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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):

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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!

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This past weekend, I attended a food photography workshop run by House of Brinson. If you haven’t checked out their blog yet, you really should. It’s brimming with beautiful photography and recipes. Naturally, when they announced their workshop, I signed up immediately.

This was, hands down, the most helpful and informative food photography class I’ve taken yet. There being only three of us in the class, the small student-teacher ratio really allowed us to get in all our questions, and get as much information and assistance out of the class as we could.

We each set up a total of three shots. William, the photographer was on hand to give us advice on topics such as lighting, exposure and white balance, while Susan the art director would supply styling tips – as well as cooking up a storm (for both eating and photography purposes).

Here are the photos I took, with some notes scribbled in for helpful hints.

My first shot was of a bunch of golden beets (pictured above). I kept the styling simple so I could concentrate on the veggies. That being said, we did get to pull from the Brinson’s vast supply of cool vintage props. Like the soap stone that the beets are seated on.

You may remember from my previous food photography post that white and black cards can be used to reflect light and create shadow. I used two black cards in this shot to make the beets a little more moody. Who doesn’t like moody beets?

In fact, roasting beets is a great way to make them both moody and tasty. Here’s how to make Roasted Golden Beets:

What You Need:
1 bunch golden beets (about 4), rinsed with the stems cut off
tin foil to wrap them each individually
sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

What To Do:
Heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap each beet loosely in tin foil.

Place in the oven, wrapped and on a cookie sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife and soft on the inside.

Remove them from the oven and peel off the skin (be careful – they will be HOT).

Slice them up into chunks and place in a bowl.

Season with sea salt and the olive oil. Rosemary is nice too if you have some fresh on hand. Serve alone as a side, or throw them in a salad.

My second shot was of a Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella and Zucchini Savory Pie that Susan baked from Martha Stewart’s Pies Cookbook (we also ate a duplicate of this guy for lunch).

A filling of zucchini, tomatoes, and cheese was enveloped in a buttery crust like an enormous pocket. Check out Martha’s book for the recipe.

Two challenges faced me when photographing this pie:

1. It was a little lopsided – too much crust on the lower right hand side.

2. It smelled really good. Even after eating it for lunch, I wanted another piece.

I cropped out the lopsided portion of the crust (you really don’t need to see the whole pie anyway), and tried my best to ignore the smell of the cooked veggies and cheese. As an added trick, we used gray cards for white balance/color temperature control.

My final shot was of four leek and puff pastry squares fresh out of Susan’s oven. They looked so nice on their parchment paper that I scooped them up in the pan and started clicking away. Eventually, we decided that the pan wasn’t working in the shot, so we removed it, keeping the parchment paper.

We didn’t use any artificial lighting – all of it was natural light coming in through the windows. It happened to be a VERY cloudy day this past Saturday. If you were in the NYC area that day you might recall it being downright unpleasant: horizontal rain and whatnot. However, we were still able to achieve nice lighting by slowing the shutter speed waaaaay down.

And speaking of puff pastry, it’s something that’s ridiculously easy to make. I even recommend getting the store bought variety and then topping it with any number of things. Take for example this recipe from Bon Appetit for a Honey Roasted Onion Puff Pastry Tart. You could also use many of our suggested pizza toppings, like the Fig Prosciutto and Ricotta topping.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks I will have much improved food photography for you. Although, I will still be inserting many a wonky iPhone shot just to balance things out.

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Recently, I helped Mom (a.k.a. “Marmo”) lead one of her customized tours around Italy.  Mom’s philosophy is a good one:  try to keep the trips to two general areas within an 8-10 day time frame.  If you try to squeeze in too many spots, you’re only going to skim the surface of each area, and you’ll be shifting around too much to relax every once in a while.    The plan for this particular trip was to target (1) the Amalfi Coast and (2) Rome.

Marmo and I fly into Rome then take the train to Naples.  From Naples, we meet our driver, who takes us into Sorrento – a beautiful town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento:  The one and only Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness, complete with palm and lemon trees, beautiful gardens, and the most ridiculous view overlooking the Gulf of Naples towards Mt. Vesuvius.

Spanning six generations (it’s still under the same family ownership), The Excelsior has grown from a beautiful cliff side estate, into a 5-star hotel of dreams.  And for the group’s first day in the Amalfi coast, Marmo arranges a hands on Neapolitan Pizza making demonstration.  For this, I am beyond excited.  Readers of the blog are well aware of our undying infatuation with Pizza.

