During our BUCA days, Joanne and I led culinary teams to Italy two-to-three times a year – always to Rome, Tuscany and Naples, occasionally to Sicily. This went on for about 10-12 years.
So last month when we took our grandkids to Italy, it had been at least 10 years since Joanne and I had been there. And I think during the course of those 30-or-so visits, we probably ate at most every significant spot (and some not-so-significant ones) that these cities and regions had to offer.
And so it was, on this trip, that some of our favorites were still around while others had closed up shop.
Among our favorites, we were delighted to find that LA ROSETTA, located near the Pantheon in Rome, remains in business. It’s been around since 1966 and was the first ALL SEAFOOD restaurant in Rome.
Near the Pantheon
On Sunday, June 17, 2018, we went back.
Tables Nicely Spaced
My memories of our visits to La Rosetta are delightful. The surprise of the amuse bouche (before I even knew what an amuse bouche was)…shared antipasti plates of “crudo (raw fish), the freshest and briniest oysters on the planet…thin slices of “just-caught” swordfish carpaccio…as well as a morsel of crispy fried monkfish liver in a roasted pumpkin puree. And to top it all off – you know how “star-struck” I can be – on our last visit, Kathleen Turner and her daughter were at the table next to us.
Raw Seafood Platter
Smoked Swordfish Carpaccio
Crispy Monkfish Liver
We enjoyed dishes I never could have imagined, like a chicory salad with anchovy dressing. It was at La Rosetta where I first tried “cacio e pepe” (kinda like fettuccine Alfredo except with cacio sheep’s milk cheese instead of Parmigiano Reggiano, and what seemed like handfuls of freshly cracked black pepper).
Chicory Salad ... Anchovy Dressing
Platters of simply grilled langoustines, lobster and crab are also embedded in my flavor memory.
Grilled Langoustines, Lobster & Crab
Well, on Sunday night we went back for the first time in 10 years. It was a beautiful night and we were fortunate to snag one of the coveted outdoor deuces with a vista of the Pantheon about a block away.
Small ... But Nice ... Outdoor Seating
Dinner started off well enough with a bottle of well-chilled and crispy Frascati from just south of Rome.
For the antipasti I tried to share a plate of deep-fried anchovies alongside porcini mushrooms. Joanne would have none of it (well, none of the anchovies; she had no problem snarfing down the accompanying porcinis). She followed with a small arugula salad and ravioli stuffed with crab, leeks, ricotta, ginger and lime. I opted for the black pepper-laced cacao e pepe (as good as I remembered it). Next came grilled sea bass and red snapper, accompanied by more freshly foraged mushrooms (note to readers: there are worse times to schedule an Italy trip than during porcini season).
Cacio e Pepe ... My Dish
Crispy Anchovies & Porcini Mushrooms
Ravioli ... Crab, Leeks, Ricotta & Ginger
3 Chocolate Mousse with Pistachios
Decadent Chocolate Cake
Now, La Rosetta is not cheap. And here was the problem: The amuse bouche never came (perhaps it was forgotten – or just purposely cut from the La Rosetta experience). The potted white flowers on our table were hopelessly wilted and beginning to turn brown…perhaps dead. Our menus were dirty, torn and dog-eared. And the service? Lackadaisical, a little aloof and not caring.
Amuse Bouche (10 years ago)
I flirted with the notion that maybe I was fantasizing and romanticizing our visits from ten long years ago. But no. The flowers were actually wilted. And the menus were, in fact, dirty and shabby. And our server really didn’t seem to give a shit.
I wondered if it was simply an off-night. Restaurants aren’t known for scheduling their “A Teams” on Sundays.
Then again, was our server’s lack of attention to detail a reflection of management’s shortcomings? After all, we never even saw a manager during the entire evening. Had the “disease” spread throughout the restaurant? You have to ask yourself: If the menus are dirty, how clean will the bathrooms be? How about the kitchen? If no one cared enough to keep the flowers on our table from wilting, could they be bothered to keep the lettuce in the cooler fresh?
Based on a single visit, I can’t answer such questions with any certainty.
So would I recommend La Rosetta to you?
Yeah…I would. My memories are so fond from years ago that I just find it hard to believe that the place could slip so much. I think that the ownership has not changed and as I said: the food was good.
Joanne and I just returned from Italy with grandkids in tow. And of course we dragged them – occasionally kicking and screaming (not really) – to all of the must-sees: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St Peter’s, the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, etc.
And while these icons certainly caught their attention, they were rivaled by two other attention-getting experiences – namely FORTNIGHT, with their eyes on their IPhones as they teamed up with their siblings to build massive forts, battle against hordes of monsters, and craft and loot giant worlds (I like to think it improved their understanding of the Roman Empire).
The other thing that grabbed ‘em – without fail – was GELATO.
Gelato In Rome
It was a treat on a hot afternoon and a reward after a long day of touring. Asking the kids to rank order their favorites always fueled an animated discussion. And the threat of withholding gelato provided a powerful inducement for our bambini to behave.
And so it was that as we toured the cities and ancient sights, their eyes were often glued to their IPhones while their taste buds and antenna were tuned to sensing the closest GELATERIA.
Since my video game knowledge never got past PAC-MAN and THE FROGGER …… I’ll talk a bit about gelato.
First of all: a little primer on gelato vs. ice cream. They are different. Both good but simply different.
This is Gelato
This is Ice Cream
Both contain milk, cream and sugar. Ice cream frequently contains egg yolks. Gelato does not and uses more milk and less cream. It’s also churned at a much slower rate than ice cream, thus incorporating less air, leaving gelato denser, silkier and softer.
Because of the cream and egg yolks, ice cream contains butterfat in the range of 14 to 25%, while gelato is in the 4 to 9% range. With less butterfat coating your palate, flavors intensify. Also, gelato is kept and served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream – 7 to 12 degrees vs. 10 to 15 degrees. The warmer temperature of gelato causes your mouth to become less numb from the chill and better able to allow the flavors to shine through.
Because it contains less fat and air, gelato costs about 30% more than ice cream. But the good news is that gelato contains about 20% fewer calories.
In Rome there were two important gelaterias in our neighborhood near the Pantheon: DELLA PALMA and GIOLITTI. Each offered about 150 different choices. They were equally good and just a few steps from one another. What they have in common besides the outstanding quality is the incredible artistry in how they display the product – positively jaw-dropping. Check out the visuals below. (Our grandkids sampled 47 different varieties.)
Near the Pantheon
And a Few Steps Away
Comes In Cups
Who Could Resist
So what about kids in Italy? Well, besides exposing them to the ancient history of the Roman Empire and the cultural history of the Renaissance, our grandkids were troopers when it came to the many Roman, Tuscan and Milanese foods they tried for the first time and loved. Among their favorites: Porcini mushrooms, Bistecca Fiorentina, Tuscan chicken liver crostini, risotto Milanese and pastas and pizzas of all stripes.
Kids Love Italy
We didn’t indulge, but there are numerous cooking classes for kids, both in Rome and in Florence — pizza making and gelato making.
Gelato Making Classes
Or Pizza Making
Which brings us back to gelato and some “inside baseball” information. CAUTION! There are two dueling ways of serving up cones: THE SCOOP vs. THE PADDLE.
The Scoop vs.
You want to buy from the shops that use the paddle. The scoop is often used by lesser gelaterias as a way of keeping costs down by controlling the smaller size of the ball of gelato they serve. The paddle method slathers the gelato generously (get three flavors, and the cone will almost topple. Further, the price is often about the same as the smaller scooping joints.
The Paddle Slathering the Cone
And the Cup
The Scoop ... It's Weenie
Joanne and I watched with amusement as our grandkids progressed during the trip from the safety of familiar flavors to absolute culinary adventure – starting timidly with chocolate and strawberry and the comfort of Nutella, Twix, Snickers and Mars renditions, then stepping up the pace to include profiterole, watermelon and blood orange. Passion fruit, green apple and Sicilian fruit took ‘em to the next level and by the final few days they were sampling fig and puffo (cotton candy gelato). Topping off the adventure: BLACK SESAME SEED!
Double Chocolate ... Yum
Fig ... An Adventure
Puffo ... (Cotton Candy)
And Finally ... Black Sesame Seed
I found gelato to be extremely democratic, cutting across all lines from young and old, famous and locals, Arnold and Magic, Audrey and Gregory, princes and priests, not to mention nuns making gelato a habit.
In my last posting, I wrote about our drive to South Bend, Indiana for our granddaughter’s graduation from Notre Dame University.
But it just wasn’t Notre Dame. We made it into a bona fide road trip in order for our 11 year-old granddaughter to see two more campuses: the University of Illinois (Joanne’s and my alma mater) and Northwestern University (our sidekick Tim’s alma mater).
