Virtual Gourmet

May 21, 2005                                                       NEWSLETTER

Restaurant Figure in Madrid   Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery

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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: Lentini by John Mariani




11    To date, L’Atelier in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand (702-891-7358; click) is the only American outpost of one of France’s most celebrated chefs, Joël Robuchon (NYC’s L’Atelier is scheduled to open later this year at The Four Seasons Hotel there), and by opening in Vegas first, he has not only shifted the paradigm of French food in America to the west, but in one fell swoop completed the transformation of Sin City into a serious dining destination that no chef or restaurateur or food writer in the world can afford to ignore.  Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine has called Joël Robuchon’s coming to Las Vegas the single biggest event in American gastronomy in the past 50 years. He has also opened his fine dining venue, Mansion, of which more in later.
     Alain Ducasse already has his name on Mix at the Mandalay Bay, and when Guy Savoy opens a dead ringer for his Parisian temple of gastronomy here next month (in Caesar’s Palace), not even the Euro-centric snobs will be able to dismiss the culinary revolution taking place in the high
Mojave Desert.
    For fifteen years, between 1981 and 1996, Robuchon ran a single three-star Parisian restaurant that was widely considered the best in the world. As a dedicated, restlessly creative and passionate cook, he had little use for media chefs who spent more time in front of the cameras than in the kitchen.  Articles of the day often spoke of a quiet perfectionist who was rarely seen or heard but whose presence was felt everywhere and sensed with every bite.
     It’s now old news that in 1996 Robuchon burned out and retired at age 51 while still at the top of his game. While he didn’t say it at the time, he sensed before anyone in
France that the market for elaborate, seven-course, three-hour big-deal meals was dwindling.   But rather than mourn the slow demise of the cooking and restaurant that he did so well, Robuchon reinvented himself, and in doing so, turned the conceits and conceptions of fine French dining on their head.  By opening L’Atelier—“workshop”—in Paris three years ago he combined an open kitchen surrounded on three sides by a counter with the look of a sleek Japanese sushi bar from which diners watch a team of intense, almost religious-looking cooks produce incredible, mostly French food served like Spanish tapas by informed and friendly waiters. Last year he opened a branch in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills District. Now, he has reproduced the experience at L’Atelier inVegas.
     I had been told that a sense of exquisite food being perfectly rendered is palpable when you enter any of his restaurants, and I didn’t believe it until the first time I stepped into L’Atelier.  Immediately upon being seated, you’ll be asked if you are familiar with the French-restaurant-as-sushi/tapas-bar concept of the place.  If not, they walk you through the ordering options.  Devotees know to concentrate on the left side of the menu and order as many small plates as your appetite and budget will allow.  Those who insist can fashion a more typical meal from the right side, where larger portions of the same food are presented as entrees, poissons, viandes and desserts--but what fun is that?  The joy of L’Atelier is letting your appetite and imagination take flight with some of the tastiest food you will ever encounter.juu765
     You might begin your tapas-like repast with crisp langoustine fritters served with a smudge of basil pesto.  The tempura-like batter gives a crunchy shell to the sweet, mineral-rich crustaceans that have a unique taste of their own.  From there the possibilities range from good prosciutto served with toasted tomato bread, or ethereal poached
kumamoto oysters sitting in their shells in a warm bath of salted butter, to a beautiful piece of sautéed duck liver atop a tiny minced citrus “gratin” that plays the sweetly acidic tang of citrus off the fattiness of the foie gras.
      Other don’t-miss items include roasted tiny quail stuffed with foie gras, calf’s sweetbreads roasted upon a sprig of fresh laurel served with braised romaine lettuce stuffed with more of the same, and a simple egg poached in a light mushroom cream and served en cocotte.  Each of these is given the simplest of titles on the menu, as in: La Langoustine, Le Jambon, Les Huitres, Le Foie Gras, Le Ris De Veau, La Caille, and L’Oeuf, but English explanations are provided.  There is nothing reserved, however, about the flavors that come bursting forth from each of the main ingredients.
      And there’s nothing diffident about a French chef confident enough to feature Italian prosciutto or a textbook perfect Le Vitello Tonnato, and even Les Spaghettis--a cheesy version of Rome’s carbonara, albeit with the addition of heavy cream.  Even more substantial courses such as L’Onglet (hanger steak), Le Rumsteck (a spicy tartare with hand-cut pommes frites), and La Morue--creamy, quickly seared cod floating in an intense vegetable broth--highlight what a perfectionist  (ably assisted by Executive Chef Steve Benjamin and Pastry Chef Kamel Guichida) can do with the best ingredients money can buy.  Great steaks are available all over Vegas, but the
Nebraska, grass-fed ribeye here is cut to order and may be the best of the bunch.
    rty Desserts generally follow a pattern of treating a well-known ingredient like raspberry or pistachio in a way that respects the main ingredient but pitches it to the diner in surprisingly artful ways.  Who would have thought to pair pistachio with Chartreuse?  That digestive libation usually sends the American palate running for the soda fountain, but it works wonderfully when made into a subtle, herbal and eggy soufflé that marries and melts the pistachio ice cream placed within it.

