Virtual Gourmet

  March 17,  2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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ANNOUNCEMENT: John Mariani will be part of two events at the Tennessee Williams Festival, to be held March 20-24.  On Friday, at 5:30 P.M.:  "RESTAURANT SCOOP FROM THE VIRTUAL GOURMET," wine, wit, and hors d’oeuvres. Mariani, a food columnist for Esquire, will give the scoop on the latest national restaurant trends. Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier Street, limited seating, $40. Sponsored by the Windsor Court Hotel. Sunday March 25: 11:30 A.M. "NEW ORLEANS FOOD MEMORIES ":  The Pelican Club Restaurant, 312 Exchange Alley, $25 limited seating. Sponsored by The Pelican Club Restaurant. For Festival Tickets click here.



                                                                IS GREENVILLE, SC, THE SOUTH'S BIG NEW FOOD CITY?
                                                                                           By John Mariani

Italian in Westchester
by John Mariani

Notes from the Wine Cellar 
Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its Own Against Bordeaux Wines
by John Mariani



          By John Mariani


    With big cities Atlanta, still lacking in Southern soul, and Nashville, finally capitalizing on its Music City heritage, and Savannah jockeying to be queen of historic beauty, with all of them battling it out to be the South’s best food city, a smaller, more interesting competition is going on between two South Carolina smaller cities—Charleston and Greenville, and despite the former’s gastro-surge and national media hype over of the last three years, Greenville is gaining fast.
Greenville has been called the "#1 North American City of the Future, 2009.”  The source of that assessment, Foreign Direct Investment, is not without reason: thanks to BMW's and Michelin's setting up their North American headquarters here, the highest per capita foreign investment in the here. (You may in fact put yourself behind a BeeMer on a track at the company's Performance Center, and Michelin has its own merchandise store downtown.) The city is also home to the International Center for Automotive Research, The Center for Emerging Technologies, Lockheed Martin Aircraft and Logistics Center, 3M, Honeywell, Caterpillar Inc., and , General Electric. all of them pouring millions into Greenville’s development, charity and the arts.
    The Greenville County Museum of Art (left) feature works by
Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keeffe, and more than two dozen paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who called this "the very best collection of my watercolors in any public museum in this country."  There is a performing arts center and little theater in Greenville, too. The city holds a Shakespeare Festival in the summer, a Pumpkin Festival in the fall, and when I visited on a bright late winter day, a mini-marathon was in full flow throughout the downtown area.
    What is really amazing is that within a mile-and-a-half stretch of Main Street, there are now more than 110 restaurants, overwhelmingly locally owned, including a brand new French bakery, Legrand Bakery (left), turning out fine, warm baguettes and croissants just out of the morning's oven, along with French pastries. 

    There’s Vietnamese food at Pho Noodleville, Jamaican at Island Blend Jerk & Grill, and a slew of sushi restaurants. 
Among the best of these is Red Fin whose crew is turning out some of the best Nobu-style sushi I’ve tasted in the South. The place is owned by Matt Wuhrman, who after jumping out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne and 25 months of duty in Iraq, came back to the U.S. in 2010, worked bars and nightclubs, moved to and fell in love with Greenville, and, with an investment partner, opened Red Fin, with a night scene downstairs (below) and family dining upstairs.
     The menu is long, starting with various appetizers and salads, with about two dozen sushi and sashimi items listed, though dependent on what's good that day in the market.  The sushi rolls (above) are excellent, ranging from a tuna-avocado roll to specialties like the "bagel roll" with smoked, salmon, creamed cheese, and avocado. No one should miss the dishes cooked on a searing stone of Himalayan salt blocks that you cook on to your degree of doneness, from beef carpaccio to jumbo shrimp. There's a choice of any three items for a remarkable $17.