We always eagerly look forward to a big and important evening dinner, but our daytime eating is just that…. EATING, not dining.
Full disclosure: A few weeks ago, while pushing my shopping cart around Lund’s grocery store, a Salut customer caught me red-handed with a big jar of KRAFT CHEEZE WHIZ in my basket. So it should not surprise you that I also like McDONALD’S.
And so it was that every morning started out with a breakfast stop at the Golden Arches. Our granddaughter always ordered pancakes; Joanne and I always ordered Egg McMuffins.
Always an Egg McMuffin
It doesn’t stop there. We’d also stop at McDonald’s for lunches of burgers or grilled chicken sandwiches…and Egg McMuffins, which are now part of their Breakfast All Day menu.
Original ... Single Patty
Big Mac ... Yum!!!
McChicken ... $1.00
McDonald’s is re-branding their look all over the Midwest (and probably around the country and maybe the world). It’s a NICE LOOK and FEEL: clean, warm and understated.
And not only is the company modernizing the look, they’re streamlining their ordering systems. Two years ago, Joanne and I were at the Louvre in Paris and grabbed a bite at McDonald’s in the museum’s food court, only to be surprised and confounded by the computerized ordering kiosks. Well, I’m here to tell you that two years later, they’ve come to BARABOO, WISCONSIN! There goes more than a few minimum wage jobs.
At The Louvre ... In Paris
And Now ... Baraboo, WI.
I like the food and the price, and I like the speed and the cleanliness of McDonald’s. But perhaps my “like” goes a little deeper than that. You see, while Joanne and I were students in Champaign, Illinois, a new joint called McDonald’s opened up, and soon it became the go-to spot to “chow-down” on 15 CENT HAMBURGERS after a night of revelry – and not just two or three, but sometimes five or six. Beer does wonders for the appetite.
I recall that their brightly lit neon sign read….”OVER 1 MILLION SOLD.” Now the sign simply says “BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SOLD.”
College Days ... Late Night at the University of Illinois
Another piece of nostalgia grabbed me on the trip: STEAK ‘n SHAKE. As a kid growing up in Kewanee, Illinois, my Uncle Haydn would sometimes drive my mom, dad and me down to East Peoria for a curb service supper there. Haydn drove because we didn’t own a car.
High School Days ... East Peoria, Ill.
So when a Steak ‘n Shake popped up as we drove East across I-80 in Indiana, of course we HAD TO STOP. Oh, how times change. There was no more curb service, no car hops – just a drive-thru. The interior was dolled-up in bright red, black and white. And I have to say, it had a bit of a hard edge to it, not very warm and comfortable.
And Now ...
A Drive Thru
Inside ... A Little Cold
Remarkably, though, the menu content was much as I remember from my childhood: single, double and triple “steakburgers,” the single weighing in at 2.2 ounces, just a bit bigger than McDonald’s 1.8 ounce patty. The smallish thin burgers cook faster than the thick 8-ouncers we serve at SALUT and PITTSBURGH BLUE.
The Original Steakburger
And now ... Doubles
BTW, a page out of IN ‘N OUT’S playbook that anchors the menu for sobering up after an all-nighter is the “7 X 7,” consisting of seven stacked-up burger patties, with seven slices – count ‘em – of cheddar cheese. All for $7.77
The 7x7 for $7.99
A pretty good rendition of the iconic Chicago hot dog is on the menu for $4.99, as is a Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich at $5.99.
Chicago Style ... Pretty Good
Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich
One thing that I remember is the Steak ‘n Shake Chili. It doesn’t seem to have changed at all. And it’s not simply a ladle full of glop “whumped” into a bowl. This is chili treated with RESPECT, finally getting its rightful platform. You can order it CINCINATTI STYLE (look it up); or as a CHILI MAC over spaghetti (a bargain at $3.99); CHILI SUPREME with additional chili beef for $5.95; and CHILI DELUXE, with chopped raw onions, Jack and Cheddar cheese at $2.99 for a cup. A bottle of vinegar-based HOT PEPPER SAUCE proudly sits on every table. Douse your chili with more than several drops. Don’t be a chicken – DOUSE IT!
Delicious ... Just as I Remember
Chili-Mac ... $3.99
Shake Baby Shake
At the checkout counter, you can buy Steak ‘n Shake-branded china. Joanne and I have owned a full set for 40 years – cups, chili bowls, plates and platters as well as glassware, all with logos. They also sell chili in a can. I haven’t tried it, but my experience with HORMEL CANNED CHILI has always been delightful.
Anxious to Try
We have the full set of china.
CULVER’S is another story entirely. It’s the new kid on the block, founded in 1984. And whereas McDonald’s is fast food and Steak ‘n Shake is table service, Culver’s is a tweener – what the industry calls fast casual.
You place your order at the main counter, like Mc Donald’s, paying before you get your food. Automated ordering computers are there, but so are an army of people to all but eliminate waiting in line. You’re issued a stand-up plastic number to set on your table and within moments your entire order is delivered. NICE.
Yee Gads ...
Food Delivers to #98
The décor is “smart casual” – warm, comfortable and stylish, nicely put together.
Their signature BUTTER BURGERS are large for fast casual: 5.4 ounce patties in a single, and 9.9 ounces in a double. Pretty generous when the single Butter Burger sells for less than $3, and the double is priced at $4.29. Joanne and I both had the Fish Sandwich – deep-fried crispy cod on a soft roll slathered with tartare sauce and shredded lettuce. Very good indeed.
The Original Butter Burger $2.79
And of course ... the Double with Cheese $4.29
Fish Sandwich ... Really Good ... $4.89
Cod Dinner Platter ... $8.29
Two Chicken Sandwiches are offered – one deep-fried, the other, in a nod to healthy living, grilled. Both sell for $4.29.
Also Available Grilled ... Healthy
Fried Chicken Dinner ... $8.29
Pot Roast Sandwich ... $4.19
It’s Wisconsin, so, of course, Cheese Curds are on the menu. The worst cheese curds I’ve ever had were wonderful, as were these. (Forgive me, but the Cheese Curds at BURGER JONES are the “Gold Standard.”)
Wisconsin Cheese Curds
Love em ...
Ice cream and custard sundaes, shakes and “Concretes” dominate the Treats section of the illuminated menu boards. We tried ‘em all. All are deadly good.
Chocolate, Caramel & Pecans ... WOW!
Until recently, I didn’t really understand the difference between Shakes and Concretes. Growing up, we just had malts, period.
But here’s the difference: Shakes are ice cream-based and Concretes are custard-based. Consequently they’re much thicker. Moreover, they almost always have chunks of something mixed in – nuts, fruit, candy…you get the idea. Think McFlurries at Mickey D’s, or Blizzards at DQ. In fact, the procedure at Dairy Queen is for the counter person to demonstrate the thickness by the turning Blizzard upside down in front of you before handing it off.
Concrete's & Shakes
So where does that leave us?
If you’re planning a summer road trip, all three are worth a try, but for different reasons. McDonald’s is fast, and also the least expensive. Its menu also has a broad assortment of offerings. If you have a little more time and want a sit-down lunch, then Steak ‘n Shake is a wise choice, particularly if you keep it simple – a cup of chili, steak burger and a chocolate shake.
Ice Cream Treats
But don’t miss Culver’s. For food quality and ambiance, it’s the best of the bunch – not as fast as McDonald’s, but hardly slow. And while it’s a little more generous and bit more expensive than either, it certainly provides great value for the money.
BTW, on our four-day road trip, we had one stop at Culver’s, one stop at Steak ‘n shake, and FIVE stops at McDonald’s. Gotta have those Egg McMuffins!
Our granddaughter just graduated from college, and the four years passed like lightning.
Our Granddaughter's Graduation from Notre Dame
The proud grandparents that Joanne and I are, there was never a debate about attending her graduation. So it was on an early Friday morning a couple of weeks ago that we headed to South Bend, Indiana and the campus of Notre Dame University for the big event. In tow: our daughter, her 11-year-old daughter, and “sidekick” / chauffeur, Tim.
Notre Dame may be one of the most stunningly beautiful campuses in the nation. If I were making a film about college life, and I called Central Casting in Hollywood for filming locations, this would be the place.
Out of Central Casting
South Bend is another story. Like so many midwestern cities, it has been through some rough times, particularly with the loss of auto industry jobs. It’s not that it’s depressed or unsafe. It just doesn’t have the vitality it must have had at one time. Notre Dame is plopped down right in the center of town. I guess that the contrast makes the university all the more stunning.
But there are some “green shoots.” The “South Bend River Lights” is a new public art installation that turns the St. Joseph River, which runs through downtown South Bend, into a “canvas of living art.” (Book a river-facing room at the perfectly nice Doubletree Hotel and you’ll see the show every night).