Photo by John A. Curtas

Likewise, Le Framboise finds yuzu ice cream encased in a white chocolate ball melted by a warm coulis of raspberries--turning a picture-perfect creation into the ultimate hot/cold fruit soup (left).   Another winner (actually there isn’t a loser on the whole menu) is  Le Chocolate that hides a dense chocolate mousse under white chocolate ice cream rolled in Oreo cookie crumbs. I usually hate anything made with white chocolate--actually I even hate the idea of white chocolate—but I licked my plate.

          The second Joël Robuchon restaurant in the MGM Hotel/Casino is something very different--Joël Robuchon at The Mansion oo (877-702-891-7925; click). The intimate 65 seat dining room is vaguely art nouveau in appearance, and designed to deliver very haute French cuisine. One thing these titans of gastronomy mention only in passing, though, is that a meal for two runs a minimum of $500-$1,000.
     The “price is no object crowd” (which includes much of the national food press), may consider such discussion tacky, but evaluating the price-to-value ratio of Mansion is mandatory for the rest of us.  That being said, the tariff is worth it if you are a passionate foodie, an inveterate Francophile, or the type that doesn’t blink at dropping a C-note for three bites of exquisite sea urchin flan with fennel or a seawater fresh scallop cooked in its shell with lemon and seaweed butter.  Five years ago I wrote that a grand meal in one of Vegas’s budding gourmet restaurants would set you back a car payment.  Now, it’s a house payment.
       The website for the restaurant
says: “The Chef of the Century returns to the Stove with His First Fine Dining Restaurant in the United States.”  That almost gets it right.  More accurately, Joël Robuchon has put his trusted lieutenant, Chef Claude Le-Tohic, behind the stoves at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas to oversee and cook the cuisine that made Robuchon famous.  More important, Mansion is sui generis, and, for the time being, the only place in America to sample his extraordinary food that used to be spoken of in hushed and reverential tones by chefs and patrons alike.
  The intimate 65-seat dining room, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, is vaguely Art Deco/Ruhlmann-esque in appearance, with nary a nod to post-modernism.  The design evokes 1930s
Paris and serves as the delivery vehicle for some of the best French food ever to appear in America.  Everything about the place screams money, in a reserved, tasteful, Vegas sort of way.  This tastefulness may clash with the gargantuan, confusing, noisy and annoying MGM, but it cossets the rich, and the well fed as well as any place, anywhere.  The dramatic black and purple hues may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the food should be,  especially if those tastes run to a very modern, and very expensive evocation of Cuisine Francais.
      2So what do you get for sacrificing your mortgage for a meal?  The dazzle factor begins with the bread cart. That cart is wheeled over as you are finishing your aperitif and contains no less than twelve different kinds, from a simple baguette to bacon studded epi lardon to petit pain au lait, to a saffron-infused brioche.  If ever there was reason to ignore the admonition not to fill up on bread, this is it.
From there Chef Le-Tohic will likely send out an amuse of Granny Smith apple “pearls” perched on a vodka gratinée topped with yuzu foam. But don’t let the foam fool you. There is none of that trendy
how many angels can dance on the head of a pin tomfoolery going on in this kitchen.  Instead, expect deceptive simplicity and pirouettes only when they are called for.  French food is about nothing as much as the extraction and intensification of flavors, and Mansion lives up to the billing.
     At a recent meal the amuse was followed by  two cool triangles of compressed millefeuille pastry holding layers of poached foie gras and smoked eel.  Our other entrée (French for "first course")  featured a light, see-through, almost non-existent “dumpling” containing sweet langoustines, surrounded by a pool of a langoustine reduction and steamed cabbage. After that came another amuse of Wagyu marrow atop a marrowbone filled with fava bean purée infused with rosemary (right).  I’ve never understood all the shouting about favas, but now I do.  Their almost piquant earthiness played dramatically off of the richness of the marrow.  The dish couldn’t be more perfect, and like all of the preliminary  courses went splendidly with a rich and stony Henri Gouge ‘02 white Nuits-St.-Georges, which was a hefty $175.222222
       Be forewarned: no matter what you order —anything short of the $350 sixteen-course meal-marathon will be sprinkled with an amuse here and a palate cleanser there, just so the kitchen can strut its stuff.  So hold off on that third baguette  slathered with demi-sel butter  (always at the perfect temperature), no matter how much you crave it.
