Virtual Gourmet

August 8,  2010                                                                   NEWSLETTER

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In This Issue

Cabo by Carey Sweet
Rancho La Puerta by Joanna Pruess
3030 Ocean by Edward Brivio

Whatever Happened to Little Italy? by Franco Lania

OBITUARY: Jimmy Brennan of Brennan's in New Orleans Dies by John Mariani

MAN ABOUT TOWN: Norwegian's Biggest Liner Debuts by Christopher Mariani




    The stretch of searing heat that has made summer so miserable in the USA will eventually break2, and, human beings being what they are, at the first cool breeze of early autumn will start them thinking about places to go where it is warmer in the south. Here are three great options.



By Carey Sweet

   I don’t know which was more romantic: watching two of my friends get married on the beach, or being kissed by a dolphin.

    Both are temptations in Cabo. There’s no denying the fairy-tale charm of saying “I do” in this coastal resort city of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Baja. As for the dolphin, well, let’s just say that being smooched by a 500 pound, rubbery-bodied marine mammal while bobbing free with the creature in ocean waters is a Bucket List experience.

    Cabo, it turns out, is a favorite destination for weddings. With the right event coordinator, in fact, it can be nearly as easy as making a dinner reservation.  My friends actually hadn’t even planned on getting married. Yet when the idea popped into their heads, we were all tipping back damiana-based cocktails at the outdoor bar of the high-end Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Golf & Spa Resort’s (left) oceanfront De Cortez restaurant. The liqueur comes from a Latin-American shrub that produces intensely aromatic flowers plus fruits that taste similar to figs, and, as I later learned, the leaves are supposed aphrodisiacs:  damiana tea mixed with sugar is said to enhance lovemaking.

    It hadn’t hurt that a whale had lazed its way by, cruising the  glittering sapphire waters perhaps a quarter mile from shore. It was a sign of good future, our bartender noted, since the whale season typically runs January through March, when the great beasts settle in the Baja peninsula to have their babies,. And now it was April.

     My blind date with a dolphin was even easier to arrange, requiring just an Internet reservation. Cabo Adventures/Cabo Dolphins opened in Cabo San Lucas four years ago, and there are plans to debut a second location in nearby San Jose de Cabo sometime next year.




    If Cabo Tourism officials are promoting the romance of their region, it’s a good message. Travel to Mexico has taken its hits over the past few years, owing to the swine flu epidemic and worries over drug violence. Yet Mexico has made it back to some top 10 travel lists for 2010, while Yahoo's list of most popular cities for 2009 based on consumer interest and activity included Cabo San Lucas.   Just this month, the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service recommended Cabo as one of its best travel choices, calling Baja California Sur one of the safest states in the country.

    The last time I had visited Cabo had been during an engagement. Alas, that romance didn’t last, but my memories of my stay at the spectacular Westin Resort & Spa (below) had, for its jaw-dropping multi-color candy box architecture that salutes Cabo’s majestic Arch, a natural rock outcrop that rises out of the waves at Land's End where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez meets. At the time, there wasn’t much to do in town other than laze around the edges of the resort’s infinity edge pool and sip cocktails, or take a boat ride to see the Arch’s resident sea lions.

    That was ten years ago. And while the Westin is still the most stunning property to be found, the area’s two towns -- Cabo San Lucas, and San Jose de Cabo to the northeast near the airport -- have been built up dramatically. San Jose de Cabo has Applebee’s, OfficeMax, acres of timeshares, and massive, boxy hotels hunkered in a hodgepodge of brands like Crowne Plaza, Best Western Hotel & Suites Las Palmas, and Presidente Inter-Continental. It’s clear what type of clientele is being wooed: most hotels are all-inclusive.

     Driving into Cabo San Lucas, our shuttle driver had pointed out the Costco has the best views, and recommended, in all seriousness, that we consider it for lunch sometime. It seems the patio with its red umbrellas is a preferred perch for snacking on a 20-peso hot dog while gazing at the Arch.

    I remembered a small, tourist-y strip of ramshackle curio shops lining the Marina Cabo San Lucas, and they're still there, though suffocated now by flashy stores, restaurants and bars such as Johnny Rockets and Ruth’s Chris at the Puerto Paraiso mall, or the adjacent Luxury Avenue mall, brimming with boutiques like Carolina Herrera, Cartier, Hermés, and  Ferragamo.

   The upscale evolution made more sense later when I took a glass-bottomed boat out to the Arch, and my guide pointed to the many mansions looming from nearby mountainsides – Sylvester Stallone, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Madonna all have retreats here, he said.




   One of the best new developments is Cabo Dolphins, right in the heart of downtown Cabo San Lucas. Visitors enter through a gift shop into what looks like a concrete bunker lined with portholes, then out to a sunny courtyard framed by an enormous tank. After donning a wetsuit, I braved the cold waters and slid into the deep end with a most magnificent mammal.

