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!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Five Food Network Chefs Haters Love To Hate

“There's Always Going To Be Haters”

Since it signed on in 1993, Food Network – or the “TV Food Network" as it was called in those days – has presented us with quite a variety of food personalities. “Celebrity chefs” we call them, although many are not chefs at all. Some are “celebrity cooks” at best. But whether “chef” or “cook,” all are certainly celebrated in popular culture. And like most pop celebrities, they are either beloved or hated.

“Hate” is a strong word. Webster defines it as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” Honestly, how many TV chefs do you really fear? I think the Urban Dictionary does a better job of describing a “hater” as “a person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person. Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesn't really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock someone else down a notch.”

That definition resonates. So here, in no particular order and presented along with my own personal approbation or excoriation, are five “celebrity chefs” haters love to hate.

Giada De Laurentiis

Giada has a lot of haters. There are websites and blogs dedicated to hating on Giada De Laurentiis. It's almost a subculture. Some haters think she's pretentious and some haters think she's a poser and a fake. Some say, “She looks like she's afraid to get her hands dirty.” People hate on her because she smiles too much. People hate on her because she shows off her cleavage. People hate on her because they think her head is too big. A bunch of haters call her “man hands.” The hater media went nuts a while back with a story about Nicole Kidman “spitting out Giada's food” on TV.  One of the biggest reasons people cite for hating Giada is her “over-enunciation” of Italian words.


I'm not claiming to be a personal friend, but at least I have met Giada. I've been in a room with her, spoken with her, spent time with her – which is more than most of her detractors can say. You want my two cents? You'll get it anyway. Calling another human being a “bobble head” is a strong indicator of your level of maturity. You want to hate on her because of her smile, her figure, her head, her hands – fine. I think hating somebody because of the way they look is the depth of shallowness.

Ignorance is also a poor excuse for hating someone. For instance, on the subject of her “over-enunciation” of Italian words, food blogger Brooke Newberry says: “Giada is totally from California. So what’s up with the Italian food pronunciation?”

Mi dispiace, tesoro, ma sei un idiota non informato. (Google it if you need to.) Giada is not “totally from California.” She's “totally” from Rome and hardly spoke English when she moved to California as a child. Funny, when Texas-born Mexican-American chef Aarón Sánchez “over-enunciates” Spanish words, nobody bitches. Why does Giada get the hate treatment for correctly speaking her native language?

Lest you think me a completely uncritical fanboy, there is one thing Giada does that drives me to distraction: she “grabs” everything. She grabs a bowl, she grabs a pan, she grabs a spoon, she grabs an onion. Please, Giada, grab a thesaurus!

As for the rest of the ninny-whiner BS, back off on all the “hate” and do a little research on Giada's background. You might find some holes in your bigotry.

Giada is philosophical about the whole thing. I asked her about it once and she said, “There's always going to be haters and there's always going to be people who like you and you just can't please everybody.”

Bobby Flay

One of the most common “hater points” about Bobby Flay is that he's cocky and arrogant. “Jerk” and “dick” are some of the more common epithets hurled in his direction. People think his shows “Throwdown” and “Beat Bobby Flay” are just vehicles to reinforce his arrogance by allowing him to beat down and lord it over lower level cooks. It's television, people. The Food Network execs are way more responsible for Bobby's image than Bobby himself is. And besides, he does lose now and again.

Muhammad Ali is credited with saying, “It's not bragging if you can back it up.” Bobby can back it up. He's been a linchpin at Food Network almost since Day One. He's had fourteen shows and specials on the network, eight of which still air regularly. He's also made crossover appearances on many of the network’s other programs as well as guest shots on shows like The Early Show over on CBS. Add in a half-dozen Daytime Emmy awards and three citations by the James Beard Foundation, including Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1993, a dozen best-selling cookbooks and a sprinkling of other television and movie roles, and I think maybe the cockiness is a little justified.

Based only on what I saw on TV, I used to think Bobby was a jerk, too. But after I met the man, spent some time talking with him, and watched his interaction with an awestruck young fan who had just won some sort of local cooking contest, my opinion completely changed. Isn't it amazing what a little education and information can do?

