Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Saw Green Day last night...

Knocked another band off the "really want to see them live" bucket list last night - Green Day at Madison Square Garden. I'd been looking forward to the show for months, and thankfully Billie Joe and the gang did not disappoint. Pre-game meal at Zarela, which is turning into our default and might just be the perfect start to any live performance that doesn't feature an oboe.

If Oasis was "watch us stand here and play our songs," Green Day was a frenetic, in-your-face, insanely entertaining tour de force (first time I've ever used that tired phrase in a sentence in my life and, yes, I do feel bad about it, but it's late and I'm trying to publish something here).

Band went full steam for nearly three hours, through old favorites and a good amount of American Idiot and the new one, 21st Century Breakdown. Could contend for the title of best show I've ever seen, although - as I've already noted on here - Radiohead in Radio City Music Hall on the OK Computer tour occupies a moment in time for me and a concert-going experience that may never be touched.

But as far as last night goes, let me just say that Green Day took the stage about 24 hours ago, and my ears are still ringing. And I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Backyard Bounty

Growing up, the woods around my house were filled with wild raspberries, enough that you could actually take a decent-sized bowl and go on a little picking expedition, returning with more than enough for the whole family.

Nothing against Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll, but to me there is nothing that compares to fresh picked raspberries, a little sharper and more tangy than store-bought, with a great and pure underlying sweetness, and of course consumed just a few minutes - sometimes a few seconds - after being liberated from their orange star-shaped launching pads.

I noticed early this spring an explosion of wild raspberry bushes in the greenery lining our yard, and the first few of the season were ready to be picked last weekend. An abbreviated harvest, to be sure, nothing like the bounty I remember from childhood, but more than enough for everyone to get a little taste. And, based on the look of the plants and the bud volume, we'll be happily eating on these welcome little treats for at least the next couple of weeks.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Perfect Food

I've been thinking about pizza lately. Don't know if it's our recent trips to Mario's on Arthur Avenue, our vacation in Vermont - with the requisite stop at Pepe's in New Haven - the time I've spent reading what has quickly become one of my favorite blogs, Adam Kuban's extraordinary Slice, part of the Ed Levine Serious Eats gastrointestinal juggernaut, or the fact that when friends visited a couple of weeks ago, all the way from California, we made them pizza. Maybe it's just because I'm fat again.

Whatever the reason, I've been focused on the texture and taste of a perfectly-charred crust, the tang of good sauce, the silky indulgence that is the cheese in a pie made at the highest level - and decided to put together an informal ranking of my favorite pizza places of all time, both world class/celebrated and local favorites, and some that have (fortunately) been both.

Is there anything, really, like pizza? The simplicity of the ingredients, the potential of the toppings to take the experience anywhere you want to go. The arrival of the finished product - right out of the oven - in a place where they know what they are doing. Here are some places, based on my own extensive field testing, where they really know what they are doing.

1. Pepe's (New Haven) The first "famous" pizza place I ever went to and still my favorite, going on 25 years later, a sentiment that is shared by the entire family. Ask Madison or Ava (8 and 6) who makes their favorite pizza and, after a moment of careful consideration - which, in and of itself, makes me swell with pride - they will both say Pepe's. I had this exact dialogue with Madison last week and probed a little further by asking her why. "The crust," she said without hesitation. Yeah, the line is a pain, and how long it takes to get in or complete your meal is virtually impossible to predict. But there's nothing like a Pepe's pie, and walking out of the place - stuffed to the gills - through a throng of famished and wild-eyed aspirants out there on Wooster Street is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. Madison's default is red sauce with mozzarella cheese, Ava is partial to the white pie, Gwen and I love red sauce, spinach and onion and just grated cheese. Word to the wise - they also do take-out, although based on when you call and the current state of the backlog your pick-up time can stretch to 60-90 minutes after you place your order.

2. Mario's (Arthur Avenue, Bronx) Wrote all about this welcome surprise in the Arthur Avenue post above. Here's another, with some photos, including one of owner Joseph Migliucci, making one of the pies that are so good they're not even on the menu.

3. Nick's (Forest Hills and Rockville Centre) Found the Forest Hills location in the mid-90s and more recently the Rockville Centre outpost, which is much larger and offers the same great pizza along with a full menu of salads, pasta dishes, fish, meat, etc. Phenomenal crust, almost delicate, with sauce and toppings to match. Also probably the best white pie we've ever had, with ample dollops of ricotta to go along with the mozzarella and fresh garlic. Try a pie with red sauce, onions (they use red onions) and olives, which at Nick's are tangy kalamata. Wonderful.

