Virtual Gourmet

June 15, 2008                                                                     NEWSLETTER


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In This Issue


NEW YORK CORNER: PadreFiglio by John Mariani

THE JAMES BEARD AWARDS 2008 by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Now They All Copy Clos du Val by John Mariani




by Edward R. Brivio
Photos by Robert Pirillo

    An Art Deco gem situated right in the center of Rome, the Albergo Mediterraneo (Via Cavour, 15; +39 06 4814276), just around the corner from Termini station, has provided luxury accommodations, for both business traveler and tourist, since 1942. The façade may be pure Fascist concrete–albeit much better than most--but the lobby is a perfect period piece that looks as fresh and spick-and-span as though it had been finished only yesterday.
     The original Reception desk faces public rooms that are a preservationist’s dream, with walls and floors sheathed in beautiful figured marble as well as large marble busts of Roman emperors. Ceiling friezes resembling white on gray Jasperware, gorgeous frosted glass ceiling fixtures and wall sconces, overstuffed, curvilinear armchairs, and even the inviting bar (though expensive: $16.50 for a gin and tonic!) under its own copper marquee are all quintessential Art Deco artifacts, as are three exceptional marquetry panels, as beautiful as they are intriguing. The subject of the one above the fireplace (right) is straightforward enough: a bound Prometheus tormented by the eagle, stealing fire having been the cause of his dilemma.
     But, what to make of the second and most enigmatic?--a medallion-shaped inset on the wall to the left of the bar, depicting three of the winds that sweep across the peninsula (clearly labeled as scirocco, libeccio, and tramontana), above them a goat, or, is it a man in Carnival mask, offering riches to one elegant lady, while shearing off another’s hair? The largest and most elaborate, covering the better part of another wall, features figures from successive epochs of Italian history, starting with an Egyptian pharaoh and culminating in what appears to be an Italian Romantic poet absorbed in writing a love letter.
     Our ninth floor “Penthouse suite“ (foyer/dressing room, living room, and separate bedroom behind sliding wood doors, all beautifully appointed) more than lived up to its name, with a big marble bathroom as well, complete with twin sinks, a large bathtub/shower—long enough and deep enough for a six-footer to immerse himself in-- and a nicely framed view of St. Peter’s out the window. All the amenities of a world-class hostelry were here: a pleasant, accommodating staff, an abundance of lush, freshly-laundered towels and terrycloth robes, fragrant designer toiletries, concierge service, and flat-screen TV, as well as a PC, fax and printer for business travelers. Heavy drapes and two sets of over-sized, windows in the living room and bedroom kept out the noise from busy Via Cavour, while affording expansive views across gritty Roman rooftops, to the twin Baroque domes of Santa Maria Maggiore and the 18th century statues of Christ and His apostles atop San Giovanni in Laterano to the right, the Alban hills in the middle distance, and, way off to the left, the foothills and snow-capped peaks of the Apennines.
      A generous breakfast buffet, served each morning in a large refectory-type room with vaguely maritime décor, complete with figureheads upholding the ceiling beams, is included in the price of the room. Something is available for almost all national tastes --eggs, bacon and cereal for the Yanks and Brits, small flaky pastries for the French and Italians, an assortment of cold cuts and cheeses for the Northern Europeans, as well as yogurt, fresh fruit and fruit juices for everyone.

