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

Proof Pizza & Pasta – Miami, FL

I’d been in this situation before. It’s a Friday night, I’d just arrived at MIA for a weekend visit with my parents, and we needed to find a place for dinner. A quick check on OpenTable is worrying, as many of the choice spots are jam-packed. After some hurried discussion, we make a bee line for the design district, an area that, in the last two years, has experienced a flood of great restaurants moving in. They can’t all be full right? Right?! These types of frenzied searches usually end in disappointment, but in an area so well stocked with top-notch restaurants, for once, the odds were in our favor.

Proof spread 1

Proof Pizza & Pasta had been on my radar for a while. Seeing those double zeros while driving up and down Miami Avenue was enough to make my list. They were speaking food code, and I was listening. Just to give you some context, Proof is right in the middle of a mealtime maelstrom with heavy hitters like Blackbrick, Sakaya Kitchen, Sugarcane and Salumeria 104 within a stones throw. That means there’s no room to slack when it comes to the food, if you’re not on your game, you’ll be out within a year. The brisk, but informative introduction we received from our server piqued my interest. All of their pizza and pasta dough is made fresh, in-house every morning and is cooked to order. They also support local produce whenever possible. OK great, but I’ve been burned before by restaurants that think they can fool their patrons with clearly store-bought ingredients, so the “prØØf” as they say, is in the pudding, or in this case the gemelli beef bolognese.

But before this pasta hound could get his mitts on his favorite food, mom insisted we get some vegetables. Fine. I spied a tasty looking duck confit gnudi, and hey, it comes with a porcini pureé and fresh herbs, that counts right? Or what about the burrata with sorrel pesto and pea shoots? While both would have been automatic for me, my mother had other ideas, the dreaded sprouts. At Proof they serve their Brussels sprouts raw, shaved and dressed with apple cider, gorgonzola, pecans and dried cranberry. I was devastated by how delicious this salad was. My entire childhood had been a lie, and to find out at 30 that this tiny cabbage, which had caused me so much angst, had the potential to be so tasty, absolutely crushed me. Why doesn’t every mother make the sprouts this way?! Well they’re on my personal menu now, better late than never I suppose.

Proof Pastas

Chefs Justin Flit and Matt DePante, both Miami natives, gained valuable experience in big league Manhattan kitchens DBGB and Gramercy Tavern, which they brought back to their hometown when they decided to open Proof. The attention to detail and quality control that is expected of any top shelf New York restaurants, is clearly seen in this menu. The aforementioned gemelli beef bolognese pairs the deep meat sauce with delicate whipped ricotta and shreds of fresh basil, and was just as good if not better than the version I tried at Beauty & Essex. An equally impressive angel hair with succulent chunks of fresh crab, spiked with Calabrian chili and lemony breadcrumbs displayed the seaward side of the pasta spectrum. Each dish showcased the incredibly fresh noodles which held an elasticity that you only get from a homemade product.

Proof Pizza

The pizza at Proof delivers (excuse the pun) on all fronts. Slightly charred crust, fresh toppings and solid structural stability are three basic traits every great pizza should embody. At Proof, they’re doing their bags of double zero flour justice. We chose two pies, the Salumi and the Oxtail, which like the pastas we selected, highlighted two very different sides of the pizza game. The former could be thought of as simply a vulgar “meat lover’s”, but it has so much more to offer. Joining the pepperoni and sausage are paper-thin slices of prosciutto, added after it’s been fired so as not to ruin the delicate meat by crisping it up. All this protein manages to coexist with Proof’s fantastic red sauce, here spiked with chili oil and a hint of cumin which added an interesting twist on an otherwise familiar flavor profile.

The latter satisfies with a generous spread of braised oxtail infused with thyme, dollops of mozzarella, copious amounts of black garlic and gelatinous caramelized onions. I suggest eating your fill of one pizza and then moving to the other to fully appreciate the depth of flavor achieved by each. As I sit here thinking about them both, it’s difficult to recall a better pizza in Florida.

Proof Jep

When you happen to land in a place like Proof on the spur of the moment, with little planning and double zero expectations, you kind of have to order dessert. That night there was a chocolate sponge-type cake, filled and topped with chocolate hazelnut mousse and crispy chopped hazelnuts. It was a nocciola kind of night, and for this Nutella fiend, the perfect ending to the meal. Chef’s Flit and DePante have crafted a real gem in the design district, a worthy addition to the pantheon of great restaurants that have recently sprung up there. I’m feeling less and less inclined to make the trek to the beach for meals when I’m in Miami. With restaurants like Proof on the mainland, it’s no wonder.

