Virtual Gourmet

  September 14,  2014                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"Autumn Squash, Upper Michigan" by Galina Dargery (2013)


By John Mariani

By John Mariani

By John Mariani


The Wines of Veneto
By John Mariani


Part Two

By John Mariani


800 Magazine Street

        I have waited until now to report on Donald Link’s new seafood restaurant, Pêche, because when I ate there last year, the noise level in the former warehouse space was so blisteringly high that I could never recommend it. 
     It was, apparently, of great concern to Link (left), too, for he went through many changes to tamp the noise down, and, according to a report in a local newsfeed, the restaurant is now fit for human occupation.
        If there have been any culinary changes since last year, I can’t really say, but the intent of Pêche was to do things simply and let the Gulf ingredients speak for themselves with not too much chef-ing going on.  It’s a formula that’s worked for Link at his hog-based restaurant Cochon and his wonderful modern Creole place, Herbsaint--both among my very favorites in town.
        With chef-partners Ryan Prewitt and  Stephen Stryjewski, Link has kept to the basics here, with a compact menu of raw items (priced daily), and some snacks like shrimp toast ($7) and delicious shrimp-and-fontina croquettes ($10). Then there are small plates, like catfish with pickled greens in a hot chili broth ($10), and even some non-seafood items like grilled chicken with a white barbecue sauce ($12).
       The stars of the show at Pêche are, obviously, the impeccably fresh fish (market price), grilled to the right temperature and served with very little but lemon and oil.  They are listed on the blackboard each night (above), along with the peel-and-eat shrimp when Link can get the best of them.  
    Travel & Leisure, without saying why, named Pêche one of the "Ten Most Romantic Restaurants" in the USA; I certainly don't see Pêche that way, but I’m all ready to go back, no ear plugs this time.  I always thought Link would bring it off.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.

1041 Dumaine Street

        Marti’s is a real breath of fresh air in an old venue.  A very long time ago the premises used to be Gentlich’s, a bar and sandwich joint, then a full service Creole restaurant called Marti's, whose clientele consisted largely of the arts, theater and gay communities. Tennessee Williams lived across the street and was a regular.
        From 1988 through 1991 the restaurant was closed, then turned into  Peristyle, named after the beautiful murals of City Park.  It became Wolfe’s for a while, then last year Patrick and Rebecca Singeley, who own Gautreau’s, opened it up and took back the name Marti’s, giving the room a period art déco style, with elegant chandeliers, and banquettes in pale blue-green leather.  But this is not an effusively posh place either.   As you enter there is a serious bar with a serious barman--not a place to hear the new Jay Z CD or watch women’s golf.  You may, though, run into actors making movies in town, as have Jessica Lange, Sofia Vergara and Ryan Reynolds.
        Marti’s chef, formerly at Gautreau’s, is native Louisianan Drew Lockett, and it is more than evident how much care he puts into his cooking.  Textures, seasonings, temperature are all as they should be. Flourishes are few, tradition is respected, creativity shows well. Indeed, I wrote superlatives next to most of the dishes I tried, beginning with seared foie gras with smoked salt, green tomato jam, and white balsamic ($18). Excellent in every respect was his bucatini with rabbit ragù, tomatoes, roasted garlic, sage and pecorino ($14), and I haven’t had a better risotto in New Orleans than Marti’s, with corn, tender shrimp, mushrooms and white summer truffles ($15).
    There are seven shellfish options, admirably conservative, and the Gulf fish amandine with green beans, lemon, and brown butter was sweet and perfectly cooked. (I do wonder why, in a city like New Orleans, Lockett even bothers bringing in King salmon from the Pacific Northwest.)
        Rabbit served two ways ($29) came as braised legs and grilled sausage, with mustard greens, dirty rice and rabbit jus, while a duck leg confit ($28) was enriched with just enough chickpeas, silky eggplant, roasted peppers and tomatoes. Something simple and simply good was his crispy pork Milanese with mustard sauce, greens, lemon and shallots ($27).
        Oddly enough, desserts are not what leap to mind in food-mad New Orleans, but the dark chocolate pot de crème with salted caramel ($11) is very good. Not so the mediocre ice creams and sorbets ($6).  The wine list is both solid and reasonably priced, though young in red vintages.
        In many ways Marti’s treads a fine and welcome line between tradition and contemporaneity in its cuisine.  Its beauty has good bones, its hospitality is infectious, and the level of sophistication is just about perfect without ever being elitist. Marti’s rings true on every level. It’s an honest place to dine.

