Virtual Gourmet

  May 14,   2017                                                                                            NEWSLETTER




By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By John Mariani


Part Two 

By John Mariani

Central Market
Photo by Thaler Tamas

    In his classic study The Cuisine of Hungary (1971), George Lang traced his country’s culinary beginnings very precisely to 896 AD, when the Magyar tribes arrived under Prince Árpád (right).  But Lang he goes on to say that, “Hungary has always been, because of its position between East and West, overrun and invaded; and the occupiers have left indelible marks on Hungarian cuisine.”

    Sadly, that rich stewpot was put on a back burner during the Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1991.  Only since then has the diversity of Hungary’s cuisine bounded back, at first with little access to the best ingredients but now in full flourish, which is best seen in Budapest’s numerous markets.

    The best known is the immense Central Market at Fővám Square, built in 1897, now sprawling over 11,000 square feet on two floors, with scores of stalls selling poultry, meat, fish, cheeses, sausages, spices and vegetables, all of it well-lighted, which makes an enormous difference in the purveying of food. The profusion of foods is in fact so vast that it is difficult to imagine how the tenth or twentieth poultry stall can compete, which goes for every segment.  Of course, the variety of paprika is astounding.

    Downstairs is where most of the food stalls are, separated by long, wide aisles.  Upstairs the stalls are filled with knickknacks, souvenirs and cheap clothing, along with a swathe of fast food places serving up hearty Hungarian fare at very low prices.  There is also a nook of a wine bar that’s a fun place to go after shopping. Open Mon.-Fri.

    In addition there are several other markets around the city, each with its own character and size, including Fehérvári, A Belvárosi, and Fény Street on the Buda side.

    As noted in an earlier issue, Budapest is now home to many fine new restaurants that would rank with the best in Europe,  joining older restaurants that followed in the wake of the Soviet exit, including the elegant Gundel, Remíz, with its lovely garden, and Krúdy Vendéglö, with its deep wine cellar. 

(Prices are in Hungarian forints, which is currently 285 to the U.S. dollar.)

To read Part One of this story click here.


Macesz Bistro

26 Dob Street



    There is a slew of small, hidden away neighborhood restaurants opening throughout the city, many in the quickly developing 7th District.  The three-year-old Macesz Bistro is set on a narrow street in Budapest’s Old Jewish section, not far from the Great Synagogue.

    Chef  Ákos Tasnádi changes his blackboard menu frequently with seasonal specials, and not all of the items are from Hungarian Jewish cookbooks, but all the food is hearty, beautifully presented and served with exceptional cordiality. 
The newly renovated room, with an off-set bar area, is always cheery, archways hung with a toy hobby horse, track lighting, sconces and chandeliers adding to the warmth of the room; old silver serving platters, white tablecloths and red napkins evoke the traditional cast of a pre-war Budapest.  The wine list teems with the best current Hungarian bottlings.  English is spoken with good cheer.

    Macesz means “matzoh,” which you’ll find in the bread basket, and it is a fine way to start with tasty hummus (1,290 HF).  Also thoroughly traditional and prettily presented is a plate of fried potato latkes with a sour cream foam and watercress (1,290 HF).  Order foie gras pâté with sun-dried apricots (2,190 HF) and you get an enormous slab, good for two people.

    The confit of goose with pearl barley (1,290 HF) is a very hefty dish indeed, succulent to the bone and kept moist by the vegetable broth. Unexpected and delicious is a lasagne made with matzo and layered with many vegetables (3,290HF). The only dish I didn’t think matched the rest was a dessert of flodni, made of thin pastry layered with apple, walnut, poppy seed and jam (1,290).

There is a Jewish Traditional five-course dinner at 7,900 HF, with wines 3,900 HF more, and a Macesz menu of five courses at the same price.

Prices include VAT and 13.5% service charge.


The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily.



21 Restaurant

Fortuna utca 21



    Across the Danube on the Buda side, 21 Restaurant—the name refers to the card game and the address—offers the very best of the Old and New worlds.  Set just a block form St. Mary’s Church in one of the prettiest areas of the city, this charming eight-year-old bistro might just as easily fit in a less crowded arrondissement of Paris or a quiet section of Greenwich Village.
It certainly looks the part with its welcoming façade and an interior broken into cozy sections with well-lighted pale rough brick walls, very comfortable gray rattan armchairs and brown banquettes, well-set mirrors, and flowers on the tables.

    Manager Márk Bense speaks perfect English, which he uses to tell you proudly about his all-Hungarian 30-label wine list of small estates—an option unthinkable even ten years ago, when investment just began coming back to winemaking in Hungary.

    There are specials, seasonal and daily--I was there this winter--so you might begin with Chef Lajos Lutz’s  újházi, a traditional deeply flavorful chicken soup (1,790 HF), or hortobágyi chicken crȇpe colored with mild paprika (2,290 HF, or 2,960 HF). Hungary makes a good deal of foie gras (much of it imported by France), and at 21 it comes in the form of a velvety gras pâté drenched with the marvelous Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji and served on toasted  housemade brioche (2,940 HF).

