Virtual Gourmet

  October 21,  2012                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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For the next two Tuesdays, in NYC, the French Institute Alliance Française, John Mariani, and special culinary guests will be hosting films (with English subtitles) that celebrate the importance of food and wine in French culture. The series is as follows: Oct. 23: "Romantics Anonymous" (2010) with a chocolate tasting with Lauren Gerbaud (at 5:30 PM); Oct. 30: "Entre les Bras" (2010) with guest host chef Jean-Louis Gérin. All screenings will be held at at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street at 7:30 PM, followed by Q&A with host. Tickets $10.  For info click here.



by John Mariani


by John Mariani


So You Wanna Run a Wine Tasting?

by John Mariani




by John Mariani

The Swann Fountain

    For reasons that have more to do with a sheer lack of awareness than an empirical knowledge, too many people don't give Philadelphia's restaurant scene anything like the credit it is due, despite a long history of restaurants dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, if you want to sense what it was like to eat out in Philly with some of the Founding Fathers back in 1776, you might try the replication of City Tavern on South 2nd Street, and to gauge just how varied the contributions of various European food culture has been to America, a trip to the vast Reading Terminal Market will show the indelible marks made by Pennsylvania Dutch, Italians, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Japanese, and others all in one marvelous place. Local entrepreneur Stephen Starr can rightly be called one of the real innovators in the restaurant business for launching Alma de Cuba, Buddakan, Morimoto, El Vez and others. In addition, never a year goes by when Philly doesn't have a bunch of fine new restaurants or some fine new chefs taking over at established places.  Here is what's happening in the city right now.


440 South Broad Street

         At a time when a few media-fueled American cooks believe their customers’ discomfort is a way of “challenging” them, Kevin Sbraga (below) is a chef who regards his clientele as guests who deserve a genial respect for choosing to dine at his place. You are greeted warmly in the kind of homey place of which Mitt Romney might say, “The ceilings are the right height.” You are then served a four-course dinner you won’t soon forget, and  at a remarkable price--$49. (It was one of my top 20 New Restaurants for 2012 in Esquire this month.)
    The 60-seat dining room is bright and cheery, with tablecloths that reflect light, and a wonderful contrast of slatted old wood and shiny new stainless steel, all in cool colors.
    Sbraga keeps the menu short, so he can concentrate on every dish that goes out from the fire—a fine balance of sweet and hot in cider-glazed sturgeon with bok choy, kim chee and apple; lusty, fat lamb belly with ham, peas and onions and a complex curry sauce; the venison-foie gras terrine with sweet and sour eggplant has just the right mix of gaminess, creaminess, tart and sweet complementary flavors, and octopus comes with a hot piri piri sauce whose bite is tamed by a silky tapenade. The country-fried lobster with okra, sprouts, and onion ($16 supplement) is a revelation of how a delicate flesh and flavor can really be transformed by deft frying technique. Already Sbraga's sublimated meatloaf (left), with carrots, wild  mushrooms and a hazelnut crust, has become a signature dish, exemplary American cooking. Like everything here, desserts are seasonally driven; when I dined there it was time for a strawberry-rhubarb streusel with vanilla ice cream. Now, there's a pumpkin mousse with pecans and pomegranates. Four splendid courses, for $49. Pretty amazing.
    How does Sbraga do it? Backwards, actually.
Everywhere else I’ve worked, they decided on what they wanted to serve, then set the price,” he says. Here we decided on the price first, then figured out what we could offer our guests within that range without sacrificing creativity or quality.  By doing that and by offering smaller portions in a pre-fixe menu, we’re able to provide guests with a comprehensive, complete experience at a price where we can still be successful.”
    Now that's the kind of thinking that pretty much guarantees success at a time when so much razzle-dazzle cooking makes headlines that fade fast.

Sbraga is open for dinner Mon.-Sat.;Dinner $49 plus optional $35 wine pairing.

