Saturday, November 20, 2010

LA GRANDE MELA: Apples and The Big Apple

Autumn and apples: for me, they go hand-in-hand. The anticipation of heading to the green market in the fall is terrific: poring over the myriad apple varieties, sipping warm apple cider while I stroll along, crisp and colorful fallen leaves under foot. If I can find a good caramel apple, then I'm a sucker for it -- I'm hard-pressed to pass up a chewy, crunchy autumnal treat. And I love an excursion outside of the city for some apple picking, too. When time allows, this is a great fall weekend pastime we in the northeast are lucky enough to enjoy.

And believe me, I don't take this for granted. All the years I lived in Italy, fall had some wonderful food connotations for me: wine harvests, polenta festivals in Umbria...sausages and lentils and pumpkin ravioli. But in Italy, well, they just don't do apples (mele) like here on the east coast of the U.S. And where better than the Empire State, the city known around the world as The Big Apple ("La Grande Mela" in Italian), to revel in autumnal apple-y goodness?

I recently had friends here visiting from Rome, and we happened upon the Union Square greenmarket around lunchtime on a sunny, brisk early November afternoon. They'd had a few minutes to wander through the market before meeting me, and they said, "Dana, we'd forgotten what a real apple tastes like!" They were amazed at the variety of apples, the colors, shapes and sizes, and how some were sweet and fragrant and others were crisp and tart. It was as if they'd tasted an apple for the first time. They bought several varieties to take back with them on the international flight, because as they exclaimed, "you can't find apples like these in Italy!" I reminded them that they were in The Big Apple, after all -- and it all made sense to them. A very funny moment.

Of course, I stocked up on apples as well. My beloved varieties for various uses, from eating out-of-hand to baking in desserts, include Cortland, Braeburn, Rome (named for the town in New York state, not Italy!), Macoun, Honeycrisp, and Staymen Winesap. A love of good apples was ingrained in me from childhood by my father, who considers himself to be a shrewd apple expert. To him, the granddaddy of all varieties is the Ida Red. He carts bags and bags of them from the northeast down to south Florida when he heads down each November, since they're not readily available outside of their local growing area. So yes, I had to get some Ida Reds as well. Some apple cider, too. Maybe some hard cider, good for drinking as well as making sauces for pork dishes. Is apple overload possible? I'm testing the limits!

So, how will I consume all of these apples? Some, I eat with a fresh local Camembert-style cheese called "Bianca" from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY (another greenmarket purchase) -- the cheese slightly melted, the apples sliced, smeared with a little Tuscan millefiore honey on some crusty bread. Others, I'll slice and dip in some homemade salted caramel sauce, a sophisticated version of the street fair favorite. Some apples I toss with caramelized onions and kale, and sprinkle with cider vinegar and a little brown sugar in the pan for a great seasonal side dish to a meat main course.

And then there's my favorite apple dessert. It would seem un-American to diss the staple apple pie. And I do love a good one. But even better, to my taste buds -- and just as American, in the tradition of crumbles, brown betties, slumps, and cobblers -- is the APPLE CRUMBLE. It's simple. It doesn't need a crust. It bakes in about 30-45 minutes and can be eaten warm: no waiting! Perfection.

(Serves 4)

6 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into slices (about 10 per apple)
8 oz. plus 2 TBS. AP flour
3 oz. granulated sugar
2 oz. brown sugar 
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
4 oz. (1 stick) + 1 TBS. butter, softened to room temp

- Butter individual ramekins or medium, shallow baking dish 
- Toss the apples in a bowl with the cinnamon, 2 TBSP. sugar and 1 TBSP. flour, to coat.
- Distribute apples in even layers in baking vessels.
- Mix softened butter, flour, salt, and sugars until a dough is formed (cookie dough-like in consistency).
- Drop dough on top of apples and bake in 375 degree oven until golden brown and crispy on top, 30-45 minutes. 
- Allow to cool enough so you won't burn your tongue devouring the crumble!

* Great with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

La Fiorentina

Yeah, I like vegetables. Sure, a good salad can be fab. And fresh seafood is one of my top gustatory pleasures, especially in warm weather. But what food really hits the spot, scratches an itch, makes me go ahhh? (Well, yes, chocolate...but that's for another time). For me, it's a primal thing. A visceral thing. And when I get that craving, I need it: meat. Specifically, beef. A wonderful, toothsome-but-tender steak. And the granddaddy of them all -- I don't care who you are, or where you're from -- is the bistecca alla fiorentina.

