Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ralphs Italian

The Godfather. Rocky. Red sauce. Sinatra. All thoughts that bubble up the moment you set foot in this 100 year old institution of a restaurant. Ralph's Italian is still owned by the Dispigno family, or so says the story on the back of the menu. They reassure you that you'll be receiving the same food that they have been serving for four generations here. And while the old school tile floors and kitschy charm of the place makes it feel instantly familiar, the 100 year old recipes could use some updating. 

We used our $29 Groupon for a prix fixe meal consisting of a bruschetta appetizer, shared pasta and two entrees. We also splurged a bit and got abottle of wine, dessert and some grappa to sip on after dinner. Nothing that came out of the kitchen was bad, but nothing was very remarkable either. The bruschetta was sliced italian bread ladled with marinara sauce, sprinkled with parsley and some parmesean that probably came out of a green plastic bottle. The fettucini alfredo was decent, lots of butter and cream in the rich sauce helps, with noodles that were cooked just al dente. But unless you're carbo-loading for a marathon the next day, there's no good reason you should go solo on this belly buster. 

the bruschetta

fettucini alfredo 
The flounder francaise was a nicely cooked piece of fish, slathered in a sauce that lacked any real depth of flavor. Instead of a light garlicky lemon dish, the kitchen went way overboard on the butter - I swear they melted an entire stick just for this plate. Veal parmigiana, buried under a quart of marinara sauce was tender, but forgettable. A shame really, since the breading was perfectly seasoned, but submerged in the cheese and sauce, it lost all it's texture. We finished dinner with full stomachs, to be sure, but an empty feeling inside like we missed out on great meal.   

flounder francais

veal parm - I swear it's under there

A bit of grappa picked up my mood, followed by an excellent cannoli. Not sure if they are doing their desserts onsite, but I wouldn't be surprised if it came from one of the amazing Italian bakeries in the neighborhood. It's hard to make up for an entire meal with one cannoli though, good as it was. 


I think I had a notion in my head that this was going to be somehow more authentic Italian - superior ingredients, cooked with love. An old school place that's been doing things the right way all these years. Instead we got a boring meal that we could have made at home. Maybe we're jaded from the luxury of such amazing Italian food in this city. 

Ralph's certainly has it's loyal clientele - we saw families sitting down that clearly have been celebrating life events here for decades. The portions are definitely big, so if you're feeding a group of hungry kids, I can see the appeal. For two normal sized adults looking for good Italian in Philadelphia though, there are literally dozens of better places. Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.  

-T. Kaso

Food Baby Rating: OnlyChild

Ralph's Italian
760 South 9th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Viva Espana - round 2! This time around the trip didn't involve aflight to Barcelona (although I would have been ok with that) but just a quick subway ride to 13th street and the newly opened Jamonera. The former Bindi space has been transformed into an ode to all things Spanish - tapas, sherry, olives, jamon, vino - pretty much all the good stuff in life. 

There is a full bar now, where Bindi once provided those mixes for your rum or vodka, and it is well stocked. Plenty of wines by the bottle or glass, with an expected strong showing of Iberian peninsula varieties. Some specialty drinks, (this is 13th street after all) mixed to order by the bartenders. The girls really like the Bailaora - blood orange puree, amontillado sherry & cava which brought me back to Spain with one sip. The beer list could use some work, with mostly larger bottles priced in the upper teens, and a handful of American craft brews. One lonely Portuguese lager came in under $10. I drank some very good, cheap beers while we were in Spain back in November - how about some San Miguel, or Cruzcampo?!? 

Two dozen sherry's, ranging from $8 all the way up to $22 a glass. From strong and sweet to citrusy and acidic. It's not a spirit you see on many menus in this city, and I'm curios to see if it catches on. Could just be a gimmick, but the idea of creating a little sub-culture of sherry drinkers and introducing the city to a whole new alcohol is intriguing. They've definitely got a corner on the market. This is not the stuff that's been in your parent's liquor cabinet since the 70's. This is high alcohol, very tasty, and meant for sipping. Think dessert wine, but not as sickly sweet. 

the well stocked bar at Jamonera - a far cry from BYO Bindi 

The menu is divided up into tapas, tostas, meats & cheeses, salads & veggies, and raciones. In Spain, they serve different portions depending on the restaurant/meal. Tapas are usually bite size, on a piece of bread or a skewer, and can be eaten while standing at a crowded bar with a glass of vino tinto in your hand. The tostas are little sandwiches, served on a crusty roll or open face, and you'd get these if you had a high top to lean on or a table at a plaze cafe. The raciones are more substantial and meant for sharing at a table. 

