GQ’s Best Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: Brookville Restaurant

It’s not every day that a chef from a small town in Central Virginia makes the same list of super chefs of the caliber of Thomas Keller. Brookville Restaurant‘s Harrison Keevil made a grilled cheese sandwich so good, that it landed him on a national spread of GQ Magazine.

I’ve eaten at Brookville before and I can honestly say that it is one of the best new restaurants in town. Sure, the decor is simple, yet sophisticated, but it’s the attention to details that makes Brookville stand out from the rest. Local produce and meats, frequent menu changes and a hint of molecular gastronomy are the right combination.

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Picture: the first layer is The French Evolution by uber chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry. The second is the brain child of Brookville’s chef Harrison Keevil and is called Southern Comfort and the bottom one is The Crispy Caprese from Artisanal in NYC.

From GQ:

The French Evolution
Chef Thomas Keller, The French Laundry, Yountville, California, and Per Se, N.Y.C.
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices brioche
2 oz. Gruyère, thinly sliced
Southern Comfort
Chef Harrison Keevil, Brookville Restaurant, Charlottesville, Virginia
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices rustic bread
3 thick slices high-quality pre-cooked bacon
3 thin slices Granny Smith apple
2 Tbsp. Duke’s mayonnaise (optional)
2 oz. Swiss cheese or Gouda, thinly sliced
The Crispy Caprese
Chef Terrance Brennan, Artisanal, N.Y.C.
1 Tbsp. butter
2 slices pagnotta (Italian country bread)
1 ripe tomato, sliced
Several sprigs fresh basil
3 oz. fresh burrata or mozzarella
Brookville made it on my list of most decadent desserts in Charlottesville (something I wrote for my paper’s Food and Drink Annual – scroll down to the very end of the page). I had the really hard task of going around town tasting desserts and deciding what made my nose tickle. Brookville’s Maple bacon waffles with grilled peaches were right at the top. Do yourself a favor, go try it.
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The Weekend List 11/27/11

The week of Thanksgiving is always a strange one, working wise. But this year, we had the incredible treat of being guests at Emily’s parent’s house for turkey day. Amazing. Lots of family, lots of love and of course, lots of food and two words: glow sticks.

–An intriguing article by Thomas Madrecki in The Atlantic about working for six weeks in the kitchen of the world’s best restaurant, NOMA. Located in Copenhagen, Denmark, NOMA voted voted the best two years in a row. In our recent trip to Copenhagen, not being able to dine at NOMA is my only regret. Excuse to go back? I particularly like this passage:

At Noma and at other top restaurants, anything but striving for complete and total perfection is a disgrace. And to be frank, it is still a disgrace even outside of those top kitchens. The lesson here is just as simple as having a sense of urgency: Don’t bother doing anything but your best. Don’t half-ass anything. It’s either perfect — or it’s not.

Led by chef Rene Pedzepi, NOMA perfects Nordic gourmet cuisine while keeping the traditional cooking methods of the region. A reviewer from Scotland had this to say about the restaurant. “I could very quickly run out of superlatives attempting to describe our meal experience at Noma! For me, it was quite simply the best meal I have ever eaten.” Not too shabby.

Buttz BBQ in Charlottesville. I knew the restaurant existed and I knew about its reputation around town—and was the runner-up of C-VILLE Weekly’s BBQ contest, but I never actually took the time to go to The Corner district and try it out. Big mistake. The pulled pork platted was the best I’ve ever had: the right amount of juiciness and spice with a nice and lasting smoky flavor. I am not lover of super spicy foods, so I went with their Texas BBQ sauce, a sweet addition to my already delicious pork. After reading the owners’ explanation of their product, I like them even more.

We aren’t pros… just guys that love BBQ.  We are not your traditional Memphis, Texas, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ.  In fact, we’ve combined the best of all regions into OUR BBQ.

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–Currently on my nightstand: Tender at the bone by Ruth Reichl. I giddily enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – the trials and tribulations of a food critic, so I didn’t think twice about picking this up. It’s so fascinating to read of Reichl’s difficult relationship with her mother (The Queen of Mold),  her early encounter with French gourmet cuisine via a classmate in Montreal, Canada and her escapades (which somehow end up being  always food related)  as a summer camp counselor in the French countryside. Can’t wait to read on.

Bon Appetit magazine cookie spread. It’s so unbelievably amazing. This particular page is of Peppermint meringues and cardamon crescents, but the spread includes Cherry pistachio nougat, chocolate macaroons with orange ganache, almond-oat lace cookies, butterscotch blondie bars, lemony slice-and-bakes, and chewy ginger cookies. I have plenty to choose from for this year’s Cookie Exchange!