Proof Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

Burlington Food Crawl 2014

As a food writer, I tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to big cities. It’s especially noticeable when planning a food crawl. In a town like San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, you’re spoiled for choice. Cities like these, where you could literally eat at an awesome restaurant every day and never repeat for years, don’t pose much of a challenge to the curator of a food tour. That’s why I love the small towns, especially the up and coming ones with blossoming food scenes.

Sometimes this is the result of big city chefs looking for an alternative to the old path of grinding through the hottest restaurants in town for years before getting their own gig. In a small town, they have the chance to strike out on their own early, when their minds are still fresh and foolish. Other times it can be chalked up to a young demographic. College towns like Burlington are full of a new generation of young adult, who are excited to support the new, the creative and even the strange. This has had a marked effect on the town’s food choices, and has brought some genuinely impressive restaurants to the shores of Lake Champlain.

Burlington Food Crawl 2014

So that’s why I decided, after sniffing around Burlington for over a decade now, that it was time to plan a proper food crawl. There have always been great places to eat in Burlington like Leunig’s, A Single Pebble, Bove’s and more. But those are familiar faces, you know what you’re in for before you step inside and I wanted to be surprised, to sample the new hotness, the young guns, the freshman.

We start our journey with a dark horse discovered by chance during a walk down Church Street. I’ve strolled down this beautiful walking street hundreds of times, so I notice when a new face appears. In this case it was cozy underground Italian spot, formerly known as Three Tomatoes Trattoria. I can’t recall many lasting memories from the latter, but the former made a strong impression with just two dishes.

Pascolo spread

I chose Pascolo partly out of curiosity, and partly because I like to patronize new restaurants at least once to support the business. It also didn’t hurt that they proudly tout their house made pasta. One thing that always makes me nervous though, is when the menu gives the diner the choice of sauce with a certain noodle. Other aspects of the menu put that worry at ease though, like the list of locally sourced charcuterie and produce from nearby farms. I went with a pair of house made pasta dishes, the tagliatelle bolognese and pappardelle funghi. I could tell at first bite that the noodles were home-made as advertised. Both sauces were well composed with a depth of flavor I haven’t found elsewhere in Burlington. For me, Pascolo is a welcome addition to Church Street.

Our second stop, Hen of the Wood, has been on my list for a few years now and has been a stalwart of food lovers in Waterbury, VT for even longer. Unfortunately, Waterbury is about a 30 min drive from Burlington. Happily for me, they’ve opened a second location right in downtown under the Hotel Vermont. Hen of the Wood, like many restaurants in and around Burlington, pride themselves on sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible from local farmers and growers. I noticed they look to the same growers as The Kitchen Table Bistrowhich can only bode well.

HotW has one of those menus where you have to make some hard decisions, especially on a food crawl. Appropriately, we chose the Hen of the Wood mushroom toast topped with house bacon and a poached farm egg. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter time dish. Here’s a pro tip, when you see beef tartare on a menu, order it. At HotW it comes with lemon, capers, farm egg yolk and some sunchoke chips for texture. Even a salad of baby gem lettuce gets its due attention with shaved goat cheese, walnut, Hakurei turnip and mint.

Hen of the Wood spread

If you walk out Hen of the Wood, turn left, walk about 20 yards and enter the Hotel Vermont lobby, you’ll find Juniper. In my experience, hotel lobbies aren’t typically known for their fantastic restaurants. Usually you’ll find a dimly lit bar with tired businessmen downing your typical pub fare. Juniper is a wholly different thing. Braised rabbit with duck fat turnips, tamari and quince glazed wild salmon with kimchi and black risotto, cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, apple and duck egg, are only a small sampling of the creative dishes Juniper is capable of.

In an attempt to keep things light on our second to last stop, a roasted beet soup and autumn salad were requested. The former came with a sweet and tangy goat’s milk ricotta, violet gastrique and local Castleton crackers. I couldn’t detect much flavor from the violet gastrique, but the goat cheese was a perfect match for the earthy sweetness from the beets. As for the salad, I can honestly say it was an eye opener in a category that usually fails to stand out. Cranberries in two forms woke up the mixed greens. The deep, sweet, concentrated flavor from dried cranberries worked together with a cranberry vinaigrette that brought a sour component.

