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

Polpo Pizza Co. – Sarasota, FL

It seems there’s a pizza renaissance brewing in Florida these days. Recently, Proof Pizza & Pasta reignited my excitement for the almighty pie in this state. Also in Miami, the as yet untested Stanzione 87 stands poised to join the hallowed pizza hall of fame with the likes of Antico. However the pizza revival in the sunshine state isn’t exclusive to the big cities. Heck it’s not even exclusive to having an actual restaurant. That’s because right here in Sarasota, two passionate people and their fire-breathing, mid-century Ford F5 are cranking out some of the best pizza in the south. 

Polpo spread 1

Polpo Pizza Co. was among the first names mentioned when I began asking for eats from my circle of gulf coast food friends. I quickly found that if you didn’t plan ahead, you’d end up on a Nick and Norah type excursion in pursuit of the fabled pies. Polpo doesn’t have a storefront, so there’s no calling in for takeout or delivery, and that’s fine, because Danni and Tom have crafted such an amazing product that you won’t mind driving 20-30 minutes to sink your teeth into that perfect dough.

The team at Polpo manage this feat by keeping things simple. Working with local growers to procure the freshest produce, staying away from the processed nonsense peddled by lesser pizzerias and paying a close attention to quality has made for a pizza that transcends the dish.

All of those steps are crucial to the creation of an amazing pie, but quality ingredients can only take you so far, especially since so many other restaurants are upping the bar in that respect. You have to be creative to really set yourself apart, a lesson that Polpo actively displays in their ever-changing menu.

Of course this includes the ubiquitous Margherita, both in a traditional and spicy variant, but from there, things get interesting. Their signature pie, The Bee Sting, is an eye-opening spicy/sweet concoction with Calabrese, shaved raw garlic, chili pepper infused olive oil and a liberal drizzle of hot pepper infused honey. The Pig & Goat on the other hand is a smooth and smokey affair with Niman Ranch bacon, rosemary infused olive oil, fresh thyme, peppadew peppers and a Pollack-like application of goat cheese cream

Polpo spread 2

Another unique pie hailed from the opposite side of the Mediterranean. The Smokin’ Moroccan involves a spiced chickpea purée, smoked baby eggplant, Scamorza cheese, feta-lemon cream and a pistachio gremolata.

During one of Logan’s visits, a couple of breakfast time pizzas were on offer. A savory option of tomato, green onion, provolone, house made mozzarella, bacon and a runny egg and a sweeter one with banana creme, Scamorza cheese, banana, bacon and more house made mozzarella.

Polpo spread 3

But not everything needs hunks of cheese to deliver a tasty slice. The Mother Earth (pictured at the top of the page) stays grounded with porcini cream, fresh sliced porcinis, fresh picked arugula, shaved parmesan and a lemon vinaigrette. I swear I detected a hint of truffle in there as well.

The flavors from all of Polpo’s pizzas are at once familiar and unique. They don’t try to get too cute with the combinations, as you can tell each pie is thoughtfully constructed from a taste, visual and even structural standpoint. The more I eat at this pizza truck, the more I understand why they haven’t built a brick and mortar shop yet, as they’d likely need eight arms to keep up with the demand. The temporal nature of mobile eatery, especially one that achieves this level of quality, adds an unquantifiable characteristic the experience.

I think I speak for all of us here at Eat a Duck headquarters when I urge you to check the calendar and get yourself one of Polpo’s gorgeous pizza’s while you can.

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

Sette Luna – Easton, PA

The joy of feasting with family is one of the many mantras we preach here at Eat a Duck. This humble food writer recently had the even greater honor of taking his lovely and spry, octogenarian grandmother out on a dinner date. She goes by many names, but I call her Baba.

An unfortunate truth in life is that many of us don’t get to spend as much time with our grandparents as we may like to. Thankfully, I haven’t had that problem as she lovingly opened her home for me and my wife to stay when I landed my first job in Manhattan. In those months, she brought me to one of her favorite little Italian eateries just one town away in Easton, PA, Sette Luna. It quickly became “our place”, and whenever I visit, I can be fairly certain we’ll end up there on any given night.

Sette Luna Exterior

This visit felt special though. My trip had been unexpected, so when I found out I would be heading to Bethlehem, I got my taste buds ready for some rib-sticking Italian cuisine. We arrived without reservations but were seated promptly. Unlike most restaurants I’ve patronized, no prior menu research was required. While many of the items here are tantalizing, like the wild boar agnolotti with wild mushrooms and pancetta, or the “lovingly braised” osso bucco, I was here for one thing, Bud’s bolognese speciale. Judge me all you want for going with the “safe” choice, this dish is straight up comfort food and I never pass up a favorite.