111 South 17th Street

    Of all the chain concepts in America, none seems to do a more consistent job than the steakhouse genre.  Maybe it's because the rubrics of the menu were set so long ago and because the expectations of manly customers are high when they're willing to pay top dollar for a piece of good beef.  But the Davio's chain, started in 1985 by Steve DiFillippo in Boston’s Back Bay, goes a good deal further with the genre, by offering more of the kind of Italian dishes that are only on other chains' menus by default. There are now Davio's locations in Foxborough, MA, Philadelphia, and a new location in Atlanta.

         The Philadelphia restaurant takes advantage of the city’s historic cast.  Set on the second floor, the huge, long dining room retains an intimacy by being intelligently broken up but not closed off, and the Federalist-style windows, columns, and tapestry upholstery give you a sense of easy refinement, which is also part of the modus operandi of the staff, led by manager Ettore Ceraso.

         In the kitchen veteran chefs David Boyle and Bennett Hollberg oversee a menu that ranges widely, from crispy fried oysters and Hawaiian tuna tartar to a trademarked Philly Cheese Steak Spring Roll with homemade ketchup (they sell these packaged), from pappardelle with jumbo crab meat and artichokes.
    The night I was there, I actually hosted the dinner and signed my latest book, How Italian Food Conquered the World, so we had a set menu that began with silky prosciutto with black Mission figs, olive oil, and balsamico, followed by potato gnocchi with a braised beef bolognese sauce of veal, beef and pork.  A massive bistecca Florentine really did have the heft and juiciness of the Florentine original, served with cream, Parmigiano herb polenta and a fennel marmalade.   For dessert there was a lemoncello torta with blackberry compote and lemoncello sorbet.

    It was a sumptuous meal, beautifully served in a style that is often in contrast to the machismo of many steakhouses still bound to a 1930s tradition of decor and shrugging hospitality.  Add to that Davio's extensive menu and you have a template for what a steakhouse in 2012 should be.    

 Davio's serves breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly. Dinner appetizers $9-$18, pastas $17-$33, main courses $27-$51.



N Squared Productions Public Relations Campaign

The Four Seasons Hotel
1 Logan Square

    For decades this has been the finest, most sophisticated restaurant in the city, excellent for business breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a superb panorama on the beautiful Swann Fountain. The décor has been modified over the years, brightened and given a bit more casual appointments (though the new servers’ outfits need rethinking), and there have been only a few chef changes in the last 25 years.

The new-ish guys are exec chef Rafael Gonzalez and chef de cuisine Peter Rosenblatt, who have cannily maintained the haute cuisine of the menu with American swagger, and the lunch menu, which  enjoyed recently, is full of choices, including sandwiches and a burger rendered with the same sophistication as the entrees in the evening.

A must-try is “Lobster chopped” (below), brimming with poached Maine lobster, heirloom tomato, smoked bacon, avocado and a buttermilk biscuit you will want  more than one of.  There’s even a matzo ball soup here, of course, made with Amish chicken. Wild rick shrimp tempura is crisp and the right texture, with avocado, yuzu, sriracha rémoulade, and Truleaf purple cabbage.

    If you are just up for a salad, your choice is well rewarded with a defining way with good old Iceberg lettuce, crisp and cold, with Maytag Bleu, pancetta bacon, grape tomato, sweet and salty pinenuts, and balsamic vinegar.  Another of those Amish chickens is seared under a brick in a hot skillet, becoming crispy and juicy, served with Gouda-infused grits, baby spinach, buttermilk onions and a tangy caper jus.  As for that burger, well, it’s way more than a mouthful—with truffles, mushrooms, Sottocenere cheese, and a black truffle aioli just to gild the lily.

