May 8, 2011

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This Week

New Orleans Bounces Back Big Time, Part Two
by John Mariani

New York Corner: San Pietro
by John Mariani

Man About Town: The Best Waiter in NOLA
by Christopher Mariani

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GOOD NEWS! now has a new food section  called "Eat Like a Man," which will be featuring restaurant articles by John Mariani and others from around the USA:
Handicapping the 2011 James Beard Restaurant Awards


by John Mariani

115 Bourbon Street
504- 598-1200

    Ralph Brennan is one of the many family members of the clan that runs restaurants in and out of New Orleans, (though the branch that run's Brennan's itself on Royal Street operates that one alone.)
     Ralph runs the  casual seafood eatery Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street, and it's a fun place to go, with food that goes way beyond what you might expect. Fried seafood is not what Chef  Brian Katz (below) cares about, but the Grill in the restaurant's name gives him plenty of leeway to come up with ideas entirely his own.  So I left him to serve me whatever he wanted one recent evening.
    First course was 
jumbo lump crabmeat tossed with olive oil then saided with tomato and rosemary ices and a celery root horseradish slaw--a small triumph of textures and temperatures. Then came spicy shrimp with local heirloom tomato, blackened avocado relish and smoked onion mayonnais, four more tandem flavors.  Next  red fish flamed with herbsaint liqueur that gave it a fennel flavor, with a spicy, warm dijon mustard potato salad, caper raisin emulsion and Louisiana bowfin caviar. These were amazing combinations of ingredients each standing out and complementing each other.
    Meat was next up--this in a predominantly seafood resto--hickory grilled lamb with Plaquemines Parish satsuma, mint and arugula. Last, dessert was a terrific double chocolate bread pudding with sweet potato ice cream and chocolate almond bark.
    You might hear that the Red Fish Grill is a basic seafood eatery, but don't believe it: Katz is coming up with some of the most inventive food in Fat City.

Open for lunch and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers $7-$14, main courses $17-$34.

Ralph's on the Park
900 City Park Avenue

    In addition to the Red Fish Grill, Ralph Brennan also runs this namesake midtown restaurant on City Park, a lovely  stretch of dark trees and greenery that partakes of a calmer sense of New Orleans' heritage than what you find down in the French Quarter.  You won't find a lovelier spot for brunch, lunch or dinner, the light changing as the weather does every hour in New Orleans, and if you come in out of the heat and humidity, Ralph's seems like shedding a load of wet towels in exchange for a breath of cool air and warm hospitality.
    The building dates to 1860 as a coffeehouse and concession stand at the Park, and the veranda is a splendid way to spend the cooler afternoons here. Renovation of the old structure was difficult and long but they finally opened  in 2002, with a mahogany bar that  is generous in size and in doling out the cocktails. Local restaurant authority Tom Fitzmorris listed Ralph's as one of the "ten most archiutecturally interesting restaurants" in the city.
    Chef Chip Flanagan does what he calls a "globally inspired" local food with a high comfort level, evident in dishes like his extremely tender lam spareribs glazed with an tangy-sweet-salty Worchestershire and citrus. Creole country breakfast sausage in cornmeal pancake batter that is then fried and served with sugar cane syrup goes a little too far into sheer heaviness, but I have no such qualms about the chicken and chocolate chip waffles with boneless fried chicken thighs, boudin balls, and red-eye gravy.  These last two are brunch dishes.
    I loved the Louisiana seafood crepe make with Lake Pontchartrain crabmeat, Gulf shrimp and fish in a smoked tomato sauce with fried shrimp curls--as N'awlins-styled as any dish in town.  Also delicious were oozy poached eggs Sardou on brown buttered artichoke hearts with creamed spinach, rich tomato hollandaise with more crabmeat or shrimp and sauteed wild mushrooms.  By all means don't even think of sitting down without a plate of buttermilk biscuits (left) or a bowl of thick, deep turtle soup.
    People like to dress up for brunch on Sunday in New Orleans, and you'll see some outfits, along with some of the city'ds most beautiful women, starting off the late morning with a lemon basil bloody Mary or a brandy milk punch.  Not to would seem unmannerly in a city like this.

Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., for dinner nightly, for brunch on Sun. At dinner, starters range $8-$11, main courses $22-$46; Two-course menu $27.

