Out and About: The Barbeque Exchange (Gordonsville, VA)

I have been hearing about The Barbeque Exchange since I moved to Charlottesville. People swear by it; they order it for every occasion (weddings, board meeting, 4th of July….). Barbecue is a somewhat new culinary experience for me – the pulled pork, the brisket, the pulled chicken and turkey, the decadent mac and cheese, the hash browns – came into my life a bit late, but I have made up for lost time. I think our noses and growling stomachs brought us to Gordonsville, Virginia, home of what is said to be the best bbq on the planet (or at least Central Virginia).

photo 9This eatery is a hidden gem. It’s quaint, unassuming and perfectly homey. The day we ventured out to Gordonsville was a hot, humid morning (typical weather of Central Virginia summers), windows down, nobody but us on the road. We pulled in the crowded parking lot, entered the establishment and were immediately hit with the spicy and sweet smell of bbq seasoning, melted cheese and a variety of hearty desserts. A line formed and we waited for what felt like a lifetime.

I have asked friends and no matter what time you choose to eat at The Barbeque Exchange, you will find crowds waiting to sink their teeth into some prime seasoned meat. Chef Craig Hartman (winner of the 2014 Best Of C-VILLE : Chef) does it the right way: old school, slow-cooked bbq. BBQ Exchange won the 2014 Best Of C-VILLE: BBQ.

I went for the classic: pulled pork with seasoned fries and a side of mac and cheese.

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Served in a soft and sweet bun, the meat melted in my mouth: perfectly cooked and seasoned. It was like butter. Now, I am a french fries freak and these were one of the best seasoned fries I have ever tasted.

photo 8Look at that beauty. The sauces can make anyone happy: Hog Fire if you dare eating fire (Francesco tried it and lived to tell the tale); Colonel Bacon, the original sauce (it includes bacon!); Craig’s Carolina, vinegar based and pretty representative of the North Carolina sauces (so they say); QX Sweet, Kansas style spicy and sweet and Soo-eet, Memphis style with molasses and onions. There is really something for everyone. I went with Craig’s Carolina for a more subtle kick.

photo7There was not much left, obviously. The Mac and Cheese held its own, perfect gooyie consistency. Overall, excellent experience. Fantastic food. It’s not going to take much for us to go back and try new things.

Lazy Weekends, Conferencing and more

Spring was here a minute ago and now summer is running by too fast. I made plans for what I was going to accomplish this summer and here we are, smack in the middle of it and I have done nothing –  except for baking. Talk about priorities. I wanted to get ahead and start canning and making pesto, but our garden didn’t quite    collaborate. So, I resorted to baking muffins and scones. Blueberry scones are the best and an excellent source of….goodness (?), especially if consumed at breakfast. Imagine waking up and knowing there is one of these beauties waiting for you and your tea. That’s my kind of morning, people.

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Most of the times, my baking is done on weekends, when it’s too hot to move and too humid to breathe…welcome to Virginia in the summer. Sure, the oven is on, but so is the AC. Win-win in my book. Baking is my release from life, from stress, from anger, from sadness, from exhaustion.  My brain works in overtime most days. I over analyze things to a point of no return.

So I bake – I follow a recipe (most of the times), I add this and sprinkle that, and I am at ease. I guess the best part is waiting for the results to come out of the oven. Baking is immediate satisfaction.

The smell from the oven veils every action I make and I would not want it any other way. I am not one to worry about my figure, I like to eat and I eat…if a few pounds magically appear on my body, it’s not the end of the world. Of course, everything in moderation.photo 3

Making Gelato is a rather new activity of mine, but I’ve enjoyed it since childhood. Here is proof. Francesco and I received a pretty spiffy ice cream maker as a wedding present a few years back and we have been best friends ever since. Francesco loves hazelnut and I love chocolate…queue melting chocolate and toasting nuts in the oven. The chocolate ice cream recipe I follow is a few recipes pieced together, but the main ingredients are: 2 (or more if you are me) ounces of bittersweet chocolate to melt, 2 1/4 cups of whole milk, 1/3 cup of heavy cream, 3/4 cup of sugar, 4 large eggs and 1 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder. It’s a deep, bitter chocolate gelato, but I don’t think there is anything better.

I love the meticulous steps needed to make this dessert: the chopping of the bittersweet chocolate; the melting of said chocolate in a hot bath (never in a microwave) that produces a dark and thick chocolate paste; the whipping of eggs and sugar and the later addition of warm milk. It’s really no surprise that the gelato was gone after less than 2 days. Francesco and I are big fans. Guess what I am doing this weekend?