      Right across Via Cavour is another of the Bettoja family’s four city hotels,  Albergo Massimo D’Azeglio, with their flagship Massimo D’Azeglio restaurant  (Via Cavour 18; 06 481 41 01) --one of the city’s oldest and best known-- taking up most of the ground floor.
      Maurizio Bettoja, wine merchant, relocated to Rome in 1875, and soon after opened the restaurant, then in 1878 the hotel, above his original wine cellars. Another lovely period piece, the dining room dates from the turn of the last century. Deep crown molding and heavy brackets highlighted in white against pale lemon walls, wainscoting of beautiful dark wood adorned with finely hand-carved mahogany plaques, layers of pink napery, and white-jacketed, bow-tied waiters adept at table-side service, all recall a more gracious, less hurried time.
    Massimo Taparelli, Marchese d’Azeglio, one of the leaders of the Risorgimento (the national liberation movement that culminated in the unification of Italy) was as much artist as politician, so an important collection of paintings and prints dealing with the Risorgimento, including four by the marchese himself, decorate the walls.
      To understand the fine art of Italian service, look no further than Claudio Tomencioni, another of those brilliant maître’ds who are as much a part of the country’s patrimony as its art, architecture, literature, wine, fashion, and its breathtaking topography.  Claudio has been overseeing the proceedings here since 1980. At his suggestion, an antipasto di verdure, displayed in grand style on a large table right inside the entrance, arrived at our table. Grilled peppers, radicchio and asparagus, fried carciofi alla Romana,  and eggplant gratin all passed muster, as did paper-thin slices of Prosciutto di Parma garnished with a much-enjoyed spuma di formaggio made with delicious, tangy Taleggio. The came a correct risotto con provola affumicata e speck;  rich, earthy, fettuccine Massimo d’Azeglio, fresh pasta in a cream sauce garnished wild mushrooms; and robust tonnarelli (think spaghetti, only squared-off rather than round) with basil, porcini, and grape tomatoes were all packed with flavor and beautifully turned out.
       Another of Claudio’s recommendations, filetto di manzo alla Rossini, seemed only appropriate in this setting, showcasing not only the fin-de-siecle gourmet’s trinity of tenderloin, foie gras, and truffles, but an equally classic, deep, dark, much-reduced, brown sauce as well. Prepared with care, and served with tasty sautéed spinach and a small hillock of roast potatoes, it showed clearly that the standard bearers of traditional haute cuisine can be as satisfying as they are historic.
         A grigliata mista di pesce comes as filets of swordfish, salmon, coda di rospo (monkfish), and sea bass, as well as shrimp and calamari, enough for three people, but nevertheless it quickly disappeared, whereas saltimbocca alla Romana, one of the simple gems of Roman cuisine, was good, if not inspiring.
    I love the Sagrantino grape, whose heretofore untamable tannins now survive even the most aggressive modern/international wine-making practices to give a nice edge to each mouthful of wine. Ours was a big, bold Sagrantino di Montefalco 2001 (36 euros) from Terre di Trinci one of Umbria’s better, and better-known cooperatives.
The original wine cellars--the real thing, not some highly varnished, recently added attraction--complete with compressed dirt floors, candlelight, and spindly wood shelves filled with dust-covered bottles, some dating back to the 19th century, are available for private parties.
      Antipasti: 10 to 16 Euros; primi: 9 to 14; secondi: 14 to 26; dolci: 5 to 7.

     A short walk from the hotel past Santa Maria Maggiore is Trattoria Monti (Via San Vito 13A; 06 446 65 73), at the moment one of Rome’s most popular restaurants for tourists and locals alike. It’s sought out as much for the two handsome brothers, Enrico and Daniele Camerucci, who adorn the dining room, as for the dishes prepared in the kitchen by their mother, Franca, whose family  hails from Le Marche. Reservations are a must; a steady stream of would-be diners were turned away the evening we were there. The room has recently been redone,
     Don’t pass up the trattoria’s signature antipasto, a starter that pairs delicious breaded, stuffed, fried olives ascolane (three weren’t nearly enough), with equally yummy battered and fried fiori di zucca, artichokes alla romana, and a new-to-me salumi called ciauscolo, that’s more sausage than salami, so soft and fatty that it’s spreadable. Red onion tart with Gorgonzola was another winner; the intensely flavored onions caramelized to a deep mahogany.
     The first Romans were shepherds, and in Rome pecorino, not parmigiano, is king. Referring not just to the romano familiar to Americans, in Italy, pecorino is any cheese made from sheep’s (pecora) milk, and there are dozens of them. One example is pecorino di fossa, from Romagna, aged in shallow caves (fosse). At Monti, its unmistakable flavor and aroma transforms a dish of rigatoni with sausage and black pepper. Another unusual offering, tortellone, one plate-sized raviolo stuffed with ricotta and a runny egg yolk dressed with a fresh tomato sauce looked more interesting than it tasted. I passed up the all-but-irresistible looking roast suckling pig –I’d already had it elsewhere  two nights’ running—and chose instead roasted, stuffed squab (piccione) that was good if not great, while my partner fared much better with his stinco, a long-braised, falling-off-the-bone shin of ox, in a deep, dark red wine sauce.
      Trattoria Monti’s wine list is on a par with its food. I couldn’t pass up a Giacomo Bologna,Barbera d’Asti Bricco dell’Ucellone 1999 at only 40 euros. From one of Piedmont’s top wineries, it was a big, mature red, still with plenty of fruit, and more importantly, a nice structured finish to complement the food.

