February 23, 2010


The past week marked Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the start of Lent, neither of which we really acknowledge. However, there is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that involves cleaning out the pantry of anything indulgent- lard, butter, sugar, etc. Throw these ingredients together and what do you get? Donuts.

A & I were invited to a "Fasnacht" party this past weekend, hosted by two PA natives who have several years of experience in the art of making these treats. We're always curious about food that we've never heard of, especially when it falls in the dessert category, so there was no way we were missing this event.

We unfortunately missed the actual making of the dough, but I grilled our host on the process so I could make them myself blog about it. Apparently when Pennsylvanian's were cleaning out the pantry, there was also a surplus of potatoes, as these make up a substantial part of the dough. The following recipe makes an extremely large number of pastries, so if you're thinking about making these, please plan to invite everyone you know. Including us.

First you "scald" 5 cups of whole milk. I've never had to scald milk, but apparently the technique our host used involved "heating up the milk until it forms a skin." Sounds good enough for me. Next, mix in 4 cups of mashed potatoes (oh yeah, make these before you start the milk). Add 1 1/2 cups of sugar, 2 sticks of margarine (makes a better texture than butter), and mix thoroughly. Next comes the yeast, as with any fluffy breadlike substance. Mix three packets of yeast (I think 1 packet is standard 1/4 oz) with 1/4 cups of hot water and add this to your potato-milk mix. Then mix in 4 cups of flour. Let the whole mess rise for 30 minutes in a warmish location.

At this point, the dough will be reeeally sticky and wet. In order to get to a workable donut dough, more flour must be added. A lot more flour. Apparently 9 cups more flour. After you exhaust your flour supply (and possibly your next door neighbors supply as well), form the dough into your donut shape of choice. Our fasnachts were squareish, several inches in width. Line them up on wax paper covered pans and let them rise again (perhaps in your oven on a warming setting). Another option is to add surprise treats inside- our treats included mini Snickers and Hershey's chocolate pieces (gotta support PA). The large sized dough chunks easily wrap around your candy of choice- be creative!

The next step is actually frying the donuts. Our host & hostess used a mixture of lard and shortening- most recipes call for "hot fat." Heat it up to somewhere between 325 and 350 F (use a candy thermometer and monitor it carefully) and get ready to fry! A & I manned the kitchen for awhile- we like to get in on the cooking action. The pot that was used was very deep & stainless- there really was very little splatter factor. However, use a metal slotted spoon to keep your distance from the oil. Plop the donuts in, let them fry for a few minutes, flip them over, repeat, and... fasnacht! If this doesn't sound good to you, you're probably a Communist.

To make these even MORE delicious and disgustingly bad for you, add powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar to a brown paper bag, pop in a piping hot donut, and shake. The end result will be a perfectly coated donut- hot, fresh, and ready to go. Even though I ate a very large number of these fist sized doughy puffballs (we had to try all of the variations!), I could still totally go for one right now. Sweet but not overly so, crisp on the outside, hot and airy on the inside, a slight amount of greasiness... SO GOOD. We're already looking forward to next year!

February 22, 2010

Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar

In the outskirts of Philly lies the "suburb" of Manayunk, known for its Main Street and ubiquitous twenty-somethings. I have completely recovered from my original surprise at its name- now it blends in with all of the other Native American monikers in the area. It is actually considered a Philadelphia neighborhood (with a Philadelphia address), but visiting requires a twenty minute train ride from Center City. As you may know, we aren't particularly fond of relocating that far for any old reason. However, an invite to a food-related party had us looking up train schedules in a heartbeat (post to come on this subject soon!)

Since we were making the trek to Manayunk, we decided to make it a day of shopping and exploring the area... and since the noon hour would be included, lunch was our first mission. Several restaurants and cafes in Manayunk are fairly well known by name to us, and in combination with a personal recommendation, our plan was to visit Chabaa Thai. However, since Saturday morning always means "extra hard workout" in our house, upon arriving we were in the mood for something more.. substantial.

Practically adjacent to Chabaa is the restaurant duo of Jake's and Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar. Jake's is a Manayunk classic, but Cooper's is its slightly newer and apparently somewhat more relaxed (ie less $$) little brother. I am still confused about the relationship between the two- are they physically connected interiorly? Clearly I was more focused on the food than on the space. We were given our choice of seats and chose a cafe table near the front window- better lighting for pictures and a good place to enjoy the sun (it's rarely seen around here recently).