            If I have a minor complaint it is that the exotic seasonings boasted of on the menu are often more recessive than dominant.  A good example would be in the spoon-tender abalone in a “ginger” court bouillon containing exquisite baby artichokes and morels that was scrumptious and rich without being filling and without any prominence of ginger.                                   Photo by John A. Curtas
            All courses are available à la carte, although with the premiums placed upon them ($80 for four bites of the whitest, most delicate veal you will ever taste), it behooves you to go with the standard tasting menu that has ballooned to $215 for six courses as of my last (and third) visit.  It started at $165 when they opened, but that now seems as nostalgic and reasonable as $2.50 for a gallon of gas.  Gripe as I might, I must concede this experience is as close to dinner in a Michelin 3-Star in
Paris as has ever been duplicated outside the Île de France.  And at last look, the starter courses at Pierre Gagnaire or L’Ambroisie started at around 100 euros.  By comparison, Robuchon is practically giving this stuff away!
            One thing they do give away is some of that fabulous bread—as you are leaving the restaurant.  Robuchon must be a baker at heart because he began the practice of giving every customer a baguette at the original Jamin in
Paris.  That was his signature long before the Chef of The Century accolades took hold, and the elegant simplicity of those loaves and rolls are still his signature calling card.
            Before bagging the brioche and rushing home to check on that second mortgage, consider spending some time with Le-Tohic’s Breton lobster, baked in a sealed cocotte and served as a stew of asparagus and morels with large, tender chunks of the most intense and gamy of these crustaceans.  The kitchen demonstrates a light hand with fish that highlights texture and flavor with a minimum of flourishes--as when turbot gets a subtle lemongrass foam and stewed baby leeks as its only accent—bringing an almost Japanese sensibility to the dish.  Amadai (Japanese tilefish) is likewise treated with a less-is-more approach by being pan-fried and served in lily bulb broth, that barely perfumes the sweet delicate flesh and its crispy skin.
     333345666Should turf outweigh your surf inclinations, the pintade (left)--French guinea hen--is roasted to order, which takes an hour, feeds two, and is a thing of beauty.   And if you are still suffering from the sticker shock of a $40 New York strip at most of Vegas’s high end steakhouses, just wait until the $115 Wagyu ribeye hits your wallet.  It is, however, probably the best in town.
            You will be offered cheese from a beautiful cart holding eight or nine varieties, all French, and all in impeccable condition.  (Some, I noted, may even be from unpasteurized milk and thus be semi-legal.  At least that’s the way the Epoisses tasted to me—with an umami-like dimension I had not experienced before.)
      You will also be offered a winelist that is not for the faint of heart.  It is in impeccable condition as well, especially for those who consider wine buying a manly test of, well, manliness.  Trophy hunters will find more than a few hard to find specimens--Guigal “La Turque” ’86 ($1,010), Château Palmer ’59 ($2,700), Château Pétrus ’82 ($8,500), Vieux Château Certan ’00 ($545)--you get the idea.    Those who batter and bruise more easily will have to hunt for something even rarer:  a good bottle for less than a hundred dollars.  No one dining here is exactly taking in laundry to make ends meet, so this “failing” is hardly noticed by the well-heeled patrons, and has rarely been mentioned in the press thus far.
       -0With the exception of the flawless passion fruit soufflé with sage ice cream and a high-riseing passion fruit compote (right), desserts are probably the weakest part of the meal. The bar is set so high with the savory courses that pastry chef Kamel Guechida probably thinks he has to keep topping himself.   He and his desserts would benefit from not trying so hard to impress, so that his considerable talent can shine through the gimmickry.  His sugar ball with panna cotta cream is too much concept and not enough execution.  You break through the brittle ball and there you are, with a broken ball and some panna cotta cream.  The millefeuille with light cream and caramel sauce is as tasty as any of these ingredients can be but hardly the apotheosis of pastry making. And the raspberry compote with poppy syrup, lychee nage, and grapefruit sorbet amounts to a whole lotta fruit flavors and little else.
     Amends are made, however, with the exquisite petit fours (petit fours being French for: “I can’t believe they’re serving us more food.”).  And in the spirit of generosity, they let you take as many of those home as you want.                                                                               Photo by John A. Curtas

