Exploring Italy’s regional cuisines . . . and then some. Part 2; Bari, Apulia.

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Our first adventure on the 160mph high-speed rail system in Europe was our ride from Rome into Bari, Italy; and is where this story begins. The high speed rail system is available to European travelers in, what appeared to be, 3 different luxury rail providers. At one point or another, we rode all three. I didn’t know enough about the rail systems in Italy to pay particular attention to the difference in quality associated with each line; although at one point or another, we found all kinds of interesting amenities in the various rail services and some fine varieties of cuisine provided in the terminals as well. We also found another American India Pale Ale (IPA) on tap . . . so I ordered one.

 

Our whole existence in Italy is due to the wife accepting an invitation for us to be part of my Grandson’s baptism in Molfetta, a township only 18 miles to the north of Bari, Italy. We had many authentic Italian interactions, lessons and some very thorough tours of the surrounding lands, beaches, and harbors of this south-eastern portion of the country. From the area just north of Foggia extending down throughout the tip of the ‘boot’s heel’, representing this portion of the country similar in shape to the wardrobe accessory, is the Apulia region. otranto2We made it as far as Otranto, a harbor area south of Lecche, that had another historic church, fortress and harbor area that we were able to enjoy along with some sun, a jump in the water and some refreshing cocktails.otranto5

We had the luxury of traveling this region with personal tour guides (family members from the region) on a couple of day trips that kept us comfortable in a wonderful touring van that the family had rented for showing us this culinarily influential region. The touring van even came with an entertainment system in the fashion of  ‘singing Italian songs’, that had every family member grasping for the tour guide’s microphone as they began to all sing the hits that were popular in Grandma’s home. It was fun to witness.

bari 3Our first day upon arrival into this Apulian region had us traveling the local area from Bari through Molfetta and into Bisceglie to the private Villa Torre Rossa Ricevimenti resort. Look that one up and don’t be hatin’. Our now “we’ve got family in Italy” housed us in a very modern and equipped single level apartment along side of our son, Daughter-in-law and the grandchildren.apt1 I’m certainly not jealous of anyone else’s accommodations as our “villa”, that overlooked the beautiful Adriatic coastline, was only a moments walk to the shoreline. The location of our apartment made for beautiful strolls in the morning, daytime and evenings along the water or down to the boardwalk to get a gelato or espresso. It could not have been a more perfect setting; and we got to stay there for five days. I never began to realize the stories we would share with our Grandchildren until after this trip.molfetta3

molfetta01We had somehow ended up at the Molfetta harbor our first evening for our first Apulian pizza night on the town. We toured the area by foot and enjoyed yet another fantastic Italian evening with our final destination returning us to the harbor once again. Yes, in other words we walked around and around. That’s nothing different then what other Italians do in other parts of the country. We should know, because we are now seasoned travelers of this Italy thing; not even close . . . Oh, and we also ate Gelato . . . again and again. That, is a true Italian tourist.

snailsOne of our daytime ventures had the family taking us to the farmer’s market to view the fresh seafood nearby the local wharf. The in-laws grabbed and asked Grandma to prepare fresh Escargot that I pointed out while we visited the market area. molfetta5That was surely a treat, but I’m gathering I was somewhat of an oddball visitor to the family because I’ll try just about anything. bari01 We also had a somewhat constant flow of fried local fish, squid (calamari) and whole shrimp. It was what the family had grown up on living so close to the local harbor near the market. Molfetta is a very charming small town. It was easy to imagine having grown up here. We saw many likenesses of our in laws on these streets, and everyone knew everyone. bari 7 Another savory treat that we were introduced to for this region was the Panzerotti; a savory, usually cheese, turnover or empanada-style pie that was very simple but perhaps the perfect compliment to the various seafood encountered while in Molfetta. Remember, as I had mentioned in part one of this story, this could very well have been the birthplace of Jesus.

We saw a couple days of use with that touring van as the wife and I had began our trend for Italian touring of sitting in the back of the tour bus. I don’t know where that one started, but I’m guessing around high school. On our ride south to Otranto and heading again North, we had stopped for some wonderfully explained tours through Trulli, where we actually stumbled across our first Michelin star restaurant. A quick peek inside of the dynamic restaurant, as the door was open, I saw the staff sitting before their day begins talking about the anticipated service and sharing a pre-course family style meal. I remember those pre-service talks, and menu sampling, when attending my schooling.truli1

On our comfortable ride home from Otranto and traveling throught the countryside of the Apulia region, we had made several stops along the way, but none of which were to sample the region’s cuisine; since our villa was equipped with a kitchen, and that morning, we had provided Chefly-preparred (and the Chef’s wife) Italian sandwiches of Prosciutto and Provolone (all of this stuff was cheap in Italy) to eat along the way. As part of our southern tour of Italy’s ‘boot heel’, we got to witness the marvelous Trulli construction and history, we also were entertained by the experienced Speleologists that escorted us through the Grotti De Castallana (caves) that made for a bit of interesting pictures and fulfilling some curiosity.truli2 I don’t have much in the way of pictures because being inside of the caverns are like looking at the Grand Canyon in the United States; once you’ve seen one angle or view, the others kinda all look the same. But we did catch the sun peaking through the cave’s surface hole . . . or whatever it was called; I was talking to another guide about craft beers (I was wearing a Stone Brewery shirt).

bari8We toured Bari and the Apulian Bari region with the family much of the time while in this area. We had celebrated our Grandson’s baptism and at one point that evening, we made our way to the middle of a countryside property for what was to be a wonderful farm-to-table meal. bari21Tenuta Lama Gorga provided a great Italian experience serving us local fresh fare that just kept coming, and coming, broken up by some dancing . . . and then the food just kept coming and coming.

