Virtual Gourmet

  December 29, 2019                                                                                            NEWSLETTER

Founded in 1996



Part One
By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John Mariani


Part One

By John Mariani

Le Chardenoux
Photo: Thomas Delhemmes

    Only someone who has not eaten around Paris in the past five years, two years, or last year would be so ignorant to suggest the city’s culinary scene has grown staid, stale and stultified. In fact, there has never been a more exciting time to dine in Paris, where new restaurants with innovative menus are opening all the time and where classic cuisine is now not so entrenched as it is refreshed in the established grand salons. Just as Paris once opened itself to the global influences of foods in the age of exploration that added spices from the east and west to French larders, today’s access to more and more foods has given French chefs more to work with than ever before, and they have taken up the challenge with gusto. Here are two restaurants I visited this fall that prove what I mean. 



1 Rue de Jules Vallés

    Chef/entrepreneur Cyril Lignac, who hails from France’s Aveyron region, has proven again and again that opening and running a restaurant in Paris in this decade is a winning proposition. After working at Alain Passard’s illustrious Arpège, he became chef at La Suite and began a TV career with his show “Oui Chef!” His first restaurant, Le Quinzième (recently closed after a decade) filled a niche between deluxe and bistro styles and won a Michelin star in the process. He followed that with a modern bistro, Aux Prés; a seafood-sushi place called Le Bar des Prés; La Pâtisserie; La Chocolaterie and, this year, the Cocktail Bar Dragon.
        He took over a beloved 100-year-old bistro named Le Chardenoux and re-fashioned it to look like the brightest diadem in the 11th arrondissement. It is an enchanting little place done in an airy Art Nouveau flourish wit
h a foliated ceiling, marble tables and zinc bar, with perfect lighting and a cheery sound level.
    Lignac calls Le Chardenoux a “restaurant de la traditions,” but those traditions come from all over the globe, right down to a terrific New England lobster roll with celery, apple, cocktail sauce and avocado (left). The small menu offers raw shellfish as well as a very appealing fritto misto of sweet shrimp, zucchini and a spicy mayonnaise (€18), quickly fried to a crispiness that keeps the meat inside fluffy and tender. A fanned-out crab galette with avocado is tinged with Madras curry (€25), and there is a delight called “crispy sushi” (€16) made of lightly marinated wild salmon slightly warm and placed atop buttered bread (below). I can’t remember the last time I used the cliché of food that “melts in your mouth,” but with his salmon it’s the absolute truth.
    Truly classic French are his fat morsels of goujons of sole with eggplant tempura and tartar sauce (€29). There is also pasta—every restaurant in Paris now seems to serve pasta —a langoustine ravioli in a light broth with cabbage (€25). Like all good French chefs, Lignac does not skimp on the amount of butter in his mashed potatoes side dish.
    Desserts keep to French form, with a perfect, shattering-crisp millefeuille with praline (€12); French toast with raspberries and pistachios (€12) and a Grand Cru chocolate biscuit and passion fruit.
    When the sun returns to Paris in the spring, they’ll put tables outside Le Chardenoux.  I’ll wish I were there.




