Virtual Gourmet

February 18,  2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                                                           "Istanbul Restaurant"  by Fikret Muallea

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In This Issue

Uniquely Dal Pescatore by John Curtas

NEW YORK CORNER: Sushi of Gari 46 by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLARItaly Racks Up $1 Billion in U.S. Wine Sales by John Mariani

Uniquely Dal Pescatore

By John Curtas
                                      53It borders on hyperbole to say that anyone who has ever been to Dal Pescatore knows it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But it is no overstatement that the food, service, and setting are every bit as memorable as the convoluted journey you will take in trying to find it.  The official address is Riserva del Parco, Runate, Cannetto sul ‘Oglio, Mantua, but calling its location in the middle of nowhere is a mindboggling understatement.
   Don’t hold this against the restaurant, however, because this Michelin three-star restaurant, like some of the world’s best, including El Bulli, Michel Bras, and Troisgros, aren’t exactly right off an exit ramp either.  If you are driving there for the first time, I suggest booking for lunch, since the twists and turns and curves of the narrow back roads are less daunting in daylight.  If you’ve booked for dinner, renting a private car with driver (about 200 euros from downtown Mantua) is the way to go.

     But as soon as you arrive, any wrong turns or hair-pulling frustrations will be forgotten, because everything about “The Fisherman,” from the upscale, country farmhouse décor to the perfect manners of every member of the staff, is designed to put you at ease and maximize your enjoyment of the Lombardian cuisine of Nadia Santini.
          Some have remarked that Dal Pescatore's cuisine and service are too French for an Italian establishment.  To the extent that you are given intensive care service in plush surroundings, from the moment you arrive, that observation is true. But the cuisine is resolutely Italian and firmly steeped in the traditions and superior ingredients of the region and draws for its ingredients on the restaurant's own farm and river, including chickens, duck, and freshwater fish.
       Dal Pescatore dates to 1925 when the paterfamilias of the Santini family bought a fisherman's hut made from rushes and bricks on the shore of a small lake. A year later he wed Teresa, and she began cooking up the fish her husband caught for their little tavern called Vino e Pesce.  Their son Giovanni and his wife Bruna expanded the tavern in the 1950s and renamed it Dal Pescatore. Their son, Antonio, married Nadia (below) in 1974, and they both toured the great restaurants of France and brought back a respect for elegance and refinement they incorporated into their own restaurant.  Antonio is the greeter and master of the dining room while Nadia (with a little help from her sons and  in-laws) runs the small, impeccable kitchen.445y
     After nibbles on rosemary “chips” and parmesan frico with glasses of  Prosecco, our meal began with a silver platter of exquisite culatello prosciutto served to each guest so each can pick up a tissue-thin, tissue-sized slice with their fingers, to be popped in the mouth, allowing your personal 98.6 degrees of body heat to release the flavors and melt the meat on your tongue. Such a service gesture is a symbolic and real evocation of the finest in Italian dining, designed to highlight a superior product and put diners at ease.   It does both.
     From there our meal moved smoothly from multiple antipasti as diverse as veal liver with porcini mushrooms and marinated eel atop agrodolce onions.  Then came several primi piatti of pasta, including Nadia's famous tortelli di zucca (egg pasta with pumpkin, crushed amaretti biscuits, and Parmigiano), then on to  a progression up the food chain of secondi piatti, starting with a sea bream with calamari and olives, then fresh water pike with sweet and sour greens, followed by roasted fowl--sliced duck with mostarda, again highlighting the fruit/spice/agrodolce flavors unique to this part of Italy, and finally to the Santinis’ famously decadent braised beef shoulder in a Barbera-rich  reduction.    There wasn’t a misstep or false note, by the kitchen or service staff, through eleven courses and four hours of dining, and I’m convinced that Antonio Santini  believes it his mission to make all first time diners feel like family by the end of their meal.
          A very young,  very knowledgeable wine staff contributes to the friendly formality that pervades the room, offering a list of thousands of labels all stored perfectly. Even with a full house on his hands, Sommelier Andrea Ugolotti acted as our personal wine guide for the evening. He also gave me a friendly comeuppance after I (unintentionally) insulted his list.  Upon being told the next pasta course (there were three of them plus an ethereal saffron risotto) would be tortelli with sheep’s milk ricotta, Ugolotti recommended a Vodopivec '02 Trebbiano by pointing to it on his list. I told him I preferred the ’03 Gravner Breg that was, at 72 euros, roughly twice the price of his selection.  Politely taking the book from me, he took two steps, then turned and with a twinkle in his eye said: “You’re only ordering the Gravner because it is more expensive than my suggestion, aren’t you?”  I was beet red for a moment and guilty as charged.  He was right about my shamefully snobbish motivations, and the exchange gave all of us a life lesson, a wine lesson, and a good laugh.  He was also right about the Trebbiano.  Its floral and ripe peach aromas played off the cheese of the tortelli perfectly.  My choice of Gravner would have been too young and too acidic.  Before bringing them both, Ugolotti told me that if we didn’t like his pick, or even just preferred my selection, the Vodopivec would be on the house.  It was anyway, and Andrea Ugolotti now has four new fans for life.
          6y63It is historical legend that the Italians taught the French how to eat (with knives and forks, for example), but the French taught them (a few centuries later) how to dine.  Dal Pescatore may be the perfect synthesis of all that is great about both these cuisines and the way they are served.  The best way to sum up the experience is by recounting what I heard about it shortly before leaving for Italy.  Upon mentioning (separately) to John Mariani and the James Beard Foundation’s Mitchell Davis that I was making my pilgrimage to Italy’s best restaurant, both of these worldly palates had the identical response: each gave a small sigh, then said:  “You know, of course, everything about dal Pescatore is just about perfect.”  And so it was.
      Tel.: 011-39 0376 72 30 01;
      An à la carte dinner will run 105-155 euros; prix fixe menus are available at 140-150 euros, all with service and tax included.



