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

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #7

Every so often, the boys of Eat a Duck are bestowed with incredible meals in rapid succession. Sadly we couldn’t share in any food-ventures over the last few days, but if the spread below is any indication, I’d say we still had a successful week in eating.

The wife and I snuck in a visit to Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market in Tampa and Café Boulud in West Palm Beach before heading down to Miami to see my parents off for the summer. If I’m not eating with Logan, I’m probably eating with Jep, and we did some fine work this weekend. Dim sum at Blackbrick, incredible Japanese spiked Peruvian fare at La Mar and a long-awaited trip for pizza Napolitana at Stanzione 87 were all on the menu. A simple dinner at home with some home-made pesto over fusilli and antipasti of burrata, heirloom tomato and prosciutto from San Daniele.

Logan made his rounds to some of the best eats in Lakeland with Vietnamese from Pho Tan, and BBQ from Fat Maggie’s. Concord Coffee and their Poor Porker supplied pastries seems to be a weekly affair, and who can blame him? The food scene in his town is really starting to show some promise, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot more Lakeland restaurants making their way into the recap in the weeks to come.

Look out for some full length pieces in the next few weeks featuring some of the new Miami joints we’ve teased here!

EAD Weekly #7

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

Parm & La Esquina – New York City, NY

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

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

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

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

 La Esquina spread

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

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

Parm  on Urbanspoon

La Esquina on Urbanspoon

A Meal For the Girls

Cooking and food has become my new hobby in life. It’s something that I have built a deep appreciation for over a long period of time. It’s also something that might not make sense to you knowing where I’m from and where I live. Culturally speaking Central Florida has been a vast culinary wasteland for as long as I can remember. However, there a few gems that have surfaced over the years. Newly discovered markets, purveyors, food trucks, shacks, restaurants and cooking techniques are helping me appreciate worldly food offerings more and more. Now that I’ve recently been spending more time outside, just being out in the elements inspires me to create. This is what the days events gave to me.

As I was walking my route, I saw a wonderful wild rosemary bush sitting in a customers yard. I walked over to it to steal a few sprigs. I like to use it as a natural air freshener in my truck. The oils had rubbed off on my hands and I kept getting whiffs of the rosemary all day long. It made me hungry. I remember the previous day delivering new issues of Bon Appetit with a prosciutto and sage wrapped loin of pork on the cover, and thinking to myself that I had to make this as soon as I could. So as the day progressed, the urge to cook steadily built.

This is what came of my inspiration.

Chicken thigh roulades wrapped in prosciutto, stuffed with rosemary and garlic. Traditional parma risotto and Creme brûlée

I took some plastic wrap, about a 12×12 piece and laid the prosciutto on it. Pulled some rosemary off the stem and sprinkled it with chopped garlic in a row in the center. Then placed 3 boneless skinless chicken thighs in the middle of everything else. I rolled it up tight and tied off the ends of the plastic. I made 2 of the roulades that would probably feed 4 people, and then put them in the freezer to seize up while I continued prep.

Heat a pan on mid-high heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Put both roulades in the pan, and sear all 4 sides for about 2 1/2 minutes each. cover and lower the heat down to about mid-low. Let them cook for around 15 more minutes or until the chicken has cooked through. (It may take longer or shorter. I wasn’t really keeping track of time.) There should be some nice pan juices forming by now. Remove the chicken, let rest, and turn the heat back up Then add about a half cup of white wine. Cook off the booze. Add a half cup of chicken stock and the juice from a lemon. (meyer if you can find it.) Throw in some rosemary sprigs too! Reduce until it begins to thicken. Remove from heat and add a pad of butter. Cut the roulade into medallions and spoon sauce over the top. Serve with the risotto and whatever green vegetable you can find. Make a creme brûlée and use duck eggs if you can. Eat.