Virtual Gourmet

  September 11, 2016                                                                                             NEWSLETTER


"In the Conservatory" (circa 1878) By James Jacques Tissot


By John Mariani


By John Mariani


By John Mariani

"Dawn in Ravello" Photo by John Mariani (2016)

    To state the obvious, Italy’s Amalfi Coast is as beautiful as any stretch of coastline in the world, 25 miles of rippling inlets and bays that include the island of Capri and its extraordinary Blue Grotto (below). Then there is the way the small towns are cut into the hillsides, defying gravity and common sense, especially since everything had to hauled up to those heights by oxen and mule.
People have lived here since Roman times and many, once ensconced, never went downhill for the rest of their lives. Its most prominent demerit these days is the inconceivable idiocy of allowing huge tour buses to traverse the Strade Statale, from Sorrento to Ravello, which is hardly wide enough for a goat’s pathway.

    This absurd license to allow vehicular traffic of all dimensions makes what was once a breezy, serpentine corniche now a harrowing thrill ride that, even at early morning, can still take twice as long as it should because you are forced to stop, wait, then wedge your way past a bus or truck with less than an inch of wiggle room.

    That said, the Amalfi Coast’s unique beauty makes it all worthwhile, especially on the shoulders of the high summer season.  After November, many of the hotels and restaurants in the various villages close down, having made so much money since April that they can afford to.  The best thing to do is to hire a driver (there are several sites on the web) and start out from Sorrento (left), which, though it lacks the altitude of towns like Amalfi, Positano, and Ravello, is still an absolutely charming small city overlooking the Bay of Naples in view of Mount Vesuvius.  With its fine esplanade, Piazza Tasso and narrow streets lined with boutiques, trattorias and small hotels, it is a far different place from the poverty-stricken town it once was that thousands of 19th century immigrants left for America, giving rise to the sorrowful song “Torna a Surriento.”


“You go away from my heart, away from the land of love,

And you have the heart not to come back.

But please do not go away, do not give me this pain.

Come back to Surriento, let me live!”


    The finest historic hotel in Sorrento is right on the Piazza Tasso, the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, which is where native son Enrico Caruso would always stay after he got famous. But the completely refitted Hilton Sorrento Palace (below), just a five-minute walk outside of town, really impressed me on my recent visit for its modernity, its walls of light, its room décor, the numerous amenities, and the quality of the service staff throughout.  This is a very popular business travelers’ hotel, so the concierge is exceptionally efficient at making restaurant reservations, booking drivers or rental cars, getting train passage, shopping advice, or whatever else you may need.  Sad to say, the food at the restaurant here is not nearly what it should be, and when I was there, the room was nearly empty.

    The best restaurant in Sorrento—not to be missed for its seafood—is Caruso (left), a veritable museum devoted to the maestro and an enchanting and romantic place to dine in any of the small, cozy rooms.  Its langoustines are fat and sweet, its pasta with vongole clams superb.


    The Amalfi Coast is composed of 13 towns, and the first of importance is its loveliest, Positano, which, if you’re driving, is reached by leaving your car at one of the many parking lots above the town just off the highway. Slowly walk down to the center of town, all along the way taking in some of the most breathtaking landscapes in southern Italy, passing through corridors of boutiques underneath terraces of jasmine, orange blossom and honeysuckle, finally arriving at a good-sized beach with actual sand—not always a given on the Italian coastline.

    The restaurants of Positano all have a view and an airy appeal to tourists who descend here like flocks of seagulls. There is fine cuisine to be found at the Hotel Le Sereneness, and far more casual fare at the wine bar at Max Ristorante. I adore the simple cooking at the very colorful La Cambusa (below), here on the Piazza A. Vespucci since 1970, where on the breezy patio I enjoyed a lunch of perfectly fried calamaretti, spaghetti alla position, spinach ravioli, luscious eggplant parmigiana, and a local Campanian wine, which, with wine, water, service, Coppertone and tax, came to 144 euros for the four of us.

    Amalfi is the next large town down the coast. It had once been an autonomous Marine Republic, to which Arab trading partners brought the lemon—here called accusatory—which flourishes in size, color and richness of flavor unmatched anywhere else in the world.  And, of course, it goes into the making of limoncello liqueur, with slender bottles sold at every shop and stall throughout Campania. (Make sure the label says it is actually produced in the region.)

    Amalfi has a rather drab seashore, but once through the great arch, you’ll find the town square opens up to the sky and is dominated by the 11th century cathedral of Sant’Andrea styled in both Byzantine and Norman elements, with a late Baroque interior and a large, unexpected cellar chapel in a wholly different, shimmering, silvery style.  The cathedral is perhaps best known for its exterior staircase where once penitents would climb on their knees.

