It has been about three months since Foodiesaurus went away for her big European food crawl. Therefore, it’s been three LONG months since Foodie’s visit to Florence and, specifically, to Pipistrello Pizzeria and its Pizza Maialona con Bufalo and to Tuscany’s amazing gelaterias. That’s a long time—even for a dinosaur.
So, on one recent Sunday afternoon, Foodie set out to see how Atlanta’s Italian-inspired cuisine would fare by comparison. And it was good!
The first stop was Fritti in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands area near Inman Park. The lunch menu highlighted Fritti’s Verace Pizza Napoletana, but a little lower I hit pay dirt: a locally-available Maialona. The Italian version of this traditional pizza (which you may recall I ate three or four times in eight days while visiting Florence) featured the same toppings, only in Italy the meats were mixed up and the pizza was topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella.
Unexpectedly, the local version segregated each meat into its own triangular zone so when you cut the pie (as you would in Italy), you either ended up with a slice of only salame, only sausage, etc., or at most, a slice with half of one meat and half of another. I must confess, I like the Florentine version better and next time I order the Maialona at Fritti, I plan to request it “scrambled.”
The only other challenge I had with the Fritti Maialona was that the salame read more like pepperoni than the salame served in Florence Otherwise, the Fritti Maialona was terrific. I will certainly be back for more!
Next up was Paolo’s Gelato near the corner of Highland Avenue and Virginia Avenue. Featured on loads of local and national television programs and in magazines galore, Paolo’s truly is the best gelato I’ve eaten in the States. I think in Florence, however, I would consider the pistachio and straciatella I tried the second or third best gelato. All things considered, that ain’t bad and lucky are those (like me) who can get gelato of this quality not too far from home!
In the final analysis, the Virginia Highlands are blessed by Italians doing the food thing as well as if they were home. And we, the citizens of the Greater Atlanta area are the beneficiaries of this largess. You could spend a lot more time on a plane before finding Italian fare this good.
A few things I learned while in Florence may help you should you ever find yourself there—how to order a quarter liter of the house red wine in competent Italian (“un quarto vino rosso della casa”) and to always avoid eating anywhere all of the other diners are American. The rest has to be experienced. And that I did.
Although I brought a “list” of “must” eat places given to me by a friend of a friend whose friend recently lived in Florence for a year, I am certainly glad I stayed with a local possessing a really good palate. That’s because I tried two places off the “list” and both were full of Americans (see rule #2, above) and average food. The following is a list of places that didn’t make “the” list, but should have:
The night I arrived at my B&B in the San Gaggio area altrarno and south of the Porta Romana, I was looking for a nearby place for a bite. My hostess told me about some places a tourist might like, but we eventually got over that. After ruling out the nearest and best trattoria as already too packed for reservations, she recommended a pizzeria that I returned to three more times afterward—Pizzeria Il Pipistrello on Via Senese.
Although extremely local, one waitress spoke English well enough to help me order and at least one waiter did as well. That night, I ate the absolute best thing in the form of flat round dough, cheese, sauce and meat I’ve ever had. It was called Pizza Maialona con Bufulo, it featured three kinds of pork meat—salami, ham, and sausage—and buffalo mozzerella, and it was heaven. This was one of those dishes you start craving again as you leave the restaurant. In an amazing show of restraint, however, I didn’t eat it again until my third visit.
On my second trip to Pipistrello, I tried the comparatively austere but equally fabulous salami and ham pizza. And on the fourth and final visit, I mastered the positively mind-blowing “house” pizza, featuring just about everything and an egg baked in the center. Ummm. Filling. I found the prices to be reasonable. I ate and drank very well for a bit less than €15.
Over the next several days, I also ate twice at a wine bar across from the Palazzo Pitti featuring an extraordinary menu, called Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Besides several fine Chiantis and Sangioveses, there was for a starter a gorgeous terrine of fois gras topped with sage and served with crostini, on a reduction of vin santo (that was reminiscent of a light cane syrup but with stronger molasses-like flavors as well) and scattered rock salt. The contrast of textures and sweet with salt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And it was good.
