September 27, 2010

Cheap Eats: El Fuego

As A and I are on a relatively tight budget due to our somewhat measly grad student stipends, we can't always have decadent weekend meals. Don't get me wrong, we definitely set a large portion of our salaries aside for food. However, after a long week in the lab sometimes it's just easier to grab a no-nonsense (and cheap!) dinner somewhere quick. One of my favorite "fast food" options is Mexican: between Moe's, Qdoba, and Chipotle, there's certainly enough competition in this category to keep the food decent (but don't get me started on how the Center City Susanna Foo is being replaced by a Chipotle. A disgrace.) A non-chain Philly version of these conglomerates is El Fuego. With two locations, we've walked by El Fuego quite a few times and always commented that we should try it.. you know how it goes.

Last Friday, we were looking for a quick dinner option and finally decided to check it out. The neon green chairs accompanying outdoor sidewalk seating, as well as the huge open windows along the front certainly make the Chestnut Street location welcoming. Inside, only a few diners filled the large eating area, and the guys working the counter looked bored. The chalkboard menu offers all the usuals: burritos, tacos, and quesadillas.

I decided to go with a "bowl" ($6.95)- essentially all the typical burrito fillings on top of either greens or rice- of course, I chose greens. I topped my salad with chorizo, pinto beans, and a big dollop of their mild salsa. The guy making my bowl asked "cheesesourcreamandlettuce?" to which I responded to with a hesitant "Sure...". Yes, he topped my salad with... more salad. No dressing was offered, which was fine by me- all those other toppings add in more than enough flavor. Overall the bowl was pretty good. The salsa had big chunks of fresh tomato and purple onion, with the chorizo adding a chewy, meaty texture and lots of spice. El Fuego makes all of their salsas and guacamole from scratch every day, using local, seasonal produce (when possible, of course).

A ordered a vegetarian burrito ($6.95) which was enormous. It was so stuffed that she could only manage a couple of bites of one end before it exploded and required a fork. Rice, roasted peppers and onions, pinto beans, both mild and hot salsas (the hot is a green-based sauce), and a ridiculous amount of guac filled up the soft white tortilla. The tortillas are steamed before they're filled up, but somehow it got down to a chilly temperature before consumption, which was a little odd. Overall this ended up pretty much like the salad, but with less lettuce and more soggy, doughy tortilla (yummm).

Because we were eating during "Happy Hour" (4-7 PM M-F), we also scored cheap chips and quac ($2). Their guacamole is super delicious- creamy while still maintaining a few chunks, just the right amount of acid, and a large grain salt making for little bursts of saltiness. The basket of chips we were given was also ridiculously big, full of crispy crunchy triangles of tortilla goodness.

Overall a solid, inexpensive, and quick dinner. Nothing spectacular or super memorable, but no real negatives (besides the exploding burrito phenomenon). With ESPN on in the background, and a great people-watching view of Chestnut Street, the airy and open atmosphere is quite pleasant. While this place has nothing on Baja Burrito, it's a good addition to our Cheap Eats list.

El Fuego
723 Walnut St
2104 Chestnut St

September 23, 2010

Grandma's Granola

We first moved to Philly to start college, our first time living outside of Small Town USA. The transition was made slightly easier knowing that our grandparents (and other assorted family members) were located just an hour away. Over the years we've spent a lot of time with them, and truly, part of the joy of living here is getting to know them in a way we just couldn't living 1000 miles away. A few years ago, our grandma was on a bit of a health kick and decided to make her own granola. After the first batch, there was no going back- this stuff was truly addicting, a delicious breakfast, snack.. heck, I've even had it for dinner. Not only was it the best granola we've ever had, but it was made in huge quantities, and no trip to their home was complete without a bit of granola. We were even lucky enough to get our own stash to take home at times; there was nothing better than being greeted with "We have granola for you!" One evening, hanging out with our cousin, we eschewed a social event in lieu of heading to the g'rents house-- nothing more than "But Grandma has granola!" was needed to seal the deal.