Juniper spread 1

Now Eat a Duck food crawl regulations stipulate a limit of three dishes or less at each stop. As co-founder and head of this particular food crawl, I made an executive decision to ignore this rule after I tasted Juniper’s amazing celeriac gnocchi. I try not to throw the word amazing around too much, but these little dumplings deserve the praise. Nearly everything in this dish comes from the underground. That’s not an attempt to be hip, three of the main ingredients literally grow underground, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and black truffle. The binding agent in this case comes courtesy of luxurious raclette from Spring Brook Farms in Reading. The key to any impressive dish is balance. A dish with raclette at its base could easily stray into the sickeningly rich spectrum. The chef deftly offsets this with the sliced Jerusalem artichokes that bring an acidic, almost pickled flavor that keeps each bite fresh. It was so addictive we ordered a second dish for dessert.

Juniper spread 2

Juniper was such a hit we returned the next day for lunch. While my wife wasn’t looking, I quickly ordered a North Hollow Farm hot dog with tomato bacon jam, and the cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, frisée, apple and duck egg. I made quick work of the dog which was the perfect snack on a cold day. The tangy jam had enough sweetness to highlight the dog and a pronounced tang that hit you right in the jaw. The pork sandwich on the other hand was a beast that I sorely underestimated. It was slightly overloaded with ingredients and I wished the flavor of the pork was more front and center, maybe mixed with a maple based BBQ sauce or something. While delicious, it’s hard to follow that gnocchi!

Last stop on our tour of Burlington is a little joint that I’ve seen countless times on my way to town, Bluebird Tavern. They’ve since moved from their original location to make way for Bluebird BBQ (which is on the list for next time), and have settled right in the heart of downtown, just on the other side of the block from Pascolo. At this point my female crawlers were losing steam and running low on stomach space. It was up to me to finish on a high note. I started off with a trio of Cuban spoons, basically the deconstructed ingredients of a Cuban sandwich, minus the bread, on a spoon. There was only a small cube of each component, but the flavor was unmistakable. Next was a small pile of bay scallops in a parsnip purée with grapes and ham. The grapes sounded strange but they found their place in the dish, lending subtle sweetness to the creamy parsnip. They also had a similar texture to the scallops as they had been quickly tossed in the pan to firm them up a bit. To finish, fried sweetbreads, another item I always have to try when the opportunity presents itself.

Bluebird Tavern spread

After years of eating my way through Burlington, it was satisfying to finally put together a string of restaurants worthy of a crawl. I can confidently recommend Burlington to any traveling food lover, as the scene there is truly maturing with dishes and culinary ideas that showcase the town’s unique personality. Here’s hoping the trend continues and so we can hold round 2 of the Burlington food crawl. In the meantime, get out there and try these places, support the new guard and show them that we we’re hungry for more!

Pascolo Ristorante on Urbanspoon
Hen of the Wood (Burlington) on Urbanspoon
Juniper on Urbanspoon
Bluebird Tavern on Urbanspoon

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!

Bar Primi – New York City, NY

If you know my colleague Logan, you’ve likely encountered his wealth of knowledge on everything from film to foie gras, books to brioche, he’s a veritable Logipedia of information when it comes to arts, entertainment and food. I, on the other hand, while possibly dabbling in a wider breadth of topics, have just enough knowledge to start a conversation and quickly use up every interesting tidbit I’ve got in the bank.

There is one topic I’ve always had a firm grasp of, the ritual that is the traditional Italian supper. Antipasti, primi, secondi e contorni, insalata, formaggi, dolce, caffé e digestivo. I’ve embarked on this journey countless times in my 20+ year tenure as a Italophile, and I’ve always felt a certain affinity toward the primo piatto, especially when pasta is involved.

Well it seems Locanda Verde creator Andrew Carmellini and I share a similar passion, as his new restaurant, Bar Primi, puts the focus squarely on this hallowed dish. I can think of few chefs I’d rather have at the helm of a pasta-centric joint than Mr. Carmellini, who’s practically got pomodoro running in his veins.

Bar Primi logo

The Lobe (aka Sara) and I arrived hungry at Bar Primi after a grabbing a quick round of antipasti at Doughnut Plant. We crossed Joey Ramone Way, making sure to pay our respects, and entered the house that pasta built.

Bar Primi sign and setting

 We were early, so they were still serving brunch. We started off with a wonderful bruschetta with fresh ricotta and figs. More often than not, the best Italian food is the simplest, and that proves true here as it took less than five ingredients to impress. The ricotta on display is not the typical sad white paste found in many a potluck lasagna. No, this is the real stuff, straight from Salvatore in Brooklyn, creamy and vibrant with subtle grassy flavor. The cheese takes its rightful spot as the star of the dish, with perfectly ripe fig segments playing Johnny to the ricotta’s Joey.

