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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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This month’s BATHROOOOOOM of the MONTH goes to Co. Restaurant. Not only do their pizzas get top marks, but their bathrooms top the charts this month with a pleasing combination of dark red subway tiles, random art (like a visual non sequitur) and fancy accessories (lemon scented hand soap from C.O. Bigelow). My favorite part was the paper towel cubby hole. Nice work, guys. For our full review of Co. Restaurant, please click here.

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A week or so ago, I learned via Twitter that Eataly now sells fresh, uncooked pizza dough. Readers of this blog know that John and I like to make our own pizza dough. But SOMETIMES….just sometimes….you can’t. You might not have time, or yeast, or flour because you gave it all to the sourdough starter that is living on the top of your fridge and that you expect has been drinking all your wine because you don’t seem to have any left in the apartment…

Clearly, I digress. Sometimes you need to use someone else’s dough. I’m not here to judge you. I AM here to judge other people’s dough.

And I’m starting with Eataly’s, which I picked up in one of their numerous refrigerated sections for $3.20. Not a bad price. While I was there, I also picked up some purple potatoes and fresh rosemary which I was going to use in combination with the fresh ricotta cheese I made to top the pizza.

And one more wild card, because, let’s face it people, I’m not here to be normal. I have been wanting to try different methods of baking pizza. I have a pizza stone, which delivers great results. I have also used a cookie sheet with some success. This time, I wanted to use my cast iron pot. I thought that by trapping the heat in a smaller area (the pot) I would achieve a crispier outer crust with a more moist center. This was my hypothesis, anyway.

General Instructions:
I heated up my pot in the oven at 500 degrees for one half hour before placing the dough inside.

Placing the dough in the pot is a little tricky. The pot gets VERY HOT (please remember your oven mitts). And you have to get the dough in there, and then place on all your toppings while the dough is starting to sizzle and cook already. Kind of stressful.

But I did it. And I didn’t even burn myself (I did cut myself slicing potatoes though)! I got my dough into the pot, smeared on some ricotta cheese (the truffle salt and olive oil variety), and topped it with sliced potatoes (instructions below), olive oil, a pinch more truffle salt and some rosemary.

Then, I put the lid back on the pot and put the whole device in the oven. And then I checked it 10 minutes later. The crust wasn’t really charring, and it was cooking more slowly overall. I baked it for about 20-25 minutes (as compared to the usual 10 minutes on the pizza stone).

The crust did not char, but turned a nice golden brown. The bottom was almost like a thick, crusty bread rather than a pizza crust. This is the result of the cast iron pot. I believe I will be returning to the pizza stone (hypothesis proven WRONG).

BUT! What about the Eataly crust? How did it taste? I have to say, I give Eataly’s dough my stamp of approval. It was moist (even in the face of my cast iron pot experiment, and had a nice airy texture combined with a delicate olive oil/salty/yeasty flavor that was just right. My friend Meg ran over to my apartment when I started tweeting that there was pizza in the oven, so she can also attest to the fine flavor of the crust.

And finally, here is the recipe for the Ricotta, Rosemary and Potato Topping:

What You Need:
8 small purple potatoes, sliced thinly
Ricotta cheese (from this recipe)
Fresh rosemary (as many sprigs as you like)
Truffle salt (a few pinches)
1 tablespoon olive oil + extra drizzle for the pizza
1/4 cup water

What To Do:
Slice your potatoes (don’t cut yourself like I did).

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Place your sliced potatoes in the pan and and a pinch of salt. Toss to coat with oil and salt, and let the taters heat up. Add 1/4 cup of water to steam them a bit and some fresh chopped rosemary. Simmer until tender (you will be able to easily pierce them with a knife.

Spread the ricotta cheese on your stretched out pizza dough. Top with the potato mixture. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and add some more rosemary if you like.

Bake in the oven at 500 degrees (on a pizza stone, preferably) for about 10 minutes.