    As in Charleston, this food revolution has occurred very recently; even five years ago chain eateries dominated the culinary landscape. A
catalyst for change early on was the 15-year-old Soby’s where Chef Shaun C. Garcia made a stand for Southern traditions honed to a casual, fine dining glow, as in his lobster mac & cheese with truffled Parmesan streusel, and his shrimp and grits with Low Country ham and creamy wine sauce.
, owned by the same 301 Restaurant Group that owns Soby’s, is located in the historic American Cigar Factory, packed nightly with an upscale crowd that comes for contemporary American cuisine by Chef Spencer Thompson, like grilled beef deckle with Brussels sprouts and bacon lardons, and “deconstructed s’mores” made with smoked chocolate that evoke the campfire nights. His “Ultimate Menu” at $120 features ten “spontaneous courses.” The wine list is more than 200 labels strong.
    One of the true innovators here—whom I, in Esquire,  three years ago designated a “Chef to Keep Your Eye On”—is Victoria Ann Moore at The Lazy Goat, who brought into the city a wide array of Mediterranean flavors and ideas, from charcuterie of Jamón Serrano Ibérico, Italian salami, and Spanish country cheeses to dishes like succulent braised pork belly with cannellini bean cassoulet and papas bravas potatoes with fire onions, chorizo, and saffron aïoli.
      The historic Westin Poinsett Hotel (below), where every Greenville girl dreams of having her wedding reception and where George Clooney filmed parts of the movie “Leatherheads," has a new gastro-pub called Nose Dive, where Chef Joey Pearson does a sensationally good housemade pretzel (below) lavished with deviled crab and white cheddar that goes well with the array of beers like RJ Rockers Bell Ringer Ale made in Spartanburg, SC, and Thomas Creek River Falls red made right in town.
  For brunch—go early, the place has a line out the door by eleven AM—hit The Green Room for the zesty cilantro-lime remoulade-laced crab cakes, and don't miss the signature meatloaf (left) that never goes off the menu. Start off with a bloody Mary or one of their signature cocktails like the Baked Apple Martini or Pomegranate Margarita, especially good with those crabcakes, then consider the short rib mini tacos with sushi rice, or the shrimp and grits with spicy andouille sausage, diced tomatoes, scallions and a seasoned shrimp broth.
    The city’s newest hotspot is Roost on Main Street, a very handsome, expansive restaurant with open kitchen (below) manned by Chef Trevor Higgins, a wall of hanging country hams, and the sleek Roost Bar. Being in a hotel, that kitchen must do breakfast, lunch and dinner, or as they call it here, supper.  The last might begin steamed buns packed with bratwurst and kimchee, or blue crab beignets drizzled with honey and a little bacon powder.    The wine list is strong and building.  Just about everything is as locally sourced as possible, from lettuce to pigs, from mustards to grits, and it tastes that way in dishes like the yard bird with biscuit dumplings.
    A ways out of town is the area's best Italian restaurants with an inherited name, Coal Fired Bistro & Wine, that doesn't do justice to the depth and breadth of the menu here. A new director of operations has moved CFB&W away from pizza and towards modern Italian cuisine and has stocked the wine list with a good selection of bottlings.  I began with excellent pulled mozzarella on toasted bruschetta with tangy pickled shallots, a splash of balsamic, and oven-dried tomatoes. The Butcher's Board (left) was generously laid out with housemade sausages, rillettes, pâté, pickles and mustards.  I tried four pastas that night, and one was better than the next. First up was tender mushroom ravioli with Oregon truffle and lush mascarpone; then sweet butternut squash agnolotti with sage cream, brown butter, and Benton's country prosciutto.  Cappellini alla carbonara used smoked guanciale, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Bethel Trails Farm egg yolk to bind it into a glossy marriage of flavors; last was tender tagliatelle with abundant chunks of lobster, spinach, mushrooms, and tarragon-scented brandy cream.
    The 18-pounce bone-in strip steak was highly recommended and I found out why on first bite--it is a great piece of beef impeccably cooked, with a peppery panzanella salad, some strong Gorgonzola, olives, arugula, and sweet onion, a very good buy for this quality at $45.
    Desserts were O.K.,  but didn't quite match what preceded them.
  One of the happiest and most popular openings in town is Joe Fenten’s Dark Corner Distillery (right), which makes—unabashedly—handcrafted moonshine right on the Main Street premises. You can do a tasting there of bottlings named Cock Lightning, Hot Mamma, Honeysuckle, and Green Villain Shines.  The store is named after Glassy Mountain Township known for two centuries as Dark Corner, famous for its moonshine culture.  Their small batch bourbon has been sold out for months now, with another batch along any year now.
    Charleston has a friendly fight on its hands as Greenville grows in sophistication, fueled by foreign investments that makes the idea of my returning regularly to both Southern cities a very delectable prospect.




