Virtual Gourmet

  OCTOBER 6, 2019                                                                                            NEWSLETTER

Founded in 1996


"Transeuro Line" poster by Steve Thomas


By Geoff Kalish

By John Mariani

By John Mariani


By Geoff Kalish

    Some 30 years ago Sirmione, set at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the southern end of Lake Garda in northern Italy, was a modestly popular destination for a summertime visit, featuring narrow streets lined with local boutiques. Now, like most of Italy between mid-June and the end of August, it teems with tourists and is loaded with gelato shops.
    Of course, wine is important throughout the region, and prosecco from nearby wineries remains a popular aperitif, especially in an Aperol Spritz, a mix of prosecco and Aperol combined with a splash of soda and served on ice with a slice of orange. In fact, on recent afternoons I saw this beverage being sipped by more than half the patrons on the main outdoor plaza in Sirmione, as well as at tables in Venice, Verona and Milan.
    Sirmione contains a 13th century Castle named Rocca Scaliger that features massive towers and thick walls on top of which visitors can walk and take in a view of the lake. There’s also a number of ancient churches worth visiting, like Chiesa di San Pietro in Mavino and Chisetta di S. Ann, and the well-preserved ruins of a First century Roman villa, Gtotte Catulo, a beach, a children’s playground, as well as some upscale boutique shops like Max Bulian on Via Vittorio Emanuelle for men and Nostalgia on Via Casello for women, along with some interesting bargain boutiques.
    At the far edge of the town there’s Villa Cortine Palace, a luxury hotel with magnificent grounds, plush, spacious rooms, a pool overlooking the lake and a private lakeside area with a pier from which guests can swim or relax on lounge chairs.  The restaurant, Al Molo, features top-notch freshly made pasta specialties and grilled seafood, chops and steak. The hotel also offers scenic, outdoor upscale dining in a garden setting behind its main building.
    As to other dining in Sirmione, there are more than a few good options, ranging from simple trattorias serving pizza to full-scale ristoranti.   

Ristorante Risorgimento
Piazza Giusuè Carducci 5/6

    Although the indoor space is quite elegant, with well-spaced, white-clothed tables in a room featuring white walls and sheer window coverings, on dry summer days outdoor seating at this 100-year-old ristorante along a large plaza ringed by other restaurants is preferred. In both, the fare prepared under the direction of long-time chef and owner Amedo Baroni is artistically presented sophisticated modern takes on traditional Italian dishes.
    For example, an appetizer of open ravioli (right) was a plate of large squares of thin green and white pasta atop a saffron-infused sauce and coated with a beef and burrata mix dusted with grated Parmigiano. Shrimp and prawns out of their shells (left) were coated with a delicate swirl of crisp, thin shreds of potato and served with four different fragrant dipping sauces. Likewise, main courses of juicy sea bream on a mound of light tomato compote and one of dewy turbot tasted every bit as good as they looked. We accompanied the meal with a 2015 Luce Della Vite Lucente from Montalcino that had flavors of ripe cherries and strawberries with notes of thyme in its finish, and we concluded with a large scoop of gelato coated with rich, hot chocolate sauce and a glass of toffee-flavored Ben Rye Passito from Donnafugata in Sicily. 

(Open for lunch and dinner daily, except Tues. Expect dinner for two to cost $130-$140, excluding wine and tax.)


Tavernetta Maria Callas
Via S. Salvatore 

    Named by owner Daniele Prodi after the Greek opera diva, who at the height of her career lived in a villa in Sirmione, Maria Callas offers indoor and outdoor seating. Indoors is a room with white walls, a brown wooden floor and clothed tables, where the piped in music consists of arias by the restaurant’s namesake. Outdoors tables are set in front of the restaurant along a wide cobblestone street.
    The food is creative regional Italian, and appetizer choices include: large deep fried zucchini flowers stuffed with chive-laced cottage cheese accompanied by a zesty tartar sauce; tender tentacles of seared octopus served with candied orange slices and pistachios; a flan of earthy wild mushrooms on Parmigiano fondue with roasted pears; and beef tartare served with a salad of fresh spinach, raspberries and salted cottage cheese.
    And there are ten different pasta and risotto dishes, like house-made tagliatelle with black truffles and a heady mix of cuttlefish ink, and fusilli accompanied by squid and zucchini tossed with mint and chili pepper. Main courses run the gamut from eight choices of sea fare, like moist, seared wild sea bream with cauliflower cream (right), to seven choices of meats, like a fillet of beef with foie gras and mushrooms doused in an Amarone-based sauce. We accompanied the meal with a 2016 full-bodied Ripa Della Volita Valpolicella Ripasso that had flavors of plums and wild herbs and concluded with a slice of creamy cheese cake served with wild strawberries and a dish of green apple sorbet.  

