The Morning Cup Choices

Every morning, I make a pot of medium-strong coffee to start the day. But making the coffee is only the first step in the coffee consumption process. Next, I must choose a coffee cup to hold that precious, energizing black gold. That means I have to really get my sleep-addled brain working and make considered, deliberate choices from an array of distinct options that are available.

Our smallest cup, at the right above, is a narrow, somewhat dainty cup that probably holds about half as much coffee as you would get if you filled the lobster cup on the other end of the line. Its smaller exposed surface area means your coffee will stay fractionally warmer if you are taking your time with your morning joe. Not surprisingly, I never choose this one.

Lately I’ve been going with the cup that is next in line. It’s thicker than the white one, which means it has a good heft as you lift it to your lips, it has a cool bicycle drawing on the front, and it was a gift from my mentees. It has more exposed surface area and is a bit larger, but still doesn’t deliver an overwhelming amount of coffee. I can slug down all of the coffee in this cup when it is still hot and head back for more–which I always do.

From there we move to the Harbor Cafe cup, which (as the name indicates) is your standard restaurant coffee cup, slightly larger than the preceding cups and with still more surface area. This is a good cup to choose if you want to drink a fulsome amount of coffee quickly and feel the heat of the coffee radiating through the thin sides of the cup.

From there, we really move from cup to mug territory, with choices that provide increasingly colossal amounts of coffee and surface areas that are approximately birdbath sized. The lobster mug at the end is enormous, and the coffee it holds cools off quickly. The lobster mug is the right choice when you are going to have a busy day and you need to gulp down a lot of hot, black, highly caffeinated liquid into your system as quickly as possible. It’s not a cup for those who dawdle over their java, because they are going to end up with a cup of unsatisfyingly cold coffee, No, the lobster mug sends your brain a message: sleep has ended, a busy day has begun, and you’d better pick up the pace in all things.

Finding A Meat Guy

Yesterday was circled on the calendar, because it was the day for the Stonington Farmers’ Market. As soon as we arrived, I made my customary beeline to the Sunset Acres Farm tent, because experience has taught me a happy lesson: Sunset Acres produces exceptionally good meat products (and their eggs and cheeses are pretty good, too). Every one of those orange tubs is full to the rim with the the succulent protein goodness–bacon, pork chops, hanger steaks, ribs, hot dogs, breakfast sausage–that is a meat lover’s dream. Yesterday I picked up two mouth-watering thick cut ribeye steaks, some hot sausage, and a few chicken breasts. They’ll all be going on the grill over the next few days, to be enjoyed when we are dining al fresco on our deck.

It’s not easy to find a good meat guy, the kind of guy who delivers fresh, dependable, high-quality offerings without cutting corners. And if the prices are reasonable, as they are with the Sunset Acres Farm products, so much the better! Once you find a good meat guy, you stick with him, savor the quality that he delivers, and don’t take a chance going anywhere else. I imagine vegans feel the same way about an organic farm that can be counted on to deliver a particularly strong crop of broccolini.

The Sunset Acres Farm van is a mainstay of the Stonington Farmers’ Market, which has expanded this year and drawn increasingly large crowds. We’ve seen new stands with produce, baked goods, and artisanal products–but the meat guy is the sun around which the other stands revolve, lit by his reflected glory.

Getting Direction From A Food Compass

We used to be told to pay attention to a food pyramid. Now Tufts University has developed a different mechanism for assessing what to eat, called a food compass. And, like any good compass, it’s definitely suggesting a change in direction when it comes to preconceived notions of healthy eating.

Tufts describes the food compass as “a novel nutrient profiling system developed by researchers at Tufts University” that evaluates foods across various domains and uses an algorithm to determine a score. The approach results in an assigned Food Compass Score (FCS) between 1 and 100 (with 100 being the most healthful) to nearly any food. You are encouraged to eat and drink items with scores over 70, consume items with scores between 31 and 69 in moderation, and minimize your intake of foods with scores under 30.

