Virtual Gourmet

 March 12, 2006                                                        NEWSLETTER


    Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub, Dublin                         Photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery (2006)

                                                            HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Country by John Mariani


by John Mariani


    "But I can give thee more:
     For I will raise her statue in pure gold;
     That while Verona by that name is known.
     There shall no figure at such rate be set
     As that of true and faithful Juliet."
                       --William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet," Act V, iii (1594/5)
any years ago Esquire's travel columnist Richard Joseph wrote a story entitled "Staying Put in Verona," whose thesis was that choosing a hotel room for several nights  in Verona allowed one to travel extensively to some of the most beautiful parts and sites of Italy, all within a daytime drive or train trip. It was a revelatory article and one I took to heart.  So on my first visit to Verona I did what Joseph suggested and was rewarded with one of the most sensible vacations ever--no rushing around from bed to bed in still another city, no re-packing, and no sadness about having to move on when I'd rather stay put.  And the thought of returning to marvelous, wonderful, beautiful Verona made the trips to outer regions like excursions from an adopted home.
     In the years I succeeded Joseph (who died in the saddle, or, more specifically, while flying to another destination) as Esquire's food & travel correspondent, I 've been back to Verona many times and love it all the more because familiarity with this legendary city plays on all one's romantic notions about Italy, and, of course, Romeo and Juliet.rt
      Verona  became Roman about 300 B.C., and then endured centuries of invasions, caretakers, and foreign rule. In 489 A.D. the Gothic ruler Theodoric built his palace there; in 569 the city was taken by Alboin, King of the Lombards, whose occupation lasted well into the Eighth Century, when Verona became the residence of the kings of Italy. For the next century various foreign powers, including Venice, France, and Austria,  exacted their own dominance on the city until 1866, when the  Austrians evacuated the city, which thereupon became part of the new Italy.
     Ever linked to nearby Venice, Verona has been a city of traders and markets, and the wealth they brought made it into one of the loveliest city's in Veneto, of a perfect size that prevents its city center from being overwhelmed by traffic--although the numbers of tourists flocking here can be exhausting in peak season.  Still, it's a second-tier city for those who only have time to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice.  It is within easy striking distance  by rail and car to Venice (70 miles), Milan (95), Mantua (25), and just 18 miles from Garda and the glorious lake country (for my article on Lake Garda click). So making easy day trips is a snap, and Verona is amiably easy to get in and out of.
        It is a city of low density and soft northern light, and everything has been scrubbed clean in recent years to reveal the city's
distinctive pink limestone called rosso di verona, from which the medieval and Renaissance buildings are fashioned. The Duomo, Santa Maria Matricolare, begun in 1139, is an imposing but restrained edifice, with a superb "Assumption" by Titian. San Zeno is somewhat more typical of Veronese style, with a graceful bell tower and cloister (seen above), and pink-and-beige striped walls under red-tile roofs that inside form what is called a vaulted "ship's keel ceiling."  Here the outstanding work is a tender altarpiece "Madonna" by Mantegna.
       The center of the city--I actually prefer to call Verona a town--is built around the famous Roman amphitheater, third largest in the world and virtually intact.  In front of it is the airy, wide-open Piazza Bra, where, except for the eyesore of a McDonald's, sitting at a cafe and watching Verona go by is one of the most delightful things to do upon returning to town in the evening.  The Adige River (above) snakes its way through the city, and the Ponte Scaligero is one of the finest bridges in Italy for its architectural strength and refinement. The old herb market in Verona is where the Piazza Erbe opens itself to the city's mascot--a Venetian lion perched on a column in front of the Palazzo Maffei, and the area still functions as a busy market surrounding the fountain here.
       [[[]And then there is Casa di Giulietta, 
where, says Romeo in Shakespeare's tragedy, “With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls;/For stony limits cannot hold love out.”  And there still is the darling balcony he eagerly climbs to meet Juliet, who gives him “The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.”  And ever has it since endured and ever will it be.
   Alas, there probably never was a Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare having derived the story from an earlier English poem based on still earlier work that places the action of the story in Siena before other authors placed it in  Verona.

