Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Star Is Born - Pizzeria Stella is Out of this World

My husband calls Philadelphia restaurateur, Stephen Starr, "King Midas". Every restaurant this dude touches turns to pure gold. Although, I think his success has less to do with him having super human powers and more with him being a smart business man who knows food and knows even more what people want. Apparently people want variety because he owns 13 (plus) restaurants in Philly and they run the gamut......high end steak houses, new-Mexican cuisine, a place that serves thanksgiving dinner every night! But I'll save the "Stephen Starr experience" for another blog post (also it will give me time, and more importantly reason, to visit the few restaurants of his that I haven't...I'm nothing if I'm not thorough...ok, and hungry). Today I'll be talking about his newest venture...his aptly named pizza place, Pizzeria Stella.

Oh how clever Mr. Starr is. He named his pizza place after the Italian word for "star". Cute Stephen, cute. But whether he was hoping to name it after himself, or, just imply that the place would be out of this world doesn't matter, because it's great, any way you slice it. Pizzeria Stella serves the kind of pizza I love. It's got a thin,chewy crust and it's topped with amazing quality ingredients. I mean, what's not to love?

We showed up the week that Stella opened at around 6:30 and the place was packed...of course. They took our cell phone number and told us that it would be about 20 mins and they would call us if we wanted to go grab a beer at a nearby bar. 15 mins later the phone rang and the very polite hostess invited us back. We were seated communally. Most of the tables in Stella are communal...big, long, farmhouse looking tables. Now, this is where I think some people might walk away. Very few people I know actually LIKE eating with strangers. The list, actually, is probably limited to my Dad, who will talk to just about anyone and in 5 minutes time be telling stories and buying rounds of beer (honestly...you just can't take that guy anywhere without this very thing happening...I'm having dinner with him this weekend and I'm thinking of hooking my dog's leash to his belt so I can keep track of him). The rest of the world, in my opinion, doesn't want to feel like they're back in the middle-school cafeteria when they're out for dinner. That being said....I honestly kind of liked being seated at the big table. It was warm and cozy...a bit loud and raucous...and informal in the best sort of way. The tables surround the kitchen and the big, beautiful wood burning oven at the center of it. It kind of feels like you're sitting around a camp fire with good friends. I thought it was fun, and my husband, much to my surprise, agreed.

As always we thoroughly studied the menu before dinner. We would order the octopus and calamari antipasti and the pizza Tartufo (truffle). The waitress said that the truffle pie was their unofficial signature dish. Oh, and speaking of the waitress, Stephen Starr must run his wait staff through a boot-camp-like training process because they are good...really, really good. Always knowledgeable and super gregarious. Our waitress at Stella was all of these things and more. Of course the wait staff is important, but the food is what you're there for, so here goes........

The antipasti was amazing (notice the blurred fork in the frame...the hubby obviously liked it too). The octopus and calamari were tossed in a lemony sauce with olives, new potatoes and red onions. The hubby thought it resembled a ceviche, and I thought it resembled a sort of nicoise. It was the perfect start to the meal. (FYI: The menu offers Antipasti, Insalata and Pizza...that's it...and that's ALL you'll need...I promise) We also ordered two glasses of the house red. They have a great wine selection for a "pizza" place and the price for a glass of the house was only $5.50. It was good...not great...and I wished that they offered it in a litre size (if so it would have taken me right back to Rome) but they only offer individual glasses of the house so we made do. The Tartufo pizza was, in my honest opinion, one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. It's a bold statement, I know, but a sincere one. The pie was the perfect size for two. The crust was toasted to perfection in that wood burning oven and it was covered with fontina, parmesean, truffle, of course, and a sunny side egg that was lovingly broken and smeared across the pie like icing on a cake table side. The truffle perfumed the entire pie and the egg "glaze" added a richness that sent me into a pleasure coma.

So it looks like Philly's own King Midas did it again. Starr gave Philadelphia something I think it was lacking...really GOOD (and unique) pizza. In my opinion, I think he deserves a gold star for this one.

Pizzeria Stella - at 2nd and Lombard (at the Headhouse Shambles)

Pizzeria Stella on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Any vegetable with "butter" in it's name is ok in my book - Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Butter-Nut...yes please! No other vegetable I can think of has been given a yummier name. When you hear it listed as an ingredient or see it on a menu you don't even think of it as squash, you just think of the wonderful marriage between the flavors of butter and nuts. Unfortunately this squash doesn't taste anything like butter or nuts (a cruel twist of fate in my mind) but that's ok, because it offers a flavor all it's own.