And the restaurant CAFÉ NAVARRE is splendid.
Joanne and I and our family have dined there three or four times during our granddaughter’s college years and we have found it to be uniformly very, very good. Without a doubt, it is the go-to place in South Bend.
The restaurant is located right downtown on a corner in a former bank building with 30 ft. ceilings. Until the restaurant came along, the building’s main claim to fame was getting robbed by John Dillinger in 1934. His take was $28,800.
John Dillinger ... Got $28,000
30' High Ceilings
Café Navarre’s chef and owner is Kurt Jankowsky. I’ve never met him, but he’s obviously an outstanding culinary talent. I read that a few years back he stood-up to a group of protestors angry about his inclusion of foie gras on the menu. News reports say that he did not back down to the protesters and continued to serve the rich, silky, buttery, decadent and delicious appetizer (….which was NOT on the menu during our last visit).
Chef/Owner Kurt Jankowsky
The Zealots are Marching ...
Foie Gras ... Rich, Silky, Buttery and Delicious
There were fourteen of us celebrating on Saturday night, so we sampled a ton of stuff.
House Salad ... Blue Cheese, Candied Walnuts, Green Apple ... $9
Lettuce Wedge with Blistered Tomatoes
Smoked Salmon Dip
Bucatini with Shrimp and Sun-dried Tomato Pesto
Berkshire Double Pork Chop ... Apple Compote
Spring Lamb Shank ... Braised Fennel, White Bean Cassoulet
The signature appetizer of Wild Mushroom Soup with toasted hazelnuts, snipped chives and sherry was a huge hit, and surprisingly affordable at $8. The Smoked Pork Belly with Apple Crisps at $13 was also a hit, as were the Korean Style Steamed Mussels (10). To celebrate the arrival of spring, the menu included a Sweet Pea Risotto with three plump seared sea scallops for ($20).
Sweet Pea Risotto with Seared Sea Scallops ... $20
Appetizer ... Smoked Pork Belly with Crispy Apples
Korean Steamed Mussels
Appetizer ... Tuna Poke with Wonton Chips
Big Hit ... Wild Mushroom Soup with Toasted Hazelnuts
For mains, our 11-year-old did substantial damage to her generous serving of Baked Bolognese Rigatoni. The Grilled Salmon was beautifully plated with spring snap peas, asparagus and scallions. Joanne, of course, had seafood, and perhaps the best dish of the evening: Lobster Pot Pie with brandied-lobster cream, carrots, pearl onions and fingerling potatoes, capped with a crispy and buttery cap of puff pastry. A perfect counterpoint on the plate was a small frisée salad with truffle vinaigrette.
Baked Bolognese Rigatoni
Grilled Salmon with Spring Peas
On Another Occasion ... Grilled Miso-Glazed Salmon
Best Dish of the Night ... Lobster Pot Pie
Our group had their fair share of steaks….Rib-Eyes, Filets and a rare and deliciously fatty (as it should be) Prime Rib. Another standout for meat lovers: The Pork Osso Bucco ($30) with mole & mezcal braised Berkshire pork shank, grilled tomatillo sauce, sweet corn & cactus salad, topped with queso fresco. This ain’t Canyon Ranch, folk.
Filet Mignon ... $42
Bone-In Ribeye ... $50
If there was a main dish that challenged Joanne’s Lobster Pot Pie and the Osso Bucco, it was my Brick Chicken: a semi-boneless hard brick-seared “Poulet Rouge” heritage chicken, with loads of garlic. Maybe I fell for it because I so fondly remembered the 40-cloves-of-garlic version we served at Figlio. God, I was STUPID to close that place.
Garlic Brick Chicken ... I miss Figlio
Desserts? All good, particularly the Pistachio-Crusted Chocolate Truffles. Oh yeah, the Blueberry Shortcake, too.
Pistachio Crusted Chocolate Truffles
If you find yourself in South Bend, do dine at CAFÉ NAVARRE.
So, if you're in South Bend ...
I don’t know if Joanne and I will get back to the city. It’s probably unlikely that our remaining younger grandkids will attend Notre Dame. But I’m damn glad we had these past four years, and I couldn’t be more proud of our granddaughter for not just getting into such a great school, but excelling there.
The past two weeks I’ve posted about a couple of pretty fancy restaurants in London and in Paris. But a part of me always feels like an imposter in places like that – as though the maître ‘d is going to say, “Ah, Roberts. From Keewanee, Illinois. I have a lovely table for you back by ze kitchen.”
Helene Darroze ... Fancy, Fancy
And Helen ... Also Fancy
…or maybe down in a dirt basement like the one in my childhood home, where three generations of us lived under the same roof – my grandma, my aunt and uncle, my parents and me.
But I'm From Central Illinois
At the time, I didn’t know that we were poor. Nor did I know that my town was little more than a boil on the buttocks of Illinois. After all, we were the self-proclaimed “HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!” (Could Paris or London say THAT?)
Kewanee ... A Farm Town
But ... We are the "Hog Capital of the World"
As our families sat down for dinner each evening – each and EVERY evening – I had absolutely no idea that great care had been taken to economize and “stretch” every recipe and dish to feed all six of us. All I knew is that there was always plenty of food – food that I have nothing but fond memories of.
All of which brings me to a “GO-TO” dish that we had on almost a weekly basis.
Salisbury Steak, Always With Mushrooms
Comforting with Mashed Potatoes & Frozen Peas
I knew nothing about the history of the dish, of course. It’s said to have originated in Hamburg, Germany, a city known for minced and chopped meat, a preparation method that German butchers had borrowed from Russia. It’s called the HAMBURG STEAK. In Sweden, it’s called PANNBIFF and the meat is a mixture of pork and beef served up with cream sauce and Lingonberries (Swedish meatballs, anyone?)
Don’t ask me how it got there, but even Hawaii has a version, called THE LOCO MOCO. As near as I can tell, the only difference between it and a SALISBURY STEAK is that the LOCO MOCO is served over a bed of white rice.
Even in Hawaii ... Called the Loco Moco
In our house rice played an important role…as did breadcrumbs…and oatmeal…and Rice Krispies. Unbeknownst to me, all four were used as “extenders” to the ground beef in order to bulk it up and therefore serve bigger portions to more people.
Hearty & Juicy
Sometimes with Potatoes
And Sometimes with Carrots & Potatoes
No surprise here, but France had a fancy iteration of the dish called HACHE DE BOEUF: ground sirloin mixed with Gorgonzola cheese, eggs and anchovies. A drum roll please….and everyone…. a loud chorus of “La Marseillaise,” s’il vous plait.
But back to reality and good old SALISBURY STEAK…
BTW, the ground beef was always fashioned into an oval, not a round. I suppose that was to make it look more like a steak.
I paid no attention to my Mom’s recipe but I imagine it called for onions, garlic, eggs, the aforementioned “filler,” and probably ketchup. Most always it was accompanied by mashed potatoes, frozen peas (Birds Eye, no doubt) and occasionally macaroni (or perhaps spaghetti; that was all the local A&P carried. Certainly no flat noodles or foreign shapes).
We Never Had Flat Noodles
I have since learned that some recipes call for a fried egg on top. Sounds good, but none of that nonsense in our house. Once in a while some carrots and potatoes would find their way onto the plate, but that’s it!
Around that time, the A&P started carrying SWANSON’S FROZEN TV DINNERS, and possibly next to roast turkey, Salisbury Steak was the top seller. God, how I lusted for a TV DINNER! Maybe because we had just gotten our first television set, a gift from my Dad’s boss, and a set of TV tables, from cashing in Gold Bond Stamps.
To me, this was a step up
At any rate, the Swanson’s frozen TV dinner is said to have diminished the image of Salisbury Steak. But not for me. In our house, Swanson’s was a step-up.
Then again, Swanson’s didn’t add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP to its Salisbury Steak the way my mom did. Nor did its TV dinners come with a six-to-eight-inch-tall stack of sliced Wonder Bread like my mom placed at the center of the table. There was no greater pleasure than sopping up the mushroom gravy with slices of soft, white, store-bought Wonder Bread.
Wonder Bread for Sopping
This was always involved
Now, there is something of a ritual and culinary disconnect that went on in our house every spring. My Dad and my uncle Don and I would head out early every Saturday morning in May to forage for MOREL MUSHROOMS – always to the same place: a woods outside Galesburg, Illinois, where a friendly farmer allowed us to search year after year. And search we did. We had our secret spots in the forest around certain fallen and rotting trees. And if there were “JACK-IN- THE- PULPITS” growing nearby….we’d hit the morel mother lode.
Here's the Disconnect ...
