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CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN THE BRONX by John and Robert
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR:
Champagne Sales Fizzle,
So Bubblies Are a Better Buy for the Holidays
NEW YORK CORNER:
Madison Park by
by John Mariani
CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN THE BRONX
by John and Robert 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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." And someone always brought panforte, an intensely rich, thick
Sienese fruit and nut cake no one could more than a sliver of.
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).
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
ELEVEN MADISON PARK
11 Madison Avenue
won every high accolade possible in the three years he's been at Eleven
Madison Park, Daniel Humm has risen to the top ranks
of New York's great chefs. Swiss-born, Humm distinguished himself at
Campton Place in San Francisco, but in NYC he has soared and created a
style not quite like anyone else's in the haute cuisine
firmament. And he does so within one of the loveliest and most
majestic of NYC restaurants, the ground floor of a 1930s
skyscraper with 30-foot ceilings. Rather than being imposing, the
way the huge windows and the chandeliers, the colors of the wood and
the well-coordinated booths work in harmony make everything that could
be cold, convivial.
On a recent visit he showed how he has
grown in his role, with a series of dishes that were his and his alone,
beginning with Sterling royal caviar with morsels of smoked Columbia
River sturgeon in a rich panna cotta--this,
just to set up the
appetite. Four of us shared two tasting menus, so we had plenty
ot judge by. Hawaiian prawns came as a crisp roulade with avocado
laced with lime and yogurt (below);
a cappuccino of sea urchin took the
texture of Peekytoe crab. A simple slowly poached egg made a
dinnertime appearance with wild mushrooms and frogs' legs (the menu
they were from the Everglades).
Humm knows just when to pull back on a
dish--although some of it is looking increasingly fussy on the plate,
with a dab of this, a swirl of that--evident in ricotta gnocchi with
violet artichokes, olives, and a bit of bacon; anything more and the
flavors and textures would be messy. Dover sole, nice and fat,
was slowly cooked too, served with masutaki
mushrooms sabayon and
nasturtiums, a dish that seemed a tad precious. Atlantic pink
came in a light saffron-endive nage
with a subtlety of ginger. Muscovy duck--with real flavor--was glazed
with a honey lavender (below),
served with tender fennel, cranberries, and spices. Organic blue foot
chicken (a current infatuation of chefs) also had a fine flavor and
texture, roasted with lemon, rosemary, and welcome black
truffles. By the way, the service staff here, among the very
finest and well-trained in NYC, is wonderfully deft at carving these
birds, doing their quiet ministry as if no bone dare resist the blade
except to get out of the way.
"Kir Royale" with cassis, lemon meringue and Champagne emulsion was a
witty idea that worked. "Flavors of autumn" came as Amedei chocolate,
Piedmontese hazelnuts, and espresso, and then there was, too, Araguani
chocolate ganache with a delightful sweet potato dauphine and chestnut
honey. (Usually I sigh when I read so many provenance names
attached to ingredients, but the ingredients here are so excellent,
probably ask where they come from anyway.)
I suspect Eleven Madison Park is
restaurateur Danny Meyer's proudest achievement, although it runs neck
and neck with the impeccably serene restaurant at The Modern. His
Tavern is superb but has gotten overly casual; Union Square Café
remains his most lovable; Tabla has been reconfigured downstairs, and
rolls on with better and better barbecue, while the phenomenon of Shake
Shack is getting international legs. But at Eleven Madison Park,
Meyer's finest instincts are at work. The winelist is stocked and
maintained not as a trophy collection but as an adventure for both
sommeliers and guests to explore. It's the kind of place that when you
order a cocktail, they bring you an informational note on the
liquor used. Nice, and unique touch. If the word "sophistication" has
any currency, it might be affixed to the door of Eleven Madison
Park--but then, that would not be sophisticated to do.
The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. A 3-course
dinner is $88, with a 7-course tasting menu at $125, and seasonal
11-course menu at $175.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Champagne Sales Fizzle,
So Bubblies Are a Better Buy for the Holidays
by John Mariani
If they’re lucky, the makers of
Champagne will have flat sales this holiday season, after a brutal year
when overall sales of many of the best-known labels dropped up to 50
percent for non-vintage bottlings and up to 85 percent for the priciest
vintage prestige cuvées.