    Amalfi is not particularly known for its restaurants, but you’ll find La Caravella on the Via Matteo Camera among the finer. Otherwise Da Gemma is first rate for seafood but very expensive.  What’s left is an array of pizzerias, one as good as the next: last time I enjoyed La Galea on the Via Amalfi, near the cathedral.

    I wish I could say that getting to Ravello is half the fun, but the squiggly, winding road that leads way up to this hill town can be treacherous and is not to be driven after even one glass of wine.  Once you are at the top, however, Ravello is an oasis of calm after the bustle of the other tourist-ridden towns along the coast.

    You take a deep breath of good Mediterranean air, stroll through the sedate piazza (right) and visit the 13th century Duomo and Church of San Giovanni del Toro. Then a walk to the peaceful Villa Rufolo, which inspired Wagner to write his opera Parsifal.  Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, D.H. Lawrence and André Gide all stayed here, and Gore Vidal lived secludedly in the town for decades. Its archways, gardens, and view of the sea are exquisite, as are many of the outdoor works of art throughout.

         Today less than 3,000 people live in Ravello, so tourism is pretty much the only thing that sustains it. Last year I stayed at the enchanting and very quiet Palazzo Avino, now with 32 rooms and 11 suites, a heated pool, a beautiful terrazza overlooking the sea, and, for those unwilling to attempt the roads, helicopter service.


his year I checked into the equally beautiful but even more lavish Belmond Hotel Caruso (left), which underwent a four-year restoration by Federico Forquet that has resulted in hallways and parlors, suites and gardens of exceptional elegance, its designs echoing that of Ercolano and Pompeii.  The excavation work turned up frescoes from the 18th century, and there is not a square inch of the Caruso that does not draw the eye to color, fabric, texture, artwork or light; three types of patterned tile are used throughout the hotel.

    With just 50 rooms, all with glorious views of the water, there is a feeling of blissful privacy, and at dawn the strata of purple and golden light flood the hillside as the white houses with red tile roofs come into view. The Caruso’s rooms are very large, decorated with antiques in keeping with the building’s aristocratic history of the d’Affitto family dating back to the 11th century.  There is a still a private chapel on the premises, as well as a fine pool with  bar, and, upstairs, a chic cocktail lunge. The Belvedere Restaurant features a menu of la cucina novella with strong Campanian roots.

    One added advantage of staying at the Caruso is that you can spend a few days here while easily exploring the Amalfi Coast because the hotel offers a jitney service several times throughout the day down to Amalfi.

    My favorite ristorante in Ravello is the twelve-year-old Vecchio Cantina on the Via della Marra, whose ebullient owner bounds around the dining rooms making suggestions on what’s best that day.  Trust him: we did, and were rewarded with an array of mixed, grilled seafood, a pizza alla napolitana made with buffalo mozzarella that is at its best in this region, and a wonderful lasagne Vecchio Cantina made with smoked scamorza cheese. 

    And then there’s Capri. What am I to say about one of the most breathtakingly beautiful islands on Earth, but now so overwhelmed by daytime tourists that one has to escape the main town to appreciate the island’s true character. The fact that even during the shoulder season jam-packed ferries leave twice every hour from both Naples and Sorrento tells you that this lovely island is anything but isolated. 

The ferries (both slow and high-speed, with the latter taking just 45 minutes) as well as private jet boats disgorge passengers at the Marina Grande and hundreds of people pour into the lower town, where they take taxi, bus or funicular (the sensible way) to the upper town. (N.B. You can store your luggage at a souvenir boutique right next to the funicular; the sign says “LEFT LUGGAGE.”)  Once in the upper town you may spend an hour or so going up and down the circuitous little streets that wind back to the main Piazza Umberto I (below), where it is the custom to have coffee or drinks while looking at all the other tourists.  The streets are lined with both local and international fashion stores, all with prices at least as expensive as anywhere else. 

    If you’re smart, you’ll get out of town and take the chairlift to Monte Solaro for a spectacular view, or walk slowly on the lovely one-mile long Via Tragara (lined with trinket shops selling limoncello), each step revealing more sublime seascapes that include the three massive rock formations called the Faraglioni and the ruins of Tiberius’s Jovis Villa from which he ruled the Roman empire until his death in 37 A.D.

    There is, of course, the Blue Grotto and it is well worth your while, if you have time; saving time is to book in advance, though there are boats in the Marina Grande advertising trips throughout the day.


    If you plan to spend more than a day or two, I recommend going up to the upper town of Anacapri, which is not at all overrun with tourist,s and is as charming as anything on the island. 

