Virtual Gourmet

February 24,  2008                                                        NEWSLETTER

Still Life by Kosta Hackman

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In This Issue

OUR FAVORITE MANSIONS:  The Grand Hotel Florence and the Villa San Michele by John Mariani




by John Mariani

The Grand Hotel Florence and the Villa San Michele

    Despite the recent romantic reveries written about Tuscany being Italy's premier province, it is but one of many whose startling beauty makes the entire country appear to be the last place on earth God created, after having practiced on the rest of the world.  Nevertheless, I too always fall in thrall to Tuscany's own beauty, which manages to marry the cool topography of the north with the breezes of the Ligurian Sea.  Increasingly, Tuscany is home to more and more converted palaces, castles, and mansions set with great wisdom in some of the region's most pleasant valleys by flowing rivers that invest them with the magical spirit of this wine-rich province.  Here are two of them, in and just outside of Florence, with some spectacular resort hotels and spas to follow in Part Two of this article, next week.

The Grand Hotel

Piazza Ognissanti, Florence

011-39-055- 27161

   Isn't there a Grand Hotel in every city in Europe?  Quite possibly, all taking inspiration from the marvelous 1932 MGM film of the same name starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford, with that wonderful world weary and wry first and last line by the manager, "Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."
     Unfortunately, not every Grand Hotel is all that grand (the movie concerned a hotel in Berlin), and few match the beauty and service of The Grand in Florence.  Let's face it, the very fact that the hotel is in Florence, steps away from the Arno, within sight of the Ponte Vecchio, gives its advantages no other hotel could possibly possess.  From the windows of the rooms on one side you can see the river's breakwater shimmer in the morning sunlight, and at twilight you will realize that you are seeing the exact, vibrant blue-violet colors of skies painted by the great Florentine masters.
      The hotel was an 18th century palazzo, with all the appropriate trappings but without the flashy High Baroque that Florentine architects ever embraced.  Over the years it has hosted
Zuban Mehta, Roger Moore, Brigitte Bardot, Naomi Campbell, Princess Margaret, and José Carreras. Now a Starwood property, The Grand has 107 guest rooms and suites, all done in impeccably kept antique  décor, some with original frescoes (right). The amenities are as fine as any in Europe, with in-room movies, satellite channels, roll-away beds, handicap accessible rooms, and Internet access.  But who would want to stay in the room, however posh, when Florence is all around you?
       In my first morning in town I dropped off our bags, had a quick espresso in the Café, and headed off for the Accademia to see the recently cleaned David, then wended my way back along the Arno and to a table at L'Osteria di Giovanni (Via del Moro 22; 055-284-897), originally opened as a wine bar by the Latini family in 195, gradually developed into an osteria, ad moved to its present location (left) not far from the Arno in 1965.  Except for some large wall paintings, the décor is typical Tuscan--cream-colored walls, wainscoting, tile floors,  tables set with embossed linens, thin wineglasses, and a service staff that mostly understands a good dose of English.  You may begin here with excellent salume and Prosciutto, along with the Tuscan specialty, crostini with a purée of chicken livers, then follow with an equally traditional ribollita bean and pork soup.  Famished, my friend and I dug into a generous portion (portions are getting considerably larger all over Italy) of pappardelle with a hearty ragù, and tortelloni stuffed with squash in a creamy besciamella. A thick veal chop and wonderfully sweet suckling pig were our entrees, and at meal's end we were offered a complimentary glass of prosecco and little fritter cookies. Our meal, with a $40 wine (tax and service included) came to $150.  It was a good start to our first day in Florence.
      The restaurant at the Grand Hotel itself is called InCanto, which in good weather spills onto an al fresco terrace (right) on the
Piazza Ognissanti (which happens to face the Grand's sister property, the equally beautiful, larger Westin Excelsior).
    Inside, InCanto is a strikingly modern restaurant with leather chairs, a shining bar, and warm, convivial lighting.  Here Chef Fabrizio Innocenti cooks in the Tuscan manner, with some international flourishes, with both a fixed price Menù Tradizione--at €50 your best bet because
à la carte prices are high, and a Menù Innovazione (€80), along with à la carte selections, from which we chose sautéed prawns wrapped in lard on a bed of puréed white beans  and spiced tomatoes; a creamy and tender risotto was carefully cooked in red wine with a rich squab sauce; ravioli is stuffed with lobster in a zucchini stew; sea bass comes with a luscious sweet-buttery pumpkin purée, with sautéed garlicky Swiss chard and candied cherry tomatoes;  a filet of nicely fatted pork is glazed with dark beer, which gives it a slight sweetness of caramelization. For dessert, go with the chocolate items like the milk chocolate and caramel pyramid with hazelnut pralines and mint sauce. Accompanying the menu is a winelist of 300 labels.
       InCanto is a place you linger, have an espresso or two, then a grappa to help you sleep well in a room that overlooks the most beautiful city in Tuscany.

