Archive for August, 2007

Baltimore: Crab Cakes at Faidley’s

Interior of Faidley’s at Lexington Market

Jim and I were in Baltimore this past weekend, celebrating the wedding of our two dear friends, Andrew and Andrea. (Congrats again, you crazy kids!) While waiting for the festivities to begin, we scheduled a quick crab cake excursion for Saturday afternoon. Everyone needs a crab cake adventure now and then, don’t you think? Well, there’s no better place for one than Baltimore.

All recommendations pointed to Faidley’s, an eat-your-cakes-quickly, stand-up restaurant in the World Famous Lexington Market. It’s been around since 1886, so these guys must be doing something right. We grabbed our friends Keith and Sarah, and promptly drove into a big circle, thanks to good ole’ Mapquest. After a few turns, we finally found the restaurant and emerged from air-conditioned serenity into 98-degree heat and humidity.

Located in a somewhat downtrodden part of town, Lexington Market was hopping at 12 pm. A big jazz band played to an admiring crowd, while throngs of even more people walked the halls. And Faidley’s was packed with seafood lovers.

We got in line and grabbed some plastic trays. I ordered the All Lump Crab Cake Platter, with Cole Slaw and Fries ($17.95). (At first I thought I’d be healthy and order vegetables instead of fries, but who was I kidding?) After paying for our food, we found a table, gathered around it, and started to chow down.All Lump Crabcake Platter

Now, the picture might not look too appetizing, but these crab cakes were incredible. There was no false advertising here, as the rotund spheres were actually formed from “lumps” of fresh crab meat. The crab cakes I’ve tried in the past have always been rather flat and uniform in their texture, perhaps composed from ground crab meat. But these monsters from Faidley’s were meaty and fresh, yet somehow still light on the tongue.

The side dishes were fine, but I just concentrated on the amazin’ crabby cakes. Keith was especially happy that lunch was such a low-key, quick affair. There’s something to be said for stand-up, self-serve restaurants on a hot summer day. You can get to the hotel pool that much faster.

203 North Paca, Baltimore, Maryland 21201 T: 410 727-4898

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Book Review: Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

During our California vacation last September, Jim and I spent a few days with friends who live down the street from Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And, embarrassingly enough, we never made it to the restaurant for lunch or dinner while we were there.

Not that I minded, at the time. I had developed a vicious cold during our drive up the coast from Los Angeles. And when I wasn’t knocked out from various meds we were too busy having fun with our Berkeley friends, grilling in their beautiful backyard and hanging out among the lemon trees.

But after reading Thomas McNamee’s book, Alice Waters & Chez Panisse, I now know what we missed. From its chaotic opening night in 1971 (where some patrons waited hours for their entrée of canard aux olives), Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse has been more than just a restaurant. Exciting and experimental, it has gradually become an American institution. By the end of McNamee’s well-written book, both Chez Panisse and Alice Waters feel like old friends, their histories and philosophies fully and enjoyably explored.

Waters’ most important inspiration comes from the food itself. Whether assembling a simple green salad or a fruit tart, Waters has always sought only the best ingredients for Chez Panisse. Even the casual, conversational recipes scattered throughout the book make this point paramount. Its no wonder that Waters and Chez Panisse have become synonymous with the seasonal, local food revolution finally making its way across the nation.

As McNamee explains, Waters’ conviction that how we eat is directly linked to our quality of life grew with time, especially after the birth of her daughter Fanny. This belief became the basis of Waters’ activities outside of the restaurant, eventually leading to her creation of the Edible Schoolyard project and involvement in the Slow Food movement. From establishing relationships with local farmers to providing the best possible working conditions for her staff, Waters’ professional decisions are almost always based on her own desires and beliefs.

But as the book also makes clear, this professional success sometimes came at a high personal price to the “mother” of California cuisine. At the heart of it all, Waters has created a life around her restaurant and the philosophies it embodies. And we are now benefiting from her years of hard work.