Bud's Bolognese Special

This is out of order but I don’t care. I love this bowl of pasta, it puts a stupid grin on my face the second I spot it heading for my table. Tender fettuccine, coated in a meat sauce so luxurious it’s almost a gravy. Nothing cute, nothing fancy, just the way I like. The menu doesn’t lie when it states, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing baby!”. Bud, I’ve never met you in person, but I feel we’ve made a connection through these noodles you’ve graciously shared with me on so many occasions.

Now that I’ve blown the climax of this post wide open, I’ll keep it rolling with a couple heavy hitting appetizers. Baba doesn’t mess around when it comes to dinner time. Sure she’ll order a nice light arugula salad…but it’s going to be covered with fresh slices of prosciutto di parma and roasted figs stuffed with goat cheese!

Goat Cheese Stuffed Figs, Arugula & Proscuitto

We matched that with a trio of veal meatballs relaxing in generous amounts of Sette Luna’s tangy tomato sauce and a cozy jackets of melted mozz. A sprinkle of freshly grated parm finished it off and we dug in. The meat was succulent and savory, with just enough spice to keep your tongue on its toes. The sauce and cheese intermingle with the juicy meat to form a single entity in your mouth. I enjoyed the addition of a couple of lemon peels that added a spring of citrus to the high voltage marinara. There are few things in this world better than a meatball done right, and Sette Luna has got them on lock.

Veal Meatballs

To round out the fantastic meal, Baba went all out on one of their specials of the night, the rabbit lasagna. I had nearly been tempted away from my go to dish when I heard this one get announced. Delicate shreds of rabbit with spinach and melted cheese all coated in a cream sauce and a drizzle of balsamic. Sounds heavy no? It was surprisingly light and easy to down in large bites, a dangerous combination. Rabbit always sounds enticing, but many places overcook it ’til it turns to leather. Not here, your tongue is plenty strong to tackle this bunny, and the distinct flavor still shone through in spite of the cream and cheese. Too bad we may never have the pleasure of tasting this one again, the nightly special giveth and taketh away.

Rabbit Lasagna

Happily, I chalked up another wonderful dinner with just me and my Baba. Sette Luna makes it all possible with its homegrown owners supplying the town of Easton and the surrounding area with fantastic Italian cuisine and the perfect venue to make memories with loved ones. Thanks to Josh, Terry and Bud for all the great meals over the years, I can’t wait for my next visit!

Sette Luna 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.

Antico Revisited

From all the long, late night conversations I’ve had with various scallywags debating the best pizza that’s ever been made, Antico has rapidly approached legendary status. I got the chance to form my own opinion about two years ago. After the first bite I was impressed. I was swept off my feet by how good the pizza actually was. The all-time pizza standings at that moment had Antico a close second, trailing Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, the Jacques Cousteau of pizza, by a sliver of anchovy. A distant third was Cici’s pizza. Nobody beats that cardboard flavored crust. Then there was a calm in the pizza ranking game. My beliefs were unwavering. It’s been three years since my last slice at Grimaldi’s, still no one could match the way their pies made me feel. However, all the praise that Antico received by friend after friend visiting Atlanta, waxing poetic about their life altering experience can really test ones loyalty.

I couldn’t take it anymore!!!

Let me take a slice, I mean a swing at this and maybe I’ll fall in line. I have just one friend that has had both, and he had visited both within a few months of one another. My question to him, as I made my way to Antico for much needed closure, was a simple one. “Which is your favorite?”, his answer? Antico. I actually didn’t expect that answer. I felt like Tom Hanks on an island alone with my thoughts…and a volleyball.

When you drive up to the entrance of Antico, you’ll probably pass right by it at first, because it doesn’t really look like much, maybe an old lawyers office or something (actually it was a bakery). It looks pretty sparse from the outside. This place will completely fool you. As you make your way to the door, your brain switches from trying to figure out if you’re in the right place, to trying to figure out how people can pack themselves inside the building like so many sardines. Now this is where you have to start changing the way you think about a dining hall. You have to stop worrying about the 75 people in line trying to get their orders in before the place runs out of dough, as well as dozens more milling about waiting for their pizzas. You have to have the mindset that there are some things in life worth waiting for. It’s like waiting to ride Space Mountain. Even though you’re standing behind a smelly European family for 90 minutes in prison-like conditions, the moment you get your butt in that space capsule, it makes everything worthwhile. The moment you get a speck of the charred crust and some of the freshest tomato sauce to hit your deprived tongue, it makes any amount of time spent waiting seem like mere seconds.

