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!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: Giada, The Cromwell, Las Vegas, Nevada

A True Gem Among Rhinestones

Okay, anybody who knows me knows that I'm a particular fan of Giada De Laurentiis. I became a fan during her “Everyday Italian” days on Food Network, back when the network was actually worth watching. In addition to being a talented chef, I've always found her to be a nice person. I've actually met Giada, spoken with her, spent time with her and have frequently defended her against shallow detractors who criticize her for her appearance. Is there a more absurd reason to “hate” a person?

Anyway, I was excited when Giada made the announcement in 2014 that she was opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, joining the ranks of many other “celebrity” chefs with eponymous eateries there. And I was even more excited when I finally got the opportunity to dine at her signature place.

I don't much like Las Vegas in general. It's just not my scene. In the first place, with apologies to Elvis, the “bright light city” doesn't so much “set my soul on fire” as it just burns up my wallet. I'm not fond, for example, of shelling out ten dollars for a Coke and a candy bar. I don't gamble, I don't like crowds, I don't like noise, I don't like drunks, and I especially don't like crowds of noisy, gambling drunks. And I object to being accosted by grubby pornslappers who pop their smutty little cards at me every ten feet as I walk along The Strip. After all, why should I patronize them when I can, as the numerous rolling billboard trucks proclaim, have girls delivered “direct to your room” just like a pizza? Thank you. No.

I do, however, appreciate the vibrant Vegas food scene. Just about every “famous” chef I know either personally or through various media has a place in “The Entertainment Capital of the World.” Tom Colicchio, Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, Masahara Morimoto, Buddy Valastro, Joel Robuchon, Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck, Jose Andres, Robert Irvine......the list is extensive to say the least. But it was on Giada's place at The Cromwell that I was focused this trip.

We had a 9 p.m. reservation, but between being seriously jet lagged and frankly tired of all the throngs crowding The Strip, we showed up early with the intention of just sitting quietly at the bar until nine if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn't: thanks to a very friendly and accommodating staff, we were seated within about thirty minutes. But our relatively brief sojourn at the bar was quite comfortable and pleasant. We were attended to promptly and settled in to enjoy a nice Pinot Noir (hers) and a cool glass of Peroni (mine). When we were seated, we were quite well seated, thank you, at one of the coveted window tables overlooking The Strip below and the adjacent fountains of the Bellagio. The restaurant's huge retractable windows were open on a pleasant autumn evening, enabling us to take in all the dazzling sights and cacophonous sounds from a nice safe perch on the hotel's second floor.

The ambiance and décor are very much reflective of Giada, including works by her artist friend, Darren Quinn. Giada fans and viewers will recognize his “Amore” from her TV show set. There are also some wonderful portraits of her, her grandfather, Dino, and her beautiful grandmother, Silvana Mangano displayed near the bar. It's an elegant and sophisticated vibe that is at the same time quite understated and soothing in the midst of all the surrounding glitz and faux glamour.

I don't know where Giada (the restaurant) found Fred, but I wish he could be cloned or at the very least loaned out to train every server at every eating place in the country. Friendly, personable, efficient, and knowledgeable, Fred was a joy. He was perfectly professional without being the least bit pretentious or stuffy. He never hovered, but he was never far away. His familiarity with every dish was impressive, although I do wish he'd learn to pronounce “mascarpone.” The flat, American-accented “mahs-car-POHN” was a bit grating, but that's just the annoying purist in me. Fred's recommendations were spot on and he seemed genuinely pleased when we were genuinely pleased by them. Obviously somebody who enjoys his craft and is not just collecting a paycheck.

Whoever was running the kitchen the night we were there (I know it wasn't Giada) also obviously enjoys their craft and is extremely good at it. The food was absolutely delicious. Giada features a unique fusion of Giada De Lauretiis' personal “authentic Italian meets modern California” style. By and large, it's lighter fare that doesn't necessarily sacrifice any of the traditional Italian taste.

My wife was especially amazed by her ravioli with Brussels sprouts and brown butter. She has never met a Brussels sprout she enjoyed – until now. Her fulsome praise of the cook on the vegetable and her equally enthusiastic enjoyment of the delicately unctuous brown butter were the talk of the evening. My bucatini pasta dish was also enjoyable, with a sweetly tangy pomodoro sauce and perfectly cooked pasta. Well, the al dente texture was perfect. The pasta itself could have benefited from just a teensie bit more salt. I know a lot of places have to cook to the lowest common denominator of misinformed patrons who are convinced that the slightest amount of salt in their food will lead them straight to hardened arteries and an early grave, but I was somewhat disappointed that the cooks at Giada would fall into that. Giada knows, as every Italian does, that salt – in what some consider egregious amounts – is the only way to flavor pasta. There was a little dish of flake salt on our table, placed there to compliment some incredible bread, and I crushed and sprinkled the tiniest pinch of it over my dish to immediately discernible results. The minuscule addition made the tomato flavor in the sauce pop even more. But again, I'm a purist and a cook. Others may not have noticed or appreciated the difference.

And these were porzioni veramente italiane, truly Italian portions. No huge overflowing platters of food. These were perfectly plated individual portions, not great piles designed to feed ravenous hordes like you usually find in “Italian” places.

Speaking as I was of the bread, a complimentary plate of ciabatta and an olive oil rosemary bread was absolutely to die for when combined with a selection of condiments that included the aforementioned flake salt, some capers, some peperoncino, an herbed olive oil, and an insanely good lemon mascarpone butter. I'm definitely stealing that last one.

I'd also like to steal the hot cocoa souffle that capped our incredible meal. A fresh-baked hot chocolate souffle that was deflated tableside and filled with rich chocolate sauce and served next to a scoop of creamy marshmallow gelato. Buonissimo! Perfetto! Delizioso! And a whole bunch of other Italian superlatives.

Did this heavenly repast come cheap? Oh, hell no. My credit card went straight to ICU. But you know what? The food, the service, the atmosphere, the entire experience was worth every penny and I'll eagerly do it again next time I'm in town. Just don't think you're going to Olive Garden when you cross the threshold at Giada. The food is obviously superior to anything you'll ever get at such a place, but be aware that you'll get a lot less for a lot more.

Giada is located on the second floor of The Cromwell Hotel & Casino at 3595 S. Las Vegas Blvd. They serve a weekend brunch Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and are open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. those days. Monday through Thursday hours are 5 p.m until 10:30. Parking? Yeah, right. This is Vegas, baby. Reservations are not strictly required but are strongly suggested. Dress is golf course or business casual. But again, this is Vegas: don't be surprised by anything you see. Allow at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half for your dining experience. Call (855) 442-3271 or visit the website at .

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Want To Make The Kitchen Less Stressful? Follow Anthony Bourdain's “Religion”

A Place For Everything.......

I hear it all the time: “Why don't you open a restaurant?” My answer is usually along the lines of  “been there, done that” and besides, I like to cook. Nothing will spoil a love of cooking faster than running a restaurant. I'll bet I didn't want to go near a stove for six months after the last place I got out of. No, I'm perfectly happy with the occasional work I get as a personal chef and doing some small time catering here and there. But even at that I hear, “I just don't know how you do it. I could never deal with all that pressure.” Or, “Cooking is so stressful!” And for those who feel that way, I suppose it is. But the reason they feel cooking is such a stressful, pressure-ridden chore is because they are such a hopelessly disorganized mess. I've seen some of these people in action in the kitchen and it stresses me out just to watch them. But it doesn't have to be that way. The secret to calm, confident, efficient, and fun cooking is organization. The pros call it “mise en place.”

Mise en place (me-zahn-plahs) is one of those fancy French terms you learn in culinary school. The term literally translates to “setting in place” or “putting in place,” and the concept itself is ridiculously simple: everything has a place and you just need to get organized before you start. Mise en place is a method or a state of mind that, when properly and consistently applied in any kitchen, results in a smooth-flowing, time saving cooking process, thus enabling even a beginning home cook to efficiently produce delicious, quality meals. No pressure, no stress. The late chef Anthony Bourdain often referred to mise en place as his "religion."