    As noted, the sandwiches are terrific here, including my favorite American invention after the hamburger, the club sandwich, here done with crispy chicken paillard, pancetta, butter lettuce, tomato,  and chive mayo on excellent toast. It’s all in the details, as is the case with everything at Fountain.
    For dessert, don't quibble.  Soufflés are a requisite splurge at a grand dining room like this.  If you wonder about the demise of civilized dining, look no further than Fountain.


Fountain is open for breakfast daily, for lunch Mon.-Sat., dinner Tues.-Sat. Lunch appetizers $11-$26, main courses $24-$37. 


N Squared Productions Public Relations Campaign

1311 Sansom Street

    Brother and sister
George and Vasiliki Tsiouris have given Philadelphia a first-rate and quite lovely Greek restaurant without any pretensions, and it lives up to its name, which is the traditional Greek exclamation of good spirits, with they provide within a modern setting with a wooden canopy ceiling, a river rock bar, candlelight, oak tables, and very comfortable banquettes, all with Aegean blue colors throughout.
    I cannot go on as enthusiastically as I'd like, because the chef has changed since I dined at Opa, but I take the Tsiourises (right) at their word when they swear they are maintaining the quality and the entire cast of the menu.  Thus, if the food is now close to what it was this summer, I'd recommend, without elaboration, dishes like
the gyros of grilled lamb with yogurt sauce, cucumber, onion and tomato; cured and grilled octopus (right), with a chickpea fondue and chili oil; pan-seared yellowfin tuna with pickled vegetables and shoestring potatoes; braised rabbit wit olives and capers over pasta and shaved kefalotiri cheese; and swordfish with potatoes, tomatoes, lemon and green beans; and for dessert the wonderful loukoumades beignets with honey, cinnamon, walnuts, and spiced banana, and baklava in crispy phyllo with fig ice cream.
    The wine lists has a good selection of modern Greek bottlings at very fair prices. as well as an array of flavored ouzos.
    In the spirit of the name, you'll have a delightful--and not expensive--time at Opa and I feel sure you'll be well cared for by the proud and gracious George and Vasiliki.


Opa is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon.-Sat. Dinner appetizers $8-$14, main courses $13-$17.

251 South 18th Street

  Rittenhouse Tavern certainly has one of the loveliest settings in Philadelphia, inside the  historic Wetherill Mansion, one of the grand houses left on Rittenhouse Square and now home to the Art Alliance of Philadelphia.  As such, it takes advantage of all the decorous woodwork, lighting, and design of the majestic structure, with  four indoor and outdoor spaces—a main dining room, salon, bar area and cobblestoned, al fresco garden.  Do check out the beautiful 1920s mural of geese by Richard Blossom Farley in the main dining room.

    The kitchen has impressive credentials, beginning with local chef chef Nicholas Elmi, who collaborates with NYC’s highly regarded Ed Brown (below), so the style is definitely contemporary American with some regard for the melting pot food culture of Philadelphia.

    You may begin with some pleasant bar snacks like crispy frogs’ legs with Philadelphia cream cheese, or the white bean toast with Speck oven-dried tomato, and arugula.  Among the appetizers, I liked best the roasted sweetbread salad with tiny carrots, mustard seeds, carrot butter, and sherry vinegar. An ivory-colored wild mushroom soup was lovely to look at, but didn't have much flavor, not helped by a cocoa nib or mild walnut milk. Nor was there much flavor in the polenta soup with ricotta.

    Saltiness plagued several of the dishes I tried, which meant the more natural flavors were masked, but I loved the scallops with a rhubarb reduction, sweet white asparagus, and English peas, and wild bass was nicely cooked, with chewy Tuscan kale, mushrooms, and a hibiscus-red wine sauce.  A rack of Berkshire pork with crisp belly, purple mustard, quinoa crust and endive was a splashy dish but it didn't add up to all that much in taste or texture.

