Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Eat a Duck in Singapore

I recently returned from a trip to Singapore, tagging along with my parents as they attended an aviation conference.  I’d researched the country ahead of my visit to gain at the very least, a basic understanding of the culture and history. It was a British trading post, separated from Malaysia making it it’s own city-state, and resulting in English becoming the official language.  There are four major cultures in Singapore: Malay, Japanese, Chinese and Indian.  As you’d imagine, as a result of this collision of culinary cultures, the food is remarkable.  I was told that Singapore is very much a city of commerce and cosmopolitan life, not the normal nitty-gritty, cheap and dirty Asian experience I have come to crave and love. In fact, Singapore has earned the nickname “Asia-Lite.”  Armed with this information, I sought out Anthony Bourdain per the advice of my dear Diana.  Surely he would find the food culture I was searching for, and boy, did he.

Maxwell Food Center spread

I was the first to touch down, arriving at 7 am. After a morning nap following my 20 hour trip, I set out in search of a meal.  Bourdain’s first stop was the Maxwell Food Centre, a bustling set of hawker stalls all under one roof. One of the famous dishes in Singapore is chicken rice, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Chicken on top of seasoned rice with various condiments. I chose the Hong Xiang chicken stall, which came highly recommended by Bourdain and did not disappoint. The chicken was beautifully moist laying on top of a bed of steaming rice.  The lady at the stall took out a spray bottle and sprayed my entire dish before handing it to me.  I don’t know what it was, but I assume it was a spray bottle of delish. Accompanying the chicken rice was an extremely thick hoisin sauce and chili sauce. It was heaven, a perfect glimpse into what Singaporean food would hold in store.

Our next adventure into Singaporean cuisine was recommended to us by our cab driver. We were headed to Long Beach restaurant on East Coast Park only knowing that we wanted the best chili crab Singapore had to offer.  Obviously picking up on our ineptitude, he recommended drunken prawns, boiled in a cognac stock, the fried rice and black pepper crab. Not all cab drivers are to be trusted, but in this case, our man knew his stuff.  The cognac stock was so smooth, and had us lapping it up long after the prawns had been devoured.

Long Beach spread

Chili crab was the star of this trip. Crab, steamed and smothered in a tomato, garlic, chili sauce. Equal parts sweet and savory, this sauce was everything you could ever want, worthy of being used on any food item throughout the day, we couldn’t get enough. The same driver recommended we order sweet buns with which to sop up the sauce after we were done with our crabs, like I said, he was a smart man. Next came black pepper crab. This is the same dish as chili crab but with a black pepper paste smeared liberally over the steaming crustaceans. This version was much spicier and in your face, and perfect counterpart to its sweet chili crab cousin. While you’re eating these two dishes, be prepared to get extremely dirty. Sauce all over your face, arms and hands, but gladly so.  It proves you’ve truly enjoyed your dish.

It seems inevitable that any tourist to Singapore will hang around Marina Bay for a little while. Within the Marina Bay Shoppes is a great food court featuring various cuisines from around the continent, but of course, I went for dim sum because, well, I am Jimmy’s sister. The siu mai and shrimp har gao were up to par. It was a perfect, close spot to beat the heat and grab some delicious food as well.

Iced coffee is definitely a must when exploring Singapore. It is HOT, crazy hot, and the combination of ice and caffeine kept me running. It’s available pretty much anywhere, but I preferred to grab it at the hawker centers.

Marina Bay dim sum

Since the shopping is near legendary in Singapore, my Mom and I hit up Robinson’s, the big department store, where we discovered delicious snacks like green tea kit kats and squid jerky.  On the basement level of Robinson’s we stumbled upon a gyoza restaurant called Gyoza-Ya. There was a hefty list of delicious things to try but we had to settle on a select few.  We started with chilled eggplant with miso paste. Give me anything with miso paste. The eggplant was delectable, tender, but almost too difficult to grab with chopsticks, as the thick, savory miso paste made for a slippery affair. Next was cucumber with miso paste. Those delicious Asian cucumbers. You can really tell the difference. The miso paste on this dish was presented in little pearls that broke apart in your mouth, spreading the heavenly miso all over your palate. I ordered what was described on the menu simply as “Ramen Egg.” I thought it was going to be some sort of egg drop ramen soup. I’m so glad I was wrong. The waiter sets down a chilled soft-boiled egg on a plate in front of me, and I look at Mom not knowing exactly what to do. What I can infer after taking a bite is, the egg was soft-boiled, and then marinated in some sort of ramen stock or soy sauce? I don’t know for sure but holy whoa it was delicious. The white of the egg flavored with sesame paired with a silky, runny yoke on the inside was perfection. I want it for breakfast daily. Of course we ended this lunch with both vegetable and pork gyoza. It was Gyoza-Ya after all.