Let's prepare some spaghetti sauce, okay? And we're gonna do it right; we're not gonna open a jar, were gonna make the sauce from scratch. “Oh, no!,” I hear you wail. “That's such a mess!” Nah-h-h. Not if you do it right.

First and most importantly, you need to read your recipe. All of it. All the way through. Ingredients and procedure. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for potential problems and stress.

Here's a sauce recipe of Rocco DiSpirito's that I particularly like:

3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
3 tbsp olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chicken stock
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt to taste

In a large saucepan, cook the garlic and onion in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the garlic is tender and the onions are translucent, not brown. Add the red pepper flakes to taste.

Add all the tomato products. Pour the chicken stock into one of the 28-oz cans. Fill it the rest of the way with water and add that and the sugar to the pot. Stir and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and cover. Simmer the sauce for about 1 hour. The sauce should be fairly thin, but not watery and very smooth. Uncover and simmer for 3 minutes if it is too thin for your taste; add a little water if it seems thick.

Okay, did you read all that? If you did, you found out you're going to need ten ingredients, five of which are canned, jarred, or bottled and two of which will require cutting and/or chopping. So you'll need a can opener, a knife, and a cutting surface, right? A couple of things need to be measured, so that means measuring cups and spoons. You need a saucepan with a cover and a couple of spoons, one to stir with and one to use for tasting. And you need to allow about an hour for cooking. And don't forget to include some additional time up front for all the prep work.

Now, I know a lot of folks who would look at that recipe and proceed like this: they would start by going to the shelf or cupboard for a saucepan. Then they walk over to the stove and place it on a burner. Then they go over to the pantry and find some olive oil and carry it back to the stove. Next, they hunt for some measuring spoons and then head back to the stove to measure in the oil. Now it's back to the pantry again to get some garlic and then a search for a knife or a garlic press. The knife is easy: that's in the drawer with the silverware. But where in the world is that garlic press? Oh, yeah. It's under the cabinet with the aluminum foil and the cereal. Once the garlic is crushed, it's back to the pantry for an onion. Then they locate a cutting board somewhere and go back to the counter where they left the knife. After they chop the onion, they go back to the stove and turn on the burner. Now they add in the garlic and onion and then they look for a wooden spoon with which to stir it. Then it's back to the pantry for the tomato products, moving quickly so the garlic and onions don't burn. Find the can opener in the same cabinet where the garlic press was and open all the cans of tomato product. Ooops! Forgot the red pepper flakes! Back to the pantry. Guess what? No red pepper flakes. Too late now. We'll just have to leave them out. So, now the tomato products are in. Back to the pantry for the chicken stock. Locate the can opener again and open the can. Find a measuring cup – it's in the drawer with the dish towels – and measure out the stock. Over to the sink to get some water then back to the pantry for the sugar. Find the measuring spoons again and measure out the sugar, then go back over to the sink and get the can with the stock and the water. Then over to the stove to dump it all in the pan and stir it up. Go get the salt shaker off the dining room table and then go back to the stove to add the salt to the sauce. Go over to the silverware drawer and get a spoon, then step back over to the stove to taste the sauce. Now, just figure out which lid fits the pan, cover it and the hard part is done! Whew!

That was way harder than it needed to be. And if that's anywhere near your method, no wonder you hate to cook.

Have you ever watched a cooking show on TV and noticed that the chef had all the pots, pans and tools right at hand and all the ingredients neatly laid out in little bowls so they could just dump the prepared contents of the bowls into the waiting pans and create perfect dishes? That's the way the big time TV chefs do it, baby. You don't see them running back to the fridge for a carrot, now do you? Nope. A whole bunch of people in the prep kitchen make sure that everything is laid out and ready before the host chef ever smiles at the camera. That's why it looks so easy on TV. Emeril might be the one to “bam!” his way through the recipe, but there's a lot of folks working off camera to make sure that his mise en place is set up the way he needs it. Well, in your kitchen, you're the prep cook.

Here's the way it should go: after you've read the recipe, clear the decks. Prepare your work area. Get rid of junk and clutter that will only get in your way as you try to work. Clean off counters and work spaces and clean up any dirty dishes you've got lying around. If you start work in a dirty, cluttered, disorganized kitchen, you're just ratcheting up the stress level.

Now set about gathering your ingredients and your equipment. Most kitchen disasters happen when you get halfway through preparing a dish only to discover that you don't have a necessary ingredient. It's those "Darn! I thought I had some of that" surprises that can ruin a cooking experience. To say nothing of a dish.

After you've got your ingredient ducks in a row, work on your equipment. Any necessary pots or pans as well as measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, blenders, choppers, spatulas, etc. Get them all together in one place so you're not running all over the kitchen after them.

Open all the cans, measure out all the liquid and dry ingredients and place them in handy prep bowls or containers. You know what works well for me? I love the little plastic cups from individual serving fruits or applesauce. You know, the kind you pack in lunches. I've got stacks of 'em and they make great prep cups. Chop up the vegetables and put them in prep bowls or containers. This is called making things "cooking ready." If you have ingredients that are going to be cooked at the same time, such as in a mirepoix or soffrito, it's okay to combine them at this stage. Now, you just assemble all the prepared ingredients into the prepared cookware and you're done with the hard part, except it wasn't nearly as hard because you were organized from the start.

Running all over the kitchen looking for the salt or a baking pan or a wooden spoon after you've started your recipe wastes time and energy. Preparing ahead of time allows you to cook without having to stop and assemble items, important in recipes with time constraints. Mise en place also allows you to cook in an orderly fashion. Let's face it, trying to chop the carrots while the onions are sauteing is a good way to foul up both. Poor preparation usually leads to poor outcomes. And mise en place is particularly beneficial if you are preparing more than one recipe or one with multiple steps. For instance, if my wife is baking an Italian cream cake, I'll set up her “mise” for her so that all the ingredients for the cake are laid out in one area, the stuff for the chocolate ganache is set up in another area, and the ingredients for the frosting are prepped and waiting in another spot. Having everything laid out in advance enables her to move efficiently from one preparation step to the next, just like those TV chefs!

Another huge and often overlooked aspect of mise en place involves clean up. Since mise en place starts and ends with everything in its place, an essential part of the process is cleaning up as you go. Don't let dishes stack up and accumulate as you're cooking. Clean them up and put them away as you use them. Mess equals stress. Clean as you go. That way, when you're finished cooking, instead of a daunting pile of dirty dishes and cookware, you have a complete meal, a clean kitchen and a low stress level. Win, win! And your kitchen is ready for the next round.

Honestly, I cannot fathom how some people function in kitchens that are disorganized to begin with with and wind up looking like war zones by the time they finish cooking a meal. I am acquainted with several people who just throw things into drawers and cabinets without regard to what goes with what. Mixing bowls live with canned goods, plastic wrap resides with frying pans, silverware inhabits two or three separate drawers. Yeesh! People, the department stores are full of nifty organizers to help you put your kitchen together more efficiently. If I had to go on safari every time I needed a measuring spoon, I'd probably get sick of cooking, too.

And then there are the people who employ every dish in the kitchen in the preparation of a meal and just stack all the used cookware in tremendous piles. I kid you not, I once knew a woman who stacked her dirty dishes on the floor when she ran out of sink and counter space. I don't have to tell you how nasty that is, do I? And then these people survey the nightmare they've created in the simple preparation of a pot of spaghetti and wail about what a chore cooking is! Please!