by John Mariani

    Westchester County teems with Italian restaurants, far too many with a cookie-cut menu of popular items done without much distinction from one another.  Two that do soar  beyond the rest are also among the best looking, and both reside in the County's most affluent bedroom community of Scarsdale.


874 Scarsdale Avenue

    Restaurateur Mario Fava has had a longstanding reputation in Westchester, first for Lusardi's in Larchmont, and, since 2001, for Moscato's in Scarsdale. He has never been one to skimp on service or generosity, and his prices have remained reasonable for a high quality of cuisine.
    The atmosphere inside Moscato is warm both in color and décor as in greeting, and on any given night the majority of guests are likely to be area locals; weekends are always jammed.  In good weather you can happily dine al fresco on the patio, even if the view of Scarsdale Avenue  isn't quite the Via Veneto.
    There are all sorts of ways to go at Moscato, since each food category offers a wide choice; so you might gorge on antipasti, which includes a very good pizza of the day, or order a half portion of pastas and a main course.  My wife and I took the recommendations of the management and dined across the board, beginning with a generous appetizer portion of grilled sausage over arugula, endive, mushrooms, and sliced parmigiano drizzled with truffle oil.  Crespelle alla fiorentina--not found often enough elsewhere--are rolled eggplant crêpes with a rich ricotta filling, spinach, and a light tomato sauce with melted fontina.
    Among the pastas--a choice of 14 each night--are an array of shapes and styles, from agnolotti alla Moscato, filled with Parmigiano in a chunky tomato sauce with peas and mint--a good rendering of a Roman classic.  Trofie al pesto is a fine example of lusty Ligurian cookery, and Emilia-Romagna is just as well represented by the excellent bolognese ragù mixed with wide pappardelle.
    For our main courses we enjoyed a fat veal chop with the added pleasure of figs, in a hearty barolo and cognac sauce, served with green beans, and a mixed grill of dorade, scallops, and Arctic char over a bed of lightly sautéed spinach and a touch of sweet limoncello to give it depth.

    The wine list at Moscato should fulfill anyone's pleasure, and the prices are reasonable.

    It is easy enough to enjoy Moscato for the food alone, but you will most probably be won over as a regular by the sense of hospitality here that makes you feel like one the moment you arrive.

Moscato is open  daily for lunch and dinner. Antipasti $13-$15, pastas (full portions) $17-$21, main courses $22-$28.