   My bottlenose friend was named Frieda, and even here, love was in the air – my swimming session had to be interrupted when her amorous novio (that’s Spanish for boyfriend) kept leaving his customers to come check us out, circling close in what the trainer grew concerned was a show of jealousy.

   He eventually was put in time-out, though he need not have worried: mine was a whirlwind romance. Quite literally, as Frieda whipped me on high-speed turns around the pool, me clutching her dorsal fin for a furious drag, then clasping her pectoral fins for a more leisurely cruise as she flipped upside down and made her belly a boogie board.

       That was pretty much the only time I was able to splash in salt water. Despite their enticing beauty, most of Cabo’s 30 miles of beaches prohibit swimming, because the undertow is too strong. Neither the Hacienda nor the Westin had warning signs on the silvery sand (most properties do), but my Hacienda beach concierge, who can set up cabanas at a moment’s notice, bring towels and refreshments,  and even customized-to-your-skin type sunscreen s,  grinned when I pointed hopefully towards the sea.    If I could make it past the thundering, six-foot tall waves crashing on shore, I was welcome to fall off the steep cliffs that led to hammerhead sharks, he laughed.

   While Cabo is supposed to be among the top five dive sites in the world, its shipwrecks and coral reefs are accessed from just a few coves that are inconvenient drives from town, and the water, even in the summer, is teeth-clenching cold. But the dedicated can do it through Cabo Adventures with a PADI certified dive team, touring the shallow reef off the North Wall, through teams of sea lions at Land’s End Canyon, over Neptune’s Finger , famous for its sand falls populated by turtles, mantas and angelfish, or at Pelican’s Rock for sea horses and tropical fish.




     As Cabo has grown, its cuisine is working to catch up to modern tastes. Coincidentally, on one evening of my vacation, Hacienda’s Pitahayas restaurant was comfortably overrun with a private party for perhaps 500, celebrating an American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Award dinner, where both De Cortez and Pitahayas were honored with Five Star Diamond awards.

   Yet even De Cortez (right), as the resort’s most formal restaurant, showcases that always-curious-to-me Mexican adaptation of American and European dishes. Indeed, the chef is German and favors international interpretations like honey-dipped pineapple stuffed with sautéed Dungeness crab and served with a highly briny clam cocktail and tart baby green bean salad; or clove- and garlic-rubbed tuna larded with pancetta and spring onions then pan-fried and drizzled in bell pepper-chimichurri sauce over buttered wild rice mash.

    Then, there’s a Japanese-Mexican fusion place called Nick-San, tucked along the highway halfway between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo. I was prepared for something head scratching, but it’s actually pretty civilized, with lots of good fresh fish and a just handful of dishes accented with Latin-American ingredients. That means soft shell crab deep-fried and drizzled in soy sauce kicked with serrano chiles and chives; or lobster marinated in sake, soy sauce, ginger and garlic in a sambal sauce of sweet and sour chiles, green onion and sesame oil. Most interesting was a rice cracker tostada of Pacific yellowfin tuna belly atop sliced avocado and red onion, kicked up with habanero and serrano sauce, then sprinkled in sesame seeds.

    One of the best meals was found back at the Hacienda in the casual Girasoles Mexican Restaurant  on the property’s highest level for spectacular ocean views. A steaming hot molcajete brimmed with strips of arrachera steak and chicken, chunks of fried panela cheese, tiny whole charred onions still on the stem like holiday ornaments, charred whole mild peppers, and slender rafts of grilled zucchini stuffed with chorizo. It all sat in a bubbling pool of salsa borracha (drunken sauce) of chiles and beer, to be bundled in lacy thin corn tortillas and popped in the mouth like savory bonbons.

    For dessert, we ate way too many churros, the skinny fried dough wands fluffy-light inside and crunchy on the edges, dunked in vanilla and bittersweet chocolate sauces.




   In the new Cabo San Lucas, one thing remains the same: there's always a party going on, with many restaurants doing double-duty as popular bars and nightclubs.

   Venues are predictable tourist traps – there’s El Squid Roe, Giggling Marlin, and the new Hacienda El Coyote. Cabo Wabo Cantina is a classic from rock star Sammy Hagar (Sammy himself was in town, and our straggling group just missed his impromptu show. A theme-park thrill, yes, but it’s still a fun place to get a decent Waburrito (chicken breast sautéed with garlic, tomatoes, chipotle chile and onions finished with jack cheese and cream) or Camarones Sammy of fresh shrimp sautéed with garlic and serrano then deglazed with lime juice and Cabo Wabo tequila.

