Virtual Gourmet

  April 2, 20012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"Tomato" (2010) by Galina Dargery


GOOD NEWS! now has a new food section  called "Eat Like a Man," which will be featuring restaurant articles by John Mariani and others from around the USA.
 THIS WEEK: In Defense of French Food


ANNOUNCMENT: On Wednesday, April 18, John Mariani will host a book signing dinner at Via Vanti restaurant at 2 Kirby Plaza in Mount Kisco, NY.  Five-course meal at $85 per person, including signed copy of How Italian Food Conquered the World.  Call 914-666-6400. Click here.




By John Mariani

Alison Eighteen
by John Mariani

Chianti Changes Its Image

by John Mariani




                                                          by John Mariani



“With a growing number of NYC restaurants accepting only cash and refusing to take bookings, dining establishments that take — in fact, recommend — reservations seem like one of the last-standing modes of culinary civility. That is, until you arrive for dinner and your reservation appears to be meaningless.  Restaurants such as The Lion, Beauty & Essex, Pulino’s and other hot spots are enraging diners by making them wait upward of two hours (sometimes sans complimentary drinks) for a table — despite patrons booking reservations up to a month in advance."—New York Post.


    For a service industry, many contemporary restaurants have an attitude towards their customers that ranks with doctors’ waiting rooms, Motor Vehicle Bureaus, and the Unemployment Office.  As the NY Post article above indicates, way too many trendy restaurants in the city—and the policy is certainly not exclusive to NYC—book reservations then ignore them when you get there, forcing you to stand at the bar and buy $16 cocktails for an unconscionable length of time.  Were I to mount a very weak defense on behalf of such restaurants, I would say that, 1) Long waits for a table wreaks havoc with a restaurant’s service and kitchen timing, not unlike a jam-up of jets on a runway.  2) It creates antagonism that causes one outraged customer to tell ten friends who will never go near the restaurant. 3) Restaurant hosts and managers know that many customers either out-and-out lie about having a rez or flagrantly show up late for no good reason.  That said, here are some tips on how to avoid getting stuck waiting for your rez.


-Make it an early or late rez, say 6:30 or 10:30 PM.  Chances are the restaurant will be delighted to see you. At peak hours, 7 to 9 PM, restaurants stagger their reservations, which is why you may in fact see empty tables while you wait.  A good kitchen and service staff can only efficiently handle a certain number of guests at such hours.


-Do not consider any restaurant that has gotten rave reviews in recent weeks. It will be mobbed by those who just have to be first through the door. When it cools off, start to think about making plans to go.

-Consider your reasons for wanting to go to such a restaurant in the first place. Is it because the food is supposed to be spectacularly good, four-star cuisine? If it is such a restaurant, like Le Bernardin in NYC or The French Laundry in Yountville, you are unlikely to be made to wait at all. If you’re going because the place is the hottest celebrity-packed restaurant of the moment—and these places do fade quickly—be prepared not to be treated like a celebrity.


-When you call to make a rez, get the name of the person taking it and end with, “I look forward to seeing you, Chrissy.” Be aware that hostesses are not always very savvy about seating—their job may be only to take reservations and have the manager do the seating--so ask for the manager’s name, too, or ask to speak with him directly and tell him you look forward to a good evening.


-Call in early afternoon, when the hostess station is not overwhelmed.  Be aware, though, that sometimes a request may go directly to a phone attendant somewhere. Also be aware that if you’ve been to the restaurant in the past or are a regular, they have notes on you, both good and bad, and you may be treated accordingly. 

-Never lie about your self-importance or say, “Do you know who I am?” Because if you show up and do not appear to be Sarah Palin or a close friend of Jay-Z, you will really get screwed.


-Try At least you’ll have a confirmed rez to show the restaurateur and OpenTable does not like to get complaints that affect their business relationship with a restaurant.



-Let’s face it, bribery does work, if you’re pushy enough to try it. Better, and far more civilized, is to tip the maître d’ or hostess on your way out, if you intend to return.


-If the hostess says there’s going to be a wait and to go to the bar and have a drink, refuse and say, “Id rather stand right here.” She may call the manager and he’ll probably try to seat you ASAP.


-Threatening to leave will only make you feel a little better but it’s not going to cut it with a manager who has ten people ready to take your table. Same goes for threatening to write to Pete Wells at the NY Times.  The manager’s heard that one a million times and, believe me, Wells is not going to go to bat for you.


-Arrive with a person in a wheelchair, or if you’re a real George Costanza type, walk in on a cane.