Loew's New Orleans Hotel
300 Poydras Street

    What's the best way to honor a favorite grande dame?
    Some cities would erect a statue, others a momument, and others name a street of a stretch of highway after the deceased.  But in New Orleans, the best thing you can do is name a restaurant after him or her. Which is the case with Cafe Adelaide, commemorating one of the true doyennes of the Big Easy, Adelaide Brennan, (right)
aka "Queenie" and "Auntie Mame" and the kind of  effervescent woman who gave New Orleans a good dose of its swagger. As recalled by her nieces  and nephew Alex, she was "a striking redhead who marched to her own drummer. No other 'older people' acted like her. They were all much more sensible, while Aunt Adelaide was the definition of glamorous—and naughty," entertaining with equal aplomb the likes of Danny Kaye, Rock Hudson, Raymond Burr, Helen Hayes, Jane Russell, and Bob Hope. No surprise she rarely exited her mansion before three in the afternoon. When she broke a leg, in great pain, she insisted on dressing to the nines before going to the hospital.
        Ti Brennan Martin and Lally Brennan opened this tribute to their aunt with verve and no looking back to some nostalgic idea of what Adelaide might have known. With Chef Chris Lusk in charge of the kitchen, everything at this broad, deep, wide-open restaurant in the Loews Hotel is thoroughly 21st century.  The Brennans call the restaurant a "Boosted New Orleans Bistro," meaning it's to be enjoyed without fanfare for its easy-to-love food with a distinct Creole accent.  Lusk seasons shrimp and rosemary-scented grits with sea salt and Tellicherry pepper to make it sing--or zing!--then ladles them into a lemon croustade and spoons on a New Orleans BBQ sauce blanc. A Parmesan biscuit panéed grouper with summer squash pappardelle, sweet garlic, oven-dried tomatoes and lobster-Prosecco velouté is a masterful tour de force, as great a dish as any in the Big Easy, and there are many levels of flavor and texture to his Cayenne five-spice rubbed Ahi tuna with blue crab fried sticky rice, garlic chips, wilted mizuna greens and Muscadine-ginger jam.
     For dessert why not stay simple with hot, fresh "Milk & Cookies"  with brandy milk punch ice cream?  On second thought, you don't want to pass up the El Rey mocha truffle milk shake made with dark chocolate ice cream and  espresso whipped cream, or the buttermilk biscuit pudding with Abita Root Beer caramel and LeBlanc's pepper jelly pecans. No, you don't.
    One of Adelaide's favorite sayings was, "Sparkle plenty," and though she was referring literally to her mode of dress, she could just as easily have been talking about the atmosphere at her namesake cafe.

Cafe Adelaide is open for breakfast daily, Lunch Mon.-Fri. and dinner nightly.

Dick & Jenny's
4501 Tchoupitoulas Street

    The clapboard came from old 19th century barges. It was once a po' boy shop. The walls are decked out with dinner plates. They don't take reservations, so people happily wait at the outdoors patio bar. Dick and Jenny Benz wanted their Uptwon eatery to be mainly for locals and any tourists who heard about them would be welcomed with open arms.  The kitchen would cook easy, the drinks would be generous and cold.
    The Benzes sold the place to their employees, Will and Leigh Peters, who have maintained the spirit of what the Benzes set in place. The menu changes every two months and the prices are modest, even in a town where prices are usually more than fair for such top quality.  So I can only give a sense of the kind of dishes they might be serving at any time of the year, like crisp eggplant fritters with fresh, mozzarella and balsamic-glazed sweet peppers; fried green tomatoes (a must in the South) and crabcakes topped with a red pepper aïoli; a delectable pain perdu--New Orleans-style French toast--with meaty duck confit, apples, Brie cheese and peach chutney.  The gumbo du jour is always a good starter, served with Acadian popcorn rice. 
Best way to begin, for a modest $27, is the appetizer sampler of corn-fried oysters, crawfish and alligator cheesecake and eggplant fritters.
    For entrees go with the flounder topped with crawfish and served with Lyonnaise potatoes, sopjnahc, and lemon aioli, or the Creole shrimp and grits inca garlic-rich tomato jus.  For meat lovers the braised lamb shank was wondrously succulent, with goat's cheese, thyme-scented grits, grilled asparagus and a rosemary-sage demi-glace.  Seared breast of duck comes with alligator sausage, "dirty" rice with gizzards, greens, and a smoked sage demi-glace.
     For dessert I could hardly finish the devilishly good chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich sundae, and "Mario's Mom's Famous Pistachio Layer Cake" lived up to its moniker.
     Have dinner at Dick & Jenny's and you won't go hungry.  For two days.

Open for lunch Tues.-Fri., for dinner Mon.-Sat. Dinner starters $8-$10; entrees $16-$28.

To read Part One of this story, click here.

