Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Trattoria Antico Fattore

Proximity to a very good restaurant is the best way to find it and here's the proof. Trattoria Antico Fattore happened to be around the corner and one door down from an apartment we rented this year in Florence. If it were not for a personal recommendation and a very generous gift from our landlady, we easily could have found it on our own, as the aromas wafted across our threshold. Whenever asked about how to find good restaurants in a foreign country, my initial response is to say, "Follow your nose.", and that advice would not have failed me in this instance. How did I miss it for all the times I've been in's a mystery. That will not be the same case in the future, because this restaurant is adept at producing excellent Tuscan cuisine that begs to never be missed again.
Crostini is the classic Tuscan antipasti. You can find it in many parts of Italy but everyone will admit to the fact that it originated in Tuscany. Liver crostini seems to be the most typical. I'm sorry, mi dispiace, but it looks like cat food to me and I just cannot wax poetic about it, indeed it's difficult to even look at this photograph, but my dining companions ate it without complaint, except to describe it as having a strong liver taste. For my tastes the grilled polenta with porcini mushrooms was exquisitely earthy and had an outstanding contrast in textures. My money is on the polenta and mushroom crostini as the clear winner in the antipasti taste test and it wins hands down in the eye appeal category too.
On my own for lunch one afternoon, I ventured in and ordered the polenta porcini crostini and the above photographed pasta dish, described as tortelli with white truffle sauce. I suspected there were also porcini in the sauce to extend it, but the sweet, earthy, truffle scent was well pronounced and quite evident in the drizzle of truffle oil on top. It may very well have been "porcini cream" with truffle oil. No matter, it was delicious and I was surprised and delighted by the filling that turned out to be made with potato and parsley.
A new one for me, this combination is worth some experimentation at home. It would be nice to reproduce with perhaps some parmigiano added. Speaking of which, the waiter warned me not to add cheese to the pasta as it would destroy the truffle taste. My underdeveloped instinct for rebellion awoke and I resisted his advice. My well developed need for conformity, however, restrained the use of the cheese and it provided the needed taste of a little salt to enhance the truffle.
Perhaps the two best known zuppe of Tuscany were served to us during our "tasting menu" specially arranged for us by our landlady Rossella Ristori Uffizi Apartment . During our negotiations for the rental I had offered to show her a few things on the computer that would enhance imagery on her website. I found her emails charming and gladly put in the time as a good deed. She felt obliged to do something in exchange, and arranging this special tasting of traditional Tuscan food was the result. The photo on the left is Pappa al Pomodoro. You can see the olive oil glistening on top. On the right is the other classic bread soup called Ribolito that literally translates to reboiled. This rich, filling, and rustic soup is primarily made of vegetables, beans, bread and olive oil. Perfect for that cold, rain drenched evening and rewarming my bones at the mere thought of it.
What could be more Tuscan than beans? The photo above shows the heartiness of the bean and sausage stew. Again another nicely executed classic recipe. The lamb and artichoke combination is a lovely rich combination of flavors and a true comfort food. Since Toscano bread is baked without salt, it makes a good vehicle for sopping up the pan juices of the lamb.
Of the three entrees we tried, the veal with porcini sauce was the dish that appealed to everyone equally. Often, this means a middle of the road, safe bet, but this selection while predictable in flavor had a heady, earthy note due to the porcini and spoke well of the Fall season. All in all, this was a very good meal and we were so full we could not manage dessert.
V.Lambertesca 1/3r
Phone +39 055 288975
Fax +39 055 283341
Closed on Sunday

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company


Can you imagine anything better than being shown around New York City by a local? I learned so much from friends I have met online through Craigslist Food Forum. On this particular visit I was led to some of the most wonderful food related venues, most notably Sahadi's, a specialty grocery store in Brooklyn. My friend and I also visited a local shop in Chelsea that sold bakeware and everything related to baking including a plethora of unusual cake pans and candy molds. It was an amazing day and by the end of it, my friend who is a professional singer and actress, even gave me a lesson in breathing! I wouldn't consider online dating, but it's great for finding friends with similar interests. After the foray into baking equipment and multicolored doilies and chocolate sprinkles, we needed a quick bite. Finding one with a local proved easy.