I was seated next to the Bishop that presided over the baptism service (he is also a close family friend) and asked him what he thought of the wine. Tonight it was a local Duca Carlo Guarini, and one of the few times we actually drank a pre-bottled wine . . . and from the region.

bari9 I thought it was rather delicious and appropriate for the meal. The Bishop’s said “eh, eats ok”. He continued, “do you know what we called these when we were kids?” Pointing to the very large rigatoni pasta, with a very simple olive oil sauce (more specific to the region). As the Bishop continued, he flattened out his hand and waved it back and forth and said, “We used to call these ‘slap me’ “. That opened up a whole new conversation with the Vatican official. I understand the Baptismal certificate was also signed by the Pope. That’s pretty cool. My wife an I were asked by the Bishop when we were going to be back into Rome, because he wanted us to meet the Pope. We had to decline that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity fearing our sins would be a direct path to hell, and the Pope and Bishop probably have more worldly things to attend to.

 

Our last morning in Bisceglie netted us a tour of the Torre Rosa facility upon checkout; I guess you have to know someone . . .  Although the stay here at Torre Rosa was very nice, each evening during our stay had an event going on the property grounds. It was not disturbing to us as we just wanted to join them just to taste the food. The resort’s location and photogenic grounds makes for wonderful pictures.

Visiting this region will always be a bit more special than other parts of Italy. We had learned so much from our family about the existence of this country and this wonderful region.

Next stop . . . Sorrento, for what was the center jewel of our relaxation this trip.

Dicks

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Exploring Italy’s regional cuisines . . . and then some. Part 1; Rome, Lazio.

img_7629Having attended culinary school, I had learned about the various regional cuisines of Italy. The wife had finally decided she was going to jump at the chance for us to attend our Grandson’s destination baptism in the birthplace of our in-law’s family. Molfetta, Italy is a small fishing town along the Adriatic sea, just north of Bari; and with the historical sights in and around this town dating many years B. C., the family’s claim that this is the birthplace of  Jesus, could very well be true.

Family is what got us to agree on our trip just two weeks earlier and we didn’t have much time to plan, so a lot of our adventure was on the fly. I also didn’t want to ‘go to Europe’ and spend all of my time being rushed everywhere and trying to ‘see everything’. I wanted this to be a vacation that would allow the wife and I a chance to really relax and experience Italy, our family and the food.  The wife agreed and she and I were able to witness first-hand, four of those twenty culinary regions (I think that’s what I had learned). This was definitely a bucket-list trip as it was our first trip to Europe,  and we spent nearly three entire weeks touring southern Italy, eating and drinking our way through yet, . . . another pizza.img_5532

During conversations with some of the Italian locals (mostly family conversations now) along with copious amounts of grandma’s pre-mix blends of wines from who knows where;  and, if my post-vacation research has everything figured out, the 20 culinary regions are a reflection of the 20 geographically administrative regions of Italy. I had also learned from these locals that there may very well be many more individual cuisines of the motherland than just their alignment to those 20 regions. Just the differences between local towns I found not-so subtleties that were pointed out and explained to me by the locals (family). For example, a focaccia in the city of Bari was almost entirely covered with tomatoes; and just 30km (~ 18m) to the north, in Molfetta, our focaccia had just a small littering of the tomatoes and copious amounts of olive oil. Speaking of tomatoes; the wife and I could not get enough of them while everywhere in Italy. They just tasted so very good and fresh.

rome 5This trip was to become a learning adventure for my wife and I on many levels. First, we have never yet been to any European country, so using the Euro was tricky at first because my wife and I are used to currencies of opposite value to the American dollar; whereas leaving a few Pesos behind as a tip is only a few cents. Often times, upon employing our normal behaviors and thinking that our tipping was gratuitous, found that it was sometimes considered inappropriate. Also, to ask for ‘cheese’ like Romano, Pecorino or Parmesan (also those cheeses identify different regions in the country) on any pasta is an immediate identifier as an Americano or otherwise can be regarded as an insult to the chef. The Italian cuisines we had encountered throughout the trip only used small amounts of salt (we had heard visiting gifts of Hershey bars and plain black peppercorns are greatly appreciated) and their salad dressings rarely include vinegar; which I thought odd, due to the abundant vineyards as well as olive trees we had witnessed while traveling aboard the very impressive, 160mph, rail system across the country.rome 7

We first arrived to Italy and landed in Rome, where cuisine was at seemingly every corner and in every shop.  Our first restaurant was actually the worst of the restaurants we had encountered during our trip; but that’s ok, because it had helped to set the precedence from which to judge all culinary adventures yet to be pronounced during the remainder of our stay. Having just landed and arriving at our 70-steps-to-the-room hotel (yes, this is something to consider with all of the walking you are going to do), we needed to find something to eat and stopped at the bell desk of our hotel for a bit of advice. It was around 4pm that day and I think the advice was, “there’s not much open now until around 8pm, but just around the corner . . .

So this was our first moment of learning about the routine of an Italian lifestyle. Again, we had just arrived, checked into our hotel and are now sitting at some “restaurant” along the street (kinda weird) in Rome. We look at the ‘special’ board, that the server conveniently placed us in front of (the restaurant was almost empty), and we point to the board and order the ‘special of Rome’, or whatever it was called; which was normally identified in many restaurants along the Roman streets for tourists like ourselves as an antipasti, a secondi or insalate, a pizza, pasta (minimal selection) and some kind of beverage, all for 10 – 12 Euro.

