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 September 22, 2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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"The Pot & The Vine" by Galina Dargery (2010)



by John Mariani

by John Mariani

Good Parties Deserve Good Wines from Even the Thriftiest Hosts
 by John Mariani




by John Mariani

Chicago, forever known, in Carl Sandburg's poem, as "City of the Big Shoulders," is equally the City of the Great Architecture, and into it fit some of the best-designed hotels and restaurants in America.

108 E Superior Street
312- 337-2888

        The Peninsula Hotel, now 13 years old, is one of Chicago’s very finest and certainly the most beautiful in view of its baronial space, with a grand lobby leading to the concierge and front desk,\ and in the clean, modern style and design of the rooms, each with a wonderful view of one or another facet of America’s most majestic cityscape.
      Downstairs is one of the city’s best and most elegantly appointed Chinese restaurants, Shanghai Terrace, with its outdoor tables, and afternoon tea is very popular at the hotel.
      In May 2012 Chef Lee Wolen came onboard to turn the Lobby into the hotel’s primary dining venue (the former Avenues dining room is now used for private parties), and it has the same spectacular size and panorama that distinguishes the rest of the hotel space here, with twenty-foot floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue (left).
     The odd banality of the restaurant’s name is hardly a draw, but Wolen, with a résumé that includes Eleven Madison Park in NYC, has crafted a menu that has been getting rave local reviews, and I wholly concur that he has quickly become one of the most exciting chefs in the city, and one who has not gone the gimmicky route of some of his publicity-grabbing colleagues.
     Among my favorite starters was a salad of pristine peekytoe crab, garlic, asparagus, prawn and sea urchin with a foamy urchin sauce. His ricotta gnocchi with rosy Serrano ham and English peas is simple perfection, and his hand-rolled cavatelli with rabbit confit, artichokes and mustard worked well.  Wolen’s rendering of octopus, with heirloom carrots, slivers of radish and nubbins of smoked ham is already a star dish.  Marinated Kona kampachi was well married to olives, favas and mild sorrel, while a torchon of foie gras was given a little crunch from almonds and a citrusy sweetness from grapefruit.
     Of the entrees, I was amazed by the deep, rich flavors of his whole roasted chicken with morels, potatoes and ramps, which at $54 for two is the city’s best bargain for great cuisine.  It comes to the table in a hot skillet and is deftly cut apart before you, its crackling skin hiding an herb stuffing (think Pepperidge Farm to the sublime) and is sauced with cream and morels. What a great dish.
     Roasted scallops came with peas, more morels and guanciale bacon, all to good effect, while olive-oiled poached halibut with razor clams, shrimp and lemongrass straddled every coastline of America with considerable panache. Of course, Wolen uses Colorado lamb, whose fatty richness makes all the difference in a dish with feta, toasted chickpeas and roasted eggplant and puree.
     His cooking is all of a style, one with flourish not flamboyance.  The principal flavors and textures are all complemented, never overwhelmed. This applies to the desserts, too, like tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream and crème fraîche, and his tender chocolate cake with dark chocolate pot de crème.
      Wolen has given this large lobby space a personality it would otherwise lack, and he is be commended for maintaining the balance of fine cuisine without the gastro-theatrics. 

The Lobby is open for breakfast daily, brunch on Sun., Lunch Mon.-Fri., and dinner nightly. Entrees $27-$39.


1700 W. Division Avenue

     There’s no more reason that Chicago shouldn’t have one of America’s best Southern restaurants like Carriage House than for having a great steakhouse or Thai restaurant. With its wooden communal tables, farmhouse accents, ceiling fans, bentwood chairs and dishtowel napkins, Carriage House is close in spirit and flavor to the best restaurants in Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, and Memphis, and better than many.
     Chef Mark Steuer shows what he is calling “Re-imagined” Low Country cooking at its best, by adding a good deal of himself to traditional dishes like sherry-laced she-crab soup with hot drop biscuits; his big, tasty shrimp with heirloom grits are textbook, and the Carolina rice balls with pimiento cheese and pickled cabbage are just plain delicious fun.
     There’s much to applaud by his combining high and low in a dish of cornbread in a black skillet with foie gras, nectarine marmalade and smoked salt (left).  And you can’t help but lick your fingers after a taste of his juicy quail with black pepper dumplings, Vidalia soubise and pickle relish. The “Supper” items here are very well priced for a whole lot of good, honest food, like a Low Country Boil teeming with seafood, rabbit, sausage and potatoes (right).
     The dining room itself is spare and loud, so it’s not a place to linger. Conviviality might be increased by a bit of sound-proofing, but you can still carry on a civilized conversation here. Something tells me their Sunday brunch would be terrific, sipping a Creole Cocktail made with bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth, Ramazzotti, Benedictine and orange bitters, or a nice pitcher of punch.

