Virtual Gourmet

  May 19,  2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

HOME    |    BOOKS    |    ABOUT US    |    CONTACT




                                                                    DRIVING THE PACIFIC COASTLINE
                                                                                    PART ONE                                                                                                                                                            by Christopher Mariani

by John Mariani

Spanish Reds
by John Mariani


                                            DRIVING THE PACIFIC COASTLINE
                                                                                    PART ONE                                                                                 
by Christopher Mariani

    With only eight days to see as much of the California coast as possible, I decided to fly into San Diego and drive north on Highway 1, stopping in cities like La Jolla, Santa Barbara, Carmel, Napa Valley and San Francisco. I dined at many terrific restaurants; some new, some old. Here’s where we went.


Day one: San Diego

    After touching down in SD, we took a short drive through the city and checked into the pet-friendly Hotel Solamar, located in the city’s bustling downtown Gaslamp Quarter (left), just a few blocks from Seaport Village and the sunny boardwalk. After settling into our room, we ventured out onto Sixth Avenue and toured the vibrant neighborhood, lined with storefront after storefront of casual seafood inspired restaurants, outdoor burger joints, loads of pubs, specialty food markets and Italian cafes, serving creamy gelato and strong espressos.
         For lunch, we stopped by the highly recommended Zanzibar Café on G Street (below), a casual yet sophisticated restaurant with a truly relaxed California vibe. The front doors and windows swung wide open as a gentle, warm California breeze waltzed through the dining room, brushing by young couples sipping tall glasses of white wine and ice cold local beer. We began with a simple tuna tartare, mixed with sliced avocado and daikon sprouts, accompanied by California’s hoppy “racer 5 IPA.” Next, a pressed turkey and bacon melt on warm sourdough,  oozing with pepper jack cheese and avocado, along with a mixed salad, complemented with local fresh vegetables and cheeses. Back outside, we strolled leisurely to the boardwalk for a walk along the port, lined with small and large white boats of every description, motor and sail,  while we inhaled the ocean’s salty air.
         That evening, after a late afternoon snooze in one of Hotel Solamar’s comfy beds, we dressed and made our way down to their spacious restaurant, Jsix. High ceilings, an attractive modern design and a grand bar make up this chic Kimpton Hotels restaurant.  Years ago Kimpton set a distinctly modern standard for casual chic in California, wholly evident at the Solamar (below), which takes every advantage of sunlight, not least at its sparkling pool area with its terrific view of the city skyline.
    At Jsix we sat in a wrap-around banquet that surrounded our large, dark wood table. Immediately, we were approached by a scruffy waiter with long, blondish hair who, from the moment he opened his mouth, exuded a passion for the restaurant, its chef, food and wine selection. His affection for the menu’s offerings made our decision for dinner quite simple: “Surprise us with your favorites!” And so he did. The meal began with a beautifully presented artisanal cheese board  (above) with local honeys. Next, chef Christian Grave’s play on a kid’s favorite, “fried bologna and gnocchi,” came as pan-seared mortadella, with parmesan cheese and crispy leeks. For the main course, we enjoyed tender red wine-braised short ribs served with garlicky Swiss chard and crispy parsnip chips. Also, caramelized Maine scallops with duck fat fried potatoes and a porcini-chestnut puree. Desserts included caramel chocolate pie and a berry mouse cake. The night ended pleasantly, our stomachs full, and the remaining two glasses of our pinot noir before making our way back up to the room made for an extra good night’s sleep.


Day 2: La Jolla

         The following morning, we woke up early, jumped in our rented Ford Mustang convertible and headed for the posh city of La Jolla, a weekend destination for San Diego’s super rich. If you are into exotic cars, take a walk along Prospect Place and prepare to be awed by the international models arrayed along it. The city is packed with luxury brand jewelry shops, expensive art galleries, including Peter Lik, and outdoor restaurants overlooking the water. Venturing off the main drag will bring you to Scripps Park, where you can watch the silly seals sunbathe for hours (above) on massive rock formations that hover above the water. Hundreds of seals lounge lazily about as spectators snap pictures and soak up some sun themselves.
         After a walk along the beach, we headed back into town and stumbled upon a casual hangout called José’s for lunch. Over a platter of tortillas, crunchy tacos, chimichangas, guacamole, corn chips and a pitcher of refreshing sangria, we ate slowly, enjoying the bliss of this gorgeous afternoon.
         That evening, we unknowingly checked into another Kimpton hotel, Hotel La Jolla, located just outside of town. Upon entry, the lobby is extremely modern and artsy, filled with different textures, multiple hues of  beige, unorthodox furniture and floor-to- ceiling windows overlooking a trendy outdoor patio dressed with fire pits and lounge chairs. Our room was surrounded by two balconies that afforded us a stunning spectacle of the sun set around five o’clock. We settled in and changed into our evening wear for dinner at the hotel’s swank restaurant, Cusp (left), placed on the top floor, with an outstanding food and beverage program, driven by executive chef Donald Lockhart.
    The room is draped with white linens in crisp lines that draw the eye towards the windows, looking out onto downtown La Jolla. Our feast began with toasted quinoa, raw yellowtail, a curry cream and thick pita chips, a reflection of Lockhart’s time spent cooking in Egypt. Dungeness crab was laid on a crisp flatbread with charred seasonal chiles, roasted tomatoes and a lemon vinaigrette. Next, crispy, fatty, delicious pork belly coated with a honey Sriracha glaze and grilled Tuscan kale dressed with black garlic dressing and grano padano cheese. For pastas, casarecce was mixed with tender lamb meatballs, roasted tomatoes and a light curry cream sauce. Entrees included a Moroccan-style salmon and a bone-in, well-marbled ribeye cut of prime beef. Cusp’s desserts are truly impressive; especially the warm crispy apple fritter that looks like a donut, drizzled with caramel sauce and vanilla gelato. Also worth noting is Cusp’s cocktail program. They take their drinks seriously in California.