We walked over to 8th Avenue and went into Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company's Chelsea location. It was the best venue for us because most everything they offer is premade and ready for take-out or to eat there. The sandwich fillings are lined up and ready to go, waiting for you to to select your choice of bread, wrap or roll. My friend, as a New Yorker, could afford to be blase about bagels, so she ordered her egg salad sandwich on whole wheat. As a visitor, I would not consider ordering any form of bread in NYC unless it was a bagel, or biali. Besides, lox and cream cheese demand a bagel. I have tried my share of bagels, but it's true, they make them better in New York. Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company makes a good one, but more importantly, they offer quick service in this fast paced city.

Brooklyn Bagel Website

286 8th Ave (between 24th St & 25th St)
New York, NY 10001
(212) 924-2824

Saturday, December 26, 2009


When we walked into this West Village pastry shop the first time, we had no idea of the history. To us it was just Rocco's, a convenient place to order dessert after eating a pizza at John's down the street. In fact, it was Rocco's Pastry Shop & Espresso Cafe. It was a neighborhood bakery with classic Italian pastries that could have easily given Ferrara's a run for its money. Some of the recipes are over 100 years old.   
Whether you come in for coffee and dessert or just a quick treat to go, the selection of cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, pastries and Italian specialty items will feed your fancy while you wait in line. Rum Baba and Cannoli are only two of the old world recipes that are prepared daily. Every neighborhood should be lucky enough to have a bakery like this and a family dedicated to keeping it producing such recipes.
It was so difficult to choose between cakes with butter cream or dairy whipped cream frostings. But select we did and we ended up with plenty of whipped cream in the form of a raspberry cream pie, liberally laced with chocolate. One can't go to New York without trying the cheese cakes, so the second selection was a very light, cheese cake with fresh fruit on top. We were happy to see that they also would serve us a steamed milk, and in this case, it was mixed with an almond syrup. Magnolia Bakery was up the street. Strolling along, it was easy to take a look at their nationally famous cupcakes, but when it came time for dessert we headed straight to Rocco's.

Pasticceria Rocco Website
243 Bleeker St
New York NY
(212) 242-6031

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ben & Jack’s


After several trips to NYC where we had consumed massive amounts of meat at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn, my long time dining companion and I decided to give the competition some of our business and spend the evening in Manhattan. It was a good idea. Ben & Jack’s, as we were lead to believe, were former employees of Peter Luger’s who wanted to create a more upscale establishment, serving the same quality dry aged beef as Luger’s. Similarities in food selection were quite apparent and went a long way in keeping us happy with our meal. Dining at Ben & Jack’s was like ordering at Peter Luger’s and being served on white linens instead of funky wooden tables, but better.


First of all, if we are to compare the two establishments,  you could actually sit down at the bar without being jostled from behind by the numerous customers awaiting their tables; that was a big plus. Better yet, they served house made potato chips with your drink order; I don’t even recall whether or not Luger’s had snacks, but with all the waiting one did even with a confirmed reservation, they should have. The chips were excellent, thin, crispy, salty; just as good as they looked.


Two classic Luger items were available from the Ben & Jack’s menu, onion rolls and thick cut bacon. Both were as good as those served at Luger’s; identical in fact. We were very happy to see both, but when looking at the side dishes, there was a selection of salads that was far superior. Ben & Jack’s offers a classic Cesar salad with a very good dressing, and a mixed salad with several choices for dressing. Make mine Thousand Island. We truly appreciated an option besides tomatoes or onions and tomatoes. As good as they are with Luger sauce poured over them, I cannot consider either Luger choice a proper salad. Clearly, at this point in the meal service, one would not hesitate to choose Ben & Jack’s.

