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

The Savory Side of Dough

You’ve already heard our soliloquies of the fantastic things Datz Dough is doing in the pastry world. But if you thought sweet treats were all they had to offer, you don’t know the half of it.

Chef Domenica - Photo: Kevin Tinghe

Photo: Kevin Tinghe

It’s no coincidence that as soon a new talented, and dare I say, infamous chef was hired, a sea change washed in from the orange-purple horizon. Now I’ve read the stories about some of the behind the scenes drama involving past employers. Non-compete clauses and threats of law suits. For us, the consumer, the final product, not any extenuating circumstances, should be the deciding factor of how and where we spend our money. Here at Eat a Duck, we’ve resolved to save the drama for our mommas. For me, I know the pedigree. To win over an unbiased food lover like myself, you only need three words, “duck fat fries”. Those words might as well join Chef Domenica’s copious ink, as the two go hand in hand.

I can attest to the legitimacy of the hype surrounding this particular chef. By all means, if you have yet to try her interpretation, I would chug my way to Palma Ceia for an order. Thrice is not only the world’s greatest mid-2000s post emo/post hardcore/post melodic hardcore emo/ pre-post-experimental post-hardcore, modern-melodic rock outfit, it’s also the number of steps it takes to properly cook frites.

Foie Gras Slider

I find joy most often when Eat a Duck actually gets to eat duck. Not only did I get my first fill as technically I ate duck in the fries, they also have the best preparation of foie gras I’ve found in the Bay Area, in quality and in taste. For a fair enough price, you can get a small slider of brioche crouton, with a nice little slab of foie gras, perfectly cooked with a layer of sear to keep the fatty liver from completely melting away. As with any competent take on foie, a sweet and acidic addition of figgy jam with balsamic will not only cut the fat, it also causes a the whole affair to foiemoneously linger on the tongue. This little foiemuse will make you think about it so often throughout the rest of the day, you’ll begin speaking in foienglish.

“Truly, there isn’t a party like an Eat a Duck party, cause the eating of the duck at the party doesn’t ever stop. Wherever we go, best believe we got our confit. Rolling down the stylish peak, to get a taste of duck with berry gastrique.”

To complete the tour de canard, I have to mention the confit of quarter. A generously sized portion, enough to share with a good friend. I suggest possibly Todd Sturtz of Tasting Tampa fame, as he resides dangerously close to this particular eatery. Again, you are going to find a great deal of balance. Simply eating an order of such a luscious menu item would probably make your head gravitate skyward toward Dough’s heavenly ceiling. The bite of lemon from the dressing that coated the accompanying bitter green salad was what I needed to pull everything back from exceedingly gluttonous levels. The same can be said of an agrodolce type, berry drizzle.

Duck Confit

The table also feasted on some other great items such as sweet, creamy cornmeal polenta, with a mound of expertly roasted mushrooms and a drizzle of high-grade truffle oil. This might not sound like it works, but the pungent early flavor of mushroom and truffle go well with all the natural sugars that come from the sweet corn. Finally, black mussels cooked in bourbon barrel ale, plenty of butter, garlic and lemon composed last dish. For the vital few who love moules frites, you have Dough to thank now, as the gold standard in the area. I felt as if I was drinking a tiny piece of Belgium with every slurp.

Fall Harvest

Bourbon Barrel Ale Mussels

There are about ten more items that are as equally intriguing on Datz Dough’s new savory, bistro menu. They can be had for lunch or dinner, with what I’m assuming will be additions and tweaks down the road. Maybe even off menu, super top-secret stuff, featuring yours truly perhaps? Now if they only served dessert!

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

Vizcaya Restaurante – Tampa, Fl

I haven’t been getting out as much as I used to. So many things pull us in different directions these days. We always say that being so busy takes away from what we really want to be doing. But really, don’t we all deserve to take a moment to let things slow down? To get back to ourselves, just for a night? Recently, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how I choose to enjoy a meal. Actually, this choice is really an observation I’ve gleaned from the restaurants I’ve visited. Small plate concepts are being thrown at my head as if Randy Johnson decided to trade pitching for cooking. It’s no small thing (at least here in the States) to say to a prospective diner “there’s no rush, just take a seat and stay for a few hours”.

I arrived late to an event held at Vizcaya by my newfound friends at the helm of Not really knowing anything about the food, the chef, the space or even the location, it was a bit of an unknown for this Lakelander. The only thing I knew at this point was the word tapas. But as many of you know, this can mean many things to many people.