   For a quieter time, historic San Jose del Cabo is charming, a mix of old and new, with more authentic craft boutiques and dignified dining. One of the best bets is La Panga restaurant, serving contemporary Mexican food in a Colonial setting from chef/co-owner Jacobo Turquie. The seafood-centric menu shines with seared sea scallops on a bed of chile-saffron risotto, asparagus tips and bell peppers; or ahi lacquered in honey, rosemary and guajillo pepper over squash blossoms and corn-studded rice.    This sleepy little town also does a brisk wedding business, with several small chapels or churches in traditional Spanish Mission architecture.

     Still, if Cabo is competing with other oceanfront destinations around the world for the romantic-minded crowd, it’s got one distinct option for a whole other clientele.

   I couldn’t decide which was more amusing: first seeing Lover’s Beach, next to the Arch on the calm Sea of Cortez, or second, Divorce Beach, mere steps away on the other side of the rocks and fronting the thrashing Pacific.



SPA FOOD – Rancho La Puerta -Style

By Joanna Pruess

            When my invitation to a major high school reunion arrived last spring, I was shocked at how fast the decades had flown by. Soon afterward, my London-based daughter called to say she had been hired away from her job at Google. Milestones or turning points like these are often the impetus to jump-starting a fitness routine. For Nicole and me, a “spa-cation” seemed an ideal way to begin the process.

         Rancho La Puerta has been making healthy people healthier for 70 years, according to their current brochure. The Ranch, in Tecate, Baja California, is four miles across the border from San Diego. It was co-founded by Deborah Szekely (right) with her late husband Edmond. At eighty-eight, she is still remarkably vibrant and remains at the forefront of the modern health and fitness movement. “This isn’t a boot camp,” Szekely says emphatically. Our emphasis has always been on total health: the mind, body and spirit.

      Judging by the large number of repeat guests – several have come more than 30 times – health-focused vacations are a popular lifestyle choice, from teens through seniors. We met a dozen mother-daughter duos plus a couple of three-generation groups who were all actively participating in the programs. While predominantly female, there was a smattering of husbands and single men.

      The facility’s 3,000 acres include 32 acres of gardens, hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, a six-acre organic farm, several swimming pools, extensive spa and fitness facilities and beauty salons. Dramatic works of art by local talent accent the property.  Getting in shape takes exercise and there are plenty of activities here, including daily hikes (a 3.5-mile trek up steep Mount Kuchumaa was a highlight for me). Additionally, I joined tennis clinics, Pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, and tai chi classes; cardio-circuit training, as well as African and Latin dancing. The kinks in my long-neglected muscles were kneaded by expert masseuses like Luz Esther. Nicole took full advantage of the Ranch’s HYDRO-FIT aquatic exercise program.

      Beyond physical challenges, there are topical lectures – on subjects like keeping your brain healthy as you age and smart eating – and fun activities like jewelry making, movies and Bingo, where fitness director Barry Shingle, keeps everyone in stitches for his slightly risqué performance as leader. It’s like going to an idyllic camp for grown ups.


Food, Really Delicious Food  

      When I returned home looking healthy and toned up, many friends asked about the food. Was I ever hungry or bored? Never. Even my daughter, who can be a picky eater, found plenty to appreciate about the meals served buffet-style for breakfast and lunch and family-style at dinner.                          

      More than sixty years of research, culinary creativity and experimentation have resulted in an all-natural diet that is low in fat, sodium, and refined flour and sugar, while high in energy, fiber and complex carbohydrates. Along with being quite tasty, the food is visually exciting and varied, traits which go a long way to making healthy fare enticing. Dishes, like Lasagna Azteca with Spinach and Ancho Chile Salsa  arrive on colorful, rustic serving platters.                

     We figured out pretty quickly that there are few rules about what or how much you can eat, or, to a lesser degree, drink. Wine is available, if you ask, and on several occasions we ordered both main courses and extra side dishes to try. While guidelines are there in the suggested portion sizes, the take-away is about making your own choices. A couple of people snuck in chocolate bars; others went into town to sample the local food and the margaritas, but most people don’t want to escape. Meals are social events and it is fun discovering less familiar ingredients, like agave syrup to sweeten your tea, pasilla chiles, nopales and black quinoa, while feeling that what you are eating is good for you.

       Guests who want to duplicate some of the techniques and dishes at the Ranch can attend La Cocina Que Cante, "the kitchen that sings" (below), their on-property cooking school. 

            Michel Stroot, the chef emeritus of Rancho La Puerta, was a guest instructor. He has been cooking spa food for over 25 years at both Rancho La Puerta and Golden Door,in Ensenada (formerly owned by Szekely). Over the years, the idea of spa food has evolved from strict diets limited to 900 to 1500 or 1800 calories to what it is today.  Stroot told me, “I remember people used to say oil makes you fat. Finally, someone intelligent said ‘it’s not the oil, it’s the white flour, saturated fats and processed foods.’” Moderation is important, but so are taste, texture and satiety. After tasting the black quinoa tabbouleh salad with pine nuts, red peppers and red onions we were preparing, he added more olive oil and chuckled, “It needs it.”The recipe is in Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta, their James Beard-nominated cookbook written by Deborah Szekely and Deborah M. Schneider, with Jesús González, the school’s former teaching chef.

