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  June 8, 2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER

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By John Mariani


By John Mariani




By John Mariani

The view from Palazzo Avino

           The serpentine route along Italy’s gorgeous Amalfi Coast can be daunting to those doing it in a rented car for the first time, but the road that winds and winds and winds its way up to the mountaintop town of Ravello, a thousand feet above the sea, makes the Amalfi Drive seem like a straightaway.

         You creep along, negotiating scores of dizzying curves in hopes that the fellow in the other direction sees you coming. You must watch for the occasional herd of goats that have decided to monopolize both sides of the road, leaping on and off sheer mountain ledges.  Then there are the huge tour buses, the flocks of schoolchildren, and, perhaps more than anything, the temptation to take your eyes off the road just to be awed by the scenery below, stretching away into the Bay of Naples and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
         Curiously enough, the number of accidents along this endurance course is said to be very small, simply because people really do pay attention to every curve and hairpin turn.  So, once you arrive at Ravello, you can take a deep breath and take in all the grandeur this small town holds, from the 13th century Duomo and Church of San Giovanni del Toro to the Villa Rufolo that inspired Wagner to write his opera Parsifal. Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, D.H. Lawrence and André Gide all stayed here, and Gore Vidal lived secludedly in the town for decades.
         As with so many mountain towns, Ravello was stuck so high up to ward off barbarian invaders who blanched at the climb to the top.  At one time Ravello had 25,000 inhabitants--few of whom ever left it to go downhill--but they were unable to withstand an assault by the Republic of Pisa, which destroyed the town and sent its citizenry scurrying down to relocate in Sorrento, Salerno and Naples.
         Today less than 3,000 people live in Ravello, so tourism is pretty much the only thing that sustains it. We stayed at the enchanting and very quiet Palazzo Avino (above), reached down a narrow street near the town’s piazza. Built in the 12th century for an aristocrat and abandoned in the 19th, it was opened as the Palazzo Sasso in 1997, but last year reclaimed the name of the original founder as Palazzo Avino, now with 32 rooms and 11 suites, a heated pool, a beautiful terrazza Belvedere overlooking the sea, and, for those unwilling to attempt the roads, helicopter service.
         As you’d expect, all the rooms have been re-done, now with hand-made Vietri tiles, exquisite antiques, fine Frette Linen and Bulgari amenities.  With two staff to every guest, there is little you could ask for that is not provided immediately.
         The Palazzo has a new chef, Michele Deleo, born in the province, has come aboard at Rossellini restaurant here (open only for dinner), and he is doing highly elegant cuisine focused on the ingredients of Amalfi and Campania, so that you might begin with squab with foie gras and peaches marinated in Port wine, a little honey and spark of chili.  Crisp-skinned suckling pig includes the chop, belly and roll with forcemeat, served with Neapolitan endive, glazed apple, and a myrtle-flavored dish of carrots and ginger.  Succulent local lamb is treated to a marination in Mediterranean spices and served with sweet garlic and minted olive oil.
         Deleo’s pastas are superb, though plating them with so much attention to detail brought some tepid results.  But the flavors were exciting: small ravioli stuffed with leek and bacon with crispy lobster and peas, an egg yolk fondant and shellfish sauce; a big plump cappellaccio (right) packed with wild rabbit confit and melted pecorino in an anchovy potato foam.  His risotto was exquisite, mixed with burrata cheese, a carpaccio of shrimp and rosemary.
         Roam the hills of Ravello, through the small, quaint piazza, and stroll to the Villa Rufolo (below), which hosts a series of chamber music concerts, and is terraced over the hillside, its cloister, ancient chambers and gardens filled with modern sculpture, some of it amazingly erotic.
       Some of the finer ceramics I’ve found along the Amalfi coast--where you’ll find a lot of cheap pottery and plates that chip as soon as you get them home--was at Ceramiche d’Arte  on Via Roma, whose clients are said to include Jessica Biel, Oprah Winfrey, even Bruce Springsteen.  The quality is very high, the selection vast.   And, of course, they ship anywhere.
         Ravello is not rich in restaurants outside of the grander hotels, and those free-standing places are modest in décor but proudly Campanian. My favorite is the ten-year-old Vecchio Cantina on the Via della Marra, whose ebullient owner bounds around the dining rooms making suggestions on what’s best that day.  Trust him: we did, and were rewarded with an array of mixed, grilled seafood, a pizza alla napolitana made with buffalo mozzarella that is at its best in this region, and a wonderful lasagne Vecchio Cantina made with smoked scamorza cheese.  We drank a good wine made right in the hills of Ravello from falanghina and biancolella grapes, and were very happy just lingering till late afternoon.