Now that the discussion has turned to “sides”, it might be worthwhile to mention that we enjoyed both the baked potato and creamed spinach. Peter Luger’s has a slight edge on the creamed spinach, but where they really shine is in the Luger Sauce. Ben & Jack’s version was good, but when compared directly with Luger Sauce, it can’t hold a candle to it. They may look the same, but the taste is very different.


The meat compared favorably and for once, there was no thought concerning a “fair share”. It was a pleasure to be able to offer what I couldn’t finish to my dining companion who generally likes to eat more meat than I do, and is not adverse to sharing meals. At Peter Luger’s we always order “steak for two”. Theoretically it should be split equally, but it almost never is. Must one keep track of what remains on the platter, to avoid losing one’s share of the filet? What happens when one person eats faster than the other? Is that person entitled to take more? Since Ben & Jack’s offers individual steaks, these esoteric dilemmas  never manifest themselves. Service was good and ambience would have been too except for the woman at the next table who thought we might enjoy hearing her read the riot act to her husband with language so “peppery” it would have made a sailor blush! That poor man couldn’t get a word into the conversation, nor could he finish his dinner. It was truly an “only in New York” moment, that dragged on for a little under an hour!

Ben & Jack's Website

219 East 44th Street
(between 3rd & 2nd Avenues)
New York, NY 10017

(2120 682-5678

M-Th 11:30a.m. – 10:30p.m.
Fri     11:30a.m. – 11:00p.m.
Sat   12:00p.m. – 11:00p.m.
Sun    3:00p.m. – 10:00p.m.     

Friday, December 18, 2009

Amici Di Ponte Vecchio

This small hole-in-the-wall pizzeria was discovered by my husband and nephew on our last trip to Florence. While I was shopping at one of the markets for dinner ingredients, they were enjoying a light lunch in this highly efficient space. It was good enough that they insisted I join them there the following day. It's easy to miss because of its size, but worth investigating for an inexpensive, light meal. Most patrons hit and run, standing at the bar, but there is a small shelf running the length of the shop with 4 or 5 stools if you want to sit while dining. I've been to Italy on numerous ocassions, but no matter how many times, have never found standing while eating very satisfactory. It distracts me from savoring the food.
No wood burning pizza ovens here, this is strictly a modern operation, but the pizza doesn't suffer from the deprivation of charred wood. Truthfully it was a decent pizza. When you walk in, you're struck by the fact that the counter is loaded with many individual sized pizze with many different toppings; a nice visual "menu", but the pizze are made fresh, so I'm still curious about what happens to those that were pre-made. Perhaps they are taken out to be reheated at home or could there be a cold pizza culture in Italy?

Ordering a pannini wasn't much trouble, I just pointed to the cold cuts that I preferred, although knowing their names was a plus in the negotiations. This particular Sopressatta happened to be very spicy and was a good mix with the fat laden Mortadella. The slight reddish orange cast of the red pepper was a good give-away concerning the heat, but admittedly, this was the hottest cold cut I've ever eaten. The sausage pizza was less of a surprise in taste, more predictable.

What was a surprise was the pizza ordered by our nephew. Actually the surprise was in the ordering more than in the content of the pizza. Having never tried capers before, he decided to take the plunge and ate a few anchovy in the process. It was nice to see another family member dive into a new culinary adventure, not knowing what to expect but taking the risk. The next day he surprised me again by ordering his first espresso, while we toured Venice together; he is not a coffee drinker, but liked it.

There is no menu link, so no address, but the restaurant is on the south bank of the Arno river just a few doors east of the Ponte Vecchio on the Oltro Arno side of the city.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Osteria De' Peccatori

Wandering through the streets of Florence is a fun pastime and on each trip there, I work on walking in neighborhoods I haven't seen before. One of these days I hope to know the downtown like the back of my hand. I've spent less time in the Santa Croce area than near the Duomo, so on this particular trip I walked from Piazza Signoria passed Piazza Santa Croce and onto the Mercato San Ambrogio, where I made a few purchases before heading back toward our rental apartment. I took out my trusty map and decided to walk along a street that would put me in the vicinity of the Bargello Museum. Then I found the small Piazza San Firenze as I worked my way south; it seemed a crossroads more than a piazza. I was exhausted with a bag full of groceries, so decided to have lunch as soon as possible to take a breather. That's when I spotted Osteria De' Peccatori, a simple, unassuming restaurant.

