Virtual Gourmet

  November 5, 2023                                                                         Newsletter

Founded in 1996 



Magazine cover by Edward Hopper (1924)



By John Mariani


By John Mariani

By John Mariani

The New Gins, Part Two

By John Mariani

: There will be no issue of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet next week (Nov. 12) because Mariani will be visiting and eating around San Antonio, Texas.


By John Mariani

The Long Table Celebration. Photo by Larry Schiffer, Graz Tourism


         As the second largest city in Austria (after Vienna), Graz’s cultural history is rife with the old and the new in the baroque town of 300,000 people. Dating back to 800 AD, its historic center alone boasts a thousand buildings of interest—fifty percent of them damaged in the war. But today the center city is vibrant, as beautiful as ever, and once-derelict neighborhoods across the Mur river have been reclaimed and gentrified for the better.           Graz’s indigenous gastro-scene is very diverse, and the locals revel in the bounty of Styrian farms and wineries. There are several walking and bus tours of the city’s breweries, including a progressive pub crawl on Lendplatz. There is an annual truffle festival in fall, and in summer Graz holds its astonishing Long Table celebration at the Hauptplatz main square, where all the trams converge, with dozens of food purveyors, restaurants and breweries serving thousands of people in the open air (next year’s is schedule for August 8).
         What I found so delightful about eating around Graz was that there is hardly a street or corner where the combination of a cultural site, sculpture garden, food store, bakery or restaurant is not right next to each other, all easily reachable within minutes by those ever-efficient trams. The Halle für Kunst is a contemporary art museum set within a minimalist white structure featuring modern Styrian artists. Even more strikingly modern, the Kunsthaus Graz (left), which has been variously compared to a huge blue pickle and an extraterrestrial frog, is the city’s unique modern art museum with changing exhibitions, just steps from the remarkable artificial “floating island” of Murinsel  (right), designed by New York architect Vito Acconci in the form of a large steel and glass seashell 47 meters long connected by tunnels on either side of the river. At night both landmarks are gorgeously lighted and shimmer in the rippling river run.
         One of the city’s most popular restaurants, Der Steirer (Belgiergasse 1; 43-316-703654), is just blocks away. It’s a large, spacious traditional restaurant (though it also serves “Stryian tapas”), with tall ceiling archways, an excellent wine list and justifiable fame for its fried chicken, a platter of six crisp pieces with a green salad and lemon (€15.90). I thought the Tafelspitz (€29.90) of tender boiled beef preceded by a rich broth (left) teeming with meat and vegetables was one of the best I had in Graz, and its roast pork with wonderful bread dumplings and warm cabbage salad (€19.50) can readily feed two. Only beer, cider and wine is served.
        Also in the neighborhood is El Pescador (Landhausgasse 6; 43-316-829030), a pleasing diversion from the meat-rich diet of Graz and the city’s best for seafood with a Mediterranean slant (right). The fish species are the day’s specials, and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed fillet of branzino (€26) and the fine pink lake trout called char (€26), along with a large bowl of tender gnocchi with September truffles (€15). And, off a busy shopping street in the Landhaus neighborhood is Landhauskeller  Restaurant (Schmiedgasse 9; 43-316-839276), whose large courtyard with wide umbrellas (below) is an enchanting and relaxing place to dine in good weather.  The food is hearty—the Wiener Schnitzel (€22.90) is fried in butter—and they have one of the best wine lists for Austrian bottlings in the city.

        The Universalmuseum Joanneum is actually a collection of museums, housing  the world’s largest historic armory since 1644, with  13,400 small arms and accessories, volley guns, mortars, cannons, falconets, and more than 2,000 edged weapons, along with 3,844 items of horse armor.    Also well worth a visit is the Natural History Museum, one of the best maintained, lighted and descriptive in Europe, where such museums tend to be dark and musty. The collection is rich in well-posed, lifelike animal displays relating to geology—the rocks and gems section is unexpectedly fascinating—zoology and botany.
        Everything worth seeing in Graz is close by and walkable, the only exception being the baroque Schloss Eggenberg palace (right), just outside the city and reachable by tram. It has the curious distinction of having 24 staterooms decorated by Styrian artist Hans Adam Weissenkircher where invited guests of the Eggenberg family could merely walk through for the sole purpose of being amazed by the lavish display.
        Nothing else went on in those rooms. The banquet hall was elsewhere, as were the family’s living quarters no one ever got to see. There is a 45-minute tour with a guide that you can take of all the rooms, though about halfway through the idea behind them becomes more numbing than amazing. Below that floor, however, is a superb museum of the Alte Gallerie of 17th century Dutch masters. Then you may stroll the vast manicured grounds, overseen by a flock of disinterested peacocks. 
        All that walking makes a person hungry, but turn any corner in Graz and there will be a pretty bakery, a wurst store, a café, a wine room, even a sushi bar, if you’re up for it. Graz is very much an international city and a European gem, but its character is truly Styrian, invested with rich agricultural, vinicultural and brewery traditions that distinguish it from all else in Austria.




