Virtual Gourmet

December 23,  2007                                                       NEWSLETTER


Santa Claus by Norman Rockwell

Merry Christmas!

NEW! Click to go to my new biweekly column at Esquire Magazine.

Readers may now access an Archive of all past newsletters--each annotated--dating back to July, 2003, by simply clicking on

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

In This Issue

By John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Centro Vinoteca by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR:The Best Bubblies for New Year’s Eve by John Mariani


By John Mariani

      Maybe it didn't snow for Christmas every year in the Bronx back in the '50s. But my memory of at least one perfect snow-bound Christmas Eve makes me think it did often enough that I still picture my neighborhood as white as Finland in those days when I lived along the choppy waters of the Long Island Sound.
          But for all the decorations and the visits to stores and Rockefeller Center, it was the sumptuous Christmas feasts that helped maintain our families' links to the Old Country long after most other immigrant traditions had faded away. Food was always central to everyone's thoughts at Christmas, and the best cooks in each family were renowned for specific dishes no one else dared make.
          The assumption that everything would be exactly the same as last year was as comforting as knowing that Christmas Day would follow Christmas Eve. The finest ancestral linens were ironed and smoothed into place, dishes of hard candy were set out on every table, and the kitchen ovens hissed and warmed our homes for days.  The reappearance of the old dishes, the irresistible aromas, tastes and textures, even the seating of family members in the same spot at the table year after year anchored us to a time and a place that was already changing more rapidly than we could understand.
           It's funny now to think that my memories of the food and the dinners are so much more intense than those of toys and games I received, but that seems true of most people. The exact taste of Christmas cookies, the sound of beef roasting in its pan, and the smell of evergreen mixed with the scent of cinnamon and cloves and lemon in hot cider were like holy incense in church, unforgettable, like the way you remember your parents' faces when they were young.
          No one in our neighborhood was poor but few were rich. Yet we mounted feasts as lavish as any I could imagine in a book, and in the days preceding Christmas people took enormous joy in spending their money on foods only eaten during that season.
          It was still a time when the vegetable man would sell his produce from an old truck on Campbell Drive, and Dugan's and Krug's bread men came right to your door with special holiday cupcakes and cookies.  We'd go to Biancardi's Meats on Arthur Avenue, while the butcher on Middletown Road usually carried fresh fish only on Fridays, but he was always well stocked with cod, salmon, lobsters and eel during the holidays.  The pastry shops worked overtime to bake special Christmas breads and cakes, which would be gently wrapped in a swaddling of very soft pink tissue paper tied up with ribbons and sometimes even sealed with wax to deter anyone from opening it before Christmas.
          By Christmas Eve the stores ran out of everything, and pity the poor cook who delayed buying her chestnuts, ricotta cheese, or fresh yeast until it was too late. Weeks in advance the women would put in their order at the live poultry market for a female rabbit--not a male-- or a goose that had to weigh exactly twelve pounds.
                                                         Biancardi's Meats, The Bronx

