Virtual Gourmet

  September 6,  2015                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


The Rivoli Bar at The Ritz, London




By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By John Mariani




By John Mariani

         It’s been a hundred and nine years since The Ritz London opened its doors on Piccadilly, its named derived from the Swiss maestro of the era’s hoteliers, César Ritz, which he lent to others (though none of the present Ritz-Carlton hotels is in any way associated, nor, any longer, are The Ritz in Paris and Madrid).
         The block-long hotel--the city’s first significant steel-framed building, in a French château style--was designed by Frenchman Charles Mewés and Englishman Arthur Davis, and it was to have innovations like bathrooms for every guest room, double glazing, Louis XVI furnishings, and brass beds.  The iconic copper lions guard the corners of The Ritz’s roof.  Of particular notice was the creation of the hotel’s Long Gallery extending from its revolving doors to the windows of The Ritz Restaurant and overlooking Green Park.  The exquisite Palm Court (above) became London’s premier venue for Afternoon Tea (£50).
         This article would double in length if I listed all the celebrated names who signed the guest book at The Ritz, from Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin to just about every member of European royalty.  Adjoining the hotel is the 1740s Winborne House (now the Kent House, named after its architect) in an Italian Renaissance style, with rooms for very special occasions and stay-overs.
The Ritz upon opening in 1906

Although upkeep at The Ritz has always been steady, its purchase in 1995 by the Ellerman Group for £80 million, and £40 million more for renovation,
has restored every historic detail to mint condition while every modern amenity has been added to the 133 rooms (with 15 suites, each with its own butler), now largely done in a palette of salmon pink, rose pink, yellow and blue, with curtains of Jacquard and damask silks.  The size and comfort of the bed pillows alone are enough to keep you in bed long past breakfast, but then you would miss a very splendid first meal of the day.
     WiFi and internet access is ubiquitous, with complimentary use of laptops on request. There is a ladies’ salon and a men’s barber, a private club with its own restaurant, and a Casino. And while so many other hotels have now chosen to charge guests for a shoe shine, The Ritz resolutely does not—how uncongenial it would be to charge a man to have his shoes polished!
         Not without reason, The Ritz Restaurant (below) has been called the most beautiful in the world, and it’s hard to argue the point, with its vast yet welcoming size, crystal chandeliers, huge mirrors, gilt bronze garlands, veined marble and thick carpets. Just striding up to the room through the grand corridor makes you straighten up and stick out your chest.
        At night the dining room is a magical place, but when the hazy sun pours into the room at midday, it reveals all its breathtaking detail and color.  The service, at any hour, by a brigade of veteran captains, sommeliers and waiters, could fill a good-sized textbook on manners without pretense, a manner perfected by a crew largely made up of Italians and other continentals, overseen by manager Luigi Cagnin.
         The Ritz’s reputation for being fuddy-duddy vanished long ago, so it was odd to hear a sophisticated London friend of mine joke that my wife and I would be the only ones in the dining room on a Sunday night.  To our delight, when we arrived, the room was packed with well-dressed guests having an obviously happy evening.  I’m glad we’d made a reservation.
        Eleven-year Executive Chef John Williams (below) has carte blanche to find, buy and serve the finest ingredients possible in the London markets, from glorious British Isles seafood to British beef and dairy.  The menu, once of a highly dated style, is now brilliantly balanced with classic British and French dishes allied with flavors as contemporary as any in London right now.  The best way to appreciate all of it is the six-course “Menu Surprise” of Williams’s signature dishes (£95, with wines £165), or the strongly classic “Les Arts de la Table” menu that brings the wait staff to your table for the nearly lost art of carving and plating.  On Friday and Saturday evenings, “Live at The Ritz” offers a very popular four-course dinner and dancing to live music (£95).  It is to be expected, and applauded, then, that The Ritz is the single restaurant in London that still requires gentlemen to wear a jacket and tie.  Don’t even think of crashing the room without them.
         The wine list, overseen by head sommelier Giovanni Ferlito, has had a century to grow fat and deep, now with a global reach it once lacked.
       We began our evening with several whimsical amuses (below) that included an Oreo cookie-like b
lack shortbread with goat’s cheese and citrus gel; smoked salmon mousse, creamed cheese and lemon macaroon topped with keta roe; and a “Coronation Chicken” spiced tuile made from crisp chicken skin.
     As an appetizer a fat langoustine (£24) was simply grilled and served with mint, black garlic and the sweetest peas in town, with which we enjoyed a Cuvée 113 Sauska Tokaj 2011. Terrine of silky goose liver came with spiced pineapple and gingerbread (£24), very English colonial in its tastes,  with a José Pariente Rueda Sauvignon Blanc Dulce 2012. 
Williams does not need to add notes on the provenance of his ingredients because he would never serve any but the best obtainable. You certainly don’t have to guess the pedigree of his superb loin of lamb with caramelized shallot, mint and peas
(£38) to know it was from a noble British breed.  Tender, fatted pigeon had a classic celery, apple and truffle sauce (£37) that was perfect for the slight gaminess of the bird.  These main courses were served with a Viña Tondoñia Reserva Rioja 2002, whose age was a boon to the cuisine.
         There is a selection of British cheeses as well as impeccably wrought traditional desserts like lemon tart with raspberries and meringue (£14) and a hazelnut semifreddo (£17) with chocolate and vanilla, ending off the evening with petits fours and chocolate.
         The prices on The Ritz menu are not cheap--how could they be for all this grandeur?--but neither are they out of line with restaurants of this high degree anywhere.  Add in the amuses and petits-four, with both tax and service included in the dish prices, and a three-course meal will run you about £80, less than a similar meal at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and The Square, which charge £95.  The Ritz offers six courses for £95; Gordon Ramsay offers seven for £175.
         The experience of dining at The Ritz puts into perspective the price of haute cuisine with a distinctly British touch, albeit with Italian waiters.  It also gives you a good dose of tradition with a touch of royal flourish, neither stilted nor faux, virtues that will always make a stay at The Ritz unique in its appeal.



