Sunday, May 30, 2010

neapolitan pizza

Ever since we were blown away by Bricks Neapolitan Pizza in my parents' city of Hudson, Wisconsin, Matt and I have sought out the Neapolitan pizzerias in Madison. Neapolitan pizza is characterized by a thin crispy crust and a simple San Marzano tomato sauce baked in a very hot wood-fired oven for about 90 seconds. The oven has to be certified by a committee in Italy in order for the pizza to be authentically Neapolitan (that's where my knowledge ends--I'm certainly no expert).

Despite the similar ovens, the pizzerias we've visited have featured quite different pizzas. The topping options are diverse and will suit various tastes, but the real difference is in the crust. All the crusts are thin, crackery in some places and bubbly in others. The best crust we had was at Bricks: chewy and crusty all over the pie. The worst was probably Cafe Porta Alba, whose crust sagged under the weight of the tomato sauce.


our winner: Bricks' "Gusto"

Bricks offers creative topping combinations on either a red or white sauce with hand-stretched mozzarella. One of my favorites includes goat cheese, bacon, artichoke hearts, and red onion on the red sauce. Last time we visited we had one with melty gorgonzola, prosciutto, red onion, and red bell pepper. We enjoyed the foccacia di Bricks with Parmesan, rosemary, and olive oil. We were also lucky enough to receive a free salad that had been ordered for take out and abandoned. Named the "Mista", it was a truly delicious combination of greens, bacon, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, Parmesan, and a Vidalia onion vinaigrette.

foccacia di Bricks

"Mista" salad

Pizza Brutta

I really enjoyed the topping options at Pizza Brutta in Madison, which I have posted about before. They also offer both red and white sauces. Matt was not happy with the softness of the crust, but it still had a nice char on it. I would like to try it again. It's a nice, casual place with very fast pizza if you're in a hurry.

the "Diavola": mozzarella, spiced salami, red pepper flakes, and pepperoncini

Cafe Porta Alba

The menu is somewhat more simple at Madison's Cafe Porta Alba. We ordered a buffalo mozzarella pizza and added salame. It was really too simple for our tastes. Our friends had the "Vegetariana". If we went again, I might try the "Alifana" with mozzarella, tomato, basil, artichokes, and salame.

buffalo mozzarella & salame

the Vegetariana


Finally, Matt also had a Neapolitan-style pizza at Lombardino's Restaurant. This one was fine, but not outstanding. However, Lombardino's pasta dishes are quite nice and their atmosphere is really kitschy and homey.

In the end, we've decided that Bricks' pizza is worth waiting to visit my parents for, but if we're craving Neapolitan pizza in Madison, we'd give Pizza Brutta another try.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

best dessert invention yet

We've always enjoyed the pies, cakes, and shakes at Monty's Blue Plate Diner in Madison. This time they've outdone themselves.

donut sundae

Take two cake donuts. Slice them in half and then slap them on a griddle. Sandwich creamy custard between the double-fried donuts. Add a drizzle of maple syrup and a mountain of whipped cream. I want to eat this again soon.

Friday, May 14, 2010

brew city 2

Last weekend Matt and I made what was only my second trip to Milwaukee. This time we saw a restored copy of Japanese "horror" film, Hausu or House at the UW-Milwaukee Union. More silly and psychedelic than scary, it's the only kind of horror movie I'll sit through.

Before dinner we ate at a Chinese place called Fortune. The woman who teaches Mandarin Chinese at my school recommended Fortune because they offer separate American and Chinese menus there. Though it looks like your typical take-out Chinese joint from the outside, my coworker told me that it was "real" Chinese food. I thought it was a good sign that more of the restaurant's patrons were Asian than not.

ma po tofu

shredded pork with Chinese pickles

The ma po tofu was flavorful and more spicy than most Chinese dishes that are labeled "spicy". The pork dish was a bit salty for our taste, with soy sauce as the overwhelming flavor. I would like to go back and try some other unfamiliar Chinese dishes, perhaps with ordering recommendations from someone who knows actual Chinese cuisine.

After the movie, we headed across town to a bar that Matt had scouted out. The Palomino Bar is owned by the same people who run Comet Cafe, which I've mentioned before. They both have the same playful vintage charm that I'm a sucker for. They also both have interesting and appealing menus that I would love to try again.

The big draw for Matt was their Velvet Elvis sandwich, a This-is-Why-You're-Fat-worthy creation involving bananas, peanut butter, and bacon on grilled bread. It wasn't as bad as I'd expected, but I couldn't handle much of its richness so soon after the Chinese food. Matt was all about it.