Bar Primi bruschetta

Two handsome bowls of pasta arrived soon after we had lapped up the last ricotta laced crumb. As it was still brunch, we opted to start with a breakfast spaghetti of kale, pancetta and a poached egg. Breaking open a runny yolk and watching it cascade down homemade noodles never gets old. It coats everything in a thick gloss, helped along by the rendered fat from the pancetta. I longed for some caramelized onions to lend sweetness to the rich affair, but with noodles so perfectly al dente, I was hard pressed to complain.

Bar Primi breakfast spaghetti

The macaroni with Jersey corn, shiitake and scallion left me wanting for nothing. Again with the masterfully prepared pasta, surrounded by perfectly balanced flavors. Sweetness from the corn, offset by succulent and rich shiitakes all under a soft dusting of nutty parm. There just wasn’t enough in the bowl to satisfy.

Bar Primi pasta

Being the pasta fiend that I am, I had high hopes for Bar Primi. Chef Carmellini and the rest of the staff delivered on all fronts. In the vast sea of delicious Italian eats that is Manhattan, Bar Primi manages to shine by keeping things simple, both with ingredients and preparation. This is a must visit for any noodle noshing pastaholic. I only wish I could’ve made it to Locanda Verde on this visit, but there’s always next time!

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: A Tale of Five Seatings

A great deal of time has passed since this “crawl” took place, but if I failed to share the wonderful food and drink eaten along the way, I’d be snubbing those who made the trip and doing you, our loyal readers, a disservice. I managed to salvage photographic evidence of our journey from the insatiable maw that is my photo gallery. As I looked through them, it brought me back to that day, refreshing the memories like so many reconstituted matsutakes. It was the first time I met those who’d become the core of my Tampa food contingent. If this trip hadn’t happened, I may never have met the new anchors of Tasting Tampa, Kurt and Heidi Raschke or the Toro Titan of Tampa himself, Mr. Thai Vo.

EAD Orlando food crawl 2014

Just about every stop on this trip has been discussed in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to say. We here at Eat a Duck try to steer ourselves towards the type of restaurants that have a revolving door policy when it comes to the menu. I like to order something different at every place, even if I have favorites, they’re never ordered on the following trip. We’ve talked about some of our food crawl etiquette in the Tampa edition a while back, but let me reiterate a few firm statutes of our process. There has to be a clear consensus within the group about which restaurants we’ll be patronizing. If one member disagrees we all disagree. The best decisions in life are made as a team. I mean, all the hobbits lived right? It’s because they went on the journey with a clear goal. It should be said, however, that even though Frodo doesn’t die, he was stabbed by the Nazgul at Weathertop, and by Shelob, suffering physical and mental scars. Never forget.

The other rule (more of a guideline really) is that no one orders more than one dish per stop. Furthermore, no matter how bad you want to try the mozzarella sticks and the chicky flappers; you must stick to the allotted single appetizer per location. If you cannot abide by these hard and fast rules, you’ll be subjected to discipline by the appointed appetizer adjudicator for a final ruling. That happens to be me. That doesn’t mean, you’re barred from ordering another dozen freshly shucked oysters if everyone has voted in the affirmative. Nevertheless, don’t forget to stage an informal vote before pulling a Jimmy and blurting out “another round of slipper lobsters!”. Remember, before any re-order, always recite the Eat a Duck food crawl anthem made famous by Reggie and the Full Effect, “F.O.O.D., food, food. G.O.O.D., Goooood, Goooood”.

Unfortunately, I was forced to work for the first leg of the trip. East End Market and Ravenous Pig started us off like any good story, at the furthest point, gradually leading us back to the start. In other words, for your food crawl planning to be successful, drive to the farthest spot first and work your way back to the place that’s closest to home. You’ll be grateful for that one, as you drive along the highway, struggling to breathe due to pork bloat.

