Dining Out for Non-Foodies

June 7, 2011

The Fun of Dining Out

Recently, after posting a Yelp review I perused some of the reviews for the restaurant which my husband and I had thoroughly enjoyed.  This led to some further perusing and some mental meandering on peoples’ expectations and ideals when it comes to dining out.

What my conclusions were is that many times the expectations of diners and what standards are for most restaurants are not aligned.  The restaurant reviews that inspired these thoughts showed a lack of understanding for what are considered to be the SOPs in upscale casual and fine dining.

This inspired me to create a list similar to the one at the end of the book Waiter Rant… but with a slightly softer tone.

So, in the spirit of increasing pleasure for all those dining out…foodies, non-foodies, couples, families, singles and groups.

  • Make a reservation and keep it—also, be sure to confirm it.  There is no shortage of times when reservations can be lost due to glitches on computers or with reservations systems.  Also, be aware that if you make a reservation for a second seating, it is possible the party who was seated in the first seating may not get up exactly when needed.
  • If you have not made a reservation and walk into a restaurant on Saturday night at 730 and insist that because tables are open they should be able to seat you, you must understand that the people who made 800 reservations for those tables actually want them.
  • Be aware that booking systems track reservation habits.  If you do not show up for three reservations most will not take further reservations.
  • Service—the standards vary between different levels of restaurants—be aware of the differences and more pleasant dining experiences will follow.  Hostesses will present your menus in casual restaurants, servers in finer restaurants.
  • Timing of service—in nicer restaurants one should expect to have food coursed and enjoy course breaks.  One should expect to have 10-15 minutes between courses…not as I witnessed one of the uninitiated do and berate a server for not having entrees on the table at the same time as we (I was dining with the uninitiated)were still eating appetizers, also, please allow time for everyone at the table to finish before expecting to move to the next course.
  • If there is a problem with the food, address it politely.  It will sometimes happen that a dish is not cooked properly or an errant hair will end up on a plate.  Give the server or manager a chance to fix the problem—especially if the hair is not the color of the server or kitchen staff.
  • If you have a question about portions sizes, ask.  In the reviews which inspired this line of thought, there were numerous mentions of the size of the salads (which in all three cases were ordered as entrees)…this, despite the fact that the restaurants’ menu clearly has them listed as appetizers.  Simple communication can avoid many problems and many disappointments.
  • Tip commiserate with service…be aware that most servers make a little over two dollars an hour and their tips are both taxed and are also their primary income.  Smile, say please and thank you, just as we were all taught.

If you would like to know more about cuisines from different regions do some research. Many of the restaurants in the US alter the food quite significantly from what is traditionally served in the country of origin.  The more you research and find out about different cuisines the more you can enjoy the dining experience.

Travel to Italy: Packing for Spring and Fall

April 12, 2010

Packing for Italy the Right Way

As both a fairly seasoned traveler and a resident of Italy, I have some experience in packing for travel here to share with you.

Packing for summer and winter are fairly easy here…in the winter it will be cold and rainy or cold and snowy depending on how far north or south you are in the country…in the summer it will be hot, damn hot…in August you will melt…you need a bathing suit and sunscreen.

In spring and fall the weather here is extremely variable.  This is not just based on where you will be in the country, of course the more northern regions, like Milan, Como and Venice, will tend to be cooler.  But within regions temperatures and weather can vary significantly…and by significantly I mean within 10C/20F within a day or two.

Because of the tendency for weather to change and for most travelers to want to experience a fair amount of the country in a fairly short amount of time here are a few tips to keep you dressed comfortably for the weather:

  • Pack layers—this is key, when you set off in the morning you will want an average of three or four…by late afternoon you could be down to the final layer.  I prefer skinny strapped tank tops, short sleeved shirts, light sweaters and a light jacket.  These all pack easily.
  • Always pack a bathing suit…you never know when a gorgeous beach day will present itself…it could happen in April or October.
  • Sunglasses are a must.
  • Do not forget to pack shoes for various climates…cold feet do not make for comfortable walking tours.  To save packing space wear the bulkiest shoes you will be bringing on the plane.
  • Pack the smallest umbrella you can find…there are generally people selling them when storms pop up, but it is nice to have one ready and it will rain in both the spring and fall.
  • Make sure to reserve some room in your luggage for shopping…if you do not find at least five adorable things you want to buy here then you are, indeed, unusual.
  • If you are arriving on a Sunday make sure that you have all of your necessary toiletries…depending on where you are staying it may be difficult to find them on Sundays (or especially the Monday after Easter) and going two days without a toothbrush is never pleasant.

On a final note, make sure to get a good sized memory card for your camera and pack extra batteries…you will take a HUGE amount of photos here.