The side options and dipping sauces were many and varied. We opted for onion strings and crispy brown tater tots with Cajun cream sauce. I wish I had some tots right now...

The biggest draw for me was the first item on the cocktail menu: a Moscow mule. I was recently introduced to this drink concept and knew at once that it was my new drink of choice. The Moscow mule is an old school easy-to-drink cocktail that apparently popularized vodka in the U.S. during the 1940s. The Palomino Bar is totally the kind of place that would serve the all-but-forgotten drink.

I first made these at home since I didn't know where I could order one. A couple of shots or vodka (or gin for a Gin-Gin Mule), juice from half a lime, and ginger beer are all you need. Oh, and cute copper mugs that I am now coveting. Does anyone know a place in Madison that serves Moscow mules? Gin and tonics just won't cut it anymore.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

spring greens

With all the restaurant posts I've made lately, one might think we eat out all the time. Here's a recipe to prove that we do still eat at home sometimes (or about 6 nights a week!). As things are starting to sprout again, I'm enjoying using fresh local veggies in my cooking. The asparagus and spinach are from the season's first farmer's market here in town. The eggs come from my school custodian's chickens, and the chives are from the art teacher's garden. I love spring!

Oh, and there are shots of a favorite "new" vintage dress.

vintage dress and shoes, Good Style Shop
tights, Target
teardrop necklace, thrifted

Green Goddess Frittata
from Anne Louise Gittleman

I halved this from the original recipe, which made two frittatas. It would be easy enough to double up again if you were cooking for company.

6 eggs, beaten
1/2 c cottage cheese
1 1/2 c chopped fresh spinach or asparagus
2 scallions, minced
2 tsp chopped garlic
handful chopped chives (optional--I just had them on hand)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix eggs, cheese, veggies, and seasonings in a large bowl. Melt butter in an oven-safe skillet on the stove. Add egg mixture and cook for 3 minutes over medium heat. Place skillet in oven and bake for 10 minutes, or until eggs are just set.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

oh, lawrence

So this will be old news to Lawrence, Kansas residents. And it might be old news if you've been reading my blog for awhile, since I've posted about Dempsey's before. In any case, The Burger Stand at Dempsey's makes a great burger and fries.

Dempsey's was just a bar when we moved away from Kansas. Not a bad place to get a drink, but just a bar. When we went back for a visit last year, Dempsey's had brought in a chef to develop a menu and started getting what seems to be a lot more business. There are standards on the menu like the Kobe Burger (Matt's favorite), plus new selections occasionally (seasonally, maybe?). Matt got the Kobe again and I had a new one, the Fire Burger. Covered with habanero- cactus jam, my burger was surprising sweet and predictably spicy. Very good, but I'd try something new next time we go.

fire burger with habanero-cactus jam, avocado, & microgreens
poutine: fries with chunks of cheese & brown gravy

Yes, that is poutine in that basket. Dempsey's knows how to make some incredible sides as well as burgers, but the gravy on the poutine was overwhelmingly salty. Because of the gravy, the poutine didn't quite stand up to classics like the duck fat fries or truffle fries. It would be hard to choose between those two for my favorite fries there. Unfortunately, I neglected to photograph any other fries but my own. But take my word--they're amazing.

steak taco with chimichurri sauce & veggies
chicken taco with salsa verde, tomatillo sauce, & almonds
pork taco with mole rojo & pineapple pumpkin-seed salsa
(from left to right)

The crew that runs Dempsey's also opened a new Mexican place in Lawrence called Esquina. We ordered three tacos, all of which were creative and tasty, but none were standout. I preferred the chilaquiles (a favorite dish of mine anyway), which were topped with a fried egg instead of the scrambled that I'm used to. It also featured a thick white queso fundido plus queso fresco, which I thought was a very tasty addition. I also really enjoyed my taste of my friend's chicken enchiladas.

chilaquiles con huevos

chicken enchilada platter

Esquina has a considerably larger menu than what is posted online, including many special meat or enchilada platters. There were also some impressive-looking cocktails sitting at the bar when we walked in. I would definitely like to try Esquina again the next time we head south.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

old school wisconsin

On our way to Iowa and Kansas visiting over spring break, Matt and I stopped in Monroe, Wisconsin. On our first trip to the Mustard Museum (when it was still in Mount Horeb), we heard about the world-famous cheese sandwiches at Baumgartner's Cheese Store. I had envisioned drippy, toasty grilled cheese sandwiches featuring all manner of cheeses and dipped in the horseradish mustard that was sold at the Museum. In reality, the cheese sandwiches at Baumgartner's are...cheese...sandwiches. Rye bread. Cheese. Piece of butcher paper. Could any sandwich be more old school?