42 Avenue Gabriel

    It would take some time to find a more exquisitely decorated boutique hotel and restaurant than La Réserve near the Champs-Élysées. This was formerly the home of couturier Pierre Cardin, which owner Michel Reybier has made over as an intimate small hotel with the look of a 19th century apartment in the Belle Epoque-Haussmann style, now with a very 21st century indoor pool.
    There are two restaurants, the deluxe Le Gabriel, done in Napoleonic décor, with both à la carte and a €295 menu, and the more casual La Pagode de Cos, which has an outdoor garden attached. The “Cos” refers to the Bordeaux château Cos d’Estournel, which has, in fact, a pagoda-like tower. The sumptuous furnishings at the restaurant are done in the finest Chinoiserie, silks and satins. Had Marcel Proust not chosen to sequester himself in his cork-lined bedroom, La Pagode de Cos is what his apartment might have looked like.
    Chef Jérôme Bactel offers a reasonable €85 menu in addition to à la carte, which has a few Asian elements along with Mediterranean and French fare on the one-page menu. A lobster salad with an almond milk emulsion (€48) had surprisingly large claws for a European crustacean and therefore plenty of meat, and they were sweet and impeccably cooked. His cream of porcini soup with a parmesan foam (€22) was one of the best soups I had on my trip to Paris, as velvety as it was intensely flavorful.
St. Pierre had fine, firm and succulent flesh enhanced simply with sautéed zucchini (€32), and a straightforward, well-seasoned beef tartare (€41) could only be better had the dice of the beef been somewhat finer.
    I’m always puzzled how so many French chefs just can’t get Italian pasta right. The rigatoni that day with eggplant and pecorino (€29) was simple enough but hadn’t much flavor, and, in an attempt at making it al dente, it came out far too chewy.
    I hardly expected to find a Key lime tart in Paris, but call it a calisson acidule on a crispy caramelized almond crust (€18) and I’ll happily devour it by any name. Equally delicious was a raspberry macaroon with caramelized peach cream (€19).
    Often when I'm traveling alone, I experience moments I would so like to share with my wife. Next time I am in Paris, I think I'll surprise her with dinner at La Pagode de Cos, not least as a good excuse to wear that beautiful dress she bought that day on the nearby Champs-Élysée.


By John Mariani

246 Tenth Avenue (near 24th Street)

    It is not an idle question to ask if a non-Italian chef can truly cook Italian food, because when it comes to other national cuisines—Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Russian, Thai —few who are not from those regions ever attempt to make them. But the assumption that Italian food is easy to learn and master is a slippery slope indeed, with far too many chefs who have never stepped foot in Liguria or Emilia-Romagna wondering what the big fuss is in making a good pesto or Bolognese ragù. Worse, adding their own un-tested ideas to a traditional or classic dish can show a total misunderstanding about indigenous food.
    This came to mind the other night at Bottino, the charming 21-year-old restaurant in Chelsea owned by Danny Emerman and Alessandro Prosperi (who also own Barocco) and now headed by chef/partner Jamie Kenyon (left), who has admirably mastered a range of Italian dishes by respecting their roots and traditions.  Case in point, his cacio e pepe, made with a pasta of the right shape and texture—bavette—and a careful focus on how the cheese and crushed black peppers are built so that the flavors and textures are perfectly complementary (below).  Kenyon does not tack like so many non-Italian chefs, who feel a need to add all sorts of other ingredients—kale, peas, cream, sausage—that knock the dish completely out of balance.
    Kenyon, who was born in Manchester, England, and cooked at Daniel, Bar Boulud, Perla and La Serena, achieves this balance with restraint and a menu that is the ideal size for his kitchen and his staff to handle well.
    The premises are larger than they would appear from the street, with a narrow bar with tables leading to three rooms and a glassed-in garden. The lighting is calming, the noise level fine—no piped-in music—the walls “gallery white,” the tablecloths simple and soft and the chairs recycled Eames, all quite minimalist. One could easily boot Bottino out and install a Japanese restaurant without changing a thing.
    Begin with the piping hot, crisp arancini risotto croquettes with a shrimp broth, uni, butternut squash and hot ‘nduja oil ($16), or the creamy duck and chicken liver mousse with housemade brioche and Concord grape chutney ($16). Salads in Italian restaurants are often at their best with just a few leaves, lemon and olive oil, but Bottino’s apple and butter lettuce salad with pomegranate, walnuts and Stilton cheese ($14), while closer to a Waldorf salad than any in Italy, is an excellent first course.
    I tried five pastas on the menu—portions are more than ample as a main course but easy to share as a first course—including that superb bavette cacio e pepe ($22). The cavatelli alla Norma ($22) is a classic southern Italian dish made with charred eggplant, tomato, pickled peppers and ricotta salata with a pleasing, slight smokiness.  Ricotta made from goat’s cheese is made into plump gnocchi (left) with a lusty lamb neck ragù ($27), and, during the winter season, the squash-stuffed agnolotti ($25) are not to be missed. There was nothing wrong with a savory tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($25) except for the incorporation of too much tomato in a dish that should be spare in its use.
    Main courses are generous and you may well take some home. Nice, fatty pork cheeks are braised in apple cider with granny smith apples and served with an apple reduction and red cabbage ($25), while rack of lamb in a mild bagna cauda with semolina gnocchi alla romana  ($36) was a feast; I ravaged the bones on their own, then got around to the lamb itself. Grilled octopus with ‘nduja sausage, fingerling potatoes and pickled red onion ($28) was all right but too charred one evening.
    There is a whole roasted fish each night (market price). Ours was black sea bass served with crisped red potatoes that were tender, sweet morsels that took on all the flavors of the roasting pan and oil.
    Annabel Sharahy is both sous- and pastry chef, and her desserts ($12), while respecting some Italian traditions, are quite personalized, like her warm Tuscan bread pudding with vanilla gelato; warn olive cake with vanilla gelato, balsamic, tangerine and olive oil; and a Christmas-y sticky toffee pudding with dates, sweet potato custard and pomegranate toffee (right).