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The food wasn’t bad, let’s just say . . . it helped set another precedence of everything we were about to be introduced to here in Italy; but yet, we had only experienced one bad plate during our trip out of many very good plates while visiting Italy. Since we were officially tourists regardless of which region we had traveled, we always ended up being part of a tour that we had purchased from the street touring offices (which I have another tip . . .  a good one). Anyway, our tours would always be to tourist destinations. At those destinations are the ‘convenient’ eateries and restautratns that may have the prime view or best harbor setting, but are somewhat predatory with the “eh mister, eat here” guys hustling us in with a menu in the face; and another guy with a greeting hand, guiding you to the “best seat in the house” along the high traffic area or route. Fortunately, we had only experienced a small handful of these places, as convenient as they are.

Once in Rome, and hanging out with my lifetime partner of 35+ years, I immediately understood the meaning of the word “romance”, as everyone seemed to be really enjoying each other’s company with lots of kissing, holding and touching that seemed to occur in every direction. Rome is a very Romantic place. Add to that the wine, the food, the walking, strolling and shopping seemed to make it a great place to begin our adventure, and try to begin my grasp of the cuisines we were about to encounter. img_5687It was in Rome that I, one, began to get confused by menus (they literally looked all the same); and two, that what you saw on the street, the type of store name (i.e. pescaria), and what is in the mercados (markets) is what identified many of the peculiarities of each regional cuisine. I had also began to realize that grandma’s wine mix was some of the best around Italy as our favorite wines were all ordered by “red” or “white” and were blends of what it is that Italians do with their wine (?) Ice, on the other hand was seemingly much more difficult to keep nearby as we always had to ask for more of it. Our trip was during the hot month of July and all servers across the country would not identify ice as being something they regularly serve or maintain at the tables. In the 85 degree-plus weather, we always had to ask for it as it helped slow the pace in which I drank refreshingly cold beers, but also added to the wines was mostly ok to do, especially if it is hot out . . . or inside where you are eating.

img_5572We did a lot of the regular tourist things while in Rome; the Vatican, the Coliseum, the various fountains and steps and everything else. But much about what we were to learn was on our first evening out in town after that first street-side meal and a nap.

rome 30Rome became alive after about 8pm when I first ventured out into, what was later discovered as “little Argentina” and then “the Kosher district”. Not even three blocks away from our hotel room (overlooking some ruins called Largo di Torre Argentina) we also found our first British bar and an American India Pale Ale (IPA) from a California Brewery, Lagunitas. Good job; you’re in Italy. My post vacation research shows Lagunitas is now owned by Heineken International. img_5564Also later during our walking tours of Rome we ran into a younger gentleman selling tours and tickets along the street. After just a few moments of  “where you from?”, he, moments later, mentions the exact town near San Diego we are from, because he was married briefly to one of our resident’s daughters a few years back. He’s now back home. Nice guy; but that was creepy weird.

Later that evening during our stroll we landed a couple of bar seats as foreigners to witness the 2018 World Cup football (soccer) match that England won in penalty kicks against Columbia, and drink that Lagunitas IPA and sent the picture to my son that just hours before, as we all landed in Rome as a family, mentioned to me that I would not find an IPA anywhere in Italy.  Well he was wrong as we found several opportunities for the hoppy creations across the country as we visited. I also learned that Italy is currently one of the fastest growing craft beer industries in the world. As a matter of fact, when wearing any one of my American craft brewery apparel items, I would always be approached by an Italian local with questions about my heritage and nationality. They would then immediately become ‘cool’ with me as If I was now ‘ok’. My son’s family were heading to the Apulia region (Bari) as we would be once again joining him and his family in a few days.

rome 8Toward the end of our trip throughout Italy, we returned to Rome for yet one more night in anticipation of our return flight back to the United States . . . and not looking forward to it. We did find some of our missed Italian specialties at a restaurant that was nearby our final hotel room of the trip. We ate a lot of pizza on this trip, but had probably our tastiest pizza of arugula, prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and those extremely tasty Italian tomatoes (featured image). We also shared some missed gnocchi that were absolutely perfectly prepared. I even told the wife to take notes, because that’s the way they were supposed to turn out . . . like little pillows of heaven (Giada De Laurentiis 2018).

One thing was for sure. The common response we routinely received was “any restaurant is good”; and we heard that throughout our visit here in Lazio (Rome) and the other three regions in Italy during our visit.

Next stop, Bari and the Apulia region.

Also look for my hotel and restaurant reviews at Trip Advisor and Yelp.

Dicks

Understanding An American Warrior – a story from a guy named Dennis

I’ve recently found that I embrace conversation with prior military service members about the things they, we or I did while in the service. I’ve also come to realize that not just the military service members are the only ones with stories to tell. These stories are not only worth hearing, the stories are also worth telling.

Just listen to Mary Gauthier’s “The War After the War”. The story reflects on the struggles of family members of those service members after their loved one had returned home with the hurt and the pain; and learning some of the service member’s triumphs and some of the service member’s hardships and anguish. It’s hard to hear some of those stories. What I find even harder to grasp, are the real struggles both service members and their families face without resolve. Dennis was a service member that taught me how to listen . . . how to look that service member in the eye, and listen. And don’t forget to thank them for their service.

img_1066My close friend and I had recently visited a popular desert retreat for those persons wishing to escape Los Angeles or the surrounding areas of Southern California. This desert retreat is frequented by musicians from around the globe desiring to have their music heard in a small venue that is a popular day-travel destination for those persons wishing to escape the grind of the big cities. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown, located in Joshua Tree, California is just that place, or at least it is one of those places. There are more places like Joshua Tree around the country, but Joshua Tree can be described by some as being a magical place where you can “smoke a little weed, eat a few edibles and walk around hallucinating at rock formations” as jokingly envisioned by my son. There is not much out in that area, although there are some nice places too. Homes are inexpensive, properties are vast and expansive; yet the living can be very harsh, sometimes with long running temperatures well above 100 degrees in the summer time.

