Virtual Gourmet

  March 31,  2019                                                                                            NEWSLETTER

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Jean-Louis Forain, "The Public Garden" (1884)


By John Mariani

By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John A. Curtas





By John Mariani

Chickpeas, yogurt and pomegranates at Lehja 

    Like many mid-size Southern cities, Richmond (population 277,000) has in the past five years been sprouting a wide range of restaurants in every category and style, from the fine dining at Lemaire in the Jefferson Hotel to Central American restaurants like Saison and the Mediterranean bistro Secco Wine Bar. Here are some old, new, an in-between well worth a visit.

11800 West Broad Street

    I try hard not to use superlatives often, and the likelihood of any restaurant reaching that bar is slim when it resides in a place like the Short Pump Center, a shopping mall that could be Anywhere, USA, full of all the usual stores like Baby Gap, Banana Republic and Crate & Barrel, along with eateries like Chipotle and Cheesecake Factory. Lehja sits right across from the last, but once inside you find yourself in a carefully designed, very personalized restaurant owned by Sonny Baweja  (right), which The Washingtonian magazine honors as among Richmond’s top 15 restaurants.
    But I’ll make the leap and say that not only is Lehja one of the best restaurants in Virginia, but one of the finest Indian restaurants in America, not least for its imaginative regional and modern cuisine but also for its superb wine list (including a few Indian bottlings) that Baweja has chosen to go with the menu.
    The three-room space and bar is fresh, flush with color and sleekly modern, like few traditional Indian restaurants anywhere look.
    Many of the menu names of dishes will sound familiar to aficionados of Indian food, but here they have a spark and identity unusual for their color, presentation and impeccably cooked ingredients, from chaat papi made with kale ($8), inspired by the food of India’s food stalls, to curry scallops with beets, masala-dusted leeks and spiced coconut curry ($14). Heed the descriptor of “firecracker chicken tikka” ($10), marinated in a pungent ghost chili with a ribbon of pickled cucumber and a plate painted with mango and kewra, which tastes similar to rose water. It packs a wallop.
    These were followed by main courses of butter chicken in bright, creamy yogurt (left) that tamed the fire of the preceding chicken dish ($17), and chicken zafrani, cooked in the tandoor after being marinated with yogurt and saffron ($22).  Duck à la Pondicherry was like pulled pork, with spices called vadouvan that includes Tamil fenugreek mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves, garlic and onions, accompanied by seared portobello mushrooms and plantain crisps ($26).
    The spinach-based, cream cheese-laced sag paneer ($16) had a marvelous complexity of textures and flavors, and lamb vindaloo ($20) is a classic, here with more levels of flavor than mere heat.
    Several Indian breads (below) were brought with the meal, including an unusual naan topped with mushroom, local goat’s cheese and truffle oil. Best plan is to order a basket with assorted breads and chutneys ($8).
    Freshly made, beautiful desserts finished our meal: pistachio kulfi ice cream ($7; below), coffee & donuts with pastry cream and mocha crema ($7), and strawberry-flavored ras malai dumplings ($9). Here again, a sampler plate ($16) is advisable for a table.
    We left ourselves in Baweja’s hands to choose the wines he’s so proud of and the selections were very fine accompaniments to the scads of flavors in Indian food, from an Albert Bichot Crémant Rosé to a remarkably good Bordeaux blend from Grover Vineyards in the Nandi Hills of India.
    All the while Baweja will be there catering to your table, suggesting you try this and that.  If you do, you’ll have a meal few other Indian restaurants in America can match for creativity and respect for true tradition.


Open daily for lunch and dinner.



