Virtual Gourmet

  July 23,  2023                                                                                                 NEWSLETTER

Founded in 1996 



Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" (1968)



By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John Mariani


By John Mariani



        As any stand-up comedian will tell you, certain foods are funny.  Not apples, not lamb chops, not string beans. But comedians always get a laugh at the mere mention of bananas, chickens, hot dogs, beans, bagels, and, of course, meatballs.  Just say, “And what’s with meatballs?” People start to giggle.
        Meatballs, however well loved, have never had any real cachet.  Once famously the most iconic of Italian-American cooking, they became an object of ridicule for the very same reason, with gourmets sniffing, “Well, they’re really not Italian, you know.” 
Well, they’re wrong.
        Not only that, meatballs have made a tremendous comeback, as a form of retro-chic.  I’ve been seeing meatballs showing up on menus that once would have relegated them to the saucepan of history, along with chicken Tetrazzini, potato croquettes and biscuit Tortoni.  The rationale for such gastronomic banishment was due largely to an ignorant prejudice that Italian-American food, represented in its most generous form, was a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti swimming in overcooked tomato sauce and lavished with meatballs the size of a Titleist No. 4.
        Ironically, the sumptuous portion size of this iconic dish was due to a remarkable sea change in the way Italian immigrants prepared their food. Back in the immigrant period in the Old Country meat in any form was rarely part of an everyday meal, saved instead for Sunday or feast days, when available at all. The poor people, called contadini in the South, were spending up to 75 percent of their meager income on food.
        In Campania and Calabria and Basilicata and Sicily, meatballs most certainly did exist, but they were small, about the size of a marble, and were called polpette, which literally means “little meats” and derives from the Latin word for “flesh.”  (In Sardinia they’re called ombixeddas, “little bombs.”)
        They were commonly served in between layers of many other ingredients in lavish pastas dishes like lasagne and timballos. They were never the size of golf balls, and the hero sandwich (an invention of the Italian-American grocery) crammed with big meatballs didn’t exist.
        When, over the course of two decades, 1890-1910, four million southern Italians emigrated to the United States, they found that food was one of the things that cost far less than in the Old Country.  Instead of spending 75 percent of their income, food costs dropped to 25 percent in America, which meant that, despite serious deprivations, no one was going to starve. Thus, meat, along with chicken, fish, and vegetables, was available in larger quantities at lower prices. 
Both at home and in the new little trattorias opened by these immigrants, portions grew immense, and right along with them, the size of the beloved meatball. What was once poor people’s food had become fit for a king.
        That such largess was later seen to be too much of a good thing and with the onset of the stereotype of the fat Italian, scarfing down macaroni, reeking of garlic, and swigging “dago red” wine, meatballs and spaghetti began to acquire a low-class and very unsophisticated connotation.  After World War II, newer, so-called “northern Italian” restaurants in American cities kept meatballs off their menu in favor of lighter dishes like capellini pasta alla primavera with vegetables. 
Alas, the meatball, once testament to Italian-American largess, was to become evidence of ethnic gluttony. One need only recall the hilarious Alka-Seltzer TV commercial (left) years ago depicting an actor doing a dyspeptic number of takes of eating a big meatball and saying the line, “Mamma Mia, that’s a spicy a-meat-a-ball!”
        Those huge meatballs are still around. National chains Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, and Maggiano’s Little Italy still have them on their menus and you can find wonderful, old-fashioned examples at places like Patsy’s, in New York’s Theater District , which once took meatballs off the menu, then, on a whim put them back on and served more than 6,000 the first week.
        These days, you’re seeing them on the menus of some of the hottest new restaurants around, Italian and otherwise, including steakhouses, often served separately from the pastas as an appetizer.
        Italophile that I am, I must admit that meatballs are not unique to Italy. In fact, you find meatballs all over the world in one form or another, and they are truly revered, as they should be. As dumpling meatballs have a diverse place in German cooking, as with Berlin’s delightful klopse  meatballs of beef, veal and pork with a sauce of sour cream and capers.
        In Georgia, they make very spicy meatballs with cayenne pepper, coriander, fenugreek and sumac with a plum sauce called tkemali.  And throughout the once-Ottoman Empire regions of the Middle East and India, hundreds of meatballs go under variants of the word kebab.  In Lebanon there is a wide array of parsley-and-onion kefta meatballs, which may be broiled on skewers or baked and stuffed with pine nuts, along with kibbeh, which contains grains.
        Kefta is also the name for meatballs in Morocco, where they’re part of a tagine. Turkish and Egyptian kebabs (right) are another version of the same idea.  The Greeks call them keftedakia, a form of finger food made of seasoned lamb, whereas koubepia is a dish of meatballs baked with prunes and walnuts.  In India they are called kofta (left), which may be made with meat or vegetables, then simmered slowly in aromatic spices and yogurt until they assume every flavor in the pot. 
The Chinese serve pork dumplings as part of dim sum, and in Malaysia there’s a highly seasoned stew called bergedel dalam with plenty of chile peppers, ginger, cumin, and garlic.  Swedish meatballs—that staple of American 1950s chafing dish cookery with grape jelly and sour cream—might best be forgotten.
        But then meatballs always have been hard to resist. Made with good ingredients, they are adaptable to myriad preparations, absorbing rich, creamy, spicy sauces, taking well to the grill or the casserole. They always come steaming to the table, crowning spaghetti or bubbling in a bowl, always brown, juicy, and easy to eat.  The perfect morsel, a savory bonbon, and something the whole world has long loved. It’s good to see them back in the place of culinary honor they deserve.