The area around Joshua Tree was described to me as “free land”, describing when the government allowed homesteads to be grasped by those desiring to squat on whatever they could capture and ultimately hold on to. Yes there is much property that has a concrete pad with little remaining other than a door and maybe a roof. As one resident couldn’t live and survive in such a harsh environment they would move out deserting behind whatever they couldn’t carry with them, leaving whatever behind for the other residents in the area to pilfer. It’s kind of an eerie place.

I met Dennis this evening outside of the venue. Dennis described himself as a Veteran. Dennis was drinking a beer and wasn’t sticking around to see the show because he can’t afford to see all of them, but he lives just down the road. Dennis was talking to me in a fashion that I can only describe as foreign. His speech was not slurred, but it was hurried, stumbling over phrases and sentences as he attempted to explain his time in the United States Navy and his use of the Veterans Administration compensation and heath care system. It wasn’t until he described his days on a Navy ship that I began to discount this guy as being mentally ill and bothersome to me and my friend. Then he began to tell stories that I understood. Stories that I had told. Stories that he and I shared about similar experiences while, as Mary says, “serving something bigger than ourselves”, for someone else. Stories about serving at sea on board Navy vessels away from our families and loved ones. Stories that I tell about sitting on the deck of the ship watching whatever the ocean had to present as our ships explored the globe. It was then that I realized that Dennis may have mental issues, but then I think about the mental issues that I have. About the deep thoughts and feelings I haven’t yet expressed to my therapist. Who am I to be judging Dennis? I am now his friend, his shipmate, his escape. All he wants to do is tell his story, for someone to have an ear that can relate to his experiences. All he wants to do is have a friend and someone to give him feedback about his life, to share a similar laugh, a familiar joke, a soothing story . . . and maybe just someone to tell him, “it’s ok”.

I have other friends that I had met on my travels while in the Navy. Some of those friends are not close. Some of them lived in countries across the globe. Some of those friends I have lost contact with. Some of those friendships are just like the memories that have now faded, yet are far from being lost.

I once met a Chinese bar owner while visiting the British-ruled Hong Kong years ago. He and I shared not only the same birthday and were the same age, but he also shared his home with me. For years we traded birthday cards. For years we stayed in contact. Even through just that moment of a smile that we had knowing a friend was wishing us well on our birthday from across the globe . . . half a world away.

I have gained friendships from others throughout time and from across the globe. I really don’t have many local friends near me. Mostly I have only my wife, that I now better understand what she goes through after hearing Mary’s song. I don’t have a bunch of war memories or stories like some might believe. I don’t have stories of the twin towers falling atop of me like my friend Joe Torrillo, a FDNY firefighter, being buried alive twice from the falling towers of 911. Yet Joe and I have a belief that our nation will regain its patriotism and get closer to fulfilling my vision from many many years ago, that there will be another military age. The same type of military age similar to that during the Second World War, where this nation planted victory gardens waiting for their loved family members to come home. A military age where most, if not all, of the American society embraced our soldiers. A military age nothing like the way our Vietnam Veterans were treated. Our current wars being fought abroad in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan are being downplayed by social media outlets similar to this, where people can hide behind their faceless comments and skirt their responsibilities to register for the draft. Our current wars being fought over gun control because of mental instability not being recognized and afforded the counselling they need.

Let’s look at our war heroes. Let’s look at our ancestors. Let’s look at the fireman that saved our home, our mother, our father from the burning home that tore us down. Let’s look at the cop who pulls us over for an expired registration on our vehicle. Let’s understand why we yelled at him or her. Let’s think about the Gold Star Family that just lost their military son; about how we didn’t know the Gold Star father was also that cop.

Let’s think about what we can do for Dennis. Let’s talk to him and listen for a moment to what he is asking us for. He’s not asking for much since he has learned to adapt and survive on what he has, where he’s at.

Listen to Dennis.

Dicks

A night with Ruby Boots.

It wasn’t until I first saw her, just moments after arriving at the venue in Los Angeles, CA that she said my name as we momentarily crossed paths. Despite our bit of social text communication, it was then that I realized she didn’t remember me. I think she had a clue, but she didn’t remember the night we had first met until later in the evening when I had reminded her. At that particular moment she didn’t realize the significance that Bex Chilcott had of my heart and soul. It was at that moment I honestly felt like I was some kind of creeper. (Laughing now) She probably thought the same thing.ruby2

Bex Chilcott (AKA Ruby Boots) and I had met one night at a venue just blocks from my house in San Diego, CA. A mutual friend who produces music events in the area had brought Bex and her musician/guitarist friend Lee Jones to play on September 11, 2015. That was the same night I had met a FDNY firefighter that had survived the twin towers falling in New York city a few years before. He was in the area for a motivational speech . . . and subsequent after-event cocktail at the same bar that Bex was playing at that night. Both Bex and FDNY firefighter Joe Torrillo had remained in contact with me, albeit very seldom on social media, ever since. I saw comfort in Bex’s eyes as I reminded her of that night. I saw the re-connection.