It’s probably not surprising that spinach scores a perfect 100 on the food compass, that raw fruits and nuts all receive high scores, and that snacks and sweet desserts are at the bottom of the scale, but some of the other results aren’t quite as expected. For example, the media has noted that a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts gets a higher food compass score (35) than a coconut and chocolate granola bar (15). The chocolate ice cream cone with nuts contains proteins and nutrients, whereas the granola bar is “mostly refined starch and sugar.” The chocolate/nuts ice cream cone even outscores frozen yogurt, which comes in at a measly 23. (The frozen yogurt is one point better than a thick crust pizza with extra meat, which ekes out a 22.) And according to the food compass, an egg omelet (51) isn’t as healthy as a bowl of plain Cheerios (95) or instant oatmeal (75).

One of the issues about food compasses, food pyramids, and other devices to help us achieve healthier diets is that it’s not easy to use them when you are out and about, making dietary choices. But any rating system that says a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts is healthier than a granola bar is bound to turn some heads and, potentially, cause people to pay attention and develop healthier eating habits.

Bad Reviews

Stars of stage and screen have been dealing with bad reviews for a long, long, time. For restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, it’s a more recent phenomenon, thanks to on-line rating services. And now the ratings game is being applied to pretty much every business and profession you can think of, including service industries, teachers . . . even lawyers.

Bad reviews are so commonplace that there are collections of “hilariously bad reviews” on-line–like this one. But while outside observers might chuckle at an internet reaming, every one of those horrific reviews left a business owner, a cook, or a server really smarting, and worrying that the review will seriously harm their business. In fact, studies show that people do pay attention to reviews in deciding where to eat, drink, or hire an electrician, and a crushing comment might just make a potential customer decide to go elsewhere.

What should you do if you get a bad review? One PR agency offers tips about responding to reviews here. Their main teaching is to respond promptly and constructively to all reviews, good and bad, and view the review and response process as an opportunity to build customer loyalty and show that you value feedback. That means not replying to a bad review with flamethrower comments of your own, but instead responding in a way that shows that you’ve taken the criticism to heart, are glad the reviewer spoke up, and hope that they will come back to give you another chance after you’ve implemented improvements.

Nobody likes to get bad reviews, but it’s a reality of our modern world. My guess, too, is that pretty much every business, no matter how good they might be, gets ripped by someone who visited on an off-day or just has a negative attitude in general. Learning how to respond to the bad reviews is as much a part of operating a successful business as developing your business plan or setting up your bookkeeping system.

A Taste Of Peru

These days I’m back at 44 North–literally and figuratively. Literally, because Stonington is located on the 44 North latitude, and figuratively, because being back in Stonington means I’m once again drinking the excellent coffee roasted by 44 North Coffee. And drinking 44 North coffee is a feast both for the taste buds and for the imagination.

Consider the Peru roast that we are drinking today. The tasting notes on the bag–which I faithfully read and try to experience with every slug–say this roast has a “big body with notes of roasted pralines and a heavy finish.” Having never tasted a roasted praline, I can’t assess whether the referenced “notes” exist. As for the “big body” and the “heavy finish,” it seems to this unschooled coffee drinker that the body and the heaviness will depend mightily on how how much coffee you put into the filter and how strong the corresponding pot of brewed coffee is. In any event, I definitely like the taste of the Peru blend, even if I can’t fully appreciate its nuances and subtleties.

I also like when the coffee shop identifies the origin of the coffee beans, so you can think about that while you are trying to detect the notes, the body, and the finish. When I think of Peru, I think of crisp air on the slopes of the Andes, rain forests, the Pacific Ocean in the distance, and of course Macchu Picchu, the city in the clouds. It’s not a bad mental image to accompany your morning cup of joe.

Drinking 44 North

Arizona Gunslinger

When we were ordering breakfast yesterday at the Feedlot Cafe in Marana, our friendly waitress asked if I would like hot sauce with my meal. She rattled off five or six options, then added, with a note of doubt in her voice: “Or would you like to try some Arizona Gunslinger?”

Somewhere a clock chimed, a hot gust of wind blew, and a lonesome piece of sagebrush rolled by.