The Roosevelt
623 N. 25th Street 


    Located in an old clapboard building in Church Hill, The Roosevelt has been around since 2011 and became an immediate local success, winning several local awards, not just for the homey look and the quality of its sophisticated comfort food but for the care and hospitality of chef Chef Matt Kirwan and partners Kendra Feather and Mark W. Herndon, along with bar manager Cary Carpenter.
                   The building dates to 1890, first as a boarding house, then as a drug store, and since 1950 one restaurant or another, including a chitlin store.  Although the menu says something about being “a connection between the land and our history and the food and wine that have been defined by them,” I don’t quite see the Roosevelt name connection.
    It’s a charming big dining room with an active bar, with a tin ceiling and walls full of antiques gathered by Feather, sconces that throw a soft light and ceiling fans.  The service staff is most accommodating, and you can tell by the crowd that it’s a local spot that also manages to draw a few tourists out to this neck of the woods.
    There is a snack section with items like warm cornbread lavished with whipped maple butter ($4) and hot chicken wings with a BBQ rub ($9). I enjoyed chicken liver toast ($8) with passionfruit jam, pomegranate seeds, almonds and fennel powder, though the jam seemed mixed into the whipped liver and overly sweetened the dish.
    There are also small plates of vegetables, and a wonderful parsnip soup laced with apple butter, crunchy Virginian peanuts and a little nutmeg and sage ($6). Main courses run from seared rockfish with sweet potatoes ($24) to a hanger steak with roasted sunchokes, mushrooms, onions and horseradish demi-glace ($26). It happened to be fried chicken night, which I could hardly fail to order, and I was ecstatic over the exceptionally crispy, dark crust (right) that stayed on juicy meat consistently cooked and very hot throughout ($11). The kitchen drizzled on some honey I would have preferred on the side.
        For dessert I very much enjoyed a homey bourbon-drenched ginger cake ($6).
    The Roosevelt prides itself on its lengthy specialty cocktail list, and there were 15 Virginia wine bottlings that night, with about another 15 from other states, all at pretty fair prices.

Dinner nightly; Brunch on Sunday.




2337 West Broad Street

    Way back in 1977 my wife and I were driving cross country and back on our honeymoon, and very little that we ate made us as happy as what we had at Sally Bell’s Kitchen, then on Grace Street in downtown Richmond. It was tiny, with a single glassed-in counter showing the day’s goods, from dainty sandwiches of Smithfield ham, egg salad, pimento cheese, cream cheese and nut, and corned beef spread, available in a box lunch with a side of cole slaw or potato salad and dessert. The desserts were myriad, from chocolate devil's food and lemon yellow batter cupcakes to coconut pie, lemon chess pie and sweet potato pie.
    At a time when Cracker Barrel was taking over the South’s food culture, Sally Bell’s was a true rarity, opened in 1924 by Sara “Sally” Cabell Jones, who called the shop Sarah Lee Kitchen. But because of confusion with the conglomerate baking company by that name, it was changed in 1959 to Sally Bell’s. In 1963 Calom Hunter Jones and his wife, Marcyne “Cene” Owdom Jones, took over (she died last year) and passed it on to daughter-in-law Martha in 2015, the year Sally Bell’s was named one of five restaurants in the country to receive a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award.
    The eatery's original location was bought by Virginia Commonwealth University, and the eatery has now moved to West Broad Street and much larger, spanking white quarters, just across from the Science Museum. So for all kinds of reasons I always try to get back to Sally Bell’s Kitchen when I’m in town, and I still bring home goodies for my wife.
    It’s a very special place to so many people, and to my wife and me it will always be among our favorite moments of that fourteen-week honeymoon, forty-one years ago.

Open Mon.-Fri. 10 AM-5 PM.