We are led to a bar around the pool, where there is, indeed, an outdoor brick oven in which wood logs have been burning for about 2 hours in preparation for our class.  Our class is being prepped by the head chef of the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, and a second chef whose name I didn’t get.  They first instruct us as to their method, which is very simple: a 3 hour rise, a little sugar with the yeast, some double zero flour and water.  No overnight rises or complicated gimmicks; it’s very straightforward.  I need to get a closer look to observe the finished product.

And, indeed the dough is softer and fluffier than my freshly shampooed hair.  I had always thought that an overnight rise was essential for that ultra soft feel for pre-cooked pizza dough, but this proved otherwise.  The two man Pizza dream team then instructs us on hand pressing the dough, and lets each of us take a crack at it ourselves.

After the dough is flattened, the sauce is applied, followed by the mozzarella, some grated parmesian, and some olive oil.  It is then transported into the oven, and spun around with some of those extra long pizza peels that I want to decorate my apartment with.

Basil leaves are chopped up and spread onto the pie after it is pulled from the oven, nice and piping hot.  And the final result is wonderful.  The melted mozzarella has a milky, slightly sour, yet fresh tang to it.  The basil supplies a faint, but noticeably minty backdrop.  The cooked dough is beautiful.  Charred on the outside, but chewy and floppy when chomped down upon.  The center of the pie is the way a Neapolitan pie should be: saucy, sloppy, and a tad oily.  Skewering sections of this pie accordion style with my fork is a thing of ease.  Delicious.

The sauce is wonderfully fresh, while the grated parmesan cheese adds a nice, subtle kick not typically included in our New York furnished Neapolitan pies.  Halfway into my pizza, I’m thinking about sneaking Vincenzo and his pizza making sidekick through customs back in Newark so we can dominate the NYC/Neapolitan Pizza scene.  This pie would be easily on par (if not better) with some of well thought of joints in Manhattan.

And with what would be a theme for our stay at the Excelsior, Vicenzo and the rest of the staff could not be nicer.  Everyone got their own apron and chef’s hat, as well as the perfect amount of instruction (neither too much nor too little).  And after an hour or so of being around that oven, what better way to celebrate than to kick back, enjoy a freshly made pizza, some sparkling Pellegrino, a glass of wine, and a view of the Excelsior’s garden of lemon trees?

There is no better way.  Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more tales of my trip to the motherland, or feel free to contact Marmo to create some tales of your own.

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It’s John’s Birthday today, and while he might kill me for doing this (if he can catch me), he is 30 today!

I thought I would take this time to tell you a few things about John and why he is an awesome brother: 

1. He fields my various witty remarks (anxiety attacks, pleas for more blog content, harassment about his weekend plans) that I shoot at him via gchat with apparent ease and only occasionally ignores me.

2. John has two general reactions:

Positive reaction: “Great.” Sometimes things can be “glorious,” and then you know it’s really great.
Negative reaction: “S*&T!” The delivery of this remark is always the same regardless of the magnitude of his disapproval. 

3. I can only sometimes detect the fear in his eyes when I tell him my latest crazy scheme.

4. He gives dating advice! My personal favorites are these:
a. Do as I say, not as I do.
b. Do not laugh excessively at a dude’s jokes.
c. Stop dancing like that.
d. No fear, naw mean?
Side note: I literally have no idea what he means. Especially about the dancing.

5. Regardless of what is going on, what we had been talking about previously, John will divert my attention to Vespas. I receive links to them all day long accompanied by his Vespa negotiating tactics:

“Let’s low ball these people and take no prisoners: We’re willing to pay $2400 over 6 months.  Throw in the helmets and the automatic, in-dashboard cannoli dispenser or there is no deal.” 

6. He will practice his golf swing, (sans clubs) anywhere. In public, out in a bar, on the sidewalk, etc.


7. My dog, Toby hates him. But John will walk him for me anyway.
8. When I moved back from California, he let me sleep on his couch on weekends for a whole year and hang out with his friends. I got very good at beer pong.
9. He likes to sing “Shout” in public. To rave reviews.
10. John used to eat some weird stuff when he was younger. One of his favorites was, “grilled cheese dunked in yogurt.” this was a classic American cheese sandwich which he dunked in Dannon vanilla yogurt as he ate it.
Gross.
However! I have updated this gastronomic disaster and created something truly delicious. So in honor of John and his birthday, I give you Comte and Scallion Grilled Cheese on Focaccia Bread with Honey Mustard Yogurt Dipping Sauce.