    The restaurants on Capri are good and not cheap. Down near the funicular is a terrific seafood restaurant, Lo Smeraldo (left), here for thirty-five years. Sit on the terrace and put yourselves in the care of chef Antonio Aversa, who is most likely to get the best fish from the markets and fishermen in the region each day. That may include wonderfully flavorful octopus or a whole turbot.  Pastas are excellent, the mozzarella alla caprese  among the best on the coast, and the torta di caprese chocolate-almond cake is the way to end the meal.  The wine list is excellent. 

One caveat: At the end of a recent meal it was announced to us that the service is not included, which would make Lo Smeraldo rare in Italy, because it almost always is included.  Being what it is—and this is an expensive place—I would not leave more than ten percent on the bill at the very most.



By John Mariani

151 W 34th Street (at Macy's)

   Once you sit down in the cool long room of Rowland’s Bar & Grill, it’s easy enough to forget you’re on the One Below level of Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square—which, I’m told, is the most visited tourist spot in NYC after the Empire State Building (on 34th Street) and the Statue of Liberty.

    It’s a sleekly handsome place with a long bar and open kitchen, very roomy coffee-colored booths, spanking white tilework and brick, and both excellent lighting and sound levels, which makes it an equally appealing venue to talk business, have a date, or just relax right after work.  The waitstaff is cordial and the pacing of a lunch or dinner can be whatever you choose it to be.  Just ask my son Christopher; he’s the general manager.

    O.K., that caveat aside, Rowland’s is decidedly what it says it is—a true bar and grill, named after the store’s founder, Rowland H. Macy, who had always insisted his stores serve first-rate food to its customers.  Indeed, Macy’s pioneered the food hall concept in a department store, and in addition to Rowland’s, the adjacent space is given to five wonderfully configured indoor streamlined food trucks (they don’t budge) called Chef Street ,featuring stations under notable chefs like Michelle Bernstein, Takashi Yagehashi and Marc Forgione; on the sixth floor is the fine Italian restaurant Stella 34.

    Rowland’s menu itself is graphically free of incidentals or gibberish and shows off the breadth of American food grounded in NYC food culture.  Thus you might start off with some very good cured salmon and bagel chip board with tomato, capers, red onion, and scallion-riddled cream cheese ($13) or a hearty matzoh ball soup with plenty of slivers of roasted chicken and baby kale ($9), the broth wholly suggestive of why this is called “Jewish penicillin.”

    No one complains about the four dollars for the house-baked pull-apart onion bread (above) served in a cast-iron mold with soft, churned butter because these six yeasty rolls could become as famous in NYC as Parker House rolls did in Boston.

Heading South, the menu includes crisp fried green tomatoes with thyme-flecked fresh ricotta, pickles and onions ($14) and some really excellent heads-on shrimp with true stoneground grits and a spicy chorizo vinaigrette ($15), a dish hefty enough for a light dinner. There are eight salads ($10-$19), including two lavish chopped varieties.

    It's always great to see a properly steamy, moist baked potato on a menu, here served with scallions, bacon, sour cream, and cheddar ($8), and the nicely cooked, tender Brussels sprouts are as good any in town, enhanced with shallots, pancetta, and a touch of tangerine honey ($8).  One order of buttery mashed potatoes topped with crispy fried, battered onions ($8) will easily feed two or three people, and the steak fries ($8) are, as expected, huge and have good flavor but, as usual with these monsters, lack the crispness of French fries.

    The kitchen crew worked very hard to get the burger meat blend right and it shows: the fat content, the succulence, and the way it’s loosely packed all show attention to detail at a time when hamburgers have become extravagant ego fantasies all over town.  Rowland’s (below) is set on an Amy’s egg-rich, faintly sweet challah bun ($16); there’s also a signature RH Burger in which the beef is blended with bacon and topped with Comté cheese and onion ($19).  It seems odd to have a pork banh mi ($18) listed, especially on that challah bread with Napa slaw, pickled vegetables and a spicy mayo.  I think it might be better on the menu at the Asian food truck next door.

    If you’ve been looking for the ideal BLT, you may well find it here, again on one of those buns, with Sriracha-honey glazed bacon, crisp lettuce, ripe tomato and spicy mayo ($16). And for those who moan that pastrami making is nearly a lost art, even in NYC, try the version at Rowland’s’ (above) I think you’ll be amazed. It’s served with horseradish coleslaw, Thousand Island dressing and marble rye ($18) in the best Seinfeld tradition.

    The fish have true flavor here, from halibut with an irresistible fresh corn-studded polenta with spring onions ($26) to true Scottish salmon with herbed quinoa, English peas and pickled vegetables ($24). They’ve recently added fish and chips ($24), but I haven’t tried that dish. 

