Virtual Gourmet

March 6, 2011                                                                   NEWSLETTER

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                                     "And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon" (2009) by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery






by Robert Mariani


         Founded in 1680, Bristol, Rhode Island is a small New England town of Yankee traditions, classic Colonial architecture,  and avid yachtsman-ship. Just a short drive southeast from both Providence  and north from Newport, it’s tonier, more glamorous seaside neighbor, Bristol occupies a narrow peninsula between Mt. Hope Bay and Narragansett Bay. The wind conditions here on Narraganset Bay make it one of the best sailing ports in the world, so it’s no surprise that the famous Herreshoss Yachting Museum & America’s Cup Museum are located here. Officially named “America’s Most Patriotic Town,” in the summer Bristol hosts the first, and longest running 4th of July parade in the nation. Just driving the shady streets and waterside lanes here is a trip back to Colonial times, and though not on the top ten list of New England’s tourist destinations, when it comes to good eating, this little town has some hidden gems. It also happens to be my hometown.

DeWolf Tavern
259 Thames Street

         Perhaps the most iconic Bristol restaurant is the DeWolf Tavern, named after Bristol’s founder, sea captain and slave-trader, James DeWolf. Located right on the waterfront, the Tavern restaurant opened a few years ago in a history-rich old, two-story pudding stone building where African slaves were once imported and exported. The exterior looks much like it must have back in those days in the early 1700’s, rough-hewn and weather-worn, and the interior has maintained the rugged patina and added beautifully restored wood floors, a cozy fireplace and windows that look out on breezy Bristol Harbor. In summer, there’s also a terrace for dining while watching all the sailboats and motor yachts cruising the Bay.

    The DeWolf Tavern’s owner, Chef Sai Viswanath, (below) holds degrees in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America and from the hotel school in Madras, India, and has traveled the world refining his cuisine, holding positions as Chef of the renowned Indigo in Mumbai and the Union Square Café in NYC. The Tavern has won national accoladfes, from Esquire to  Food & Wine. He’s inspired by the beautiful local seafood available in Rhode Island waters and has created a unique  menu, one that interprets contemporary American cuisine through the flavorful and colorful prism of Indian cuisine. And that is precisely why so many of Chef Sai’s flavor combinations seem so new  yet somehow familiar.

    Take his very original “Lobster Popover," for example. The crisp popover is light and airy; split down the middle, it makes a perfect little soup dish for a delicious ladle-ful of savory lobster bisque with bite-size lobster chunks, and there are more little lobster tidbits in the popover itself. The popover comes with a small salad of warm wilted field greens that complement the bisque perfectly. For an appetizer course, there’s mushroom gnocchi with crisp pancetta, Swiss chard and a parmesan cream. I love how fresh tasting the little pasta pillows are, dark and woodsy from the mushrooms--and how naturally the sauce enhances that flavor.

    The seafood bisque is yet another combination of the familiar with the exotic. Chef Sai’s new addition here is the “seafood samosa,” which adds a subtle, sweet flower-like flavor to the more familiar smoky, sherry-tinged bisque. Some other starters include charcoal tandoor-roasted coconut jumbo shrimp; warm duck frisée salad with Camembert, pecans, prunes and flaky paratha bread; tuna carpaccio with green mango, mustard oil and pearl onion chutney; and the irresistible steamed mussels in saffron-white wine, or coconut milk.

    For an entrée, I love the king salmon with an absolutely unique tasting “Kocum sauce,” very mild and subtle and at the same time lingering and unforgettable. The charcoal tandoor oven-roasted chicken comes as two legs and two thighs marinated with caramelized onions and an original honey tomato, sweet spice sauce that again contains flavor notes  that are never strong, just extremely distinctive. Other entrees include charcoal tandoor-braised, truffled loin lamb chops with a mint crisp shallot raita, saffron basmati rice, and lemon lavender chutney; tandoor-roasted, native lobster; crisp duck confit with shrimp biryani wrapped in a lotus leaf with a mango sauce; hazlenut-crusted cod with Native corn and Fenugreek sauce; a lobster, shrimp and scallop sandwich on olive naan; grilled jumbo shrimp in a coconut lentil bisque with seasonal vegetable fougath.

         The generous Dessert Sampler Platter features a chocolate lava cake with kirsch cherry center, vanilla ice cream and dried cherry sauce; lime curd tartlette with honeyed cranberries; baked Alaska with rose ice cream and devil's food cake; coffee cardamom cappuccino pot de crème with warm froth and chocolate Amaretto biscotti; and warm chocolate chip banana bread pudding.

Starter selections range from $8 to $16, and entrees from $18 to $29. The DeWolf Tavern also has a raw bar and a moderately priced Tavern Menu. There’s a 3 -Course Lunch for $16, and 3- Course Dinner for $30. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily.




31 State Street, Bristol


    Located just a block up from the Bay on Bristol’s State Street, the unassuming little storefront façade of the Persimmon restaurant is easy to miss. Small sign, small window, small door, with the daily dinner menu posted unpretentiously on the glass. And although it’s so close to Bristol’s scenic waterfront, the only “views” at Persimmon are of your fellow diners. There’s really only one reason you come to this cozy, diminutive, 38-seat restaurant and that is for Chef Champe Speidel’s wonderful food.