    Manager Teddy Namauleg oversees a largely Italian wine list with good pricing and options, along with a cocktail selection well worth considering, including a chili-hot Margarita.
    So, in the hands of a team like Bottino’s, the simple goodness of Italian food is exemplified by the use of first-rate ingredients, thoughtful combinations and rigorous attention to cooking times. Kenyon has come a long way from Manchester in adopting cucina all’Italiana as his own.


Bottino is open for lunch Tues.-Sat. and for dinner nightly.




By John Mariani

Mount Etna, Sicily

    Prehistoric grape wines have grown on the island of Sicily for six millennia, though Phoenicians and Greeks brought the cultivation of vineyards there in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. Homer wrote of Sicily’s grapevines in The Odyssey, and successive rulers—Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans,  Hohenstaufen, Aragonese, Spanish and French—all enjoyed the abundance, if not the quality, of Sicilian wines, which were often shipped abroad to mix with and bolster less robust wines of Europe.
    Not until the 19th century were certain, small estate Sicilian wines recognized for their quality, but even well into the 20th century there was little wine from Sicily that was not produced in vast quantities by cooperatives and sold cheap in the global market.
    I recall vividly back in the early 1980s when a delegation of Sicilian winemakers came to New York to show their wines to the wine media, who, myself included, found every bottle to be oxidized and largely undrinkable. Later, in discussion with the New York Italian Trade Commissioner, the vintners protested that they had been making wines like this for thousands of years and liked them to taste that way. To which the Commissioner replied, wagging his finger, “If you ever want to sell a bottle of your wine in the international market, you have to modernize, invest and acknowledge that oxidation is a serious, distasteful flaw in table wines.”
    The Sicilians must have taken the advice, because, as Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino show in their book The World of Sicilian Wine (2013), Sicilian wine has improved measurably, especially among innovative wine entrepreneurs and, too, among cooperatives who have indeed made the investment in modern technology to turn out well-made, non-oxidized wines of regional character from indigenous grapes like Catarrato, Grillo, Zbibbo, Moscato Bianco, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Perricone and many varietals more associated with northern Europe, like Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Producers like
Planeta, Duca di Salaparuta, Donnafugata and Regaleali have had considerable success in the world market with good, clean, fresh reds, whites and rosés. But none has started from scratch to build a completely hi-tech, wholly sustainable wine company as has Firriato, whose vineyards are on both the east and west coasts of Sicily, which I visited this fall.
    The company began only in 1984, when
Salvatore Di Gaetano sold off his petrol company after finding land near Trapani on the western coast where he saw the potential to raise superior clones of traditional varietals like Nero d’Avola, Perricone, Nerello Mascalese,  Zibibbo, Grillo and Catarratto. (There are at least 80 indigenous varietals in Sicily.) That original production was increased with investments in the east, near Mount Etna, where they’ve innovated with more European varietals and took full advantage of its rich volcanic soils. The first vintage of Etna Rosso was 1994.
        Di Gaetano, 63, now company president, has been joined by his wife, Vinzia Novara,  as CEO, their daughter Irene as chairwoman, and her husband, COO Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato (right), with whom I spent three days in Sicily learning what Firriato has accomplished and is planning for the future.
