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Hi, everyone! John and I wanted to let you know something very exciting: WE HAVE A NEW WEBSITE.

Yes, it’s true!!

After much:

Banging of heads against the keyboard

Hemming and hawing

Procrastination

Blank stares

Aggravating calls with tech support

We can finally report that the new site is UP! We will be posting over there from now on, so PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE go check it out, make any necessary RSS adjustments, etc. We’re still the same John and Elana. Just with fancier online digs.

Oh, also, it’s a work in progress. And we hope to make a lot of said progress soon. But just keep that in mind, ok?

Food Foto Friday

This will be a short post as it’s Friday and my attention span is dwindling….BUT! I wanted to start a little series called “Food Foto Friday” wherein I show you my latest experiments in food photography.

Note: I am NOT a professional photographer! I’m learning. But I’m hoping that my learning experiences will help you. Or at least interest you. You can let me know.

First up: Experiments in Natural Light with Lana Bars.

I first posted about Lana Energy Bars here. And recently I made about 18 more batches so that I could bring them to practice with me and share them with my team. I used this opportunity to take some photos and practice what I learned at the House of Brinson Food Photography workshop.

What I learned at House of Brinson: You can take awesome photos with just natural light. Even if there isn’t that much of it.

What I learned in my apartment: This is true.

Consider the below comparison image:

In the image on the left, I turned on the fancy-pants light with umbrella diffuser thingie I bought at Adorama. Holy red overtones, Batman! That seriously looks terrible. Or at least requires some serious Photoshop color correcting. Which I don’t feel like doing, people.

On the right-hand image, I turned off all the lights in my apartment. I mean ALL of them. And put this tray on the floor. Not extremely close to the window. The window is on the left side and really doesn’t let in all that much light to begin with. But look at the improvement. NO PHOTOSHOP! None, I promise.

Also, House of Brinson taught me to love my tripod, which I now do. I attached my camera and pointed it to the floor – at the tray of bars. No shaking – which is great because I had to slow the shutter speed WAY down to let in enough light.

So there you have it. Natural light is better. The tripod is my friend, and there are energy bars for all (literally):

As I have touched upon in previous posts, my mother’s recent small group tour throughout Italy focused on two areas:  Sorrento and Rome.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento was the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria.  Previously, I referred to the Excelsior as “a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness.”  The place is simply outrageous.  There are spas, lemon groves, pools, and perhaps the greatest patio in the history of the World (as seen above).  Not to mention their exquisite rooms and views.

The Hotel sits on property that has been family owned since the 1800’s, and has been transformed into a 5 star Hotel of acknowledged excellence.  And although the property is sprawling, it is still considered a “boutique” hotel which makes all the difference in the world in terms of the service.  Your stay is never overlooked, as you are able to acquire a familiarity with many of the employees on staff, seeing the same smiling faces over and over.  For the duration of your stay, you are essentially treated like royalty.

If you are fortunate enough to stay at the Excelsior, one of those faces that you will most likely see is that of Nicolino Grigio, the General Manager of the Hotel.  The man is always there, always working, always making things better.  It is not uncommon to witness Nicolino giving guests an impromptu tour of the hotel, explaining its various characteristics and appeal.  But if you were to ask Nicolino how he does it, why he works so hard; he would tell you he doesn’t view it as work.  He loves what he does, and he means it.  (and that view every morning of Mt. Vesuvius surely cannot hurt…)

I know because I asked him this, among other things, and these were his answers:

JI – Where were you before The Excelsior?

NG – I was the manager at Hotel Due Torri in Verona.  I left to come to the Excelsior in 2006.

JI – What sets apart the Excelsior from other hotels in the area?

BG – History, service, and location.   The Hotel was built in 1834 and it is still owned and operated by the Fiorentino family for a 5th generation.  Their sense of family pride has maintained throughout the years, and motivates them to do a superb job.   In today’s day and age, that is rare.  In most cases, investors view hotels as a way to merely turn a profit.  Here, they really care.  After 5 generations, they have a great system and a known goal:  To make our guests feel like they have a home away from home.  They want to create a sense of hospitality they can be proud of.