I met up with the crew, Todd, Thai and Brittany, during the Saturday lunch rush at Prato, the entire restaurant was slammed with people. Keep in mind two key points about Prato:

1. Prato is so good we already wrote about them here.

2. Prato is so good we wrote a second piece about them here.

Prato spread

Fortunately, we were able to grab a table before the Winter Park elite arrived to demand our credentials. We dined on some marrow toast, mortadella hotdogs, a half order of house made pasta and a simple but elegant, wood-fired margherita pizza. I think we can agree we chose the perfect combination for a wonderfully dainty lunch? The next stop took us to the lounge in Hamilton’s Kitchen at the Alfond Inn. Since Prato is just a short walk away and the town has insufficient parking, we decided to hoof it and burn off some calories. Hey, if you’re going to eat so much that your caloric intake reaches five digits, every breath we take, every step we make, every move we make counts. This was more of a palate cleanser as the purpose was to enjoy a few well-prepared cocktails. We couldn’t resist ordering a basket of shoestring cheesy garlic frites from the bar.

Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn spread

Moving on to Cask & Larder, probably the one restaurant we haven’t really covered that is most deserving. I wrote up a blurb for the Lakelander magazine if that counts. Either way, it bears repeating, they need more attention from us. This was the one place where our scheduling failed a bit. They open the bar at 4 pm which was fine, but they offer a very limited menu until 5 pm when the dining room opens. At the bar they offer oysters and boiled peanuts, as well as chicken liver and ham biscuits. At 5 pm, it’s no holds barred starring Hulk Hogan. Rated R for strongly suggestive oyster aphrodisia.

Cask & Larder spread

At this time, we had to say goodbye to Brittany, an original member of the caravan, only to welcome the Raschkes, a couple of true food lovers from Tampa. They were already waiting for us at Pharmacy, a secretive restaurant and speakeasy type place that you’ll never ever find without a bunch of help. On my GPS it gives the address. Fair enough. Should have been easy to find right? Wrong. As I parked, the location is supposed to be within the confines of an upscale shopping area, considered Orlando’s restaurant row. It’s the area where all the excessively wealthy, mega-rich millionaire Orlandoans go to eat, (i.e. Tiger Woods, John Morgan, Daniel Dennis and Carrot top). I literally walked around for 10 minutes trying to find this place. It got so confusing and labyrinthine I felt like the illuminati were testing my might. I don’t want to ruin the fun if you choose the path of dining at Pharmacy. Just go find it your own dang self.

Pharmacy spread

Our last spot was a departure from the newer, trendsetting places we had been accustomed to over the entirety of the day. Hanamizuki is not like any other Japanese restaurant I’ve been to in Florida. I’ve never been to Japan, though not for lack of wanting. If I could guess what “real” Japanese food tastes like, without having to cater to western sensibilities, I imagine Hanamizuki is as close as you’ll find within 200 miles. I had been once before with my wife and was completely awe-struck by inspired preparation of the dishes. As a whole I remembered how much the restaurant had me interrogating myself. There was no question that the food was great. Actually, some of it was the best I had eaten in a while. My wonderment stemmed more from how I should approach tradition. I questioned how authentic I want food to be, compared to what I’ve trained my palate to think tastes good? How far am I willing to push the limits? Either way you slice it, whether it be with a dull butter knife or a precision Yanagi ba, this nuta: akami maguro or yari ika dressed in white miso, hot mustard and wilted scallion was freaking incredible. It’s got to be if you order it three separate times in the same sitting!

Hanamizuki spread

These are not the only restaurants in Orlando worth investing a whole day for. They are however, within the circle of friends I choose to associate with, the most appropriate representation of food crawl perfection, each offering a cavalcade of small plate options and a myriad of tasty drinks. For an evening of sane, one meal/one restaurant dining, all of these places easily stand alone. Since this trip, a whole new group of places have opened and are flourishing over in Orlando. It’s high time we plan Round 2.

 

Enzo’s – Longwood, FL

So where are you from?

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

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

enzos-logo

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

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

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

antipasto-1

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

Eggplant

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

Penne Vodka

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

Pappardelle alla Farnese

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

Tiramisu

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

Enzo's on the Lake on Urbanspoon

Prato – Winter Park, FL

Returning to ones old stomping grounds is often accompanied with a certain nostalgia. However the most fun part of visiting your old town, is discovering everything that’s changed since you’ve been gone (sorry Kelly, no royalties for that one). I recently had the chance to visit the town I most think of when people ask me where I’m from, Winter Park, FL. Mr. Crumpton, being the great friend that he is, brought me back there to show me one of the latest additions to Park Avenue, Prato.

Prato splash

I left Winter Park in 2003, back then, the only Italian restaurant in the area worth mentioning was Enzo’s on the Lake, which to this day stands as one of the best Italian eateries I’ve ever visited. Needless to say, Prato has brought a much needed culinary vibrance to an area which, apart from a few examples like The Ravenous Pig, has been somewhat bland in the restaurant department.