4. Una Pizza Napolentana (NYC) First exposure to this pizza purist was through the television, watching Ed Levine escort Todd English through the door and through a pie he described as "perfect food." It really is. OK, you want to poke fun at the "here's why what you're eating is so damned special, just in case you missed it" six-panel pamphlet available to diners as being maybe a little overwrought and self important, go right ahead. But proprietor/chef Anthony Mangieri knows what he's doing back there by that minimalist work station and wood-fired brick oven, and if he's going to turn out food of this quality I for one support his right to talk about it.

Earlier this month I saw this Slice post on the possible sale of Una Pizza Napoletana and knew the next time I was in the city I was going to have to get back there for another Anthony pie, just in case. So last week, after a late afternoon meeting way downtown, I took the subway up to 14th St. and walked across town in the direction of 1st Ave. Got there shortly before 6 p.m. and every table was filled, with the exception of the little two-spot by the door. I settled in, ordered my Margherita pie and glass of wine and weathered the "what's up with that socially-inept dude over there eating by himself?" glances from everyone else in the place. Could not have cared less - the experience was worth it.

Walked back after paying the check and congratulated Anthony on another fine effort, told him that when it comes to pizza it's his or Pepe's - both insane and totally different. He laughed and seemed to appreciate the reference. It's amazing to me that after the many, many thousands of pies he's made over the years, he still holds every one up in the oven, crouches down and peers up at the underside to get a good look at the char. Every single pie is a careful assessment, a meticulous creation. That's why this place is what it is. Tremendous. If he goes he will be missed, and followed. I left around 7 p.m. with a line of anxious and hungry customers standing out on the sidewalk. I could have been in New Haven.

5. Totonno's (NYC) When Gwen and I lived in Manhattan it was in an apartment at the corner of 79th Street and Second Avenue, and even more important than our second bathroom was the fact that Totonno's was right around the corner. And that they delivered. Never in my life do I expect to again have pizza this extraordinary literally a phone call away. When we were expecting Madison we basically lived on one thing: large round pie, with sauce, mozzarella and onions, well done. It always was.

6. Caioti (Los Angeles) Favorite place by far when I lived in California, back when Caioti was located in a small cavern-type room under the Canyon Country Store in Laurel Canyon. Wrote a little tribute in this space back when owner/chef Ed LaDou passed away, much too soon. I still remember him back in that little salt box of a kitchen, cranking out one masterpiece after another. Hopefully the legacy lives on.

7. Colosseo (Long Island) Growing up, pizza meant only one thing - Colosseo. Located in an unassuming little strip mall shopping center, there was nothing like it. Nowhere near Frank Pepe's league, Anthony Mangieri would probably have to go off somewhere and purge if he was forced to eat a slice of the stuff, but when I was in high school ordering pizza on a Friday night meant enduring a throng five deep at the counter, waiting for pies both round and square, adorned with fresh and honest toppings. No canned and sickly briny button mushrooms in play at Colosseo, we're talking fresh sauteed and smoky. General consensus and a central truth of my formative years was that a Colosseo Sicilian pie was a piece of art, an achievement that could not be touched. I used to believe this as gospel. And whenever I go back, ordering up a slice that brings me all the way back to sweating college applications and the SAT, I still do.

8. Pizzeria Paradiso (Washington, D.C.) One of the first places I ever saw people stand in line for pizza (along with Pepe's), and one of the first places I'd ever seen pizza makers drizzle olive oil on finished pies before they landed in front of appreciative diners. Quickly became one of the standbys when I lived down there in the early 1990s, when I could bear the wait and hassle of actually getting a table. It was always worth it. Saw George Stephanopoulos wander in alone one night - at the height of the Clinton Administration - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy his pizza unharassed while reading a copy of the New Yorker. DC gets plenty of visitors, Pizzeria Paradiso was a place for regulars, for locals who lived in the city and knew where to go, like a crust-and-toppings version of City Lights of China or Lebanese Taverna.

9. John's (of Bleecker Street, NYC) Of all the picks on the list, this one feels the most obligatory, but there was a period of time when I was working in an office at the corner of 44th and 6th that I did appreciate John's Times Square location, which I think may actually be closed now, and the ability to wander in for what could only be considered a quality lunchtime pie. They were also there at the beginning, or at least before thin crust, brick oven became a mass-market expectation (hello, Bertucci's), as opposed to a nice surprise. John's makes the list on history alone.

10. Ours. Not up to the high professional standards of the pizza palaces listed above, to be sure, but with one distinct advantage. It's served - right out of the oven - at home.