     One important reason why food tastes so good at Rancho La Puerta is its proximity from the earth to  the table. Students of the cooking school see this first hand when chief gardener Salvador Tinajero leads them into the Ranch’s organic gardens to harvest the baby vegetables, lettuces and edible flowers used in their recipes. The colors, aromas, and tastes are nothing short of amazing, and Salvador’s pride and passion are extraordinary.

      Guacamole (above) is one of the Ranch’s most popular dishes. It is served each week along with sangria at the newcomers’ reception. The well-seasoned and addicting dip is “enlightened” by substituting puréed frozen green peas for half of the avocados used, and the pita chips are baked, not fried.   Like Rancho La Puerta itself, the dip strikes the perfect note of healthful living with taste and style and can easily become a part of one’s life.
      In the end, Nicole and I came away feeling refreshed and far healthier than when we arrived. Our commitment is to return every year together to keep in touch with our bodies and to see many of the new friends we made. This includes Deborah Szekely, who is currently working on a “living skills” seminar and hoping to get it in front of Michelle Obama and her task force for children’s eating. She is a true inspiration and, in a word, I aspire to be like her in the decades to come. But first, on to the reunion.

Joanna Pruess has written about food and travel for the
New York Times, Washington Post, Saveur, Food Arts and Associated Press. Her most recent cookbooks, Cast-Iron Cooking: Delicious and Simple Comfort Food and Seduced by Bacon: Recipes and Lore about America’s Favorite Indulgence, are available at


by Edward Brivio
Photos by Robert Pirillo


    For ten years now, Chef Dean Max has presided over his signature restaurant, 3030 Ocean, located in the Marriott
Harbor Beach Resort in Ft. Lauderdale. The dining room is a large, oblong, contemporary space, with its basic post-and-beam construction laid bare. Neutral colors--tans and pale terra cottas--and white linens allow one to appreciate the eloquence of the structural elements: substantial, square posts, sheathed in wood, support lengthy horizontal rafters, creating a long, fluid, uninterrupted space that is light and airy.   Down the center a  row of large, circular light fixtures  hug the ceiling .  Cliché-free, pared down, and with color at a minimum, the room still manages to feel warm and inviting rather than austere, the kind of place where you can dress-up or dress-down and feel comfortable either way.

     Executive Chef Dean Max’s recipes are  brought to life every night by enthusiastic Chef de cuisine, Jeremy Ford. Acidity is the key that keeps the dishes here fresh and irresistible. Sauces are light and bold, whether vinaigrettes: lemon verbena, raspberry, piquillo peppers, or fennel/chili; aiolis: dill, lemon, sesame/chili, or yuzu; zingy salsas, one from peaches, another from green olives, or limpid jus.

     Having spent his life living along the water (see his first cookbook, A Life by the Sea) as well as a large chunk of his formative years helping out on family farms and in the family kitchen has not only made Chef Max a master at cooking anything finned or shelled but also given him a n eye for the best, and freshest produce.  His menu reads like a international glossary of foodstuffs; his sources span the globe, proudly acknowledged on the menu; place-names abound: delicate Bouchot  mussels from Green’s Island, Maine, served in a spicy, ginger and lemongrass stock, while tiny, local, quarter-sized, white water clams in a basil and leeks broth were knocked up a rung on the taste ladder by the addition of a tiny-dice of spicy, crisp, and meaty Spanish chorizo. Or begin with a vibrantly fresh plâteau de fruits de mer, or a smoked grouper fish dip that put the usual brandade de morue to shame.

     Peaches from Jansal Valley (a major distributor of high-end produce) are used in a delicious sweet-sour salsa that complements  superb foie gras (below), about as smooth and silky as it gets. Tangerines revamped a shaved asparagus salad, upon a mound of which sat a blue-cornmeal coated soft-shell crab (below, right),  hands-down ecample it has ever been my pleasure to eat. Lemon aïoli made for the ideal dipping sauce. Perfectly poached Dover sole came served atop a parsley and olive potato salad, an unexpected but delicious combination. Even the beet puree alongside was a thing of exquisite beauty, with an intense flavor. and color.  Another night, local wahoo, seared rare and served with wild greens and Swank Farm turnips from a hydroponic farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, and blue nose bass, line-caught in New Zealand, paired with more of that olive/potato salad and beet puree, were the evening’s specials.