         I’ve been a fan of Chef Speidel’s for years, ever since I encountered his cooking at another under-sized restaurant in Providence’s Italian restaurant district known as Federal Hill. His talent for focusing flavors and pairing them artfully has always made him a stand-out, even on “The Hill,” where Rhode Island’s culinary heavyweights tend to congregate.

         Here in Bristol, Persimmon is the  embodiment of Speidel’s culinary vision— small, intimate and dedicated to making the most out of local flavors from products procured daily. Even the décor and the artwork on the walls have an elegantly simple focus.  Persimmon’s menu is created each day, based on what the best ingredients available are locally, so there are no compromises on freshness. Quite the contrary, so  the dishes I write about here might not be on the menu when you come.

         On previous visits to Persimmon I’ve been dazzled by such entrées as the apple-and-soy glazed pork porterhouse and the braised spring lamb shank, and so this time I quite willingly put myself in the capable hands of Chef Speidel  and his wife Lisa (right) and opted for his Tasting Menu of the Day.

      It began with a delicate, palate-clearing spoonful of red snapper tartar in brisk cucumber, cilantro, ginger and basil oil. Each flavor in this tiny morsel took you inevitably to another stage.   Next was a light but hearty soup of locally foraged mushrooms featuring chanterelles, porcini and native “chicken of the woods” mushrooms with Yukon Gold potatoes.

         A small salad of Jonah crab followed, laced with cucumber and celery, avocados and pea shoots. Each ingredient was clearly taste-able and fit perfectly with the next. I longed for more but was glad I showed restraint when the next course arrived, a miniature lobster tail the size of your forefinger (cooked quite rare) with a sweet corn pudding and red wine reduction. The nuances that the additions gave to the fresh-tasting lobster meat were truly remarkable.

         A tiny mouthful of fresh red snapper followed, its skin perfectly grilled to crispy-ness, its flesh soft and moist. It was expertly paired with a mild ratatouille and tomato broth.

         The first “full-size” course was a medium-rare lamb cutlet accompanied by a sumptuous couscous punctuated with black olives and a pungent rosemary-infused demi-glace, with the briny olive taste and the fragrant rosemary flavors playing  off each other. Crispy-skinned duck confit and breast slices were served with sweet-as-honey baby carrots and garden-fresh green peas. Again, each distinct flavor served to sharpen the focus on  the main ingredient and bring it to a new level. And yet with all its complexity, this entrée never felt heavy or over-done.

         The desserts are equally well-parsed. One was a white peach sorbet in a semi-sweet plumb confit. What amazed me about this little masterpiece was Speidel’s inspired addition of just the tiniest flecks of thyme, which took your taste buds to a flavorful place you never expected but that seemed like the perfect finish.

         Another dessert was equally unique in its own, more creamy, way— a vanilla yogurt panicotta with touches of chilled summer fruit.

         Finally there was a tantalizing sampling of “The Persimmon Cheese Experience,” literally an artist’s palette of minute cheese portions beautifully balanced with tiny smears of fresh berries, syrups and jams.

        New menu items at Persimmon are posted weekly.

Persimmon is open for dinner Tues.-Sun. Dinner appetizers are $8-$16, main courses $20-$31.

Le Central
483 Hope Street

    Until recently, the only empty niche in downtown Bristol’s compact culinary scene was a good French restaurant. Le Central on Hope St., Bristol’s main drag, has filled that void and, I’m happy to report, is doing well.

    Le Central is located directly across the street from the historic Linden Place mansion, which houses an antique museum and a treasure trove of historic Bristol memorabilia. The restaurant's owner Jesse James, who spent several years cooking at Boston’s esteemed classic French restaurant, L’Espalier, assured me that if anything, the recession has actually been good for his business here, perhaps because Le Central offers such an attractive menu at reasonable prices.

         There’s nothing pretentious about this neighborhood bistro. It’s a spacious, simply appointed room with a bar against the rear wall, and wide, storefront windows that look out onto Hope Street. Le Central has a full bar and an excellent wine list of domestic and imported wines.

         Each night, the regular dinner menu is supplemented with a list of specials like Jonah crabcake and hot pepper rouille for starters; and entrées like grilled charmoula-rubbed lobster with a warm asparagus salad; bouillabaisse; and grilled lavender duck breast.

         On our latest visit, we began with one item from the Specials menu, the parsnip bisque and “frizzled” leeks, and it could not have been more comforting with a mild, mixing of soft flavors in a creamy white broth.    I also sampled the local oyster Alsacienne from the regular appetizer menu, consisting of four oysters on the half-shell gently cooked in a horseradish cream with tiny chunks of bacon. Even without the bacon, it would have been a nice, gentle starter.

         The first entree from the regular menu was a perfectly cooked medium-rare hangar steak accompanied by paper-thin slices of sautéed potatoes and a crisp baby arugula salad with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.   Our other main course, Le Central’s Lobster Mac and Cheese, is served in a palm-sized soup crock. The penne macaroni and chunks of lobster meat were swimming in a rich cream sauce with hints of thyme, bay leaf and carrots. The entire dish was sprinkled generously with panko bread crumbs and is an excellent choice for a chilly New England evening. Their regular menu leaves little to be desired with main dishes like roasted and braised Moroccan organic chicken; a petit cassoulet; coq au vin; grilled rack of lamb merguez; grilled Atlantic salmon “Niçoise;” cod Provençal; and grilled lobster.