The restaurant decor and design is top-notch, with much attention paid to detail. They nail a sort of hipster rustic feel that may cause some eyes to roll, but I thought it felt sincere and I thought it was fantastic. The sincerity was proven when our waiter, Zach, informed us that all the ingredients were locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible. If the sourcing wasn’t impressive, he then told us that the menu changed EVERY day, at least in some shape or form. Now that is no small task, even for the finest restaurants.

After our group looked over the menu, it was agreed that we’d gladly order every single item, a rarity to be sure. Sadly none of us were born with the last name Hilton or Trump, so we had to make our choices. For me, the soft shell crab app caught my eye immediately. Logan and our wives added more apps with a couple of Caesar salads, the veal breast pancetta and the soft fried farm egg with pork belly. All were excellent choices, the crabs didn’t impress anyone but myself, so I happily consumed them. The veal breast came with this awesome tonnato sauce and slices of some of the freshest beets you’ve ever seen. I’m not a beet man, but this dish was delicious through and through. The soft fried egg and pork belly came with a watermelon rind mostardo. This is the kind of dish I’d have every day for breakfast if I were born into those families mentioned earlier, it was luxurious and decadent, but tapped into that familiar eggs and bacon memory that your brain seems to remember so well. The winner of the app competition in my opinion, were the Caesar salads. Seriously. I know it’s just a simple salad in most eateries, usually an afterthought. This Caesar however, was so fresh and so crisp with one of the best dressings I’ve ever tasted. It had to have been homemade to order because you could taste every ingredient, the Parmigiano, egg, lemon juice, and the anchovies!

Prato dishes

Caesar salad holds a special place in my heart. Allow me to tell a small tale before we move on to entreés. Back in 1994, when I was just beginning to explore the world of food, I was on a family vacation in the Bahamas. We were staying at the Ocean Club in Nassau (the hotel where Casino Royale was filmed) and were eating dinner at the hotel restaurant. Up until this point, I had never ordered a salad, but something in my brain made me think they were delicious whenever I saw my parents eating them. So I mustered up the courage and ordered a Caesar salad and a steak Diane. The waiter returned minutes later with a finely appointed hand cart with a large wooden bowl and all the Caesar fixin’s. He proceeded to assemble the dressing right before my eyes, smearing the fresh white anchovies against the bowl with a spoon, squeezing the lemons and even letting me whisk as he created the emulsion. When I took my first bite, I was hooked. It was one of those moments that changes your life forever, and with that simple dish, I became a full-fledged food lover.

Now where was I, ah yes the entreés. Thankfully, Prato has the foresight to know that people like Logan and myself like to try as much of the menu as possible without filling up the point of discomfort. That’s why they provide the option to order half portions of all their pastas. I took full advantage of this and chose the bolognese tagliatelle with duck ragu and foie gras butter (sound familiar?) and the special sweetbread-rabbit fagottini with pistachio and sage. Both were absurdly delicious, the bolognese was fantastic, a little spicy a little sweet with a hint of nutmeg. Unfortunately with these types of pastas, the foie gras flavor tends to stay in the background, but it was memorable nonetheless.

The fagottini, despite its strange name, was amazing! Even more amazing was that a pasta-holic such as myself, had never heard of this type of noodle before. Fagottini are shaped like little pyramids and are filled with whatever you desire, in this case, sweetbreads and rabbit. The noodles were cooked perfectly, which can be difficult with filled pastas. The sweetbreads and rabbit combo created a wonderfully savory flavor with a nutty finish. This was naturally accented by the crunchy pistachios and finished with the sage and butter sauce.

 

Around the table the entreés were as follows: Mediterranean branzino with heirloom tomatos, fennel and a vegetable medley, veal scaloppine with the traditional accompaniments of crispy capers, meyer lemon and polenta and to round it all out, the Salsiccia pizza with Calabrian sausage, broccoli rabe and provolone picante.

I was fortunate enough to sample all of this before it was devoured by my family. The branzino was a beauty to behold. Bright white fish swimming in an heirloom tomato broth, topped with fresh beans, corn, onions and garlic. The flavor matched the appearance, the pearly fish flaked away and melted in your mouth accompanied with the electric zing of the tomato broth. The veal was another winner, pan seared to a golden brown and perched atop a mound of creamy polenta. The meat was tender and juicy, and was definitely the star of the dish with all the other ingredients playing perfect supporting roles. The pizza finished up the savory dishes in fine fashion. Whenever you bring the freshest ingredients together and pile them on top of kneaded dough to be baked, it’s going to impress. The salsiccia was no exception. The bitter broccoli rabe was a great counterpoint to the unctuous flavors from the sausage and provolone.