The most amazing thing happened on my most recent stop at Antico. A special limited edition pizza was being made called “The Sophia”. Not only was it inspired by Sophia Loren which I love, it had bufala mozzarella , cipollini onions, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and truffle oil. I literally crapped my pants from excitement, alright not literally. It only took about 10-15 minutes to get our pies. We decided to get them to-go as there wasn’t a chance we would ever be able to get a table. I had the task of taking the pizzas to the car where my party of seven was awaiting my heroic return. The aroma from the front door all the way back to the car was palpable. As we opened the “Sophia” I slowly let out a very softly spoken “whoa”. I quickly grabbed my slice before offering any to the other passengers. Hey, it’s not my fault I was given the task of transporter. As I took my first bite I had to close my eyes and study all the unique flavors that I believe only the masterminds at Antico could create. As I said earlier, first that char grabs hold, then you get the flavor and texture of the roasted porcini. Next the truffle scent enters your nostrils and you become engulfed in the ordeal. It’s very spiritual to me. Physically the pizza makes your body involuntarily spasm into what scientists have referred to as a grin. I think that’s how you spell it. If you allow food to make you happy and move you positively through life, you will no doubt find Antico to be incomparable. As for it being “the best”? You want to know a secret I’ve never told anyone until now? Here, come a little closer, because I don’t want Jimmy to hear. I think Antico has done it.

Antico Pizza Napoletana on Urbanspoon

Parm & La Esquina – New York City, NY

There seems to be a trend with high-end prix fixe restaurants to open smaller, less formal off-shoots to open their cuisine to a larger audience. One well known example, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, has brought the flavors of the great chef into a more relaxed setting, where you could conceivably visit for a nice lunch, instead of the “once every five years” type of meal. Thankfully, other fine restaurants have followed suit, which paves the way to some great food at a price that doesn’t break the bank. Two recent discoveries, Parm and La Esquina, are both offspring of their larger, more formal parent restaurants.

Parm grew out of the well known Torrisi Italian Specialties, which used to try balancing the high end prix fixe market with more accessible cuisine, like meatball sandwiches and the like. When the demand for both led The dynamic duo of Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone to create the throwback Italian deli/sandwich bar that is Parm. When you walk in the door, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s been around for decades, when in reality it’s only a few months old. The illusion is aided by the menu full of traditional Italian comfort food, Chicken, Eggplant and Meatball Parm, Sausage and Peppers Heros, fresh made ricotta and mozzarella with prosciutto and baked ziti with optional meat gravy. This is the real deal, stick to your ribs Italian bar food that is continuously copied but rarely executed in any sort of appetizing manner. You won’t find soggy eggplant, over-breaded chicken, or jarred tomato sauce.

What led me here though, were the rumblings about the Parm Heros. I discovered a list of the 101 best sandwiches in New York and took it as a personal challenge. So far I’ve tackled a shade over half a dozen and counting, some featured here! Parm did not disappoint. Sitting proudly at #21 on the list, it was everything you could ask a Chicken Parm sandwich to be. Chicken that is both crisp and tender, blanketed with piping hot, velvety tomato sauce, melted mozzarella and fresh picked basil on a toasted sesame seed roll. Perfection from simplicity. This Chicken Parm is like the Ramones, simple power chords played fast and hard to a tried and true beat, it’s the same every time and you wouldn’t want it any other way.

La Esquina is an altogether different animal. Although it’s also an off-shot from the larger brasserie of the same name, it’s closer to a taco truck than an actual restaurant. It inhabits a triangular lot that’s no more than eight feet wide at the most. The kitchen is crammed into the larger side, while a window bar with stools lines the opposite side. Size obviously doesn’t matter because these guys are pumping out some awesome Mexican street food at a furious pace.

 La Esquina spread

My standby has always been the tortas, the Pollo Rostizado to be precise. It consists of a rotisserie chicken, arugula, shaved red onions, tomato, avocado and an unreal smoky, spicy chipotle mayo (not CHI-POL-TAY). The chicken here is so moist, not the dry, unpalatable breast you usually get in these situations. The arugula lends a great nuttiness, with the onions and tomato giving you that pop of crisp freshness. The best part though, is the delicious sludge that’s formed by the chipotle mayo and avocado blending together from the heat trapped inside the bread. It’s creamy and buttery, with a perfect spiciness to give the chicken an added flavor explosion. Just awesome. Another tasty dish I recently discovered was the Platanos Machos Fritos. This is a pile of sweet plantains, covered in cotija and spicy avocado salsa verde. Look me in the eye and tell me that doesn’t sound like the perfect lunch.

Once again, the gift of the SoHo food scene keeps on giving. The strange thing is, I’ve never been a big fan of chicken sandwiches, and both of these are classic chicken sandwiches that are so often ruined with less than optimal ingredients. But, like I always say, everything tastes good when it’s done right. Until next time everyone!

Parm  on Urbanspoon

La Esquina on Urbanspoon

Eat a Duck’s 2011 Catering Blowout!

Well it’s that time of year, the time when all blogs around the world roll out their Top 10 “whatever” of 2011 lists. We could go down that path, but we here at Eat a Duck try to use our time each year to steadily ramp up our culinary experiences to a fever pitch, so we can go out with a fitting food-related fracas to be remembered. I believe we have succeeded in that goal my friends, and as always we’d like to share it with you.

