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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?

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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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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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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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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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On my life’s highlight reel, I have a good amount of cherished memories.  One thing I find myself doing is (pathetically) replaying these events in my head and setting them to 80’s music in cheesy movie montage fashion.  For example,  the time me and some close friends rallied to save our college fraternity house from what seemed like an inevitable campus closure via a pain in the ass administration is typically imagined through Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” appearance in Iron Eagle.

This past Sunday, the fam got together to celebrate Marmo’s birthday at the Gramercy Tavern at 42 East 20th Street.   And while it would be extreme to induct mere dining experiences within one’s life highlight reel, my dinner at Gramercy Tavern (hereinafter referred to as the”GT”) came pretty close.  So if I was to set my exceptional experience at the GT to an 80’s music/movie montage, what better and more appropriate segment to use than Joe Esposito’s triumphant masterpiece, “You’re the Best Around” as seen in the closing moments of one of the greatest 80’s movies of all time, The Karate Kid.  Please bear with me as draw on the comparisons.

I enter the Gramercy TavernDaniel Enters the Gymnasium for the All Valley Tournament

I’d have to imagine my feelings upon entrance to the GT were similar to that of fellow NJ paisan, Daniel LaRusso, as he walked into the All Valley Tournament:  Wonderment, excitement, a tinge of intimidation perhaps – only because of the rep it brings with it.  I needed to bring my blogging A-game.

The place is simply fantastic looking.  It has two general areas: the more “casual” tavern and then the restaurant, where we sat.  But there is a similar theme throughout.  Wood floors, tapestry curtains, blossoming bright colored plants, and aged iron chandeliers that look like they had been forged by knights in the pits of some dungeon.  It’s like  a Medieval Tudor-style farmhouse, with a sprinkle of magic and cheer.  They start everyone off with a delicious crispy potato puff, with olive tapenade (as seen below).

We meet Our Server – Miyagi accompanies Daniel-san to start the tournament

Our server, whose name escapes me, hands us our leather bound menus and drink lists.  After letting the fam chillax and take in the scene for the perfect amount of time, he swoops in and provides us with the headiest of tips concerning mixed drinks and wine recommendations, while seamlessly regaling us with brief, yet relevant tales of some dining history at the GT.  And my man is a pro.  Like our own personal Miyagi.  It’s apparent he has been working here for quite some time, and gives off the simultaneous impression of prompt, professional service without pressure or attitude. Point, LaRusso.

The Appetizers – Daniel-San cruises through the early rounds

Cue the music!  I order Lamb Parpadelle while Elana selects the Cauliflower Custard.  Both are tremendous.  My parpadelle has a delightfully salty flavor, owing to some beautifully cooked shredded lamb.  It is gracefully plopped in a faintly think burgundy broth, with hints of lemon swirling around in its depths.  Every third forkful or so is accompanied by a karate chop of spice to the taste buds.  It’s honestly perfect.  Elana’s custard is similarly off the charts. Like a cauliflower panna cotta of sorts, it also has hazelnuts to supply an appropriate contrasting crunch.  Truly, an achievement in science.

The Entrees – Daniel-San dismantles the Cobra Kai sidekicks en route to the Final

No offense to Daniel-San, but one of my favorite underrated moments in the tournament montage is when Dutch (played by Chad, the son of Steve McQueen) cracks Daniel’s jaw with a the back end of a slick double roundhouse.  Without question the prettiest and most athletic karate move of the entire movie.  The GT’s entrees are similarly flawlessly presented.

And like Daniel-San, I’m able to move past the beauty of my meal’s arrival and get down to business.  I ordered the Duck Breast with confit, cabbage and mushrooms.  The duck is cooked like a medium rare filet, with that sweet tasting quality that only duck meat has.  The accompanying confit is made up of darker meat and is, appropriately, a tad more salty.  The dish is held together by a lurking presence of soy sauce and peppercorns.

Elana orders the Smoked Arctic Char with sunchokes, leeks, and hazelnuts.  Much like every dish so far, it arrives as meticulously presented as one of Miyagi’s Bonzai Trees.  The leeks, which form the guts of the sauce, emit this sweet tasting mist over the char which is lightly smoked and boasting a hazelnut crust.  There is also a noticeable mustard like presence established throughout the leek sauce.  Elana is beyond pleased – like she died and went to heaven.  Quick, get this girl a body bag, Johnny.