By John Mariani

    The 2019 nominees for the James Beard Foundation Awards for restaurants have just been announced, and, as the long, long list of more and more categories grows, there is a good deal more variety among the entrants.
    The awards continue to be called—with objections from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the “Oscars of the Food World,” although the number and qualifications of judges, largely drawn from the food media, hasn’t the professional depth of the Hollywood awards, for which cinematographers vote for that technical award and every voter must prove he’s actually seen the movie.
    Having once chaired the Restaurant Awards Committee for the foundation for three years, I know that those with the best publicists in the biggest cities tend to win. I also know, however, that the voting is on the up-and-up and, contrary to widespread opinion, chefs and restaurateurs, wineries and publishers cannot buy their way into an award.
    (The Beard Foundation also gives awards to books, blogs, radio and TV shows that I haven’t the space to consider here.)
    Overall—perhaps because there are so many categories to compete in—the list of nominees this year is highly inclusive and very PC, with an admirable number given to women and people of color. Given the headlines about rapacious chefs these days, it’s interesting to note the word “integrity” in the description of the Outstanding Restaurateur category.
     The sudden adulation for Los Angeles’s new-found reputation as a bellwether gastro-city was all too predictable. And the Best New Restaurant category shows how the East and West Coasts still dominate, with all five nominees located in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. 
    By the same token, in the overall Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Restaurateur categories, the nominees all have had extensive coverage in the New York-based media, with only one restaurant from the West Coast—Quince in San Francisco. As with the Oscars’ Best Picture and Best Director categories, it’s difficult to figure why a Best Restaurateur would not also run the Best Restaurant.
    The Outstanding Chef category dictates that the nominee “has served as a positive example for other food professionals,” suggesting he or she is well known and much applauded nationally.  On the list are some true contenders in that regard, like David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, CA,, and Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco. But does
Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC, really possess that kind of profile? (Frankly, when I ate around Raleigh last year, no one even mentioned Poole’s Diner as a place not to be missed.)
    Patrick O’Connell (below), chef/owner of The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, VA, rightly received the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2019.
 There are some categories, like Outstanding Baker, Bar Program, Pastry Chef, Service and Wine Program, for which it is hard to discern what makes any of the nominees stand out as unique, especially since one wonders how many voters actually visited those places and found them heads above all others.
    The Rising Star category—a chef must be under 30 and “likely to make a significant impact in years to come”—is tough to prove, especially since all of them come from major cities.
    Then there are the Best Chefs in all the regions of the U.S., from New York to Hawaii. Largely these get their support from the local media in their region, which suggests the voting is probably the best focused, although few of the voters travel outside their immediate region. Yet in the Great Lakes (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio), every nominee this year is in Chicago. For some reason Minneapolis falls into the Midwest category, taking three slots out of six against one each for Kansas City and St. Louis.  With one exception, all the Northeast nominees are in Boston; in the Northwest, all are in Oregon.
    The South is broken into two regions, with Puerto Rico slipped into one, and what you might call Mid-South (Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) in another. The Southwest covers a vast area, including Texas and New Mexico, with four Texas restaurants—three in Austin, but none in Dallas or Houston—pitted against one loner in Arizona.
    California really means Los Angeles and San Francisco. Hawaii is sadly in this category with very rare appearances on the list.
    Then there is New York City, which has in recent years been rife with questionable nominees, like this year’s Brooks Headley of Superiority Burger and Daniela Soto-Innes of the small-plates Mexican spot Atla.  Any new restaurant daring to pose as what used to be called fine dining is banished from this odd list.
    Debate over restaurant awards will always rage, especially over the Michelin Guide’s acceptance of cities’ million-dollar pay-offs to cover it, the highly dubious Fifty Best Restaurant Awards, which always gives top prizes to the most expensive, eccentric, impossible-to-get-into restaurants, and the Zagat Surveys,which have gone through owners and alterations that make it irrelevant. 
    There will always be some head-scratching choices among the Beard nominees this year, as always, and, as noted, the winners will most likely be those that have enjoyed the most media attention in the past year.  As is typical of American awards in general—that there are so many categories—it must be depressing not to make one or more of them at all.