Logan has mentioned many times before that whenever we get together, a tasty food experience is bound to find us and this past trip was no exception. I was informed by my colleague that he had been offered the chance to cater a party for a co-worker of his and that he needed a sous chef. Of course the answer was an immediate yes, so he sealed the deal and Eat a Duck was primed for its first dinner service for non-family members. When I arrived from Miami, Logan had already begun to brainstorm and the client also had some requests, so it was up to us to bring what could have been an everyday party, into a tongue tingling, finger food fiesta.

After much deliberation and a few heated arguments over presentation, this is the menu we came up with:

1. Panzanella salad skewers with mozzarella bocconcini, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil in a sherry vinaigrette

2. Cannellini bean hummus with garlic, green onion, cumin, paprika and generous amounts of olive oil

3. Turkey and pork chorizo on puff pastry with stone ground mustard, caramelized onions, quince paste and a dusting of manchego cheese

4. Lamb meatballs with shallot, garlic and mint on crusty bread topped with romesco sauce, pine nuts and grated cotija cheese

5. Scotch eggs using quail eggs wrapped in breakfast sausage and coated in Panko, deep-fried and served with a horseradish mustard dipping sauce

6. Fresh strawberry, pineapple, pound cake and marshmallow skewers

After we set the list, we took a step back to take in the dizzying amount of ingredients we would need to procure in the two short days we had to prepare. It was truly a daunting task, coming up with estimated prices and amounts for each ingredient, where to get them, when to prepare and then assemble the various components, not to mention how we would transport everything to the event!

All told, it took nearly a full day to collect everything and bring it home. As we stared into the fridge, which was now a solid wall of foodstuffs, we were having trouble figuring out where to begin attacking this mammoth task. We agreed to get the sauces and various garnish items taken care of and work our way towards the different proteins. With a few strokes of the knife and a couple of seconds with the food pro, the hummus was done and chilling in the fridge, good, one dish down. Then the Romesco, a nice sautée of bread, almonds and garlic, combine it all in the food pro with some piquillo peppers and tomato, throw it in the oven to caramelize and done.

 

The Scotch egg sauce came together quickly, as well as the sherry vinaigrette, although we had a scare when I dumped all the necessary olive oil in the mixing bowl without so much as a single whisk. Luckily for me we had a blender nearby which took care of the emulsion handily.

Now that the sauces were in the bag, we could start thinking about the meat. We needed to boil and peel 72 quail eggs, encase them each with sausage, bread them in panko and fry them to golden crispy perfection. Have you ever seen that many quail eggs in one place before?! What a beautiful thing, it’s a crime we didn’t have any fresh Uni on hand!

 

We also needed to roll roughly the same amount of lamb meatballs, not to mention cook and slice up the chorizo. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Logan started in on boiling the eggs Friday morning and we got them all peeled and cleaned in under an hour. I cranked out all the meatballs that afternoon while Logan attacked the chorizo. We were looking good, raw ingredients were being transformed into finished components and we could finally see our creations taking shape.

 

Saturday morning came like a thief, and while we had made great progress, there was still a lot of work to be done. I had an engagement to attend that afternoon so I worked on surrounding each egg with sausage to prepare them for breading and frying. I unfortunately had to leave Logan for a while so it was up to him to juggle the cooking of both the meatballs and the scotch eggs. While I was away, Logan began the frying process. We both thought this was going to be the easy part, little did we know that the egg-meat physics were conspiring against us. For some reason, when the eggs hit the hot oil, some of them were getting blowouts, exposing the fragile egg to the scalding oil bath. In the end, it didn’t end up being a big deal, although Logan and I, being the perfectionists that we are, would have liked to have had a nice pyramid of pristine eggs. In any event, they tasted amazing and that’s all that matters.

We finally finished all the components of each dish and packed everything into a cooler and a couple of serving trays. Off to the party we went. We arrived before the guests, so we had some lead time to assemble the dishes and get them ready for service. I tackled the Panzanella skewers while Logan hit the dessert. We tag teamed the chorizo, following each other with each piece of the puzzle. Puff pastry down, mustard smeared, chorizo placed, caramelized onions slathered, quince placed, manchego tossed. The same process for the meatballs. After constructing a tidy little Scotch egg pyramid (architecture school finally pays off!) the spread was complete. We were rewarded with an ice-cold Yeungling as we stood back to appreciate the gravity of what we had accomplished.

It was a fantastic way to end the year, the two of us together, doing what we love, and on a scale neither of us had ever experienced. On the drive home, all we could talk about what when we might be able to do it again. So if anyone is looking for a deal on some gourmet caterers, Eat a Duck has you covered. Check back in the days to come, because Logan will be going into detail on some of the dishes we prepared so you can try them at home!