    There is a separate spot on the menu for “Sunday fried chicken supper” at a remarkable $18 per person, giving you half a chicken with buttermilk biscuits and, the night I was there, marshmallow sweet potatoes, a dish that need not be brought back.  The fried chicken was good and juicy, as it should be after being salt-brined for many hours and cooked Sous-Vide, but frankly, I can't imagine going to all that elaborate process when most fried chicken cooks elsewhere would make a crispier, less salty dish than this.

    For dessert, I recommend the dark chocolate tart with milk crumble, and caramelized milk ice cream.

    The wine list is surprisingly short, only about 30 bottlings, when a place of this serious purpose should have a serious list. 


The restaurant serves lunch, Tues.-Fri., dinner Tues.-Sun.; Brunch, Sat. & Sun. Dinner appetizers run  $9-$16, main courses $19-$28.


N Squared Productions Public Relations Campaign



by John Mariani

181 West 10th Street (corner of 7th Avenue)

    Charm is not so easy to come by  these days, when cramped, loud, barebones lunch counters pass for restaurants, so sitting down to dine at Bobo is as restorative as it is delicious.  Owner Carlos Suarez (who also has the new Rosemary’s across the road) was inspired to create at Bobo the “joy of having friends over for dinner,” and arriving at the top of the stairs at this Greenwich Village and entering the small dining room you may well think that us exactly the case.

   Bobo looks like the dining room of a friend with impeccable, highly personalized taste, with family photos on the walls, crisp linens and napery on the tables, an ornate turn-of-the-century fireplace and mirror, tall windows with long curtains, and glass beads hanging from the ceiling. The tufted banquettes are just asking to be occupied all night long.

         Add to this an extremely courteous waitstaff and a serious commitment to well-made cocktails, and you have the kind of place that one would like to think Greenwich Village is full of, which is no longer the case at all.

         Suarez has brought aboard a fine, well-known young chef, Cedric Tovar, formerly at Town and Peacock Alley, and his cuisine is of a sort that he might well serve at his home on Sunday afternoons, especially now in autumn when flavors like butternut squash soup with cardamom whipped cream, salted pumpkin seed for crunch, and a sweet-sour huckleberry coulis come into bloom.

         There are classics here like steak tartare (below) with fresh potato chips, frisée salad with crisp bacon lardons and pork belly, topped with an oozy poached egg. Ravioli is stuffed not with ricotta but with very rich Comte cheese, adrift in a creamy mushroom broth and dusted with Parmesan.

         Main courses range from scallops that have been crusted with pumpkin seeds, with braised spaghetti squash, and a delightful ginger carrot sauce, to steak au poivre very with French fries.  I love skate, and here it is à la grenobloise, with parsley root, braised salsify, and preserved lemon coulis.  Tovar poaches lobster in butter and thyme and teams it with sauteed mushrooms, watercress veloute, and grilled broccoli di rabe, while the big splurge on the menu is a piece du boucher, a 12 ounce, 28-day dry aged strip steak with bone marrow, bordelaise sauce, and your choice of a side dish like pommes purée of pommes frites.   
    There's a fine selection of cheeses I availed myself of--inckluding a raw goat's milk from Sofia Farm in Greenville, Indiana, and a Great Hill Blue from Marion, Massachusetts.  For dessert, how can you turn down  a Valrhona "Mars" chocolate mousse with crunchy chocolate shell or Black Mission fig sable with vanilla ice cream and fig jam?
    Bobo is a place with its warm personality out in front of its charming ambiance, where every dish seems to complement the intent to please you and make you feel a cherished guest.    

Bobo serves BRUNCH:  SAT – SUN; DINNER NIGHTLY; Appetizers run $12-$17, main courses $27-$48.



So You Wanna Run a Wine Tasting?
by John Mariani

    I once knew a wine writer—always with a buzz on—who exulted that he’d tasted his way through 120 wines at an international exposition.  Now, my job as a wine writer has its joys, but tasting my way through 120 wines, or 80 wines—which is about par for a judge at a wine competition—is not one of them.
    Such a slog is not only hard work but palate fatigue sets in early, so that the 46th wine you taste is never going to have quite the luster of the third, and by number 75, you are in agony and in need of a shower.

