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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.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

April (2012) Fun Food Holidays

I could start out by saying April has been declared National Pink Slime Month, but that would be going too far even for an April Fool joke. However, I will tell you about a great prank I heard about: a bunch of high school kids rounded up three chickens, hung the numbers 1, 2, and 4 on them, and turned them loose in the school. Administrators went nuts looking for chicken number three.

Of course, Easter dominates as the major food holiday this month. Regardless of whether it falls in March or April, Easter Sunday is recognized as National Baked Ham with Pineapple Day. And how many things can you think of to do with boiled eggs? But there are lots of other fun foodie days in April. For instance, month-long recognition goes to soft pretzels, garlic, Florida tomatoes, and grilled cheese. Of course, I celebrate these things every month, but this month it's official.

Also official in April, National Bake Week begins on April 1st and, speaking of things to do with boiled eggs, the second week in April is National Egg Salad Week.

April 1 is also National Sourdough Bread Day, a great way to kick off Grilled Cheese Month, I must say.

April 2 is dedicated to the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which, I suppose, you could also make on sourdough bread if you had any left over from the previous day.

A little chocolate mousse is always a good thing, but it's even better on it's own official holiday, April 3.

Grab a chicken, some ham, some cheese and go to town for National Cordon Bleu Day on April 4.

Take your pick; you can either celebrate National Caramel Day or National Raisin and Spice Bar Day on April 5. Okay, I guess you could celebrate both.

Pour some of that leftover caramel on popcorn for National Caramel Popcorn Day, April 6.

The 7th is Coffee Cake Day and if you're not doing baked ham and pineapple for Easter, you could always go for an empanada on April 8, National Empanada Day.

Chinese almond cookies take the day on April 9, the 10th is reserved for cinnamon crescents (or croissants), and the 11th belongs to cheese fondue.

Wonder Bread and Kraft American Cheese Slices are the order of the day on the 12th, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day. It's also National Licorice Day, but as much as I like the two separately, I can't quite imagine them together.

Peach cobbler is the star on April 13 and pecans have their day on the 14th.

If you didn't do an Easter ham on the 8th, it's okay. You can redeem yourself on April 15, National Glazed Spiral Ham Day.

Eggs Benedict and mushrooms share the day on April 16. Hmmm.....mushrooms on Eggs Benedict?

It's National Cheeseball Day on the 17th. Coincidentally, it's also Healthy Kids Day. Hmmmm...

Believe it or not, animal crackers have an official birthday. It's April 18th. When I was a kid, I always bit the heads off first.

Speaking of heads, National Garlic Day falls on the 19th, as does National Amaretto Day. Two Italian staples that should probably not be celebrated jointly.

Nor should pineapple upside-down cake and lima beans, but they are both assigned the same holiday on April 20. (Actually, it's Lima Bean RESPECT Day. Cue Aretha Franklin.)

Chocolate-covered cashew truffles get a day all to themselves on the 21st.

April 22 is National Jelly Bean Day. It's also Earth Day this year. No connection. Just sayin'.

Now, cherry-cheesecake and picnics could be connected, I suppose. They share the day on April 23.

The 24th belongs to pigs-in-a-blanket and the 25th to zucchini bread.

Pretzels are prime on April 26, National Pretzel Day.

Give it up for prime rib on the 27th, followed by kudos for blueberry pie on the 28th.

Shrimp scampi is the speciale del giorno on April 29th and raisins rule on April 30.

Stick around to see if April food showers bring May food flowers!

Buon appetito!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How To Order Like An Italian In An Italian Restaurant

Everybody loves Italian food. It remains at the top of the pyramid as the most popular “foreign” cuisine in America. The biggest drawback most people have when ordering Italian food is pronunciation.

Italian is one of the most lyrical, romantic languages in the world. As written by the 13th century “Father of the Italian Language,” Dante Alighieri, it is the language of art, music – and food. But English-speakers have always had a hard time with Italian words. I don't know why. Italian is just not that difficult. But as far back as the early twentieth century, Italian chef Ettore Boiardi had to spell his name in phonetic English – “boy-AR-dee” – in order to keep Americans from mangling it.