Gyoza-Ya spread

Still, the chili crab lingered in our mouths and brains.  So this time, we sought out Jumbo Seafood restaurant, recommended by multiple former Singapore residents. We ordered all the usual suspects, chili crab, black pepper crab, fried rice, shrimp in miso paste (I can’t quit the miso paste) and steamed Snapper with cilantro.  The crabs here were much larger than at Long Beach, but I’m at a loss as to which restaurant prepared them better. I just want access to chili crab at all times.

Jumbo spread

Our flights were extremely late at night, so our last dinner was back at Maxwell Food Centre, since the parentals hadn’t been. This time I had ban mian, a soup with pork and rice noodles and of course, plenty of condiments with which to customize your dish. I washed it all down with starfruit juice, something I’d never seen before but had to try. Our meal was accompanied by three old dudes drinking beer with their portable radio blaring, chilling at the table next to us, like I assume they do every night. True, Singapore doesn’t have an abundance of cultural sites, but it definitely makes up for it in an abundance of delicious foods.

 

Szechuan Roasted Eggplant

Recently at the market, I spotted a large basket of eggplants in various shapes and colors. Their fate was not clear to me at the time, but something in the back of my mind was encouraging a Northern Chinese approach.

I’ve seen this dish many times in magazines and on cooking shows, yet never thought to do it myself. Hindsight being what it is, I realize now that it’s because of the remarkable ease of preparation, not to mention its natural photogenic quality. With so many angles, shadows and sauce filled crevices, I ended up with a gorgeous plate of food. It was mainly complimented by the wonderful quality of light on my mom’s porch as dusk hits.

Szechuan Roasted Eggplant

While this may seem like a lowly side dish, it’s far from a throwaway recipe, if for no other reason than its versatility. Use this sauce on beef, poultry or a firm white fish. Pretty much any vegetable with sturdy flesh could be substituted as well. Think about all the times you’ve thought to yourself, ” we have no food”, but you did. Don’t say that, because you did. You failed to notice the brown paper bag filled with zucchini and squash in the back of the crisper.

Beef & Broccoli

I made this along with a hunk of organic, grass-fed top sirloin cut into narrow strips and seared in a cast iron pan with a lot of brown butter. With that I scorched a half head of broccoli cut into florets and then sliced in half to create a flat surface needed for proper coloration. Make sure not to waste the stalks. If you cut them thin they will be tender and will look like miniature green versions of that 70’s style clock cut from a Cypress tree stump, your weird uncle has mounted in his house boats sleeping quarters. Be careful never to overcook broccoli. Use a very hot pan and flash sauté those guys with a big nob of butter at the beginning and end! The marriage of these two items resulted in a southerners rendition of Beef & Broccoli.

Szechuan Roasted Eggplant

  • About 1 1/2 lbs eggplant (Japanese preferably)
  • 1/2 cup prepared Hoisin sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. Tamari (or soy sauce)
  • 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
  • 1 Tsp. brown sugar
  • 1 Tsp. sesame oil
  • A couple shakes of Five Spice Powder
  • Canola Oil
  • Salt

Pre-Heat Oven to 400.

With a paring knife, slice the eggplant lengthwise into 1/3-1/2″ thick planks and score them on the flesh side to make a diamond pattern. Coat with a thin layer of canola oil, then lightly sprinkle with salt. Lay slices skin side down on a baking sheet. Combine Hoisin, Tamari, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and five spice in a small bowl, then brush it evenly over the eggplant.

Roast for 15- 20 minutes, or until they have caramelized, building a dark Mahogany color around the edges.

Enzo’s – Longwood, FL

So where are you from?

That question has stumped me for years. I’ve moved around so much in my life, that the idea of “home” doesn’t immediately bring to mind a place. Does it refer to where I was born? Perhaps it’s where I currently live? Or maybe it’s where I graduated from high school. I tend to go with the latter, but I still can’t be sure.

I recently had an interesting conversation with some old friends, as is usually the case, over a meal. Everyone had a clear idea of where “home” was, except for me. I graduated from high school in Winter Park, FL, where I have many fond memories, a good amount of those involving food. The more I thought about it, there was one place in particular that, to this day, whenever I get the chance to eat there, I’m home (and it’s not Olive Garden ya jerk!).

enzos-logo

Enzo’s has been a part of my family for the better part of two decades. My parents used to take me and my sister to their pizzeria in the early 90’s for authentic Italian food when we were feeling too lazy to cook. Sadly that location closed years ago, but their main spot in the mostly unknown town of Longwood is still going strong, well over 30 years and counting.

Honestly, Longwood is the last place I’d expect to find seriously authentic Italian cuisine, but Enzo Perlini saw something that reminded him of home, so I can’t argue with the man. He managed to transform the small plot of lakefront property into his own teleportation machine, bringing its patrons straight to lush countryside around Rome.