McNamee’s authorized portrait of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is enjoyable for anyone interested in food and where it comes from. The stories about Waters’ circle of friends, lovers, and chefs are fun to read as well as integral to the unique history of the restaurant. And of course the book has convinced me that I’ve got to get there someday. I’ll find a way, believe me.

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Italy, Part III: Family Time in Puglia

Aunt Filomena’s Lasagna at the Mare di Lesina

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother was born in San Severo, Italy. She moved to the States when she was twelve years old, but her oldest sister still lives in Italy with my cousins Amalia, Patrizia, Lucy, and Leda. Whenever we all see each other we spend most of our time at the table, eating. And talking. It’s what we do best, and we’re actually very close, despite the physical distance that separates us more often than not.

I hadn’t been to San Severo in some time, so after I finished working in Verona I jumped on another train and headed down into Puglia. Over the course of the seven-and-a-half hour ride I watched the landscape change from the grassy green of Northern Italy to the dusty brown of the South. A little more than halfway through my voyage the sparkling Adriatic appeared to the left of the train, while bright red specks of cherry tomatoes and green watermelons dotted the arid soil to the right.

The morning after I arrived, my aunt, Patrizia, her two children and I took off for Lucy’s beach apartment at nearby Marina di Lesina. As I caught up with my cousins, I learned they were all distraught over the vicious fires that had consumed the nearby Gargano region a few days before.

(On a more serious note, the destruction of the Gargano is an absolute tragedy. I went there 10 years ago, and I have never seen a more beautiful beachfront area. With its whitewashed houses, pristine beaches, and serene pine trees, it was truly a magnificent place. And now there’s nothing left.)

Our days at the beach followed a similar pattern: after breakfast with my aunt, Lucy, and her boyfriend Maurizio, the rest of the family would arrive at the apartment from San Severo around noon or so. Eventually we would unfold the long portable table, set out the plastic dishes and cups, and eat.

Meat-stuffed lasagna, hefty eggplant parmigiana, three kinds of pizza, pasta with puréed fresh peppers and cream, fried zucchini, amazing spaghetti all’amatriciana, veal cutlets, salumi, creamy mozzarella di bufula; the days ran together, with brief pauses between each meal. After the primi and secondi, we refreshed our palettes with fruit, and then dove into the dolci of cookies and pastries, and then…we all said we were going to be sick. Those who needed a nap retired to the two small bedrooms to do so, while the rest of us sat outside to watch the sunset and laughed about how Sunset at the Marina di Lesinamuch we ate.

Then around 10 pm we did it all again.

It was fun just to be together around that long table. Passing the bread around, telling jokes over dessert, laughing about how full we were, it all helped us relate to each other. We should be able to enjoy each other more often. I just wish we didn’t have to travel halfway around the world every few years to do so.

 

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Italy, Part II: I ristoranti di Verona

Prosciutto at CiopetaGnocchi at Ciopeta

Without further ado, here are my favorite restaurants in Verona. However, please keep the following conditions in mind while reading:

  1. I am only one woman. There is only so much I can eat by myself.

  2. I love pasta. When I visit Italy, I eat a lot of it. Even for the sake of this blog, I cannot and will not change this aspect of my eating habits. Rest assured, all of these restaurants offer a lot of meat as well as pasta.

  3. I do not drive in Italy (for reasons better left unsaid). Therefore, these restaurants are all located near the historical center of Verona, where I was staying.

  4. My reviews do not include any mention of dessert, because I concluded each evening with a gelato at a separate stand near my hotel. Nocciola (hazelnut) or pistachio, take your pick. It’s a tough life.