Open nightly for dinner.

1800 Magazine St.                                                               

    I was no fan of the modernist pretensions of Chef-owner Phillip L. Lopez (below, in the middle) and partner Maximilian G. Ortiz’s first venture, Root, of which the Times-Picayune critic wrote, “To fully appreciate the cooking of Root’s chef-owner, Phillip Lopez, it’s necessary to surrender yourself to his ambition [and] to the crosswind of exhilaration and mystification that is both the price and reward of eating here.”
    So I was not anticipating a fabulous meal at their new Square Root on Magazine Street.  In fact, Square Root goes even further into molecular/modernist cuisine via tasting menus comprising from 8 to 15 courses ($95-$150 per person) that can easily last three hours. The second floor is home to Root2, an artisanal charcuterie, cheese and cocktail  bar. The wine cellar stocks 3,000 bottles, though matching them with this kind of food is extremely difficult.
    There are only 16 seats in the rustic, modern dining room, with its Japanese shou-sugi-ban wood wall and cement floors. You sit in front of a U-shaped counter and very open kitchen where the crew works feverishly, tweezers at the ready; a waiter, for some reason, wears one white glove. Cooks clean each plate with vinegar and water.  The food is prepared and served right in front of you, with each dish taking about two minutes of extended, breathless explanation. 
    You begin with “snacks,” which on the night I was there included one lobster cracker with tarragon, caviar, lobster bergamot mousse, and flowering coriander, and a really wonderful pizzette with smoked n’duja jam with squash preserves, toasted seeds, pecorino, and fennel. Then came a country-fried chicken wafer and pickled fried okra, smothered with the sharp tastes of fermented mustard seeds, and dill--this, in a city of great fried chicken, almost seems a snub of the entrenched tradition.
    Black duck tortellini with a single dried wakame chip, coco nib rice crisp, duck and sour dashi, and wild oxtails (where does one buy “wild” oxtails?) was a tasty and impressive tour de force. It’s one thing to be, as Ortiz says, “playful” by matching pheasant with a peppered corn pudding, corn croutons, huitlacoche velouté and popcorn shoots, but it’s way over the top to create a dish that’s taking me two minutes just to type: confit potatoes, za’atar potato crisps, white vermouth gelée, smoked caviar, truffle pickled peaches, and Yukon Gold potato soup, which sounds like an entire menu on one plate. 
    The red meat dish was charred Louisiana wagyu-style beef with squash, miso, hazelnut pomace, bone marrow soubise, and aged balsamic vinegar, which, despite all that came before, I ate ravenously because I was still hungry.
There’s no doubt that Square Root is an adventurous night out--and the owners say the menu changes all the time, which hardly allows any dish to be perfected.  So, when Ortiz told me that he pressed kale leaves between the pages of Volume VIII of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I had no reason to doubt his claim, though I later learned he was joking.
    Reservations (taken only through Open Table) are said to be very tough to score, but on the Thursday night during the busy New Orleans Food & Wine Experience, the place never filled up and by 9:30 was more than a third empty.  In fact, I just checked Open Table for two seats tonight and they can take me at 6, 6:30, 8:30 or 9 p.m.
        It’s really up to you to decide if this is the kind of dining “experience” you're up for in New Orleans.  It is exciting, it is ambitious, you’ll be impressed and you’ll laugh; it’s just not for everyone. But one way or the other, they’d better re-think the fried chicken.