    Still, the idea of holding your own wine tasting at home or in a restaurant can be one of the most convivial of pleasures, as long as you go about it the right way, starting with whom you invite.

    Basically, there are three kinds of people who drink wine: those who kind of like it, those who truly love it, and those who regard it as a study in one-upmanhsip.  Only the second type is any fun at a wine tasting, especially if you’re going to be serving some expensive wines that the first group will shrug at and the third will sniff and go into discourses about the wines’ Ph level and the vineyards’ trellising techniques.
Once you’ve chosen your jolly group (please skip the black tie request!), there are certain guidelines that make such tastings a great deal of fun.

1.      Never serve more than six wines.  Less is hardly worth the effort and more becomes a bore.

2.      Will it be a blind tasting?  If so, cover the bottles with a paper bag to hide the labels, making sure the shape of the bottle is not evident. (Pinot noirs and rieslings always come in distinctively shaped bottles.) Number them and keep the list out of sight.

3.       If it’s not a blind tasting, rather than have a random selection of wines, choose one region, say Tuscany, or a single estate, say, Jordan cabernet. If the former, a horizontal tasting of a single vintage will give interesting insight into the differences of wines from the same region; if the latter, have a vertical tasting, that is, from different vintages of the same wine.

4.       Use standard wineglasses for all the wines and pour only about an ounce or so to begin with. Later your guests can enjoy whatever they like most.

5.       Have plain water available to help clear the palate between wines.

Crackers or bread is customarily made available, also to clear the palate, chosen because they are bland and do not interfere with the wine flavors. But I believe it is much better to serve crackers like Saltines or bread like focaccia whose salt works as salt always does—to perk up flavors. I’ve also found that a little fat, along with the salt, brings out much more depth in wines you taste, so put a sheer amount of salted butter, or olive oil, on the bread. It works wonders.

7.       If you are serving the wines with dinner—and I heartily recommend you do so—keep the food very, very simple, like mild cheese, chicken broth, a steak, or, if you’re tasting white wines, fillet of fish. 

8.      You might have guests taste all the wines prior to dinner—remember, you’re only sampling six—then match them with dinner. For the real point of tasting wines is that they go best with food, and with few exceptions, aren’t worth much without food, not even a glass of Champagne without at least a canape.

9.       During the discussion, try to keep the conversation lively (remember, you didn't invite the wine snobs to lecture anyone), and it’s a capital idea to have a few choice observations from great writers handy for toasts like these:

-“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.”—Thomas Jefferson.

--“Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,/ Sermons and soda-water the day after.”—Lord Byron.

--“Wine, madam, is God’s next best gift to man.”—Ambrose Bierce.

--“It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I believe you’ll be amused by its presumption.”—James Thurber (left)

--“It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message.”—Ernest Hemingway.

   10. Print out the names of all the wines for guests to take home.

   11.  Finish every drop of every wine you open.

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.




According to British newspapers, Chef Marco Pierre White's ex-wife, Matilde Conejero, admitted damaging his Range Rover 
saying she broke the car's front and back windshields with a child's scooter, then wrote insulting graffiti on a wall with nail polish and some of her own blood, causing £12,000 of damage. Judge Philip Matthew adjourned sentencing, saying that  Conejero would not be facing a custodial sentence.



A British teenager named Gaby Scanlon had her stomach surgically removed  after drinking a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at Oscar's Wine Bar in Lancaster after allegedly drinking a "Pornstar Martini," consisting of passion fruit, vanilla vodka, pineapple juice, Champagne, and Chanson, and liquid nitrogen, to create a smoky effect.  . . . Meanwhile, in Miami, FL, a man collapsed and died after eating dozens of the live bugs like cockroaches and worms.


 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--Now in Paperback, too--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:

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).

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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