W. 46th Street

       For a decade now Gari (Masatoshi) Sugio has run an East Side sushi restaurant that was innovative for the way he served sushi with both cold and warm ingredients, with more than 130 varieties.  Last October he opened this Theater District branch with ppartner Saburo Baba, which has 40 seats and 11 stools at the sushi bar where the slicing and dicing is done. (There is another branch on the Upper West Side.)1
The new place, which takes the numeral of the street it resides on--one teeming with restaurants that specialize in pre-theater action--has exposed brick walls, banquettes and a white marble sushi bar; beyond that there isn't much decor to speak of, as in so many sushi restaurants where the color is on the plate.  And those colors are extensive on a menu (right) that includes soups and noodles, dozens of sushi and sashimi items, ten appetizers, tempura and teriyaki dishes, and the option of Gari's "Signature Omekase," which show off his infatuation with raw and slightly cooked foods--which he marinates and spices, so that he does not provide soy sauce or wasabi on the table because he believes a dose would upset the delicate balance of flavors.  On my visit I didn't miss either condiment.
      3uiOur table of four pretty much left ourselves in the chef's hands, though we insisted on trying a couple of noodle dishes, neither of which amounted to much. Otherwise there was a lot to be happy about, and from the start, the mix of warm, cold and room temperatures worked well, if in unorthodox ways. Appetizers like hiyahi nasu (cold marinated eggplant with bonito flakes) and kani shumai (steamed crab dumpling) were delicious, and then came what we thought would be  way too much sushi and sashimi, but we never seemed to fill up.  Since so much of what we ate was in fact "of the moment," it is difficult for me to recommend any particular dishes,  because they will change tomorrow.  But you'll  find delicacies like salmon topped with grilled tomato, and tuna lavished with a cream of tofu; even foie gras is here, done with a ponzu and daikon sauce, and the simplest of sushi and sashimi are lustrous, silky, and served right at the proper temperature to exude full flavor, from horse mackerel to surf clam, from fluke to tilefish, from garfish to sweet shrimp.  I was not much taken with the tempura, which was crisp enough but bland.
     Unfortunately a lot of what we enjoyed was barely recognizable to us because our waiter spoke English--or tried to speak English--with as much aplomb as Manuel the waiter did on "Fawlty Towers."  This is really a demerit, not because poor language skills are unknown in Japanese restaurants here but because, alas, they shouldn't be.
     By the way, Sushi of Gari 46 offers both take-out and delivery within a 10-box radius, with omekase orders packed in a shiny 
black and silver box.
       There are the usual Japanese beers available, along with several sakes created by Gari himself.
 Sushi of Gari is open  Tues. – Sun. for  lunch and dinner.  At dinner appetizers range from $4.50-$9.50, entrees and sushi $18-$48. Omekase dinner from $65.


