Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Due Ristoranti Vini

My favorite Italian restaurant, Spirito di Vino, is tucked away in the alleyways of the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. It is a family run restaurant - the owner runs the restaurant, the wife of the owner cooks the food, and their son - in typical young Italian guy attire of tight pants, dress shirt and fancy sunglasses - is the sommelier.

Not only was the food excellent (I distinctly remember a fabulous orange and cheese salad and their famous cold
crème brulée), Romeo, the owner, took us down to the wine cellar once and told us about the history of the restaurant. Part of the restaurant is actually an old synagogue, and during reconstruction, they found a statue which is now at the Vatican Museum.

Even more than the food I really enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of being there. Romeo remembered us the second time we went there and every time after that. He would recommend dishes to us and make sure we were having a good time. It was like going to an old
relative's house for dinner. Sprito di Vino was the only place in Rome that I ever ate all four courses (appetizer, pasta (primi), meat (secondi) and dessert).

I've been trying to find an equivalent here in New York City and nothing has come close until recently.

Locanda Vini e Olii is tucked away on the corner of a residential street in Brooklyn. You wouldn't go there unless you knew about it because, chances are, you wouldn't be passing by it on the street. Plus, you wouldn't know it was a restaurant since the old "Lewis Drugs" sign still adorns the front of the building.

The old pharmacy feel is still apparent inside of the restaurant - dark wood cabinets with vintage knickknacks, a step ladder leaning against the wall, the prescription counter sign sitting in front of the kitchen window. I felt transported to another time. I thought it was so great that, even though they renovated this old pharmacy into a restaurant, there were still traces of the building's history.

One of the owners greeted us and told us it would be 4 minutes for a table (so exact!) and we ended up having a nice little conversation before we sat down, and I thought that maybe he could be the Romeo of New York.

Their menu changes daily so the freshest ingredients can be used. Of note, the crostini appetizer (four with different toppings of tomato & basil, zucchini, mushroom, and chicken
pâté - which I didn't know I even liked!), the black pepper pici (thicker than spaghetti and slurpy like udon) with porcini mushrooms, and the crème caramel, which rivaled Spirito di Vino's crème brulée.

We also sampled a lemon cake with pistachio cream. The desserts (except for the
crème caramel) were placed on a small side table near one of the cabinets. When we were finished with our pasta, our waiter came over with the large dessert plates stacked on his forearms for us to choose from. How cool is that?

Though I enjoyed my meal at
Locanda Vini e Olii, Spirito di Vino is still my favorite Italian restaurant. But there's one thing about my experience here in New York that I never encountered in Rome.

In between our appetizers and our main meal, a group of five people walked in and who was bringing up the rear you ask?

Keri Russell and her newborn in a sling!

Being a huge fan of celebrity sightings, I was immediately star struck. I started whispering over and over again to my boyfriend
(while maintaining a casual smile to avoid looking like I noticed her), "Keri Russell just walked in," to which he replied "Who?"

"You know! From Felicity and she was just in that movie Waitress!"

We were both amazed that she had come all the way to this restaurant - to this particular part of Brooklyn, where if you walk one street West and one street South, you would be standing on the corner where Biggie Smalls used to sell crack.

Spirito Di Vino
Via dei Genovesi 31 A/B
Vicolo Dell'Atleta 13/15
00153 Roma - Trastevere Ripa
Tel: 065896689

Locanda Vini e Olii
129 Gates Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Tel: (718) 622-9202

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Buffet Vacation

I'm back from the Carnival cruise with my family and managed not to gorge myself on all the different buffets. I've been going to buffets since I was a toddler. My parents think of it as a good deal since you can eat all you want for one fixed price (but how much lo mein, crab legs and fruit can you actually eat? and how good is the food actually?). Afterwards we would just walk away really full and sick to our stomachs, which doesn't seem like a good deal to me.

Apparently, Carnival's food is on the lower end of the spectrum of cruise food, but I actually enjoyed their food. Of note, the stir fry bar where you can pick your noodle (vermicelli or rice), vegetables (onions, peppers, mushrooms, Chinese mushrooms, celery, sprouts, etc.), meat (chicken, beef, squid, etc.) and sauce (black bean, Thai barbecue, Szechuan) and they fry it up for you. This concept is not new, but a relatively healthy alternative to the other options. I highly recommend the Thai barbecue sauce.

We could have sat in the main dining room for breakfast and lunch and ordered off a menu (though we opted for the faster option of the buffet), but we did go to the main dining room for dinner every night. One night I had a very nice entree of beef tenderloin with creamy peas and a side of cheesy mashed potatoes - definitely not healthy, but oh so good! If one was health or cholesterol conscious Carnival has a special SPA menu for such people. The last night I got escargot (good, but not the best I've had), and stuffed quail, which had a little too much stuffing but what meat there was was tender and flavorful.

Who would have thought that you could get escargot and quail? I wouldn't expect such seemingly exotic foods to be a part of Carnival's menu, especially when the whole trip cost around $900 dollars per person for room and board for 8 days. That's incredible considering you probably couldn't get a hotel room for that price if you traveled somewhere, let alone all of your meals (all you can eat!) and entertainment to boot.

Carnival gets you with other incidentals, though - you have to pay for beverages like soda and obviously alcoholic drinks, they overcharge for their shore excursions, they have a casino in which it seems the house never loses, they have special desserts and coffee that you have to pay for, etc. I guess you have to stay in business somehow.

That doesn't stop my parents from going on cruises because
they think it's an incredible deal. It's the same mentality as with the buffet. In the end you're left wondering if you've actually enjoyed it, or you enjoyed it because it was such a good deal.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Willie R Rocks! and other news...

I got an iced latte from Aroma today (which is as good, if not better, than their hot lattes) and Willie R spelled my name correctly! It is a joyous day.

Also of note, I'm going on vacation tomorrow for a week and may not be able to post. I will regale you with tales of cruise food when I return....

Monday, July 2, 2007


I can't remember the last time a movie has made me so happy as Ratatouille did. I think the last movie that had a similar effect was Amelie (cheesy, I know!)

The day after I saw the movie, I had an incredible urge to make, you guessed it, ratatouille. I checked the official Ratatouille website to see if they had a recipe. They didn't, although they do have a daily recipe download, but I wasn't about to make cheese fondue. So I got a recipe from epicurious
, but I really wanted to replicate what they did in the movie (to a certain extent anyway). I suppose it was my way of paying homage to Brad Bird and his genius.

So like Remy the rat, I decided to improvise. I ended up frying everything up until it was about 85-90% done, and then I stacked each vegetable neatly on the tomato paste I had spread on a pie plate. I shoved it in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes (pulling it out 10 minutes in to sprinkle basil on top).

Here are pictures of it before it went into the oven and after it came out.

(If you're wondering what that Paychex envelope is doing there, it's what I wrote the recipe on.)

And, was it good you ask? It was good, but it wasn't mindblowingly transformative that it took me back to a time in my childhood when I remembered having a similar dish.

I was a little disappointed. Just as I was a little disappointed that, although Ratatouille was the number one movie at the box office this weekend, its opening weekend sales were the lowest Pixar has seen since A Bug's Life. How can a movie that's so incredible be predicted to be the lowest total grossing Pixar movie ever? Similarly, how can a recipe that got 3 1/2 forks and a 92% would make it again rating on epicurious be just good and not incredible?

The difference between my ratatouille and Brad Bird's was that while I had high expectations for both, the movie exceeded my expectations enormously. So, the moral of this tale, is to GO WATCH THE MOVIE!

And if you do, I'll keep working on my ratatouille until it's as perfect as the movie.