Zach returned with the offer of dessert. It’s always easy to spring for the sweets when the meal so far has been so fantastic. Instead of choosing between their delectable options, we came to a consensus, “all three!”, I proclaimed. This added to Zach’s already beaming smile, who was having just as much fun watching us enjoy the meal as we were having eating it (well maybe not AS much but almost, he was definitely a welcome addition to our table whenever he stopped by to check on us).

The small platter arrived with our sugary treats, first was a light tiramisu, creamy, sweet and slightly bitter from the espresso, next was an espresso budino with chocolate mousse (the actual description was much fancier but sadly I’ve forgotten it) and lastly a mascarpone cake topped with peach, plum and nectarine with crème fraîche and streusel. None of the desserts survived the onslaught.

Prato dessert

Prato had done it. It had served this boy a homecoming meal to remember and added its name to my pantheon of Italian eateries. How could it not? There were no failures, no missteps and no mistakes, at least none that I saw. Zach’s service was outstanding, very friendly and most importantly knowledgeable. Prato is the real deal folks, they’ve single-handedly raised the bar for restaurants in Orlando and possibly the whole southeast. Hopefully they can keep this performance up in the long term, as both Logan and I intend on returning many times in the future.

Prato on Urbanspoon

Spaghetti and Meatball…Balls

Leftovers are the worst. There’s nothing more upsetting to me than the thought of having to eat the same meal for two consecutive days. With the exceptions of cassoulet, veal rib chops and cold Chinese food. I’ve found myself at times with my back against the wall and nowhere to run. Staring down what seemed to be a never-ending pot of chili. No matter how many spoonfuls you choke down on day two, three and four, it never lives up to the luster of that first bowl. That half eaten carcass of whole roasted lemon chicken and potatoes never looked more appalling than 24 hours after its first performance on the dinner table. Act 2 is always lacking panache and flair. A bit like seeing the touring version of Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. There’s nothing like seeing a roller skating rock opera on or in the vicinity of Broadway. Anything else is a deflated Yorkshire pudding.

This scenario played out for me not too long ago. I found myself without transportation as my wife had driven away for a day of shopping and such. I had no clue that she left me in near dungeon-like conditions. My stomach was clueless as well, since it had enjoyed a heaping pile of ricotta pancakes earlier in the day and was quite full. Fast forward 5 hours and I was still abandoned.

When I opened the fridge that afternoon it was like the scene in Pulp Fiction where that guy opens the briefcase and an ultra bright glowing light shines back at him. Like that but not in a good way. T’was none other than a frustratingly enormous, and quite frankly revolting pot of spaghetti and meatballs (duh, see title).

I pulled out the pot of pasta and just kind of stood there for a minute staring at it with my hands on my hips. Having to deal with such a vulgar subject takes a lot of meditation. What to do?

Spaghetti and Meatball…BALLS!

Trust me, you will forever have the chance to make this. There’s no such thing as a single serving of homemade spaghetti and meatballs (unless you live in Jimmy’s house, in which case no pasta survives to see another day).

Begin by taking 3 minutes to reflect on the amazing things you’re about to do with leftovers.

Spaghetti & Meatball Balls

• Heat your oven to 375°
• Throw the pasta on a cutting board and finely mince it. I made a batch of 3 balls, which requires about a cup and a half of chopped pasta (if your pasta was already sauced, then spread it out on the board. If not, then add about a 1/2 cup of sauce and mix it around)

Multiply if you want to make more than 3 balls. Place a meatball on the board and form a layer of chopped pasta around it until it’s completely surrounded. Now that you have the base formed, it’s time for some breading.

I used sea salt rice chips and grated Parm for mine but you can used anything really. Just regular bread crumbs or panko and the cheese would work, because honestly I didn’t really get much from the breading except a nice textural coating. Roll the spheres in the crumbs and place in the oven for about 30 minutes or until they start getting some color and have set up a crust.

In the meantime you really should make this thin aioli I thought up as an accompaniment.

Logan’s Thinkin’ Time Pink Aioli

• 1/4 cup olive oil
• The juice from a lemon
• 3 cloves of garlic
• 6 grape tomatoes
• A few shakes of smoked Paprika
• Sea salt to taste

Dump everything in a processor and pulverize for a few minutes. You will end up with a thin pinkish sauce for your lovely golden globes of goodness. I used the excess rice crumbs as a bed for my playful take on Arancini.

