Virtual Gourmet

July 1,   2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


                                                            Cover of Vanity Fair Magazine 1942

                                                HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!

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In This Issue

LISBON ON THE EDGE, Part One by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Valbella Steakhouse by John Mariani

LISBON on the Edge, Part One
by John Mariani
Photos by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
     ddddddddddddd        N othing is more exciting than a city on the verge of being the next great place to be.
In the past decade Dublin, Barcelona, Berlin, and Buenos Aires have held that stage with a vibrancy driven by a young artists, entrepreneurs, and dreamers.  Now, it’s Lisbon’s turn.

      Only two years ago this once imperial capital of Portugal was still dormant, dilapidated, and lacked exuberance. But returning to the city this year I found its monuments and major buildings glowingly restored, its restaurants and outdoor cafés booming, its street life tantalizing, and its nightclubs packed with young Portuguese ready for their close-up.  True, there is still fairly high unemployment, and the young generation hasn't yet the opportunities for advancement the Irish and Spanish currently enjoy, but things are getting better as the economy improves.  The country is still largely agricultural, exporting a good deal of its produce and cattle, along with cork, wine, and its most important contribution to world happiness, their magnificent Port wines. (See my recent article on Port.) An added virtue of the city is that euro-battered Americans can still visit, eat, and stay on the cheap.  A fine meal will cost you $50 or less.xd
      Set on the Tagus River and overseen by a magnificent Castello, Lisbon is a city of distinct neighborhoods, from Belém, with its stunningly restored Monastery of St. Jerome and Museum of the Popular Arts (the city has 37 museums), and a seaward-looking tower (above) that stood as a beacon when men like Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan sailed the world and claimed sizable chunks of it for Portugal.
     Its history may date to the Phoenicians, but its utility as a major port was evident to the Romans and Moors, whose influence can still be seen in the warren-like neighborhood of Alfama in Lisbon. An earthquake in 1531 caused massive damage and death in the city, but everything in modern Lisbon begins with the horrific destruction by fire of the city by another earthquake in 1755, which required a radical reconfiguration of the city, with a grid pattern in its center that endures to this day, with buildings built for efficiency and fireproofing.  Napoleon and others followed the route to Lisbon, and after World War II, António
de Oliveira Salazar ruled the country as dictator, replaced in 1968 and dying in 1970, which finally loosened Portugal to become a 20th century democracy.
      The Portuguese language has a lovely lilt and seductive rolling of their r's, most vividly expressed in their blues music called fado, best experienced in the small dark clubs of Alfama, which,  though still impoverished, now teems with nightlife.  The best way around town is on the clankingly quaint trams (above), which have been operating in the city for more than a century and retain their antique wood trimmings.
     f3T here has been a very strong emphasis on bringing modernity to the city, most obvious in the
spectacularly futuristic Parque das Nações (left), a vast plot of development designed by Portugal's top architects like Álvaro Siza Vieira, Santiago Calatrava, and Regino Cruz. Here is a state-of-the-art Oceanário aquarium,  theaters, and the Atlantico Pavillon, which can seat 20,000 people for conventions.  Also, head for the sleek new Casino in the same Docas area and dance the night way at the warehouse-turned-dance club Lux, where Lisboans show up at midnight and leave at dawn.  John Malkovitch is co-owner of the restaurant Bica do Sapato (Avenida Infante D. Henrique; 351-218-810-320), which, while very trendy, has gotten  mixed reviews for its food.
    The big news of the year is that the "Official Designation of the New 7 Wonders of the World" will take place in a festive celebration in Lisbon on July 7.
Swiss businessman  Bernard Weber launched the project eight years ago, with sites narrowed down to 20 this year, the final seven to be announced in Lisbon in the Estádio da Luz stadium next week.
The best hotel in the city is the elegant Lapa Palace  (below) in the embassy neighborhood, set inside a 19th-century building  constructed in 1870 by the Viscount of Porto Covo for one of his sons, then sold to the Count of Valenças,m who in 1883 enlarged it into a true palace decorated by some of the famous artists of the era, including the ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro and portrait painter Columbano.  The palace  remained a family house until 1992, when they sold it to another, the Simões de Almeida family, who turned it into the Hotel da Lapa, which in turn was acquired by Orient-Express Hotels  in 1998. They refurbished everything to a fine glow of tradition wedded to modernity, with a new wing of two suites, four junior suites, and eight rooms, all with balconies overlooking the beautiful gardens on the property.  Since it is located in the international embassy neighborhood, the hotel remains quiet and secluded, though fairly close to the main areas of interest in Lisbon.
    Service is impeccable, and all business needs are met as efficiently as any in Europe, with extensive private conference and banqueting rooms, and fully access to internet and other services.  Depending on which concierge you ask (rely on the older gentlemen), advice on where to eat may or not pan out to be what you are looking for, so be very specific.
     T he Lapa Palace also has
one of the city’s finest Italian restaurants, Cipriani, which, since Orient-Express also owns the Cipriani Hotel in Venice, serves  many of the same signature menu items, including carpaccio of beef, tagliolini verde gratinata, and risotto with scampi and zucchini. In season they also shower egg fettuccine with white truffles.  Eating that golden dish and drinking wine on the terrace above the gardens here as as romantic as any dining experience in Europe.  There is a very reasonable lunch menu at 39 euros and an equally admirable 5-course tasting menu at 69 euros.
    jjjjA newer hotel option is the Bairro Alto
, (below) with 55 rooms, some offering a superb view of the city. The hotel dates to 1845 but is very up-to-the-moment in design, deep rich colors, casual pillows on divans, and a very good, casual Restaurante Flores (which I will report on in next week's issue). The hotel takes its name from the neighborhood it is in, which means "Upper District," and has become the trendiest of areas, stocked with cafes, boutiques, and all the international designers like Vuitton, Burberry, and Max Mara along the Avenida da Liberdade. The more central shopping street, with Portuguese and Spanish stores,  is the broad Rua Augusta, where you'll find remarkably reasonable prices on both women's and men's shoes.  For men's clothes in general, pay a visit to Nunes Correa at Number 250, founded in 1856. They have beautiful shoes here for about 88 euros, and sales can drop that price precipitously.
    But the hippest street in Lisbon for shopping is
all uphill on the Rua do Norte with funky shops. The shoe store Happy Days (60 Rua do Norte;  351-21-342-1015), which makes all its own designs and jewelry, and rqfrthe paint-splattered Sneakers Delight (30-32 Rua do Norte; 351-21-347 9976; right) are not to be missed. Prices are lower than elsewhere in the city, and young Lisboans go here to shop and hang out at the cafés.
    A t the top of Rua do Norte is Café Lusa, one of the landmark fado clubs, where, it is said, the late, great
Amália Rodriguez often sang and where the current fado idol Mariza started out a decade ago. Go for a drink and a set of fado, both male and female, but skip the mediocre menu of food here. The pouring out of emotion, backed by the plaintive guitar playing is among the world's great music experiences, and to hear it where it was created, in this beautiful city on the river and on the edge, is something you want to do right away.