Hyatt Regency New Orleans Hotel
601 Loyola Avenue

        The wholly renovated Hyatt Regency, heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, has, like so many properties in New Orleans, come back stronger and better than ever. 
    That cost $275 million, but it shows.  There are now several food alternatives within the hotel, including the 8 Block Kitchen & Bar; a sports restaurant named Vitascope Hall, and a barbeque eatery named Q Smokery & Café.  But the most serious of the restaurants is one with the involvement of Chef John Besh, who also has August and other restaurants around town.   Borgne’s executive chef, Brian Landry, sets a table with focus on the Gulf, and you could happily make a meal of his starters and small plates, like the dozen oysters for $15.  “Hunting camp style” duck poppers with jalapeño and bacon ($10) were way too sweet, and there wasn’t much meat on a special of turkey necks ($10).  Jumbo shrimp rémoulade with petit iceberg lettuce and quail egg ($12) was as good as any in town, while the cream of corn soup with plenty of crabmeat ($8) was better than any in the city, almost equaled by a lusty duck and andouille gumbo with rice ($8).

        The best of the entrees I tried was deliciously moist black drum fish cooked à la plancha, sauced with rich brown butter, toasted pecans and truly jumbo lump crabmeat ($30).  Another shrimp dish, with a mass of garlic cloves, tomatoes and roasted eggplant and fregola ($24), was excellent because the quality of the shrimp was.
        For dessert, it’s hard to resist the Key lime ice box pie with ginger and black rum ice cream ($7), or the chocolate hazelnut pudding with a condensed milk sorbet ($7).
        Borgne is located in a hotel, and the room looks it--big, wide, and terribly loud, especially towards the middle and rear, with harried waiters.  The décor does not exactly reek New Orleans, looking more like a big Miami Beach luncheonette.   I think it’s probably a better lunch bet than for dinner.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.


1179 Annunciation Street

        You might well think that Eleven 79 Restaurant dates back before the war--that’s World War II--for when you walk in, the place has a well-worn, bar-lounge atmosphere and décor that might well have attracted all the star jazz singers whose paintings and photos deck the walls. Owner Joe Segreto (the skinny fellow in the white linen suit below) knew them all, many before he opened the restaurant in 1996.  Ask him about the old-timers and he’s got stories to take you right through dessert.  And his guests, most of them very regular regulars, could tell you a million more. 

        The menu at Eleven 79 hasn’t budged much since opening day: it’s straight-down-the-line Italian-American fare whose principal claim is that they’ve perfected everything over the years, starting with a terrific, deep, rich tomato sauce (marinara or meat) that graces the spaghetti and fettuccine ($16.50).  They make a fine creamy Alfredo ($17.50), too, and one of the most popular items is pasta with oysters, spinach, olive oil, mushrooms and green onions ($20).
        The fried calamari ($10.50) and eggplant parmigiana ($8.50) make for first-rate starters.
        Everyone in the know orders the gigantic meatball (below) as a course on its own, bigger than a softball and lavished with meat sauce. This you won't find anywhere else in the city; indeed you won’t find it on Joe’s menu either, because people just know about it and order it. There is a lot of veal on the menu--eight items, including saltimbocca, veal milanese, osso buco and veal Eleven 79, piled with roasted peppers, asparagus and mozzarella.   In a seafood town like New Orleans, I’d expected a lot more seafood main courses. Catch of the day is pretty close to sum total.
        The ice cream comes from the local Angelo Brocato’s, so you know it’s among the best in town, and Joe has some pretty interesting bottlings on and off the wine list.
        Eleven 79 is about as far from Square Root as you can get in New Orleans, and for a whole lot of people, that’s just fine with them.  Joe himself is one of the draws at his restaurant.  Go once. He’ll remember you next time.
Lunch is served only Thurs. & Fri.; Dinner Tues.-Sat.



By John Mariani

         Anyone who has dined out with me knows that, unless I’m eating at the proverbial hole in the wall, I tend to groan over the lack of what was once the simplest amenity in a restaurant: a tablecloth.

    In the past, even a pizzeria or Chinese eatery would have tablecloths, and not just because it’s a nicety. There are very good reasons for it: as any epidemiologist will tell you, you can catch other people’s illnesses through skin contact as much as through sneezing or even kissing.  So a barely wiped bare wooden or Formica table is a festering point for germs.