At the store recently and noticed that we’re entering into fall vegetable season? Walked by the squash section and realized that all of the green and yellow squash have been replaced by acorn and butternut varieties? Grab an armful and make this soup. It’s as simple as can be and it’s a perfect meal for a chilly fall day.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup:
1 large butternut squash
1 medium onion
1 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tbs. olive oil
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
1 tbs. sour cream or crème fraiche for garnish

Cut the rind off the outside of the squash and remove the seeds with a spoon. Cut the squash into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Toss the squash and onion in olive oil, sprinkle with about 1 ½ tsp. of salt and roast in a 350 degree oven for 20 – 30 mins or until the squash is fork tender. Place the squash and onion mixture into a food processor and add the chicken stock, then blend mixture until smooth. Here’s where your soup preference comes into play. If you like your soup thick in texture don’t put this puree through a sieve. If you like your soup creamy and you don’t want to taste the texture of squash run this mixture through a sieve then put it in a pot over medium heat. Add the heavy cream, allspice and salt and pepper to taste. Go easy on the pepper. You want this to be on the sweeter & milder side. You can cook the soup down a bit (15 mins or so) if you like it thicker or just pull it off the heat as soon as the cream and squash mixture heat through. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and enjoy! I know I did.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Forget Rice-A-Roni...San Francisco Is The Treat

It was 41 degrees and raining last weekend in Philadelphia. As much as I love to cozy up by the fire with my dog and a good book on a cold rainy day, I was thinking that I would rather be back in California where the hubby and I were a few weeks ago. We

traveled from LA all the way up to wine country in California, but San F

rancisco was the place that really impressed me so that's the subject of this travel post. Forget Rice A Roni...San Francisco is a treat in itself.

HIT: The Sea Lions at Pier 39:
Whenever my husband wants to make me smile (or act like a giddy 5 year old) he takes me to the zoo. We must go 4 or 5 times a year, and each time we must spend ample time at the otter tanks. In my mind, sea lions are a hundred times cooler AND bigger than otters so seeing these wild animal just lounging around next to yachts in the pier 39 marina was more than a hit...it was a home run. Yes, the smell can be a bit overwhelming but it's worth it to stand there and watch these guys flop around on top of each other, searching for that perfect spot to catch some rays. There is some speculation that the sea lions showed up in the marina in 1989 after an earthquake but most believe they just feel safer there. Whatever the reason I, and I'm sure the city of San Francisco, are happy they decided to stay.

MISS: The Rest of Pier 39:
Aside from the sea lions and the great view, the rest of pier 39 area and fisherman's wharf is a bit of a tourist trap. We had some time to kill before our Alcatraz boat left so we took that hour to stroll the pier. An hour is about all you'll need there...20 mins to look at the sea lions and the rest of the time you'll just enjoy the scenery. If you're hungry while you're there don't fall for the tourist trap food. Go to the end of the pier area towards the Boudin bakery (home to that infamous sourdough bread) and grab a snack from a row of not so fancy looking seafood shacks. They've got some really good looking (and cheap) seafood for sale in street-food friendly packaging. There are no bells or whistles at these shacks...just good looking seafood and plenty of it.

HIT: Alcatraz:
In all honesty, Alcatraz wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be BUT I enjoyed the heck out of it all the same. Eastern State Pen in Philly is the first Penitentiary built in the US and it was designed to look like a freakin' castle. Unfortunately it ruined Alcatraz for me. There were, however, some really cool things about Alcatraz and the boat trip itself offered some great views. Did you know that the guards and their families actually lived on Alcatraz? Can you imagine growing up there? And did you know that most of the vegetation is there today because the seeds basically hitchhiked their way onto the rock in the soil that they used to fill in the island? I thought that was neat-o. Some tips...1.) Be sure to either pre-purchase your tickets online or expect to have to wait an hour or two between buying your ticket and actually getting on the boat. They'll give you a time to come back if that's the case so you don't have to wait in line. 2.) Take a jacket. My husband, the all powerful, never cold, polar bear of a man actually said, "gee, I wish I brought a jacket, I'm a bit chilly". Amazing folks. 3.) Be sure to purchase tickets at the only location that is actually contracted to sell them by the National Park Service : http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ ($26/person) it's at pier 33 and it's called Alcatraz Cruises. Some other places will take you on a cruise AROUND Alcatraz, but this is the only company that will take you to the island.

