Food, The World A to Z, travel

Boston’s “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour”

A quick google search of food quotes and travel quotes shows how closely these two things are connected. That’s one of the reasons I try to take a food tour or cooking class everywhere I go. Boston was no exception.

The bread bakery stop was a tour highlight.

There are a myriad of food tours in nearly every major city in the world. Boston’s includes many in the Italian food mecca known as the North End. Here in the shadow of the famous “Old North Church” where lanterns illuminated Paul Revere’s warning of the British invasion from the steeple, you can sample everything from pizza to pastries. I decided to go for food and humor and booked the “Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” 

Anthony was born and raised in the North End and explains he is one of only two TRUE natives operating a food tour here. Others, he scoffs, came here 10 or 12 years ago, but didn’t grow up here and don’t know the neighborhood stories. 

The menu at Umberto’s

The tour didn’t disappoint! Interspersed with tales of families who have been in business for generations, he walks us to Umberto’s for a slice of pizza to kick off the tour.

Inside Polcari’s Coffee

From there it’s off to Polcari’s Coffee — a very European-feeling general store where we were surrounded by the smell of coffee and spices while we sampled a classic piece of Italian candy.

Sandwich at Monica’s Mercato

A few blocks up the street we came to Monica’s Mercato Pizza. It wasn’t pizza we sampled, though, it was a hearty slice of a classic Italian sub. The flavors lingered deliciously on my tongue as we made our way to the Old North Church listening to Anthony’s stories of the neighborhood and how he got his nickname, Flash. 

One of the bakery cases at Modern Pastry

Next stop – the bakery! The tour description promised a cannoli, but Anthony had warned us that our cannoli would not be the typical bakery version. His Pops had made fresh ricotta cream filling the day before, so we would be getting the homemade version of the classic Italian treat. Never fear, the bakery case at Modern Pastry included dozens of cookies and pastry options. Our sample was something Anthony called an Italian macaroon. It was a shiny doughy ball filled with almond paste … WOW!

Key ingredients to making Italian bread.

A couple of doors down we turned up a little alley and came to a small flight of stairs into the heavenly aroma of baking bread. The list on the wall  of Bricco Panetteria shows what goes into true Italian bread – culminating with passion. Clearly, from the flavor of the slice of authentic Roman pizza I enjoyed, this bakery includes a generous portion of that essential ingredient.

Back on the neighborhood streets we passed restaurants, bakeries and a florist that may very well have been owned by some distant relative. As we stopped again, I noticed a familiar name on the sign at our next stop: Monica. Monica’s three sons each own a food shop of some sort in the neighborhood. At the pasta shop featuring her name, we tried a completely different kind of sub.

The Abruzzo section in the wine shop.

A number of my fellow foodie tourists and I pontificated about how simply changing the bread and condiments on a sandwich could so utterly change the flavors. Anthony warned us not to fall too much in love with this homemade mayonnaise-based dressing. This son was keeping the spread off the market. Our guide said he often tried to buy a jar to no avail.

A quick stop at a wine shop before our final destination left me dazzled with choices. This shop has an entire ROOM of Italian wines, sorted by region. It turns out the tour did not include beverages, but we were encouraged to pick out something we would like to sip with lunch. I left with a nice bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo to sip with my bolognese. 

Mama’s homemade pasta bolognese.

Finally we arrived at Mama’s house. Passing through the kitchen, we settled around the dining room table while Anthony asked Alexa to play some Italian classics while he opened our wine bottles. The rigatoni was brilliantly al dente. The bolognese light and flavorful and the company fun and lively.

Homemade cannoli caps off the tour.

As we finished our pasta, Anthony steps into the dining room holding a silver tray bearing the promised homemade cannolis. The tour couldn’t have ended on a sweeter note (pun intended). Pops’ homemade ricotta filling was not as sicky sweet as the bakery version. The shell crunched with perfection. 

We toasted Anthony and newfound friends before parting ways with very full bellies and bright, shining smiles on our faces. 

 Food, travel and laughs are easily three of my favorite things to combine. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors wherever your travels take you and don’t forget to laugh a lot.

Food, travel

A Tale of Cannolis

When I found out Greg and I would be spending a week in Boston, I started asking friends what should I see, do and eat there. I got a good variety of suggestions, but nearly every single person talked about either the North End’s Italian food scene or lobster and chowder.