I have decided to add a pinch of myself and my life into the blog. The food I make is the reflection of me, my family and my culture. I hope you’ll stay for the ride.

I look around the web and read food blogs at all the time, but I don’t follow trends, food or otherwise, and I have no interest in making something a much bigger deal than it is. I started this blog because I love writing, cooking and eating. This is my way of sharing my passions and keep writing on an almost daily basis. I don’t take super professional photos. I use my phone. I am not interested in what a dish looks like, or whether the lighting is just optimal. I am much more interested and invested in the taste of it, its flavor profile, whether it needs more honey, vanilla, salt and pepper or whathaveyou. This blog is my kitchen diary in rough draft form and I am totally OK with it.photo 4

In another aspect of my life, I have a new job in marketing and communications. I get to come up with logos, play with colors, use social media, learn about new platforms and occasionally go to cool and interesting conferences. Couple of weeks ago, I was at the American Marketing Association’s OnPoint Conference for nonprofits. Since I am on the board of Market Central,  a nonprofit organization that supports all aspects of the Charlottesville City Market and of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council, I thought I could learn a few new tricks of the trade and apply them to my passions…and my job, obviously. Did you know that by 2030, millennials will be 75 percent of the workforce? Scary.

The experience was not complete without a food outing, of course. And photo5in Crystal City (Arlington, Virginia), restaurants abound – think Jose’ Andres and Top Chef alumn Spike Mendelsohn. It was decided that Spike’s Good Stuff Eatery was the way to go: burgers and milkshakes…and there is nothing better than that particular food group after all-day panels.

Holy mooly. It was delicious – really good burgers (cheeseburger for yours truly) and lots of steamy french fries. The perfect ending to a fulfilling work day.

What’s your favorite after-work meal?

Classic Tiramisu’

I take my desserts very seriously. I am that girl who approaches a banquet or buffet line and goes directly to the desserts, fills up her plate, walks back to the table and basks in a glow of happiness and serious sugar high. Desserts are my Shangri La; leave me on a desert island with a jar of Nutella, some bread and whipped cream and I am all set. Among the many desserts I have tried in my 30 years (or a bit more, but who is counting?) of existence, a classic tiramisu’ gets me weepy, nostalgic in the best possible way. A good tiramisu’ has very few ingredients and is made very quickly. It’s almost a dessert afterthought…with a punch.

I wrote an article about the subject for my local news weekly, C-VILLE Weekly where I discussed the various ways to make the dessert. There is, however, only one person who has mastered the tiramisu’ challenge – my mom. I use the same ingredients, but hers has something more…just that little je ne sais quoi  that makes you go “ohhh, now I get it.” So, I took advantage of the opportunity to learn and photograph the master at work. (Granted, the photos were taken with my phone, but I am sure you get the idea).


400 grams of Savoiardi (Lady Fingers cookies)
3 eggs
300 grams of mascarpone cheese
6 tablespoon of sugar
pinch of salt
coffee (3 to 4 cups)
cocoa powder

The preparation is easy and quick. In a bowl, mix egg yolks with sugar and beat to creamy consistency (you will start to see bubbles forming). When you have fresh eggs, the color of this “cream” is something for the books. Next, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. The eggs need to be warm…so take them out of the fridge a little in advance, or if you don’t remember or don’t have time to do anything in advance like I do, I have a simple trick – fill a bowl of very warm water, not boiling hot though, and add the eggs. Leave the eggs until they are warm. What a different it makes!
Once the egg whites are beaten to soft peaks, add them to the creamy mixture of sugar and egg yokes…VERY GENTLY. You don’t want to undo the airiness of the egg whites. I would say…massage the egg whites into the egg yolk and sugar cream. Now, you are ready to add the mascarpone cheese. Here, again, be gentle and add the cheese just one spoonful at a time. [Your can read this interesting article about “soft,” “medium” and “stiff” peaks here].

Once we have completed these steps, we can move on to the second stage of the dessert. Let’s brew some coffee, shall we? You can choose the strength of the coffee and remember that the Savoidardi cookies will be dipped in it. I like to use a nice hard espresso, which gives the Tiramisu  a tangy and rich after taste. I would err on the side of more coffee than less…you don’t want to add water to it and completely lose the taste (trust me, I tried it and it ain’t pretty).
Dip the Savoiardi (or lady fingers) into the coffee and place them in a terrine of your choice.

Once the bottom or the terrine is covered with coffee-soaked cookies, spread a layer of the cream mixture and be sure to cover every corner of the terrine.

Repeat for as many layers as you want, ending in a layer of cream.
Refrigerate. Once you are ready to serve, sprinkle cocoa powder and remember not to breath in the powder!

tiramisulogo Serve and enjoy!