Just a few months ago, we lost our grandma to lung cancer. As devastating as this has been emotionally, we have also been granola-less. Our grandpa and other family members have taken to making it on occasion, but eventually J and I decided we needed to make it ourselves- both to get our granola fix and to continue this small piece of our grandmother.

We headed into her kitchen, ready to learn the trade, complete with her own granola-making-ware. Don't be too intimidated by the recipe list- this will make more granola than you can eat, so if you're down for the challenge, we suggest either halving the recipe or finding friends and relatives to share with. The recipe straight from her own files:

I set out mixing the wet ingredients, while J and our grandpa tackled the dry. On my end, I combined a cup of maple syrup, 3/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup sesame oil, 1/2 cup of water, 1 cup of (natural, creamy) peanut butter, and 3/4 cup of brown sugar. All of this went into a pot on the stove, and was heated until it came to a boil, stirring constantly. As it heats up, everything melds together and thickens to form an almost fudgy batter. You can also add the brown sugar to the dry ingredients, but ours was a bit hard and crumbly, so we melted it into the wet stuff. You may also notice that the ingredients I added don't quite match the recipe-- one great thing about making granola. Substitutions, compromises, additions- it's kind of like "kitchen sink soup." As long as you don't go too overboard and stick to the basic ratio of ingredients, you'll end up with a delicious concoction.

Meanwhile, in a giant baking pan, the dry ingredients were being brought out. An entire large container of oats (which we later realized was three cups too much.. oops!), wheat germ, slivered almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, currants- all in quite massive quantities- and a touch of salt. Again, additions and substitutions can be made here based on what you have on hand and what your particular likes and dislikes are-- different seeds, nuts, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, the works. The best way to mix all of this is by hand-- meaning, get your hands in there and get mixing!

After this is done, it's time to mix the wet and the dry. Our grandma patented her method for dealing with the hot liquid-- dish gloves! Slowly pour the mixture over the dry ingredients, while mixing and kneading everything together with the gloves on. It'll still be hot, but it will be bearable. With this shear quantity of stuff, it may take awhile to get everything incorporated, but it's critical to the success of the granola. No dry oats should remain!

At this point, we packed up half of the wet granola to take home and bake, leaving our grandpa with a half tray of the goods. The baking process is a long one- about three to four hours at low temperature- but thankfully, requires little attention. Spread the mixture over a baking pan or dish, no more than about two inches deep. Leave in a 175F oven, and mix about every hour or hour and a half. This allows the granola to slowly dry, and the low temperature maintains more of the nutrients of the contents. The final product was finished in about four hours (but will depend on the quantity made), and while I was nervous about knowing when to take it out, it was quite obvious. It's just like granola! Allow to cool before packing away. It'll stay good for several weeks, but trust me, it never makes it that long. Just a note about nutrition: the fat content causes it to be a very filling meal or snack (a 1/2 cup serving keeps me full for hours!). Even as a small amount goes a long way, it hits that perfect combination of salty and sweet.

We're happy to have this granola back in our lives, and while it doesn't have that special Grandma touch, we will definitely continue to make this for years to come. While nothing will ever replace having her here with us, her memory lives on in so many way-- in our hearts and in the kitchen!

September 19, 2010

East Passyunk Ave

Although we tend to consider Philadelphia a "small" city, there are still several neighborhoods that we have never explored. One of these is the "up and coming" stretch of Passyunk Avenue that cuts diagonally across South Philly to the east of Broad Street. Pronounced "Pash-yunk" by locals, this street extends through the Italian Market and is probably most famous for competing Philly cheesesteak shops: Pat's and Geno's.

With a free afternoon (with absolutely gorgeous weather to boot), A & I decided to take the subway down to our "starting point" of East Passyunk and walk/eat our way back towards the city. This may have been one of the best ideas we've had in awhile. Before we left, we picked out a few places we definitely had to hit up; because it was late morning when we started, we picked out places open for brunch. This prevented us from hitting up some of the fancier places, but we can save that for another trip.