Italian Wines Hit Billion Dollar Milestone in U.S. Sales
 by John Mariani

      3442Italian vintners have been wildly celebrating this week after the announcement that in 2006 their U.S. wine sales exceeded $1 billion in value and 2 million hectoliters (about 22 million cases) in quantity. Italy, which passed France as Europe’s number wine exporter in the mid-1980s, now enjoys a 32.4 percent share of the imported market in value and 30.7 percent in quantity.
      The announcement was made at a news conference in New York on January 30 by Dr. Lucio Caputo, president of the Italian Wine & Food Institute, a trade organization headquartered here. Caputo recalled how in 1975, while he was Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, Italy was exporting only 360,000 hectoliters, valued at less than $40 million. “Back then the biggest selling Italian wines were mostly Chianti in straw flasks, verdicchio, and the Bolla lines of Soave, Bardolino, and Valpolicella, which were among the first wines to be heavily advertised on American television. Lambrusco was just starting to sell here but eventually reached annual sales of 14 million cases.”
      Many people in the wine industry credit Caputo for Italy’s soaring wine sales during that period.  “Caputo showed Italian wines like Italian fashion back then,” says Laura Maioglio, owner of the 100-year-old New York restaurant Barbetta, whose winelist holds more than 1,500 labels.  “They both came to predominate over French fashion and wine, and that was an incredible achievement. Italian wines suddenly became the right thing to drink.”
      As Trade Commissioner he opened a very stylish Italian Wine Center (1981), designed by Roman architect Piero Sartoro, and began heavily promoting Italian wines through ads, media tours, and visits from prominent Italian vintners. By 1983 Italian wine exports reached 2.4 million hectoliters with a value of $243 million.
      His efforts were buoyed by new nutritional evidence that Mediterranean food was beneficial to Americans’ health, with Italian red wine in the bargain.
      Sicilian by birth, Caputo (below) received a doctorate in Law followed by a degree in Journalism and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Palermo.  He worked as an editor and correspondent for several newspapers and magazines in Italy before starting a law career.  After attending the Air Force Academy in Florence, he worked his way up through the Italian Trade Institute, becoming Trade Commissioner in New York, where he served from 1970 to 1982.==
      In 1984, Caputo founded the Italian Wine & Food Institute, a non-profit corporation established to promote and improve the image of Italian products in the U.S      In 1987 he became president of a public relations company, the International Trade Center, then located on the 78th floor of North Tower of the World Trade Center. On the morning of 09/11 he was inside his office but managed to escape, thereafter relocating to midtown Manhattan.
      Last week Caputo held his annual Italian Food & Wine Gala bringing many of the most illustrious Italian vintners to the New York Marriott Marquis to pour hundreds of new releases for U.S. importers, press, and winelovers. The new report on export sales should buoy everyone’s spirits along with the wines.
      The report shows that Italy’s wines exports are now more than double those of France, four times more than Chile, and seven times more than Spain. “The average price for an Italian wine at retail is now $4.83,” Caputo said in a phone interview. “California and France are close to double that figure, so the quality versus price factor is significant. And when you buy a $12 bottle of Italian wine the quality is often so much better than other countries’ wines, even though the euro’s strength has increased prices by 30 percent for the U.S. consumer.”
      All this comes at a time when the Italians are drinking less wine than ever.  “All per capita drinking has gone down in Europe,” says Caputo. “Back in the 1970s Italians were drinking 120 liters per person. Now they only drink about 60 to 70, but they are drinking better wines.”
      Fortunately wine consumption is up in the U.S., and, after 30 years in the industry, Caputo believes the competition is fiercer than ever because technology has made it so much easier to make a quality product.  “Today it’s very difficult to make a bad wine,” he says, “so the average quality of low to medium-priced wines has gone up so much that the consumer cannot really understand the difference between a $15 and $50 bottle.  There are Italian wines like nero d’avola selling for six dollars that are incredibly good.”
      43Caputo is therefore adamant in telling Italian producers to hold the line on prices, because “if they do not, they will lose their advantage.”  He also notes that Australian bulk wines have cut heavily into the French and California market for medium-priced wines, and he believes that China will be a huge market in the future.  “Right now they are ordering wines in bulk,” he says, “but there is a fast-growing segment with money to spend and they will spend it on better, more expensive wines of a kind Italy can provide.”
      Then, using a favorite Italian metaphor, “Wines today are like cars: You can get a good car today for $12,000. If you buy a Ferrari or Maserati you get more power and gadgets but you’re also paying a lot just for the name.  Right now Italian wines are perfectly priced to keep claiming more and more of the world market.