    For dessert I had the immensely satisfying chocolate brioche bread pudding.   Another treat is the lemon ricotta crêpes with seasonal fruits. The crêpe is a delicate creation stuffed with a mild, creamy ricotta cheese and dressed with bits of pineapple, strawberry, and kiwi.


Le Central is open for dinner every night and for lunch Mon.-Sat.;  Sunday brunch;
Prices for appetizers run $6.75-$10.75; entrées range from $11.75 to $21.



Farm 255 and The National Score Culinary Touchdowns in this College Town

By Suzanne Wright


    “It doesn’t look like a hotel,” says my friend Dale as we nearly drive past The Hotel Indigo  (below) in Athens, Georgia. 

    In fact, its architecture reminds me of a covered bridge, with its steep pitched roof and long, narrow shape.  Yet  this modest-looking hotel has quite a pedigree:  it’s the first Gold LEED-certified hotel in InterContinental Hotel Group’s portfolio of 4,500 properties scattered throughout the world.

    Athens, of course, is home to the University of Georgia’s  Bull Dawgs  and the B-52s, both of which are referenced onsite:  canines (and their owners) get their own Happy Hour and framed posters of local musicians hang in the rooms, which have a vaguely 70s retro vibe with a color scheme of soothing greens, blues, gold and tangerine.  The Madison Bar offers a grapefruit cosmopolitan which is pleasantly puckery. The in-room coffee is from local roaster Jittery’s Joe’s and, along with the homespun Foxfire volume, is the chic Guide to Athens, a little black book for this town that successfully marries the traditional with the cheeky.

    Over the past decade, Atlantans (like this food writer) have hungrily watched as Athens came into its own as a culinary destination, thanks in large part to Chef Hugh Atcheson, who put Five and Dime on the national culinary map.  But my focus this weekend is on  dinner at Farm 255, of which I have heard great things.  Athens foodies are a fierce lot; they give football fans a run for their money—and an excuse to skip tailgating for a table at this unpretentious eatery. (See my earlier review of The Four Coursemen).

    The folks behind Farm 255 are the founders and farmers of Full Moon Farms, a five-acre organic/biodynamic farm in nearby Watkinsville; they also run Moonshine Meats, a livestock operation that raises cows, pigs and chickens.  A restaurant is a logical extension of their agricultural efforts. They also run a mobile Farm Cafe (below).

The rustic, unpretentious space—anchored by an open kitchen—is immediately welcoming.  There’s great lighting and the exposed duct work, iron trusses and wooden beams give it a European feel.  In my dealings, Athenians  seem to share an appealing nonchalance that is in stark contrast to the toadying of too many big-city enterprises.  Stellar ingredients and knowledgeable service exudes a quiet confidence.  You don’t feel the effort, but the results are evident. The cocktail list shows creativity. I order a pistachio Manhattan made with Maker’s Mark, Dumante pistachio liqueur and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, which is smooth and satisfying.  Good thing: the menu is mouth-watering.

    “This is a safe place to be experimental,” says our server, with an air that manages to be both breezy and informed, hip and kind, as she refills our water glasses and places homemade yeast rolls on the table. We start with pork trotters, which  I wouldn’t order  just anywhere, but here they look like mini crab cakes, which makes them more palatable to Dale, who’s suddenly become a bit timid, recoiling slightly as they are presented.  But after his first hesitant bite, his body language changes.  Breaded in panko, they are velvety inside and pleasantly textured.  In a word: delicious. 

    The butcher board is easily a full meal for two, a “mighty plenty” as Dale declares, and an excellent introduction to the kitchen--and a hell of a value at $18.  Besides chicken liver mousse, (seasonal) apple sausage, pastrami and champagne pâté, there are local apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, pickled radishes and red cabbage sauerkraut. Something was rendered slightly sweet by the addition of Christmas spices, but I don’t recall if it was the pâté or mousse.

    I’ve lived for nearly 20 years in Georgia and never seen clams from this coastal hamlet, so I am excited to order mussels and Sapelo Island clams.  They prove irresistible: big and sweet, while the house-smoked andouille sausage provides a dose of heat.  We dip grilled bread into the broth, swimming with leeks.  The only slight misstep of the evening was the fried oyster salad, the Apalachicola beauties slightly over-breaded, obscuring their briny perfume.  Braised pork shoulder delivered big, in-your-face flavor, the pork cooked with a hint of cinnamon and the polenta creamy and robust.  A side broccoli rabe added to the dish’s earthy character.

    We ended the evening with hands-down, the best ever pecan pie either of us has ever tasted.  Rather than the cloying, syrupy versions most restaurants (or mothers) offer, this one was dense with nut meat, almost black in color.  It was modest-looking—one might even say, sweetly homely—and topped with vanilla whipped cream.  From the first bite, it revealed itself to be sweet and salty and crumbly—all in the same forkful.  A divine ending to a near-perfect meal.