“Arizona Gunslinger?” I gulped, as a horse in the distance whinnied in alarm, the hinges on the saloon door creaked loudly, and an ominous chord of music sounded in the background. “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” The waitress left and brought back a bottle of deep green chili sauce that promised it was “smokin’ hot.” “Here you go,” she said with a note of trepidation in her voice.

As I examined the bottle, I noticed that mothers were pulling their children indoors and the shopkeeper across the street was closing his doors and shuttering his windows.

When my eggs and sausage and hash browns were delivered, I tried some of the sauce, using deliberate and judicious application rather than a quick draw technique. And I found I liked the Arizona Gunslinger sauce. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. It’s got a kick like a mustang and a nice warm finish in the throat, and definitely added a bullet-like zing to my eggs.

When I finished my food, I ambled out the front door, glad that I had survived my encounter with the Arizona Gunslinger rather than being carted off to Boot Hill.

Tying On The Feedbag At The Feedlot Cafe

We were looking for a breakfast place in Marana, Arizona this morning. When I saw there was a place called the Feedlot Cafe, I figured we had to try it. When we drove up to the entrance and saw that the restaurant was part of the Marana Stock Yards, and you entered the building with the restaurant under a statue of a bull, I knew we made the right choice.

It turns out that most of the Marana Stock Yard building isn’t a restaurant at all. The Feedlot Cafe is in one corner of the building, most of which is devoted to a livestock auction arena. You can see the holding pen and some of the seats for bidders in the photo above, but the hall itself is much larger. And whoever decorated it really, really liked cattle heads.

The Feedlot Cafe itself was great. if you’re looking for a breakfast spot, eschew the chains and look for a joint that only serves breakfast and lunch. If you find one, that means you’ve likely found a local place that draws a local crowd and charges local prices. And that, in turn, means you’re doing to get great value and great food for your dollar. The Feedlot checked all those boxes and didn’t disappoint. My sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and an oversized biscuit slathered with fresh butter and honey was a serious breakfast feast for less than $10. Add in some orange juice and a bottomless cup of very good coffee and you’re looking at a fine meal for a very reasonable price.

This place was terrific in every respect. The food was great, the waitress was polite and friendly, the locals who were eating didn’t give us the evil eye, and the decorations screamed authenticity. My favorite touch was the cowboy boots spelling out “howdy” in front of pictures of cowboys at rodeos.

If you’re in Marana (which is a bit north of Tucson off I-10) and looking for breakfast or lunch, you can’t go wrong at the Feedlot. I’d gladly tie on the feedbag there any day.

The New Restaurant On The Block

It’s always exciting when a new restaurant opens in downtown Columbus. It’s especially exciting when the new restaurant is in your neighborhood, only a few steps away from your door. That’s why I’ve been keenly interested in following the progress as Speck Italian Eatery builds out its space and gets ready to open its doors. Recently, the name went up over the front door, as shown in the photo above, which it usually a good sign that the grand opening is not far away.

Speck was a beloved Delaware, Ohio landmark that decided to relocate to downtown Columbus. It offers what it calls “innovative modern Italian recipes” that drew raves from the customers who frequented its Delaware location. And, after our recent visit to Italy and Sicily, I’ve got a decided taste for more Italian cooking–so having a place nearby that offers that fare will be much appreciated.

It’s not clear exactly when Speck will open, but the scuttlebutt in the Gay Street District is that the restaurant is aiming for mid-July. Welcome to the neighborhood, Speck!

Bier At New Braunfels

We’re in Austin for a quick weekend visit. Yesterday we drove to New Braunfels, Texas, a town located off I-35 between Austin and San Antonio. New Braunfels was settled by German immigrants and remains loud and proud about its German heritage. And when you think German, you think . . . beer. So it made sense that we stopped at Krause’s, a legendary Biergarten and restaurant just off the main drag.

Krause’s was, in a word, fantastic. If you’ve ever been to the original Hofbrau Haus in Munich, Krause’s will look very familiar to you. You can sit inside or outside, at long picnic tables, as shown in the photos above and below. Live zydeco music was playing from a stage at one end of the outdoor seating area, and the place was hopping. Because it was about 100 degrees outside (no exaggeration!) we sat inside, but right next to the door so we could enjoy the great music. It was a festive, colorful atmosphere that made for a fun lunch setting.

