted to do.  Meanwhile, he will keep his Greenwich residence.
    So this is not a mournful story of how yet another French restaurant was driven out of business for lack of it.  What it does show is how difficult it is for any small mom-and-pop venture to thrive in the face of rising real estate.  Who knows, maybe the landlord can rent it out to a Lenscrafters or Verizon store.  If true, that is clearly Connecticut’s loss.
    Had Jean-Louis been an Italian or American or Asian restaurant, the story would have turned out the same.  So I do not lament the closing of a French restaurant; I lament the closing of an era when two very committed people can do such a wonderful thing for so long in such a small personalized way.  It is not encouraging for the future of dining out in America  to see pl,aces like Jean-Louis disappear.
    Still, if Jean-Louis the Restaurant is gone, long live Jean-Louis the Educator!  He has much to teach more young cooks about the right way to do things and why cuisine is more than a flash in the pan as shown in TV.
    Jean-Louis will serve dinner until Dec. 22 when he holds a last night farewell party for invited guests only.




Burgundy’s 2012 Vintage: Small Crop,
Promising Quality, Soaring Prices, All Smiles

by John Mariani

     Despite losses of up to 40 percent of their crop for the 2012 harvest, the vintners and merchants of Burgundy are smiling and doing a bit of winking, too.
     In Burgundy, whose wines compose only about 3 percent of France’s total production, the wineries sell just about every drop they make, even in abundant years. But they haven’t had an abundant year since 2009: in 2010 quantity was down 40 percent, in 2011 it was 15 percent.  This year winter’s frost combined with mildew and hail later on destroyed more than half the crop in prestigious vineyards like Château de Pommard.
     At the charity wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune (left) held each November in the city of Beaune, which has taken place since 1851 and, since 2005, been organized by Christie’s, Burgundy officials, vignerons, and negoçiants spoke of the situation with a curious mix of regret and bonhomie. “The damage of up to 50 percent in the Côte de Beaune was a disaster!” moaned Michel Baldassini, President Délegé and Acting Chairman of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), but then brightened with the announcement that “the highlight in 2012, however, is that the reds have fantastic concentration with silky, powerful tannins.”
    Pierre-Henry Gagey, President and Chairman of the BIVB, was positively buoyant, saying, “Prices are always a question of supply and demand, and Burgundy is selling very well these days. Prices will definitely be higher for the 2012s, but if we get a big harvest in 2013, it may dampen the consumers’ shock.”
    Louis-Fabrice Latour, President and Chairman of the Federation des Négociants-Éleveurs de Grande Bourgogne, added to the high spirits by noting that “Burgundy has been recession proof the last two years.  The U.S., our biggest market, was up 10 percent for 2011, and is our biggest priority right now because the dollar is getting stronger. At the moment exports to Japan are up 35 percent in value for 2011, and it soon could surpass the UK as our second largest market, which needs a re-boost.  Number four is Canada, then China, where all the wine goes through Hong Kong.”   Latour also said higher prices were inevitable and warned, “There just won't be any burgundies available at under $10 a bottle.”
    Back at the wineries around Beaune, I found a more guarded degree of optimism, since farmers hate more than anything to lose crops, especially three years in a row. “In the last twenty years we have tried to educate’ the vines to grow less grapes but of better quality,” said Marie-Andrée Mugneret, who, with her sister Marie-Christine, owns Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg (right) in the Vosne-Romanée region. “Still, we weren’t expecting to lose nearly half our production,” pointing to two stacks of aging wine barrels, whereas in a good year they would nearly touch the ceiling. “Last year, we made 85 barrels; this year we have only 68.”
    Mugneret knows she can easily sell her wines for more money, and the 2010s will begin appearing in the market next year.  “I am relieved that the higher prices will help blunt the lower supply,” she said, “but I’m skeptical that Burgundy prices can just keep rising so much with demand. We may price ourselves out of the market at some point.”
    At Domaine Arnoux Père et Fils in Chorey-les-Beaune, owner Pascal Arnoux  (left) told me, “The last good year for both volume and quality was 2009.  That was ideal and helped keep prices at a reasonable level.  This year my volume is down 40 percent, but I think the wines will turn out to be excellent.” He asked if I wanted to be the first American journalist to taste the wines out of the barrel, and I was fortunate to sample most of the 15 wines Arnoux makes.  I found the Aloxe-Corton the most advanced—for a wine made from grapes picked less than two months ago—and overall the wines had lots of fruit and spice.
    “I like my wines with lots of fruit,” said Arnoux, "because we drink burgundy younger now. Do I know, really, what these wines will develop into? No, but I’m meeting this afternoon with my colleagues to discuss the new vintage. I’m optimistic about the quality.”
    In any other luxury industry, the impetus to increase holdings to increase sales is basic business, but in Burgundy, where simply buying more land, even the next acre over, does not guarantee quality, and the pride of maintaining distinctive excellence is the driving force. “My sister and I have been asked many times if we are interested in buying other lots to add to ours, which have been in our family since 1933,” said Mugneret. “But I don't want more and more land or money. Through good and bad times, my quality of life has no price.”

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.



TV Food Guy Guy Fieri  explained in an interview why he wears sunglasses on the back of his head.  "It's just a good place to hold them," says Fieri. "You know how many times I've had them around [the front] of my neck and they fall out? And they fall in the soup or something?"



"I'd been lusting all day, and now here it was right in front of me, next to a Lime Semifreddo (a lime mousse, covered in Italian meringue and accompanied by some molecular gastronomy tequila creation).  Oh, skip the lime, you may be thinking.  Just go straight to the chocolate, you're saying.  No, no my friends.  You need both of these.  You need both of these beauties in your life.  The lime semifreddo is just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.  It's like key lime pie, gelato and souffle had a baby.  And the baby is sinful and delicious."--Claire O'Bryan, "Here's What I Thought About Stars Grill on King," Charleston Grit (12/4/12).



 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--Now in Paperback, too--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: Bretton Woods, NH; Best Travel Books; Best Cookbooks.

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).

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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