Virtual Gourmet

NOVEMBER 13, 2016

  November 13,  2016                                                                                         NEWSLETTER


"The Old Absinthe Drinker" (1900) by Viktor Oliva



By John A. Curtas


By John Mariani



By Mort Hoch


By John A. Curtas

Fremont Street (1959)

    It took me almost two years, but I finally did it: I forced myself to eat in every one of Las Vegas's venerable dining establishments. The oldest restaurants in town. Those slices of history that have hung on for decades, bucking trends and stemming tides.
    And you know what I found? They're all terrible.

    Not terrible terrible as in inedibly terrible, but so dated, shopworn and threadbare that there is no appreciable culinary reason to go to any of them. Some are worse than others. The Pamplemousse (left), which opened in 1976, is such a dated salmon-colored mess of faded Francophilia that it should be put out of its misery like a dying horse.
    The Golden Steer, less than a mile up the street, hasn't changed the menu or, perhaps, the carpet since 1958. If you used to come here in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you'll see many of the same waiters, but if you look closely you'll notice they haven't changed their polyester tuxedos since then, either. If you recall, I used to be a YUUGE fan of the Steer, but two meals last year (tasting of brown lettuce, poorly cooked meat and despair) left me to conclude that it's now being operated as a tourist trap.
    Bob Taylor's Ranch House (1955) still grills its steaks over an open flame, but a recent one tasted like it had been waiting in the freezer for me for that long, and the cheapness of the meat (and all the other groceries) is palpable. A certain type of quantity-over-quality foodie might not object—like the kind that hang on Guy Fieri's every word—but palates of a more sophisticated sort will say "yuck."
    And then there are Chicago Joe's (1975) and the Omelet House (1979). Two back-to-back meals recently left me stupefied. Not by how bad they were (although there were some noticeable clinkers), but by how relentlessly, stubbornly stagnant both places have remained. Like every establishment on this tour, none of them has changed a thing about their formulas (or the décor) since Ronald Reagan was president. And then I realized maybe they weren't so bad; maybe it's just that they are just so boring, so predictable, so unchanged, and so old that I can't stomach their tried-and-trite recipes anymore.
    "They haven't gotten worse, I've just grown up since I first sampled all their wares over thirty years ago," is what I thought to myself after biting into Joe's "famed" over-breaded steamed artichoke. An artichoke, by the way, that, for forty years, they've refused to properly clean (by removing the "choke") before over-breading it, baking it, and serving it packed with a snowstorm of baked breadcrumbs.
      And did I mention that it comes stuffed with a lot of bread?
      Okay, okay, it's not really that bad, and once I quit removing the furry little insides (and cursing the kitchen while doing it), I pretty much polished off the whole thing. But sadly, that thistle was the highlight of the meal; it didn't have to be. If someone at Chicago Joe's (left) tried a little harder, and gave a single damn about making this place just a little better, it would be a lot better. As it is, they're content with smothering the same old overcooked pasta with the same old (decent) tomato sauce day after day, night after night, and milking the old cow ‘til she dries up. (And from the looks of things at a recent lunch, it appears the customer base is drying up as well.) 
    Which is a pity because Chicago Joe's is loaded with charm that is impossible to duplicate. Its three small rooms may be a bit cramped, but they are ultra-cozy, and everyone looks great in this space at night. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten whacked at Chicago Joe's, but if you ever wanted to set up a sepia-toned, 1950s mob hit, this would be the place.
        Like the three restaurants mentioned at the top of the page, this place could trade on its nostalgia and pack 'em in if it would bother to upgrade its food. But that would take some imagination, and a commitment to quality. Don't hold your breath.
    And then there's the Omelet House. A place I used to eat at once a week. . .back in 1983. Nothing has changed about this place since then. Not the knickknacks and tchotchkies on the shelves, not the booths nor the barely functioning tables and chairs. No, the Omelet House hasn't changed a thing since it opened, and that suits its aging clientele just fine. It's more homespun than Denny's or The Peppermill, and less intimidating than PublicUs or EAT, so a certain middle-class customer (think: schoolteachers and car salesmen) feels right at home.
    The problem I had with it was a certain musty dustiness that you notice on those shelves as you enter. That stuffiness permeates the room, making the whole joint feel like it could use a thorough steam cleaning. Look past that if you can (and not too closely in the corners) and order one of the omelets from a loooong list, if you're still in the mood.
        After a lengthy absence, we thought it safe to stick with an old reliable—the "Rio Grande Surfer”—and were as disappointed with it as we were with the hoary décor and menu titles like “The Polack,” “Porky Pig,” “Don’t Let Your Meat Loaf,” and “Farmer Juan.”
    If taste memory serves—and our taste memory is very long—what used to come out was a fluffy three-egg mash, oozing with greasy, Mexican chorizo and sharp cheddar cheese. What you get now tastes like bland ground meat and mild, yellow fromage. Give me my grease, damnit!   What's the use of ordering a chorizo omelet if it isn't swimming in a confluence of gooey cheese and unctuous, fire engine-red lard?
So, the omelet was serviceable and the pancakes were perfunctory. (One of our loyal readers said they compared favorably with Du-par's and he would be wrong.) Omelet House has its fans, and nothing I say will detract them from the place. Maybe they come for the home fries (delicious), or the service (fast and fantastic), and maybe I'll come back again if they start getting their greasiness back.
    So, have they changed or have I? Those Omelet House eggs used to wow me back it the ‘80s; now they feel like they're just coming from a cookie cutter. Is Chicago Joe's so bad, or have my buds been conditioned by Rao's, Allegro, Ferraro's and others to expect much more?
    It's probably a bit of both, of course, but I can tell you one thing: It will be a dark day indeed before I ever deign to digest the disgusting drivel of the Steer, Bob Taylor's or the dreaded "Grapefruit." The Omelet House has perhaps disappointed me one too many times, but I don't think I've seen the last of Chicago Joe's. Especially if they'll remove some of the bread (and properly clean) that friggin' artichoke. 