We foraged for wild Morel Mushrooms
And we knew where to look
I am not exaggerating when I say that we’d return home around noon every Saturday with two or three A&P grocery bags chock-full of just-picked morels. And guess what? Saturday night dinner on those days was always Salisbury Steak with Morel Mushroom Sauce!
Damn ... we were good!
And Saturday Night ... Salisbury Steak with Morel Mushrooms
One more thing: As a Saturday daytime treat for us foragers hungry from “the hunt,” My mother would take a pound or two from the grocery bag and toss ‘em into the kitchen sink full of ice cold salty water (the salt to get the bugs out of the spongy tops}.
Once thoroughly soaked, dried and bug free, she’d toss them into a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a fistful of salt and a quarter pound of butter. Fifteen minutes later, my uncle and my dad and my mom and I would sit down at the kitchen table, each of us with a platter of these pan-fried beauties – each of them with a can of BLATZ BEER, and me with a bottle ROYAL CROWN COLA and sometimes a MOON PIE.
Some years back, I was in Paris and had picked up Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for some travel reading. Part of the book is set there, and in the course of following some of the story’s clues around the Left Bank, Joanne and were led to the SAINT-SULPICE CATHEDRAL, home of the Rose Line, a central element in the story.
Saint Sulpice ... Paris
The Rose Line at Saint Sulpice
A Clue ... From the Book
It was lunchtime and since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to try HELENE DARROZE, the famed second floor restaurant on Rue d’Assas that opened in 2001 and promptly won two Michelin stars. More about that later.
Nearby ... Helene Darroze ... 2nd Floor
Hélène Darroze is an Alain Ducasse alum from Gascony in southwest France, home of the fat LANDES CHICKENS that actually rival the world renowned BRESSE CHICKENS from Burgundy.
In 2008 she opened her second restaurant at the prestigious CONNAUGHT HOTEL in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. Her menus in Paris and in London, while not identical, are very similar in tone and attitude, with several signature dishes featured at both restaurants. But the décor is quite different at each location. Both dining rooms are warm and comfortable, but the Paris location has a decidedly more contemporary flavor, whereas the London outpost exudes a sporting and “old-money” British vibe.
Paris Dining Room
Also She Opened in London
At the Connaught Hotel
Different Look Than Paris
If you have kids and remember Pixar’s animated studio film, Ratatouille, the character Colette was modeled after Hélène Darroze.
Ratatouille from Pixar ... Colette was modeled after Helene Darroze
One thing that I like about Darroze is that while exercising serious cooking skill, she brings wit and whimsy to the table. For example, the “menu” arrives in the convoluted form of a Chinese Checkers board, with 16 bright white balls, all labeled with food possibilities – scallops…lamb…caviar…
You pick a ball or two or three that interest you and place them in the indented ring that surrounds the board. Your server records them, then proceeds to explain and romance your selections. It’s a unique give-and-take that sets the stage for a playful rapport between staff and guest.
Kinda Like Chinese Checkers
The Printed Menu Alongside
Is it necessary? Hell, no. Is it fun? Damn right.
Cheesy gougeres appear on your table, followed by a dark, dense and chewy bread with two butters, one a flaky, salted, incredibly rich golden slab; the second a 4-inch-high cone of swirled chili butter. Both are nice counterpoints to the slight sweetness of the molasses in the bread.
Salted Butter Slab & Chili Butter Cone
Yum - Nice Foil to Dark, Molasses Bread
Let the show begin…
Seemingly out of nowhere a trolley shows up tableside, bearing a classic Berkel slicer (not the Williams Sonoma iteration, but the “real deal” $25,000 version), invented in 1898 by Wilhelm van Berkel in Rotterdam (The London location sports a red Berkel; in Paris it’s cream colored). Without a word, your server spins the handle and pink, paper-thin slices of cured Gascon ham settle into an airy pile served alongside a miniature loaf of buttery pull-aparts.
The Iconic Berkel Slicer in Paris
And the red one in London
Paper Thin Ham From Gascony
It was a hot summer day in Paris when we first dined at Hélène Darroze and Joanne had Gaspacho as a starter. Even though it was refreshingly chilled, the flavor was absolutely intense. Adding to the theater, the soup was poured from a glass teapot right at the table.
"Gaspacho" ... Poured Tableside
Considering Darroze’s Gascony heritage, it came as no surprise that of the fifteen starters, five involved foie gras – some duck, some goose. I don’t know if the goose is any better than the duck, or if the price is higher because they just don’t know what to do with the rest of the goose (I’ve heard it’s often donated to prisons), but in the world of foie gras, goose liver ranks higher on the fanciness scale – so expect to pay a premium for it.
Foie Gras Starter
And Another ...
5 out of 15 Starters are Foie Gras
Most Are Duck Foie Gras
But some are Goose
At any rate, I certainly was not able to try ‘em all, and Joanne will not even taste foie gras, so I was forced to consume an ethereally creamy slab of it all by myself. I still remember: The preparation included cocoa beans and smoked eel. In a tribute to spring (and to the snout-to-tail movement), another standout appetizer of sweetbreads comes with morel mushrooms.
Foie Gras with Smoked Eel and Chive Mousse
Snout to Tail ... Deep Fried Sweetbreads with Morel Mushrooms
Mains have included Beef Wellington (perfect in London on a damp and dreary November evening). Milk-Fed Lamb Chops from the Pyrenees were fork-tender. And surprisingly I also liked the Pigeon in Mole Sauce. (The lesson here: In the hands of a master, anything can be made delicious.)
Cod in Nettle Broth with White Asparagus
Beef Wellington in London
Pigeon ... Hmmm? with Mole
Milk-Fed Lamb Chops from the Pyrenees
Side Dish ... Asparagus Spear and Poached Egg
But here’s the deal……
Darroze cites that she fondly remembers her Sunday dinners while growing up in Gascony. It was always ROAST CHICKEN and always chicken from Landes.
Consequently, we are blessed that she has added Saturday and Sunday ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO to her menus in both Paris and London. This is no casual Sunday supper, though. Each menu consists of five courses and will set you back about $140 for two. Not cheap, but a bargain compared to a meal assembled à la carte.
Saturday and Sunday Night Only
Perhaps Daniel Humm of NYC’s ELEVEN MADISON PARK took inspiration from Hélène Darroze when he introduced what food writer Dan Meyers has called “the best roast chicken in America” – an Amish variety, stuffed with truffles, foie gras and brioche.
Darroze stuffs foie gras under the skin in the winter, and in the summer the chicken gets morel mushrooms and truffles.
The parade begins with a gilded eggshell filled with egg yolk confit, chicken liver mousse, bacon, crispy skin and parmesan foam – decadence on a spoon. That’s followed by a second course of “gin-clear” chicken consommé with tiny ravioli and a splash of Armagnac. A generous glossy and juicy nut-brown breast comes next with a side of perfectly prepared, butter-loaded seasonal vegetables.
5 Courses ... Start with a Gilded Egg filled with Egg Yolk Confit, Chicken Liver Mousse and Other Good Stuff
Consommé with Tortellini ... 2nd Course and a splash of Armagnac
The "Nut Brown" Breast
But now comes a real surprise and delight: a taco of boldly seasoned chicken leg and thigh meat on a corn tortilla with a squeeze of fresh lime.
4th Course ... Taco with Leg Meat and Lime
Dessert arrives in three separate steps. Staying true to the chicken theme, there is ALWAYS Ile Flottante (whipped egg whites with crème anglaise, caramel and sliced toasted almonds), and sometimes strawberry ice cream (unlike any you have ever seen or tasted).
Île Flottante (Floating Island) 1st Dessert
Strawberry Ice Cream ... 2nd Dessert
Not included, but definitely a worthwhile extra indulgence is a sampling from the Cheese Trolley, which features huge wedges of unpasteurized varieties (which aren’t imported to the U.S.) from both England and France, displayed under enormous glass bell jars. Selections come with an assortment of fruits, nuts and chutneys.
Extra ... But do it ... Cheese Course
And finally a complimentary “tree” of chocolate truffles arrives to enjoy with your coffee. But….we ain’t done yet, folks. As you leave, you are given a box of cookies, pastries, macarons and sweets to take home. NICE!
Petit Fours ... Truffles
And a box of goodies to take home
The PRIX FIXE menu at lunch is a relative bargain in Paris. The London location serves dinner only.
My advice? Book a table for two on Saturday or Sunday night. Have the ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO…..DO IT!
About $140-$150 USD ... for two ... It's a Rockstar
Fresh seafood and oysters have been part of the Paris restaurant scene since Frederic Bofinger opened his eponymous brasserie in 1864 near the Bastille. It was a time when railroads were new and were just beginning to bring fresh seafood to the hordes of awaiting Parisians. BOFINGER STILL STANDS.