John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.



"When I heard there was a bar that matched cocktails and small plates to customers' chakras — Hinduism's seven energy centers of the human body — I had to check it out. My vishuddha was feeling a little sore, so perhaps a Chakratini, as the new Chakra restaurant in Beverly Hills calls its chakra-friendly cocktails, would set it right.-- Leslie Brenner, "A blissful happy hour ," LA Times (Nov 2, 2006)


In Bethalto, Illinois, 
Rhonda Cato, 48, was charged  with misdemeanor obscenity and violating the liquor code after patrons at The Palace Tavern grappled in a shallow, inflatable pool filled with mashed potatoes. Female patrons allegedly pulled up each others' shirts as onlookers cheered while the tavern's doors remained locked.



The chef whose work at NYC's Russian Tea Room I praised highly two weeks ago, Gary Robins, has been let go at the restaurant, making my remarks on the food wholly irrelevant.

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with Everett Potter's Travel  Report, which I consider 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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below:



* On Feb. 20 NYC’s Klee Brasserie will feature a 5-course “Black Truffle Hunt Dinner” with Guest Chef Mario Gamba of  Restaurant Aquarello in Munich. Dinner incl. a magnum wine pairing from the Villa Cafaggio vineyard. $175 pp;  $125 for 3 courses. Call 212-633-8033; visit

On Feb. 26 Lee Skawinski, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Portland, Maine’s Cinque Terre and Vignola. will hosting a wine dinner to celebrate Venetian cuisine and wines, in honor of the Bisol winery, whose  Wine Manager Giovanni Oliva, will be on hand to visit with dinner guests.  Call Vignola at 207-772-1330 or Cinque Terre at  207-347-6154. . . . On March 25 Cinque Terre will hold a “Slow Food’s March of the Chefs” fundraising event with chefs Skawinski  and Fore Street’s Chef-Partner Sam Hayward.  Special wine selections will be paired with a 5-course tasting menu.  $75 pp. Call 207-347-6154.

* On March 1, a Craggy Range Wine Dinner with T.J. Peabody will be held at the Hotel Bel-Air in Bel-Air, CA.  $125 pp. Call 310-943-6742;
* On March 5 the owners and winemakers of six family-owned wineries from the best-known wine regions in Spain and Portugal will be pouring 25 of their finest artisanal wines at NYC's Opia  paired with unique tapas as part of the "Iberian Express Wine Tour."   $25 pp.  Call 212-688-3939.

* From March 6-10 “A Taste of Brazil” will be held at NYC’s Café Boulud, with two of Brazil’s leading chefs—Sao Paulo’s Fred Frank and João Leme of  ROTI.  A highpoint will be the Saturday feijoada feast.  Call 212-772-2600;

*On March 7 Sale e Pepe  on Marco Island, FL, will hold an Insignia wine dinner by Chef Alberto Varetto and Guest Chef Todd Gray of Washington, D.C.'s Equinox.  Joseph Phelps Master Sommelier Joseph Spellman will incl. vintages from 1991-2003.  This will be followed on March 20 by a Chateau Palmer Wine Tasting Dinner, with  Sommelier Luis Reyneri and Guest Sommelier Charlie Arturaola, featuring vintages from 1990-2004. $275 pp. Call 239-393-1600;


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.

SUBSCRIBE AND UN-SUBSCRIBE: You may subscribe anyone you wish to this newsletter--free of charge--by clicking here.

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.
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, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

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copyright John Mariani 2007