                                                                                        518 Hudson Street

                                                                                          By John Mariani

                                                                                                        Photos by Dillon Burke


         Charm is the soft antidote to bombastic extravagance, the way Ravel’s “Mother Goose” suite is to his “Bolero,” and for its size, atmosphere and comfort, the new Justine’s on Hudson in the West Village has charm to burn. When you enter you get the feeling that everyone is from the neighborhood, with a contingent at the walnut bar with brass rail where they can sample wines by the glass or have a full meal.
         There are only 30 seats, with a few tables outside, and a very pleasant table for four against the window from which the passage of people in their summer clothes makes for a colorful, moving tableau. All tables have banquettes, black marble tops, votive candles and exquisite wineglasses.    
Mirrors to the rear open up the space, a Murano chandelier glows and the warm tones of coffee and rust brown add to the sense of civilized dining, as does a choice of music that doesn’t intrude on the conversation (at least until nine o’clock, when it gets louder).
         Justine’s is named after Justine Rosenthal, daughter of wine importer Neal Rosenthal, her partner here who oversees an eclectic wine list from more than 50 estates with a sensible price range, with wines by the glass starting at $9.
Chef Jeanne Jordan (right, in blue) has a fine sense of proportion in the number of dishes she can make successfully out of a small kitchen. Born in the Philippines and raised in New Jersey, she had been chef de cuisine at Galen Zamora’s much-missed Mas Farmhouse. And shows a deft hand balancing comfort food with refinement. 
Her cooking is geared to the seasons, and right now, with the crushing heat outside, a cool, creamy whipped duck liver mousse ($28) with spiced pineapples on brioche toast makes perfect sense. A truffled spring roll ($24) with pork, chives and cod roe aïoli gives a nod towards Jordan’s Philippine heritage, as does a refreshing fluke crudo ($27) with lychee, lime and touch of wasabi (below). Adobo quail ($22) draws its flavor from grilled onions, egg and curry leaves, though one evening the bird was overcooked, as quail so easily is.
         By the way, it’s so nice to find excellent bread served at the meal’s start, rather than have to fork over eight bucks for it, as has become annoyingly elsewhere. What early on became a signature dish on the menu is the Bea brand whole wheat spaghetti abundantly laced with bottarga, bacon chile and Parmigiano ($27), which you’ll be informed is very spicy (below). Believe it: It is peppery, indeed, but really delicious. Corn risotto was outstanding ($31), touched with garlic, spinach and curry leaf for added flavor and texture.
         One so rarely sees skate on a menu anywhere, so Jordan is confident that hers will win people over. Cuddled with bacon and sided with a seasoned bean ragoût and quail eggs ($38), the skate’s slivers of flesh absorb it all with a velvety result and high flavor.
       The roasted Pandan chicken ($32) was inspired by a dish Jordan’s mother made for her as a child, one she serves her own children now, and it is exemplary for its juiciness, its crisp skin scented with pandan leaf  and its paring with richly buttered pomme puree, truffles and black garlic.
         There are four desserts, the best of which is the whipped corn pudding with blueberries and pistachios ($18) and the affogato ($17), the simple Italian sweet made by pouring strong espresso over vanilla ice cream.   There is also the lagniappe of a rich chocolate pudding beneath. If you want to spend an extra seven dollars you can get black truffle cream, but vanilla is a far better choice. Miso caramel does nothing for an otherwise good chocolate tart ($18).
         Prices seem on the high side for appetizers, but the proportions of the main courses—you’ll take some of the chicken home—softens the tab.
         Because of its size, Justine’s doesn’t need a large crew, and it has two sommeliers, including manager Lee Fleming, but on our visit there was only one waiter, and things went slowly when the house filled up.
         On a warm summer night, it was a delight to enter the cooling interior of Justine’s, as I imagine it will be when the blasts of winter cold pushes you through the door for relief. For its size, comfort and charm, Justine’s is exemplary as the kind of restaurant that helps maintain the quiet tenor of the West Village.