    Delicate ravioli (right) stuffed with juicy duck meat are afloat in a lovely green apple and celery velouté with its own slab of foie gras (3,260), and you’ll need a good appetite for the hearty pig’s knuckle  (left) that is roasted, then deep-fried and served with gelatin cubes of pork and sauerkraut (4,860 HF).
    Desserts follow the same pattern of gustatory generosity, and the whole tenor of 21 is one of sheer, comforting pleasure.

Prices include VAT and a 13.5% service charge is added to the bill.


The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner.





By John Mariani


302 Bleecker Street (near Christopher Street)



    I’m beginning to think that Greek food is the most underrated cuisine in NYC, almost wholly neglected by the media.  Perusing the NY Times listings, I found that none has been covered during the tenure of the paper’s main critic and only a handful by neighborhood stringers.

    Which is not only too bad but wholly myopic.  Greek food is not only some of the most delicious around but also fits in with contemporary health and nutritional recommendations to consume more seafood, vegetables, olive oil, yogurt and much else that falls under the so-called Mediterranean diet.

    Manhattan has plenty of fine Greek restaurants, as does Astoria, where the Greek community makes up about 18% of the population.  The brand new Nisi, in West Greenwich Village, is representative of a style of Greek cooking that evolved after Milos and Molyvos, in Midtown, broadened the seafood aspect of Greek menus and caused a significant upgrade in the quality of all ingredients.

    Nisí is the creation of partners Mike Himani and Andreas Kelemidis, along with Chef Nikola Karvelas (below), a handsome fellow who’s worked in some of the best restaurants in Athens then Istanbul. Eventually moving to the U.S. to cook at Avra and Anassa Taverna, he is now manning the stoves at Nisí—the Greek word for island—and both inside and out it has a delightful buoyancy of  spirit.  The façade is done in the white and blue colors of the Greek flag, leading to a raftered bar and front dining room and on to an enchanting outdoor patio ringed with Edison light bulbs.  The wait staff shows the same hospitality you’ll find in the tavernas of the Greek isles, and the menu is of a size that encourages lots of meze.

    You are first brought toasty country bread and a creamy taramosalata spread, and there are several other spreads available, served with pita bread (somewhat dry on my visit).  The spanakopita of spinach, scallions, leaks and dill-flecked  feta cheese wrapped in handmade phyllo ($15) is colorful and very good, the Nisí zucchini and eggplant chips served with tzatziki ($17) should be gobbled up by your party of four, and the saganaki is a pan-fried orb of sheep’s cheese ($14) that will go fast.  Best of all the mezes I tasted was a generous platter of grilled octopus ($21) done in a red wine vinegar with salty capers and a dash of oregano.  I’ve become accustomed to tender octopus in Greek restaurants, but this one was extraordinary in every way.

    Every bit as good were fat, heads-on jumbo shrimp ($21) dressed lightly with lemon and olive oil and needing nothing more. 

The special that evening was a silky, moist tsipoúra (gilt-head bream) impeccably grilled ($29).  The mousakas ($29), done in the style of Astakos in western Greece, comes steaming in a ceramic dish as layers of eggplant, potatoes, zucchini and a lobster ragôut topped with a very rich béchamel sauce ($29).

    Kopsidia ($56) is a generous assortment of meats, intended for two people and including grilled lamb chops, lamb sliders, lamb kebab, meatballs and chicken, with Greek fries, pita bread and tzatziki. The kebabs came off the best, for while the other meats were good, their amalgam seemed to suffer from all being plated without regard to their individual cooking times. 

    For dessert there is a fine baklava and a moist chocolate cake with ice cream.

    Nisí’s wine list is conveniently on the back of the menu and is predominantly and proudly Greek, with plenty of top labels, most offered in a little carafe by the glass.  Mark-ups are reasonable on the Greek wines; the international bottlings less so.

    Right now, on a spring night, walking along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is one of NYC’s most delightful pastimes, with a restaurant in every other storefront.  But that inviting white-and-blue façade of Nisí is one that will likely make you stop, peek in, and make the idea of dining outside in twilight as alluring as strolling through the winding pathways of Mykonos for the same reasons.


Open daily for dinner.



By John Mariani


    As discussed in this column last week, “corked” wines—those tainted by a chemical due to a faulty cork—make up between five and fifteen percent of all bottles. That is an astounding failure rate in any industry short of North Korean missile tests.

    Yet the appeal of cork stoppers continues to the degree that the vast majority of wines in the world, especially premium wines priced above $15, use corks.  There must, you would think, be a very good reason.  But, frankly, there isn’t.

    Corks have been used since Ancient Greece in their ceramic amphoras (left), though the practice lapsed in the Middle Ages in favor of wood, wax and pitch, then returned to favor when glass bottles appeared in the 17th century.  Failure rates considered, cork was still the best thing available until the 20th century, when several other closures were invented, including metal screw caps, synthetic corks, and Teflon-coated glass, all of which preclude any bottle cork problem.  So why don’t wine producers use them?

