Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Ever been to Dinardo's? I didn't think so. Unless you're a baby-boomer you're more than likely blissfully unaware of it's 30+ year presence on Race street in old city. They were around before Vetri and Garces had even walked into a culinary school kitchen.  They were around before Staar bought his first property. And if you walk through the doors you will realize that not much has changed since they first opened.

I have recollections from my childhood of my father walking through the front door with a tray of crabs on a Friday night, dumping them on the newspaper lined kitchen table  and my parents going to town with bowls of melted butter at the ready. I remember being slightly dismayed watching the crabs being dismembered and then delighted when I would get a piece of the buttery meat. It was such a spectacle. When I saw a Groupon pop up advertising $75 worth of seafood for $35, I figured it was worth a gamble.

Now I have to say, the food wasn't terrible. But it wasn't exactly great either. It was more like a trip to Red Lobster than the fresh tastes of Sansom StreetOyster or Luke's Lobster or even Route 6. Just about everything comes broiled, stuffed or fried. That's pretty much the extent of their culinary repertoire.  Straight out of 1974, each plate is served with an enormous piece of lettuce as a "garnish". 

The crab appetizer was a highlight. Massive hunks of crab meat piled high with a lemon wedge and a decent cocktail sauce. They definitely don't skimp on portions here. This would be an entrée size serving at any place not in the suburbs. Garlicky crabs were also tasty, even if there were a bit on the small side. The pool of garlic butter they are floating in though is a recipe for disaster with anything resembling a decent shirt. They should serve this with a side of club soda and a Tide-to-Go stick. 

Stuffed mushrooms were filling. That's about all I can say. The bready/crabby stuffing was like a bad crab cake and the mushrooms had a strange rubbery consistency that is anything but appetizing. A squirt of lemon juice is not going to save them. The fried platter is just that - every reasonably healthy piece of seafood on the menu, breaded and fried into oblivion. I wish I could tell you there was a taste difference between the scallops, shrimp flounder & crab cake, but I'd be lying. The menu claims the french fries are "Award Winning". They were pretty much just normal fries. The side of broccoli was pretty tasty though, and it was nice to see something green other than the lettuce garnish. 

Sadly, Dinardo's days as a seafood destination have long such passed. The restaurant renaissance of the last 15 years has gone largely unnoticed here. The floors are carpeted. Adorning the walls are nautical themed decorations - think fishing tackle, nets, and fake seagulls. The best beer they have on tap is Yuengling.  The smell of frying oil permeates everything. The servers are nice enough, but none of them are under 50. I'm pretty sure they were here when my dad was buying crabs in '87.

This is not fine dining - and maybe I should not have expected that. It's more reminiscent of the overpriced seafood houses down the shore that you grew up eating at. If you fry it, they will come. I do have to give them some props for keeping the lights on and a steady crowd of customers coming through the door.  Like La Buca off Washington Square, this place is a dinosaur that has managed to stick to it's guns and still turn a profit.  Three decades on, that is something impressive on its own. Wonder if Route 6 will still be serving blue fish dip in 2043?

Food Baby Rating: Only Child

312 Race Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pizzeria Beddia

Yummy, yummy, yummy I've got love in my tummy, and a fire in the hole.  On our latest quest across the city for the best pizza, Pizzeria Beddia has taken the lead. According to the rankings it scored nearly perfect marks in all categories (in case you've forgotten: crust, toppings, cheese, sauce, overall).  It is the smallest of joints. Tucked away just east of Johnny Brenda's on Girard, you'd pass by it a dozen times until someone pointed it out.

The interior is minimalist and squeaky clean. Not what you would normally expect from your neighborhood pizza place. There is only one oven and just two employees. There is no phone. There is barely a website. They are only open Wednesday to Saturday.  They serve only whole pies. There are two tables, but no chairs. Beddia makes Tacconelli's look accommodating.

The pies are made one at a time. By hand. With incredible, locally sourced ingredients and with an attention to detail that makes the wait worthwhile. With just one guy cooking and one small oven,  Beddia is not built for speed. Be prepared to kill 30 mins or up to 1-1/2 hours waiting for your pizza, based on the backlog. Walk next door to JB's and grab a pint or two. But dare not ruin your appetite.  