The menu is a bit extensive and includes pizzas (hence the "Brick Oven"-- prominently featured in the back of the restaurant), salads, sandwiches, "plates" (like smaller entrees) and regular entrees. The menu covers a lot both in terms of food and prices- you could have lunch for anywhere between $12 (if you get the Margherita pizza or the gnocchi, for example) to $29 for the Chilean Sea Bass or crab cakes. We were both in the mood for a burger, but noticed that two fellow diners had barely been able to finish this dish together, so decided to split it.

First, we ordered a "snack"-- roasted beets ($5). We love beets as you can tell... there is just something very refreshing about their crisp flavor. Their bright color, juicy texture and purported health benefits don't hurt either! The beets were served in a small square bowl- a great presentation with crumbled goat cheese and bits of candied pecans. However, the bowl made it difficult to eat- spooning them out onto a plate caused the cheese to fall over the sides (the horror of potentially losing cheese!!!). The extra effort was worth it- the combination of flavors and textures was, while classic, very enjoyable. The goat cheese wasn't too "goaty" and helped contrast the earthy beet flavor with a salty, creamy taste. The candied nuts were almost pulverized to a powder- which was actually very much appreciated. It easily stuck to the beets for a sugary crunch in every bite.

Next came the Caprese salad ($10). The originality of this dish is still surprising to me- how many takes on tomatoes, mozzarella and basil are possible? Cooper's is one that we have never seen, nor would we have ever created ourselves. The plate starts with two pools of delicious basil pesto, framing slices of fresh mozzarella sprinkled with an oil vinaigrette. These are accompanied by clumps of fresh, raw cherry tomatoes still on their vine. Atop all of this sits a frazzle of greens (the only word I can come up with to describe it!) These included what we called "clover" and that stringy green lettuce that often comes in bagged salads... sorry, I'm just not up on my alternative lettuce vocabulary (editor's note: frisee?). These greens were great for dipping into the pesto, although I would have preferred a little more substance (a better ratio of lettuce to air, if you will). The tomatoes were middle-of-summer fresh, and I'm still thinking about their acidic burst in my mouth.

Finally, what we had walked in the door for- the burger. Labeled "Jake's Prime Burger" on the menu, the sandwich lived up to its price tag ($15). A fluffy potato bun encased a huge patty, perfectly cooked to our specified medium-rare, covered in Vermont white cheddar. Sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions were also part of the show. It was served with a side of crisp fries and two options for sauces- regular ketchup and a horseradish-mayo combination. The burger was super moist, but was well matched by the bun, which somehow was both dense and soft. The toppings were a good combination- normally I might consider mushrooms, onions, and cheese to be somewhat of an overkill, but it didn't overwhelm the meat at all. I gave my half of the sandwich a healthy slather of the horseradish sauce- and ended up dipping my last few bites in it to maximize the flavor. It was what every horseradish sauce should aspire to be- even J, being a general objector to mayonnaise was gladly eating it. It also made a great sauce for the fries- I have recently been introduced to the mayonnaise-fry combination and the horseradish stepped it up another notch. The fries themselves were great sans sauce, being a cut large enough to include a crispy outside and soft inside (just the way I like them). They were coated in large grain salt, adding an additional crunch. The portion was reasonable for two people to split without feeling like total greaseballs.

The meal was overall satisfying- a quiet, sunny spot in a new, unexplored corner of Philly that served us creative, delicious food for a reasonable price. We would normally have considered ordering "lunch dessert", but we had a full afternoon of dessert eating in front of us. Stay tuned for that adventure...

Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar
4367 Main Street
Philadelphia, PA

February 20, 2010

Garces Trading Co.

