Category Archives: Travel Eats

Mac & Cheese – Ultimate Comfort Food

Comfort food. It means different things to different people.

I have a friend who thinks of fried chicken as comfort food. To be completely honest, she thinks of fried chicken, period. In her world, fried chicken is its own food group on the pyramid.

For me, macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Like most people, I grew up on the blue box of Kraft mac and cheese.

I’m all grown up now, and I want a better mac and cheese.

I found one at ZOOM in Park City, Utah.

It isn’t so gourmet that it loses the homey comfort of pasta bathed in cheese, but it’s gussied up enough to make the Kraft mac and cheese seem like child’s play.

I love the fat, ribbed shells, the gooey, herb-flecked cheese sauce, and the crunch from toasted bread crumbs.

I even found the recipe in a cookbook I bought. The book is called Park City Cooks: An Eclectic Collection of Park City Recipes.

All the proceeds from the cookbook go to The Peace House, a non-profit organization that provides education, shelter and support services to women who are victims of domestic violence.

The recipes are from members of the Park City community, and in the back of the book, there are a few recipes from the local restaurants, including this recipe from ZOOM.

ZOOM is owned by The Sundance Resort (Robert Redford’s remarkable property about 35 miles from Park City).

As I licked the plate clean, I thought to myself “I’d love to have that recipe.” And lo and behold, it appeared. I love when that happens.

Now you can have it, too.

ZOOM White Cheddar Mac & Cheese

from Park City Cooks

12 Servings

1-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs from crustless French bread
3/4 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 tablespoons butter, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups grated white cheddar cheese (about 1 pound)
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 pound macaroni

Mix the breadcrumbs, Asiago and paprika in a medium bowl.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir for three minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk, then the mustard and pepper.

Cook until thickened, stirring often, about 1o minutes. Stir in the cheddar and parsley.

(The topping and the sauce can be made 1 day ahead, stored separately. Cool the sauce slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Refrigerate the topping, too. Re-warm the sauce, stirring frequently and thinning with more milk if necessary before proceeding.)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 15″ X 10″ X 2″ glass baking dish.

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water until just tender, but firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain the macaroni well.

Return the macaroni to the drained pot; stir in the sauce. Season to taste with salt.

Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.

Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the crumbs are brown, about 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

ZOOM
Park City, Utah

Where to buy the Park City Cooks cookbook:
La Niche
(435) 649-2372

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When in Venice, Eat Here

No, no, not here. Although, it is fetching, isn’t it? At least from the outside. But sometimes, appearances aren’t what they seem.

The fabulous restaurant I’m about to share with you doesn’t look anything like the idyllic Venice trattoria pictured above.

From the outside, Il Ridotto is rather nondescript. I’d even call it plain.

The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” — even though we all do — should have run through my head. I almost skipped it because it didn’t look like the charming restaurant above.

Il Ridotto is near one of Venice’s main attractions, Piazza San Marco, but it’s not easy to find. (Frankly, nothing is easy to find — Venice is an exacerbating maze with more twists and turns than a Diane Mott Davidson novel.)

I wouldn’t have given Il Ridotto a second thought if not for my Twitter friend, Sharon Miro (@nicklemoon), who’d just been to Venice a couple of days before we arrived.

Sharon insisted we not miss Il Ridotto. I scribbled down the address and set off to have a look. I must have walked past it three times before I finally noticed it.

In hindsight, it was one of the best (of many great) meals across our 21-day Italian Affair.

What Il Ridotto lacks in “curb” appeal, it makes up for ten-fold by the charming interior and the exquisite food.

Il Ridotto is fine dining in a sleek, modern setting. (It reminded me of noca, one of the best restaurants in Phoenix and Frasca, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.)

Thoroughly Italian — yet it bears no resemblance to the old-school traditional Italian ristorante — Il Ridotto is nuovo Italian.

The  small, 14-seat restaurant positively glows at night.

Il Ridotto doesn’t open until 7:30 p.m., but the chef graciously opened at 7 p.m. for a couple of hungry Americans, and for half an hour, we had the whole place to ourselves.

By the time we left, every seat was full, while a flock of foodies waited patiently outside.

When faced with a choice between navigating a several-pages menu versus a chef’s tasting menu, go with the latter. Especially at Il Ridotto.

The tasting menu reads “menu of land and of sea / light, beautiful, good / four plates / 50 Euro.