 (Open daily except Tues. for lunch and dinner. Expect dinner for two to cost $100-$110, excluding wine and tax.)


Le Gardenie Restaurant
Villa Cortine Palace Hotel
Viale Gennari 2

    Dining here takes place at white-clothed tables set well apart in a large walled garden overlooking Lake Garda at the rear of the Villa Cortine Palace Hotel, a grand structure built in the 11th century as a family fortress. In inclement weather, it’s indoors in a luxurious room that looks out at the garden. Service is prompt and professional and the extensive menu offers a wide range of creative dishes, primarily representative of northern Italian fare, and many with an Asian/Mideastern flair. For example, an appetizer of crispy shrimp came dressed in passion fruit cream, lime ricotta and a tangy wasabi vegetable mayonnaise. Grilled squid were accompanied by a roasted pumpkin puree laced with mustard and coriander. Even a risotto dish was loaded with squid and scallops infused with a coriander gel, while a main course of octopus with fennel, fried eggplant and baby carrots was spiced with heady ginger.
    There is, however, no Asian/Mideastern influence in the serving of meaty chops of suckling pig, doused in a classic rich Italian Amarone sauce and served with sautéed Brussels sprouts seasoned only with salt and pepper. Also, desserts are classic Italian ranging from tiramisù to cheese cake to a selection of cheeses. We accompanied the meal with a 2014 Tedeschi San Rocco Valpolicella Sureriore Ripasso with a bouquet and taste of plums, cherries and raspberries that mated well with the diverse flavors of the fare. 

Open for dinner nightly. Expect dinner for two to cost $160-$170, excluding wine and tax.


By John Mariani

1221 Avenue of the Americas (at 49th Street)


    With sixteen units, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse chain is larger than Smith & Wollensky (ten), in range of Palm (24) and way behind Ruth’s Chris (75). In the steakhouse game, size is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you have clout with the major meat suppliers, but on the other it’s very difficult to maintain the same, consistent quality throughout the chain. When it comes to USDA Prime beef, a grade that has been de-graded over the past two decades to meet demand, the prospects of always getting the very best beef in a seasonal market become tougher and tougher.
    Simple math tells you that if USDA Prime totals less than three percent of the American meat supply, you’ll understand that vying for that minuscule amount for every new unit that opens doesn’t compute.
     Del Frisco’s started out in Dallas in 1981, and, after expansion, acquired other brands, for a total of 70 restaurants. As of this writing, the company has just been split up, with the Connecticut-based equity firm L. Chatterton buying Del Frisco's Bartaco and Barcelona Wine Bar brands for $650 million in cash, while Houston billionaire and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s Landry’s Inc. has bought the Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouses and Grilles for an undisclosed amount. As a result of the transaction's close, Del Frisco's stock will cease trading on the NASDAQ Global Select Market.
       Still, I can’t imagine the new owners doing much to change the Del Frisco template in any significant way, not least the New York operation, which is one of its highest-grossing branches. The New York Del Frisco’s, with a slightly more casual Del Frisco’s Grille across the street in Rockefeller Center, offers pretty much the exact menu as all the other units do, although prices in New York are higher—a bone-in ribeye in Atlanta runs $64; in Manhattan, it’s $76.  All are vast spaces, many on two floors and none is done in the deliberately scruffy, old-fashioned look of many of their competitors.
        Where Del Frisco’s does seem to have enormous clout is in wine buying, and every unit has great depth and breadth, many with more than 1,200 labels; the wine list in New York is easily one of the best in the world, including a slew of trophy wines like Romanée-Conti going for an astonishing $29,000.
       The location, on Sixth Avenue, anchors the skyscraper above it, taking up two floors, with a fabulous view of the streets and Rockefeller Center. A sweeping staircase, a ceiling held up by massive wood-clad girders, a long U-shaped bar, violet lighting, a great wine cache behind glass, widely separated tables and good linens are a departure from the formulaic in New York steakhouses. Call it Texas swagger, but the personalities of the wait staff is pure New York. When full the place can ring with voices but it’s not too loud. At lunch men will be in suits and ties, at dinner, all clothing guidelines are thrown to the wind.
    Ask about the oysters of the moment ($22) and you’ll get a highly informed answer from the waiter, as you will about every aspect of the menu. Nicely chopped and spiced tuna tartare comes with avocado, sweet soy ponzu, a wakame salad and wonton crisps ($24.50). Seared foie gras takes on a strawberry balsamic glaze with toasted brioche and the unusual addition of crispy onion ($27). And what’s a steakhouse without a good, crisp blue cheese-stuffed iceberg lettuce wedge with tomatoes, bacon and rich Danish blue dressing ($14.50)?   
    Way too many steakhouses announce they use “jumbo lump crab meat,” then serve mashed-up shreds of crab in their crab cakes. Del Frisco’s promises and delivers the real thing, big, fat, sweet lumps of crab lightly bound and quickly sautéed, served with a lobster cream sauce ($24.50).
    Among the meat entrees I sampled, by far the 22-ounce dry-aged Colorado lamb chops ($64) were the best, with a proper trim and balance of fat to meat, the right char and perfect temperature.  But a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye ($76) and a bone-in strip ($68.50) lacked the richness and minerality I find in some other New York steakhouses like Palm and Porter House.
    Brussels sprouts come with smoked bacon, caramelized onions for sweetness and a lemon butter ($16), the creamed spinach with smoky bacon, egg, mushrooms and Cheddar ($15) are very good, and the potatoes au gratin with scallions, bacon and cheddar ($15) delicious.
    Steakhouses need to show largess in everything from bread basket to desserts, and in this latter category Del Frisco’s can be boastful: the lemon cake ($13.50) is six layers tall, with lemon butter cream and a lemon glaze—this is a good spot to take a friend for a birthday lunch and order this cake. Butter cake was made even richer by lavishing it with butter pecan ice cream, whipped creamed and caramel sauce ($13), and the warm banana bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and caramel ($12.50) would go over well in New Orleans.
    Of all the out-of-town chains in New York, like Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Capital Grille and others, Del Frisco’s competes at a higher level of largess and swank, plus it runs like a very well-oiled machine. I trust the break-up into two companies won’t change that.

