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.

On the Backs of Giants: An evening with Chef Gary Moran

Truth be told, I’m a fan of the Moran brand. As day turns to night, a crowd of hungry diners are welcomed with an explanation of why we’ve been gathered. I’ve yet to see a chef with more passion for showing respect to tradition in the culinary craft, while at the same time, pushing his profession. Well, maybe if you include the time I saw master Joël Robuchon, who was mentioned in the initial welcoming words as a pioneer of invention. One of the “giants” to be revered.

Chef Gary Moran

Amuse. When you think of bacon and tomato you probably think B.L.T. or some other equally humble dish. I like to think of crispy and firm textures that can refresh and exhilarate my senses. Bacon is always going to be a gimmick due to the breadth of enjoyment by such a broad audience. It’s a crutch for many cooks who do not feel compelled to show restraint. When paired with the time-consuming Robuchon influenced tomato water and chiffonade of lettuce, I found myself eager for more. This bacon grease coated my lips. A wonderful consequence of consuming pork products. I guess I should expect to be refreshed by lettuce and tomato water. It’s almost completely made of water for goodness sakes. Picture a savory agua fresca.

BLT Soup Grilled Cheese & Tomato Basil Soup

For a soup course, we were treated to a grilled cheese, tomato and basil soup, presented by our interpreter and chef Gary. It was restrained until the moment you dig your fork into spongy focaccia laced with sharp Asiago and Parmesan. I enjoyed being in the ring with fresh, lively tomato dishes for two rounds, anxious to see what kind of hay-makers were coming my way.

Just about the most disrespectful thing you can do is throw away a classic. You don’t just stop listening to Sgt. Pepper because he’s 40 years old. Beef Wellington fits that description. The components of this English stalwart include all the things cool kids love to hate. Rich beef, duxelle, puff pastry, roots and bordelaise. Add truffle and you have a whole room of people wondering if they had accidentally found a portal to  Le Cirque circa 1987.

Beef Wellington Mille feuille of sousvide beef

Meat cake a.k.a. mille feuille of beef sous-vide paired with two sauces came next. Horseradish stroganoff and Burgundy cocoa were the ultimate contrast. Crispy sweet roots, parsnip and sweet potato used in the previous dish were reformed into chips to go along with the fork tender, slow water bathed beef. I finally started to understand what the chef was doing! It took four courses to get it through my cranium kadoo. One dish contained two concepts. We can, if we choose to do so, use the same ingredients in a myriad of ways. We can choose to give a gentlemanly nod, or we can push food into the Newmanium!

Dessert prequel:
Peachy, figgy, bready pudding spiked with bourbon and cinnamon, topped with a rich creamy Chantilly. The base had a custard-like appearance despite the topping of crusty crouton. I wish I had been cozied up on a chaise watching Million Dollar Listing on a cold winter snow day.

Fig & Peach Bread Pudding Almond tart with peach gel

As the evening wound down, the last plate arrived, although many of us were confounded, much like a raptor curiously kicking a can of Barbasol. It looked sweet and architecturally intriguing. A gorgeous example of edible minimalism. I took a bite to give it some old Colombo detective work. The top was made into a cubist gel of peach puree underneath a variant bread pudding tinged with rosemary and almond slivers. The night was about taking a straight path to a classic, followed by a lower leg drop in the center of the ring by the future Champion of Tampa cuisine. If you have the means to do so I would strongly suggest giving some attention to the new avenue Chef Gary and his incredible team have paved.

Sardinia Ristorante – Miami Beach, FL

Ah, the anniversary dinner. The one time of year I can be sure of having an amazing meal, since my wife always manages to sniff out something tasty as a present for me. This year, while a bit belated, was no different. It seems we’re in a different city for every anniversary, which increases the level of suspense, because I have no frame of reference to even make a guess at where we’ll be going. I’m a known addict of Italian food, so Ashley figured she’d scratch that itch this year and take me to Sardinia Ristorante on Miami Beach.

Now I won’t try to wax poetic about how Sardinia Ristorante captures the essence of the local cuisine from the island just south of Corsica, because frankly, I haven’t been there. Not even watching No Reservations Sardinia will help. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters, is that Sardinia Ristorante is pumping out some damn tasty Italian food. So let’s get to what everyone wants to see, the food.

We started out with a bevy of antipasti which arrived all at once, just the way I like it. Sfoglia di burrata hit the table first, accompanied by prosciutto di Parma and fresh asparagus. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this may have been the best asparagus I have ever had. Bet you thought I was going to say something about the cheese. Well that was good too, but I have to say, the two sides may have overshadowed the main event. While the cheese was extremely fresh, I probably should’ve ordered the straight burrata and done without the cured meat rolled up with it. Next was a classic carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, shaved parm, olive oil and lemon juice. The steak was pounded so thin that we didn’t even have to cut it, just place your fork down and pull. Perfectly executed, fresh and delicious.