Now, I lived in Rome for a long time. And there are Tuscan restaurants in the country's capital city, for sure. But there's something about actually being in Tuscany that speaks to the overall experience of sinking one's teeth into this beautiful hunk of meat. I've enjoyed the bistecca alla fiorentina in its city of origin, at some famous old-school trattorie in Florence ("fiorentina" means Florentine, for the uninitiated) -- which is great. There, you're surrounded by like-minded eaters, feasting on roasted rosemary potatoes, perhaps some wilted spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil (another Florentine staple), and washing it all down with a nice Chianti. A recent trip to the outskirts of Florence had me enjoying just that, with the fiorentina artfully presented to us as the photo here shows, almost as if we were guests at a regal banquet: gorgeous, ruby-red beef sliced from the bone...bone included, of course!

But I've also enjoyed the bistecca in the countryside of Tuscany, sitting in the patio of a roadside trattoria in Chianti, hidden from view of passers-by. For a few lucky locals and my friends and I, the high flames of the outdoor grill licked the meat and singed its outer crust. Its only seasoning? A few twists of cracked pepper and sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of that opaque Tuscan olive oil, in all its tannic, electric-green glory. Or in the outdoor patio restaurant of our agriturismo, overlooking hills where the very beef we're eating has been raised. 
Here it's served with a green peppercorn and rosemary-infused olive oil drizzle, and it's amazing, lip-smackingly tasty, particularly with another classical accompaniment: fagioli all'uccelletto ("bird style" cannellini beans, cooked with tomatoes and sage). Is it sweeter outside of the city, eaten closer to the Val di Chiana where the Chianina beef -- the beautiful bovine breed that makes the fiorentina what it is -- comes from? Sometimes it feels that way. But whether in the urban setting of Florence or the hills of Tuscany...well, either way, you're pretty close to paradiso!

Call it an Italian Porterhouse or T-bone, containing both the fillet and the controfiletto -- the tenderloin and the short loin -- but the bistecca alla fiorentina must be about 3 fingers thick, and it must be cooked only to rare or medium rare, otherwise the consistency is ruined (let's not speak of the integrity of the beef itself). It requires no seasonings other than salt and pepper -- preferably a flaky sea salt with some texture. Then dress with great-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to cut the richness of it all. Basta. That's all. When enjoying a great piece of meat, you need no more than the basics to really, profoundly scratch that itch, that carnal craving. Just add fire.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Restaurant Review: SHEPHERD'S PIE, Rockport, Maine

The lovely, sleepy town of Rockport, Maine is a thriving summertime destination -- despite the fact that it's not a terribly easy spot to get to, nor is it terribly inexpensive. But it is picturesque, temperate (3 months a year, anyway), and manages to strike a balance between 'Unspoiled Nature' and 'Manicured Lawn.' Rockport's sister village is Camden, which perhaps grabs a bit of the spotlight from Rockport itself, with its perfectly-preserved New England Main Street and Harbor, pretty inns and a handful of sophisticated dining spots. The owners of one of these spots, Francine's, realized that Rockport could use a locale that serves what the locals (and visitors) crave. And so, Shepherd's Pie opened last year in an old warehouse building next to an art gallery, on the main street above Rockport's harbor. And what a welcome addition to the dining scene it's proved to be.

The 'theme' of Shepherd's Pie could be labeled Sophisticated American Gastropub Fare with eclectic international touches -- though it's best to leave the idea of labels behind and just stick to the notion that Shepherd's Pie serves good food and tasty drinks in a great atmosphere. Period. The bartenders get creative with their cocktails, and they feature a few interesting concoctions each night. This included a peach-raspberry "shrub" one warm August evening -- a southern drink with rum and a fruit syrup and vinegar base that takes the edge off of a potentially too-sweet libation.

Appetizers run the gamut from fried calamari with hot peppers and herbs that's all traditional crunchy deep-fried squid with the tang and heat of Italian marinated antipasti thrown together. Also on offer is a crab ceviche (tasty, though could have used more kick from chiles), and shrimp tacos. 