As reported by Decanter.com, prices have
plummeted in the UK, with labels like Bollinger, Moët &
Chandon, Lanson Black Label, and Nicolas Feuillatte selling at less
than half in some stores. As Bertrand de Fleurian, USA President for
Laurent-Perrier, told this reporter, "We have adjusted our prices
accordingly. In fact, our prices are lower than two years ago, even
with the strength of the euro."
There have also been reports of
Champagne vineyards deliberately left with grapes on the vine, so as
not to increase volume.
All of which is good for the consumer,
whose reluctance to celebrate anything during this recession has caused
the sales of the world’s most celebratory wine to lose its fizz.
This has also been good for non-Champagne bubblies, like Spanish cavas,
California sparkling wine, and Italian prosecco. This last, according
to The Nielson Co. marketing firm, saw an increase in sales in the
second half of 2008 and first half of 2009 to $24 million, up from $19
million for the same period in 2007-2008.
A tasting of 15 vintage Champagnes by
the Wine Media Guild in New York gave me ample evidence that very fine
Champagne is available at some pretty good prices right now. Oddly
enough, one of the priciest of the sampling—Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes
Prestige Cuvée 1998 ($120) was terribly oxidized (I tasted two
different bottles to make sure). A week later, though, I tasted a third
bottle that it was not oxidized; instead it showed elegance and
complexity but was also showing its age
and should be drunk soon. The $120 Bollinger La Grande
Année Brut 1999 smelled musty and lacked any distinctive vintage
character. Some, like the G.H. Mumm Cuvée Rene Lalou Brut
($150) had little body, tasting almost watery.
But there was plenty to love, especially
in the 1999 vintage, which is now showing a fine equilibrium of fruit
and minerals with that patina of age that gives it character. Here are
the Champagnes I most enjoyed and believe worth their price.
✔ Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2000
($60)—If you like a good burst of citrus in your Champagne, this is a
fine example, made from 100 percent Grands Crus Chardonnays.
Ayala, owned by Bollinger since 2005, has had the same cellarmaster for
a quarter century, Nicolas Klym, and the creamy style of the marquee is
rewarding, especially in this vintage.
✔ Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1999
($95)—Pol Roger has been aggressive in its global reach over the past
few years, not least modernizing its facilities as of 2004. But this,
older 1999 vintage shows the richness achievable in an all-chardonnay
Champagne. It begins with a light floral bouquet but really
develops on the mid-palate, with plenty of vanilla and lemon flavors.
✔ Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999
($75)—For a Blanc de Blancs, this, too, is showing exceptional body.
The house is the fifth oldest in the region, and they never produce
more than 50,000 cases. Aged on the lees for five years, it has
developed a rewarding balance on every count—fruit, minerality, and
Blending the Henriot
✔ Taittinger Millésime
Brut 2002 ($70)—James Bond’s favorite marque, Taittinger
is one of the loveliest, full-fruited Champagnes, drawing on a vast
number of its own vineyards and other growers to maintain the
voluptuous house style. The toasty yeast notes, the fresh scent of
pineapple all coalesce in a Champagne consistently among the most
✔ Laurent-Perrier Brut 1999
($60)—A very good price for a very fine Champagne, Laurent-Perrier has
made a big push into the U.S. market since first arriving in 1998. The
style is elegant but the 52-48 mix of chardonnay and pinot noir, along
with a light dosage, give this a bold, modern edge that goes with a
wide variety of foods, from shellfish to chicken.
✔ Pommery Brut 1999
($70)—The aroma bolts from the glass, the minerality is in ample
supply, and the aging has worked to give this an ideal balance that
should be even better in a year or two. I have always found their
top-of-the-line Cuvee Louise too bone dry, but this blend of
chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier has the light fruit sweetness
that for me characterizes a beverage that is, after all, made from
✔ Henriot Cuvée des
Enchanteleurs Brut Prestige Cuvée 1995 ($135)—This was
the most expensive of the wines I liked most, and, if you’re feeling
flush, this is worth the price. It has the complexity that comes
from its aging and a truly luscious, creamy texture that went well with
a dish served at lunch that day at the restaurant Felidia: Ravioli
filled with cheese and unsweetened chocolate with tender broccoli di
rape and gratings of amaretti almond cookies. A triumph of complex
By the way, I’ve found that in most cases,
these Champagnes can be found cheaper in stores and online than the
posted retail prices I’ve given here.