As we turned onto Passyunk, we immediately spotted our first destination. The bright orange exterior of Cantina Los Caballitos is hard to miss. We were the first diners in for brunch, so we grabbed sunny window seats. The waitstaff was laid back and friendly, mostly young hipster types. We decided to order just one thing off the menu, which made for a difficult decision. We opted for the Torrejas ($7)- french toast made with sopapilla topped with a cinnamon infused maple syrup. This seemed like an original brunch item that would "represent" the type of food at Los Caballitos.

We were pleasantly surprised with the arrival of a big basket of fresh tortilla chips, served with generous helpings of two different types of salsa. The chips were crispy and perfectly salted, with many of them shaped to A's dipping standards: a slight curve to maximize salsa scoopage. The green salsa had the same flavor profile as guacamole, while the red had a decent kick- both very flavorful and a good snack to tide us over till our "entree" arrived.

The Torrejas was a very interesting take on french toast- the sopapilla base is a very dense Mexican pastry that is typically deep fried into more of a crunchy sweet bread. In this case, it very lightly soaked up egg, maintaining the sweet pastry flavor of the sopapilla. Sometimes french toast is overwhelmingly eggy, but that was not the case here. The texture was unique- more like a pancake or super fat tortilla. Powdered sugar and the cinnamon syrup gave a touch of sweetness.

We also order a side of chorizo ($3). The dish of spicy crumbled meat was repurposed as a tortilla chip topper- unbelievably delicious, especially with a dollop of salsa. A likened it to taco meat, but it had a couple extra dimensions of flavor than standard ground beef. We didn't finish either dish, allowing the first stop to just take the edge off our hunger. The rest of the menu looked interesting, dishes served to nearby diners looked delicious, and the prices/portions were hard to beat. It seems like a fun place to come for dinner with a large group.

Our next stop was practically right across the street. Green Aisle Grocery is a very unique neighborhood grocery store, stocking a carefully selected array of typical, and atypical, grocery items, as well as some prepared foods from well-known Philly restaurants. Brothers Adam and Andrew Erace have created a very cute, bright little shop that we wish was a little closer to our place! They recently announced that they were carrying sandwiches made by Tim McGinnis of previously discussed Spinal Tapas fame. One of Tim's ventures is named "American Meats & Provisions," whereby he makes all of his own meats- think herb-brined turkey and thick cut housemade ham. These meats then go into sandwiches to be sold at Green Aisle.

We snagged the very last sandwich in the refrigerated section- the Russian Lox ($10). This fit in well with our brunch eats, so I was happy. While it might seem a little steep for a simple sandwich, let me tell you, this was no simple sandwich. First off- it was huge. A & I found an unoccupied corner stoop and got to work. The sandwich was constructed strangely- somehow the "seam" of the sandwich was along the top. The vodka-cured lox filled the inside of the crusty, chewy baguette- its vivid pink color matched its intense flavor. The texture of the salmon was smooth and silky. Herb-y cream cheese, a caper spread, and bits of lemon added in all those delicious flavors associated with your typical bagel & lox. The quality of each ingredient created a sandwich that was out of this world.

We took a little food break and stopped at the Black & Brew for some much needed caffeine. I would love to try their Flour-Free Banana & Blueberry Pancakes, but our stomachs weren't up for another heavy dish. We sat in the very cheery and uniquely decorated coffee shop and enjoyed iced coffee (for A) and a double Americano (for me) while reading the newspaper. At this point I was a little high on delicious food and caffeine (BnB coffee packs a punch) and had a little euphoric "I love Philly" moment. The atmosphere on East Passyunk is just so super friendly and neighborhoodly, you can't help but feel like you belong there.

Our next stop was at a well-known East Passyunk institution, aptly named "The Pub on Passyunk East" or POPE for short (yay acronyms!). With a definite "hipster dive bar" atmosphere, we avoided the dim inside and snagged a sidewalk table- unfortunately surrounded by a few chain-smoking, sailor-mouthed, tattered-clothes- wearing groups. Slightly entertaining to listen to, but I could have done without the smoke bubble.

