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The View from My Kitchen

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

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Grazie mille!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio: A Quick, Easy and Delicious Italian Go To Recipe


A Delicious And Deliciously Simple Dish

(Author's Note: After I finished writing this post I came across one of those articles on Buzzfeed wherein millennials vent their spleen about things that bother them. Turns out one of those things is “food bloggers writing their life story before finally getting to the damn recipe.” If you are one of those so offended, I apologize. I'm old and I can't help it if I have a lot of “life story” to tell, so please skip the next three paragraphs.)

My wife and I recently took some new friends to one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Typical of most “Italian” restaurants in America, it serves unrealistically huge portions of the expected Italian-American fare. The difference is the family that owns this place is right out of Napoli. Everybody has dual citizenship and they all make frequent trips back and forth. They are what you might call “real deal” Italian cooks, not just second or third generation Italian-Americans passing down their nonna's recipes. Sadly, they cook what they cook the way they cook it because they have to in order to stay in business. “If I cook like I cook at home,” the owner says, “people would just go to Olive Garden.”

They cook differently for me because, as they often say, I “appreciate the food” and I “get” what they are doing. They know that I know the difference, for example, between perfectly al dente pasta and the overcooked mush they have to serve to satisfy American palates raised on Chef Boyardee. And I don't get portions piled high enough to feed a football team. They don't serve me the same pizza they put out for other customers: I get crust and toppings like they use at home. And they take special care with other dishes, too, adding little extras and authentic touches. Such was the case with the spaghetti aglio e olio I ordered when we took our Olive Garden-loving friends for their first visit to a real Italian restaurant.

When I ordered the aglio e olio, my friend asked me what it was. Thought to have originally developed in Abruzzo, spaghetti aglio e olio is a delicious and deliciously simple dish popular all over Italy. Consisting at its most basic of pasta dressed in a light “sauce” of garlic and olive oil, aglio e olio is often found on Italian restaurant menus in America, my favorite place included. My friend decided to give it a try and I told him he was in for a treat because I knew the kitchen would do it up right for me and my guests. We were not disappointed.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is something you can easily make at home. It's one of those dishes that's perfect when unexpected company drops by or when you just don't feel like fussing with a more elaborate dish. As long as you've got the four basic ingredients – pasta, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino – on hand, you've got a quick, easy meal. In a pinch, you can even do it without the peperoncino – aka dried red pepper flakes.

Here's what you need:

1 lb spaghetti
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 to 1 ½ tsp peperoncino (red pepper flakes), to taste
2 or 3 tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Reserved pasta water, as needed

And here's what you do:

Bring a large pot of aggressively salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook to al dente, usually a minute or two less than the package directions recommend.


As the pasta cooks, in a large frying pan over medium-low heat, heat the oil and gently sauté the garlic until it is barely golden. Do not let it brown or it will taste bitter. Season with salt and pepper. Add red pepper flakes. Remove from the heat and set aside until the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta when it is barely al dente, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Tip the drained spaghetti into the pan with the oil and garlic mixture, and cook together for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring well to coat with the sauce and to allow the flavors to marry. Add reserved pasta water as needed to further develop the sauce. Garnish with basil and serve at once in warmed serving bowls.

Serves 4 to 6

That's the recipe, now here are the notes.

Don't cheap up on ingredients. The heart and soul of Italian cooking is quality. If you buy cheap ingredients you're going to wind up with a cheap tasting dish. Spring for the De Cecco or Barilla pasta instead of the store brand or the dollar store stuff. There is a difference and you'll taste it. Same goes for the olive oil. Don't use “light” oil and don't use the stuff that comes in clear bottles and sells for five dollars a gallon. Invest in a decent extra-virgin oil and you'll get decent results.

Aggressively salted” are words to live by when it comes to pasta. Don't drop a pinch of salt into a gallon of water and think you're cooking “healthier.” Pasta needs to absorb salt during cooking. It's the only way pasta has to get any flavor. And whatever salt it doesn't absorb will just pour off down the sink when you drain it. It's not going to go directly to your arteries and turn them to stone.Use at least two or three tablespoons of salt for a gallon of water.

Cook the pasta al dente. This means the outside should be tender but there should still be a little “bite” in the center. Sometimes when you're cooking pasta for a dish with a heavier sauce, you can get by with overcooking it a bit. Not here. This pasta is going to be nearly naked and you won't be able to hide the fact that it's badly cooked.

Chop the garlic as finely as you like it. If you don't mind little chunks, a coarser chop is fine. Otherwise, mince it down.

Peperoncino is an acquired taste for some people. My wife has never acquired it and I have to be careful when sneaking it into the dishes I serve her. It's a fairly important component in this dish, but adjust according to your tolerance for heat. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but doing so will alter the flavor profile.

