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STAYING AND DINING IN VENICE by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: `21' Club by John Mariani
BEANS: New Espresso Machines Foolproof by John Mariani
STAYING AND DINING away from the crowd in VENICE
by John Mariani
Venetians are masters of what the Italians call spezzatura--the art of concealed art.
The Venetians can even make the flooding of the Piazza San Marco into an excuse to sit at the Caffé Florian under the arcades, listen to violin music, and wile away their time with an espresso or a nightcap until the water recedes enough to allow them, reluctantly, to wend their way home through glistening, wet streets. This is a wholly Venetian response to life, enjoying yourself while waiting for the waters to recede, and nowhere is there a better vantage point to watch the natives at their most characteristic than in their cafes, trattorias and ristoranti, where they take their time eating, drinking and savoring the way the world goes by.
At dinner a Venetian exercises all his faculties of good taste, harmony, manners and criticism. He dresses well for the occasion. He picks over a salad to make sure every leaf of arugula is well formed and the olive oil green gold. He demands to see the fish before it is cooked and to smell the white truffle before it is shaved over his risotto. He swirls a glass of wine ceremoniously, sniffs it carefully, tastes it slowly, pauses for a few hushed seconds, and then pronounces on its soundness. He hates garniture and heavy sauces. And he takes his time. In the afternoon he stops for an ombra--a glass of wine or dish of tiramisù taken in the shadow (ombra) cast by the bell tower and cathedral at San Marco. Later, around , he will begin the ritual of the passagiata, a lilting, arm-in-arm stroll through the Piazza that often includes a stop at a gelateria for a little ice cream. Then dinner.
What they eat and drink at dinner is an amalgam of Italian culinary traditions married to strains of Austrian, Turkish and Middle Eastern flavors derived from
Especially in Venice, where there simply isn't much room to move around the narrow calle and bridges that can take ten minutes to cross, while being shoved by the opposing force from the other side. This exhausting crush has caused me to consider carefully when I will visit, which comes down to mid-October through mid-April, and even those shoulder seasons can get antsy. Fortunately, many of the very finest hotels and their restaurants have something of a lull in August because their affluent clientele doesn't come to town at that time. Nevertheless, later in the year is much better to truly enjoy the myriad and maze-like charms of this city on the sea. By the way, the best restaurant guide to Venice (in Italian only) is Bacari Ristoranti e Osterie di Venezia e Dintorni by Simone Azzoni (12 euros), listing 160 places to eat and drink in the city and surrounding area, all with photos.
If you do wish to get away from the crowds in Venice and want the city more to yourself in the off season, here is where you should stay and eat.
Hotel Gritti Palace
Campo Santa Maria del Giglio Venice I-30124 Italy
Phone 011 (39)(041) 794611
Venice has nothing grander than the Gritti, which was Ernest Hemingway's favorite hotel in Italy, as it has been to countless counts and countesses, authors, musicians, and film stars. Set right on the Grand Canal, the Gritti was, as of 1525, a Doge's home, later the Vatican ambassador's residence. Antique in ever detail, the Gritti is nevertheless completely equipped with any modern amenity you could request (not always the case in Venetian hotels), and its 91 guest rooms and suites are exquisitely, individually decorated with beveled mirrors, polished bird's eye maple, sumptuous velvet, satins, and silks throughout.
The Gritti Hotel's principal restaurant here, the Club Del Doge (below), is entered through the very chic Bar Longhi, and in good weather you can dine outside with the vaporetto-churned water lapping at the dock. There is no more beautiful panorama on the Canal than this, although on the night I dined there the view was equally beautiful at the next table, where the stunning Italian actress Monica Bellucci was dining with her husband and daughter. Such serendipity always improves the food and wine, but the cucina alla veneziana at the Club del Doge hardly needs embellishment. Start off with soft-centered burrata mozzarella with stuffed vegetables and a touch of mint, graced with celery sauce. Beef carpaccio (invented at nearby Harry's Bar) with Parmigiano and arugula is light and refreshing, and one of the specialties here is tagliolini alla Burano, served alla gratinata with a cream of spider crab and seafood. Sea bass is baked in salt to preserve its succulence, and the Club does one of the best fegato alla venezianas--sautéed calf's liver with sweet, melted onions and white polenta--I've had in the city. They also do a splendid pasta e fagioli drizzled with olive oil, and scampi with fillets of sole in a sweet-sour sauce with a mild baccalà of puréed salt cod.