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Boxed cannoli from Modern Pastry

For those of you who may not know, Italian food is my favorite. In fact, there is not even a close second. “OK,” I responded to the food suggestions, “what EXACTLY should I try in the North End?” The overwhelming response was, “Get a cannoli!” Then each person offered up a different bakery as the best option. A google search for “best cannoli in Boston” offered up a trio of bakeries, too. Faced with this dilemma, my choice seemed simple: Get a traditional cannoli from each of the top three bakeries and have our own taste test. 

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Bakery boxes are tied with string

Luckily, the day I snagged the cannolis I walked in, walked straight up to the counter at all three places and had cannolis in hand in short order. With my boxed and tied packages, I made my way back to the Convention Center where Greg was attending a conference. 

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Modern Pastry

As fortune continued smiling on me, I arrived during a rare break in his schedule. He was informally meeting with a pair of coworkers in the hotel lobby lounge. I walked up, got hugs from all three gentlemen and, grinning broadly, announced that all three were conscripted into taste-testing service immediately.

Hearing no complaints, I opened all three packages and we passed the cannolis around, taking big, flavor-packed bites of pastry and ricotta cream-filled deliciousness.

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Mike’s Pastry

The results: all three men chose the cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the cannoli bakeries and it’s fairly clear why based on the results of my unscientific study. I preferred the cannoli from Modern Pastry. I felt the shell was lighter and crispier. Mike’s, we all agreed, seemed sturdier and thicker. The cannoli from Bova’s Bakery was soggy. I had been warned to always get a freshly filled cannoli for that very reason. I didn’t specifically ask for one, so apparently got a cannoli that had time to lose it’s tasty crunch.

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“Mama’s” homemade cannolis

The following day, I had signed up for a food tour: “Boston’s Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” This tour ends at the home of our North-End-native tour guide’s mother’s house. Mama serves up true homemade pasta bolognese. Anthony, aka Flash, announced that “Pops” had whipped up some homemade cannoli filling the day before so we would also be presented with Mama’s cannoli. 

It was no contest. Mama’s was head and shoulders above the bakery versions! 

I believe one of the best ways to truly experience a place is through local food. Boston is no exception. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors as you go.

wine glass and menu
Food, Road Trip, travel, Wine/Cocktails

Luck or a Nose for Good Food and Wine?

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you have probably noticed we often seem to find really fun and interesting places to eat and drink. This past weekend was no exception.

Friday afternoon we decided it was time, once again, to jump in the car early Saturday morning and hit the road for a day trip. New to Arizona, we have a long list of places we want to see in a day. This particular Saturday, with the forecast for the Valley of the Sun calling for high temps over 100 ˚F,  we opted to head for the hills.

Prescott is in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains and at just over 5300 feet, it tends to be a nice cool getaway on a hot summer day. Saturday was no exception. As our neighbors hid in air-conditioned comfort, we strolled the adorable historic city center under sunny skies at a pleasant 82˚.

Arizona wine region map
A state map shows the wine growing regions of Arizona

While hopes for cool temps helped choose the destination for the day, luck, karma or instinct had us drive right into the town’s celebration of “Territorial Days.”  It turns out Prescott was the capital of Arizona before it became a state and the annual celebration includes dozens of artists selling their crafts  on the town square. Families wandered easily past the displays. Children played in the grass. One vendor offered face painting. Musicians fiddled. It was a fun, festive party!

Wine tasting
Two whites and three reds are featured on the tasting menu

After a bit of shopping and enjoying the scenes unfolding around us, we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting. All Arizona Wines” pointing to the Back Alley Wine Bar. What a great find! Lindsay walked us through five wines from our new home state and dazzled us with her knowledge.

wine glass and menu
The menu offers a refill as I near the end of a delicious red blend.

We ordered another glass each and continued to sip and share stories as other customers came and went.

As the time ticked away, our stomachs noisily reminded us we should eat something, so with Lindsay’s suggestion, we headed three blocks away to Farm Provisions. WOW! A robust farm-to-table menu enticed us with mouth-watering choices. We marveled over the fresh burrata on crostini with slow-roasted tomatoes and aged balsamic. 

