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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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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.

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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.

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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!

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It was a warm(ish) spring twilight. The smell of fried chicken was in the air. Or at least in my head – sometimes I get the two confused. But what better way to spend a spring evening than chowing down on expertly fried chicken? And you can even feel good about this chicken that is fried to a delicate and deliciously salty, crunchy crisp because they birds are all-natural, local and organic.

Where is this fried chicken haven of which I speak? Dirty Bird to-go on 14th Street near 7th Avenue. I ventured there last week to get the smell of fried chicken out of my head and into my hands (and stomach).

First a few words about the bird: Chicken is an every-man’s meat (for people that eat meat, that is). It’s a staple. It shows up on the dinner table all the time. Perhaps too much? That depends on what kind of chicken you’re eating, I guess.

People often get frustrated with chicken. I know the Box does. He grimmaces like a child when it’s placed in front of him at the dinner table, recoiling visibly from his plate. His sentiments are echoed in this hilarious scene from Little Miss Sunshine:

Warning: There’s some not-so-nice language in the video. So if dropping the f-bomb ain’t you’re thang, you might want to skip it.

But at Dirty Bird, there’s no reason to curse the chicken. Let me illustrate with photos:

The Scene:
A teeny tiny storefront, the main feature is the walk-up counter, complete with extra friendly servers. Really, these people were just so nice. I feel like I should know their names.

The Food:
I ordered a three-piece dark meat sampler with garlic kale. The chicken itself was juicy and flavorful – a perfect amount of salt. The outer fry crust had me pulling all the fried bits off the bone that I could find. Plus scraping any wayward ones up that had fallen to my very cool, camping-style blue plate. It’s amazing what a little buttermilk can do. The kale mingled with some large chunks of garlic and was wading in a bath of tangy, slightly vinegar-y liquid. I scooped up every last leaf in the bowl. The kale was not overcooked and soggy, but vegetable al-dente, preserving some snap.

Also noteworthy are the Chicken Fingers: tender and juicy white meat coated in the same light buttermilk fry. If chickens had fingers, they would want these. I recommend the BBQ sauce – you can taste molasses, which adds depth to the flavor. The Mac and Cheese was off the charts. It was like hot, cheesy ice cream with pasta in it. I wanted to put it in a cone. This is a good thing.

The Bathrooms:
None that I could find.

Afterward, if you need a powder room and a glass of wine, head to the bar just up the street – The Crooked Knife. Flop onto their couches and order some Cotes-du-Rhone. That’s what I did, anyway.

Overall Experience: The Big Lebowski – The Cult Classic

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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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And next, in our Meals on Reels series is a scene from Napoleon Dynamite, a movie with many fascinating characters.  But, to me, one of them really steals the show: Uncle Rico.  Played by John Gries (who also, by the way, played Roger Linus in one our of favorite shows, “Lost”), Rico is simultaneous villain and hero, evoking sentiments of pity, humor and disgust.  All of Rico’s scenes are brilliantly hilarious.

Of particular and relevant hilarity (this is a food blog), is the scene in which Rico grabs Kip’s steak, with his bare hands, and hurls it at the cycling duo of Napoleon and Pedro, smacking the former right in his grill and knocking off his glasses, which is followed by Rico’s how-you-like-me-now type celebration, and Kip’s “that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

And speaking of steak, the fam and I were recently at Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill, in Mendham NJ.  In terms of Jersey steakhouses, this is really my favorite option, despite the influx of quality, chain operated steakhouses popping up in the surrounding area such as Ruth’s Chris and Roots.  Those other joints just don’t compare to the intangible qualities that Sammy’s brings to the table.  (But if it’s suits, unoriginality, and cheesy, wall mounted, gold plated Ronald Reagan quotes you desire, it’s best to stick the latter mentioned joints).

Let me first qualify this review with a slight bias: My family and I have been coming to Sammy’s since I could walk (and perhaps maybe even before then).  So there is undoubtedly a nostalgic benefit that I receive from Sammy’s that others may not.

But nostalgic bias aside, this place has so much character.  Sammy’s offers a unique dining experience:  you order right when you walk in the door.  When your order is placed, you wait downstairs at their bar, with old video games (such as Pac Man, Centepede, and Pinball) until a holler from the bartender, who might as well be Coach from Cheers, alerts you that your meal is ready. 

After games, drinking and mingling, it’s up to the old, never-modernized dining hall you go, complete with dull green, landscape painted walls from decades ago – which was done as payment from a former patron who could not pay his restaurant tab.

At your table awaiting you is the greatest red wine vinegar salad I’ve ever tasted.  With iceburg lettuce and chopped onions, this “salad” probably holds zero nutritional value, but who cares?  If you’re calorie counting, you’re not in the right restaurant.  And you’re pissing me off.

The fam follows this up with a Sammy’s staple: The Vodka Pasta (for 4, in this case).

I’ve sampled vodka sauce from a good amount of places.  There is nothing, nowhere, nada that compares to Sammy’s Vodka Pasta. If I were receiving the electric chair tomorrow?  This would be my final meal.  It’s cheesy, salty, spicy (ahem!), and creamy.  It has bits of fresh tomatoes in it and rocks your world with every mouthful.  Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on each helping, and you’ve just put the finishing touches on an absolute masterpiece.

For an entree, I order the Surf (Lobster) and Turf (the strip), which thankfully comes with a bib.  I’m a slob as it is.  At Sammy’s, I’ve been known to take out cats two tables over with some errant lobster fluid.

The Strip (the above picture is actually the box’s filet) is lean, with some tastier streaks of marble towards the bone.  It is cooked as asked (medium rare) and perfectly salted, juicy, and tender.  The Lobster is meaty, sweet and substantial.  It doesn’t fall apart or get stuck in portions of the shell when I’m tearing into it. No digging into the dead lobster crevasses to uncover left behind chunks of meat; it all slides out as one piece.

Elana orders the shrimp scampi.  If I somehow survived that initial go around within the electric chair, and was given a second meal to ingest before my apparent death, I might go with the scampi.  Elana is generous enough to share some of hers, so I can be reminded of the greatness that is Scampi a la Sammy: jumbo, breaded shrimp bathing in a thick, potent, lemon garlic butter sauce.  The sauce alone can be eaten like soup, it’s so outrageously tasty.

All of this comes with Sammy’s signature fries, which are crispy and brown but also quite moist and flavorful. Sea salt is sprinkled about.  Much like the rest of the meal, steer clear of the fries should you be monitoring your cholesterol.  So.  Damn.  Good.

Marmo and Elana save room for some of Sammy’s satisfying desserts.

While I’m moaning and clutching my stomach from overeating for the 163,403rd time in my career, Elana checks out the bathrooms, which as she puts it, “like the dining room in that they are similarly outdated, but charming. The tiled floor is left-over retro-chic, and there are thankfully large mirrors. The only element that has always unnerved me is the western-saloon style doors to the stalls. I always feel kind of exposed when I’m behind them.”

A former speakeasy, there still is no sign out front and nothing about the place, not even the video games, signify an update beyond the 1980’s.  But its food, feel and experience make a timeless impression.  I never get tired of this place.

Overall Experience: Animal House

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