Second courses include bar food like burgers, duck hot dogs (great idea!), and a pork belly sandwich that will convert any "Skinny Bitch" to Atkins devotee with the first unctuous, memorable bite. Also savory and delicious are the spice-rubbed ribs, packed with loads of concentrated flavor. 

We enjoyed the grilled pork with caramel sauce, too -- a take on Vietnamese pork ribs cooked down to sweet, sticky goodness -- but the scoops of canteloupe were a bit too one-note with the sauce. Better to amp up the contrasting flavors and add more cilantro, cucumber, and other crunchy, cool elements. But overall, the menu that globe-hops is a success in its comforting flavors and generous portions. We're sure the desserts are tasty as well, but we only had room for liquid left: a dessert of Dark and Stormies? Yes, we can. Perfectly sweet enough to send us off along the harbor, to bed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How to Beat the Roman Heat? Grattachecca, Grazie!

In the heat of the dog days of summer, there are few things more refreshing than the typically Roman frozen treat: grattachecca. This is shaved ice with a flavored syrup (usually fruit) poured on top -- anything ranging from cherry to mint, tamarind to watermelon. And its origins can be traced back to 50 or 60 B.C., and Quintus Fabius Maximus, a Roman General and statesman aligned with Julius Caesar. It is said he used to order snow to be brought down from the Appenine mountains outside of Rome, which would be drizzled with fruit juices. 

The grattachecca is different from granita, which is an Italian "slushy" or icy beverage that's basically frozen fruit syrup the consistency of crushed ice, drinkable with a straw. (Granita can be considered the precursor to 7-11's -- and America's -- "Slurpie"). The grattachecca is all about the fluffy ice: shaved, not crushed, so it achieves the consistency of snow, light and ethereal. The really old-school spots shave the ice from a big block by hand. The name grattachecca  basically means the 'queen of shaved ice' and most Romans I know would agree that this delicious solution to Rome's August heat is just that.

During the punishing summer of 2003, during which so many people in Southern Europe died from the heat, I was heading a restaurant kitchen in Trastevere. The worst of the heat began in June -- normally a pleasant month in Rome, but that summer it was reaching 100 degrees farenheit for what would be every day, in a row, for a month. Nighttime did not bring a respite. And add 10 degrees to the kitchen temperature, with several ovens on at all times, 8 burners going, and since we're in Italy, we mustn't forget the boiling cauldron of water for pasta. On my walk to work each day, from Largo Argentina to Trastevere, I was lucky enough to cross the Ponte Garibaldi right past my favorite grattachecca spot: La Fonte D'Oro, there since 1913 on the Lungotevere.

During my first summer in Rome back in '99, an older Roman resident introduced me to his nightly summer refresher: a glass of "coccolimone" juice from the Fonte D'Oro. It's coconut-lemon, with the tart fresh-squeezed lemons offsetting the sweetness and richness of the coconut. It's a perfect combo in hot weather, and my go-to grattachecca (I prefer it over shaved ice; Vincenzo took his 'neat'). Many of the other flavors seem too syrupy and sweet to me. Coccolimone, however, is juuuust right. It even sounds refreshing...KO-ko-lee-MOH-nay. That summer of 2003, I had one almost every day. The crunchy ice would be melted by the time I go to the restaurant, but I was certainly refreshed and ready to start the long, hot evening ahead of me.

Side note: The closest approximation to a grattachecca in New York City can be found in Chelsea Market, at the People's Pops stand. They usually have a couple of freshly-made seasonal flavors on hand at any given time. Tiny, but tasty.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Panzanella, light lunch of my summer, taste party in my mouth. My snack, my side dish, my soul. Pan-za-nel-la: the tongue plays along the palate down to the denti. Yummy, yummy, yumminess...Pan.Za.Nel.La.
OK, so maybe I'm going overboard here, but if you've ever had a great panzanella in the heat of the summer, you'd know my Nabokovian rant is warranted. This stuff is delicious. In yet another ingenious use of old bread, the Tuscans devised this refreshing salad with cubed bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, celery, and a generous glug-glug of bold, fruity olive oil and red wine vinegar. Salt and pepper, obviously. Those are the basics; the rest are just additional trappings. Fennel, which I add to my version because it's refreshing raw, is such a Tuscan staple that it seems a natural fit -- and this is how I learned to make the salad so many years ago in Firenze. Some people add chopped peppers, artichokes, or olives. I think these weigh down the light-tasting dish -- but to each her own.