I like basil in this preparation. Sometimes I add it to the oil to infuse the flavor and sometimes I just garnish with it. Sometimes I do both. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but.......you know the rest.

Finally, as with any pasta dish, it is imperative to finish the pasta in the sauce. Don't try to dump the sauce over the top and stir it in. It won't work and you'll wind up with greasy pasta.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is a bel piatto perfect for any occasion. Try it tonight.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace, Potomac Mills Mall, Woodbridge, Virginia


I'd Go There Again

Okay, so I'm not like a really close personal friend of Bobby Flay's. I don't have his number on speed dial on my phone. (Although I do have a few pictures of him on it!) I have met him at industry events (hence the pictures) and have spent a little time talking food and cooking with him. Anyway, when I spotted a “Bobby's Burger Palace” at the mall near my hotel in the Washington, DC suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia, I figured, “Bobby's place? Why not?” And my wife and I went on over there for dinner.

Even a few days after Christmas, the parking lot of the super-busy Potomac Mills Mall was packed. My wife had driven us over from the hotel and she suggested I hop out and get a table while she found a place to park.

First off, there's no “getting a table:” the place is counter service and all the tables are communal. Surprisingly, considering the overall volume at the mall, Bobby's wasn't particularly busy at 6:30 or so on a chilly, rainy Thursday night. There was one couple in line in front of us, three more people came in after us, and there were perhaps eight or ten other customers seated at tables around the restaurant. As I said, all tables are communal, so if you're looking for a place for a romantic interlude or even for quiet personal conversation, don't look here. Unless you don't mind sharing your thoughts with the strangers sitting across the table or seated beside you. More on that in a second, but picture having an intimate dining experience at a Waffle House service counter. Get the idea?

But hey! It's a burger joint. It's described in published literature as an “upscale fast casual restaurant” and I can get behind that description. The location, the ambiance, and the menu are definitely a cut above, say, “What-a-Burger” or “Five Guys.” But all in all, it is what it is: it's an “upscale” burger joint. Just as Bobby Flay intended.

Bobby Flay has come up through the ranks. From age ten when he asked for an Easy Bake oven for Christmas to the French Culinary Institute to his work with Jonathan Waxman and Jerome Kretchmer to helming the kitchens at Mesa Grill, Bolo Bar & Restaurant, Bar Americain, and Bobby Flay Steak, Bobby has circulated in the upper atmosphere of the culinary world for many years. Back in 2008, he decided he wanted to work a little closer to the ground: to bring a touch of the “fine dining” experience to the more common market. Bobby says, “Food is the epicenter of my life – what inspires me every day. It’s the way I make my living, the way I relax, the way I express myself and how I keep healthy. I want to share that passion with as many people as possible.” And since one of his favorite things to eat and cook is a burger, the first “Bobby's Burger Palace” opened at Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, Long Island in July of that year. The location where we dined is one of nineteen now spread across eleven states and the DC area.

The menu is pretty simple and straighforward. There are about a dozen sandwiches on offer, including a veggie burger and an adult “griddled cheese.” You can choose your meats from among beef, turkey, and chicken and opt for add-ons of bacon, fried egg, or double meat. You can have your burger “crunchified” – topped with crispy potato chips – at no extra cost. Hand cut fries, sweet potato fries and buttermilk onion rings round out the menu. BBP also features a selection of “spoon bending” shakes in a variety of flavors. Unlike your run of the mill burger stands, BBP serves beer, wine, and frozen margaritas as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks.

My burger-loving wife went with the Palace Classic Burger. She also ordered one of those signature shakes, the vanilla bean one. Heretical though it may seem, I'm not a burger guy. I'm part Italian. I like food that ends in vowels. But the Griddled Cheese looked appealing, so I ordered one. The food was outstanding. My wife found her burger to be completely drool worthy and even the “griddled” cheese was way above average. The fries were perfect and the portions more than adequate. And the prices were ridiculously reasonable. It didn't cost us any more to eat “upscale” fare at Bobby's place than it would have had we gone to the Five Guys down the road.

The only thing that gave us pause was the service. It was kinda slow for the relatively low volume of business. Now I don't know that the kitchen may not have been snowed under with call-in orders or something, but they seemed to have a hard time getting food out to the dining room in a timely manner. It's an open kitchen so you can see what's going on back there, and to our trained eyes it looked like the flow could have been a little smoother and the service a bit faster. The ticket time on our order was nearly thirty minutes. Now that's about industry average for an an entree at an “upscale” fast casual joint, but considering the aforementioned Five Guys boasts a seven to eight minute ticket time for the same order...... well......it just seemed a little long for a burger and fries. And my wife's shake arrived a full five minutes after her burger had been served.

