Virtual Gourmet

  January 6,   2013                                                                                                NEWSLETTER

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by Carey Sweet

by John Mariani



by Carey Sweet

        My faux reindeer antlers just wouldn’t stand up straight. I fussed with the bright red Styrofoam hat on my head, but the band curled so it looked like I had lobster claws clutching my ears.
    No matter, everyone else at Toronto’s Historic Distillery District’s Christmas Market looked equally foolish, as thousands of revelers wandered the shops, bars and restaurants of the Mill Street plaza decorated to resemble an Old World European village circa 1400, an annual tradition here in Toronto, with  arts and crafts booths line the courtyards, selling stockings, decorations, candies, and toys.   It also includes a beer and mulled wine garden, plus booths offering vodka and rum, and a stiff shot is welcome, as it’s really cold. December temperatures in Toronto dip to an average of 25° F, but due to winds and snow off neighboring  Lake Ontario, the wind chill can cut to the bone. Still,  a winter visit to this largest city in Canada can be wonderful, especially when one plans on plenty of food adventures and meals in warm venues and restaurants.
    The streets are decorated with snowmen, some 20 statues each year sculpted to more than seven feet tall by local artists. More appealing was making my own snowmen
out of cake batter and frosting inside, at Le Dolci Canadiana Baking Class, held in a swank studio across from Trinity Bellwoods Park in Dundas West Village. Owner Lisa Sanguedolci leads two-hour-long sessions on creating cupcakes decorated any way you like, from the Canada maple leaf, to Prada handbag, to my choice, an unfortunately demented-looking pony.    
    At the Historic St. Lawrence Market  (above) on Front Street East in Old Town, you need never step foot outside once you pass the life size cardboard cut-out of a Canadian Mountie at the main entry. More than 120 food merchants and artisans have occupied these two grand buildings since 1803, and if you tour with local historian and Toronto guide Bruce Bell, you’ll get details about such things as, “what the heck is a peameal bacon sandwich?”
    Stop at the three-decades-old Carousel Bakery, and you’ll find that while the thick slab of salty meat stuffed unceremoniously in a squishy bun isn’t pretty, it’s exceptionally tasty. In olden times, the cured ham loin called "peameal bacon" (below) was crusted in dried, ground yellow peas for preservation; now it's rolled in ground yellow cornmeal, fried crispy on the edges, slathered in freakishly hot horseradish mustard.
     The market also beckons with longstanding favorites like Alice Boychn, famous for pies, tarts and jams since 1926; Brown Brothers Meats, in business since 1895; and Colwell Farms, supplying fresh produce since 1929. There is kangaroo tail (“we gotta eat,” the vendor shrugged), caviar, sushi, and a store selling nothing but rice from all around the world.
    If I wasn’t in Toronto to get snow on my boots, I could at least stare at the stuff from the touristy-but-still-must-visit 360-degree-around The Restaurant (below) at the CN Tower on Front Street West, where the dining room slowly revolves for a panoramic view of the city more than 1,151 feet below. Need directions to the place? Just look up – a new LED lighting system courses up and down the structure, in a microprocessor-controlled system that can produce 16.7 million colors and is viewable from much of the city.
    Under executive chef Peter George, the Restaurant menu is anything but tired touristy fare, however, striving to showcase Canadian ingredients in prix fixe ($60 to $72) or à la carte options that include Niagara prosciutto, smoked olives and tomato crostini, a warm smoked King Cole duck and French bean salad, or Spattlecock Cornish game hen with black olives and orange, warm root vegetable salad and cider vinegar jus.
    The décor is old school classic, to be sure, with white tablecloths in a sea of dark woods and earth-tone fabrics, but chef George gets adventurous with ingredients, such as smoked Portobello and grilled Halloumi cheese over stone ground grits, roasted pumpkin and charred piquillo pepper. In between courses, grab a peek at the wine cellar in the center of the room, featuring more than 550 labels from around the world, with 9,000 bottles in inventory. Just fair warning: don’t leave your purse on the immobile window shelf next to your table – I didn’t see mine again until dessert, when we’d completed the entire 360° turn.
    One of the newest entries to Toronto’s luxury scene is The Ritz-Carlton, opened Feb. 2011 in the financial and performing arts districts across from Roy Thompson Hall in the shadow of the CN Tower.  The headliner here is Toca (below) restaurant, though I would have been happy enough to never leave my room on the Ritz-Carlton Club Level, with the near-round-the-clock complimentary hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, and my suite’s opulent tricks like a TV screen that, at the press of a remote, appeared ghost-like beaming from behind the bathroom mirror.
    Toca is a bit confusing – it blends techno-music lounge dining in the front (really, Let’s Get Physical to a synthesizer beat) and a formal experience in the back, complete with “ma’am" and "sir” or “how ya' doing,” depending on where you sit. A year ago, the menu was more Canadian and traditionally laid-out with appetizers, entrees and such, but now it’s more Mediterranean tapas, with a handful of larger plates.