          You always knew what people were cooking for Christmas because the aromas hung in the hallways of the garden apartments and the foyers of their homes-- garlicky tomato sauces, roast turkeys, rich shellfish stews, and the sweet, warm smells of pastries and breads could make you dizzy with hunger.  When you went out into the cold, those aromas would slip out the door and mingle with the biting sea-salted air and the fresh wet snow swept in off the Sound.
          At the Italian homes in the Bronx ancient culinary rituals were followed long after they'd lost their original religious symbolism.  The traditional meatless meal of Christmas Eve-- "La Vigilia"-- which began centuries ago as a form of penitential purification, developed into a robust meal of exotic seafood dishes that left one reeling from the table.  According to the traditions of Abruzzi, where my father's family came from, the Christmas Eve dinner should be composed of seven or nine dishes--mystical numbers commemorating the seven sacraments and the Holy Trinity multiplied by three.  This was always my Auntie Rose's shining moment. She would cook with the zeal and energy of a dozen nuns, beginning with little morsels of crisply fried calamari.  She made spaghetti on a stringed utensil called a "ghitarra" and served it with a sauce teeming with shellfish.  Next came an enormous pot of lobster fra diavolo--a powerful coalescence of tomato, garlic, onion, saffron and hot red peppers, all spooned into soup plates around shiny, scarlet-red lobsters that some guests attacked with daunting, unbridled gusto while others took their dainty time extracting every morsel of meat from the deepest recesses of the body, claws and legs.
          Few children would eat baccala, a strong-smelling salted cod cooked for hours in order to restore its leathery flesh to edibility, and stewed eel, an age-old symbol of renewal, was a delicacy favored mostly by the old-timers. But everyone waited for the dessert--the yeasty, egg bread called "panettone," shaped like a church dome and riddled with golden raisins and candied fruit.
          Christmas Day came too early for everyone but the children, but as soon as presents were exchanged, my mother and grandmother would begin work on the lavish Christmas dinner to be served that afternoon. It was always a mix of regional Italian dishes and American novelties, like the incredibly rich, bourbon-laced egg nog my father insisted on serving before my grandmother's lasagna, in which were hidden dozens of meatballs the size of hazelnuts. Then my mother would set down a massive roast beef, brown and crackling on the outside, red as a poinsettia within, surrounded by sizzling roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding glistening from the fat absorbed from the beef.  Dessert reverted to venerable Italian tradition with my grandmother's prune-and-chocolate filled pastries and honeyed cookies called "struffoli."
          After such a meal, we needed to go for a walk in the cold air. In other homes up and down our block people were feasting on Norwegian lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, German stollen, Irish plum pudding and American gingerbread. If you stopped and listened for a moment, you could hear the families singing carols in their native tongue.
          By early evening people got ready to leave and leftovers were packed up to take home, belying everyone's protest that they wouldn't eat for days afterwards.
          By then the snow had taken on an icy veneer and the wind died down to a whisper.  I remember how the cold air magnified sounds far, far away, so as I crept into bed I could hear the waves lapping the sea wall and the rattling clack-clack, clack-clack of the El running from Buhre Avenue to Middletown Road. It was a kind of lullaby in those days, when it never failed to snow on Christmas in the Bronx.

This story is excerpted from
Almost Golden by Robert and John Mariani (see below).


by John Mariani

74 Seventh Avenue South
New York, NY 10014

     Sasha and Alexei Muniak have already given Greenwich Village one of its most engaging trattorias, Gusto. Several months ago they added measurably to the local scene with the two-story Centro Vinoteca, whose chef Anne Burrell (below) had worked for years with Mario Batali as sous-chef on that "Iron Chef" show. Now she is showing her own chops, literally and figuratively, which share much of the lustiness of Batali's cooking.