My drawers, cabinets, and countertops are neat and organized and I know where everything is. I don't have baked on messes on my cooktop because if something spills or boils over while I'm cooking, I clean it up on the spot. I keep a sink full of hot, soapy water on hand as I'm preparing dishes and as I use a pan or a bowl or a utensil, I wash it and put it away. The stand mixer and the food processor get cleaned and put back in their corners as soon as I'm through with them. When I finish preparing a four-course meal, my sink, countertops, and stovetop don't look much different than when I started. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Admittedly, on the surface mise en place sounds like a lot of extra time, extra work, and extra dishes. But it's really not and it's also the best route to less stressful cooking. Proper preparation will make any cooking experience a more efficient, productive, and enjoyable one. And the confidence you gain from being more efficient and productive may lead you to try more ambitious and more flavorful recipes, making you an all around better cook. And one who's considerably less stressed.

Mise en place – “set in place.” If, like Anthony Bourdain, you make it your “religion” in the kitchen, cooking will never again seem like such a stressful chore.

Buon appetito!

Friday, October 25, 2019

Why I Love To Hate Olive Garden

It's Good But It Could Be So Much Better

If you're a regular reader of the scribbles that occupy this space you're already aware of my opinion of the ubiquitous “Italian” eatery that is Olive Garden. For lack of a better term, let's call it a “love-hate relationship.”

My advice to anybody seeking an Italian dining experience has always been, “Well, if there isn't an Italian restaurant around, there's always Olive Garden.” Truth be told, the fast-casual subsidiary of Florida-based Darden Restaurants, Inc. knows they're not anywhere near authentically Italian. They actually style themselves as an “American Italian restaurant” or an “Italian-themed” restaurant. And if all the charming European architecture and the rich Tuscan colors and the wine and the dishes with Italian sounding names tend to make people think it's an Italian restaurant, well......the corporate parent is not going to work too hard to correct the misconception.

In fact, they used to rather encourage it by touting the training their staff received at the so-called “Culinary Institute of Tuscany,” which is actually a small Tuscan resort hotel and restaurant in Riserva di Fizzano that rents itself out to OG in the off-season to make a few euros and to provide a nice vacation for the company's managers, many of whom report that their “training” consists of sitting around for a couple of hours discussing spices or fresh produce. Then they pose for pictures with an Italian chef. The pics go to the hometown newspapers and the employees go sightseeing on the corporate dime. Ah, but they do tour a winery, visit a fresh food market, and eat in some local restaurants. By those standards, I should qualify as an Olive Garden master chef. Once word about the “Institute” started getting around, however, Darden kind of backed off advertising it.

Unsurprisingly, a poll conducted a couple of years ago found that thirty-nine percent of Americans thought that Olive Garden was as Italian as Italian gets. Uffa! I weep for those thirty-nine percent. And therein lies the real problem; the American perception of Italian cuisine. Let’s face it, most people think of Italian food in terms of pizza and spaghetti. Therefore, anyplace that serves either pizza or spaghetti is an “Italian restaurant.” More so if they serve both! And the greatest Italian chef to come to the average American mind is Chef Boyardee. Olive Garden is kind of an example of “cogito ergo sum;” Americans think it's Italian, therefore it is.

Did I tell you about the time I ate in an Olive Garden in Alabama and commented to the waiter about the spaghetti? It was overcooked and bland. The sauce was okay for something that came out of a bag. The waiter came by and asked, “How is everything?” So I told him. I asked him point-blank if the pasta came pre-packaged, refrigerated, and was just thrown into hot water and he said, “Yes, I think so.” Then he asked why I asked. I explained that the pasta was a little past al dente and that it had no flavor, as if there had been absolutely no salt added to the water. He commented, “People like you can always tell.” People like me. In other words, people who don't consider the aforementioned Chef Boyardee to be the ultimate in Italian cuisine.

And the reason the pasta lacked salt came to light a couple of years ago when an activist investor revealed that Darden/Olive Garden had stopped adding salt to its pasta cooking water in order to make the pots last longer! Dio mio in cielo! Cooking pasta with NO SALT? No frickin' wonder it's so utterly flavorless. Hey, you know tomatoes are awfully acidic. Maybe they should consider leaving them out of the tomato sauce to extend the life of those pots, too. What an utterly moronic affront to Italian cooking.

The investor published a 294 page report outlining everything he thought was wrong with Olive Garden. He mentioned the salt issue, for sure, but one of his other complaints was that, for an “Italian” restaurant, Olive Garden didn't serve enough Italian food. Fried lasagna? Really? Betcha they didn't learn that one at the “Culinary Institute.” How about the “loaded nacho chips” they tried to unload on us? Or the “Italiano Burger” with fries, created by a corporate chef concerned that Olive Garden was losing “burger craving” customers to places like Applebee's and Chili's. Of course, that particular chef got his start slinging pizza in Atlanta, so there you are.

Remember “pastachetti” and “soffatelli?” If you don't, that's okay; they're better forgotten. They were a couple of great examples of “if you can't make it, fake it.” There was nothing remotely Italian about these dishes. Somebody at corporate HQ in Florida just created some words that ended in vowels and added them to the menu for gullible American rubes to scarf down. They were, as Mashed writer Chris Heasman described them, “about as Italian as a man in lederhosen eating haggis on the banks of the Seine.” Gee, I wish I'd written that. The best I've come up with is that the food at Olive Garden is redolent of Rome and Florence. Rome, Georgia and Florence, Alabama, that is.

And the totally wacky thing is that after making up Italian names, when they come up with something that really is authentically Italian, they disguise it with an American name so Americans will know what it is! Case in point: arancini. Olive Garden calls them “risotto bites.” Oh well, at least give them credit for not calling them fried rice balls.

And does Olive Garden have something going on with Tyson or Perdue? They must because they seem to want to add chicken to everything. Chicken Parmigiana, Chicken Carbonara, Chicken Scampi, Stuffed Chicken Marsala, Zoodles Primavera with Grilled Chicken. (I can't believe I just typed the word “zoodles.”) You have no idea how annoyed I get when I order Fettuccine Alfredo and the server asks, “Do you want chicken with that?” (Sigh) There's nothing remotely Italian about Fettuccine Alfredo to begin with. But the American penchant for adding chicken – or any meat, for that matter – to pasta dishes completely defies Italian culinary principles. When you order a pasta dish, you do so because you want to taste the pasta. You don't want it smothered in cream sauce, you don't want it drowned in a quart of red sauce to which two cups of sugar have been added – although considering the dire lack of salt in Olive Garden's pasta, maybe those options aren't so bad – and you don't want it piled high with chunks of chicken. With apologies to carnivorous American palates, in Italy a plate of lightly dressed pasta is considered a meal. It doesn't “need” meat, as I've so often been told it does.

Oh, and by the way Olive Garden, all that up front soup and salad and breadstick stuff? You're doing it all wrong. It might be customarily American to serve soup or salad before a meal and to have loads of bread on the table as an “appetizer,” but that's not the Italian way of doing things. In an authentic Italian meal, the pasta comes out first. That's why they called it a “primo.” Soups and salads are served later in the meal progression and bread is an accompaniment not a course of its own.

But then that's not what Americans expect and you've got to give people what they expect if you want to stay in business. I've had many Italian friends who operate restaurants tell me that they have to serve stuff they'd never eat at home because customers expect it. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example. And quantities? Dai! Abbondanza be damned, no self-respecting Italian would ever eat as much food as gets piled on plates in American restaurants. The average serving portioned out to a single American diner would feed a family of four in an Italian household. My Italian friends know this, of course, but they say, “If I don't serve it like this, people will just go to Olive Garden.”

Believe me, I'm not alone in my low opinion of Olive Garden. There's even a Twitter feed for Olive Garden haters. One of the tweets says, “Cooking noodles doesn't make you Italian. On behalf of America, I'd like to apologize to Italy for @olivegarden.”

Don't get me wrong; I do eat at Olive Garden from time to time. Usually when I have gift cards someone has given me or when there's one located right next to my hotel or something. The “love” part of my relationship comes in that there are actually some very good things to be found at Olive Garden. The chicken gnocchi soup, for example, while not particularly “Italian,” isn't bad at all. I've duplicated the recipe and my wife likes mine better, but the original is still pretty good. Especially when they manage to get more than one or two gnocchi in the bowl. The “hate” part, however, is that there are also so many things that could be SO much better.