Oddly enough, some of the worst manglers are Italian-Americans. There are reasons for that. When Italian immigrants arrived on American shores, many were desperate to “fit in,” to “be American.” Many “Americanized” their names and “Americanized” their language. This was especially true during World War II, when Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany caused anti-Italian sentiments to run high in the U.S. As a result, a lot of Italian words were altered to sound more American. Regional dialects also played a part. “Italian” is actually based on the Tuscan dialect, but other regions often pronounce words differently. And then there's just general linguistic laziness. People in the Italian-American enclaves of New York, New Jersey, and South Philadelphia are especially guilty of abbreviating and desecrating pure Italian with words like “pro-SHOOT” in place of prosciutto, “mahtz-a-RELL” instead of mozzarella and for turning a masculine Italian name like Mario (MAH-ree-oh) into something that sounds more like a female horse, “MARE-ee-oh.”

Some people might think you are being pretentious when you try to “sound Italian” in an Italian restaurant. I disagree. There is no pretension in being correct. In my opinion – an opinion shared by most language experts – when a “foreign” word is introduced into a language, the correct pronunciation of that word is the pronunciation afforded it in its original tongue. It's a matter of “when you make up words, you can say 'em your way; when I make up words, you say 'em my way.”

The French will slap you down for the slightest improper inflection of their language. Italians? Not so much. Oh, they'll cringe, but they won't complain. I, however, being a prig and a purist, will. Therefore, permit me to offer a brief vocabulary lesson in the proper pronunciation of Italian foodstuffs.

Unlike English, Italian is a phonetic language. You say it like you see it. That makes it easy because there are no crazy letter combinations. No “eight” that sounds like “ate.” No “knights” and “nights.” No silent “e”s. There are five vowels. Each has one or two simple sounds: “A” sounds like the “a” in “car” – it's an “ah” sound; “E” has two sounds, one like the “e” in “men” and the other like the “ay” in “hay”; “I” is always sounded like “ee”; “O” also has two sounds, “oh” as in “coat” and “aw” as in “frost”; and “U” is always sounded as “oo.” That's it.

There are a few rules regarding consonants. For instance, the “r” is always rolled. The “ch” combination is a hard “k” sound, as in “chianti.” The same sound is produced when “c” precedes “a”, “o”, or “u”. The letter “c” followed by an “e” or an “i” produces a “ch” sound, as in “church.” A “g” followed by “a”, “o,” or “u” has a hard sound, as in “good.” When followed by an “e” or and “i,” it produces a soft sound, like the “j” in “job.” The “gn” combination is sounded like the “ny” in “canyon.” The “gia” combination is tricky; Italians pronounce each letter, but they do so very quickly. It comes out sounding like “jyah.” It's never “JEE-ah.” Giada De Laurentiis is “JYAH-dah” not “jee-AH-dah” and Gianni Versace is “JYAH-nee” rather than “jee-AH-nee.” It's harder to write it than it is to say it.

“H” is the only silent letter in the Italian language.

One more consonant rule: In English, double consonants are lumped together and sounded as one. In Italian, you separate them. One consonant ends a syllable and the other begins the next. Not in an exaggerated way, but still very distinctly. You'll see the importance of this later.

English-speakers pluralize words by tacking an “s” onto the end. And since that's the way it's done in English, that must be the way everybody does it, right? Not really. When you see the word “paninis” on a sign or menu, you're looking at a made up word. You can have a panino if you would like just one sandwich or if you want more than one you can have panini. No “s”. Same thing applies to any word that ends in “i.” It's already plural. Cannelloni, ravioli, tortellini, cannoli, etc. Adding an “s” to such words does not make them plural, it just makes them wrong. In America, such errors have become accepted through common usage, but “I'll have a panini” or “I'd like two paninis” is still bad Italian.

Another peculiar peccadillo involves any word that ends in “e.” Perhaps because there are so many “silent e” word endings in English, English-speakers seem to have an aversion to pronouncing the “e” at the end of any word. But remember, Italian is phonetic. The “e” is meant to be sounded. A calzone, for example, is correctly pronounced “kahl-ZAW-nay.” “KAL-zone” or “kal-ZONE” is incorrect.

One big minefield for mispronunciation is Italian cheeses. I once asked the “sandwich artist” at a national chain place for a slice of provolone on my sandwich. Of course, I said, “proh-voh-LOH-nay.” She said, “Oh, you mean “PRO-vuh-lone?” No, dear, I meant exactly what I said, thank you.

Mascarpone drives me wild. It's not “MASS-kar-pohn.” It's “Mahs-kar-POH-nay.” And despite what some TV chefs constantly say, it's most definitely not “MARS-kuh-pone.” Look at the word. “Mascarpone.” There's no “r” before the “s.”