By John Mariani

Photos by Laura Arias

78 King Street
Chappaqua, NY

Lubina sea bass

    Over the past twenty years I’ve had several occasions to pronounce Ignacio Blanco one of the finest Spanish chef/restaurateurs in America, first in TriBeCa at Meigas (put out of business after 9/11), again in a restaurante named Ibiza in New Haven (now closed), then in Ibiza in Danbury, Connecticut. Now that he has added a branch in Chappaqua, New York (about an hour from midtown Manhattan, in Westchester County), he and Chef Ivan Ortiz and Chef de Cuisine Vanesa Oreiro seem emboldened by a more affluent, well-traveled clientele not seeking the usual dozen tapas selections you find elsewhere. The menu even offers vegan, gluten- and dairy-free items.
    The range is extraordinary, with some crossover from the Danbury Ibiza, but there’s much that’s new. My table of four people just told Ignacio to feed us and the results were stunning.
    We began with a mix of greens, strawberries, pears, almonds, caña goat’s cheese, aged Sherry and a raw honey vinaigrette ($13) that set up the palate for some piping hot “clam chowder” croquetas ($12), which were like Chinese soup dumplings—you bite through a crunchy skin to have the chowder ooze out to mix with a bacon aïoli.  Wild Gulf shrimp ($17), fat and juicy, came with shaved garlic, olive oil, lemon, parsley, guindilla pepper and sea salt, with every element playing a role in the taste and texture of the dish. Marinated boquerones (anchovies) glistened atop avocado, black olives, tapenade and toast (left).
    The first bay scallops of the season (below), vierias, I’ve had were grilled with broccolini florets, almonds and a rich cauliflower emulsion ($32), and fresh creamy foie gras came with hazelnut nougat, salt-cured tuna, mango and toast on skewers ($15). Salmon was a special that night, napped with a maple bourbon glaze from the local
Taconic Distillery ($32), while lubina   ($32) was a salt-baked sea bass with root  vegetables confit, pinenuts,   raisins and paprika oil.
Pato Asado  ($29) was juicy breast of duck breast with crusty grilled polenta,  smoked bacon, dates and a tart citrus sauce.   Slowly  cooked baby back ribs called costelitos ($26) had a pungent  mustard-laced potato puree with sweet notes from Asian pears and soothing aïoli.
    Pulpo à la gallega was a Galician-style octopus dusted with Spanish paprika and served on the crispy, caramelized rice called soccarat found at the bottom of the paella pan ($18).
       First-rate desserts followed: a traditional torrija moderna was a caramelized bread pudding ($11)  a Basque “drunken cake” called goxua with English cream, caramelized crema pastelera and blood orange foam ($11), and plump chocolate croquetas (right) with crushed almonds, coconut foam and lime gelatin ($12).   
    The wines selected, from the Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group, went impeccably with the food:  
Albariño Lagar de Candes; Valdeorras Godello from Adegas D. Berna; and Ribeira Sacra Mencía red from Val da Lenda.
    Ibiza’s décor, which is now fairly stark, is a work in progress, but the lighting is good and shows off the food very well. The sound level is also civilized.
    Anyone who goes to San Sebastián in Spain will find scores of tapas bars serving varying versions of the same dozen dishes, but at Ibiza in Chappaqua the genre has been greatly expanded by Ignacio Blanco with respect, imagination and vision.

 Ibiza is open for dinner Tues.-Sun



The Wines of the Veneto

By John A. Curtas

     If there's a wine region of Italy that can be said to be unsung, it is probably the Veneto.
      Stretching from Lake Garda in northwestern Italy, to the shores of the Adriatic sea,  this area has long been famous for producing oceans of supermarket Soave and light, gulp-able versions of its slightly weightier red cousins, Bardolino and Valpolicella. Both of the latter are made primarily from the Corvina grape (left),  with various amounts of Rondinella and Molinara tossed in for fragrance or body. But aside from the region’s most venerated wine: the muscular Amarone (itself something of a late 20th Century phenomenon), these wines have never garnered the respect doled out to varietals in Tuscany or the Piemonte. In many ways, they were victims of the region's success with its lighter wines -- so much mass-produced Soave and red Valpolicella was sold in the 1970s and 1980s, they became generic brands unto themselves, and the better versions of these wines got lost in the flood.
    Which is a shame, since a tour of the region recently showed us how much variety there is in a place long overdue to take a bow for what it produces for the world to drink. This trip was not about the much-maligned Soave (or the ever popular Pinot Grigio, also made in the Veneto), but rather, it was concerned with Corvina -- the grape that is the backbone of all the region's reds and blush wines. Our travels took us from the town of Bardolino, along the coast of Lake Garda, and then to wineries in both the Bardolino and Valpolicella -- wine countries, where the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation has been granted (not without controversy) to wines ranging from the palest pink to the thickest, most mouth-coating red.