We made the best of it and enjoyed the sunshine. The brunch menu has most of the "standards" but we decided to try the Shrimp and Grits (a Southern classic). Unfortunately, our waitress informed us they were fresh out of shrimp, so we ordered the Trinity ($8)instead. Not expecting too much, we were pleasantly surprised (again!) to be served a very beautifully arranged plate of food. Crisp Granny Smith apple, juicy Bosc pear, and a few pieces of chewy pita bread were served alongside three different dips. The first was my favorite- a very thick, rich goat cheese well complemented by bits of mint and chopped walnuts. Slathered on a sweet and sour piece of apple, this was amazing. A's favorite was the scoop of hummus. Incredibly heavy on the tahini, the hummus was thick and creamy and full of flavor. The third dip was a salty mix of chopped olives with a very Mediterranean feel. Sort of like a tapenade but with a rougher chop on the olives.

We were pretty full at this point and debated continuing our journey through the Italian Market. We decided against it, and broke off from East Passyunk and headed toward home. With a bit of luck, we ran smack into Isgro, a well-known Italian pastry shop in the midst of many delicious looking Italian restaurants.

I've heard that Isgro's sells the best cannolli in Philly (obviously up for debate), but A & I each ordered a pastry to top off our culinary adventure with something sweet. I chose the apple turnover and A ordered the carrot cake ($6.90 for both). Wrapped up in a cute white box reminiscent of most Italian bakeries, these pastries didn't make it but a block down the road before we pulled them out. The turnover was chock full of sweet cinnamon apples, the pastry was flaky and topped with those large sugar crystals that dissolve in your mouth. A little bit of heaven for sure. The carrot cake had lots of raisins and walnuts and was layered with a cream cheese frosting. Rich and spicy, the cake had many visible shreds of carrots (making it healthy, right?).

A & I were overwhelmingly pleased with our venture through South Philly. Lots of good food, cute neighborhood restaurants and shops, and plenty of reasons to go back. What neighborhood should we explore next?

Cantina Los Caballitos
1651 E. Passyunk Ave

Green Aisle Grocery
1618 E. Passyunk Ave

Black N Brew
1523 E. Passyunk Ave

Pub on Passyunk East
1501 E. Passyunk Ave

Isgro Pasticceria
1009 Christian Street

September 14, 2010

"The Compleat Sandwich"

On our recent trip to Florida, I found myself reading an interesting article in Southwest Airline's Spirit Magazine (you know, that magazine in the seat pocket in front of you). The magazine featured a series of stories and tips surrounding (as you know) one of our favorite food items- the sandwich. They posed the sandwich as an American icon, and focused on each component and how to maximize the deliciousness of your overall sandwich through each one. At the end of the articles, they offered a challenge: create your own sandwich and enter it in a contest to win a trip to New York City. I've never entered a food contest, but I think it's about time- plus, how hard is it to make a sandwich?

The contest does have some guidelines: don't try to go too crazy- more isn't necessarily better, focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, and be aware of your "sandwich architecture." I've never really thought about my sandwiches as structures or buildings before, but I actually did learn some helpful hints.

1) If you want toasted bread, only toast a single side and use this facing in. This prevents painful cuts or scrapes in your mouth, and allows for both crunchy AND soft textures from your bread. It also helps maintain the structure of the sandwich and prevents sogginess.

2) "Insulate" your sandwich with your spread of choice. This adds another layer of protection for the bread-- wet sandwiches really are the worst.

3) Be careful when choosing the lettuce for your sandwich (if applicable). Are you looking for a lot of crunch? Try romaine or iceberg. Do you want a soft cushion? Go for Bibb or butter lettuce. Looking for additional flavor? Try watercress or arugula.

4) If there is a primary star ingredient, really make it shine. Don't be skimpy with the "meat" of the sandwich (even if it's not meat!)

Keeping these tips and tricks in mind, I set out to create my own original sandwich. J has an obsession with goat cheese, and recently purchased goat Brie, which became the starting point for my creation. Brie is an underrated cheese for sandwiches, and the goat factor adds an extra dimension of flavor. Brie is a perfect cheese counterpart for sweets, so as an additional spread, I chose cherry preserves. The preserves compliment the sharper goat flavor, and also help to keep everything moist. Another classic combination I had in mind was turkey and cranberry sauce- some of the best sandwiches are created out of these leftovers the day after Thanksgiving. With cherry preserves acting as a mock cranberry sauce, I wanted savory turkey to prevent the sandwich from becoming dessert. I chose arugula as the final component to create some volume and add it's unique peppery bite.