You can grill the bread before cubing it, for added smoky flavor. Using local, candy-sweet cherry or grape tomatoes is much advised at the height of the summer (toss in some golden ones for eye appeal). And note that there are variations on the bread consistency in the salad, from slightly crispy cubes, to water/oil/vinegar-soaked bread that functions as a binding "mush" to the vegetables in the dish. No one version is more correct, just a matter of personal taste. The one constant in the original version, however, is that the bread used is unsalted Tuscan country bread. Yes, that infamous, flavorless Tuscan pane --  so perfect for the region's crostini with salty toppings, so wonderful in its bread soups, so flavorless on its own that perhaps no other region in the world can boast so many untouched restaurant bread baskets. And yes, these taste-deficient baked orbs are so sponge-like, they also doubled as Renaissance instruments with which Tuscan frescoes were cleaned! So, while we must mention the authentic bread used in panzanella, we certainly encourage the use of a more flavorful bread base in this particular recipe.

This is wonderful as a lunch on its own, perhaps with some great quality, olive oil-packed tuna flaked into it. It's also a perfect side dish for another of the region's specialties: grilled bistecca alla fiorentina -- or any meat seared on the grill. With a slightly chilled glass of red wine, or a rosato? What a great summer meal for the weekend!
Serves 4-6

1 loaf of good country bread, cut up into 1 or 2-inch dice (stale or toasted or grilled)
1 lb. cherry tomatoes (cut in half) or vine-ripened tomatoes (large dice)
3-4 stalks celery, cut into large dice
1 fennel bulb, cleaned and cut into thin slices
1 red onion, cut into thin slices and rinsed under cold water
3-4 cucumbers, peeled and cut into large dice
Fresh basil, torn into small pieces
1/3 cup good extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste

- Mix the bread with all of the vegetables and herbs.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Add olive oil and vinegar to make a nicely-dressed salad with enough moisture to soften the bread a bit. Let sit for 30 minutes, then taste and adjust seasoning/dressing. Serve at room temperature.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quick Bite: Cold Chocolate in Hot Weather


Chocolate. Cold. Cold chocolate treat. Cold chocolate treat with luscious heavy whipped cream. All this wonderfulness, and topped off with a crunchy cone-like wafer? There may be nothing better on a hot afternoon, for a sweet snack between meals, or for dessert after a leisurely lunch. Hell, chocolate cremolata is good any time. 

And serving up this Italian delicacy -- one that's fairly difficult to find on the Italian peninsula -- is the famous Cremeria Monteforte, conveniently tucked alongside the Pantheon in the centro storico of Rome. So what exactly is CREMOLATA? First of all, I'll tell you what it's not. It's not GREMOLATA, the combination of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest that traditionally tops osso buco. That, my friends, would not a tasty frozen treat make -- though a quick internet search found chefs, magazines, and various bloggers making this confusing mistake, preparing osso buco and shellfish dishes with "cremolata" -- which would also be bizarre and not good (veal chop with strawberry frozen treat, anyone?) again, what is cremolata? It's not gelato, it's not granita, and it's not sorbetto.It's usually made of fruit -- it's like a chunky granita or an unfiltered and "unspun" (not put into a gelato maker for even distribution of ice crystals) sorbetto. Lots of times you find pieces of fruit pulp in the cremolata. And sometimes, if you're's made of deep, sweet-bitter, dark, luscious chocolate.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


In traditionally Catholic countries like Portugal, saint days are important holidays for the local population and tradition, and can often be the best "festa" going. This is definitely the case with the Festa de Santo Antonio in Lisbon. What an experience!

But first, a little history. 
Saint Anthony was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões circa 1195, in Lisbon, Portugal, where he lived most of his life. When he later gained admission to the Franciscan order he took up the name Antonio (Anthony). He was venerated as Anthony of Padua or Anthony of Lisbon. Canonized in 1232 by Pope Gregory IX about a year after his death, St. Antonio was the most quickly-canonized saint in history.
His dedicated church is Sant'Antonio di Padova in northeastern Italy, which contains what is said to be his tongue -- an important relic, as he was distinguished as a great orator (still, seeing his tongue is pretty freaky, I must admit. And people line up for it).