Scenery can only take you part of the way, the food is what does the heavy lifting. Enzo knew that to truly give his diners a real Italian experience, he couldn’t skimp on freshness. This stands true from the antipasto to the dolce. At a glance, the menu doesn’t seem like anything special, but with Italian food, it’s not about creating something new, it’s about executing a classic perfectly and consistently.

antipasto-1

All the favorites are here, blushing carpaccio di manzo with olive oil and freshly shaved parm, toasty country bread topped with ultra ripe tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. Here’s a pro tip, skip all that and let your waiter prepare you a plate from the antipasto bar, everything is at the peak of freshness, you’ll get a couple different cured meats, some pickled veggies, potato salad, marinated peppers, and olives. Make sure to ask for extra grilled eggplant, trust me on this one.

Eggplant

You like pasta? Yeah me too, how about the classic Roman dish, spaghetti carbonara with smokey bacon, sweet onions and romano cheese tossed in a hot skillet. Or my personal favorite, penne vodka, with a simple sauce made from marinated red pepper, tomato and you guessed it, tangy vodka. I’ve tried nearly everything on the menu and this…this one dish is the one I keep coming back to.

Penne Vodka

A close second is the pappardelle alla Farnese. The concise description hardly tells the story of this dish. I think there are only four or five ingredients in the whole dish not including the pasta, but it has a flavor that fills the mouth like nothing else. Thick sheets of homemade pappardelle act as the perfect vehicle for the spicy duo of arugula and black pepper. Pillowy shitake, softened with olive oil balance everything out on the tongue.

Pappardelle alla Farnese

No Italian meal is complete without something sweet. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’m not exactly sure of all the dessert options as I always order the same thing, tiramisu. I believe there’s a cheesecake, possibly a panna cotta and a flourless chocolate cake. All of that fades away when I get my first bite into that familiar creamy exterior, marked with spiked ladies fingers and a healthy dusting of cocoa powder, careful not to inhale!

Tiramisu

Unfortunately the location may be a deal breaker for many of you as it can be a haul to get there. I assure you, if you make the journey, at least for an hour or two, you’ll forget all about the miles you traveled since your tongue and brain will be far away in the rolling hills of Italy.

Enzo's on the Lake on Urbanspoon

da Campo Osteria – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The first time I met chef Steven Acosta, we were in the bowels of a glorified furniture store. Naturally this is where most people go to see chefs demonstrating the process of mozzarella making. Strange setting aside, I was captivated by the pearly white cheese, stretching ever so gently between Steven’s hands. Looking around, I got the feeling that most of the people in the room didn’t really appreciate what they were seeing, an observation that would explain a lot…but I’ll get to that.

After the demo, I introduced myself to Steven and told him how much I enjoyed the delicious morsels. We chatted a bit about food. I mentioned my recent visit to Scarpetta, a restaurant that Steven says he uses as a measuring stick, a lofty aspiration to be sure, but I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I ended up leaving with a card and an invitation to drop by and sample da Campo’s full repertoire. Fast forward a couple of months, and I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. My newly minted food friend Todd Sturtz was back in town, so I gave Steven a call, and we made our way to da Campo Osteria.

da Campo Osteria logo

I had never heard of da Campo before this, it used to be one of the many eateries by star chef, Todd English before Steven took the helm. As usual I had studied the menu beforehand and was excited by the offerings. We took our seats and our host arrived table-side to welcome us. We were given a choice, pick our meal a la carte, or leave ourselves in his capable hands. Only a fool would choose the former. With the game plan in hand, he disappeared into the kitchen to get us started.

First to arrive was the bread and sauce. A simple balsamic/olive oil, a sweet tomato marmalade and garlic spread. Naturally my favorite combo, and the first to disappear, was the focaccia with a slathering of the garlic sauce. For me, tomato option was a little sweet to be served so early in the meal when your taste buds are gearing up for savory.

Bread n' Spread

A small plate with a lone bacon-wrapped date with a shmear of aioli arrived to our delight. The bacon was gently glazed and wonderfully smokey, the sweet date and salty pork was a natural match and was a table-wide winner.

 da Campo Osteria wrapped date & chef Steven Acosta

Shortly afterwards, things got serious. Chef rolled out a table, and I knew what was coming. It was mozz time, and I was ready. Before Chef Acosta began, he asked if we knew what burrata was. We all immediately answered in the affirmative, slightly taken aback that he needed to ask. I later found out that many of the diners in the Ft. Lauderdale area are not the most adventurous eaters. Let me just say to anyone reading, if you like mozzarella, you’re gonna like burrata, trust me on this.

With our love for cream filled mozz expressed, Steven got to work, and I got a front row seat. He starts with fresh curds and adds hot salted water, slightly below the boiling point, to get the curds to melt. After much stirring, stretching, filling and tucking, a bright white orb was presented atop a mountain of local heirloom tomatoes and house made croutons.

