Diversion, Wine/Cocktails

Diversion – Our Own Winery!

Romano signOkay, it’s not really ours, but it’s kinda cool to have a winery nearby that shares your last name. There’s nothing like having personalized wineglasses and wine bottles in the cellar to make your guests wonder!

Romano Vineyard and Winery is in Brandywine, Maryland, in southern Prince George’s County. PG County, as the locals know it, is mostly urban and suburban; home to the likes of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Cente, NOAA’s National Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, the U.S. Census Bureau, and Joint Base Andrews; and, according to U.S. Census data, the most affluent county in the country with a primarily African-American population. But this area of PG County is decidedly rural…former tobacco farms now yield lots of corn, soybeans, and more importantly, vineyards.  It’s a stone’s throw from historic St. Mary’s and Charles counties…even the infamous Dr. Mudd House, where Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth had his broken leg set, is nearby.

I’d like to say that Judy and I stumbled on this gem of a winery as one of our regular diversions, but this story is a bit different. When the winery opened in 2011, I lived just a few miles away with my previous wife and saw the “bootleg” signs announcing its opening and wine-tasting availability along the rural roads I regularly took to work. I vowed to visit and introduce myself to the proprietors.

That never happened. In 2012, I moved out, filed for divorce, and moved to much more urban Northern Virginia. When Judy and I got together, we discovered a shared passion for good wine and often enjoy visiting wineries as a regular weekend activity. Romano vineyardVirginia’s wines have become world-class and there is no shortage of wineries to visit. Our neighbors even gave us a Virginia Wine Pass to enjoy regular discounts!  But I still harbored the desire to visit the winery that shares my family name, so when a trip to Annapolis offered an opportunity for a Southern PG County diversion, we jumped at the chance.

We weren’t disappointed. Unlike many of the Virginia wineries, the Romano winery has a very casual, rural farm feel. Owners Jo-Ann and curiousities sidebar 2Joseph Romano were delightful. We quickly figured out we weren’t related, but then, we Romanos are like the “Smiths” of Italy…many in number, not related, but all happy to meet one another.

The wines were excellent, too, so naturally, we joined the Romano Wine Club. We received our membership materials a couple of weeks ago, including our card for two free glasses of wine each month.

Today, we found ourselves in the area once again, top-down on the Fiat spider enjoying the spring weather with temps in the low ‘60s – a nice break from recent freezes. Naturally, we stopped at “our” winery.  Jo-Ann instantly recognized us. We sat outside, each enjoying a glass of merlot.  We chatted with several ladies who were enjoying a similar fine day.  With other errands to run, we didn’t stay long, but for a brief respite, Judy and I reveled in the joy of each other’s company, a fine glass of wine, and the peace and quiet that only a rural atmosphere can bring.

We have long held that part of the fun of traveling is getting off the beaten path to find hidden gems like Romano Vineyard and Winery.  Stop in and say hello, even for a just few minutes.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.  Go see it.

Fiat at Romano

 

 

Alexandria, Uncategorized

Pied-à-Terre

Literally, pied-à-terre is French for “a foot on the ground,” but Wikipedia says the phrase implies usage as a temporary second residence (but not a vacation home), either for part of the year or part of the work week, by a reasonably wealthy person.IMG_6146

I’d love to say I am “reasonably” wealthy, but my husband and I are just a typical professional couple doing our jobs and living for our next trip to anywhere. So when we finally bought a home together, we decided to think of it as a pied-à-terre. It’s where we live while we save up and plan our next getaway.

IMG_6149Of course, our home is where we live MOST of the time. It’s where we spend the work weeks and every weekend we can’t get away to somewhere. So it really is a permanent home, not a temporary second residence. That said, walking around it, we hope our visitors get a sense of our desire to see the world. We decorated it with maps and globes and compass roses that evoke travel.

IMG_6147The walls are canvases where we showcase images we have captured on our vacations. The food we serve to our guests gives an insight into the flavors we’ve discovered in hidden corners of cities and towns across the globe.

Like many homes we’ve seen in other countries, we decided ours should have more than an address so we named it “Contrail’s End.” The name, carefully chosen, speaks to our love of flying and the place where we are when we land. To us, it says “home.”