    Nicola Salvi’s magnificent, baroque Fontana di Trevi may be just about swamped with tourists, but just around the corner is the decidedly untouristic Vineria il Chianti (Via del Lavatore 81; 06 678 75 50). As its name, as well as its décor--mostly shelves filled with wine bottles--implies, this is as much wine bar as eatery, with a menu more Tuscan than Roman. The selection of Chiantis is staggering. With the help of our personable waitress, we chose a Rosso di Montalcino 2006 from the Cantine di Montalcino, one of the DOC’s best cooperatives. These days I’m more on the lookout for acidity and tannic structure than fruit, as so many wines are overly ripe to the point of sweetness. This red managed to balance all three beautifully, all for only 22 Euros.
     Dinner started well with an assortment of salumi, both familiar and unusual, all delicious and leaving our palates ready for more. Pappardelle alla lepre, broad shards of pasta with a hare sauce, is something I seem to enjoy only in Italy, and this version was no letdown. Equally good was pici cacio e pepe, thick spaghetti flavored with nothing but grated romano cheese and cracked black pepper, an all but extinct staple of traditional Roman cuisine that’s just starting to find its way back into the culinary consciousness. Secondi of stracotto, or Italian pot roast, and a thin-crust, pizza bianca covered with fiori di zucca were well turned-out as well.
     This is a busy, bustling, very hospitable place that welcomes a crowd of young locals, as well as the occasional savvy tourist. Dinner for two was 82 Euros with bottled water and wine, and a preliminary glass of Tocai (5 Euros) so surprisingly good I forgot to get its name. Tables may be close, but here I enjoyed the proximity, especially since most of the conversations overheard were in Italian.

A meal will run 22-35 Euros.



by John Mariani

310 East 44th Street (near 1st Avenue)

        Twenty years ago PadreFiglio might have been just another Italian-American restaurant serving pretty much the same menu every other Italian-American restaurant in NYC served. Which wasn't so bad at all but it was rarely wonderful.  The reason? The Italian-American restaurants of the day simply could not acquire, import, or beg for the best Italian ingredients--from olive oil and balsamic vinegar to Parmigiano-Reggiano to Super Tuscan wines. No one could.  No white truffles in season, no porcini mushrooms, no bufala mozzarella.  So how could they possibly come close to the way Italian food tasted back in Italy, not to mention the regional diversity that is true Italian cuisine?
      Fast forward twenty years and all those wonderful ingredients are available to everyone. So, a restaurant like PadreFiglio can now showcase the absolutely wonderful flavors of Southern Italy the way they should taste, while at the same time using the best American ingredients--from great beef and veal to lobster and scallops--unavailable back in the Old Country.
      All of which is  in intro to saying that I had one of the best Italian meals in a long time at PadreFiglio, whose name refers to father and son team, Antonio and Mario Cerra, who already operate the notable Da Antonio (157 East 55th Street), recently sold.  Together with Chef Alberto Argudo (formerly of Campagnola and Il Mulino), they have crafted an Italian steakhouse with strong Neapolitan overtures.  Antonio is one of the most ebullient, gregarious hosts in NYC, and he is to be consulted on everything from how you wish you meat to be cooked to what new wines have just entered the list of this two-month old restaurant near the U.N.
      The place itself is both rustic and cosmopolitan, with terracotta mosaic steps, ruby glass, and wrought iron windows, a glass-enclosed garden room with Italian frescoes, and the inside Venetian room with  red velvet walls,  paisley banquettes, and ebony wood brass sconces.  It all has a pleasant sumptuousness, yet it is not in the least a stuffy or formal dining venue.
     Soon as you're seated they  bring you good bread and focaccia to nibble on with your cocktails or wine from a very fine list of Italian and other bottlings, quite reasonable priced in all categories.  Fried calamari, elsewhere a cliché are here paradigms of form--hot to the table, very crispy outside, very tender within, served  with a lightly spiced tomato  salsa. Sea scallops Toscana come perfectly juicy after a fast searing, served with baby artichokes cucumbers, tomatoes  and cannelloni beans, and  best of all the antipasti was a crespelle Napoletane, baby eggplant stuffed with ricotta of buffalo's milk and baked till creamy in a fresh tomato sauce.
      All the pastas I tried were truly sumptuous, from an al dente rigatoni amatriciana with tomato, basil, pancetta, and sliced onions to orecchiette Barese, with sweet sausage, broccoli di rabe, and a good shot of garlic.  Even the appetizer portions are very generous.
      If you're thinking of Mediterranean seafood, go with the snapper with a potato crust over a sweet pepper puree. If you opt for meat, costoletta Martino is a veal chop dipped in parmigiano with artichoke and asparagus in  a light, citric lemon sauce.  Still, PadreFiglio does announce itself as being an Italian steakhouse, and the New York strip of Piemontese grass-fed beef has the real flavor you'd expect in Florence but never get in U.S. steakhouses. The t-bone cut is excellent, thick, rare, and succulent throughout, and the lamb is Colorado's best, lightly crusted with herbs and cooked medium-rare, with nice charring on the bones and a perfect trim of fat. You might want to try the more exotic meats here, including Canadian wild boar or the filet mignon of buffalo, both quite lean but flavorful.
      PadreFiglio's desserts are fairly standard but good and one is enough for two people.
     With so few NYC restaurants doing this kind of Italian food these days--at least in Manhattan--PadreFiglio proves the whole idea that ingredients count mightily, and warm hospitality is always a way to bring guests back.