I could probably find 294 pages worth of my own Olive Garden criticisms but I'll spare you. Bottom line, if you're looking for Italian food, find one of the thousands of little Mom and Pop Italian places dotting the culinary landscape across the length and breadth of America. Ninety-nine-point-nine- percent of them will be Italian-American places but even the worst of them will be a better example of the cuisine than Olive Garden.

Or you might get lucky and stumble upon a place like Violino Ristorante Italiano in Winchester, Virginia. Now that's Italian! Or Galleria Umberto in Boston's North End. Best Sicilian pizza this side of Palermo. There used to be great places in Charlotte, North Carolina (Zarelli's) and in Orange Park, Florida (Ristorante Sarnelli), both sadly gone but fondly remembered just because they were so memorable. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper. I found some decent Italian food at an Italian family-run place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It's called – are you ready for this? – BLL Rotisserie Factory. Seriously. They're definitely not trading on some faux-Italian name, are they? But they serve some good Italian food, despite the funky name. (The specialty of the house, as you might guess, is rotisserie chicken.) Good Italian food is out there. You just have to look for it.

If, on the other hand, you're willing to settle for mediocre fast-casual fare, stuff that goes from truck to freezer to pot to plate like the stuff served at Applebee's, Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, and a dozen other chain places – except with vaguely Italian-sounding names – there's always Olive Garden.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Uh-Oh. The Macaroni and Cheese Is Out Of The Bag At Panera

The Big “Secret” Is Revealed

The Internet exploded the other day when a now former Panera Bread employee apparently “revealed” the anything-but-secret secret about how the fast casual chain prepares and serves its signature macaroni and cheese.

In a brief clip filmed behind the counter and later uploaded to Tik Tok, the employee is seen dipping a plastic bag full of frozen macaroni and cheese into a pot of hot water and then pulling it out and emptying the steaming contents into a bowl for service.

I don't know, but I'm guessing the reason behind this attempted “outing” was to cause some kind of embarrassment to Panera, an outfit that prides itself on its fresh, all-natural fare. It's like “lookee-lookee! Their fresh macaroni and cheese is frozen!!”

Excuse me while I stifle a yawn.

If this myth-busting Snopes wannabe is expecting me to pick up my picket sign and go protest in front of my local store, she's going to be sadly disappointed. See, with four generations of family and numerous friends in the food service business, I know a little something about how it works and this is far from a secret or a surprise.

What? Did you really think there was a Michelin-starred chef in a white jacket and a toque just standing back in the local Panera kitchen waiting to make a single serving of your favorite side dish fresh to order? That he was cooking each individual portion of pasta one at a time and making the creamy cheese sauce from scratch so he or she could pour it over your dish when it was ready to hit the window? Reality check time. That ain't the way it works at Panera, Olive Garden, Red Lobster or just about any other high-volume chain restaurant you can think of.

And it ain't the way it works in my kitchen either. I've got freezers jam packed with goodies that I did, indeed, craft from high-quality, super-fresh ingredients that I then portioned out, vacuum-sealed, and stuck in the freezer for later use. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's common industry practice. A chef, Michelin-starred or not, working in a corporate kitchen somewhere, developed the recipe. The high-quality, super-fresh ingredients were assembled and prepared according to the chef's standards and under his or her supervision. Then the results were portioned and quickly frozen in order to maintain that fresh quality without having to add a ton of preservatives. I do it commercially for my clients, I do it at home for my family; it's no big deal. C'mon! Have you never made too much of something and wound up freezing part of it and eating it later? Was there anything wrong with it when you did? Of course not.

Trust me, I've had cooks in my restaurants who just loved to “play” with my recipes. Add a little of this, leave out a little of that. You know, “personalize” it. Can you imagine what would happen if every barely above minimum wage cook in every Panera Bread restaurant across the country were allowed to make the macaroni and cheese “their way” from scratch? Even if they “followed the recipe,” it wouldn't taste the same from one location to the next and you wouldn't be happy, now would you?

I remember eating at a chain place years ago where the cooks apparently had a little leeway in the preparation of certain things. As a result, I got a Fettuccine Alfredo that had enough nutmeg in the sauce as to render it not only unrecognizable but also inedible. And you know what? I've never been back to any location of that chain from that day to this.

Creativity is fine for fine dining, but when it comes to chain places, consistency is key. Customers expect the macaroni and cheese at the Panera in Kookamunga to taste the same as the stuff they had in the store down the street. If the cook in Kookamunga likes, let's say nutmeg, and is given free rein to prepare the dish “his way,” they're going to have a very dissatisfied customer. So yeah, they make the stuff in big batches and freeze it. So what?

As a Panera spokesperson told CNN, “Mac and cheese is made off-site with our proprietary recipe developed by our chefs and using our sourced ingredients that meet our standards for our clean menu offerings,” adding that the meals are shipped frozen so the company can leave out certain preservatives that don’t meet the chain’s clean standards.

Technically, what they're doing at Panera is a form of the very trendy and popular “sous vide” method of cooking. It's actually the best way for a restaurant – or anybody, for that matter – to reheat macaroni and cheese from a frozen or refrigerated state. Tossing it in a pan on the stove or letting “Chef Mic” (industry speak for a microwave) do it usually turns out badly. Heating the product in a gentle, temperature-controlled water bath brings it up to serving temperature gradually while ensuring that the sauce stays emulsified with no breaking or scorching. Again, consistent quality counts.

By the way, have you ever wondered how some high-end steak places can produce such consistently killer steaks in such short periods of time? Pssst.......sous vide. Everybody does it.

I guess somewhere just south of a hundred-thousand people – probably more by now – thought the little clip was newsworthy. And apparently Panera thought that the budding videographer's talents were best applied elsewhere. Seems the pasta wasn't the only thing in hot water around there. So now she's on Tik Tok crying salty tears about having been canned, essentially for trying to make her employer look bad. Boo-hoo! Sorry, you're lucky they didn't sue you.

You know, I'm a sucker for good macaroni and cheese and I've never tried Panera's. I can vouch for their soups and sandwiches but maybe it's time I branch out a bit. is lunchtime and there is a Panera Bread store not far from here. Yeah, I think I'll do that. After all, I ain't afraid of no hot water. Care to join me?

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review: Violino Ristorante Italiano, Winchester, Virginia

A Pleasant Surprise

Located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the northern Virginia city of Winchester is known for a lot of things. It was the first city south of the Potomac River to install electric light. It's home to Shenandoah University and to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Since 1924, the city has hosted the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. George Washington slept there – many times. The founding father spent much of his young life in and around Winchester, working as a surveyor. The city has a deep Revolutionary War connection and an even richer Civil War history. And country music icon Patsy Cline called Winchester home and is buried there in the city's Shenandoah Memorial Park.

Add one more thing to the list: one of the finest authentic family owned and operated Italian restaurants in which I have ever enjoyed an outstanding meal.

We were in town for business and, at the end of a long day, were looking for a good Italian place for a late dinner. Not knowing much about the area, we just Googled. It seems there are lots of Italian places in Winchester, including a few that delivered to our hotel. But my wife was adamant: she wanted a “nice” place. So we picked one that looked especially “nice.” It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Violino Ristorante Italiano is located on North Loudoun Street near the intersection with East Piccadilly Street on the northern end of the quaint pedestrian mall that spans several blocks of historic Old Town Winchester. It is one of several “Italian” places dotting the mall landscape but the only one that is un ristorante italiano vero. The others are probably very nice places, but like the mall on which they are located, they are pedestrian; typical Italian-American pizza and/or pasta joints. Violino Ristorante Italiano is much different.

Friuli-born Franco Stocco attended culinary school in Venice in the late 1960s. He and his wife, Marcella and their children moved to Washington, DC in 1985 where Franco continued to hone his craft in DC-area Italian eateries. While visiting Winchester, they spotted the building on the mall, found that it was available, and in 1995 fulfilled their dream of opening a place of their own.

