Time to Grill 

Food and travel writer John Mariani gets a dinner at the Jefferson.

click to enlarge "This will be my first Hanover tomato." Longtime Esquire food writer John Mariani gets his own dinner this week at the Jefferson Hotel.
  • "This will be my first Hanover tomato." Longtime Esquire food writer John Mariani gets his own dinner this week at the Jefferson Hotel.

The weather's hot, and so are grills across Richmond. But grilled pizza?

It no longer raises eyebrows the way it did in 1999 when world-renowned food, travel and wine writer John Mariani wrote about it in his book, "Grilling for Dummies."

Mariani will be in town this week mingling with guests at the Jefferson Hotel's $75-per-person Evening with John Mariani, which includes a five-course dinner with wine. The guest list includes chefs that were inspired by Mariani's latest book, "How Italian Food Conquered the World."

No newcomer to Richmond, he was last at the Jefferson two years ago when the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, Lemaire, reopened (Lemaire's executive chef Walter Bundy will join with TJ's James Schroeder, chef Patrick Ehemann and pastry chef Sara Ayyash in preparing Mariani's dinner). Mariani subsequently named Lemaire to his annual list of best new restaurants. He researches and compiles the list for Esquire magazine, where he's worked as a globetrotting columnist for 30 years. Five years ago he began covering wines — including Virginia's — for Bloomberg News.

In anticipation of his dinner, Style Weekly recently caught up with Mariani:

Style: How did you go from a doctorate in English at Columbia University to being one of the world's most recognized food and travel correspondents?

Mariani: There wasn't much of anything being published about food and restaurants back in the '70s. Gourmet magazine was about it. When I got a Ph.D., I was planning to teach — and I did for a few years. But as journalism picked up, I did a lot of traveling for Esquire and ate in many places across the country. In 1977 my wife and I took a 14-week trip across the country and found the food was appallingly bad — that was as true for New York as Newport Beach [Calif.] and New Orleans.

If Italian food has conquered the world, why is France still the No. 1 most-visited nation by international travelers, according to the United Nations' World Tourism Organization?

There's certainly nothing wrong with French food — I was just in France for two weeks. It's one glorious, historic, artistic country. But if you scratch the average American, they probably feel the most affinity for Italy in terms of food. You go to France for reasons other than food.

What influence do you see the current U.S. economy — and world economy in general — as having on restaurants around the globe?

A few of those grand, 19th-century hotels still exist in Paris, Moscow and Shanghai; but three-star restaurants in France are rarely full, and if they are, the very rich — like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and rich Russians — are the people there. What you find now are a lot of gastro pubs, where you can enjoy good food along with a glass of good wine at a reasonable price. These places play very well in the prevailing economy.

Was the new prestige enjoyed by Italian food in the early 1980s attributable to the coming of what you call "the growing crowd of omnivores"?

Nouvelle cuisine was big in the late '70s, early '80s, and the idea behind nouvelle cuisine — fresh ingredients, simpler cooking — was very sound. For years Americans' idea of Italian food was sloppy melted cheese, fried-in-olive-oil grub. Then in the late '70s we started getting imported foods we'd never gotten before ... but at first it was salty, salty prosciutto because the better stuff was kept in Europe. Fortunately, we also began seeing Italian wines besides Chianti, which had been the only Italian wine most Americans had tasted.

Besides the Jefferson in Richmond, where in Virginia would you recommend diners go for good Italian food?

I've probably eaten at every Italian restaurant in D.C. and most of them in Alexandria and Arlington. Bibiana and Agora in D.C. are excellent as is the Capri in McLean.

Will your gourmet Italian dinner at the Jefferson be your first taste of a Hanover tomato? Are you familiar with any products from Virginia farms, such as Jamerson Farms, which is supplying the liver pate for the antipasta?

Yes, this will be my first Hanover tomato. I know about Jamerson Farms because a lot of very fine restaurants use their products.

The second course of your dinner is Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab with three-bean salad, capers, pickled okra and roasted-pepper purée. Do you like soft-shell crabs?

Yes, I might be having them here this weekend if I can get them — you have to wait for them to bust out. S

An Evening with John Mariani will be held at the Jefferson Hotel on June 22. A welcome reception starts at 6:30 p.m. with a five-course dinner to follow in the hotel's Empire Room. $75 per person. For information or to make reservations, call 649-4629 or go to jeffersonhotel.com.

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