Guy Fieri

Boisterous, bleached, bowling-shirted Guy Fieri rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I'm one of them, but not really because of anything personal against Guido. I just don't like the way Food Network packages and markets him by shoving him down my throat 24/7/365. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. But again, that's television. Find a good vehicle and drive it to death.

Guy is one of those “not a chef” celebrity chefs. He started his food career in grade school selling pretzels and washing dishes. After developing a more defined food focus as an exchange student in France, Guy worked in restaurants and wound up with a degree in Hotel Management from UNLV. The rest of his meteoric rise is Food Network history.

Never one to mince words, Anthony Bourdain describes Guy as “silly,” but also bears him grudging respect. "I look at that and think what a lot of people think: ridiculous and painful -- even insulting. But I also think 'That’s one hard-working man, glad I don’t have to work that hard.'”

Guy's over-the-top personality is not my cup of tea. I don't relate to man caves, hot rods, and hard rock. I've never met Guy. I don't “hate” him. I just don't think we have much in common. I could be wrong. Maybe the opportunity will arise for him to change my mind someday. It happened with Bobby.

There is one thing that endears Guy to me, though, and that's his attitude toward his name. His great-grandfather was one of thousands of Italian immigrants who changed the family name to “fit in” and “be more American.” To honor his family and his Italian heritage, Guy changed his name back from the Americanized “Ferry” to the original “Fieri.” And he properly rolls the “r” when he says it, too. Uh-oh, he'd better be careful; somebody might accuse him of “over-enunciating” an Italian word.

Sandra Lee

Sandra Lee has almost as many haters as Giada and for many of the same reasons. There's a lot of hate over Sandra's cleavage-baring outfits and her painted on smile. The main difference is that Sandra's haters aren't as vocal and virulent about it. Well, most of them anyway. Anthony Bourdain alone more than takes up the slack. "Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained." See what I mean?

A lot of haters think Sandra Lee is a plastic princess. She's bashed on a regular basis on hater websites like “Semi-Horrible Cooking” and YouTube channels like “Sandra Lee Sucks.” New York Times critic Amanda Hesser slams Sandra for seeming “more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods.”

I don't know Sandra Lee, so I can't “hate” her, per se, but I can disagree with her “Semi-Homemade” culinary POV. I'm an elitist fresh food snob and unrepentantly proud of it. Whereas Sandra's philosophy revolves around using thirty percent fresh ingredients and seventy percent canned or packaged dreck, my methodology runs in exactly the opposite direction. Except thirty percent might be a little generous. Bourdain further rips her signature style, "All you have to do is waddle into the kitchen, open a can of crap and spread it on some other crap that you bought at the supermarket. And then you've done something really special." That said, Mario Batali, himself no stranger to the fresh vs processed battle, opines, “She gets people out of fast-food chains, and that’s a good thing. At least she gets them in the kitchen, even if they are using frozen berries.” You can't disagree with that.

Sandra Lee came to Food Network about the time the network execs were turning away from actual trained chefs and bringing in more “relateable” cooks. She never actually wanted to do a “cooking show,” preferring the realm of home and garden. The network wonks basically said, “Fine. Do decorating and tablescapes if you want to. As long as you find a way to cook, too.” So, drawing on her two-week cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa, “Semi-Homemade” was born.

Aside from all that, Sandra has had a difficult path in life and I admire her pluck and courage. Like I said, I'm not a “hater” but neither am I a fan.

Paula Deen

Speaking of not being a fan, I've seen Paula Deen, the woman who advocates frying butter, in person and I remain largely unimpressed. Her “live cooking” demos are usually just excuses for her adoring dupes to gather and listen to and hoot about her tales of adult diapers and her husband's feet while her faithful and overworked assistant does all the actual cooking. Without an ounce of culinary training, Paula Deen employed enormous grit and determination to elevate herself from her “Bag Lady” days preparing bag lunches for office workers in Savannah to a successful restaurant in that city and then on to a national television empire. That much is admirable. Her empire crumbled, however, when some of her less admirable personality traits began to manifest themselves.

