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.

photo 11111
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.

Out and About: Amsterdam

I say this every time I am back from a great trip, but this time I really mean it: I want to move to Amsterdam! Francesco had planned a business trip to the Netherlands in late June and I was lucky to tag along. While he was hard at work, I spent a week wandering the streets and canals, alone with my thoughts. Everywhere I looked, I imagined myself living in the moment, riding my bike to and fro, sipping a cold beer in an outdoor cafe’, living on one of the magnificent homes along the canals. I can absolutely live here, I told myself…and there is no doubt in my mind that I actually could.

There is so much to do, see, experience in this city. In 5 days, I barely scratched the surface…but I am not complaining…I will be back, Amsterdam, I will be back.

Canals_logo

As tourists would do, we visited every museum imaginable. Below is the Rijksmuseum, or State Museum, a mastodon of a building with substance, history and art. A darn pretty good combination. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” is included in the collection as well as many more Dutch masterpieces. The Van Gogh Museum is obviously a sight – the man’s genius is unmistakable in his big, fat strokes, studies in color and pencil sketches.

Rijksmuseum

The Flower Market was my next stop. Bulbs, bulbs and more bulbs of so many colors! Apparently, the Netherlands produce more than five billions tulip bulbs – a few of those came home with me (but only those with a U.S. and Canada certificate). My favorites are called “Queen of the Night” – a delicious dark burgundy color with black tones. The bulbs took over the narrow street and each vendor showed off his or her spread of flowers with colorful photographs or wooden clogs or flowers.

flower market

Amaryllis

Another unofficial symbol of the Netherlands are the wooden clogs…and you know I couldn’t resist. I found these in a shop along the Flower Market street and had to try them on. Cute, eh?

clogs

One place I was both anxious and looking forward to visiting was Anne Frank’s House, which was turned into a museum by her father Otto. It was an incredible, emotional experience: Touching the walls where she lived, looking out from the same window, standing in her bedroom. I cried my way through the museum. Those 45 minutes left a hole in my heart.

Anna Frank's house

Food in Amsterdam was surprisingly different than I expected. We ate delicious Argentine steaks, enormous salads and were lucky enough to visit and savor the cuisine at The Five Flies Restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants in Amsterdam – built in the 17th century. Walking in, one is transported to a parallel universe – Rembrandt’s etchings on the walls, dark wood paneling, crispy white tablecloths and an incredibly tasty food.

The Five Flies restaurant

I began my meal with a mushroom soup, or “Soup of forest mushrooms, foam of mature cheese from Beemster region,
crispy curry flavored bread stick.” That thing was. out. of. this. world.

mushroom soup

Creamy, velvety, sweet and savory at the same time…with a curry bread stick. Flipping insane. SO GOOD. If that’s how the meal begins, I thought, I am in for a treat. Indeed. Next up came the main course – “Grilled beef, roasted endives, home made fries
and sauce Hollandaise flavored with tomato” or as I vulgarly called it: a piece of steak.

steak

I mean, look at that beauty! So pink, soft, delicious. The entire meal was an experience – from beginning to end, I was in awe of the service, the flavors of my food and the uniqueness of the restaurant itself. Fun fact: some of the restaurant’s clientele included Mick Jagger, Walt Disney, Bruce Springsteen among others. Not too shabby.

Dinner by the canal

One night close to the end of our trip, Francesco had a business dinner to attend, so I decided to go back to my hotel and sit by the canal…with a salad and some ice cream. This was my view.

more canals

The canals…I couldn’t get enough of them. Bikes parked on its iron gates. There were so many people riding their vehicles throughout the city – of all ages. What a stunning way to live. If we could get half of the bike infrastructure the Netherlands have, we would be a much healthier, happier society.

It was hard leaving, but someone was happy we were home. This is Diego in all its glory. Love this fur ball.