 

If you use breadcrumbs, I wouldn’t bother. Have you ever had success taking unappealing leftovers and ending up with a masterpiece? We’d love to hear about it!

Perla – New York City, NY

When I come to the city for pleasure, which isn’t often, I make the most of it. This means following Eat a Duck’s patented mantra, do your homework! My mother would be proud. Now I keep an ever-growing list of restaurants with me that I feel call for a visit. On this particular day, I chose the wonderful SoHo tapas bar, Boqueria, and a slick Italian joint hidden away on the diminutive Minetta Lane, called Perla.

If you’re looking for an alternative to the über high-end A Voce’s and Marea’s of the city, but don’t want to sacrifice in quality and taste, Perla is the answer. Located just off 6th on a quiet street, this little gem has all the qualities you’d look for to have a romantic, relaxed and truly memorable Italian meal.

As with most restaurants I visit, I was drawn to Perla by rumors of a dish that had my name written all over it. Cavatelli with duck ragu and grated frozen foie gras. Are you kidding me Perla? Anyway, we hadn’t made reservations but we’re flexible young people, so after a short wait, we were seated at the bar with a fantastic view of the restaurant. One of the most refreshing aspects of Perla is its laid back environment. Make no mistake, the staff are the epitome of professionalism when it comes to knowledge of the menu and dealing with diners, but they keep things fun and comfortable. It didn’t hurt that everyone was in jeans and madras shirts, with a soundtrack of Hendrix, Steppenwolf and Zeppelin setting the mood. I have to say it was a departure from most restaurants serving this caliber of food.

Our bartender was friendly and warm and made us feel right at home, setting us up with a couple of glasses of hearty Montepulciano. After a quick look over the menu, we chose a couple more dishes to go with the aforementioned Cavatelli. A Razza Piedmontese beef tartare with Parmigiano Reggiano and black truffles, which, as the name suggests, uses the fantastic meat of the Piedmontese cattle. Due to a unique genetic trait, it produces meat with less marbling and less connective tissue, leaving you with smooth and tender meat which is especially conducive to a great steak tartare. The truffles managed to stay in the background and served as a great compliment to the sweet meat. Of the many steak tartares I’ve sampled, this was one of the finest as far as quality of ingredients.

The second dish was the orecchiette with sweet Italian sausage and ramp pesto. First of all ramps, I love these things, they’re a cousin of onions and garlic that gives you the addictive aroma we all crave without the eye-watering spiciness that comes from raw garlic. Let me say, Italian sausage was a brilliant addition to the pesto. I’m slightly embarrassed that I haven’t thought of doing it myself, especially since pesto is almost a weekly dish at our house. The key here is the fat of the sausage and how that mingles with the flavors of the basil and ramps. This resulted in a creamy, unctuous texture that coated the tongue and definitely gave the pesto a more luxurious personality.

After we devoured the first two courses, I made eye contact with the bartender, I had a concern. When I ordered the cavatelli, I didn’t see anything about grated frozen foie gras on the menu. When I mentioned that I had chosen this restaurant upon hearing about a pasta covered in foie, his response. “don’t worry, you ordered it dude!”. I let out a sigh of relief, that was a close one. Shortly after this exchange, my cavatelli arrived. Despite its inviting appearance, I held my fork until I spied a girl approaching with what looked like a medium-sized salami and a cheese grater, my frozen foie was here no doubt. She began grating…and grating…and grating. She went on grating longer than most restaurants grate your cheese, I wanted to hug her. It was like a dream, it was snowing foie gras on my plate, which instantly melted when it hit the piping hot pasta, mixing with the sauce to create a duck foie-gu. Sadly, despite the length of grating, the foie flavor was a bit lost in the ragu. Of course I could taste it, but I’m greedy, and probably a bit ridiculous wanting pasta with a foie gras sauce. I’ll have to save that for my death-bed.

I knew I ordered the right stuff when I noticed the couple sitting next to us at the bar practically drooling over our food. They asked what I ordered and promptly followed suit. I had done my good deed of the day. It was the perfect finish to a perfect day with my wife, everything cooked to perfection, delicious wine, great atmosphere and friendly staff. I’ll definitely be heading to Perla again at my earliest convenience. Maybe next time I’ll sneak in my own torchon to satisfy my foie fever!

Perla on Urbanspoon