The Carriage House is open for lunch Tues.-Fri., for brunch Sat. & Sun., for dinner Tues.-Sun. Dinner prices $6-$34.


626 North State Street

     I have admired Chef John Coletta ever since he opened the fine Caliterra Bar & Grille back in 1999.  Now, with Quartino, opened ten years ago, he has crystallized all he knows and loves about Italian food, traditional and regional, so that obvious care and long experience shows in every dish, however ubiquitous it may seem around Chicago’s Italian restaurant-scape.
     It’s a very handsome place in an old-fashioned way: there’s a salumeria counter hung with sausages, a bar with its own small bites menu, the rough wood tables are stacked high with plates to share, ceiling fans whirl away, and there are outside tables. They also offer a $25 lunch for two people that is just downright remarkable.  It’s a huge place—600 seats—and it’s packed at lunch, but the large staff seems to keep up with everything with aplomb, and friendliness of spirit guides everything here.  Actually, the menu is way too big and tries to do too much; cutting its scores of dishes back by a third would probably be wise.
     I barely made a dent in the menu over a lavish, multi-course lunch, but I’d certainly go back to try just about everything at Quartino. Begin with an array of antipasti like Sicilian caponata, roasted peppers, salumi, Calabrian sausage, duck prosciutto, and much more.  The pizzas are good enough on their own to order as a first course, with almost 20 options. Again, fewer would be better.
     The house-made pastas are excellent, from plump ravioli with braised pork and Speck with favas to cavatelli with tomato and ricotta (right). None is priced over $12.75 and the portions are more than generous.
     There’s even an extensive vegetarian section, with eggplant parmigiana, braised escarole and cannellini, and broccoli de rabe with red chili and onion, and there are at least seven seafood items, including a brodetto with shrimp, clams, octopus and fish in “aqua pazza” (crazy water) broth.
     If you have thus far overeaten, don’t approach the main meat courses that same night. Save them for another, because they are hefty (you’ll take some home), including the tangy lemon chicken with herbs, lusty beef short ribs with salsa verde, and osso buco gremolata.
     Then end off with piping hot zeppole fritters and a cup of espresso.
    Not unexpectedly, I found the wine list was all over several maps—Italian, California, France, Chile, Argentina—when it should be more focused on a better selection of small estate Italian wines.  Who really orders Pouilly-Fuissé with a veal meatball slider?
     Quartino is not just making a success on volume of guests, low prices and size of portions: it’s making it because John Coletta wants everything—food and service--to be as he would serve it to his own family.  That’s the best a chef can ever do.

Quartino is open daily for lunch and dinner. Antipasti range from $4.50-$7.50, pizza $8-$13, pastas $9.75-$12.75, main courses $9.75-$15.75.