233 W 49th Street


By John Mariani

        The proliferation of high-end, New York-style steakhouses shows no let-up. The newest (since July) is the third unit of Empire Steak House, whose owners, Jack, Russ and Jeff  Sinanaj, have established themselves near the head of the national chains, few of which are any longer connected with the original founders. The Sinanajes came to the U.S. in the 1980s from Montenegro and worked their way up the usual restaurant totem pole with pluck and great energy, pooling resources to open their first steakhouse early in this century. They are building a small empire, with international designs, and it is that family commitment that has kept theirs from feeling as if conceived in a corporate board room.
         Now there are the three New York Empire restaurants—on E. 50th Street, W. 54th Street and now in the Theater District, along with their Chazz Palminteri Italian Restaurant (with a branch in White Plains) in New York, and one in Tokyo, with plans for Singapore and Hawaii.  I don’t envy them their jetlag.
        The new Empire sits right across the street from the theater where “Chicago” has played for ages, and within a block of a slew of other shows, so it’s drawing a pre-theater crowd by 5:45. Unfortunately, Empire has not yet received its full liquor license, so for now only wine, from a strong list, and beer are available.
        The interior, with its L-shaped marble bar up front, and a dining room done in traditional wood-paneled wainscotting, wood floor, bentwood chairs and spacious, well-set tables in view of historic photos of New York landmarks. At the moment the noise level is just fine, though as business increases, I can’t vouch for that pleasure much longer.
        The menus at all the Empires are the same, and priced that way. Aside from a couple of nightly specials, you’ll always find exactly what you expect and had last time. No one goes to a New York steakhouse to be surprised, even if one offers, say, a lot of pastas, sushi or five-pound lobsters.
        They always have two soups, the rich lobster bisque and, one night, rarely seen lentil soup ($21.95). The tuna tartare with avocado cream and seaweed salad ($29.50) makes for a good, spicy appetite stirrer, and the jumbo lump crabmeat cocktail (market price) truly lives up to its name when it says “jumbo.” The “Empire’s Hot Platter” of shrimp scampi, stuffed mushrooms and baked clams is a pretty good buy at $30.50, while the grilled octopus is first rate, a fatted portion served with sauteed spinach, cherry peppers, garlic, capers and spiced olive oil. ($30.95). Of course, they offer sizzling Canadian bacon by the thick slice ($8.95).
        Pasta portions are meant to be shared, like the one piled high with sauteed calamari, shrimp, clams and fish in a white wine tomato sauce ($46.95), and all the Empire restaurants pride themselves on their bucatini alla carbonara ($36.95).

        There are plenty of options for cuts of steak, including American and Japanese wagyu, though I always opt for the USDA Prime porterhouse for two ($139.95) that will easily feed three. So, too, the double-cut rack of lamb is massive, with three large chops that can serve three people ($69.95). Chicken parmigiana ($41.95) is another item only a trencherman could attempt to finish on his own. Empire, like all its competitors, charges a high price for its food, but splitting a dish for two or more cuts way down on the tab.
The only real disappointment when I visited was the Dover sole in a caper-strewn white wine-lemon sauce ($69.95). Since the best Dover sole is a rarity, a chef has to gauge how many he can obtain of first quality and serve every one that night. Otherwise, like this example, it lacks freshness, flavor and texture.
         For side dishes, the baked potato ($9.95) must weigh a pound, and the creamed spinach ($15.95) and onion rings ($13.95) are both excellent. The home fries ($15.95) are a house specialty (left)  for good reason, rich with onions and seasoning.
        Desserts ($12), made in house, are enormous and a table of four need only order two. Of particular interest are the apple strudel, the chocolate lava cake, the pecan pie and the crème brûlée, which go with a long list of dessert wines.

        Empire’s wine list is first rate for a steakhouse, rich in every category, with three dozen wines by the glass, many under $20, along with a slew of half-bottles, magnums and large format bottles that offer the best value on the list. Mark-ups are about average for New York, with several bottlings under $75.
         I hope the Sinanajes don’t spread themselves too thin in foreign ports of call, because it is their personal attention to detail that has won them a faithful crowd in New York.


Open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly.