Christmas in L.A.

What’s better than a snow and cold Christmas? One spent in 85-degree weather surrounded by family. Thank you Los Angeles. Not once in out two-week holiday break did I wear a coat. Glorious. Just bloody glorious.

I know this post should have made it on the blog loooooong time ago, but you know when people say “life got in the way”? Well, nothing really happened to me, just traveled back to Virginia during the Polar Vortex, our water pipes froze, no water for two days and I caught the flu. Excuses? No, but I had to say something. Mea culpa. I just want to leave you with some outtakes from a perfect winter break. Hope life is good to all.

The best dish ever made on the face of the earth is my mom’s risotto with pears. She made it for Christmas lunch and I still crave it.

mamma e risoThe recipe is fairly simple. Just cook the risotto as you have always done, or follow this recipe. Once the arborio rice had browned (with garlic), deglaze with a little white wine, add the diced pears and a generous 2 cups of cheese. Not just any cheese, but cheese with some attitude: Fontina would work wonderfully and so will manchego (that’s what we used). You can also mix a few different cheese, but be sure that the flavor palette is similar.

risoThis is what the final result looks like. It tasted even better. Cooking with fruit is something I want to start doing more. I usually don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I can’t keep up, honestly), but I do like to make promises to myself and this year I would like to explore the world of cooking salty dishes with fruits. Wish me luck. Actually, you should wish my husband some luck. “Honeyyyyyyy! Here is my new concoction!” You know how many times he has heard that? And he still forces himself not to cringe. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

photo(42)We visited beautiful Ojai, California – a sunny and artsy community a little more than an hour away from Los Angeles.

art centerDid some culturing at Ojai’s The Art Center (Francesco and dad in the background).

photo(45)Went wine tasting at one of the best wineries in the valley. Per mom, dad and Francesco, The Ojai Vineyard‘s Syrah was pretty tasty, with deep tones and crisp aftertaste. I couldn’t say, I still don’t like wine. photo(46)The vineyard did, however, have a surprisingly fresh and sweet dessert wine: Riesling Ice wine. Delicious. It tasted nothing like wine and a lot like candy.

photo(49)We baked some surprisingly delicious breads, with olive and walnuts. The olive loaf had the most perfect crust, while the walnut loaf was heartier. Recipes coming soon.

When it comes to food, there is really no kidding around in my family, and especially during the Christmas holidays, we tend to over indulge. My favorite dish is polenta, lentils and cotechino. What’s cotechino you ask? Well, it’s complicated. All the translations you’ll find on the Internet are just not detailed enough to give you an idea of what this thing really is. It’s boiled pork sausage, or a boiled salami, but much tastier. It’s very fatty and hence the reason to indulge in it only once a year.

photo(50)This, my friends, is my ultimate bliss. Warm polenta, sliced cotechino and a healthy dose of lentils cooked in tomato sauce. Every time I eat polenta, I cut up a small piece of brie, or any other soft cheese, and I place it in the middle of my small mountain of yellow grits. The heat melts the cheese and what you get is a scrumptious melted goo.

photo(51)You have to try it to understand. It’s an out-of-body experience.

Although it’s almost a month late, I want to wish you all a healthy, peaceful and happy New Year! Now, let’s get cooking.

Brunch all’italiana

One of the things I love doing more than experimenting with new recipes is cooking for friends and family. A couple of weekends ago, we invited good friends over for brunch. Mind you, I’ve never prepared a brunch before, but how hard can it be, right? So, I started brainstorming recipes; hearty Italian recipes that even an almost 2-year-old would eat (their daughter is the cutest thing on the planet). I settled on frittata [I had just scored 12 local and organic eggs] – focaccia (just like this one), some bruschette and carrot muffins.


Francesco is a master frittata maker and I gladly left that task to him. We decided to have one veggie frittata –  with asparagus – and a meaty one – with bacon – to satisfy all appetites.

Although it could seem a bit intimidating, a frittata is just like an easy omelet.

  • First, prep the eggs. We used two whole eggs and one egg white and added salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika, because it gives the dish an extra layer of flavor and because it’s one of my favorite spices. Add a little milk and whisk all the ingredients together.
  • For either frittata, we heated a non-stick pan (very important!) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sauteed the asparagus until tender and the bacon until slightly brown. In both frittate with added scallions for crunch and flavor.
  • Pour the egg mixture in the pan making sure it covers the vegetables or the bacon. Add some Gruyere cheese.
  • Let the eggs cook for a few minutes, or until golden brown. Flip the frittata and let it cook for at least 5 minutes.
  • Serve warn. Sprinkle diced scallions as garnish.