We are always learning and exploring wherever we are. That includes our hometown. Just last week we learned that a new poll says ours is the “Best Downtown in America” and we agree. IMG_4706Not only is our town walkable, there is so much to see and do. It’s full of interesting architecture, museums, restaurants, bars, shops and more. Not only that, but our little neighborhood is like the neighborhoods of my youth. Young couples hang out and chat while their children play on the cul-de-sacs. Slightly older kids ride their bikes and scooters along the paths that encircle the neighborhood, winding their way to a huge city park nearby. Friends and strangers smile and exchange hellos as they wander those same pathways, some with dogs happily trotting along.

It’s all a lesson. Live where you want to be. Find a place to call home, but use it as a jumping off point to see the world. There’s a great big world out there just waiting to be explored.

Distractions

Distractions – Seven Oaks for Seven Senses

About an hour outside Washington, D.C., is Seven Oaks Lavender Farm in the little town of Catlett, Va. Far enough away from the hubbub of the big city, but close enough to make it a day trip, Seven Oaks is a feast for the senses.20150628_115128

After a week of heat and humidity and just a day after storms dropped flooding rains, the morning brought partly sunny skies and mild temperatures. We dropped the top on the roadster and headed out, avoiding the highways and sticking to two-lane roads that sometimes required us to pull slightly to the right when farm trucks passed. Our route even took us over a well-traveled gravel road. “Maleficent” (our aptly named 2009 Pontiac Solstice roadster) wasn’t too happy with that arrangement, but the road was only about a mile long, and we were soon pulling into Seven Oak’s grassy parking area. We paid the $6/each entrance fee and headed up the hill.

Judy decided she wanted to try out her crafting skills making a lavender wand. This required weaving ribbon between the folded-over stems of the lavender sprigs, such that the flowers were encased within the weave. Judy’s instructor, Monique, learned the art of lavender weaving at an early age in Belgium; she patiently worked with Judy, demonstrating the deft touch such weaving required.

20150628_115219
the wand Monique shows Judy how to weave the ribbon between the lavender stalks. Once complete, you only have to squeeze the wand lightly to unleash the fresh scent of lavender. Monique say it can last as long as 30 years!

After snapping a few pics, I sat in the sun, mesmerized by the sight of an ever-changing tableaux of clouds…a palette of white, blue, and grey above the verdant earth with oaks, firs, and pines bordering fields of corn, sunflowers, and, of course, purple lavender.

Sitting there, the scent of lavender intermixed with the pungent smell of fresh manure, brought on the breeze from the dairy farm across the road. With Judy’s tasked completed, we sipped lavender infused ice tea and lemonade, the tastes tickling our taste buds as we walked the grounds, the sounds of laughter from young children bringing joy to our ears.

Stopping to take some pictures, we experienced some of the more non-traditional senses. Kneeling to take pictures of bees and butterflies on the new growth, we experienced the coolness of the rich earth, damp from the previous night’s rain.

We ended our visit experiencing what can only be described as the seventh sense…the sense of love being together, holding hands, smiling under the bright sky.20150628_124224 cropped

Distractions

Distractions – “Uber-iffic” Saturday

In German, “Über” is a preposition that means over, above or across and in popular abstracts it is sometimes used to mean superiority or excess.  Here in the States, it is quickly becoming a verb, as in, “We’ll just Uber there.”  In this regard, I’m talking about the popular car-sharing service. Based on superior experiences on a single recent Saturday, I believe they’ve chosen their brand name well!

Here’s the setup:  Judy has a knack for getting free stuff on her birthday, so we planned to walk to Bruegger’s Bagels in Old Town Alexandria Saturday morning to get her free bagel, then down the street to Market Square for the weekly Old Town Farmer’s Market.  As expected, we woke to heat and humidity.  We donned shorts and tank tops, grabbed a canvas shopping bag and an olive oil jug that needed refilling, and headed out.

The staff at Bruegger’s were delightful as they filled our order and we spent some time people-watching as I sipped and savored my coffee in the European manner.  We debated the wisdom of a young mother who seemed to carry every possible baby accoutrement in a shoulder bag the size of a suitcase, while admiring another who had merely a small bag of essentials in her baby’s stroller.

The Farmer’s Market was abuzz with buyers and merchants.  Old Town Farmers Market 2One of the latter was hawking his peaches as the sweetest ever, offering samples on toothpicks.  We tried them and couldn’t disagree with his claims, so we bought two. The vendor also offered some irresistible tomatoes the size of softballs in anticipation of a planned Sunday picnic and some bright, fresh broccoli for later in the week.  At the booth run by Dimitri Olive Farms, we refilled our jug with unfiltered olive oil, truly some of the finest olive oil we’ve ever tasted. It’s become a staple in our kitchen.  We tried some of their orange-infused Kalamata olives, and quickly bought a pint for the aforementioned picnic.  We rounded out our purchases with fresh mozzarella cheese from Blue Ridge Dairy Co., and a clump of fresh basil…the thought of caprese skewers as part of our picnic made our mouths water!