What You Need:
For the sandwich
4 slices Focaccia bread, sliced about 1″ thick
Comte cheese, sliced thinly: enough to cover the top of two of the Focaccia slices. I used a “Tewksbury” cheese from Valley Shepherd Creamery that I bought at the Union Square Greenmarket.
1 bunch scallions: chop the white and light green parts only, discard the dark green leaves.
2 tablespoons butter
For the honey mustard yogurt dipping sauce
See this recipe from a previous post about a sangwich.
What To Do:
Heat the 2 tablespoons of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add the chopped scallions and sauté until they are soft, about 7 minutes.
Take your bread slices and one by one, dunk them in the pan of butter and scallions, pressing both sides into the mixture.
In the meantime, heat up the broiler of your oven.
Once you have coated both sides of all four pieces of bread, place the sliced cheese on top of two of the slices. Top these cheesed-up ones with the remaining two pieces of Focaccia and let simmer in the pan for about 2 minutes. Flip and simmer another 2 minutes for the flip side.
By this time, your broiler should be nice and hot. Transfer the sandwiches to a cookie sheet and pop them in the broiler so they get nice and toasty. But watch out for that broiler – don’t let your cheesy masterpieces burn!
Remove from the oven and serve immediately with the honey mustard yogurt dipping sauce on the side.
Finally, in honor of John’s birthday, we are giving away a prize. All you have to do is wish John a happy 30th in the comments of this post and you will be entered to win a prize.
What is this prize, you ask? John was recently in Italy and brought back another jar of this fabulous herbed sea salt.
We will randomly choose one commenter and award him/her the prize!
Happy birthday, little bro!

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We have reached another Friday! Gonna see a movie this weekend? We have some recommendations that pair well with food (of course)!

Our first film: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Chow down on some garlic bread with these recipes while you watch.

Our second film: My Cousin Vinny. Streak your hair, get out your leather and go to Brooklyn for grits at Egg!

Our third film: If you fry it, they will come: Hot dogs and Field of Dreams. Magic in the Moonlight.

In other news, I’ll be traveling to South Beach today for my first Triathlon of the season. You can also get the recipe for my home made energy bars at that link. Tweeting will be light as I don’t want to take out my pre-race panic attacks on you lovely people.

Come Monday or Tuesday we might have some more BIG NEWS. So stay tuned. And we will also be continuing our Meals on Reels program. Don’t forget to send us your favorite movie/food scenes! Post ’em in the comments!

Have a great weekend!

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This month’s Bathroom of the Month Award goes to Slice, The Perfect Food! While not the fanciest or most polished in terms of loo decor, I walked out of that bathroom feeling like I had visited 1 part carnival, 1 part artist studio, with a dash of wacky/artsy boudoir (see the red crystal chandelier). And with the renegade Muppet art, the only thing missing was this. The large mirrors, tidy appearance, and parquet ceiling sure helped too. But honestly, this bathroom is all about the experience. Go check it out, and while you’re at it, order a Miki.

And if you need other suggestions, let’s review our week’s adventures:

On Monday, it was Marmo’s Birthday, and we gave you a Marmo Special: Farfalle with Sausage recipe.

Tuesday was all about pizza, and we checked out John’s Jersey establishment.

On Wednesday, the Landmark Loews Theatre and Sapthagiri Indian Restaurant hit a home run double feature and make my millennium.

Finally, we hone our crane kicks for the Gramercy Tavern review on Thursday.

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Today we have a special caffeinated treat. My friend Amy Ferraris is a talented film maker AND a cappuccino addict. She combined these two passions in a documentary film entitled, The Perfect Cappuccino. It it, she describes the trials and tribulations of finding that perfect 6 ounces of cappuccino, and what that means in terms of both ingredients and atmosphere. The above link is a trailer to her documentary. We also have a short interview with Amy below.
Why did you want to create this documentary? Is there a specific message you want people to take away?
I felt compelled to, in the way that you feel compelled to scratch an itch. I had spent over a decade obsessing about this question of “Why is it so hard to find a good cappuccino in America?” So I finally decided to look a little closer at the question, in the hope that it would stop plaguing me (which it eventually did).

I guess the message I would want people to take away is to PAY ATTENTION to their coffee and to the places where they consume it. I would also really like it if coffee shop-goers paid as much attention to atmosphere and community as bar- and restaurant-goers do. The coffee shop is not just a place to fuel up on caffeine!

What are the defining characteristics of a good cappuccino?
I wrote a whole series of blog posts on this once, the most comprehensive of which is here.