 For more pictures of New Orleans, visit our new Facebook Page



by John Mariani

San Pietro

18 East 54th Street (near Madison Ave.)

    A few weeks ago I wrote about Caravaggio, a swank Upper East Side ristorante run by the Bruno Brothers, a family of Campanians who have always aimed for a higher level of cucina italiana than what passes these days for the pseudo-trattoria experience. The Brunos have been around NYC for a long time and watched fads come and go and restaurants open and close, but theirs--Sistina, Caravaggio, and San Pietro have longevity on their side and a faithful clientele that comes back with enough frequency to fill up most of the tables each day and night.
    San Pietro, just off Fifth Avenue on East 54th Street, has been happily full since the day it opened more than 20 years ago, and Gerardo Bruno and his chef brother Antonio (below) keep it that way by catering to their guests as guests, recommending the day's specials, bringing their cocktail immediately, and honoring special requests.  Over Passover week I even saw a couple at a corner table eating matzoh bread with their food!
Wine Director Lubi Kocic,  a member of the American Sommeliers Association and the Associazione Sommeliers Italiana, knows just which wines go with which foods on a menu that stresses la cucina alla campania while not neglecting NYC classics like the fat veal chop and osso buco.
    Recently two editor friends of mine had a long lunch at San Pietro and left it to Antonio to choose our food, which here comes out in waves and platters. There have been renovations over the years, though the basic bonhomie has always been the Brunos' trademark. These days the decor throws off a warm golden light, and now that the good weather is here, the tables outside are very popular.
    Antipasto San Pietro was a combination of seared sardines, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and goat cheese, and seared baby cuttlefish with a sauce of spicy cherry pepper and cherry tomatoes, all at the perfect temperature. Since this was Easter Week Gerardo set  four different  classic Southern Italian pastiere rustica,  one made with sheep’s ricotta, asparagus and parmiggiano, the other with zucchini flowers, sheep’s ricotta as well and egg yolk; the third was with ricotta cheese, Italian style salami, parmigiano and egg yolk; the fourth pastiera was eggplant, ricotta, fresh tomatoes and parmigiano.  These savory pies would have been easily enough for a fine lunch, but Gerardo and Antonio were just getting started.
    The pastas began to arrive:
penne pasqualine with fresh artichokes, fresh tomatoes and fresh ricotta; linguini con mollica with capers, olives, anchovies, diced cherry tomatoes and garlic with a dusting of bread crumbs; and  a creamy, tender risotto alla Salernitana with golden saffron, zucchini flowers and goat's cheese.  Somehow we were not yet reeling, so we said yes to main courses, whose considerable leftovers we brought home for dinner.  There was a  battuta di vitello all’aceto di vino roso e rosmarino, that is, pounded veal that is then  pan seared, with red wine vinegar and rosemary.  Carrello d’agnello in crosta di erbe was a succulent rack of lamb baked in a crust of fresh herbs and served on a reduction of aglianico wine.  Petto di pollo arrosto con pancetta e asparagi in salsa di Barolo was a juicy roasted chicken breast with smoked bacon, herbs and asparagus with a Barolo wine sauce.
    Some time went by, giving us a chance to catch our breath as we noticed we were nearly the last people in San Pietro.  So the Brunos eased us into a lemon sherbt-and-prosecco called sgrappino,  which, said Gerardo,  became popular in Italy during the days of  La Dolce Vita. 
We ended with desserts: a classic Easter pastiera di grano made with cooked wheat, candied citron and orange served with blueberry compote and fresh whipped cream. Then we had croccantino of pistachio, hazelnuts, amaretti and pignoli nuts with hazelnut and chocolate. We served it with caramel chocolate sauce and coffee gelato. Last was a lemon napoleon of fragile layers of puff pastry sandwiching lemon pastry cream served with blueberry sauce.
    Gerardo and Lupi
Wines put their heads together on appropriate wines and come up some dazzlers, all unfamiliair to me and possibly unique in NYC to San Pietro:  Furore Bianco 2008 made by Marisa Cuomo in Furore, Amalfi Coast from  historic grapes named Fenile, Ginestra, and Ripoli. Second wine was the Greek-sounding Kratos 2007 made by Luigi Maffini from Paestum; third was an unusual Kaid 2007 from Sicily,.  And then, as always here, perfect espresso.
    San Pietro--which over 20 years has never even been reviewed by the New York Times--sails through the decades, through recessions, through trends as a restaurant that people come to because of its concistency and good manners, delivering on all counts as a ristorante that stays in the top ranks of the city's Italian cuisine and wine.



by Christopher Mariani

The Best Waiter in NOLA

     The city of New Orleans is full of soul and particularly unique in character. Whether it’s walking around Jackson Square with a beer in hand listening to the famous brass bands of the Quarter or sitting along the Mississippi eating beignets at Café du Monde, there is no mistaking what city you are in, “this is ‘N’awlins’ baby!"