Diego

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

simbolo

We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

Plaza_mayor

It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

Mercado_sanMiguel

The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

mercado_prosciutto

Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

panino

But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

paella_mercado

It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

luna

architecture

Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

dinner_firstnight

We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

cuevas_lantern

The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

cuevas_architecture

Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

cuevas_cena

Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

colazione

For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

lunch_mercado

For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

paella_cena

This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

noi

Christmas in Italy (Rieti and Milano)

For the last five years, Francesco and I spent Christmas either with friends in Virginia or with my parents in California. Great times were had, awesome meals were eaten, but spending Christmas in Italy is the ultimate nirvana – (and he had not spent December 25th with family in all these years). So, early in the summer when we begin our vacation planning for the year, we looked at each other and went straight to the computer. We opened our preferred cheap flights website and typed: FROM: Washington Dulles  TO: Rome. In a heartbeat, it was done. We were going to Italy for Christmas! (And extra nirvana: my parents and brother would be there as well!)

My mind, of course, went straight to Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch. It’s just how I am wired; I associate holidays, and memories, with food. Since we were spending the holidays with my in-laws, I was curious to find out their Christmas tradition. In my family, the biggest celebration happens on Christmas day and lunch is usually an unforgettable feast with local food from the Lombardy region: polenta, chiodini mushrooms and some sort of meat  – Panettone and Pandoro covered with a mascarpone cream were a must for dessert. Talk about watching your weight.

As it turns out, my in-laws’ biggest culinary feat usually happens on Christmas Eve. Dinner is served around 8pm and the menu is predominantly seafood based. (Poor husband of mine hates fish of all shapes and sizes….he had to settle for pasta al pomodoro).

RIETI

Just remembering the dinner gives me goose bumps. I was served a myriad little bites of perfection: pan-fried mussels, a polenta-based shimp cocktail served in a small terrine covered in a spicy tomato and chili sauce, fried codfish and my ultimate favorite, steamed octopus served with salt, pepper, parsley and a drop of olive oil.

polipo_cozze
Pan-fried mussels and steamed octopus. Oh, my taste buds were making cartwheels

There are not many things I don’t like, but that night, what was put on my plate made me quiver. Francesco’s dad painstakingly sliced smoked duck breast and elegantly placed it on a buttered toast. So, imagine my face when I was presented with four slices of bright red meat and was encouraged to take a bite.”Thanks, but no thanks?” I reluctantly put that thing in my mouth and chewed. Oh God, what was I thinking? It was borderline idyllic. The flavor practically burst in my mouth, overtaking, as if for just a moment, my senses. More, please!

Duck_breast
Francesco may be holding the toast, but he did not have the courage to eat it. Just sayin’

First course, as if the appetizers didn’t fill me up enough, consisted of pasta with a delicate tomato-based sauce with tuna and black olives. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. First, the olives were from the olive tree that greets you as you step into my in-laws’ front yard. They were tangy, salty and mixed well with the subtle flavor of the cooked tuna.

The dinner was much more than just a meal. Sitting at the large wooden tables were four generations of my husband’s family, talking over each other, critically dissecting the food in front of them. There was something personal about each of them in their food. The olives were my mother-in-law’s great conquest; the codfish, a family recipe my husband’s aunt revived for the occasion; the polenta-shrimp cocktail, a last-minute genius concoction by my father-in-law.

Pasta_Tonno
Tuna time: pasta with tomatoes, tuna and olives

It’s clique to say that the only way Italians really talk to each other is through the food they prepare, but I found it to be true. Especially during the holidays. So much history, emotions and feelings in those dishes that I, for once, learned a bit more about them without opening my mouth. Well, I actually open my mouth to eat the food, but what I meant is….you get the point.

Desserts were varied and without a doubt too caloric, too full of this or that, but who cares. I was in Italy, enjoying a restaurant quality meal and was not about to chicken out on the best part.

pesche
Pesche Sciroppate

My mother-in-law’s juicy peaches with simple syrup and a healthy dose of whipped cream made my night. Gorgeous to look at and quite easy to make – a fresh alternative to boring chocolates or ricotta cakes. But there was more.