     For steak lovers, chef Ford grills a Kansas City Strip, and a beef tenderloin, the first with more Swank Farm turnips, a morel jus and topped with a diminutive fried quail’s egg, the second with an heirloom beet carpaccio from chef Dean’s own farm, wild mustard greens, a cabernet sauvignon-based sauce, and another quail egg, this time poached.

    The cheese course consisted of three excellent choices: a tartufo, from Italy, with cherry chutney; bosina, with plum chutney (a variant of robiolla) from the  small Italian town of Bosina) that was new to me; and finally a manchego, the wonderful hard-rind Spanish cheese, with salty caramel.

    Milk chocolate panna cotta, so tender you wondered how it remained a solid, lime meringue tart with a kiwi and basil syrup, a black berry cabernet sorbet that was a dense, dark, deep purple thing of beauty, and, for a whimsical touch of pure Americana, a root beer float made with small-batch root beer.  Only the mango tarte tatin was disappointing, just a little dull, especially in this company.

     Restaurant manager and Sommelier Nicole Jackson's wine vocabulary is immense, spans the globe, and packed with the  unexpected. To begin, an excellent bubbly, Schramsberg‘s, Mirabelle, Brut Rosé, beautiful in the glass and wonderful on the palate. Then a crisp, tasty, classic Sancerre from the Château de Sancerre, and a Bellingham Chenin Blanc from Cape Town, South Africa, a full-bodied (14.5% alcohol), mouth-filling white with concentrated, ripe fruit flavors of peaches and melons, something almost creamy in the texture, and lemony acidity, in a framework of spicy oak.

     A big, earthy Chassagne-Montrachet, from Janotsbos in Meursault, made a fitting finale to the whites, with lovely green apples, a hint of the lees, and clean minerality. The reds debuted with a wonderful, truly Burgundian-style Pinot noir, from Four Graces in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Then a wine called Dead Letter Office, from Henry’s Drive, a textbook Australian Shiraz with big, luscious blackberry fruit, but nicely balanced with unexpected acidity. Pinotage (from Fairview in South Africa) is not one of my favorite reds. There’s something of the strumpet in its upfront, brazen charms, and too obvious desire to please, and too great a whiff of the manufactured in this amalgam of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, two cèpages that given their druthers--as well as their provenance--would (should) never have anything to do with each other.  And finally, a full-bodied, smoky Old Ghosts, Old Vines Zinfandel from the Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi, California with 15+% alcohol, and  big, almost jammy fruit that never became hot, heavy or cloying. With dessert came a Cabernet Franc, ice-wine from Inniskillin, Canada, a cranberry-colored ice wine, with luscious strawberry/burnt sugar flavors, unctuous, but with a gentle viscosity, and a clean finish, that left one wishing for more.

3030 is open daily.  Starters: $13 to $16, Entrees: $27 to $54;
3-course, Chef’s Selection menu $48; $59 with wine.



OBITUARY: Jimmy Brennan of Brennan's in New Orleans Dies
by John Mariani



      On the night after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and closed down Brennan's restaurant on Royal Street,  Jimmy Brennan and his chef Lazone Randolph sat up with pistols loaded to ward off any looters intent on robbing their 30,000 bottle wine cellar of its treasures. “They’d probably be more interested in the booze,” said Brennan, "but we weren’t taking any chances. We had  a magnum of 1857 Lafite-Rothschild in there!”
      Weeks later, when Jimmy sat down to taste the wines, destoryed by high heat and humidity, he found bottle after bottle had gone bad, tasting like burnt sherry. “To have to restore the restaurant was tough enough,” he told me,  “but to lose all those magnificent wines just killed me.”
       It wasn't losing the wines that killed Jimmy, 70, it was a long bout of cancer, but knowing the red-headed Irish-Americans' passion for good wine--and the good life itself--I could only imagine how he'd felt in those dark, post-Katrina days.  Nevertheless, Jimmy and his family, including his brothers Pip and Ted, re-opened Brennan's,   and Jimmy re-built the wine cellar into one of the city's finest.
       The story of Brennan's, opened by their father Owen in 1946, has been told many times, including in a Brennan's cookbook, along with the story of how Jimmy's branch of the family parted ways with Ella Brennan's side so that the former retained Brennan's and the latter opened Commander's Palace and other restaurants.  Until recent years Jimmy, Ted, and Pip were at their restaurant either in  full force or one at a time, while younger members of the family have taken over much of the current management, which means there has never been a tic in the consistency of Brennan's food or renowned hospitality--the great dishes like turtle soup, grillades and grits, and their signature bananas Foster--and Jimmy's wine cellar was a big part of the restaurant's allure.
       I knew Jimmy pretty well, saw him every year or so, had a few cocktails with him and way too much fine wine. He once bet me any bottle in his cellar that the casino then being built in New Orleans would be a big success within two years, which I thought was ridiculous. I forget who won the bet, but  two years later he broke out some spectacular Burgundies over dinner anyway. 
       He could talk wine till the church bells rang, his eyes widening as he described in detail a rare bottle he'd enjoyed twenty years ago or the prospect of receiving a case of First Growth Bordeaux the following week.  His was a connoisseurship built solidly on drinking, not tasting, wine, and he was never one to store the stuff away as trophies to be admired.  He'd traveled widely, knew everybody in New Orleans and, it seemed, half of Europe.  If he could be distinguished from his brothers, I guess you'd say he was definitely not the quiet one, for his ebullience showed in his bouncing eyebrows and his handwaving, the very definition of joie de vivre.  Yet he had a wonderfully dry wit, as when he would describe a chef he greatly admired by saying, "The man knows how to cook."
       If anyone embodied the swagger of New Orleans, it was Jimmy Brennan, and I'll miss him terribly. No one I ever met knew better how to "let the good times roll."