Among many other things, St. Antonio is the patron saint of harvests, lower animals, pregnant women, and oppressed people. He's also the patron saint of mariners, lost articles, travelers and mail: 4 things interestingly, that seem inherently linked (especially "lost articles" and "mail" in Italy...). And lastly, St. Antonio is the saint of LOVE in Portugal and Brazil - especially new love, newlyweds, and lost loves who find each other again, as legend states that acted as conciliator to couples.

St. Antonio died 13 June, 1231, so June 13th is the Festa de Santo Antonio in Lisbon -- a municipal holiday.
Newlywed couples give thanks and singles pray for a match made in heaven (the previous day, June 12, is the Brazilian Valentine's Day).
The festa is celebrated with parades and, since the 1950's, marriages of a handful of "modest" young couples who receive the blessing of Saint Anthony in one large ceremony, the "Santo Casamenteiro" at the historical Sé Cathedral in the ancient Alfama neighborhood.

This also correlates with another tradition for couples and Lisboners looking for love, with the gift of Manjerico to that special someone. These little potted plants of newly sprouted Basil (for a newly sprouted love) are given as gifts throughout June, wrapped in red ribbon. Less traditionally, drunken Lisboetas wear flourescent green wigs with a red headband to signify this Manjerico, and hit each other with big red plastic hammers that squeak on impact -- something decidedly un-endearing, resembling dog toys.

Manjerico que te deram,
Amor que te querem dar…
Recebeste o manjerico. 
O amor fica a esperar.
Basil that was given to you,
(Is) Love that is wanted to be given to you….
You received this basil.
The love is waiting.

After a colorful parade down the city's main artery, the streets of Lisbon are full of people celebrating in every neighborhood -- but in particular, the Alfama and area around Sé Cathedral are the heart of the festa. Music is in the air. Every restaurant, bar, and storefront sets up stalls and grills for the traditional "poor food" of the festa: sardines and pork. When slapped on a bun, these sandwiches are called Sardinha no Pão and Entremeada no Pão. The popularity of Lisbon's large, meaty sardines during this time is a tribute to Santo Antonio’s legendary “sermon to the fish” in Padua, and also because it's high season for the healthy, omega-3-rich fish. The cut of pork traditionally used is called entremeada, and is considered the fattiest cut of ribs possible. All this great street food is washed down with cold beer, caipirinhas, sangria, and ginja (a local cherry-flavored liquor - delish). The only negative is the lack of bathroom access -- possibly worse than Mardi Gras in New Orleans -- otherwise, I highly recommend planning a trip to Lisbon around June 13th. They do their local saint proud.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Breakfast Club, Part 3

And so, with the debut of the first Breakfast Club brunch, we had a hit on our hands. The owners had never seen the restaurant so full in all the months it had been open for dinner. So what did they do? They hired me to be the executive chef of the Ristorante Pasquino in the evenings, in addition to our brunch -- requiring them to fire their current chef at the time, which they did summarily. 

Over the next few days, I spent entire afternoons cleaning out the entire kitchen, top-to-bottom, with the help of my loyal friend/front-of-house man, Martin. It was a frightening task to see all the crap that had accumulated in the few months since the restaurant's opening. The previous chef clearly didn't understand the finer points of Italian cuisine. He had stocked 20 kilo bags of basmati rice, for instance, "for risotto" -- pretty much an impossibility. Ingredients were frozen and of low quality, so we ended up tossing a lot of sub-par foodstuff. We scrubbed the place. We revamped the ordering system. And I developed a menu that would be interesting, offering something for Romans and foreigners, both culinary purists and those with daring palates. The owners said they knew from the first "family meal" (staff dinner) that they were in for something good. Martin became the head waiter and I brought in some of our brunch kitchen help to work during the week as well. Things were looking up.

In the meantime, we'd hit a stride with our brunch over the first few weeks. We had a successful "Brunch di Pasqua" on Easter Sunday, celebrating the Italian springtime and the custom of eating eggs at Easter. We had our regulars: some friends and family, some students from nearby international universities, many expats from various government organizations, television networks, and expat bars. 

And we had neighborhood locals as well, including well-known Trastevere resident Romina Powers. She and her family loved our American food so much that she was one of our first dinnertime clients as well.