Restaurant at the Meurice, Paris

        A tablecloth also provides brightness (unless it’s black) and a bonhomie that bare, cold, hard wood or plastic will always lack. Your hands don't stick to cloth; drips and spills seep into it, not onto your clothes; a tablecloth also soaks up noise in a restaurant, while a hard surface bounces noise around; and a tablecloth is easily cleared and crumbed by a waiter, while cleaning a hard surface is awkward and ineffective. 

    Esthetically speaking, a tablecloth is itself a design statement about the degree of luxury a restaurateur wants to manifest, whether the cloth is simple cotton, damask or embossed linen.  And, as the photos below show, a restaurant need not be "fussy" to have them.  But, over the past five or so years, the absence of tablecloths in restaurants has been hailed as signaling the place is not “fine dining,” meaning pretentious, even if the cloth-less restaurant charges a small fortune for its food.  Such restaurateurs call it a “design statement” when, in almost all cases, it is nothing more than a matter of trying to save money.  And I admit that such laundry bills can mount up--tens of thousands of dollars per annum. But not using tablecloths doesn’t seem in any way to reduce the price of a meal at such restaurants. Believe me, your dinner is never cheaper because the restaurant doesn't use tablecloths.   

    To those restaurateurs who have yanked the tablecloths from their tables, while insisting it’s part of their design statement, I respond that colorful plastic cups, knives and forks, and patterned paper napkins might well be a design statement too and would save them a lot more money, but we haven't descended that low yet, except, maybe, on airplanes.                      
                                                                                               Arzak, San Sebastián

   So, it was with some degree of satisfaction that I read The Daily Meal’s round-up of “The 101 Best Restaurants in Europe,” voted by noted chefs and food media (including myself), and found that the overwhelming majority are elegantly appointed with tablecloths.  This is in complete contradistinction to Bon Appetit’s recent article on “The Best New  Restaurants in America 2014," which I wrote about in the Virtual Gourmet, wherein not one restaurant uses tablecloths.

    Peruse The Daily Meal’s list and you’ll find that tablecloths are but a minor item in the details that make these places so respected: great chefs, great service, fine décor, good silverware and wine glasses, beautifully printed menus, well-dressed staff, great wine lists. These are the things that make them great.

St. John, London

    So, when the American food media--and increasingly their London counterparts--declare that fine dining is all but dead and “white tablecloth restaurants are a thing of the past” where no one wants to eat any more, I invite anyone to try to book a table at any of these 101 stellar restaurants on short notice.  Try for a week in advance, maybe a month.
      One of the first to rip away the tablecloths was the Judge Judy of TV food competitions, Tom Colicchio, who this week announced he would open a new restaurant that would not have a formal setting because, he said, "I don't think people are interested in eating like that anymore." On the other hand, one of NYC's finest chefs, Floyd Cardoz, has just opened White Street, with crystal chandeliers, tufted leather sofas, and white tablecloths, described by the owners as "classy old school New York ambiance."  The truth is, fine dining--and tablecloths--are no more passé or dying than are the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens or Tolstoy. 

    Now, of course, if the readers of the foodie media are the kind of people who feel ill at ease in a fine dining restaurant--remember Lucy ordering snails in Paris on “I Love Lucy”?--that’s their problem. For, if they learned a little more about fine dining and its attendant pleasures, including the softness of a thick tablecloth, they might well be converted. And get less splinters in the bargain.




by John Mariani

227 10th Avenue (near 23rd Street)
212- 242-1122

         I’m afraid the once gentle term “laid back” has come to mean a restaurant where no one puts any thought into the comfort of its guests and where service means little more than sticking a plate in front of you.

         For an elementary course on what “laid back” should mean at its best, a visit to the fifteen-year-old Red Cat in Chelsea is in order. There the first sign of civility may well be the greeting by owner Jimmy Bradley (below), whose sincere interest in your well-being while under his care has been amiably bred into his entire staff.   That’s just one of the reasons why Red Cat always has a large percentage of regulars among its guests; the other percentage is filled by those whom the regulars have brought. Bradley also runs the equally pleasant restaurant The Harrison in TriBeCa, and both share a desire to please.