    The next morning, we woke up early, jumped into the convertible and headed towards Santa Barbara.

Check out upcoming issues of the Virtual Gourmet to see where we ate and lodged along the way up north.






                                                                                            by John Mariani
                                                                                                    Photos by P.Lewis for Bloomberg

    They actually pick up the phone at Carbone and a very affable person tells you that they book tables 30 days out. The food has gotten mixed reviews thus far, but the stratospheric prices have been causing sticker shock.
  Yet Carbone, on the premises of an old Italian-American joint named Rocco’s in Greenwich Village, is easily the hottest restaurant of the moment in New York and getting a rez is only slightly less difficult than getting an audience with the new Pope, which says a lot more about a kind of feeding frenzy driven by two sectors: the food media that hyped Carbone’s opening for months in advance and those people who always need to be the first to say, “I ate there already . . . and you didn’t.”
    Private numbers and email addresses are being passed around; secretaries will be fired if they can’t snare a table for six at eight on the ninth;  IPhones snap fuzzy photos tweeted on the spot. Bloggers boast,  “u GOTTA have the meat-a-balls,” and “veal parm is 50 freaking dollars but AWESOME!”  And this is before the NY Times has even reviewed the place.
    Plenty of new places get their three months’ of hype, but not since Keith McNally opened Minetta Tavern around the corner from Carbone has a restaurant been as eagerly awaited, as if Tom Brady was coming to the Jets.
    Carbone’s owners, Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone and Jeff Zalaznick (above) have been the food media’s darlings since debuting their tiny storefront Torrisi Italian Specialty Restaurant on Mulberry Street, serving a 5-course meal for only fifty bucks (at first).   They refused to use any imported products, not even prosciutto, and the media proclaimed Torrisi’s a welcome antidote to the high-priced Italian ristoranti in the city like San PietroSD26, and Marea. Torrisi and Carbone then opened Parm, a little shop selling veal parm for $25 and baked ziti for $12. Once again the media raved that the food was cheap and delicious—just the way Italian-American food should be! Not like those uptown truffle-oiled $26 pastas and $40 caviar-topped branzinos. This, despite the fact that the same media have largely ignored popular Italian-American restaurants like Patsy’s and Il Mulino in Manhattan and a slew of others in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
    So why is Carbone getting such attention? It’s certainly not the location or the décor. The premises certainly didn’t cost millions of dollars to renovate and Greenwich Village rents are not (yet) as high as they are in midtown. Carbone did not cost $20 million to build like Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center.  And they’re not paying $22 an hour to union dishwashers.  Yet Torrisi and Carbone, who once championed good, inexpensive Italian food, are now charging $50 for veal parm,  $28 for penne primavera and  $33 for chicken scarpariello—not to mention  $87 and up for lobster fra diavolo.
According to Torrisi and Carbone, they really just wanted to showcase and refine the old-fashioned, out-of-fashion red sauce Italian-American restaurants of the post-war period, where families shared a cold antipasto plate, got a big plate of spaghetti with meatballs and expected a side order of spaghetti with the veal parm, watched the waiter whip up zabaglione tableside, and finished off with drip-pot espresso with a lemon peel and a bottle of Sambuca on the side.
    Torrisi and Carbone want people to have fun. There’s a neon name sign outside, superimposed on the still visible Rocco's sign. Inside there are three small, cramped, loud rooms, made to look like stage sets. The waiters are outfitted in shiny maroon Zak Pozen tuxedos and Adidas sneakers. The rear room (supposedly the VIP section, made to look like one where goombahs would meet) has no windows, just brick walls, tables so close you have to move them to get out. It’s a certain kind of aesthetic that borrows equally from a nostalgia for Little Italy eateries like Angelo’s (where veal parmigiana sells for $24) and S.P.Q.R. (where linguine with clam sauce goes for $18) and the cool modernism of artwork curated by Vito Schnabel. There are white tablecloths—three of them--on each table. The menu is about three feet wide. The huge wine list has very few red bottlings under $95 and the corkage fee for BYOB is $50 a bottle. They play 1960s doo-wop. You get Sambuca at meal’s end.