City of Light
In the 1920s, after World War I, Rue Montparnasse was the trendy playground of Paris and folks were packing the bars, cafes and restaurants every night. It was then that the seafood restaurant LE DOME stood ready to welcome the new kid on the block: LA COUPOLE, which on opening night in 1927, is said to have popped the corks on 1200 bottles of champagne and shucked thousands of fresh oysters. Remarkably, LE DOME and LA COUPOLE flourish to this day.
Le Dome on Montparnasse
After recent visits to both, LE DOME seems to be a whole lot more serious about their food. Yes, it’s a tourist spot…but I also see loads of tables that appear to be occupied by locals.
Touristy ... But Still Good After 150 Years
Joanne and I have had the pleasure of sampling a host of Parisian seafood places over the years: LA MAREE…MARIUS ET JANETTE…PRUNIER…all old school, but good old school. HUITERIE REGIS in the 6th specializes in oysters as well as towers of fruits de mer, including lobster, langoustine, clams, whelks and anything else that may have been caught or harvested that morning. It’s TINY, TINY TINY and I don’t think I’ve ever had any of their cooked dishes. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing a kitchen – just a pantry, with no stove.
La Maree ... Zagat Rated #23
Predictable ... But Nice
Halibut ... Asparagus & Hollandaise
Oysters, Oysters, Oysters
Joanne at Huiterie Regis
2 or 3 Tables Outdoors in Summer
Very Old School ... Zagat Rated #23
16 Avenue Victor-Hugo
Totally out of the tourist zone, In an unremarkable neighborhood , several blocks behind the Tour Montparnasse is one of our favorites: LA CAGOUILLE. The dining room shouts bad design from the 1950’s, but kitchen seduces with the best seafood from that morning’s haul. The menu here isn’t meant to impress, simply to bring you joy. Thank God, it does both.
It's Worth a Taxi ... About 20 Euros
All of which brings us to a new discovery – a fantastic seafood spot on the Right Bank in the 8th, not too far from the Arc de Triomphe: RESTAURANT HELEN (its tagline is “Le Culte du Poisson” – “the cult of fish”]. Now, I searched in vain to find out just who in the heck HELEN is…or was. The most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy? Or the Greek meaning, “shining light?” I just do not know.
3 Rue Berryer
Is This Her Namesake?
Just a Few Blocks From Here
What I do know is this….the chef/owner is an incredible talent by the name of SEBASTIAN CARMONA-PORTO. He was born in France but grew up in Spain and moved to Paris to become chef at Le Duc before moving on to HELEN.
Sebastian Carmona-Porto ... Chef/Genius
Joanne and I first had lunch there a couple of years ago and have been back twice, both times for dinner and most recently for our anniversary. For us, it’s a special occasion restaurant – an anniversary or birthday place. Helen can be expensive, but it’s also a lifetime memory. Note: a prix fixe menu is offered at lunch for a fraction of the cost of an à la carte dinner.
That's Joanne ... We Found it
The dining room is tasteful – done up in understated shades of blue and grey. The tables are nicely spaced and, if there are two of you, I’d recommend table #’s 1, 2 or 3, all near the window. That’s Joanne at table three.
Clean, Spare Design
Table #'s 1, 2 and 3
Joanne at Table #3
iPad Wine List
OK….on to dinner. The all-seafood menu is PURE and HARD…..only stuff that swims.
I’m always tickled and frequently raise an eyebrow at restaurants’ “amuse bouche” offerings. At HELEN, by the time the third amuse bouche arrived, I didn’t just raise an eyebrow….I dropped a jaw!
Amuse Bouche #1 ... Smoked Salmon with Crème Fraiche
Amuse Bouche #2 ... Anchovies on Toast
Amuse Bouche #3 ... Brandade and Tartare Saule
Among appetizers that we have enjoyed are the Razor Clams, Char-Grilled Octopus, Raw Tuna Slices with Yuzu and Jalapeno, Langoustines with a Souffle Cap and Garlic Aioli as well as a host of Carpaccios and Crudos, depending on the day’s catch.
Appetizer ... Razor Clams
Starter ... Grilled Octopus
3 or 4 Different Carpaccio's Daily
As Well As Other Raw Iterations
Tuna with Yuzu and Jalapeño
Langoustines au Soufflé d'Aioli
Mains have included Steamed Clams with Chorizo, Sole, and a minimalist block of soft ivory Halibut. However, the star of the show is the nightly selection of WHOLE FISH FOR TWO, presented and filleted tableside. While we’ve never had the Scorpion Fish with its massive head and fierce-looking, very wide and toothy mouth, we have had the seabass and, best of all, the flounder.
Steamed Clams and Chorizo
Squid ... It Could be a Main Course
Sole with Mussels and Puff Pastry
So simple ... So Fresh
You Can Mix Up The Daily Catch
Scorpian Fish for Two ... Scary
We Had This ... Sea Bass
And Simply Served
But this was the Best ...
With Shards of Pancetta
EVERYTHING IS VIVID, EVERYTHING IS FLAVOR!
Of course, desserts were wonderful. An all-out-assault on the dessert menu rewarded us with three chock-full-of-chocolate treasures: the millefeuille, a chocolate tart, and all-chocolate profiteroles.
Dessert ... Millefeuille
Deep Chocolate Tarte
All Chocolate Profiteroles
I thought HELEN was our special little find, a place that might be off the radar screen, not populated with the glitterati.
But as I was exploring the delights of this restaurant, I came across this…..
Can summer be far behind? After all, the flowers are in full bloom…the beach beckons, and lovers once again stroll hand-in-hand.
Time for the Beach
And for "Uncle's and Nieces" to Connect
And Stroll Hand In Hand
After last week’s post about Amalfi, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the compelling summertime pasta choices that await us. So I thought I’d serve up a random (and by no means complete) view of warm weather pasta possibilities. You can serve some hot and some cold.
Now, I’ve probably eaten a couple hundred miles of spaghetti in my lifetime (and have the girth to prove it), but even so, I’ll never forget standouts like the wonderful lemon cream spaghetti in Positano and the vivid, unexpected flavors of the sour orange risotto that turned out to be a blank slate for a blizzard of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (a cheese born to “buddy-up” with fruit).
Risotto with Lemon and Sour Orange
Peaches with Pasta? Oh Yeah!
Cherries, Parmigiano and Pasta
So, dear readers, what I am about to unleash for your consideration is a flurry of pasta ideas to bring sunshine to your summer dining, whether it’s just dinner on Tuesday night, a backyard picnic with neighbors, or a gathering of friends who, upon seeing your food, will DROP THEIR JAWS.
In some ways…this is a love letter to Italy.
But no recipes here – just ideas. You’re on your own for preparation details (but the internet will help).
Fistfuls of fresh herbs are involved. It’s spring and Morel mushrooms are springing up. Tomatoes of all stripes….heirloom, big fat Bushel Boys, and sweet cherry tomatoes will soon choke the farmers markets.
All with Garlic Of Course
Spring Morel Mushrooms
Tossed with Tortellini and Loads of Butter
Peppers - Mild To HOT HOT HOT
A few summer classics are worth mentioning….Linguine Alle Vongole (please use fresh clams in addition to canned, if only for the “clicking sounds). Spaghetti with mussels, shrimp and scallops in fresh tomato-basil sauce. Pasta Primavera. And the Sicilian icon: PASTA CON SARDE, topped with delicious homemade seasoned breadcrumbs instead of parmesan cheese. Remember, cows’ cheese is scarce in the south and, by and large, unaffordable. (Oh c’mon, Minnesota. You can handle SARDINES.)
Classic, Classic, Classic - Linguine Alle Vongole
Really - Any Seafood Will Do
From Sicily - Past Con Sarde (Sardines) Topped with Spicy Breadcrumbs
Salut Dives In...
With Orecchiette and Caponata
Speaking of basil, probably the number one summer sauce is basil pesto – as easy to make as it is to enjoy. Most people make theirs with fresh basil, but really your options are endless. There’s arugula pesto, chive
pesto, watercress pesto…you get the idea.
Arugula, in Addition to Salad - Great Pesto
Chive Pesto - Too Good
How About Rosemary?
Or Oregano Pesto - Very Greek
Sage Pesto - Minus the Lady Bug
A few more classics: Ramps (a relative of garlic, scallions, chives and leeks; and the rapture of seasonally obsessed chefs), tossed with spaghetti and a little olive oil, white wine, shallots, butter and a dash of red pepper flakes, with shards of Parmigiano on top. Get ‘em soon; they’re only around for a few weeks.
