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  January 5, 2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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by Carey Sweet

Olio e Più
by John Mariani

by John Mariani


by Carey Sweet


    At the Manuel Márquez de León International Airport in La Paz, Mexico, there’s a Boston Dog in the food court owned by an American, Marc Kagan, who so enjoyed the mild weather and relaxed atmosphere of this oceanfront destination that he moved here.
    Things are different in this capital city of Baja California Sur Mexico, he explained as I perused the menu, noting an Oscar Meyer brand hot dog that is one of his best sellers.
Made of pork and turkey with a distinct smoky flavor, it’s not available in the U.S.   He wraps it in crisp bacon, slaps it into a toasted bun made in his own bakery, tops it with grilled onions, peppers and jalapeño ketchup, and serves it with hand-cut fries. He is proud to call himself a “hotdoguero"--the Mexican term for a hot dog vendor.
    Kagan is hardly alone in La Paz, now home to 220,000 residents, including about 6,000 expatriates from America and Canada. He and his peers may initially have been drawn by a lower cost of living, but  they have discovered a blissful existence, where pitahaya (cactus fruit) juice is as common at breakfast as O.J., where sea lions and whale sharks share the waters peacefully with human swimmers, and a bustling three-mile-long malecon is the heart of the community.   

Indeed, paz means “peace” in Spanish. The people  are called paceños and they love to stroll the bay-front boardwalk along the glittering sun-dappled waters of the Sea of Cortez; life feels slower and somehow more authentic.  The ocean's influence is everywhere, though the waters are is indeed calm, protected from the greater Pacific Ocean by the expansive bay at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula, tucked into a cove a few miles north of the Tropic of Cancer. Even the recycling bins on the malecon (above) are in the shape of turtles.
    This makes La Paz a prime area for sea lion watching,  especially in the Espiritu Santo islands, which are protected under UNESCO World Heritage bio-reserve status. And that is how I found myself underwater one sunny afternoon, tucked into a wetsuit, armed with an official visitor permit and nearly face-to-face with a young California brown sea lion flitting within inches of me in aquatic acrobatics.  My guide for the Fun Baja Whale Watching tour company was Lorenzo, who speaks fluent Spanish, English and Japanese, plus, as he joked, sea lion.  Yet perhaps it’s true: certainly he can communicate somehow, as the mammals were clearly pleased to see him, the young ones twirling around him, spinning and dodging playfully at his feet, and even leaping out of the water to splash him.
    Sea lions (above) give birth July through September, so October and November are great months to see them, as the pups get brave enough to investigate life away from their mother, and parents are more tolerant of strangers. Tolerance is important, Lorenzo pointed out, rather unnecessarily, as I snorkeled around, keeping a watchful eye on him as he kept a watchful eye on the 700-pound patriarch bull of the pod nearby.
    A few dozen mothers bobbing around the turquoise waters didn’t seem to care that I was there, and it was pretty clear why. A sea lioness goes through 11 months of gestation, and at the end, she is so big and off-kilter that she has to float on her side, one of her fins stuck in the air like a shark. All these late-pregnancy moms wanted was to finally birth their pups.
    At one point, Lorenzo led me through the Isla Espiritu Santo Arch, a natural rock formation that rises above an 85-foot deep cave and glistens with dense schools of silver sardines, blue and gold King Angelfish, yellow surgeonfish, and golden Cup Corals. One particularly macho lion pup suddenly came racing through, nearly skimming my body as he spiraled down, down, down--then exploded back up for a spectacular leap into the air beneath the rock’s cathedral ceiling.  It was so magical, I realized I’d forgotten to breathe. 