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.
THEN, WHAT IS CHRISTMAS FOR?
In Winnipeg, Canada,
dozens of people dressed in Santa Claus suits headed off to numerous
nightclubs for the eighth straight year for a social gathering known as
Santacon. With Twisted Sister's version
of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" blaring from the audio system, organizer Adam Dudek
explained,"It's our way of celebrating
Christmas. I don't want to simplify it, but it's basically just an
opportunity to get drunk and run amok."
LITTLE TEAK OIL TO GET OUR APPETITE RAGING
"It feels like some distant corner of the terminal at
Reno International, a concrete box with exposed mechanicals and an
awkward step-down to seating near a scuffed-up open kitchen. But the
food? From an unlikely location in the blandly named Sundance Kitchen,
manager Pat Da Silva and her cooks are producing Hawaiian plate-lunch
dishes that are among the tastiest, most meticulously plated you're
likely to encounter. Maybe anywhere. Take the loco moco ($9.95,
available at lunch only), a staple of the rice-and-macaroni-salad
genre. A typical version in the drop-ceiling, suburban strip-mall class
of Hawaiian joint skews diner fry-up: a pair of fried eggs lapped
against a hefty clot of rice with gray, overcooked hamburger patty and
pale, starchy gravy. Not here. Sundance Kitchen's loco moco literally
rises up, a soft circle of fried egg suspended over the grilled ground
beef patty and molded rice. It's a vertical hobbit landscape, a fat
toadstool glazed with shiny gravy dark as oiled teak."--John Birdsall,
revival: Sundance Kitchen presents well-conceived island fare," SFWeekly (11/30/09).
IMPORTANT NOTE: Owing to the number of Christmas holiday and New Year's
announcements received, QUICK BYTES can only list the most unusual.
for submissions: QUICK
only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant
openings or personnel changes. When submitting please send the
pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple
e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below. Thanks. John
* Starting Dec.
21, and running every Mon-Thu through Jan. in Astoria, Queens, Da Franco Italian Restaurant is
unveiling a “pasta fest” special. The special includes a bowl of
home-made pasta, a piece of fresh baked focaccia and a glass red or
white wine. Diners can choose from 5 pastas. $19.95 per
person. Call 718-267-0010.
From Jan.-Feb. Strip House in
celebrating their five-year anniversary with a special 5 for $55 menu.
The 5-course menu features a "best of" compilation of some of Strip
House's most famous dishes. Call 713-659-6000.
On Jan. 1-2, Kitano New York’s
Hakubai Restaurant will feature traditional New Year’s Osechi
lunch and dinner, thought to bring good health, fertility, a good
harvest and a long life in the coming year. The 6-course lunch
selection is $90 pp, and the 7-course dinner $115 pp. Reservations are
required and will be accepted from Dec. 1-31. Call 212-885-7111.
From Jan. 7-9, 2010 in Walland, TN,
Blackberry Farm will host
“Taste of the South” with the Southern Foodways Alliance, benefitting
the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans and Chefs. With the
induction of KY’s distiller Julian Van Winkle into the fellowship,
Larry Turley of Turley Cellars. Courses by Chef Joe Truex
of Repast in Atlanta; Chef John Shields and Chef Karen Urie of Town
House in Chilhowie, VA; Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in
Louisville; and Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh,
NC. $400 pp. in addition to lodging rates at Blackberry Farm, Call
FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up
with four excellent travel sites:
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." THIS
WEEK: GREAT HOTEL STAYS 2009
Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet
A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food
scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is
the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past
reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org.
Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
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).
Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!",
is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with
children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle
McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family
travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide
its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and
practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy,
safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children
who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of
adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.
All You Need to Know
Before You Go
An engaging, interactive wine
column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine
Columnist, BusinessWeek.com; email@example.com; www.nickonwine.com.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani.
Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,
John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort
Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical
Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Bloomberg News, 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
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.
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
so many wonderful things seemed possible.
For those of you who don't think
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 amazon.com
or click on Almost Golden.
© copyright John Mariani 2009