Pizza Libretto- Beckham vs Pirlo and why Ray Hudson may be the Guy Fawkes of Football

I was born a mongrel of the United Kingdom.  I have a bit of English and a bit of Irish in me.  With that, I can have some pride in my heritage.   I mean, England is the home of delicious things like treacle, Cadbury chocolate (which doesn’t hold a candle to the North American version) and hearty dishes like beef Wellington.  I also enjoying waking on Saturday to a good football match.  Being both an England fan at a national level (since I doubt I will ever see Canada qualify for the World Cup in my lifetime) and Liverpool at a domestic level, I can relate to Leafs fan. Liverpool has failed to produce a title since the inception of the premier league in 1992. England has not won a World cup since 1966 (one year before Toronto’s last triumph) and  Italy, on the other hand, has won two world cups and reached the final once during my life time. These facts help fuel the perceived superiority of Italy vs England. Pundits like Ray Hudson, acclaimed English player and now soccer commentator, doesn’t help the cause.  Known for his colourful diction (you’d know him if you ever heard his Dairy Queen commercial), he co-hosts a radio show on Sirius radio.  I was listening last week and he began a segment on the coolest player in soccer. His sacrilegious choice was Italian national  Andrea Pirlo.  This lead to call-ins who mentioned alternatives like David Beckham.  Hudson dismissed this suggestion based on the contrived nature of the Beckham empire, suggesting that Pirlo was naturally cool and didn’t need the help.

People from England rarely cite their food as a contender for the best in the world.  They use terms like comfort to justify the use of butter and salt as the main seasonings.  Italians, on the other hand, have unified like a Chicago mob to stamp the concept of  simplicity all over their cuisine.  Whether it’s Joe Bastianich or a first generation Italian-American contestant on a cooking show, an Italian can rarely speak of any dish without using the words simple and fresh.

I enjoy arguing with an Italian. I remember sitting in bar in Chicago engaged in a discussion about the world’s best beer with an Italian colleague who insisted that his homeland had the best beer in the world. I’ll give Italy a lot of credit for their contribution to foodgasms around the world but I won’t give them beer. Once he realized I wasn’t going to agree, he erupted into a frenzy, pointing out that England hadn’t won a world cup in 50 years.  My answer was simply “Yes, I know but Italian beer still sucks”.  With that, he stormed away as red as a glass of Chianti.

Picking a preferred thin crust pizza place in Toronto is like choosing a political party.  Some opt for the trendy Terroni.  Others swear by the modish Queen Margherita pizza. A third group loves the popular Pizza Libretto.  Whether it’s the service, the size, the reservation policy or one of a hundred other reasons,  loyalists of each will find reasons to pledge allegiance to their chosen joint and find reasons to discredit  the others.

Call me an undecided voter.  I’ve been to Terroni a couple of times and haven’t yet experienced Queen Margherita.  I was invited to Pizza Libretto for a work function. I was coming from the East and had a treacherous drive down the Danforth in a snowstorm to get there.  Once I arrived, I was greeted by the hostess and seated quickly.  The waitstaff met Hudson’s definition of cool; black tees and a laissez-faire attitude that wasn’t quite pretentious. I ordered a drink and waited for the arrival of the set menu.  The first course was a piatto grandea mix of meat, cheese  and other things delicious including crostinis, arugula salad, olives, pickles and a delicious spread with a good amount of heat (top right) which was one of the best things on the tray.  The other stellar component was the small piece of red wine rinsed blue cheese hidden just above the pickles.  All in all, it was delicious start to the meal.

Antipasto plate
Antipasto plate

Along with the antipasto, our table was treated to their version of bread.  It was puffy and warm and seasoned with salt and rosemary to near perfection.

Bread to Start
Bread to Start

A larger arugula salad arrived shortly after which was served with pear, walnut and a nicely balanced vinaigrette. Along with it came arancini balls which were bursting with basil and pine nut pesto, bufala mozzarella, peperonata and tomato.  Normally arancini are not on the top of my list, but I must say I enjoyed this version more than most.

Arancini
Arancini

At this point I should mention that there was too much food.  As a result of the storm, we had three no shows so we only had 9 instead of 12 people.  Although we pointed it out and offered to pay for the committed 12, our request fell on deaf ears.  Dish after dish came out, including three of each of the following pizzas: the classic margherita, the duck confit (with pear and mozzerella)  and the cremini mushroom pizza finished with Gorgonzola and spices.  Each was exactly what it promised, highlighted by the signature crust cooked at 900 degrees for 90 seconds. Normally I’m not a traditionalist, but the Margherita was the best of the bunch driven by the delicious tomato sauce.

