Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pop Goes the Gun

It was hard to believe that at my ripe old age and with my interest in food that I had not been to a pop-up dinner before.   New York is one of the cities where these things happen pretty regularly and if you keep your ear to the ground, it's easy enough to learn about them.   I suppose my listening skills are not what they should be, as I always seem to hear about these things after they happen, and my reaction is usually "Damn! Missed it.  That sounded cool.".

So finally, finally I got in on the ground floor of a pop-up dinner and as suspected, it was indeed pretty cool. I can't recall what Internet rabbit hole I fell down to find out that Gabrielle Corcos was having a pop-up dinner series in a charming section of Brooklyn called Windsor Terrace, but as soon as I did, I snagged a few tickets and set off for Kings County on a quest for a genuine Tuscan meal.

The location was a small cafe on a quiet street lined with row houses, just a few steps from Prospect Park.  The cafe was being sublet by Corcos for a three month series of dinners, with a fixed menu that changed by the month.  The cafe had a just enough room for about 10 small tables and a curved marble bar where a few folks that were willing to pay an additional 125 on top of the base 150 price, could sit and chat with Gabrielle while he worked in the open kitchen.  These seats also included having Gabrielle sit and share a drink and some food with them as well as a copy of the cookbook that he wrote with his wife, actress Debi Mazar, a tee shirt and some other swag. One couple came all the way from Kansas to sit at the bar and they seemed to have a great time gabbing away with him.

Part of the reason that this dinner series has been so popular (it has sold out every month), is Gabrielle himself.  Charming, down to earth and funny, he is possessed of the gift of gab and the ability to make his guests feel welcome.  Whether personally greeting them at the door, addressing the diners to introduce the next course or stopping by each table at the end of the night for pictures and a little conversation, he moves with the ease and grace of a skillful host.  His demeanor is imbued with the confidence that comes from feeding people the food that you love and knowing that you fed them well. And feed us well, he did.

November's menu was a delightful collection of Italian, mostly Tuscan dishes paired with an all Tuscan collection of wines along the route.  The starting course included two bruschetta and a young Pecorino Toscano dabbed with a dot of house made orange and sage marmalade.  We had dispatched with the cheese, which was bursting with the flavor of the Tuscan hillsides before Gabrielle had a chance to introduce the dish.  The two bruschetta, one made with fresh ricotta, so fresh it was still warm, came draped in a puddle of chestnut honey and generous sprinkle of hot pepper flakes, and the cannellini bean version with pancetta and rosemary, were also Tuscan flavor bombs.

The soup course was a rustic lentil soup, cooked with a rind of parmagiano cheese, just like my grandma used to make.  This course, like the cannellini bruschetta was also held aloft on the back of some good, porky pancetta flavor.

Pasta was up next and there were two (yes, two) of them.  First up, Spaghetti Alla Putanesca, which came with a side order of one of the many stories about how the dish got its name, was good and spicy and well studded with cracked black olives.  The second pasta which was my favorite, was Penne with Sausage, Rosemary, Saffron and Wine, and it had me wanting lick my dish clean in the most unladylike way. I resisted, but barely.  I will be making that one at home, for sure.

The main course was a nod to Thanksgiving in its use of Turkey and Pork inside meatballs braised with cabbage and tomatoes.  This dish reminded me of an inside out stuffed cabbage.   It was teamed up with mashed potatoes that had a truffle scented pecorino running through them and a side of sauteed kale.  Sorry, even with the Tuscan Gun to my head, I can't eat kale.  I gave it the old college try though.  A salad of fennel, arugula and orange came behind this as a light palate cleanser and it was fresh and crisp and did its job.

The meal ended with Gelo di Cafe, which was a coffee and chocolate custard served in a charming 1/2 pint Ball jar and capped with a swirl of orange scented whipped cream.   After the many courses, it was just enough to put a sweet finish on things.  And, as is tradition in Italy, an after dinner liquor was offered.  There was a choice between Cynar, an artichoke liquor or Gabrielle's own homemade Limoncello.  I chose the Limoncello as I had made my own from Gabrielle's recipe before and knew that it would be strong and delicious.  It did not disappoint.

Gabrielle worked with a small but highly efficient team who helped to cook, serve, clear and chat up the crowd.  Their friendliness and professionalism helped to keep things moving at an even and comfortable pace throughout the night.  As we spilled out into the streets of Brooklyn after the dinner, we felt warm and comforted and well fed.  I don't know if all pop-up dinners are as intimate and delicious as this one was, but if they are, sign me up for the next one!

Below are some of the pictures that we took of the food and the chef.  It was a night to remember; delicious and loaded with fun.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Home Sweet Rome

Two weeks.  We are two weeks back from Rome and I am still in a blissed out state of relaxation from the memory of all of the amazing meals, cocktails and good times we had.

Rome for me is a centering place, a place that puts my internal compass in balance.  Maybe this is simply because when I am there, I am on vacation and the stresses and worries of work, home and life are dulled for the moment.  Or, maybe there is more to it, something deeper, like a spiritual, almost karmic connection.

Not one to pay attention to things spiritual or signs, I felt an unusual ease and comfort on my very first trip to Rome. With not a word of Italian in my vocabulary and nothing to guide me but a few streetviews on Google Maps, I stepped into the cobblestone lined streets of Rome as confidently as I did the street I live on at home. I had no fear and that alone was telling to me.

That first trip, which included a stay in a Tuscan villa, was a watershed moment for me.  I feel like I have spent the ensuing years since in an endless quest for the next trip to Italy.  In the years since that first visit, we have been to Florence, Sorrento, Naples and Capri, all of which were soul soothing and wonderful in their own right. But every trip has also included Rome.  It had to or I would feel the emptiness of an opportunity missed.  To be teased with the closeness of Rome and skip a visit would cause a longing that I would feel physically, an actual pain.  I know this because I felt it at the very suggestion that we maybe skip Rome this time.

This most recent trip was special because it was about the sweet pursuit of nothing but to bask in the essence of the city itself.  To sit in a piazza for hours doing nothing but drinking wine and people watching.  To be Roman, if only for a moment and to dream of a future where sitting in a piazza could be our primary job in life.  A job that I feel I was born to do.

Cornetto and Cappuccino - aka Breakfast.
 Veggies at Campo de Fiori - always beautiful enough to make me want to eat vegetables (no small feat).

 A closer look at Chariots in the Sky.

A closer look at the Colosseum.

Ingredients for a cooking class. Ingredients like this kind of stack the deck in your favor for success.

The city is full of dogs, which is awesome.

This was the meat sweats waiting to happen but worth every bead on my brow.

 Drinking by the Pantheon by day...

... and night

A beautiful day in Piazza del Popolo.

 Porchetta sandwich and beer from The Angry Pig (consumed at 11 am, so technically the breakfast of champions).

The Tiber by night...

...and day.

And just to spice things up, a day trip to Orvieto.