Fresh burrata & heirloom tomatoes

In my lifetime, I’ve probably consumed over 100 lbs of burrata and mozzarella. If I were to rank them all, this would break the top five no problem. The exterior is firmer than the mozzarella you can buy in water and it’s also served just above room temperature. This caprese, panzanella salad whatever you want to call it, had some of the boldest flavors. The best part of the dish? The ridiculous slurry that formed at the bottom of the bowl from the cream, balsamic, tomato caviar and garlic infused oil from the croutons, so addictive I’m almost getting withdrawal.

We were obviously smack dab in the “delicious giant sphere” part of the meal, because two softball sized “jumbo” meatballs arrived. Chef assured us that these meatballs were practically newborns, they’re rolling up the fresh ground mixture of veal, beef and pork, and browning them one at a time. I hate those dense, flavorless, overcooked meatballs you get at many a mediocre Italian joint. These were on the other end of the scale, moist, tender, and packed with flavor, something you’d imagine that ideal Italian grandmother would make. The zippy tomato sauce offset the heft of the meat, with copious amounts of parm and basil to finish out the rustic theme. In my bachelor days, I would’ve ordered two of these to go and made a night of it.

da Campo's jumbo meatball

Things slowed down a touch with a couple of small plates. Crispy eggplant with apricot-chili agrodolce and veal cheeks braised in a barolo reduction with purple cauliflower and an artichoke chip. Normally I like my eggplant sliced thin and pan-fried in olive oil ’til crispy. This was a new preparation for me, cut into cubes and deep-fried. The eggplant retained its moisture beneath the seasoned crust, which saved the veg from the blandness that often results from too thick a cut. As for the cheeks, so tender they hardly required silverware, the natural flavor of the veal was the star, accented by the subtle barolo reduction. A bite of artichoke chip (which Steven needs to put in bags and sell they’re so good) added some salt that highlighted the veal even more.

Crispy eggplant & braised veal cheeks

At this point in our Italian feast, we were all ready for a pasta dish. Chef did not disappoint with three, hockey puck sized short rib ravioli topped with his signature tomato sauce. This was another favorite dish of the table, although anything with short ribs is bound to excite. The photo speaks for itself, this was Italian comfort food at its best.

Braise short rib ravioli

The last of the savory dishes was something of an experiment for the boys on the line. It was da Campo’s take on a “surf n’ turf”, with crispy pork belly and seared ahi tuna. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. Let me just say, the concept of this dish is fantastic, pair two moan inducing proteins on one dish and let the food do the talking. That being said, I think it still needs some tweaks. While the flavor of the pork belly was great, it was a little tough, and the skin was more chewy than crispy, not the usual wobbly, unctuous piece of fat I look for.

** UPDATE ** I had a chance to visit da Campo and Chef Steven again recently. I’m excited to report that the “surf n’ turf” has indeed been tinkered with, if not reworked completely. Steven killed it with this iteration, scrapping the seared ahi in favor of sweet jumbo scallops. The textures work perfectly now, the pork belly was cooked just right this time, achieving the fatty jiggle that was missing before, and the plump scallops are the perfect partner. The fingerling potatoes and sprouts have also been tossed, with chanterelle mushrooms, a few schmears of black garlic mascarpone and light dabs of tomato agrodolce in their place. I managed to pull the chef off the line for a moment to make sure he never changes this dish! Get to da Campo NOW and try this, though I doubt it’ll be leaving the menu anytime soon.

"Surf n' Turf" Pork belly & Tuna

The second suggestion might just be my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of searing a wonderful piece of tuna, give it to me raw with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and I’m good. I think there’s a lot of potential here with a little reworking.

For the finale, we were given a choice for dessert, but my ears turned off after I heard tiramisu soufflé, which just begs to be combined into tiramisoufflé. It arrived all puffed up with eggy braggadocio with a crown of powdered sugar and accompaniments of mocha ice cream and mascarpone. A quick poke with a spoon paved the way for the ice cream and mascarpone to mingle at the molten core. We were all beyond full at this point but as is always the case, the dessert stomach allowed multiple mouthfuls of the sweet soufflé. The bottom layer of lady fingers and a smattering of chocolate chips pushed this dish over the edge. A word of warning, don’t attack this bad boy without friends, this is serious business.

Tirami-soufflé

We had a chance to chat with Chef Acosta after the sumptuous siege came had ended. He is truly passionate about his food, with the creativity and drive to deliver some top-notch cuisine. When he rattled off a few of the more adventurous dishes he’s come up with, we all perked up, only to find out that he hesitates to put them on the menu since earlier experiments didn’t sell. Unfortunately, as I feared at the mozzarella demo, the demographic of Ft. Lauderdale just doesn’t seem to be receptive to the new and exciting. The menu at da Campo already sports dishes like squid ink tortellini stuffed with king crab, or suckling pig confit with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s milk ricotta, that will impress if you’re willing to give them a shot. To all locals out there, I implore you, widen your horizons beyond mozzarella and ravioli, try something you’ve never heard of, give the guys free rein to flex their culinary muscles and I guarantee you’ll roll home with a silly grin.