The Krause’s menu features a lot of German fare, which is right up my alley. I ordered chicken schnitzel, which came with a helping of beer cheese and fries. (It also came with colossal pieces of broccoli that were promptly deposited on Kish’s plate so as not to ruin the photo below.) The schnitzel was lightly breaded and fried just right, so that the chicken was juicy and quite tasty. The beer cheese was also good, and I did the scarpetta routine with my fries to enjoy every bite.

Oh, and I should mention the beer, shouldn’t I? Krauses’s offers an overwhelming beer menu, as reflected in the photo of the taps at the top of this post. I opted for a weissbier and was glad to see that it was served in a large, cool stein that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Hofbrau Haus. It had lots of flavor and went down easy in the scorching heat. so I decided to have another. As I lingered over a second cold beer, enjoying the company and the bouncy live music, and scarpettaing up the remnants of the bier cheese, I decided I liked New Braunfels just fine.

Three Pizzas

I’d been eager to try some Sicilian pizza, and when we took a break from our fruitless search for the Mazara del Vallo city hall it presented the perfect opportunity to scratch that itch. We stopped at the La Vela restaurant on the road running along the harbor and ordered three pizzas—the frutti di mare pizza, the porcini mushroom pizza, and the mortadella pizza. We didn’t have a clear sense of how big they were, and when they came to the table they were much larger than we expected. Still, we dug in to the challenge, and ate everything but one piece.

When you order pizza in a new place, you always wonder about the crust, the sauce, and the toppings. Our pizza had a nice, crunchy crust that was on the thinner side of the crust spectrum, a light layer of sauce, and more than ample and absolutely fresh toppings. These were definitely knife and fork pizzas. I also liked that each pizza was served with a fresh ball of mozzarella cheese. All of the pizzas were great, but the mortadella pie, shown below, was my favorite.

Scarpetta

I’ve learned a wonderful word in Italian during our trip. The word is scarpetta, which is literally translated as “little shoe,” but the common usage of the word has nothing to do with footwear. Instead, it refers to the act of breaking bread into small pieces, like a little shoe, and using them to mop up the sumptuous leftover sauce from a dish of pasta.

We’ve eaten a lot of excellent pasta on this trip, and I’m a strong believer in getting every last morsel of flavor from a fine dish—so I’ve heard scarpetta used a lot over the past few days. It’s sounds much more elegant than “mopping up,”don’t you think?

I’ve tried without much success to remember the Italian I’ve heard. Scarpetta is one word I’m pretty sure I’ll remember.

Birra

One of the fun things to do when traveling is sampling the local beer. On one sunny afternoon during our stay in Scopello, the Georgia BrewDog and I sat outside on the patio and quaffed some of the local birra while having a nice chat about beer, travel, and life in general. Called Messina, it is a smooth, medium-bodied lager that is served in 50 cl (for centileter) bottles, which is about a pint in volume. It has a nice flavor and goes down easy, and the heat is a helpful incentive to not linger over your beer, lest it warm up in the sunshine.

Before we knew it we had each downed two of the bottles. The beer was refreshing, but of course the good company and beautiful surroundings helped.

A Day With The Duchess

Any trip to Italy or Sicily has got to address food. The culinary arts—and I do mean “arts,” in the truest sense—are such an important part of the culture that cooking classes seem like an obvious and essential part of any visit. That’s why yesterday was devoted to a drive to Palermo and A Day Cooking With The Duchess. (If you run a search for that phrase you’ll find the website.)

Our day with Duchess Nicoletta Polo began with a trip to her beautiful rooftop garden, shown in the first photo above, which featured herbs, flowers, turtles, colorful tiles, and a great view of the Palermo harbor. For others, the day began earlier, with a shopping trip to the Palermo market, but we weren’t quite up to the earlier departure time on the morning after the Sicilian CEO Celebration. In the garden, the Duchess selected flowers and herbs to be used in our preparation. Then it was down and into the spacious and well-appointed kitchen, which was home to every kind of pot, pan, utensil, implement, or cooking device you could possibly imagine.