JI – And what about your location?  What about Sorrento?

NG – The Excelsior’s downtown location is wonderful.  We are located  right at the main square and, at the same time, right above the pier, where you can take our elevator to board ships making day trips to other coastal locations, should you choose to do so.  Once you are here, you don’t need to use the car anymore.  You can just walk out of your hotel, located on a 5 acre lemon grove , and stroll into town to any one of Sorrento’s fine restaurants or shops.

JI – What changes have you experienced since coming to the Excelsior and what is to come in the future?

NG – I like to say that we have “added value” in the last few years.   For example, we now have a beautiful spa and work out facility for our guests to enjoy.  We’re also making the Hotel more of a family friendly resort than before.  We just finished the revamping of the pool which includes a full bar and restaurant. We have built a kids soccer field and a basketball field, as well.  Perhaps most importantly, we have even started a refurbishment of the hotel restaurant, which will be completed shortly.   This year, we also have a new room category – the premium deluxe – with includes a 30 square meter porch overlooking the seas of Naples.  All of our rooms also have free wi-fi and flat TV screens.

JI – What can you tell us about your executive chef, Vincenzo Galano?

NG – He has been our Chef here for 10 years and is doing a fantastic job.  He is the kind of person where even his best is never enough.  He is quite attentive to detail, and the quality of his dishes is never overlooked.  We are very proud to have him with us.  He leads an exceptional staff of 20 people in our kitchen.

JI – What is the strangest request you have ever gotten from a guest?

NG – (slight pause, with a smile…)  Actually, there is no request that we find strange.   We try to accommodate anything and everything.  We cannot offer the moon, but we can get pretty close to it.  We like to make things tailor made to our guests – and the more we know about our guests and their needs, the better and more memorable their experience will be.

Special thanks to Nicolino and the entire staff at the Excelsior for making our stay in Sorrento an experience never to forget.  Cannot wait to head back!

We are going all Italian this week here at JAETAF. Did you know that was our acronym, by the way? Jay-taff. Use it on the streets. See what happens.

This past Saturday we decided to do some heavy hitting in the Italian department. First up, some coal oven pizza at a NYC institution, Lombardi’s (incidentally, the only NYC pizzeria besides Grimaldi’s in DUMBO to operate a coal oven), followed by the Fiat Gallery in Soho with a GQ sponsored event where itty-bitty cars would be complemented by tiny shots of Lavazza espresso.

But first to fuel up on Margherita pies!

The Scene:
Lombardi’s is a pretty large place. There are multiple rooms and even a basement room (where John and I sat). From the start, the sheer size of the place concerned us. We had doubts whether a place that needed to churn out that many pies in such volume could maintain a high quality, brick oven product.  And volume needed to be produced because even though it was fairly early on a Saturday evening, the place was packed and we had to wait for a table. So we staked out seats at the bar and sipped Sixpoint beer in anticipation.  Sidenote – should an Italian brick oven pizzeria offer Sangria? Moving on…

The Grub:

We order a split pie: half Margherita to maintain standards of comparison, and half decorated with Lombardi’s house made pork and beef meatballs. Our 18″ pie has a few standout characteristics that put us on guard:

1. The crust is rather flat and evenly baked. No puffy Neapolitan cornicone here. And no coal-fired char marks, save for one large bubble.

2. The pie is stiff, lacking that floppy quality that makes a well functioning brick oven pie chewy and delightfully unwieldy.

However, there are some redeeming qualities: The basil is liberally applied, and the sauce has a simple, tangy, pure tomato taste of which we both approve.  John could have used a bit more, however.  Additionally, the cheese provides a noticeable salty, milky flavor.

As often happens, the meatballs steal the show. Moist, flavorful and bite-sized, like meat popcorn, they are a perfect pizza accessory.