With the late morning heat approaching 90 and a full bag of groceries on the shoulder, the thought of walking home was appalling, so I pulled out my smartphone and clicked on the Uber app to get a car.  Within two minutes, Johnny arrived in a shiny black Lexus and chauffeured us home.  One of the beauties of Uber is that there is no cash involved.  When you sign-up, you attach a credit card to your account.  When Johnny dropped us off, there was no awkward exchange of cash or credit card, figuring out a tip, or any of that…we simply said thank you and went upstairs.  Within minutes, there was a receipt for the $7.34 fare in my email.  The app lets you rate the service; I rated Johnny highly for the cleanliness of the car, the prompt service, and his engaging personality!

But wait, there’s more!

That evening, we had plans to celebrate our six-month wedding anniversary with a dinner and dancing cruise on the Potomac River on Nina’s Dandy – we had won it at a charity silent auction a year earlier.  The boat would leave from Old Town waterfront for its three hour tour (bet you’re singing the theme from Gilligan’s Island right now!) We briefly debated driving and paying for parking down there.  We quickly put the kabash on that, in anticipation of the potential for drinking adult beverages in excess.

Around 5 p.m., we dressed in “casual cocktail” attire, pulled up the Uber app again and set our destination as Alexandria’s Market Square, this time for a visit to the Old Town Arts & Crafts Fair.  Essaid arrived within a few minutes and drove us to Old Town.  Inquiring about his accent, we learned that he was from Morocco, which led to much discussion about Judy’s travels there.

Strolling the stalls of the fair, we found lots to like and even bought a beautiful hand-crafted puzzle box.  We still had plenty of time before the boat was to board, so we stopped by our favorite Old Town watering hole for a cocktail and to check up on our favorite bartender, Bruce, who we hadn’t seen in months.

Appropriately lubricated, we boarded the boat and sat next to a wonderfully pleasant young couple, Joe and Gina.  Joe is a U.S. Army veteran who met Gina in Germany (Judy recognized her accent instantly).  Is it any wonder that we spoke with them almost the entire evening?  Nina's Dandy 2The food on Nina’s Dandy was excellent and the views of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Memorial and Key Bridges, the Watergate and Georgetown from the upper deck were spectacular.  As the sun went down, we took lots of pictures and descended below for a bit of dancing, then more pictures from the deck with the lights of Alexandria and National Harbor, Md., behind us as we docked.

A short nightcap followed and once again, we pulled up the Uber app for the ride home.  Ahmad was right at the corner when he accepted our ride.  Feeling the positive effects of a bit too much alcohol (which is to say, I had a good buzz on), I remarked to Judy that THIS was the reason we didn’t drive.  She agreed wholeheartedly.

The moral of this story is not about staying safe when not exactly sober…it’s about using new services and technology to make a great day even better.  Uber costs significantly less than taxis – our total fare over three trips was about $25 – and is incredibly convenient.  Our car stayed safely in the garage while we stayed cool.  Uber made our day of local distractions a truly “uber-iffic” day.

Diversion

Diversion – Solomons Island

A beautiful, sun-filled day near the Chesapeake Bay calls you to the water. That’s how we ended up on Solomons Island, Maryland on a Saturday in May instead of touring embassies in downtown Washington, DC or even at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware, both considered top options until the sun and wind called us elsewhere.20150509_142733

Solomons Island is where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake and across the water from a US Navy installation that’s been around since the war of 1812 with an ever-changing mission due to its location at the mouth of the river.  Greg had heard about the Calvert Marine Museum for years while living in nearby Prince George’s County, but had never been. So, with the top down on the car, the wind whipping through our hair and the sun shining pleasantly on us, we headed to the museum.

What a great little treasure tucked away on this Southern Maryland island. The maritime-focused museum is chock full of artifacts and information about the crucial location of the island in the war of 1812 against the British, about its fishing and maritime history and even a peek at the history of speed boat racing and recreation on the river and into the Chesapeake bay.