That’s it. No course descriptions. That’s because the chef, Gianni Bonaccorsi, a tall, thin, bespectacled man, comes to the table to discuss the menu. His halting English is charming, and he surprised me with his gracious manner. He apologized profusely for not being fluent. I assure you, that is not the norm in most Italian eateries, fine dining or otherwise.

Using English peppered with Italian and lots of hand gestures, he said that he’d received some beautiful frutti di mare that morning, and would we be happy if he just sent out dishes? Who are we to argue with such a kind, stately chef?

We both started with an amuse: two succulent shrimp on top of a sweet-sour caponata.

The chef and one server manage all 14 seats. I’m not used to plates personally delivered by the chef, but I think I could get used to it, especially if the chef is as engaging as Bonaccorsi.

Bonaccorsi had two cooks in the tiny galley kitchen tucked behind a mirrored wall, but every course we had was personally delivered by the chef, with a dissertation on the composition of the dish. (He had no idea I am a food writer, and throughout the evening he delivered most courses to the other diners as well.)

Because there were two of us, the chef made sure that we sampled different dishes with each course.

The first course was a white asparagus puree surrounding a mound of burrata and garnished with sauteed green asparagus, crisp croutons and a drizzle of olive oil and aged balsamic.

And the other, an eye-popping vision of the sea with lobster, mussels, clams, cuttlefish and canocce, swimming in a pool of silky potato puree.

Canocce is an interesting sea creature. It has very little meat — it’s mostly exoskeleton. I saw the finger-shaped crustacean in several seafood markets, and first tasted it in a trattoria in Bologna, where it was chopped it into pieces and cooked in a Marsala cream sauce. But it was difficult to eat with the shell on. When I inquired how to eat it, the server mimicked Tom Hanks in the movie Big, gnawing on baby corn.

At Il Ridotto, Bonaccorsi shelled it whole (a difficult, time-consuming thing to do), leaving the head and tail intact. The taste and texture was a cross between lobster and crawfish.

Moving to the second course, we tasted a lobster stock risotto studded with cuttlefish and garnished with squid ink powder. The dish, like most dishes in Italy, was finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a trick I’ve since incorporated into my own cooking.

We also tasted handmade ravioli, stuffed with wild herbs and ricotta and garnished with clams and mussels. The three fat pillows would have been a substantial meal on their own.

Our third courses were equally filling, although a mushroom topped sea bass was lighter than the other third course.

Two baby squids stuffed with potato and zucchini, with a salsa of sweet red peppers and green peppers, were garnished with tiny clams. The squid was a pleasant chewy counter point to the soft potato filling.

At this point, I didn’t think I could eat another bite but that’s before I saw the desserts. First up was a deconstructed tiramisu, served in a glass with a heavy dusting of rich, dark cocoa. The Marsala flavored mascarpone cream must have contained a dozen egg yolks, it was so rich and golden.

But it was the last dessert that wowed me. Maybe because it was so simple or maybe because I’m crazy about pistachios. The pistachio cake, obviously baked in a mold, was crunchy on the outside, and dense, moist and rich on the inside. The batter probably contained both ground pistachios and chopped pistachios — it was the very essence of the pistachio nut. The gelato tasted of rich vanilla — egg-rich French vanilla — and had plenty of texture from the chopped, roasted pistachios.

With the exception of the storefront, nothing about Il Ridotto was understated, yet nothing was over-the-top flashy, either. No molecular gastronomy, no bells and whistles, just beautifully crafted dishes with ingredients that tasted fresh-plucked from the ground and sea, served by a humble chef in a chic, elegant setting. In a word? Squisito.

Il Ridotto
Campo San Filippo e Giacomo 4509
Venice, Italy

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A Temporary Vegetarian

I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I’m eschewing meat. On purpose.

There is no ulterior motive, and no need to get alarmed — it’s only temporary. How hard can it be?

Blame it on my working vacation in a mountain town filled with fit granola heads, and restaurants with plenty of menu space dedicated to veg-heads.

And I don’t have to review a single one of them, so I can order what I want, like a bowl of yellow curry with tofu and mushrooms at Squatters Brew Pub.

Blame it on my temporary housing, in the home of a lovely vegetarian, who has a pantry stocked with grains, beans, and nuts, and shelves stuffed with vegetarian cookbooks. (That’s her own cookbook in the middle, the blue Chocolate Snowball.)

The surprising thing about eating strictly vegetarian, to me anyway, is that it’s just not that hard. A piece of cake.

Breakfast has always been an easy meal to drop the meat, what with all the oatmeal and egg options, including one of my favorites, huevos rancheros from Loco Lizard — not to mention the smoothie kick I’ve been on lately.

Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, always seemed like meat meals to me.

But I’m finding I don’t have to struggle find something appealing without meat, like a juicy avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich with smoked Gouda from The Back Door Deli.

Of course, this — like all fairy tales — will come to an end.

Because at the end of the day, I’m a bacon-loving, steak-eating girl. Life without meat just doesn’t sit right in the saddle for me.

Maybe that’s why my temporarily vegetarian mouth and my permanent carnivorous brain had a failure to communicate just two weeks into this little experiment.

You see, I ordered a bowl of French Onion Soup at The Foundry Grill at Sundance Resort without blinking an eye. Delicious, caramelized onion soup with a toasted crostini and melted Gruyere — vegetarian, right? Wrong.

I had reached a turning point:

I could drop the charade and return to my flesh-eating ways, or I could dust myself off, wiped the sherry-drenched, rich veal stock off my chin, and climb back on the vegetarian horse.

In the end, I chose the latter (right after I drained the soup bowl) and, for now, I’m back on the veg-train with another week to go.

But I was wrong about one thing.

Giving up meat is lot harder than I thought, after all. It’s not a piece of cake (and I probably couldn’t give up cake for very long, either.)

How about you? Have you ever given up meat? Did you stick with it, or revert back to your old ways?

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Gelato in Italy

If there is a pizzeria on every corner in every town in Italy — and it seems there is — then there are two gelaterias on the opposite corners.

It’s widely known that Italy has some of the best ice cream in all the world, and even though it’s called gelato, and it’s made differently than the ice cream in the States, Italian gelato really is something special.

But unlike the pizzerias, where nearly every pie is perfection, not all gelaterias in Italy are turning out the same quality of frozen fare.

If you pass by a gelato shop that displays gelato flavors in Marge Simpson styled coifs, keep walking.

Because odds are that the next shop won’t be about the window dressing.  It’ll be about the flavor and texture, looks be damned.

Here’s a look at those kinds of gelaterias in Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Manarola and Bologna:

FLORENCE: Vivoli Il Gelato isn’t easy to find, tucked on a back street near the Piazza Santa Croce. But it should be on any serious gelato-lover’s radar.

Vivoli can’t keep their bins full, and although most of the flavors are traditional — cream, vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, stracciatella — they’re all sublime, rich and creamy.

Not all gelaterias have rich and creamy gelatos.

Some focus on the Sicilian style of gelato, which doesn’t contain eggs.

Places like Florence’s Gelateria Carabe’, just a short walk from the Galleria dell’Accademia and Michelangelo’s David, which of course you will go see.

And you should go taste Carabe’s Sicilian style gelato, because what it lacks in richness from the absence of eggs, it makes up for in the fresh fruit flavors and sweet cream.

SIENA: You’ll find plenty of Marge Simpson coifs in Siena, but you’ll also find a serious gelateria (below) on the Piazza Il Campo, which has one of the deepest, darkest chocolate gelatos I found.

Every shop offers a wide variety of cones, some made on premise, or maybe you’ll expend all your carb calories on the gelato itself by choosing a cup instead of a cone.

Whichever delivery vehicle you choose, don’t choose just one flavor. Even in a small cup, three flavors can happily co-exist and you’ll get to experience a wider variety of flavors.

SAN GIMIGNANO: One of the most quaint, hilltop Tuscan towns northwest of Siena, San Gimignano, is home to a Gelato World Champion gelateria, called Gelateria di Piazza. (Pluripremiata means winning.)

No matter what time of day, there is a line out the door at Gelateria di Piazza, even though there are a handful of other gelaterias within eyesight.

Gelateria di Piazza makes plenty of traditional flavors, but you’ll also be tempted by more unusual flavors like rosemary scented raspberry and Gorgonzola with walnuts.

MANAROLA: Among the five seaside towns that comprise Cinque Terre on the western coast of Italy, the town of Manarola has the best gelateria, a tiny shop called Gelateria 5 Terre.

Traditional hazelnut and pistachio are the best selling flavors at 5 Terre, but my absolute favorite was a caramelized fig and shortbread studded gelato, made with mascarpone. (pictured below, top middle).

BOLOGNA: As much as I adored the Manarola gelateria, my absolute favorite shop was in Bologna, called Il Gelatauro.

It wasn’t just the charming interior, or the Slow Food certificate hanging on the wall, or the fact that this gelateria also makes amazing chocolates and cookies.