Spring in Italy

March 25, 2010

Spring, Springing Over the Arno

Finally, Finally.

After an exceptionally long and cold winter spring has finally arrived in Tuscany.  The sun was shining nearly all day today, the sheets dried on the line in just a few hours and gloves and a scarf were wonderfully unnecessary during daylight hours.

Another American expat living in Tuscany, Judy Witts, posted a great artichoke recipe to take advantage of the abundance of artichokes at all of our local markets right now.  The strawberries are already tasting absolutely fantastic and I can not wait for the explosion of produce that is already beginning to reach its apex.

Despite the winter wonderland type weather we experienced this year, Florence being covered in snow just before Christmas is definitely NOT typical of the weather patterns here, I am quite glad that I will be seeing no more snow and hopefully no more sub-freezing nights.  Spring in Tuscany is beautiful and I promise to spend a day taking photos to share with everyone just how beautiful it is.

Felix Ortiz’s Proposed Salt Ban

March 11, 2010

Seriously?!?!

I normally maintain my cool in this particular forum, but this just goes beyond my comprehension.

Seriously?!?!

Has the man ever cooked?  For the love of God, has he even boiled water?  This ridiculous bill states that, “ A. 10129 that “No owner or operator of a restaurant in this state shall use salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption by customers of such restaurant, including food prepared to be consumed on the premises of such restaurant or off of such premises.”

I have NEVER in my 42 years on the planet, my 30+ years cooking or my 20+ years in restaurants seen any chef, cook, assistant or anyone remotely human cook without using salt.  And.  I do not want to. Salt changes boiling temperatures.  Salt affects flavor balance.  Salt extracts fluids.  And. Salt is actually necessary for proper cell function. Look up sodium potassium pump if you do not believe that.

Now, does the typical American consume to much salt, yes.  But the majority of that happens to be in processed foods, not in well prepared restaurant foods.

As one of my favorite eating divas, Food Philosophy, said…first they came for the foie gras…and commandeering Martin Niemöller’s famous quote may seem blithe to some, but really it is not.  How Big Brother is it to assume that the public needs to have the Food Fascists completely eliminate their option of choosing how much salt they want in the food they are buying in NYC?

And would you like to discuss the economic stupidity of legislation of this ilk? NYC is one of the only cities in the entire country recognized around the world for its cuisine.  If chefs are not allowed the use of an ingredient which exists in every cuisine on the planet you can kiss the reputation of NYC’s restaurants and all of their tourist attracting dollars goodbye.

Felix Ortiz has obviously never spent any time in a kitchen.  Next week, no sugar, no coffee and no cream sauce.

Rant over.

A Taste of Tuscany

March 3, 2010

Tuscan Food Festival at its Tastiest

For all lovers of real Tuscan food, Slow Food, artisanal food, essentially all things yummy and delicious, there is another event coming up that you will either completely enjoy or be completely jealous of me for attending.

The weekend of 13-15 March, Taste will be held in Stazione Leopolda.  This is more than just a simple walk around and nibble tasty examples of what local producers have to offer.  Instead, there are actually lectures and speakers whose love of food and intensity in speaking about it can inspire even the most staunch consumer of mediocre cuisine to aspire to culinary mastery.

There are, of course, a huge variety of incredible foods available for purchase.  For those who will, by chance, be in Florence that weekend, these make fabulous gifts to bring back with you…if you are able to hold off on eating them yourself.

Everything from olive oils to cured meats to wine to chocolate is available, as is a wealth of information on a bevy of products and production methods.

For those who must live vicariously through Florentine residents, I will be posting notes and photos after the event.  Maybe they will inspire you to either move to Italy or at least take a well-deserved trip to travel Tuscany next year.

Travel in Italy: the Weather and Mother Nature

February 23, 2010

Tuscan Weather? Not Always...

As a person who can be a bit of a geek, I have always looked up weather patterns and historical averages before traveling anywhere and then checked the 10 day forecast on MSN the day that I am doing my packing.  It wasn’t until I moved here and posted a few of my Winter weather gripes (knowing full well the weather conditions in the winter prior to moving) on my Facebook page and had friends respond that I realized that my standard weather research is not normal.