My wife and I watched some of her early televised efforts. They a crazy Southern aunt sort of way. But even then her personality made something in me itch. I've lived in the South for more than forty years. I've resided in Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, and both Carolinas and I've traveled extensively in Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and the rest of the South. And I will tell you one thing most emphatically: in all my years and all my travels, I've never met anyone who says “y'all” as much as Paula Deen. Even my wife, born and bred in the “Heart of Dixie,” whose family tree has Southern roots that extend beyond “The Recent Unpleasantness” all the way back to before the founding of the republic, says there is not one leaf on even the remotest branch of that tree that sounds or acts anything like Paula Deen. My wife thinks she's an insulting stereotype. And I think that's also the source of my itch. I knew a woman in East Tennessee who sounded just like average folks most of the time; until she went to New York or Chicago and wanted to get something out of a Yankee. Then she became more country than Dolly Parton's left shoe. She stopped just shy of wearing a festive frock and a big floppy hat and saying, “fiddle-dee-dee.” Makes me wonder about Paula's “moonlight and magnolia” personality as well. As the country folks say, there's just something that doesn't gee-haw about that woman.

Apparently, I'm not alone in that assessment. TV personality Clinton Kelly, who was crudely insulted by the butter queen on his own show, says, “I find her shtick more annoying than a hangnail.” He adds that upon meeting her, “her good old-fashioned ‘charm’ struck me as artificial.”

Even though I have seen her in person, I don't know her personally so I can't “hate” her. But neither can I stand to watch her, live or on TV.

Well, that's five, I guess. But I have to give honorable mentions to Rachael Ray.

Another “non-chef” celebrity chef, she has obviously gained the affection and approval of her peers. Anthony Bourdain simply adores her: "We know she can't cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So, what is she selling us? Really? She's selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough." And Emeril Lagasse once said, “[She] doesn't know anything about food. I would not put her on.” With endorsements like those, how can you go wrong?

I've seen her described as “a chattin' n' chewin' machine fueled by sheer annoyingness.”

What Giada's and Sandra's smiles and cleavage and Guy's spiky hair are to some people, Rachael's voice is to me. Two minutes' exposure and my ears begin to bleed. I've heard it described as a “hoarse bark, bark, bark that sends me up the kitchen wall. She sounds like a dog left out in the rain.” And I am among legions of intelligent, well-spoken people who absolutely cringe over her cutesy additions to the culinary lexicon. “Delish?” “Yum-o?” “Sammie?” I'm sorry, my sandwich does not need a nickname. And if you really want to piss off any worthwhile Italian cook, just call extra-virgin olive oil “EVOO.” That annoys the crap out of me whenever and wherever I see it used.

To paraphrase an old Dean Martin hit, everybody hates somebody sometime. I've had my share. A commenter on this blog once called me a delusional idiot for a stance I took, throwing in “demented” and “long-winded” for good measure. I was leaving one of my radio shows for an acting gig once and my listeners were being effusive with praise on my last broadcast. Except for one caller who ripped me a new one on the air and hung up with a sarcastic “goodbye and good riddance.” All I could say after he hung up was, “Why in the hell did he ever listen in the first place?”

And that's my advice to haters of any stripe. We live in the land of the free, after all, and if you don't like Giada or Bobby or Guy or Sandra or Paula or Rachael or Food Network in general, you're free to not watch. You notice I didn't say anything about personally “hating” anybody on my list. I just don't watch the ones I don't like. Similarly, I don't watch anything with “Housewives” or “Kardashian” in the title and that decision just fills my life with sunshine and happiness. I don't “hate” because I don't care.

William Shatner once got a lot of hate for his SNL “get a life!” diatribe. But you know what? It's pretty good advice.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Easy, Perfect Popcorn

Movie Theater Quality Without Expensive Poppers And Questionable Ingredients

To say that I love popcorn would be a tremendous understatement. Statistics show that the average American consumes approximately sixty-eight quarts – or seventeen gallons – of popcorn annually. Boy, am I above average! Think I exaggerate? I was once given a bushel bag of popcorn as a gift. That's thirty-two quarts. It lasted me about two weeks.

Not only do I know a good bit about eating popcorn, I'm pretty proficient at popping it, too. In fact, my first paid employment was popping popcorn in a small town movie theater. But I had been burning Jiffy Pop at home long before that gig. (Seriously, did anybody ever get that stuff to completely pop without burning at least half of it?) Fortunately, Jiffy Pop was just a fad in my house. My mother had a special pot she reserved for popping popcorn when I was a kid and she instructed me in the finer points of its use when I was barely tall enough to stand at the stove without a stool. So popcorn and I go way back.