But here’s the “short” version… A cappuccino is typically defined as a drink that is one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk.  I would argue that the perfect cappuccino incorporates coffee, air and milk into a few magical sips of something that is more than just the sum of its parts.

A cappuccino should feel dense and creamy in your mouth, but light and airy at the same time. You should not be able to perceive the separation of liquid and foam, at least not in the first few sips. I have heard this texture described hundreds of times by people in the coffee business as “velvety.”

This unique texture is produced by a substance that I’ve sometimes heard Italians refer to as the “crema del latte” – literally, the “cream of the milk.” Americans refer to this substance by the decidedly less charming name of “microfoam.”

Really good crema del latte is incredibly difficult to produce. But to me, it is what makes a cappuccino a cappuccino. In the course of making my documentary, I interviewed a number of baristas about producing the crema del latte, and the consensus seems to be that it’s all about heating the milk slowly and keeping it below the temperature at which milk starts to taste salty instead of sweet. It’s also about using the right milk. Milks with higher relative protein content – such as nonfat milk – will stiffen up much quicker than full fat milks, forming that horrid meringue-like substance that graces many cappuccinos in America. So when I hear someone ordering a nonfat, extra-hot cappuccino, I feel like they just insulted my mother. Blech.

Who makes the best cappuccino and why?
I’m happy to say that it’s no longer as hard as it used to be to find a good cappuccino in the U.S. In fact, there are too many places for me to list (although I would recommend using espressomap.com as a resource. That guy knows his stuff).

But if you add in the consideration of wanting a place that not only produces a drink that is technically excellent but does so in an environment that is authentic and is genuinely a “third place” (in the Ray Oldenburg sense of the term, NOT the Howard Schultz sense), well, then, my list of favorites is much shorter…

1. DoubleShot Coffee, Tulsa, Oklahoma
2. Bica Coffeehouse, Oakland, CA
3. Bar del cappuccino, Rome


Can you make a cappuccino at home? If not, why?
You can make a crappy cappuccino at home, no problem. You can even make a good cappuccino at home if you are willing to invest a few thousand dollars in superior equipment and spend lots and lots of time getting it right (and some people do – check out home-barista.com and you’ll see what I’m talking about). But making a good cappuccino at home is really hard, mostly because making good espresso at home is so hard. Espresso is really finicky, and there are many variables that have to come together for it to taste OK (nevermind for it to taste great).

Does your obsession with cappuccino extend to American coffee, and if so what are your favorite brand blends?
No, it really doesn’t. I am a milk addict! I am fortunate that the head barista at my awesome neighborhood coffee shop (Bica Coffeehouse in Oakland, CA) regularly offers me tastes of the latest coffees he’s featuring, so I get to try a lot of them. But it’s not usually what I crave. And I don’t drink much coffee overall. So while I like trying little tastes of other things, it’s a rare day that I want a cup of drip for my morning coffee.

That said, when I DO drink “American” coffee, lately it has all been single-origin coffees roasted by some of the fantastic roasters near me in the bay area – Ritual Coffee Roasters, Verve, Temple, De La Paz and Four Barrel all come to mind.

In the documentary you note that cappuccino has caused you to question your community, country and way of life. But has it brought you any answers?
YES! In the process of making this film, I discovered a place that had a real sense of community. You walk in, everybody knows you, you sit down among friends for a long talk or you just stay for a minute to grab your coffee and BS with the guys behind the counter or the person next to you in line. But either way, you have this face-to-face social interaction every day. That place was the DoubleShot Coffee Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I felt (and feel) that that kind of community is so special and so wonderful. I later read “The Great Good Place” by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, which perfectly describes the phenomenon I’m talking about – the “third place.” It’s not work and it’s not home – it’s something else.

It’s easier to feel a sense of ownership or a feeling of belonging to a place that is not antiseptic or cookie-cutter. And people’s behavior changes when they feel at home. The same person who ignores you in line at Starbucks might strike up a conversation with you if you’re sitting on “their” couch.

This is not to say that community can’t form at a Starbucks, but there are barriers to it – the airport security-style lines, the prescribed language for ordering your drink and the customer-is-always-right script you hear in return from the people behind the counter, the get-in-and-out-fast efficiency of the whole place… all these things offer a subtle discouragement to having a genuine interaction with anyone else. Learning all of the above was a big deal for me. It roots me in my community and my neighborhood. I feel very grounded in my “village” – I feel a kinship with the folks I know from my own third place, and that extends to a larger feeling of kinship with my community. I would love it if I could share that message with everyone.