    The following morning, before we head back for Atlanta, we pay homage to Atcheson with brunch at The National, (left) a bustling, casual place serving Mediterranean- inspired food, where colorful laminated oilcloths and fresh flowers top the tables. We start with Bloody Marys goosed with Guinness.  "Egg in a hole" is a tweak on the classic "toad in a hole," a tiny local duck egg nestled in Pullman toast, topped with frisée and radish salad and a sliver of Berkshire pork belly for lusciousness. The spiced-right lamb pita comes with crisp-fried patatas brava and dollops of tomato jam and horseradish.     Dale lived in Portugal and praises the silver-dollar sized custard cakes with cinnamon whipped cream. But it’s the parsnip cake that is truly revelatory:  off-sweet, with the winter root vegetable grated into it for texture, partnered with cranberries for tartness and eggnog sauce for richness.

Farm 255 is open nightly;   starters from $3-12; entrees from $14-25; and desserts, $6; hours:  Tues-Thur: 5:00-10:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m.

The National is open daily for lunch and dinner;  small plates from $3-6; big plates from $9-13; desserts: $8.

Suzanne Wright is an Atlanta-based food and travel writer. Follow her at 


by John Mariani


45 East 22nd Street (near Fifth Avenue)

    Having just returned from Turin and Venice, where I ate very,  very well, I still feel it can now be said that, at least in NYC, Italian food is more exciting than in most cities in Italy right now.  I didn't say better, I said more exciting, for in Italy the rule of simplicity and regional tradition still abides, so that it is really a moot question whether regional cooking is disappearing in Italy: believe me, it is abundant everywhere.

    But for sheer variety and innovation, I find that NYC, particularly in the past two years, has come to define modern Italian cooking's evolution.  Restaurants like SD26, Del Posto, Scarpetta, Maialino, Morini, Marea, Lincoln, and now Ciano would be difficult to find anywhere in Italy for the breadth of their concepts, and I leave it to others to debate the unproductive "authenticity" issues that haven't had much relevance since the opening of Babbo in 1993.
    On the minus side of the equation, NYC's new Italian restaurants (I exempt the more elegant SD26, Del Posto, Marea and Lincoln) are atmospherically very different from restaurants and trattorias in Italy, which are never as loud, as boisterous, or as frenetic as their NYC counterparts.  Every single restaurant and trattoria I ate at in Italy last month had tablecloths; every room was well lighted; every one turned out food in a very efficient, timely fashion; and not one had the kind of bombastic music so often the case in new NYC restaurants of any stripe.  On those counts, Italy is still the template for civilized casual dining.
    Ciano, in the Flatiron District, falls squarely in the midst of all this.  It's very cozy, having taken over the already cozy premises of what had been Beppe, keeping its big fireplace and adding a wall of drawings of rabbits--and who doesn't love rabbits?  The tables have cloths (bravo!), the lighting is low but not dark.  The wait staff, led by
Jonathan Gilbert, formerly maître'd at Per Se, and sommelier John Slover could not be more professional.  But it is loud, largely, I think, because Americans get very loud in restaurants, which would be unacceptable in a restaurant in Italy.                            
    Ciano is the work of
Stratis Morfogen (of Philippe Chow) and Chef Shea Gallante, whose previous positions at Cru and David Bouley were part of a rareified world of expense account dining where $150 a person was but a shrug on an Amex card and where thousand-dollar wines were everyday sales.  The cuisine was mostly haute French. Ciano is none of that, and you are not likely to spend three or four hours at the table praying to your food.
    There is a daily Market menu that is a very good buy--$75 for four courses, $90 for five--while à la carte prices are amazingly liberal for antipasti and pastas, though the $29-$36 main courses edge into the expensive range.  My friends and I went for the four course deal, allowing a choice of any four items from salads, antipasti, pastas, main courses, and desserts. We opted for a hearty ragù of Tuscan beans with braised pork rib, baby turnips and cippolini, a dish that braced us against the NYC cold that night. Equally warming was a plate of roasted veal meatballs (below), juicy and lavished with creamy white herbed polenta and truffled pecorino. Crespelle (Italian crêpes) were packed with ricotta, spinach, and sauced with a tomato ragù.

    Of our pastas each was a winner:  lamb  ravioli braised in barolo wine with rosemary butter; a lasagnette with "white bolognese" of dreamy balsamella, basil pesto and sottocenere, an aromatic truffled cheese from Veneto; and cortecce (little pasta shells that look like shelled pea pods) with baby octopus, Calabrian peppers, fennel and garlic breadcrumbs.

    All of these dishes manifested the big, rounded flavors that characterize a lot of NYC-Italian these days, and they were all very rich, so I might in the future skip a main course, which are all equally rich, and some quite heavy.  Still, there was no arguing with the intensity of crisp duck breast with an Acacia honey glaze, roasted cauliflower with grilled kale; a hearty plate of veal filet and sweetbread, sautéed Swiss chard with garlic and ricotta salata; and a juicy medallion of skate with Casteluccio lentils, artichokes, and a black-truffle red wine sauce. Such dishes are a departure from traditional la cucina italiana, in which main course dishes  should be something simpler, with fewer conflicting flavors, like artichokes and truffle red wine sauce. Had it been on the Market menu I might instead have gone with Ciano's à la carte burrida of steamed branzino with zucchini and fennel in a tomato broth. 