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Ever since I read Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread and baked many of the recipes, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Mr. Lahey. Nothing crazy – no stalkerish tendencies. Just a serious admiration for the man’s bread baking talent. I headed up to his restaurant Co. in Chelsea to sample his bread – and PIZZA – first hand.

On a scale of 1-1,000, can you guess how excited I was? Place your bets in the comments section.

The Scene:
Pushing away the velvet curtains at the front door reveals a delightfully warm, pizza-smelling atmosphere that fogs up the windows with bread-baking steam. All around me is friendly chatter – not too loud not too quiet. Perfect for either a friendly get together or a date.

The attentive hostess greets me with an ETS (Estimated Time of Seating) – about 30 minutes, and I take a seat at the bar to await a friend.

Caramel colored wood paneling graces the walls with an interjection of one mirrored panel leading to a window through which you can peep the wood burning oven. This same oven is projected on the wall above the tables like a movie screen – like one of those Yule Log DVDs. Customers have apparently asked to buy a copy of the recording, but it’s not for sale, as you can hear the owner cursing in the background if you listen closely. In my opinion, this only adds to its kitchy charm.

Sam and Dave are crooning on the sound system and I hum, “Hold on (pizza), I’m coming….” to myself as one of the “company people” (identifiable by their matching brown t-shirts) ambles up over to take our order. We select:

The Grub:

First things first: BEER. I’ve been dying to try Kelso beer ever since I started following them around on Twitter. Luckily, Co. happens to serve Kelso Nut Brown Lager, which we promptly ordered a growler of (growler is a new term for me and basically means a helluva big jug o’ beer). We were very pleased – it complemented everything we ordered, especially the Popeye pizza (more on that below). We easily polished off that growler.

Next up: The Cannellini Bean and the Chicken Liver Toasts.

I LOVE chicken liver. You might remember me mentioning this around Thanksgiving time. It’s a weird thing to love, I know, but I really do. Co.’s version did not disappoint: pure perfection, whipped to a frosting-like consistency while still offering that signature tangy taste. As an added bonus, the spread was very generously applied.

The cannelini beans were like a meat broth stew (minus the broth) – bean bolognese, if you will. And I did! And would do it again, please and thank you.


Pizzas:
We selected the Margherita and the Popeye pizzas.

The Margherita was a perfect blend of tomato, mozzarella and parmesan with large basil leaves resting on top. The crust was crispy, charred and moist all at the same time, and the mozzarella had flavor – actual flavor all its own! I dubbed it King Pizza of the night.

The Popeye (pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper and garlic) was a study in delicious contradiction. The spinach, both crispy and tender, was a perfect balance to the tangy and gooey gruyere. For added fun, the spinach seemed to have been marinated in oil and garlic.

And they have sundaes! I enjoyed a vanilla and salted peanut topped with caramel sauce, cream and pomegranate seeds.

The Bathrooms:
I was happy to find the bathrooms as orderly and well-constructed as the pizza (yes, I know that’s a weird thing to say). Clean, modern and supplied with fun extras like C.O. Bigelow lemon-scented hand soap and ART (that’s a crab in the framed photo).

The Experience:
The Shawshank Redemption – The Happy Ending

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Recently, I was lunching at Eataly with a group of colleagues. Actually, I just wanted to use “lunching” and “colleagues” in the same sentence.

I was hungrily devouring a pizza with the other members of a food photography class that I was taking. We had come to Eataly to do some on-site food photography. Come for the pictures, stay for the food – that kind of thing.

Readers of this blog know of the obsession John and I have for pizza, so I used this opportunity to sample Eataly’s version.

Eataly’s pizza menu offered the Neopolitan-style, wood fired, personal sized pizza characterized by a thin crust with a floppy center and a charred yet moist and chewy outer crust (or cornicione).

A member of our group suggested sharing a pizza. But I needed to research! For the blog! For our readers! For science! Also, I was hungry. So I politely responded, “I’ll be taking one down all by myself. But thanks for the offer!”

Besides, when I share food, I’m always mentally tallying the number of pieces that I have in relation to everyone else in an effort to be polite. It’s too much mental energy when I’m trying to eat. Plus, it usually leaves me hungry.