PadreFiglio is open for lunch and dinner daily.   3-Course Lunch Menu $27. Bar menu available. Appetizers  $9 – 24; Entrees $16– 48.

by John Mariani

     This year's James Beard Awards were, overall, fairly judicious.  More than 400 people voted, with 250 regional judges included.  Still, the obvious biases continue, which is to say that those restaurants and chefs who get the most media attention handily win the award, even if far more worthy nominees without publicity machines, TV shows, and connections to the major food magazines deserve the awards.  And when you consider that those same magazines mount lavish food and wine events around the country each year, is it any wonder that the celebrity chefs they both promote and need to draw crowds go home with most of the marbles?
      High-profile chefs continue to take the prizes, even though so many of them rarely cook at all anymore. The chef who is managed by a corporation trumps the chef who maintains his connection to his singular kitchen. Still, 2008 was a year in which more working (i.e., cooking) chefs won awards than those who merely host TV shows or attend food festivals, and hoorah for that!
       As someone who was for several years on the JB Restaurant Awards Committee, three as chairman, I always expressed my doubts about nominees who made the cut despite being completely unknown to most members of the committee, despite the by-laws' contention that chefs must "serve as a national standard bearer of excellence." By the same token, I know how very, very hard the committee works to get things as honest as possible, and the chronic and ignorant carping by outsiders that a chef can somehow buy his way into an award is absolute nonsense.
       Which is not to say, as I already have, that a well-oiled publicity machine can work wonders in bringing chefs to the voters' attention.  That translates into the high probability that many of those 400 voters who have actually have had a chance to eat in cities not their own will have eaten only at the most-hyped restaurants in the biggest cities. Let's face it, how many voters could possibly have eaten at the Alex Young
 Zingerman's Roadhouse
 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Hugh Acheson's 
Five and Ten in 
Athens, Georgia?

      That said, here are my thoughts on the winners and losers of this year's JB Awards. My congrats to the former and latter alike.

OUTSTANDING RESTAURATEUR AWARD: "A working restaurateur, actively involved in multiple restaurants in the United States, who has set uniformly high national standards as a creative force in the kitchen and/or in restaurant operations. Candidates must have been in the restaurant business for at least ten years."
Award Winner
: Joe Bastianich/Mario Batali
, Babbo 
NYC--This dynamic duo certainly deserves credit for the excellence of innovative restaurants like Babbo, Lupa, Esca, and Del Posto, and they have bettered other 2008 nominees like Tom Douglas
, Tom Douglas Restaurants, 
Seattle; Wolfgang Puck
, The Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group
, Beverly Hills; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Phil Suarez, 
Jean-Georges Management LLC, NYC. I thought the best among the nominees, however, is the quieter but far more consistent Richard Melman
, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
, Chicago, which for four decades has been in the forefront of the modern American restaurant industry.