 À la carte dinner antipasti run €16-28, pastas and soups €14-22, and main courses €26-56, which includes tax and service.


Via Doccia 4
Fiesole, Florence
011-39 055 567 8200

        I'm surprised the Villa San Michele has not been used for countless movie locations, for its situation at the top of a winding road in the town of Fiesole, just outside of Florence is as spectacular and picturesque as it is historical and breathtakingly romantic. It is also reclusive and seems worlds away from everything, yet you peer over its walls and down below is the broad cityscape of Florence with the Arno flowing through. Of Fiesole 19th century British emigré poet Walter Savage Landor wrote that it had "the best water, the best air, and the best oil in the world," all of which may still be true.
      The original building was a Franciscan monastery as of the 15th century for the Franciscan monks, and the present structure, whose façade has been attributed to Michelangelo, dates to the 17th century, becoming secularized by Napoleonic decree in 1817, at a time when many of its rich artworks were shipped elsewhere in Europe.  There is, however, still a superb 1642 "Last Supper" fresco (right) by Florentine painter Nicodemo Ferrucci in 1642, recently restored to its original vivid colors, revealing Judas shown as the only apostle without a halo.   In 1900 a New Yorker named Henry White Cannon bought and restored the Villa with new gardens, greenhouses,  and Victorian-style wrought iron gates. Badly damaged during World War II, the villa was bought by a Frenchman,  Lucien Tessier, in 1959 as a private residence, eventually turning it into a hotel that was in turn acquired by Orient-Express Hotels in 1982, which restored the property under the consultation of the Florence Fine Arts Authority.
     I have not, as yet, had a chance to stay at the Villa, but I was fortunate to spend a splendid evening there with my wife and friends dining at the al fresco Ristorante (below), which takes place on an arched verandah overlooking the countryside and gardens.  We were greeted by maître d' Vittorio Dall’Ò, who is among the last of his breed, a gentleman whose true happiness is to make his guests happy and who, by his mere presence, lends the evening a genteel sophistication very rare these days anywhere in the world.
Chef Attilio de Fabrizio (below), an Abruzzese,  has worked throughout Europe and the Americas, and was most recently at Florence's great Enoteca Pinchiorri before joining the Villa. He also runs a cooking school here, tailored to foreign guests that includes trips to Chianti, wine tastings, and visits to Florence.  His menu at the Ristorante is remarkably broad--and not cheap--with 7 antipasti (€20-€39), nine pastas and soups (€21-€30), six fish dishes (€38.50-€65) and six meats (€33.50-€44), an array of cheeses, and eight desserts, including several gelati and sorbetti, in addition to a nightly card of specials, with recommended wines.  (All prices include tax and service.) The winelist is one of the best in Tuscany, very rich in bottlings from the region.
       You might begin with a classic beef carpaccio with arugula, celery, and shavings of Parmigiano, or puff pastry filled with asparagus and laced with a lemon sauce.  Scallops baked with rosemary and rock salt arrive at the table with a burst of steamy aroma, served with broad beans and tender leeks. The Sienese pasta called pinci, like slender gnocchi, comes with a rich brown duck sauce, while plumper potato-spinach green gnocchi are graced simply with tomato and basil. Tortelloni are stuffed with eggplant and goat's cheese--a wonderful idea!--in a subtle thyme sauce.
       We picked two seafood items and two meats among the four of us: Charcoal-grilled catch of the day--that night branzino--with grilled vegetables, glossed with Tuscan olive oil and lemon; true scampi and baby lobster from the Tyrrhenian Sea that were also grilled over charcoal, with a light green salad dressed with apple vinegar; medallions of very tender veal with sprightly citrus fruits, crisply fried zucchini, and sweet carrot purée; and a duck fillet with a crisp skin and eggplant soufflé in a juniper sauce.  Each dish seemed quite simple, based on seasonally superb ingredients, but there was masterful technique in the cooking that made them equal to the ambiance and panorama here.
       They were also light enough to allow us to indulge in desserts like raspberries in puff pastry with raspberry sorbet; a bitter chocolate soufflé with vanilla sauce; a crunchy "cappuccino" of coffee meringue with cinnamon ice cream; and a delightful babà in the Neapolitan style, flavored not with rum but with orange blossom essence.
       It was a gorgeous night, late spring, and the intense blue of sunset turned cerulean, with the scent of the season's flowers and garden herbs in the air.  And the lights of Florence had slowly come on, with a half moon glowing above the silhouettes of the churches and the Duomo, flecking the Arno with silvery light.