For mains, I had triangles of fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with shaved black truffles one night, and on a different night, a wonderful steak tartare with orange and mint. Here, the prices were a bit steep for the portions. I found it difficult to get out of there for less than €35.
On the gelato front—two were noteworthy in my estimation. The first is the best: Vivoli near the Museo del Bargello and the Teatro Verdi. You pay in advance, and though it is packed with locals, the servers know enough English to hook you up with what you want. Here the gelato is served only in cups, and it is magnificent. The first time I visited I tried hazelnut and pistachio. The second, hazelnut and chocolate-hazelnut. All flavors were the best versions of their kind I’ve ever tried.
The second gelateria was also better than any other, except Vivoli. It was called Gelateria La Carraia and was near the Arno and the Ponte alla Carraia. Here, I tried the Tiramisu mousse combined with the espresso. It was heaven in a cone. Soft and light and *uh* words fail. With either of these, you can’t go wrong. Vivoli was €2.50 for about 5 oz; La Carraia charged €1.50 for a small cone.
Like Gola e Cantina, another great favorite of mine violated the rule I’d been given about “don’t eat within sight of any famous tourist destination.” While Gola e Cantina is near the Palazzo Pitti, Ringo is near the Ponte Vecchio on the Borgo San Jacopo, and it’s three umbrella-covered tables outside sit pretty much in the street. Yes, there is a sign above the door that reads: “Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, Hot Dogs.” Ignore all that. The food here is really good anyway.
The first time I shared the bruchetta with pomodora, basil, and ham, and ate the Insalada con Bacon as my main. OMG. Both were incredibly fresh, the second featuring avocado, round slices of very small zucchini, tomato, and Italian ham.
At the very strong urging of my hostess, on my second visit to Ringo, I violated a rule I had no intention of breaking: the “thou shall not eat American food in Europe” rule. But in this case, I’m glad I did. In fact, the hamburger at Ringo is among the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. It was served on a firm egg-washed bun with tomato, pickles, catsup, onions, and mustard or vinegar or something else really wonderfully tangy. Nothing is served on the side but a fork and knife, which you will need. It is so good, I actually ate it again a few days later. Just to be sure, you understand.
One thing to be aware of at Ringo, is that each dish is made by one person and is served one at a time. So each time I ate with two other companions, we were served at different times. And it turns out, the shared starter plate was a really good idea. The cost was very reasonable at about €80 for three including at least two glasses of wine per person and several bottles water for the table.
Another place I ate more than once was the local trattoria I couldn’t get into on my first night—Ruggero. For a starter, I tried the ground chicken liver in olive oil spread on crostini (reportedly very traditional, and actually very delicious). For the main, I was served breaded veal in an onion-tomato gravy with large, flat green beans in bacon. Again, very good. By the second visit, all I wanted was a salad, which is understandable given all of the other stuff I’d been eating until then. That day they had one featuring copious amounts of sliced mushrooms. I asked for a side of sliced salami, which request they graciously obliged.
Finally, for the lunch of my last full day, I tried a place that reportedly hosted Sarah Jessica Parker on her visit to Florence—Cambi (or Antica Ristoro di Cambi, if you want the full treatment). There I ate the most famous dish of the city—Bistecca Florentine (por un, per favore). What I received was a 750g delicious, rare T-bone, marinated somehow into a state of fabulousness not attainable at, say, Shula’s. I was advised to go traditional with the sides and so had white beans I sprinkled with salt and fresh ground black pepper and then drizzled with EVOO (fagioli con olio di oliva). Solid.
I must say, this is the only place I ever felt I absolutely had to ask for a take-away box. I wasn’t sure if this was considered rude, but they were very obliging and I enjoyed the remainder of the steak the next morning with breakfast. I can’t imagine how big the Bistecca por due must be!
These were not the only places recommended to me, but by the time I dodged the various Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday closing days of sundry establishments, the eateries listed above were the ones that made the cut. And, believe me, the five pounds I earned are not regretted in the least. Florence was a beautiful place to bulk up and make food memories to last a lifetime.