Almost immediately I was greeted by a long narrow plate of gigante Langostine wrapped in bacon and dressed with toasted almond, arugula, crimini, what I believe to be a sprinkling of feta and then a final light shower of balsamic. Was it feta? Sweet and creamy with a twist of tang because of the goat’s milk cheese, it was a surprisingly well thought combination for the enormous, what seemed to be, U-1 prawns.

Bacon Wrapped Langoustine Pan-fried Sea Bass with Red Pepper Coulis

I should say at this point, that I finally realized that the meal would be a selection of the chefs choices as they came out steadily. Next came a beautifully contrasting dish of lightly pan-fried sea bass, with over easy fried egg, red pepper coulis, chorizo oil. It reminded me of my mothers arroz con pollo with the flavors of red pepper and saffron. The chorizo was so slight that it almost felt like it was my imagination, like it wasnt really there, but I knew it was. It was a clever way of putting classic flavors together in a peculiar way.

Grilled Octopus with Cauliflower Purée

Grilled octopus with cauliflower purée, paprika oil, buttery, viscous and tender with little to no bounce back. I’m used to my octopus sharing the texture of a kickball. Well, my milk toast strength teeth eviscerated these tentacles with the ease of a berserker barrage. Mellow flavor not too charred lingered for a few minutes until I cleansed it with a mellow Spanish white.

Plates were being dealt to the table at such a rapid pace I thought I was at the World Series of Poker!

Oxtail stuffed piquillo peppers with bechamel. Very rich and creamy with a beautiful “gravy” made with the oxtail drippings. One of the best things I ate but not as complicated as many of the seafood presentations.

Oxtail Stuffed Piquillo Peppers Squid Ink Paella

Squid ink “risottoesque” paella had great spice. The pepper lingered on the tongue. There were spikes of spicy, yet in a way, floral punches of pepper that brought things to a crescendo at every other mouthful. The rice was expertly cooked, with some contrasting texture with some of the grains crisp but not burnt on the bottom like some paellas tend to be.

Iberico pork cheeks, rioja wine gravy, cheese grits, fatty fork tender, the richness of the gravy along with the cheesy polenta was like a blanket on the tongue, leaving my head floating. I’ve never been to the Basque region but I’d imagine many farmers would choose this as their last meal. I was ready to die. It still lingers. You can tell the chef’s heart still lies in España. He wasn’t afraid to aggressively season the food, and we as diners, deserve that attention. I get the feeling that if I were to be a regular at this place, this would be my go to dish, and quite possibly be my cause of death when the paramedics arrive to wheel me out.

Iberico Pork Cheeks Ricotta Stuffed Dates & Bacon

The final touch of brilliance came when we were presented with a small plate of dates stuffed with house made ricotta, wrapped in bacon. Like little crispy devils on horseback galloping down my esophagus. The slight burnt sugar and that not so easy to explain perfection, dinged in my brain as if a perplexing question had just been asked, and the sweet salty morsel was obviously the correct answer.

Vizcaya Restaurante & Tapas Bar on Urbanspoon

The Dutch – Miami Beach, FL

There was something very comforting about the time I was able to spend living up in New Jersey. Being born in New York must have imprinted some sort of regional familiarity on my mind. Moving back down to Florida after almost a year of hanging out in and around Manhattan was not easy. There’s no need to list the innumerable facets that make the atmosphere in the city so unique. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I miss most, is the access to amazing food around every corner (not that much of an exaggeration). Luckily for me, my destination, not far from Miami, also happens to be the nesting ground for many uncompromising Manhattan snowbirds, weary of the frigid winters but unwilling to sacrifice the food, even for a few months out of the year.

Naturally, this migration brings with it the demand for said food. Thankfully, many Manhattan eateries have followed the flock and set up shop in Florida to sate the appetites of the hungry expats. One of these, from chef and restauranteur Andrew Carmellini and his partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom , is The Dutch. The Miami outpost, at 2201 Collins Ave inside the posh W Hotel (along with another New York institution, Mr. Chow) opened just seven months after the original.

The Dutch Miami Beach

My family, all very attached to New York City in some way, made plans to visit The Dutch together on a recent weekend. Despite all my time in the city, even passing The Dutch on the way to work day after day, I never was able to partake. Here though, was my chance to remedy that. It was refreshing to see that they didn’t try to create some false “New York” atmosphere with the decor. It manages to tread the fine line of chic Miami style without straying into Florida kitsch. We took a seat in an outdoor booth on the patio and dove straight into the menu.