by John Mariani

1562 Second Avenue

          NYC's Upper East Side has long taken a drubbing from the food press--and rightly so--not for being a gastronomic wasteland but for having too many of the same kind of restaurant, mainly Italian, most following menu formulas set decades ago.
     Their faithful customers go to them for the same dishes year after year, the most salient example being Elaine's, which rolls on as a snotty celebrity haunt with mediocre food and a menu that rarely changes, the kind of place you'll find old-line NYC journalists with writer's block, editors with their new interns, and agents with their third wives hobnobbing with hairy Hollywood writers, fat producers and squinty-eyed agents swigging overpriced Chianti while gnawing on a ho-hum veal chop.  Few other Italian restaurants on the upper east side rise much above that level.
     The exceptions would include the marvelous Il Monello,  the vivacious Vivolo, the warmhearted Raffaele, and the glorious Lentini, an extremely handsome, very affable, five-year-old ristorante with a Pugliese accent, thanks to owners Enzo and Giuseppe Lentini (right), who come from Mola di Bari and who have long been part of the Italian257 restaurant scene in NYC. This is a highly personalized restaurant, with Enzo out front, impeccably dressed, cordial to a fault, in charge of a stellar winelist, and a real professional in every regard. Giuseppe, for 17 years at nearby Elio's, is in the kitchen working very carefully, dish by dish to reproduce flavors you won't find easily in NYC.
      The dining room is of that particular size that allows for intimacy without seeming in the least cramped. Terracotta walls, mahogany wood, huge sprays of flowers, and Murano glass give the room color and warmth throughout.  How lovely to see tablecloths again after dining at so many new hot spots too cheap to use them! Wineglasses are of fine quality too. Thank God there is no piped-in music.
       You begin with good bread and olive oil as Enzo describes the evening's specials, noting that if there is any other dish your heart desires they will try to make it for you.  There is hardly any need for this since there are so many dishes here that will entice you, starting with beautifully grilled golden, very meaty baked sardines with buffalo mozzarella, breadcrumbs, and the perfume of rosemary.  Tuna carpaccio with radicchio and truffle oil was as good as any in the city. I was happiest with the pan-fried octopus, crisp, tender, flavorful, not in the least oily.
     Pastas are outstanding and well-proportioned.  ejBucatini all'amatriciaina, a famous pasta from the Abruzzo-Lazio border, is correctly made here so that you taste every element of tomato, pancetta, and sweet onions.  For a rich but not at all heavy pasta, have the risotto with radicchio and Gorgonzola cheese, the rice perfectly cooked, the cheese coating every grain.  Spaghetti con sarde, an assertive dish with plenty of garlic-soaked breadcrumbs and sardines (left), is a specialty here, as it should be. And although seafood is often ill-treated in Italian restaurants, Lentini does a beautiful farfalle with mussels, tomatoes, and a parsley pesto with sliced potatoes.
      If you are in the mood for fish, you have a choice of filet of sole in a white wine and butter sauce, or orata baked with white wine and a little tomato, the flesh of the fish glistening and succulent throughout.
      Those who love tripe are a demanding sort for the same reason people who hate tripe don't order it: if poorly prepared it smells and tastes chewy and rank.  Lentini's is a textbook example of how it should be made, the way aficionados like me love it--tender, fresh, infused with tomato and Parmigiano and cuddled with a blend of carrots, onions, and celery.  This is one of the finest versions I've had outside of Italy. They also serve delicious calf's liver alla veneziana with caramelized onions sautéed in white wine and served with creamy mashed potatoes. Less adventurous eaters will be very happy with the the scaloppine of veal with tomato, prosciutto,  and Parmigiano.
    Desserts are housemade--unusual for Italian restaurants in these parts--and include superlative examples of ricotta cheesecake, espresso-flavored panna cotta, and cannoncini (below), like little cannoli, stuffed with lemon custard.[k
     The winelist, with a Wine Spectator award of excellence, has breadth and depth, with a commendable number of half-bottles and a good selection of Champagnes.  The Italian white wine selection is quite good, with unusual bottlings like '99 Villa Russiz Graf de la Tour Sauvignon ($57) and '96 Donna Fugata Mille e Una Notre ($108) joining more familiar offerings. The reds are richer still with rare wines like '97 Colterenzio Cornell Cornelius Rosso Grand Cru ($106) and '97 Ercole Velenose Rosso Piceno Superiore Poggio del Finare ($56).  There are many very good selections under $50 too.
    Lentini expresses that wonderful Italian virtue of sprezzatura--the art of concealed art, seeming to be effortless by working very hard to make something very lovely.