The Villa closes in winter and will re-open this year on March 20.  Rates will range from €670 to €3200.

by John Mariani

115 Allen Street (at Delancey)

     Despite all the media hype about restaurants opening day by day on the Lower East Side, few endure and most are not places you'd go out of your way to get to, with the exception of a fully realized concept like WD-50.   So the  addition of Allen & Delancey on the corner of those same streets by developer Richard H. Friedberg adds measurably to the neighborhood, taking over what had previously been the premises of the Salvation Army.
     The designers have managed to echo the early 20th century ambiance in the restaurant, with  exposed ceiling joists, wide-planked wooden floors, a hammered tin ceiling, and  walls hung with "found" personal belongings of  period photos, books, and children's toys, all of which makes this a cozy place to dine.  The lighting could be a bit brighter and tablecloths would add measurably to the warmth of the room.  When I ate there, canned music--a "staff mix"--threatened to pump up the decibel level, but they were nice enough to turn down the volume.
      Chef Neil Ferguson, a year ago the first chef at Gordon Ramsay at The London, has created a well balanced, aptly sized menu of updated classic European, British, and American dishes, and director-and-sommelier Glen Vogt--one of the most experienced professionals in New York--has crafted a 100+ label of wines to go well with Ferguson's food, with a focus on small production vineyards from around the world, like Du Lot Soave Superiore 2005 ($50), Ayres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2005 ($66), and Numanthia Tinto de Toro 2005 ($130).  Some more wines under $40 a bottle would be even nicer.
       Ferguson (below) has an impressive pedigree in kitchens like Claridge's, Pied à Terre, The Square, The Connaught, and Aubergine in London before taking over Gordon Ramsay's New York operation, from which Ferguson was ousted when the restaurant failed to win four stars from the NY Times--not that Ramsay chose to spend much time in the kitchen, busy as he was reaming inept cooks on his Las Vegas TV show.  Ferguson and Vogt also run a splendid Hudson Valley restaurant called Monteverde at Old Stone Manor, whose location 50 miles away means the two of them have to put a lot of mileage on their cars and strain on their time.  I'd check to see if they're going to be at A&D before you go.
       A&D has been packed since opening last fall, so the well-meaning service staff can become harried. You have to ask for bread and butter, and by all means do: it is terrific, and it goes very well with an impeccably made terrine of guinea hen with smoked ham knuckle, foie gras, and beets--a truly wonderful melding of flavors.  Sea scallops come with a celery cream, braised sweet baby onions, and verjus, and I recommend the crisply cooked red mullet with a hazelnut crust. A raviolo came with a stuffing of delicious sweetbreads with bolognese sauce, parslied carrots, and Savoy cabbage--a little complex but quite good.
      In the times I've eaten Ferguson's food here, at Monteverde and at Ramsay's, I've found his meat dishes superior in flavor to his seafood, and the same goes for the menu at A&D. Colorado lamb chops with a classic persillade of parsley, braised neck of lamb, and potato puree is the kind of hearty food that will never go out of style, while his slow-roasted pork belly with pickled pear, sweet parsnips, and a touch of fenugreek syrup was superb.  But both braised filet of John Dory with a cauliflower cream, parsley roots, and trompette mushrooms was only all right, and fillet of cod with fennel was bland. Look back over the items I've mentioned and you'll also find a very European preference for soft textures, whereas American food has made texture a crucial factor in cooking.  Case in point: Ferguson's poached bone marrow dressed with paddlefish caviar, a dish I just didn't have the palate to try.
      Desserts, all $12,  are, in a word I try not use too often,  scrumptious, from a chocolate-hazelnut crunch terrine with milk sorbet and blood oranges (now there was some texture!) to sweet cream French toast with oatmeal ice cream and caramelized banana. A passion fruit crème brûlée with spiced coconut sorbet and marinated pineapple was a delight. There is also a selection of farmhouse cheeses, if you prefer.
     The prices for just about everything at A&D are very reasonable for this standard of cuisine, with appetizers $14-$18 and entrees $24-$29, which is particularly refreshing because so much more buys you so much less in inferior area restaurants.
Allen & Delancey is open for dinner nightly.