Over the decades I've utilized every popping gadget that ever came down the pike. Besides the aforementioned failed Jiffy Pop, I've popped corn in a regular kettle on the stove top, I've used one of those wire mesh poppers over a campfire, and I've had a couple of “Whirly Pop” poppers, which weren't too bad except for the ones with plastic gears that quickly wore out. I burned myself severely with an old-fashioned electric popper back in the late '60s. A defective handle on the kettle caused it to overturn and spill smoking hot oil all over my hand, arm, and down my leg. Not fun. I've had limited success with various versions of microwave popping devices and I've gone through a couple of hot air poppers over the years. The most reliable of those is an Orville Redenbacher-branded popper made by Presto. I spent a little over twenty bucks on it about ten years ago and it's still going strong. And, of course, I've used the heavy-duty theater units. I'd install one of those suckers in my kitchen in a heartbeat if I had the space and the money, but I don't, so I make do with the household models. (Sigh)

And then there's microwave popcorn, an entity unto itself. Technically, microwave popcorn was “invented” back around 1946 as a whole-cob-in-a-bag affair, but the popular form that we know now has its roots in the early '70s when General Mills developed the first practical popping bag for individual kernels. Pillsbury sold microwave popcorn out vending machines in the mid-to-late '70s. I know, because I worked just down the road from Pillsbury's test kitchen in Minneapolis back then and we had some of their very first microwave popcorn in our cafeteria.

Microwave popcorn quality is an “iffy” proposition at best. Some varieties are really good and some are absolutely awful. Add to that the fact that the good stuff can be a little pricey. Then factor in recent health concerns: A report from the FDA indicates that a chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags breaks down when heated into a substance called perfluorooctanoic (PFOA). The Environmental Protection Agency has identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen.” Besides the “likely carcinogen” part, there's what's actually in the bag to consider. Like nearly everything else on the market, microwave popcorn is loaded with additives and preservatives. Tertiary Butylhydroquinone? I've never seen that one offered as a movie theater topping. And several popular microwave brands still contain trans-fat, which is a proven no-no when it comes to heart disease.

But don't despair, fellow popcorn lovers; I've got some good news for you. There is a way you can have delicious, light, fluffy perfect popcorn that is on a par with movie theater product in your own home without expensive poppers and without questionable ingredients. And it is super fast and stupid simple.

I wish I could take credit for this method, but I can't: I stumbled on it quite by accident. It's not a “new” idea by any means, but it's one that for whatever reason has never gotten a lot of traction. The version I came across is credited to Alton Brown. Somebody needs to nominate Alton Brown for sainthood or knighthood or some kind of hood because the man is frickin' brilliant. I modified Alton's simple microwave method just an eensy-weensy bit and produced a batch of popcorn that left me gasping for breath and grasping for superlatives. I told my wife, “Try this,” and then had to wrestle her to get the bowl back.

Here's what you need:

Popcorn (duh!)

From the “did you know” department, did you know there are actually two types of popcorn? Yep. Mushroom and butterfly. Butterfly popcorn is the more common variety. It is irregular in shape with multiple “wings” protruding from each kernel. Butterfly is judged to be more tender and fluffy and has fewer hulls. Mushroom popcorn is more compact and ball-shaped and pops up looking like.....a mushroom, and is the type used for caramel corn and kettle corn and such because it's tougher and can handle the handling needed to apply the coatings. The choice is yours. You'll want ¼ cup.


Alton uses plain ol' table salt. This is one area in which we differ: I like popcorn salt. It's a super fine salt specifically designed to adhere to popcorn. It comes in flavors, with butter flavor being the most common, but the plain unflavored variety is fine. Again, your choice. You'll want ¼ teaspoon.

Alton stops there. I go one tiny step further and recommend oil.

Most popcorn popping pros use some form of coconut oil. Yeah, that's why movie theater popcorn always tastes better than the stuff you make at home using Wesson. While I prefer coconut oil, I had some Orville Redenbacher's Buttery Flavor Popping & Topping Popcorn Oil on hand. It's made of soybean oil but it's an acceptable substitute since you'll only need a few drops.

Finally, a paper lunch bag. A plain brown (or white) flat bottom, gusset side, self standing lunch bag.