It was the gelato. The silkiest, creamiest, most delicious gelato in all of Italy — or at least among the 15 to 20 shops I visited.

It was the roasted pistachio gelato, made from pistachios from Bronte in Sicily.

Or maybe it was the delicately flavored gelato made with bergamot and jasmine.

Yes, Italian gelato really is special.

Maybe it’s because of the slightly lower fat content, a result of a higher ratio of whole milk to cream.

Maybe it’s because of the melt-on-your-tongue texture, a result of a slower churning method, reducing the amount of air whipped into the gelato vs. American ice cream.

Maybe it’s because Italian gelato is served a few degrees warmer than ice cream, which makes the flavors burst through easier.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the experience of being in Italy, swirling a spoonful of silky gelato on your tongue, soaking up la bella vita.

Florence:
Vivoli Il Gelato
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7
Gelateria Carabe’
Via Ricasoli, 60
Siena:
Bar Il Camerlengo
Piazza Il Campo, 6
Manarola:
5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia
Via Antonio Discovolo, 248
San Gimignano:
Gelateria di Piazza
Piazza della Cisterna, 4
Bologna:
Il Gelatauro
Via San Vitale, 98/B

(If I’ve left off your favorite gelateria in Italy, please share it with us, and tell us why you love it.)

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Phoenix Files – The Cafe at MIM

Culturally speaking, Phoenix became much richer on April 24, with the opening of MIM, the world’s first global musical museum, a 190,000 square-foot, two-story complex featuring more than 10,000 instruments and associated objects.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the barely 3-month old museum is the bright and airy café located off the main wing.

And here’s another secret: you don’t have to purchase an admission ticket to eat in the café.

All you have to do is stop at the admissions desk and ask for a pass for the café.

Café might be a misnomer, as the set up is cafeteria-style, although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cafeteria — or typical museum café for that matter.

The café is operated by Bon Appétit Management company, and the kitchen is run by Edward Farrow, a chef with serious credentials including the River Café in New York, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Kai, Arizona’s only 5-Diamond restaurant.

While the setting seems like a cafeteria — shuffling through a food line, paying at a register at the end, and eventually, placing your tray on a conveyor belt headed for the dishwasher — the cuisine tells a different story.

The menu is driven by Bon Appetit’s “Circle of Responsibility” philosophy. Crafted — and subsequently labeled — with identifiers like “Organic,” “Vegetarian,” “Gluten Free,” Low Fat,” and “Farm to Fork.”

The Farm to Fork label means the ingredients are locally sourced, and Chef Farrow is on speed dial with local producers like Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Meat Shop, Fossil Creek Creamery, and Seacat Gardens.

The menu features a weekly soup and another that changes every two days ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl), just like the global special ($8.25), a personal-size pizza ($7.25), an AZ local special ($8.25), and a grill special ($8.25).

The global dish might be a braised rabbit panni, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and havarti, served with a bowl of Mediterranean olives. (pictured above)

There are weekly deli sandwiches and burgers — beef, turkey and veggie — and even a hot dog.

House made potato chips ($1.75) with sea salt are made fresh daily.

Theoretically, you could eat here every day and never have the same dish twice.

The grill special could be a fine piece of halibut, rubbed with a sweet chile glaze, seared to just done, and served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black, forbidden rice topped with pine nuts and sunflower seeds. (pictured below)

Did I mention it was only $8.25?

The Café at MIM makes all their desserts in-house, and they change frequently, too, like a cherry chocolate cream tart, a marble cake parfait and a Sonoran lemon cake, all $4.50.

For $6, there’s a local cheese plate, with cheese, flat bread, fig and date cake, and honey.

Could this little gem be one of the best lunch spots in the Valley? Maybe. It certainly exceeds the quality vs. price ratio.

And it couldn’t be easier to get to, located just one block south of the 101 off Tatum Boulevard.

On second thought, maybe we should just keep this little secret between us.

Café at the MIM
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
480-478-6000
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily

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Florence’s Mercato Centrale

Most tourists make a bee-line to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see The David the minute they arrive in Florence, Italy.

Not me. I had my eye on another Tuscan treasure just a few blocks away.

I did rendezvous with Michelangelo’s masterpiece — and it was spectacular — it just wasn’t the first thing on my agenda.

A food market was my top priority.

The Mercato Centrale (Central Market), a masterpiece in its own right, is a massive, two-story warehouse off the Piazza San Lorenzo with a very unassuming entrance.

Florence Mercato Centrale Entrance

Once inside, it feels like bustling Disneyland for food lovers, with stall after stall of all things food.