But unlike your typical red-sauce joint, Franco kept his focus on his northern Italian roots and specialized in dishes not normally found in “Italian” restaurants. For instance, there's Portobello D’Autunno, Franco’s creation of baked portobello mushroom topped with a wild mushroom puree, goat cheese, and rosemary. Or Coniglio di San Remo, a Liguria-style braised rabbit, prepared with fresh herbs, white wine, and Taggiasche olives and served over soft polenta. Or perhaps a Galletto al Limone, a grilled boneless cornish hen marinated and pressed with rosemary, garlic and lemon and served with roasted potatoes. How's that stack up against the usual offerings of chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs? See why I was thrilled when I walked through the door?

The décor and ambiance are delightfully authentic. There's outdoor seating available on the mall, but my wife and I opted for an intimate tavola per due inside the small but tastefully and artistically laid out dining room. Functional but comfortable wooden chairs and tables covered with gold linen tablecloths populate a room painted a rich Tuscan gold and accented with aesthetically pleasing artwork, much of which reflects the dominant musical motif one might expect of a place called “Violino.”

Service was unfailingly friendly and impressively professional. The staff was the perfect blend of attentive and invisible, just the way they should be. Specials were described, orders were taken, and food was delivered promptly and efficiently. Water glasses were kept full and, although never seeming to hover, servers were available exactly when you needed them. We came in about an hour before closing and, even though we were aware of the fact that time was marching on, in typical Italian fashion, we were never made to feel that way. Being in the business ourselves, we're savvy enough to know not to linger, but nobody gave the slightest indication of the, “Hey, don't you dummies know it's almost closing time?” you sometimes get at some places.

The food was indescribable. My wife, a sucker for seafood, was almost set on the Lobster Pansotti Gondoliera, lobster ravioli in a lemon Parmesan cream sauce crowned with a whole cold water lobster tail. But when the server described a delectable-sounding duck dish with orange sauce and house-made gnocchi as one of the specials, she went there instead and was so glad she did. She savored every morsel of the perfectly prepared anatra, a dish that's easy to screw up, and thoroughly enjoyed the fresh, tender gnocchi. My fatta in casa linguine aglio e olio was superb; a simple dish executed exceedingly well.

To my unrestrained delight, they featured my favorite Birra Moretti, a traditional golden lager with nice aromas of malt and hops and with a slightly bitter finish. I much prefer it to the more commonly served Peroni, which was also available on the extensive wine and beer list. My wife was very pleased with her selection of a house moscato.

We deliberately saved room for dolce. Our choice was a decadent molten lava chocolate cake topped with a wonderful vanilla and honey gelato and garnished with an appropriate little chocolate treble clef.

Not only was it a delicious evening, it was a fun one as well. Somebody was having a birthday and instead of having the waitstaff come out and clap while singing “Happy Birthday,” the chef/owner himself, Franco Stocco, went to the table and sang a traditional Italian folk song. And while in the midst of our postprandial torpor, my wife and I had a very pleasant conversation with chef/son Riccardo Stocco.

Is Violino a little pricier than the run-of-the-mill “Italian” joint? Yep. Is it worth it? Oh, yeah, emphatically so. Violino Ristorante Italiano is now at the very top of our “must stop whenever we're within a hundred miles or so” list and we would highly recommend it to anyone seeking an authentic Italian dining experience.

Violino Ristorante Italiano is located at 181 North Loudoun Street in Winchester, Virginia. They are open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30am to 2:00 pm and Saturday from noon to 2:00 pm. Dinner service is Tuesday through Saturday from 5:00pm to 9:00 pm. Violino is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Outdoor dining is available, weather permitting. Reservations are accepted but not required and attire is business casual. The street directly in front of the restaurant is part of the pedestrian-only mall, but parking is available on Piccadilly Street and in nearby parking areas. Call them at 540-667-8006 or visit the website at

We may have found Violino to be a pleasant surprise, but don't be surprised to find us there whenever we're in the area.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Few “For Life” Things No Kitchen Should Be Without

Essentials That Will Probably Never Have To Be Replaced

Maybe you're like me and you've got kids getting ready to set up housekeeping. Or maybe you're just setting up housekeeping for yourself. Either way, there are a few kitchen essentials you must buy, either for yourself or as a gift. These are things that will be used over and over and the beauty is that once you've bought them, provided you take proper care of them, you'll likely never have to buy them again. They are the “for life” things no kitchen should be without.

First of all, a good chef's knife. And I do mean “good.” Don't go down to Walmart and spend twenty dollars on a set of five generic “kitchen knives.” Go someplace like Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table and drop a hundred or so on one high quality 8 or 10-inch chef's knife. Henckels, Wüsthof, and Global are among the gold standard brands. Or you can do what a lot of pros do – myself included – and hit a restaurant supply store to get the same kind of knife without the expensive brand name or price tag. Dexter-Russell, Mercer, and Victorinox make knives that restaurant line cooks use to mow through literal tons of meats and vegetables over the course of years and they can be purchased for about half (or less) of what the big name kitchen store brands will cost. I've got both kinds, but I'm a notorious overachiever.

A cheap knife is a bad investment. In the first place, you'll wind up replacing it in a fairly short time. It'll be dull right out of the package and will pretty much stay that way. You'll be constantly sharpening a cheap knife which will never hold a decent edge. And there's nothing more dangerous in a kitchen than a dull knife. Then the blade will break or the handle will come off or something. You can buy a ten-dollar knife ten times or you can buy a hundred-dollar knife once. Your choice. Make it the smart one.

A word of advice, though, when buying a knife for a gift: don't. A knife has to "feel right” in order to be of any use. The shape of the handle, the comfort of the grip, the overall balance, the weight. These are all things that factor in to owning a good knife, so maybe it's best to give a gift certificate of some sort and let the person you're buying for pick out their own. Just a thought. And if you're buying for yourself, don't buy anything you can't pick up and hold in your hand at the store.

Once you get a good knife in your hands, maintain it. DON'T throw it in a drawer with a bunch of loose junk and DON'T run it through the dishwasher. Get a honing steel and learn how to use it and keep the knife sharpened. You don't actually “sharpen” a knife with a steel; the steel helps maintain the alignment of the edge but it doesn't “sharpen.” For that you need a good manual or electric sharpener, a double-sided whetstone, or a professional to do it for you. But if you get a quality knife and maintain it, you'll likely never have to buy another one. I have knives in my kitchen that my mother got in the 1950s. They're right up there on the magnetic strip with my Henckels and my Victorinox. Talk about a “for life” purchase: they have been in Mom's kitchen or mine literally my entire life. (So far, anyway.)

Two more kitchen essentials that will wear like iron are – you guessed it – made of iron. Cast-iron. “Oh, that's so old-fashioned” or “Oh, that's so heavy.” Yeah, fine, whatever. I've got all the fancy-schmancy stainless steel and anodized aluminum non-stick cookware there is and I still wouldn't trade my 10.25-inch Lodge cast-iron skillet or my 6-quart Lodge enameled cast-iron Dutch oven for any or all of it.

There is nothing – let me hit that word again – nothing as durable and as versatile as cast-iron. I can't think of anything I can't do in one or the other of those essential kitchen tools. Fry, sear, braise, boil, bake. Yeah, bake. You can make killer cornbread in the skillet and great raised yeast bread in the Dutch oven. I've got a real, honest-to-goodness electric deep-fryer in my kitchen and I've got a 6-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven and a thermometer. Guess which I use more often. I make a lot of soups and sauces. Care to ponder what I make them in? And you want to talk about a non-stick surface? My well-used and well-seasoned fifty-year-old cast-iron skillet has a shiny patina that is as smooth as glass and there ain't nuthin' that sticks to it. Not even eggs. I challenge anybody to get the same kind of a sear on a steak cooked in cast-iron using an aluminum non-stick pan. And try taking that fancy aluminum pan off the stovetop and throwing it directly into a 450 degree oven. Nope. Give me cast-iron any day.