I selected the Verduretta, a traditional Margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) topped with roasted eggplant and red peppers.

The portion size was generous. I did not, in fact, end up taking the whole thing down by myself. Leopard-like black char spots graced the outer crust which sloped downwards to a very thin and flexible inner pizza. The tomato sauce was tangy and the strips of roasted eggplant provided a smokey and woodsy quality that had me wishing these veggies had been more generously applied.

While the eggplant scored high marks, the roasted peppers seemed just decorative accents as they were a more generic, from-the-can variety and didn’t add much flavor.

As for the mozzarella – the marshmallow-like dollops were an excellent consistency: they retained a good meltiness even upon cooling, and were never plastic-y or dry.

John would call this a “solid” pie, and I would agree. Technically and traditionally sound in crust and cooking method, yet lacking a bit in depth of flavor from its veggie accoutrements.

Overall Pizza-Eating Experience: Top Gun, The Well Working Formula

Bonus Section! I’ve you’ve read this far, you can see a few photo highlights from the Eataly tour:

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Each passing day on the ol’ blog is a learning experience.  Originally, Elana and I had intended to treat the blog as a smorgasbord for all things food related; reviewing restaurants, posting recipes, and starring in videos – with the only common denominators  being enthusiasm and honesty.  There was not necessarily a real theme or concentration as to what we would feature.  You were just to trust our homegrown taste buds on various food related topics.

Much to our surprise, a decent amount of people actually read this thing.  Well, thanks for peepin’ the posts, peeps (hehe).  And, in order to take this blog to the next level, we feel it is appropriate to narrow the focus a bit.  An Italian focus.  I mean, that is the type of food we were raised on, experiment with most frequently, and eat too much of.

So what does this mean?  Well, like many things we do here on the blog, the focus will be an experiment of indefinite duration and potential debate.  But generally it will mean this: most of the restaurants we will review will be Italian or Italian influenced.  Our recipes and videos, will predominantly forward Italian dishes and ideas.  In fact, even the blog, is going to be written in Italian.  Comprende, amigo?

But lovers of food we are above all.  So we will still make occasional room for posts that are outside the scope.  However, according to my father (“The Box”) all foods (and generally everything else) on this planet are a derivation of some sort of Italian influence.  So, technically, even if our posts do, in fact, stray from the Boot’s roots, perhaps we are not straying at all… naw mean?  No?  Care to debate the topic with this man?

We didn’t think so.

Elana here (that was John above, if you hadn’t guessed). In keeping with this new focus, we are starting off with a very basic, Italian 101 recipe: bruschetta. I’ve talked a lot about brushcettas, but I’ve never offered you the simplest, most basic and potentially most satisfying combination: Tomato and Basil Bruschetta. Here it is:

What You Need:

Tomatoes (4 nice plum ones, or a basket of the cherry variety)
Extra virgin olive oil (as much as you like, but you really only need a drizzle or three)
Sea salt (to taste)
Fresh basil (chopped)
Loaf of Italian bread cut into slices

What To Do:
First, fire up your broiler. Place your bread slices on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Place the cookie sheet with bread in the broiler and toast for about 1-2 minutes on each side (don’t forget to flip!). Make sure you keep an eye on the toasting process, because that broiler heats things up mighty fast, and I have pulled too many charred bread remains from its fire-y depths because I can’t seem to remember that I put them in there in the first place. But you are waaaaaay smarter. Let’s hope.

Chop up your tomatoes and put them in a bowl. Drizzle with a healthy dollop of olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt to taste, and decorate with chopped, fresh basil. It really must be fresh. I can’t stress that enough.

Once your toasts are toasted, line them up on a nice platter and using a spoon, heap generous amount of the tomato mixture on top of the toast. Serve immediately. Bene?

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Those of you following us on Twitter may have noticed frequent updates on my bread starter. You may have read this post where I detailed my grandiose plan to cultivate my own bread baking yeast for making a superior pizza dough…and for world domination. Pizza dough first, though.