Mozzarella and ricotta are delicious cheeses. And they sound delicious when correctly pronounced. “Mohts-sah-RAYL-lah” and “ree-KAWT-tah” sound yummy. “Mahtz-uh-RELLA” and “ruh-KOTTA” just sound unappetizing.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is pronounced “par-mee-JYAH-noh rej-JYAH-noh” not “par-ma-gee-AH-no reg-ee-AH-no” as Americans say it. And if you just say “parmesan,” that's okay, but it's “PAR-mee-zahn,” not “parma-john” or “parma-zhan,” or “par-mee-zee-an” or any of a dozen other variations.

Other commonly mutilated Italian food words include:

Biscotti: Americans tend to flatten this word out – “bis-KOT-ee.” “Bee-SKAWT-tee” is correct. “Bee-SKOHT-tee,” is pretty close. “Bis-KOT-ee” is not even in the ballpark.

Bolognese: Regarding that wonderful meat sauce from Bologna, remember the “gn” and the final “e”. “Bolognese” does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It's “boh-loh-NYAY-seh,” not “BO-luh-naze” or “bo-luh-NAZE.”

Braciole; This is one of those dialect things. In Sicily – and, by extension, Sicilian neighborhoods in the US – this beef dish is pronounced “brah-ZHOOL.” Sort of. Anywhere else in Italy, it's “brah-chee-OH-leh.”

Bruschetta: It gets way under my skin when I hear someone ask for “broo-SHET-uh.” It gets even further under my skin when a server offers “broo-SHET-uh.” I have crawled many a waiter or waitress for that transgression. The word comes from “bruscare” and is pronounced “broo-SKAYT-tah.” Even “broo-SKET-tah,” would be okay. But “broo-SHET-uh” is just annoyingly wrong. Think of it this way; do you send your kids to SHOOL?

Caprese: Capri is an island off the coast of Italy. It is properly pronounced “KAH-pree” rather than “kuh-PREE.” “Kuh-PREE” has something to do with women's pants. Anyway, cuisine from the island is correctly pronounced as “kah-PRAY-say” rather than “kuh-PREES.”

Espresso: I don't know where anybody sees an “x” in that word. “Es-PREHS-soh is correct. “Expresso” must be the instant or “express” version of Italian coffee.

Gnocchi: One of those tricky words. It's got the “gn”, the “o”, a double consonant, and a “ch” to deal with. The proper pronunciation is “NYAWK-kee.” As long as you use the “ny” sound at the beginning, you can probably get by with cheating a long vowel sound – “NYOAK-kee.” However, any variation of “NOH-kee” is badly incorrect.

Marinara: This one has the old “fingernails on a blackboard” effect on me. Even more so than “broo-SHET-uh.” Scads of Americans order “mare-uh-NARE-uh” all the time. Aaarrrggg! What they should be ordering is “mah-ree-NAH-rah.” That other ugly abomination is just a butchery of the language.

Pancetta: I actually heard an Italian-American restaurateur talking about “pan-SET-uh” on national TV. Buddy, either learn to say “pahn-CHEHT-tah” or go open a hot dog stand.

Pasta: If you hear someone say “PASS-tuh,” he probably orders “TACK-ohs” in Mexican restaurants. He could be British. The Brits make worse Italians than Americans do. Which is just weird because they also say “toh-MAH-toh.” Anyway, even in London, “PAHS-tah” is correct. “PASS-tuh” is not.

And then there are the various kinds of pasta. Americans hopelessly twist pasta names like spaghetti, tagliatelle, fettuccine and others. Instead of “spah-GEHT-tee,” “tah-glee-ah-TAYL-lay,” and “feht-too-CHEEN-nay,” you get “spuh-GET-ee,” “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee,” and “fet-uh-CHEE-nee” every time. Even my food hero Alton Brown is guilty of “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee.” E tu, Alton? And have you ever ordered a male body part for dinner? You have if you've ordered “PEN-eh” pasta. This is one of those words where the separation of the double consonant is really important. “Penne” is pronounced “PAYN-nay.” or even “PEHN-neh.” Hit that brief separation or you come away sounding like you're asking for pene, the aforementioned body part. Also,“penne” is not a homophone for a copper coin. “Penny pasta” might be a good price for the dish, but it's lousy pronunciation.

