(Ed. note: People are always asking me” “How did you become a food critic?” Here is the answer.)
Food writer John Mariani once said there are 3 kinds of restaurant critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”
The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat. Ask any editor and they will tell you they prefer a real writer who wants to become a food critic, to a passionate foodie who wants to (try to) become a writer. Getting real writers to write about real restaurants is usually a lot easier than getting them into a collared shirt.
Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic years ago. For the longest time, I ate everything in sight and was pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. Somewhere over the past decade, I shed my omnivorous obsessions and replaced them with unabashed epicurean snobbery, and therein lies the tale.
John Anthony Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. As a preteen in the 1960s, I circumnavigated the United States with my family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle, New York to New Orleans. My parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, and wanted their children (me, two sisters and a brother) to experience the best of eating out. Neither parent was a gourmet; we never had wine or liquor in our house, and seafood was as foreign to our table as chopsticks. But what Mom and Dad loved was going out to a restaurant — dressing us all up and making a night of it. To them, dining out was about the experience of leaving the confines of home and seeking the thrill of being served good food in a fabulous place where they waited on you hand and foot. Wherever we traveled, they always sought out the best restaurant in town and the best table in the house — the better to experience the theater of great dining.
As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine in 1978 that I ate up, literally and figuratively. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and they indulged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)
My ex-wife was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the folderol of Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)
Wedged into all of this was a move back east in the mid-1980s — where I lived mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan. It was a seminal time for American food, and I consumed the New York restaurant scene wholesale, as Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.
In 1990, after five years of eating in places like Odeon, the Coach House, Four Seasons, Peter Luger, and the Union Square Cafe (not to mention enjoying the best seafood in America every summer on Nantucket), I moved back to Las Vegas and surveyed the edible landscape. It was not a pretty sight. The best restaurants in town were two chain steakhouses: Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. Every hotel had five eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and Italian, and a (not-very) “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine” from some unnamed continent. All of them facing the keno pit, or so it seemed. Marcel Taylor — the Caesars Palace dealer who brought Ruth’s Chris to town in 1989 — told me the philosophy of every hotel back then was to capture the casino customer and never let them out the front door. As he put it, “…they figured we have every place anyone could ever want to eat in right here, what more could they (the tourists) want?”
But want they did, and when Ruth’s Chris realized its Vegas outpost was outselling all its other franchises, the word quickly spread to upscale chains and chefs everywhere that Las Vegas was the place to be. Late 1992 brought the opening of Spago, and soon thereafter, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse planted their flags in the MGM. Suddenly, we had a real restaurant scene.
The only thing lacking was a serious critic to write about it. Hard to believe 23 years later, but in 1994, the only person covering restaurants in Las Vegas was the mother-in-law of a certain newspaper owner. She belonged to the “My friend Mabel had the chicken soup and she thought it was a bit salty” school of food writing, and was avidly followed every week by what few society matrons there were in town.
So, I stepped into the breach. It took a year of hounding media outlets, but finally, in October, 1995, I got a shot at being the Nevada Public Radio food critic — a position I pretty much invented for myself and a gig that lasted until 2011. Did I know anything about radio? Absolutely not. But I knew a helluva lot about food, and could put two sentences together, and looked great in a button-down shirt. As I like to say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For five years I was the only game in town when it came to critiquing serious restaurants in a serious way. It would not be until 2001 that our main newspaper hired a full-time food writer, and in keeping with tradition, they made sure she was of the “My friend Edna had the steak and she thought it was a little chewy” school of food writing.
The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, and writing for all sorts of magazines and guidebooks. It was then that I honed both my palate and my writing. It took a decade plus, but only after all those meals, travel and reviews did I begin to appreciate my subject matter and my relationship to it. Food is the most intimate relationship we will ever have, and allowing strangers to cook it for us is an oddly perverse ritual which many struggle to understand. (It’s the reason so many people have a chip on their shoulder when they eat out.) Giving over our bodies, our health, and our mouths to persons unknown, and paying them for the privilege of feeding all three, is surrendering an inordinate amount of power to a stranger — and paying them money for the privilege of taking advantage of you. It is this curious dynamic that continues to fascinate me, as much as anything that I shove in my piehole.
As for the food, then and now the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French have always fascinated my palate. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. Italian cuisine — in all of its regional glories — celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, while a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies still hold me in their thrall, and, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).
Enter Japan. Japanese food is about the quest for perfection, and in many ways, eating Japanese food in America and Japan has refined my tastes even further and eliminated my helter-skelter insatiability. No longer am I a galloping gourmand, happily ingesting everything in sight. Now, in my sixties, I seek the unobtainable grail of the quintessential. Like a Japanese chef, I take interest in the details of the divine. A wasted meal, or even an ingredient, puts me in a bad mood. I have eaten so much of everything that I now simply want the best of anything — be it in a street taco, a glass of wine, or a piece of fish.