         I did once think the dining room was very loud, but compared with many of the new restaurants opening south of Red Cat, the noise level is tolerable (and Bradley says he’s thinking about buffering it further).

         The Red Cat’s scarlet-colored banquettes and simple slatted walls might put you in mind of New England rather than New York. Cozy seems too feeble a word to describe a place people find so truly lovable.  It’s the kind of place where you feel entirely comfortable asking the person at the next table what it is she’s eating.

         There’s a new chef aboard,  Michael Cooperman (below), formerly of The Modern, and while his menu doesn’t stray from the original contemporary American style of The Red Cat’s past, he has brought a finesse that shows exactly just how much he learned from master chefs like Gabriel Kreuther (formerly at The Modern). Seasonings are in balance, textures are delicate, sauces enliven rather than mask fine ingredients, and the ideas are clearly all his.

        Though listed as a side dish, I enjoyed the light tempura of green  beans ($10) with a sweet hot mustard dipping sauce as something to nibble on with cocktails.  The same might be said for the impeccably rendered sauté of zucchini with roasted almonds and a dash of ground pecorino ($11).  The cool freshness of raw fluke played well against sour tomatillo, aromatic basil, lemon verbena and tomato ($16).

         Diver’s scallops ($18) had the same quality of freshness, quickly seared on the plancha griddle just to give the outside a texture, then served with sweet avocado, cherry tomato, and a sprightly bacon vinaigrette.  Pasta, so often over-engineered in non-Italian restaurants, was treated with proper respect at The Red Cat in the form of housemade cavatelli with summer’s corn, a swirl of ricotta and some spicy-hot ‘nduja condiment, all graced with parsley butter ($15).  Just as good and smack in season was a plate of trenette with golden zucchini flowers ($15).  These are the kinds of dishes that make eating anything out of season seem utterly ridiculous.

            Of the entrees, I most liked the skate with Swiss chard, raisins for sweetness, the crunch of walnuts and a tomato-bread sauce ($26).  The best of the main courses was a well-spiced pork chop--and a hefty chop it was--with orzo, chorizo, roasted broccoli and green onions ($28).  Tender and pink, the chop never lost its flavor under the spicings.  An all-natural chicken with arugula, radish, grilled lemon and salsa verde ($27) was fine enough if not out of the ordinary in NYC, but I was disappointed with grilled calf’s liver with braised Romaine lettuce, pancetta, onion compote and tomato vinaigrette ($24), because the inherent flavor of the liver didn’t trump the other ingredients.  The herbed French fries ($9) were further testament that making excellent French fries like these should now be mandatory in all restaurants.

         The desserts (all $10) keep in line with summer’s bounty, evident in a blueberry crisp with corn ice cream, mint, and streusel topping, and in a peach crostada with buttermilk sugar dough, luscious huckleberry ice cream and crème fraȋche.  If you love chocolate and hazelnuts, the gianduja dessert here is going to make you deliriously happy.

         I’ve noticed, looking back over recent reviews in this space, that new restaurants like Bacchanal and Batârd are trying hard not to try too hard, and The Red Cat has been achieving that delicate balance for a long, long while.  There’s every reason to think that a lot of other places are just catching up.

The Red Cat is located at 227 10th Avenue; 212-242-1122. 

Open nightly for dinner, Mon.-Fri. for lunch, and Sat. & Sun. for brunch.




