It's been awhile, but I've been busy gathering all sorts of food and restaurant data for you, my dear readers. Let's see, over the past two weeks I've visited 2 restaurants (one really good, one pretty good); cooked up a Lentil soup, and just today, baked a Banana Bread (photo above, hot out of the oven still in it's parchment paper wrapping). So it will be a jam-packed posting with varied topics, hopefully of interest to you.
I think I'll begin with the restaurants (in all honesty, there were a few more restaurants within that two week period, but I believe we should focus on the really good ones). Let's start with Saturday night's venture to Arturo's in Maplewood, NJ. Arturo's is located on a prime corner in adorable Maplewood. It is primarily a pizza shop but on Saturday nights, diners can opt for the tasting menu and embark upon Chef Dan Richter's flights of whimsy. This week's tasting consisted of eight courses for $50 per person (not unreasonable, we thought, when initially making the reservation). I had some hesitation about a tasting menu due to their usually small portions, but I figured eight courses should satisfy even Barry. Unfortunately, I had no idea how small these would be...let me clearly state that the food was delicious and there were plenty of "yummy" sounds emanating from our table. But when I tell you that one of the courses (scallops crudo in a Sicilian olive oil with watercress garnish) was exactly one scallop sliced micro-thin into four slices for the two of us to share, you get an idea of the size of these plates. Another course, foie gras ravioli, was served two on a plate, about 1 inch each. The server actually said to us when she laid the plate in front of us "that's for you to share." Other courses consisted of house-cured, paper thin pork shoulder, excellent beef carpaccio, and a delicious version of Tuscan ribolitto soup. The main course was a braised chicken leg served with one strand (I'm not kidding you) of broccoli rabe and two small, very creamy, Fingerling potatoes. A cheese course was served next with their homemade Farmer's cheese. The dessert course was a Panna Cotta with a very nice chocolate sauce. Now you may be thinking "hmmm...that sounds like alot of food," but trust me, I managed to eat every morsel of every course. My husband wanted to order a pizza to go as he was starving when we left. Of course, by that time we had been there three hours (!) having sat through what must be the slowest service in history. There's leisurely and then there's ridiculous. As I mentioned earlier, the food was delicious, but for $50/pp, I expect cloth napkins and flatware that wasn't borrowed from Folsom Prison. Oh, I also expect adequate portions - tasting or no tasting. I'm just sayin'...
But on Sunday night, all cylinders were firing (but not the pizza oven) at La Pizza Fresca in NYC. My friend, Noreen, found this listing of authentic Neapolitan pizzerias in the US and as NYC is only about 20 minutes away, we thought a trip was in order. We love pizza and if there is a chance to have real Neapolitan pizza close to home, we're on it. As it was a Sunday, we decided to have an early dinner so we arrived (after sailing through the Lincoln Tunnel and finding a parking spot on the street) about 5:30 (they opened at 5pm). We were so disappointed when the lovely hostess/ bartender told us that the pizza chef was delayed so there would be no pizza until 7:30! We were crushed - our hopes of authentic Neapolitan pizza dashed. We considered going elsewhere for dinner (we were in Manhattan, after all, in the Flatiron district), but after perusing the menu over a glass of Sangiovese, we opted to stay. And were we glad we did.
First of all, to appease us for the lack of pizza, the hostess brought us a plate of absolutely delicious and creamy mozzarella with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. It just got better from there. Noreen and I both ordered the Grilled Calamari Salad, which was fabulous - large, fat, perfectly grilled squid nestled in mixed greens with Gaeta olives. Another primi thoroughly enjoyed was Barbabietole e Gorgonzola (beet salad, Gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts).
For mains, I had the hostess' recommendation of Rigatoni with Veal Polpetti (little meatballs) with San Marzano tomato (the meatballs were so delicate), Noreen had possibly the world's lightest gnocchi, my husband had the soup special (creamy, light, butternut squash), and Doug enjoyed Rigatoni alla Siciliana (eggplant, fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomato). Dessert was also a cut above - authentic tira mi su and a mini chocolate souffle. The service was (as it should be) unnoticeable.
On the way out, we spoke to a woman who is a regular - she vouched for the pizza, saying it is outstanding. She also told us that on Sunday nights, the regular chef is off. A valuable tip for our next trip - this time definitely for the pizza.
I should also mention one of the other restaurants visited in the last couple of weeks was Gianna's in Carlstadt, NJ. No time to review here but it is an excellent "red sauce" Italian restaurant (the Bolognese sauce is wonderful).
Are you still with me? We'll wrap up quickly now with a recipe for Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping (I'm skipping the lentil soup recipe as it wasn't all I had hoped for). This is from one of my favorite food writers, Molly Wizenberg, who writes the wonderful blog, Orangette. This is so different from other banana breads because it has this fabulous crunchy topping of cinnamon and brown sugar, that kind of crystallizes on the top of the bread. If you've got some past-their-prime bananas, put them to good use with this recipe.
I was inspired because of a food writing course I am taking. Our assignment was to write about a food (the feel, touch, smell, taste of it) - my choice was the everyday fruit, the ubiquitous banana. Ah, but when you really see the banana for the first time, it's not so everyday. Do me a favor: the next time you have a banana, really look at it - it's small, compact, it travels well, it's good both raw and cooked - pretty near perfect, wouldn't you agree?
Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping
1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
1 C sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 3 medium)
2 large eggs
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/4 C honey
1/4 C water
2 TB sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
2-1/2 TB packed dark brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9x5 inch metal loaf pan (alternatively, you can spray the pan lightly with cooking spray, then line it with parchment paper, letting the excess hang over the sides - this makes it very easy to remove the bread from the pan after baking).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the bananas, eggs, oil, honey, and water. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle evenly over the batter.
Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour, give or take a little. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, taking care not to dislodge the topping. Cool completely before slicing. Makes 1 loaf.