     Burrell's own claim to indulgence is her array of little bite-size morsels called
piccolini that are so good they may ruin your appetite for all the good things to follow.  And with about 20 wines available by the quartino, that's not a bad way to eat lightly. The winelist itself is about 200 labels strong, mostly Italian.  And so you sit down to a card listing all the piccolini, which include a slew of fried foods like arancine rice balls with a dot of ham and cheese inside; Parmigiano-dusted cauliflower; and a terrific spread of mortadella sausage and Gorgonzolla-packed figs. There are also thin-crusted but nicely puffy little grilled pizzas--the one topped with with stracchino, hot sausage & arugula  is outstanding.
      Then you start on the appetizers and pastas! Well-crisped sweetbreads with Speck bacon, warm cabbage salad, and a pickled mustard sauce; a mixed plate of Italian salamis like  culatello, finocchiona, and cacciatorini; grilled seppioline (cuttlefish) with roasted acorn squash, dandelion greens, apples and pumpkin seeds;   little pinches of pici pasta with sweet-spicy sausage ragù; a luscious raviolo al’uovo, the egg oozing forth from the pasta,  laved with sage butter sauce and guanciale bacon (below); an assertively lusty, chile-sparked bucatini all’amatriciana; and broccoli di rabe-Swiss chard ravioli with pecorino marjoram sauce and pistachios.
     Think you've got room for a main course? Then go right ahead with crispy skate in “acquapazza” (crazy water) with bay scallops, calamari and rock shrimp, fregola and raw fennel salad; or brined pork chop crusted with fennel pollen, pancetta, swiss chard, baby turnips and crispy bacon skin; or a
ribeye tagliata with potato-prosciutto fontina cake  and broccoli di rabe.
       Force yourself onward to desserts like goat's cheesecake with roasted figs or a cappuccino panna cotta with
chocolate cinnamon shortbread and chocolate covered espresso beans. Or maybe just a plate of crunchy tarallucci cookies you dip into silky, salted caramel. Don't bother with the out-of-character green apple and crystallized ginger prosecco “float.”
        This is true trattoria fare of a kind you get in highly personalized regional examples throughout Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo, and particularly in Rome and Naples, and Ms. Burrell must be commended for being so devoted to making her food with both care and obvious passion.
      The winelist at Centro Vinoteca, as befits its name,is very carfeully crafted to reflect the regional nature of small estates in Italy, with a good selection of proseccos and especially red wines that go so well with this food, with many bottles well under $40.
     But now, a few discouraging words: Centro Vinoteca is a two-story restaurant--downstairs 40 seats, upstairs 32--a semi-open kitchen, and a noise level that would wake the dead--still another example of restaurateurs who somehow believe their clientele (make that "a young crowd") truly loves not to be able to hold a conversation without a shouting match,  assured by the playing of pounding music whose only discrenible notes are the bass and drums.  There are no tablecloths, so that adds to the noise. Downstairs, as more than one of my reviewing colleagues has mentioned, the sound level is unbearable; upstairs (above) it is pretty good, until about nine PM when they start pumping in that odious music.  I always ask the waitstaff if they get complaints about the noise (they always do) and if anyone has ever asked it to be louder (none does), so I am baffled as to why restaurateurs as canny as the Muniaks want to drive a good percentage of customers away from their restaurant because they can't stand the noise.
     Such is easily remedied, starting with turning down, or off, the music. People create their own gregarious sound, and that's the way a true trattoria should be. Next time I go to Centro Vinoteca I will either bring noise-lessening earphones or eat outside on the sidewalk.
     By the way, just this week Sasha Muniak announced that the brilliant chef Amanda Freitag has left Gusto to become chef at The Harrison in TriBeCa and that Burrell will take over double duties at both Gusto and Centro Vinoteca, with a re-design of the former in the near future.  Let's hope soundproofing is part of the new design.