Like any good market worth its salt, it has prepared food stalls, too, so you can fill up before wandering the aisles.

At one point, the top floor was reserved for fresh produce and dry goods, and the lower level was filled with butchers and fishmongers.

When I visited the market, the upstairs was roped off, and all vendors were located on the 1st floor, with an adjoining, tent-covered parking lot with even more fresh vegetables.

What kinds of stalls will you find cruising the aisles?

You’ll find cheesemongers who sell wine and olive oil.

And charcuterie purveyors who sell cheese.

There are butchers who specialize in poultry. Some with the heads…

And some without.

There are butchers who’ll cut to order that most famous Tuscan beef steak — Bistecca alla Fiorentina — from the white Chianina cattle breed (pronounced kee-a-nee-na).

And then there are offal purveyors — lots of offal purveyors. Tripe seems to be the most popular, and Florence is also known for lampredotto, stewed tripe sandwich, with the crusty bread dipped into the herb and garlic braising liquid just before serving.

I’ll be perfectly honest. Munching on cow stomach at 9 a.m. was not on my agenda. I just couldn’t stomach it. A caffé macchiato and a cornetto pastry were much more my style.

If oogling tripe and chicken heads proves too much to bear, wend your way to the colorful and tame dried fruits and nuts stalls.

Or erase the memories of blood and guts by soaking up views of gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of the best ways to experience the market is with a knowledgeable guide who speaks Italian, so you can ask the vendors questions.

Divina Cucina, aka Judy Witts Francini, is an American-born chef and cooking instructor who moved to Florence in 1984, and fell in love with both the city and a local man whom she married.

Judy has intimate knowledge of the central market, and conducts a Monday-at-the Market tour each week.

Visit her site (link below) to learn more about her tours and cooking classes.

Or you can wander aimlessly, as I did, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of one of Europe’s largest indoor food markets.

Mercato Centrale
Piazza San Lorenzo
Florence, Italy

Divina Cucina
Cooking classes, market tours
Florence and Chianti

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Pizza in Italy

I always thought pizza was an American invention, even though I knew it had roots in Italy, like the hamburger had roots in Germany, and chop suey had roots in…well, maybe that last one truly is an American invention, with apologies to the Chinese.

Researching the origins of pizza, it’s likely the Italians learned the technique from the Greeks, who may have learned from their arch-enemy, the Etruscans.

Early versions of pizza had neither cheese nor tomatoes. Kind of makes you wonder why they even bothered, but every culture has some type of flatbread that’s topped with available ingredients. Fortunately for us, the Italian version evolved into something splendid.

After the tomato was discovered in the New World, it still took a couple hundred years before the Italians decided that the fruit wasn’t poisonous and that it tasted pretty good on top of their pizza.

Two hundred years after that, cheese was added to the tomato and basil pie, to replicate the colors of the Italian flag in honor of Queen Margherita, hence the most famous pizza of all, the Margherita, was born.

I live in a town proclaimed to have THE best pizza in the countryPizzeria Bianco.

It’s true, until I traveled to Italy recently, I had not tasted a finer pie than the Wiseguy at Bianco’s.

But pizza-hopping through Italy, I realized that the reason Bianco’s pizza is so worthy of its accolades is because it embodies its Italian predecessor — simple ingredients and artisan dough.

That’s not to say that all pizzas in Italy are created equal. They’re not.

I tasted plank pizzas with thin, cracker-like crusts in Rome.

And round, wood-fired pies in Florence, Bologna and Venice.

I ate pizzas topped with eggs and spinach.

And thin crusted pizzas baked in deck ovens, with only a smear of tomato and onions.

And pizzas topped with fresh mozzarella only after leaving flame-licked ovens.

The thing that struck me the most — and this is true of all my dining adventures in Italy — is that I never ran across a bad pizza.

Not even a mediocre one.

It’s far too easy to get a bad pizza in the States.

I can think of a number of franchised chains that turn out a pie they should be ashamed to serve. Why is that?

Of course we do have great pizza here, too, and Bianco’s certainly tops that list.

If you stop and think about where the best pizza in the States comes from, I bet you’ll find that it’s from a small, independent pizzeria, with some sort of Italian connection.

Favorite Italian Pizzerias

Florence: Yellow Bar, Via Del Proconsolo N 39R

Bologna: Nicola’s Pizzeria Ristorante, 9 Piazza San Martino

Venice: Aciugheta, Campo San Filippo, 4357 E Giacomo Castello

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