Open Tues.-Sat. for dinner.




By  John Mariani

To read previous chapters of GOING AFTER HARRY LIME go to the archive





         Katie met David for breakfast at eight in the morning.  David had grown used to a full English breakfast—eggs, sausage, streaky bacon, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes, along with several slices of toast and marmalade. Katie usually settled for just tea and toast.
         “Sleep well?” he asked?
         “Not particularly,” said Katie. “You?”
         “Tossed and turned all night. Probably the same reasons you were.”
         “I’m sure they were. You come to any conclusions?”
         David finished the last of his eggs and buttered another piece of toast.
         “I love this English butter, don’t you?” he said.
     “Well, here’s what’s really bothering me; Let’s put Neame off the table for the time being. What I need to know is how the damn Russians knew we were coming to Moscow—I don’t believe it was Lentov—and if there is any truth to the idea a bunch of other reporters had preceded us in looking for Lime and Philby.”
         “Well, Kovalyov didn’t indicate it was a whole bunch of reporters coming over. We have no idea how many might have tried.”
         “If any did at all.”
         “Exactly,” said Katie. “And it’s hard to believe that they knew Philby was alive, unless Lentov was running a tour bus in and out of Moscow.”
         “So, let’s narrow this down a bit,” she said. “If there had ever been any journalists on the hunt for Philby and Lime, they would have to be British, or maybe Americans. I can’t imagine the French or Germans having any interest in an old, de-fanged British double agent who was reported dead years ago. For the Brits, it’s still a good story, with lots of loose ends. Not so much for Americans, unless they read a lot of John le Carré spy thrillers.”
         “Okay,” said David, finishing his coffee.
         “And aside from some general stories and memoirs about Philby, I haven’t seen anything suggesting he’s still alive and living in Moscow.”
         “Unless those reporters were waved off by the Russians, then MI6.”
         Katie took a last sip of tea and said, “Well, there’s one way to find out. Not foolproof, but I’d feel a lot better if I heard from some newspaper colleagues here in London that their papers never assigned such an article.”
         “You have any colleagues here?”
         “Not up to date, but I can call Dobell and find a few. He works with British journalists all the time. They write for McClure’s.”
         “But aren’t there dozens of papers in London? How you gonna check them all?”
         “There aren’t as many as there used to be,” she said, “and we can dismiss all the tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Mirror. Their readers wouldn’t know Graham Greene from Green Day. And most of the other papers are very local and haven’t the resources to send a reporter to Moscow on a hunch.”
         “So what’s left?”
         “Really just The Times and The Guardian. They’re both solid papers and do a lot of investigative work. I’m sure they have a bureau in Moscow, and I could see some young reporter wanting to hustle off to Moscow to find Philby still kicking. Maybe even make the Lime connection. It’s a very British story.”
         “One which has never—to your knowledge—come out.”
         “Nope” said Katie, “but I’d like to find out if one has ever been assigned.”
         She said she would call Dobell and get some names of British editors and writers who would certainly know if any such articles had ever been assigned by any foreign desk.
          “If they have never heard of such a thing, it probably never happened,” she said.
         “Well, aren’t we going to be tipping those same writers off to a great story, if we found Philby? They might go after him as soon as we leave their offices.”
         “I thought of that, but there’s still a certain honor among journalists not to steal a story unless it’s already been written and sourced. Hey, they might even ask if they could get permission to publish my McClure’s story, if I ever get to write it.”
         “So what do we do about Neame, or Toth, or whatever the hell his name is?”
         Katie nodded her head and said, “For the time being let’s just keep him out of the discussion. First, let’s get this out of the way so we can focus on Neame later.”
         She noted that she couldn’t call Dobell until at least two that afternoon because of the time difference.
         “Until then, I guess I can check out any stories about Philby in the Times and Guardian at the library. What are you up to today?”
         “I’m going to try to see Lentov and Southey, ruffle their feathers a bit,” said David, though he knew that without any official standing they could deflect anything he had to ask them. His plan, such as it was, was to make them think he might be able to tie them into the scam Kovalyov had described. Even though David felt it would be tough to trip up the two old pros, he sensed that both men actually enjoyed revealing what they knew as long as it did not expose them.