The friendly lady who sold us our admission tickets, $9 per adult, mentioned an optional tour on the Wm B Tennison. The one hour cruise takes you through the Solomons inner harbor, around the end of the island and under the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge then turns at Point Patience and returns to the museum dock. The $7 per person price seemed reasonable, so we opted in. Brilliant decision!

anglersWe had just enough time to pop next door to the Anglers Seafood Bar and Grill to grab a bite to eat before the cruise. We postulated that if you can’t get good seafood in a fishing town, where can you? We ordered crab cake sliders and bacon-wrapped scallops. Both were magnificent … fresh, cooked to perfection and exactly what we needed for a waterside lunch.

A mad dash back to the Tennison had us make it just in time to shove off and head out. The weather was perfect, the captain and first mate filled the outward cruise with tidbits of information about places of interest on shore, then turned off the microphone and let us enjoy the peace and quiet of a cruise on the water as we returned.20150509_142253

The Drum Point Lighthouse, once a beacon to sailors and other mariners entering these sometimes dangerously shallow waters, is no longer in operation and has been moved to the dock for visitors. A two-bedroom home with a kitchen and living space, an outdoor privy and what looked like all the amenities of a quaint home made us talk about finding a lighthouse bed and breakfast for a weekend getaway at some point.  Entrance to the lighthouse is part of the museum admission.1431192796504

We stopped at the wood carving shop and watched a couple of gentlemen building boats inside for a while, then headed back to the car for a leisurely drive home.

EPILOGUE:  When we arrived home we checked in online to discover a MAJOR accident had closed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in both directions. Our last-minute decision to scrap our plans to head to Dover turned out to be fortuitous, not only for the incredible find we stumbled on, but for our dodging a traffic nightmare at the end of our day.

Alexandria, Food

Food – The Pines of Florence in Alexandria

Greg and I realized recently that we don’t talk much about our town. Alexandria, Virginia, is an amazing place to live. There’s always something going on; it’s a short metro ride from Washington, DC; it’s incredibly walkable; it’s loaded with history; there’s fun, eclectic shopping; and best of all, there are restaurants EVERYWHERE.  So we’re making an effort to get to more of the restaurants that we usually just walk right past. We live here, we should put a little more effort into eating here … and at more than just one or two favorites.

We actually started a couple of weeks ago. Friday was new restaurant #2. (No, I’m not going to keep count – ha). After a relatively short day at work, we hopped off the metro at King Street and wandered down to The Pines of Florence. This restaurant has been around a long time, judging by the well-maintained, but obviously been-there-forever sign out front and the equally well-maintained-but-old decor inside. There’s nothing shiny or flashy about this place. You get good, clean, comfy, cozy atmosphere as you are surrounded by a staff that is not only friendly, but makes you feel like you’re among family the entire time. They are not related – we overheard a waitress tell the couple seated behind us, “no, he’s not my father” when asked if the gentleman who was obviously in charge was her dad – but you’d never know it.

Menus arrived with a delightful, not pushy, but charmingly suggestive recommendation that we take a peek at the specials on the back page. We asked if there was any one of the half dozen or more that he recommended. He suggested the chicken and mozzarella. We quickly sized up the wine list and ordered a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (our fave), and he nodded approvingly and headed to the bar to get the bottle and give us time with the menu.

By the time he came back (oh so perfect timing), we had chosen an appetizer of mixed fried seafood. He poured the wine and popped off to the kitchen to put in our appy order. Leaving us alone with the wine and menus while he and the others tended to several other diners, we chatted about our day and relaxed. By the time the appy arrived we had decided to split the chicken and mozzarella special he had suggested. (Side note: we almost always split a single entree because we are fortunate to have the same food tastes and they are always too big to be called a “single serving”)

The “frito misto” (mixed fried seafood) was piping hot, perfectly cooked and downright scrumptious. The batter used to coat the mussels, calamari, shrimp and zucchini was light and airy with just the right amount of crunch. A dish of tomato sauce for dipping added a fun splash of flavor. It was a huge pile of seafood and we both agreed it was perfect for sharing.

Our water glasses stayed full as we nibbled and chatted, never feeling rushed or watched. A large group had come in while we were eating and was seated near the back of the restaurant, but we never heard them. The couple behind us were clearly regulars judging from the comments to the staff. Another duo nearby were work colleagues chatting about business but not loudly. We caught an occasional snippet of their conversation.