I am no longer an “oh, goodie goodie,” and I am certainly not a slob. It is said that to become a gourmet, like becoming a first class horseman, you have to start young. I am an epicure and I started very young. But there are many more steps before me, and it is this mountain that I continue to climb.
Food is life itself, the rest is parsley. – Alan Richman
If Cincinnato and Marco Carpineti represent Roman vinters moving forward by looking to the past, Casale Del Giglio is a winery of a much more modern stripe. Located on the slopes and plains (and some former marshland) some fifty kilometers south of Rome, it utilizes its 180 hectares of vines to make an assortment of varietals that stretch the boundaries of what Italian wines can be.
Along with wine journalist Charles Scicolone, we toured the winery with winemaker Paolo Tiefenthaler who explained that the area, being located on sandy soil in the Agro Potino valley near Anzio, did not have much of a wine-making tradition before they started cultivating it back in the 1990s. Teifenthaler told us through an interpreter that they saw this unexplored territory as being perfect for viticultural experimentation — it having a temperate maritime climate similar to those found in Australia, California and Bordeaux. As a result (and with the full blessing of the European Union), over sixty different varietals were planted to see what grew (and tasted) best. With such a broad canvas to work from, Tiefenthaler arrived at a stunning assortment of wines — fifteen in all — that aim to bridge the gap between classic and international tastes, as well as solidifying the area as a microclimate to be taken seriously.
One very un-Italian thing about Casale Del Giglio’s wines are the labels. In a nod towards the international market (and in breaking with the traditional Italian wine labels – the motto of which has always been: “obscurity and confusion over clarity and information”), their bottles identify the maker, the grape (if it’s not a blend) and the location of the vineyard. Most of their wines are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica – the third tier of Italian wine classification) which allots more freedom to winemakers to use different grapes and blends than the more restrictive DOCG and DOC denominations.
Triefenthaler takes that freedom and runs with it. His chardonnay uses no oak and goes through no malolactic (secondary) fermentation. The result is a full-bodied, crisp wine that is a pure expression of the grape. It was one of many non-traditional wines we tasted that caused me and Scicolone to sit up and take notice. Just as pleasantly surprising was the Albiola Rosato — a rose of Syrah and Sangiovese grapes — that was surprisingly rich for a wine so pink. It’s strong acidity and raspberry/strawberry aromas make it a perfect wine for sipping all Summer long.
On the more traditional front, Casale Del Giglio weighs in with a big, spicy, tannic, vaguely herbaceous Cesanese (pictured above) that Elise Rialland — our winery guide for the day — said goes perfectly with a Spezzatino di Bufaletta dell’Agro Pontino (water buffalo stew). Absent any water buffalo in your neighborhood, a beef stew would match splendidly as well.
Of the other red wines we tasted, the huge, sweetly tannic Tempranijo was a monster that needs taming by food or aging, and the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon showed promise as well, although, like many of the reds, it seemed quite young, very fruit-forward and a bit rough around the edges. Still, when you consider that these wines retail for well under twenty dollars a bottle, you’re getting quite a mouthful for the price.
Two wines that need no qualifiers are the Bellone and Mater Matuta. The Bellone is yet another worthwhile way to break the bonds of your chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot grigio habit — it being a complex and subtle blend of ripe tropical fruit beneath a nicely floral nose. What sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill $15 white wines is the strong acidity and a bracing finish that tastes like a sea breeze smells. I can’t think of a better wine to accompany a fish stew or raw seafood platter.
If the Bellone is an ode to the ancient varietals of Lazio (the province of Italy wherein Rome lies), the Mater Matuta represents a leap into the 21st Century. Elegant and powerful, this flagship wine is a blend of 85% Syrah and 15% Petit Verdot, and displays a deep, dense ruby red color, and complex aromas of black cherry, coffee and about half a spice rack. The tannins are finely integrated and the finish lasts until next Tuesday. In all, quite a bottle for $50, and quite a landmark for an area that had no idea it could make such a splash with grapes that had never before spoken Italian.
Old school or new, Roman wines have broken the shackles of cheap white wine that defined its viticulture for so long. Tasting the full panoply of Casale Del Giglio wines (including a wonderful late harvest wine called Aphrodisium) taught me that no longer will I look past the “Lazio” designation when I see it in a wine store or on a list. These are very attractive wines at very attractive prices, and all of them are made to match with Roman food, one of the world’s great cuisines.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT ROMAN RESTAURANTS
“To a Roman, wine is just another form of food.” Charles Scicolone reminded me of this several times as we tasted our way around Rome for a week. What he also impressed upon me was that Romans (who are very serious about their cuisine) look upon wine as an integral part of any meal, but, being Romans, don’t exactly stress out over it. You’ll never find a Roman dissecting the fine points of a food and wine match. Certain fundamental rules are followed (lighter wines with fish, heavier ones with meat), but after that it is all about enjoying them simultaneously. Here are a few restaurant and wine bars where you can maximize your enjoyment of both in the Eternal City.