Pasta fagioli: If the stars make-a you drool like-a “pasta fazool,” that's a-wrong-o. It's pasta fah-JYOH-lee. If you order “pasta fazool” in New York, they'll give you a bean dish. If you order it in Italy, they'll give you a funny look.

Risotto: When it comes to pronunciation fits, this creamy, delicious rice dish falls into the same category as biscotti and gnocchi. It's “ree-SAWT-toh,” or even “ree-SOHT-toh.” But there is definitely no “z” sound. It's not “rizz-OH-toh.” And while some English-speakers can get the hang of rolling their “r”s – Scots do it quite well – most Americans just can't manage it. So as long as you're not putting some weird buzzing sound in the middle of the word, you can get a break on the “r.”

Americans have gotten a bad rep all over the world because we always expect people in other countries to do things our way. The “right” way. The American way. Which means, of course, everybody should speak our language. But people in other cultures really do appreciate it when you respect them enough to at least attempt their way of speaking.

Not long ago, I was being assisted by a Japanese clerk in a big chain department store. She spoke English well enough, but with a very heavy accent. When I thanked her by saying “domo arigato,” she positively beamed with happiness. I had made her day with one appropriate phrase in her language.

So how about it? Are you ready to be a “goodwill ambassador” to your favorite Italian restaurant? With a little practice, it's easy to pick up a few food words. And it's a great way to impress your friends without having to lay out a week's pay for a copy of Rosetta Stone.

Buon appetito e buon pronuncia!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hey, Man! You Want a Vasectomy With That Pizza?

I am a great believer that pizza goes with everything and everything goes with pizza. A little salad, a little bruschetta or American garlic bread – especially the cheesy kind – a little wine or a nice, cold beer. What could be better?

How about a vasectomy?

With “March Madness” upon us and a lot of guys looking for a good deal on some gameday pizza, Urology Associates of Cape Cod (Massachusetts) has teamed up with Surf's Up Pizza & Seafood to offer a unique “buy one, get one free” special: purchase one vasectomy at regular price and get a free pizza.

It's a limited time proposition; when the NCAA basketball tournament's over, so is the BOGO deal. But in the meantime, the somewhat insouciant offer is being made in an attempt to raise awareness of the procedure. Evan Cohen, a practice coordinator for the urology group, says most men don't know a lot about vasectomy, which he dubs, “kind of a touchy subject.” “We're trying to make it light,” he says, “so it's easier to talk about.”

And besides, according to Cohen, it takes a day or two of recovery time after the ten-minute surgical procedure. Men are supposed to just kick back and avoid strenuous activity. So laying out on the couch watching basketball on TV and munching pizza is just what the doctor ordered, right?

Historically, the urology practice sees most if it's vasectomy patients in March, kind of a buffer month between the busy winter holidays and the active spring and summer outdoor season. And although vasectomy is definitely a manly affair, Cohen says it's usually women who make the appointments.

Excuse me, I've gotta get the door.

Honey, why is the pizza delivery guy wearing scrubs?”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Pink Slime" Is "Good For You" and "the Right Thing to Do"? Give Me a Break!

I brought up the “Pink Slime” topic awhile back when McDonald's “officially” announced they were going to stop using it. My question then was, “why did they ever start using it?”

Jamie Oliver made me aware of “Pink Slime” about a year ago on his short-lived Food Revolution program. (Isn't it odd that the show was canceled after Jamie started rattling too many cages?) I think he made a lot of people aware and I think that's at least a part of the reason for McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell deciding to eliminate it from their products. Oh, they won't admit that. McDonald's has some cockamamie corporate excuse about being “consistent with our global beef supply chain.” Whatever.

I mentioned, too, that “pink slime” sent me straight to the store for a meat grinder attachment for my KitchenAid. Not that I ever trusted those “economy” packages of ground beef at the grocery store – you know, the five-pound tubes all wrapped in opaque plastic – but after learning that “pink slime” is in about seventy percent of the ground beef sold in American supermarkets, I was more motivated than ever to either shop at my local butcher's or grind my own meats.

Now come two developments in the “slime” story that make me question our survival as a species. The first is the revelation that the USDA – the government agency allegedly responsible for the safety and nutritional value of our food supply – is buying seven million pounds of the crap to add to school lunches. These are the same people who recently dictated that a homemade turkey sandwich fell short of their nutritional “standards” for an elementary schooler, who was subsequently forced by the “cafeteria food police” to eat the approved “healthy” alternative – chicken nuggets.