The first thing to catch my eye were the offerings from the raw bar. 2013 has been the year of the oyster for me so far, Garde Manger started the trend and The Dutch kept it going with incredibly fresh bivalves by the dozens, we secured ourself a dozen each of P.E.I’s and Kumamotos. The oyster selection changes often based on what’s fresh or in season, so it pays to visit multiple times if you want to sample other varieties. Joining the oyster tower was a crispy lamb, squared and perched on a landing strip of cous cous with tomato, olive and caramel. Classic corvina ceviche with avocado and fresno chile, sides consisted of creamy parmesan polenta with bacon bits and green onion and a cast iron skillet overflowing with roasted mushrooms, garlic crouton and parsley.

The Dutch Miami apps

You could tell that each dish was constructed with care. That same care was taken to make sure that the flavors were balanced. The tomato and olive didn’t overpower the subtle gaminess of the lamb, and the cous cous lent an added texture and creaminess. The ceviche, which could have easily been ruined by a heavy-handed use of chile, was spot on. The fish was fresh and bright paired with the avocado that brought a silky mouth feel. Roasted mushrooms and polenta are always sure to bring that cozy home cooked aspect to any meal, the green onion and bacon bit accoutrements gave a slight nod to the classic baked potato.

For the second course, the group split between choices from land and sea. The mature individuals at the table chose the more sensible dishes, namely a steamed red snapper in a coconut curry broth with mint, and Scottish salmon with beets, horseradish crema and caviar. Us foolish young’uns went for the more audacious choices, a fiery Jamaican jerked chicken with peas, rice and pineapple chutney and ravioli formaggi with mushroom bordelaise, and blanketed by freshly sliced winter truffle. As you’d expect, the truffle dish was mine, after all, I have a reputation to keep.

 The Dutch Miami entreés

The consistently fresh and balanced flavors continued through with the entreés. Both fish dishes were perfectly cooked and broke into smooth flakes at the touch of the fork. The salmon was especially tasty with its beet “relish” and horseradish crema. I’m a notorious loather of cooked fish in most instances, but my motto continues to hold up, when it’s done right, everything can be delicious. The guys and gals behind the scenes at The Dutch are proving that point on a nightly basis.

As usual, the time came where our waiter left us with that difficult question…dessert? Were we full? Yes. Could we leave without trying their banana cream pie and homemade dark rum donuts? Of course not. Both were delicious, the donuts winning out slightly over the pie for me, simply because of the bowl of fresh raspberry jam. I allowed everyone a small dunk after which I hoarded the rest for myself to greedily slather over the remaining donuts. I’m a raspberry whore and I’m not afraid to admit it.

The Dutch desserts

As we left satisfied, I felt that familiar feeling wash over me, like a piece of New York had broken off and planted itself in the south, awaiting my arrival. Not to take anything away from the amazing eateries Miami calls its own, but The Dutch fills a specific culinary void that I felt when I first moved down. Hopefully other New York establishments will see the demand and follow suit, opening up their own branches south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Dutch on Urbanspoon

Prato: Revisit

Nothing too fancy today. Logan and I had the chance to visit Prato again, our favorite new restaurant. I know I’ve already written a post on them (you can read it here), but let’s be honest, moderation isn’t Eat a Duck’s forté. So let’s not delay, on to the food porn!

Prato apps

Top: Beef carpaccio, grilled artichokes, pecorino sardo and agrumato

Left: Fig jam crostini, foie gras terrine and cocoa nib salt

Right: Mascarpone polenta, charred corn and hazelnuts

Top: Mississippi quail, lardo butter, Calabrian sausage and padron pepper conserva

Bottom: Prato meatballs, roasted tomato, cipollini agrodolce

tagliatelle-amatriciana-pancetta-tesa-caramelized-onion-pecorino1 widowmaker-caciocavallo-cavallo-nero-pancetta-farm-egg funghi-roasted-mushroom-radicchio-charred-onions-aceto

Top: Tagliatelle amatriciana, pancetta tesa, caramelized onions and pecorino

Middle: Widowmaker – Caciocavallo, cavello nero, pancetta and farm egg

Bottom: Funghi – Roasted mushrooms, radicchio, charred onions and aceto

Above: Nutella pound cake and roasted hazelnuts

The boys at Prato striking a pose. Keep up the great work guys! Big shout out to Zach, Jonathan and the whole crew down at Prato, thanks for yet another fantastic meal, we’ll see you all soon!

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

The Refinery – Tampa, FL

“Good food is a necessity.”