     A no-frills trattoria often mentioned in the guidebooks is Cumpa’
Cosimo on Via Roma, and while I’ve had good regional food there, nothing stood out as exemplary and it lacks the warm hospitality of Vecchio Cantina.
         Back at the Palazzo Avino, having cocktails on the terrazza, looking out over a wide blue sea traversed for millennia by those who would love to have possessed Ravello, I thought that there are two reasons I should never leave: one, because Ravello is so achingly romantic and so
removed from the world’s bustle, but two, because I had little desire to drive back down that mountain.
         Ravello is easy to find, difficult to get to, and very sad to leave.



 By John Mariani

    Restaurants that have long lives never follow trends, for their owners and chefs know that it is in the consistency of their original ideas, whether a Southern Italian trattoria or a New York steakhouse, that their strength lies.  Indeed, restaurants that started out trying to catch a cresting wave, like New Nordic or Neo-Peruvian, rarely succeed in becoming that all important thing--a favorite.  For every person dying to be among the first to get a table at a buzzing new restaurant in Dumbo (down under the Manhattan Bridge) or Losaida (Lower East Side), there are thousands more hungry people more excited to return again and again to their favorite places.  And in New York City, anyone’s favorites can number in the dozens.
      The Harrison (near the new World Trade Center) and The Liberty Room (attached to Aureole on West 42nd Street) are anything but dated, though their menus and chefs de cuisine change with the seasons over the years. There is a well-focused consistency in the style of cuisine, with new flourishes all the time, that keeps them always in the forefront of people’s minds if not on the lists of the hottest restaurants of the week.         
     Chef-Restaurateur Jimmy Bradley opened The Harrison (left) at the worst of times, just weeks after the events of 9/11, but it proved to be a beacon of hope and resilience in that devastated neighborhood, as much by simply keeping the lights on as by serving modern American comfort food people craved.  Now, more than a decade later, the modestly sized corner restaurant teems with regulars day and night.
      The dining room has an unassuming charm, with cream-colored walls, dark wood and slender pillars, with a convivial but not overly loud walnut bar, and superbly flattering lighting.  The reception is always just as warm and inviting.  It’s a look and form of hospitality that would be welcomed anywhere, from Boulder to Birmingham, and fits into downtown New York like the setting for an O. Henry story.
         Since January, Executive Chef Ari Bokovza has been both maintaining and fine-tuning the menu with his own ideas.  I seem to recall that the crispy gnocchi has long been a staple at The Harrison, and it was as good as ever, with a rich duck confit, hen of the woods mushrooms and walnut pesto.  Grilled octopus (right), which is everywhere these days, here gets a novel accompaniment of sweet potato falafel and a bracing shot of hot harissa condiment.
         Seafood and meats vie for equal attention on the menu, for it’s hard to choose between Chatham cod in a bath of fish chowder with fresh spring peas and sweet onions, and one of my favorites, sautéed calf’s liver, sliced to the right thickness, with bacon and onion tart, dashed with a Sherry vinegar sauce that brightens the richness of the meat and bacon.
         There is a new pastry chef coming aboard soon, so I hesitate to recommend desserts I enjoyed, but, given the way The Harrison has always been, the style of delicious, homey desserts of the past should be intact.
         If I lived in the area, The Harrison would be my go-to place; the fact that I don’t means I can always go back and be reminded of what I’ve
always loved about it.

The Harrison is at 355 Greenwich Street; 212-274-9310; . Appetizers $12-$17, entrees $24-$41. Open Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly; brunch Sat. & Sun.

    The Liberty Room is the new name for the barroom at restaurateur Charlie Palmer’s classically elegant Aureole, near Bryant Park.  Its origins go back 25 years to another location, and today it is rightly considered one of the classic dining rooms of a genteel New York, especially noted for its nonpareil wine list.
    The Liberty Room now opens onto a 600-square-foot al fresco patio (left) that right now is perfect for a late spring pre-theater dinner, cocktails or bite after work, and its location on West 42nd Street reminds you of the old song, “Little nifties from the Fifties innocent and sweet,/ Sexy ladies from the Eighties, who are indiscreet./ They're side by side, they're glorified,/Where the underworld can meet the elite, Forty-Second Street./Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, Forty Forty-Second Street!”  This is People Watching Central.
    Inside are shiny walnut-topped tables and a bar back-lit and with etched glass. A highlight of the contemporary menu--and by no means a light item--is Chef Marcus Gleadow-Ware’s signature Liberty Duck Casserole (below), exclusively offered to Liberty Room diners, and, with Swiss chard, fava beans, marble potatoes, and orange, it is as wondrous and delicious a dish as you’ll find in New York right now, easily feeding two, perhaps even three people. I also loved his foie gras mousse, his smoky pulled pork sliders, and finely chopped tuna tartare with fennel, espelette pepper, and taro root chips.  Crispy shrimp with cauliflower and basil aïoli was all right, though the shrimp themselves lacked flavor.
    Don’t miss any dessert here that involves chocolate, like the crèmeux with salted caramel, “Aureo” cookie and chocolate sorbet, but for something more summery, go for the Meyer lemon parfait with a touch of basil, hibiscus gelée and grapefruit sorbet.
    Palmer is a chef-restaurateur who makes the kind of food people will always love without needing to puzzle out what it is, and that, in the long run, is what makes a great place to eat every time. 

