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Trattoria Sostanza – Florence, Italy

I think this is my favorite restaurant in Florence.  I just can’t believe I found out about it a decade after I lived there for a year and that it’s blocks from the pensione where I lived.  Small, casual and far from touristy, I make a point to go here every time I’m in town.  The staff is no nonsense but friendly in every way.  The food speaks for itself.  The first time I found myself in the kitchen learning how to make the artichoke pie and the last time it was our friend standing in front of the stovetop trying to memorize their method.   Take my advice and definitely order the artichoke pie, butter chicken and the meringue cake with fresh berries for dessert.  I PROMISE you…these dishes will change your life.

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RPM Italian – Chicago, IL

Not going to lie, I’ve been a huge fan of Giuliana and Bill Rancic for a while now, so ever since they opened RPM Italian in Chicago I’ve been dying to go.  What a beautiful, cool and modern space!  The place was packed and rightfully so, the food is incredible!  The fact that I’m still thinking about what I ate says a lot.

The stand outs for me were the toast with homemade ricotta and marinara, the artichokes, the spicy king crab pasta (this is the dish I’ll be dreaming of until I go back again) and the budino.  Everything was stunning and packed with flavor.  You can tell a lot of love goes into this food.  Let’s also not forget to mention the staff who were so fun and full of personality.  Our server truly enchanted our evening.

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Fresh Homemade Ricotta – Ciabatta Toast

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Roman-Style Artichokes – Lemon Aioli

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Burrata Stuffed Squash Blossoms – Homemade Marinara

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RPM Caesar Wedge – White Anchovy

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Spicy King Crab – Squid Ink Spaghetti, Fresno Chili

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Pappardelle Bolognese – Hand-Cut Pasta, Short Rib Ragu

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Braised Duck Agnolotti – Black Mission Figs

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Whole Grilled Branzino – Mediterranean Sea Bass, Oregano, Capers

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Bill’s Chocolate Budino – Salted Caramel, Cocoa Nibs

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Bomboloni – Cooked-to-order Italian Brioche Donuts with Nutella and Vanilla Sugar

Carbone – New York, NY

Wow!  I don’t know where to start.  From the moment you walk into this restaurant you know you’ve made the right choice (actually, maybe the first clue was when the concierge at our hotel was shocked I actually got a reservation).  From the outside it’s completely nondescript.  You can’t see anything because there are drawn velvet curtains hiding what lies within.  When you open the door you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old Italian mobster hangout with some serious class.  The photos on the website do the decor and atmosphere NO justice whatsoever.

I loved everything about this meal.  The staff was great, the food was so flavorful that I had to tell myself to stop before I got too full and I loved the decor.

I have to mention that I had a little bit of order envy once I saw the woman next to me get her pasta.  I believe it was the Fettuccine con Fungi.  At first glance on the menu I assumed it was pasta with mushrooms when in fact it was fresh truffles on top…huge miss there but there’s always next time!  I highly, highly recommend the artichoke hearts.  They were the most flavorful presentation I’ve ever had and I could eat these all day long.  The Angel Hair AOP was loaded with flavor all the while being nice and light.  Tasty, tasty, tasty all around!

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Octopus Pizzaiolo

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Artichoke Hearts

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Angel Hair AOP

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Cheesecake

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Cantinetta – Seattle, WA

This is your quintessential neighborhood restaurant.  Adorable brick corner location in Wallingford.  The food is just as cozy as the inside of this place feels.  It’s the perfect spot to catch up with an old friend, enjoy a date night, or celebrate with a group.  I hadn’t been for a while and it was so satisfying going back.  I can never say no to one of their housemade pasta dishes and I love when I get a view of the chefs making the pasta behind the glass windows.  Everything was outstanding with the exception of one dish – the baby artichoke zeppole with fennel and horseradish creme fraiche.  It wasn’t bad, but I was just hoping for more.  I didn’t feel like the artichoke was the star of the dish which I think it should have been.  Other than that it was a wonderful night full of great food, wine and company.

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Baby Artichoke Zeppole, fennel, horseradish creme fraiche

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Halibut Crudo, pickled fresno chili, fried capers, sprouts

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Pea Vines, crispy speck, fresno chili, farm egg

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Pappardelle alla Bolognese

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Halibut, marbled potatoes, fiddleheads, wood sorrel, leek brodo

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Zeppole

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Pasta with Robiola and Truffles

Oh lordy was this divine!  Rich?  Yes!  Indulgent?  Yes!  Worth the calories?  Heck yes!!!  I was lucky enough to receive 6oz of fresh Oregon black truffles from my sister-in-law and her husband for Christmas this year and wanted to find a worthy recipe to use them in.  We were hosting some people for dinner and the Seahawks game (GO HAWKS!!!) and this seemed like the perfect comfort food meal for the occasion.  I wasn’t able to find Robiola but the cheesemonger recommended Double Cream Cremont which was a great substitution.

4 FIRST COURSE SERVINGS

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter
  • 8 ounces dried egg fettuccine or tagliatelle
  • 8 ounces Robiola Rocchetta cheese, at room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 medium fresh white or black truffle, peeled and sliced, or one 2-ounce jar sliced truffles

Preparation

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Cook over moderate heat until the milk solids turn a rich brown and the butter smells nutty, about 6 minutes. Pour the butter into a bowl.

Cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot. Add the reserved water and the browned butter and toss with 2 forks. Add the cheese and toss until it begins to melt; season with salt and pepper. Transfer the pasta to warmed bowls, shave the truffle on top and serve right away.

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Squid Ink Pasta with Shrimp, Nduja and Tomato

Recipe courtesy of Bon Appetit • March 2015

If you get Bon Appetit or happened to see the most recent issue on the newsstand you saw the same food porn I did.  It was enough for me to race to the store in search of nduja this past weekend in hopes that I could make this gorgeous dish.  Lucky for me, my local grocery store just happened to get some in last week!  This dish is absolutely stunning presentation wise and flavor wise.  The black squid ink pasta is so sexy nestled in a white dish and the chopped up shrimp make each bite complete.  The fresh lemon juice is the perfect compliment to the otherwise hearty and meaty pasta and really does a great job brightening the dish as a whole.  I am dying to make this again and will be sure to call my grocery store to ensure they have nduja ahead of time to avoid disappointment.

4 SERVINGS

Ingredients

  • 1 pound large head-on or shell-on shrimp
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6 garlic cloves, divided, 2 smashed, 4 thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup tomato passata or puréed whole peeled tomatoes
  • 4 ounces nduja*
  • Kosher salt
  • 12 ounces squid ink linguine
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for serving
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

Peel and devein shrimp, saving heads and/or shells. Finely chop shrimp; set aside. Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high and cook smashed garlic, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Add reserved shrimp heads and/or shells and cook, stirring, until bright pink, about 2 minutes. Add bay leaf and 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until stock is slightly reduced and flavorful, 8–10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl; discard solids.

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Heat remaining 2 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add sliced garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove skillet from heat and carefully add tomatoes and 1 cup stock (mixture may sputter). Return to heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is beginning to thicken, about 3 minutes. Add nduja, using a wooden spoon to work it into the sauce. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavors have melded, about 3 minutes. Stir in reserved shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until opaque, about 2 minutes.
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Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until very al dente (pasta will still be opaque and very firm in the center). Drain pasta, reserving 1½ cups pasta cooking liquid.

Add pasta and 1 cup pasta cooking liquid to sauce and cook, tossing often and adding more cooking liquid to help finish cooking pasta, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened (but still saucy) and coats pasta, about 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and ¼ cup parsley; toss. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve pasta topped with more parsley.

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Do Ahead: Stock can be made 1 day ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Wrap tightly and chill shrimp separately.

*The recipe says you can substitute an extra glug of olive oil and some red pepper flakes if you can’t find nduja but I wouldn’t recommend that.  I think the nduja is the key ingredient to this dish and without it, the end result would be extremely different.

**Places to buy nduja online – Zingerman’s and Boccalone

Peasant – New York, NY

Our trip to New York this past December was different from our others in the past such that we didn’t have any agenda nor did I make any reservations ahead of time.  Typically I set my alarm for 6am 2 months in advance and call to get into whichever restaurant I have on my list and then I go back to bed.  We’ve done the 3 hour Michelin star meals, the fussy food where you debate grabbing some street food on the walk home.  This time we wanted to eat like locals, explore the different neighborhoods and that’s exactly what we did.

Our first night there we got in late and asked our concierge what they recommended for great Italian food near the hotel (The Mercer Hotel in Soho).  Immediately she said, “Peasant!” and off we went to dinner.  The ambiance is great, rustic but refined.  Chef Frank DeCarlo really prides himself on the kitchen which is meant to be exactly like a true old world kitchen in Italy or France.  Rustic brick wood-fired ovens, a rotisserie…the only gas is so they can boil water we were told.  Let’s not forget to give credit where due…he laid the brick himself!

The food…where to start?!  We couldn’t help ourselves and had to order the Burrata with wood-roasted tomatoes and the Polpi in Purgatorio (baby octopus, hot chiles).  Both were outstanding!  Perfectly presented, cooked, prepared…delicious and I would order them again in a heartbeat.  For our main courses we chose the Gnocchi al Funghi (brown butter, sage, mushrooms) and Tagliolini al Ragu di Vitello (homemade tagliolini, veal ragu).  I never use this blog as a forum to talk badly about a restaurant or dish (I just don’t write about them) but in this case I wanted to because I love this restaurant so much but this is where we felt there was something lacking.  Neither dish had much flavor which was surprising seeing as our starters were incredible.  The pastas lacked salt for one which probably would have made a huge difference.  This all being said I would most likely order one of the pizzas and/or meat/fish dishes next time (we were told by other locals after the fact that their pizzas are to die for).  For dessert we went with the Budino di Pane e Cioccolato Bianco (white chocolate bread pudding with almonds, figs and white chocolate gelato).  I typically stray away from white chocolate but I’m a sucker for bread pudding and I’m glad we tried it because it was incredible!

One more thing to note, I guess there’s a great wine room down below that wasn’t even on our radar.  Just something to note!

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