Tonight I was to have met up with Bex before her first public Los Angeles appearance since signing on with Bloodshot Records and subsequently moving to the United States from her home of Perth Australia and recording under the Bloodshot label. It was time for Bex to be on her own and show the United States what this Americana Australian is all about.

ruby4Bex and I only shared a few moments before she finally took the stage on this Wednesday evening. I had traveled 4 hours in traffic from San Diego, California to “represent” since my music producer friend had a challenging week of music ahead of him. Part of doing his business, my music friend, whom I’ve done many events with him, needed to try to touch bases with the musicians he has developed relationships with. One of us had to make it to LA to see Bex. The other, or both of us, had to make it to Pioneertown, CA, in the Joshua Tree desert to meet up with Bex’s friend and fellow musician/band in the days immediately following this appearance by Bex. It was going to be a long weekend of music and friendships, via texting, Facebook and Instagram, shared between the two of us. I think I got the bad end of the stick, not the performance . . . ’cause I got a good one; rather the bad, was driving to Los Angeles and back to San Diego that same night.ruby3

Ruby Boots had a couple other very fine musicians with her. I’m not sure, but with the talent in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t doubt if they were just some fine local musicians her company sent over from one of the recording studios in the area. She mentioned during the show that she had only known them for two days. Well, they knew her music and performed flawlessly behind Bex’s rather fluent guitar abilities. It was during the show that I was able to really gather the talent of Bex and her ability on the guitar and as a vocalist. During the solo rendition of her single “Middle of Nowhere” she even sang the steel-guitar leads from the original recording that sent shivers down my back. She also sang her acclaimed a cappella “I am a Woman” and again showed the importance of applying a personality to lyrics explaining, before she started the song, that women are “powerful”, “independent”, “strong” . . . etc. She must’ve gone through about 10 different personality traits of a women before the words “absolutely” uttered from my mouth as the first audible spectator voice in the venue. I kept wanting to say something earlier, as I awaited others to do so, because I didn’t want to stand out. I kept thinking, this is what I would say about my wife, with each word she said. Anyway, that song needs to continue to be sung a cappella from her. The song has deep meaning and everlasting hints to the truths that bring about certain strengths and vulnerabilities of Bex’s life and career. That’s the way that song should be heard.

Ruby Boots performs on stage with energy and appeal. She interacts with the crowds and her fellow musicians on stage. She plays her guitar as if she’s been on stage for many years.  She even got down on her knees at one point while dropping away from her behind-the-mic stage persona. She is a player of sorts, working the crowds on comments in the small venue and reaching for the inspiration of others from her lyrics. Ruby played much of her new 10-song CD but left out a couple of the singles from the release. She only played two songs from her previous recordings, perhaps reserving some songs from each album for her next tour. She had a good balance of genre-bending blends to capture this Los Angeles audience in between several audibly noticeable limitations of her voice during some of the numbers; something she’ll need to pay attention to for the future of this inspirational musician.

ruby6I think it was a good fit for her to be playing at this venue (my perspective). The crowd was mostly bobbing their heads to the newest tracks form her latest CD, and I think that is what Bloodshot Records saw in her. She is another great addition to the Bloodshot likes of Alejandro Escovedo and Sarah Shook. I think that Ruby Boots is another of the emerging top-shelf artists that Bloodshot is searching for . . . perhaps Bloodshot sees the next level of this Americana genre and the next level of their artists . . . and label.

Dicks

I ate at a “B” health-rated restaurant . . . and I liked it.

So what does it mean if you see a “B” health rating on the front door of a restaurant, bar or other food establishment?

IMG_5268Laddie-da, hoopla and fanciness abound in this Los Angeles community of West Hollywood, CA also known as “Westwood”. Lots of money here and lots of money being spent here. Nice cars, nice stores and nice restaurants. Well, that’s if it doesn’t have a “B” health rating in the front door; or is it just all of that . . . or lack there of?

I was embarrassed at the fact that I didn’t notice on Yelp (I think they have just begun posting the health ratings) while looking up the restaurant our party was planning to fulfill reservations this evening; trying to get a heads up on the menu and trying to get a heads up on the restaurant. I had felt great pride in mentioning some of the menu offerings and some of the review highlights during the car ride over there, but I also didn’t notice that Yelp has begun to pulish health ratings. I am convinced that had I been more dilligent and prudent in my reporting, to include the “B” rating, we would not have had the opportunity to visit the restaurant (a first for all 5 of our party), and not had the opportunity to be a Westwood sheep following each other into a culinary abyss of a “B” rating.

This evening, I was one of those sheep, just following the others into the wolf’s den along with all of the people following what everyone is saying about this popular eatery. But nobody is leaving. My bet is that none of the patrons this evening had become aware of the “B” health rating that has been at the front entrance prominently displayed for two months now. But what does it mean? How common is it? Is it a show stopper for the business?

I have a son who had refused to eat at  a “B” rated restaurant in his past. He was the one that saw the sign displayed at a restaurant we visited, at the time, in Palmdale, CA. But what does that mean, really? I even had to do the research and revisit what I had learned sometime ago while attending culinary school and getting my “Serve Safe Manager” 40-hour training certification. At the time it was of the first courses I took. I knew there was a system from the Department of Health for the rating, but I could not totally remember all of the factors involved, as there are many, like training and competency of employees all the way to refrigeration and holding temps. It was a good refresher.