Ramps - 2 to 3 Weeks Availability
Salut Pasta with Basil Pesto, Asparagus, Pine Nuts and Burrata
Or On Our Patio with Lobster
Gnocchi with Lemon Cream and Basil
A Neapolitan favorite is Pasta All Norma: spaghetti tossed with grilled eggplant, garlic, EVOO, tomatoes and ricotta salata (semi-firm, salted, pressed and dried ricotta cheese). Check out the image below of a family platter we shared at Ristorante Marcello in Rome: a tri-color selection of three different pastas lined up to represent the Italian flag. BUT – check closely – isn’t the white supposed to go in the middle?
From Napoli, Pasta Alla Norma - Eggplant, Tomato, Garlic, Basil and Ricotta Salata
Ristorante Marcello, Rome - The "Italian Flag"... Well, Almost
Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Risotto with Shrimp, Artichokes and Lemon
Wow! Squid Ink Risotto with Calamari
Pasta Primavera, All Kinds of Summer Veggies
Pappardelle with Spring Lamb Ragu
Then there’s the mother of all Roman pastas: Fettuccine Alfredo – a “must have.” Yeah, yeah, I know: It’s been around so long, it couldn’t be more of a cliché. But it’s one GOOD-ASSED PASTA – especially with a “still quaking” poached egg on top.
Fettuccine Alfredo - Poached Egg
Agnolotti, Ricotta and Asparagus
Tortelloni Carbonara - Bacon and Basil
Cannelloni - Stuffed with Crab, Ricotta and Spinach
What Could Be Better?
Donna Hay Dish - Sundried Tomatoes and Spaghetti with Basil and EVOO
Watercress and Walnut Pesto
Penne with Broccoli, Basil and Fava Beans
Finally, there are decent – even good – mozzarella and burrata cheeses in the best grocery stores (just be sure to check the “buy date” to get the freshest). The possibilities pack a magical punch. Little mozzarella balls called Bocconcini tossed with orecchiette, basil pesto and cherry tomatoes. My “go-to” would likely be burrata with roasted tomatoes, garlic and basil in a pasta of your choice.
Perfect Summer Marriage
Basil Pesto Orecchiette with Bocconcini (Baby Mozzarella Balls)
A Fave of Mine - Buratta, Roasted Tomatoes, Basil, Spaghetti and Parmigiano Reggiano
The Goat and the Cheese
Penne, Arugula, Lemon, Peas and Goat Cheese
Or Something Fancy - Pasta Squares Topped with Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts... Appetizer?
These next two do not involve pasta….but I just cannot neglect them. The first is the Mozzarella Caprese salad at Manny’s (pictured), only available in high tomato season and assembled with burrata, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. The second – and this will cause a commotion at your dinner party, guaranteed – is fresh figs, cashews and creamy burrata resting on a bed of crispy arugula, drizzled with EVOO and a sprinkling of Maldon salt flakes and cracked black pepper.
Manny's - Buratta, Basil and Tomato Drizzled with EVOO and Balsamic Vinegar
Killer Salad - Burrata, Fresh Figs, Cashews, EVOO, Cracked Black Pepper on a Bed of Arugula
Small Bowl of Penne with Slice of Gorgonzola - As a Starter Perhaps?
Now it’s time for you to just browse the pictures. Beautiful pictures, many from Donna Hay … Australian food writer, cookbook author and all-around genius.
Linguine with Shrimp and Tarragon
Pappardelle - Smoked Salmon with Lemon
Easy to Make
Shrimp and Asparagus
No rules here – well, just one: DO NOT SKIMP on the quality of your parmesan cheese. You MUST use Parmigiano Reggiano, aged for three years. Then just open your eyes and your mind and explore the ideas, variations, and possibilities.
And Always, with Parmigiano Reggiano
Lastly, I’ll call your attention to two items: The faux “spaghetti” noodles made from zucchini with an impostor “meat ragu” masquerading as Bolognese sauce – Ingredients that would make an Italian grandmother roll her eyes. NOT GOOD.
Zucchini "Pasta with Faux Ragu - Yuck!
But this dish is BEYOND GOOD – so prepare for an all-out assault on your taste buds: SPRING TRUFFLES (and lots of ‘em) over, or mixed with, pappardelle or most any shape of pasta. You can prepare this with creamy Alfredo sauce or a little truffle butter, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mushrooms (Morels or Porcinis please), cracked black pepper, and lots and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano. Consult the internet for additional ideas that might suit you.
But Not Yuck - Spring Black Truffles
In the meantime, as the Cole Porter song suggests: EXPERIMENT. Invite a few friends and neighbors over to share in the deliciously fleeting pleasures of the season.
During my BUCA days, Joanne and I regularly led groups of managers and chefs to southern Italy. The purpose: to immerse them in “la cucina povera” – the peasant cooking brought to America by Italian immigrants and celebrated by our restaurants.
While Rome, Florence and Venice are on many people’s bucket lists, our itineraries focused on places like Naples and Sicily, but in no way were we deprived. If you’ve only been to the more affluent north, you owe it to yourself to tour the south, where there are fewer tourists, the culture is more laid back, and the cuisine seduces with charms unique to this part of the country.
I’m thinking in particular about the AMALFI COAST.
Beautiful Drive from Naples
Here’s what you do. Book your hotel in Naples. I strongly suggest THE EXCELSIOR, an elegant, well-located hotel and – important in gritty Naples – a very secure one.
The city can be dicey at night, and you’ll have to watch out for pickpockets, but spend a few days here anyway. (And be sure to have dinner at Da Dora, which I wrote about last August).
Next, set out in the morning for POMPEII. It’s well worth the 3-4 hour visit. The site is astonishingly well-preserved – especially when you realize that Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Don’t stay in the nearby town of Pompeii; it’s depressing. Instead, move on to SORRENTO, a drop-dead beautiful city on the tip of the Amalfi Coast. Great hotels and restaurants abound, and it’s a superb walking town. Not only is there a LIMONCELLO factory (that’s generous with samples) in the heart of the city, but – as Sarah Palin might say – “You can see CAPRI from here.” And by the way, Capri is most certainly worth a day trip from Sorrento. You can take the ferry, but here’s a tip: Opt for the ALISCAFI, a hydrofoil. It’s faster than hell.
Stop at Pompeii for Sure
Also Sorrento - Good Place to Spend the Night
On to POSITANO. Lemons are everywhere – and I mean EVERYWHERE. Markets, roadside stands, yards, balconies – they overflow with them. As you’d expect, lemons aren’t just central to the Limoncello industry. You’ll find them in refreshing, bright summer pastas ranging from lemon-scented ravioli to lemon-infused gnocchi and spaghetti in lemon sauce with cracked black pepper. One of the best that we enjoyed was a citrus-inspired shrimp risotto laced with lemon and sour-orange.
Amalfi - Lemons Galore
Ndonderi - Gnocchi Like, Made with Flour, Eggs, Parmesan, Ricotta Cheese, and Lemon
Lemon Scented Spaghetti with Basil, Cracked Black Pepper and Olive Oil
Shrimp Filled Ravioli with Lemon Sauce and Basil
Risotto Con Agrumi - Shrimp, Lemon, and Sour Orange
As for Limoncello: You cannot leave a respectable restaurant without a glass (or maybe you need a whole bottle) of the iconic Amalfi liquore, or digestivo. After all, the yellow blaze of the nectar contrasts so beautifully with the bright-blue sea. Especially after your third glass.
While beef, veal, butter and cream are at the core of northern Italian cuisine, the south is far too hot to sustain herds of cattle. Instead, farmers raise heat-resistant water buffalo, brought from India. And thank God they do. Their gift to us is BUFFALO MOZZARELLA CHEESE.
Amalfi’s real culinary driver, however, is its seafood – not just any seafood, but “just caught” offerings, fresh from the port. Nor can we forget the glorious SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, grown in incredibly rich lava ash soil at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. These are undoubtedly the best tomatoes in the world!
Zuppe di Pesce - Razor Clams, Mussels, Prawns, and Calamari
Spaghetti with Prawns and Cherry Tomatoes
Spaghetti Puttanesca (The Whore) - HOT, HOT, HOT!
Spaghetti Alla Nerano with Deep Fried Zucchini - A Campania Signature
Another Campania Signature - Scialatelli
POSITANO, the central town on the Amalfi coast, dazzles as it clings to the craggy cliffs overlooking the shimmering bay. However, up until 1953, Positano was a dirt-poor fishing village with roughly half of the population having left for America right after World War Two. That is, until John Steinbeck published an essay in Harper’s Bazaar magazine entitled “Positano Bites Deep.” That was the tipping point that set Positano on a trajectory to the front ranks of jet set hotspots.
Positano, and the Dome of Santa Maria Assunta
Positano is Hilly
What about the restaurants?
