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!




Food: Cooking it up in The Big Easy

IMG_5415I recently spent a week on my own in New Orleans. Greg was attending a conference there and I tagged along so I could see the city and we could enjoy evenings together. That left me with full days to explore whatever I wanted to see. Of course, there was a stroll through the Garden District and the obligatory sightseeing in the French Quarter. I wandered along the Mississippi River as it approached flood stage after massive rains upriver. And I decided to take a cooking class.

beignetsNew Orleans is known for certain foods. There’s the beignet, a little ball of deep-fried dough drowning in a generous pile of powdered sugar made famous by Café du Monde. Someone said I had to try a muffuletta, an Italian sandwich with meats, cheeses and a pickled olive and vegetable spread. I was told the best ones were at Central Grocery on Decatur Street near the French Market. muffalettaAnd of course, there is Cajun and creole cuisine. I had checked out my options on line before heading south to the Big Easy, but didn’t book anything. Then on Tuesday as I was strolling through the French Quarter I popped into Crescent City Cooks!. It’s a cooking school with a store front selling cute cooking accessories and New Orleans souvenirs.

I asked about the classes and availability for the next day. The lovely lady behind the counter informed me there was a class in the morning for $30. WOW! That was a lot less than the $150 I’d seen online. I was skeptical and asked what it involved.  As she described the class I realized it was a demonstration class instead of hands-on. I asked about the hands on class. Yes, there were openings and it cost $120.

Hmmm, still less than the on line price. I reserved a spot for the Wednesday afternoon class and set my sights on learning how to make gumbo, etouffee and bananas foster.  bananas foster

When class time rolled around, I learned the other five people worked together and were using the class as a team-building exercise. They would be split into a group of two and a group of three. I would be cooking on my own.

We got right to it, chopping and dicing onions, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, and garlic. The instructor walked us through making a roux – the essential building block of both the gumbo and the etouffee. I was having a blast as he walked over to check on all three pots. Mine seemed to be perfect, which I attributed almost entirely to beginner’s luck.

We made the gumbo first so it could simmer while we whipped up the etouffee.  Once that was done, we set our burners on low to allow the etouffee to simmer while we made the bananas foster – including setting it alight in the classic style. What fun!

Finally, we sat down to eat our dishes. I even had enough to take some back to the hotel to Greg. In fact, there was so much gumbo, I was able to give a container to our concierge who kindly told me the next morning that it was some of the best gumbo he’d ever had, adding he was from New Orleans and had been eating gumbo his whole life. I realize he was probably being nice, but it was the perfect thing to say and a crowning jewel in my New Orleans cooking experience.

Food is such an important part of any culture. When you’re traveling, taste the flavors of where you are. Try the local dishes. It’s not just about SEEING a new place; it’s about experiencing it, too. Remember, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … and sometimes that involves your taste buds.


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!