By John Mariani


    I’ll grant that feasting on fish caught that morning in Lake Garda, Italy, and served at the delightful Trattoria Pompiere in Verona can have a powerful effect on one’s objectivity.  But I was also able to overcome such distractions to focus on the fact that the wines of the region, the Veneto, get better and better all the time.
     The Veneto is Italy’s largest wine producer. The wines with D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. appellations alone come to more than 300 million bottles annually. The principal Veneto exporters are Bolla, Bertani, Allegrini, Anselmi, Maculan, Tommasi, Zonin, and Masi.
     The best known wines, many made in tremendous bulk, are soave, bardolino and valpolicella, this last in particular showing more consistent quality than ever before. The most interesting of the modern valpolicellas have the word “ripasso” (re-passed) on their label, which means the wines spend time in contact with the dried grapes, a technique long used to make a much bigger, red wine named Amarone della Valpolicella, whose grapes dry on straw mats in order to concentrate their sugars and flavors.  Ripasso valpolicellas take on some of Amarones’ fleshy character but are not as massive.
     This summer, during the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, I was on a panel called “Fresh and Dried,” on the subject of Veneto wines, led by Tony Apostolakos, brand manager of Masi Agricola, whose wines I’ve long admired.  Masi has a 200-year history of innovation in the region, having refined the traditional technique called appassimento, by which grapes are dried to concentrate their flavors and give them durability. Masi dries corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes on bamboo racks to give maximum airflow around the bunches (right). They even semi-dry pinot grigio grapes, mixing
their juice with 25 percent verduzzo to add a honey-like flavor.
    Apostolakos was quick to point out, however, that, contrary to some assertions, the grapes are not dried to “raisin shrinkage.” Rather, he says, “They resemble more a party balloon that has lost its air and deflated” (below).
        Masi is not alone these days in making Amarone della Valpolicella in a more drinkable style that does not take decades to develop.  In the past, Amarone was expected to be a massive, high-alcohol, Port-like red wine, with a leathery taste and, more often than not, a bit of oxidation. A few producers, like Bertani, still go with that style, which still has its fans, but Masi and others have maintained the wine’s richness while removing the oxidation and high alcohol, allowing the wine to be drunk earlier and with a wider range of dishes.
     And, when Masi determines that the vintage is not up to its standards--which apparently happens every ten years, in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002--it doesn’t make Amarone.  The great vintages, said Apostolakos, are 1990, 1997, 2006, 2007 and 2011.  I would still wait a couple of years for the 2011 to mature, but mod ern Amarones can age for a decade or more and still be sound and robust.
         Masi also has been proudly promoting a wine named Campofiorin Rosso del Veronese, which, since its debut in 1964, was its first ripasso, for which fresh corvina, rondinella and molinara grape juices are blended, with about 25 percent of the same grapes dried for about six weeks.  This causes a re-fermentation called a malolactic. The result is a bigger, richer wine than regular valpolicella.  Though it is not a legal classification, Masi calls Campofiorin a “Supervenetian.” And, at under $15, it is an amazingly good buy.
      The bigger, brawnier brother of Campofiorin is the company’s Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2009 ($60), which is classified as a prestigious D.O.C.G. In this blend the corvina actually develops a bit of botrytis, a fungus that shrivels the grapes and concentrates the sugars, adding body.
         Masi’s Bonacosta Valpolicella Classico D.O.C. ($12), on the other hand, is made exclusively from fresh grapes, going through malolactic on its own.
         It’s a range of wines from the same grapes that shows how different--and differently priced--they can be, yet still remain their essential character and terroir.



Mary's Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, NC, is taking 15 percent
off the check of any customer "praying in public."


“On this most Brooklyn of streets—one of those blocks in the Heights that looks  dreamt up by Auden, or perhaps Dunham—there could be no Manhattan.  `We’re out of sweet vermouth,' the waitress explained. “How about an Old-Fashioned?'"--Amelia Hester, “Iris Café Store #9,” The New Yorker (8/4/14)


Wine Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners


by Cristina Mariani-May         
co-CEO of Banfi Vintners America's leading wine importer


    Wine is part of my everyday life, both as a profession and as a passion.  But this month in particular, one grape varietal has really taken center stage in my daily activities – that most Italian of grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression – Brunello di Montalcino. 

    Sangiovese is on my mind more than usual for a number of reasons.   First, we are approaching the days when the first Sangiovese grapes will be harvested.   From mid-September through mid-October, the Sangiovese grown for our various styles of red wines will be harvested, culminating with the top selection for Brunello di Montalcino.