DessertDaniel LaRusso’s gonna fight? Daniel LaRusso’s gonna fight!

I always get a kick out of watching Miyagi rub his hands together to heal Daniel’s leg prior to the showdown with Johnny Lawrence, which is followed up by the shameless ring announcer breaking the exciting news to the crowd.  And indeed, after ingesting dinner, appetizers, and three hunky pieces of bread with the most amazingly salted butter spread all over it, I was a little tired myself.  But a thousand crane kicks to my noggin couldn’t stop me from participating in dessert, for which our server assured us would be a highlight of the meal.

And it was. Elana’s peanut butter semifreddo was simply awesome.  A cold treat with macaroons on the side, my fork kept getting helplessly pulled over to sis’s plate.  An absolute winner.  I went with a GT staple, the chocolate bread pudding.  A warm, moist sponge cake which melted in my mouth. Like a true establishment of class, the GT also placed some fine small treats on the house to polish off our meal.

The Bathrooms – Elana had a very positive report on the washrooms: “The bathrooms had a rustic look with fresh flower arrangements, baskets of hand towels and vintage art.”

Top to bottom, the GT is fantastic in everything they do.  Not a single thing gets overlooked.  It’s our favorite restaurant of the year, and the highest rated restaurant since doing the blog.  Indeed GT, You’re the Best, Around.

Overall Experience: The Godfather



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Today, we bring you a review of John’s Pizza, on 87 Sussex Street in the Paulus Hook neighborhood of downtown Jersey City.  After some thorough internet research prior to our trip, I did indeed confirm that John’s of Jersey City was an offshoot of sorts from John’s on Bleecker.  This excited Elana and I.

The Scene: We went on a Monday night, but even for a Monday, it was pretty quiet.  Hopefully this was not an indication as to the quality of the pizza. It’s a pretty large spot for a pizza joint, with wood and stone floors throughout, and an upstairs that didn’t seem like it was getting a lick of use.  They had a full bar with beers on tap and, indeed, what appeared to be a coal fired, brick oven. If it was not so dang cold out, John’s would have been most likely sporting their outdoor seating scene, which appeared like a charming option.

The Grub: Prior to the pie, Elana and I sample some of our kryptonite, fried calamari (NOT pronounced cal-a-mod).  And while we realize making a crisp fried calamari is not exactly rocket science, some restaurants can still manage to bungle up calamari.  But not John’s – it’s close to perfect.  It is crispy and tender throughout, not rubbery or soggy.  Also, the squid is of sizable portion.  (Although it didn’t include the tentacles, which I like).  We also ordered what were termed “fried mozzarella wedges”  (creative!) which I very much enjoyed. They had a snapping crust and had a moist, even consistency throughout.  Each appetizer has an accompanying bowl of marinara, in which there are bits of basil leaves and perfect levels of olive oil lightly swimming about.  Chunks of freshly peeled tomatoes lend itself to a very smooth taste.

Onto the pizza.  Elana and I both got personal pies.  I ordered the “traditional” which was your basic margherita pie, while Elana ordered a pizza bianca – which had ricotta and mozzarella.  Both pies missed the mark a bit.  The Traditional had a TON of cheese, which was stretching all over the place, and slightly distracting me from the otherwise stellar sauce.   It’s definitely the tastier of the two.

Elana’s Bianca was a little bland.  Just like the traditional, the cheese is heavily applied, but it’s not packing a serious or sharp enough punch.  Both pies are unfortunately not sporting the “as-advertised” effects of a well functioning coal fired, brick oven.  The dough is a little crunchy and tough, with a noticeable stiffness throughout.

The Bathrooms – Elana reported: “The bathroom was clean and orderly, but a touch outdated and well-worn. Large mirrors were appreciated, but the potpourri and soap could have used more attractive containers.”

Overall, I must say that I was a bit let down by John’s.  Although a purported descendant of John’s on Bleecker, the apple seems to have fallen a bit far from the tree in this instance.  We prefer Grimaldi’s and Dozzino in Hoboken should you be looking for artisanal, Neapolitan style pizza within an earshot of an NJ path train.

Overall Score: Vanilla Sky

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