2 Weaver Street

    The building in which Massa' is housed has a long history, first as a carriage house, then a train station for a railroad that once ran through this part of the county, a brothel convenient for those getting on and off the train, and a series of restaurants over the past 60 years, most of them negligible.  Yet it's a very charming space--one of the most impressive in the region, with vaulted cathedral ceilings and a turret-like  structure with echoes of faux-Tudor and Bavarian in its lines.  Heathcote itself, named after colonial Lord of the Scarsdale Manor, Caleb Heathcote, is now mostly an intersection, and coming upon this odd building is something of a fairy tale surprise.
    Father and son Pasquale, the executive chef,  and Francesco Coli renovated the interior with century-old reclaimed wood salvaged from New England barn houses, a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and wood floors. From the outside it doesn't much resemble the architecture of  the masserias, farmhouses in Puglia from which the restaurant takes its name, but inside it is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the TriState region.  The touches of refinement add to the pleasure of dining here, from two starched white tablecloths to votive candles, which throws an enchanting light once common to civilized dining.  A good basket of bread is set on the table with olive oil for dipping; a plate of complementary parmesan chunks is set before you, along with olives.  If you forgot your eyeglasses, they will bring you a selection to choose from. Your contentment is considered part of the ambiance here.
     On the second floor, there is a popular wine bar with a small menu of appetizers and a fuller menu available to go with Massa's excellent wine list, with offerings by the glass (50 selections), quartino, bottle and large format. The bar makes signature infused vodkas for their special cocktails. Try a couple; they're very good.

    Pasquale and chef Michael Mazzei set a menu with just enough variety to cause you either to come back for favorites or to try something new month after month.  An appetizer of bluefin tuna carpaccio over crisp arugula, shaved fennel, and capers dressed with olive oil is a first-rate starter; fried zucchini with a marinara dipping sauce were addictive, if a little oily that night.  Of the pastas we tried, the pappardelle with a very rich, chunky wild boar ragù was outstanding--one of the best renditions of this dish I've had.  But I swooned over the manicotti here, with a light tomato sauce, partly out of nostalgia for a dish that once graced every Italian menu but has long out of fashion, but also out of the realization of how very delicious the dish can be when made with a light hand and a finely textured pasta.  I would be hard put not to order this again and again here.
     I might mention that, despite the Coli's proud Puglian heritage, there isn't much that could be called Puglian on the menu besides an orrechiette pasta with sweet sausage and cavatelli with broccoli pesto. It would be wonderful to see specials like the layered tiella, the calzone-like puddica, triglie (mullet) alla pugliese, and gnummeridi of lamb offal. Nevertheless, I can't argue with the quality of a huge, juicy breaded veal chop topped with Parmigiano, melted mozzarella and tomato sauce (the leftovers made for a good lunch the next day). And what's not to like about an American rack of lamb roasted to perfect succulence, with a balsamic reduction: again, the portion was gargantuan, and, at $34, a steal.
    The desserts at Massa' go beyond the usual: panettone cake was a warm bread pudding with silky crème anglaise and whipped cream, and a "deconstructed cannoli" was a little messy to eat but delicious.
    Massa's wine list is solid--the wine bar upstairs demands it--justly heavy in Italian bottlings with a good bounty of global wines too.  There are plenty of offerings under $50, which makes me wonder if they chargr $52 for the dreadful but bewilderingly popular Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio just so people are driven to try something better and less expensive.
    There's live music Thursday and Friday nights upstairs, but I like to sit on the balcony overlooking the main dining room, sip my wine, watch the votive candles flicker out at night's end, and feel that everything at Massa' has coalesced into a beautiful evening of good taste from start to finish.

Massa' is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner nightly. Appetizers run $11-$16, pasta (full portions) $16-$20, main courses $17-$36.

At the moment, Hudson Valley restaurant Week is in full swing,
until March 24th, featuring specially priced menus at scores of
restaurants from the south, east, west, and north of Westchester
County and up the Hudson River. For a list of participating restaurants
click the link above.



Spain’s Vega Sicilia Holds Its
Own Against the Best Bordeaux Wines

by John Mariani

    Twenty years ago few wine lovers outside of Spain ever talked about Spanish wine, with one exception: Vega Sicilia, long considered one of the greatest red wines in the world by connoisseurs who rank it alongside France’s Premier Cru Bordeaux.
Vega Sicilia has been produced in the Ribera del Duero region of northern Spain for almost 150 years, primarily from tempranillo grapes, usually blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec.

The name is something of a mystery but has nothing to do with the island of Sicily. Many believe it refers to Saint Cecilia, revered in this part of Spain. The winery was founded by Don Eloy Lacanda y Chaves in 1864, who brought French varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to the region.

