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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, December 20, 2012

Restaurant Review: Portofino Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, Gastonia, NC

A Good Italian Restaurant Is Hard to Find

Portofino is a quaint Italian village located in Liguria up in the northwest corner of the peninsula. And it's probably easier to get to than its restaurant namesake in Gastonia, North Carolina. They say a good Italian restaurant is hard to find; boy, were they right! GPS got me into the neighborhood, but it took a phone call to a native guide at the eatery to navigate my way through the maze of stores and strip malls to find the exact location. Ultimately, though, it was really worth the effort.

Walking through the front door lands you squarely in front of the pizza counter. This is not a bad thing, as it lends a nice authentic Italian-American pizzeria air to the experience. A friendly guy, who turned out to be one of the owners, greeted us, saying, “You must be the one who called me. Glad you found us. Sit anywhere you like.” He indicated the dining room off to the right.

It's a nice dining room. The furnishings, while not elegant, are functional and comfortable. There's a beautiful mural adorning one wall. Maybe it's a tad dark and a little dated, but who cares? I'm here for the food, you know?

The service could not have been better. Mike, our waiter, was everything a waiter should be. He was pleasant, friendly, helpful, informative, and very efficient. It was late after a Saturday dinner service and there weren't too many other diners in the place, so we were quite pleased by the speed with which our food was brought to the table.

The food itself was wonderful. Mike informed us that one of the owners – one other than the pizzaiolo who greeted us – prepared the meal himself. I was told he was direct from Naples – or Napoli, as Mike quickly corrected himself to say – and even though we were eating pretty standard Italian-American fare, that Neapolitan influence came through in the dishes.

The menu features two levels of antipasti. One level contains the more authentic offerings such as mozzarella alla Caprese and real, actual bruschetta, not just the typical Americanized garlic bread. That item appears on the more typical part of the menu, along with garlic cheese bread and fried mozzarella sticks. We opted for the Caprese, and were not disappointed. Real mozzarella di buffala served with slices of tomatoes and torn basil leaves drizzled over with a remarkably flavorful olive oil. A definite Neapolitan touch.

I like the layout of the pasta menu. The types of pasta available – cappellini, linguini, fettuccini, penne, and spaghetti – are printed horizontally across the top. An impressive variety of sauces and preparations are then listed vertically below. Needless to say, all are made in house.

The entrees were sized proportionately to the average American appetite, meaning we all knew there would be boxes of leftovers in our future. My choice was spaghetti al pomodoro. Here was more evidence of Napoli. This was not the pile of spaghetti covered in tomato sauce that I rather expected. Instead, the pasta was presented in a light sauce of rich diced tomatoes with chunks of garlic interspersed among a generous seasoning of fresh basil. The sauce was a condiment accentuating the pasta, as it should be in authentic Italian cuisine. It was superbo! Of course, I couldn't have eaten it all without doing serious injury to myself, but it was just as delicious warmed over for lunch the next day.

My wife and one of our friends arranged a trade; she ordered meat ravioli from the “Vecchie Specialita” section of the menu and he chose the del Boscaiola sauce over penne from the “Pasta” list. They then portioned out sample bites for one another. Our other companion also went to the “Vecchie Specialita” side for her manicotti.

Everybody was ecstatic over their choices, but the penne alla Boscaiola was a particularly big hit. I snagged a bite from the portion for which my wife traded her ravioli and it was amazing. Different, too. A typical al boscaiola – which roughly translates to “woodsman's style” – is a Tuscan staple consisting of prosciutto and/or pancetta with mushrooms and Parmesan cheese in a cream sauce. Here there were no mushrooms – none that I could discern, anyway. Peas were substituted with very tasty results.

There's more than pasta, of course. The menu has lots of delectable-looking chicken, veal, and seafood dishes and an ample selection of sandwiches. And I think I mentioned pizza, right? Gotta go back and try some. If it's half as good as the rest of the menu, I'll consider moving to Gastonia.

Let me give a quick mention to the complimentary bread. I ate way too much of it which is probably why I had no room left for the sumptuous dessert offerings. The bread comes warm in a basket with the ubiquitous little containers of butter. But please notice there is a cruet of olive oil on the table and take advantage of it. I did. I was told the oil is an Italian import. I hope so. After voraciously dipping the warm, crusty bread in it and bragging on it the way I did, I'd hate to discover that it came from the grocery store down the street. But I don't think that was the case. I import my olive oil and this stuff was every bit as good as what I have shipped in. I could drink it straight.