I had begun to discount the “B” rating as possibly something simple. Something simple like a few minor violations (2 points each) that reduced the overall score from 100 into the 80-89 point range. But how many minor violations? Or was it a couple of major violations (4 points each). But then I saw that the rating has been there for two months and I remembered back when I was just a young lad working in my first delicatessen. At the time when we first opened and we recived a “B”; but our score was upgraded to an “A” in just several days, certainly not prolonged over the course of a couple of months as is the case with the restaurant in question. So what gives with this snooty-clientele restaurant? Why do they have such a poor rating . . . or is it really considered poor?

The Department of Health gives this explanation:

1. Each violation on the Food Inspection Report is assigned a point value depending on its importance. For example, a Major Risk Factor is worth four points, a Minor Risk Factor is worth two, and a Good Retail Practice is worth one.2. Once the Specialist completes an inspection, the points are added up and subtracted from 100. The resulting number is the inspection “score”.

3. A letter grade is assigned to the facility based on the inspection score. An “A” grade means the facility earned a score of 90 to 100 percent and is in satisfactory compliance with state law; a “B” means the facility earned a score of 80 to 89 percent and needs improvement; a “C” means the facility earned a score of 79 percent or less and is a failing grade.

4. The grade card must be displayed near the public entrance during hours of operation. (https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/deh/fhd/ffis/intro.html.html).

Another determination of scores and valuation of inspection were found here in an adjacent county:

A grade (A, B, C) or score card will be issued to each facility at the end of all routine inspections. The card issued will be based upon the score received on the Retail Food Official Inspection Report. The grading is calculated as follows:

90 to 100 points A Generally superior in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.
80 to 89 points B Generally good in food handling practices and overall food facility maintenance.
70 to 79 points C Generally acceptable in food handling practices and overall general food facility maintenance.
0 to 69 points Score Poor in food handling practices and overall general food facility maintenance.

A facility receiving a score less than seventy percent (70%) will be issued a score card and not a grade card. The score card will indicate the actual score received.

The grade/score cards must remain posted until the next routine inspection, at which time the inspector will issue a new grade/score card.

All food facilities that have a critical violation may be subject to closure regardless of the score received on the inspection report. Food facilities that score below seventy percent (70%) twice within a twelve (12) month period are subject to closure and further legal action. (http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/eh/misc/ehpost.htm).

So as you can see, there are several factors that come into play on the health and sanitation ratings at the places that you eat. I showed you the explanation from two different and adjoining counties (not directly next to each other) in the same general location of the state to show you that they are basically the same.

Now, being familiar with different regulatory agencies because of my environmental position I understand that there are other factors that come into play with those regulatory inspections. They are all supposed to be based on an inspection checklist, and they are: but different personalities (not supposed to, but they do have some minor bearing) can and do also come into play. I hope they didn’t piss off the inspector, but cha never know.

I mentioned that the heath score card letter grade had been in place for a couple of months at this particular establishment. Many regulatory inspection cycles will be conducted on a calendar year cycle of every six months or every quarter based on the significance of the program being inspected and whether they are a Federal, State, County or City inspection. Some programs may only receive inspections once a year like the Food Establishment Waste-Water Discharge (FEWD) permits that control the grease traps for establishments facilitating kitchen equipment like grills and deep-fat fryers. That may be the cycle used in your county, but it may also be more or less frequent depending . . .

Anyway, if the inspection cycle is quarterly then holding on to their B permit for only 3 months seems to be possibly not that long, especially in Los Angeles, but even that seems very short for that enormous population. Could this restaurant actually have to hold that posture for longer than 6 months? That’s like torture for the owner.  If you had a good relationship with the regulator then you could possibly get them to return earlier unless there are restrictions to maintain that rating in your particular municipality. Just remember, thay don’t come around that often so protect your permits and health ratings.

Another rule of thought is they have a new inspector and this particular establishment hasn’t yet learned the particular inspector’s habits and what or where they normally look and what they normally test. Yes, I know that the restaurant is always supposed to be on top of their game and sanitation should always be a paramount process in the kitchen, but sometimes things fall through the cracks . . . literally. Possibly it’s a new guy and ‘new guy’ is making themselves known as being a hard-ass or something like that. Maybe the restaurant is just having a bad day. They kinda know when the inspector is coming based on the last inspection cycle, so they should have all of their employees training and certifications current, but cha never know . . .

Another thing I have learned after all of these years doing environmental stuff along side of regulators is they will see something upon arrival at the beginning of their inspection, like fresh food or eggs being on the counter. They will perform the remainder of their inspection and return to the container on the counter after they have looked around the entire place. If that container is still out and in the same spot, then they give you a violation based on their finding of fresh food being left out and not properly held. You have got to be on your toes and understand the habits of your inspectors . . . and your employees.

I figured out what it could be . . . a combination of incidents that all lined up at the same time. You know, ‘the old Swiss Cheese’ model. I know that from my safety-guy days. Maybe it was several team members not having their health cards, but I doubt that it would actually be ‘like everybody’. I just think it was a bit of this and a bit of that. But how common is that B rating?

The “B” rating is far less common than the “A”. It’s a numbers game of sorts. We eat and eat and eat. We rarely look at the health signs unless we have some kind of compulsive, reactive disorder or something like that. I may now have that since my recent heightened awareness of the rating signs in the door . . . and on Yelp.