by John Mariani

2211 Frederick Douglass Blvd (at 119th Street

        Many years ago when I was a grad student at Columbia, the Harlem neighborhood where Vinatería now sits was so worrisome that I never would have thought to walk through it on my way up to Morningside Heights. What a difference a few decades make!  West Harlem now teems with vitality, the broad avenues lined with expensive SUVs, the red brick buildings scrubbed clean and occupied by a whole range of people—most, it seems, with children in strollers—and the restaurant scene has blossomed with exciting places with a lot more appeal than those deliberately grungy holes in the wall on the Lower East Side and DUMBO (District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, in Brooklyn).
        One of the most appealing new spots, open since April, is Vinatería, a very sleek, very amiable new trattoria run by a Barnard grad, Yvette Leeper-Bueno, whose beauty, style and effervescent spirit imbues every aspect of the place.  She and her husband, Adrian Bueno (below with Faye Leepr, Yvette's mother) , together with chef Gustavo Lopez, have fashioned a corner restaurant so enticing when seen from the street that it becomes both a magnet and beacon on the avenue, throwing light on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and on the darling stripling tree in front. What I wouldn’t have given to have a place like this to take a Barnard girl back in my salad days!
        The interior was done by Jonsara Ruth, director of the M.F.A. program in interior design at Parsons, in various shades of gray and charcoal, including a blackboard with wine selections on it, recycled wood and zinc-topped tables, and pretty painted red and yellow metal chairs outside.
        “My husband and I worked tirelessly on helping shape all facets of the restaurant,” Yvette told me. “It is challenging to be husband and wife restaurateurs! The results, however, are extremely rewarding. Seeing the extent to which people are enjoying themselves at Vinatería is truly a dream come true.”
        It’s a dreamy kind of place, with a good wine and cocktail list put together by Gabriela Davogustto, with plenty of bottles under $50. The menu is divided into “Light,” “Medium” and “Full” categories, which encourage you and your friends to order from here and there and to share most everything. That’s what I did with two companions, and we had to restrain ourselves from ordering more.
        What we did have we liked very much. There are “snacks” like olives and spiced almonds, cheese and charcuterie, which includes a fine chicken liver pâté. There’s a peppery dandelion salad, rightly bitter but tangy with guanciale, parmigiano, walnuts and crunchy breadcrumbs.  The grilled octopus with arugula is excellent, tender, flavorful, succulent, with a confit of potatoes and pimentón for fat and spark.  Flatbread, which changes daily, was good enough but came to the table barely tepid.
         Chef Lopez’s pastas are light but substantial, especially the tagliatelle with pork ragù and black cabbage, and the spaghetti with golden autumn corn, garlic, leeks, dark green broccoli di rabe and bright red heirloom tomatoes—a wholly engaging combination of ingredients at this time of the year.
        Pan-seared chicken breast with rainbow chard and rosemary potatoes was above average, and the halibut with grilled asparagus was finely cooked to the perfect juicy tenderness.

    For dessert there was a good vanilla panna cotta and even better chocolate budino, a kind of rich Italian pudding.
     Sitting there al fresco after twilight faded to dusk and then to evening, on a clear night when the temperature was dropping into the sixties, I looked around and thought about how Harlem has been so marvelously transformed by a young generation that saw the neighborhood had great bones and knew it would be a wonderful place to live, raise kids, and drop across the street for a bottle of wine and good food at places like Vinatería. 

Vinateria is open for brunch Sat. & Sun., for dinner nightly.  Brunch is $15, dinner small dishes run $8-12,  medium and large $12-$23.