Open for lunch Mon.-Sat., for dinner nightly.


By John Mariani

In the 1980s Vega Sicilia Unico Put
 Ribera Del Duero Wines among
Europe's Finest and Still Does

Ribera del Duero

    I don’t remember the exact moment I first tasted Vega Sicilia Unico—it was sometime in the mid-1980s—but I recall being astounded for two reasons: first, because it was one of the few premium quality Spanish wines then in the market, and second, because its quality was unquestionably at a level of the very best wines of Bordeaux. Ever since, I’ve felt privileged to drink Vega Sicilia Unico, not least because its price has soared upwards of $500.
    The vineyards of Bodegas Vega Sicilia, whose name predates its founding as a winery, are at the edge of the Ribera del Duero in the Province of Valladolid, Castilla y Leon, and the winery’s fame vaulted that region to the forefront of Spanish viniculture in the late 1990s. Originally founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who was extraordinary in his day for planting Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in his vineyards, along with the more traditional plantings of Tempranillo and Malbec, the winery helped put Ribera del Duero on the map in 1982 with its own Denominación de Origen appellation. Also that year the estate was purchased by the Álvarez family, who upgraded the estate from top to bottom. Though production is kept to a modest volume, today its wines are sold in 88 countries.
    Tempos Vega Sicilia is very much a family winery—which went through messy, divisive intramural disputes over the ownership of its El Enebro equity company earlier in this decade—with Pablo Álvarez serving since 1990 as CEO of Tempos Vega Sicilia as well as the current Chair of Europvin, an export group of highly regarded European wineries. His daughter Marta Álvarez  serves as President. The Álvarez family is also part of Primum Familiae Vini, an association of just twelve families that include Miguel Torres, Robert Drouhin, Piero Antinori, Mouton-Rothschild and others.
    Today the winery uses more Tempranillo than in the past, though 40% of its 210 of the estate’s 1000 acres are still planted with old vine Bordeaux varietals. Yields are low, with Vega Sicilia’s signature Unico wines often made from less than a ton of grapes per acre, accounting for about one-third of the estate’s production. The current winemaker is Gonzalo Iturriaga de Juan, whose blends are usually about 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Unico 2009, however, is made from 94% Tempranillo and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also known for its slow-maturing character, so that keeping it cellared is essential to bringing it to its finest expression, sometimes more than two decades after bottling. In poor vintages, the wine may not be made or labeled Unico at all. Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial’s label shows no vintage at all, but is a blend of various vintages that may date back 30 years.
    Recently in New York, Pablo Alvarez held a tasting of the estate’s wines at a Japanese restaurant, which I thought an odd match-up and found to be less than stimulating. Nevertheless, from the first sips of the Macán Clásico Rioja 2015 ($60) and Macán Rioja 2014 ($100), I was reminded again of what I love about these wines. These are from a joint venture with Benjamin de Rothschild that began in 2004 and released its first wines in 2009. They are 100% Tempranillo from vineyards averaging 40 years of age, spending 16 to 18 months in barrel and three years in bottle, emerging with a borderline-high 14.5% alcohol. Álvarez said that because the wines come from northern vineyards, “They are not so explosive,” yet I found the rich, fruit-driven Rioja delightful right now, with the Clásico tight on first smell and taste, but it opened up on the glass.