The Winding Stair restaurant is a quaint little bistro on Bachelor’s Walk looking out at the Ha’penny Bridge over River Liffey in Dublin. The name is taken, perhaps obviously, from the entry which is a stair that twists back upon itself before lead to the dining room. Decor is like something out of a Bogart … Read more The Winding Stair is worth the climb
Finding Murphy’s Ice Cream meant crossing the Liffey River from the suits and order of downtown straight into throngs of foreign tourists, religious figures, pan handlers, gypsies (pardon me: Romani), and hawkers of goods and services appealing to all of the aforementioned–then hanging a right. Along a relatively quiet side street is a small shop … Read more Murphy’s Ice Cream has changed what I mean when I say “creamy”
Come here. Why? If the funky-cool juxtaposition of the old, pink and lavender dining furniture with the seriously hard-core steel breezeways and red and slate walls running through the space or its near-total integration with filmIreland’s filmbase isn’t enough, then for heaven’s sake, come for the food. The hostess recommended the special lemonade and smoked … Read more Momma’s Place–but only if you like food
And before you ask, yes, there is a method to this madness. You see, I’ve heard good things about Indian food but living, as I do, in the American South haven’t yet experienced it in a restaurant. So being jet-lagged, wet, and cold from my day’s travels, when my host gave me a list of … Read more Foodie Goes to Ireland–for Indian?
Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)
The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!
At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.
The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.
The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.
Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.
As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.
It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.
Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)
My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.
Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)
The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.
But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)
Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.
Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.
Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.
Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.
Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.
Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.
And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.
Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.
The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)
And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.
“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.
Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.
In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.
In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!
After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.
Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.
The Original Pancake House. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by, like, 53 of these and never once stopped. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend: quit doing that!
One reason I’ve never stopped, other than the low-carb diet since 2003, is my apparently whack belief that one pancake/waffle/denny’s/shoney’s establishment is more or less like another. And usually, that has been the case. But The Original Pancake House on LaVista Road NE in Atlanta (or OPH(L) for short), may be the exception to the rule.
My first visit to OPH(L) was during a mid-morning peak time one recent Saturday; the next was a “shoot-a-canon-through-it” mid-morning weekday. Both times I sat at the bar. Both times I placed the same order: two eggs over easy, sausage, three pancakes with sugar-free syrup, coffee, and water.
(You can infer from this that I enjoyed the first breakfast so well that I just wanted a repeat, and not that the menu was in any way not pages and pages of deliciousness described. It certainly was the former.)
Whereas most “diner” eggs are greasy and/or over-cooked, OPH(L)’s over easy was textbook with a perfectly soft, not overly runny interior. (Frankly, I wish I could make them as well.) Whereas most “diner” sausage is a dried-out, crusty, rubbery puck, OPH(L)’s was tender yet cooked through, perfectly-seasoned, and moist with what seemed like actual pork fat. Mmmmm.
Now I come to the pancakes served with authentic—wait for it—butter. These were probably among the very best examples I have ever tried. They were not oversweet, dry, chewy, loose, wet, lumpy, or any other bad thing. In fact they were cakes of steamy, firm, buttery pure love.
Now granted, being a Louisiana dinosaur, I happen to think the pinnacle of pancake syrup is Steen’s Cane Syrup, a kind of Cajun blackstrap molasses. So I’m admittedly no maple syrup connoisseur. But to my taste, even the sugar-free syrup they served (I forget the brand) was actually indistinguishable from real maple syrup in taste and texture.
What’s more the coffee was fresh, strong, and bottomless, and the service was reasonably attentive and welcoming. Sitting there at the bar was like a trip back to a simpler time when people enjoyed a little gossip with their brunch. Apparently, that hasn’t changed much along with the now-retro 1950’s décor.
All-in-all, I found the Original Pancake House to be a great way to spend both the morning and about $10 a head.