To me, bread is THE key to making a good sandwich. For this creation, I dreamed of using thick slices of fresh olive oil-rosemary bread, drizzled with olive oil and grilled (only on one side!). This bread would not only serve as a perfect exterior, it would also add its own burst of flavor. Sadly, this bread of my dreams was not to be found. I was faced with several other options, and eventually chose pumpernickel. A good pumpernickel bread has a deep, sweet flavor that- while not ideal- is not going to take a backseat. My goal was to have the bread play a large role in the sandwich, and pumpernickel would have to step in as the understudy.. if you will.

I sliced the bread into large, thick pieces- almost an inch thick. I don't mess around. Being careful to remember Spirit's advice, I chose to toast one side of each slice of bread. As my dad pointed out when I made this suggestion to him, "My toaster toasts both sides," I used a pan for the job. I spread sweet, salted butter on both slices and heated them in the pan for 2-3 minutes. No burnt edges here, just enough to melt the butter and crisp up the bread.

Next, I took advantage of the hot bread to help the cheese spreading process. However, Brie needs to be at room temperature or it won't spread well, even with a warm spreading surface. The Brie also acts to "insulate" the bread against the much moister jam, which was the next addition. Then, I added the arugula. This lettuce can be kind of a mess- tons of tiny pieces and little stems can explode out of your sandwich. I thought carefully about this problem and decided to add it directly on top of the jam to help anchor the pile of greens down. On the other side, I applied two large slices of roasted turkey, which contained the impending mess by creating a bit of a dome over it. Top with your second slice of bread (toasted side in!) and slice in half.

I was a little disappointed that I couldn't create my dream sandwich (rosemary bread, where ARE you?), but the pumpernickel actually ended up being very enjoyable. It was crispy, but didn't cut my mouth (seriously, this is usually a problem for me), and was extremely dense and flavorful. The Brie and the jam paired together perfectly, oozing a bit of cheesy sweetness into each bite. The turkey was roasted with a number of spices (including rosemary), adding to the flavor profile, and while providing the literal meat for the sandwich, didn't overwhelm the other components. This is not your typical turkey sandwich!

It was fun to make my own creation, based on ingredients and combinations that I prefer. I doubt I'll win the contest, but I am still taking away some helpful sandwich hints that I'm sure I will use forever. So a question for our readers: Any sandwich creations you have in mind?

September 9, 2010

CSA Fall Edition: Vegan Quesadillas

Our CSA has been a blessing this summer, providing us with tons of delicious veggies each week. We shared with you the contents of a typical spring share and discussed the plethora of tomatoes we received in many of our summer shares, but now as we move into fall, we are seeing the shift in seasons reflected in our CSA contents.

Last week, we received:

1 bunch rainbow kale
1 bunch herbs (sorrel)
2 Delicata squash
1 bag Roma tomatoes (1 lb)
1 bag onions (2 lb)
1 8 oz package of baby portobella mushrooms
1 bag red potatoes (2 lb)
1 bag jalapeno peppers (1/4 lb)

Quite a lot of delicious, completely organic food! We are still seeing the last of summer's tomatoes, but are also seeing more classic fall vegetables- squash, potatoes, and kale. For some reason seeing the combination of kale and mushrooms reminded me of a dinner I made last year and have often thought about since. I'm not one to repeat recipes often, but I knew I wanted to recreate this and share it with you. Unfortunately, the actual combination is swiss chard and mushrooms, so it required several non-CSA purchases, but the end result was completely worth it. Don't let the vegan-ness of this scare you- it's chock full of flavor and very hearty.