We are now aware of the meanings of those rating signs, but I wouldn’t personally search out those establishments to ‘test’ the cuisine. I can’t say that I would avoid one if I knew of it ahead of time; but I think the fact remains that it is not necessarily a show stopper for a business. Possibly a small black eye at best for an established restaurant. Possibly a bit more of a concern in a prominent neighborhood with many well-to-do establishments; but if the clientele has been patronizing the chef, then they probably have a trust and will continue to return without hesitation. Possibly a small dent for them, but what about those new places, like the one I had worked at many moons ago that had just opened their door? What about the effects of Dicks like me that find this stuff and write about it. What about this day and age of social media and Yelp. Information travels much faster and is far more wide spread. It can be a show-stopper but it doesn’t need to be if the restaurant’s leadership is committed to sanitation standards and communicating with their clientele. People do understand, but they sometimes also follow the others (sheep) into some of the hatred found on such media.

We now understand how that rating has been assigned. We also understand that the rating has a chance of being reversed and the effects it may have on clientele returning to your establishment. But we also have learned about habits of diners. People continue to enjoy food wherever they have become accustomed to patronizing. They rarely look at the health signs, but understand they may become a laboratory animal of sorts. It’s not all that either. We are human and we do like to eat, even pushing aside something that doesn’t look or smell good. I just hope that look and smell is not where I’m eating.

How often will I find that B rating now that I am aware of it. Why am I now aware of it? Because I ate at that restaurant . . . and I liked it?

Dicks

Just when are you supposed to read the menu?

Just when are you supposed to read the menu? You’ve made reservations at a premier spot. You’ve heard and read so many positive reviews of the place and have researched whatever you can find about the menu and what to expect of your dining event.

You arrive and your initial expectations have been met with the very polite, knowledgeable and attentive host person. You’ve been seated at a comfortable table with you’re friends and have much to look at with your positioning to all of the goings on. You immediately begin to converse with the others at your table and your server approaches with perfect timing sporting menus and greetings while taking the first of the drink  orders

img_5147You continue your initial conversations and glance down at the menu. Suddenly the bus person arrives to bring water to fill the glasses on your table. Your conversations continue as each napkin is unfolded and floated across your lap. You, somehow wilding the menu above the table, try to pretend you are reading it. You have only made it past the first of two attempts at a visual eye scan of the menu and only noticed four possible  items, none of which match any of your immediate likes. You continue your conversations and place the menu back down because your first round of drinks just arrived and the ol’ . . . “salud” begins a dinner celebration to remember.

As a food writer and culinarian, I spend my fair share of time researching and reading food stuff on the internet. Food stuff is defined as anything I may have possibly learned in my education and everything that I also possibly missed in my education. When I get ready for a hot date at a good restaurant, especially one that I know has a seasonal menu, I try to get ahead of the service by learning a thing or two that may be expected once I get to the restaurant. Then, the menu is often similar and my time preparing makes for a bit of swiftness come ordering time. But even with the added preparation of researching your options, when is the right time to read the menu? I mean you don’t want to miss anything that is being offered and you also don’t want to miss any of your conversations without being distracted away from anything gluten or lactose free. So, just when are you supposed to read the menu?

While this may be something to ask of the overall experience with a particular restaurant, being prepared when the server arrives to take your food order can prove to be detrimental if your delay throws off your server’s timing. Now you may not see your server for a while until she rounds the turn the next time. This preparation can still be challenging and possibly something you want to parlay with a swift ordering of an appetizer, that should or could have been done with the initial drink order; and in some establishments, this may prove to be a carefully timed service with ordering of the main entrees’ as well.

“Wait, I still haven’t had enough time to really read the menu.” I mean carefully read the composition of some, if not all, of the offerings. In such haste, I can only hope the menu is small enough to get through possibly 5-6 appetizers, 7-10 main entrees and then selecting sides to accompany everything. Yes this whole process can be accommodated by a well trained staff to explain each item when taking the order; but you also don’t want to be the guy that     s l o w e s     t h e     w h o l e     p r o c e s s     down for the server to have them leer at you wanting to say, “to- to- to- today junior”. And the first ordering trip of the server to your table shouldn’t be the ‘warning shot across the bow’ either. The server has other tables that need to be attended to, not just you. You are not the only person in the restaurant today and don’t throw the server’s pace off. So, just when are you supposed to read the menu?

Of the several rude table methods that can possibly abound like texting on your phone inside of the open menu on your lap; or, the very offensive, holding the hand in the face of someone trying to ask of your conversations saying. “I’m trying to read the menu”. You can always wait until the server comes by with the warning shot. Perhaps you can break up the conversation happening at the table by saying, “let’s stop for a moment to prepare our order”. That’s just like putting a hand up in conversation, but is not as ‘in your face’ as the whole hand thing. Just remember, you don’t want the server returning with the warning shot.

Here’s something else to remember when preparing for your order and minimizing the time actually reading the menu, is to use time to your advantage. While arriving slightly late may be considered fashionable for you or your guest, arriving early can give you an opportunity to read the menu posted behind the restaurant storefront glass in the showcase. Arriving early also may allow you to borrow one of the menus from the greeter’s desk to view while you are seated in the waiting area while waiting upon your guests to arrive. Take a moment to read the ‘chalk board’ on the front door step as well where you’ll often times find the ‘special’. A couple of things to remember about the special. One, not all establishments believe the special should be truly ‘special’. Two, don’t ever order “the ‘rock-fish’ special” at a BBQ rib house. Something to think about, ordering fish at a BBQ house.

image_542595516671984Well, if you are like me, finding the peaceful moment to actually read the menu falls somewhere helplessly between conversations at the table. Unfortunately, only a few of those moments are focused on the menu compositions and ingredients because you just don’t have time to read everything. Having a well planned and well designed menu can help this process by simplifying the eye scan and the amount of time it takes for the customer to find the menu items of their desire . . . or the menu item of the restaurant’s desire (Menus 101).