“Cena Italiana”: The best excuse to reminisce in Charlottesville

La Cena Italiana is something of an institution for a group of expats who call Charlottesville their new home. We are quite the group actually: architects, winemakers, students, reporters, engineers, editors, software engineers, you name it. We tend to not be able to speak Italian during our busy work lives, so once we get together to reminisce about the old country, there is no English allowed. And we are quite strict about that. Problem is, I am beginning to forget words in Italian and resort to blurt them out in a heavily accented English.

This month’s extravaganza had two special guests: one the member’s two sisters arrived from Italy the week before and were looking forward to hosting a night of Italian classics from appetizers to desserts. I was in charge of making tiramisu’ (which literally means “pick me up”), one of my favorites and well-practiced desserts in my repertoire.

This is how the table was set when we arrived. Green, white and red ribbons artfully paired with each napkin. This is how we do it. We go all out.

After a few appetizers  – bruschetta with grape tomatoes with a drizzle of excellent extra virgin olive oil, olives, and roasted cherry tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs – i primi piatti were served. First up were homemade tagliatelle with a hint of extra virgin olive oil and baked artichoke hearts,  a light and filling pasta dish from the Veneto region in Northern Italy.

Next up, risotto with sausage. So simple, so unbelievable delicious. When I make this type of risotto, I usually add saffron to give it just a slightly bolder taste.

And here is my favorite. Polenta. I grew up eating polenta…I love the taste, the texture, the color. Everything. I still remember my grandmother Pierina at the stove on Christmas morning stirring a huge pot of boiling polenta. We used to pair it with mushrooms and rabbit (I know, I know). The great thins about this dish is its versatility: it tastes even better the day after and it can be grilled, fried and boiled. This night, polenta was served with another staple of my family’s Christmas meal: spezzatino…chunks of meat with tomato sauce, potatoes and carrots.

And finally, dessert. The tiramisu’ tasted great and everyone enjoyed it. (Phew!) But it wasn’t all. We had Gearharts chocolates, amazing nuggets of deliciousness, and meringues.

These dinners are so much more than just a food experience. We may be thousands of miles away from our home country, but for one evening a month, Italy comes to us.

The Weekend List 11/20/11

What a week! And Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, Francesco and I will be spending la festa del ringraziamento (Thanksgiving in Italian) with our good friends Emily, Rick and Emily’ family in Northern Virginia. I am very excited to try an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner. For my part, I’ve decided to delve into dessert –Torta Caprese, which has nothing to do with Caprese salad, although they originate from the same region, Campania (Naples, Sorrento, Amalfi Coast…). The Torta Caprese is a decadent chocolate cake punctuated by hints of roasted almonds.

–The annual winter library sale is one of my favorite activities in Charlottesville. The city’s public library puts thousands and thousands of used and library books for sale. It was really no surprised that I went directly to the cookbook section. Who wouldn’t? After a couple of hours of perusing dusty and event ancient books, I settled with Julia Child by Laura Shapiro, a biography of the amazing Julia, and a cookbook of the cuisine of Emilia Romagna, the home of the original and still best Parmigiano Reggiano. First recipe that caught my eye? Parmesan Cheese Ice Cream. I kid you not. Mind=blown.

–Tons of reading was done this week….because there was a lot of reading to do! The New Yorker Food Issue (more on this in a later post) came out, the second issue of David Chang’s Lucky Peach (look out for a post soon) and my usual bedtime reading schedule. After listening to this Fresh Air interview on NPR with journalist Barry Eastabrook about his latest work, Tomatoland, I was intrigued. Tomatoland is Eastabrook’s detailed and shocking investigation of the complete destruction of America’s tomato agriculture and the abuse of its workers.

“Worker were ‘sold’ to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by arm guards.”

Makes you think twice about buying tomatoes, doesn’t it? I’m only half way through the book and I believe this quote won’t be the only one that makes my arm hair stand up.

— The Associated Press reported that the Locally Grown business is a much more lucrative business model then previously thought…to the tune of $4.8 billion in 2008 and an estimated $7 billion this year. It’s a good thing that Charlottesville has a bustling farmers market, one that was voted 14th best in the nation. I am all for locally grown, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could all have a vegetable garden in our backyards? Food for thought.

Happy Sunday everybody!