by John Mariani

     The annual Mobil Travel Guide 2008 ratings have been announced for both hotels and restaurants, and hôteliers and chefs are either swooning or fainting.  Not that there are many changes in the top categories of four- and five-star establishments, nor are there any real surprises among the new five-star winners:

HOTELS:  Boston Harbor Hotel, Boston; The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island in South Carolina;  the Four Seasons Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City, Utah.

RESTAURANTS: The Georgian Room in Sea Island, Georgia (below);  The Inn at Dos Brisas in Brenham, Texas;  and Le Bernardin in New York, NY.

     I don't disagree with any of the new choices with which I am familiar (I have not dined at The Inn at Dos Brisas), and generally speaking the ratings jibe with most other guides, including Michelin and Zagat.  And the Mobil inspectors are rigorous in their criteria, which was not the case in the past when hoary old properties and outdated restaurants clung to their five stars despite all evidence to the contrary. According to Mobil, "Every property gets a visit from a facility inspector, who uses a checklist to evaluate cleanliness, physical condition and location. This inspection results in a Mobil One-, Two- or Three-Star rating. . . . Based on the facility inspection, properties that might qualify for a Mobil Four Star or Five Star Award certification will receive a visit from a second, this time incognito, inspector. This inspector makes an anonymous visit and performs an incognito evaluation based on more than 500 service standards. During service evaluations, inspectors keep a low profile and do not reveal that they represent the Mobil Travel Guide."
      Fair enough. But note well that while inspectors actually stay and and sit down to eat at the potential four- and five-star properties, that is not true of any below those ratings, which means that no one from Mobil actually sleeps in those thousands of  three-, two, and one-star hotels and none eats at the restaurants.
   Which is, uh, disappointing.  How can you give three stars to a hotel without staying there or a restaurant without tasting its food? It's like going to a whorehouse and rating it after only checking out the décor.

       Mobil puffs itself up in its statement that "For travelers who use the Internet to plan trips, hotel ratings have become seriously suspect. All major travel Web sites offer ratings that appear to help consumers find hotels that meet their requirements. In reality these ratings are intended to help sell hotel rooms, not to provide a consumer unbiased, information that they can trust. Comparisons of Web sites' ratings reveal wild fluctuations that can only be described as confusing (at best) or misleading (at worst). For online travelers, be careful which ratings you trust!"
        I suspect most travelers believe that the Mobil inspectors do in fact sleep and eat at all the establishments in the guides, which, not being the case, strikes me as "confusing (at best) or misleading (at worst)." A quick look at the overall ratings for 2008 show that it is clear no one bothered to eat at the restaurants and compiled their ratings based on data that is way off the mark or out of date by as much as a year.  Granted, guide books' publishing schedules require data to be set in print many months in advance, although, as with all books, changes and corrections can be made much later than that. (Still, the Michelin Guides to U.S. cities, which appear in the fall, are amazingly up to date, even to menu items, though there are some mistakes in those volumes too.)  More puzzling is that the recently updated Mobil website has a dismal number of errors that could easily have been checked and corrected on the website.
     I perused the online 2008 Mobil ratings for New York City alone and found an astonishing number of goofs and simple omissions.  In several cases--The Biltmore Room, Montrachet, Bolo, and The Oak Room, for instance--the restaurants closed many months ago, yet they are still in the listings, complete with star ratings and descriptions. Bayard's and Guastavino's (below) are described as restaurants serving up wonderful food to the public, but they have been open only as banquet/exhibit halls for a year or more.  Mobil updated Markt's change of location, but not Steakfrites'.  The description of Park Avenue Café does not mention that the whole restaurant was gutted last spring and changed to a seasonal menu and decor, and it is now called Park Avenue Summer/Fall/Winter/Spring.
     In the matter of chefs, Mobil seems clueless: Tom Valenti left 'Cesca a long time ago, Scott Conant was out of L'Impero last spring, Josh DeChellis left Sumile six months ago, and Ed Brown exited SeaGrill more than a year ago. Yet you wouldn't know all that from Mobil, which sings the praises of those very chefs at those restaurants. Mobil notes that Fiamma is "chef-driven," but never mentions that chef, who changed from Michael White a year ago to Fabio Trabocchi this fall. No mention is made of the significant chef change, now Christophe Bellanca, at Le Cirque 14 months ago!
     Most astonishing, however, is the omission of so many of the finest, most talked-about restaurants in New York, including The Modern, Mai House, Barbuto, Dennis Foy, Anthos, Insieme, Craftsteak, Grayz, Porter House New York, and Momofuku Ssäm Noodle House.  And even if they aren't four- or five-star restaurants, how can Mobil have ignored The Russian Tea Room and Café Cluny, or packed houses like Buddakan, The Waverly Inn, and Morimoto?
      So you have to wonder, don't you? Maybe the Mobil Guides are good for a five-star meal like The French Laundry in Yountville or finding a place like The Olde Broom Factory in Cedar Falls, Iowa (2 stars) or Ol' Heidelburg (2 stars) in Huntsville, Alabama,  or the Silver Fox restaurant and Lounge in Casper, Wyoming (2 stars), but you better check if the place is still open before driving out of your way.