        Desserts were yet to come, and one  really stood out--a honeycrisp apple napoleon with caramel custard, cider syrup, and spiced vanilla gelato

       The wine list has something for every budget, though the higher your budget the more choices there will be.  Ask Mr. Slover to guide you to a good, reasonable bottle.

     And so Ciano joins the ranks of the most exciting and enticing feel-good Italian restaurants of the moment, one I would happily return to anytime. My only concern is that this style of gutsy, fat-rich, very loveable cooking may start to pall on those who really just want a good Italian meal without too much fuss.  But for now, Gallante and his crew are working at the top of their form, and Ciano is a very lively, finely tuned place to spend a convivial evening.

Ciano is open for dinner nightly. Antipasti run $13-$19, pastas $14-$17, main courses $29-$9. The Market Menu is available for 4 courses at $75 and 5 at $90.



by Christopher Mariani


    The culinary world has changed in so many ways in the past five years, now with cooking and food programs on almost every  television channel, morning shows flooded with cooking demos, and big name chefs larger than life, some trying to be rock and roll stars. In my opinion, as long as there is a level of integrity in terms of quality, whether it be on television or within one’s restaurant, more power to you! I couldn’t be happier to see an entire generation engulfed in the beauty of food and the artistic depth of restaurants throughout the world.
    Down in the Caribbean on Grand Cayman at the recent Cayman Cookout weekend I watched as women shook with nervousness on a long line in anticipation to meet, hug and take a picture with master chef José Andrés, who, by the way, is great guy and one hell of a chef.
Along with many great American chefs who helped bring the entire weekend together, in attendance was host chef Eric Ripert, José Andrés, Charlie Trotter, Dean Max, Michael Schwartz and Toronto-based Susur Lee. Yes, there are barbeques, beach parties, demonstrations and cooking competitions, but the thrill and enchantment of the weekend is the rare opportunity to sit down, have a glass of wine with one of your favorite chefs and shoot the breeze. There’s an intimacy about the weekend that is extremely enjoyable. Maybe it’s the beautiful set up at the Ritz Carlton, maybe it’s sailing out to Starfish Point by way of catamaran and hanging with Eric Ripert and his family at an outside barbeque while drinking some rum cocktail out of a coconut, or maybe it’s splitting a cab with José Andrés to head over to Michael’s Genuine for a few shots of tequila with Dean Max and cast. 

         I checked into the Ritz Carlton late Friday night and headed straight to Taikun for some sushi and a few shots of sake. The restaurant sits right off from the hotel lobby and prepares innovative sushi rolls, thick cuts of fresh negiri, and a stellar wine list that offers some diverse sakes. The space is lovely, dimly lit, with dark brown and deep red tones, and a small marble sushi bar where I dined to begin my weekend. After dinner, it was off to Michael’s Genuine for a few after dinner drinks.
    Waiting in front of the Ritz Carlton for cabs were loads of smiling hotel guests with sunburnt cheeks, men wearing linen shirts and women in airy sun dresses. Everyone was heading to the same place, Michael Schwartz’s Michael’s Genuine, so each cab was shared and packed to the gills. I jumped in with chef José Andrés and after a quick introduction it was straight to Michael’s to kick off the weekend. We arrived to a packed bar and a grand selection of top shelf
añejo tequilas. We tried most of them. Florida legend Dean Max, owner of Cayman’s The Brasserie was in the mix hanging out and enjoying the festivities. Friends were made, drinks were drunk, and the party scene was set for the rest of the sunny weekend.

         The next morning, none too early, after a pleasant breakfast at the Ritz’s outdoor restaurant 7, it was straight to the white sand beach for some sun and relaxation. Throughout the day, cooking demonstrations were offered on the beach under a giant white tent by Ireland’s television star Rachel Allen, Toronto-based chef Susur Lee (above), and dessert tastings with "Top Chef"’s Gail Simmons and Michael Laiskonis. There were also South African wine tastings hosted by Food & Wine’s Ray Isle, The Big Reds event led by sommelier Anthony Giglio, and a sampling session of reds from Rioja, held inside Eric Ripert’s elegantly appointed Blue restaurant.

         That evening under the bright light of the moon was the "Surf and Sandcastles" kick-off celebration (above), a night filled with lots of rosé Champagne, food prepared by almost every chef on the island, and more and more pink champagne. After leaving behind my loafers at the shoe check, I walked into the torch-lit beach festival. In the center of the party were all the chefs' stations serving up signature dishes from their restaurants. Lines formed as each chef conversed and explained the creation behind their dish. In the background was a live band and along the perimeter were tiny bar stands serving up specialty cocktails. Some notable dishes were Dean Max’s (right) satin snapper sashimi served with a virgin coconut oil, a grapefruit reduction, garlic chives and a crispy casava; Charlie Trotter’s terrine of roast turnip and duck confit topped with a sour mango vinaigrette; the Ritz Carlton station’s  Caribbean callaloo, stuffed Jamaican baby goat sided by a curried mango chutney and roasted breadfruit; and Schwartz’s sweet and spicy pork belly with kimchi, peanuts and local pea shoots. Besides the lengthy lines that generated along Charlie Trotter's, José Andrés' and Eric Ripert’s food stations, the event was  a chance to meet fellow guests and mingle with some of the favorite celebrity chefs. As the event died down and the food slowed, the large crowd quickly brushed the sand off their feet and found its way to the Ritz Carlton bar where the celebration continued late into the night.