    Second, cooler weather here means it is time to start enjoying more red wines and especially Sangiovese based wines.  That includes our cru of Brunello, Poggio alle Mura, literally the cream of the crop of our Sangiovese vineyards. Alongside our Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino, this year we introduced two more wines from the cru Poggio alle Mura – a Rosso di Montalcino and a Riserva of Brunello.  Rosso is sort of like the younger brother of Brunello, also made from 100% Sangiovese grapes but usually a selection from younger vines and the wine is aged only two years compared to the four required for Brunello.  The Riserva, on the other hand, is an even more selective harvest of Sangiovese, and ages for an additional year before release.

    What is so special about this cru Poggio alle Mura?  Well, it is the result our over 30 years of ongoing research at my family’s vineyard estate, Castello Banfi.  When we first began planting our vines there in the late 1970s studies from the University of Bordeaux indicated which strains of many varietals we should plant, based on the soil type and microclimate of each vineyard.  But when it came to the region’s native Sangiovese, there was only local lore, no scientific research.  So we took it upon ourselves to figure out this vine, and set off on three decades of incredibly detailed research. 

    We started with 600 apparent variations on Sangiovese, because it is so susceptible to variations in weather and soil, and narrowed that down to 160 truly genetically different clones.  We planted a vineyard with two rows of each type, made wine from each of them, and charted the differences – remember, you only get one chance a year to make wine, so this took time. 

    It took about ten years to get some concrete results, though we continue to experiment today and always will – you never stop learning in science and nature!  Once we determined which were the best, complementary clones that could be planted together to make the best Brunello, we chose to plant them in what we determined to be the optimal vineyard sites.  Coincidentally, the best soils and climate conditions are in the slopes surrounding the medieval fortress today known as Castello Banfi, known since Etruscan times as Poggio alle Mura – the walled hilltop.  Hence the name of our most special “cru” of Brunello, representing a synthesis between tradition and innovation.

    Though the focus of this study was our Brunello, all of our Sangiovese-based wines, including the super Tuscans SummuS, Cum Laude, and Centine, benefitted from this work.  And that’s the third reason for celebrating Sangiovese this month, for the range of wonderful reds that usher us into autumn!  One wine in particular was inspired by our research – the BelnerO, a Sangiovese dominant blend with what I like to call a kiss of Cabernet and a whisper of Merlot.  We grow the grapes a little differently for BelnerO than for Brunello, make the wine with less oak aging and released it earlier from the winery, providing a counterpoint to Brunello and a lovely terroir-driven wine in its own right.

    I am finding that despite all this focus on Sangiovese, I never grow tired of it.  I earlier referred to Sangiovese as a most Italian varietal, and that is part of the reason.  If you know Italians, you know that by nature we are multi-faceted, varying in mood, and always passionate.  As a nation, we span from the hot sunny beaches of Sicily near the African coast to the rugged mountains and Alpine ski slopes of Trentino-Alto Adige in the north.  Sangiovese is grown in almost all of Italy’s regions and reflects the unique nature of each; it is most famous (rightfully so) in Tuscany, yet even there it reflects the nuances of each hilltop, valley and subzone.  It has something a little different to say in Brunello than Chianti, Morellino than Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Rosso di Montalcino than Super Tuscan blends. 

    Here is a smattering of Sangiovese-based wines that you may wish to get to know better, reflecting a spectrum that appeals to every occasion, every taste, and every budget.  I can assure you that the conversation will never become boring.

Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese 


BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve SangioveseA refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites. 


Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage. 


Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish. 

Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation.  Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.


Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape.  Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name.  The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky.  Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red.  The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut.  It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note.  It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.

SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet.  An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine. 

Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.


Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table. 

Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti.  An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes.  This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.

Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining. 

Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.

Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region.  The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice.  It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.  

Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.


Cristina Mariani is not related by family or through business with John Mariani, publisher of this newsletter


 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: PROVENCE

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,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Andrew Chalk,  Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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