       So, with  both fervor and awe, thousands head to the house of Juliet, which Photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery                                                                            was actually a 13th century inn, to pin their love notes to the wall.   Actually "pin" is far from the right word: they are stuck to the wall (left), often with chewing gum, and they create a parti-colored pastiche of small reveries and deep emotions that attest to the persistent charm of the legend, bursting with what Samuel Johnson called "the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance."
(Romeo's house is supposedly nearby, too.)
     Dining well in Verona is as easy as stepping into almost any trattoria.  Indeed, the larger, fancier ristoranti in the better hotels like the superb Due Torre Baglioni (4 Piazza Sant'Anastasia; 045-595044; click) and the Gabbia d'Oro (4a Corso Porta Borsari; 045-800-3060 ) are stuffy and to be avoided if you're looking for true Veronese atmosphere and good food.  By all means stay in such hotels, but don't eat there.  One of the best restaurants in the city is Il Desco (7 Via Dietro San Sebastiano; 045-595-358), which  has high elegance without pretension, and the cooking is excellent and refined, sometimes a bit much so as with its olive oil gelato, but imagination usually does not get the better of the chef, who delights in cooking first-rate ingredients with a minimum of fuss and modicum of artful presentation.
     eeeeeeg434343434343Somewhat similar in style but more traditional in cuisine is 12 Apostoli 
(3 Corticella San Marco; 045 596-999; click), located in an ancient palazzo that became an inn as of 1750 and frequented by twelve local tradesmen who took the biblical sobriquet as their own. Since 1900 the restaurant has been run by the Gioco family, testament to its consistency.  This an elegantly appointed place (left) with a barrel vault ceiling and harlequin-like colors in the frescoes.  They do splendid fish dishes  here, based on the freshest from the lake country,  and they are known for their duck dishes--both as a pasta sauce and as a stew and roasted whole--as well as for a marvelous array of cheeses and a dauntingly good wine cellar located below since Roman times.
      Also well known is the far more rustic Antica Bottega del Vino (3 Via Scudo di Francia; 045-800-4535; click), which also has an extraordinary winelist, one of the finest in Italy, and the lusty cooking of the Veneto.  They also have a two-year-old branch in New York now (for review, click).
The owner of both restaurants is Severino Barzan, and the menus are very similar-- paste e fasoi, their version of pasta and bean soup;  risotto cooked in Amarone wine,  baccalà alla vicentina (salt cod), trippa alla parmigiana (tripe with tomato and Parmigiano), fegato alla veneziana (calf's liver sautéed with onions), and delicious  rabbit stew. It can take you hours to go through the winelist, but stick with a wine of the region or from Piedmont and you won't go wrong.=l

       My current favorite trattoria, quite near the center of town, is Al Pompiere (5 Vicolo Regina d'Ungheria; 045-803-0537), on a side street near Juliet's house. There are two rooms, small but spaciously occupied by tables set with green-and-white tablecloths, and walls filled with photos of Italian celebrities you probably have never heard of (right). One of the specialties here are the housemade prosciutti and salume, which they slice thin and carry on a bountiful platter to your table, where you are already drinking a fine valpolicella ripasso, or a single estate bardolino, soave, or a massive, well-aged amarone.  We chose a Mithas Corte Sant'Aldo 2000 Valpolicella, which, contrary to most old-style valpolicellas, had enormous body and good                    Photo: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
fruit up front and a fine long finish.
      There aren't many pastas on the menu here, but we were very happy with a plate of sheer ravioli stuffed with pesto and dotted with  olive oil, more pesto, chopped tomato, pignoli, and an olive tapenade. Beef cheeks in a deep, dark wine sauce with yellow polenta followed, and flavorful guinea fowl with plums and roast potatoes.
       One could literally stay put in  Verona and never budge for several days, exploring the culture, perhaps attending a concert in the arena, and shopping up and down Via Pallone and its endless sidestreets.  Or you can venture out to Milan and Venice and Lake Garda.  And you can be back in time for dinner and an espresso before the moon rises over this sweetly romantic city.