The La Paz Table

    The scent of salt air wafts through the open-air Bismarck-cito restaurant overlooking Pichilingue beach, sun-soaked but cooled by ocean breezes. I sat at a table beneath a palapa, absorbing the warm air as the sun set, and asked my server to bring whatever he thought was best. Who am I to outguess an eatery that’s been a local legend since 1968?
    Soon, flour tortilla tacos (left) arrived piled with grilled yellowtail fish and fried shrimp, meaty and juicy with tomato and lime. I sampled a variety of salsas from the bar and splashed on various sauces from the table caddy. Mounded on another pottery platter, baby octopus was cooked to tender submission, swimming in butter deeply perfumed with garlic, all to be scooped up with pliant corn tortillas.
    The signature drink of La Paz is beer on ice spritzed with lime in a salt-rimmed glass, but I ordered a margarita, craving the stiff jolt of tequila and splash of Cointreau. It made for the perfect sip against small, complementary bowls of crisp chips and creamy fish dip. The only thing I didn’t care for--okay, I hated this dish--were the chocolate clams, which, no, are not Hershey-dipped mollusks but so-called for the light cocoa coloring of their shells. The restaurant has its own clam farm, which makes this seafood as fresh as can be, but for once that wasn’t a good thing.  In fact, the clams are served very much alive, and the trick, my server explained, is to squeeze lime juice onto the red and white meat and make the clams squirm. Then you slip the whole, pulsating mass into your mouth and feel it move. Well, cultural tradition be damned, it’s disgusting.
    The aguachile de callo de hacha was much better, showcasing silky, chiltepin-dusted sea scallops I harpooned with toothpicks amid bites of crisp cucumber and lacings of marinated red onion. On another day, I wandered over to TrocaderO (right), which lists itself as French, but celebrates lots of local seafood. There is salmon draped in sweet tangerine sauce, dainty scallops served in ceramic spoons, and Gorgonzola chicken.  But the tasting menu is extra fun, as a daily special sampling of the chef’s whims. Crunchy bruschetta was layered with tuna, and there were tiny savory lamb meatballs to pop into my mouth, including an impossibly rich pork belly tostada. The highlight was the chef’s signature duck taco, followed by dessert of warm crêpe dulce.         Decorated with burgundy walls, wrought iron windows and door facings and local art on display, TrocaderO is one of the casual town’s more sophisticated gathering spots, brightened by live music on some nights.


      Long imagined as a sleepy seaside town, La Paz has in fact undergone lots of development over the past several years, positioning itself more and more as a retreat for the wealthy. In efforts to encourage more travel to Mexico, the La Paz Tourism Board recently established a cooperative venture between the Office of Tourism, Baja California Sur and a consortium of resorts and developments known collectively as Emphrotur. A staggering $1 billion is being invested in new development over the next five years, primarily in high-end resort properties.
     One of the more elaborate projects is the Costa Baja Resort & Spa (above), anchoring a 550-acre masterplan community on the Sea of Cortez and overlooking a 250-slip marina that docks yachts that included one I saw with its own private helicopter. Set ten minutes south of downtown and featuring an 18-hole Gary Player golf course, the development offers a hotel, beach club, shops, art galleries and restaurants, plus private homes and condos.
    As I wandered the resort, I saw several signs proclaiming the project’s environmental and green certifications. They proclaim that protecting this area lauded by Jacques Cousteau as the "aquarium of the world" is a priority, and  as the Costa Baja project advances, it will include an elaborate trails system through the desert hills and along the beach.
    For now, though, the space feels big and brash, with little of the authentic La Paz I've always loved. Packing 115-rooms over four floors, accommodations are boxy, with space-saving built-in beds and shelving instead of furniture. The two main restaurants here serve Italian food.
    Closer into town, Playa de La Paz (right) is a collection of 24 luxury private residences that would be at home in the fanciest Mexican retreats such as Punta Mita near Puerto Vallarta.  As I watched from a penthouse balcony, a man wearing a broad brimmed straw hat picked up pieces of seaweed from the beach below, following with a rake; it is his job to keep the white sand manicured and pristine.
    Designer Jeffrey Curtis stacked the spacious residences like a white wedding cake, tiered with numerous balconies, patios and rooftop trellises. But it’s the inside that pops, tucked behind private forged iron gates not only at the complex entry but for individual condos spanning 2,800 to 9,400 square feet. Finishes include hand-cut Calcutta gold marble and granite from Italy, Brazil and Russia; doors and cabinets are crafted of Zebrano wood from Africa, and even the date palms swaying in the ocean breeze were imported from the Canary Islands. There are Rolls Royces, Mercedes and a vintage Bentley parked in the gated garages, and many owners, I learned, live here only part-time.  
    When Azul de Cortez development gets underway, it may completely transform the peaceful secret that is La Paz. Spanning 2,000 acres directly on the sea, the land is currently open and unspoiled, tucked into a gorgeous cradle of mountains, valleys and natural wonders like orchards of giant cardón cactus,  also known as elephant cactus, which grows only here and in small parts of Sonora and can reach up to 63 feet tall.
    Residences will stretch from the private beach up into the hillsides, there will be an 18-hole golf course, a beach club with boardwalk, a 280-room hotel, a 300-slip marina and a shopping village. The tiny encampment of fisherman who have called this remote parcel of land home for decades, or even centuries, will have to find a new place to live.
    Yet as I walked along the beach, a representative from the Isolux Corsán building company insisted that the project will be environmentally responsible, including a Discovery Lodge with a nature center. Only time will tell.
    In the meantime, there is still so much to explore. Some 32 species of reptiles and 98 species of birds wait to be spotted on the more than 900 islands dotting the Sea of Cortez. More than 85 percent of the marine mammals in the Pacific and 35 percent of the marine mammals in the world can be found here, dipping and diving in azure water against 40-foot-tall cliff sides.
    On my final boat ride out to the islands before heading back to the U.S., a pod of dolphins suddenly appeared, racing, playing, leaping--and I swear, laughing-- mere inches away.
    This was the real La Paz.