Desserts are a little extravagant, but this is Venice and this is the Gritti, so go ahead and splurge and watch the moon make the dome of Santa Giorgio Maggiore glow white against the deep blue sky.
At the Gritti you are on the edge of everything but just beyond the most crowded sections of central Venice; it is almost tucked away, so it is quiet, especially in the morning when you hear nothing but the creaking of the gondolas at their docks and the putter of a vaporetto in the Canal. You have your cappuccino and brioche, read the International Herald-Tribune, and maybe go back to bed.
First courses at Club del Doges run 27-30 euros, main courses 40-61 euros.
Starwood Hotels, which owns the Gritti, almost has a monopoly of the city's deluxe hotels, including the nearby Danieli, the Westin Europa & Regina, and both the Hotel des Bains and Westin Excelsior at the Lido, each with their own architecture and style, some only open for the season.
011 (39) 041 520 7744
Across the Canal on Giudecca sits the Hotel Cipriani, whose breathtaking view of Venice from that small island is like the striking view of Manhattan from Brooklyn or New Jersey.
Yet without ever leaving Giudecca one can get lost in the douce charms of the Cipriani, exploring its tiny vineyard, swimming in its huge pool, visitng the island's churches, half in the belief that you are a world away, reachable by the hotel's own antique wooden motorboat (above). You arrive from the Piazza San Marco in about four minutes, struggling to take in everything around you, and then you are helped from the boat by a greeter who leads you through the leafy arbor to the hotel, which is as reclusive as it is what the Italians called raffinato.
You will in all probability then meet manager Natale Rusconi, whose consistent presence has made him the island's grand monsignore. His professionalism should be copied in textbooks, and he instills its in every staff member, mixing affability with respect, familiarity with deference, exuberance with gentility, whether you're arriving for the first or thousandth time.
The Hotel Cipriani has not been under Cipriani ownership for a long while, but for several years now the Orient-Express company has run it with all the style and comfort it has always been famous for, and now, with a its annexes, the Palazzo Vendramin and the Palazzetto, it seems even more secreted away than ever.
There are several dining venues, beginning with the posh and formal Fortuny and its al fresco terrace (left). Cip's Club is a casual trattoria for lighter fare. On my last visit, for lunch, I ate at the Gabbiano Poolside restaurant (below), which at first I feared would be serving typical poolside food; instead I found that I was able to order from the sumptuous Fortuny menu. With my wife and friends I began with a classic rendering of the Cipriani carpaccio, luscious creamy green tagliarini al prosciutto gratinati, and risotto with fat scampi from the Adriatic, a dish that proves Venice's supremacy in seafood cookery. There was also a Genoese dish--tondini round pasta with scampi, tomato, and basil sauce--very good.
If it sounds like I took every opportunity to feast on scampi, you're right. Scampi are Venetian prawns, not shrimp, and they are sweet and tender, and should only be kissed by herbs and olive oil. They fry up beautifully, too, so I ordered a frittura of them with calamari, squid, and baby artichokes that crunched in the mouth. I also could not resist another serving of fegato alla veneziana, smothered in soft onions. A fillet of branzino came with a light tomato, lemon, coco bean and mushrooms sauce, and absolutely delightful was a loin of crisp, golden suckling pig with stewed cabbage and puréed apple. After a meal like this, simple fruit sorbets were the happy ending to our sunlighted meal by the pool, as we finished the last drop of a bottle of valpolicella ripasso and ogled the pretty pool people, the Americans who brought their young daughters for a holiday, and the Europeans who seemed to be quite at home here.