After a well-timed pause between courses, the chicken and mozzarella arrived. Our waitress put the bowl between us and offered a large spoon to let us divvy up the portions onto the two plates provided. We opted to share the bowl as the table for two was the perfect size to allow it. The ziti in the dish was perfect. There’s nothing worse than overcooked pasta in my mind and this had just the right amount of bite. The two-bite chunks of chicken were tender and juicy, the asparagus was blissfully slightly crunchy, the light coating of sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil added a beautifully sweet tang to the bites and the diced mozzarella (which we immediately stirred into the hot dish to get it melting and gooey) was just right.

If you’re looking for a great, family feeling, home style Italian meal, The Pines of Florence NAILS IT!

Food

Food – Mamma Ventura’s – Gettysburg, PA

Like a lot of travelers, we’re also foodies.  Part of the joy of traveling is exploring new tastes.  So let’s indulge our senses as we set forth on a new blog adventure – Food! – where we share some of our good (and not-so-good) food experiences, so if you’re headed somewhere we’ve been, you can have an idea of where to go … or where to avoid.

We could go way back to some of the great restaurants we’ve been to, but we’ve mentioned several in other blogs and it seems silly to rehash the past, so this begins our hobby as amateur food critics. Like our “Diversions” blogs, we’ll take turns so you’ll get both our viewpoints.

This weekend, we popped up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for a nice little getaway. Arriving Friday evening, we stayed in the heart of Gettysburg in a B&B and set out on foot to find a place to grab dinner.

After passing a couple of pubs and similar casual eateries, we came upon Mamma Ventura’s.  We are most definitely fans of Italian food (which means we eat it a LOT and know great from good and good from not-so-good).  But the menu and the restaurant itself look appetizing so we gave it a try.

One cannot have Italian food without wine, so Greg perused the wine list and quickly chose a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, one of our favorites from Italy.  The dinner menu featured three “Chef’s Recommendations.” These can sometimes be a risk or reward; it can mean there’s something the chef either makes very well and wants to share, or it can mean there is something the chef is trying to get rid of.  Nevertheless, we chose two of these hoping for the former and an appetizer.  We must have been hungry…we’re sharers and usually only order an appetizer or two and one entrée, but not this time!

That’s a good thing, because the appetizer of mussels in a white wine and lemon sauce were really disappointing.  To be fair, Gettysburg is not a coastal town and the further you are from the coast, the less likely are to get really great seafood.  These mussels were huge, which made them a little tough.  The sauce was okay, but lacked the punch of flavor you’d expect from a good lemon/wine sauce.

Spinach, Chicken and bacon ravioli (top) and Beef Milanese with tomato/asparagus sauce
Spinach, Chicken and bacon ravioli (top) and Beef Milanese with tomato/asparagus sauce

Next it was on to the entrees.   The Beef Milanese was offered with your choice of three sauces: Tomato/asparagus, Francese, and White wine.  Since we chose the mussels in white wine and lemon, we went with the tomato/asparagus.  The beef was a little chewy on the edges, but nicely done in the middle.  The sauce was heavy handed on the tomato and a little too spare with the asparagus.  And unfortunately, in typical American fashion, the beef was almost floating in the sauce.  Sauce should complement, not overpower the meat or pasta.  However, once you scraped most of it away, the dish was actually pretty good.  The side of pasta was a little overcooked and disappointing. It wasn’t quite mushy, but there was no bite to it at all.

We also ordered the spinach ravioli with chicken and bacon. I have to say, when you add bacon, you almost always do something right and this was no exception.  Six gigantic raviolis delivered to the table with (way too much) tomato cream sauce.  However, with this dish, one bite told us we’d made an excellent choice.  It’s not easy to make good homemade ravioli.  Often the pasta is too thick and it’s either over- or under-stuffed.  This was perfect!

The wine?  It was a young but completely acceptable Montepulciano.  We usually characterize these wines as more mature than Chiantis, but not as “old” as Cabs and Sangioveses.  This one felt like a 25-year-old…more mature than a teenage Chianti, but still with some “sexiness.”

Of course, the service experience can make or break and eating adventure.  Here, Mamma Ventura’s was top notch.  Our waitress, a first generation Italian-American who was born and raised in town, was cheerful, informative and absolutely adorable. We chatted a bit at the end of the meal and learned she is the niece of the owner and the family roots are southern Italian.  She recommended their Grappa as a digestive along with our espresso.  Both were as delightful as she was.

Overall, our experience was positive and  enjoyable.  I wouldn’t put Mamma Ventura’s in my top Italian restaurants, but I’d certainly go back if I want Italian food in Gettysburg.

Buon appetito!