The menu posted outside was exhaustive, so I knew I could easily find something to order. I had no idea. The list of pastas alone was as long as my arm. Antipasti looked classic, meat and fish offerings looked good. It must have taken me 15 minutes to read the menu and I only looked at the first 2 courses. I settled on a grilled vegetable antipasto and ravioli. This was an unexpectedly great little lunch that energized me for my trek back to our rented apartment.

The restaurant had many customers speaking different languages, but mostly Italian. Few of the waiters were fluent in anything but Italian, so I had a good opportunity to try my communication skills without hearing the answer in English, a big plus in my opinion. The grilled vegetable antipasto was just perfect. It was light, refreshing, and not overcooked or greasy with olive oil. I was hungry for vegetables and this was a more than satisfactory choice.

It took a bit longer to select the pasta. There were so many classic pasta dishes, but also some with sauces I had never before seen on a restaurant menu. I finally settled on one with classic Tuscan ingredients used in a style that was very new to me. I'm looking forward to returning to De'Peccatori to try some more of their unique pasta selection. All the pasta is made in house and included ravioli, pici, tagliarini and more. This particular ravioli was made with a potato filling, the first I have ever eaten. The dressing on it was very rustic, and very Tuscan with the cavolo nero and sausage as the main ingredients. I found it very inspiring to eat such a simple yet original pasta.

Piazza San Firenze 14/r
Florence Italy 50100
055 287462

Saturday, December 12, 2009

All'Antico Ristoro Di Cambi

When first walking into this restaurant, in 2005 with a party of seven, I saw and was able to taste a broad range of cooking in a single visit. Everyone was very satisfied with their selections and I ate my first Chianina beef in the form of the world famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. A Porterhouse by another name, but not just beef, this secondo must be tried at least once. Dutifully returning when in Florence, it becomes difficult to pass up this same dish. Even though out of the way in the Oltrarno district, I continue to make the pilgrimage time and again, crossing the 3rd bridge down from the Ponte Vecchio to this well established Florentine mecca for steak. Yes, just about every other restaurant in town serves the bistecca, but I hate to lose time trying others, when I know what a superior steak awaits my visit to this particular restaurant.

Another Pappa al Pomodoro under the belt this trip, but Cambi makes it thicker than most and one can never have too much of a good thing. On the first trip my cousin ordered the stuffed vegetables that were several different varieties, but not dissimilar to these meat stuffed artichokes seen in the photo on the right. They became a very good side dish to the steak, but would be very good even on their own.

My dining companions ordered pasta for their first course and allowed me a taste of each kind. The penne with an eggplant sauce was well cooked and would make any vegetarian happy. It was made with very little tomato and some onion, but the eggplant was the star of the show. Tagliarini with porcini was redolent with the mushrooms and tasted as sumptuous as I recalled from our first meal here.

Is it bigger than a breadbasket? I don't recall a breadbasket on the table, so I'm not certain, but my educated guess would be a no. However, it was bigger than this photo would indicate. Chianina cattle produce such a tender piece of beef that you barely need a knife to cut it, and even better, it is most certainly the most intensely flavored beef I have ever eaten.

Due to custom it is always served rare. Asking for it to be served well done will in all likelihood encourage the waiter to steer you toward a different entree. When his eyes well up with tears, stop insisting on a well done steak and eat like the natives; after all, isn't that why you came to Italy in the first place? Fear not, even people who like meat burned at the stake will find this a palate pleasing, exceptional, culinary experience.

Via San Onofrio 1/R
Florence, Italy
Tel, 055 217134
Closed Sunday