What is the strangest place your search for the perfect 6oz of cappuccino has brought you?
That’s a good question. Tulsa, Oklahoma was pretty darn strange for me (I’m a Californian). But in a good way. It’s a city full of contradictions and surprises. I loved it.

You can also read Amy’s blog and check out the official Cappuccino Movie website here.

Amy’s movie will also be screening at a festival, and here are the details on that:
What: The Perfect Cappuccino screens at the Oakland International Film Festival
When: Sunday, April 10 at 6:00 pm
Where: The Art Deco Auditorium in Alameda, CA

More info at www.oiff.org or www.cappuccinomovie.com

Thank you, Amy!

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This past winter, Elana and I accompanied mom on one of her local group trips to Brooklyn.  It was a guided tour throughout some of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, stopping along the way at the area’s most festively decorated residences for the holiday season.  It was a very entertaining experience to say the least, with the energy being maintained between stops by our animated and knowledgeable tour guide, Tony Muia.  On that trip, Tony had encouraged me to come on one of his his company‘s pizza tours.  This last weekend, Elana and I did just that.

The launch location for this trip was from Union Square, where Tony’s Cousin, Paula (who was our tour guide for the day), was enthusiastically welcoming all participants onto the bus.   To say Paula is an extrovert would be an understatement; within 10 minutes of the trip, she has already told various jokes, given nicknames to everyone on the bus, and dropped a few hundred “fughediboudits.”  “This is going to be fun,” comments sis.

The first out of two pizza stops for the day: Grimaldi’s on 19 Old Fulton St
in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.  But, prior to that, Paula directs the group through a nearby park  to view the Brooklyn Bridge (which, by the way, has all of its original cables, Paula adds), as well a detour through the Jacques Torres Chocolate Shop, where Elana and I sample some of their delicious spicy hot chocolate.

The group is more than happy to wander around this beautiful area while peppering Paula with questions.  “Did ya know,” Paula adds, and proceeds to tell us that Grimaldi’s coal heated oven is one of the last of its kind within the city, as environmental regulation put a stop to the installation of coal  burning ovens in the 1980s.  She also advises us not to make eye contact with the long line of people waiting to get into Grimaldi’s.  Why?  Well, today, we don’t have to wait in the line.  A spot on the Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour grants you VIP access into the storied pizza shop. (It doesn’t, however, isolate you from the frustrated mutterings/shouts from those who you cut in line, which you will inevitably receive).  I mean, just how does the other half live?  Also, is it wrong that I secretly take pleasure in this moment of blatent line cutting?  Moving on…

Being one of the first let inside Grimaldi’s allows me to quietly watch the pies get made.  There is a system at work here – mountainous piles of sliced fresh mozzarella, jars of ingredients, stacks of wooden crates filled with unpressed dough, and then the oven itself – an almost Medievil looking heat terminal of coal burning excellence.  According to Paula, pies endure a stay of around 2 minutes and 43 seconds within the oven.  How’s that for specific  information?

I had not been back to the original Grimaldi’s in some time.  Indeed, I have a local Grimaldi’s in Hoboken that I visit  from time to time without having to wait in line, but I was looking forward to retesting the original.

The original is a better tasting pie. Its crust is a bit more charred vs. the Hoboken shop’s, with portions of its underbelly completely scorched by coal.  This, in my opinion, lends itself to a unique taste and separates Grimaldi’s from some of the other Napoletana style Pizzerias which use wood, gas, or a combination of the two.  The sauce quality is simply excellent here: fresh and flavorful.  And, even if the cheese may be a touch bland, Grimaldi’s (the original) does not let me down.  I put down 2 and 1/2 slices in about as many bites.

As we pull away from Grimaldi’s en route to our next stop (L & B Spumoni Gardens), Paula cues up appropriate movie clips while we are still in Dumbo – such as the scene from Scent of a Woman (one of my favorites) where Charlie and Colonel Frank Slade (WHOOAA!) take the Ferrari out for a test drive.  Our bus is traveling on those identical roads. I elbow Elana with excitement.

The seamless infusion of movie clips throughout the tour is a big theme.  While traveling out to L & B’s, Paula continues to add context to our voyage with additional clips, as well landmark descriptions and famous/infamous stories about the immediate surrounding area.  We also journey through Dyker Heights and view the million dollar homes along Shore Road in Bay Ridge.