Farm Provisions scallops
Farm Provisions scrumptious scallops

The farm fettucini with pancetta, wild mushrooms, Arizona-sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino was exceptional. The incredible day boat scallops were drizzled with a pomegranate gastrique and Arizona lemon beurre blanc while floating on a bed of butternut squash puree. Roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted baby beets and pomegranate seeds added color and perfect taste pairings. With our taste buds celebrating flavor perfection and our tummies happily full, we made a decision to schedule another trip to Prescott just to try the dessert!

As we drove out of town with the sun setting behind us, we wondered how we always seem to find these food and drink havens. Sure, we typically ask a local for options, but there is more to it than that. We asked each other, “Is it luck or is it some sort of nose for good food and wine that we are lucky enough to be blessed with?” Whatever leads us there, we plan to keep finding these amazing spots.

After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … follow lady luck or your nose and go see, eat and drink it all in.

Diversion, Food, Road Trip, travel

Diversions – Analog Traveling in a Digital World

One of the advantages of getting off the beaten path is that views, togetherness, and even dining choices vastly improve. Such was the case on a bright and cool Monday in central Ohio.

The back story: When a June wedding just north of Cincinnati called us to Ohio, we booked our tickets to Columbus, which offered direct flights from our Phoenix home base, and lower prices for both the flights and our rental car. After celebrating the nuptials, catching up with old friends, and doing research for some other projects over a couple of days, we had a final, entire day to drive back to Columbus for an evening flight.

With plenty of time to kill, we avoided the Interstates. As regular readers of this blog know, it’s our preferred way to travel. We looked at the map (yes, a paper map) and planned our route northeast on U.S. Highways 42 and 40. We drove through farm fields and small towns enjoying the “middle” at its finest. We stopped to watch an old Aeronca Champ airplane take off from a grass runway at Red Stewart Airfield near Waynesville, an “olden days” reminder that Ohio is the birthplace of aviation.

U.S. 40 takes you right through the heart of Columbus. Crossing the Scioto River, we decided to stop and get lunch. We left the smartphones in the car and walked up Broad Street. Fast food and pizza signs touted lunch specials, but we wanted more. Feeling like we were headed in the right direction, we turned left on High Street, then a right turn onto Gay Street, which looked promising. A sign down the block read “Due Amici” (“Two Friends” in Italian) … Jackpot! Italian always works for us.

We were shown to a table — there were about five other parties in the restaurant on that quiet midday — and perused the cocktail and lunch menus. We ordered a fried ravioli appetizer and split a chicken parmigiana over linguine with a rosé sauce. Both were excellent!  Our only mistake was not ordering wine to go with the entree. It mattered little, as the lunch could not have been better and our server, Josh, swapped smiles and stories. We ate, we drank, we laughed. What could be better?

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored, especially when you leave the devices behind and trust your instincts. Go see it!

 


 

The World A to Z, Uncategorized

Travel is Personal

This headline may seem a little like a no-brainer to a lot of people, but I’m not sure most people take their travel personally. Here’s what I mean: I’ve been to Paris three times and I’ve never been up in the Eiffel Tower. Oh sure, I’ve been TO the Eiffel Tower, but not up in it. I didn’t want to go up. I also didn’t want to go to the Louvre. I’m not particularly an art lover, so why waste a day in a museum when I can stroll along the Seine or watch a street artist or simply sit in a café and people watch? All those things seem a lot more interesting to me than art.

I’ve spent enough time in European churches that they all start looking the same … stunning stained glass, astounding feats of architecture, majestic. Yes, admittedly, the cathedrals of Europe are gorgeous, but after awhile they just start looking the same to me. I’d rather find the hidden gems, sample the food, soak up the atmosphere of the town, not the tourist meccas.

That’s what I mean by travel is personal. Too many people cave to the recommendations of an author who writes about those things you “simply must see” in cities around the world. Those authors apparently don’t think, or live, like I do. I prefer to travel with a vague idea of where I’m going and leave much of my trip to chance. Usually in a week-long trip I only plan one or two things to see and leave the rest to chance.  If you’re the type who prefers a little guidance and direction, just keep in mind that these authors are writing about what they love. If you agree, their insight can be super helpful, but if you don’t agree, don’t feel like just because they are published authors means their suggestions are right for you.