Go-to comfort food: homemade pizza

Every time I need a pick-me up, I run to the kitchen and make pizza. Margherita, usually. Simple, pure and very homey. I am not sure whether it’s the fact that I haven’t found a truly authentic Italian pizzeria in Charlottesville, but I always prefer making my own pizza pie then eating out. The best part about pizza is the process and every time I work the dough, I remember why I love cooking. Working with ingredients, making something so complex out of something so simple: flour, extra virgin olive oil, yeast, salt and a hint of sugar.

My mom taught me how to make pizza. She never stopped at the recipe, however, but inserted little pearls of knowledge I only now really appreciate: how to measure the flour, how to choose the best tomatoes available, why use a pizza stone. In a sense, when I make pizza I try to channel her attention to detail, her diligence with instructions (I tend to overlook steps in recipes…and it never turns out how it’s supposed to turn out), and living 3,000 miles apart, I try to channel her. It’s my way of having her so much closer to me.

I like trying out different recipes and the one that I currently like comes from the back of the packet of yeast we bought in Italy.

HOMEMADE PIZZA

For the dough:

500 grams of All Purpose Flour (for a nice crunch, I use 150 grams of Manitoba flour from Italy)

5 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 packet of dry, natural yeast

1 tablespoon of salt

1 teaspoon of sugar

Garnish:

1 can of San Marzano whole, peeled tomatoes (of fresh, always the best bet)

1 cup of fresh mozzarella bites (or a fresh mozzarella roll)

Salt

Pepper

Slices of salame

The first step is taking care of the yeast. Since it’s dry, cream the yeast with a little bit (half a glass, more or less) of warm water and a hint of sugar and let is sit for about 15 minutes. Because yeast is “alive,” it needs food and its food is sugar. It makes perfect sense thinking about it, right?

The yeast will plump up and come to the surface, just like in the picture. While the yeast is working, add the flour, olive oil and salt. One third of the total amount of flour needed for the recipe is Manitoba flour, which was sent to us from Italy. Apparently, and this came as a surprise to me, the Manitoba flour is from North America, hence the Manitoba name (a province in Canada) and it’s starchier than the regular all purpose flour found in the United States.

The dough is not too thick and not too sticky, just the right consistency. Flour a cutting board and add work the dough for about 5 minutes until it’s elastic and uniform. Let the dough rest for about an hour in a warm place. (I usually oil a bowl, add the dough, wrap it with a damp cloth and I put in a plastic bag. It does the trick!). In the meantime, cut the mozzarella bites in half and mince the whole, peeled tomatoes. Set both aside.

Pre-heat the over at a high temperature, 420F.

Once the dough has risen to twice its size, flour the cutting board you used before and work the dough one more time before stretching it. The dough should be soft and not sticky. After five minutes, starting stretching it with your hands and press the edges with your fingers tips. Once the dough is thinner, you can begin shaping to your like. I have a square oven pan and I use my roller to stretch its edges.

Sometimes the square shaped dough is better than others, but I don’t complain. It’s delicious anyhow. Once the dough is either on a pizza stone (recommended) or in an oven pan, carefully pour the minced tomatoes, with the consistency of a sauce, over the entire length of the stretched dough. Make sure that the sauce is evenly spread.

 Add the mozzarella bites (my favorite part).

Add a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and any other garnish you want on your pizza. In this case, we used fresh, Italian salami. Bake the pizza in a 420F for about 20 minutes. If you like your dough a bit crunchy, I like to turn off the over after 20 minutes, but leave the pizza inside to bake a little bit more.

Once the pizza is ready to be served, I sprinkled a little bit of dry oregano. It’s that simple. Eat it by yourself or with company, pizza never disappoint. It makes for a great lunch the next day! Buon Appetito!

The Weekend List 11/12/11

I’ve decided that this weekend is going to be pure relax. After the week I’ve had, all I need is time to actually think. Tuesday was election day in Charlottesville and as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, my day—and the week leading up to voting day—was consumed by all things political. Not that I mind. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy following the day-to-day of local government and I have to admit, I loved live tweeting (is that how you write it???) from the polls—140 characters of pure spontaneity, and you can read my work twitter feed here. That said, here is the list.

–As you may know, I am an obsessive fan of Top Chef. I’ve followed the show since its first season when Harold took the prize home. Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Top Chef Texas finally hit the airwaves with a slightly new format (on-the-spot eliminations…and the Bubble Room!) and two new judges: Emeril (bam!) and Hugh Acheson of Top Chef Masters fame. What I love most about this show is the competitiveness of each contestant, their quirkiness and loud mouths…and let’s be honest, head judge Tom Colicchio. He is not kidding around, especially this season.