The night we stopped in, the wait was no more than 30 minutes and we were able to get our own table. We really hit the jackpot. There are horror stories on Yelp about people waiting hours. These same people said it was the best pizza they've ever had, but wouldn't bother coming back. Tourists.

They only had three pies on the menu - plain, cream & roasted corn, and arrabbiata. They are all reasonably priced around the $20 mark, considering what you get. The classic plain gives you the option of adding a variety of toppings. Per pizza challenge rules, we went old school with just the tomato, mozzarella, old gold & olive oil to get a sense of their standard. We also tried the angry arrabbiata with a layer of tobasco peppers under the cheese, and pickled peppers on top.  They are not kidding about the angry.

This is the best crust I've had. This is better than pies we had in Italy. It is at once crispy and toothy. It abounds with subtle flavor and perfect burnt blisters. It is sturdy enough to hold up to the toppings but still presents that great chew. The simple toppings are elusively deceptive. The key is the quality here - incredibly fresh mozzarella, deeply rich tomato sauce, the old gold aged cheese for a nutty contrast to the luscious, nearly sweet mozzarella, and that drizzle of zippy extra virgin olive oil giving you a nice kick in the back of the throat.

The closest thing I could compare this to is John's Pizzeria in NY. Nothing else like this in Philly - at least that I've found yet. Tacconelli's crust is similar, but so much more garlicky. This is an exercise in flavor restraint, letting them combine into a whole that is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. After the first bite, there was a noticeable hush over the group - we knew we had something special in front of us.

The angry arrabbiata  with its peppers under and over the cheese is not for children or those adverse to a bit of heat. It is angry my friend - like an old man trying to return soup at a deli.  It's a nice slow burn though - nothing smacking your taste buds around. You can still pick up all the delicate flavors of that crust, cheese & tomato. Your nose will be running a bit after two slices though.  Be prepared with kleenex.

With little to no fan fair, Pizzeria Beddia is putting out the best pizza in the city. Talking with the chef, it doesn't seem like he is in this for notoriety or even profit. He just honestly loves pizza that much. He is an artist back there, working his creative magic with sauce and dough. We haven't finished our challenge by a long shot yet, but I don't see much of a chance of this pizza being beat out. So make the effort, put your name in for a pie, wait your turn, stand and eat. You may not think of pizza the same way again.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets! 

Pizzeria Beddia
115 East Girard (at Frankford Ave.)
Philadelphia, PA 19125

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Luke's lobster

Finally got my ass into Luke's Lobster on 17th Street.  This is a New England specialty, but has started to make it's way south.  It's a pretty simple creation - buttered & toasted roll, stuffed with chilled lobster meat, a touch of mayo, a drizzle of lemon butter and some "secret" spices.  Seems like any yocal with a lobster trap and a Boston accent could whip this up. But there is magic nestled in that split top roll.  It's the utter simplicity that makes this little miracle so wonderful. 

The lobster has to be cooked just right - there's no faking it here. If it's rubbery or mushy, you can't hide it under more butter. The roll has to have just a bit of toasty crunch to hold up to the lobster "salad" on top. Too much seasoning and you overpower the lobster. But when it all comes together it is magnificence personified in crustacean form. 

There are other lobster rolls in town, but none are under the $20 mark.  Just down the street at Oyster House you're going to pay $26 for one.  Luke's is just $15. For $2 more you get a soda, chips and a pickle. Score!! You can also do crab or shrimp rolls, if that's your bag. But then why come to a place named Luke's Lobster in the first place?  

The wait is no longer than a few minutes, plus they have really good chips and "craft" sodas. Pick up a lobster card and your 10th roll is free!  

Ah, a little bit of heaven in a red plastic basket. Look at those huge hunks of lobster. It's not a cheap lunch, but you also won't feel like you need a nap afterwards (not that that's always a bad thing). For the mayo haters out there, there is barely a scant trace that is there just for flavor - so no weird texture thing to complain about. You can even order it sans mayo if you really are anti-condiment.  Simply put, it tastes like summer on Cape Cod. Or at least that's my impression, having never actually been there. Close your eyes and you can smell the salt air and feel the sand in your toes, hear the gulls, the boats pulling into the habah, and the silly accents.