The above photo, taken in San Gimignano, a lovely walled town in Tuscany known for its Vernaccia wines, is the weather most people expect when they travel to Italy, Tuscany in particular.  Wine tasting outdoors in that kind of weather with that kind of scenery is what most people dream of when they think about vacationing in Italy.  Intensely blue skies dotted by white puffy clouds will welcome you throughout most of the high season, but:

  • Rainfall occurs throughout the year here.  While the rainy season is predominantly in the winter, generally not more than a couple weeks will go by without some rainfall.
  • Winters are definitely cooler than most tourists expect…even in the generally temperate central and southern regions of the country.  Snow-capped peaks are typical every winter in Tuscany, and this year we had a snowfall that actually stuck for days just before Christmas this year.
  • The climate varies significantly from the north of the country to the south.  If you will be traveling along the length of the peninsula: for instance, Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily, you will very possibly encounter a large variety of weather.  Remember the northern end of the country is the Alps and the southern end is on the same latitudes as North Africa.
  • August is hot.  August is boiling hot.  Unless you are accustomed to living in a sauna only travel to beaches or mountains in August.  If you ignore this sage advice and you melt, you have had ample warning and your heirs may not sue me.  There is a reason the majority of the country shuts down for the month.

If you do happen to travel here in the winter do remember to pack full foul weather gear and shoes or boots that can handle the weather.  Most good hotels will have umbrellas available or there are always enterprising young men who brave the rainstorms to sell umbrellas to those who are caught unprepared.  In the summer it will be hot virtually everywhere except high in the mountains.  Packing tips for spring and fall will follow…they need their own post.

The more prepared you are when you arrive here, the even more enjoyable traveling to Italy will be for you.

Buon Viaggio!!

Grocery Shopping in Italy

February 22, 2010

Sooooo, you are coming to Italy and you’ll be staying a while.  You love food and want to learn more about it or you are simply a student who needs to feed herself while studying and soaking up Tuscan ambiance.  You’ve rented an apartment in Italy and you a ready to stock up that kitchen.

But, you don’t stop to think that the grocery store could be a different experience here…I sure didn’t.  Of course, I knew about the markets in Italy and had been there when I had traveled before, but the grocery store experience was slightly new and different.

So, we have an entrance to exit guide of a typical trip to the grocery store using my local Esselunga as a roadmap:

  • Parking. Don’t. Walk.
  • If you want a basket they are by the front door.  If you want a cart you will have to “rent” it with a single euro coin.  Have your coin ready before going to the store.
  • Produce can not be touched with bare hands…yes I know you are supposed to wash it when you take it home…just use the supplied gloves if you don’t want to be cussed out by an 80 year old 4’10” woman who probably could do you bodily harm.
  • You must weigh and tag your produce before leaving the produce section…they do not do this at the register in most stores.
  • Stocking is done throughout the day…many times at the busiest times of the day…if you do not see something ask…it very well could be on its way out “fra un po.”
  • If you are looking for ethnic items it is best to try to find and ethnic store…remember tortillas are ethnic food here.
  • The deli section…Godsend to those who can cook and those who are learning.  Fantastic meats, cheeses and prepared foods in most of the larger stores…do not freak out on the whole pig legs on the shelves…or the heads.
  • Meat sections…everything is pretty much the same except for the fact that there will be some items Americans don’t usually run across.  Pigeons, quail, rabbit, tongue, tripe and liver are standards here…I have seen a girl lose it over the poor bunny that was on display.
  • Checkout…unload in an organized way…you have to bag those groceries yourself, into bags you either bring with you or bags you buy there…and you have to do it fast…that same 80 year old woman will bag her groceries faster than you and she will yell at you again…and she can probably trek down the sidewalk faster than you, while carrying four bags of groceries and smoking a cigarette.

Remember your conversions. One kilogram is 2.2 pounds, a liter is about a quart, un etto is 1/10 kg…the dollar and euro conversion…well, sorry that one changes a lot.  Basically produce is usually cheaper, milk is always more expensive, meat is roughly the same and the quality on all tends to be high.  Be prepared to run a shopping cart obstacle course…don’t question it, it’s just like parking a car here.

Do try to head to the local markets here…they really are a don’t miss…the quality and freshness of the produce is amazing, you will find only fresh in season goodness and…perhaps it is just my prejudice… but I really believe the produce tastes better.  Then head home and let the creativity begin.

Wine: seriously, you have never seen so much good quality, reasonably priced wine. Ever. In your life.

Classic Treats for Carnevale

February 8, 2010

Fresh Cenci: the Cookies of Carnevale

Italians celebrate everything with food and Carnevale is no exception. One of the simplest joys of the Carnevale season in Italy is cenci.  These are fried cookies that are available in every pasticceria and bar and grandmother’s kitchen.  Not only are they easy to make, but they also happen to be highly addictive…be forewarned if you happen to make these and plop yourself in front of the TV with a DVD it is very possible to finish the whole batch.  It’s more possible to finish the whole batch if you take the bottle of Vin Santo with you from the kitchen to the TV.

This is one of those recipes that also offers the happy convenience that you likely have virtually everything in your kitchen already…maybe not the Vin Santo, but then you have an excuse to go buy more wine.