    Early on, the experience didn’t match the elegance of the interior accented by a walk-through pastry corridor and glass cheese cave, nor did the prices, such as the $20 lobster fish and chips appetizer I enjoyed, a $68 Alberta bison rib-eye, and a $12 apple tart. The wine recommendation was “whatever we have open,” my server said, tucking the leather check sleeve down the back of his pants, and stacking plates at the table as he cleared dishes.
    Now, the concept is more balanced in its more casual mood, and some of the best dishes include shareable plates of goat's cheese agnolotti decorated with parmesan shavings, or a Port Hardy B.C octopus salad, the tender-chewy meat inventively brightened with apples, black olives and celery.         For a more local-feeling meal, Sassafraz (left) delivers nicely, sequestered amid an area of Victorian row houses in Yorkville. Inside, the setting is pure sleekness and style, from expanses of white walls and ceilings framing taupe tables and banquettes, to soaring accents of brick, glass and stories-tall living plants. Service is professional but comfortable, with staff clearly proud to say that the duck comes from Ontario’s Kountry Road Farms, and that wild salmon and house-cured and smoked.
    This is French-inspired Canadian cuisine, tempting with brassica curry roasted cauliflower, caramelized Brussels sprouts, crisp speck and spiced almonds ($13), and an earthy-fabulous platter of winter vegetables including borlotti beans, fennel and confit celery salad with truffle vinaigrette, roast celeriac and parsnip, baby turnips, sunchoke puree and fresh shaved truffle ($21) – just add the excellent fresh-baked bread and a few glasses of wine, and it’s an evening, lunch or weekend brunch well-spent.
    Over at La Société (below) in the Colonnade at Bloor St. West, owner Charles Khabouth adds a bit of theater to a French dining experience. Imagine a Hollywood version of a Parisian bistro, resplendent with burgundy leather booths, black walls accented with dark woods and gold ceilings inset in stained glass, an ornate carved bar, and servers in classic black and white vests and ties.  It’s great fun, especially since the food is so reliably good, from the most simple escargots and forest mushrooms in lusty garlic cream ($18), to a superb, mild, but meaty roasted rabbit Ballantine over sautéed Swiss chard and heirloom carrots moistened in a delightful late harvest Riesling jus ($29).
    To get a taste of more authentic Toronto history, I headed to lunch one afternoon at the Old Mill Inn & Spa (below), west of downtown above Humber Bay. This boutique hotel features just 57 rooms and suites, so the 300-seat fine dining restaurant has dwarfed the property as a destination in itself since its inception more than 95 years ago. The room alone is worth a visit, to take in the storybook stone walls and rich tapestries, the lush oriental carpets, white tablecloths, and royal dark woods warmed by votive candles, flickering fireplaces and velvety light from leaded courtyard windows overlooking the Humber valley parklands. By comparison, the menu is somewhat simple, in cozy, if eclectic dishes such as “The Platter to Share” bringing grilled calamari, Portobello flatbread, sliders duos with homemade ketchup, and Brie De Meaux ($29). Local free range chicken is roasted to a crackly skin, then lusciously paired with red wine braised beef cheeks, parsnip foam and a dash of apple mustard butter ($26), while crisp Arctic char rests atop sweet but satisfying quinoa of rose-ivory color grains, a touch of Prosecco, capers, and raisin-red onion agrodolce ($34).
    Another taste of Toronto heritage lives on indelibly at the Historic Distillery District, where I finally shed my flabby reindeer antlers for the more grown-up mood of Pure Spirits  (below). The dining room of this noisy, busy bar occupies a long, dark, narrow alley of an eatery trimmed in stone walls, secluded booths and communal wood tables. Nearly one hundred years ago, so the story goes, when temperance societies and prohibition ruled America, whiskey barrels began their clandestine journeys here before setting across the oceans. Today, the spirits still take center stage at the 28-seat long bar, but food is worthy, too, in pub eats like fresh fish, oysters and beef, prepared with a twist.
    The mac ‘n’ cheese, for example, is worth its $21 price tag thanks to a generous portion of smoked salmon and assorted seafood mixed in with the mascarpone enriched noodles. PEI mussels ($15) get a flavorful boost from Chinese black bean sauce dotted with onion, fried garlic and ginger, and some dishes showcase Ontario touches including a ceviche of Lake Huron pickerel dressed in smoked chile-orange dressing ($14), or seared ahi tuna ($29) splashed with local "Crazy Horse" sake atop yellowbean soy, buckwheat noodles, asparagus and crisp taro.
    One evening at the end of my visit, a Toronto local suggested I check out the ice skating rink at Harbourfront Centre. The waterfront venue hosts DJ music through the winter, for skaters to get their grooves on.
    Did I mention it’s cold in Toronto, and on the edge of the water, nearly whip-freezing? Instead, I headed back to my room at the Ritz, dreaming of hot toddies,  the only ice being the cubes in my Champagne bucket.