Philly isn't quite clued into this whole culture yet, so Jamonera follows the path blazed at Amada, Tinto & Bar Ferdinand by offering slightly larger portions of each, with almost always enough for everyone at the table to get a taste. They suggest 2-3 plates per person, and this was more than enough for us - the boys had to pick up some of the slack and polish off the last few rounds of dishes that came out. We nearly were rolled out the front door. 

marinated Spanish olives with manchego & rosemary 
Delicious little olives (I love the tiny, super ripe ones) with cubes of killer manchego and sprigs of fresh rosemary. They even had some of the smoked kind we found in Sevilla. Yum.

fermin jamon iberico de bellota 
To get us warmed up and ready for the onslaught of dishes to come, we splurged a bit and got the special acorn-fed iberico ham, cut by hand. At $22, I was honestly expecting that melt-in-your mouth super ham we had all over the place on our November trip. I appreciate the authenticity of the hand slicing, just like in the old country, but the pieces were too thick and hard to chew. I think you can get better stuff down a few blocks at Garces Trading co. Maybe we'll go for the cheese plate next time instead. 

heirloom pumpkin croquetas 
The pumpin croquetas with urgelia cheese inside. Served on a pumpkin seed puree, with julienned green apple and pickled brussel leaves. The croquetas themselves were not all that spectacular - a decently crunchy breading, but the filling was just boring. The puree had almost no taste at all. The only thing saving this dish was the apple and peculiarly good pickled brussel sprout leaves. This could probably be served as a salad on it's own. Next time I'll pass on this to save room for some of the other goodies.  

papa fritas 
It's not a Spanish restaurant with out some patatas bravas. These had an ultra crispy skin - almost like the the tater-skins you can order at Chili's with sour cream and bacon. Mmmm, guilty pleasure. Back to the bravas though, which are drizzled with a "wood smoked garlic aioli," and a bottle of house made sherry vinegar-hot sauce on the side. The hot sauce was fantastic. The aioli was good, but I was really hoping for some of that paprika based brava sauce. The reinterpretation didn't really do it for me. These would be a great bar snack for a group putting down drinks, but there are much better dishes for dinner. 

setas tosta 
The best thing we ate all night, and one of the simplest.  Wild mushrooms, cadi urgelia cheese, pea leaves, and truffle oil. The incredible earthiness of the truffle oil bringing the quick grilled mushrooms to an unearthly level. Perfectly grilled bread and the lightness of the pea leaves were superb counterpoints, only helping to increase your focus on the shrooms. Kind of like a great wine, making everything else taste better. 

Some other highlights in the tostas family were the gambas al ajillo - garlic shrimp, roasted pepper & salt cod puree on grilled bread and the wedding of anchoas - a mix of anchovies, peppers goat cheese and olive oil (sounds odd but surprisingly good). The tostas were definitely the strongest part of the menu. These alone are worth the visit. 

 pig's tail, a la plancha
One of those not for the squemish dishes, an adorable little curly pig tail, grilled to crispy, served on a slice of toasted bread, doused with pisto bbq sauce and topped with pickled cabbage. If you can get over the pig tail thing, this was fantastic. The rich bar-b-q sauce (with hints of paprika), the crunchy pork and the tang of the cabbage are perfect. Douse it with a little vinegar hot sauce and you're talking heaven on a plank. Oink. 

huevos sucios de lucio 

Indulgence. Pure and simple. If you weren't full by now, you will be after this. The huevos sucios de lucio - a spanish fried egg (not sure exactly what makes this "spanish"), placed on top of a pringa of shortrib beef, chistores chorizo sausage, papas fritas, and drizzled with more of that house made sherry vinegar-hot sauce. 

According to wikipedia, a pringa is an Andalusian dish of roast beef or pork, cured sausages, and beef or pork fat slow cooked for hours until the meat falls apart easily. It's served with crusty bread at a family dinner table for sharing, and rightfully so. You will need help with this. This is some of the best parts of Spain on a plate. 