The Key to Chiaretto - a whiter shade of pale

    The smokey, thick-skinned Corvina grape makes everything from those unctuous Amarone to light and refreshing Chiaretto (key-ar-et-toh). In between there are the crisp, cherry-bright Bardolinos, and Valpolicella—wines ranging in intensity from a simple pizza parlor drink to "ripasso" wines of startling complexity.
    To decipher how so many styles can be made from so obscure a grape, we buckled into a wine tour that traversed the commune of Bardolino, and then plunged deep into the heart of the Veneto. In between we visited what may be the oldest wine tasting bottega in the world, before ending our trip at a modern Italian restaurant that took our breath away. But first, we started as so many meals do in the Veneto, with a glass of Chiaretto, to put us, as it were, in the pink.
    We began on the shores of Lake Garda, with a traditional meal at Ristorante Menapace (below) in the picture postcard town of Torri Del Benaco. There, chef Luca Monese treated us to a dinner of lake fish specialties, Lavaret "saor" (whitefish escabeche,) marinated in a sweet-sour sauce, zuppa de pesci del Garda (fish soup), and spaghetti with breadcrumbs), all meant to highlight the flavors of the local Chiaretto laid before us. As introductions to wines go, it was a bit daunting -- at least two dozen rosato (rosé) wines were tasted -- but we powered through with the help of both the wine makers themselves, and experts like Elizabeth Gabay MW, whose recently published book
Rosé - Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution helps to explain the "rosé all day" trend that has revived interest in pale wines for a younger generation of drinkers.
    Chiaretto di Bardolino (or simply Chiaretto), as it is locally known, is a (generally) paler rosé produced on the shores of Lake Garda. Chiaro means "light or pale" in Italian, and it was one of the first appellations in Italy to be awarded the DOC denomination (in 1968) in recognition of the wine's historic tradition. For the longest time, it was thought of as a simple quaffing wine, but a new generation of Italian winemakers -- who have taken note of the rosé revolution going on around the world -- are trying to upgrade its image by creating wines with more aromatic and floral notes. Freshness and citrus fruits are what comes through with Chiaretto, along with a whiffs of minerality, salinity, and herbaceousness. It may not have the depth of the storied rosés of Bandol and Tavel, but what it lacks in their complexity, it makes up for in bright drinkability, not to mention extreme food-friendliness. It's hard to imagine a better summertime wine, and at price usually well under $20/bottle, it is hard to imagine a better bargain as well.
    Here are some notable Chiaretto you should be sipping poolside this summer. Some are available in the United States, while others are looking for distribution here. Either way, these tasting notes will give you an idea what to expect at some very friendly price points:

Santi Infinito Rosé 2017

    Bright aromatic notes of ripe strawberries and cherries. Very pale pink caused by short contact with the grape skins, but lively and fresh on the palate, making it a perfect match with seafood and salads. $12 retail.

Le Fraghe 2017 Rodon Bardolino Chiaretto
A tasty, almost salty minerality comes through at first, followed by fragrant red berry aromas and a hint of spice. Ideal with salmon, it shows lots of crispness, finesse and energy, and a hint of bitter herbs, rather than fruit forward, but still quite a mouthful for $16.

Albino Piona 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto
Pale, dry, and light on the palate with a strong mineral nose, this is a classic quaffing Chiaretto of the sort you see accompanying pizzas in trattorias all around Lake Garda. $15 retail.