Ristorante Ciopeta: I can’t decide which I enjoy more at this homey spot located near Piazza Bra: the food or the service. With outdoor seating in a secluded alleyway, Ciopeta serves solid and comforting northern Italian fare. Upon my arrival in Verona I ran straight there and ordered prosciutto al melone (9€) and gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce (8€). The salty prosciutto, arranged in delicate, tissue-like folds around the fresh cantaloupe, joyously welcomed me back to Italy. After a brief pause between courses I slowly savored the pillowy homemade potato gnocchi in their slightly sweet sauce. Throughout my meal I watched the comings and goings of the cheerful staff, a vast group of youthful and aging family members. Even though I hadn’t been to Ciopeta in two years, I thought I saw a glimmer of recognition in the owner’s eyes. And if it’s not true, somehow I still felt at home. Vicolo Teatro Filarmonico, 1  T: 045 8006843

Trattoria Alla Colonna: Immensely popular with both locals and tourists, Alla Colonna has become my favorite place Alla Colonnafor lunch. Its cheerful blue and yellow tablecloths, floor-to-ceiling windows, and frescoed walls provide a sunny, relaxing atmosphere. At night the tables are much more difficult to come by, so be prepared to wait without a reservation. During my most recent visits, I enjoyed the generous polenta di casa (7€), a hefty serving of creamy polenta paired with gently-cooked mushrooms, chunks of gorgonzola cheese, thick shavings of parmesan, and smooth salumi. Somehow I then moved on to the penne all’arrabiata (7€), a simple, slow-burning sauce to which I am scarily addicted. On another visit, I tried the cotoletta of chicken served with arugula and tomatoes (10.50€). I had ordered a small portion. What I received was massive, tender, but also a little dry. I had asked to have chicken instead of the traditional veal; maybe that’s the consequence of deviating from the menu. Largo Pescheria Vecchia, 4  T:045 596718

Osteria Casa Vino: Located on cozy Vicolo Morette, Osteria Casa Vino presents distinctive twists on classic Italian Fiocco di manzo at Osteria Casa Vinodishes, all beautifully arranged and freshly prepared. On my first visit, I ordered the fiocco di manzo (6.50€), an elegant composition of sliced beef accompanied by small bits of apples, pears, and sauces of lemon and fresh berries. The mild flavor of the meat, combined with the fresh fruit and tart sauces, created a seductive contrast of tastes. Homemade fusilli with tiny tomatoes and ricotta affumicata (7.50€) hit the spot on a hot summer night. When I arrived later in the week for my second visit, Geraldina, the petite, dark-haired owner, recognized me and granted me a personal angoletto in the small, rustic dining room. This time I ordered a simple salad of tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella di bufala (8.50€) which awakened my palate after a long day of work. I especially enjoyed the milky creaminess of the mozzarella. Tagliatelle with tiny, woodsy mushrooms and rich black truffles (8.50€) continued the tour of exciting flavors. I already miss my little angoletto. Vicolo Morette, 8/A  T: 045 8004337

Honorable mentions: Trattoria il Pompiere and Taverna di Via Stella are both wonderful restaurants in the heart of Verona. However, I think they are best enjoyed with larger groups of diners. For example, Il Pompiere offers a long list of meat and cheeses for tasting that I didn’t feel comfortable ordering on my own. However, I couldn’t hide my jealousy as various waiters and chefs carried hunks of ham and salumi, along with a meat slicer, back to happy families and friends. I also felt a little left out at Taverna di Via Stella, where the servings of polenta and sliced meats were simply too large to be ordered by one person. Next time I’ll drag a stranger off the street with me if I have to, so that I can enjoy all they have to offer. Trattoria Il Pompiere, Vicolo Regina d’Ungheria, 5  T: 045 8030537; La Taverna di Via Stella, Via Stella 5  T: 045 8008008