Whatever Happened to Little Italy? by Franco Lania

   Little Italy was once a vibrant neighborhood where good food and charming restaurants were abundant.  Now, except for a few old timers like Di Paolo's Fine Foods and Alleva Dairy, Ferrara's Pastry, and remnants of days when tourists and New Yorkers flocked here for a true sense of history, there is little left that is not more hype than substance. Guest writer chef-restaurateur Franco Lania tries to explain what happened.--John Mariani

     Many people have asked me what do I think happened to poor Little Italy? Why has it deteriorated so much? Since I live only blocks away from the neighborhood, and once worked as a chef in Little Italy, what do I feel caused the deterioration of that once great neighborhood?
      Having family myself that came from Italy to the United States via Little Italy back in the first half of the 1920’s,  I can say that upward mobile flight by the children of the immigrants began the demise of the neighborhood. I grew up hearing stories from time to time about how beautiful Little Italy was, what a fun place it was, how the food and feasts were always something to look forward to!
      This is a far cry from today’s Little Italy. The feast of San Gennaro is pretty much the only street fair left in Little Italy and is always in controversy with the city over if it could continue or not. The food in Little Italy has a poor reputation and the foodie people of NYC typically avoid the area because of this poor food reputation and tourist crowds.
      The Italian specialty shops are pretty much nonexistent and the few that are left are not enough to help uplift the neighborhood. The best. most reliable draws for good food in Little Italy are Angelo’s  (opened in 1902) and Il Cortile, two restaurants that are still excellent but frequented pretty much by the bridge-and-tunnel crowds from outside of the city. The tourists usually meander up Mulberry Street looking for a quick bite and a cheap deal, as they make their way to their real places of interest, Soho and NoLita. Catering to the tourist crowed instead of the New Yorkers is one of the main downfalls of Little Italy.
       In a nutshell this is what happened.

Little Italy was a neighborhood based on immigrants who came from Italy starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These early Italians had a safe haven in a city and country they knew nothing, and few could speak, read or write English. Most of the first wave of immigrants never really assimilated into the city or America for that matter and in not doing so kept Little Italy very much  alive and thriving for years.  The comfort of being able to communicate in their own language and to stay close and near to the people and customs they could relate to was a huge factor in their not leaving the neighborhood.
     Time moved on and eventually the first- and second-generation children of these immigrants become educated and assimilated into NYC, and become Americanized, wanting more than Little Italy has to offer them. These now Italian-Americans left the neighborhood in search of their fame and fortune outside the old neighborhood and entered into the American Dream. Eventually over time the only ones left are the old timers and the few families that never left.
     The ones left behind can’t maintain and keep the vibrancy of the neighborhood alive, so it changes and goes on its ever downward spiral. The  people who left the neighborhood and made  successes of their lives far beyond the dreams of their parents or grandparents never seem to get involved in the now old neighborhood and show an interest in the preservation or gentrification of it.
     Italian-Americans must unite to change what has happened to New York’s-Little Italy. It’s not to late.  With unification and determination Little Italy could be uplifted and given an “Italian Cultural Renaissance” that it so deserves! It needs empowerment by the City of New York, or else  New Yorkers and Italian Americans alike won’t have a Little Italy to even write about!   At this point Little Italy is like a mother that gives and gives and never receives anything back in return from her children. Eventually she becomes old, run down and tired.




by Christopher Mariani

Norwegian Cruise Line Launches
Its Largest Ship Yet


    Is bigger better when it comes to boats?
    This past July 4th weekend, I spent two days onboard the massive 4,100 passenger Norwegian Epic's   for its press preview cruise.  As I approached Pier 88 off NYC’s Westside highway, my eyes widened in amazement as the Epic came into view and  I immediately understood why this ship is the largest ever to dock in the Hudson River.  Standing 19 decks tall, t
he ship was mammoth, towering over the city’s pier like a wide skyscraper a thousand feet in length, its exterior decorated with blue, red, and green flares that began at the ship’s bow and trailed along the side where they eventually met up with the ship’s red and white life boat.