Here are four, three of them not terribly expensive places, that we loved, and I think you’ll like, too (as long as you’re not seafood-averse).
CHEZ BLACK, right down on the water, boasts a huge outdoor patio. It’s undeniably touristy, but don’t let that stop you. The service is prompt and professional, friendly and fun-loving. They served a number of EXCELLENT, wood-fired pizzas, including the heart-shaped “Lover’s Pizza.”
Chez Black, On the Water
Squid Ink Linguine
Deep Fried Alici (Sardines)
Also Happy - Lover's Pizza
Another one you’ll enjoy is the beachside DA FERDINANDO. It’s slightly more casual than Chez Black, but the food is just as refined – especially the pizza. I was also fond of the Prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula sandwich on EVOO-laced, crusty and chewy, seedy bread. Salads and pastas are as they should be: perfect. Plus, the menu always features an array of simply grilled fish with lemon wedges.
Also on the Beach
Da Ferdinando - Prosciutto, Mozzarella, Arugula and Olive Oil
Scialatelli - With Clams and Mussels
Arugula Salad at De Ferdinando
And Always, Grilled Fish
LA TRE SORELLE (The Three Sisters) is also on the water. And, if memory serves me, its menu is exclusively devoted to seafood, including cuttlefish and grilled calamari. The signature pizza – with mussels, clams, razor clams, squid and shrimp – was perhaps the most memorable I’ve ever had. And that includes FRANK PEPE’S CLAM PIZZA in New Haven, Connecticut.
Le Tre Sorelle
The 3 Sisters
Calamari - Fresh, Not Frozen
Seafood Platter with Cuttlefish
Linguine Alle Vongole
Grilled Squid and Grilled Prawns
Seafood Pizza - Best Ever, Le Tre Sorelle
Finally, a SPLURGE.
Yes, for an anniversary, birthday, or a lifetime memory, maybe just once. LE SIRENUSE.
This five-star hotel and restaurant is barnacled to the side of a cliff overlooking the bay and the church of SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA, with its famous Majolica titled dome.
The name, Sirenuse, has its roots in Greek mythology. Homer tells the story of Odysseus returning home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. As his ship approached the archipelago of little islands off the Amalfi coast, the sailors heard the irresistible music of the sirens – so beautiful that the sailors couldn’t help but seek out its source and, in so doing, wreck their ships on the rocky shore. (Sirens are said to be half woman and half bird, but most illustrations that I found were half woman and half fish, like mermaids).
The Sirens Luring the Sailors to Certain Death
Thus the name: Le Sirenuse….(The Sirens).
Although Italian cuisine remains one of the world’s greats, I’ve always thought that breakfast was the weak spot in Italian cuisine. But not here! Start with a goblet of freshly squeeze blood orange juice on the terrace (just don’t embarrass yourself like I did in my youth, when I sent my first glass of blood orange juice back to the kitchen, without tasting it, convinced that I’d been served tomato juice).
Breakfast on the Balcony
Le Sirenuse will also offer paper-thin slices of prosciutto, paired with vine-ripened cantaloupe. Best of all, however, will be the SFOGLIATELLE NAPOLETANA: a flaky pastry found primarily in Naples and further south, supposedly created by the nuns of the nearby Santa Rosa convent. It’s filled with pastry cream, dried fruit and limoncello.
Sfogliatelle - National Pastry of Southern Italy
All rooms at Le Sirenuse have balconies – and the views are spectacular. But you won’t want to linger here too long before heading down to the fanciful, Michelin-starred restaurant, LA SPONDA. Waiters in crisp white jackets are seasoned veterans and not stiff, starchy or aloof. After all, they’re Italian. If you go, do not pass up the “loaded” seafood risotto.
Le Sirenuse Pool
Dining Room - La Sponda
Clams, Mussels, and Bottarga (Dried Fish Roe)
As I said: It’s pricy. Expect to pay about $150 per person for the multi-course tasting menu (including wine). But don’t sweat it. You WILL NOT be sorry.
What Could Be More Romantic?
Grilled Octopus Appetizer
Prosciutto and Melon
La Sponda at Le Sirenuse - Spaghetti and Lobster
Raspberry and Chocolate Millefeuille at La Sponda
Then again, you could still enjoy Positano if you just have a slice of street food pizza and buy a t-shirt.
Or, You Could Just Have a Slice of Pizza and Buy a T-Shirt
Since the economic tumble in 2008, it’s been a tough ten years for many restaurants, especially those in the “FINE and FANCY” segment, but also for many of the celebrity and highly talented restaurateurs out there.
As you already know, Joanne and I tend not to frequent fine dining joints, yet it’s hard to see so many of them disappear. I’m sure to the folks who were regulars, it’s a little like losing an old friend. The longer a favorite restaurant sticks around, the more beloved it becomes, and we want to believe it’ll live forever.
SIRIO MACCIONI, after 43 years, folded his tent at Le CIRQUE in New York, “where art, food and fashion converge.” It was also the place that required men to wear jackets (I don’t even own a suit). And in Chicago, RICHARD MELMAN, one of the restaurateurs I admire most, shuttered his star-studded L-20 in Lincoln Park as well as TRU downtown. I have extremely fond memories of dining at TRU and being stunned at the STAIRCASE OF CAVIAR. “Say it isn’t TRU!”
A Legend... Sirio Maccioni - Le Cirque
Le Cirque, After 43 Years, Gone - Too Bad
Tru - Downtown Chicago
Tru - Dining Room - Chicago, Closed
Tru - Staircase of Caviar
In New York, KEITH MCNALLY has been the leading groundbreaker, especially in challenged neighborhoods. About forty years ago he opened the ODEON in dreary TriBeCa. It became known for all that was cool in New York City. And that French-inspired place remains hot even to this day.
Keith McNally - The Man Who Invented Lower Manhattan
In Once Dreary TriBeCa, a Pioneer
But his hottest of all is BALTHAZAR, a French brasserie on Spring Street in SOHO (with another branch in Covent Garden in London). BALTHAZAR, along with GRAMERCY TAVERN, shares the “most visited” title in Manhattan. Following BALTHZAR, MCNALLY founded PASTIS in the meat packing district….a wildly popular echo of a Parisian bistro and one of our favorites. SCHILLER’S LIQUOR BAR gave new meaning to the word “quirky” and during its fifteen-year run became a dining and drinking institution on the Lower East Side.
I say dining because of its MIND BLOWING GARLIC SHRIMP, bubbling in blistering hot butter in a cast iron skillet…well, I just don’t have words.
McNally's Biggest Hit - On Spring St.
Schiller's On Rivington - Lower East Side
Hot Hot Hot!
Schiller's - Blistering Butter, Garlic Shrimp
So here’s the puzzlement: MCNALLY is known as “The man who invented downtown Manhattan.” In my book, he’s a genius. And yet in the past few years, he has closed up shop on these favorites of mine.
PASTIS is no longer alive. SCHILLER’S is gone. In the Bowery he opened a pizza place called PULINO’S. But it was replaced with CHERCHE MIDI (a restaurant the Parasole group visited and loved; see my posting of November 2nd, 2016). But then CHERCHE MIDI closed. Don’t know why. But the answer might be found in the fact that…….ah well…..more about that later.
In the Meat Packing District, Gone! Sad!
In the Bowery, Also Gone
Pulino's Belame Cherche Midi - Then Closed
Cherche Midi was Good, and Busy
The good news is that MCNALLY, not discouraged, recently opened AUGUSTINE, a great French Bistro near City Hall in New York. It’s a hit!
McNally - His Latest Hit, Augustine
One of the most popular restaurants in Miami Beach is YARDBIRD, near Lincoln Road. It’s “DOUBLE BARRELED SOUTHERN” with all of the usual suspects: fried green tomatoes, Mama’s biscuits, butter beans, shrimp n’ grits and, of course, pimento cheese. But the thing that got me was THE DEEP FRIED CHICKEN, a rendition that rivals STROUD’S in Kansas City – and that’s saying something!!!
Miami Beach - Yardbird
Yardbird - Chicken and Waffles, Perfection
So when I recently saw that they were opening a fast casual version of YARDBIRD on Alton Road in Miami Beach, called SPRING CHICKEN, I thought to myself…”WOW. That’s really smart. They can’t miss.”
From Yardbird - I Love the Idea
Spring Chicken - Fast Casual from Yardbird
Spring Chicken - But Now It's Gone
But miss they did. I read that their two SPRING CHICKEN joints have just closed. Smart people make mistakes. Entrepreneurs take chances.
Longevity doesn’t ensure everlasting life. The iconic TRADER VIC’S in the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills gave up the ghost after 62 years. Some blame it on an ill-conceived remodeling that tamed down the kitsch décor. After all, isn’t it only appropriate that the place that gave us the MAI TAI would be grotesquely overblown and over-decorated? The answer is YES.