Le bruschette are, to me, the quintessential summer snack or appetizer. If you have some cherry tomatoes in the fridge, a few kalamata olives, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, you are in business.

Toast the bread, add fresh garlic by grating each clove on the grilled or toasted bread slice and add the tomatoes. It’s colorful, healthy, fresh and quick – definitely a winner in my kitchen.
I was living in Naples, Italy when I tasted the best bruschette. It’s should not have come as a surprise since the Campania region has the juiciest and flavorful cherry tomatoes in the world. In a perfect bruschetta, the bread is soggy from the tomato juice and the garlic is so fresh, it is almost spicy.

What are you got-to brunch recipes?

In which we finally bought a grill

It took us a year and three months, but we finally did it. We bought a grill (euphoria ensued). Since we moved in into our new home last year, I have been dreaming about the culinary possibilities of owning such a fantastic piece of equipment. It arrived in a box, disassembled, on a Tuesday night. It had been raining on and off for three days and the sky looked angry, dark clouds fast approaching. Of course we could not wait until the next day to put the puppy together.

We rushed, read the instruction one minute and checked the sky the next, but we made it…we built it, put a cover on it and waited for the rain, which never came.

Now that this was a reality, I scrambled to find a good first recipe, but I realized that the simplest ones are always the best. We decided on grilled zucchini and patate al cartoccio, potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil and a good steak. It sounds really clique, but there is nothing better after a long day in the office then to come home, head straight to the backyard, grill and listen to the sound of the pond’s waterfall. Very relaxing.
zucchiniThe recipe for the zucchini is so simple, it almost cooks itself. Just slice the zucchini lengthwise making sure each slice is thick enough not to be burned as soon as you put them on the grill. Once the slices have reached your preferred doneness, I personally love a bit of burned crunch on the edges, place them on a plate and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and fresh parsley for a hint of freshness…and summer.

I first made patate al cartoccio when I was still living at home. I remember we had some friends over for dinner and I wanted to contribute to the cookery and, let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with potatoes. I cut the potatoes in thin slices and placed them in a “cup” made of aluminum foil – just wrap the foil in a manner that forms a cup – and added extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt, pepper and rosemary. I closed the “cup” and put it on the grill. That’s it. No stirring necessary and the result is rather sophisticated. I let it cook for about 10 minutes, checking from time to time that nothing is burning. Serve it in the foil.

I cannot reiterate enough how excited I am for this grill. I feel like I have a new world of possibilities to explore.

What are your favorite grilling recipes? I’d love to know!

My mom’s polpette (meatballs)

My mom’s polpette (meatballs) are the best. Hands down. She cooked them for my brother and I when we were athletic kids in need of a different kind of dinner. We were not picky eaters, but we were quick to get bored from pasta, pizza and other common dishes. That, and the combination of my mom’s curiosity and creativity in the kitchen made for a very entertaining cooking process. My parents wanted us to try all foods at least once and if we didn’t like it, not a problem….but at least we made up our own mind and did not settle for what our friends thought. I am so glad they did that. There are plenty of foods I don’t like, even in adulthood, but still today, I would give anything a try. (My mom once prepared soy ragu’ and told us it was real meat. She didn’t fool anyone, but I was actually fond of the taste….my brother and dad not so much).

These polpette are different from the generic meatball. They are healthier and crunchier and they literally take 10 minutes to make.

What you’ll need: (makes 4 meatballs)

Half a pound of lean ground beef
1 egg
1 zucchini
1/2 cup of bread crumbs
1/4 cup of parsley
Smoked paprika
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Finely dice the zucchini and place them in a bowl. Add the ground beef, egg, bread crumbs, parsley, paprika, salt and pepper and mix with your hands. The zucchini help the mixture from falling apart and add a crunchy bite.


Once the mixture is uniform, grab a handful of mixture (depending on how big you want the meatball to be) and form a ball with your hands. Place them on a clean plate and repeat until you run out of mixture.


At the same time, add extra virgin olive oil (or your preferred olive oil for frying) to a pan, making sure its entire surface is covered and tun on the heat to medium. My mom taught me a little trick to stop the oil from burning: add a piece of bread. Give it a try, it works every time.

Once the oil has reached the right temperature (you will want to hear a nice shhhhhhh), place the polpette in the pan, cover it and let it cook for a few minutes. Turn them over and let them cook until the outside is crispy and the inside is to your preference. Pat the polpette with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Eat.

So quick and easy, this will become a favorite – it was the first time Francesco tried polpette with zucchini. Positive verdict means many more polpette on the horizon.  Buon Appetito!