That said, one of the things I typically plan is some sort of walking tour or half-day sightseeing tour. A really great travel agent who takes the time to get to know you before booking your trip can be the difference between finding the right “kick-off tour” for a vacation and spending a week touring sites that bore you to tears. My travel agent, Travel Planning for You!!, does just that. Micky knows the overview-style tours hit the highlights and point me in directions I might not have thought about. Tour guides are a wealth of information about their towns and can often suggest off-the-beaten-track sights that have shorter lines. Once on a walking tour in Prague, another couple was talking about a place called “Spa Beerland.” With a name like that, how could you not be interested? I asked about it, checked it out on the hotel lobby computer and made a reservation. It is still one of my favorite vacation memories.

When you’re planning your next vacation try to remember, travel is personal! After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it the way you want to!

Food, The World A to Z, Wine/Cocktails

Diversion – Of Whiskey, Wood and Warm Welcomes

Rick HouseDriving down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you’ll discover many things beyond tasting good whiskey. First, that it’s not really a trail, but a smattering of distilleries located in and around Louisville and Lexington, and second, that every distillery making “bourbon” follows the same basic recipe required by U.S. law. Woodford ReserveUnexpectantly, you’ll find a wide variety of flavors both in the drinks and the distilleries themselves.

Maker's Mark TastingWoodford TastingWhen it comes to the whiskey, I’ll let you be the judge of what you like and don’t like. Try as many of the distilleries as you can, follow your guides’ tasting advice, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Judy was our Designated Driver – she generally doesn’t like Bourbon – but she was a trooper and tried some of them, even finding one or two she liked. I reveled in the new and different flavors, all derived from the grains used in the mash and the wood of the charred oak barrels. I became a bourbon drinker several years ago, when a former boss – a retired Air Force two-star general – pretty much insisted I join him at the bar when we were on business travel and introduced me to Maker’s Mark and a few others. Greg sips Bourbon.jpgI became hooked. Judy and I now keep a small collection of fine bourbons, scotches, and Irish whiskeys in our library’s globe bar. There’s something uniquely relaxing about reading a good book with a dram of amber, 90-proof liquid rolling around your tongue and palate.

Angel's EnvyMaker's Mark CopperI also reveled in the wide variety of architectural styles. From the classic “down in the holler” buildings of Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace (not on the tour but worth a stop) built in the 1800s with their worn and aging cypress fermenters, to the modern and spotless glass and stainless-steel Town Branch facility, to the gleaming polished copper, brick and wood Angel’s Envy distillery built inside a former manufacturing plant in downtown Louisville…architectural personalities young and old were featured. Even the retail “experiences” of Evan Williams and Jim Beam featured architectural styles that put their products and personalities in best light.

Nicholas at Town Branch.jpgEach of our guides also brought their own unique personalities to the tours and tastings. Nicholas at Town Branch was, by far, the funniest and most entertaining, but the booming voice of classically trained actor Jimmy James Hamblin at Angel’s Envy earned him a nomination for Louisville’s Recognition of Service Excellence (ROSE) Awards this year…and our utmost respect and admiration. done-that-got-the-tshirt.jpgBut unvarying among all our guides and the people we met along the way were the warm Kentucky welcomes we received and felt, making our Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience one of our favorite diversions so far.

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

 

Food, Road Trip, Route 66, The World A to Z

Of Diners, Drive-Ins, and….Road Food*

I’m a car guy … have been since my youth. In my early 20s, I was obsessed with autocrossing … racing my car around a parking lot on a course defined by orange cones, racing against the clock. I rebuilt the engine of my ’73 Opel Manta from the ground up. There was grease underneath my fingernails nearly all the time; no weekend was complete without at least one skinned knuckle accompanied by a few choice swear words because of a slipped wrench.

Today, I let the mechanics do the dirty work and I’m quite a bit more laid back about my driving, but it should come as no surprise that road trips have a certain appeal to me as a “car guy.” If Route 66 is the Mother Road, then driving Route 66 today is the mother of all road trips.

To me, a big draw of road trips is food. Sure, Judy and I talked about staying close to our diets, eating lots of veggies and other healthy stuff, but let me ask you, did Ron Howard and Harrison Ford’s characters in “American Graffiti” go to Whole Foods in their souped-up Hot Rods? No, they went to Mel’s Drive-In for Burgers and Fries. In “Pulp Fiction,” when Uma Thurman and John Travolta went out to eat, the diner in which they danced was completely car-themed. Name one movie featuring Steve McQueen and a car that also had him eating sushi and hummus and I’ll become a Vegan … for a day.