–Thanksgiving issues. I always look forward to the monthly arrival of my favorite food magazines: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and the always impressive Real Simple. This month, unsurprisingly, they are all about creating the most perfect Thanksgiving feast. Being Italian and all, I have never really celebrated this particular holiday. Sure, I’ve gone to dinner where turkey was served, but really never tried to do it myself. Of the three, this month’s favorite is Food & Wine mainly because they touched on all some of my favored things: Southern food, Dave Matthews, how to make chicken stock and David Chang.

–Florence Fabricant’s “The lost art of buying from a butcher” piece in the New York Times. My parents used to regularly buy meat from the butcher when my brother and I were youngsters. I still remember entering the shop and being amazed by how knowledgeable was the person behind the counter. My mom or my dad would tell him what they intended on cooking and he would direct them to the best and most appropriate cut of meat. Since moving to the U.S., and Los Angeles to be more specific, I’ve lost that. Charlottesville is home to The Organic Butcher, an amazing resource of good and hearty meat. I guess I’ll be stopping by more often.

Buying some pork or most other meats is not as simple or as cheap as picking out an apple. Do not tweet your friends for advice; consult the butcher.

–All things Anthony Bourdain. After reading both Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw and seeing his show with chef Eric Ripert, I decided I can’t get enough of him. It’s true what they say…you either love Tony, or you hate him. I definitely fall into the love category: his sarcasm, crass, ego, loud mouth. All of it. I consider it a breath of fresh air. While waiting for his new show, The Layover to premiere in a couple of weeks, here are some interesting Q&A that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Happy weekend!

Out and About: Milano, Italy

It so happens that when I was living in Milano, from birth until I was about 15, I wasn’t really fond of the city. Call me crazy, but I did not see anything special about a polluted, traffic-infested and constantly foggy city. Granted, I actually lived about 30 minutes outside the metropolis, in a small, rural town called S. Agata Martesana. From my bedroom window, I could see the green fields and cows strolling in the nearby farm—that kind of rural. My favorite thing, however, happened in the summer. Because of the heat and no air conditioning, my bedroom window was always propped open and I used to love going to bed and listen to the symphony of a myriad of happy frogs singing in the nearby creek. S. Agata was a magical place until I became a teenager and longed for new friends and a bigger and more serviced town.

I used to commute to downtown Milano every morning to go to school, I would take the metro, the green line or linea verde, get off at the Lambrate stop and hop on a bus that would take me straight to my liceo. It was about an hour commute, but I cherished that time as simply mine. Now, well, it’s a different story.

No matter how many times I see it, the Duomo manages to take my breath away every. single. time. The Galleria, below, is just as beautiful…and I have to say that I love seeing it crowded, with people from all walks of life.

Our trip to Milano was accentuated by some deserved family and friend-time. I got to spend some quality time with my great friend Eliana who got married (and I served as one of the bridesmaids). What’s better than seeing your best friend’s happiest day and be part of it? Not much.

Here is the beautiful bride with her sassy grandma.

Eliana and I know each other since early childhood. We used to be next door neighbors, go to school together, come home from school and instantly go out to play together. In a few words, she is a special friend…one who will always be on your side and make you smile.

The wedding was set in the gorgeous hills of Italy’s Reggio Emilia region (in Moglia to be exact)—the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, Lambrusco wine and the decadent tortelli di zucca, pumpkin ravioli. The menu was punctuated by regional dishes—risotto with saffron with Porcini mushrooms, straccetti with over-roasted potatoes, just to name a few. De.li.ci.ous.

Not far from Moglia is the land of Ferrari, you know, the super slick red cars that single-handedly represent Italian design? Yeah, those. So, we hopped on my uncle’s car and drove to Maranello. Imagine: Ferrari rumbling through the streets at every turn, the Ferrari Museum offering the history of this famed brand and we got lucky to score the last two tickets for an exclusive tour of the Fiorano’s Formula One racing track.

Back to food. The last thing I thought would happen actually did. I learned something new about my city, something I may have to experience every year. I left Milano when I was 15 and I never really spent much time on my trips back. This could sound like an excuse, but imagine my surprise, and embarrassment, when I was told by Francesco’s dad about il Panificio Luini…a Milanese institution. Nestled in one of Milano’s many narrow streets, Luini, I discovered, makes the best panzerotti in the world.

Panzerotti are fried nuggets of dough filled with prosciutto and mozzarella. Hungry yet?

Are you hungry now?