Virtual Gourmet

  February 28, 2016                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels" (1941)


Part Two
By John Mariani


By John Mariani


Part Two 
By John Mariani

La Farm Bakery
    It’s to be expected that a major Southern city like Raleigh, N.C., would have a strong traditional basis for its food.  The fact is, you have to do a bit of research and ask a lot of questions to find what you might think of as old-fashioned, down-home fare in the South.  Barbecue smoke is not pouring out of every downtown storefront, there are more KFCs and Popeyes than there are indigenous fried chicken places, and really great biscuits are hard to find.   As I noted a few weeks ago about Raleigh, the city is very much on the move and has grown a crop of first-rate contemporary and ethnic restaurants, although it is woefully lacking in good Italian places to dine.  And now there are some terrific bakeries and cafés, along with the kind of down-home places you might have thought would be everywhere in town.  On a recent trip to Raleigh, I found all I was looking for.

220 Wolfe Street

    For something very traditional indeed, your first stop in town should be for breakfast or lunch at Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant, founded in 1958 by Ed Watkins, whose family once produced tobacco and other crops in Wake County.  As part of the revitalization of the City Market in 1989, Watkins was coaxed downtown, where his wide open dining room has all the trappings of what you’d hope to find in a Southern city like Raleigh.
    The room is festooned with artifacts and gewgaws, flags, and road signs.  The tables are covered with gingham oilcloth and Big Ed himself (right) is usually decked out in a gingham shirt and blue overalls.  Yet nothing about the place seems, to use a Yankee word, kitschy.  The friendliness of the greeting and the helpfulness of the waitresses (who will tell you that you ordered way too much) add vitality to a very mixed crowd of people, high and low, for whom eating here is the thousandth or first time. The menu is enormous but the prices are, like those for a gallon of gas, what you thought you’d never see again: two eggs with country ham and red-eye gravy $8.89, fried catfish with one egg $9.99, fatback with a biscuit $1.99, and a biscuit with sausage gravy $3.89.
    Now, the trouble with some places like Big Ed’s is that they use inferior and cheap ingredients to keep prices low, but I’d stack up Big Ed’s local eggs, grits, Nahunta pork sausage, Carolina Packers smoked sausage, corned beef, pickled beets and “real” creamed potatoes against all competitors'. 
    You can get tender fried chicken livers over rice and gravy ($8.49), excellent, crisp Southern fried chicken ($8.59), chicken in house pastry ($8.49) and just-baked strawberry short cake and banana pudding,  all in daunting portions.
    And then there’s Ed’s justly famous hotcakes (left)—one of which ($7.89) is plenty for breakfast, lapping over the edges of the plate, so that if one person can eat three ($9.89), he gets a free t-shirt—are perfect flapjacks, tender enough to soak up the butter and syrup, evenly golden brown, with a wonderful downhome aroma.
    I’ve only really hinted at the complete menu at Big Ed’s.  There’s a great deal more, all done with the same degree of quality, just like that of the hospitality of the people who work here.  You get a big smile coming and going.

328 W. Davie Street


    The Pit, in Raleigh’s warehouse district (with a branch in Durham), is a lot more than a barbecue joint, for it has an extensive menu of other items and is warehouse-large in size.  But the premises are built around whole hog pit cooking, with all the pigs used raised in North Carolina using free-range farming practices.
    Owner Greg Hatem grew up raising pigs in Halifax County, and he also knows a great deal about how to cook them, in addition to Texas-style brisket, barbecued turkey, and a first-rate fried chicken (below).  Additionally, he goes outside the ‘cue box by stocking an amazing array of wines, beers and 21 bourbons. 
    The long menu offers everything from skillet cornbread with house-made butter ($3.99) to f
ried green tomatoes with goat’s cheese and smoked tomato vinaigrette ($6.59) and Brunswick stew ($4.99). And one good way to appreciate The Pit is to order the Sampler ($13.99), a big platter of smoked wings, BBQ soul rolls, deviled eggs and potato fritters. Frankly, I prefer a little more smoke to my barbecued ribs (above) than those I had at The Pit, but you can try different styles, including Eastern NC pulled pork ($13.99),  beef brisket with Western NC BBQ sauce  ($17.99), and others.
    Desserts ($6) are all very sweet, but share at least one—Aunt Hattie’s double “chocolate chocolate” cake, or the moist, old-fashioned carrot cake with candied pecans and molasses cream cheese frosting,  or the chef’s hand pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
    You’ll probably leave The Pit with a doggie bag and your next meal will be in it.