by John Mariani

Olio e Più Trattoria & Enoteca
3 Greenwich Avenue

Remember Billy Joel’s bittersweet nostalgia song
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”?

A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends on your appetite
I'll meet you any time you want
In our Italian Restaurant.

    Everyone has an Italian restaurant they call your own, and, for its location, its warmth and conviviality and its wonderful food, Olio e Più Trattoria e Enoteca is a place anyone from anywhere might claim after one or two visits.  Of course, those fortunate to live in New York’s West Greenwich Village have easy access to this delightful trattoria and, around the corner, to the neighborhood’s very hip café and art gallery, WhyNot Coffee, both establishments owned by Emil Stetkov.
    What distinguishes Olio e Più, which means “oil and more,” is that it’s open 24 hours a day, and for anyone who gets the munchies after midnight, this is a godsend. And the pizza, which takes on added allure in the wee small hours of the morning, is first-rate, one of the best in Manhattan, with a puffy rim, seared bubbles of dough, the proper weight to the crust, and very fresh toppings; you can watch the pizzaioli make them before your eyes, which makes the wait all the more agonizing.
    Adding to the torture is the need to choose among so many appealing toppings, from the classic margherita and quattro formaggi to Nostrano (“ours”) with ricotta, prosciutto and truffle oil. Chef Dominic Pepe uses many of his family’s recipes, with a nod towards Neapolitan cookery, so his tomato-based dishes are highly recommended.
    You might begin with bruschetta topped with a sun-dried tomato pesto, or a fritto misto of fast-fried squid, shrimp and artichokes (I didn’t try this but intend to ASAP).  The pastas have the true taste of the casalinga style—homey, hearty, nourishing—especially the light but substantial gnocchi with a basil pesto (left) and salty ricotta salata, a simple marriage of two highly complementary ingredients.  Also very good was fresh tagliatelle in a rich bolognese meat sauce. A special that day was risotto al limone, which makes for a wintry balm but could act as well as a side dish for two. Its Italian rice was tender, the scent of the lemon like a warm breeze from the Amalfi coast.
    For our main course I had one of the most impeccably roasted branzinos I’ve encountered in New York.  It is so easy to overcook any fish, but to maintain an interior succulence while giving the outside skin a crispiness that stays well shy of tasting fishy is a triumph, one dressed up in good olive oil and lemon.
    Tiramisù may be a cliché everywhere, but the kitchen shows why it is so universally delectable, while crème brûlée takes on the added dimensions of pumpkin and cinnamon-scented ricotta.
    Olio e Più puts considerable effort into its bar and wine list, which, as is true of self-described enotecas, changes often.  Right now there are some fine selections at not unreasonable good prices, including the Azienda Agricola Claudio Morelli “Terraze” 2010 ($40),  although the Le Macchiole “Bolgheri Rosso” 2010 at $88 is high.
    So, no need to ask when Olio e Più is open to serve you what you feel like eating. It always is. From the outside its green façade is hung with vines, its rustic interior looks straight out of a trattoria in Sorrento, complete with old ceiling fans, Indeed, Olio e Più seems to have always been here in the West Village, though it’s only three years old.  And whether it’s one o’clock in the afternoon or one o’clock in the morning, it’s good to know it’ll be there for you.  As the song says, It all depends on your appetite.