Il Sanlorenzo – Despite being 45 minutes from the ocean, Rome has never been much of a seafood town, until now. This elegant, seafood-centric place, a block off of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, proudly displays the daily catch at the front bar, offers six kinds of Le Acque (mineral water), artisanal breads, and stunning selection of raw seafood. It’s 85€ tasting menu is quite the bargain, and the modernist carpaccio of red shrimps just as satisfying as the artful twist on linguine con vongole.
Flavio al Velavevodetto – The trouble with traveling to Rome (as with New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc.) is I’m always torn between classic places to which I can’t wait to return, and wanting to try out newer joints that everyone is raving about. Thankfully, Rome doesn’t follow food trends as much as the rest of the world, so it’s easier to ignore whatever some travel magazine is writing about this month. Flavio de Velavevodetto has been around forever, and isn’t on anyone’s thrillist, but the food is Roman to the core. A wall of wines greets you as you enter (and doubles as the wine list) and the menu couldn’t be simpler. The rigatoni con la pajata (with veal intestines) and coda alla vaccianara (braised oxtail) also could not be any better. “Velavevodetto” means something like a Roman “I told you so,” and after two bites of your meal, you will have to admit that I told you so.
Checchino dal 1887 – Right around the corner from Flavio al Velavevodetto is this venerable establishment, that is just as comfortable and just as good. Specializing in the “fifth quarter” of the animal, the menu is a testament to how Romans were into offal long before it became fashionable. Wonderful wine list as well.
Dal Bolognese – I never go to Rome without taking at least one meal here. Directly off the Piazza del Popolo, you enter this fashionable haunt of power lunchers and well-healed shoppers. The thing to get is the bollito misto with mostarda and salsa verde. There might be other good things to eat on the menu, but the meat platter with mustard fruits is so spectacular I can’t even think of ordering anything else. Except the fritto misto (fried seafood); it’s out-of-this-world too.
Al Moro – There is an old saying about Roman restaurants that the worse the art is on the walls, the better the food. Al Moro’s walls won’t win any awards (see picture above), but the fegato (calves liver with agrodolce onions) ought to be enshrined somewhere. You won’t find better culatello ham or bufala mozzerella anywhere else around the Trevi Fountain, either. Go early for lunch to see how the smart business set enjoys its midday repast.
A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ROMAN WINE BARS
Roman ristorante are far less formal affairs than their Parisian counterparts. Still, you’re expected to order two or three courses in them, and they are not the place to pick up a light bite. For that you have pizzerias and espresso bars everywhere (of variable quality), but for our money, wine bars are the way to go if you want a simple snack or plate of pasta without a lot of fuss after dark. The bonus is, of course, they also have incredible wine selections, some real bargains by the glass (or carafe), and no one frowns at you if you just want a small plate of some incredible artichoke ravioli with a Gravner Breg like we had L’Angolo Divino. The other bonus is these spots are all within a short walk of each other in the Centro Storico
Il Goccetto (pictured above) – Very popular with the young crowd. Doubles as a wine store. Nice antipasti display counter as you enter. Go early or late and go with a thirst.
Cul de Sac – An old favorite off the Piazza Navona. Friendly welcome. Outdoor seating. Rome’s first proper wine bar (since 1977) is still one one the best, with food a lot better than you expect it to be.
L’Angolo Divino – A cozy spot right off the Camp de’ Fiori, the modest entrance gives you not a clue as to the beauty of the food and the wine selection. An incredible list with a very helpful staff.
CASALE DEL GIGLIO
Latina LY, Italy
39 06 9290 2530
13, Vicolo Bollette
39 06 678 3495
CHECCHINO DAL 1887
30, Via di Monte Testaccio
39 06 574 3816
1, Piazza del Popolo
39 06 361 1426
FLAVIO AL VELAVEVODETTO
97, Via di Monte Testaccio
39 06 574 4194
4/5, Via dei Chiavari
39 06 68 65 097
THE WINE BARS
CUL DE SAC
73, Piazza di Pasquino
39 06 6880 1094
ENOTECA IL GOCCETTO
14, Via dei Banchi Vecchi
39 06 686 4268
Via del Balestrari
06 68 64 413
It’s that time of year again, when Restaurant magazine, an industry journal published out of London, names the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” an annual list so nonsensical as to make “Alice in Wonderland” seem like a serious guidebook.
Years ago I was invited to be one of the hundreds of judges for this awards program (and I was to pick the other North American judges), now made up of more than a thousand food writers, chefs and restaurateurs, and well-traveled gastronomes. Each judge casts seven votes, “three of which must apply toward restaurants outside of his or her home region. Voters must have dined at a restaurant within the past 18 months.” After that first year on the panel I realized the whole thing was a farce, for several reasons.