by John Mariani

90 Madison Avenue

     [pEvery time I walk down a street in New York, almost anywhere, I can look up and suddenly be astonished by  a building I've passed a hundred times and never really noticed suddenly transformed into a thing of great beauty. This is the case with an edifice on lower Madison Avenue that houses Country restaurant.  Lyrically lighted from the outside, the early 20th century Beaux Arts building is a graceful period piece called the Carlton Hotel, which had grown considerably shabby over the years, now impeccably renovated by David Rockwell.
     Inside, save for original mosaic tile floors and an extraordinary 1911 Tiffany glass skylight unexpectedly uncovered during construction, all is a marvel of sophisticated new restaurant design, from the dark wood of the downstairs Café and the shadowy lighted lounge, up a truly grand staircase and glass catwalk to a superbly decorated dining room with an open kitchen and Champagne Bar (left).  The wood mouldings and coffered ceiling have a magnifence softened by glowing ceiling light thrown by huge square lampshades. The tablesettings are superb, including a lovely little candle that casts an intimate light, and they have a rolling silver cart for service of cheeses.  Chairs have soft, embracing arms; every comfort seems thought through.
     This is all quite an undertaking for Chef-partner Geoffrey Zakarian, whose Town restaurant, now five years old, is Country's uptown corollary. I liked the food at Town when it opened and still do, though I always found the subterranean room sterile and the noise level dreadful.  The upstairs restaurant at Country is a night-and-day difference, a warm, airy, beautifully glowing restaurant with perfect lighting for every complexion, playing softly on the fine linens, silverware, and glassware set upon the tables.  The service staff is highly professional and well dressed, the winelist first class (and decently priced), and the fixed menu price is very right for this kind of countrified haute cuisine: $85 for four courses.   And, you are welcomed with a glass of Champagne and amuses.
Zakarian (below) has a fine record, having worked at the original Le Cirque, then as exec chef at `21' Club. Next was another pair of numbers--the trendy
"44" at the Royalton Hotel--followed by a stint at Blue Door at the Delano Hotel in Miami, then he returned to NYC to head the kitchen at steaks-and-chops venue Patroon, before opening Town in 2001.  In each case the food was always good, sometimes quite refined within its genre, but I feel at Country Zakarian is cooking with a passion I have not previously tasted.  Indeed, Country is clearly one of the best restaurants to open in New York in the last year and a testament to how fine design and highly personalized cuisine can coalesce into something new, even when a jaded gourmand thinks he's seen it all.p
     4I have not yet dined at the
Café downstairs (right), but it's nice you can have a casual breakfast, lunch or dinner there, with items like French Toast stuffed with fig jam and hazelnut butter; country biscuits and smoked ham slathered with South Carolina spiced currant jelly; steak frites; skate wing with roasted artichokes, cherries and arugula; and lacquered ribs with grits topped with smoked pork.
     Upstairs the food gets far more sophisticated but shares a certain scrumptious sensibility that buoys the restaurant's name admirably. You begin with several choices of breads, but it's not easy to get past some yeasty, soft rolls, described as Parker House rolls  but somewhat closer to monkey bread. By whatever name, they are addictive as heaven.
      I like the specific size of the menu: four first courses, and five each of middle and main courses, with six desserts, and cheese.  I wanted to order everything, and, since there were four of us one night, we almost did, beginning with a lustrous velouté of cèpes with a kind of marmalade made from the mushrooms, a sautéed soft and buttery egg, and equally buttery toasted brioche--a perfect portmanteau dish between late winter and early spring.
     There was also simply seared, very tender squid with a spicy Basque piperade and herbs, dressed with fine olive oil, and a dodine (like a galantine) of foie gras and pigeon that was both earthy and silky, served with mâche salad, roasted apple, and a touch of assertive mustard jam that brought the whole dish together.  Even a plate of lettuces and shaved winter vegetables showed that Zakarian is putting as much thought into salad as everything else; he livens it up with a walnut and blood orange vinaigrette.
     Among the second courses I loved a rich torte of duck with bitter endive and a duck ham salad. Truffle-roasted sweetbreads were good and meaty, nicely seared, and served with potato fondant, hearts of Romaine lettuce, and cheese-rich pommes aligot.  A red mullet, juicy and not too fishy, came with melted fennel and black olives--the "country" here was obviously Provence--and there was much to love about a recommended warm vegetable fricassée with a purée of truffles and delicious citrus sabayon.
     1111I haven't had better spit-roasted chicken (one of the specialties) than the succulent golden beauty at Country, with salty, textured Swiss chard and artichokes, proving again that chicken can be among the most sublime of ingredients.  So, too, Berkshire pork had the right amount of fat to make it very juicy, served with potato gnocchi and both raw and cooked mushrooms.  If you favor seafood, there are two options on the main course menu --Dover sole with celeriac cream, hazelnuts, and "yellow wine," a lovely coalescence of flavors and textures.  Lobster comes with salsify, chanterelles, and black truffles--a dish that would easily cost in excess of $100 in Paris; here it is part of the four-course menu.  And if you want to eat very heartily, by all means opt for the grilled prime rib of beef, a generous slab done impeccably to your taste and served with tiny ricotta ravioli and a classic daube sauce of beef juices and red wine. In any steakhouse in NYC that dish would cost you $45 alone.
     And you get dessert--or you might select from a very fine array of ripe cheeses deftly and efficiently served at the table.  I am quite the wide-eyed child when it comes to fluffy, white oeufs à la neige, otherwise known as "floating island," light meringues with crème anglaise and a citrus salad and orange sorbet to boot.  A pear and walnut tart comes with a cheesecake mousse and pear granité, all thanks to pastry chef Craig Harzewski.
     If you're coming to NYC soon for a short stay, put Country at the top of your list of new restaurants to visit. And if you live in NYC, you may want to take all your out-of-town friends here to show them a very good time. And if you don't get out much at all but crave the kind of food I've just described, you may buy a copy of Zakarian's first cookbook--Geoffrey Zakarian's Town and Country (click).