"A working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals. Candidates must have been working as a chef for at least the past five years."
Award Winner
: Grant Achatz
, Alinea, Chicago (left). How could he not win? Profiled (for his battle with mouth cancer) in The New Yorker, with Alinea called the best restaurant in the U.S. less than six months after opening by Gourmet Magazine, Achatz has had more media hype than any chef in  memory I (except, perhaps, David Chang: see below), for dishes like his limp bacon strip on a silver thread and linen pillows inflated with herbs, on menus that add up to 28 courses and four-hour meals. Has his not-very-long
career actually "set national industry standards?"  I don't think so.  Far more deserving are nominees José Andrés
 of minibar by josé andrés, Washington, DC, and Dan Barber of 
Blue Hill, NYC, and the unique Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, NY.

OUTSTANDING RESTAURANT AWARD: "Candidates must have been in operation for at least ten consecutive years."
Award Winner
: Gramercy Tavern, NYC
, Owner: Danny Meyer:  Richly deserved in a category with very strong contenders like Boulevard, San Francisco
, Chef/Owner Nancy Oakes, Owner,  Pat Kuleto; and Jean Georges, NYC: 
Chef/Owner: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Owner: Phil Suarez. San Francisco's Slanted Door, however, doesn't belong among this group at all, beloved in San Francisco but having had no impact on the rest of American gastronomy or even California cuisine.

BEST NEW RESTAURANT: "A restaurant opened in 2007 that already displays excellence in food, beverage, and service and is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come."
Award Winner: Central Michel Richard, Washington, DC
; Chef/Owner: Michel Richard: This is absolutely bewildering! While Richard is one of America's greatest chefs, but at its best Central is a good French bistro,  not in any way innovative and rarely sees an appearance by Richard, who has been busy opening up restaurants elsewhere. Central will have no impact whatsoever on the industry in years to come. On the other hand, Anthos, NYC, whose exciting
 young Chef/Owner Michael Psilakis has transformed modern Greek cuisine is far more deserving in every sense. And veteran Chef Dean Fearing's Fearing's in Dallas is a spectacular restaurant with food no one else is doing in or out of Texas. He has for decades been a leader and inspiration to chefs.

RISING STAR CHEF OF THE YEAR AWARD: "A chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to have a significant impact on the industry in years to come."
Award Winner
: Gavin Kaysen , 
Café Boulud, NYC.  Fair enough, although  he's only been cooking at Cafe Boulud for a few months and I haven't  heard much about him. It was not a strong category this year.

OUTSTANDING WINE SERVICE AWARD: "A restaurant that displays and encourages excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, a knowledgeable staff, and efforts to educate customers about wine. Candidates must have been in operation for at least five years."
Award Winner
: Eleven Madison Park, NYC
 (right); Wine Director: John Ragan: Another Danny Meyer restaurant, and the winelist and service are outstanding.  Still, other nominees like Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
; Wine Director: Andy Chabot, and Picasso, Las Vegas
; Wine Director: Robert Smith, would be equally deserving.

OUTSTANDING WINE AND SPIRITS PROFESSIONAL AWARD: "A winemaker, brewer, or spirits professional who has had a significant impact on the wine and spirits industry nationwide."
Award Winner
: Terry Theise 
Terry Theise Estate Selections
, Silver Spring, MD: OK by me, though he doesn't exactly leap to mind in this category.

OUTSTANDING SERVICE AWARD: "A restaurant that demonstrates high standards of hospitality and service. Candidates must have been in operation for at least the past five years."
Award Winner: 
, St. Helena, CA
, Owners: Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani: A good choice, though two others--Canlis
, Seattle
, Owners:The Canlis Family; Spiaggia, 
Owner: Tony Mantuano--are equally as good.

BEST CHEFS IN AMERICA"Each candidate may be employed by any kind of dining establishment and must have been a working chef for at least the past five years. The three most recent years must have been spent in the region where chef is presently working.

Award Winner
: Craig Stoll, 
, San Francisco--Excellent choice, though I'd lobby for nominee Douglas Keane 
at Cyrus
, Healdsburg, CA.

Award Winner: 
Eric Ziebold
, CityZen, Washington, DC
--Another excellent choice.

Award Winner
: Adam Siegel 
Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, 
Milwaukee--I can't say I know this region well enough to comment.


Award Winner
: Carrie Nahabedian
 (left), Naha, 
--Well deserved, although the other nominees were pretty weak.