Besides being durable and versatile, cast-iron is dirt cheap. You can get a decent pan for twenty-five or thirty bucks tops. An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven can be had for less than a hundred, depending on the size. Unless you really want to go out of your mind and drop $250 to $350 on a Le Creuset brand. Talk about paying for a name. Good ol' American-made Lodge, right out of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, does everything the overhyped and overpriced French stuff does for less than half the cost. And it's just as “pretty.” Best of all, if you take care of it, you'll pass it on to your kids or grandkids someday. Seriously. Cast-iron is the definition of a “for life” kitchen purchase.

And then there's the appliance I couldn't imagine being without: a KitchenAid stand mixer. Yeah, this one's gonna cost ya: around $250 for the base model, about $350 for the fancier ones, and as much as $600 for the pro-line models. Why would you want to pay that much when you can get a Sunbeam Mixmaster at Walmart for $59.99? You want to know how many Sunbeam Mixmasters I burned up before I answered that question myself?

KitchenAid stand mixers can do anything but fly – and I wouldn't put it past some creative genius to get one to do that, too. They've certainly got the power for it. The company has been around for a hundred years. It was started in 1919 by the Hobart Manufacturing Company, the same folks who still make the commercial mixers you'll find in restaurants and bakeries all over the country. Doesn't matter if you're whipping up light, fluffy egg whites or bearing down on double batches of the heaviest bread dough, the KitchenAid can do the job. (It was those double batches of bread dough that did in the aforementioned Mixmasters, by the way.) Look in any restaurant kitchen today and you'll probably see a KitchenAid. Watch all the cooking shows on TV. KitchenAids again. (Alton Brown's has flames painted on it.) And KitchenAid has been the standard in home kitchens for a century. Okay, so it's heavier than a broken heart. It's also dependable as a sunrise and durable as a mother's love. A KitchenAid stand mixer is one “for life” purchase you won't want to be without.

Hey, I'm not saying these things are all you need in your kitchen. I've got everything in my kitchen from bread machines to induction burners to immersion circulators and even the latest “go-to” gadgets like the air fryer and the instant pot. But the four things I mentioned; the knife, the skillet, the Dutch oven, and the stand mixer, are essentials that, if properly cared for, will continue to serve your needs for years to come and will probably never have to be replaced. “They don't make things like they used to,” you say? Yeah, sometimes they do. You just have to go out and look for them.

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Why Must Restaurants Be So Damn LOUD?

It Used To Be Merely Annoying. Now It's Nearly Intolerable

As I frequently remind readers – and family and friends and just about anybody else who will listen – sono vecchio: I'm old. And sometimes cranky and ill-tempered as well, especially when something gets me started on a path toward a rant. And one such thing is the current trend toward ludicrously loud restaurants.

Now, in fairness to myself, it's not just a matter of temperament. Within the last year or so I have developed something the audiologists refer to as “hyperacusis,” defined as “a highly debilitating hearing disorder characterized by an increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and volume ranges of sound (a collapsed tolerance to usual environmental sound).” Thankfully, mine is a very mild case and its only manifested itself in one ear. But believe me, it's enough to make me wince, cringe, and occasionally cry out when, say, the screams of an infant echo off the hard, bare walls, floors, and ceilings of a modern eatery and reverberate through my skull. Before hyperacusis, I found this merely annoying. Now it's nearly intolerable.

Once upon a time, restaurants – finer dining establishments in particular – were lush, plush places. There were rich draperies adorning the windows, carpeting covering the floors, paneling on the walls, acoustic tiles on low ceilings, thick padding on the chairs and booth seats, heavy fabric table linens, and wall hangings of various sorts. If there was music playing, it was of a soft background nature. All of this cushiness resulted in a gentle, refined, muted atmosphere. One in which you could sit down in quiet enjoyment of the food on offer and engage in conversation with your companion or companions.

Nowadays? You're lucky if you can hear yourself think.

Used to be, two of Guy Fieri's three “D”s – diners and dives – were the only spots where this was a problem. Usually a little farther down the upscale spectrum, such places were pretty low-fringe. Lots of tile and chrome and plastic and very few plush accoutrements. You generally expected a noisy atmosphere and you were seldom disappointed. But today it seems like even the finest of five-star establishments are out to strip down to the bare walls and to be as “industrial” as they can be.

Case in point: Meril on Girod Street in New Orleans. Billed as a “casual Emeril Lagasse spot” serving “New American” fare, the service at Meril is unreproachable and the food indescribable. I had an Iberico ham dish I'm still praising weeks later and my wife still salivates over her perfect rib eye. But if you've ever been in a packed sports bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on an Iron Bowl game day at the moment the Crimson Tide definitively rolls over the Auburn Tigers to clinch the win, you'll get an idea of what the atmosphere at Meril is like on an average Friday dinner service.

My wife and I sat at a beautiful hardwood table in beautiful hardwood chairs amidst a plethora of hard, unyielding surfaces at a roughly ninety-degree right angle to one another, hands touching above the table and knees touching beneath, scarcely an arm's length apart and completely unable to hear one another without leaning in and shouting in each other's ears or faces. Romantic it was not. When the waiter came over and shouted at me regarding my order, I shouted back at him, attempting to explain my hearing difficulty and directing him to attempt to communicate with my wife, who could at least nominally understand what he was saying/shouting. She would, in turn, point, sign, and shout to me and thus convey whatever information the server was striving to disseminate. There were at least two large tables nearby filled with people celebrating birthdays or something and being served dishes that featured literal fireworks. And even at the surrounding “quieter” four and six-top tables, diners were all reduced to shouting at one another, adding to the general din of unrelenting sound bouncing off unpadded, unadorned walls, floors, windows, and ceilings and hard furnishings. We were expecting my son to arrive in town at any moment and when he called me, I felt rather than heard his call and had to step out into the relative peace and quiet of a busy New Orleans street to answer it, the crowd gathered outside being much quieter than the one inside. Four of my five senses will always remember fondly the experience they had at Meril. The fifth one? Hearing? Not so much.

And it's not just the high-dollar, big city places. There's a new eatery downtown in the tiny rural hamlet where we live. My wife and I decided to check it out the other night. Shades of Meril! Brick walls, stone floors, high metal ceilings, wood furnishings. Only this was a “family” bar and grill, so in addition to the boisterous bedlam created by the adult diners, there was the added element of screeching children and bawling babies factored in to the general cacophony. The food was good, but as we were leaving we noticed an adjacent outdoor patio. Guess where we'll sit next time. Even if it's raining.

On the other side of the coin, we were dining at one of our favorite family-owned Italian places recently. And it was packed; easily a hundred-twenty people or more occupying nearly every available seat. And yet, as we sat in the midst of this sea of noisy humanity, we were able to talk to one another and to interact with our server in normal, conversational tones. Why? Because it's “old school:” low, acoustic-tiled ceiling, padded seats, draped windows – lots of sound-absorbing elements in the construction and décor.

It's not just me being annoyed by this raucous new trend. Others are noticing and commenting on the same thing. A quick Google search of “loud restaurants” yields numerous results: How Restaurants Got So Loud - The Atlantic; Why restaurants became so loud — and how to fight back – Vox; Why Are Restaurants So Loud? - Eater; Are Restaurants Getting Too Loud? | Here & Now – WBUR; Why Restaurants Are So Loud These Days | HowStuffWorks; It's not just you: Restaurants really are louder than they used to be; and a host of other similar offerings on the subject. Respondants to restaurant surveys by both Zagat and Consumer Reports list excessive noise as their number one complaint.

Several sources cite the same motive behind the noise: profit. They claim that restaurateurs are deliberately cranking up the volume in order to turn tables more quickly, the theory being that you'll find the loud atmosphere so unpleasant you'll simply wolf down your food and leave. Could be: I didn't linger at either of the aforementioned loud restaurants one second longer than I had to.