by John Mariani

754 White Plains Road
Scarsdale, NY
     You've got to have a good reason to go to a restaurant outside of New York to get a good steak, but Valbella Steakhouse is certainly worth investigating for anyone living in, commuting to, or visiting lower Westchester County, for it compares in every way with some of the best in Manhattan, and the prices are better.
     If the name sounds familiar it is because Valbella in Riverside, CT, is one of the most successful restaurants in the region, and its owner, David Ghatanfard last year duplicated that success in Manhattan's Meat Market District with another Valbella. This newest venture is in Scarsdale, NY, just across from the Lord & Taylor department store, about 45 minutes from midtown.  Done mainly in white, with arched windows, a bar and  greenhouse section, and a stellar wine cellar (right) where you may also dine, Valbella is overseen by manager
Sergio Gashi, with frequent visits from Mr. Ghatanfard.  The winelist, while not nearly so grand as those at the other two Valbellas, includes about 160 selections, overwhelmingly American, and especially strong in red wines to go with the beef here.  Prices are quite reasonable across the board.gggggggggg
      The service, early on a bit bumbling, has now gotten its act together, so that friendliness has been matched by professionalism and the pacing of any evening is just about ideal for you to settle in with a cocktail, order your wine and meal, and have bread and butter immediately while waiting for your first courses.  These include
a selection of Italian charcuterie with morsels of Parmigiano Reggiano, and there is a cold seafood starter of lobster, crabmeat, and shrimp, all at the right temperature, with two dipping sauces.  Portions across the range of appetizers are very generous. I also like the meaty crabcakes with a tingling mustard sauce, and the kitchen's talent for frying is evident not only in the French fries but in the calamari.  There are a few pastas, and I recommend the lush cheese ravioli with a truffled cream sauce, which I could make a main course out of.
      Ingredients have always been Mr. Ghatanfard's strong suit, and I am familiar with his meat and fish suppliers, from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, who have told me he only buys the very best and never balks at the price. qwcu This is immediately evident in the beef, veal, and lamb here, which have not only the right textures but are full of essential flavor.  The kitchens knows how to give a true char crust to a porterhouse, sliced for two, and keep it impeccably juicy, as is the sirloin and the six big lamb American lamb chops (left).  There is also a Berkshire loin pork chop best ordered medium-rare to get the succulence this fine meat possesses.
      Typical of steakhouses, Valbella offers big lobsters, with five-pounders the norm, broiled, steamed, or boiled, and I recommend they be eaten as unadorned as possible, with nothing more than clarified butter on the side; even so, you can have them treated to an arrabiata-style tomato sauce for extra zest. The Dover sole à la meunière is as good as any at a far more expensive French restaurant. And the sides dishes, from creamed spinach to hash browns, are as good as you'll find.
     For the moment the desserts are standard steakhouse fare, but Mr. Ghatanfard is waiting for a pastry chef to bring that section of the menu into line with the rest of the quality throughout.

