Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bella Italia!

I just returned from a week in Italy. This was my third trip to Rome and my second to Florence and this country never fails to awe me. From the history to the art to the food, it’s just one incredible experience after another.

One of the highlights was the Papal Audience in St Peter’s Square. Into a sea of approximately 50,000 people, Pope Francis (or, Papa Francesco, as the faithful chanted) waded without the protection of the enclosed Pope mobile.  Shaking hands, kissing babies, and waving, it was quite the scene. After circling the open square for more than a half-hour, the Pope ascended the stage and blessed the crowd in Italian. Even for this lapsed Catholic who has many issues with the modern church, it was incredibly moving. You could not help but feel special after receiving the blessings and being in the Pope’s presence.

Our Roma hotel was next door to the Pantheon. A structure built as a temple to the Gods of ancient Rome in 126 AD, it has been in continuous use throughout its history.  Since the 7th century it has been used as a Catholic church.  It was amazing to come out of our hotel each morning and see this architectural work of art.  The dome in the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome with an oculus that streams in the sunlight.

Our hotel was in a perfect location to walk almost everywhere in Rome. One of our most frequent trips was to Grom, the high temple to gelato. This had been on my list for a long time, and while there are a few locations in NYC, I had not made it there. So when I was in Italy, I made sure I got there. The pistachio and hazelnut gelatos were so creamy and authentic.

We happened upon a little culinary gem around the corner from the Pantheon. Usually restaurants close to major tourist attractions are not the best, but a friend recommended Armando al Pantheon and it was a delight!  Small and cozy with only about 10 tables, the friendly and efficient waiters made us feel right at home. A special appetizer on the menu during our first visit (that’s right, it was so good we had dinner there two nights!) was porchetta. The succulent slow-roasted pork, laced with fresh rosemary and garlic, was like velvet. We mopped up the juices with the wonderful bread (although the 9 Euro “coperto” (bread cover charge) was a little much!) and waited for the next course. I had doubts that anything could beat the porchetta, but my doubts were unfounded. An incredible Pasta Carbonara was laid in front of me and from the first forkful I was in heaven. Damn the calories in this cream and butter-laden dish and full speed ahead! Eating pasta in Italy spoils you for the rest of your mortal life. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is like the pasta in Italy.  The flour, the water, the attention to detail, it’s exquisite. On our second visit, a wonderful appetizer that day was assorted mushrooms with artichokes over crostini.

For my dinner I couldn't resist the Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper).  Too full for cake, but not too full for pears and prunes in red wine - a more traditional ending to an Italian meal.

A couple of days later we made our way to beautiful Firenze, my favorite Italian city (so far!). The high-speed train got us there in less than two hours, a world away from the big city atmosphere of Rome.

Another perfect hotel location situated right on the historic Arno River, rich with centuries of historical and cultural traditions. The Hotel Degli Orafi was the setting for the movie “A Room with a View,” and the view did not disappoint! From the hotel’s lovely rooftop bar/terrace, the city’s famous Duomo stood front and center.

Florence, as you know, was the center for the Renaissance surge that took place somewhere between the 14th and 16th centuries, helped in no small part by the Medici family.

One of my favorite pastimes in Florence is wiling away a morning in one of the many beautiful piazzas, sipping a cappuccino, and eating  bomboloni (the Italian version of doughnuts). The lighter than air bomboloni, found at Caffe Gilli on the Piazza Reppublica is in my personal top ten of baked goods. The caffe has been in existence since 1733, and even if the confections were not delicious, the store itself is worth a visit. Murano lamps, frescoed ceilings, and a gorgeous old-world clock send you back 200 years.

Of course Florence is home to magnificent works of art, some in museums and some hiding in plain sight. The ancient buildings, designed by the leading architectural minds of the time, are a joy to behold. The beautiful Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) opened in 1299, is still the seat of local government today.  It is set in the Piazza della Signoria, a huge public square populated with gorgeous statues (some copies, some originals).  There is, in fact, a copy of Michelangelo’s David in the square, marking the location where the original stood from 1504 until it was moved to its current home in the Accademia in 1873.

In Florence, like Rome and other major cities, there are many, many restaurants. A lot of them cater to tourists, and the trick is to ferret out the good from the bad. I had help in the way of recommendations from friends and acquaintances. One afternoon in search of lunch, we found a trattoria not far from the hotel, but far enough from the masses on the Ponte Vecchio.