Poggio delle Grazie 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto DOC
Another classic Chiaretto (80% Corvina and 20% Molinara blend), this one retails for around $10 if you can find it. Bracing, but rounder and softer in the mouth than many of its rivals, with a hint of salt on the front palate - a perfect aperitif to sip with antipasti. Around $15.

Monte Zovo 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto
Very indicative of the style they shoot for in these Italian blush wines: crisp, pale, austere and very dry, it presents whiffs of white flowers and is not for those who demanding a lot of sappy, feminine fruitiness in their glass. Around $10.

Villa Calicantus Chiar' Otto Vino Rosato 2017

Winemaker Daneile Delaini at Calicantus (left) uses organic, biodynamic methods to produce an array of wines from his hand-picked 6 hectares in the hills above Bardolino (left). He ages his reserve Chiaretto in wood vats which allows it to develop a complexity his competitors can only dream about. A mineral-rich nose leads to bright red fruits, with a mildly tart finish.  Sleek, elegant, and balanced, with beautiful length. An amazing wine for under $20/bottle. It's too bad you can't buy it in the United States. Yet.

Guerrieri Rizzardi Chiaretto DOP Classico 2017
G R is a large operation -- the polar opposite of Villa Calicantus, Monte Zovo, and many of these family-owned wineries. It dates back to the 16th Century and is the product of two ancient Veronese wine producers coming to together in 1914 to produce their first joint vintage. Production is over 750,000 bottles of wine a year, ranging from Chiaretto spumante to Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG. (The Calcarole 2011 Amarone, its most recent release, is a knockout worth searching for.) The winery and tasting rooms are within walking distance of downtown Bardolino, making a visit here mandatory on any wine tour of the region. Its Chiaretto is emblematic of the style: spicy, herbal, restrained nose, finishing dry but not astringent. Like all of these Chiaretto, it is eminently drinkable and matches well with almost any seafood pasta you can think of -- which is quite a bargain for ten bucks a bottle.

Tinazzi Ca' de' Rocchi Bardolino Chiaretto DOP Campo delle Rosé 2017   
    Giorgio Tinazzi, shown at the right with his father Giorgio and sister Francesca own the smallest estate in  the area and produce wines through biodynamic growth.The name means "Field of Roses." Pearly-pink and deeper colored than most Chiaretto, its visuals indicated it would be a bigger, richer rosato than most, and the color didn't lie. A wine full of cherry and raspberry aromas, with a longer finish than many of its rivals. Along with Calicantus, definitely the Chiaretto of the trip. It retails for around $20/bottle, and its salmon-colored cousin—I Serengni (named for the round stones in the vineyard)—was even more opulent for around $10 more. Giorgio Tinazzi, shown at the right with his father Giorgio and sister Francesca own the smallest estate in  the area and produce wines through biodynamic growth.
   I have to admit that when I began this expedition, I had no idea what to expect from these wines. Italian rosé may not be the first wines to spring to mind when you think of drinking pink, but they may be the best bargain in blush wines available on the market right now. They are clean and refreshing drink, nothing to really ponder, but a lot of satisfaction in the glass, and something I’d much rather sip than some insipid Soave.

Next Week: The other wines of the Veneto.



"By going to the source of the modern farm-to-table movement, I wanted to see a perfected vision of the culinary ideals that have permeated American dining culture in the years since Chez Panisse’s opening in 1971. You want a revelation—not that cheap ghost of an idea that lazy food writers use to say that something was especially delicious, but an experience that truly upends and spits upon what you, ignorant soul, assumed about how the world worked.”--Soleil Ho, "The Fantasy — and Reality — of Dining at Chez Panisse," San Francisco Chronicle (2/28/19).

AND AN EGG ISN'T LIVING HIS LIFE RIGHT reports that at the branch of Au Cheval in NYC, which features a burger with an egg on top with a knife in it, "If you want to be seated immediately, you’re well advised to go precisely at 11 a.m. on a weekday, as I did on my second visit. Last weekend during the day, the line was reportedly more than 70 people deep, and quoted waits went up to four hours."