A cheese trio of my choosing followed. My selections were: 18 month Grana Padano, Pecorino Tartufato del Mugello and Taleggio d.o.p. from Valtaleggio paired with a bowl of what we assumed was preserved persimmon as a palate cleanser. My wife and I are cheese hounds, and these three are some of our favorites. The gooey Taleggio will always be a staple on my top cheese board of my mind and anything containing truffles is on the list as well. The 18 month Grana Padano was also a must have because you just don’t find genuine aged Grana Padano in the States outside of specialty food purveyors and high-end Italian joints.

The fourth dish was cipolline al forno con funghi trifolati. The “al forno” part lead me to believe we’d be enjoying some piping hot, caramelized onions with a trio of mushrooms simmering in their own juices. So I was surprised when I bit into one to find it was actually on the chilly side. Not a bad thing though. They were sweet and refreshing and probably the best partner for the heavy, tongue engulfing cheeses. A bite of cipollini, a bite of cheese, heaven!

The fifth and final antipasto was a heavyweight. Animelle, veal sweetbreads with brown butter, aged pancetta, sage and brussels sprouts. Not the prettiest of plates I’ll admit, but dear lord did it pack in the flavor. I was a little worried that the mellow flavor of the sweetbreads might be overpowered by the ultra-salty pancetta, but it held up nicely. The sweetbreads were tender and juicy thanks to the nice glaze of brown butter. The big surprise of the dish, for me at least were the brussels sprouts. Never in my life have I tasted sprouts like these. No bitterness to speak of, savory and salty, almost meaty. They joined the other proteins and matched them note for note. There’s nothing I love more than having one of my preconceptions turned on its head. If all brussels sprouts could taste like this, you could call me a fan.

Honestly, that could’ve been a meal in itself, but this was an anniversary dinner, so we had to do it right. So we placed our entreé order, Colorado lamb shanks with porcini and Cannonau wine reduction for Ashley, and two half orders of pasta for me. The first, malloreddos, Sardinian teardrop pasta with ragu of braised Colorado baby lamb, followed by the orecchiette, with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and roasted pinenuts.

The meat dish was akin to an osso buco, except with lamb. There was even a tiny morsel of buttery marrow at the end of the bone. It was more than fork tender, if you looked at it hard enough it would fall off the bone. The tender meat was flanked with just enough succulent fat to really drive home the flavor. Luckily my wife isn’t a big fan of straight animal fat, so I stepped in to take care of it for her. She was a little disappointed in the accompanying veg, as it seemed like an afterthought with very little seasoning, a little surprising given the amazing asparagus and sprouts we enjoyed earlier.

Now that I think back, these pastas are very similar to what I ordered at Perla up in New York City a few months ago. The malloreddos, which looked like little maggots, was tossed with the same Colorado lamb that Ashley was enjoying. They might have even just stripped the meat off the bone with some of the tomato sauce they used for her dish and mixed it in with the pasta. In any case, it was delicious, perfectly al dente and very comforting.
 The orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and pinenuts was also a winner. I’m really digging this pairing of pesto and gamey sausage. Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve just started to notice this combination appearing on Italian menus. In any case, the duo of sausage and bitter rapini is a great one. The bitterness isn’t overwhelming, but it’s just enough to counter the fat of the sausage, although boar is naturally pretty lean. I had to hold off and save the rest of this dish for lunch the next day.

For dessert, a chocolate almond cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries. The cake was a bit dry and fluffy for my taste. The frosting was delicious, but it made me feel like a dog who just got fed peanut butter.

It was another successful anniversary meal and while it’s going to be hard to ever beat our meal at Uni, it definitely made an impression. So if you’ve got a hankering for some serious Italian cuisine, Sardinia Ristorante is the real deal.

On a side note, there was a small negative that I want to address. I brought a bottle of 2011 Conundrum white table wine to have with dinner. Now I’m accustomed to restaurants adding a corkage fee, usually around $15 or so. Here’s what happened, I had my bottle put on ice to chill, a few minutes later, the manager comes to our table to let us know that they usually don’t allow people to bring bottles in that are already on their wine list, but that this one time would be alright. That was the key phrase for me, “this one time will be alright”. No mention of a corkage fee, nothing. We had mentioned prior to making our reservation that we were celebrating our 6th anniversary, so I figured she was waiving it for that reason. As the bill arrived at the end of the meal, I come to find she had a $30 corkage fee added to my bill. Now I’m not an unreasonable person, had I been made aware of this when she came to the table, at least I could’ve prepared. I would’ve been able to tailor the meal to cover that added cost, but no. It wasn’t like I cheaped out on dinner either, I went all out, the least she could do was waive a silly corkage fee. It was the one breakdown in service for the night, as the rest of the staff was very friendly, attentive and polite.

If you’re reading this ma’am, I want you to know that on my way home I actually considered never returning to Sardinia based on your performance, it came off as rude and sneaky. A customer should never be made to feel swindled, especially from the manager, and when a restaurant serves such amazing food, one would expect the service to be just as palatable.

Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Big Meals in the Big Apple

Logan recently posed an interesting question that he thought might be helpful to you guys. Now that I’ve been working in in the city for almost a year, what three dining discoveries have I made that would come in handy for someone planning a visit? It didn’t take me long to compile a list and narrow it down to my top three of the moment. Hopefully these suggestions will help everyone from the most experienced New York visitors, to the first timers.