Another reason for the unreasonable noise has to do with the personal tastes of upscale chefs like Mario Batali, David Chang and others. Back in the '90s, Batali was among the first to inflict his personal musical taste on his customers. Restaurant kitchens have always cranked up the tunes for kitchen employees even though more subdued music usually played in the dining area. Batali felt that his head-banger faves “energized” the overall atmosphere and created what he considered a “New York vibe.” And it wasn't long before other chef/restaurateurs followed in the aural assault.

But the main factor behind the noise seems simply to be the newest architectural “trend.” Whereas in the middle of the last century, “upscale” and “elegant” were equated with plush opulence, today's “high-end” establishments follow a “minimalist” or “industrial” trend started in the 1970s. Lots of glass and steel and exposed brick. Soaring high ceilings featuring open ductwork. These are the “elegant” spots of the new dining era. And they're killing us. Or, at least they're not doing us any good.

The author of one of the Googled articles took a calibrated decibel meter into several places and found that the noise level in a brewpub situated in a rehabbed fire station reached ninety decibels. That's approximately as loud as an approaching 737 or a DC-9 one mile out. It's as loud as a motorcycle that's twenty-five feet away or as loud as a running newspaper press. And more important than the aggravation factor is the health concern for people who have to put up with it for extended periods of time. Exposure to ninety decibels can damage your hearing after several hours. Okay, so diners don't sit at tables for six or eight-hour stretches, but employees are another matter.

Even short-term exposure is not altogether healthy. Acoustic engineers studying what one MIT engineer terms “aural architecture” have discovered that the atmosphere, the noise level, the “voice,” if you will, of a space can adversely affect the physical and mental health of people occupying the space. Scientific research suggests that noisy settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. I know extremely noisy places have always tended to set my teeth on edge. And now, with the additional complication of my hearing problem, well......I've been known to pull out an earplug and stick it in my ear just to get through dinner.

One more factor contributes to the overall noise problem in American restaurants and that factor is Americans. By and large and with few exceptions, Americans are the loudest, most boisterous people on the planet. I've been around groups of Chinese who might come in a close second, but most folks who study and evaluate such things agree that Americans are a bunch of loudmouths. Theories on why this is so vary from Americans being accustomed to having a lot of space, hence the tendency to shout, to Americans loudly expressing their individualism to cultural and social influences. But for whatever reason, put two or more Americans in a quiet room and it won't be quiet for long, especially if you lubricate their vocal cords with a little booze. Even stone cold sober, though, Americans tend to exhibit an “I'm having a good time, dammit, and to hell with anybody who doesn't like it” attitude, and if you're unfortunate enough to be seated near a group of these individualists, well......

The solutions to the problem aren't abundant nor are they very promising. You can always complain to management, which will usually get you a polite if insincere apology and very little else. You can “shush” or stare angrily at offending noisemakers – as long as you have A) good health insurance and/or B) bail money. You can go at “off peak” times: personally, I love having dinner at three in the afternoon. Or you can avoid noisy places altogether: in other words, eat at home.

Seriously, people who like a more tranquil dining experience, one with perhaps a bit less “energy,” are pretty much stuck bucking the still-growing trend toward minimalist industrial chic. And it's a trend which I doubt a few complaints to management is going to reverse. Restaurant owners have jumped on the bandwagon big time and they're not getting off until the next big thing comes along. For one thing, it's cheaper to go “industrial.” Sound dampening elements cost money, although there are a few customer conscious innovators out there who manage to be “trendy” while still keeping the atmosphere in their establishments from deafening their patrons and employees. Kudos to them, but good luck finding them. No, we're basically screwed. The noise is going to continue unabated until enough diners lose their appetites – or their hearing – to make it stop.

In the meantime, stop by a Walmart or a sporting goods store on your way to dinner at that fancy “upscale” place you've been wanting to try. Earplugs are cheap.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: St. James Cheese Company, New Orleans, Louisiana

Move Over Emeril's, Brennan's,

Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Antoine's, K-Paul's, Dooky Chase's, and, of course, Emeril's. These and other iconic eateries are the places for which New Orleans is justifiably famous. And with just a short time in town, I didn't get to go to any of them. I can see Archie Manning's eponymous place, “Manning's,” from my hotel window. Ditto for Mulate's, the establishment that bills itself as “the original Cajun restaurant.” But I didn't go there either, mostly because half of the Crescent City seemed to have gotten there ahead me. Everywhere I looked I saw three and four dollar sign restaurants, most of which had only one name and none of which offered the simple, affordable lunch I was seeking. Until I Googled nearby restaurants and saw the St. James Cheese Company just a couple of blocks away.

The menu was right up my alley: a simple and straightforward selection of sandwiches and salads along with cheese and charcuterie boards, an English “Ploughman's Lunch,” and “Cheesemonger's Mac & Cheese.” How can you go wrong with choices like those? So off to St. James my wife and I went on a sunny early summer afternoon.

Located in the Warehouse District, St. James Cheese Company occupies space in an old renovated building on Tchoupitoulas street that could be described as “hole-in-the-wall.” Now, that's not at all a bad thing: some of the best restaurants you'll ever find are holes-in-walls. It was evident as you walked through the door that the place was bright, vibrant, scrupulously clean and well-kept, and nicely appointed. It was also quite loud. Bare floors, exposed brick walls, and high ceilings may be chic and trendy, but there's a lot to be said for the good old days of heavy fabric and other sound-deadening elements that allow for conversation without the need to say, “What?” and “Huh?” every other word. Oh, well. I'm old. So sue me.

The sign at the door requested we order up front during peak times and this was definitely such a time. My wife looked at the menu, made her selection, and scampered off to snag one of the last remaining tables while I stood waiting in line. It wasn't too bad; the line moved quickly and within a couple of minutes I had ordered our sandwiches and taken a seat.

In addition to being a sandwich shop, St. James Cheese Company is also a bona fide cheese shop, replete with a familiar wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano on display as well as an impressive selection of other delicious cheeses, both common and somewhat exotic. St. James Cheese Company was started up post-K (after Katrina) by Richard and Danielle Sutton, transplants from the London neighborhood of St. James, who decided in 2006 that they wanted to bring artisanal and farmhouse cheeses to New Orleans. The Suttons began their “life in cheese,” as they call it, at London's Paxton & Whitfield, one of the oldest cheesemongers in England. Holders of two royal warrants, one from the Prince of Wales in 1997 and one from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, you could say P&W knows something about cheese. And the Suttons have brought that level of quality, knowledge, and sophistication to the Big Easy.

I noticed bagged loaves of fresh artisanal bread for sale in a basket at the front counter. And there was a nice variety of “gourmet” foods on offer as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see both carnaroli and vialone nano rice for sale. Everybody has arborio these days, even Walmart. Carnaroli and vialone nano? Not so much. St. James' mission statement proclaims, “We aim to provide our guests with a meticulously selected and unexpectedly diverse assortment of perfectly ripe cheeses, charcuterie, and gourmet grocery items.” Mission accomplished.

After a wait of no more than five minutes the food arrived. And we were absolutely transported. Move over Emeril's, Brennan's, Give St. James Cheese Company some elbow room. There aren't enough “o”s in “gooooooood” to describe what we had.

I opted for a basic grilled cheese sandwich, what they billed as a “Rustic Grilled Cheese.” It starts with white cheddar from world champion Wisconsin cheesemaker Tony Hook. Add some unidentified but undeniably delicious smoky bacon and sandwich it between slices of fresh country sourdough bread from New Orleans' own Bellegarde Bakery, throw some kettle-cooked potato chips on the side, and you have a simple sandwich that is simply divine.

