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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee

A few highlights from a recent wonderful weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Highlight number one: our accommodations at the fabulous Chattanooga Choo-Choo. We arrived in Chattanooga about mid-evening on a Friday and had no trouble at all finding our way to the Choo-Choo. (What did we all do before GPS?) Checking in at the front desk located in the historic and beautiful Terminal Station was almost worth the entire trip. The magnificent dome, preserved in its pristine 1908 condition, is a must-see whether you're staying at the hotel or not. But do stay, because the fun is just beginning.

A few Internet “reviewers” made some negative comments about the Choo-Choo, mostly focused on the age of the place and its lack of modern amenities. Ignore them. If you want new, Chattanooga overflows with shiny new places. If you want luxurious, the city's got more than a few of those, too. But if you want unique and historic, there's only one Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

There are a couple of options to consider when staying at the Choo-Choo. One is the railroad cars. Actual vintage rail cars have been converted to modern hotel rooms with each car being divided into two rooms. Okay, so the amenities are not those of a downtown Hilton, but, hey, we're talking about a converted piece of antique railroad history here. Its clean and comfortable and as well-appointed as space allows.

Other accommodations can be found in one of the three “regular” hotel buildings that dot the property. We had a nice king room in Building #1 and it was a perfectly adequate room. No, it didn't have a mini-bar or a microfridge, but it was clean and it had a comfortable bed, a good TV, appropriate side furnishings, a nice tub and shower – all the things a decent room should have. I particularly liked the fact that the heat and air were controlled by a thermostat set in the wall rather than by a loud, clunky unit stuck in or under a window. Parking was adequate and convenient and we were lucky in that Building #1 has an indoor pool. The other two buildings have outdoor pools.

After settling in, we strolled the grounds. Wow! Try to picture an old-time train station platform with a beautiful garden running through it. There are tracks on two sides of the platform upon which the converted rail cars sit, but the remaining tracks have been replaced by gardens and gazebos and even a pond stocked with koi and populated by rather noisy frogs. Gas torches light the area at night, providing an ambiance that can be peaceful or quaint or romantic or almost anything your imagination wants it to be.

There are a number of eateries around the property. Two of them are contained in renovated dining cars. One is a fine-dining establishment and the other is a pizza place. I had to go for the pizza place and was not disappointed. The pizza was great and the price ridiculously cheap. I've paid more for less at chain pizza joints.

Exiting the air-conditioned pizza car into a muggy but pleasant evening, we window shopped some of the unique little stores until we found the ice cream shop. A nice completion of our evening meal.

As we continued our stroll, we came upon a pair of horse-drawn carriages. The driver of our carriage was friendly and informative and the ride itself was both fun and romantic. And reasonable, I might add, priced lower than similar rides I've taken in places like Atlanta, Charleston, and Austin.

Next morning we grabbed a quick bite – muffins and Danish – at a little coffee shop on the premises before embarking on our day in downtown Chattanooga. The city operates a wonderful little electric shuttle service in the downtown area. One terminal is right at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and the other is just steps away from the fabulous Tennessee Aquarium, our ultimate destination for the day.

It is just flatly amazing what the Aquarium has done to and for downtown Chattanooga. I first visited the place just a few weeks after it opened back in 1992. Let me tell you, when you came out of the Aquarium at that time, all you wanted to do was get safely to your car and get the hell out of the area. Not so anymore! The Aquarium has brought about a transformation to the Chattanooga downtown riverfront area for which there are simply no words. I might try “beautiful,” “exciting,” “vibrant,” or any of a number of other superlatives, but you really have to see it to believe it. And it's all the more stunning if you have a reference point from years ago.

The Aquarium itself, with its twin River Journey and Ocean Journey exhibits, is something that will take at least a half-day to properly experience. You can rush through in a couple of hours but don't. There's a reason the place is billed as “the highest rated aquarium in America” and is consistently cited as being “number one for guest satisfaction.” The River Journey building, housing the largest freshwater tank in the world, will take a little longer to tour than the newer, smaller Ocean Journey, but don't cheat yourself out of a minute. And the commodious plaza surrounding the facility is usually a pretty hopping place, too. There was a neat little street fair going on the day we visited and we spent some time shopping the vendors and enjoying the live music.

Two aspects of the Aquarium of which we did not take advantage this time were the IMAX theater and the River Gorge Explorer, the latter being a 70-passenger high-speed catamaran that cruises into Tennessee's “Grand Canyon,” the Tennessee River Gorge. We'll do both next time, though.

It's safe to say that the area surrounding the Aquarium could take days to properly explore. We didn't have days, so we just hit the highlights, one of which was the beautiful Tennessee Riverwalk, a thirteen mile path that parallels the Tennessee River from the Chickamauga Dam to the downtown area. We didn't traverse the whole thing, of course, but we did follow it for a short distance from the Aquarium up to the Walnut Street Bridge. Gotta go there, folks.