As for the comparison to Scarpetta, I’ll say this, I had two completely different experiences at each restaurant. At Scarpetta, while the food was absolutely amazing, I got the feeling that there was a little laurel leaning going, and rightly so. They’ve figured out their recipes and they can crank them out night after night, but somehow the soul of the restaurant gets lost.

At da Campo, you can feel the creative energy, the attitude, resulting in food that is rustic, bold, and top shelf delicious. The menu is a constant work in progress, with unbelievable items that I hope never leave, and others that are diamonds in the rough waiting to be refined. So to the crew at da Campo, I beg you to hold on to that hunger to create, don’t let the timid eaters discourage you, because there are other true food lovers like me looking for places that can surprise and delight our jaded palates, and da Campo Osteria is that place.

Scarpetta – Miami Beach, FL

I admit it, I’m late to the Scarpetta party, as the Miami Beach location of Scott Conant’s Italian empire opened back in 2008. Not that Scarpetta needs an introduction or any praise from this humble food writer to validate itself. Myriads of people have visited the many locations around the country and the consensus seems to be this, Scarpetta is one of the elite purveyors of high quality Italian cuisine.

Scarpetta Logo

I’ve been a fan of Italian cuisine since my mom served me spaghetti out of a jar as a toddler. Since then, having traveled a bit and eaten meal after tasty meal, I’ve been able to form a clear picture of what truly great Italian food should be. For me, that means simplicity of both ingredients and technique, having a light hand in the kitchen, allowing the freshest of ingredients to do what they do best. Luckily, Scott grew up with these lessons instilled in him from childhood by his mother and grandmother. I’m not sure great Italian food can be learned any other way really.

We arrived at Scarpetta after traipsing through the cavernous new section of the Fountainebleau Hotel. The walk to our table brought us through a slick maritime themed dining room to an outdoor veranda lined with glass, overlooking the ocean. The menu here follows the same code of simplicity. At first glance, there are no surprises, tuna bresaola, fritto misto, polenta. All typical dishes you’d find at any decent Italian joint. Therein lies the beauty. Usually I always try to find the most unusual item in an attempt to try something new, something exciting. Here, your best bet is to leave your cynical dining preconceptions at the door and stick to the old favorites. That’s exactly what we did. After devouring a basket filled with ciabatta, focaccia, soppresata stuffed stromboli, and its accompanying plate of eggplant caponata, mascarpone butter and lemon infused oil, we chose our starters.

  Scarpetta bread n' wine

Steak tartare with quail egg and crispy shiitake mushrooms, and the creamy polenta with fricasee of truffled mushrooms, said to be a specialty of the house. The steak was chopped so finely that there was no hint of connective tissue at all, it acted almost as a liquid on your tongue. We sensed that the chef had snuck some truffle oil in the mixture as the aroma was unmistakeable. Eyes did roll into heads at each bite, many “mmms” were uttered.

Steak Tartare 2

The polenta was equally bewitching. It was easily the best polenta this humble man has ever tasted, it covered my tongue like a fine mink coat. If I could, I would eat this dish for breakfast every morning. The truffle was strangely missing from the flavor, but I didn’t care.

Creamy Polenta, Fricasee of Truffled Mushrooms

Sadly the appetizers didn’t last long, but the entrées followed close behind. My wife chose another Scarpetta signature dish, the spaghetti with tomato and basil. You almost feel juvenile when you order it. Especially with other, seemingly more mature options like duck and foie gras ravioli or black gemelli with dungeness crab. This feeling disappears as soon as the porcelain dome is removed. You realize that you may be the wisest person in the room. The aroma is intoxicating and the color is almost palpable. It’s a perfect twirl of al dente spaghetti that somehow defies gravity, held together by nothing more than Chef Conant’s luxurious tomato sauce.

Spaghetti, Tomato, Basil

The spaghetti more than lived up to the hype. It impressed even this jaded Italian fan to the point that I Googled the recipe the second I got home. I’ll let you in on a secret, the only ingredient in the sauce is tomatoes, salt and flavor infused oil, those flavors being basil, garlic and chile flakes. It doesn’t get much simpler.

The spaghetti was a tough act to follow, but my equally beautiful pici with lobster, calabrese chiles and nduja sausage was an impressive contender. This dish is basically lobster fra diavolo, only executed perfectly. The lobster was tender to the point of melting and the chiles gave you a pleasing kick right in the mouth. It was undeniably delicious, my only nitpick is that the nduja was completely overpowered. I almost forgot it was in the dish. Perhaps it lent the sauce a fattier personality, but honestly, I didn’t miss it.

Pici, Lobster, Calabrese Chiles, Nduja Sausage

After two tongue kicking dishes like that, it’s always nice to settle things down with a refreshing dessert. While all the options were tempting, when I saw “guava soup” listed under the coconut panna cotta, it was over. The dish arrived with a petite quenelle of panna cotta in a pond of guava. A coconut tuile leaned nonchalantly and a small pile of pineapple rounded out the tropical theme. To my delight, the quenelle was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just beneath the guava, the entire bottom of the bowl was lined with even more panna cotta. It was one of those dishes that transports your mind to some more exotic locale.