    I have, however, enjoyed the fried half chicken with admirably crispy skin ($24) and the gently priced steak frites ($29) with caramelized onions.  Rowland’s calls its half rack of meaty ribs “St. Louis” style ($28), but for all its sweet glaze, to me it seemed to derive more from East Asia’s food stalls.

    The five desserts are strictly for kids of all ages and wonderful for that: RH apple pie oozing sweet-sour apples with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream ($14); a very rich cheesecake with Graham crackers, summer berry compote and Belgian speculoos wheat cookies ($8); house made ice creams and sorbets ($8);  and a smile-inducing ice cream sandwich with chocolate chip cookie ($8). And then there is the decadent Brooklyn blackout devil's food cake, with chocolate mousse layers, cookie crumble and vanilla whipped cream, which at least three forks can have a go at for only $8.  It somehow manages to be dense and moist in equal measure, and the chocolate itself is intense.

    Prices at Rowland’s are kept very much in mind across the board (of course, there’s a children’s menu, and you may order something from the food trucks), with all cocktails $13, and wines offered by the quartino carafe or bottle. Mark-ups for the least expensive wines are higher than for the more expensive ones, like a Joseph Phelps Pinot Noir at less than double the store price.

      You may stumble across Rowland’s on your way through the clothing racks—signage is minimal—but once you find it you’ll feel that you’ve come not just to an oasis but a very happy place to find solid American cooking.


Open daily for lunch and dinner.





By Mort Hochstein

    It is nice to know that in this age of diets and calorie counting that you can indulge a bit, sip  wine, nosh on cakes and candy, and help a good cause at the same time. That linkage comes via what merchandisers describe as cause marketing, which basically ties charitable donations to sales of specific products.

    Billecart-Salmon Champagne (left) recently announced that it would join the Global Fund, with 426 active grants in over 100 Countries, implemented by local experts, to fight aids, malaria and tuberculosis. The Champagne house will donate ten percent of the retail price of its Brut Reserve NV (left) to the cause, enough to provide 16 days of lifesaving medications for victims of HIV. The Global Fund is the world’s largest financier of anti-aids, TB and malaria programs.

    Many charities in California benefit from the Napa Valley Wine Auction and similar upmarket, well attended gala events that raise millions of dollars each year. Cause marketing works in a different way and in many cases does not receive the attention that shines on more glamorous programs.

    One of the more interesting campaigns is Vineyard to Village (V2V), which is a riff on the New Testament tale of water miraculously transformed into wine by Christ at the marriage feast at Cana (right).  This program provides revenue from purchases of wine to secure clean water for needy African villagers.  The campaign was organized by David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards, whose labels have often reflected Stare’s yachting predilection

    The aqueous cause was a natural for Stare. Just this month, V2V put together a wine safari, luring people to 11 participating wineries where patrons partook of tastings, treats and chats with producers. A third of the revenue from sales went to a program bringing potable water to African communities.



Under a new law proposed by
Elvira Savino, a member of the center-right
 party Forza Italia, parents who feed kids a vegan diet would be criminals.
 The bill is designed to “stigmatize the reckless and dangerous eating
 behavior imposed by parents” who make children go vegan. No-meat diets
 are “inadequate,” Savino says, because they’re “lacking essential elements
for healthy growth.” Under this law, raising anyone under the age of 17
 on such a diet would be an offense punishable by up to six years in prison.




“You know sexy when you see it, and so do we. Behold: a dozen of our hottest, stickiest recipes, specially curated for your culinary pleasure. Whether you’re going for sweet or salty, spicy or savory or just plain hedonistic, there’s something in here for your particular proclivity. And believe us: It’s not all about looks. There’s plenty of substance to be had as well.”—Food Republic, which included braised duck with cherries; soft pretzels with whipped honey molasses butter; salmon, pineapple, fennel salad; and Everything bagel nigiri.




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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani (Bloomsbury USA, $35)

Modesty forbids me to praise my own new book, but let me proudly say that it is an extensive revision of the 4th edition that appeared more than a decade ago, before locavores, molecular cuisine, modernist cuisine, the Food Network and so much more, now included. Word origins have been completely updated, as have per capita consumption and production stats. Most important, for the first time since publication in the 1980s, the book includes more than 100 biographies of Americans who have changed the way we cook, eat and drink -- from Fannie Farmer and Julia Child to Robert Mondavi and Thomas Keller.

"This book is amazing! It has entries for everything from `abalone' to `zwieback,' plus more than 500 recipes for classic American dishes and drinks."--Devra First, The Boston Globe.

"Much needed in any kitchen library."--Bon Appetit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

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

Eating Las Vegas JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (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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