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Catching up with Cappuccino

Capuccino at Central Bar in Montorio (Verona)I can’t help myself, I just love this photo of my morning cappuccino in Verona. I swear it’s the best I’ve ever had. Every morning I was dropped off at a small, local bar in Montorio (a neighborhood on the outskirts of Verona where I was working) so that I could have breakfast. I sat there for an hour or so, nursing that comforting, smooth cappuccino in the sunshine. I could have stayed there all day, but alas, I had a job to do. The experience was so relaxing that I’ve been making cappuccino at home with my previously-forgotten Mukka Express. It does a good job, but it’s just not the same. Central Bar, Piazzale Buccari 12, Montorio

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Italy, Part I: Cicheti in Venice

Cicheti at the Antico Dolo

Here I am, finally tornata from my Italian adventures! The first part of my trip was spent working in Verona, but grazie a Dio I had some free time scattered throughout the evenings and the weekend.

On my free Sunday I hopped a train into Venice with one mission in mind. No, not the Biennale (though I did stop by later in the day) but cicheti.

Cicheti, translated as “little snacks,” are offered in Venice bars and served with an ombra, a small glass of wine. I had never heard of cicheti until I read about them in an old issue of Bon Appétit, so I decided an investigation was in order. I photocopied the magazine’s restaurant recommendations, slipped on my most comfortable sandals, and hit the cobblestone streets of Venezia.

No matter how many times I’ve been to Venice, I’ve never walked the same route twice. I spent hours looking for those bars, wandering the narrow streets sheltered by their tall, crumbling walls. I encountered a watery canal here, a dead end there. I caught my breath whenever I happened upon a vast, quiet piazza and surprisingly found…no one.

Canal in Venice

When I finally stumbled onto the first bar near the Rialto Bridge, it was closed. Not too surprising for a Sunday afternoon in Italy. I then back-tracked through the crowds of tourists towards the “old-school” Ostaria Sora al Ponte, at the end of the Ponte delle Beccarie.

This small cicheti hub was bustling, with customers clustered around the doorway, the bar, and large rectangular tables. As I waited uncomfortably by the bar, I noticed bowls of what seemed to be shiny snails, whole crayfish, and platters of unidentifiable fried goods waiting behind the glass counters. No one working at the bar met my eye.

After ten minutes or so, I just chickened out and left. Eating alone can be intimidating, rarely more so than when surrounded by groups of boisterous Italians. And to be completely honest, I just didn’t see myself eating those little snails.

Discouraged, not defeated, but definitely hungry, I wandered a little further, and came upon the Ostaria Antico Dolo, a warm-hued, modest space near the Rialto market. I decided it was time to leave my list behind. Serene and quiet, the Antico Dolo seemed like the perfect place for the solo traveler, and I gladly rested my weary bones at one of the weathered wood tables.

I asked my waitress (who looked remarkably like Chef Colette from Ratatouille) to put together a selection of cicheti for me. As can be seen from the photo, I received quite a spread!

Mixed with the glorious grilled vegetables were a few Venetian specialties. The most typical were the two servings of polenta, one topped with baccalà and the other with gamberetti (little shrimp) in a sweet tomato sauce.

Baccalà is dried cod, and its methods of preparation, from what I have read, are seemingly endless. My waitress explained that for this dish the baccalà had first been crushed, then mixed with olive oil to form the creamy, slightly salty mass sitting on top of the golden polenta.

I also sampled a very fresh and simple bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, and a gently flavored omelet made with fresh herbs. I was reminded of Spanish tapas as I slowly worked through my food, and I felt a moment of sadness as I wished I wasn’t alone. I still finished everything on my platter though. Somehow I felt much better after that.

Window in VeniceAlthough the cichetti from the Antico Dolo were not as hard core as what I would have received at Ostaria Sora al Ponte, I was very happy with my introductory tasting. Sometimes you just need to ease into things. For me, snails and crayfish fall into that category.

Ostaria Antico Dolo, Ruga Rialto, 778  (near the Rialto Market) 041 5226546
Ostaria Sora al Ponte, San Polo, 1588 (near the Ponte delle Beccarie) 041 718208

 

 

 

 

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