And call me anti-social but I'm not so much on the seating concept. My wife and I sat across from one another near the end of one of the long tables. We were quietly discussing the events of our days when a party of three women seated themselves immediately to my wife's right, leaving one or two seats between. So now you've got five people at a ten or twelve-top, four on one side and one on the other. As the newcomers started their conversation it kinda put a damper on ours. Communal tables are great for large parties of friends or family. But two groups of strangers sitting elbow to elbow? Not so much.

Be that as it may, would I go back to another Bobby's Burger Palace? Sure. I'd definitely go there again, especially now that I know what to expect. The place was scrupulously clean, the atmosphere was pleasant, the service was friendly if a bit slow, the food was delicious, and the price was right. Overall, it was a great experience and one I'd recommend – with certain caveats – to anybody looking for a nice “upscale fast casual restaurant.”

The BBP I went to is located at 2700 Potomac Mills Circle, Woodbridge, VA 22192. They're open Sunday thru Thursday from 11AM to 9PM, and on Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM. You can call them at (703) 490-2121. No reservations. Casual attire. Ample parking. Call-in and online ordering are available. The Potomac Mills location partners with Doordash for delivery. Find more locations at http://bobbysburgerpalace.com/locations


Monday, January 7, 2019

Germophobes Beware: Your Favorite Restaurant Is Trying To Kill You


Health Inspectors Are Good, But........

I'm kind of a clean freak. I admit it and I come by it honestly. My mother was the Queen of Clean. Germs didn't stand a chance anywhere in my mother's house. She dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed, and scoured from dawn 'til dusk. She entombed everything in plastic and sanitized each and every surface she encountered. There was never a speck of dust on a shelf or a knickknack, never a streak on a window or mirror, and nary a grease or water spot anywhere in the kitchen. Never mind the old “five second rule”: my mother's floors were so clean that if you ever dropped anything on them you could just sit down with a knife and fork and eat it where it lay. I'm not sure but I think stocks in Lysol and Clorox fell dramatically the day she died. I'm not quite that OCD, but the acorn didn't fall far from the tree. So how I wound up involved in food service is a mystery to me. Like it or not, restaurants are nasty, dirty places.

You see, cooking is not a clean process. There's lots of dirt, grease, blood and other things you'd probably rather not think about involved in the transformation of raw foodstuffs into the tasty morsels you ingest. Now I'm not saying the food you're being served in restaurants is nasty, dirty, or in any way unsafe. That's why we have health inspectors and why in most states you'll see letter or number grades posted in eating establishments to reassure you that local health departments are on the job. Trust me, those of us who have inhabited commercial kitchens over the years come to cringe and cower when we see health inspectors come through the door because we know they're going to do their damnedest to find something wrong. And to your benefit they often do and they hold us accountable for fixing it.

Are the people preparing your food practicing safe techniques? Are they wearing gloves? Are their heads covered to prevent hair from falling into your salad? Did you know that most jurisdictions even regulate how kitchen employees drink? Yep. Food workers have to drink from lidded containers with a straw and said containers have to be kept away from food prep areas. Why? To prevent the possibility of your food being contaminated by droplets of employee saliva. And an establishment's lower number or letter grade might not be the result of a direct food preparation issue. I got dinged by an inspector once because somebody had inexplicably wrapped a small piece of duct tape around the faucet at a handwash sink. Duct tape does not make for a smooth, easily cleanable surface and hence can't be used in a restaurant kitchen.

Yep, health inspectors are good. But for all the myriad things they inspect for, there are a number of things they overlook. And those are the things that are gonna getcha if you're a dedicated germophobe.

You know what the Number One Dirtiest Thing In A Restaurant is? Study after study have shown it to be the menu. Think about it. Or don't, if you prefer. How many filthy, dirty, grimy, nasty hands have handled that menu you're holding? Hands that have done things and been places you really don't want to consider just before eating. Sure, the signs say employees are required to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but patrons? Not so much. What about the dog groomer or the sanitation worker who “forgot” to wash their hands when they left work? And there's always some cute little toddler or infant who has chewed on or otherwise spread snot all over the entire surface you're now touching. Was Typhoid Mary the last person to order from your menu? The Journal of Medical Virology reports that cold and flu viruses can survive for eighteen hours on hard surfaces. Has that menu been dropped on the floor? Probably. And the places those menus are often stored aren't exactly NASA clean rooms, you know? Studies have shown you have a better chance with the restaurant's toilet seats than with the menus. At least people clean the toilets from time to time. Most eateries only give the hard cover or plastic menus a cursory wipe down as an afterthought if they bother to do it at all. And paper menus obviously never get wiped down. Good Morning America once sent an investigative team out to swab items on tables at a dozen restaurants and they found that menus averaged around 185,000 bacteria. So you don't want the menus touching your plates or silverware if you can help it and washing or sanitizing your hands after handling them is probably a good idea.