Coconut Panna Cotta, Pineapple, Guava Soup & Coconut Tuile

It’s an understatement to say that Scarpetta left an impression. They men and women in there, are truly masters of their craft, somehow moving Italian food forward by sticking close to tradition. From now on, as I toil away trying to recreate that spaghetti, I’ll be watching Scott on Chopped with a new-found respect.

Scarpetta on Urbanspoon

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill – Austin, TX

Today we’ve got another guest contribution. My little sister Sara just returned from an all-female food fraught fiesta out West, and she returned with tales of Moonshine, Texas style! We hope you all enjoy, and thanks to Sara for the review, our first one from the Lonestar State!

My girls and I recently went on a trip out West to Denver and Austin. The underlying excitement of the trip definitely stemmed from trying local cuisine, making sure to steer clear of any chains. When we landed in Austin, we met up with our friend who lived down the street from our hotel and immediately hopped on Yelp to find a decent place for a late lunch.  The first place that struck us, because of its incredible ratings, was Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill.

photo: www.moonshinegrill.com

We were escorted out to the covered patio and were informed by our incredibly polite and helpful server, James, that we had arrived just in time for happy hour. Half off drinks and appetizers! That definitely helped expedite the choosing process. For appetizers, we chose the Moonshine “Corn Dog” Shrimp with honey mustard and a blueberry swirl, the Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles with maple butter, warm syrup and chipotle gravy, Roasted Garlic Bulbs with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and toast points and the Baked Brie with cranberry-apple chutney and toast points. While we waited for our appetizers we each ordered a signature patio cocktail.  Since, for me, this was the first time being of age in Texas, I had to try my first Mint Julep.  It was smooth with that delicious bourbon bite, a real Texas Mojito.

 Mint julep & James

Shanna ordered the Ruby Slipper Martini, which consisted of vodka, grapefruit juice, grenadine and champagne. Lindsay ordered the Hard Lemonade with vodka, mint, fresh lemonade and a splash of Paula’s Texas Lemon. Even Diana, who detests even a hint of hard liquor, ended up ordering a Hard Lemonade herself.  It’s a dangerous but delicious drink that’s gone before you know it. James brought out two small buckets of popcorn dusted with some mysterious spice (I assumed it was Old Bay), which was a terribly addicting snack to place in the middle of five women.

 

Our appetizers were each incredible in their own way. The baked brie was melting and delicious and each component, the apple slice, caramelized onion and the melty breaded brie on a toast point, completed the dish. The Southern Fried Chicken was Diana’s choice and she stated that she would eat it by herself if no one wanted to share.  Of course when it made it to our table, none of us could resist digging in. The waffles were light and fluffy and went surprisingly well with the fried chicken tenders. I served myself a cut of waffle spread with the maple butter, then a cut of the chicken, drizzled on some gravy and the warm syrup on top of everything to make the perfect bite of Southern comfort food.  The roasted garlic was a no-brainer. It was drizzled with a thick balsamic vinegar.  This was another appetizer that required some assembly. First, a mashed clove of garlic on the toast point, followed by a shmear of smooth goat cheese, topped by a few bits of the roasted red pepper. The “Corn Dog” Shrimp was the first appetizer we heard about via Yelp so we had to order it.  Battered shrimp on a stick always sounds good to me.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly, just juicy enough, and the blueberry swirl in the honey mustard gave a nice zing to the dish. 

Roasted garlic & corn dog shrimp

In an attempt to be semi-healthy on the trip, I ordered The Bohemian wrap, which is Portobello mushrooms, grilled zucchini, red bell peppers, red onion, arugula, goat cheese and eggplant spread wrapped up in an herb tortilla.  It was the best vegetarian sandwich dish I have ever had. It’s rare when I can find a vegetarian dish that completely satisfies, but this sandwich blew me out of the water. As my side, I ordered the red beans and rice to complete my Southern theme for the afternoon.

The Bohemian & Big Red's bits

Diana ordered Big Red’s BLT, apple-smoked bacon, summer tomato and arugula on grilled farm bread.  Diana noted that the farm bread was incredibly buttery and the peppered tomatoes were perfectly juicy, as a bonus, both were locally sourced. I highly recommend this Moonshine to anyone visiting Austin.  After our meal was over, we contemplated going to Moonshine every day for lunch for the duration of the trip. A relaxed atmosphere, impeccable staff, and incredible food, what more can you ask for?