The Duchess is a diminutive dynamo (and, I hope, a fan of alliteration). She speaks six languages, has an easy but total command of the class, and is very much a hands-on teacher. She quickly got everyone involved in each step of the preparation of our meal. Along the way, she shared some of her admirable philosophy about food, cooking, and life, which posits that human beings have a lot in common, that food is a uniting influence, and that people who cook together will necessarily become friends. She also cooks and seasons by feel, and chuckles at the 1/8 teaspoon precision of American cookbooks. Our group of twelve soon functioned like a well-oiled machine. It’s not hard to understand why her cooking class is so highly regarded.

I peeled garlic, chopped octopus, whisked a peach and corn starch concoction, used a two-handed half moon implement to chop herbs, scooped out eggplant, and stuffed calamari, with a welcome wine break thrown in. Perversely, my favorite task was using a spoon to delicately remove the seeds from tomatoes that were destined for the oven. (Of course, I didn’t eat any of them,)

After several hours of food preparation, we took a break so our work product could be cooked, and spent the time touring the Duchess’s home, which is grand and elegant. I was particularly taken with the colorful flooring in the different rooms, which included tile, marble, and parquet woodwork.

Then it was time to be seated in the dining room and enjoy our efforts. As the Duchess forecast, we enjoyed chatting with our newfound cooking class friends. I had the good fortune to be seated next to the Duchess and tried to follow her every move as we savored eggplant, pasta, and stuffed calamari. I was glad to see the Duchess use her fork to twirl the pasta, which is my preferred method. Everything was good, but the pasta dish below was my favorite.

The dessert was a delicate peach gelatin made from peaches bought at the market that morning and topped with a flower plucked from the Duchess’s garden. I’ve never eaten a flower before, but everything else was so good I gladly ate it, and found it was a nice complement to the peach flavor. As we left, saying farewell to our cooking companions, we concluded that A Day Cooking With The Duchess was a day well spent.

Finding Roots In Mazara Del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo is a town on the southwest tip of Sicily. It is a vibrant coastal community that is one of the larger cities in Sicily, with pretty areas like the church vista shown above. When we visited yesterday, however, we weren’t in town to sightsee, but to find some touchstones of the family history of the Sicilian CEO (aka Chuck Pisciotta). Like many Americans, the CEO’s roots trace back to Italy and Sicily.

Our Mission to Mazara had four goals: to find the birthplace of the CEO’s father, to find city hall, where the CEO’s grandfather is listed on a roster of the town’s mayors, and to find the burial sites of the CEO’s grandmother and grandfather. We quickly accomplished our first objective. We knew the building where the CEO’s father was born had been sold by the family decades ago and been converted to a restaurant called the Cafe Garibaldi. We found it, and that is the CEO and his lovely wife, the Landscape Artist, in the photo above in front of the former family homestead. Unfortunately, finding city hall was surprisingly elusive, and we spent hours wandering the central area of town, being given conflicting directions by Google Maps and friendly locals and fruitlessly searching for the right building. After repeated failures, we decided to cross City Hall off the list and head to the cemetery.

The Mazara town cemetery is some distance from the town center and in an interesting place in its own right. It’s enormous—not a surprise in a town that has been in existence for hundreds of years—and includes in-ground burial plots, family burial chapels, and vaults set into long walls, like the ones shown above. Many of the vaults include pictures of the deceased whose remains are inside, as shown in the photo above. We were told that the use of photos is common in Sicilian and Italian cemeteries.

Each wall contains hundreds of burial vaults, and there were dozens of rows of walls, as shown in the photos above and below. When we arrived, we had no idea where the vaults for the CEO’s nonno and nonna were located, and trying to find the right vault in the array of thousands of potential locations seemed like a hopeless task.

Fortunately, the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were able to enlist the help of one of the cemetery caretakers and examine ledgers in a storage area, where they found information about the location of Giulio Pisciotta, the CEO’s grandfather. That is the CEO posed next to the vault in the photo below. Regrettably, we could not locate the vault for the CEO’s nonna, because we didn’t have precise information about her date of death. Still, we accomplished two of our four tasks, and any baseball player will tell you that a .500 average is pretty darned good.