By John Mariani


1133 Broadway (at 26th Street)

    NYC certainly has no lack of great Italian ristoranti or trattorias, but I must say I am always delighted when a new one ups the ante on authenticity, which is to say La Pecora Bianca Caffé e Cucina is as close as you’ll come to a trattoria in regional towns like Bergamo, Sorrento, Trento and Bari.  It is in the smaller towns that the seasonal menus are most in play; in Rome, Florence and Venice tourism too often drives what’s on the menu.
    Thus, a dish like emmer (farro) maccheroni  (right) with hen of the woods mushrooms, fava beans, peas and pecorino ($17) at Pecora Bianca is more likely to be found in trattorias in Lucca and Viareggio than in Naples or New York.  The pasta for this dish, like all of them at La Pecora Bianca, is handmade by Chef Simone Bonelli (below, right) , who once worked with the hyper-creative Massimo Buttura at Osteria Francescana in Modena.  There is spelt strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”) with hot and spicy ‘nduja sausage spread and equally spicy arrabiata sauce ($16); einkorn wheat goes into curly gramigna pasta with pork sausage, garlic, chili flakes and broccolini ($17);  red fife, a Canadian wheat, made into ribbons of  tagliatelle come with a lusty beef and pork bolognese sauce ($16).  Not only do these pastas on their own have a distinct chewiness to them--perfectly al dente--but they exhibit their own particular flavors and textures.  The risotto, made with Vialone rice, is vibrant green with peppery pesto and bright red with a sweet tomato reduction ($15).  This is not a place to find clichés like penne alla vodka.
    Owner Mark Barak (below), who also runs the Provençal bistro Claudette, opened La Pecora Bianca (“white sheep”) Caffé e Cucina on the corner of Broadway and 26th Street, and as soon as you walk by the large windows and look in, you will feel it is a place you’d love to try: the lighting is good, the décor a mix of the rustic and the sleek, with a
restored marble column and white marble espresso bar, white marble staircase, terra cotta, oak plank floors and tables, and a hand-painted wall tile behind the bar and open kitchen walls.  Since this is a caffé, you can enjoy their own special blend of coffee (they also sell the beans, as well as jams and preserves and sheep and goat’s milk chocolates).  Outside is a 34-seat sidewalk café.
Opened just last month, La Pecora Bianca teems with people who love sharing dishes, as did my party of four.  The place is extremely loud, I’m sorry to say, not helped by pumping in wholly unnecessary thumping music. Barak is host here, and he’s an ebullient fellow, obviously delighted that his cheery little trattoria is such an overnight hit, though I suspect it will have long legs simply because it’s not the same menu people can find all over town.
    You can tell a lot of guests zero in on the appetizers, perhaps the salume selection of cheeses (four for $20), but the really good stuff are the antipasti, like the charred peaches, sheep’s milk ricotta, lemon zest and hazelnuts ($12); the crudi seafood of the day sparked by citrus ($14); the crostino toast with ‘nduja, stracciatella and scallion ($12), and the eggplant with white nut pesto, honey capers, anchovies and breadcrumbs ($14).  For some reason we received no bread at the start of our dinner.
    Main courses number just four: a fish of the day with smoked eggplant, wild rice and tomato confit ($26); superb seared sea scallops with summer squash, guanciale, a touch of mint and shallots ($26); a juicy roast chicken with mushrooms, corn, pickled Serrano chili and red onions ($24); and a fine, flavorful NY strip steak with spring onions, potatoes, and cilantro-flecked chimichurri (a very reasonable $30).
    The fact that there are only two desserts on the menu--odd for a caffe--suggests they are afterthoughts, and neither the chocolate mousse made with goat's milk  nor the sheep's milk panna cotta prove otherwise.    
The wine and beverage lists are formidable for a place of this size, amiably printed on two sides of a broadsheet, as well as another list of vini della casa you may order in 150ml, 500ml or full bottles, with plenty of the last under $50 and only one or two big trophy wines for those who must show off.
    But this is not that kind of place.  La Pecora Bianca, from its darling name to its party-like ambiance, is true to Barak and Chef Bonelli’s vision that to succeed beyond this year, they have to offer something different to an easily jaded crowd that often bounces from one new place to another. Those who have eaten here once will find that to get this kind of food, they will have to come back again and again.