The Bathrooms:

The lavatory was pretty standard issue. It seemed more like a closet with plumbing. But everything was clean. Bonus accessories included Windex (?) and a motion-sensored paper towel dispenser. The mirror was mesmerizing as well…

John and I were largely underwhelmed by Lombardi’s pie. Between the two coal oven contenders, we both agree that Grimaldi’s is considerably better. You may not – Yahoo doesn’t. You can read their opinion here.

Overall Experience: Vanilla Sky – The Average Restaurant

On with the show! We ambled several blocks to the Fiat Gallery on Wooster Street. We had been promised (via Urban Daddy) the possibility of test driving Fiats, and we both had Italian Job-esque dreams of hurtling through the streets of Soho in a perfectly polished red rollerskate.

Our test driving dreams were squashed, but we did get to sit in the show room models and make convincing vrooooom-vrooooom noises. That helped a bit.

All joking aside, the exhibit was pretty fun. The evening’s events were sponsored by GQ and we got to wander around artistically-rendered Fiat hoods, sample Lavazza espresso, sip Peroni’s, and get our photos taken!

John looks quite at home, no?

More events will be running until May 1st. You can check out the full list here.

Each day on one of Marmo’s Tours is something new and exciting.  I’ve been on four of them now, and rarely does she repeat her itinerary.  This day’s itinerary: Factories. A family owned Mozzarella factory in the morning and a Limoncello factory in the afternoon; both of them located in Piano di Sorrento which is just a short van ride from our stay at the Excelsior.

Nevermind that I’ve already had some fresh mozzarella for breakfast, I’m ready for more.  After all, mercy, is for the weak.  Culinary food tours? Not so much.  And yes, I said breakfast.  The Excelsior’s breakfast scene is an irresistible morning spread of meats, cheeses, fruits and pastries (which I’ll elaborate on later) which would, each morning, render me slightly more vulnerable than Hurley’s inventory visit to the hatch’s pantry.

Our guide through the Caseificio Michelangelo Mozzarella factory is an upbeat young woman named Sara. Sara is also a daughter within factory’s family ownership so her knowledge, and pride, concerning the cheese making process is very apparent.

Perhaps the best aspect of the tour is its authenticity. We actually witness them make the mozzarella: from manhandling gigantic slabs of mozz, to hand braiding strands of their finished fior di latte – it’s as real as it is awesome.  But even the hardest working Italians aren’t immune to engaging in some occasional showmanship.

They even give each of us a turn braiding the mozzarella. Check out my apron and hat (which, surely, will become part of my summertime, basketball hustling uniform a la Sidney Dean):

And after witnessing (and participating in) the expert craftmanship of the mozzarella makers within the factory, Sara leads us out of the factory and into small party/banquet room of sorts, where she has arranged a small plate of various cheeses for all of us to enjoy.

All of the above pictured cheeses were indeed homemade.  Although we simply kept referring to it as “the mozzarella factory,” Caseificio Michelangelo produces some other fine formaggio such as smoked mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, and my personal favorite of the tasting, caciotta – which is that cupcake wrapped crown of cloud-like glory in the center of the dish.  Consistency wise, it was halfway between the mozzarella and the ricotta – neither too mushy nor too stiff, and supplying a delightful creamy flavor.  Sara tops off the group with some wine. Top to bottom, Caseificio Michelangelo was a wonderful experience.  I would definitely recommend it.

And in traditional Amalfi Coast fashion, after we ate, it was time for some limoncello. The group heads to the Piemme limconello factory, also in Piano di Sorrento.  Here, we received a tour of the factory as well as an explanation as to how the liquor made.  Side note – this has to be the greatest smelling factory on the planet; the sweet lurkings of limoncello filling your nostrils at every turn.

Essentially, it was explained to us that they take the alcohol from grapes, and infuse it with the skin of homegrown lemons. The lemon skins soak in huge metal containers for about 4 days until it is ready for bottled production.