We had some hiccups, of course. Sometimes, some of our staff members were out of town...or out of service (Sunday morning is a rough gig). Occasionally we had the whiney customer. Our timing wasn't always perfect, and there were waits. But there were smiling servers, and lots of Bloody Marys to go around. 
One morning, Patrick took our slab bacon to the alimentari to get it sliced, as usual -- only to find that the shop was closed per funerale: it seemed our sweet, lovely signore had sliced his last piece of bacon for us. And speaking of bacon, one Sunday, a client complained that his bacon was burned. The plate was swiftly returned to the kitchen, where I dumped the bacon and had my cook start on a new order. Appalled at the "utter waste of good, crunchy burnt bacon," 2 of our severs proceeded to eat said bacon. Out of the garbage ("what??? It was on top!"). No one could say we didn't watch our bottom line.

But unfortunately, the local authorities were watching us too. It's common practice in Italy for restaurant and bar owners to pay off the vigili (sort of a police/health department combo) to remain open without problems, fines, etc. Well, the Ristorante Pasquino owners refused to pay off the authorities asking for handouts (moral strength? fiscal parsimony?). And we'd had an inkling that other restaurateurs in the neighborhood were less than happy about our (foreigners') success. 
And so, one night during service, the vigili showed up at the restaurant, barged into the kitchen, and performed a sort of "raid" on the place. A few weeks later, they'd officially closed the restaurant down for some infraction of draconian fire codes. And that was it for the Breakfast Club and Ristorante Pasquino -- for a while, anyway.

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Love and Tragedy

I recognize that this is a blog about food and things food-related. Culture, cocktails, cuisine. I'm certainly not here to get political or philosophical. But sometimes things happen in the world at large that affect us and force us to stop and think. The recent death of UVA student Yeardley Love at the hands of fellow Virginia student George Huguely has done just that.

I graduated from the University of Virginia, and my fourth year (senior year in UVA parlance), I lived just doors down from where Yeardley Love lived, and died. She seems, from all accounts, to have been the typical UVA young female student: well-rounded, happy, intelligent, and attractive, about to really begin her life at 22. Her sometimes-boyfriend Huguely put an end to that by beating her, slamming her head against the wall, and eventually killing her. That Huguely had a string of minor offenses and scuffles with the law is not in question, nor does it really matter, in my opinion. He seems, by all accounts, a somewhat-typical young athlete from a privileged background who sometimes got a little too drunk and threw his heft around too often.  Now, many people are questioning whether or not this tragic death could have been prevented. What were the warning signs that something like this might happen? If the powers that be at Virginia would have known about Huguely's past 'incidents,' wouldn't they have suspended or expelled him and prevented this tragedy? But positing the "what-ifs" doesn't help. 

The real problem at the bottom of this is: what's wrong with our culture? What is it that makes our supposedly-civilized society turn to violence so easily, and so pointlessly? Why are our youngest generations walking into schools and mowing down their peers with machine guns (and why has the state of Virginia suffered so terribly in recent years)? Why are our men, our athletes, and our "role models" beating and raping and killing their girlfriends, wives, and exes -- targets who are clearly no physical match for the likes of Mike Tyson, or Lawrence Taylor, Scott Peterson, or George Huguely? Clearly, something is gravely amiss in America, when a country purported to consider women as equals to men is unable to protect its women from the vicious tendencies of these bullies -- or more importantly, prevent the creation of an environment in which these tragedies happen in the first place. 

As a woman living overseas, I certainly had my struggles in Italy -- a Latin country that both reveres its women and the myth of the "mamma," while clearly continuing on its historically misogynistic path. The scenario is the same in most Latin countries around the world. But they never see violence like that which has become all too commonplace in the U.S. The message that needs to be repeated again and again to our boys, to our men, is this: it is NEVER, EVER acceptable behavior to raise a hand to a woman. Never. Period. 

Huguely's actions were not "a mistake." This was not a man down-and-out, driven to violence as some last resort. This was a kid, an athlete, in an idyllic Southern town, at one of the country's top universities. He knew this violence was wrong (the fact that he stole Love's computer from her room to hide evidence of their recent correspondence points towards Huguely's recognition of his wrongdoing). One of the things that makes me saddest about this is imagining Love's family having to hear that a few weeks shy of graduation, they had to come identify the severely beaten body of their beloved daughter, sister, niece -- an unconscionable phone call to receive.