Speaking of drinking, a nice selection of beer and wine was offered as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks and coffees.

As noted, none of us had room for dessert, a real shame because the cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, and spumoni all looked pretty good. Next time, for sure.

The atmosphere at Portofino's is casual and family-friendly. The prices are quite reasonable. The pasta dishes were $6.95 and we doled out four bucks more for the ravioli and the manicotti. At $8.95, the mozzarella alla Caprese was a little above the average Italian-American restaurant appetizer price, but the quality was well worth the extra dollar or two. Parking is no problem; we are talking strip mall here.

Located at 3736 East Franklin Blvd in Gastonia, NC (28056), Portofino Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria is open daily from 10:30 to 10. Call them – I had to – at (704) 824-2143. Or you can check out their website at http://portofinoitalianrestaurant.com.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Destination: McAdenville, NC - Christmas Town USA

"Oh, the traffic outside is frightful; but the lights are so delightful"

They call it “Christmas Town, USA.” At least the local boosters do. The rest of the world calls it McAdenville. And, by the way, despite what the voice of Google Search says, it's “Mc-AD-enville,” not “Mc-ADE-enville.”

Located a mere stone's throw west of the sprawling metropolis of Charlotte, McAdenville, North Carolina is barely a wide spot in the highway. With a population of just over 600, McAdenville has something of an identity crisis; both nearby Charlotte and adjacent Gastonia claim the hamlet as a suburb. But for a few weeks every year, everybody agrees that it's really an extension of the North Pole.

The sign at the town's entrance off I-85 at exit 23 proclaims that “Christmas Town” was founded in 1881. Well, sort of. Named for Rufus Yancey McAden, president of the local textile mill, McAdenville was incorporated in that year. “Christmas Town” came along a good bit later, influenced, coincidentally, by a successor of Rufus McAden, one W.J. Pharr, president of Pharr Yarns.

Back in 1956, the local Men's Club came up with the idea of making things merry and bright by hanging lights on a few trees around town. The town fathers said, “Sure. Why not?” Pharr and his wife also got behind the project and nine trees were decorated in red, white, and green lights.

Fast forward a half-century or so. Things have expanded a little. Today, more than 375 trees, ranging in height from six feet to more than ninety feet, boast strings of bright holiday lights numbering anywhere from 500 to 5,000 lights per tree. Preparations begin in August. And even though W.J. Pharr is no longer around, his successors at Pharr Yarns continue to support the project he helped develop, picking up the electric bill for the town's light display.

But it's so much more than just a municipal holiday display. The community at large has gotten involved and the result is truly magical.

“Christmas Town USA” is pretty much the two-mile stretch of NC 7 that runs through McAdenville between I-85 and US 29-74. The route passes through beautiful neighborhoods and the town's quaint “downtown” center. Nearly every home is decorated in some fashion. A few sport only very simple wreaths illuminated by spotlights. Most, however, are adorned in a truly grand manner. Lots of twinkling lights, lots of inflatables. More than two hundred wreaths hang from the town's lampposts. Life-size representations of Santa and his reindeer, carolers, and other iconic images are everywhere. And there are a lot of larger-than-life displays, too. For example, the massive Old Man Winter located on the shores of a small lake near the town center, “blowing” lighted “snowflakes” into the air. The lake itself is ringed with decorated trees while a fountain in the middle jets water seventy-five feet into the air as colored lights play through the spray. The sounds of chimes and music emanate from several sources along the way.

Besides the ongoing light display, there are a couple of special events that highlight the season; the lighting ceremony that occurs at the beginning of the season and the yule log ceremony that happens about midway through.