Ingredients:

1   cup all-purpose flour
3   tbs butter (melted)
2   tbs granulated sugar
1   egg
2   tbs Vin Santo (you can substitute rum)
1   tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying (I like sunflower)
Confectioners sugar
Place the flour in a medium-sized bowl  and add the other ingredients slowly, mixing well. Form a dough and knead the dough for a minute or two. Cover the dough with cellophane and allow to rest for an hour. Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured board until thin.  Using a fluted pasty wheel, cut  the pastry into strips, or  simply use a knife and cut into strips about 8 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, and tie each strip into a knot.  Heat your oil to 375F and fry the strips a few at a time until golden.
As you remove from the oil, place the cookies on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  When they have dried slightly, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
These cookies do not have a long lifespan, therefore you will be forced to consume them rapidly…within two days…and hopefully with a tasty Vin Santo.
Buona Festa and enjoy Mardi Gras!!!

Carnevale in Italy

February 7, 2010

Venetian Carnevale Masks are Gorgeous

Carnevale in Italy is a celebration that lasts the entire duration of the weeks leading up to Lent.  Since even the nominally Catholic in Italy generally give up something for Lent the last hurrah celebrations that Carnevale epitomizes are amazing here.  Any of the “vices” that are likely to be sacrificed for Lent are practiced in abundance until the sun rises on Ash Wednesday.

Whether your vice of choice is wine, cheese, meat, cookies, chocolate or just creating general mayhem, you will be surrounded by fellow “villians” at every turn.  What a fabulous way to lead up to a fast of any type.  There are parties for three weeks in most places, with the final Saturday and Sunday being the biggest. (People still have to go to work on Ash Wednesday so Fat Tuesday is usually semi-tame.

In my opinion the two best places to attend Carnevale are Venice and Viareggio, even though other cities have celebrations, these two stand out.  Most people are familiar with Venice’s reputation as a fantastic place to spend these weeks,  the centuries of masked balls, the gorgeous Venetian Carnevale masks and the deliciously wicked and decadent parties are well known.  But if you are traveling and do not have an invite to a private party it’s a little like window shopping with an empty wallet.  If you do have an invite for a ball or party, by all means deck yourself out as amazingly as possible and get ready for a party that will satiate all five senses.

If you are traveling and won’t be arriving in time to secure an invitation in Venice, head to Tuscany and make sure to book a hotel room in Viareggio.  The trains stop too early to enjoy the festivities and you do not want to be driving those roads at that time.  The parade that is put on on the weekends is unmissable…read up on a little Italian politics before coming and watch the way they skewer their politicians in paper mache.  Eat up everything the street vendors and restaurants have to offer and then head to the discos that are towards the northern end of the city…and don’t plan on sleeping until sunrise.

Chocolate in Italy: Pure Heaven

February 6, 2010

I have just returned from the Fiera del Cioccolato in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce.

Do you like chocolate?  Do you LOVE chocolate?  Then this event and similar events that occur in different regions of Italy are the place for you.

Nuggets of Joy

My hands down favorite of the festival was Chic & Shock .  Of everything they offered…and believe me, the selection was extensive…my favorites are pictured above.  For a business that is only 16 years old…a blip on the radar in Italian terms…the quality and beauty of their artisanal chocolate is amazing.  In addition to the bars of chocolate, which were phenomenal, I took home “frutto di bosco,” “cannella” “rosa” and “amarena.”  The process for these little gems takes three days because different components must set before the next can be added.  So, combine intense flavor with artistry that creates a miniature log of white and dark chocolate filled with berry infused fondente and topped with a little chocolate ladybug for 1€ and you can understand why I fell in love.

Truffles Galore

My second favorite was Di Maria, who unfortunately have email, but do not have a website yet. The truffles where classic example of what chocolate should be.  My favorite was actually the coconut and white chocolate, which is absolutely flabbergasting to me because I always prefer dark chocolate.  The milk chocolate filled with Grand Marnier was also outstanding and how they managed to create lighter chocolates that I fell in love with amazes me.

Chocolate Equipment

The final standout to me was Dolci Express.  The quality of the chocolate was high…and I loved the heart shaped chocolate suckers.  The thing that really made me fall in love was the “Chocolate Equipment.”  The photo does not do the pieces justice, but these would be an ideal gift for a man’s man chocolate lover for Valentine’s Day.  They have crafted all sorts of tools and objects from chocolate…little boys went crazy for these and I think grown up boys would too.

Any time you are in Italy there is likely a chocolate festival going on somewhere nearby.  They are not always easy to find online…so I will be compiling a list of all that I can find…stay tuned.


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