1. Snack 105 Thompson St.

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This little neighborhood gem in SOHO was an extremely recent find of mine, two days ago in fact. I was in the mood for Greek food, and I found Snack just over 4 blocks from my office. A very simple storefront displays a humble four tabletops and a food counter displaying some tasty looking Greek pastries. The menu has all the staples you’d expect, Skordalia, Saganaki, Dolmadas, along with interesting choices like Roasted 1.0 portobello mushrooms, red peppers & arugula with a spicy feta spread on sriracho bread. All the sandwiches are named like versions of software, which can only mean they’re constantly tweaking and improving their recipes. I chose a crisp classic Greek salad (meaning no lettuce) and a side of Skordalia (a puree garlic, potato, olive oil, and lemon juice). All the ingredients were at the peak of freshness, which meant the taste was off the charts. In all honesty, having been to Milo’s and sampling some of the finest Greek food Manhattan has to offer, Snack is easily the next best thing, and at a fraction of the price.

Snack on Urbanspoon

2. Da Nico 158 Mulberry St.

20111102-092310.jpgWhen you’re in the mood for some real homemade Italian food, you’ll find it here. Hidden amongst the myriad tourist trap Italian wannabes in Little Italy, Da Nico is serving up some super fresh cuisine, with a respectable wine list chockfull of some kick you in the teeth reds that stand up to the most robust of red sauces. On a recent visit with my family, we were seeking out a plate of Lobster Fra Diavolo to rival the much touted (by my father anyway) Randazzo’s. While it wasn’t on the menu, our waiter didn’t bat an eye when we made our request. We were met with a manhole sized bowl, overflowing with a whole lobster, fresh clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp. Underneath this ocean’s bounty was a pile of perfectly al dents linguine, and the whole affair was covered in a devilishly spicy pomodoro sauce. With great service, food and atmosphere, you can’t go wrong with Da Nico.

Da Nico on Urbanspoon

3. Eleven Madison Park

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20111102-092557.jpgThe first two entries are excellent, casual dining experiences with fantastic food that will definitely make for a memorable time. But if you want a dining “experience”, the kind of meal that you’ll be talking about as one of the finest of your life, make a reservation at Eleven Madison Park. Upon entering, you’ll be greeted warmly by the maitre’d and the soaring ceilings of the dining room. I have to say this was one of the most beautiful restaurants I’ve ever been to. Almost immediately our waiter was at our side, throughout the meal, he made us feel like we were his only table that night. He also served as our guide through the extensive tasting menu. You’re presented with a nicely designed card (which sets the tone for the whole experience) with a matrix of ingredients. The four rows represent the four main dishes. You choose from a variety of proteins, for instance for my first course I was given the options: trout, crab, quail; 2nd course, ricotta, snapper, lobster; 3rd course, chicken, pork, lamb; dessert, pear, strawberry, chocolate. Since the menu changes so often, I won’t bother going into detail about each dish, but you get so much more than the four dishes you choose up front. Normally a fine restaurant provides you with one or two amuse bouches, but that’s not enough at Eleven Madison Park, no we were presented with no less than five. Live scallops with orange zest, a cold pea soup with Parmesan frozen in liquid nitrogen, oysters, homemade cheese puffs, and my favorite, a beet and goat cheese lollipop. The meal was fantastic and far surpassed my expectations, the wine pairings were perfect for each dish, expertly chosen by our waiter (and sommelier). A highlight was during my duck dish, which was served whole and roasted with skin so crisp and meat so succulent. They proceeded to carve and serve the breast tableside, but to my dismay they took the legs back to the kitchen. Only after I had neatly devoured what was on my plate did the legs reappear, only now they had been cooked confit, in fact I couldn’t even see the meat below the creamy white duck fat, out of control.

Before dessert was served, another round of amuse bouches were brought to the table, an array of chocolates, macarons and caramels (I’m not doing these justice by giving such boring descriptions, they were unreal). Following dessert, we were asked if we’d like a coffee or aperitif, my father chose an espresso along with a cognac, I joined him in a cognac as I was in the mood for a nice warming drink. Rather than pouring us two glasses in the back, our man returned with an entire bottle of fine cognac, and plonked it right down on the table so we could pour ourselves as much as we liked.

This has become pretty long winded but I had to give this place its due. Eleven Madison Park is easily in my top 5 dinners of all time. Usually those experiences break the bank, but you could easily have a very special night for under $300. Like I stated earlier, this is an “experience”. Something that may not happen again, something you will surely never forget. That’s the beauty of this great city, it is what you make of it in every way, especially food. Adventures range from ultra expensive, to the cheapest of cheap. These three restaurants alone are a shining example of the range that NYC has to offer. Such a broad spectrum, there’s a gem out there for everyone.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

So those are my picks, those are the places I would highly recommend to anyone planning a visit to my city. I’m sure there will be more great places to come, so feel free to ask. Enjoy!