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Summertime and the Eatings Easy

Winter is over! Well who are we kidding there was no winter this year. Spring will take, oh, two weeks to pass, and then it’s summertime! So I wanted to share 3 of my favorite recipes for greedy consumption on balmy summer days. Now I’m not as accomplished a chef as my colleague, but if I’ve learned anything in my 26 years, it’s that the simplest things often taste the best. So don’t be afraid, these recipes takes at most 10 minutes and involve very little cooking at all, so you’ll be cranking them out like a pro soon enough, just don’t tell your friends how easy it was. Alright, let’s get this going!

1. Summer Pasta
This appropriately named dish has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I remember my dad whipping up a huge bowl of it on a lazy Sunday afternoon, we’d sit poolside and enjoy a couple of bowls with a crisp Chardonnay (yes my parents let me drink wine) and then lay in the sun as it warmed our topped off tummies. For all of these dishes, the key to achieving those heart stopping flavors is fresh ingredients. This may be the easiest pasta to make in history. All you have to know how to do is chop and boil noodles, that’s it! Here’s what you’ll need:

• 4-5 Large tomatoes (for the best results, get yourself some organic heirlooms)

• 2 Large fresh bufala mozzarella balls, in water if possible (bocconcini or ovolini work well also)

• 1 handful of fresh picked basil

• Garlic (I’m not putting an amount on here because what’s enough for me is usually life-threatening to most, for the uninitiated, go for 3 or 4 healthy cloves)

• Copious amounts of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

• 1 lb Linguine (long noodles work better)

• Salt & Pepper to taste

Yields 5-6 servings

To start, chop up your tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic and basil roughly and throw it all in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the EVOO until you can see it pooling in between all the components. Do this first because the oil brings out all the flavors of the tomatoes, garlic and mozz so they meld into a deliriously delicious stew. While the contents of the bowl work their magic, get a large pot of water on the boil. Please, for the love of Dio, add salt to the water, LOTS of salt. It should make the noodles salty when you test them, if you got some in your mouth it should feel like you got hit by a scalding hot wave at the beach. This is important alright? Once you get the pasta nice and al dente, drain it and pour it over the tomato and mozz mixture. Now don’t toss just yet, let the heat permeate down to the bottom, this is key, because the mozzarella will start to gently melt. When you start tossing, you should see long strings of bright white cheese pulling up with the noodles. Once everything is well tossed, give it another few minutes to cool down. Trust me, this pasta is much better when it gets a little closer to room temperature, even better straight out of the fridge. Now just grate a little fresh Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano on top and you’re good to go! If you somehow have extra tomato mixture, it makes an awesome garlicky caprese salad on its own.

2. Basic Pesto Genovese

Another childhood favorite, mom used to make this when I was sick or just because, absolute comfort food. This one is even easier than the last. You don’t even need to chop anything this time and you’ll still end up with a delicious, authentic Northern Italian dish.

• Basil (you should fill your food processor to the point where you need to push the leaves down to make them fit)

• 1/4 cup pine nuts (toasted if you can, also walnuts work very well if you want to save some money)

• 4-5 large garlic cloves

• 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

• 1 lb fusilli (pasta with crevices works the best)

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Yields 5-6 servings

Simple instructions here. Throw everything into a food pro except the olive oil. Give it a few seconds to chop everything to pieces. Then, while it’s still spinning, slowly pour the olive oil in. I didn’t specify an amount here because it depends on the consistency you prefer. Ideally, it should settle to the center of the mixer slowly. You don’t want it too runny or too stiff. Again, salt your water, boil some fusilli or rotelli or another kind of noodle that has crevices to hold the sauce. Once it’s cooked, place the noodles in a bowl, pour the pesto and mix well. Let it cool a bit and serve with more freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

3. Jep’s Eggplant Sandwiches

This is an absolute staple during the summer for my family. Nearly every weekend, if you drop by our place in Vermont, you’ll catch the seductive aroma of eggplant sizzling in olive oil. This is another one of those dishes that has me hooked worse than Mark Renton from Trainspotting. Here’s what you’ll need:

• 6 Small ciabatta loaves

• 2 large eggplants

• 4-5 cloves of garlic

• 1 handful of Italian flat leaf parsley

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil

• 1/2 lb Prosciutto di Parma

• 2 fresh bufala mozzarella balls

• Salt & Pepper 

*Optional – Balsamic Glaze (you can find this at Whole Foods or your local fine Italian Specialty shop)

Yields 6 sandwiches

If you have a mandolin, it will make this job so much easier. You can use a knife but it’s difficult to get the thickness to be consistent. Assuming you do have a mandolin, take the eggplant and run it along the long side until you get a healthy pile of 1/8″ thick slices. Get yourself a large high-sided pan and coat with a generous pouring of the EVOO. You need the olive oil to nearly cover the eggplant but not quite. Cook on med-high heat until they turn golden brown on both sides, be careful because at this stage it’s extremely easy to burn them. Place the slices in a 9″x9″ baking dish, sprinkle some garlic and parsley on each layer as well as a few shakes of salt and pepper. The heat from the eggplant will slightly cook the garlic as the layers build up (try a slice, you’re looking for a nice sweet caramelization and a salty finish). Once your eggplant is done and settling, get going on the bread. Slice the ciabatta loaves and brush each side with olive oil, place them in the toaster oven or oven and broil them until golden brown. Take a garlic clove and slice off the end, use this to rub the bread. Now you start building your masterpiece. First three slices of Prosciutto, then a couple of slices of the bufala mozzarella, finally a healthy mound of eggplant and a little drizzle of balsamic glaze if you so choose. Push down on the top piece of bread to get all the juices to soak into each nook and cranny. Now EAT IT! Quick before I smell it and steal it from you! 