     Once onboard, I did not get the feeling I was really on a ship; it was more like being inside a royal city like Oz.  Its design is centered around a gigantic contemporary chandelier that hangs through the main decks and offers passengers a sense of direction and location while touring its beautiful interior.   I spent my first hour wandering around the ship and was  happy to find how easy it was to navigate unlike the mazelike lay-out as so many liners.  

      I stayed in a balcony stateroom (right) that was quite large and very open.   My bed was cozy and the all-glass sliding balcony doors offered a stunning view from any point in the room.  Yet as nice as the room was, I quickly tossed my suitcase on the floor and set out to experience the ship’s endless entertainment and dining options.  I made my way up to the pool deck, which consisted of three giant water slides, a rock climbing wall, an arcade, an outside dining space with a huge bar, multiple swimming pools and Jacuzzis, and an elevated lounge section that wrapped around the entire perimeter of the deck.  I was immediately greeted by a friendly staff member who asked me if I needed a water or beverage from the bar.  Overall, the service staff was excellent, attentive, always smiling, and made me feel welcome and appreciated, a quality not always  found on many large and impersonal cruise lines.

     Mid-afternoon, I grabbed a quick bite from the Noodle Bar (below), one of my favorite restaurants onboard, and started with some crispy fried pork pot stickers accompanied by a ginger-soy sauce, and finished with a tasty Peking style lo mein mixed with sautéed shrimp and chicken. That evening, I dined at Teppanyaki (below), a hibachi-style Japanese restaurant with some newly acquired friends as we all engaged with our entertaining chef who flipped rice bowls into the air and caught them in his chef’s hat, and also set off small fires erupting from onion volcano on the flatiron grill.  The ingredients were fresh, flavorful (ah! the wonders of cooking with garlic butter!), and the amount steak and seafood well worth the  $25  charge.                                         

            After dinner I walked through the Epic’s large casino, past its three-lane bowling alley, and made my way into the enormous Epic Theater where I watched a great performance by the famous Blue Man Group.  When the show was over, I headed to the blackjack tables and played a few hands.  The casino takes up most of Deck Six and has a wide range of table games surrounded by slot machines that were surprisingly empty.  After realizing luck had  not decided to grace me that evening, I said goodbye to my  dealer and headed over to Bliss Ultra Lounge the ship’s lounge/nightclub packed with guests dancing while the cocktails continued to flow through the night.  Around three a.m. I made the right decision and called it a night, heading back to my cabin, where I slept like a baby.

            The following morning I was in need of a good hearty breakfast, so I went to the Garden Café, located on the pool deck, and ate from a fabulous buffet that served every breakfast item known to man, including eggs, sausage, bacon, cereals, pastries, and on and on.   Once re-fueled, I grabbed a towel and sat poolside for a few hours, staring off into the ocean and enjoying some well needed relaxation after the late night hours.  That afternoon I yearned for a light lunch, so went to Wasabi, where I sat at the sushi bar and tried out some negiri and house specialty rolls.  The fish was very fresh, the presentation was lovely, but the amount of fish inside the rolls and on the negiri was a far cry from generous.

            That evening I dined at the Spiegel Tent (below) and was entertained by "Cirque Dreams & Dinner."  The restaurant is designed to reflect the inside of a circus tent and all tables focus around a small stage where the Cirque show takes place.  The meal of shrimp salad and beef with vegetables was mediocre and predictable-- I’m pretty sure the focus of the Spiegel Tent is not intended to be the food--but the performers were superb, executing flawless acrobats and balancing acts that had me on the edge of my seat for more than 90 minutes.  

            After dinner I made my way to O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar for an after dinner drink and a few games of air hockey and pool.  O’Sheehan’s is probably one of the largest bars onboard and attracts a good crowd of people.  O’Sheehan’s also offers a late night bar menu for those craving buffalo wings, burgers, and mozzarella sticks, all very well prepared.  To end the night, I stopped by Shaker’s Martini Lounge where I enjoyed the music of a Michael Bublé double, who specialized in Sinatra hits.

            After two days we pulled back into port, definitely not enough time to experience everything the ship had to offer, but it did provide a snapshot of the ship’s emphasis on quality dining and entertainment.  Large cruise ships are generally known for sub-par buffets and unoriginal restaurants, but the Epic certainly does not fall into this category. The ship hosts 21 different restaurants for its guests, accommodating all palates and appetites, a number no other line approaches.  So, is bigger better then? Well, it certainly offers more options than any ships at sea right now.