[Postscript - turns out Slice was right, and Una Pizza Napoletana has closed. I got one of Anthony Mangieri's last NYC pies, on my little Thursday night mission last week, and consider myself even more fortunate. So I'm down one slot on my list, and open to suggestions.]

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Weekend Art

Still getting the hang of the new camera, a recent birthday present. Went outside this morning and got a few shots I was happy enough with to post. Hope the sun we are getting here in the Northeast is playing everywhere else. Good weekend, all.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Green '09

Promised a little more on our recent trip to Vermont and here it is, still fresh in my mind but once again out of reach (beyond the photos and memories), five hours and a million miles from our typical day-to-day.

Time up there still revolves around our core activities, most importantly the Bromley Mountain Adventure Park, which Ava still calls "the carnival." Alpine slide, rock climbing wall, water ride, huge swing, various other captivating elements including a new "ZipRider" we unfortunately weren't able to experience. I bought a ticket at one point, but the ride was shut down during my designated time slot and even though it reopened later on you don't really want to fly down a mountain on a thin metal cord at 50 mph shortly after the attraction had been closed for several hours due to some undisclosed technical issue, so I took a refund on the ticket.

There were ice cream cones at the little Ben & Jerry's window in Manchester, phenomenal hand-crafted ravioli from Fior D'Italia, the Turley we brought with us, all the old standbys.

But I think the thing that made this trip really good and special is the fact that we continued a trend of getting out and around and experiencing new and different attractions and elements that have only increased our love and enjoyment of this beautiful state. We drove about 90 minutes north and east of our home base one day to visit the King Arthur Flour Baker's Store in Norwich, which was a real highlight for the adults but not so great for the kids - basically a large, bright and incredibly well-stocked store featuring every kind of flour and baking supply/ingredient/tool imaginable, but not much to see in terms of live activity.

Luckily enough Norwich is very close to the Woodstock/Quechee area, which had plenty to offer in the way of family fun. We wandered down a long country road to arrive at Sugarbush Farm , where we fed the animals and tasted four different grades of maple syrup (including the rare "fancy" designation) and more than a dozen varieties of locally-produced cheeses. Also bought a bunch. We went to the Simon Pearce store and watched them blow some glass (noted in the previous post) and also stopped off at Taylor Farm in Londonderry, where we bought more cheese and talked to farmer/owner Jon Wright about raw milk, before he comped us on a $1 sample cup. It was good, if a little unsettling. Ava tried a sip, Madison declined.

We spent a few hours one day at the Emerald Lake State Park, the girls are pictured above in one of the pedal boats they rent there, along with canoes and kayaks. It's not the beach at Four Seasons Nevis, but it's not meant to be, and for a picnic lunch or a few hours floating or paddling around a mountain lake, it's pretty good.

We hit the Bromley Village pool several times, walked around quite a bit, had a terrific dinner at Bistro Henry, which has emerged as a consistently good and surprisingly kid-friendly option. Finally got around to taking Madison and Ava through Hildene, and the gorgeous mountain-lined gardens where their parents almost got married.

Most of all, we reconnected with each other and really dug in for a great vacation together. Before the trip I wondered how we were going to fill the time up there, before long I was wondering where it went. Our girls are 6 and 8 and full of opinions and insights and preferences and their own ideas. We're full on into the transition from kids to people, and luckily enough we've created a couple of people it is really a treat, privilege and pleasure (most of the time) to hang out with.

Last week was one of those times.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Flowers By Madison

I need to write up a post on last week's visit to Vermont, probably the best family time we've ever had up there, and not for lack of competition. Many fun and interesting activities, old and new, I'll get something up on the site soon with links and details.

We drove around and explored more than usual, including a visit to the Woodstock area and a visit to the Simon Pearce store/restaurant in Quechee, where we watched some glass blowing and bought the small flower vase shown above.

On our first morning back "home," Madison came up with the idea of wandering around outside and cutting some of the flowers currently in bloom around our house, which she carefully arranged in our new purchase.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Two Bees

As I quickly write these words, the house is alive with the sounds and movements of a family packing up and getting ready to head up to Vermont for the first installment of this year's summer vacation. I'll try to post some photos and observations from up there in the coming week.

In the meantime, here are two shots I got yesterday of bees on respective pollen-gathering missions, the top one right outside our house in the morning and the bottom at my parents' place, where we spent the day.

The bee photos offer a welcome opportunity to let people know, particularly as the mercury rises, that Haagen-Dazs is still making the best ice cream in the history of the planet, a limited-edition return engagement that was supposed to be discontinued at the end of last year but, happily, lives on. Maybe we all had something to do with that. I'd like to think so.