A word or two of caution: we made the dreadful mistake of going to see the lights on a Saturday evening. If you follow our foolish example, don't be surprised that it will take you somewhere between two and three hours to take in the sights. Seeing the breathtaking displays along the designated route will take thirty minutes to an hour. The rest of your time will be spent sitting in miles-long traffic beside I-85. Cars begin pulling off onto the shoulder of the Interstate about a mile-and-a-half before the actual exit ramp. A second line stretches back about a half to three-quarters-of-a-mile along what would usually be the inside exit lane. About halfway up the exit ramp, the two lines attempt to converge into a single lane. You'll see lots of blue lights before you get to the red, white, and green as state and local police do their best to regulate the flow of traffic. But I might humbly suggest that they station one officer at the choke point on the Interstate before somebody gets killed there. We witnessed several near misses caused by clueless idiots who, having bypassed all the standing traffic, tried to force their way into the head of the line. Lots of shouting, lots of cursing, lots of horn blowing, not a lot of peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

The traffic backup was so immense that we observed many people getting out of their cars and hiking up the ramp to the gas station, returning with bags of provisions. There were numerous other people – men, mostly – who took little trips into the woods beside the highway. The movie “Rio” was showing on the rear-facing screen of the vehicle in front of us; we watched most of the movie as we crawled along. If you are not prepared for this scenario, your mood may be ruined before you get to the destination, and that would be a shame. There were four of us in the car and ultimately we all agreed that the experience was worth the inconvenience. But we all also agreed that we would never do it again on a Saturday night.

All in all, though, it was a memorable adventure, one highlighted not only by bright lights but by bright spirits. Even as we moved slowly through all the festive luminosity, we were greeted by shouts of “Merry Christmas” from passing cars and pedestrians. The joy and excitement of both children and adults was palpable. On that December evening, we could truly sing, “In the air there's a feeling of Christmas.”

Detailed information on “Christmas Town USA” can be found at http://www.mcadenville-christmastown.com.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Yelpers, Urbanspooners, and Trip Advisors Beware!

A couple of news stories connected with one of my favorite soapbox platforms recently caught my eye.

As anybody who reads my scribblings knows, I am not a big fan of social media, particularly when it comes to the so-called “review” sites. These sites are little more than outlets created for people to vent their two cents' worth. Unfortunately, such opinions are frequently worth considerably less than the advertised price. Not that I have anything against expressing one's opinion. As I often and unambiguously state, everyone is entitled to my opinion. And if you have an opinion to offer that is intelligent, well-constructed, based in fact, and anchored in experience and/or expertise, have at it.

All too often, though, the pronouncements rendered on social “review” sites aren't reviews at all. They are petty gripes and complaints expressed as mere billingsgate by individuals secure in their closets of anonymity and cloaked in what they perceive to be their First Amendment right to “free speech.”

Without miring down in constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions involving Holmes-ian (Oliver Wendell, not Sherlock) quotations regarding the shouting of “fire” in crowded theaters, some of these alleged “reviewers” are discovering that sometimes “free speech” comes at a cost.

Take, for example, the recent brouhaha involving Chef Marc Orfaly of Boston's upscale eatery, Pigalle. In case you aren't up on the details, the chef very publicly lambasted a “review” of his establishment posted on Facebook by a woman named “Sandy.” Using the same medium, Orfaly lashed out at “Sandy,” calling her a bitch and telling her to vai cazzo herself. (He said it in English, but everything sounds so much nicer in Italian, you know.)

Sandy” was, shall we say, somewhat disappointed by her meal. And she expressed her disappointment by saying endearing things online. Things like, “"Really horrible pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving!! Wow. I don't have a clue as to why you would think that throwing pumpkin chunks into a cold pre baked pie shell and then covering it with a cream sauce that literally tasted like vomit { I am very serious!} and topping it off with whipped cream that was runny would in any way be something that can be called pumpkin pie?"

To which Orfaly responded, “you must enjoy vomit you bitch if you know how much it tastes like.” And it got worse. There was a lot more. She jumped back into the fray. He responded in kind.

Children, children! Please!

Orfaly has since apologized, as well he should. He was way out of line in the things that he said. But was he out of line for saying them? I don't think so.

The chef considered that he was defending his trade. “I feel like restaurateurs have to stick up for themselves in one way or another.” He says even though he knows he could have handled the situation better, he has still gotten support from fellow chefs.

I say again, he was one hundred percent wrong in launching a profanity-laced tirade against another human being. That is never defensible, no matter what you think you are defending. But he was one hundred percent right in his reasoning.