15 West 18th Street


    When Alison Becker opened Alison on Dominick back in 1989, it was considered both a brave move and a welcome breath of fresh air in SoHo, then a neighborhood only just on the brink of becoming gentrified and lacking the kind of fresh French-American cuisine she favored, via her first chef, Tom Valenti. There was also something thoroughly modern and very personalized about the small restaurant--dark blue banquettes, shiny white walls, candlelight, a small stylish bar up front, and photos of France. Alison herself (below) was very much part of the appeal of the place, even though, as of 1996,  she began dividing her time between SoHo and Sagaponack,  where she opened an eponymous branch. 
    Then, after 9/11 obliterated the business community in Lower Manhattan and drove away clientele, Alison closed her restaurant and moved to the Hamptons, moved her restaurant to Bridghampton, then closed that one in 2008.  She did some restaurant consulting and product development, but an offer came along and, shrugging her shoulders, she hired back her chef, Robert Gurvich, and took on the always daunting task of opening a new, 117-seat restaurant, complete with rotisserie, this time in the West Village.

    The handsome décor, beginning in the bar, takes on colors of aubergine and taupe, with red tablecloths and hanging modern chandeliers, with framed mirrors and whimsical, with designed figured wallpaper, Payton Cosell. The room has a very admirable decibel level, which Alison demanded of her architects, so that conversation can take place throughout the night, probably with Alison herself, who is ever eager to tell you about her newborn restaurant and all that went into it.
    "We're not trying to re-invent the wheel with the food here," she told me. "Robert is doing straightforward cooking with a great deal of flavor in a style that I think most of our guests love."  That translates as big flavors based on first-rate ingredients, plated with restraint, and, with plenty of main courses under $35, she's hitting a sweet spot for most people's dining out budgets,  also reflected in the solid, well-chosen winelist that Alison herself put together to reflect her own tastes in combination with her food.  (I did not try the 35-day aged sirloin, but it's worth noting that it's priced at $45, with shoestring potatoes and Béarnaise sauce; compare that to the $49 charged for sirloins at NYC steakhouses, with no potatoes and for sauce you pay extra.)
    One of the best of the appetizers is grilled quail, meaty and cooked crisp and juicy, with perfectly tender sweet potato risotto, a little sage to brighten the dish and sauce verjus. Polenta with wild mushrooms, parmesan and olive oil doesn't sound all that wonderful but this is one of the best elevations of this humble corn porridge I've had in NYC, delicious in every forkful, the woodsiness of the mushrooms buoying its simplicity.  Foie gras a la plancha came beautifully seared, pink inside, with grilled figs and toasted brioche, a classic rendering of fine, fatted duck liver, though the portion that night was on the small side.  Good, if nothing to rave about, was
white bean and kale soup with smoked ham hocks.

    Again, I must mention that Gurvich's cooking imbues everything with a concentration of flavor, not least in his seafood, which includes black bass with artichokes, cannellini beans, cockles and the bite of chorizo; halibut is braised in olive oil, to give that mild fish a richness it otherwise lacks, with chanterelles, leeks, and Brussels sprouts.

    Among the meat entrees there's a thick and fatted grilled pork chop enhanced by tender, garlicky broccoli di rabe and a touch of chili, with sweet roasted apples and a bracing shot of vinegar to pull it all together. From the rotisserie, we had the lamb shoulder, which took very well to that turning spit, coming off tender, not at all dry, with roasted vegetables, a good buy at $27. If you like, have the side dish of rutabaga and potato gratin.
     Desserts, by Ted Kanellopoulos (formerly at The Four Seasons), are unfussy gems, from the beignets with lemon cream and milk chocolate sauce to the rich caramel chocolate tart and the franzipan cake with poached spiced pear and salted caramel ice cream.

    It's wonderful to have Alison back, if only to restore some balance and sense to an increasingly frenetic and too often gimmicky restaurant scene in NYC, where chefs and owners seem to be trying so hard to come up with something merely new rather than truly good. Alison and Gurvich toe a classic line of good taste, which is what good food is always supposed to be.

Alison Eighteen is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., brunch on weekends, dinner nightly. Breakfast  pastry and cheese kiosk open daily. 
Appetizers run $12-$28, main courses $26-$45.