And here's what you do:

Scoop or pour your popcorn into a ¼ cup measuring cup. Pour on the salt and dribble on a few drops of oil. Drops, mind you, not a stream or even a drizzle. If the oil reaches the bottom of the cup and you have to wipe it out, you've probably used too much.

Dump the prepared popcorn into the bag, shake it up a little, and tightly fold over the top of the bag two or three times. Alton used to recommend a staple to close the bag, but some people got all freaky and thought it would blow up the microwave, so just make sure you have a good, tight fold at the top.

When popping popcorn, timing is way more important than time. You have to pop by ear. (Sorry.) If your set your timer to 1:45 and walk away, you'll come back to an ugly mess because the popcorn finished popping and start burning at 1:30. And don't use the “popcorn” button. Most microwaves, especially older models, lack humidity sensors and just rely on a preset time. Your ear is your best indicator. The popping will start out slow, then it will increase and get really vigorous for a few seconds and then it will trail off until you only hear a “pop” every few seconds. That's when you want to pull your bag out of the microwave. Three or four unpopped kernels in the bottom is a lot better than a whole bunch of burned ones.

That's it. When you unfold the top of the bag, you'll be amazed at what's inside.

I was skeptical at first. “Oh, this is too easy,” I thought. “There's got to be a catch.” Nope. It really is that simple. And OM-freakin'-G, is it good! Like I said, popcorn and I go way back and this was easily some of the best stuff I ever ate, regardless of popping method.

So I'm going to make my wife happy and toss one kitchen unitasker: goodbye, microwave popper! My pots and pans will now only be used for cooking, not popping, and my venerable hot air popper will just gather dust. Better still, we will never again waste money on microwave popcorn or worry about any possible related health considerations.

With a new stock of corn and paper bags laid in, I'm ready to start popping. Let's see......1/4 cup of unpopped popcorn is equal to two ounces and that yields about two quarts popped. I just bought five pounds of popping corn......that's eighty! I'm really gonna be above average!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Confessions Of A Recovered Processed Food Eater

Wandering In The Processed Food Wasteland

If you are a regular reader of my scribblings – and I hope you are – you'll know that I frequently pontificate on the evils of processed food. In a simpler day and time, you could go to the food market and come home Nowadays you come home with chemical-laden food-like substances that your forebears would not have even recognized as edible. In order to really understand what passes as “food” today, you need a degree in chemical engineering. Or do you actually know what azodicarbonamide, butylated hydroxyanisole, and butylated hydroxytoluene are and what they do? My oft-expressed opinion is that I'd prefer to be embalmed after I'm dead rather than before. I love farmers markets, butcher shops, and produce stands and I am constantly on the stump for cooking with fresh, natural ingredients. And yet, for all my holier-than-thou elitist food snobbery, I must confess to being a recovered processed food eater.

Oh yes, there was a time when I was a Wonder Bread warrior. Little Debbie was my bestie. After I swore off Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs, Hostess promptly went bankrupt. I talk a lot about learning to cook at a very young age, but in truth much of that “cooking” involved Kraft, Campbell's, and Ore-Ida. Mario Batali is my favorite Italian chef today, but back then I was all about Chef Boyardee. And it was all my mother's fault.

It wasn't that my mother couldn't cook; she was amazingly accomplished in the kitchen. Ask her any question about almost anything cooking-related and she could answer. She could do everything imaginable with chicken, beef, pork, or turkey. We had a garden out back and she could cook any vegetable you pulled from the soil. She made delicious sauces from scratch. She baked heavenly breads and rolls and her homemade cookies, brownies, cakes, and pies were legendary. No, it wasn't that my mother didn't know her way around a kitchen. Rather it was that she was part of a generation of women browbeaten by Madison Avenue marketing into believing that “old fashioned” cooking was antiquated drudgery and that “modern” methods were the wave of the future. Women were encouraged to “escape” from the kitchen as if it were emblematic of a master and slave relationship. “Convenience” was the new culinary religion and the twin gods “Quick” and “Easy” were worshiped through holy scripture printed on the backs of boxes and cans. And Mom gradually became an ardent acolyte.