Next up on the Wheel of Sanitary Misfortune are condiment containers, especially salt and pepper shakers. C'mon, you've picked up a sticky salt shaker or two, haven't you? Ever wonder what it's sticky with? Probably better that you don't know. Sometimes if you point it out to your server, he or she might replace it with a less sticky one or at least wipe down the offending vessel with a nominally clean cloth. Granted, menus have been found to be sixteen times germier than salt and pepper shakers simply because everybody looks at menus while not everybody uses salt and pepper, but still...... Cleaning condiment containers is supposed to be a part of side work duties in most restaurants, but don't bet your health on it. Take matters into your own hands – so to speak – and use some sort of handi-wipe or sanitizer on those shakers and squeeze bottles before you transfer somebody else's nastiness to your fries.

If you get up from the table to go to the bathroom or something, don't drop your napkin onto the seat of your chair. Researchers at New York University Microbiology Department ran tests and found that seventy percent of restaurant chair seats harbored seventeen different varieties of bacteria including strains of good ol' E. coli. Nothing like wiping your mouth with germs from a stranger's butt, right?

Let's talk about those bathrooms for a minute. Health inspectors check restaurant rest rooms for overall condition and for obvious signs of neglect. But they don't stand in there and watch to make sure people wash their hands before touching the doorknob. So let's say the six uncouth heathens who used the bathroom before you all decided to say, “Oh hell. My hands are clean enough” after they did whatever they did and they exited without washing, thus depositing their germ-laden deposits on the door handle. Along comes you. You wash your hands, of course, and then you grab the handle and........you might as well not have bothered. Here's what the people who advise all us clean freaks recommend: after you've washed up and dried your hands, grab a clean paper towel and use it to open the door. Most rest rooms have a waste receptacle near the door. Toss in the towel after you've opened the door. As my wife was looking over my shoulder just now, she reminded me of a few places that have automatic kick plates that allow you open the door without touching the handle. Let's hope those catch on.

Oh, and while we're in the bathroom, have you ever thought about what you're touching when you touch the faucet handles or the soap dispenser? Ye-e-a-a-h-h-h, so make sure you wash your hands really thoroughly with the nice clean soap that came out of that nasty dispenser that I guarantee nobody ever thought to clean and sanitize when they cleaned the rest of the bathroom.

And ladies, for goodness sake don't set your purse on the bathroom floor. Most public toilets don't have lids and those that do seldom have them used. So everything that gets flushed gets partially aerosolized and deposited on the floor around the toilet. And then you carry your purse back to the dining room and maybe set it on the table while you look for something? Just. Don't.

One more item tops the list of things to avoid in most restaurants: lemon wedges. According to numerous studies, fifty to seventy percent of the lemon wedges perched on the rims of restaurant glasses contain disease-causing microbes including E. coli and other fecal bacteria. Why? For one thing, nobody washes the lemons before they're cut. There's this naïve assumption that they come into the restaurant all nice and squeaky clean. Wrong-o! They come right out the box that came right out the groves after passing through the hands of pickers and sorters who, shall we say, might be somewhat lax about the whole handwashing after using the bathroom thing? So here comes your prep person, who also may or may not have fingers you want to stick in your mouth, and they start whacking away at those lemons. The cut wedges mound up in a container and the germs just have a party getting to know one another before they're rubbed around the rim of your glass or squeezed into your beverage.

“But wait,” you say. “Aren't lemons acidic and won't that acid kill all the germs?” Not really. According to food science expert John Floros, head of the Department of Food Science at Penn State University, acidic lemon juice is unfavorable to the growth of most microbes, but it doesn’t kill them directly. And Clemson University food scientists who studied drink garnishes found that dry lemons pick up nasty bacteria thirty percent of the time. That figure rises to one hundred percent when the lemons are wet.

And speaking of the rims of those glasses, if your server hands you a glass the rim of which they have touched with their hands or fingers, ask for two things: a new glass and a manager. Servers are supposed to be trained better than that. I've nailed more than one server on this, both as a consultant and as a customer. “The top of the glass is the customer's,” I tell them. “The bottom of the glass is yours.” The rims of glasses were found the be the sixth most germy restaurant spot in the aforementioned New York University Microbiology Department research project.

Okay. Now that I've convinced you that everything in your favorite restaurant is out to kill you, go on out and enjoy dinner somewhere. Seriously. You can't live in a bubble and you can't walk around in a hazmat suit. Germs are everywhere and you can't completely avoid them. And you know what? You don't want to. Exposure to some germs helps develop a healthy immune system. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to invite them to dine with you. They say “knowledge is power” and “forewarned is forearmed” and all that stuff, so I've tried to impart just a little forewarning and a bit of knowledge here when it comes to dining in a restaurant. What you do with it is up to you.