4248 NW Cary Oakway
Cary, NC

    La Farm Bakery has a unique charm, for in Southern cities you don’t usually find such serious bread and pastry making based on French classic models.  But after years traveling the globe in search of bakery secrets, including the artisans’ guild Les Compagnons du Devoir, Lionel Vatinet (right) and his wife, Missy, were smart enough to see a niche in the Research Triangle and filled it handily back in 1999.  The place has rarely seen an empty chair since.

    Wedged into a nondescript strip shopping center, La Farm offers 15 different styles of daily breads and an additional 20 seasonal breads throughout the year, all slowly leavened over three days and baked in a European-style hearth oven.  It’s the smell of that bread baking that hits you when you open the door. The Vatinets proudly use only local flours, honey, jam and ham, and the taste of the South is truly in everything they produce.
    More amazing is the Vatinets’ expansion into lunch and dinner dishes like shrimp rémoulade ($7.95) and sandwiches, but the heart and soul of La Farm is in the breakfasts, where I had the most delicious croque monsieur and croque madame sandwiches ($8.95), bubbling with cheese and oozing Mornay sauce,  as good as any I’ve found this side of Paris. The tartine Diablo ($8.95) is a beauty—fluffy scrambled eggs with tasso ham, spinach, cheddar, tomatoes and jalapeños on crisp Asiago Parmesan bread.
    This is a place easy to love, and the people of Raleigh and the area have shown an unquestioned pride in La Farm for the work of people who had a dream and made it work better than anyone might have hoped, right in their hometown.

235 South Salisbury Street
    South Salisbury Street, which runs past the state capitol grounds, is slowly coming alive, and in the most endearing way Lucette Grace is making things simmer.  Chef-owner Daniel Benjamin, born and raised in Indiana, trained for years with some of America’s best pastry chefs, and the finesse he picked up shows in the quality, beauty and color of the myriad cakes and tarts and cookies and cupcakes and macaroons displayed in the well-lighted glass cases and counters in his small, cheery shop.
    You might come in at 8 a.m. for a Dixie Cannonball cheddar and scallion biscuit, or even baked oat porridge with stewed fruits and salted nuts. Or you might take a coffee break with a pain au chocolat or a buttermilk scone. At lunch there’s lentil soup with garlic bread and a beef and chorizo chili with cornbread.
    Or you might splurge at any time on the gorgeous dessert pastries like perfectly flakey millefeuille with peanut butter mousse, caramel cream, and caramel peanuts, or an orange “Creamsicle” tart on brown butter cake with vanilla mousse and almond shortbread.
    These are not the kinds of delectables easily found anywhere, unless the devotion of the patissîers is unflinching and their appreciation of the local tastes guides their hand.  It all works well at Lucette Grace; it would be a very special place anywhere, but as a catalyst to downtown Raleigh it’s a real prize.





By John Mariani

Empire Steakhouse


    A quick count of new, high-end steakhouses to open in Manhattan just in the past eighteen months comes to 16, added to the dozens more dotting the island and the other boroughs.  And in NYC, whose real old-timers like Peter Luger and Palm were the first to serve USDA Prime beef straight from the meat packing district, that the competition to get the best quality beef is at its most fierce. Such quality is never cheap.
        Menus at these new steakhouses don’t differ radically, though some are more ambitious than others, but, despite the many clichés of décor still flourishing, the spaces and designs have changed very much. Two new entries do it with size, style, and sizzle.