    I ate at Carbone last week (my editor at Esquire snagged a 6:30 rez) and had a pretty swell time. Everybody was cordial, the kitchen graciously sent out some dishes to try, and the crowd seemed giddy to be there.   There were tables of women dining together, tables with raucous Wall Street guys in shirtsleeves slugging back $400 bottles of Barolo and a table of slouching Eastern Europeans with Maria Sharapova wannabes. By 6:30 the place was packed and it didn't let up when we got up to leave nearly  three hours later.
    We had some excellent langoustines in a “scampi” sauce, glorious carpaccio, a first-rate Caesar salad (above), and the $50 veal parm was terrific, though not enough so to make me forget plenty of other versions at half the price.  Not everything clicked: a nugget of Parmesan cheese was served cold; salty, smoky Kentucky ham was bewildering in an Italian-American restaurant;  “Spicy rigatoni vodka” (right) was good but insanely rich; ravioli with chicken livers Caruso swam in a pool of butter, and the lobster fra diavolo (below), de-shelled and put back, sat in a puddle of oily sauce.
    Was any of it transformative? Does Carbone make a strong case that Italian-American food should cost as much as French haute cuisine? At this point I’d say no, not because Torrisi and Carbone aren’t using top-quality ingredients but because for our bill of $543.41 for two people that night (two cocktails, one bottle and one glass of wine, plus an $80 tip), I should have been blown away by food way better than any Italian restaurant’s in New York.
    In an online interview, Torrisi and Carbone defended the now notorious $50 veal parm insisting that they are using the finest veal, buffalo mozzarella, and “tomatoes we canned last summer,” and that “we’re not making tons of money off this.”  But is there any question that their high-end competitors use anything less than the finest, most expensive ingredients? Of course they do, yet SD26 sells a veal loin chop with cipolline, asparagus, and smoked pancetta cream sauce for $37; Armani Ristorante of Fifth Avenue sells a bone-in veal c
otoletta alla milanese with arugula salad and Sicilian pachino tomatoes for $44; a "Roman Style" veal piccata with asparagus, capers, lemon, and potato puree at the Maccionis’ new Sirio Ristorante in the Pierre Hotel goes for $30; and at Il Mulino, where the tuxedos are black, veal Marsala runs $30.75.
    And if I wanted first-rate Italian-American fare—which has never stopped evolving ever since the first Italian immigrants passed through Ellis Island after 1880—I’ll order the nonpareil fried zucchini and stewed tripe alla napoletana at Patsy’s on West 56th Street at $28; or the linguine with baby clams for $19.75 at La Masseria on West 48th Street; or the veal parmigiana at Mario’s in the Bronx, for $17.95. Not all the prices at Carbone are so outrageous—you can get octopus pizzaiolo for $17 and pork chops with peppers for $27—and portions are generous. But it’s tough to swallow Carbone’s hot and cold antipasti at $48 per person, $45 zuppa di pesce and the $52 veal Marsala when no one else in New York dares charge such prices.  And you’re not getting a view of the Hudson or Central Park or Times Square or the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn side.
    So, go figure.  Carbone is the restaurant of the moment so it can charge whatever it likes to people who will pay anything to be there right this moment, but to call it a place that redeems, improves upon, and sublimates Italian-American food to a level it has never before achieved is simply not the case. Torrisi and Carbone’s hearts are in the right place and they produce delicious food. But the irony is that its current clientele is composed mostly of people who would never think of eating in Italian-American restaurants in Little Italy, Arthur Avenue, or Bensonhurst.  And few Italian families are going to take the kids, grandma or Aunt Teresa to any place that charges $50 for veal parm. 

Carbone is located at  181 Thompson Street; Tel: 212-254-3000.



Spanish Wines Offering More Variety and Value

by John Mariani

    After the boom years of 2000-2005 when Spanish wine exports soared, sales have cooled off. By why should Spain be any different? Despite the entrance of China into the wine buying market, global wines sales are soft pretty much everywhere.