I think we can all agree with that 100%. Good food is one of the many things The Refinery aims to offer their patrons week in and week out. The team at The Refinery also believe that being able to eat well should not depend on the thickness of your wallet. It’s easy to see that the people of Tampa share in this belief. Looking out into the small dining room, up the stairs to the quaint bar and finally to my destination, the rooftop patio, there is a veritable cornucopia of demographics all dining together as one. Everyone is all smiles (including my buddy Phillip and myself), as they enjoy the chefs fare for the weeks of May 3-16. You see, the menu is not set. As the availability of the foods from local sources come and go, so do menu items. I couldn’t be happier that the chef plays with that double-edged sword.


It reminds me of a recent interview the New York Times had with one of the pioneers of avant-garde cooking in the states, Wylie Dufresne. He recently decided to gut his menu and change it completely. To avoid the “Stairway to Heaven” effect of people coming to his restaurant only for the familiarity of a “signature” dish instead of the anticipation of an entirely new experience. Honestly, I would have called it the “Life is a Highway” effect, but whatever. The Refinery doesn’t need to worry about that little issue, because probably, the things you’re reading about here will either be tweaked, or not in season by the next menu cycle.

Before I start things off talking about specific menu items, I’ve got to applaud the front of house. Had I been responsible, I would have made a reservation far in advance. What I did do was call 40 minutes before dinner service the day of, in an attempt to procure a spot. Although, Michelle the manager informed me, it was the worst possible day to try to get a table in the main dining hall due to a local college graduation, she graciously welcomed us to dine at the bar or the roof, and that we could still order whatever we wanted off the menu.

At the bar, Phillip and I enjoyed a beer and an appetizer while it was still relatively hot outside. I selected a salad of olive oil poached oysters, atop ribbons of shaved carrot and cucumber. A little extra touch of the ocean was added by some strands of seaweed. It was topped with a citrus truffle vinaigrette and sprinkles of togarashi chili powder. The salad was the right start to the meal, due to the high alcohol content of our brews. The only thing I would critique (before we can get back to me completely falling all over myself with compliments) is that the oysters and the truffle in the dressing didn’t add much in the way of flavor. However the plate was visually pleasing, the other flavors were brilliant and the slow burn from the chili was gorgeous.


We made our way outside to enjoy the rest of the meal. The sun had begun to fade and a slight breeze was stirring. I ordered two more starters instead of a main course. Phillip chose a single large plate entrée, reminiscent of something you would be served at a family dinner. Of course, in this scenario your mother is April Bloomfield. A thick hunk of crispy roasted pork shoulder, with a stuffing of grain mustard and sweet onion was presented. The meat was not overly tender, it bounced back a little when bitten into, but was still as moist as could be. All the little islands of fat as we call them, surrounded the meat in flavor on one hand, and created a lovely crisp crust on the other. The potatoes lived up to their creamery name and provided a classic accompaniment to the meat. The green beans….were not ordinary, they were phenomenal. They were pickled in some sort of red wine solution and then warmed throughout, unlike anything I’ve had with a similar meal. I was definitely impressed by that combo, it was one of those ideas you have to steal for private use.

My first dish was lamb belly and pork terrine with a grapefruit marmalade. As opposed to the traditional toast point, green radishes were provided to serve as the vessel for a paté to mouth coupling. I loved it. All that “lamby” goodness and the range of spices from sage to coriander and peppercorns, instantly took me to the French countryside. A place I’ve never been to but it seems quite nice in my head.


I then received what looked to be a giant wonton. I could have sworn I ordered a ravioli. The menu lists it as fried beef tongue ravioli. I must have completely misunderstood. Some of the worlds greatest mistakes turn out to be triumphs, and this was one of them. I mean really, either way it would have worked. How could it not with a luscious mousseline of beef tongue inside that deep-fried gigantic piece of noodle? Underneath lay intermingled pools of thinned out tomato aioli and green onion pesto. When dishes are this delicious, it can be sad knowing, due to the ever-changing menu, that you’ll probably never see them again. Although without this temporal shift, you may not be enjoying that very plate! On to bigger and better things!


I really like their approach to dessert course. Every, and I mean every time I look online at the menu, dessert has a savory component to compliment the sweet. To my memory, the best desserts, or at least the most distinct, involve some abnormal combination. This time the key ingredient was thyme. It was laced throughout a salted caramel sauce that laid inside the crevices of a soft, pillowy, individually sized polenta cake. The cake was then finished off with a few slices of macerated peaches and a generous helping of ganache. I think this, more so than any of the other fine menu items that stood on The Refinery’s list, was a case of either, “you fall in love with this cake so much you want it to be a part of your life” or “you hate it and never want to see its ugly face again”. I can’t really argue the point of not liking it. I get it. Savory sweets aren’t for everyone. You’re either all in or your out.