Panettone and Pandoro are the staple Christmasy desserts, but Francesco’s grandma, Luisa, had a trick up her sleeve. She made il rotolo, a favorite among my husband and his brothers.

Rotolo
Nutella is involved. Enough said

It’s not a hard dessert to make and it takes less than 30 minutes to make, but oh boy…it went fast. One word: Nutella. A rolled cake dough with Nutella blissfully embracing its inner parts. I could have eaten just that and I would have been a happy camper. Really. With Nutella around, I lose control.

If you think that Christmas is the end of your food-related fantasies, think again. December 26 is still a holiday, Santo Stefano, and you eat like you have not stuffed yourself to the brim for two days. Tortellini in brodo was served, probably my favorite dish of all, with lasagne (a much better result than my attempt) cold cuts and more desserts.

lasagne
Word of the day: crunchy

MILANO

Our time spent in Milano with my family was also filled with food and related food coma. I was starting to doubt I would fit into my jeans at that point, but when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So I kept going. The food from the Lombardy region is much different than that of the Lazio region, where Rome is located and where Francesco is from. Our cuisine is heavier, simpler, often made from leftovers, very little seafood and lots of meat and potatoes.

My favorite dish in all the land happens to be very heavy, impossibly unhealthy. It’s called Pizzoccheri: it’s whole wheat pasta with cabbage, spinach, potatoes and a boat load of different cheeses. The more, the merrier.

pizzoccheri
Pizzoccheri. It’s even more dense than what it looks like

We actually drove three hours to try the so-called best pizzoccheri in Lombardia. Oh, and to see my cousin and her family. We were deep into Valtellina, a valley in Northern Lombardy bordering Switzerland, following unbeaten paths, getting lost and finding our way back, when we finally arrived at a small, unattractive barn with a trattoria sign hovering over its door.

valtellina
Valtellina

The service was family style: you eat what the cook has prepared for the day and that’s it. You don’t like it? Too bad. After a few appetizers, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. A steaming plate of pizzoccheri made its way to my seat at the table. I have eaten my parents’ pizzoccheri and loved it every time, but this was from another planet. The cheese, real Fontina cheese from Valtellina, was gooey, it melted in my mouth like cotton candy. It was superb and I am not exaggerating. Major success. I went home full and happy.

Needless to say, our trip was fantastic. Spending time with family and eating good food is my kind of fun.

Out and About: Blue Moon Diner in Charlottesville

There are so many little secrets in Charlottesville. The Blue Moon Diner, a rock-and-roll eatery, is certainly one of them. Located on West Main Street, the largest artery in town, this one-of-a-kind diner is an institution. We’ve dined there for brunch, lunch and dinner and it has never disappointed our hungry mouths. The best thing is that it’s only a 3-minute walk from our apartment.

Aside from the Elvis-inspired decor, which is honestly the best I’ve seen around, the Blue Moon Diner’s food is the talk of the town. Sure, pretty amazing musicians grace the “stage” (more like a corner between two benches) on a weekly basis, and CLAW found its official home, they even have pancakes with faces on them! (Rainn Wilson, for example) but, again, the food is what it is all about. Hearty. Local. Simple. Perfect.

So, this time around, we chose brunch. Something Francesco and I love to do is wake up late on Sunday morning, take a quick shower and walk to Blue Moon. No matter what you get: “Huevos Bluemoonos ,” blueberry pancakes, meatloaf, any of the burgers platters, eggs any way you want, it’s always a solid bet. It’s going to taste good. On this day, I chose my own omelet with feta cheese, spinach and bacon. Delicious. It is served with house potatoes and a drink of your choice…hot tea for this girl.

And let’s spend a minute to discuss service. Servers are cool, fast and genuinely nice. Hearty brunch, good service and  fun decor. All things that point to a winner.

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.

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!