Lentini is open daily, from 5 PM.  Antipasti run  $9-$13, pastas (full portions) $15-$24, main courses $18-$30.


A couple in Scottsdale, AZ, claims to have the world's largest artichoke plant growing in their backyard. "Her name is Seymour, after  'Little Shop of Horrors'," Angela Gerling said. "It took me well over an hour to count all the artichokes she has on her now."  The vegetable is ten feet in diameter, almost six feet tall, with 43 flowers.


"Gay tourism is booming--and with How to Say Fabulous! in 8 Different Languages, you'll always know how to speak the native tongue. This hilarious phrase book features hundreds of outrageous phrases, all translated from English into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. There are sections on Night Life (Are there any gay bars around here?), Shopping (Those shoes! I must have those shoes!), Opening Lines (I am a flight attendant/choreographer/actor/owner of a greeting card store), Dining Out (You've had worse things in your mouth!), Parting Glances (I never meant to hurt you), and much more. With a hilarious mix of practical, impractical, bitchy, and often obscene phrases, How to Say Fabulous! in 8 Different Languages is the perfect companion for gay tourists and armchair travelers."--Publisher's promotional copy.


* On May 23 NYC’s Pair of 8’s in conjunction with Pellegrini Vineyards and East End Excursions will present a 5-course by Chef Michael Clancy dinner featuring wines chosen by wine director Tiffaney Prewitt and food from Long Island’s North Fork.   Pellegrini’’s tasting Room manager, Chris Cornwell, and Susan Wilber, of East End Excursions, will introduce each wine. $65 pp.  Call 212-874-2742.

* From May 24 - 28,  the 15th Annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience will show off the city’s rich cultural heritage through indigenous cuisine paired with over 400 fine wines from vineyards around the world against a backdrop of local art, architecture, music and rare antiques. For info go to

* In Boston, Radius' communal table series will be as follows:  May 29: Mushrooms: oysters, chanterelles, morels, hen-of-the-woods, lobsters, porcini, cremini, portabello, hedgehog, and Burgundy; June 12: The Art of Infusions; June 26: Butchery; July 10: Cheese--Helpful guidelines, and test the hypothesis with wine and cheese from France and beyond. Cost: $25. Call  617-426-1234.

* On May 29 the 2nd Annual Schnack Stahl Meyer Hot Dog Eating Contest Finals will be held at Schnack Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. ( This contest is all about contestants eating a single 30” 100% angus beef Stahl Meyer hot dog on a specially baked 28” bun.  To compete, eaters must pre-qualify in a   “Dog Off/Eat Off” heat prior to the competition.

* On June 5 Chef Troy Graves  of Meritage Café and Wine Bar in Chicago is offering guests a final taste of foie gras (banned by the Chicago City Council)  with 5- and 7-course tasting menus for $85 pp.  Wine pairings additional. Call  (773) 235-6434 or visit . . .  Fixture's Chef de Cuisine, Sarah Nelson, will be offering a foie gras menu until June 30, 2006 for $35  (773) 248-3331 or visit
* On June 7, an  evening of dining, delectable wines, dancing and a luxury auction will be held at NYC's Central Park Conservancy's Taste of Summer benefit, with funds to go to the Conservancy's ongoing care and preservation efforts in Central Park.  It will be held under a beautiful tent at the Bandshell, located mid-Central Park at 70th street. Guests  will be treated to tasting plates from 40 of NYC restaurants incl. Fred's at Barney's New York, Zocalo, Thalassa, Tavern on the Green, SQC Restaurant and Bar, Toqueville, Osteria del Circo and Orsay.  VIP guests will be treated to the cuisine of chef/restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Tix start at $350 pp.  Call  212-310-6691 or visit

* On June 8 the Hotel Bel-Air in Bel-Air, CA, will again host “New Zealand BBQ with Meadowbank Estates,” featuring 27 different varieties from 7 winemakers. The cuisine for the evening will be featured in stations including *Roasted New Zealand Lamb, Rock Lobster Tails and Artisan Cheeses served under the summer sky on the front lawn. $115 pp. Call 310-943-6742.

* On June 8, Blackbird restaurant in Chicago   will host Heritage Foods USA for a 5-course benefit dinner for the Terra Madre project of Slow Food USA,  featuring heirloom Red Wattle pork, by Chef/Partner Paul Kahan.  $125 pp. Call 312-715-0708.

qrqrThis 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' 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,9999 cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani 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.


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 Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

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

6y6My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. A beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there. To read an excerpt click.
    Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, order from or click on  Almost Golden.
                                                                                                                    --John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2006