Wine Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners


   Wine is a joy year-round but in cooler weather one grape varietal has really taken center stage in my daily activities – that most Italian of grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression – Brunello di Montalcino.
    From mid-September through mid-October, the Sangiovese grown for our various styles of red wines are be harvested, culminating with the top selection for Brunello di Montalcino.
    Second, cooler weather here means it is time to start enjoying more red wines and especially Sangiovese based wines.  That includes Banfi’s cru of Brunello, Poggio alle Mura, literally the cream of the crop of our Sangiovese vineyards. Alongside our Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino, this year we introduced two more wines from the cru Poggio alle Mura – a Rosso di Montalcino and a Riserva of Brunello.  Rosso is sort of like the younger brother of Brunello, also made from 100% Sangiovese grapes but usually a selection from younger vines and the wine is aged only two years compared to the four required for Brunello.  The Riserva, on the other hand, is an even more selective harvest of Sangiovese, and ages for an additional year before release.
    What is so special about this cru Poggio alle Mura?  Well, it is the result our over 30 years of ongoing research at my family’s vineyard estate, Castello Banfi.  When we first began planting our vines there in the late 1970s studies from the University of Bordeaux indicated which strains of many varietals we should plant, based on the soil type and microclimate of each vineyard.  But when it came to the region’s native Sangiovese, there was only local lore, no scientific research.  So we took it upon ourselves to figure out this vine, and set off on three decades of incredibly detailed research.
    We started with 600 apparent variations on Sangiovese, because it is so susceptible to variations in weather and soil, and narrowed that down to 160 truly genetically different clones.  We planted a vineyard with two rows of each type, made wine from each of them, and charted the differences – remember, you only get one chance a year to make wine, so this took time.
    It took about ten years to get some concrete results, though we continue to experiment today and always will – you never stop learning in science and nature!  Once we determined which were the best, complementary clones that could be planted together to make the best Brunello, we chose to plant them in what we determined to be the optimal vineyard sites.  Coincidentally, the best soils and climate conditions are in the slopes surrounding the medieval fortress today known as Castello Banfi, known since Etruscan times as Poggio alle Mura – the walled hilltop.  Hence the name of our most special “cru” of Brunello, representing a synthesis between tradition and innovation.
    Though the focus of this study was our Brunello, all of our Sangiovese-based wines, including the super Tuscans SummuS, Cum Laude, and Centine, benefitted from this work.  And that’s the third reason for celebrating Sangiovese this month, for the range of wonderful reds that usher us into autumn!  One wine in particular was inspired by our research – the BelnerO, a Sangiovese dominant blend with what I like to call a kiss of Cabernet and a whisper of Merlot.  We grow the grapes a little differently for BelnerO than for Brunello, make the wine with less oak aging and released it earlier from the winery, providing a counterpoint to Brunello and a lovely terroir-driven wine in its own right.
     If you know Italians, you know that by nature we are multi-faceted, varying in mood, and always passionate.  As a nation, we span from the hot sunny beaches of Sicily near the African coast to the rugged mountains and Alpine ski slopes of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north.  Sangiovese is grown in almost all of Italy’s regions and reflects the unique nature of each; it is most famous (rightfully so) in Tuscany, yet even there it reflects the nuances of each hilltop, valley and subzone.  It has something a little different to say in Brunello than Chianti, Morellino than Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino than Super Tuscan blends.
    Here is a smattering of Sangiovese-based wines that you may wish to get to know better, reflecting a spectrum that appeals to every occasion, every taste, and every budget.  We can assure you that the conversation will never become boring.

Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese 

BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites. 


Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage. 

Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish. 

Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation.  Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.

Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape.  Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name.  The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky.  Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red.  The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut.  It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note.  It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.

SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet.  An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine. 

Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.

Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table. 

Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti.  An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes.  This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.

Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining. 

Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.

Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region.  The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice.  It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.  

Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.



 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has won top prize  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,  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 JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.


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