In addition to making their own limoncello, Piemme also makes their own baba cake with rum or limoncello.  Here is how it goes down.  First, they cook the individual cakes:

Then, they place the cakes into a glass jar:

They then screw the jar into some high powered limoncello dispensing device, upon which limencello is injected into the jar at a forceful pace.  This next step brings some well deserved “oohs” and “aahs” from the group.

And then, we eat and drink it all:  the limoncello, the baba, it’s all (very) good.  Another successful voyage on Marmo’s Italian Excursions of Excellence.

As you know, John and I like our pizza. We make it ourselves. We go on long journeys involving buses and tour guides to the far reaches of the world (Coney Island!) for a slice.

I even did a pizza internship for a day at my favorite Hoboken spot, Dozzino. They let me work the oven! So what happens when New York Wine Salon asks you (by which I mean me and John) to JUDGE pizza?

YOU (by which I mean me and John) SAY YES. And then you say yes again just to make sure they heard you properly.

So here’s the deal:

The Event: Wine’s Best Friend: NY Pizza

When: Thursday, April 28th 7pm – 9pm

Where: Alger House, Grennwich Village: 45 Downing Street, NYC 914-837-4853

What is Going on Anyway:
A parade of pies delivered piping-hot-fresh from favorite Greenwich Village pizzerias will be paired with bright reds and versatile whites, from Italy and beyond!

Find out which wines to pair with that mushroom pie…maybe Pinot? Pepperoni? Zin or Chianti sounds good. What about fresh basil, tomato and buffalo mozzarella… and your white pizza with fig compote, blue cheese and pancetta. Sauv Blanc anyone? Don’t count out Riesling….There are dozens of possible combinations. Come taste away and find out which you like best.

As an added bonus, John and I will be two of the judges blind taste-testing the pizzas to determine the best of the bunch! John’s vote doesn’t count – but don’t tell him that! Yes, you heard me correctly, John and I are judging pizza. It’s crazy. But true. Come watch it happen.

Check out the full invite here and sign up!

Looking for a dessert for Easter Sunday? Since today’s theme is being helpful, I thought I would throw this Fruit and Nut Trifle out there. You will want to eat the whole bowl. The. Whole. Bowl. Do it.

Fruit and Nut Trifle

Trifle
What You Need:
1 c of almonds chopped
2 t water
4 t sugar
2 t cinnamon
1 c dried apricots and cranberries chopped
2 t butter
2 pears cored and diced
mandarian orange segments – small can
1 Tbsp rum
4 cups of heavy cream
1/2 cup confection sugar
1 cup orange juice
raspberries for decoration
sponge cake – see below for recipe

What To Do:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a bowl toss the nuts with cinamon then water and sugar and then spread on a sheet pan and bake for 5 minutes and toast for about 7 minutes.

Chop dried fruit and cover with hot water and a little rum and let set for 10 minutes.  Drain the fruit and add to the nuts. Toss.

In a saute pan heat the butter and add a little sugar. Add the diced pears and saute and then add the fruits and nuts.

In a bowl mix the heavy cream with the confectioners sugar vanilla and rum.  Mix until cream is whipped to soft peaks.

Brush the cake with the orange juice to make it a little moist.

In a trifle bowl first add some whipped cream and then place the sponge cake on top to cover the cream.  Layer with the fruit/nut mixture and then add a little cream.  Follow with the cake and continue to build the trifle.  Finish with the whipped cream.  For a festive look top with fresh raspberries. Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

Sponge Cake

What You Need:
8 eggs
1 cup flour
1 1/4 cup cugar
1 Tablespoon lemon zest
orange juice for brushing (optional)

What To Do:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a large square pan (13″x18″) and line with parchment paper.

Put the eggs into a mixer (Kitchenaid or handheld). Slowly add the sugar to the eggs, beating until they are twice the volume from when they started and a pale lemon color.

Slowly add the flour to the above ingredients and also the lemon zest.

Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for 15 minutes.

After it’s done, you can brush the cake with some orange juice, using a pastry brush. This makes it nice and juicy, and adds a complementing flavor for the fruit and nuts in the trifle.

Try not to eat it all. Or eat it all. Whichever.

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