Domino's Pizza founder Thomas S. Monaghan is building a new town to be named Ave Maria, to be governed according to strict Roman Catholic principles, with no place to get an abortion, pornography or birth control.  The pizza magnate is bankrolling the project with at least $250 million and calls it "God's will. Stores will not sell pornographic magazines, pharmacies will not carry condoms or birth control pills, and cable television will have no X-rated channels.  Gov. Jeb Bush, at the site's groundbreaking earlier this month, praised  the development as a new kind of town where faith and freedom will merge to create a community of like-minded citizens.

FOOD WRITING 101: Lesson 766:  Try not to sound as if you're writing a skit for Monty Python wwttttttt

"Now, the double-baked Swiss soufflé I was less happy with, but not because it wasn't perfect.  It's just that I was dreaming of the Rabelasian fromage-fest you get with the soufflé suissesse at Le Gavroche, but received, instead, a sort of Honey I Shrunk the Soufflé! facsimile, no bigger than the palm of a toddler's hand, resting on the two things I like least in the world--no, not tricky-to-reach pimples and Richard Littlejohn, but walnuts and celery. Euuuuuuuuuch. It went neither with the brassy 2000 Stag's Leap shiraz I had ordered, nor with the chill, grey Wiltshire afternoon."--Giles Coren in a review of Le Mazot in the London Times Magazine (January 28, 2006).

['[]This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine,  will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard  Silverseas's Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche.  There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Marianir6u co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more.  Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.