Gone After 62 Years
Trader Vic's - Where The Mai Tai was Born
Trader Vic's - Tiki on Steroids
And being spot-on in trend is no insurance policy either. POK POK ……the “culty…lines-out-the-door” Thai chicken wing joint in Portland, Oregon and New York failed in Chinatown in Los Angeles. No night traffic, I read.
Pok Pok Wings - Big Hit in NYC and Portland, OR
Pok Pok - Best Wings Ever, but Not for LA
I recently posted about LE COUCOU in New York (March 1st, 2018). The brainchild of STEPHEN STARR (who also sits at the “GENIUS TABLE”), it’s been awarded a fist full of stars and may well be the best restaurant that Joanne and I have had the privilege to dine at in recent years. But this isn’t STARR’S first rodeo. His BUDDAKAN in New York caught the city by storm.
Le Coucou, NY - Stephen Starr
Le Coucou, NY - One of the Best
Stephen Starr - Buddakan, NYC - Spectacular
And now in Bal Harbour in Miami, the ultra-chic and clever French bistro, LE ZOO is packing ‘em in (get the STEAK au POIVRE).
Stephen Starr - Le Zoo in Bal Harbour, Miami
Le Zoo - Do Have the Steak Au Poivre!
Stephen Starr - Le Zoo - YUM
But sadly, our favorite seafood restaurant of his in Philly, STRIPED BASS, has gone dark. His “urban oasis,” THE CONTINENTAL & MARTINI BAR has been a monstrous success story in downtown for as long as I have been traveling to Philadelphia. So when Starr recently opened THE CONTINENTAL on Collins Avenue in the heart of Miami Beach near the Delano Hotel, I knew Joanne and I had a new go-to favorite…especially with the tropical outdoor dining.
Stephen Starr - Striped Bass, Philly
Stephen Starr - Striped Bass Dining Room
But Sad - Striped Bass is No More
Stephen Starr - The Original Continental, Philly
But we never got the chance. It seemed like they opened and closed within a year. I wanted to try the Bao Buns that I fondly remembered from his Philadelphia location…as well as the Tang Martini.
The Miami Beach Continental - Gone
Sad - I Was Looking Forward to the Bao Buns
The list goes on. To our delight, superstar chef DANIEL BOULUD, proud proprietor of the three-star DANIEL and DB BISTRO MODERNE in New York (and mentor to our own GAVIN KAYSEN of SPOON AND STABLE) opened BAR BOULUD in The Mandarin Oriental in London. And then, to our disappointment, closed DBGB in New York, where we would eat platters of delicious homemade sausages with our son, who lives a few short blocks away. DRATS !!!!
Daniel Boulud - Bar Boulud
In The Mandarain Oriental
DBGB, NY - Gone! Damn, I Loved the Place
MICHELLE BERNSTEIN, the opening chef of the multi-starred AZUL in Miami, opened up in the edgy, yet emerging gentrifying neighborhood in the 60’s on Biscayne Blvd. We dined there once. She’s talented and we enjoyed the experience. But the décor was a little “off-putting.” Check out the image below. They are closed now.
Michelle Bernstein - She's Good!
Michy's, Miami - Closed, Too Bad
In Miami, the rising star in the restaurant community is THE PUBBELLY GROUP. There’s PUBBELLY SUSHI….PUBBELLY STEAK….BARCELONETA, a tapas joint in Sunset Harbor where I (not Joanne for God’s sake), had snails with rabbit sausage! But like all of the extremely talented and successful restaurateurs around the country, they too are not ‘BULLETPROOF.” PB STATION in downtown Miami opened and swiftly closed. Too bad; I liked the place. But downtown Miami? YIKES!
Pubbelly Sushi, Miami
Ultra-Fresh and Thriving
From the Pubbelly Boys - Tapas at Barceloneta, Miami
Barceloneta, Miami - Escargot and Rabbit Sausage
But Then, Downtown Miami Happened
Super Sliders at PB Station, Gone
TOM COLICCHIO is brilliant. A judge on Top Chef and creator of the national chain of ‘WICHCRAFT sandwich shops, he created the CRAFTSTEAK brand that lives at the MGM GRAND in Vegas. We have eaten at his first CRAFTSTEAK in New York and also in Vegas with the Parasole culinary team. Loved ‘em both. The one in Vegas survives; New York does not. In part, due to the 2008 recession, COLICCHIO said (and I paraphrase) “People just aren’t willing to spend a hundred bucks for a steak often enough.” So it morphed into COLICCHIO & SONS, a more casual iteration of the steakhouse.
Tom Colicchio - Craftsteak - MGM, Vegas
Craftsteak, Vegas - Great Steakhouse
And Still Going Strong
We Loved Craftsteak in New York, But it Closed
That failed, too.
Even more distressing to us was the closing of COLICCHIO’S CRAFTBAR in New York. It featured one of my all-time favorite dishes: a Deep Fried Oyster Sandwich. Joanne and I will miss that place. It was our secret lunch spot.
So Did Craftbar, NYC
My Fave, Fried Oysters at Craftbar
Back to Miami, and to the sleek and tasty NUMBER #1 EDITION HOTEL, right on Collins Avenue, across from the now closed CONTINENTAL. COLICCHIO opened BEACHCRAFT there a couple of years ago. It featured one of the best cheese boards I’ve ever had. See the image below. But it’s gone – replaced by HABITAT from the PUBBELLY boys. BTW….Corner table #72 is still #72.
Tom Collichio - Beachcraft, Miami
Beachcraft in Miami at 23rd and Collins
Crafsteak, Table #72 is Still Corner Table #72 at Habitat
Tom Collichio - Beachcraft Cheese Board, Best Ever
It’s weird because COLICCHIO is arguably one of the brightest and most talented restaurateurs in the country. After all, he was a partner with DANNY MEYER in the creation of GRAMERCY TAVERN, which runs neck and neck with BALTHAZAR as the most visited restaurant in New York City.
Perhaps Hottest in NYC, Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer Creation
Gramercy Tavern, Warm and Welcoming
But then again, among our successes, we all have some “CLINKERS.” (Remember IL GATTO?)
These folks that I’ve mentioned are all pioneers and risk takers. Sometimes it works out…. and sometimes it doesn’t.
Which brings me to DANNY MEYER…..
He is SO Good
When Danny decided to open UNION SQUARE CAFÉ 29 years ago, the Union Square neighborhood was dark, dingy and dangerous at night. But he opened up anyway….and UNION SQUARE CAFE quickly became wildly successful. As I think about it now, it’s in the same league as BALTHAZAR and GRAMERCY as far as frequent visits go. But UNION SQUARE CAFE, after 29 years, was recently forced to move. The trade rags cited a tripling of his rent.
Union Sq. Neighborhood Before Danny Meyer
And After Danny Meyer - 29 Years
See, here’s what happens – and this will provide a clue to many (but not all) of the restaurant closings that I’ve described. An entrepreneur takes a chance; maybe seizes on cheap rent in a risky neighborhood. The place is a hit. Other restaurants move in. People start to notice. Ad agencies rent office space, soon followed by other kinds of office tenants. Next comes housing…lots of lofts. Grocery stores see the opportunity.
You get the idea….and you all know what follows: Rents double. Then triple. Taxes skyrocket. And the poor restaurateur who was the original “stalking horse” gets priced right out of the market – the market that he or she created.
BTW, the newly located UNION SQUARE CAFÉ is a HOME RUN! And ironically, what I think they did was revolutionary! They invented the notion that really good food…priced right, offering a tony yet relaxed ambiance, usually in emerging edgy neighborhoods, would be just the ticket. Did this phenomenon contribute to the demise of the pretentious, stiff “fine and fancy” joints? I think so – and with no help from the 2008 economic downturn. Today, there just aren’t enough folks who want to sit at dinner for four hours and end up with a three hundred dollar tab.
Now, to be sure, restaurants close for other reasons. Your building gets sold or slated for re-development…the neighborhood changes (and maybe not for the better)…government rules and regulations choke you financially…the city embarks on a year-long road construction project in front of your restaurant…tastes change…your original customer base grows old and dies…you lose your parking…a recession hits…renovations or repairs are needed and they prove to be more expensive than you can afford….the list goes on and on.
The folks I have mentioned are in the GENIUS category, and are among the best restaurateurs the nation has to offer. But sometimes geniuses just plain miss. AND, SADLY, THAT’S THE WAY IT WORKS.
I know that when I miss the mark (and I frequently have), I find comfort in dragging out Teddy Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena, which reads in part:
No Guts, No Glory - The Man in the Arena
“It’s not the critic that counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”