The second sign of impending apocalypse comes from a mouthpiece for the American Meat Institute, who proclaims “pink slime” to be “the right thing to do.” And a PR flack for “slime” manufacturer Beef Products Inc. chimes in with the opinion that the stuff is actually good for your kiddies.

The rationale behind these mind-numbingly, jaw-droppingly inane statements is as follows: the AMI wants you to believe that they are being all green and fuzzy by promoting “pink slime” because the manufacturer is using every part of every animal it processes, thereby decreasing by millions the number of animals slaughtered and thus producing a leaner, cleaner, greener planet.

When you finish choking on that one, try swallowing BPI's marketing masterpiece: according to them, “Lean Finely Textured Beef,” the “proper” name for “pink slime,” is good for school lunches because it “increases the nutritional profile,” “increases the safety of the products,” and it helps schools make budget, thereby enabling them to keep feeding cheap crap to your kids. Well.....the spokesperson didn't say the last part quite that way, but that's the translation.

You gotta love somebody who can sell bikinis in Lapland. But remember, too, that there was a time not long ago when tobacco companies employed images of doctors puffing their favorite brands in an effort to market the “healthy” effects of smoking. So pardon me if I don't jump headlong onto the “pink slime” bandwagon just yet.

And if all those people who used to point and scream about the links between the Bush administration and the oil industry would now aim their little flashlights at the connections between the meat industry and the USDA, the results would be quite illuminating.

Of course, the USDA itself is not without an opinion. They weigh in with the statement that “all USDA beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety.”

Okay, so the totally objective and completely impervious to influence folks that the Fed employees to monitor our food tell us that “pink slime” is safe to eat. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, even though I have my reservations about the safety of scrap animal parts that used to be consigned to dog food miraculously being transformed by saturation with a gaseous form of ammonia. You know, the next time I pump out my septic tank I think I'll send a honey-wagon load to South Dakota and see what the chemical wizards at BPI can do for it. Who knows? It may led to a whole new “safe” food source.

No, the larger issue is just because we can eat something, should we? I mean, what's next? Soylent green burgers?

Don't listen to the Big Meat man flogging the “nutritional” properties of “LFTB.” There aren't any. It's filler, plain and simple. Meat extender. Something to take the place of something more expensive. Meat byproducts. Dressed-up dog food. You know the stuff the butcher cuts away from your steak or your roast? The fat, the gristle, the silver skin, the connective tissue that you don't really want on your plate? THAT'S what they're grinding up and trying to sell you as a product that will “increase the nutritional profile” of your kid's school lunch. They run those leavings – and others you don't want to consider – through a centrifuge to spin out the solids. Then they run it through an extruder and gas it. What comes out is something like pink beef Play-Doh or meat Jello. But, by God, it's safe! Even e coli doesn't want to eat the stuff.

I'm sure the screws got put to the slime salesmen after McDonald's and Burger King jumped ship. BPI's still in business so somebody's buying their product. Just like the tobacco companies ramped up their overseas marketing after doors began to close in America, the purveyors of “pink slime” will find an alternative outlet. Somebody with an underwhelming concern for quality and an overarching concern for the bottom line will buy it. Somebody like the federal government. Or maybe your local grocer.

On the heels of the increased interest in “pink slime,” ABC News did a little research into where “slime” is sold. They contacted the top ten grocery chains in the United States and asked about their “pink slime” policies.

Safeway says it relies on the federal government to help guide them on food safety issues. But to their credit, they also admitted that they are “reviewing” the “pink slime” matter.

Ahold USA, parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant stores, issued a rambling statement defending “pink slime” then told ABC News that their customers can basically choose between “slimed” and “non-slimed” beef products. Just ask any “meat associate” for assistance.

Costco, Publix, H-E-B, Whole Foods, Kroger, and Tops Markets have all firmly said “no” to the slime. The remaining stores did not respond to the network's e-mails.

I made a phone call and determined that Harris-Teeter meats are also slime-free.

I can easily avoid “pink slime.” As I said earlier, I'm fortunate enough to have a good old-fashioned butcher shop nearby. I haven't bought meat from a grocery store in a very long time. I also own a meat grinder. It's just my wife and me at home. My kids are beyond the reaches of the school lunch program and my grandkids aren't subject to it – yet.