Mom could make macaroni and cheese from scratch, but why bother when Kraft put everything she needed in a bright blue box? Sure she could boil potatoes and mash them up with milk and butter, but Hungry Jack made it so much faster. Why waste fifteen minutes on “long-cooking” rice when Minute Rice made it happen in five? Two minutes and a can of Campbell's tomato soup was sure easier than fooling with all those tomatoes and onions and butter and herbs and spices for an hour or more. And why go through the hassle of stocks and broths when Campbell's put chicken soup in a can?

Dishes like tuna noodle casserole were the haute cuisine of the day. Combine packaged egg noodles, canned tuna, canned soup, mayonnaise from a jar, maybe a bag of frozen peas and a topping out of a box of crackers or cornflakes and you were practically a master chef.

If all the boxes and cans inhabiting the pantry were the seraphim and cherubim of the new culinary creed, surely the freezer was the realm of the archangels: beings named Swanson and Birdseye. Adherents to this frozen form of the faith didn't even have to mix and measure. All they had to do was open a box and peel back the foil. And, alas, although my mother could cook and did cook once upon a time, by the time I made my first forays into the kitchen, she was singing in the “convenience” choir.

In later years, I could ask her for help – “Mom, what's the flour-to-fat ratio for a bechamel?” – and she'd have the answer. She never forgot how to cook; she, like millions of other American women, just chose to spend the '60s and '70s wandering in the processed food wasteland.

I frequently cook when visiting friends and relatives and I often find myself puzzled by a general lack of “stuff” in most of their kitchens. I have a ridiculously well-equipped kitchen, replete with racks of gleaming stainless steel pots and pans hanging along with a variety of non-stick aluminum and cast iron cookware. Stock pots and Dutch ovens live in a lower cabinet. Knives glisten on magnetic strips mounted on the wall above an assortment of cutting boards. I have a microwave, of course, but I also have an induction burner at the ready and a countertop oven with a rotisserie feature. Besides my heavy duty KitchenAid mixer and it's attachments, there's a food processor, a blender, and an immersion blender near at hand. A ricer? Yep. Second drawer. A slow cooker? Two of them over on the open wire shelving. Glass and metal mixing bowls of all sizes line upper cabinet shelves. You want a whisk? There are six of them in a canister on the counter. How about a microplane grater? It's hanging above the drawer where I keep my mandolin slicer. The sea salt is next to the Kosher salt which is near the Maldon flake salt, the Himalayan pink salt, and the French grey salt, all of which are on a Lazy Susan with the grinders containing the black peppercorns and the white peppercorns. And don't get me started on the bakeware. So I am completely nonplussed when I visit a kitchen and can't find a rolling pin. (I have three.) What do you mean you don't have a measuring cup? Or a wooden spoon? How do you cook? Oh. You don't. The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that it's a symptom of the same condition: one doesn't need kitchen equipment to open a box or a can or to pop something in the microwave. “Quick” and “Easy” still have a lot of disciples.

An examination of my pantry and fridge demonstrates my evolution. Where once there were cans of Franco-American spaghetti there are now packages of dried pasta and cans of San Marzano tomatoes with which to make sauce. I used to love Rice a Roni and always had a few boxes of the chicken variety on hand. Years ago, I replicated the recipe in my kitchen and while I still enjoy the dish, I now make it from scratch. You know those handy little packets of sauce mixes you find in the grocery store? You won't find them in my pantry. What you will find are the real, honest-to-goodness, preservative-free ingredients to make them from scratch. And to make them better than the packaged stuff. I used to use the execrable cheese-flavored crap in a green cardboard or plastic can to flavor my Italian dishes until I discovered real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. There's no comparison. And there's no wood fiber filler in the real thing. My larder is not completely barren of cans and boxes: besides the aforementioned tomatoes, I have cans and boxes of broth that I use for soups and sauces when I don't have homemade broth or stock on hand.

Frozen pizza? Once upon a time, but not in a very long time. Not when I can turn out fresh pizza dough and homemade sauce better than DiGiorno and faster than Dominos.

I haven't bought “sandwich” bread in years. No store-bought, gummy, nutrition-less bread-like substances live in my breadbox. And you won't find rolls of “dinner rolls” in my fridge, either. Not when real bread and rolls are so delicious and so easy to make. And you won't find rolls of pre-made cookie dough in my refrigerator. Unless you count the dough my wife made using real ingredients that she then rolled and wrapped and stuck in the freezer so we can enjoy real, fresh cookies whenever we want them. In fact, there are no boxes of cake mix, brownie mix, or frosting mix anywhere in our kitchen. That's why we have flour and eggs and cocoa and sugar and milk and butter. You know, real ingredients for real food.