(left to right)
tomato stuffed sevillan olive, boquerone, vermouth onion 
jamon stuffed sevillan olive, guindilla, caperberry
piquillo stuffed sevillan olive, manchego, pickled chorizo

I only got to try one of the bandarillas, but it was incredible. Served as a trio of different skewers, these are very strong flavors - Sevillan olives, piquillo peppers, anchovies, caperberry, vermouth soaked onion. This is not one for easing into Spanish food, you need to really enjoy the salt to appreciate this one. If the huevos sucios is a bit of Spain on a plate, this is everything else, served on a stick.

warm medjool dates 

The addictively good medjool dates, stuffed with valdeon cheese, wrapped in serrano ham, and smothered in piquillo-almond sauce. A celery-apple salad on top let's you pretend this is almost good for you. Very rich and very decadent. The valdeon, which is a Spanish blue, is melty and luscious. One of the highlights. Not to be missed. 

olive oil ice cream, honey - shortbread
One of the most unique and interesting desserts we've had in a while was the olive oil ice cream (not sure if it's still on the menu any more though). Drizzled with wildflower honey, a sprig of rosemary and a few salted rosemary shortbread cookies that might be made with meth. They were that good. The ice cream was predictably very rich. But not in an over powering way. There was just a hint of that super extra virgin taste there. And the combo with the salt and rosemary of the shortbread was such a clever play. I generally don't like super sweet things, so this was an ideal dessert for me. 

Less inspiring was a sangrita sorbet that didn't have much in the way of flavor, and tasted like something you get on the Ben Franklin parkway during the fireworks show. 

While Jamonera is not quite up to the standards set by Senior Garces yet, they are bringing some incredible flavors to the table and sweeping up us all in this Spanish revolution crossing the city. ¡Viva la Revolución!

Food Baby rating: Twins! 

105 South 13th Street (at Sansom)
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Sun-Thurs 5pm-11pm

Friday, March 9, 2012

Koo Zee Doo

Another Sunday, another Supper Club meeting. This has quickly grown into one of my favorite activities of the month. Taking a huge table at a great restaurant, surrounded by friends, wine and ridiculously large portions of fantastic food. This month we trekked all the way (it's almost at Spring Garden) to Koo Zee Doo for some authentic Portuguese fare. Built on the bones of Copper Bistro (anyone else remember that one?) it is a very cozy BYO run by a husband and wife team that could not be more pleasant and easy to deal with. They handled our multiple menu requests and headcount changes without issue. And the food they turn out of the open kitchen is stellar. 

pickled ivory tremoços beans

Our server started the meal with a description of the menu, some excellent Portuguese pronunciations (he's been practicing) and some house made rolls. One, a traditional white and the other a dense broa that is somewhere between cornbread and a scone. Slathered with some salted butter, these were warm and so inviting on a chilly Sunday night. He also brought out their complimentary tremocos beans - basically a pickled lupini bean that you eat like edamame. These are some slippery little suckers - several were inadvertently launched towards other tables. The taste is a little briny and the bean is very tender inside the tough shell. You will not see these on any other menu in the city. Very addictive. 

alheira - smoked sausage, greens, fried egg
The first course featured a pair of very rustic, almost peasant food type dishes; alheira and moelas. The alheira - a house made smoked sausage of duck, rabbit, chicken, and bread, pan seared and served over a healthy portion of mustard greens sauteed with plenty of garlic & vinegar. The greens had some great bite to them, helping to cut through the almost overwhelming richness of the sausage and fried egg. A very substantial dish, smartly arranged and a good warm up for what was to come. 

moelas - braised chicken gizzards
The very mention of the word "gizzard" is enough to give people the willies. Those people are missing out. If you aren't in the know on your chicken parts, the gizzard is the heart, which is basically just a muscle - so no weird texture or connective tissue to deal with. Just tons of flavor in every little nugget of these moelas. These are just SO good. Simply braised, served family style (like everything at Koo Zee Doo) with some reduced braising stock to keep them moist and a simple squeeze of lemon. They are like the best piece of dark meat chicken you've ever eaten. One of the highlights of the night for me.

bife a portuguesa - picahana steak, presunto, fried egg, fried potatoes 

Steak. It's what's for dinner. Well, one third of the main course at least. Koo Zee Doo serves this top sirloin cap in the colonial Brazilian style, pre-sliced, with a rich sauce for dipping those super crispy fried potatoes, slices of presunto ham on top (similar to Spanish Iberian but a little saltier), and a fried egg for good measure. When can you ever get enough fried eggs? The steak was so tender that you almost didn't need a knife. The mix of the salty ham and rich egg was indulgent. 

churrasco - grilled chicken & pork spareribs
The traditional Portuguese churrasco, or "mixed-grill" with portions of slow grilled chicken and pork spare ribs was fantastic. Almost everyone agreed that the ribs were something special, and the favorite of most of the group. Plated in a huge porcelain platter and with a little saucer of piri-piri - a spicy pepper based sauce - for drizzling. Visually impressive, super tasty, and crowd pleasing. We actually had leftovers of this that I had for lunch two days, and it inconceivably got better. 

