Italy

Best Dishes: of 2016

Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?

I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.

Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.

Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.

 

Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow pasta

I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had.  A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.

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Eating in Florence, Italy: L'Osteria di Giovanni and that lobster pasta

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-3

While the truffle pasta dish at 4 Leoni lacked a bit of sauce, a similar dish at L'Osteria di Giovanni did not, and in addition, was served with white truffles, and not those run-of-the-mill black ones that you always see. And it was glorious.

L'Osteria di Giovanni is a pleasant little restaurant in Florence, focusing mostly on typical Tuscan cooking, in a mostly typically Tuscan environment. The place was jumping by the time we arrived at the very early time of 7.30pm. The three rooms filled up quickly afterward. A few large groups, families, tourists, all sorts of people were represented.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6
-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-6

Service was polite and pleasant, as you'd expect from a restaurant in Italy. Bread was served with some of the most delicious olive oil we've ever had, and salt and pepper, making it palatable. An inexpensive bottle of Chianti Toscano red wine came in a straw basket that you'd see 50 years ago.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-2

To kick things off we ordered a special of porcini and truffle salad. With shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. A simple, ingredients-driven dish.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-4

We also enjoyed a Caprese salad, which included artichokes, olives, burrata, and some excellent tomatoes that were, not surprisingly, infinitely better than those "Jersey tomatoes" I read so much about.

-Osteria Di Giovanni-L'Osteria Di Giovanni-5

The star of the meal was a special. Pasta and lobster. I really didn't know what to expect, and figured the dish would be pasta with some sort of light broth and a few pieces of lobster. And I was wrong.

The sauce was intensely flavored with lobster. It was the essence of lobster. And not just the essence of the claws and tail of the lobster. It was the essence of everything in and around that lobster. With just a touch of tomato. An incredible dish and certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

I'd return to di Giovanni for this dish alone.

L'Osteria di Giovanni : Via del Moro, 22, 50123 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 

 


Eating in Florence, Italy: Trattoria 4 Leoni

4 Leoni florence italyMeat in the kitchen at 4 Leoni

The first day is always the hardest.

We arrived in Florence at about 10am, long after leaving JFK at 4:20pm, with a brief stop in Paris.  This connection was not ideal. First off, we landed in Paris at about 11:30 our time, so there was simply no sleeping on that leg before having to get on the shorter flight to Florence. Additionally, I really dislike CDG airport. It's a mess, and we decided we're never going to Paris again because of it. au revoir.

Now that I have that off my chest.

Needless to say, we went down for a nap immediately after checking in to our hotel, which was right in the middle of everything, right across the street from Piazza dell Repubblica (and down the street from The Hard Rock Cafe). A few hours later, bleary-eyed and really hungry, we went off to find some food.

Screen Shot 2016-10-17 at 10.02.25 AM

I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants and, as I do, set up a "my google map" with the names/notes/etc. This is a really handy way of organizing your travel options, by the way.  Since we brought my mom along on this trip, we made sure we did some of the more touristy things, like walking over Ponte Vecchio (which I had forgot is just a bunch of jewelry shops) and shopping for leather gloves. Around the corner was Trattoria 4 Leoni.

Truth be told I wanted to go to Osteria Tripperia il Magazzino for, you guessed it, tripe, but the ladies weren't all that thrilled with jumping right into the organ meat. So 4 Leoni it was.

4 Leoni is set right on a nice little piazza, with spacious outdoor seating. Very pleasant service, which is something we've seen in Italy time and time again.

We jumped into the food immediately, immediately after ordering that bottle of Chianti of course.

The bread in northern Italy is atrocious, as you might know. It's just awful. It's not made with salt. It's dry. It's bland. And they make you pay for it whether you like it or not. Unless you're putting olive oil and salt on it (which I highly recommend) or a slice of lardo (which I even more highly recommend), don't fill up on it.

But we tried some bread for laughs, and then it was pasta all around.

4 Leoni florence italy-2

Fresh pasta with truffles. We thought the dish was a bit "dry" and could have used a bit more in the way of "sauce," but other than that it was spot on. No shortage of truffles here.

4 Leoni florence italy-5

My mother is not an adventurous eater and went with a pasta pomodoro. Fresh pasta with tomatoes and cheese. Completely fine, but not something that excites me.

What does excite me is organ meat. Organ meat friggin' excites me. So I went full Florentine and got the Trippa alla Fiorentina, which translates I believe to "a bowl of tripe you muthafuckas!"

4 Leoni florence italy-6
This is a great dish, and done quite well at 4 Leoni. The tripe pretends it's pasta, but pasta that tastes like meat. It's like having a pasta with meat sauce but without having pasta or meat. It's pretty incredible stuff. I forget if I did, but I sure hope I ordered this dish again. It would have been a sin to not.

Boboli Garden is right around the corner, and I foolishly decided we should take a walk to the top and explore. That's a lot of steps, and we were still in pretty bad shape from the long flight. But from the top, you can get a decent view of the city on one side, and rural Tuscany on the other.

Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6
Boboli garden florence italy-6

Trattoria 4 Leoni : Via de' Vellutini, 1r, 50125 Firenze, Italy

 

 

 


Best dishes: of 2015

  Orvieto

Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.

But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.

So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.

Enough explaining. On with it.

Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.

 

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Steak: a nice change in approach

IMG_0083Steak at Ristorante Tasso, Sorrento, Italy

One of the key elements of the classic American steakhouse is girth.  We love big steaks, and steakhouses know how to cook 'em:  charred on the outside, and medium rare inside.  I'm certainly of the opinion that a steak needs a good "char" on the outside, which adds to the flavor and texture of the meat.  A thick cut of meat and 1800 degree broilers help to make that char possible while still keeping the inside at a medium rare temp.  That's the steakhouse approach, and one to which I fully subscribe.

But on occasion I've had steak that doesn't fit into that paradigm:  steaks with little to no char, and much thinner than 2 inches thick.  And they were phenomenal.  We had a steak in Sorrento (pictured above) a while back that fell into this non-American steakhouse category.  And it was wonderful.  The Italians know a bit about food, and a bit about steak as well.

Inspired by that steak, I went off to the Market Basket in Franklin Lakes, NJ, and figured I'd get a nice thin strip to duplicate the experience.  Well they just don't have them cut thin (they'd do it if you ask, I suppose).  But not wanting to ask for a special cut, and feeling  a bit defeated, I grabbed a couple of 1.5/1.75 inch thick strips, figuring I'd fall back on what I know best:  high heat, char, etc.

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Carbonara: hold the cream. I'm beggin' ya.

Carbonara4_1

A few years ago we went to Italy for the first time.  Needless to say, we had a lot of memorable meals.  One dish, though, stood out.  It's the one we talk about the most.  It was spaghetti carbonara at a little unassuming place in Rome called Ai Tre Scalini.

Sitting in the shadow of the Coliseum we really didn't expect much (not that a bad meal in Italy isn't excellent by most barometers).  In fact, we only stopped in because the restaurant that we had planned on visiting had a line out the door, which was probably a bad sign anyway. Boy did we make the right choice.   The carbonara was so pure, and simple, and perfect.  Al dente pasta (obviously), crunchy yet soft and luscious pieces of guanciale that burst with flavor when chewed.  It was like no carbonara I'd ever eaten.  We liked it so much that we walked, literally, 5 miles in the rain later in the week just to order it for lunch again (you'd do the same).  This time it was fettuccini.

I've tried several times to duplicate this dish, with just OK results.  I think I'm actually getting close.  Finally.

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