There's only a few days left of our actual summer here in Philly. Pop on down to Luke's and get one last taste before it's time for root vegetables and hot chocolate. 

Food Baby Rating: Twins!

Luke's Lobster
130 South 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Zahav - Kitchen Counter

The boys at Epic Meal Time may have a challenger on their hands.  There is a little known kitchen counter seating available at Zahav that boasts 10 courses and nearly 5 hours of dining extravagance and gluttony.  There isn't even a mention of it on their website. You have to really want this. You have to shell out $90 per head  two months before you even sit down. And it will be one of the best meals you've ever had.

We've done Zahav several times over the years and it is always amazing. The menu continues to evolve, so there is always something new to try. The service is impeccable. And, my god, the hummus. Craig Laban gave this place four bells for a reason.  If you are a good planner and you can remember to log onto the CookNSolo website at noon on the first day of the month, you may get lucky enough to score a pair of four coveted seats at the Kitchen Counter.  There is only one seating per night and it is only on Friday & Saturday.

Do yourself the favor and go all-in by opting for the beverage pairing option. You will get way more than $50 worth of drinks, and it won't be just wine - we had several cocktails, champagne, and some intermezzo shots. There was also the joy of exploring the sommelier's secret stash of little known wines that causal diners never order.

Throughout the meal, Chef Solomonov (we now know him as Mike) stops out to introduce himself, checks up on how the meal is going, and personally thanks you for letting them cook for you.  He is one of the warmest people you could ever want to meet. Not a touch of arrogance or pretentiousness.  If you're lucky, you might even get some of his personally made origami pieces to take home. Thank you, Chef,for letting me eat.

*Disclaimer - nothing we ate is on the normal menu.  While the servers and chefs did a great job of describing each dish - and we asked lots of questions - over the span of five hours it's not the easiest thing to remember every detail. I've done my best to reconstruct the meal as best I remember it.  My apologies to the Chef if I've gotten any of this wrong.  If you do go none of this will matter since your meal will be completely different.  

It started off innocently enough, with a lovely negroni to wet our whistles. How did they know this is my favorite cocktail? They must be following the blog. The negroni started a theme of all Italian drinks. Lots of robust Italian red wines, prosecco, crisp whites, and even an aperol spritz thrown in there. 

You are literally on top of the action with the best seats in the house. Watch the line work it's magic and Chef Solomonov orchestrate his crew to feed the masses. It is a masterful thing to witness.

Our first course! Roasted local sweet corn with uni (sea urchin) sprinkled butter.  A gorgeous umami flavor after rolling the corn through the massive pat of butter. And a hot towel to clean up! 

Oh, that beautiful baked-five-minutes-ago laffa bread. You watch it come out of the brick oven with bated breath, knowing what awaits.  Warm and puffy, with a healthy sprinkle of za'atar. 

And laffa's best friend, the magical hummus that they have become famous for. It is so smooth and creamy, it seems almost impossible. This version is dotted with fresh chick peas and pieces of roasted duck loin, because why not. 

I got a little overzealous and attacked this plate of roasted baby eggplants and tomatoes before I remembered I'm supposed to be blogging this. Regardless, they were fantastic. Perfect little heirloom cherry tomatoes roasted to just blister, and super savory eggplants. 

Tomato soup, poured at the table over a mound of risotto and crispy chicken skin for an incredible flavor profile.  Some fresh dill on top brings freshness to the piquant and luscious soup.  This was the 4th course, if you're counting. 

A throwback to Chef Solomonov's days cooking at Vetri with a name-drop worthy pasta.  Ribbons of house made pappardelle and a ground lamb sausage that was at once sweet and pungent.  A healthy sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs for texture and a bit of shredded parmesan puts this into the mind-blowing category.  

Underneath that perfectly cooked sunny side up egg is a kale leaf stuffed with a mix of what I remember being veggies and some ground lamb.  You cut through the egg yolk and let it run into and all over the stuffing like hot lava on an ancient Italian city. 