By  John Mariani

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


        Suddenly with a loud blast the front door blew off its hinges and the room filled with gray smoke, making it impossible to see what was about to happen. David knew it was not tear gas, but everyone started coughing. Then someone shouted something in Hungarian and there seemed to be three intruders in the room. Toth’s men swung their hands behind their heads and turned their backs to the intruders as the smoke began to dissipate.
        Now Toth and the Americans could see three men dressed in dark clothes with black ski masks covering their faces. One of the men rushed over to Toth and shoved him on the couch, telling him not to make a move and handcuffing him. The other men were already handcuffing Toth’s thugs. David could see one of the intruders was armed with a Russian Makarov pistol—standard issue to FSS agents. The other men had Bizon submachine guns, also Russian, designed to be very destructive at close range. 
The smoke, which had come from a grenade, had mostly dropped to the floor, and Katie and David could see their captors were now the  captives. Toth was screaming at them in Hungarian, which the Americans assumed was to tell the intruders how important a man he was and that they’d never get away with this.
         “Do any of you speak English?” Katie asked of the intruders. The man with the pistol, standing over Toth, said in a thick accent, “Yes, you are safe now, but you must come with us, quickly.”
         David, whose rushing adrenaline had helped keep any effects of the drug at bay, said, “Not until we know who the hell you are. Your guns are Russian. You FSS?”
         “That should not concern you now,” said the man with the pistol, which he put back into a holster. “All that matters is you come with us. Now.”
         Katie said, “But my friend was just injected with a drug that might kill him in the next hour. We have to get him to a hospital as quickly as possible.”
         The man shook his head and said there wasn’t enough time. Then one of the other men took the English-speaking intruder aside. Katie couldn’t hear what language they spoke, but it looked from their movements as if they were arguing over whether David was to be treated or not. Then Katie remembered. “Wait! Hold on! Toth here said that the antidote to the drug was an acid, like vinegar.” She turned to Toth and shouted, “That’s what you said right? Vinegar?”
         Toth said nothing. The English-speaking intruder pushed his pistol against Toth’s knee.  The man said, “Is this true? You have three seconds to tell me or I shall blow off your knee. Then the other one.”
         Toth said, “All right, all right. Yes, vinegar will probably work if it’s injected quickly. But it’s never been tried with a human being.”
         “You have vinegar here?” asked the man, digging his pistol deeper into the flesh of Toth’s knee.
         Toth answered, “I don’t know. I’m not the bloody cook here. If we have it, it’s somewhere in the kitchen.”
         David and Katie rushed into the kitchen and began opening every cabinet. “I think I found some!” said David, twisting off the cap to smell if it was vinegar. “Here, give it to Toth.”
         The man with the pistol shouted at Toth, “Do it. Now!”
         “I can’t do anything with these fucking handcuffs on,” said Toth. “Let me up.” The man holstered his pistol and brusquely dragged Toth to his feet, then undid the handcuffs, saying, “If you do not make this injection within one minute, I shall smash your face in, understand?”
         Toth said, “How do I know if this vinegar is fresh or sterile. It could kill him as quickly as the drug.”
         David said, “I’ll take the chance.”
         Katie said, “Don’t trust him, David. I’ll give you the shot.”
         “You know how to do that?”
         “I had to learn to give my father shots of insulin for his diabetes.  I’m pretty good at it.” Then she turned to Toth and said, “How much do I give him?”
         Toth, believing the intruders did not want to kill him, said, “I have no bloody idea. I’ve never used it before. Just give him the whole syringe.”
         Katie had no reason to believe or not believe Toth at that point.  She looked in the refrigerator and found another couple of fresh syringes.
         “You’ve got to boil it for five minutes,” said Toth, trying to be helpful if it would save him from having his face bashed in.
         Katie took a syringe and put it in a small pan of water and brought it to a boil. She glanced over at David, who seemed to be showing signs of the drug taking effect. His was blinking his eyes, his mouth was slightly drooping.
         “David, you O.K.?” He nodded and waved his hand. 
While waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the syringe to be made sterile, Toth spoke to the man with the pistol in Hungarian, probably offering him a bribe to let him go, but the man said nothing in return, except to ask where Toth’s coat was. Toth motioned to a closet. The man went to it, grabbed a large winter coat and wrapped it around Toth’s shoulders.
         “Where are we going?” Toth asked in English but got no answer. The man turned to Katie and barked, “It has been five minutes. We must go.  Do what you have to do.”
         Katie removed the syringe and extracted vinegar that she had also put in a pot to boil, hoping that would not lessen its effectiveness. She filled the syringe and said to David, “You ready?” He nodded, looking very sleepy now.  Katie gave him the injection, swabbed the puncture with some of the vinegar and said, “Here’s hoping.”
         The man with the pistol barked, “O.K., we go, now.”
         By then the other two intruders had marched Toth’s men to the cellar and tied their feet, then ran upstairs and hustled Toth, Katie and David out the front door. Two cars were parked out of sight to the rear of the house, a Mercedes sedan and an Audi SUV with its windows blacked out. Inside each was a driver; another man, also with a ski mask, stood outside the SUV.
         The man with the pistol said to the Americans, “You go in the Mercedes.”
         “Where are we going?” asked David, who still showed signs of grogginess.
         “The less you know the better,” said the man, who then shoved Toth into the SUV.   
The two men with the sub-machine guns brought Katie and David to the Mercedes and opened the back door for them. Inside was the driver and another man, who was cradling a sub-machine gun in his lap.  One of the men outside said something in Russian to the driver and closed the back door.  Then he said to the Americans, “Give me your passports.”
         “Please,” said Katie to the men up front, “please tell us who you are and what’s happening.” There was silence.
         The  frosted window was up, and just as the driver put the car into gear, one of the men outside took his glove off and with his finger wrote three letters on the frosted window, which Katie and David read as “
UYN.” The Mercedes bolted forward, as did the SUV at the same moment, in a different direction.
         “What’s ‘
UYN’ supposed to mean?” said David. “Is it Russian?”
         “I don’t know,” said Katie. “Driver, what does ‘
UYN’ mean? It’s Russian?”
         The driver shrugged and said nothing.
         David glanced at the window again, his face slightly brightening, and said, “Katie, it’s not
UYN.’ We’re reading it backwards from this side of the window.”
         Katie looked again and her jaw dropped. “Holy shit, it’s ‘
         Despite everything that had happened, they both burst out laughing.