Award Winner
: David Chang, 
Momofuku Ssäm Bar--Big freaking surprise! Everybody knew that Chang--who has been hyped up as a genius, despite his own contention that "I always thought I was the worst cook in the kitchens I worked in"--was the odds-on favorite, even if his winning this early in his career was out of all touch with reality.  And the award is not even for his new Ko, which has gotten all the powerhouse publicity. As Ryan Sutton, restaurant critic for Bloomberg News put it, "David Chang, who doesn't hold a single Michelin star and who likes to play AC/DC at high volumes for his sometimes astonished guests, received the best New York City chef award. He beat out a cast of all Michelin-starred rivals, including Terrance Brennan of the two-starred Picholine and Gabriel Kreuther of the one-starred The Modern. Chang is just 30 years old."

Award Winner
: Patrick Connolly
, Radius
, Boston: Very good choice from a fairly weak slate.

Award Winner
: Holly Smith
, Café Juanita
, Kirkland, WA--Happy choice, although Ethan Stowell
 of Union
 in Seattle is a more innovative chef likely to have an impact in the region.

Award Winner
: Robert Stehling
 Hominy Grill
 (right), Charleston, SC-- I love Stehling's downhome cooking at the Hominy Grill, but compared to the brilliance of Arnaud Berthelier 
at The Dining Room 
The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead
/Atlanta;Linton Hopkins
 of Restaurant Eugene
, Atlanta; and Mike Lata of  
, Charleston, SC, there is no comparison.

Award Winner
: Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, 
Frasca Food and Wine
, Boulder, CO--A great choice in a very strong category this year.

Award Winner
: Michelle Bernstein,  
, Miami--Bernstein is a media darling--mine too--though I don't think Michy's is her best work by far and has no impact nationally or regionally. But the rest of the nominees were pretty flat.

     So there they are. By and large a very talented bunch of creative chefs, restaurateurs, and beverage people who work very hard at their craft and deserve enormous respect for what they have achieved.



Now They All Copy Clos du Val
by John Mariani

Photo by Ralph White

    When California entrepreneur John Goelet sent his partner, Bernard Portet, to France in 1970 to learn how to make world-class wines in the Napa Valley, the sixth- generation winemaker returned and tried to imitate the traditional blends of Bordeaux cabernets, with merlot, cabernet franc, and other varietals. Their first release was in 1972.
     That was at a time when the fledgling Napa Valley wine industry was distancing itself from such traditions in favor of blockbuster, 100 percent cabernets that impressed the media but  were rarely well-structured, complex wines. Now, 36 years later, nearly every Napa Valley cabernet vintner follows the Clos du Val lead to blend.
      The intent at Clos du Val has always been to make well-knit, elegant wines that showed good aging potential, and from the first vintages their wines bore strong comparison to some of the best classified growths of Bordeaux. Appropriately, the winery’s label, based on a small 17th century German statue, depicts The Three Graces—Aglaia (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth) and Thalia (Good Cheer) of Greek mythology (below).
      The holdings of the original 150 acres in the Stag’s Leap viticultural appellation were increased in the 1970s with 180 acres in Carneros. The winery evolved into making stellar chardonnay without the overwhelming oak and alcohol of so many other Napa productions, a well-balanced pinot noir, and a widely respected easy-to-drink merlot.
      I have drunk Clos du Val with pleasure over the decades since I first visited the winery back in 1977, and even though it has grown in production capacity, the wines have maintained the kind of structure and consistency they always intended.  They are also wines that are nicely mature when they are released, although the bigger cabs, like the full-bodied 2005 ($32) definitely will improve in bottle for the next four to five years.
      That was a big production year for their cab—40,000 cases—from the largest vintage ever, but the wine shows far more body and ripeness than I might have expected for such a big crop. The nice dark fruit colors are still harmonizing with tannins just starting to loosen up. Its composition was 85 percent cab, 10 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent merlot, and 2 percent petit verdot.
       Clos du Val’s flagship cabernet, the 2004  Stags Leap District ($70), with just 4,300 cases made, is magnificent, very intense, but not cloying in the overripe style of other California cabs. It will age for a decade or more and mellow out beautifully in the next five years.
      Clos du Val’s merlots have consistently been very warm, very satisfying interpretations of a varietal that is too often one dimensional. I did, however, find wide inconsistency in the 2005 bottlings—one was corked, another oddly dull, and a third very, very fine.  This last had plenty of complexity and the softness I love about merlot, even when it’s young—an ideal wine with roast pork of veal.
      Their 2006 Chardonnay is delightfully crisp, with reasonable vanilla notes but not that sweet caramel flavor or oakiness some vintners shamelessly strive for.  Described in Clos du Val’s notes as enjoying weather that was throughout the 2006 harvest “perfect,” this chardonnay, from a cool Carneros climate, is a very good buy at $24 and very typical of Clos du Val’s attention to subtlety over power.
      I’m not quite as familiar with Clos du Val’s pinot noirs, but the 2006 ($30)—which needs no aging—has a lovely, rosy bouquet, with good cherry-raspberry flavors, and a nice bite of pepperiness that makes it such a good red wine for chicken dishes and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.
      Those who like wines to “knock their doors off” are not likely to favor Clos du Val.  But those looking more for the true taste of the fruit and the pleasure of letting the wine flow throughout the palate will be richly rewarded with wines that also don’t cost a fortune.