Sweet Potato, Chard, and Mushroom Quesadillas (original recipe found here)

1 sweet potato (medium), peeled and diced into chunks
1 large chipotle pepper in adobo, minced + 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
15 ounce can kidney beans (or any bean of your choice) rinsed and drained
2 large garlic cloves, minced
10-12 ounces of baby portabella mushrooms, chopped
1.5 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1 bunch chard, rinsed
2-4 whole wheat tortillas (depending on your hunger level and size of the tortilla; Trader Joe's makes the best whole wheat tortillas I've ever come across)

These quesadillas have three main components, each needing to be prepared separately. However, it all comes together in about 15 minutes! To start, place your peeled, diced sweet potato in a medium, microwave safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a small towel, microwave on high for 4-5 minutes. At this point it should be mashable, if not, nuke it for another minute or two. Add the can of beans, the chipotle pepper and sauce, and season with salt and pepper. Using a potato masher or a large fork, mash everything and stir to combine. The potato should be fully mashed; the beans need not be. Also, a note on chipotle peppers. They come in a small can, and you literally only want to use one. Very spicy and very flavorful. If a recipe calls for ONE pepper, please do not think that this means one entire can. Transfer the remaining peppers and sauce into a small Tupperware or baggie and freeze; for later meals, just scrape out what you need.

While the sweet potato is cooking, prepare the chard. Rinse the leaves well, then cut or tear the leaves off of the stems; discard stems. Tear or slice the leaves into smaller pieces. Heat a pot, coat with cooking spray and add your chard. Add about 1/4 cup of liquid- either vegetable broth or water- to help the steaming process, and cover. Chard cooks quickly, so really only needs a couple of minutes in the steam bath. When it's fully wilted, you may need to dump off the remaining liquid-- I poured it off and then lightly squeezed the chard to make sure it wasn't super juicy (nobody wants a soggy quesadilla).

Onto the third component! In a skillet, heat some olive oil, then add your chopped mushrooms and garlic. I also seasoned these with salt and pepper, but not necessary. Once the garlic is softened and your mushrooms are well cooked, it's time to assemble and heat the quesadilla. I moved the mushrooms to a plate and reutilized the same skillet. Start with your tortilla, then glob on some of the sweet potato mixture. The recipe is actually intended to feed two, but I was able to make four meals out of it-- two quesadillas and two burritos. Whatever works for you. Make a good bed of sweet potato on one half of the tortilla, then layer on the chard. Finally, top with the sauteed mushrooms, cover with the opposing side of the tortilla, and transfer to the pan. Heat for 3-4 minutes per side, to crisp up the tortilla and heat everything through.

You can serve these with sour cream (non-vegan alert!), but we actually love them plain. The chipotle flavor is pretty intense, and really works well with the earthy sweet potato and beans. Each bite has a variety of textures all working together- the chewy tortilla, the creamy sweet potato and the soft mushrooms all form a delicious, filling meal that is even better the next day. It's perfect for a fall or winter dinner (plus all of the ingredients are produced at this time of the year!), comes together amazingly fast, and you won't miss the meat- I promise.

September 5, 2010


I have been waiting to write this post for a very long time. "But Barbuzzo just opened!" you might say. Yes, but this restaurant has been in the works for what seems like years. A & I have been fans of the 13th Street monopoly run by partners Valarie Safran and Marcie Turney for quite awhile now. Lolita was one of our very first favorite places to eat back when we were wee undergrads; we've purchased a number of gifts at Verde; our mom loves the decor that fills Open House; I'm a fan of the unique Marcie Blaine chocolates; and even met my boyfriends mom for the first time over dinner at Bindi. I've been preemptively drooling ever since this duo announced a new Mediterranean venture.

A & I snagged a somewhat early reservation on Friday evening, though the restaurant certainly never reached capacity during our meal. The very skinny, deep building is arranged with a bar and long kitchen-viewing counter along one side and tables pushed up against the opposite wall. This leaves a somewhat narrow aisle for hostesses, waitresses, bussers, and diners to navigate. Providing us with our own bottle of chilled tap water cut down on the need for water refreshment traffic. We were seated next to two sweet yet slightly nosy Jersey women- the close quarters had us sharing conversations and at one point, even food. Our table was also near the bar, which gave us the pleasure of listening to an obnoxious screechy-laughed lady who had too many glasses of wine.