Along with pork, another favorite of mine is Thai food—especially if there’s pork in there. Before now, Thai in Atlanta meant just one thing to me: Nan in Midtown. But now I not so sure. You see, there’s another Thai in town. A small chain of just two restaurants called, Top Spice. And you know what? They’ve won all those great reviews fair and square.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Nan rocks! First of all, it’s one of the prettiest restaurants around. But the décor isn’t the only thing working for Nan. The kitchen cooks as good as it looks, featuring text book examples of coconut soup and various curries and top shelf, prime ingredients in their translations of traditional dishes.
All of their dishes are incredibly fresh and the elegant portions, while not overlarge, are satisfying. To finish, just about any of the desserts are to die for—but be sure to try the Three Flavors Homemade Ice Creams.
And for the PGA fan, there is a photo gallery of pro golfers near the entrance that are a who’s who of rich and famous diners. Apparently, the owners have some kind of Vijay Sing connection. So if you want to eat where some of the top PGA players hang out when they are passing through Atlanta, be sure to try Nan.
If there is any issue with Nan, it is the fine dining ding to your wallet prior to departure. And that valet parking is really the only way to enter. So what’s the budget-minded or the self-park-er to do for good Thai? The answer clearly is Top Spice.
Located in the renovated Toco Hills strip shopping center and with a second location at Akers Mill, Top Spice is a legitimate alternative to Nan for most occasions. I visited the Toco Hills location for lunch and dinner.
At Top Spice, even the top shelf drinks are reasonably priced. I enjoyed a generous Grey Goose vodka at my evening meal for around $8.
I started with Fresh Basil Rolls on each occasion and found them very fresh and containing a reasonable balance of protein to rice noodles. And the accompanying plum sauce with chopped peanuts is excellent as a dip or a between course snack—Kidding! (Not really).
My first entrée was from the Thai menu. I ordered the Soft Shell Crab dish at the recommendation of my waiter, and it was awesome! The crabs were (again) very fresh medium-sized blue points and you get two of them. The crabs were properly cleaned of fat and gills, lightly-crusted, deep-fried, and served in green curry with small but juicy shrimp and tender-crisp asparagus.
Although the crabs were quite filling, I took a bullet for the team and ordered dessert. The very helpful waiter explained that two of the desserts were made in-house—the Kaya Pencake and the Sticky Rice with Mango and both were especially good. I went Sticky Rice and was not disappointed.
On the plate was a beautiful presentation of a molded warm rice cake topped with a smattering of toasted blond sesame seeds, a fan of expertly sliced mango, and a small ramekin of warm “coconut syrup” that tasted like my idea of sweetened condensed milk if it were made with coconut cream instead of dairy.
The combination was intoxicating. Each bite of rice dipped in sauce was heaven. And amazingly, the rice and syrup stayed warm until the end. Oh, yes, I did finish it! And I took my time savoring each lovely grain.
For lunch, the budget-minded need fear not at Top Spice, for there are lunch specials which are all of the quality of the dinner menu but at a fraction of the price. This menu includes such dishes as Pad Thai. I enjoyed the Nam Sod from the regular salad menu, however.
The only complaint I have about Top Spice’s interpretation of this classic dish is their handling of the raw cabbage side which they serve quartered and almost unimpenetrably solid, like a cabbage brick. I have enjoyed cabbage served as more of a cup containing the minced pork mixture in the past, which I eat like a salad.
Otherwise, this is probably the best Nam Sod I have ever had. Very balanced and not overly sweet, it is spicy without blowing your head off with chili. If you are into this dish, you definitely should give it a try here.
Oh, and despite its location, Top Spice is beautiful too. Dress is casual to business casual, and the atmosphere is elegantly relaxed. In 2007, Top Spice apparently got a lot great press and was awarded Best of City search and rated by Zagat.
In the final analysis, whether you want high-end or really high-quality but not so fussy, Atlanta has Thai covered. For the big spending golf/Thai fan, there’s beautiful Nan. But if you want great Thai without the sticker shock or if you just enjoy Malaysian, Top Spice is the clear winner.