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.


In South Chicago Heights, Bill Bramanti had a casket custom-made by Panozzo Bros. Funeral Home with his favorite beer's colors, Pabst Blue Ribbon. "I actually fit, because I got in here," said Bramanti, 67, who threw a party  for friends and filled the casket with Pabst. His daughter Cathy remarked, ""Why put such a great novelty piece up on a shelf in storage when you could use it only the way Bill Bramanti would use it?"


"Chardonnay has made some of the world's greatest wines. Everyone appreciated it – until Bridget Jones. Bridget Jones goes out on the pull, fails, goes back to her miserable bedsit, sits down, pours herself an enormous glass of chardonnay, sits there with mascara running down her cheeks saying, 'Dear diary, I've failed again, I've poured an enormous glass of chardonnay and I'm going to put my head in the oven.' Great marketing aid! Until Bridget Jones, chardonnay was really sexy. After, people said, 'God, not in my bar'.""—British wine writer Oz Clarke.


* On June 18 San Domenico NY hosts an Alumni Chef Reunion Dinner  to benefit the Food Bank For NYC, with chefs Benny Bartolotta (Osteria del Circo), Andrew Carmellini (A Voce), Scott Conant (Scarpetta), Theo Schoenegger (The Patina Group), and San Domenico NY executive chef Odette Fada.  Join owners Tony May and Marisa May with special guest Gianluigi Morini, founder and proprietor  of San Domenico Imola in Italy. Wines from Castello Banfi.  $600 pp.  Call 212-265-5959.

* On June 20, in Arlington Heights, ILL,  Le Titi de Paris, in its continuing Global Wine Dinner Series, will highlight Spanish Sherries, Fino to Pedro Ziminez, hosted by Sommleier Marcel Flori, with a menu by  Chef Michael Maddox. $85 pp.  Call  847-506-0222.

* On June 21 in Washington, DC,  Taberna del Alabardero partners with Gonzalez Byass, owner of several sherry wineries, to offer dinner guests a one-night-only sherry spectacle.  A venenciador (Flamenco-like sherry pourer) will fill guests’ complimentary glasses with sherry, along with appetizers, from  A&H Seafood Market, owned by Santi Zabaleta, Taberna ‘s former chef.   Call 202-429-2200 or visit

* On June 25 in Oak Brook, Ill,   Reel Club will be serving up “summer” when Master Sommelier Alpana Singh hosts a 4-course Summer Wine Dinner prepared by Executive Chef Mychael Bonner.  $75 pp. Call 630-368-9400;

* Starting June 26 in Washington, DC in honor of the “Lion King” performances at the Kennedy Center, the Roof Terrace Restaurant has created a family offer extended throughout the musical’s run. Executive Chef Joe Gurner and Chef de Cuisine Karen Hayes will showcase two family-focused pre-fixe menus – one for adults ($35) and one for children  ($15)– and lion-inspired desserts. Call 202-416-8555 or visit

* On June 29 Chef Shaun Doty of Shaun’s in Atlanta will feature a special 4-course menu featuring Terrapin Beers , with co-founder and Brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski,  with $60 with beer pairings and $45 without the beer pairings.  Call 404.577.4358

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:  THIS WEEK:  An interview with Bob Spitz, author of The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip Through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe; A Walking Tour in Tuscany; and Richard West on The Geography of Bliss.


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contrinbutor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


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). THIS WEEK: A Report on The Four Seasons Jackson Hole. 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.

My 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

© copyright John Mariani 2008