HIT: Boccalone's Salumi at the Ferry Building Marketplace (pier 48)
Their motto is "Tasty Salted Pig Parts" and that might as well be a freakin' haiku. They offer a variety of salumi but the thing that surely put them on the map was their salumi "cone". It's a paper cone filled with a variety of their tastiest cured meats. Move over ice cream. You're no longer the only thing that should be eaten out of a cone. http://www.boccalone.com/

MISS: The Actual Ferry
Building and Marketplace at Pier 48:
The rest of the marketplace was pretty crappy. Ok. Not crappy. Perhaps just overpriced and overhyped. If you're going there in search of some gourmet packaged food save yourself the trip. But if you're in the building for lunch you might find some good little places to grab a bite to eat. We split a roast beef and arugula sandwich and a beer for around $12 (not TOO shabby) at Il Cane Rosso's and it was of amazing quality. All local ingredients and it showed: http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/cane_rosso_sf.php

HIT: The Public Parks:
I have found that California in general offers it’s residents a plethora of recreational opportunities. San Francisco was no exception. There were parks everywhere! Be sure to stop by Alamo Square Park for a great view of the Painted Ladies (the picturesque houses that were on the opening credits for Full House). While you’re in that neck of the woods head a few blocks west through the Haight Ashbury area to Golden Gate park. It’s a HUGE park with museums, recreational areas and the famous Japanese Tea Garden. It does cost $3.50 to get in and it’s debatable whether or not it’s worth it (pretty but small-ish), but you’ll at least want to check it out. Be sure to park as close to the tea garden area as possible. We thought we could walk from Haight Ashbury and got lost in the park. Like I said, it’s huge. **note** If you do wander off the beaten path in the parks you’ll SURELY run into some (ok, a boat load) of young drug dealers. But not to worry. They are as polite as can be and will just ask you if you’re “looking for anything” in passing and then tell you to have a nice day. We ignored a group of them and they said, “You know, it would be nice for you guys to at least tell us no thank you”. You’ve got to love it.

HIT (As Long As You’re Smart About it): The Trolley System:
The hubby and I only use cabs when it’s absolutely necessary. If a city has ANY type of public transportation we’re all over it like white on rice. The trolley system in San Francisco is made up of popular and not so popular lines. The MOST popular line is the Powell Hyde line and rightly so. It offers the BEST view of the city and bay. Not to mention the fact that it runs straight up a hill that even mountain climber wouldn’t want to scale. You’ll wait for a good 20 or maybe 30 mins at certain times of the day to ride this line. But you should still ride it once. Perhaps hop off at Hyde and Lombard and see that crazy twisty road (worth a look) and be sure to take pictures of the view. The rest of your time there steer clear of that line. The rest of the lines run quickly, efficiently, and cover quite a bit of the city. **note** The subway passes and the trolley passes are NOT interchangeable. They’re completely different.


San Francisco had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad because I went there with almost unattainable high hopes. If you go you MUST eat here:

Bar Jules 609 Hayes St – The menu here changes twice a day, every day. Yup. The entire menu! They don’t even bother printing out paper menus. They write the lunch or dinner selections on a blackboard, comprised of whatever was fresh that day, and that’s it. Eat what they offer or go home hungry. I recommend, however, that you eat what they offer. We started with the steak tartar. The hubby chose the salmon and I chose the poussin (young chicken). I almost never order chicken but something that night told me I MUST and I’m glad I did. This was the BEST chicken I have ever tasted. All of our dishes were perfect. No. Almost better than perfect…what would you call that...heavenly? Sure. Heavenly! The wine list wasn’t overly pricey. Actually, we ordered a more “modest” bottle of wine and the server opened it, smelled the cork and without us even having to ask gave us another bottle because she thought that one wasn’t quite right. To tell you the truth we could hardly tell, but it’s that attention to detail that makes this place amazing. We ate many meals on this trip but this place will always stand out in my mind and I will be a walking advertisement for them. If you’re in the city please try it. http://www.barjules.com/

Anchor & Hope 83 Minna Street – A few months ago the hubby and I had our first taste of sea urchin roe and we were instantly hooked. When I heard that this place offered a warm sea urchin appetizer I knew we had to check it out. You’ll have to look hard for this place. It’s down an “alley” and the chalkboard sign doesn’t exactly jump out at you. But I think it’s worth a trip. The food was good. Fresh, clean seafood. They had a good oyster selection (which we had in addition to our starters AND entrees…we’re suckers for a raw bar). The hubby had some nice scallops and I had a white fish (honestly can’t remember what kind) with a potato cake (the reason I ordered it…I love seeing new ways to cook potatoes) and everything was yummy and well prepared. I think the thing that sets them apart from the rest of the seafood restaurants in San Fran is this warm sea urchin appetizer. It was, in my mind, sublime. It was served in it’s shell with Dungeness crab and a lemon beurre blanc sauce. The hubby thought the lemon killed the urchin. I told him, “Hmmmm, then maybe you should just let me finish it huh?”. I thought the balance was perfect. The lemon cut the sweet, creamy flavor perfectly and the whole dish was a success. Perhaps you can head here for the raw bar and the sea urchin. The rest of the food was good, but maybe not worth writing hope about. http://anchorandhopesf.com/