    I ask this question of most wine producers I meet and interview, and the answer is almost always the same: Corks are more ... romantic.  Some of those producers warm to that idea, though I’m never sure if they really mean it.  Most point the finger at consumers who have become conditioned by the dubious romance of pulling a cork from a bottle or who believe only cheap wines have non-cork closures.  Such people may never be convinced that the ritual of finding the right corkscrew, risking destruction of the cork, getting cork bits in the wine, and sometimes needing a superhuman strength to get the damn thing out is hardly romantic in any way and may  lead at best to embarrassment and at worse to a complete mess.  Such cork lovers always smile and mention the celebratory “pop” of the cork when it comes out of the bottle, giggling like teenagers when a Champagne cork shoots across the room.  They’re the same people who find slicing off the top of the bottle with a sword a giddy amusement (right).

    Those who wouldn’t be caught dead serving a bottle with a “fake” cork or a screw cap do so out of abject fear they will be judged cheap by their friends.  They insist that a screw cap on a bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy is like putting plastic covers on antique sofas, which is certainly not pretty but highly protective.

    In fact, when E&J Gallo wanted to gain their Hearty Burgundy wines a little more respect, they switched from jugs to Bordeaux-style magnum-sized bottles and ditched the screw caps for corks.  It didn’t make the wine taste any better.

    I will bet you, however, if an avid wine lover purchased a case of, say, $125 per bottle California Cabernet and found every bottle—even half of them—corked, they would storm back to the wine store and demand a refund, which they will probably get; the store owner may then get a refund from his distributor, who eats the loss.  All of which could have been avoided if the wines had been stoppered with a screw cap or imitation cork.  Regarding the screw cap, “It’s the best technology for closing wine in a glass bottle,” says Thomas Henick-Kling, director of Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology program, who did research on the  subject.

    Well aware of all this debate, the Portuguese cork industry has redoubled its efforts to make a better cork.  Formerly, they bleached the corks but found that actually increased the possibility of TCA (the chemical compound that causes cork taint); then they used hydrogen peroxide, irradiation and heat to destroy mould. After being placed in plastic bags, the corks are hit with carbon dioxide.  These techniques showed promise but have not eliminated the TCA problem by a long shot. 

    A somewhat more reasonable objection to screw caps is that wine in a bottle can benefit from what is called oxygen transmission, by which oxygen enters the bottle through a cork, affecting the wine and contributing to its development and aging. Makers of big red wines insist their products definitely need longer aging and a little oxygen. Fans of corks contend screw caps allow no oxygen transmission and synthetic corks not enough. But it’s a transmission that may cause other problems: Too much oxygen and you’ll have a nasty oxidized wine; there’s no such thing as too little.

    But both synthetic cork and screw top makers have managed to allow some oxygen into the bottle.  Indeed, a French company named Diam Buchage has even found a way to offer products with different oxygen transmission rates. Take your pick. 

    There is, to be sure, a vast number of producers who would love to switch to synthetic corks or screw caps.  Back in 1997 Napa Valley’s highly regarded PlumpJack winery decided to bottle its finest Reserve Cabernet under a screw cap “in an effort to maintain only the highest quality wine.”   Just this year Quady wines of Madera, California, switched most of its wines to screw caps, and most of the wines from Australia and New Zealand now use them.

    But change has come slowly.  The rather elegant glass stoppers made by Alcoa Germany (left) work very well, but the bottle itself has to be specially made to accept them.  Napa Valley’s Whitehall Lane uses them, as do many German wineries.

     In Europe premium wines still use cork, but even there producers are testing the waters with alternative stoppers.

I believe it’s only a matter of time before synthetic corks or screw caps replace real corks in wine bottles.  And when true wine lovers begin to admit that corked wines can be an expensive way to fake romance with the pop of a cork, the change-over will come quickly.



For Mother's Day in the UK, Groupon Supermarkets is selling a nail polish made with real prosecco that smells and tastes like the Italian sparkling wine, although Group does not recommend  actually drinking the product.





"So long, farewell auf wiedersehen, adieu,

Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu!" 

"Unlike McNally’s two-decades-old Balthazar, a bistro machine that churns out the Napoleonic ideal of steak frites night after night, Augustine hasn’t quite got the food down. But what it lacks in consistency it makes up for in kindness. Roberta’s mere presence, as she delivers the tarte tatin, a rose of butter-caramel apple slices hugging a hazelnut crust, rescues the experience from the dispassion of the suits—as does François’s wink and pour of gifted Calvados. You might forget the food, but you’ll feel like family exiting to a heartfelt chorus of `
À la prochaine' and `Ciao, ciao!'" –Becky Cooper, “Augustine,” The New Yorker (April 3, 2107).


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

   The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a  novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured  favorite. The  story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair. 


“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw

“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.

“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.

“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.

“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.


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 JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (as well as the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas. He can also be seen every Friday morning as the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3  in Las Vegas.


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, Geoff Kalish, Mort Hochstein, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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