A stunning plating of fish, a Hawaiian type similar in taste to yellowtail.  Forgive me, as I don't recall the exact name of the species.  This is course number 7, with at least as many drinks. Things started getting a little fuzzy at this point.  I do remember that the fish was incredible and the simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice heightened the flavor without getting in the way.

Getting full yet?  For course 8 they brought out the big/expensive guns with a skewered and grilled foie gras /lobster combo over a bed of saffron rice paired with roasted goose berries. You thought you couldn't grill foie gras?  You thought wrong, sucka. The foie was amazing, crispy on the outside but creamy and decadently rich on the inside. The lobster was actually kind of chewy and really the only misstep of the night. Maybe it was on there a bit too long? Hard to say, but usually grilled lobster is half steamed and then cooked in the shell.  This one was grilled completely over an open flame.

Hope you have room for one more succulent dish - and this one is substantial.  Seared slabs of lamb loin with roasted and glazed figs dusted with some more of that za'atar. I had to eat half of the wifey's portion. Nearly fork tender meat and the sweet figs are almost more than you can handle at this point.  #putmetobed

Our 10th and final course (or so we thought) was a merciful little helping of sorbet to cleanse the palate and allow you some time to digest and breath. There were a couple little extras that made their way out to the counter in the form of pastries and after dinner drinks.  We were then treated to nearly 20 minutes with Mike and his sommelier to discuss the meal and the highlights of the night.

We sat down at 7:30pm and left the building just after 12:30am with very full bellies and grins from ear to ear. This is without a doubt the best dining experience in Philadelphia and one of the top three meals I've had in my life. The food coma and hangover the next morning were totally worth it. Simply extraordinary.

A preview of what your meal will look like:

To book the Kitchen Counter :

Food Baby Rating: Octomom!

237 St. James Place
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Monday, August 26, 2013


Yeah, new restaurants! And we've been waiting a while for this one. Serpico is the love child of Steven Staar and Peter Serpico, of Momofuku fame (as in Manhattan). Getting a NY chef to turn his back on the Big Apple and make the trek down the turnpike is no small feat, and has apparently ruffled the feathers of  some NY food writers pissy about us pilfering their chef ranks. Meh. They have enough to go around.  

The outside is sleek and dark and mysterious looking. The space is the former home of Foot Locker, interestingly enough, but they've done a total gut of the interior.  It's got a huge central kitchen with counter space to watch the action.  Warm wooden tables  soften the stark ceiling and hard lines of the interior. You are surrounded by chalkboard paint walls marked up with the menu, specials & drinks.

There is a small  bar at the front, but it's really more of a table with some stools. We did see people eating there, but it just looked awkward.  This is not a place to come for after work cocktails.  This is about dinner, and dinner only. 

The drink of the summer - the Negroni. I promise I'll switch back to Old Fashioned's once the cold temperatures set in. 

Instead of bread, you get toasted rice crackers with sesame /air wafers. It's thoughtful, but just tastes like you're eating sesame seeds. It looks more like an ancient papyrus copy of the dead sea scrolls than an amuse bouche. 

Raw diver scallops floating in buttermilk, dusted with poppy seeds, painted with green chili paste, white soy, and chives. Somewhere between sashimi and crudo - it reminded me of an everything bagel with whitefish. Just an incredibly light and subtle version.  

A much better take on the raw fish was the fluke with tonburi seeds, charred jalapeño match sticks, and shaved celery ribbons. There is a just noticeable hint of heat from the jalapeno that brings out this amazing flavor of the fluke. I've never had it raw before, but it seems silly to cook it at all now. 

The tomato and bean salad sounded great on the menu, but didn't really deliver in the bowl.  I loved the charred bean sprouts, but the Chinese sausage and dried scallops were nonexistent.  The dried shrimp adds some punch, and the squid was good but a strange addition. It seemed like a elaborate take on rustic Chinese food that wasn't really necessary. 

Probably the strangest sounding item on the menu is the egg custard and caviar, and we had some reservations about even ordering this.  Low and behold, it was probably the best thing on the table that night. Siberian sturgeon caviar sits delicately atop a rich egg custard swimming in brown butter, crispy potato bits and cauliflower mushroom.  It is decadent beyond imagination, but not overwhelming to the palate. Salty caviar plays off the luscious custard with it's subtle sweetness, the crunchy potato dances with the silky mushrooms. One of the most original dishes I've eaten all year.