lulas estufadas - fried and braised squid, tomatoes, mashed potatoes

Not a dish for the squeamish or already stuffed, the lulus estufadas is a mix of squid braised in a tomato sauce with whole olives and fresh peas, ladled over top of mashed potatoes and then topped with crispy fried calamari. An interesting proposition - squid, potatoes & tomato sauce; it doesn't look like much but ended up being the best thing I ate all night. The braised squid was unimaginably tender - the best I've ever had. The fried stuff on top was crispy and delicious. Super smooth and creamy mashed potatoes that soak up the rich tomato broth. Somehow it all works.

pudim de pão de chocolate - chocolate hazelenut bread pudding

The desserts were original and decadent. A chocolate hazelnut bread pudding was so rich and dense it could bend forks like that kid from the Matrix. Hands down favorite though was the maca no forno, a baked caramel apple & custard sprinkled with almonds. The apple was so soft and sweet with the caramel sauce, the almonds offering a bite of texture to snap you out of your food induced coma. An outstanding meal all around. Come with friends, bring copious amounts of wine, and wear your eatin' pants.


maçã no forno - baked custard, caramel apple, almonds

Food Baby Rating: Triplets!

614 N. 2nd Street (between Fairmount & Spring Garden)
Philadelphia, PA 19123

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Burger Challenge Round 6 - Oyster House

One of the best places for seafood in the city? Let's get burgers! Seriously, we kind of felt like jackasses ordering four burgers at a place known for their lobster rolls, oysters, fish, and crab cakes. But I had several recommendations to include this burger on the challenge list, so I decided to bear the strange looks from fellow diners and our server at our order. The great thing about Oyster House is that burgers are just one of the many things they do exceedingly well.

Easily one of the best happy hours in the city, this Sansom street bar is more popular than ever with the after work crowd. Running Monday through Friday 5-7pm and Saturday 9-11: $1 Buck-a-Shuck oysters, $3 drafts, $3 oyster shooters and $5 cocktails. The oysters alone are worth the trip. Beautiful, huge mollusks shucked right before your eyes at the raw bar, still cold and tasting of the sea, served with house made cocktail sauce and a light mignonette. At $12 for a dozen during happy hour, you might not even need to be seated for dinner.

James River oysters, Kenzinger beer

On to the main event though. The Oyster House "Oh Burger" - a grass fed beef patty, topped with melting blue cheese, a fried oyster and grilled onions.The bun is somewhere between whole wheat and brioche, lightly toasted and full-on tasty. No weak potato rolls here; this brioche picks up everything the burger is putting down. On the side are hand cut fries, perfectly crispy and slices of house-pickled cucumbers that had a faint hint of all-spice and, is that, ginger? Why yes, it is, confirms the server. Not a very classic pickle taste profile, but one of the best and most unique I've had, ever. They should serve these as a side in their own right. 

The Oh Burger was very, very good. Not Royal Tavern good, but definitely in the ballpark. The patty was formed perfectly - with no Dirk Diggler type bulge in the center - allowing it to cook evenly all the way across. Mine was actually cooked beyond what I ordered, so that there was almost no pink left, but it still tasted great. I'd love to give them another shot at it and see what medium tastes like. 

Oh Burger! 
The blue cheese was fantastic. Such an indulgent, rich taste to bring this burger up another level. The onions were super caramelized and sweet, fighting a losing battle to balance out the richness of the cheese. The fried oyster on top was barely noticeable - it's subtle flavor being more than overwhelmed by the strong tastes that make up the rest of the burger. I think this is more of a gimmick to make their burger unique, but it would have been better served raw on the half shell with some cocktail sauce.

At $14 the Oyster House burger falls right in the middle of the price scale. Add in the $1 oysters and $3 beers, and you've got one of the best values in center city dining. I will happily come back here to sample more of the seafood menu, devour a couple dozen Cape May Salts and get that perfect burger, cooked medium. I can't believe it's taken me this long to get in here.


Food Baby Rating: Triplets!

Oyster House
1516 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA
(215)  567-7683
Mon-Thurs 11:30-10om
Fri-Sat 11:30-11pm
Closed Sunday

Friday, March 2, 2012

Spinach & Eggplant Lasagna

As I mentioned in my DIY Cheese post, I ended up using most of the ricotta we made in a new lasagna recipe I got out of Marc Vetri's cookbook Rustic Italian Food. It's a beautiful cookbook, with excellent photos, dozens of recipes and lessons on techniques, methods, and ingredients. I adapted one the recipes to make the lasagna below - Vetri's version is for mini 'lasagnettes', but I opted to use his eggplant puree as a layer in a more traditional style.