The Liberty Room at Aureole is at One Bryant Park, 135 West 42nd Street;  212-319-1660; ; Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly; Patio bites $6-$18; Liberty Room dinner appetizers $14-$24, main courses $29-$72 (for duck for two).





By John Mariani

    The sun and moon shine over the vineyards of Avignonesi (left) as they do everywhere else in Tuscany, but the owner and winemakers of this 495-acre estate in Valliano di Montepulciano probably spend more time looking up at the sky than do their neighbors at other vineyards.
         When Virginie Saverys (below) took over the ownership of the property in 2009, after years as a silent partner, she and winemakers Matteo Giustiniani and Ashleigh Seymour adopted the motto, “Terroir speaks; we listen.”   That in itself does not make Avignonesi distinct in Tuscany, but the estate’s commitment to being certified 100 percent organic and to following the sometimes-controversial concepts of biodynamics put it in a smaller pool. “
We are the stewards of the land on which we grow our vines,” says Belgian-born Saverys, “In order to create the healthiest growing habitat for our grapes, we must let the vineyards imitate nature as far as possible, despite the fact that they are monocultures.”
         Biodynamics, first proposed by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolph Steiner, now includes many of the most modern approaches to winemaking, based on a philosophy that the world’s ecosystem demands paying attention to the natural order, including phases of the moon and the position of the sun as they affect the climate and soil of a microclimate like Tuscan vineyards.  Avignonesi’s insistence that terroir speaks and the winemakers listen makes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides anathema to healthy vineyards.
         Avignonesi is also committed to bringing the traditional red wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to greater eminence among Sangiovese grape-based Tuscan wines, while eschewing the meaningless market term “Super Tuscan.”   Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has long had respect among connoisseurs but like Cinderella stayed in the shadow of better promoted Tuscan wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Ornellaia, Tignanello, and Sassicaia, some made with Cabernet Sauvignon.               Avignonesi’s Vino Nobiles are 100 percent Sangiovese, even though Italian wine laws allow 30 percent other grapes to be added to the wine.  Belgian-born Virginie Saverys states unequivocally, “I say no! It would make life easier to add some Merlot to Sangiovese, but I accept the challenge to make ours wholly Sangiovese. The easy route is not always the good route.  And now we are dealing with global warming.  I have one wine at 15 percent alcohol and that is too high.”
      Long in love with Tuscany, Saverys has brought a formidable curriculum vitae to Avignonesi: born in Ghent and graduated from law school in Paris, she rose to the top ranks of a law firm but decided her work was becoming too corporate. “I resigned in 2006 because I didn’t want to be a policeman,” she says. “I like deal making.”
    In buying Avignonesi, founded in 1974, she was determined to make the finest wines possible with the least intervention in the vineyards and to make the estate a kind of modern global village.  “We are not interested in the past but only in the future,” she says. “We have 100 different nationalities working at the winery and we have three big parties each year for everyone.”Over a dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara and lamb chops at Maialino restaurant in New York, Saverys noted that Vino Nobiles are softer and less tannic than other of Tuscany’s Sangioveses.  Still, she says, “I don’t want to release wines that are not ready to drink.  The 2011 Grand Annate won’t be released until 2015. In 2011 I did not even make the Grand Annate because I did not want to over-promise and under-deliver in quality.”
    Avignonesi makes other wines beside Vino Nobile, including the 50/50 blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon called Grifi, which when originally produced in the 1960s acquired the Super Tuscan moniker.  Another wine, Desiderio, is dominated by Merlot from the Cortona region and is named after the robust Chianina beef steers raised in region.
    I have always found the wines of Avignonesi impressive for their richness and complexity, easily deserving a place next to better-known Tuscan rivals.  Now, with Saverys and her army of 100 workers from 21 counties, the winery is poised to push Vino Nobile into the highest ranks of recognition for Italian wine.
    Of this, Saverys has no doubt. “I was recently in China,” she said, slightly smiling, “and the Chinese are becoming very interested in Italian wines. I met some very young, very eager Chinese who spoke excellent English and they told me there are now many wine courses in their country being given in Mandarin. So we are looking carefully for a distributor there. China will be a huge market, and I want them to taste the best Italian wines.  I am patient and willing to take my time to make that happen. ”




A Florida woman  named Barbara Kaufman says she spent five days in a hospital's intensive care unit after unknowingly consuming  a cocktail containing liquid nitrogen. While attending the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, she was served a drink  "without any instructions" or indication that she should wait to consume it. After a single sip, Kaufman said "Smoke was coming out of my nose and my mouth." According to doctors, Kaufman suffered internal burning and tears to her abdomen.



 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,  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. Editor: Walter Bagley. 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 2014