151 East 50th Street (near Third Avenue)

      The new Empire Steakhouse (the first is on West 54th Street) has taken over the historic premises of what was once a 1920s East Side opera house, then a famous and lavish nightclub called Versailles, where chanteuse Edith Piaf performed in the late 1940s and which also played host to the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and many other top bananas of the 1950s.  Back then you could even have your fortune read by Doris the Palmist.
    Just a few months ago this was an admirable Turkish restaurant named Ibis, which retained much of the trappings of the old nightclub, as have the new owners, the Sinanaj brothers, who also run Ben & Jack’s.   The new bar  (left) is spacious and well-lighted but beyond it is a room of daunting size—450 seats—with tall, tufted booths, a winding staircase, cathedral dome, a railed mezzanine, a splendid wall of back-lighted wines, and a main floor that was once clearly meant for dancing the night away.
      I’m not old enough to remember any of that history, but, upon entering, I took in a good sense off what the room must have been like back then, and I’m glad the current owners have maintained some of that art déco swank.
    The 20-seat wine room is, however, new, with a huge glass wall of bottles stunningly lighted, with more than
400 selections, as well as a Single Malt Scotch list with over 100 selections.  But I do wish the bar was more committed to making classic cocktails correctly: It botched both a daiquiri and a whiskey sour by not using freshly squeezed citrus juice.
     I have no quibbles though about the very rich, caramelized onion soup, thick with a gratin of cheese ($8.95) or about the bright red tuna tartare ($18.95) and jumbo crab cocktail ($21.95). The sizzling Canadian bacon ($5.25) is as wonderful as it sounds when it hits the plate.
    The featured item at Empire is the tomahawk ribeye steak ($64.95), a hatchet-shaped, massive piece of fat-marbled beef that can easily feed two people.  The double rack of American lamb chops ($54.95) has both the heft and the richness of the best lamb, right down to its charred bones.  I ordered a four-pound lobster (market price), impeccably steamed and tender as one could wish, its carcass cracked, the meat kept warm.                Accompaniments included good creamed spinach ($10.95), fried onions rings ($9.95) and truffled mac and cheese ($15.95), though a large platter of steak fries ($10.95) were, at least that evening, limp.
    For dessert go with the cheesecake or the Key lime pie, and maybe, in the spirit of the old Versailles, a glass of Cognac to finish off, with a toast to Edith Piaf. 

Open for  lunch and dinner daily

1076 1st Avenue (near 58th Street)

    The opposite of Empire in size is the intimate and ingratiating new Four Cuts NY on First Avenue, which, ironically, also took over a Middle Eastern restaurant. Executive Chef Christopher Miller, previously at Bobby Van’s and Ben Benson’s, knows every aspect of cooking a great piece of beef, and he calls this a “boutique steakhouse” in Sutton Place for its size and cozy charm.  I would use the rarely cited word “smart” for its walnut designer chairs, a garden wall, white tablecloths,  excellent lighting, wall of faux books, and its cheery striped banquettes. This is not the typical, raucously loud steakhouse found so easily elsewhere, and all-around manager, captain, wine advisor and raconteur Gregory Edgehill is as congenial a fellow as you’ll meet in a NYC restaurant.
    A shrimp cocktail ($19.95) was generous but the Jumbo lump crabmeat cocktail ($18.95) really seemed more the even larger Colossal grade, the sweet, briny lumps as large as figs and of superb texture.   Some of that same lump crab went into the two good-sized crab cakes ($19.95), though there was a good deal more shredded crab and filler in them than I’d hope for.
    The porterhouse for two ($46.95 per person) and the NY sirloin ($49.95) were juicy, resilient examples of Prime beef, said to be dry aged in Four Cuts’ own off-premises locker. They put the perfect char on the outside while keeping the perfect temperature on the inside. They were out of lobsters that night, so I ordered Dover sole, which was of good size though it had a slightly chewy texture and bland flavor.
    The crisp home fries ($6.95) and giant baked potato ($5.95) are bargains, and I could easily make a meal of the latter.  Onion rings ($7.95) were crisp and sweet, and steamed asparagus ($11.95) were spring-like in flavor.
    Only a single dessert is made on the premises, a lack that should be addressed by Chef Miller, who gives such personal attention to cooking quality ingredients so seriously.
    So, if you are daunted by very large, very loud  NYC steakhouses, Four Cuts, fitting quite snuggly into this tony neighborhood,  may be just the civilized boutique alternative you’re looking for. 

Open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Fri, for dinner Sat.-Mon.




One Million Moms, a group of conservative mothers, says that Olive Garden is
"supporting sympathy towards the devil and glorifying Satan" by sponsoring the Fox network TV show Lucifer, demanding Olive Garden pull its ads to prove it isn't  or face the wrath of a boycott. In the show  Lucifer is portrayed as a good guy "who is bored and unhappy as the Lord of Hell," resigns his throne in Hell and  retires to Los Angeles, where he helps out the LAPD.




“Newly opened Coda Restaurant Group spot SRV may sound like a new class of vehicle or a disease you don’t want to catch, but in reality pays homage to the Serene Republic of Venice.”—Debra Furst, “Venice Comes to Boston,” Boston Globe (1/28/16).



 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:

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 (the fourth edition of which will be published in early 2016), 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, 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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