Don't let yourself get overwhelmed with the amount of preparation for this. I made the pasta dough ahead of time, refrigerated it for a couple days, then rolled it out when I was ready to assemble. You could probably even make the fillings ahead of time too, but I would not recommend letting them sit too long. You want the flavors to be as fresh as possible.

The pasta dough itself was not all that hard to make, and turned out great. We had left over sheets that I cut into fettuccine and froze for dinner another night. The fresh pasta sheets really make all the difference in the world. Once you make your own, you'll never go back to using store-bought dried lasagna noodles. I'm now forever spoiled.


Spinach & Eggplant Lasagna:
Marinara sauce - jarred is fine, but use a good one like Bertoli
1lb fresh ricotta cheese - make your own with the DIY Cheese Kit!
1 pkg frozen spinach, thawed and rung out to remove liquid
1 egg
Fresh pasta sheets, cut into lasagna size strips - see instructions below
Eggplant filling - see instructions below
Salt & Pepper
1 pkg shredded mozzarella

1.) Preheat over to 375°. Mix the ricotta, drained spinach, and egg in a mixing bowl until well combined. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

2.) Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Gently drop the cut pasta strips in and blanch for 30 seconds each. Remove and immediately transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking.  Remove and lay out on a clean kitchen towel to dry.

3.) Spoon a thin layer of marinara sauce into the bottom of a 9x11 glass baking dish. Lay out the first strips of pasta to form an even layer. Next, spread the ricotta mixture out into an even layer. Spoon some more sauce on top of the cheese. Cover with another layer of pasta strips. Spread the eggplant mixture across the second pasta layer. Spoon some more sauce over the eggplant. Add the last layer of pasta strips and cover with more marinara. If you have left over filling & pasta, you can add more layers if you like. Spread the entire package of mozzarella over the top.

4.) Cover with foil and bake at 375° for 25 mins. Remove the foil, then bake another 25 mins or until cheese is bubbly and golden brown. Remove from oven and let it cool for 15 mins before serving - otherwise it'll be a sloppy mess.  Enjoy!

babada booby!

Eggplant Filling: Recipe from Marc Vetri's Rustic Italian Food cookbook
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Eggplant peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
3/4 cup fresh ricotta
2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan
1 egg
2 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs
Salt & Freshly ground pepper

1.) Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and saute until tender and the edges are golden brown, about 10 mins.
2.) Let the eggplant cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor or VitaMix (if you're lucky enough to have one - and I am).  Puree until smooth, then add the ricotta, parmesean, egg, and bread crumbs. Season with salt & pepper and pulse briefly until mixed. Set aside. Makes about 2-1/4 cups.

Basic Egg Pasta Dough: Recipe from Marc Vetri's Rustic Italian Food cookbook
Yields  1 pound of dough or 6 fully rolled pasta sheets, each 4-5 feet long. I substituted all purpose for the durum flour - and a few extra table spoons of water to the dough to get the right consistency. Because of all the egg yolks, the dough takes on a gorgeous deep yellow, almost amber color.

1-1/4 cups tipo 00 or all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon durum flour
9 egg yolks
3-4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1.) Put both flours in the bowl of a stand-up mixer. Using the paddle attachment, run the mixer on medium and add the egg yolks, water, and the oil. Mix just until the ingredients come together into a dough, 2-3 minutes.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for about 5 minutes, or until silky and smooth, kneading in more flour if the dough is too sticky. The dough is ready if it gently pulls back into place when stretched with your hands.

2.) Shape the dough into a 6-inch-long log, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 mins or up to 3 days. It could get too soft and difficult to roll if left at room temperature.

3.) Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces and let them return to almost room temperature. They should still feel a little chilly when you touch them. Position your pasta roller (kitchen aid or hand-crank) at the widest setting and leave plenty of room for the outfeed - you'll need at least 4-5 feet of room by the time you're done. Roll one piece of dough through the rollers, lightly dusting the dough with flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Reset the rollers to the next narrowest setting, and again pass the dough through the rollers. Continue to pass the dough once through each progressively narrower setting.

4.) Between rollings continue to dust lightly with flour if needed, always brushing off the excess. You should end up with a sheet 4-5 feet long and thein enough to see your hand through with the pasta is held up to the light.

5.) Lay the pasta sheets on a lightly floured surface, and sprinkle lightly with more flour. Using a knife or the cutter attachment on the pasta machine to create the pasta shape specified in the recipe you are making.