         Upon waking up and collecting my thoughts with the help of a spicy bloody mary, it was off to Starfish Point for a picnic on the water hosted by chef Eric Ripert. We all boarded the catamaran and sailed out to a tiny oval-shaped strip of beach front where a live jazz band played, cooking stations were set up along the water's edge and picnic tables with umbrellas were taken by guests in bathing suits. Ripert (left) stood in the water as he manned the grill, serving up seared chunks of fresh tuna, while other chefs from the Ritz Carlton offered grilled lamb kabobs with peppers, onions and a creamy tzakiki sauce. Long cuts of chorizo were topped with local spices and hot mustard. Arepas were filled with different shredded and pulled meats with cheeses. And my favorite, a mouth-watering mound of succulent jerk chicken that paired wonderfully with a cold local Caybrew beer. After a few hours of great food, lots of sun and cocktails, it was back on the catamaran and finally to the Ritz for a nice afternoon snooze before the nighttime festivities got under way.

         Around seven, I headed over to Dean Max’s The Brasserie for a dinner hosted by Max and Lee, with wines selected by Dennis Cakebread who was also in attendance. The restaurant is magnificent, designed with tan and brown tones throughout the bar and main dining room, a lovely outside herb garden, and a grand open kitchen almost the same size as the dining room, a chef’s dream. After a cocktail hour filled with conch salad, blackfin tuna sashimi, and fish tea shooter hors d’oeuvres, prepared by Max and Brad Phillips, we all sat in anticipation for a splendid meal.  Lee served a caramelized black cod surrounded by preserved lemons, salmon pearls and a garden turnip cake and then followed with a tasty rice gnocchi and chicken served with foie gras, black truffle shavings, roasted pears, Chinese sausage and a rich porcini mushroom sauce. Max and Phillips finished off the evening with a thick cut of Angus beef sided by a braised veal cheek, Vidalia onions, and a local breadfruit au gratin. After dinner,  Lee and his lovely wife came to sit and chat at our table as we enjoyed a few more glasses of Cakebread cabernet sauvignon.              

    The final day of the Cayman Cookout culminated with the Bon Vivant Champagne Brunch Cook-off. Hundreds of guests filled the massive ballroom where cooking samples were in abundance, Champagne was poured freely, and Ripert and some members of Bravo’s "Top Chef" cast judged a three-hour cooking competition. Hours later the weekend came to an end at the Gala Dinner held at Ripert’s Blue restaurant, where a multiple course meal was prepared by Ripert, Allen, Andrés, Lee, Schwartz and Trotter. The dinner went late into the night and was a perfect end to such a memorable weekend.

         To celebrate the success of yet another magical Cayman Cookout, the chefs were thrown a private party after the Gala dinner at the Ritz’s Periwinkle restaurant. With the personal invite from a few of the chefs, I spent the rest of the night congratulating and toasting with the men and women in white, and boy, can they party!  Vive la Caribbean! 


To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to



Amaros May Mean Bitter but They Are Sweet on the Tongue

by John Mariani


         I had just sat down at a restaurant named Caval d’Bròns, set above the broad archways of Turin’s Piazza San Carlo, and ordered traditional Piedmontese specialties like the tiny meat-stuffed ravioli called plin, with a butter and sage sauce, and vitello tonnato, made with slices of veal in a creamy tuna sauce. But first I was presented with a little appetite starter—a rosy slice of culatello ham, a spoonful of ricotta drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and a small glass of the Italian cordial called  an amaro.
        It was no more than a sip or two, syrupy, herbaceous, and bittersweet, a perfect spur to the palate. Now, since arriving home from Italy, I’ve been serving it before dinner to friends.

        Italy produces scores of amaros, whose name means bitter but whose sweet flavors are a complexity of herbs, spices, and citrus rinds, including gentian, angelica, lemon verbena, ginger, mint, thyme, licorice, cinnamon and menthol. Made between 16 a 35 percent alcohol, amaros are drunk either as an aperitif on the rocks or in cocktails.  More commonly in Italy, amaros are taken as a digestive after a meal.

In fact, their origins lie in the medicine cabinets of medieval monasteries, concocted by monks as aids to digestion and good health. If you want to know what those early medicines tasted like, buy a bottle of Fernet Branca, a commercial Milan-based brand of the amaro called fernet; it is a dark and potent brew—with up to 45 percent alcohol. Fernet Branca’s ad motto is “It is worth the bitterness,” made from 27 herbs and spices, including Iranian saffron, South African aloe, French gentian, and aged for a year, created in 1845 by Bernardino Branca.

         It is indeed very bitter, so some use it cocktail bitters. Still, even many of its advocates grimace upon knocking it back after a huge meal to settle a queasy stomach. I am one of those reluctant advocates, but that is the price I pay for being raised a Catholic taught to believe the sin of gluttony must be punished with bitterness.

         The best known, sweeter, amaro is Campari, the garnet red spirit usually drunk on the rocks with a twist of lemon or as a component in the classic Italian cocktails, the americano and negroni.

         Vermouth itself, both red and white, is an amaro (the word comes from the German Wermut for wormwood), first produced by Turin-based Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786. In fact, the amaro I was served at Caval d’Brons was Carpano’s “Antica Formula,” which can be found in the U.S. for about $25-$35.