The Walnut Street Bridge is a truss bridge built in 1890 to span the river. The bridge, which has a rich history of its own, carried vehicular traffic up until 1978. After years of neglect and disuse, the structure was renovated, its asphalt surface replaced by wood planks, and it now serves as a popular pedestrian walkway linking downtown Chattanooga to Coolidge Park and its beautifully restored hand-carved wooden carousel. At 2,376 feet, it is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. Providing a dynamic view of the city by day and a romantic one at night, the Walnut Street Bridge is not to be missed.

Not far from the Riverwalk and the Bridge is the Bluff View Art District. Here, among the artistic treasures like the Hunter Museum of American Art, can be found some great culinary treasures. I speak in particular of Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria.

Once again, there were a few online naysayers who complained about wait times and such. Once again, ignore them. The place is worth the wait. Tony's came highly recommended by a couple of locals, including a desk clerk at the Choo-Choo. A local recommendation always scores points with me.

Located in a renovated Victorian carriage house on the appropriately named High Street, Tony's is a hidden treasure worth seeking out. Now, a tour guide in the downtown area commented that the city must be proud of the few parking spots they have judging from the prices they charge for them. Having ridden the shuttle into downtown, we wound up hoofing it up a hill that was totally inappropriate for an old fat guy and a woman in high heels. In so doing, of course, we worked up quite an appetite and were really looking forward to dinner.

Okay, the place doesn't do reservations and we had to wait to be seated. Twenty-five minutes. Whoopee! I've waited longer at Olive Gardens. And Olive Gardens don't have the wonderful terraces and beautiful views that Tony's has.

Once seated, we were well taken care of by a friendly and efficient waitstaff. And the food was fantastic. I have a thing that I do at new restaurants; I always try the simplest dish first to see how the kitchen does with the basics. If they screw up a plate of spaghetti marinara then I don't hold out much hope for anything else. Tony's most definitely knows how to handle the basics. The pasta fresca was perfectly al dente and the marinara fatta in casa was robust and flavorful. The acid to sweet balance was just right and the herbs and spices were beautifully balanced as well. The online dolt who complained that the sauce tasted “like it came out of a jar” has obviously never had sauce that didn't come out of a jar. The rich dill cream sauce that enrobed my wife's lobster ravioli was similarly tasty and delightful. We split a portion of decadent Italian cream cake, then headed back down the hill, fearing that if we tripped we would surely roll all the way to the bottom.

In short, Tony's was a delight and I will go back there every time I'm in Chattanooga.

After a fabulous dinner, we watched from the Walnut Street Bridge as fireworks filled the downtown skies and then caught the last shuttle back to the Choo-Choo to complete a wonderful day.

Following a great Sunday morning breakfast at the on-premises Garden Restaurant, we took a little twenty-minute tour of the property aboard a 1924-vintage trolley that had seen many years of service in New Orleans before being “retired” to the Choo-Choo complex. As was the case with everybody we met, the conductor was friendly and informative as he pointed out the various historic aspects of the old railroad yard.

Before leaving town we stopped by the Chattanooga Duck station in time to catch the noon duck. I will assume the reader understands that the ducks in question are WWII surplus amphibious vehicles rather than waterfowl. I had ridden a duck many years ago in Wisconsin Dells, but my wife had never had the experience. (We tried to board the ducks in Austin, Texas a few years ago, but were prevented from doing so by excessive flooding. Imagine. A duck being grounded by too much water!)

What a blast! The captain was absolutely marvelous. He was funny, entertaining, informative, laid back, energetic, friendly, authoritative – all at the same time! The splashdown from the city street into the water was exhilarating and the lazy cruise up and down the river – the boat tops out at about six miles per hour – was relaxing and enjoyable. It seemed we were the odd couple among a boatload of teenagers from an Alabama church, but absolutely everybody had a great time.

We left Chattanooga behind with the full realization that we had not even scratched the surface of all that was available to us in the Scenic City. We did not look at any of the Lookout Mountain attractions. We did not see Rock City as dozens of signs had advised us to do. Ruby Falls remained unexplored and we were disinclined to ride the Incline Railroad. And there was no way to fit the shopping mecca that is Hamilton Place Mall into our schedule. You really can't do it all in one weekend. All those attractions – and more – will have to wait for another time. And there will be another time.

In the meantime, here are some places to check out for more information on the Chattanooga attractions we explored. Go. See. Enjoy.

The Chattanooga Choo-Choo: http://www.choochoo.com
The Tennessee Aquarium: http://www.tnaqua.org
Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria: http://www.bluffviewartdistrict.com
Chattanooga Ducks: http://www.chattanoogaducks.com

Everything else: http://www.chattanoogafun.com/attractions

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