College is supposed to be one of the most wonderful periods in a person's life.
And I can speak for a lot of UVa. graduates when I say that the University is an amazing place. I met some of my favorite people in the world while I was there. So. What's happened?? Why this? Why now? I'd love to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, my thoughts go out to Yeardley Love, her family, and her friends.   I myself lost a dear friend at 22. No young person should have to suffer such a tragic end at such a young age. And no one at that age should have to experience a peer's death, a loved one's death. Yeardley Love, sadly, terribly, is gone too soon.   

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Restaurant Review: LOCANDA VERDE (New York, NY)


Tribeca isn’t lacking in great eateries, but this Italian straddling the rustic/refined line is a welcome addition to the nabe. It’s many things to many people: a great lunch spot for the eclectic local work crowd, and a relaxed crowd-pleaser in the evening – the kind of place where expense accounters, local celebrities, and Manhattanites from further afield come for a reliably delicious Italian-esque meal. Renowned pastry chef Karen DeMasco (formerly of Gramercy Tavern) even turns out pastries and savory-sweet goodies for breakfast. The style is a mix of authentic, accomplished Italian food – traditional dishes tweaked ever-so-slightly for the local palate, or the chef’s amusement, or both – with Italian-American comfort food staples like Chef Andrew Carmellini’s  “ grandmother’s ravioli.”

 The dining room is a series of different spaces, cavernous yet warm, with ultra-high ceilings more reminiscent of farmhouses in Umbria or the Maremma than a converted industrial space in downtown Manhattan. I headed to the ladies room at one point, and as I descended the stairs I was immediately swept away to an upscale dining experience (or a combination of experiences) I'd had in Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche, both by the aesthetics of the space and the smell of a wood-burning fireplace I'd not smelled anywhere outside of Italy. (I'm still puzzled as to where that exact smell was emanating from, and how...)

To begin to sate your appetite, start with a crostino appetizer like the simple sheep’s milk ricotta with herbs, or go for the Sardines in saor (a classic Venetian dish) – wonderfully paired with homemade focaccia that’s lifted with the addition of lemon. A classic fritto misto is made all’Americano with Ipswich clams and rock shrimp, species native to these shores of the Atlantic. Then, pull yourself away from the appetizers, since the pasta is well worth saving room for. Those aforementioned ravioli are delicious (and, we suspect, much lighter than Carmellini’s grandmother’s original version). So are the orechiette with broccoli rabe and duck sausage, a sauce more pesto-light than anything, lacking both the kick and bitterness of the signature pasta preparation of Puglia, but tasty anyway. Sides include a delicious sauteed spinach with chickpeas and ricotta salata (see photo).

The stuffed mountain trout (photo at right) main course with lentils and pancetta is in homage to landlocked Umbria, and beautifully presented. The garlic chicken is a simple, wonderful joy, meriting the inclusion on the menu of a fowl usually limited to staff meals in Italian restaurants. And when the porchetta sandwich is available…well, just make sure you order it. Period.

Savory thin-sliced porchetta with caramelized onions and vinegar-cured peppers, spices...fantastico.

Desserts are well-executed if a little staid, but desserts were never a strong point of Italian cuisine. With DeMasco’s talents (and they’re evident in the savory breads and the like coming out of the kitchen), I’d like to see her apply some of that Midwestern sensibility that Carmellini wields so successfully, to  the desserts. If there’s one thing the American tradition has perfected – well beyond the Italian tradition – it’s sweets.

377 Greenwich St (corner of N. Moore and Greenwich). 212/925-3797.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Breakfast Club, Part 2

Continuing with my trip down memory lane (brought on by the "death" of my laptop and the subsequent retrieval of old files, including our brunch menus)...the Pasquino American Sunday Brunch in Rome...