Get Out And About:
We packed a lot into this trip to California (we started the trip in LA). There is SO much to see and do! If you find yourself in San Francisco be sure to get out of the city for a day. Just 15 mins or so north of the city (over the Golden Gate Bridge…so you can check that off your list of things to do and kill two birds with one stone) is Muir Woods National Park. It’s an old growth redwood forest filled with some of the biggest and most beautiful trees you’ll ever see. Even the drive down into the valley is worth the trip. While you’re down in the valley follow the signs to Muir Beach for a look at the rocky (and cold) coastline. I could have sat there all day. It’s worth the drive.

While you’re north of the city drive up into wine country! Sonoma and Napa are just about an hour north of San Francisco (maybe even less). Wineries abound and all of the wine is pretty decent. Most places will charge you $10 for a tasting but I would say it’s worth it. Be sure to get there early in the day. They all close around 4 or 5pm, but open around 10am. We weren’t really in the wine drinking mood early in the day and much to our dismay had to cut our day short. But no worries! We headed back to the coolest, not to mention quirkiest hotel around… The Flamingo Resort (Santa Clarita). I think we paid $50/night to stay here using Priceline and it was worth every penny. Apparently it’s an institution in the area and everyone we spoke to had a “once, at the Flamingo, I…” story. It’s old-school retro with updated rooms (not super updated…no marble tubs in here) and the largest pool area outside of Vegas (notice the bad ass neon flamingo sign (it spins!) in the top right hand of the picture...classic). I have to give this place two thumbs up. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the Sonoma/Napa/Santa Clarita area of wine country this is your place. Go in with an open mind, leave your pre-conceived notions of what you think you want in a hotel behind and you’ll have a great time.

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to San Francisco you can check out my Google Map that shows some of the places we visited. If you need any more info on this destination or any of my other trips just shoot me an email(link at top of page) and I’ll be happy to chat with you about it! I always love talking about the places I’ve been…can you tell?
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Go Fish - Little Fish's tasting menu is a whale of a good deal

"22 seats?". "Wow, my wife can count!" said my husband facetiously. I was, in fact, stating the obvious, but I felt it needed to be said out loud. How could this 22 seat BYOB restaurant in South Philly have been named the third best "new style fish house" in the country (THE COUNTRY!) by Bon Appetit magazine in 2008 with only 22 seats?

We were seated promptly by Little Fish staff at 6pm on a Sunday. They only offer two seating times for their $28 price fix tasting menu on Sundays, 6pm and 8pm. Since my husband and I, shamefully, like to eat dinner at times that are more fashionable with people 3 times our age, dinner at 6pm on a Sunday was perfect. They opened the bottle of wine we brought (BYOB's are one of my top 5 favorite things about Philly), and gestured towards the wall at a hand written piece of craft paper. "Have you seen tonight's menu?" the waitress said while pointing to the paper. My husband and I already had some idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We normally jump at the opportunity to eat at places that offer tasting menus, lovingly arranged by the chef. Some people might have had a slight problem with the fact that the tasting menu was absolute in it’s offerings and denied you any say in picking or choosing your meal. I, on the other hand, being hopelessly in love with all food (honestly...pig’s feet...grasshoppers...you name it) and utterly unable to make even the simplest decisions without him and hawing over them for hours, welcomed the idea of a tasting menu with open arms (and mouth).

