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

Trick Dog – San Francisco, CA

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Fortunately for Trick Dog, they’re still just a pup…and they already know all the tricks.

We touched down at SFO around 9:00 pm, excited, hungry and ready to hit the town. Hertz rental cars had other ideas. I found myself locked in a Seinfeldian conversation with the rep regarding the importance of taking and subsequently holding a reservation. I received a complimentary bottle of Hertz brand bottled water for my trouble and was told to wait. This minor setback gave everyone’s favorite snack sleuth, Logan Crumpton, a moment to find us a meal.

You’d think in a world-class city like San Francisco, the choices for late nights eats would be endless. The search was more difficult than you’d think. The clock ticked on as our options dwindled. This is the part where the men and women who make up The Bon Vivants, the creative group behind Trick Dog, showed us their first trick, staying open past 10:00 pm! In fact they laugh at the clock face as it ticks past midnight as this place is hopping ’til 2 am, every single day! After finally receiving our vehicle, we made a bee line for Florida and 20th.

In an otherwise sleepy neighborhood, one industrial frontage still had the lights on. No sign, no address, but the music was loud and it smelled of alcohol and red meat, this had to be it. The dining room had just closed, but the bar serves the full menu, so our trio quickly staked out a spot near the end. A group of three guys all over 6′-0″ always manages to clear a space. Libations were quickly supplied by the friendly bartenders as we got to work on the menu.

Trick Dog bar

At this point in our relationship, Matt, Logan and I have developed a hive mind when it comes to eating, so we took turns rattling off the choices, each meeting with a resounding “yeah baybay!”. The Trick Dog, beef tartare, scotch egg and thrice cooked fries, manimal style, of course…done!

The Trick Dog

The trick of the Trick Dog is that’s it’s not a dog at all, it’s a dog shaped patty of chuck, brisket and sirloin doused in a tangy house sauce and slapped on a buttered and toasted bun. If that’s not drinking food I don’t know what is. The taste is immediately familiar and new all at once, the house sauce, some sort of creamy relish lights up the sumptuous beef with a sour pop.

Two of my favorite dishes landed simultaneously. The scotch egg played a third trick on us. Traditionally wrapped with sausage, here it’s replaced with brandade (a salt cod and olive oil emulsion), and sits proudly on a purple potato salad in a sea of romesco. The sea flavor of the crispy cod exterior is front and center and blends well with the soft-boiled egg. While the romesco and potato salad play off each other with spicy and soothing notes.

Scotch egg & steak tartare

Now Logan and I both have had our share of post midnight tartare. I think I speak for both of us when I say that this was one of the best. While many dishes on the menu play fast and loose with geography, this tartare sits squarely in France, a perfect rendition. Smooth and creamy, savory and sour, every note you expect and hope for from a tartare were there. Slather a healthy spoonful on the accompanying garlic bread and you’ll tune out the incredible din for a few seconds while you bask in the sun-like glow of quail egg coated rare beef.

Thrice cooked fries

Of course the boys of The Root couldn’t pass up and opportunity at a little market research, to see how the west coast does fries. If double frying is good, triple frying has to be better right? It’s crisp upon crisp with this dish, and it has to be to handle the downright deluge of “manimal” sauce and cheese. Well seasoned and cut sturdy enough to handle the moist attack, these fries are perfect drinking companions. The salt mixed with the sweet and sour of the sauce is one of those addicting combinations that lures you back like a siren. The poor bowl was ravaged by three greedy hands grasping and groping for every last crumb.

So here we are just about 12:30 am, six drinks and four dishes down when the bartender asks, “how about dessert?”…”what have you got?” we reply, “how about a gin fizz panna cotta?”…”um, yes please”.

Ramo's gin fizz panna cotta

I should probably let Logan step in here as he was having something like a religious experience with this thing. I have to admit, I’ve never had a panna cotta quite like this. Made with Tanqueray, orange blossom and citrus pop rocks for the “fizz”. Chef Watson obviously knew what he was doing when he thought up such a refreshing dish to leave you floating after a meat filled, fried fiesta.

Amazing cocktails, killer pub food, cool atmosphere and late hours, Trick Dog does all the tricks and does them well. Do you live in San Francisco? Visiting soon? If you’re anything like us, you’ll want to stop here, maybe learn a few new tricks while you’re at it!

Trick Dog on Urbanspoon

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

An Interview with Fiat Cafe’s Stephane Iacovelli

As promised, we were able to sit down with the owner of Fiat Cafe, Stephane Iacovelli, to get some quick insights into this awesome little eatery. I’d like to thank Stephane’s mother for instilling the love for food in her son so that he can bring her amazingly delicious recipes to the world! 

Tell me a little about yourself, where are you from, where did you grow up?
I was raised in a small suburban city near Paris known as Drancy, but my parents are Italian, so I got their Italian mentality along with a French education.

What were/are your influences when it comes to food?
My main influence when it comes to food, I would have to say, has been ever since a child, watching my mother constantly cook.

How did you get into the restaurant business?
I got into the restaurant business by wanting to bring the inspiration my mother gave me, farther.

What led you to create Fiat Cafe, and what is your goal with this restaurant?
I created Fiat Cafe to try to give people a taste of the food that my mother showed me that I fell immediately in love with.

What drives the menu? Where did you learn/find your recipes?
I learned the recipes from my mother, and family ingredients.

What are some of your favorite places to eat when you go out for a meal, either in NYC or elsewhere?
In NYC, my favorite place to eat would be Bar Pitti, down in west village.

Name a dish most reminds you of home?
Carvatelli with broccoli

Any advice for amateur cooks looking to get more serious about a career in food?
I would have to say, like everything else, just keep at it, and if it’s what your interested in, to take it to the next step.

Thanks again to Stephane for taking the time to answer some questions for our humble blog and becoming the first of hopefully many food-related interviewees.

On a side note, I made my way to Fiat Cafe once again yesterday and enjoyed another exceedingly fresh and delicious meal. I always try to order different things, because if a restaurant is truly great, they’ll succeed with every dish, not just their specialties. I ordered the burrata with tomatoes and basil and the linguine fini with baby clams and pancetta. 

And succeed they did. The burrata and tomatoes were at the peak of freshness, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil enhanced the already bright flavors. There are few things better than a perfect orb of burrata. 

Except the excellent execution of a bowl of linguine alle vongole. As the bowl was placed before me, I could smell the distinct aroma of the sea emanating from the steaming clam shells. The pasta, as always, was perfectly al dente and the clams we tender and juicy without a hint of fishy funk. Large slivers of pancetta added a necessary salty kick and the generous garlic chunks took it over the top. It’s going to be hard to order something new after that. See you soon Fiat!

P.S. Coffee panna cotta with strawberry sauce FTW! Thanks Stephane!