Norwegian Epic will sail out of Miami, making 7-day alternating Eastern + Western Caribbean sailings through April 2011. It will then sail the Med out of Barcelona next summer, through Oct 2011.  The ship will visit Nassau, Bahamas; St Thomas; and St. Maarten on the Eastern Caribbean itinerary and Cozumel, Roatan, Honduras and Costa Maya, Mexico on the Western Caribbean itinerary.  Rooms start at $799 per person.



"The result is a restaurant with a bit of an awkwardness to it, as if it were a teenage girl trying to decide whether to spend the summer in the pastel plaids of a breezy Hamptons all-American sun-kissed blonde or in the meticulously tattered leggings of a cutely disaffected downtown art student."--Teresa Politano, "Bar Cara," Newark Star-Ledger (June 18).



In Buckhead, Maine,  Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz have found a way of powering a bike and a trailer by using hundreds of pieces of Mentos candy and Coke Zero.
A video shows the machine traveled more than 220 feet.





Guidelines for submissions:  QUICK BYTES publishes only events, special dinners, etc, open to the public, not restaurant openings or personnel changes.  When submitting please send the most pertinent info, incl. tel # and site, in one short paragraph as simple e-mail text, WITH DATE LISTED FIRST, as below.  Thanks.  John Mariani

* On Aug. 10 and Aug. 24 in San Francisco, CA, Urban Tavern hosts a Monterey Wine Company wine tasting with hors d’ouevres, 6–7 pm, $10 pp. Call 415-923-4400,

* On  Aug. 14 in New Orleans, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum will host Jay Henrickson as he discusses the history of Herbsaint.  $10 pp. Visit  or call 504-569-0405.

* On Aug. 14 and 15 in Snowmass, CO, the First Annual Culinary & Art Festival, features Chefs Laurent Tourondel and Alfred Portale, PBS Chef Christy Rost, Denver’s Chef Frank Bonanno, et al.  Food, wine and spirits, with juried exhibit of local and national artists’ works.  $65 pp.; . Call  970-925-1663 .

* On Aug. 19 in Avon, CO, Wolfgang Puck and Napa Valley winery owner Randy Lewis will host a 5-course dinner, paired with varietals from award-winning Lewis Cellars, at Spago in The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch to benefit First Descents. $225 pp. Call 970-343-1555.

*On August 24 in Los Angeles, Craft will host their next monthly winemaker dinner with Tyler Winery, winespaired with a four-course dinner from chef Anthony Zappola.  $140pp. Call 424-204-7485 or email


*  On August 25 in San Francisco, CA, McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood Restaurant will host a Wattle Creek Winemaker Dinner with a five-course prix fixe menu prepared by Chef Liz Ozanich. $70 pp. Call 415-929-1730 or visit

* On Aug. 28 – 29 in Aspen, CO, the 1st Annual Big Aspen Barbecue Block Party presents pitmasters, live music, BBQ seminars, and grilling demos for guests. Free admission; $8 per BBQ plate. Visit or call 970-920-4600.

*  On Sept. 2-5 in Beverly Hills, CA, the first annual Taste of Beverly Hills, presented by FOOD & WINE, will bring chefs, culinary personalities, and winemakers from throughout Los Angeles and beyond, together with award-winning musicians, incl. Michael Voltaggio, Walter Manzke, Ludovic Lefebvre, and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Tix from $125 - $150 pp, $500 pp for all-access weekend packages. Visit or call 877.434. TOBH (8624).

* From Sept. 2-6, the 22nd annual Pinehurst Food and Wine Festival will feature some of the best in international wine and culinary talent, including Food Network's Florian Bellanger, incl. seminars, culinary demos and evening galas. Rates start at $292 pp per night for all events. Visit

* From Sept. 3-5 in Sonoma, CA, Three days. Two hundred Wineries and Chefs. One Unforgettable Sonoma Experience, with winemaker-hosted lunches and dinners to California’s largest outdoor food and wine tasting, to the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, with 200+ growers. Visit  or call 800-939-7666.


* From Sept. 3-5 in Yountville, CA, Chef Thomas Keller will host a Labor Day Weekend fundraising event to support The Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, with a lineup of meals at Chef Keller’s The French Laundry, Bouchon and Ad Hoc as well as the chance to interact with Chef Keller himself informally. $2,750 pp or $5,250 pc. Visit

* On Sept. 4 and Sept. 5 in St. Davids, Wales, UK,  The Really Wild Food and Countryside Festival is a celebration of food –forage for your supper - and countryside crafts originating in nature. Call (+ 44) 1348840242.



NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with four 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: WHAT ARE THE BEST COUNTRIES FOR SOLO TRAVELERS? and PORETLAND, OREGON ON WHEELS.


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor 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:

Family Travel Forum: The 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.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, 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 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 2010