There are a couple pastas on the menu - and they are good, but this is not their specialty.  The corn ravioli is a curious Italian/Mexican hybrid of  pasta pockets with chorizo, white cheese, pickled and roasted onions, sour cream & lime. I'd like this dish more if they dropped the ravioli concept and baked them into empanadas, then cut down on the amount of sauce. The flavors are there for a hit, just not the right texture. 

A much more traditional take was the hand torn pasta. Simple shreds of pappardelle pasta, snail sausage (yes, you read that right) nuggets, garlicky, crispy chicken skins, some shaved pecorino, and a puree of Italian parsley drizzled over the top make this a very pretty dish. Strong flavors from the snails and chicken skin are anything but overpowering - more of a nice texture antithesis to the silky pasta strips.  

A beautiful piece of Wagyu chuck flap steak, drizzled with whole grain mustard, was super tender and gorgeously marbled. Wagyu is a cheaper version of Kobe that can be bred in the US. Chuck flap is a terrible name for a very tasty section of cow that is similar to flank & skirt steak. I'd never have thought to put a mustard sauce with beef, but it works well here.  Grilled broccoli - you should try this on your grill at home by the way - and chunks of fried potato make this easily the most substantial dish on the 20 item menu. 

A caper brined piece of trout was flaky and moist - no doubt a result of it's time in the brine.  It sits atop a bed of smoked potato salad, pepperoncini, crab, trout roe, & chive oil. I think this dish might be a victim of an overzealous imagination. The trout on it's own is great, but gets lost among the myriad of other ingredients. 

On to dessert, with the clear winner being the rocky road - chocolate pudding, toasted marshmallow & candied walnuts. Each bite is sweet, salty, crunchy, smoky.

The goat cheese sorbet was decent - I really enjoyed the crumbled shortbread cookie. But both of the desserts lacked visual appeal. No wow factor here. Two kind of boring looking plates with good ingredients and flavors, but no love in the dish. 

Serpico shows enormous potential in it's use of ingredients, particularly the raw seafood dishes where they really shine. The menu right now lacks a real cohesion or sense of purpose though. You can see all these whiffs of inspiration swirling around, waiting to be transformed into the Sistine chapel ceiling. Let's hope the chef doesn't put away his brushes any time soon. He's got a great pallet to work from. 

Food Baby Rating:  Twins

604 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Friday, August 9, 2013

CSA - July

Been on a bit of a blogging hiatus this summer.  Not that we haven't been eating well - far from it. A few new restaurants around the city, but mostly old favorites. A couple weddings, trips down the shore and some road trips have kept us moving about.

Been enjoying the hell out of our CSA this summer and cooking up a storm at home. If you're not in the know, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. You basically pre-buy a weekly share of fruits and veggies that are from local farms. The traditional version of this is to buy a share from one farm, then drive out every week to pick up your share of whatever is in season and ripe.  Farmers love this because they get the cash in the beginning of the season and get a slightly higher price for their produce than selling it wholesale to stores. Consumers like it because you get to know who grows your food. I think there is an entry on Stuff WhitePeople Like about this. 

We get our CSA from Greensgrow, in Fishtown. No, they do not have acres of land that they are growing produce on - can't imagine what the Kenzo's would do with that. I can assume there would be ATV's involved though. They do grow some stuff in their greenhouses and hydroponic setups, but most of the CSA share comes from a collection of farms from around the Delaware valley. Every week it's something different, and you are often challenged to figure out a.) what to do with all these vegetables and b.) what to do with random veggies you either didn't know existed or don't think you like.

Helpfully, they send along a weekly email with a list of what you'll be getting in the share along with handy dandy recipes utilizing most of the ingredients. We've actually picked up a ton of new favorites dishes this way and learned to really love things like beets, kale and bok choy. Don't worry - there's plenty of normal stuff in there as well; beautiful locally grown tomatoes, blueberries, peppers, basil, corn and potatoes were all in a recent share. 