The restaurant business is incredibly tough. Oh, the diner who walks in the door, sits down at a table, has a meal, pays the check, and walks back out thinks that running a restaurant is just like cooking at home only on a bigger scale. And that's unimaginably incorrect. One out of every three new restaurants fails within its first year. Even successful chefs – the ones you see on TV – have failures. And it doesn't help to have idiots with inflated senses of self-importance sitting down at keyboards talking trash about things of which they know little.

But I know what I like!” Okay! Fine! But what you like and what I like may be two different things. If the only spaghetti you've ever had came out of a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it and that's what you “like,” then you're probably going to hate the kind of stuff they serve at an authentic Italian restaurant. So does that give you the right to go online and tell the whole world that a place has “terrible” food simply because you didn't like it? Do you have the right to ruin a person's business and take away the livelihoods of that person's employees because you think you're God's arbiter of culinary excellence? And do you really think your sophisticated palate and your rapier wit are exemplified by enlightened comments such as “literally tasted like vomit?” Please.

Before you consign Chef Orfaly to the kitchens of hell, imagine, if you would, that you hosted a big dinner party. Everybody ate, drank, and made merry. And then some jerk went home and wrote for all the world to see that your food tasted like vomit. How would you feel? How would you respond?

These are not trained and experienced gourmands. These are the people next door; the ones who grew up eating canned, packaged, and frozen processed food products from a microwave. And don't be surprised to see more responses from guys like Orfaly who are defending their reputations and fighting for their businesses. In this vaunted “Information Age,” why should the discourse be one-sided?

A little advice, though, for would-be Orfalys: before you send your inner Anthony Bourdain out into the blogosphere, remember what your mama probably told you, “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” Ignorant people are what they are, and rudely pointing out their shortcomings only reflects badly on you. Maybe this aphorism, attributed to a variety of sources, but nonetheless true, applies, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

In another instance of an online “review” gone wrong, the response took the form not of a Facebook diatribe, but of a three-quarters of a million-dollar lawsuit.

A homeowner in Fairfax, Virginia was a little peeved with the service she received from a local contractor. True to the current social model of posting one's every move, emotion, thought, and experience online for all the world to share, she went to yelping on Yelp. Here she accused the contractor of shoddy workmanship and made veiled allegations of theft. She gave the guy one star and advised her readers not to put themselves through “this nightmare of a contractor.”

Imagine her surprise when her “nightmare” entered her waking world bearing a $750,000 defamation suit. According to a Washington Post report, lawyers are labeling such reactions as “a growing trend” in the “freewheeling and acerbic world of Web speech” where such speech is “colliding with the ever-growing importance of online reputations for businesses, doctors, restaurants, even teachers.”

The author of the “review” said she didn't want to see what happened to her happen to anyone else. Well, applause and shouts of “brava!” for her selfless altruism. Or was it, to use a phrase employed by the writer of the Post article, her attempt at “the go-to form of retail vengeance in the Internet age?”

Back in the good old days, if someplace pissed you off, you told your family and friends about it, right? And they probably told a few of their acquaintances and pretty soon you had a couple dozen folks all vowing to never patronize a certain business. At least until cooler heads prevailed and a little time passed and the whole incident blew over.

But in the brave new world of the Information Age, Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen, through the anarchic instrument of the Internet, now possess the means to utterly destroy the lives of the people by whom they are offended. No more spoken complaints in the ears of a close few. Now, with a collection of keystrokes, an indelible record can be created and shared with the the population of an entire neighborhood, city, county, state, country or planet! You can get yours, alright! You can teach that sucker to piss YOU off! Never mind his wife and kids and the families of his employees. You got him and you got him good!

Pathetic. And frankly, I extol the business people who send their lawyers in to be their paladins in the face of wildly unexpurgated drivel. More power to 'em. Nothing like a good tort to deflate the overblown opinion some people have of themselves and of their importance.

But on a smaller, more personal scale, here's what I do; fight fire with fire and rebut. When I see a horrible and obviously biased “review” of a business I know to be good, I get online and write a detailed rebuttal. So should you. Do it right and stick to the facts. Nobody's going to sue you for saying something nice and only in this way will intelligent readers be able to make informed decisions. When a place gets a hundred positive comments and one negative, most people can read between the lines.

For better or worse, Facebook and Yelp and Urbanspoon and the rest are here to stay. As a consumer, just consider the source when you refer to these places for “reviews” and recommendations. And if you're an aspiring “reviewer,” choose your words carefully lest you be required to eat them.