*  On March 12 Boston’s Radius Group gathers chefs from around the country at their annual fundraiser for the Big Sister Assoc. of Greater Boston. Partners Michael Schlow, Christopher Myers and Esti Parsons of Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay, will welcome a national roster incl. Paul Kahan of Chicago’s Blackbird; Suzanne Goin of LA’s Lucques, AOC and Hungry Cat; Paula "Dixie" Disbrowe of Hart & Hind Fitness Ranch in Rio Frio, TV; and Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in NYC for a 6-course menu. $500 pp. Call 617-426-1234.

* On March 15  a Gourmet Gala will be held at the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston where 6 Irish chefs will be paired with 6 Boston chefs incl.  Michael Schlow (Great Bay), Todd English (Olives, Bonfire, et al); Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park); Mark Orfaly (Pigalle); Ken Oringer (Clio); Angela and Seth Raynor (Pearl, Nantucket); Jasper White (Summer Shack),.  The Irish All-Star team will be Kevin Dundon (Dunbrody House), Neven McGuire (MacNean House & Bistro), Noel McMeel (Castle Leslie), Darina Allen (Ballymaloe House & Cookery School), Richard Hart (Glenlo Abbey Hotel) and David McCann (Dromoland Castle).  Also, a silent auction for a ‘grand prize’ trip to Ireland.  Part of  the proceeds go to Boston U.’s School of Hospitality Administration. Call 617-532-5063. The gala is offering a two-for-one deal (usually $150 pp) for people who sign up through this newsletter.

* On March 17 at The Hotel Bel-Air, in Bel-Air, CA, Chef Bruno will team up with truffle producer  Herve Poron from Plantin to host a wine dinner all about truffles, with a selection of California Syrahs. $175 pp. Call  310-943-6742.

* On March 20 Chicago’s Avenues continues its series of winemaker dinners by hosting Far Niente Winery at a 6-course dinner by Chef  Graham Elliot Bowles and paired with selected wines. Winemaker Dirk Hampson will be the Featured Guest Speaker.   $175 pp. Call 312-573-6695.

* On March 21 Woodlands Resort & Inn in Summerville, SC  will host its next monthly “Wines of the World” wine tasting and pairing dinner-- “The Great Wine Debate,” with 16 U.S. Pinot Noirs tasted during a 4-course pairing dinner. One  lucky guest will receive a magnum of Pinot Noir from Merry Edwards, ‘Klopp Ranch” and a certificate for a luxury suite for two on the evening of a future “Wines of the World” pairing dinner.  The results of the judging will be announced on April 4. $125 pp. Call 843-308-2115.

* From March 20-24 The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group will be hosting its 38th semi-annual Wine Week, when for  $10, customers can  sample 10 wines with the cost of lunch. All establishments in the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group are hosting this much-anticipated event, in 16 locations across the country.  Over 17,000 bottles will be poured. Participating restaurants incl. 11 Smith & Wollenskys nationwide, Cité, Maloney & Porcelli, Park Avenue Café, and The Post House in NYC.  New York. Visit or

* On March 25 K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco will feature a tasting of wines from small producers who make organic/biodynamic wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Jura and Southern France, as  imported by Louis/Dressner Selections. Hog island Oyster Company will be oyster-shucking onsite, and Slanted Door owner Charles Phan and staff will serve hors d’oeuvres, with  cheeses from The Cheese Shop of Healdsburg. $50 pp., with proceeds going to the Community Foundation of the Napa Valley to benefit victims of the recent Napa flooding. Call  877-559-4637 or visit

* On March 25 “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Boston will offer dancing from 7-11:30 PM to The Ritz-Carlton Orchestra under the direction of Dave Burdett. Admission charge is $35 per person for entrance only to The Dining Room. Guests then may order cocktails, champagne, wine, light dining dishes and desserts as they wish. Call  617-912-3355.

* On March 27 NYC’s Women for WineSense will hold an "American Pinot Noir Tasting" with John Haeger, Author of North American Pinot Noir, at the Jolly Hotel Madison Towers, with  Italian finger food by Ristorante Cinque Terre, Chef Pnina Peled. $45 Members, $55 Non-Members. To R.S.V.P., go to



MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2006