The menu consisted of 5 courses. It began with a salad of local lettuce, topped with bits of apple, orange, cranberry and goat cheese. The goat cheese was of excellent quality and the lettuce fresh and crisp. I'm sad to say, however, that my salad was lacking in pretty much everything else. Glancing at other tables I saw that their salads appeared to be complete and so, not to be a complainer right out of the gates, I chocked it up to a small oversight and prepared for the next course, Jerk Halibut. The halibut was my husband's favorite course by far. It was spiced to perfection, had a hint of smoke, slightly blackened and served with a crisp radish and cilantro garnish. Then came the skate. If you've never had skate (it's actually the skate "wing" that they serve) I recommend it. It's a delicate, flaky fish and it takes on all sorts flavors quite well. The skate was served with squash, clams and crab, all over a saffron broth. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that's true then I must have really loved this dish because I ran right out the next day and bought some crab and squash and attempted to re-create my favorite part of this dish. The sweet seafood paired with the squash and saffron broth was a winning combination. Two thumbs up...hands down. The fourth course was somewhat of a mystery to my husband and me. We have eaten what feels like hundreds of different types of seafood over the years and we have never encountered Brazilian Tiger Fish. When I expressed my curiosity about the fish to our waitress she said that the chef also had never encountered it and this was it’s début. What a début it was. It was simply pan seared and served over a mild and creamy coconut broth. Some very yummy collard greens and unfortunately, very unnecessary black eyed peas shared the bowl. I think the chef was looking for some textural contrast with this one but all I needed was that fish, crispy outside and firm but tender inside, floating on that yummy coconut broth. I hope that they consider making this a staple menu item. Delicious. Of course no tasting menu would be complete without dessert. I never hold out high hopes for dessert because I can't expect a restaurant to be good at EVERYTHING. This dessert was good...nothing more. A large hunk of chocolate truffle "tart" with a silky raspberry sauce. The truffle was rich and a bit much, but a welcome flavor to cap off the night.

When the check came my husband smiled. Rarely do you go out to dinner, have a wonderful time stuffing yourself with delightful cuisine in a cozy atmosphere while enjoying a nice bottle of wine, then look at the check and smile. $60. Yes, with tax the dinner came to $60 for a couple. If that isn't something worth smiling about, I don't know what is.

Reservations are necessary (and will probably have to be made weeks in advance) but it’s well worth the wait.


P.S. Keep an eye out for my review of Little Fish's brand new baby brother, Fish (I know....the owner really needs to come up with more imaginative names right?). I hear the entire menu will be under $20 and it will be lots of small plates and some larger ones. If it's half as good as my Little Fish Meal I'll be happy as a clam (no pun intended).

Little Fish on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Free Beer Anyone?

Free beer anyone? Ok, unfortunately, this offer only exists if you find yourself in the Philadelphia area. No. I'm not inviting all of my readers over for a kegger (it's a space issue really...otherwise I would...promise). I'm inviting y'all to take advantage of the Yards Brewery free tours that they're now running every Saturday from noon 'till 3pm. Yards is one of our local breweries that brews some ales you might have seen around, such as the Yards Brawler or the Philadelphia Pale Ale. I'm a big fan of their beer and now I'm a big fan of their operation in general.

I was looking for something to do last weekend and since I plan most of my life around food, I decided to look for something cheap (free) to do after brunch (I hate that word...let's say "food") on Saturday at Honey's Sit 'N' Eat (post to follow...I highly recommend it: 800 N 4th St) in Northern Liberties. Since I also plan lots of activities in my life around "drink" I thought it only fitting that we visit Yard's newest brewing facility after brunch for some beer tasting....oh, and also to check out their new, state of the art "green" facility. Yes. We went to check out the facility (did that sound convincing?). I kid about checking out their new digs but honestly...I learned A LOT! I also appreciated how they made you feel welcome and didn't ration out thimbles of beer to you like they didn't have vats of it right behind them.

We walked into the brewery via a back entrance since they're still putting the finishing touches on their new pad. You enter right into/onto the main brewery floor and after you gaze up at the silos filled with amber waves of booze you look to your right and realize that there's a makeshift bar set up and they're already pouring you a beer and asking what you'd like to try next. I've done my fair share of wine/beer/edible things tastings and they don't always make you feel so welcome. Yards's brew staff stopped just short of throwing some bratwursts on the grill for you when you walked in (although that would have been a nice touch AND a showstopper in my book). When it was our t
urn to take the tour they gave us all time to top our beers off and then we begun. Did you know that Yards is Pennsylvania's first 100% wind powered brewery. They recycle all of their glass, cardboard and most of their hot water. They also give their used grains to local farms as feed. I also found out that many of their beers are created based on original recipes from folks like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Philly residents eat the stuff up...I thought it was pretty neat myself. When the tour was over we were invited to "try" more beers. They only had 4 on tap so I guess they were just being hospitable by letting us "try" the same ones again. Like I said. Not your normal tasting experience. I felt that they had been plenty generous and the hubby and I left, our minds enriched and our palates satisfied.

Can't get to the Yards Brewery? They distribute their beer all over this great nation. Look for the Philadelphia Pale Ale (probably my favorite of their line). It's got a very mild citrus flavor and isn't overly hoppy. A winner in my book. Or if you can find their Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce Ale, now is the season to enjoy it. This is based on one of Ben Franklin's original recipes and the hint of spruce essence makes it a perfect beer for the upcoming winter months.

Yards Brewery:
901 N. Delaware Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19123
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