John Mariani, 2016



The New Gins, Part Two
By John Mariani

Frank McHugh and James Cagney in "The Roaring Twenties" (1939)


         The market for new gins right now seems to be where the market for single malt Scotches was twenty years ago and American bourbons ten years ago (vodka still rules at the top of sales in the U.S.). And these new gins are not coming solely from traditional producers like the Netherlands and the UK. It seems everyone from Vermont to New Zealand is getting on the bandwagon, and, since gin can be made with any number of botanicals, the field is open wider than ever before. Here’s my second round-up of new gins of interest.


ENGINE PURE ORGANIC GIN ($42.99)—“Fueling the Dream” is the motto of this very dry gin from Torino Distillati in Langhe, Italy. Like so many Italian designs, the “bottle” for Engine is actually a tin can that looks like a gas additive, and, in red, white and blue, it’s sleek and very cool. The gin inside favors juniper, lemon, licorice, rose and sage, at 42% alcohol, and makes a perfect Martini for those who like them bone dry.


LIGHTHOUSE GIN ($34.99)—Crafted by  New Zealand’s first female head distiller, Rachel Hall, in Cape Palliser (which has a lighthouse), for the Sonoma Valley-based Foley Family, it is known for its use of Yen Ben Lemons, known for their strong flavor and high acidity, along with eight other botanicals. It’s double distilled as a super-premium, very smooth style in a bottle that represents the Fresnel lens layered prism that concentrates light into a lighthouse’s beacon.


MR. PICKLES NORTHWEST GIN ($54.99)—You’ve got to admire a distiller, Ben Green, who names his gin after a pit bull rescue dog, even if the claim that it “reflects the personality of the distillery’s gregarious mascot and Oregon’s majestic mountains” may be a stretch. In any case, it’s made from 100% winter wheat from the nearby Camas Country Mill, triple distilled, with the botanicals introduced in the final distillation. There are 12 botanicals used in addition to juniper. The bottle is very beautifully decorated in a flowery style with Mr. Pickles’s portrait thereon.


BARR HILL ($39.99)—It all sounds very Vermont, with a beekeeper and distiller bonding in 2011 to produce a New England-style gin. Todd Hardie cared for bee hives all over the world, and Ryan Christiansen started in Hardwick with a single 15-gallon direct-fire copper still and sent its gin to competitions in New York and Hong King, winning  Double Gold and a Best Gin of the Year awards. By the end of 2012 they were making just three batches per day, then in 2019 moved to Montpelier to build a new state-of-the-art distillery. It is unique in that it is distilled entirely with juniper and finished with  raw honey, whose aromatics were carried by the bees. They also make a Tom Cat gin ($54.99) that is aged six to nine months in American oak.





"Egg slicer can be used for fruits and veggies" by Maryal Carter, USA Today  8/6/23


 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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