By John Mariani

519 Columbus Avenue (near 86th Street)

    It may seem odd to name a restaurant after the controversial Renaissance man Niccolò Machiavelli, whose name, unfairly, has long been associated with power politics. But, then again, he was an extraordinary intellect, philosopher, poet, dramatist, historian and humanist.  And it’s such a mellifluous name for a trattoria.
    Perhaps that’s what restaurateur Nathalie De La Fontaine had in mind for her five-year-old Upper West Side trattoria, whose sumptuous décor does indeed evoke the Renaissance, not least in the series of murals taken from Paolo Uccello’s 15th century masterpiece “The Battle of San Romano.”  De La Fontaine commissioned artisans, woodworkers, ceramicists, sculptors and blacksmiths to fashion the hand-carved chairs, wrought-iron candelabras and marble-topped tables, with Renaissance-style floor tile, wallpaper and banquette fabrics.  Certainly Macchiavelli himself would find the place familiar in its opulence and be comfortable sitting in one of the cross-framed “X” chairs.   There’s also live music, though the piano selections tend more to be from the 1970s than the 1450s.
    The menu is large and long, but its distinction from so many others in NYC, via Chef Gian Pietro Ferro, is in its tilt towards northern Italian dishes from regions like Trentino-Alto Adige and the Tyrol, Mantua, and Veneto, all driven by the season.  I do think that more focus on those regions in a more concise menu would be better than trying to offer so many dishes of a kind unadventurous guests may find up and down the West Side, like mozzarella Caprese ($14.95). Still, Ferro does so many things so well, I’ll forgive him for trying to please everyone.
    You may want to begin with thin, yeasty breads called crescentine ($4.95) or schiacciata dusted with rosemary ($4.95) or the puffy bruschetta ($9.95), steamy hot from the oven, waiting to be brushed through fine olive oil, to be accompanied perhaps with a selection of cheese or charcuterie ($17.95). But then there are a number of pizzas you may want to share, including the luscious namesake,
Pizza Machiavelli, lavished with black truffle cream, mozzarella and wild mushrooms ($21.95); it can be split among four people.
    Then there are the antipasti, and I highly recommend the Sformato di Spinaci (right) a delicate ricotta and spinach flan topped with a classic fonduta of melted fontina cheese and white truffle oil ($12.95).
    Now your appetite will be raging for a good pasta dish, and Ferro is justly proud of all his hand-rolled artisanal pastas, especially the delicately thin, stuffed versions like Tortelli alla Mantovana filled with pumpkin, ricotta, and crushed amaretti cookies ($22.95), and the tangy-sweet mostarda di Cremona, glossed with butter and sage.  I’m always on the look-out for casunzei ampezzani ($22.95), a pasta from the Dolomites (below).  Plumped with beautiful purple-red beets and ricotta, they cut open to mix with a butter and poppy seed sauce.  Thick strozzapreti noodles (“priest stranglers”)  get a robust toss of broccoli di rape and sweet Italian sausage ($20.95), while Cacio e Mele con Stufato d'Agnello are stuffed ravioli with roasted Granny Smith apple, ricotta and pecorino, dressed with sage butter, then topped with deeply flavorful lamb ragù ($25.95).  There is also an interesting risotto cooked carefully with amarone red wine and fresh grapes ($24.95), though I need to go back to try that Venetian-style dish.
    The main courses don’t quite live up to those preceding, but not for lack of first-rate ingredients and generosity of spirit.  It’s just that Italian chefs in the U.S. tend to lavish their entrees (secondi) with heavy brown sauces, which is actually a real virtue in the marvelous Brasato al Barolo with a reduction of Barolo wine and served over soft polenta ($31.95), the kind of hearty dish you’d find in autumn in Verona.  But there was no necessity for the brown brandy cream sauce with pink peppercorns poured on a perfectly good ribeye steak ($35.95).  Nor did a similar sauce do anything but blunt the fine taste of the Colorado lamb chops (below) with herbs ($38.95).  These were all good dishes that would be even better with less fuss. And a sautéed fillet of tuna with Vidalia onions in a white wine sauce ($31.95), ordered rosy in the center, arrived gray inside that evening.
    Ask about the night’s desserts and be surprised: The millefoglie of crackling crisp puff pastry and pastry cream ($11.95) is outstanding.
Machiavelli has a serious Italian wine list, with both well-known producers and smaller newcomers from just about every region of Italy.  The mark-ups are not outrageous, but I wish there were a lot more red wines under $70.  (I counted ten).
    The Upper West Side is a better neighborhood than its East Side counterpart when it comes to fine Italian restaurants—Lincoln Ristorante, Caffe Storicò, La Masseria di Vini, and The Leopard at des Artistes handily prove the point—and Machiavelli belongs on that admirable list, places where you will not find the same ten Italian dishes and the same twenty Italian labels. Gian Pietro Ferro wants you to try what he loves best, and what Nathalie De La Fontaine wants most is for you to be among her most faithful clientele.