According to sushi master Masaharu Morimoto of NYC’s Masa, his favorite snacks include, “In Japan, I buy tako yaki [octopus balls]; in London I’ll pick up a Kit Kat candy bar; and in New York, I’ll grab a hot dog from a street vendor.”—from Condé Nast Traveller (February, 2008).


Claridge’s Hotel in London now offers a water-tasting menu, with more than 30 varieties, including 420 Volcanic (from underground volcanic springs in New Zealand) at $45 for a 42cl bottle.


* NYC’s Alma de Cuba during March & April will hold its "Paella King" Festival, Mon.-Fri. 5 pm - 7 pm. Patrons will receive a dish of Paella Valenciana along with Sangria for only $15.  Call 212-242-3800; visit
* On March 4 in Ventura, CA, Brooks restaurant will host a 5-course Hug Cellars Winemaker Dinner. $125 pp. Call 805-652-7070. Visit

* On March 4 Gabriel’s Restaurant in Highwood, ILL, continues its monthly wine series, with Chef Gabriel Viti and Sommelier Bob Bansberg presenting The Wines and Cuisine of Burgundy, with a 5-course menu. $125. Call 847-433-0031.

* On March 7 & 8 Savor Dallas 2008 with feature wine seminars, and a showcase for the signature recipes of 60 of North Texas' finest chefs. A Grand Tasting will be held at the Westin City Center Dallas and Plaza of the Americas. The Spanish Wine and Food Pavilion will feature wines from the Ferrer Family and Osborne, along with Spanish food products orchestrated by Market Street. The Arts District Wine Stroll takes place on March 7 at the Nasher Sculpture Garden and the Meyerson Symphony Center, and many more events. The complete schedule and tix available at Proceeds to benefit The Greater Dallas Restaurant Association's culinary education program.
* On March 11 in Boston,  a “Taste of the South End 2008” will benefit the AIDS Action Committee with South End chefs and restaurants featuring their culinary creations, incl. Addis Red Sea, Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot, The Butcher Shop, Hamersley's Bistro, Icarus, Mistral, Rocca, Sibling Rivalry, Tremont 647, et al. $95 General Admission, $250 VIP. Visit

* On March 13 in Chicago, Adobo Grill will host its first tequila dinner at its new Lombard location, with Chef Othon Angel preparing a 4-course menu, paired with Tequila Herradura;  $38 pp. Call 630-627-9990 or visit

* From March 14-16 in Healdsburg, CA, Charlie Palmer's 3rd Annual celebration of Pigs and Pinot will be held at the Hotel Healdsburg and Dry Creek Kitchen. March 14:  "Taste Around" with 50  Pinot Noirs from Sonoma and the world, with  pork dishes by chefs Palmer (Dry Creek Kitchen), David Burke (davidburke & donatella, NYC)  and others), et al;  March 15:  Pinot Cup challenge, with Master Sommelier Keith Goldston, or a cooking class and tasting with Palmer,  followed by lunch;  March 1: A 5-course Pigs and Pinot Gala Dinner by Palmer, et al.  Tix $550 pp. Accommodations in  wine country villas in the BeautifulPlaces portfolio. Visit and Call 1-800-495-9961.

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."  This week, a report on "HOTELS FOR RECESSIONARY TIMES."


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, Suzanne Wright, John A. Curtas, 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

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 © copyright John Mariani 2008