    The Big Easy is as busy as ever post-Katrina and much has to do with the eternal abundance of southern hospitality. To get a true sense of what I’m talking about, walk down Royal Street and pop into Brennan’s (see last week's article) for a meal. When inside, ask if my good pal Ron Boykins is working, and if so, request his service. Ron is a 18-year veteran of Brennan’s yet still claims he is one of the new guys, considering most of the waiters have been serving for nearly four decades.
         My first visit to Brennan’s was last October when I was intorduced to Ron. His style was  all his own. Ron was running a smooth operation, commanding his crew with the simple nod of his head as to when to clear empty plates, refill drinks, and slow or speed up service. He controlled his tables as a conductor would his symphony orchestra. It wasn’t until I dined at Brennan’s a few months later for an event part of the Tennessee Williams festival that I realized how remarkable Ron’s service really was. I walked in, headed to the bar after saying hello to owner Teddy Brennan, and there was Ron. He walked up to me with a big smile and said, with a thick New Orleanian accent, “Chris, how ya ‘doin, welcome back. You want that Manhattan with Maker’s Mark right?” I said, “Yes, sir.” Ron merely glanced at the bartender and had my drink on the way.
         There’s something very special about dining at a restaurant where you are known by your first name and the second you walk through the door you are genuinely welcomed and have your drink prepared just the way you like without asking.  That's  not to say that I have never experienced a waiter who has remembered my drink of choice, but at Brennan’s it
just different.
         When we actually sat down to eat, Ron handed out menus to everyone but me. He leaned over my right shoulder and in a quiet voice said, “Chris, I got some nice crêpes filled with crabmeat, crawfish and some hollaindaise sauce. You want that?”
    I said, “Perfect, and what about for an entrée?”
    “Meat or fish?”
     “I got you,” and then he walked off. I knew I was in good hands.
    My dinner couldn’t be better and to top it off, Ron prepared us a tableside order of bananas Foster, and no body does it better than Brennan’s. A giant skillet appears over a low-lit flame while a mixture of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon begin to liquefy and turn sliced bananas from a pale yellow to a golden brown. Then Ron grabbed the attention of the table and said, “Y’all ready?” followed by the pouring of dark rum into the pan creating a fireball that rose up into the air and radiated a flash of heat throughout the dining room.
When our lovely evening came to an end, I stood up and said goodbye to my friend who said to me, “I’ll be here when you come back, see you soon Chris.” I walked out of Brennan’s into a warm spring night and strolled through the Quarter, savoring the realization that I had just been served by the best waiter in all of New Orleans. 

To contact Christopher Mariani send an email to

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In  New York, Louis Scala was arrested for allegedly selling illegal prescription drugs from his Lickety Split ice cream truck, bringing in more than $1 million in a year.  Scala is accused of selling more than 40,000 prescription oxycodone pills from his ice cream truck in  Staten Island borough and heading up a 30-person drug ring.  


After its staff walked out of the restaurant in NYC called  Gordon Ramsay at the London, Ramsay's website declared, "Neither Gordon Ramsay or [his company] GRH have any involvement with or responsibility for the operation of the restaurant, including anything to do with human resources, which is entirely the responsibility of the owners."


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My new book, How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan) 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

" A fact-filled, entertaining history [that] substantiates its title with hundreds of facts in this meaty history of the rise of Italian food culture around the globe. From Charles Dickens's journey through Italy in 1844 to 20th-century immigrants to America selling ice cream on the streets of New Orleans, Mariani constantly surprises the reader with little-known culinary anecdotes about Italy and its people, who have made pasta and pizza household dishes in the U.S. and beyond."--Publishers Weekly

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastornomy, 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 imnpact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone iunterested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Espositio, hosty of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

"John Mariani has written the definitive history of how Italians won their way into our hearts, min ds, and stomachs.  It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique."--Danny Meyer, owner of NYC restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gotham Bar & Grill, The Modern, and Maialino.


FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linked to four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  THIS WEEK:

Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.

Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).

The Family Travel Forum
 - A community for those who "Have Kids, Still Travel" and want to make family vacations more fun, less work and better value. FTF's travel and parenting features, including reviews of tropical and ski resorts, reunion destinations, attractions, holiday weekends, family festivals, cruises, and all kinds of vacation ideas should be the first port of call for family vacation planners.

Family Travel Forum

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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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