First courses and pastas range from 18.50-32 euros, main courses 33-44 euros.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
21 West 52nd Street
The regulars call it "The Numbers." Occasional visitors call it just "21." And out-of-towners call it The `21' Club. Such nuances used to matter in this bastion of New York sophistication, once a speakeasy, then a restaurant that catered to a crowd composed of industry titans, Broadway and Hollywood actors, Old Money, and, over time, the Nouveau Riche. Its exclusivity was based on longtime alliances dating back to Prohibition days when Jerry Berns and Jack Kriendler ran it with a wink in one eye and another that sized up the incoming clientele. To get your corporate model airplane or truck hung from the ceiling of the bar was as good as getting the key to New York.
`21' has been notorious, raffish, stuffy, stylish, and an antidote to trendiness. For decades good food never got in the way of having a good time, and anyone who questioned his bill obviously didn't have a house account.
Over the past 20 years, however, successive new owners have not only spruced up a very threadbare interior--cleaning the Remington statues and paintings, installing the superb graphic art of the 1930s and 1940s, and reconditioning a kitchen with modern technology. Some very notable chefs came and went, but none lasted very long in an environment where the preferences of the clientele dictated what stayed on the menu, and often the improvement of a dish with better ingredients and attention to cooking was met with disbelief by those who had grown used to the awfulness of the cooking.
Nevertheless, `21' has not only persevered, having lost Mr. Berns last year, and seen the retirement of longtime manager Bruce Snyder, retaining its traditional clientele while attracting at least two younger generations of people who come here either as regulars or to partake of a Gotham icon as authentic as the Rockefeller Center skating rink, the Washington Square Arch, and the Great Hall of Grand Central Terminal.
Under new manager Roger Rice and longtime maître d' Oreste Carnevale, the "joint," as Berns used to call it sails on. I heartily recommend going to the Club's website for history, anecdotes, and hilarious happenings over the past eight decades in business, including the time Robert Benchley came in out of the rain and quipped, "Get me out of this wet coat and into a dry martini." So many movies and TV shows have filmed at `21' Club, including "The Sweet Smell of Success," "Wall Street," and, recently, "Sex in the City" (below, right).
For the past several year the Orient-Express company has owned the restaurant and kept its exterior, with its famous jockey hitching posts, and its mahogany-and-stucco interior in impeccable shape. The upstairs banquet rooms are very fine, decorated with vintage graphic cover art, those Remingtons, and antique silver urns, and the downstairs wine cellar, behind a two-and-a-half ton swinging door no revenue agent was ever able to find during Prohibition, is one of the most beautiful and intimate dining rooms in the city. Five years ago they added an upstairs dining room (below) that in its elegance and posh is the antithesis to the raffish downstairs look.
The menu, now under John Greeley, here for more than a decade prior to becoming exec chef, is now a canny balance of the old, which has been improved immensely, and the new, which can compare with the best cuisine in New York. The winelist, under sommelier Philip Pratt, has a Wine Spectator Grand Award, with 1,300 selections, and 21 wines by the glass that include First Growth Bordeaux.
My brother was in town with an old friend and said, "Let's go somewhere quintessentially New York." I told him, "`21' reeks New York," and off we went. Greeted with the impeccable degree of New York savoir-faire and a nod of recognition, we sat in the downstairs Bar Room, arrayed with those hanging men's toys, happy to see the place packed with young and old, happy to see the starched red-and-white checkered tablecoths, and happy to see a menu that kept links to `21's traditions while bringing dishes into the 21st century. Thus, you might start with the `21' Caesar salad or the cold Senegalese soup with grilled chicken and Granny Smith apples. Iced oysters and clams are always available. The jumbo lump crabcake is better than ever, judiciously sized, with a light brown crustiness, and creamy lump crab throughout, with shaved fennel, micro-greens, and warm Meyer lemon sauce. There is also a fine carpaccio, drizzled with a truffled mustard and top with a deviled quail egg.
A special that evening was risotto abundant with tender roulade morsels of rabbit meat and fava beans, and the sautéed Dover sole in butter, with asparagus, fingerling potatoes, and potatoes (we went with the nonpareil pommes soufflés, though at $12.50 they're a pricey splurge) could not be bettered anywhere in New York. The creamed spinach was first rate too.