Centro Vinoteca is open daily, from noon to midnight. At dinner piccolini (snacks) run $3-$7,  appetizers, $10-$16; pasta dishes and main courses, $12-$36.


The Best Bubblies for New Year’s Eve

by John Mariani

      I sometimes wonder how much expensive Champagne is wasted on New Year’s Eve simply by mismanaging the popping of the cork. (Turn the bottle, not the cork, easing the bottle open for a little pop, not a gusher.) So I shudder every time I see a bottle of Dom Pérignon shaken and spewed like soda pop whenever a sports team wins a game.
      Given the prices of even entry level Champagnes these days--$40 or more—I don’t want to waste a drop, so I am very careful about opening and pouring the bubbly and choose my friends carefully at New Year’s.

James Stewart and Ginger Rogers at El Trocadero, Hollywood,.circa 1940.

     For a dinner party of half a dozen wineloving guests I will happily break out my very favorite
ChampagneTaittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2000 (or from any great vintage of the last decade). It is a pinot noir Champagne, with only juices from the first pressing used, so that the wine has both body and the ability to age. It has already spent 5 years in the Taittinger cellars prior to release and has come into complete harmony, with a balance of herbal notes of rose petals in the nose together with distinctive raspberry flavors. It is a Champagne that can be drunk throughout a meal because of its structure and finesse. At about $200 a bottle I hope my friends enjoy every sip as much as I will.
     If my party is larger and I still wanted to serve a fine Champagne that won’t cost a fortune, I’d go with   Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” ’90, a delicious older vintage still available for less than $80. It is typical of the house style, ripe with fruit and that slight patina of age that I like in an older vintage. And I will be sure to remind my guests that Marilyn Monroe used to say that a glass of Piper each morning warmed the body.
      I suppose there is a small sense of shame some people have who believe Champagne is the only acceptable sparkling wine to serve at New Year’s. But if taste alone is the deciding factor, there are many other bubblies I would eagerly like to expose my guests to on New Year’s Eve.
      I could serve them a vin mousseux—a French sparkling wine not from the Champagne district but in one of the 50 appellations that makes such wines. Saumur in the Loire Valley turns out the best examples, like those from the producer Bouvet, whose Brut Signature sells for less than $12. Crémant d’Alsace is a wonderful light sparkler from Alsace made from pinot blanc or pinot gris. The label to look for is Dopff au Moulin, which pretty much began sparkling wine production in Alsace back in 1900. Its bubbly sells for about $20.
      Spain produces a great deal of sparkling wine, called cavas, made in the Champagne method, the best coming from the region around Saint Sadurni d’Anoia in the Penédes, and the names to look for are Codorniu and Freixenet, which consistently make delicious cavas for under $10 a bottle.
      I am carefully chauvinistic about the best California bubblies—a small group, to be sure—but I particularly like Schramsberg’s Blanc de Blancs (the 2004 vintage is now in the market for about $25) and the excellent Domaine-Chandon Brut ($15), whose Napa Valley estate is owned by the Champagne producer Moët-Chandon.
      But another part of my bloodline sides with Italy’s prosecco, which is assuredly not a sparkler on the level of a Champagne but, with its low alcohol, lemony citrus flavor, and low price, is something I could drink with friends as an aperitif (it’s the basis of the bellini cocktail), with antipasti, shellfish, or any seafood for that matter.  And at $15-$30 a bottle, you need not wait until New Year’s to enjoy it. Zardetto’s Zeta label ($18) has bright fizziness and a little more alcohol at 11.5 percent, so the structure and fruit are there in abundance.
      I can’t say I would stoop to serving a German Sekt, which is rarely exported anyway, for I feel pretty much the way the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (left) did when he chose Champagne over Sekt, noting, “My patriotism stops short of my stomach.”

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.


Chef Marc Sanders of The Wild Boar Hotel in Yorkshire, England, has begun serving canapés of gray squirrel pancakes to guests.  The squirrels were caught on the 72-acre hotel hotel property and, according to general manager, “tasted rather nice, a bit like rabbit.”

Somehow We Doubt It

“Ask almost any world-traveled industry mogul or culinary maven their favorite place to break bread, free of pretentiousness or self-conscious quirkiness—it’s highly likely Zurich’s Kronenhalle will lead the pack.”—Stefania Yarhi, “The Perfect Restaurant,” Style Magazine (Winter 2008).


* From Jan. 1-31 in  Chicago, Shaw's Crab House hosts its annual Crab Festival (also in Schaumburg location). 3-Course Family Style Crab Dinner ($39.95); mDungeness Crab Dinner ($29.95), two pounds of Dungeness Crab, served with au gratin potatoes, and cole slaw.  Call 312-527-2722 (Chicago), or 847.517.2722 (Schaumburg), or visit

* From Jan. 1-Feb. 28 The Hassler in Rome is offering a Valentine's Day “Roman Skyline Package”  that will whisk guests around the city via helicopter: 3 nights in a Classic Suite;  Helicopter ride over Rome;  Private limousine roundtrip service from the Hassler to the heliport; Daily buffet breakfast; tasting-menu dinner at Imago restaurant; and more. 6,570 Euros ($9,500) double occupancy.  Go to

* In Highwood, IL, beginning in January, Gabriel’s will present a monthly wine series, with Chef Gabriel Viti and Sommelier Bob Bansberg. On Jan.  8, 2008, Gabriel’s will showcase The Wines and Cuisine of Piedmonte at $125 pp. Call 847-433-0031; Visit

* On Jan. 13, Chef Shaun Doty of Shaun's in Atlanta will host a special dinner catering to those with celiac disease.  The dinner will feature a prix fixe, gluten-free and wheat-free menu paired with beers, at  $45 and $65. Call 404-577-4358 or visit
* The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau will offer its popular "Dine About Town San Francisco" program twice in 2008, Jan. 15-31 and June 1-15, with more than 100 of San Francisco's restaurants, plus a few beyond the Bay, offering 3-course lunches for $21.95 and/or dinners for $31.95. Go to

* In Chicago Cafe Matou will launch its quarterly Bière Nights on Jan. 17. Wine Director James Rahn will pair Belgian beers with Chef Charlie Socher’s 5-course French menu. $57 pp.  Call 773-384-8911; 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. It was 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

yyy u7o9o ee
rer rr ryh

copyright John Mariani 2007