But I digress … road trips are about eating road food, and Route 66 has plenty to offer. Our daily journals featured lots of paragraphs about food we ate along the way:

IMG_7409The Donut Man in Glendora, CA, had donuts made with FRESH strawberries. Yes, you read that right … fresh strawberries.

The Outpost Cafe at the north end of Cajon Pass had a pretty decent burger and a salad drenched in too much dressing, but it was a classic diner in every way.IMG_7443

 

Dinner was at Jenny’s Place in Barstow, reputed to have “something for everyone” by the owner of the Route 66 Motel. It turned out “something for everyone as long as it’s Mexican” but I had some delicious carnitas tacos and too many chips, rice and beans, completely sating my SoCal appetite for spicy south-of-the-border fare.

This was all on Day 1.

The rest of the trip would be remembered for similar culinary adventures.

In Kingman, Arizona, Floyd’s BBQ came highly recommended, but since it was Monday, it was closed. We went to the Diana’s Cellar Door, a combo brewery and wine bar next door instead and enjoyed a couple of glasses of red while chatting amiably with the patrons. But hunger prevailed and we dropped in to another recommended place, The Kingman Chophouse, where we shared a great Delmonico in a classic western setting.IMG_7583

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In Seligman, Arizona, we stopped at Delgadillo’s Sno-Cap Drive-in for lunch. The staff, reputed to be pranksters, didn’t disappoint. Rita was behind the counter and when I asked what a Choink Burger was, she gave me that look that only stupid tourists get (it’s a Bacon Cheese Burger, by the way. Duh.). I ordered the Choink and a Malt.

20170404_165452After “standing on a corner” in Winslow, Arizona (such a fine sight to see), we followed some local’s advice and made a reservation (reservation?!) at the Turquoise Room at the La Posada Hotel. Built in 1930 as a Harvey House, the hotel has been restored to much of its early glory and its restaurant draws raves worldwide.

Our window seat gave us magnificent views of the passing trains while the wide portico outside shaded us from the setting sun. We enjoyed Bison Taquitos, Elk in a Black Currant Sauce, Crispy Quail with Oaxaca Sauce, and a Braised Bison Tamale. Not exactly road food to be sure, but well worth the stop.

The Southwestern flavors of the road were a big highlight for me. At La Fonda on The Plaza in Santa Fe, we dove into local specialties offered with your choice of red sauce, green sauce or “Christmas.” Just thinking back on all that beef, cilantro, sauce, beans … makes me hungry.

In Shamrock, Texas, we ate at Big Vern’s Steakhouse – apparently, the only place in town worth eating at. Our waitress, Gail, was straight out of the Texas panhandle; pretty in a sun-beaten/leather-skinned sort of way, and most pleasant. She treated locals and tourists alike, but I am sure that if we had wanted steak sauce for our delicious ribeye, she would have chased us out the door with a hot branding iron.IMG_8051

And it continued…

In Arcadia, Oklahoma, Pop’s with it’s 50-foot Soda Pop neon sculpture out front, beckoned us in for burgers and fries, and a six-pack of sodas with the grossest names imaginable, culled from their 144 varieties; in Baxter Springs, Kansas, we were the only customers at The Smokehouse, which served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever had…the sauce was so good we bought a quart to bring home.

The next morning, we stopped at the Riverton Market for some of the best deli sandwiches you’ll ever eat before crossing the border into Missouri. In Springfield, Missouri, we ate those sandwiches in the parking lot of the original Steak and Shake, where we bought chocolate shakes, just because. IMG_8125We bought fudge packed in Uranus, Mo., where we couldn’t stop laughing over all the innuendos. Shelly’s Diner in Cuba, Missouri, is one of those places where everyone knows your name, but also treats tourists like regulars. We ordered a BLT and their special for the day – a Chicken Melt – and talked about the trip so far. It was blissful. Nearing Chicago, we longed for deep dish pizza; after check-in, the hotel clerk pointed us toward Gino’s East where we dined and laughed our butts off with the waitress (another Rita…I’m sensing a pattern here)…an evening worthy of a blog entry on its own.

The Road is like that…stopping along the way, trying new things, and meeting new people. That’s why we travel, and we hope you will too. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored…go out and see it. And order me a malt while you’re there!

*Don’t want that “guy” to sue me!