Kimberly Bugler's pastries are a delight, from the perfectly plump profiteroles with rich chocolate sauce to the excellent crème brûlée and a tall hot soufflé.
After a sip or two of Armagnac, we wedged ourselves out from behind the table, `21' still in full swing, into a New York autumn night, feeling giddy about the evening. We felt like we'd been "on the town," in the greatest town in the world.
`21' is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; Dinner Mon..-Sat. A la carte prices run $12-$28 for starters, $30-$45 for entrees; There is a $35 lunch menu, a $40 pre-theater menu, and a Chef's Tasting at $85 ($140 with wines). Upstairs 3 courses is fixed at $70.
The Espresso Wars Heat Up with New No-Fail Machines
by John Mariani
Despite $29.3 billion
“Coffee is at least as complex as wine,” insist Andrea Illy, 43, the third-generation Chairman of illycaffè S.p.A., whose grandfather Francesco invented the espresso machine in the early 20th century. “In
Illy’s mission is to get the world—especially the
“Coffee is composed of 1,500 chemical substances, and we search hard for the best beans,” says Illy. “We have 114 quality controls, and we do not buy in the commodities market. We have contracts with specific Brazilian coffee producers. Today 600 of them compete annually for a prize we began in 1991 for the best producer of high quality coffee.”
Since becoming CEO and Chairman in 1997, Illy has expanded the brand’s global penetration from 29 to 140 countries and 50,000 restaurants and cafes, with worldwide sales last year of 246 million euros (US$320 million). Illy Caffè does not disclose
“For years we have tried very hard to educate our customers.” he says, “In Japan, we show them once and they obey all the rules. In the
He then unveiled his newest machine, the sleek push-button Hyper Espresso machine, which uses pre-measured plastic cartridges whose precise amount and grind of coffee are controlled by laser. The coffee never touches metal, making the machine easy to clean; air pressure forces out a precise amount of coffee and a perfect layer of light foaminess on top that Italians call the “crema.”
I sampled the results and it was, indeed, not only an impeccably made and delicious espresso with a lingering taste of complex coffee on the palate, but after several minutes the crema had not dissipated. “You could let that cup sit there for an hour, and the crema would still hold up,” Illy said proudly.
The Hyper Espresso is about to hit the restaurant market here, then next spring, a modified home version, in designer colors, will retail for between $600-$800, about the price of push-button espresso machines currently on the market made by Braun, Lavazza, De Longhi, and Gaggia.
As with other machines, you have to use the company’s packets or cartridges, a quid pro quo that has thrust Nestle Nespresso S.A., founded in
Nespresso’s newest machine is the Latissima (left), made by De Longhi, which amazingly makes a first-rate cappuccino in just one step: You place a milk container in the machine, pop in a coffee capsule, push one button; the frothy steamed milk fills half the cup, followed by the espresso, which sinks beneath the cap of foam. It’s an impressive process, and the cappuccino is excellent. The home unit retails for $699 in red or black, $799 in “satin chrome.”
Such innovations are making it hard for anyone to totally screw up making a good cup of Italian coffee. Even a busboy can do it. And about that lemon peel? It’s said people used it in the old days to tame the bitterness of bad espresso. But an old Neapolitan barista once told me with a shrug, “The lemon peel? You dip it in the sweet espresso and give it to a sick child to suck on to calm his stomach."
DEPT. OF OBNOXIOUS ethnic STEREOTYPES:
MAYBE NEXT THEY’LL OPEN STEP N’ FETCHIT’S BBQ AND HYMIE SCHLOCKSTEIN’S JEWISH DELI AT THE NASHVILLE WHITE TRASH MUD-WRESTLING HALL
ALSO BUCK NAKED,
* On Oct. 10 the Greater Cincinnati Independents (GCI) hold their kick off the second annual Octoberfeast event at the Currents Ballroom at Newport Aquarium (www.newportaquarium.com), featuring the city’s chefs, incl. Andy’s Mediterranean Grille, Behle Street Café, Bella Luna, Brown Dog Café, Daveed’s at 934, Encore Bistro & Bar, Hugo Restaurant, Jag’s Steak & Seafood, Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, Jean-Robert’s Pho Paris, Jimmy D’s Steakhouse, Kona Bistro, Mesh, Mike & Jimmy’s Chophouse Grill, Montgomery Inn Boathouse, Nicholson’s, O’Bryon’s Irish Pub, One Restaurant & Lounge, Polo Grille, Pompilio’s, Pub at Crestview Hills, Red Restaurant and Universal Grille. Live music from local favorites The Bluebirds to benefit the WAVE Foundation (www.wavefoundation.com). $50 pp. in vance on the web site (www.gcindependents.com), or $55 at the door. Call 513.605.4700 ext. 18.