For information on Toronto tourism, visit


by John Mariani

126 West 55th Street

    Now eight years old, Abboccato long ago developed a large and consistent Theater District following (it's opposite City Center), and, with a $35 pre-fixe dinner of antipasti, pasta or main course, and dessert, it is certainly one of the best buys in that neighborhood for those heading off to "Newsies" or "Jersey Boys."  It also services the area as a place for breakfast and a quick $25 three-course lunch. 
    At the time Abboccato opened, I thought it a good enough addition to the West Side Midtown, but I wasn't excited enough to return.  In the years that have followed the menu has changed, but Chef Jim Botsacos, who is also chef at nearby Molyvos, on behalf of the Livanos Restaurant Group, has refined and updated the menu and cooking here.
    The décor is still a bit odd: the front dining room (right) has tufted fabrics against the walls next to rough brickwork that might be found in a farm country trattoria.  Tablecloths have vanished in place of place mats. With just 75 seats, it has an appealing intimacy, especially after the mad rush of exiting theatergoers ends at 7:45.
     Our table of four shared a good number of dishes from a menu with just enough options in every category, including little plates called cicchetti, like the juicy arancini rice ball fritters with a lavishing of mushrooms and truffles. Crisply fried seafood was well prepared, and a $15 assortment of Italian meats and light gnocco fritters was extremely generous, the meats well sliced, the flavors distinct from one another.  We did not try the grilled octopus that night but if it's anything like the paragon rendering at the Greek restaurant Molyvos, by all means don't miss it.  That goes, too, for the grilled fish of the day, which may be had on the bone or de-boned, glistening with olive oil and lemon.
    It was so good to see cannelloni on the menu, once a cliché of mediocre Italian-American restaurants here restored to a delicious melding of pasta crêpes stuffed with braised pork, olives, tomato, and ricotta salataTagliatelle came with a bolognese sauce that respected the tradition of long-simmering, and the rarely seen casunziei (left) a Venetian ravioli stuffed with beets and Gorgonzola, was a revelation, sweet, luscious, woodsy.  Ravioli del plin stuffed with ricotta, with tomato sauce and basil pesto, were not, however, like  the delicate little nubbins of pasta you find in their home in Piedmont.
    My favorite of the entrees was another oldie here made into a goodie--veal saltimbocca layered with prosciutto, sage, tomato, arugula and a rich Marsala sauce.  Roasted chicken took on interest from roasted peppers and Gaeta olives, and a pan-seared veal chop, thick as any in town, came with caramelized Brussels sprouts, oven-roasted tomatoes and pancetta bacon.
    Of the desserts, the best were old-fashioned cannoli, made fresh, crisp, with a truly rich. not too sweet ricotta cream, candied fennel, and Amarena cherries. Tiramisù was a cup of too much mascarpone and not enough cocoa flavor.
    Abboccato's winelist is serviceable, with enough familiar names  to please a guest who drinks little else, along with some admirable small estates at reasonable prices under $50.
    If Abboccato breaks no new ground in NYC Italian restaurants--and redeeming dishes like cannelloni while adding unique ones like cazunziei shows that it could and should--it does what so many others do with a good deal more panache and a whole lot more flavor.