Olio e Più is open daily 24 hours a day; Antipasti $6-$16; pastas $17-$19; pizzas $10-$26;  main courses $19-$29.




by John Mariani 

    It’s been decades since Chianti shed its image as a merely pleasant Italian red wine, at least since being awarded Italy’s highest wine law appellation, Denominazione d’origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) in 1984; the last word, garantita, means it’s guaranteed to be among Italy’s best.
    This appellation calls for a strict monitoring of the regional boundaries of Chianti Classico (other, lesser Chianti regions are delimited as well but do not have the DOCG ranking) and of the grapes that may be used in making the wine.  These days it is principally Sangiovese, blended with small amounts of Merlot, Canaiolo and Colorino; white grapes like Trebbiano are rarely used any more.
    One of the oldest and best known Chianti Classicos is Castello di Gabbiano, whose label is recognizable from its parti-colored knight.  The castle itself dates back to the 12th century, and not only can you visit it today, but you may stay there, in any of an array of beautiful Tuscan rooms, with all modern amenities, overlooking 100 hectares of enchanting vineyards stretching in every direction.  You may also dine here—and take cooking classes-- at the charming restaurant Il Cavaliere, within a 16th century farmhouse adjacent to the spice garden.
    Gabbiano’s Chiantis have long been considered among the delimited region’s best, and, like all Chianti Classicos, they are remarkably well priced: while a Super Tuscan or a Brunello might easily cost in excess of $100,  Gabbiano’s superb 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva, with 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Merlot, sells for about $20-$22.  Lighter than Brunello or Tignanello, Gabbiano’s Chianti Classico is full of fruit and that welcome, recognizable acid that keeps Chiantis so fresh and lively on the palate. 
    While visiting Castello Gabbiano this fall, I had a chance to taste several vintages of the Riservas going back to 2005, all of them still robust, with amazing vigor and commendable alcohol levels, around 13.5 to 14 percent.  The 2006 was lush, wrapped in softness, and the 2007 is really coming to full maturity right now.  I enjoyed the 2008 but the 2009 was magnificent—voluptuous and bold for a Chianti but with Chianti’s characteristic  sprightliness.
    Gabbiano has also been making a wine called Bellezza since 2005, sourced from the estate’s best vineyards and made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes.  The 2005 still had considerable tannin to it, and the 2006, 2007 and 2008, while fruited with dark cherry flavors, had the austerity of a fine Bordeaux.  The 2009 was super ripe, almost Californian in style, but with enough acid to keep the equilibrium, and the 2010  (about $29) is going through an awkward maturing stage.  These Bellezza wines give up their complexity more slowly than the estate’s Chianti Classico, so I’ll be interested to drink both in the years to come to see which gain identity and which begin to fade.
    All these wines are impeccably tailored to Tuscan cuisine, and vice versa.  Tuscan cooking is quite simple, earthy only when tied to autumn flavors like wild boar, porcini mushrooms and  truffles.  So an evening at one of the region’s most distinctive trattorias—Officina della Bistecca,  set atop a butcher shop in Panzano—was the ideal occasion to see how well the wines complement massive cuts of bistecca alla fiorentina, with little more than olive oil-dressed white beans on the side.
    The richness of the beef, in two-inch thick slices, married perfectly to the hearty Gabbiano wines, which throughout a long evening never lost their appeal, as might well happen if they were bigger, more alcoholic red wines that can fatigue the palate. 
    Back in the days when Chianti used to be packed in straw-covered bottles as a quaint cover for their mediocrity, they were known as “pizza wines.”  Today, especially with Castello Gabbiano’s Chianti Classico and Bellezza, they are among Italy’s most respected, and nowhere are they better consumed than in a trattoria where bistecca is, first and foremost, the prime ingredient for a great meal.



A Miami man entered a local convenience store with a four-foot alligator and said, "I want a Corona, because the alligator is so beautiful." The cashier  called the police, and he was charged with  felony misdemeanor charges for possession of a gator with intent to sell.


"The only thing that grates is if I'm accused of manliness or being macho. That like, totally drives me berserk. What have I ever done to deserve this charge? I like meat. Is this somehow the province of men? This is something I really don't like. You know: Bro Food. I really hate that. I don't want any part of it; I want to disassociate myself from it. That bothers me. That's a charge or an accusation that I really hate, that this enterprise that I'm a part of is in some way targeted towards males. That bothers me." — Anthony Bourdain




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

The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from “abalone” to “zwieback,” plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

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: A MORNING ON KAUI; MELBOURNE DINING

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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