Chianti Raises Its Image by Changing Its Stripes
by John Mariani

     Chianti used to be so simple. It was the pizza wine you bought in a green bottle in a straw (later plastic) basket called a fiasco. Even if it wasn’t all that good, you could always use it afterwards as a candleholder. It was the wine on the table of every movie scene set in Italian restaurant, even the romantic dogs’ dinner in  “Lady and the Tramp” and a “nice bottle of Kee-ann-tee” was the preferred wine Hannibal the Cannibal drank with his dinner of liver and fava beans in the movie  “Silence of the Lambs.” (Pssst! In the book it was Amarone.)
         That plonky image has been outdated for quite some time. Starting in the 1970s, well-heeled, market savvy innovators like aristocrats Marchesi Piero Antinori of Antinori upgraded not just their own image but that of all Chiantis in Tuscany (below), helping the entire region obtain the prestigious D.O.C.G. appellation from the Italian government, that guarantees their high quality among Italian wines along with strict standards that go into making the wines.  Indeed, if a vintage proves inferior, Chianti Classico can be labeled only as lowly vino da tavola (“table wine”), a demotion that has never actually happened. In 1996 the Classico zone received a separate D.O.C.G. appellation to distinguish it from the rest in Tuscany. The Classico regional consortium, founded in 1924 with 33 members, now has more than 600 producers.
         Chianti Classico must now be made with a minimum of 80 percent sangiovese grapes—based on modern, healthier clones--with up to 20 percent canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon or other grapes allowed. Beginning in 2006 the long tradition of blending in white trebbiano and malvasia grapes was no longer permitted. Also, the old “governo” process, by which unfermented grape juice is added to young wines to restart fermentation in order to make the wines marketable at an earlier date, is now very rarely done anywhere.
         Which leads to the question of just how different Chianti is today from what it was since the name was first protected way back in 1716. It was a legitimate query that came up at a media luncheon at New York’s Morrell Wine Bar & Café held by the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico. One wine writer complained that he missed the lighter style and taste of what Chianti used to taste like, preferring more traditional examples from less prestigious regions like Colli Aretini, Montalbano, Colli Senesi, and Rufina to the fuller-bodied Classicos.
         I understood his nostalgic sentiment but also believe that Chianti Classico is a much finer wine than it ever was, with more complexity and body, even if the alcohol levels are creeping up.
         The food, by Chef Jake Klein, was chosen to go with the wines, rather than vice versa, to show off stylistic differences: with herb-smoked buffalo mozzarella, fried porcini and candied artichokes (left), a very big, still very tannic 2007 Castello di Monsanto Riserva ($20 retail) showed those bold black cherry flavors I associate with the sangiovese grape. Terrabianca Scassino 2007 ($19), with a minty edge went very well with a chestnut puree with sweet spices and green onion. Roasted duck breast with rosemary pound cake and tart cherry needed a drier, less fruity wine than the 14 percent alcohol Fontodi 2008 ($30) that showed an overly lush style that reminded me of some California sangiovese experiments.
    Castello La Leccia 2009 ($16) showed its fruit and acid in a youthful balance, with pleasing, loose tannins, while a 2007 San Fabiano Calcinaia Cellole Riserva ($27) proved the intensity of a riserva style (riservas must spend 24 months aging, three in bottle), with delicious black pepper and mint giving it a power that, while impressive, seemed a real divergence from the traditional subtleties I associate with fine Chianti Classico.
         All the savory dishes that day had sweet elements that Chianti Classico bonds to very well, but the serving of a Querciabella 2008 ($26), light in body and more in the old familiar style, didn’t click with a dessert of floating island, hot chocolate and Graham cracker. I would have matched it with an aged Tuscan caprino cheese.
         Overall, I thought the wines showed well, with the distinctive flavors of the sangiovese grape preserved within the many stylizations of a wine that has moved out of the pizzeria into the ristorante.  Then again, pizza has now become fashionable, maybe the two can still make for an honorable marriage. But finding one of those Chiantis in a fiasco isn’t so easy anymore.

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.



Convicted Michael Jackson killer Conrad Murray, who narrowly escaped being shanked last month in the L.A. County Jail, is now claiming that the prison food might end up killing him if he doesn't get out. Murray says he is "extremely sick" with dysentery, and has dropped 30 pounds since November from a diet Murray claims is mostly "cat food" purchased at the commissary.


Actress Alicia Silverstone (right) posted a video of herself feeding her 11-month old son, Bear Blu, breakfast after chewing it in her mouth and passing it to his. “I fed Bear the mochi and a tiny bit of veggies from the soup," she said. "It’s his favorite and mine. He literally crawls across the room to attack my mouth if I’m eating. This video was taken about a month or 2 ago when he was a bit wobbly. Now he is grabbing my mouth to get the food!”



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

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan) 
has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It 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

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, 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 influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, 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  linked to 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: 6 Roman Resources; Is This the Most Dangerous Road in the World?

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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© copyright John Mariani 2012