* On Oct. 12 in (Schaumburg, IL, Shaw’s Crab House will host the 19th Annual Royster with the Oyster Festival Kick-off Party. Llive music and free oysters with the purchase of any Goose Island Beer; Oyster Slurping Contest, with winners to advance to the Grand Slurp-off held Oct. 19, at the Oysterfest Tent Party, held outside Shaw’s Chicago location. Call 847.517.2722 or visit www.shawscrabhouse.com.
* From Oct. 12-14 the 1st Annual
* Beginning October 15, owner Piero Selvaggio will debut his V-vin bar at Valentino in
* On Oct 15, at the Rainbow Room, the NYC chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier honors Dame Lidia Bastianich with a 4-course dinner overseen by Culinary Chair Mario Batali and prepared by Chefs Mark Ladner of Del Posto,
* On Oct. 16 in Summerville, SC, Woodlands Resort & Inn will host its monthly "Wines of the World" wine tasting and pairing dinner featuring "The Finest Cru of Bordeaux,” hosted by Sommelier Stephane Peltier. $79 pp. Call 843-308-2115.
* On Oct. 17
* On Oct. 17 at North One 10 Restaurant in
* On Oct. 17 Bijoux Restaurant in
* On Oct. 18 Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) will host a 5-course dinner presented by women chefs, winemakers and sommeliers At the Table New York: Toasting Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, part of a national series of events, to support the WCR's scholarship and internship programs. Sara Moulton of Gourmet Magazine is the Honorary Chair and MC for the event, at the Prince George Ballroom. Tix can be purchased online for $150 pp or $1,000 per table of 10 at www.womenchefs.org or by calling 877-927-7787.
* On Longboat Key, The Colony celebrates the “Stone Crab Festival” Oct. 25-28. Participating chefs & vintners incl. Andrew Zimmern from The Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods"; Richard Sandoval from Modern Mexican Group; Andrea Curto-Randazzo & Frank Randazzo from Talula, Miami Beach; Mike Lata, FIG in Charleston; Michael Bulkowski, Revolver in Toledo, OH; Michael Blum, Michael's Kitchen, Sunny Isles, FL; Vinters Lee-Anne Bosman, Morgenhof Estates (South Africa); Patricio Reich, Bodega Renacer (Argentina); Robert Haas, Tablas Creek (Paso Robles); et al. Call 941-383-6464 ext. 2830 or visit www.colonybeachresort.com
* On Oct. 23 in
* Chef Vincent Guérithault of Vincent’s on Camelback in Phienx, AZ, announces his 2007-2008 Wine & Spirits Dinner Series featuring 11 events between Oct. 2007 and April 2008, incl. “An Extraordinary Champagne Tasting Event” on Jan. 25 at $55 pp. Call (602) 224-0225; visit www.vincentsoncamelback.com.
* On Oct. 27 in
* On Oct. 28
* Every Sunday night during both Oct. & Nov., BR Guest restaurants in NYC at Blue Fin and Blue Water Grill are now offering special New England-style “clambake” menus. . . . Also, BR Guest support sBreast Cancer Awareness Month at Blue Water Grill, Blue Fin, Ocean Grill, Atlantic Grill or Isabella’s with a guilt-free dessert, with 10% of proceeds going towards the American Cancer Society. Call 212-529-0900; Visit www.brguestrestaurants.com.
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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, ForbesTraveler.com 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 Online: A 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.
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