Eating fresh and local is what it's all about and below is a sample of some of the dishes we made out of our share.  I've included recipes where appropriate. Some from Greensgrow, some out of cookbooks, some I just made up on the fly. This really is one of the best parts of summer, and it wouldn't be the same without our CSA. Yeah veggies!!

Included in this share (clockwise): Sicilian eggplant, fresh basil, peaches, carrots, dinosaur kale, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, Italian long hot peppers, blueberries.  We also got a block of tofu that was not pictured.  We used the tofu and Sicilian eggplant to make a Thai green curry over rice.

The kale got tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper & paprika then thrown into the oven and baked into kale chips. If you haven't had a kale chip, you are missing some seriously crispy deliciousness. It's like eating a healthy potato chip.

The corn was roasted on the grill with some butter & salt, then sliced off the cob to be used later in tacos. Yep, tacos.  And they were delicious. The carrots we saved for hummus dipping and a moroccan salad a week later. The potatoes hung around in the fridge to be turned into potato leek soup. More on all of these in the next post.  The blueberries just came to work with me every day for snacking. 

A fresh mozzarella ball, sliced up and plated under the deep red tomatoes, some of the basil leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil & balsamic vinegar. This just emotes summertime.  

I grilled the long hots on our new charcoal grill (yeah charcoal!) just to blister and blacken the skin, then put them in a covered container to steam for a 10 mins. Then you carefully peel off the skin leaving just the flesh.  Chop off the tops and remove the seeds.  Place into a sterilized mason jar and cover with pickling liquid.  These will be ready for sandwiches in about 2 weeks but will last months in the fridge.  They pack a punch. 

Ever had a bread salad?  This is what the Italians call panzanella, and it is crazy delicious. You basically grill up some bread cubes in olive oil and salt (sounds good already, right?) then add in chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, red onion, basil leaves & capers.  Whisk up a vinaigrette of garlic, dijon, white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt & pepper an then douse that bad boy.  Leave it set for 15-20 mins to meld all the flavors together.  We took this for a orchestra picnic at the Mann and got some jealous onlookers. What can I say, we're food porn exhibitionists. 

As for the rest of the small bush of basil we got, that was obviously meant to become pesto. I found a basic pesto recipe in the Joy of Cooking that turned out great. It's as simple as it gets with basil, pine nuts, olive oil and romano cheese. Put it in the Vitamix and watch the magic happen.  We boiled up some olive pasta we brought back from Italy, tossed it with some pesto and a dash of pasta water, then a quick hit of grated romano. A really satisfying plate of pasta that tastes like something you'd pay for at a BYO.  

Recipes below.  Get cooking!


1 head kale, washed and thoroughly dried
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.

Remove the ribs from the kale and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Lay on a baking sheet and toss with the olive oil and salt. Bake until crisp, turning the leaves halfway through, about 20 minutes. Serve as finger food.

Peppers have a skin that turns REALLY tough when you can the peppers, so you've got to remove the skin before canning.  Fortunately, there is an easy trick to remove the skins.  It's called "blistering".  .
Place peppers on a charcoal or gas grill about 5 to 6 inches above glowing coals; using tongs carefully turn peppers frequently (skin side down if they are cut up), exposing all surfaces to the heat source until skin blisters evenly on all sides.
Allow the peppers to cool by placing them in a tight fitting tupperware container. This will make peeling the peppers easier. Then pull the blistered skin off the rest of the pepper with a gentle tug and an occasional rinse with water. In areas of the pepper where the blistering was not complete, just scrape the skin off with a knife or vegetable peeler. 

In a saucepan, combine:
  • 5 cups vinegar (5%)
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic

Fill sterilized mason jars, leaving 1/2-inch of headspace. Flatten whole peppers. You may add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to each pint jar, if desired for taste (it is not a preservative). Fill jars loosely with peppers. Use a ladle or pyrex measuring cup to carefully fill each packed jar with the vinegar solution.

At this point you can either can them in a boiling hot water bath for 10 mins, or just put them in the fridge.