Since the Pasquino restaurant, the spot we'd secured for our brunch venture, was a part of the landmark Pasquino English-language Cinema complex, we decided to play with the whole movie/Hollywood theme -- hence "The Breakfast Club" moniker (after the 1985 John Hughes flick). Full disclosure: In a recent conversation with my friend Patrick, he reminded me of our original working title for our brunch spot, before we'd even secured a location: Daney's. That's right, like Denny's, but combined with Dana. The Americans in the group found it hilarious, and Patrick even printed out a terrible prototype of the logo, having doctored the bright yellow Denny's sign. I wanted nothing to do with "Daney's." Grazie a dio I was able to talk them out of it and we moved on to a location with an already built-in theme with which to work. Can you imagine me, slinging hash in a hairnet at Daney's?! Holy crap.

Team Breakfast Club:
We enlisted the help of my American roommate Leah, for kitchen help. Our friend Elizabeth pulled out her long-dormant waitress skills from her post-grad days. We brought in a couple of other Italian friends to help serve, and we put Peppe behind the bar, our "Calabrese Connection" whom we taught to mix a mean Bloody Mary. Martin helped in the kitchen, but felt his "talents" were best utilized in the front-of-house (he ended up doing a little of both). Gareth and Patrick were our friendly English-speaking male servers, helpfully flirting with our young female clientele. We realized we were still short-staffed in the kitchen though, so we turned to a young American college student named Paul, per Patrick's recommendation. (Us: "Does he have experience in the kitchen?" Patrick: "He sure looks like he could cook up some pancakes!") We arranged for an "interview" with young Paul to make sure he was rigorously vetted. We met at one of our favorite spots at the time, Ombre Rosse, next door to the restaurant (where we had something close to a group 'corporate account' bar tab). After being subjected to torturous questions from us ("How much bacon do you think you could handle cooking at one time?", "Quick! What are the components of a cobb salad?" and "How awesome are cats!?" [Gareth]), we hired the poor guy -- who, incidentally, ended up making a fine short order cook.

We got to work on our menu, knowing we wanted to include brunch staples that weren't available anywhere else: pancakes and bacon, eggs served a variety of ways with classic sides, bagels and lox (for me), sausage biscuits (for Martin), and that elusive Eggs Benedict, for us all. Bagels were nowhere to be found in Rome, so I had to make a few dozen of them at home every Saturday night (quite a task, as it turned out). In addition, I had a full baking roster to round out our menu: New York cheesecake, brownies, and a variety of other sweets and savories. We had several booze and broccoli Romano-fueled dinners over which we discussed menu items and their respective names. We decided to name each dish after a film or a movie reference. Some favorites? "O Bagel, Where Art Though" was fitting as a riff on the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? but also because of the difficulty of finding a damned bagel in The Eternal City. And I still chuckle thinking about our name for a vegetarian sandwich: "Honey, I Left Out the Meat!" (Also hilarious were the various Italian pronunciations of these dish names by our Italian servers who had no clue about what they were ordering from the kitchen: "Cosa sono i pan-cake??") Even our drinks had some great names, including a "Fellini" instead of a bellini, and a "Something About Bloody Mary." Genius, no?

We secured our food orders through our various restaurant and green market connections. One of our biggest dilemmas was finding passable "American style" smoked bacon. We located a purveyor, but the bacon came packaged in whole slabs of pork belly, so we convinced Patrick to sweet-talk the owner of a nearby alimentari (food shop) into letting us use his meat slicer for the bacon. We had a built-in laundry service, as Patrick owned the Wash 'n Dry laundromat in the neighborhood. Gareth created CDs to provide our brunch soundtrack. We revved our publicity engines by plastering the city center with our brunch posters, and of course, utilized the ever-effective Italian method of raccomandazione: word-of-mouth.

And so, with all of these elements in place, we began the first real American Brunch in Rome, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, on April 1 (no joke), 2001. We did approximately 90 covers -- restaurant parlance for one customer's entire order, however many courses that may entail -- that first Sunday. We were a hit! We turned tables 2 to 3 times in those 4 hours. We were buzzing along. It wasn't perfect, but it was clear we had a great concept on our hands, and there was definitely an audience hungry for good, authentic brunch food prepared with love and served with a smile.
We celebrated afterward at our old haunt next door, Ombre Rosse -- a bunch of chairs gathered around a couple of small tables outside under the umbrellas in Piazza Sant'Egidio. If memory serves me correctly, we spent all of our week's profits on rounds of drinks for the remainder of the evening. We were exhausted. But it was gratifying, for sure. And fun. Really, really fun.

Stay tuned for part 3...