My idea of cooking breakfast involves cracking eggs, frying bacon, and dicing up potatoes, not pulling a waffle-like disc or a “breakfast sandwich” out of the freezer.

I'm not gonna lie: there are a few cans of ready-to-eat soup in the pantry. I've got a couple of little tubs of microwavable macaroni and cheese, too. And there are usually two or three frozen entrees around for quick lunches when need be. Some canned veg to throw in homemade soups and sauces. But that's really about it. I don't live on the preservative-laden products that will ultimately kill me. I did for many years, but now I just don't. And it's liberating as hell to be able to walk past all that garbage in the grocery store knowing I can do better, tastier, and healthier myself. And so can you.

I know I'm like a former smoker or a reformed alcoholic. I realize I can be incredibly annoying up there on my soapbox. I was getting some butter at the grocery store the other day. My wife was over by the milk and a lady said to her, “They've moved everything around. Do you know where the butter is?” My wife pointed toward where I was standing. The lady thanked her, came over my way.......and grabbed a package of Blue Bonnet! It was all I could do not to scream, “That's not butter!! Why are you trying to kill yourself?!” I know. I'm horrible.

But, dammit, there's a reason ex-smokers and ex-drinkers and ex-fake food eaters all crusade the way we do: we know better. We've all been through the valley and now we dwell on the mountaintop. And we just want everybody to join us up here to experience the freedom we enjoy. Freedom from harmful, life-threatening substances.

Okay, I'm gonna shut up now before I go all Sylvester Graham on you. (If you don't know, look it up.) Just do this for me: make the route from your mouth to your stomach pass through your brain. Read labels, do research, figure out what all that stuff is and what it does. Think about what you're putting into your body before you put it in there. Even if you can't make all the right decisions all the time, how about at least making fewer of the wrong ones? Big Food is not your friend, my friends. ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft, et al don't have an altruistic bone in their entire greedy corporate bodies. They are not out to make you happy and healthy; they are out to make a buck at any cost and the cost is usually your health and happiness.

Think, question, and think some more. I'll save you a soapbox on my mountaintop.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Villa Tronco, Columbia, South Carolina

I Expected More

Villa Tronco is a historic restaurant in the heart of South Carolina's historic capital city. Situated behind an unprepossessing facade on Blanding Street between Main and Sumter, the eatery boasts of being the oldest continuously operating restaurant in South Carolina, the first Italian restaurant in Columbia, and it claims to be responsible for introducing pizza to the capital city's curious denizens. Beginning as a fruit store in 1930, Villa Tronco is the legacy of James and Sadie (Carnaggio) Tronco, now owned and operated by the third generation of the Tronco family and still employing, it is said, “Mama” Tronco's original recipes for dishes that delighted homesick Northern soldiers of Italian descent stationed at nearby Fort Jackson during WWII.

It was based upon this amazing heritage and upon mostly positive online reviews that I chose Villa Tronco as our family vacation dining destination on a sultry Saturday evening in June. Frankly, I expected more.

Anybody who has read anything I've published in the last dozen or so years will recognize that my wife and I have something more than a passing knowledge of and appreciation for Italian food. My son and daughter-in-law, both world-traveled military veterans, were our dining companions on this evening. My son recently spent several years living in Italy, so perhaps, taken as a whole, we were a bit of a tough crowd.

Starting on a positive note, everything I read about the ambiance of Villa Tronco was dead on. With lots of dark wood, exposed brick, and subtle lighting there was a definite “old world” vibe to the place that, along with tasteful décor and substantial but comfortable furnishings made for an interesting and pleasant dining atmosphere. A lot of modern restaurants try very hard to achieve what this charming and venerable old spot generates easily and naturally. Kudos to the current generation of Troncos for beautifully balancing old and new.

The service was prompt, friendly, and efficient. Our hostess seated us quickly, our waitress was attentive without being obtrusive, and my water glass never got below half-full. Villa Tronco has a full bar and an expansive wine list from which both my wife and my “Italian wine snob” son partook.