Abboccato is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Antipasti run $7-$18, pastas (full portions) $22-$24, main courses $26-$37.



Rene Cantu of San Antonio, Tx, says the burn marks on his tortilla resemble Jesus Christ. "I've been having a lot of bad stuff happen to me," said Cantu.  "Ever since this happened it's been good luck to me. Every time I take it to the store I get a Lotto and I win! A little Savior watching over me."  Cantu preserved the tortilla by pouring white glue over it and keeps it wrapped in a blanket in a box.



"When I pass a flowering zucchini plant in a garden, my heart skips a beat."
--Gwyneth Paltrow in My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness.



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

My latest book, which just won the prize for best book from International Gourmand, written with Jim Heimann and Steven Heller,  Menu Design in America,  1850-1985 (Taschen Books), has just appeared, with nearly 1,000 beautiful, historic, hilarious, sometimes shocking menus dating back to before the Civil War and going through the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the nightclub era of the 1930s and 1940s, the Space Age era, and the age when menus were a form of advertising in innovative explosions of color and modern design.  The book is a chronicle of changing tastes and mores and says as much about America as about its food and drink.


“Luxuriating vicariously in the pleasures of this book. . . you can’t help but become hungry. . .for the food of course, but also for something more: the bygone days of our country’s splendidly rich and complex past.  Epicureans of both good food and artful design will do well to make it their coffee table’s main course.”—Chip Kidd, Wall Street Journal.


“[The menus] reflect the amazing craftsmanship that many restaurants applied to their bills of fare, and suggest that today’s restaurateurs could learn a lot from their predecessors.”—Rebecca Marx, The Village Voice.

My new book--Now in Paperback, too--How Italian Food Conquered the World (Palgrave Macmillan)  has just won top prize 2011 from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.  It is a rollicking history of the food culture of Italy and its ravenous embrace in the 21st century by the entire world. From ancient Rome to la dolce vita of post-war Italy, from Italian immigrant cooks to celebrity chefs, from pizzerias to high-class ristoranti, this chronicle of a culinary diaspora is as much about the world's changing tastes, prejudices,  and dietary fads as about our obsessions with culinary fashion and style.--John Mariani

"Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide. . . . This book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history."--Don Oldenburg, USA Today. 

"Italian restaurants--some good, some glitzy--far outnumber their French rivals.  Many of these establishments are zestfully described in How Italian Food Conquered the World, an entertaining and fact-filled chronicle by food-and-wine correspondent John F. Mariani."--Aram Bakshian Jr., Wall Street Journal.

"Mariani admirably dishes out the story of Italy’s remarkable global ascent to virtual culinary hegemony....Like a chef gladly divulging a cherished family recipe, Mariani’s book reveals the secret sauce about how Italy’s cuisine put gusto in gusto!"--David Lincoln Ross,

"Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of the (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity, verve and more than one surprise."--Colman Andrews, editorial director of The Daily

"A fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food."--Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS-TV's Ciao Italia.

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



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

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

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

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


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

nickonwine: An engaging, interactive wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist,;;

MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani, Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright,  and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

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© copyright John Mariani 2013