So I began. I found some instructions on the web, including Slice’s Starter-Along blog series, and I commandeered a Tupperware container festooned with candy canes from my friend Stacey. I mixed my flour and water together and I waited.

….and waited…

And then stuff started to happen. Bubbles mostly. And then some foam. And then both! Take a look at the progress in the images below:

By photo #5, thinks looked like they were really cooking. Not only were there bubbles and foam throughout, but the consistency had changed. It was almost like it had been whipped – less cake-batter-like and more foamy throughout. Fascinating, no? Exactly.

Soliciting no professional opinions but my own (non)sense, I decided it was time to make bread. I harvested some of the yeast for pizza dough, and then another batch for some bread. The pizza dough needed to chill in the fridge for a few days and I was keen to see if this whole thing was going to work, so I jumped right into the bread making process.

Also, if you recall, it snowed about a million and two feet on Sunday the 26th of December into Monday the 27th, and I needed something to do between carrying my dog Toby out to the street to pee (he is too short to climb the snow drifts).

So I made the bread. I used this recipe. Let me just say I’ve made bread before. Quite successfully, thank you very much. But this was a miserable failure. I’m not blaming the recipe. I blame John. No, I’m kidding, he wasn’t even there! In hindsight, one of a few things went wrong:

1. My starter really wasn’t ready, even though I thought it was: the bread refused to rise.

2. I didn’t weigh my ingredients because I don’t have a kitchen scale, so the proportions were incorrect.

3. The planet alignment was all off that day, and I should really try this again when Neptune is in a more favorable house.

Even knowing that something was terribly wrong, I decided to put the non-risen bread in the oven anyway. What resulted was the densest, least attractive brick of a loaf of bread that I have ever seen. It was difficult to cut with a serrated knife. I could have hammered nails with it. The loaf was about 2″ high.

I began to laugh. A lot. And then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing because it wasn’t very good. How could it be?

HOWEVER! As I was failing miserably in the regular bread department, there was something happenin’ in the fridge with the pizza dough. Magic, that’s what.

Days later, as instructed by Slice’s recipe here, I removed my pizza dough from the fridge and it’s olive oil coated Ziploc bag. It was surprisingly easy to stretch out. And the cold from the refrigeration made it easier to handle. It even gave me the ability to stretch it a little thinner without breaking the dough.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. With unnecessary amounts of glee, I ran around the kitchen assembling sauce and collecting toppings (mozzarella cheese and basil). I fired up the ol’ oven and pizza stone and made this:

This is, hands down, the crispiest, tastiest crust I have ever managed. In addition to being crispy, the outer crust retained the characteristic chewiness of Neopolitan style pies. And there was flavor! Hot damn and hallelujah!

Why was the pizza dough a success and the sourdough loaf a failure? I have a few educated guesses:

1. Proper planet alignment.

2. The extended rise time of 48 hours (even slowed down due to refrigeration) was actually needed. My starter wasn’t broken, it was just slow! It needed some extra time.

3. The additional fermentation time also added flavor, because the yeast was hanging around for a longer period of time (2 days).

A few things to note:

While cold, oiled pizza dough is MUCH easier to handle and shape, it tends to stick to the pizza peel a bit more. I would recommend dusting the bottom of the dough with a little semolina flour and making sure you can easily slide it on and off the peel before assembling everything and then getting it stuck on there. Not that that happened to me or anything…

The cold dough took a bit longer to cook. This just makes sense, but I’m telling you anyway. You could always take your dough ball out of the fridge a few hours beforehand so you can bring it to room temperature. Either way, keep a sharp eye on things while they’re cooking.

Here are some detail photos:

A few other tips:

I used La Valle cherry tomatoes for the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar (as instructed by the most recent edition of Cooks Illustrated Magazine). I blended the tomatoes and vinegar in the food processor with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne (for fun). The red wine vinegar gave the sauce that kick that I have been trying to achieve for a while.

For cheese, I used mini mozzarella balls. I cut them in half so they melted into little blobs.

And don’t forget the FRESH BASIL!!!

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