But this day of roots celebration was not over. The CEO had mentioned to the driver who picked us up at the airport on our arrival in Sicily that he would be visiting Mazara del Vallo to find these family connections. By fortunate coincidence, the driver’s parents have a house in town, near one of the nice beaches. Amazingly, the driver’s parents, who we had never met, invited our entire party to dinner as their home. When we arrived last night we were treated to a magical and unforgettable evening by the parents and two of their friends. That is the energetic and outgoing friend at the head of the table in the photo below.

The parents and their friends set a long table in the courtyard and plied us with more food, wine, and beer than you can possibly imagine. Although they did not speak much English, their friendliness and warmth spoke louder than words—and the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were there to translate and break the language barrier.

The meal started with pizza, olives, cheese, shrimp, and fabulous fried sardine and rice balls, then moved to couscous—a delicious nod to the Arabic influence on Sicilian culture—with mussels, shrimp, and freshly caught branzino, which the friend proudly displayed in the photo above. You dole out the couscous, which our hosts dished out liberally, ladle on some tasty broth, and then add the fish on top. It was excellent.

And the hits kept coming, and coming. After the couscous, we had some of the famous red shrimp that had been caught that morning in the waters surrounding Mazara del Vallo, which had been grilled and delicately spiced. Then it was on to fresh cherries—to keep the digestive processes going, the friend explained—and finally a huge platter of cannoli, shown in the photo below.

We munched on the cannoli, which were crisp and not too sweet, with cherries at each end. And just when we thought the parade of fantastic food had finally stopped, our hosts brought out a gelato cake made especially for the Sicilian CEO, as shown in the photo below. Our hosts explained that the cool and creamy gelato would further assist our bellies in processing the enormous meal. The gelato cake was, of course, delicious.

Our hosts also brought out a bottle of champagne, which the CEO deftly opened, and we toasted our meal and our new friends. As I drank my glass of champagne I reflected with amazement on the incredible generosity of these fine people, who invited a throng of previously unknown people who could not speak their language to their home, invested the time and money to prepare a magnificent meal with a special personalized gelato cake, and fed us until we were full to bursting. And I emphasize, again, that before last night none of us had ever met our hosts. It was an astonishing, awesome display of open-hearted kindness and magnanimity.

We should have known, however, that our hosts weren’t quite done. They insisted that the CEO board the back of a rickshaw-like bicycle for a ride around the courtyard. As the evening ended we stood in the gloaming, exchanging hugs and kisses and cheek-to-cheek goodbyes with our newfound friends, thanking them for an evening will live all long remember. What an extraordinary night!

On The Road To Scopello

Yesterday we drove through the interior of Sicily from the Siracusa area to Scopello on the opposite coast. With the resolute Granite State Commander at the wheel, we followed roads that climbed the mountainous spine of Sicily and rolled through tunnels that burrowed through the rugged terrain. We stopped for lunch at Enna, a striking walled town in the middle of Sicily, where the fortress shown above stands at the highest point.

As is the case with other Italian walled towns, Enna is built on a peak that towers over the surrounding countryside. Many of the homes rise straight up from the road. The road that rims the perimeter of the town offers sweeping, panoramic views of the area, including the neighboring walled town of Calascibetta, seen in the photo below. We had a fine lunch of pasta dishes at a restaurant called Il Mito.

After leaving Enna, the terrain grew more mountainous, as seen in the photo below. The road was in good condition, and the road signs were easy to follow. After clearing the mountains, the road dropped down to the sea coast and the streets of Palermo, Sicily’s most populated city. Scopello is only a short distance away, after you clear the outskirts of Palermo, and lies on the coast facing the Tyrrhenian Sea.

No post about driving through Italy or Sicily would be complete without a word about the Auto Grill rest stops. To put it mildly, they blow American rest stops out of the water. The photo below shows some of the freshly made items that were available at our Auto Grill stop. The Auto Grill also sells wine. You could easily make an excellent picnic lunch from what you can buy from the Auto Grill.