Margherita Pizza
Margherita Pizza
Cremini Pizza
Cremini Pizza
Duck Confit Pizza
Duck Confit Pizza

The dessert platter was a cornucopia of classics including panna cotta, tiramisu, budino and chocolate and espresso gelato. Once again, a ridiculous amount was brought to the table.  What you see is what you got. It was a good sampling of traditional Italian dolci.  In particular, the budino was worth a few extra bites.

Desserts (Gelato, Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, Budino)
Desserts (Gelato, Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, Budino)

My Take

In typical Italian fashion, the food was simple and delicious.  I had few complaints other than their insistence to bring out enough food to cover our no shows even though we asked them not to. Half of us left with enough pizza boxes to make it look like we were on our way to a frat party at the University of Toronto.  Now, I can’t confirm whether this was stubbornness, pretension or just the Italian way (ie. feed people regardless of whether they want it or not) but it was a bit against my value system.  Remember, I come from a rather cheap culture where we could gladly get paid for food we didn’t serve.  Compared to Terroni, I’m a fan of Pizza Libretto from the perspective of the food, service and atmosphere.  I haven’t had Queen Margherita yet, but I will make it a New Year’s resolution in 2015. At that point, I can become a decided voter and join whatever pizza party I chose to.

Although I can admit that Italians can be cool (at least in the kitchen), I wouldn’t go as far as Ray Hudson in his bold proclamation of Andrea Pirlo as the coolest cat in soccer.  Sure, UK players look ridiculous with long hair (google Gareth Bale if you want proof);  they don’t sport facial hair very well and they would need the backing of a spice girl and a marketing juggernaut to elevate themselves to the status of cool, but the on-pitch failures of Liverpool and Italian acquisitions Alberto Aquilani, Fabio Borini and most recently Mario Ballotelli  makes me think Italy still has some work to do when competing in one of the best leagues in the world (although I will admit the Italian national team has basically owned England since I’ve been born).  Ray, your seditious and treasonous comments about the English game combined with the marvelous fireworks that emit from your mouth might make you football’s modern day Guy Fawkes…and I love it.

Andrea Pirlo. The coolest cat in football?
Andrea Pirlo. The coolest cat in football?

Pizzeria Libretto on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

 

 

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Chicago: Day 6: White Palace and Black Sabbath

My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight.  After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.

Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit.  My first stop was the White Palace Grill.  Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters.  I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene.  A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated.  It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days.  I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.

The banter in the place  was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before.  People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys.  There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working.  I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.

Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings.  I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.

Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast
Strawberry Banana French Toast
MMMM...bacon and grits.
MMMM…bacon and grits.

My Take

White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner.  It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not  top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

White Palace Grill on Urbanspoon

Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace.  During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street.  I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.

Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market.  True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches.  There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches.  Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.

I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato.  There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin  for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.

Porchetta Crescentine
Porchetta Crescentine
Meatball Sandwich
Meatball Sandwich
Zarlengo's Rum and Raisin Gelato
Zarlengo’s Rum and Raisin Gelato

I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient.  There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that.   Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis  in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out.  The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.

My Take

Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago.  Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Panozzo's Italian Market. on Urbanspoon

Zarlengo's Soft Serve on Urbanspoon

After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour.  I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.

Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept;  the fusion of burgers and head banging metal.  This is not a superficial claim.  Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme.  I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle.    Take their beer philosophy for example.  One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude.  Consider the possible lyric:

“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,

I’m a commercial lager killer.”

Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of  Apocalypse Cow  housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery.  Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.

The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well.  The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine).  There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg.  I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion.  I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good.  My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.

Kuma's Side Salad
Kuma’s Side Salad
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2

There’s a whole lotta burger.  The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together.  I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well.  If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top.  Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.

My Take

Kuma’s concept is a fun one.  I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out.  Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.

The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”.  Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales Predictions of 2013 Food Trends.

Each year sees a shift in the direction of the restaurant industry.  I’m going to take a chance and speculate on what food trends will start or continue  in the Toronto dining scene  in 2013. Feel free to agree, disagree or suggest your own trends by commenting here, voting in the poll or tweeting #2013tofoodtrends.