I’m in on The Refinery. It’s a great spot bringing complex yet welcoming dishes to the masses. These kinds of establishments need our patronage as much as we need them to widen our culinary horizons. We should all show our gratitude toward those in the kitchen working to keep things inovative and fresh, so that we as diners don’t lose interest and move on. I let far too much time pass between visits. Who knows what amazing creations I missed out on and could have been inspired by? I can tell you one thing, it won’t happen again if I have anything to say about it.

The Refinery on Urbanspoon

Fiat Cafe – New York, NY

Despite what you may think, it’s actually quite difficult to find truly tongue tingling Italian food in New York City. You can’t just walk through Little Italy and choose one of the myriad establishments at random. Of course you could just go the safe route and stick with the high-end mainstays like Il Mulino, Marea or Da Silvano. While those may provide amazing meals, they’re painful to the wallet. So where can you go to get a satisfying Italian meal at a price that’s just as palatable? The answer is Fiat Cafe at 203 Mott St.

Fiat Cafe spread

As the name suggests, the interior is sprinkled with artwork, photos and knick-knacks of the famed Italian automaker. Like I mentioned last week with in my Leunig’s post, I got the sensation of being transported to a small cafe in Italy. Stephane, the owner, is a regular fixture. You’ll see him chatting with his customers which is a welcome site to see in a city where most restaurateurs manage their eateries at arms length. Both occasions I’ve eaten there, he has personally welcomed us and taken our order himself. It doesn’t hurt that he and my friend are quite close!

After we had taken our seats, my friend suggested we enjoy a couple glasses of Montepulciano. Of course I didn’t argue, as I figured it would go perfectly with the pasta I was eyeing, but we’ll get to that in a bit. I let me colleague select a starter, an excellent example of Insalata di Mare. It incorporated some of the freshest calamari and shrimp I’ve ever had, it was so tender I felt it necessary to comment on it. The seafood had the level of quality you’d expect from a fine ceviche. It was lightly tossed with a delicious olive oil, lemon, celery and grape tomato mixture.

The main course was up next. I went with a pasta that I had sampled once before, the decadent Pappardelle with Shitake, Oyster and Crimini mushrooms, duck confit, ragout and truffle oil. If that doesn’t hit all the right buttons I don’t know what does. It was silky from the duck fat and truffle oil, with a great acidity from the tomato. The three different mushrooms were a fantastic flavor compliment and the pappardelle was perfectly cooked.

Daniel chose the pork chop with favas, carrots and mushrooms with a healthy side of truffled polenta. It looked and smelled amazing, and while I was only able to sample the polenta, which was ridiculous, Daniel seemed to enjoy himself as the plate was spotless by the end of the meal! I don’t blame him since I greedily devoured my pappardelle without even offering a bite. 

It was just a fantastic experience all around. Fiat Cafe is one of those restaurants where you feel comfortable the instant you walk in the door. However you don’t necessarily have to carry yourself there if you’re feeling lazy. Luckily, my office is within the delivery radius, so when the weather takes a turn for the worst, but I still have a penchant for pasta, I can give them a call and have the exact same quality dish sitting in front of me as I would get if I were there. All three times I’ve ordered in I’ve been impressed with the quality. Usually the food suffers slightly from the trip between restaurant and your door, but Fiat’s pastas hold up quite well. The pappardelle has made an appearance here, as well as the Bucatini a Matriciana, one of my all time favorite Italian dishes. My most recent delivery experience, and another pasta staple for me, was the Spaghetti Carbonara. This pasta is easy to screw up. Often you’ll find it heavy and lethargic from too much cream, cheese or egg. This was anything but. The cheese and pancetta coated my tongue in a velvety layer of flavor. This was offset by a nice amount of red onion that added brightness and helped cut the fat so the flavors could shine through clearer. Totally luxurious and absolutely delicious.

So if you’re looking for an Italian meal that won’t break the bank, while not sacrificing quality, Fiat Cafe is a must. The owner, Stephane Iacovelli has been kind enough to indulge me by answering a few questions, so stay tuned in the days to come for a little more insight into this wonderful SoHo gem. Mangiamo!

Fiat Cafe on Urbanspoon