My wife chose the “Smokey Blue,” a magical combination of roast beef, house smoked blue Mycella cheese, lettuce, tomato and Worcestershire mayo on toasted multigrain bread sourced from another local bakery, WildFlour. With apologies to Louisiana's own Justin Wilson, I guar-ron-TEE she will be talking about that sandwich for days to come. Her comment after the first bite said it all: “Chefs always talk about 'layers of flavor.' That's exactly what this sandwich has; layers of flavor. Nothing is muddled together. Each element stands on its own and contributes a distinct layer of flavor to the overall sandwich. It's just remarkable.” And that's from somebody whose palate I respect immensely.

The staff at St. James is friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. It's not a very big place, but it's light and airy and clean, both in terms of decor and of physical condition. The menu is small; fewer than a dozen sandwiches, a handful of salads, and a couple of specialties like the aforementioned cheese and charcuterie board and the ploughman's lunch. They have a kids menu and a great beverage selection, including the usual soft drinks as well as a rotating selection of craft beers on draft, ciders and wines, and some specialty cocktails. Obviously, we couldn't sample everything, but based on our experience with the wonderful plates we had, we give the place four thumbs up and just wish we had more thumbs.

The location we visited is in the Warehouse District at 641 Tchoupitoulas Street. I understand there is also an uptown location. The downtown store is open Monday through Wednesday from 11am to 6pm, and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11am to 8pm. Closed Sundays. Prices are reasonable and parking is.....well, it is the Warehouse District, okay? Don't get your hopes up. There's limited onstreet parking and a number of nearby lots and garages, but the location is also within easy walking distance of some of the district's major hotels. Call them at (504) 304-1485 or check out their website at

Emeril's, with its “Andouille Crusted Gulf Drum” and its “Pressed Pickled Ham & Cheese,” is only a couple of blocks down the street. But for my money – and for a lot less of it – you can't ask for better than the humble but outstanding fare at St. James Cheese Company. Laisser les bons fromages rouler!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Let's Stop Constantly Yanking The Flag Down To Half-Staff

We Have Lowered Our Standards On The Lowering Of Our Standard

Even as I write this I know I'm swimming against the tide and shouting into the wind, but I'm old so indulge me.

I went into a McDonald's the other day, noticing as I entered that the flag was flying at half-staff in front of the restaurant but not at any of the neighboring businesses. Pretty sure of the response I'd get, I nevertheless asked the teenage counter person why. I was not disappointed: she had no idea. “Let me ask my manager.” When the manager came forward she was similarly clueless. “I don't know,” she said. “I just got an email from corporate telling me to lower it.”

Traditionally, lowering the nation's flag to half-staff (or half-mast if aboard a naval vessel) is a mark of honor and a symbolic gesture of solidarity in mourning. But how can you have a gesture of solidarity when no one knows anymore what that gesture symbolizes? In this modern day and age of nearly weekly bombings, mass shootings, and other insane acts of violence, we find ourselves hauling Old Glory halfway down the pole on a frighteningly regular basis. And unfortunately, at some point it becomes meaningless.

The first time I actually remember seeing the Stars and Stripes flying at half-staff was in the thirty days after November 22, 1963. I'm sure it was similarly lowered for the death of former Vice-President Alben W. Barkley in 1956, but I was far too young to remember that. The point is, it used to be that when you saw the flag flying at half-staff, you knew why: a president, vice-president, senator, governor, or some other highly-placed and highly-regarded government figure had died.

Or maybe it was Memorial Day. That was the McDonald's manager's guess: it must have had something to do with Memorial Day. Except, as I pointed out to her, Memorial Day was last week and in any event, the flag is only supposed to fly at half-staff on that day until noon. When I suggested that perhaps it was in reaction to a recent mass shooting in Virginia, she agreed that that was likely the reason. Except we weren't in Virginia.

But that doesn't seem to matter anymore. Nowadays if somebody dies – if anybody dies – anywhere in the country, especially if they do it en masse, down comes the national banner. Think I'm exaggerating? Uh-uh. Remember the flag being lowered when singer Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathtub? Or when baseball great Yogi Berra passed? Or how about upon the death of that great American statesman, Nelson Mandela? Oh......wait. My favorite instance was when the honor was afforded to a recently deceased Ohio police dog. Or maybe it was the Oklahoma road worker who died while helping to fill a sinkhole.

The United States Flag Code, as adopted by the National Flag Conference held in Washington, D.C. on June 14-15, 1923, and revised numerous times over the years, has this to say about flying the flag at half-staff:

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.

On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff.

By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation.

The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.

Did you see anything in there about celebrities or dogs? Or even victims of mass murders? I suppose the “in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law” provides the loophole there.

Anyway, after the questions raised at McDonald's, I looked it up: yes, indeed, a Presidential Proclamation was issued “honoring the victims of the tragedy in Virginia Beach” and directing the flag to be lowered from June 1 until sunset on June 4. But where do you draw the line? As I have only somewhat facetiously opined, considering the nearly constant state of mourning in which we find ourselves today, perhaps half-staff should become the default position and we could then celebratorily raise the flag to the top of the pole to note the increasingly rare occasion in which somebody or some group of somebodies didn't die violently or tragically.

And then there's the matter of participation. Okay, so McDonald's corporate got the memo and passed it along. But the hotel next door and the auto parts store across the street didn't get said memo and so their flags remained at the top of the staff. The flag at the post office is down but the flag at the gas station is up. The flag at the bank is lowered but the one at the funeral home is not. And if anybody ever tried to lower that massive banner that flies proudly over the automobile dealership out by the interstate they would likely create a traffic hazard, so that flag stays all the way up regardless of circumstance. It definitely makes for a mixed message. And what about you folks at home and the flag you fly on your front porch? Yes, there are ways to rig it to fly at an approximation of half-staff, but do you bother?

And at what point does the gesture become meaningless? According to an Associated Press analysis, in 2015, the flag of the United States flew at half-staff somewhere in the country for 328 of 365 days. At what juncture does the “honor” become so commonplace as to lose its significance? The short answer to that question is when nobody knows why the flag is at half-staff on a given day to begin with and I think we've already reached that point.

The problem is jerky knees. Somebody dies heroically or tragically and the immediate emotional knee-jerk reaction is to “honor” them. And the quickest, cheapest, and most expedient way to do that is to drop the flag a few feet down the pole. There. All nice and neatly honored and we can move on to the next tragedy. Which will likely occur next week. Unless the local dogcatcher – “who served our community proudly for fifty-seven years” – dies in the interim. Down goes the flag.

I say all this because I am an admitted flag-nazi. (Oxymoron? Perhaps.) I'm the guy who calls your business and demands that you remove that tattered pink, beige, and periwinkle remnant of what was once a proud flag from the pole in front of your store and replace it. I'm the guy who sicced the American Legion on a little group of Bible-thumpers who flew the so-called “Christian flag” above the American flag on the pole in front of their church. I'm the guy who stopped in a driving rainstorm to lower a flag that had torn away from one of its grommets and was unceremoniously and disrespectfully streaming loose in the wind in front of a local store. I'm the guy that will let you know if your state or business flag is an inch bigger than your American flag and if it's flying a quarter of an inch higher. I don't care that the flag code was long ago revised to allow a flag to be displayed in the rain as long as it is an “all weather flag.” Poppycock! You'll never catch my flag out in the rain. Or in the dark, either. My flag means something to me beyond being an ostentatious bit of pseudo-patriotic décor that I tack up and forget about. I respect it and what it stands for and that's why I refuse to support the current politically correct and emotionally driven trend toward turning it into a red, white, and blue yo-yo.

And by the way, did you know that Flag Day is next week? And do you care? Or is it just an irrelevant leftover from a bygone day when the flag, its origins, and its meaning truly mattered? My flag will be out and at full-staff, thank you, unless there is a recognized, legitimate reason for it to be otherwise. (Death of a president, vice-president, governor, etc.) And if some brownie-point-seeking politician tells me to lower my flag to “honor” the passing of a Nigerian dwarf goat at the National Zoo or something, I think I'll just bring it in instead.

The flag is often referred to as our “national standard.” I think perhaps we have lowered our standards on the lowering of our standard just a bit too much.