    Next up was Pintia Toro 2014 ($75), which Álvarez called a “rustic wine.” Seventy-five acres used for Pintia is planted with pre-phylloxera vines, and the company also buys grapes from others. The Toro appellation soil is very pebbly, so it has a fine minerality. A “polishing” takes place from malolactic fermentation, spending time in both French and American oak that provides a woodsy, not woody, character and fruited lush texture, with 14.5% alcohol, bottled in May 2016.
    Alion 2015 ($95) was minty, peppery and drier, made from complementary plots throughout Ribera del Duero, aged in 80% new oak barrels, the rest is used barriques, which explains its spicy freshness. At 15% alcohol it is getting a bit too fleshy but more time in the cellar may tamp its effects down.
    Valbuena 5º Ribera del Duero 2014 ($200) came next with some washu beef, parmesan-dusted spinach and black truffles, which worked well. Five years of aging shows this blend of 95% Tinto Fino and 5% Merlot, which gives it a velvety quality, has softening tannins but a true balance of fruit and acid, at a perfect 14% alcohol.        Then came the masterwork, Unico 2009, with a complexity achieved through careful selection from 57 plots with 19 soil types, each with its own characteristics. The blend for this vintage was 94% Tinto Fino and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Ten years of aging is the minimum for a wine of this stature, with many years of maturity ahead of it, and it achieves its depth and breadth at only 14% alcohol. Everything I recall with such pleasure from the first time I had Vega Sicilia Unico came flooding back that evening. (Current prices in the U.S. range from $335 to $500 a bottle.)
    An unexpected pleasure at dinner’s end was a Late Harvest Oremus 2017 from Hungary, whose estate Tempos Vega Sicilia bought, acquiring vineyards that average 20 years old, which was the period when Hungarian vineyards had emerged from decades of Soviet mismanagement. The wine is aged, appropriately, in oak barrels called Gōnc and Szerednye then aged for six months in bottle. (A 500-ml bottle runs about $40.) It was a happy surprise along with a dessert of traditional Portuguese-Japanese sponge cake called castella with chestnuts and sweet potato cream.



Sarah Jessica Parker’s new Sauvignon Blanc wine “Invivo X, Sarah Jessica Parker”  is the actress / entrepreneur’s first wine to launch from her new collection with New Zealand-based Invivo & Co. She said, "I’ve been so looking forward to releasing my Invivo X, Sarah Jessica Parker Sauvignon Blanc and sharing it with the world. The whole marvelous experience was a great and unexpected opportunity and yes, at last we get to introduce the fruits of these last many months. We are thrilled to pour our first glasses, delight in imagining others do so and hope very much that you love it as much as we do.” The wine "was perfected" in May 2019 during a 3-hour blending session in NYC with Parker and Invivo’s co-foundersRob Cameron & Tim Lightbourne.
Says Cameron of the wine, it has “Lifted notes of grapefruit, honeysuckle flower, passionfruit and citrus zest. The palate is expansive and leads with a wall of sweet-scented fruits and a soft, but balanced acid spine.”



"A trip to the bar with a young kid can be a disaster, but there are steps you can take to ensure that everyone has a good time," by 
"The Right Way to Bring a Baby to a Bar," (


 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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