If you have concerns about “pink slime” in your kids' school lunches (or in your grocer's meat case), voice them. Be the squeaky wheel. Don't worry, nobody's going to cancel you like they did Jamie Oliver. Call your school, call your grocer. Ask questions, demand answers. There are currently a number of “No Slime” petitions circulating online. Find one – or two or six – and add your name. I was going to provide a link, but there are a bunch of them out there. Just enter “pink slime petition” into your search engine and you'll see what I mean.

Worry not, trusting citizen. “Pink slime” is “safe” and “government approved.” Need I say more?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Recipe: Pasta Toscana

Recently, I was asked to cater a small event – an office birthday party for about fifteen guests. One of the guests was vegan. I was told that the young lady always felt left out at these events because everything served generally contained meat, dairy, or something else she couldn't eat. So I set about finding a dish to prepare that she and the other guests could enjoy. I settled on version of Pasta Toscana. It was a huge hit, even among the non-vegans. Of course, you can add meat and cheese if you like, but this recipe is pretty good as is. As they used to say in the old TV commercials, “Try it! You'll like it!”

PASTA TOSCANA

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (1 lb 8 oz) jar marinara sauce
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 (15 oz) can cannellini or white kidney beans, rinsed and drained
8 oz penne or ziti pasta (farfalle works, too)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning
Chopped fresh parsley (for garnish)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for garnish) *

*(obviously, you'll leave this out of a vegan version)

In a 12-inch skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add in the onions and cook until translucent, 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so to infuse flavor before adding in the mushrooms. Cook an additional 2 or 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add in the marinara sauce and the red pepper flakes. Raise heat to medium-high and bring to a low boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes. Add the beans and cook until heated through, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a 6-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, cook the pasta according to package directions until just short of al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and transfer it to the pan with the sauce. Cook for an additional minute or two, stirring gently to blend the pasta with the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley and cheese as desired.

Serves 4 – 6

Buon appetito!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Trouble With Urbanspoon and Other "Review" Sites

I say it right up front on my blog's homepage: “I'm entitled to my opinion – and so are you.”

That's supposed to be funny, but sometimes it's not. Such is the case when someone's opinion is so patently uninformed and deliberately malicious as to be hurtful or detrimental to others. And that's what happens all too frequently on social networking “review” sites like Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and the like.

Everybody has a right to their opinion. That goes without saying. What needs to be said, however, is whether or not the right exists to disseminate uneducated, fatuous, baseless opinions in a widely-read public forum upon which other people depend to determine a course of action.

The difference between a “professional” critic and a “citizen” critic is largely a matter of experience and education. Most people who write critques for a living have some modicum of training that enables them to do so. Not just training as wordsmiths, but trained eyes, or trained palates or some other skill or quality that sets them apart from the “average” viewer, diner, etc. who simply knows what he or she likes and doesn't like. Not that all pros are always right and all amateurs are always wrong, but in the final analysis, who are you going to trust to remove your appendix – a doctor or your neighbor's brother-in-law who is employed as a hospital janitor? Both work in the medical field, after all.

There are a lot of "Average Joes" that log on to these sites and make an honest attempt at rendering an objective opinion. But there are just as many disingenuous morons seeking their fifteen seconds of fame by having their names in print on something.

Let me illustrate my point with a specific instance. I don't often do this. In fact, I don't think I've ever directly addressed a specific single review on an Internet site. But this one is egregious enough that I have to say something about it.

There is a little Italian restaurant in a place called King, a tiny North Carolina town on the edge of the Triad communities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point. Appropriately, it's named “Little Italy.” Appropriate because A.) it's a fairly small establishment, and B.) it's run by an Italian family. Not an Italian-American family that's been in the United States for three or four generations. No. These folks are fresh from Monte di Procida, a little town near Naples. They have names like Giuseppe, Salvatore, Mimmo, and Luigi. They actually own four properties in the area; in King, Burlington, Welcome, and Rural Hall, with Rural Hall being the original location, established in 1999. And they've all been in the restaurant business for a long time before that, having opened other Italian eateries before starting the “Little Italy” brand. So is it safe to say they know something about Italian food? I would think so.

Now along comes an Urbanspoon contributor, who, under the headline “Do not waste your time or money” writes: “This is absolutely the worst Italian food I have ever had in my life. It was nothing but over priced boxed mixes with some chewy, obviously frozen bagged seafood on top. It literally disgusted me. If you value your hard earned money and your stomach I would keep on driving right past this place.”