Here’s another way to read the menu, and to get more coverage of the menu items in short fashion, is to guide your table conversation around the menu. Point to the Chateaubriand with Red Wine reduction and ask if anyone at the table would care to share the plate, and possibly share the Beet Salad appetizer. Now you’ve asked the table to start reading the menu, included some suggestions and other items to be cosidered and scanned in the short time you want to spend reading it. But listen to what others are saying at your table, because they may just point out the “espresso rub” on the rib plate you are about to order at 9pm. You don’t want your evenings mishaps to be replayed at 2am in the morning.

One of the things I learned in school was to learn to begin reading menus. I find it is not that easy to really read the menu, even at the basic level. There is so much information on there already, then trying to read and salivate at the same time is something that just wasn’t taught.

Dicks

A good movie soundtrack

When was the last time a song or several of the songs in a movie soundtrack made you feel good? The kind of good feeling that makes you want to run out right now and buy the movie or the soundtrack? The kind of good feeling that makes you dance in the kitchen?

A Friday evening for my family usually includes dining on a slice of pizza somewhere . . . or two slices somewhere; whether dining on a pizza made at home, a pie from one of our favorite pizza parlors, trying a new pizza place or even reaching into the freezer for the “ol’ Friday night standby”. I call pizza, “the devil’s pie” because every Saturday morning the scale seems to be about 3 pounds high. Then we work hard and go without some of our other favorite foods all week to get those pounds back to where they belong. Then, about Thursday or Friday morning later in the week, just when we begin to see hope, we start the whole game over again.

This last Friday evening included relaxing on the couch and watching a movie. I didn’t feel like going out, ordering out (only one place delivers to us so far after 14 years), or otherwise making a dough and everything else that goes into a homemade pizza. We also had a decent brand of frozen pizza in the freezer as a back-up, but we decided to go against our desire and be strong-willed about it. We wanted a bit of something to munch on, but didn’t want to wreck our week’s work on this Friday evening and the movie we chose was something that we had seen before; so going down the same pizza highway this evening wasn’t working for us either.

We began to watch the movie and soon I found myself somewhat bored. Given this slow Friday evening, I felt the need to entertain myself in the kitchen where I can still glance at the flat screen in the other part of the ‘great room’. I have a fairly good surround sound system in the family room area and I found myself stopping work in the kitchen, to occasionally glance at a recognizable scene based on the audio. I then found myself rocking out to familiar songs being played on the soundtrack of the film, all while preparing whatever I could find that has been in the freezer for too long.

IMG_5098

The view from my kitchen bar counter

Luckily I found some simple pre-formed burgers and some Brioche buns (don’t know where those came from). And, behind the six pack of beer that I was working on this evening, I also found some complimenting produce in the fridge. I didn’t want to make a huge mess this Friday evening so I decided to pan fry the burgers instead of using the outside gas or charcoal grill or even opting for the infamous ‘George Forman’ on the counter. The burgers I found were re-wrapped in cellophane so I could not give you any specifics about the brand, or even if someone in my house had pre-formed them. The only thing I found is that I believe they were 100% beef.

Before I forget, I was told by my 25-year-old son and self-proclaimed burger aficionado (5 Guys and In-N-Out) that tested the burger, that it was an incredible burger unlike anything he has ever had at home. That’s a huge claim since I often attempt but never accomplish greatness (his rating) making a burger at home.

Anyway, I had a refrigerator beginning to emit a peculiar smell of off-gassing produce ripening before our very eyes. So, before the smell made things ugly, I decided to use what I could before it had to get tossed into the composting pile. For some reason (we don’t normally have this) I found a head of the nutritionally challenged Iceberg lettuce that was beginning it’s Navy-vessel browning routine in the back corner of the fridge. Luckily I found a couple leaves yet preserved with a light-colored white/green tinge so I knew that would be perfect to obtain the crunch portion of the bite into the burger. I also found some cherry tomatoes that would make a nice tomato marmalade after cutting each of the little buggers in half and gently squishing them flat. To ensure there was nothing short of everything California in this burger (bacon is not Californian), I smeared a bit of local ranch-grown avocado and placed a few slices of mellow Monterey Jack Cheese, yellow onion, mustard and mayonnaise before placing the toasted Brioche top-half aloft. I also found a half bag of tater-tots and crinkle-cut fries that I baked in the toaster oven to add the finishing touch for enjoyment.IMG_5101

All of this while jamming out to the good tunes from the movie’s soundtrack, occasionally finding myself breaking into my best Michael Jackson dance move and sipping on the last sip of beer that has made a six pack start to look like a 4-pac. I finally plated this concoction and presented it to the wife so she didn’t have to move from her front row movie seat. Now, what had happened next was exactly the same thing that happened recently after passing a McDonalds in a casino lobby and heading back to a hotel room one night. Once inside of the hotel room with a Big Mac in the bag, I had slipped into the bathroom only to return to approximately three bites of the burger remaining. WTF? The wife said nothing, she had her mouth full and just handed me the burger . . . or what was now left of it. All I could say is, “WTF is this?” And now all she could mumble, with her mouth full, was something like, “It’sth threally gudd”.

So when you are looking for a change from the ordinary and don’t feel like going to the local watering hole and hearing the same Willie Nelson cover band. Or if you just don’t feel like going anywhere to get just anything to eat, then reach into your own fridge and get your best “Chef” on and make something creative using whatever it is that you have available. It’s actually interesting and fun. And, if you still decide that delivery isn’t going to cut it tonight, you can still have DiGiorno.

Dicks

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