I ordered the Swiss sandwich and enjoyed the thick slice of locally-made cheese in the middle. I slathered half of the sandwich with the house horseradish mustard and the other half with a spicy honey mustard. I highly recommend the horseradish mustard--it takes the sandwich to a different level. The cup of chili was hearty and well-seasoned. Although we did not partake, the shop has a nice assortment of beers on tap and in bottles.

The decor in Baumgartner's added to the old Wisconsin flair. Crests hung prominently from the ceiling, representing Switzerland's counties. Apparently, employees at the shop toss a tack and a dollar at the (very high!) ceiling and get it to stick! There had to have been hundreds already. Every two years, they remove the dollars and donate them to a charity.

On our way back from our spring break trip, we stopped again to buy a couple of cheeses. We purchased an aged brick for Matt's grandpa and a piece of Hook's 5-year cheddar. Best sharp cheddar ever. This is a great little quaint stop if you're near Monroe!

Monday, May 3, 2010


Pachamama's is a must when we're in Lawrence, despite its prohibitive pricing. Sometimes we've gone for just dessert or lunch. I've posted about Pachamama's before, but just a dessert. When we visited a few weeks ago, it was only our second full dinner (we forgot our camera at the first dinner). We enjoyed trying some different appetizers and entrees this time.

amuse bouche

The chef's amuse bouche, or first bite, was a poached pear wrapped in prosciutto and topped with truffle creme fraiche. I did not enjoy the combination of the spicy-sweet pear and the salty, chewy prosciutto. Not such a great start.

bone marrow crostini

Next was our appetizer. Matt had been interested for awhile in trying bone marrow. This small plate provided a good opportunity to taste marrow in a fairly non-threatening manner. Marrow, gorgonzola, avocado, and radish slices topped crusty baguette pieces. A carafe on the plate held a bit of truffle-scented honey. For those of you who don't know, marrow (the brown lumps in the photo above) is the most beefy, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth piece of a cow you've ever had. The richness of the gorgonzola was a welcome counter to the intense marrow and the avocado cooled everything off. I'm definitely glad I tried marrow in this dish--I'm not sure I could handle scraping marrow right out of the bone.

wood-fired local lamb sirloin with morel mushroom jus

My entree was a hit. The lamb was perfectly cooked, the sauce savory and rich, and the turnip gratin cheesy and velvety. I loved the peppery crust on the tender lamb. I only wish I would have had more room to finish the gratin.

morita chili-raspberry bbq duck breast with asadero fondue and griddle corn pudding

There's not much to say about Matt's entree. He wasn't blown away by it. The fatty layer between the skin and meat of the duck was not a texture that we enjoyed. Not a bad dish, but not our favorite.

We've really enjoyed Pachamama's desserts before, though I've had varied luck. The first dessert I had there was my favorite dessert of all time: a dense yellow cake, drizzled with brown sugar sauce, topped with rhubarb compote, fromage blanc ice cream, and mint coulis. Nothing has ever been able to top that. I've ordered the molten brown sugar cake another time, and it just wasn't the same. Apparently they oscillate between my favorite cake and a drier, bundt-like cake with bits of brown sugar cooked in.

Anyway, I opted for the lemon creme blueberry-rhubarb napoleon. The lemon creme was incredibly fluffy and very tart. The almond tuile (basically almond brittle) was crispy and nutty and not-too-sweet. The house-made salted caramel almond ice cream was also delicious, but seemed to me like it was a separate dessert altogether. I'm still kicking myself for not ordering the dessert with the fromage blanc ice cream instead. In any case, it was good, but not my new favorite.

lemon creme blueberry-rhubarb napoleon

peanut butter and milk chocolate tart

Matt's dessert totally suited him. If you know him, then you can see that the title of the dish has Matt written all over it. Then get into the details: pretzel crust, banana flambe. Yes. Even the wildcard element, the banana-lime sorbet, meshed well with the overall flavor. Matt was a happy camper. I, on the other hand, would have just eaten the bananas. The tart was too chocolatey for my tastes.

There you have it. Can you believe two people put all that food in their bodies in one evening? Well, we did, and we'd do it again. The creative seasonal menu ensures that there will always be something to pique our interest.