         He called Southey’s house in Hornchurch and left a message. He called Lentov’s house in Southall and left a message. David didn’t think he’d hear back, so he decided to take the train out to Lentov’s and hope to find him home. Southey could wait.
         Katie went to the nearby Kensington Library (right) and checked the files of the Times and the Guardian, which revealed a few stories beyond the obituaries of Philby’s death, mostly short reminiscences along the lines of “I Knew Kim Philby” or “The Kim Philby Nobody Knew.” She found nothing to indicate any reporter had ever set out to find Philby living in Moscow or anywhere else. 
David arrived in Southall around eleven that morning and walked to Lentov’s house. There were two successive copies of the Times in his mailbox. No lights on inside. He rang the bell, waited and rang it again. No answer. He tried to peak through the small, dark windows. Across the road an elderly Pakistani woman was putting the key in her door. David called out to her. “Excuse me, ma’am, sorry to bother you, but do you know if Mr. Lentov is at home?”
         The woman turned and looked at David to size him up, then said, nonchalantly, “I do not keep track of that one.  I haven’t seen him this week.” She turned, opened her door and David heard it close tightly behind her.
         The woman’s response meant nothing, of course, but the two newspapers at the doorstep indicated Lentov had not been home for at least two days. That meant nothing either. David had come up empty, though he wondered where Lentov, who had impressed him as someone who rarely left his circumscribed neighborhood, might have gone, during the same time Katie and he had been in Moscow. David shook himself free of any further conspiratorial musings and walked back to the train station to return to London.
         Katie had pretty much finished up at the library by the time David got back, so they had a quick lunch together, until two o’clock, when she put in a call to Dobell. She didn’t tell him why she wanted to speak to British journalists—being kicked out of Moscow was a story she’d have to save—though he did ask what they were doing back in London so soon.
         “We just had no more business in Moscow,” she told him. “I got the interview with the Philbys and that was that.”
         “Well, that’s great, Katie,” said Dobell. “Frankly, even if you don’t find your Harry Lime—and honestly that would just be icing on the cake—the Philby interview will be a bombshell. I’ll call you back in fifteen minutes with some names and numbers.”
         Katie knew she was on very, very thin ice in not telling her editor all the details, how the Russians had booted her out of Moscow after insisting she’d been scammed and how her recorder had been lifted by the Russians. (Ever since, she’d spent a lot of time jotting down her recollections of her conversations with the Philbys and asking David to corroborate them.)
        She also knew that, if this story did not hold up, and that the Russian  and British attempts at intimidating her were part of a conspiracy to keep Philby in his grave, then her journalistic career at McClure’s was probably over.  She comforted herself with the thought that she could still pull it all off, get the real story, and, in the best of circumstances, get the goods on some Hungarian magnate who spoke perfect Oxford English named Gorgo Toth. If she could, she’d keep her reputation as being the magazine’s most dependable writer.
         Dobell called back quickly. “O.K., here are two guys, one at the Times, the other at the Guardian, who have written for us and whom we use as sources on stories. They work on the international desk, so they should be familiar with anything that’s been published on Philby. You got a pencil? Names are Christopher Boyer at the Times, and Thomas Spollen at the Guardian.  I’ve sent them both e-mails that you’d be calling.”
         “That’s great,” said Katie. “I promise I’ll bring you back a bombshell.”
         “No chance of anyone trying to murder both of you this time? Not that that’s bad for the article.”
         “So far, so good,” said Katie. “I don’t think this is that kind of story.”


John Mariani, 2016



"Only use grills outside.

Maintain a distance from your house.

Grill on flat ground.

Watch your barbecue.

Wear the right attire.

Place a fire extinguisher nearby."

--Krys’tal Griffin, Delaware News Journal 7/5/23.



 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.



MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,  Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish. Contributing Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.


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