And then, more pizza!  Our second and final pizza stop is L & B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, which we featured on the blog not too long ago.  It’s a wonderful pizza to feature, particularly due to its contrast from Grimaldi’s; the two could not be more dissimilar.  Grimaldi’s is round; L & B’s is square.  Coal oven vs. gas.  Neapolitan vs. Sicilian.  Is one better than the other?  Who cares!  They are both amazing.

While they are both “pizzas”, comparing the two is like apples and oranges.  And on this day, I just can’t seem to stop putting down these scrumptious squares of sauce splattered satisfaction.  It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to effortlessly own a 3rd slice (that’s 5 and 1/2 for those keeping count) since others are full.  Especially since Paula had noted earlier that the L & B pizza feels “lighter” due to the dough rising twice.

And I’m not scared of dessert either.  Elana and I split some addictive spumoni ice cream, which isn’t quite ice cream at all.  It’s ice cream mixed with whipped cream which, yet again, has a “lighter” texture to it than what you would expect.   I again say “lighter” because, hey, let’s face it… I’m ingesting pizza and ice cream like Jaws gobbles up chum… I’m probably well beyond the point of characterizing this as a mere snack.  Whatever.  When in Rome….   er….   Bensonhurst, I guess.

After L & B’s, the tour makes its final stop to Coney Island, where Paula takes us along the boardwalk.   She notes the simultaneous (and hilarious) sensations of danger/excitement surrounding the various rides, such as the Parachute Drop and the Cyclone, with toothpick thick 2 x 4’s anchoring its highest peaks.

And even as the tour nears an end, there are additional movie clips to watch or more sites to see, such as the National, an oddly, yet awesomely decorated Russian restaurant/banquet hall; or the picturesque grounds at Poly Prep – there is never a dull moment.  So whether you are visiting Brooklyn for the first or you’re a full time BK resident, this tour really has something for everyone.  You’d be hard pressed to find more prideful and informative guides than Tony and Paula.  And, even for the so called know-it-alls, how else are you cutting the line at Grimaldi’s?

Click here for more information on A Slice of Brooklyn’s pizza and other tours of Brooklyn.

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I cheated. It wasn’t a planned thing, it just kind of…happened. You know?

I’m talking about bread. What did you think I was talking about?

Based on the unfortunate results of previous efforts, I’d become a little downtrodden. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I had such high expectations every time – “This one will be it!” I’d think. But invariably, I was disappointed.

I’m still talking about bread.

You’ll recall that my first attempt at the Tartine bread making method had me putting the dough in my bathroom to rise in the hopes that the warmer temperature would hasten the process. No luck. My bathroom bread was flat as a Red Velvet Pancake.

On this second attempt I found myself standing over my leaven, contemplating it in distress, much as The Box regards me when I call him and say, “Hey, Dad! I just signed up for another triathlon!!!”

I thought, “What if…what if I just added a little sprinkle. Of yeast. To this here leaven.”

So I did. Just a little bit, not a whole package. And then I mixed up my dough and left it alone for 3 hours for the bulk fermentation.

When I say I left it alone, I literally left my apartment. I couldn’t stay there and wait for nothing to happen. So I went out and returned about 4 hours later. To my surprise and incredible glee (I let out a squeal which scared the dog), it had risen!

I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I regrouped, and went through the other steps, resulting in a beautiful, risen, light, fluffy, flavorful, crusty on the outside, squishy on the inside (with nice holes to boot) loaf of bread.

I was beside myself with carbohydrate-related joy. My bread even crackled while cooling (something referred to as the Song of the Bread in Tartine).

I’m afraid this is only going to encourage me to keep cheating. With bread.

Now that I had this amazing puffed-up specimen, I had to decide what I was going to do with most of a loaf of flat-ish bread. So I made Peccorino and Herb Croutons with it!

What You Need:
A loaf (or most of a loaf) of stale bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup grated Peccorino cheese (you could also use Parmesan)
3 turns of freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon chopped basil (dried basil actually works well in this case)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large Ziploc bag
*Optional: salt. Peccorino is a very salty cheese, so don’t over-salt these guys. Only use extra salt if you really feel like you need to.

What To Do:
Fire up the broiler of your oven and get out a cookie sheet.

Place the cubed bread in the plastic bag and throw everything else in there.

Shake, shake, shake, Senora!

Dump the contents of the bag onto the cookie sheet, and spread out all the little cubes. Toast for a few minutes on one side, then rotate the cubes (OVEN MITTS!!!) so that they brown evenly on all sides.

Eat them immediately in a salad, soup, or like popcorn!

And, yes, I’m still talking about bread.

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