Dinner nightly. Coffee/to-go 7am-5pm, daily




By John Mariani 

    In all the years I’ve been drinking wine, I’m always happy when someone serves me a dry white Bordeaux. But until now I’ve rarely bought or ordered one because too few have given me the consistent pleasure I’ve derived from other white wines, not least a wide array of white Burgundies.
    Of course, I am well aware of the excellence of the 50/50 Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend of Haut-Brion and the 55% Semillon, 35% Sauvignon Blanc, 3% Muscadelle of La Tour-Martillac, and the rest other regional varietals, no one debates the unique greatness of Sauternes--all very expensive wines. (Haut-Brion’s white runs upwards of $400 a bottle.)
    But, either through unfamiliarity, poor distribution or pricing, the vast majority of Bordeaux whites have in the past showed little distinction.  This, thank heavens, is now changing rapidly.  The problem has been along northern and southern geographic lines above and to the east of Bordeaux, a  large sausage-shaped region that goes under the general appellation of  Graves. In the past the better wines of Graves shared their appellation with lesser ones in the same region, many, as Tom Stevenson wrote in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “from some of the best properties whose winemakers either did not know how to, or did not care to, clean up their act as they continued to sell tired, oversulfered, oxidized, and flabby wines on the backs of their decaying reputation.”
    This began to change in the late 1980s, when an AOC was given specifically to the best region within Graves--Pessac-Léognan, whose name lifted the category and encouraged winemakers to make better, more long-lasting wines.  I have, then, been delighted to taste a number of white Bordeaux recently that achieve both high quality through attention to terroir and price points that make them more affordable.   Once such wines were far too dry and lacked fruited character, and, after all, grapes are fruit.
ȃteau du Seuil 2012 ($29) typifies the new approach to white Bordeaux, where gravel and limestone dominate the soil (right). The château is on a plateau  overlooking the Garonne River and gets the amount of  sun needed to express fruit flavors. The wine is a blend of 70% Sémillon and 30% Sauvignon Blanc, both aromatic varietals with a lingering finish, and they interact well and can age very well up to ten years, though they may lose freshness after five.
     Château Carbonnieux 2012, with a 60% Sémillon, 40% Sauvignon mix, has a good creaminess to it, less dry than many.  The estate dates back to the 13th century as an abbey and since 1959 has enjoyed a Cru Classe ranking for both its reds and whites.  It was also among the first to adopt the Pessac-Léognan appellation as a signal to others that they should try to improve their wines. Carbonnieux makes organic wines that age ten months in barrel, which gives them additional flavors without too much oak. The blend is usually about 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Semillon, which gives it a somewhat more vegetal style.  Because of its continuing reputation, I’ve seen Carbonnieux in American wine stores go for about $36, which may make it a little high to bring in converts.
ȃteau La Louvière (left), owned by the wide-ranging Bordeaux producer André Lurton since 1965, was also an abbey at one time.  Its reds and whites spend the same time in barrel (12 months).  Chȃteau La Louvière 2010 is a rare 100% Sauvignon Blanc that shows how splendid that grape on its own can be, in contrast to the grassy fruit punches of New Zealand and many examples from California. The floral component gives it elegance, and even though this wine is already five years old, it has lost none of its pretty freshness while taking on more and more character.  The price range varies from as little as $26 way up to $60, so shop around.
ȃteau Doisy-Daëne 2013 ($30) is a more youthful vintage of 100% Sauvignon Blanc, which  spends eight months in barrel, 20% new oak.  Better known for its sweet Barsac, Doisy-Daëne  proudly makes this dry Grand Vin Sec to exhibit the character of its gravelly terroir along with a decided citrus bite that makes it a good candidate for all shellfish right now; in a year or two it will probably go well with oily seafood like salmon and bluefish.
    Holding on to white Bordeaux is not so much a gamble as it is a way of depriving yourself of the pleasure of its youth.  I would drink any as of the 2010 vintage right now.



 “You have to love a place whose clever logo -- street signs that read "Main Street" and "Kitchen" -- carries the tag line, "At the intersection of Farm and Table."-- By Jackie Burrell, "Walnut Creek's Main Street Kitchen celebrates seasonal fare," San Jose Mercury News (6/16/2015)



After months of dubious debate, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who  has waged a one-man battle to get deep fryers back into  school cafeterias statewide, the state reversed its decade-long ban and restored the cooking machines, as well as soda vending machines.  Miller (right), self-described as "pot-bellied," argued,  "This isn't about fries, it's about freedom." He believes that kids are throwing healthy, bland food away, and creating "healthy trash cans." He argued, "Drought, hurricanes and tornadoes are not the biggest threats facing Texans, rather it is an overzealous federal government that seeks to unduly, and often times unlawfully, over-regulate our citizens." Texas is among the top five most obese states in the Union.


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

   I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. 
     It 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 back 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: DINING AND GOLF IN DENVER; 5 MYTHS ABOUT ADVENTURE TRAVEL.

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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