Having a garden that grows most of these ingredients is a big help both in convenience and savings. Even if you don’t have a garden with eggplant, tomatoes and basil growing in your backyard, all of these dishes are easily accessible, and with the exception of the sandwiches, are super-fast and delicious recipes that you’ll keep coming back to when you’re strapped for time but still need to impress. I’d love to hear what you think of them if you guys end up trying these yourselves! 

The Whole Foods Challenge

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go out and spend a lot of money on a meal. It really bummed me out for a while, being suddenly strapped for cash/credit. My wife and I used to enjoy making an evening of it. I’d venture to say we enjoy it more than any other form of entertainment. Unfortunately for us we are broke as a joke and we’ve had to live a little leaner. To spare you the details, we’re cooking basically every meal at home out of necessity.

However, what once was a drag, has become ultimately what I look forward to everyday. To be able to come up with whole meals, (that actually taste decent) off the top of your head using only what you’ve got left in your fridge and pantry on the last day before you get paid and you don’t have a nickel to your name, is extremely satisfying. It makes me feel like I can do anything if I focus.

With this in mind, a conversation occurred on the way home from a family dinner last night between my wife and I. It involved the viewpoints of my cost cutting mother as well as my health conscious aunt. My mom has always been old school as far as the things she buys from the grocery store. It’s always , shopping at the local chain grocery store for what ever is on sale. I joke with her about it alot. I hope it doesn’t hurt her feelings. (I dont want this to come off as mom bashing because shes an amazing mom and im so grateful that my parents to be able to feed me while i was a kid.) My aunt however is more like me and my wife food wise. She goes out of her way to seek out local, (if possible) fresh and organic foods even if it may appear to cost more money. My mom believes that she can’t afford to eat this way. If she would just give it a shot she (and everyone for that matter) would see that for soundness of health, you can’t afford not to eat better. The perceived notion is that natural and organic foods costs more, while in reality it costs much less than a doctor bill incurred from putting garbage into your body. Does it really cost more to eat right? If you think it does then you’re in the majority. I offer this challenge, I say this because I have been successful for many months with this approach, which is as follows:

Step 1: Make sure you have paper and ink for your printer.

Step 2: Own a printer and computer.

Step 3: Print organic food coupons.

There are a number of manufacturer websites that offer coupons for just about anything you would want to eat. It takes time to sort through the crap, but once you do it for a few weeks in a row, it becomes routine. You also would do well to check the sites of Whole Foods and Fresh Market for example and see what the weekly specials are. Your meal planning can revolve around what’s on sale at any given time. I’m saying Whole Foods and Fresh Market because that’s what’s near me. Both stores also have bi-weekly coupons you can print from the website, the same ones are available at the store in the sale papers. The most awesome feeling is finding a coupon from a manufacturer that matches a store coupon. Double savings baby! That can easily get you some free food. On a recent trip to Whole Foods I saved $43.00 from coupons alone. Not to mention the things from the weekly sale ads we were going to buy anyway.

Step 4: If possible buy your meat from a member club. Not sure about SAM’s, but BJ’s has free range chicken, beef, lamb and bison in amounts you can stock up on. On one trip I found 2 lbs of bison for $7.00. Normally that would cost $18.00 at your local grocery if they even carried it at all. Something I never knew about bison is that USDA regulation states that bison can not have any hormones whatsoever, much stricter than beef production.

Step 5: Eat less meat

Step 6: Find a family member or friend that raises chickens for eggs. If you can get free eggs that haven’t been treated with anything and have been raised humanely, win-win. And if you can get duck eggs, win-win-win.

Step 7: Find a produce stand or farmers market that you can trust. Sadly this is the hardest one for me but you might live in an area abundant with locally grown fruit and veg.

Step 8: Drink good water. If you think it’s all the same I’d advise you watch a documentary called “tapped”. It’s on Netflix, eye opening indeed.

With that said. I have been able to save about $200.00 a month for a family of 3, eating I’d say around 90% organic foods. It’s made me feel better and less tired. I’m proud of it and know I’m doing the best I can for my kid so that he doesn’t grow up unhealthy, diabetic, or obese like so many children in this country. Here are a few things I’ve been cooking up over the last few months. Some of these have been in other recent posts but I wanted you to see what’s possible, even on a tight budget.

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