Good Parties Deserve
Good Wines from Even
the  Thriftiest Hosts

By John Mariani

   Some years ago I was invited by a wine seller to his birthday party at which each wine was followed by a greater, rarer, more expensive one, which at one point included a single bottle of 1929 Château Mouton-Rothschild. The already tipsy fellow next to me, who whispered he knew nothing about wine, took a sip of his glass, then flipped rest of it over his shoulder and barked to our host, “Whaddaya got next?”
         Which taught me a great lesson: unless you hold a party with only wine connoisseurs attending, don’t ever, ever serve an expensive wine to your guests. Then again, don’t ever serve them plonk, no matter how innocent they may be of wine.  A good host serves good food and wine as an expression of good taste and hospitality.
             For me, the tipping point for party wine prices used to be $20 and below. But today, given the worldwide glut of wine from producers who once thought they could hike their prices, there are more delicious wines than ever between $8 and $15.
         Few come from California, where mass production makes for insipid, sweet or acrid wines. The best come from Spain, Italy, Argentina and, after years of almost pricing themselves out of the market, France. And right now, many wine stores are having post-Labor Day sales to make room for autumn arrivals, so there are great bargains in the sales bins for leftover “summer wines” like roses and vintages of lighter wines unlikely to improve with age.
         “A store’s palate is based on the least expensive wines it buys,” says David Hamburger,
Senior Wine Buyer and Director of Special Events for New York’s Acker Merrall & Condit. “So a sales bin in a store like ours (right) features the kinds of wines a great restaurant would sell by the glass--tasty, refershing, clean and good. We price such wines at $12.99 and below.”
         Avoid jug wines for parties because they look cheap and are usually undistinguished bulk wines with only the most basic labels, like “California chardonnay” or “Italian red wine.”
         The best buys in good sparkling wines—since Champagne will always run well north of $30—are Spanish cavas, like Castellroig Catalonian non-vintage, which can be found for about $12-$13, or, if you prefer a vintage label, the Pares Balta Rose 2012 at $13.
         For a terrific Spanish red, the 2008 Luis Canas Rioja Crianza ($15) is a steal. Red crianzas are wines that may not be sold till their third year and have spent a minimum of six months in oak barrels (in Rioja twelve), and Luis Canas is one of the pioneers of modern Spanish viniculture.  This wine is
95 percent tempranillo, with ideal acid and fruit and the flavors of a true terroir.
         Italy is now shipping a wide variety of wines that show off regional terroir at prices considerably below Italy’s mass market big labels, although the well-known Bolla brand’s soave, valpolicella and bardolino are dependable wines. These days some delightfully complex Piedmont barberas can be found at the $15 mark, especially those from the barbera d’Asti and barbera d’Alba areas. Had I tasted a Bosco dei Ricci Barbera 2009 blind, I would have ranked it as one of the best Italian reds I’ve had this year at any price—rich, satisfying and multi-dimensional-- yet I found it on sale for $9 a bottle. I’m going back for more.
         So, too, I was impressed with an Araldica Barbera d’Asti 2011 at the same price.  A bit lighter in body but loaded with fresh fruit, this is ideal for a party serving any kind of meat or poultry.
    Argentina is making world-class wines and, given its weak peso, its winemakers are selling their products at remarkably low prices. Finca Vides Torcidas Mendoza Malbec 2011 at $8 is really quite amazing, a wine of deep cherry flavors and the usual soft tannins of malbec, easy to drink with a wide range of dishes. The vineyard’s chardonnay at the same price is a great pairing with shellfish, especially crab and lobster.
             If good French wines once seemed beyond your budget, there is every reason to rejoice over regional wines from Roussillon and Gascogne, both areas making a big push into the American market.  The oddly named Gascony vintner Uby makes a fresh, delicious 2012 white from colombard and ugni blanc grapes ($8), with a fine 11.5 percent alcohol and a real citrus crispness for a wine with canapes or first courses.
         If you like syrah but don’t want to pay Rhône Valley prices, the Château de Jau 2008 Côtes du Roussillon Villages ($12) has a velvety, lush blend of 45 percent syrah, 30 mourvedre, 15 carignan, and 10 grenache.
         Even Bordeaux winemakers are selling bargain-priced cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends, like Château Lavagnac 2010 ($10, an amazement that is smooth and lush on the palate, a perfect wine for French appetizers like terrines and pates. Even the popular Château Greysac 2008 ($10-$13) will please anyone who loves the basic taste of Bordeaux blends.
         You may not find all these specific wines at your local wine store, though they are easily ferreted out on-line (try, but if you zero in on those regions I’ve mentioned here, you’ll make your guests very happy and you will have proudly saved a bundle.

This article first appeared in  Bloomberg News.



The NY Times reports that the hot dog
and drinks street cart at Fifth Avenue
and East 62nd Street by the zoo pays
$289,500 for the contract to be there.


"I have a great story about A16, the Southern Italian restaurant in San Francisco. A few years ago, I was in Argentina, eating my way through Buenos Aires' chic Palermo Soho neighborhood, when I tucked into an unassuming pizzeria for a wood-fired slice. As I bit into the thin, blistered dough and bubbly, burrata-flecked Marzano sauce, the chef-owner, who had heard me chatting with my husband and knew we were from San Francisco, stopped by to ask what we thought of his food. "Oh, it's very good, thank you," I said, covering my mouth between chews.`Yes,' he said, leaning in. `But is it as good as A16?'."--
Jessica Yadegaran, "Popular A16 restaurant a hit in Rockridge,"  San Jose Mercury News



 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.

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© copyright John Mariani 2013