It is my educated and informed opinion that this individual is a palate-numbed idiot. I won't bother addressing her writing style except to say that one shouldn't mix pronouns in the same sentence – “If you value …..I would keep on driving....” That aside, may I ask of this “critic” have you ever eaten Italian food that didn't come from a boxed mix? Or a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it? Is Olive Garden your idea of high Italian cusine? Or are you, perhaps, a disgruntled former employee or a friend or employee of a competitor? That, unfortunately, is all too common on these sites. There must be something behind this alleged “review,” because on its face it is scurillous drivel.

I came across this doggerel while researching the King location of “Little Italy.” Having previously reviewed – and enjoyed – another of the Looz family's restaurants, I wanted to sample the wares at a different location. While I don't generally make my decisions based upon input from social networking sites, I do occasionally consult them. If I find a preponderance of negativity, I may take it into account. If everybody cites bad service, or everybody lambasts a particular dish, or everybody says a place is dirty, I may give the aggregate opinions some weight.

But in this case, no. This was one of two published “reviews.” The other “review” was wildly positive. And according to Urbanspoon's stats, eighty-seven percent of sixty-six people “liked” the place. So about fifty-seven out of sixty-six people were not “literally disgusted” by Little Italy's food. Pretty good numbers. And, by the way, even though I didn't “vote,” I definitely “like” the place.

I don't have pretensions of chefdom, but I do have a studied background on the subject of Italian food and I have cooked Italian food both professionally and as a home cook for many years. I do know Italian food and that's how I know this “reviewer” is pazza. Anybody with two active taste buds should be able to tell that Little Italy's food is the real deal. But before I published a rebuttal, I wanted to make absolutely sure that there was no credence or credibility to these dubious claims. I didn't want to rely solely on my palate, so I contacted the owner of Little Italy in King and asked to observe his kitchen. After I read the “review” to him and explained what a boxed mix was – he didn't understand the reference – he agreed to let me watch his food prep.

Early next morning, I walked through the back door with all the employees and watched as preparations for the day's service began. All was exactly as my palate had already determined. There were no boxes in this kitchen. Everything was as good Italian food should be; high-quality fresh ingredients simply and traditionally prepared from old-world family recipes. Do they use canned tomatoes in their sauces? Of course they do! Everybody uses canned tomatoes in sauces. Mario Batali uses canned tomatoes in his sauces. But I saw the cans, people. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. No low-quality cheap food-service brands. And I watched the man chop the onions and the garlic and I watched the man add the tomatoes to the freshly chopped aromatics and I watched the man add the other herbs and seasonings to the sauce. Boxed mixes indeed!

I went through the walk-in, lady. I saw shelves stocked with quality fresh ingredients. The only boxes in there were the ones that contained the fresh produce.

I watched fifty pounds of flour being dumped into the Hobart along with yeast, sugar, salt, water and a little oil to form fresh pizza dough. In fact, I even made a few dough balls myself. Boxed mixes!

I saw loaves of freshly baked bread being sliced to fill baskets and for bruschetta for which I also watched an employee chopping fresh tomatoes.

And, yes, I saw frozen shrimp and scallops. I've eaten in coastal restaurants in the Carolinas. One place was right on the docks and I saw the day's catch being carried right into the kitchen. The only body of water near King is the Ararat River, not noted for its fine shrimp. So of course the shrimp were frozen. Find me an average inland restaurant where they're not. But these are high-quality fresh-frozen shrimp, cleaned, deveined, and cooked to order on the premises. And the scallops were on a par with any I've purchased at the “fresh” seafood counter of my local market. I was taken into the office and shown the invoice. I know where the guy's getting his seafood and how much he's paying for it. Frozen bagged seafood? Palate-numbed idiot.

They offered to let me watch them make salad dressing from scratch, but I'd seen enough. I promised I'd return for dinner, and I did. And, yes, I paid for it. Nobody gave me anything for writing this piece.

I'm writing it solely because somebody sorely wronged this fine little restaurant with an undeserved rant that had no basis in fact. I can't even call it an opinion. Opinion usually requires thought and this blatant attempt to damage somebody's business was completely thoughtless.