Tempranillo is a thick-skinned grape that ripens early (the word temprano means “early”) and has power and concentration without high alcohol, between 13.5 and 14 percent alcohol.

The history of Vega Sicilia under various owners has had its ups and downs, but since being purchased by the Alvarez family in 1982, its eminence has been assured.

Last week, general manager Pablo Alvarez showcased a rare tasting of Vega Sicilia wines to the media and buyers at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. (The U.S. is the wine’s number one export market.)  Alvarez noted that “it is always difficult to make our wines. Every year is different, and every year presents its problems,” noting that the temperature in the vineyards can hit 105
° during the day, then drop 30° at night. In 2001 a frost killed off the entire crop of grapes in the vineyard.”
If the old wisdom is true that grapes must suffer to produce great wine, then Vega Sicilia overcomes hardships with admiral grace. “Our entire philosophy is to make a wine of great elegance,” said Alvarez.

In the tasting of six wines, this philosophy was borne out by silky, luscious wines with depth and vitality, even in old vintages.  The wine takes its time to mature and continues to do so for decade, which is why the producer does not release a vintage for at least ten years.

The exception to this is their lighter, leaner Valbuena 5
°, produced from somewhat younger vineyards and composed of tempranillo, merlot, and cabernet. The 2008 vintage I tasted was amazing for its depth and brightness, benefiting from a year of aging in new oak barrels, 3 months in older barrels, and 6 months in large oak vats.  It is just being released this year and should retail for $160 a bottle.
A 1998 Valbuena 5
° has been in the market for a decade and is no longer easy to find, but I located bottles on line at about $140.  The wine has a huge bouquet with enormous, but not plummy, fruit, long legs and a robust character amazing for a 15-year-old “lighter” wine.
We then tasted the Vega Sicilia "Unico," a Gran Reserva made from the vineyards oldest vines and not produced at all if the vintage is deemed unworthy of the label. The oldest we tasted, 1981, from a magnum bottle, revealed a slightly musty nose at first, but it blew off after a few minutes to reveal a wine still taut, not yet giving up its dimensional complexity. Its composition was 87 percent tempranillo and 13 percent cabernet. Released in 1998, it may still be found in magnum at $1000 to $1200, while the 50ml bottles available run between $300 to $550.

The 1994 vintage had more cabernet and merlot added to 80 percent tempranillo, and there was still plenty of grip and tannin, with a true tempranillo bite and a very dry finish. You can find it for about $500.

The youngster of the bunch was a 2004 vintage, with 87 percent tempranillo. It’s a very powerful wine though right now a little out of balance in its fruit, acid and tannins, a little jammy, but time will smooth it all out, maybe by next year when it is released.

The last wine is Vega Sicilia "Unico" signature Reserva Especial, a non-vintage blend of three wines from vintages that might date back decades. It is an artisanal, handcrafted wine, strictly allocated.  The wine I tasted was made in 2009 from 1990, 1994, and 1996 vintages, and it showed a magnificent complexity, with a very pretty nose, plenty of strawberry-like fruit, impeccable structure throughout, and a thickness of texture whose power was sheathed in a velvet glove. It sells for about $500 in the U.S.





“Due to the intimate size of Atera we require prepayment at the time your reservation is confirmed. The price for the tasting menu is $165 per person before tax and an 18% gratuity, making the total prepayment at the time of confirmation $209.35. Wine, drinks, and any add-ons will be billed the evening that you dine. Once purchased, all sales are final, however your reservation is transferable.”--Atera Restaurant, NYC.



"Dead Sushi
," a "Japanese splatter action comedy" about "flying killer sushi monsters," will premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse's Fantastic Fest film festival in  Austin, TX.  The movie stars Rina Takeda as a killer-sushi battling "high kick girl."




 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 won top prize  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." 

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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© copyright John Mariani 2013