Machiavelli is open Mon.-Fri. from 11 AM to 11 PM, and on Sat. & Sun. from 9 AM; Brunch Sat. & Sun.






By Mort Hochstein

    There are certain names in the wine and spirits industry that are almost generic for their category. In the United States that would apply to Gallo and Mondavi for wine,  and Maker’s Mark and Johnny Walker for Bourbon and Scotch. In Cognac and brandy, one name dominates, and that is Hennessy.
    It figures in the titles of more than 200 songs, in the lyrics of 700.  And it was James Bond’s favorite in the movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
    Small wonder.  The firm has been around for 251 years and has established a reputation for consistency. Hennessy innovated  levels of Cognac that its competitors now utilize, such as VSOP, for  Very Special Old Pale, a grade created to answer a request from the British Royal House in 1817 for a Cognac not sweetened or colored by caramel or sugar. The new grade, based on spirits that had a minimum age of four years, supplanted VS, the entry level Cognac made from two-year old spirits. Later in that century, Hennessy created Paradis Impérial, inspired by the legend of a special order that took place in 1818: the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna, in search of a luxurious birthday gift, requested a unique blend of rare Cognacs for her son, Czar Alexander I.   
   Ever since Richard Hennessy (right), a former mercenary in French armies, first began selling Cognac in 1666, he and his descendants have created a family of levels  that include VS Black, as well as the eponymously named Richard Hennessy.
    Consistency in blending has been vital. Hennessy master blender Yann Fillioux (below) has been overseeing wine production since 1966; he is the seventh generation member of the Fillioux family of blenders, who began with Richard Hennessy when the firm was originally established. Fillioux heads up a committee that meets each week to examine new and old eaux-de-vie from the firm’s historic cellars in southern France, and to determine which spirits need more aging, which should go into selected blends and which should be laid down for future use and additional review.  That teamwork is designed to insure consistency, so that a bottle of XO or VSOP or any Hennessy Cognac has the same scent, taste and texture as its predecessors.
    The committee’s latest product was unveiled in late October. Fillioux’s Master Blender Selection No. 1 is a very personal signature wine produced in a single, limited batch. The French would term a project like this a coup de coeurs, defining it literally as a heart stopper, love at first sight, a passion realized. That may be a bit hyperbolic but that is how Cognac fanciers talk about such offerings. It could not have been developed without Fillioux’s prodigious memory and recordings of raw spirits examined blind by his committee of tasters.
                The group singled out 100 eaux-de-vie, grouping them per elegance, character and suppleness. The wines were aged in old and young French oak casks and bottled at 43 percent alcohol to showcase their aromatic tones and spicy notes.
    The limited-edition Cognac is bright amber with a golden glow. On nose and palate, it offers a subtle presence of grilled unshelled almonds and candied apricot. For its devotees, Selection No. 1 is available in two sizes: 375 ml, at a suggested retail price of  $45, and 750ml at $80, approximately half the price of XO. Prices can vary and much of the limited bottling will be squirreled away in collectors’ cellars



Fare la scarpetta. Directly translated, it means `make the little shoe.’ Long before I was aware of the clever Italian phrase for the hedonistic sopping up of sauce, I was guilty. In fact, a snarky frat boy called me out on the `proletarian habit’ in college. Twenty years on, I sat across from my old college roommate (now an Italian professor) during dinner at Pleasantry and we swiped at one sauce after another with torn pieces of Sixteen Bricks bread while she explained when and how to make haste with said `shoe’—only among friends or after an Italian has initiated the act.”—Joanne Drilling, “Bottle Rocket,” Cincinnati Magazine (10/16).


 An Indonesian court sentenced Jessica Kumala Wongso (right) to 20 years in prison for killing her friend Wayan Mirna Salihin by lacing her Vietnamese iced coffee with cyanide. Salihin took one sip of her coffee, collapsed, and was pronounced dead hours later.




 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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