However, we didn't let the atmosphere ruin our appetites. A started her meal with the "Pig Popcorn" ($5). Hopefully no one orders this expecting actual popcorn, because it is deep-fried pig skin. This was an annual treat from our childhood memory bank, as we always stopped to get a piping hot piece at a country fair in Northern Georgia. Barbuzzo's rendition was a little more classy. Tons of crunch (almost a bit too hard) and delicious smoky flavor, with the accompanying aioli providing a creamy kick of horseradish. A great snack to start with.

I really wanted to try the roasted marrow bones (still never tried marrow!) but A wasn't really feeling it, so I chose the chicken liver and foie gras mousse ($7)- still adventurous enough to keep me happy. This ended up being a real highlight of our meal. The mousse was incredibly dense, incredibly rich, and incredibly satisfying. The sweet tartness of the dried cherries added an extra dimension to the flavor. My one complaint? The bread was too toasted. I really would have liked some lightly toasted French bread instead of a dried up cracker. But really.. I'm being picky. The creamy, meaty mousse was so good I probably would have eaten it with a piece of cardboard.

The bread snafu was immediately remedied by the arrival of our vegetable board ($13). This long wooden plank offered up some soft, buttery grilled bread with the the perfect touch of toastiness. Unfortunately, this delicious bread was the star of the show. There were four different piles of cold seasonal vegetable "salads"; mushrooms, snap peas and white beans, sauteed eggplant, and a radish and beet concoction certainly provided an interesting assortment of vegetables. However, I think the fact that this dish is served cold made it easy to pick apart. The mushrooms were a little rubbery, the eggplant a little soggy, the snap peas a little stringy. Radishes and beets are too mild to pair together, at least in my opinion. If these veggies were served immediately after cooking, I think they would be terrific.

The dishes were coursed out well- at this point we had a little break to breathe, chat about the food, and anticipate our entrees. A's choice- the bucatini ($13)- was certainly worth anticipating. This thick housemade pasta was out of this world. Denser than your typical spaghetti, with an almost doughy bite, it was every pasta lover's dream (and I typically dislike pasta...). The sauce was sweet yet spicy, with a touch of lightly steamed escarole and a sprinkle of buttery burrata cheese. An additional depth to the sauce was provided by a little hunk of slow-cooked pork shoulder. While we wished there was a little more of the meat, it provided a hearty flavor that was much enjoyed. A and I compared the quality of the dish to that of our pasta experience at Vetri's Amis, with the added bonus of a bigger portion (totally sharable!) for the same price.

I opted to choose from the pizza section of the menu. The huge wood-burning oven gave a smoky-tinged bonfire aroma to the entire restaurant, and this was very well captured in the capricciosa pizza ($14). The dough was thinly spread, yet still maintained a chewy thicker outer crust (a pizza requirement in our household). The toppings were well chosen and incredibly high-quality- sweet San Marzano tomatoes, little piles of thinly shaved prosciutto, the perfect quantity of smoked mozzarella, soft bits of artichoke, and zesty, salty olives. Though we still think Zavino sells our favorite, Barbuzzo certainly knows what they're doing in the pizza department. A few leftover slices made for a great next-day snack.

I also had to try a side of the roasted brussels ($6). These seem to be a popular menu item, and I've enjoyed delicious renditions at both Sampan and Varga. Barbuzzo has a refreshing take on the dish- not overly cooked, with a good bit of crunch and a lot of that super fresh vegetable flavor- good for counteracting pasta and pizza. Some housemade pancetta, shaved caciocavallo cheese (like a mild parm), and a little crusty breadcrumb cap made the dish well worth the price. Again, great use of top-notch ingredients created something deliciously simple yet totally luxurious.

The dessert menu didn't have anything that screamed "you must eat me NOW!" so we topped of our dinner across the street at Capogiro. We spent quite awhile reminiscing about the meal and trying to decide what dish was our favorite. Narrowing it down to the bucatini and the mousse, perhaps we'll have to go back and have a second round trial to decide the real winner. Absolutely 100% without a doubt we recommend this restaurant- probably not good for first dates (a little loud) or big groups (a little cramped) but absolutely perfect for anyone craving a delicious meal with Italian influences.

110 S. 13th Street