    The International Organisation of Wine and Vine estimated global consumption in 2011 to be 1.7 million hectoliters, with a decrease among several EU nations, including Spain itself. Germany, the UK, and the U.S. are still Spanish wines’ biggest customers, and producers are finding that better quality and sensible prices are key to an increasingly sophisticated wine drinker now becoming familiar with varietals like
tempranillo, garnacha and verdejo from regions like Galicia, Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon.
    Spain’s cavas (above) are doing very well along with Italy’s proseccos in the sparkling wine market, and the popularity of tapas bars outside of Spain has led to a new interest in the fizzy, low alcohol Basque wine called txakoli. Still, Spanish white wines overall have yet failed to achieve critical parity with the country’s reds.

    At the new Spanish brasserie Manzanilla (below, right) in New York, a rosé txacoli is poured by the glass. “A good chunk of our guests tell me they know little or nothing about Spanish wine,” says the restaurant’s wine director, Rick Pitcher, who stocks about 125 Spanish wines. “I then generally point them to lighter wines with high acid that are more versatile with our food, because there is so much sharing of dishes comprised of seafood and meats. For the reds I favor the wines from cooler climates like Galicia.”

    Aside from the variety and reasonable prices for Spanish wines, I’ve found that you can readily find an array of older vintages that give perspective to how well these wines age.  Twenty years ago, when so many Spanish wines were blends of various vintages, that was not a topic for discussion.

    Here are several Spanish red wines I’ve been enjoying recently and plan to drink through spring and summer.

Luis Cañas Crianza 2008 ($15)—A crianza from Rioja is a red wine that must spend at least 12 months in oak and not be sold until its third year, which allows for mellowing before release. Five percent garnacha added to 95 percent tempranillo with a spark of bright fruit helps balance the tannins, while the acids that make this Rioja Alavesa wine wholly pleasurable to drink with anything on the grill this summer. The Canas family has made wine for generation but has only been selling it since 1970, and they have been pioneers of modern Spanish viticulture ever since.

Viñedos Valderiz Ribera del Duero ($34)—Bodegas y Valderiz’s Esteban family prides itself on its commitment to ecological and biodynamics processes. Their Juegabolos vineyard, said to have a complex soil structure with a limestone bottom, gives their Barricas Seleccionad 2006 estate wine a rich minerality, made from 100 percent tempranillo (also called tinto fino). Today you can easily find it for $34, where just a couple of years ago it hit $75 a bottle. For something bolder, though with a little less finesse, the 2004 Valderiz Ribera del Duero is a real delight, so good with pork and beef, and a good buy for so well-balanced a red wine of this age.

Bodegas J.C. Conde Vivir Vinos de Fabula Vivir 2007 ($14)—On first sip, this Ribera del Duero from 100 percent tempranillo doesn’t reveal much and the acids are weak, but for $14 and at 14 percent alcohol, it is the kind of wine you stick in a picnic basket with a loaf of country bread and enjoy with cold chicken and cole slaw. The vines date back as much as 60 years in the Burgos District, and the wine is aged 10 months in tanks.

Alta Banderas A10 Crianza 2008 ($16)—This wine reveals many layers of dark cherry and toasted caramel notes, having spent more than 16 months in French and American oak. At 14 percent alcohol it is rich without being in any way cloying.

Dominio de Atauta 2008 ($34)—This tempranillo is not filtered, which explains the dark color, rustic style and excellent acidity to cut through the durable tannins, for which the tempranillo grape is justly admired. There is a great deal of ripe berries in it, but the surprise was that there was, after only four years, a lot of sediment in the bottle. It needs decanting.

The Duero River of Northern Spain

Xavier Flouret Pavo Real Crianza 2005
($20)—Winemaker Nuria Pena Albillo has given this winery from the 1920s a boost in reputation, but you’ll have to be patient. I found the 2005 still very tannic and not yet giving up its mellow fruit.  The label says it should be drunk “now and up to ten years,” and I’d agree with the latter date for this wine to mature. Its high alcohol, 14.5 percent, is of a style a lot of young Spanish winemakers are going for to compete with the big reds of California and South America.

This article first appeared in  Bloomberg News.


Wolfgang Puck told Eater DC that he once served Jack Nicholson, who asked, "'You know, Wolf, can I eat in the kitchen?' I say, 'Why would you want to eat in the kitchen?' He says, 'I don't like eating outside because people take pictures with me with my mouth eating or having a funny face eating something. It's not good for an actor to get pictures like that.' "



Mexican Federal Attorney General Humberto Benitez Trevino issued an apology for "the inappropriate behavior of [his] daughter Andrea" after she threw a temper tantrum at Maximo Bistro in Mexico City when asked to wait for her table, without a reservation. The woman then called city officials and, within hours,  official inspectors came to the restaurant and posted "suspended" signs. Benitez Trevino added, "Immediately upon hearing of the situation, I ordered the raid suspended, to avoid any excesses."


 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."  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.

To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.

© copyright John Mariani 2013