Yields about 1 cup
If you are dealing with a large pile of basil, pick the leaves, figure out how much you have with a 1-cup measure, and scale up the other ingredients accordingly. For shopping purposes, the amount of basil leaves pictured above (gathered from two full-grown plants) required me to make 6 batches of this recipe.
Combine in a food processor and process to a rough paste:
    2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
   12 cup grated Parmesan 
   13 cup pine nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, or a combination
   2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
With the machine running, slowly add:
   12 cup olive oil, or as needed
If the pesto seems dry (it should be a thick paste), add a little more olive oil. Season to taste with:
   Salt and black pepper
Use immediately, or pour a very thin film of olive oil over the top, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Or, as discussed above, freeze in an ice cube tray, covered. Knock out for storing into a zip-top bag and freeze for up to 3 months. Doubling the recipe will fill up an ice cube tray.

Summer Panzanella
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 small French bread or boule, cut into 1-inch cubes (6 cups)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes (I like to use a combination of purple or yellow or orange, to nicely colorize the dish)
1/2 red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
20 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained
For the vinaigrette
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1/3 cup good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add the bread and salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for 10 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add more oil as needed.
2. For the vinaigrette, whisk together the ingredients.
3. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, red onion, basil, and capers. Add the bread cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
4. Serve immediately, or allow the salad to sit for about half an hour for the flavors to blend.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Italia - Roma

Ah, Roma. By far my favorite place in Italia. Perhaps my favourite city in the world, which is quite a pronouncement. It is a sprawling city, with meandering alleys and grand avenues. Walking through Roma is like taking a trip through a history book. Turn a corner and you are suddenly at the Pantheon. Around another and you're at the Trevi fountain. Oh look, there's the Coliseum! Over there is the Vatican and some of the most amazing artwork in the world. But Roma is so much more than just a historical city. It is living, breathing, and eating.

There are amazing little trattorias and osterias on every piazza. And there is a piazza on seemingly every block. Pretty much anywhere two or more streets come together, the Romans will find room to set up some tables and start serving. And at those tables you will find startlingly good food.

Fresh off the train ride from Florence and I am hungry (and still a bit hung over from our epic meal last night). Before we start exploring we need a snack. As I said before, the pizza improves as you move south through Italia. In Roma the dough is getting thicker and the toppings are getting better. Here they bake the pizza in long rectangles and put all the different kinds on display for you.  You point to what you want and indicate how big a piece - they'll cut off that amount and weigh it. Pizza is sold by the kilo, not the slice or pie.  They fold your slice in half and wrap it in paper, perfect street food. And I have to say, this was the best pizza we had in all of Italia. Lovely bits of fennel sausage on a light and airy dough, with beautiful, deeply flavored red sauce and just a hint of melty mozzarella underneath.


artichoke fritter
I am a sucker for anything that comes from Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential was one of my favorite foodie books, and I've watched just about every episode of No Reservations.  No matter where he goes, he always manages to find a good place to drink and some kind of delicious pork product. His Roma episode was one of the best. Shot all in black & white, it is a love letter to the eternal city. I staked out a few of the places on his list - one of them was called Nonna Betta, in the Jewish ghetto section, famous for their carciofi (artichokes). 

artichoke carpaccio
It's a cool area of the city. All of a sudden the signs start turning to Hebrew, and there is a different feel to these blocks. You are still in Roma, but somehow transported to a more ancient tradition. Nonna's is bright and welcoming. There are seemingly too many servers for this small space, constantly whizzing by with plates of enticement. It is a kosher restaurant, so there are two menus - one for dairy and the other for meat. 

We started with some crispy fried artichoke fritters, cooked to a deep golden brown. Huge chunks inside, covered with just enough batter to keep them together. The carpaccio di carciofi, a plate of quickly blanched and thinly sliced artichokes, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, then scattered with ribbons of pecorino and asparagus was one of the best vegetable dishes I've had.

An incredibly simple and wonderful plate of pasta - the carbonara with zucchini. Shreds of parmesano reggiano and ribbons of shaved, bright green zucchini. The cheese and pasta water mix to create a perfect sauce, just enough to dress the pasta and give it some salty tang. The squash is almost sweet and the grated cheese brings it all home. Every bite makes you close your eyes and appreciate all that is good in this world. This is a dish to be eaten s…l...o...w...e...l...y.  