Alas, though, the food was not on the same level as the atmosphere and the wine. Right from the start, temperature seemed to be a problem.

We ordered antipasti of fried calamari and fried mozzarella. The mozzarella arrived on a nice warm plate, but was itself barely above room temperature. Unless served piping hot, mozzarella fritta tends to be rather dense and chewy, as was the case here. And the thin red sauce in which it was served was a harbinger of things to come.

My daughter-in-law's entree of cheese ravioli was stone cold upon arrival. Again, the plate was warm as was the sauce, but the ripieno, the rich filling of ricotta and Parmesan, had obviously spent too much time in the freezer or the walk in and not enough time in the pot. We sent the dish back. I don't know if Chef Mike (restaurant-speak for a microwave) fixed it or what, but it came back a few minutes later at the proper temp.

My wife had no real complaints about her linguine in meat sauce other than the fact that the sauce lacked what she called “zing,” something I found to be true about all the tomato-based sauces we were served. They weren't bad per se, they were just.......unremarkable.

My son soldiered through his “combo piatto,” an oddly named sampling of lasagna, cheese ravioli, and Fettuccine Tronco (which looked suspiciously like Alfredo) all on one plate. He finished with neither complaint nor compliment, but I got the general impression of his being politely unimpressed.

I figured to try the famous pizza which “Mama” Tronco introduced to Columbia. “The crust is still rolled by hand,” the literature proclaims, “and cut into squares so that you know it's handmade.” Again the temperature bug bit. The serving pan was toasty warm but the pizza was barely so.

Okay, I used to rag on my cooks about warming plates. Warm food is better on a warm serving plate. But I swear I never had to instruct them to make sure the food was at least as warm as the plate on which it was served. I don't know what was happening here, but it certainly marred the experience.

Anyway, the pizza was.......unremarkable. You can tell the crust was “rolled” rather than tossed or stretched by hand because it was dense and lifeless. Rolling and compressing pizza dough does that. That's why vero pizzaioli always toss or stretch the dough by hand. The sauce was thin, rather sweet, and, as my wife said, lacking in “zing.” The cheese was the typical “pizza cheese” sold by Sysco, US Foods, and other restaurant industry food purveyors. Granted, I've had worse pizza out of convenience store microwaves, but I've also had far better at places with far less vaunted reputations. In the restaurant's history it is recorded that “Mama” Tronco had to give pizza away at first because people didn't know what it was. Bless her sainted memory, if what I was served was an example, I can relate.

Look, I seldom bash a restaurant because I've been in the business and I know how hard it can be. I generally allow acres for benefit of the doubt. And despite my apparent negativity here, I'm not really trying to bash Tronco's. As a very typical, very average, very Italian-AMERICAN restaurant, it stands as an adequate representative of the genre. I'm just reiterating that, based on the build up, I expected more. The online “reviewers” who trumpet things like “highly recommended for anyone looking for a great Italian meal” and “one of the best Italian restaurants I have dined at in years” obviously don't know diddly squat about Italian food or Italian restaurants. Everything on the menu is the type of food I would expect to find anywhere in Rome. Georgia, that is. It is decent enough Italian-American fare, but there is very little by way of anything outstandingly Italian. Chicken Parm? A butter, cream, and cheese sauced fettuccine dish? Linguine with meatballs? Maryland Crab Cakes? Uffa! Mi dispiace, mama. Un stella o due per l'atmosfera, ma no stelle per il cibo.

Bottom line: Villa Tronco is a good, if somewhat pedestrian, Italian-American red-sauce joint. If you're looking for a nice Italian-ish place for a date night or for a family gathering and you're not really particular about authentic or high-end Italian food, it's perfect. It's not super-cheap but also not super-expensive. We had an app, two entrees, and a glass of wine on our ticket for fifty bucks. I mean, go soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. That said, I doubt we'll make it a regular stop on our occasional trips through the area. Which is probably good since I'm sure the locals and the faithful are already plucking chickens and heating up tar in anticipation of my return. But it is what it is. And what it is is just Olive Garden in classier digs.

Located at 1213 Blanding Street, Villa Tronco is open 11 to 3 and 5 to 10 Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 only on Saturday. They're closed on Sunday. Dress is casual, reservations are accepted but not required, and parking is metered on-street that is free after 6 pm. Call them at 803.256.7677 or find them online at