    Federico, 39, is a man of boundless energy—he climbed part of Mount Everest through the jagged Rongbuk Glacier in Tibet—and during my stay dragged me halfway up Mount Etna. At least once a week he makes the eight-hour round-trip drive from Trapani to Etna to tend both estates.
    As an honors graduate in IT and Management Engineering, Federico focused immediately on Firriato’s technology, establishing organic management of vineyards, eco-friendly and sustainable practices and experimental labs for recovering Sicilian indigenous grapes. The wineries are the first in Italy to be certified as 100% organic and carbon neutral.
    When I asked about the effects of global warming, Federico was careful to say that, “Global warming is unquestionably occurring, because every kind of meteorological event is becoming more frequent and more intense. What science cannot yet tell us, because we lack the long-term data, is how it is affecting viticulture, but we do know it’s changing.” Thus, grape growing practices at Firriato are based on increasing the leaves that cover the vines of the 50- to 60- year-old vineyards. The selection of the healthiest grapes is also part of the overall program.   
    Lying in the shadow of Mount Etna, Firriato produces wines that enjoy the volcanic minerality detectable in the flavors of the east coast wines. Federico has also cultivated a vineyard of pre-phylloxera vines (an infestation in Europe caused an 80% loss of vineyards in Sicily in the 1880s) and he now makes a deep purple Signum Aetne 2014 that is remarkably complex, with firm tannins and a pleasing acidic finish. It is made from Nero Mascalese and “other relic wines in the vineyard.”
    The Etna vines are the last of the season to be harvested, and, after pressing with state-of-the-art machinery, the wines are aged in French oak in a room where constant temperature and humidity are maintained (above).
     The family has also been involved with building first-class resorts on their properties: Baglio Soria outside of Trapani is a reclaimed farmers’ village, overlooking the vineyards and the sea, with a restaurant and a “wine experience” tour and tasting; Calamoni di Favignana, on the small coastal island of Favignana, has a secluded, very private residence in the middle of the vineyard just meters from the sea; Cavanera Etnea (right), in Etna, is also set within the vineyards and boasts a superb restaurant called La Reserva Bistrot with the full range of Firriato’s wines offered. (I’ll be writing about these in another article.)
    In a very offhanded way, Federico (below) mentioned he is the current scion of 37 generations of Sicilian aristocracy dating back to the 12th century—a count no less— though I found him to be very down to earth and extremely funny (we sang “Surfin' Bird” and “Wooly Bully” on our way to his Etna vineyards) and looks like a younger version Italian actor/director Roberto Benigni.  In Trapani, instead of living in one of the city’s old palazzos, he has chosen to live fairly simply, not least because he is so constantly on the move, traveling internationally as well as on his weekly trips to his far-flung vineyards.
e and Irene have a daughter named Elidea, from the Greek for “goddess of the sun.” He keeps promising Irene that one day he’ll finish the construction of a home on Favignana. Fortunately, as chairwoman of the company, Irene has plenty to occupy her time until Federico delivers on that promise.





"Exes Harry Styles and Kendall Jenner Catch Up Over a Dinner of Cod Sperm and Water Scorpion," NY Magazine.




"The pizza toast was like liturgy, like an old friend comforting me as I wept into my hands. The pizza toast was everything I needed it to be at the very moment it arrived."—Craig Modan, "I Walked 600 Miles Across Japan for Pizza Toast

One man’s epic quest to savor the fading beauty of Japan’s traditional cafes," (


 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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