         The Carpano firm (now owned by Fratelli Branca) also makes the popular Punt e Mes, which means, in Piedmontese dialect, “point and a half,” said to refer to a point-and-a-half rise in the stock market that once greatly benefited the company. Other fairly well known amaro brands available in Europe, South America, and the U.S. include Averna, Ramazzotti, and Cynar, all at least as sweet as they are bitter.

         I set out to find some more unusual amaros in the market, heading for the Italian section of the Bronx known as Arthur Avenue to Mount Carmel Wine & Spirits, a superb repository of Italian wine and spirits.  Here are notes on some amaros I particularly liked.


Amaro Lucano ($24.99)—This minty, liqueur-like amaro has been made in the province of Madera in Basilicata since 1894. Roasted hazelnuts, orange notes, and a lingering bittersweetness make for a delicious way to begin or end an evening.


S. Maria al Monte Amaro Naturale ($26.99)—Hefty, at 40 percent alcohol, this Ligurian amaro has a deep mahogany color, is of medium body, and is quite bitter, with a aroma that instantly evocative of the incense used at Sunday mass. A good Catholic could sniff it and fall to his knees. Best after dinner.


Ditta Bortolo Nardini ($44.99)—Claiming to be Italy’s oldest distillery (1779), Nardini, in the Veneto, is best known for its grappas, but its premium-priced amaro pours like maple syrup into the glass and delivers a beautifully nuanced bouquet and what tastes like scores of carefully blended herbs and spices.  You could have this on pancakes.


Nonino Amaro ($36.99)—This Friulian distillery almost singlehandedly changed grappa’s image from moonshine to connoisseur’s brandy twenty years ago, and there’s no mistaking the refined hand of the family in this exquisitely crafted amaro, with an impeccable balance of bitterness, sweetness, fruit, and spice that would be every bit as welcome after dinner as a vintage Port.


John Mariani's 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.



NYC's  Fetch Club is called a doggie disco--"the first of its kind in Manhattan"--where, instead of bottle service,  canines receive “bowl service” of beef-flavored Happy Tale Ale, and bottles of “Sauvignon Bark” made of chicken broth and potatoes. The dance floor is sprinkled with sand to make it less slippery;  wet/dry vacs are on ready to "make accidents disappear." According to Fetch's creative director Ami Goodheart, "Some dogs just don’t want to go to sleep early. This is a club that caters to the urban canine lifestyle.” An annual membership runs $300 and each dog is charged a $25 cover at the door.


"I have seen crowds milling around outside Sweet Iron Waffles on Third Avenue downtown with looks on their faces like those I used to see on the junkies walking down Berlin Street in Rochester, New York—waiting for their chance to cop, but not wanting to look like they're waiting."--Jason Sheehan, Seattle Weekly.



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 March 8, in Atlanta, Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant will be hosting the Second Annual Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits Whiskey Dinner at Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant, featuring four different whiskeys paired with a selection of hors d’oeuvre in addition to a sampling of Irish beers and Irish coffee to finish. The host is Kevin Mulcahy, Master of Whiskey.  Cost is $39 (all inclusive). Call 404-841-0066 or visit

* On Mar. 9, Upstream in Charlotte, NC, will host a Jordan Vineyard and Winery Dinner.  Executive Chef Scott Wallen will present a five-course dinner while wine representative Sara Halstead leads guests through each pairing.  $85pp.  Call 704-556-7730 or visit .

* On March 12-13 at The Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Hong Kong, Spectrum Wine Auctions will hold its 2011 March Rare Wine Auction of more than 1,700, incl.  the second installment of “The Doctor’s Pristine OWC Coolection” purchased direct from the cellars of Château Mouton Rothschild, Château d’Yquem and Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España. More than 14,000 bottles will be offered with a pre-sale estimate of nearly $5 million. Call 949-748-4845 or visit

* On March 13 in San Jose, CA, LB Steak hosts the debut of a “Chicks Dig It” quarterly speaker series starting with a discussion of women in agriculture focusing on eating in season, storage of produce, container gardening and heirloom vegetables. Includes a food tasting, specialty cocktail tastes and unlimited house wine. $20 pp. Call 408-244-1180.

* On Mar. 17, Stephan Pyles in Dallas, Tx, will host a Krupp Bros. wine dinner. Tres Goetting will lead guests through each selection of wine paired with a 4-course menu created by Chef Pyles. $125pp. Call Lisa Moore 214-999-1229 x 102 or email . . .  On Mar. 29, Stephan Pyles  will host a Hudson Vineyards wine dinner. Lee Hudson will lead guests through each selection of wine paired with a 4-course menu created by Chef Pyles. $125pp. Call Lisa Moore 214-999-1229 x 102 or email

* On March 18-19 The 7th Annual Savor Dallas, a celebration of wine, food, spirits and the arts returns to downtown Dallas and The Arts District.  Featuring over 60 of Dallas-Fort Worth’s top chefs serving samples of their cuisine and more than 400 premium wines, spirits and imported beers, the most delicious wine and food festival in Texas has exciting new events this year including: a cooking class with Beard House best-chef nominee Stephan Pyles, a wine and cheese pairing session with Mozzarella Company cheese czar Paula Lambert at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, and The Ultimate Friday Night Party featuring the work of area artists at Gables Park 17. Individual event ticket prices range from $35 to $125 and are available at or call  888/728-6747.