My wife, our friends, and I have sampled a variety of dishes, from rib-eye to pizza, and we have found nothing but excellent food, exceptionally well prepared and served by an extremely friendly, personable waitstaff in a refreshingly clean and enjoyable atmosphere.

So here's my rebuttal: Spend your time. Spend your money. This is absolutely some of the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. It is nothing but high-quality, fresh ingredients deliciously prepared in a wonderful Italian family tradition. It literally delights me. If you value your hard-earned money and your stomach, you'll drive directly to this place, and you'll do it often.

The Little Italy in King is located at 612 S. Main Street. They're open daily for lunch and dinner. Call 'em at (336) 985-5428. There's adequate parking, dress is casual, and reservations are not required.

I'm not saying that Urbanspoon and other social networking sites don't serve a purpose. But it is imperative when using them as a resource to do so with a large grain of salt. Read between the lines, look for patterns, examine motives, and try whenever possible to compare “average Joe” commentaries with those of more seasoned and established reviewers. You really don't want to chance missing out on wonderful little places like Little Italy just because somebody with an axe to grind didn't “like” it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

March (2012) Food Holidays

Well, you'd kind of expect to find corned beef and/or cabbage celebrated in a month which contains St. Patrick's Day – and you wouldn't be disappointed. But lots of other foods make an appearance during the month which brings Spring and occasionally a visit from the Easter Bunny.

Celery, noodles, peanuts, and flour vie for national attention in March. It's also National Frozen Food Month and National Sauce Month; no particular frozen foods or sauces are singled out.

You can eat chocolate chip cookies all week the second week of the month and enjoy chocolate in general during American Chocolate Week, the third week of March.

Beyond that March 1 is both National Peanut Butter Lover's Day and National Fruit Compote Day.

March 2 belongs to banana cream pie, while the 3rd is given over to both cold cuts and mulled wine.

Pound down some pound cake on March 4 and chase it with some cheese doodles and absinthe on the 5th. Hmmmm......let me clarify that; it's National Cheese Doodle Day as well as National Absinthe Day. Not sure I'd combine the two.

National Frozen Food Day falls on March 6, as does National White Chocolate Cheesecake Day. How about a frozen white chocolate cheesecake?

Here's an odd couple; crown roast of pork and cereal. Both share the day on March 7.

Peanut clusters get a day to themselves on the 8th, and crabmeat reigns supreme on the 9th.

National Pack Your Lunch Day happens on March 10. Wait a minute. Isn't that a Saturday this year?

That's okay. The morning of Sunday, March 11 would be a perfect time to celebrate oatmeal-nut waffles.

Baked scallops get a nod on the 12th and the 13th is reserved for observing coconut tortes......and probably for eating them, too.

Now, some people will go all out to bake pies on National Pi Day – the mathematical pi, that is. I prefer to throw a big party with lots of potato chips, the real food star of the day.

I'm not sure who Helene is or what she's got to do with pears, but nonetheless, March 15 is National Pears Hélène Day. Actually, I do know the story behind Pears Hélène, but it's long and boring and involves opera and is totally irrelevant to our discourse.

If you like artichoke hearts they are completely relevant on their day, March 16.

Of course, as expected, St. Patty's Day and Corned Beef and Cabbage Day are synonymous.

Munch an oatmeal cookie on its March 18 holiday.

Poultry and chocolate caramel share the same March 19 celebration. Again, I'm not sure I'd celebrate them together.

Bock beer and ravioli are both recognized on the 20th. I guess you could do those in tandem.

What is it with dual days, here? Strawberries and French bread split March 21 and Coq au Vin and water – yes, water – are both feted on March 22. And cram Chip and Dip Day and Melba Toast Day together on the 23rd.

Chocolate-covered raisins get their own day on March 24th, but Lobster Newburg, pecans, and waffles all crowd in together on the 25th. Lobster Newburg with a side of pecan waffles, maybe? Nah.

Spinach gets its day on March 26 and the Spanish paella gets recognized on the 27th.

The 28th is split between Something on a Stick Day and Black Forest Cake. Hmmm......Black Forest Cake on a Stick? It could happen.

Lemon Chiffon Cake Day is March 29 and turkey neck soup dominates the 30th.

The last day of the month is another crowd pleaser with taters – not “potatoes,” “taters,” – clams on the half-shell, and oranges and lemons all vying for your culinary attention on March 31.

Can't wait to see what April brings? Well......you'll just have to. I'm through for now. :-)

Buon appetito!