Antico Fattore, founded in 1865, was delightful. Delicately fried squash blossoms, a light salad of rocket (arugula) with pine nuts and delicious pecorino cheese, and the house white made a perfect lunch. A finely tuned espresso and a couple of cantucci (almond cookies) made me a very happy girl!

Another day, at the recommendation of one of our tour guides, we got on line with local business people at Osteria Buongiustai, a very small restaurant run by two women (Laura and Lucia) working out of an even smaller kitchen.
We loved the pasta with fresh pomodoro sauce, and sliced porchetta served with salad. Even better, was the homemade almond apple cake. As you can see from the photo, barely a crumb was left!

We enjoyed Antico Fattore so much that we went back on our last night in Florence for the traditional Bistecca Fiorentina. The Tuscany region is known for raising Chianina cattle, a porcelain white breed that may be one of the oldest in existence. This famous Florence steak is made only from Chianina beef. Antico Fattore offers the bistecca for 1, 2, or 4 people. It is a large T-bone grilled over a charcoal fire, seasoned with only salt and pepper, and olive oil (but only after cooking). It is served rare; do not even think about asking for it to be cooked to some other temperature!

We enjoyed ours with a half-bottle of a wonderful vino casa rosso, and sautéed spinach. By the way, I love the fact that in almost every restaurant in Rome and Florence, you can order half-bottles of excellent wine. More US restaurants should adopt this custom.

So, another wonderful trip to my bella Italia, home of my ancestors. I hope one day to visit other parts of Italy – Venice, Milan, Bologna, Sicily, but for now, my memories and pictures will have to keep me contented. Arrivederci!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dine and Dance in West Orange

There aren’t many restaurants in north Jersey where you can have a luxurious steak dinner, enjoy a perfectly made pomegranate martini, and then dance the night away if you’re so inclined.

Sam Mickail’s CUT Steak House, specializing in dry-aged steaks, has redefined the steakhouse experience. I took part in a media dinner last month and got to see first hand the complete package that is CUT. Of course, you’ve got the requisite steakhouse fare, such as smoky, thick cut bacon, perfectly charred and lacquered with black honey and walnuts, and an impressive array of oysters, clams, and jumbo shrimp is offered at the raw bar. A few lovely fish, chicken, and pasta dishes are available, but let’s face it, you’re here for the steak. And this is where CUT shines. All their steaks are aged 28-32 days, but what I think makes them unique are the sauce combination accompaniments. For instance, I had the 18 oz Tomahawk steak with a black lava salt crust and served with creamy horseradish.  The Porterhouse is served with melted butter, sea salt, and cracked peppercorns. The nice thing about this steak is that it can be ordered for one or two people. Most steakhouses only offer the Porterhouse cut for two.  Additionally, CUT offers a14 oz Skirt, which is charred with Roquefort crust, and served with a chimichurri sauce, and roasted marrow. Hmmmmm! 

If steak isn’t your thing, try the delicious Double CUT Rack of Lamb, which is herb crusted, and served with goat cheese polenta crouton, braised red cabbage, and rosemary sauce.  Or, something you don’t see very often, Braised Organic Veal Cheeks, with grilled fresh corn salsa, Meyer lemon gremolata, with natural veal jus. I wish I had sampled this because it sounds divine.  Next time!

CUT is housed at 466 Prospect Avenue, also home to the 466 Club, which bills itself as a “state of the art mega night club.” So not only can you have a great dinner at CUT, but then you can join the fun in the club.  The club offers private bottle service, a sunken lounge, and a piano bar. But I think the real draw here is the club and restaurant’s capacity to host special events. With top DJs getting the party started, and the kitchen staff cooking up wonderfully inventive dishes, your private event will really be something to remember.

And just in time for summer, on June 4th, CUT will open its 5,000 SF patio to enjoy small bites and cool drinks. Pretend you’re on South Beach in one of the dozen Miami-style cabanas surrounded by palm trees.  Sounds like the perfect place to unwind after work, as the patio will be open Tuesday through Friday from 5-7pm.

CUT Steakhouse and the 466 Club, perfect together.

Sam Mickail’s CUT Steakhouse
466 Prospect Avenue
West Orange, NJ