* On March 18-20,  the 9th  Annual Boca Bacchanal Winefest & Auction in Boca Raton, FL – “Celebrating the Era of the Mango Gang Chefs”– will be presented by The Boca Raton Historical Society, with silent and live auctions.  Fri.  features Vintner Dinners in magnificent private settings.  Sat. is the Bacchanal & Auction at the elegant Boca Raton Resort & Club.  The Grand Tasting, with specialties of 30 top South Florida restaurants and 140 wines is outdoors at Mizner Park Amphitheatre. Visit  or call 561-395-6766 X 101.

* On Mar. 13 in DC, COCHON 555 continues its 10-city national culinary competition promoting heritage breed pigs and breed diversity.  The tasting event will challenge 5 chefs, incl. Adam Sobel (Bourbon Steak), Tarver King (Ashby Inn), James Leeds (Hanks Oyster Bar), Bryan Voltaggio (Volt) and Scott Drewno (The Source by Wolfgang Puck) to prepare a menu created from 5 heritage breed pigs, nose to tail. Pig-loving epicureans will have a chance to sample these dishes along with wines from 5 different small wineries, incl. Alysian Winery, Copain Wine Cellars, Red Car Wine, Adelsheim Vineyard and Sokol Blosser, as well as the opportunity to help select the “Prince or Princess of Porc.”  In addition, guests will be treated to whole pig breakdown demonstrations, followed by a whole roasted heritage breed pig and dessert.  General admission tickets start at $125pp and are available at 
 *On Mar. 20 in Chicago, COCHON 555 continues its 10-city national culinary competition promoting heritage breed pigs and breed diversity.  The tasting event will challenge 5 chefs, incl. Michael Fiorello (Mercat de Planxa), Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat), Chris Pandel (The Bristol), Mike Sheerin (3 Floyds Brewpub), and Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia) to prepare a menu created from 5 heritage breed pigs, nose to tail. Pig-loving epicureans will have a chance to sample these dishes along with wines from 5 different small wineries, incl. Alysian Winery, Chase Family Cellars, Copain Wines, Red Car Wine and Elk Cove Vineyards, as well as the opportunity to help select the “Prince or Princess of Porc.”  In addition, guests will be treated to whole pig breakdown demonstrations, followed by a whole roasted heritage breed pig and dessert.  General admission tickets start at $125pp and are available at 
 *On Apr. 3 in Denver, COCHON 555 continues its 10-city national culinary competition promoting heritage breed pigs and breed diversity.  The tasting event will challenge 5 chefs, incl. Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja), Alex Seidel (Fruition), Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken), Frank Bonanno (Osteria Marco) and Lachlan MacKinnon (Frasca Food and Wine) to prepare a menu created from 5 heritage breed pigs, nose to tail. Pig-loving epicureans will have a chance to sample these dishes along with wines from 5 different small wineries, incl. The Scholium Project, Elk Cove Vineyards, Failla Wines, Chase Family Cellars and Domaine Serene, as well as the opportunity to help select the “Prince or Princess of Porc.”  In addition, guests will be treated to whole pig breakdown demonstrations, followed by a whole roasted heritage breed pig and dessert.  General admission tickets start at $125pp and are available at  
 *On May 28 in New Orleans, COCHON 555 continues its 10-city national culinary competition promoting heritage breed pigs and breed diversity.  The tasting event will challenge 5 chefs, incl. Mike Lata (FIG), John Currence (City Grocery), Stephen Stryjewski (Cochon Restaurant), Adolf Garcia (Rio Mar) and Erick Loos (Besh Restaurant Group) to prepare a menu created from 5 heritage breed pigs, nose to tail. Pig-loving epicureans will have a chance to sample these dishes along with wines from 5 different small wineries, incl. Matthiasson, Elk Cove Vineyards, The Scholium Project, McCrea Cellars and Peay Vineyards, as well as the opportunity to help select the “Prince or Princess of Porc.”  In addition, guests will be treated to whole pig breakdown demonstrations, followed by a whole roasted heritage breed pig and dessert.  General admission tickets start at $125pp and are available at

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from

My new book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan) is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

" A fact-filled, entertaining history [that] substantiates its title with hundreds of facts in this meaty history of the rise of Italian food culture around the globe. From Charles Dickens's journey through Italy in 1844 to 20th-century immigrants to America selling ice cream on the streets of New Orleans, Mariani constantly surprises the reader with little-known culinary anecdotes about Italy and its people, who have made pasta and pizza household dishes in the U.S. and beyond."--Publishers Weekly

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastornomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the inflkuence of Venice's spice trade to the imnpact of Italian immigrants in Amerioca and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone iunterested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Espositio, hosty of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, min ds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.


FEATURED LINKS: 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:


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).

The Family Travel Forum  - A community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" and want to make family vacations more fun, less work and better value. FTF's travel and parenting features, including reviews of tropical and ski resorts, reunion destinations, attractions, holiday weekends, family festivals, cruises, and all kinds of vacation ideas should be the first port of call for family vacation planners.

Family Travel Forum

                                                                    ALL YOU NEED 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.

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