Hiding under that bubbly layer of cheese are more artichokes. Baked in an earthenware clay pot that looks like it's as old as Roma. If you can manage to wait for it to cool to a non-molten state and not burn your mouth, you are treated to oh so tender hunks of artichokes smothered in a creamy mix of parmesan and mozzarella. 

Nonna Betta e il Giardino Romano
Via del Portico d'Ottavia, 16, Roma


Breakfast, Italiano style.  They don't do eggs and French toast here. It's a quick coffee or cappuccino, and maybe a pastry. We found a great little coffee bar just down the street from our hotel that we stopped at every morning.

Basically an Italian danish, filled with a sweet cheese something like mascarpone. And of course a perfect little cappuccino. It's only a couple euros for breakfast like this, which is a bargain in Roma. Plus you'll be doing enough eating throughout the day that you don't need anything huge. Save room for the pasta.

A proper coffee bar. Starbucks ain't got nothing on Italia.

On our second full day in Roma, we decided to leave the city all together and head towards the coast for a cooking class. Readers of this blog will know that this has become somewhat of a tradition for us. Every country we visit I seek out a cooking class to learn the local recipes and meet some people who actually live there. After much research we settled on Spicy Italian Life. It's an odd name, but they were half the price of anyone else, I suspect because they are not in the city proper. They picked us up from the metro station and drove us out to their family house by the sea. It is a family operation with a couple cousins, an aunt and grandparents all helping to teach, prepare food, cook & clean up. They have a little orchard in the back yard, fresh herbs that we picked for our class and a beautiful little outdoor kitchen.

We learned how to make bread from scratch and bruschetta with nothing but tomatoes and olive oil. They taught us fresh fettuccini & gnocchi (above), a basic tomato sauce, stuffed croissants with pancetta & asiago, and even tiramisu. Alessandro (the chef) is very passionate about local ingredients, organics, and not eating mass produced filler. She showed us the difference between a factory crushed flour and one that came from a small producer that still has the wheat germ. Guess which one is better for you? She also taught us how to taste olive oil (it's pretty funny looking), explained the different varieties and producers. Extra virgin is the only thing she cooks with. It should always come in a can (light is terrible for the oil) and be stored in a cool place. It's basically the same rules that apply to wine or beer. Be gentle with it.

And now we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor! A big Italian family meal with literally pounds of pasta, the bruschetta (above), fresh bread out of the oven, those little croissants, our tiramisu and of course lots of wine. I couldn't believe how much food there was. Every person there left with a food baby. It was basically a late lunch, but we didn't need dinner that night.

I absolutely love doing cooking classes when traveling abroad. There is no better way to learn a culture. When in Rome, look up the Spicy Italian Life crew and book a class.  


Our last great meal in Roma. One more Anthony Bourdain stop on the tour. Roma Sparita is "Restaurant X" in the episode, where he gets the cacio e pepe and compares it to his first sexual experiences and some of his best acid trips. I have to say that he was not exaggerating much. This is the best pasta I've ever had, and quite probably one of the best dishes I've eaten. Cacio e pepe is a deceptively simple dish - it only has 4 ingredients - pasta, butter, cheese, pepper.  You pour some pasta water into a pan of melted butter, toss in some pecorino romano & cracked pepper and let it melt together, then toss in the pasta.  Voila.

You can get this pasta all over Roma.  But Roma Sparita takes it up a notch by serving theirs in a crispy cheese bowl.  In a separate pan, they melt more of the pecorino romano until it starts bubbling, then let it cool and form it into a bowl.  So, as you eat the staggeringly good pasta, you get to nibble on hunks of crispy, salty, delicious cheese bowl. You're eyes will roll back in your head. If I ever took heroin, I imagine it would be something like this. You could definitely get addicted to this.

Roma Sparita
Piazza Santa Cecilia, 24, Roma


Unlike other cities we visited in Italia, I don't feel like we've "done " Roma. There always seems to be more to explore. Another monument to see. A new shop to check out. A different alley to wander down. Another trattoria to eat at. Roma feels like the kind of place that you could live all your life and never see it all. I don't know how you could come here and not fall in love with this city. It is the epicenter of western culture. It's where everything started, and you can feel that. All roads lead to Rome. And there is some incredible eating when you get there. Salute!