1. Ramen Rage

Arguably the biggest craze in 2012, noodle houses will continue to appear like Starbucks and Subways in the coming months.  Given the versatility of this noodle dish, I suspect new variations will emerge and will not be limited to ramen restaurants  alone.  I expect the big chains and even the small fusion eateries and food trucks to join the ramen rage in some way, shape or form.

2. Offal Offerings

Black hoof has gained international exposure for its offal menu with thumbs up from celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain during his lay over visit and  Richard Blais’  endorsement on his list of favorite restaurants on Urbanspoon.  Adaptations of  the nose to tail concept have been adapted by many eateries, even including  a beginner’s lesson in offal  at Skin and Bones in Leslieville. This concept will continue to flourish given the surge in responsible eating as well as those seeking the adventure of multiple organ consumption.

3. In a Jar

I’m not referring to the traditional strawberry jam, pickled cucumber and mango chutney here.  In efforts to use more local ingredients throughout the year, preserving is gaining popularity.  Local and seasonal cranberries, tomatoes, peppers and tree fruit can be used year round when processed into sweet or savory condiments to compliment meats and even cocktails.  Savory and briny condiments are definitely in.  One of the best dishes I had in 2012 was a pickle tray at Sidedoor in Ottawa and it only makes sense that these creative, unique and in many cases  relatively inexpensive foods are housemade to complement  menus and blackboards in 2013.

4. Eat Street

Despite strict downtown by-laws and less than favourable year round weather, Toronto is catching up with other large metropolitan centres regarding  the presence of food trucks offering anything from smoked meats to tacos to cupcakes. More and more private businesses and fundraisers are seeing the potential in these nomadic sculleries as an awareness raising tactic. In addition,  the low overhead, creative license and geographical flexibility are appealing to restauranteurs, ensuring that the fleet of food trucks will continue to grow.

5. Carrying the Torch

The chef’s blowtorch is a cooking method which has typically been reserved for creme brulee and more recently sushi.  The ease of use and aesthetic properties of charred food could expand the use of this handy tool to other areas of food preparation.  Vegetables, cervices, meringues, terrines and even fois gras could be meliorated with a quick singe  of the blue flame.

6. Mexican Mania

Tacos were the rave of 2012 with the success of Grand Electric and  La Carnita taco-heavy menu. Burrito Boyz, Mucho Burrito and Burrito Bandidos are lunchtime and late night hotspots.  Baja fish tacos adorn almost every chain restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu.  Modernized twists on tasty tostadas, multifarious moles and piquant pozole will expand beyond the traditional taquerias, making Mexican fare one of the hot ethnic cuisines across the board in 2013.

7. Soul Train

Soul food has just gotten started.  The success of Barque, Stockyards and new additions such as AAA combined with the Hogtown and Urban Smoke food trucks have put pulled pork and brisket on the must eat food map.  Look for  southern food to dominate  in 2013 with the expansion of  southern-influenced mainstays such as shrimp and grits, collard/mustard greens, gumbos and maybe even a crayfish or two.

8.  Snack Time

Tastebud teasers  including  spiced nuts and other savory snacks have been a complimentary mainstay of bars and taverns for years.  It seems this concept has crossed into the dining room, with a snack menu available offering munchable morsels, such as warm olives at Patria and Campagnolo, even before the appetizers arrive.   In particular, popcorn is gaining popularity, providing a blank slate for various flavors including  truffle at Origin and chipotle-caramel at Cava,

9. Comfort Zone

It appears chefs have dusted off  their old copies of  “They Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.  A return to comfort food is an emerging trend. In 2012,  coq au vin was a staple at Richmond Station and Trevor Kitchen. Chicken Pot Pies were  being baked up traditionally  at C5 and with fois gras gravy at Reds Wine Tavern.  Fried chicken is half the menu at Paulette’s and is available for two at County General.  Old school bourguignon and gamy stews are emerging elsewhere.  Expect a cornucopia of European inspired comfort food in 2013, complete with the use of fresh meats and seafood, rich sauces and homemade, flaky pastries.

10. Icy Indulgence

Frozen desserts have become a common default dessert item for many big name chefs, especically those with a aversion to baking.  Working on the notion that frozen sugar and milk fat make anything taste better,  unique flavours have been incorporated into ice creams, sorbets and gelatos alike.  Whether it be savory flavours such as thyme or balsamic vinegar, sweetness through the use of commercial sodas or fruit nectars or incorporation of tart flavours like yuzu, a good ice cream maker and imagination is all that’s needed for this trend to blow wide open.

What do you think?  Answer the poll and add your comments.  Multiple answers are acceptable!