Valbella Steakhouse is open daily for lunch and dinner. Appetizers $11-$19, main courses range from $21-$48.


During Fashion Week in London, Bumpkin restaurant offered models with a body mass of less than 18 and a size zero a free gorge from its menu, including fish pie, lamb burgers, and a chicken-leek-and bacon pie.

FOOD WRITING 101: Keep References to Food and Death to a Minimumkit

"There's been many a good pie ravished since the Egyptians first kneaded a lump of dough 2000 BC.  recently, Troy Maguire and Conor Higgins spread their midas touch further by creating a pie-only menu for his cooler-than-thou boozer. If all that seems ridiculously superlative, get your gnashers around the duck confit and red cabbage or the beef shin and Guinness numbers.  When the Romans first introduced pies to England they were referred to as `coffins' and I can think of no finer resting place for a dead duck or the lower leg of a slaughtered cow than these short-crusted sarcophagi, replete with a `D' or a `B' as epitaph upon a glorious pastry headstone."--Review of The South William Pub in Dublin in The Dubliner (April 2007).


* In light of the firefighter tragedy in Charleston, SC, more than 35 of the top restaurants and chefs in town are banding together to host "Dine for the Charleston Nine" on July 8, at  Charleston Place Hotel and Charleston Grill, featuring the best of Charleston food, music, visual tributes, silent and live auctions, etc. and 100% of proceeds will go directly to the families of the fallen heroes.  The auctions will be open to the nation via the web.  Visit

* On July 17 in Summerville, SC,  Woodlands Resort & Inn will host its monthly "Wines of the World" wine tasting and 4-course pairing dinner featuring "The Tour de France,” with selected vineyards in Alsace, Bourgogne, Provence, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. Sommelier Stephane Peltier hosts the one-hour wine tasting reception. $79. pp. Call 843-308-2115;

* On July 22, Share Our Strength will hold “Give Me Five,” bringing together 5 of Georgia’s best chefs and sommeliers at the  Lodge at Waterfall Country Club on Lake Burton outside Clayton, Georgia, inc. a 5-course dinner paired by Persimmon Creek Vineyards with commentary by the sommeliers;  Live and silent auctions; Live entertainment.  Chefs incl. Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia; Micah Willix of Ecco; Gary Donlick of Pano’s & Paul’s; Robert Gerstenecker of Park 75 at the Four Seasons Hotel; and Jonathan St. Hilarie of Concentrics Restaurants.  Visit or call Amy Crowell at 770-436-5151.

* The Wayfarers,  purveyor of walking adventure vacations, offers a trio of new walks through Burgundy & The Loire, with a $200 discount pp  on its 8-day/7-night itineraries for  Aug. 26 - Sept. 2 and Sept. 23 – 30, incl. leisurely walks,  lunches, before-dinner swims and wine tastings, overnights at Château de Marçay, and Château de la Verrerie.  $3,795 pp with all accommodations, meals, transfers, admissions,gratuities, and more. Visit

NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with two 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."  To go to his blog click on the logo below:


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.



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.
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