A & I, as Philadelphia citizens (well, not legally- we still have Florida drivers license's...) have been very exposed to the Philly Food God that is Jose Garces. Even though he's become a little bit "overdone" (a little too commercialized, ie Stephen Starr), we still are fully aware of his amazing capability to put together restaurants with great atmostpheres, great food, great service- overall terrific eating experiences. We've eaten at Amada, Distrito, Whiskey Village, and Tinto with mostly positive comments on all the of the above. So when the concept for Garces Trading Co. was announced, we were certainly intrigued- essentially a compilation of Garces' favorite tidbits from each of his Philly restaurants. Opening early this week, GTC's location adjacent to my place of work/study gave me a chance to peek in on the walk home. The general sense of livelihood inspired me to drag A along for dinner (I didn't exactly need to ask her more than once).

The old space was a mixture of a sit-down cafe as well as offering takeout options, and Garces carried on with this idea. The renovations were very simple, but the use of the floor space was really maximized. The edges of the room were fitted with coolers & counters for selling cheese, meats, pastries, and breads, as well as sandwiches, pastas and other to-go options. There is also a small and separate room stocked with wines from Spain, Italy & France which can be purchased as a sort of on-location BYOB (our waiter told us they were averaging two bottles per table from this selection). The center of the restaurant has a variety of tables- bar height as well as small booths and long tables shared by multiple parties. It might seem a bit awkward to share a table with another group, but we weren't closely packed and it created a friendly atmosphere.

*Please excuse photo quality, we were in a hurry and forgot the camera, so these are compliments of a Blackberry

We arrived about 7:30 and were told we had a 30 minutes wait, which was the perfect amount of time to peruse the rest of the store. The highlight is certainly the "oil & vinegar bar"- a 20 foot span of large stainless containers with taps of a variety of high quality oils (white truffle oil? cinnamon pear balsamic? yes please!!) as well as boxes full of bits of bread for dipping. A & I are unsure how long this will last, as it seems like a money-loser- there was certainly no policing- I could have sat and eaten tablespoon after tablespoon of oil costing over $30 a bottle (and I wanted to, trust me). We also saw Garces himself working behind the meat counter, checking on orders and talking with customers and other chefs.

When we were eventually seated, the service was terrific. Our waiter was friendly, answered all our questions, and the food came out with plenty of time to enjoy each item without a rush. When asked whether we had any questions, A replied "Yes, actually... Can we just get one of everything?" Without a beat, our waiter responded "Would you like me to course that out, or bring it all at once?" We decided to start out with the Chef's Selection of cheeses- 3 cheeses with 3 accompaniments ($15 with individual cheese selections priced at $6 and accompaniments $1 each). The plate arrived with an excellent mix of tastes and textures- manchego, Fourme d'Ambert (a very mild blue), and fontina. The accompaniments were roasted garlic dulce de leche, onion pecan butter, and a honey with plump golden raisins, all served up on a cool grey slate. The collective favorite cheese was the blue- it had none of the bitter moldy flavor that most sharp blue cheeses possess- it was mostly salty and earthy. I personally love a good manchego, and this one did not disappoint. The fontina was also good.. until I smelled it. We decided it smelled like lab bacteria.. so if you know what E. coli growing in LB broth smells like... yeah, not totally pleasant. However, the texture was firm and smooth, so a good smother of onion pecan butter made it a mouth full of joy. The accompaniments were terrific- most notably the garlic dulce de leche. With the color and texture of caramel, but the taste of roasted garlic... points for both original, interesting, and tasty.

*Cheese portions actually a bit larger, we preemptively dove in before snapping a pic

We also ordered an antipasto of the baby artichokes ($7). I have an obsession with artichoke hearts, but these were really nothing like your usual artichoke hearts out of a jar. These artichokes were very firm, almost to the point of being crisp, which was probably enhanced by being chilled. They were served in a totally delightful lemony oil (bits of lemon zest present) and topped with something unidentifiable but delicious. It looked like bacon but tasted sweet- we guessed figs but later determined them to be almonds soaked in a sugary substance. The compilation of flavors and textures was perfection, and the portion satisfying to share.

Next up was a Cuban sandwich ($10). Knowing Garces' Latino heritage, we figured this was a good bet, and once again, we were not disappointed. The bread was the perfect amount of toasted- crunchy and substantial. The blend of meats and cheese as well as the vinegary crunch of pickle and the traditional mustard was well complimented with a side of sweet roasted peppers. The best part was the sandwich was cut into quarters- perfect for sharing. Again, this portion was satisfying, especially considering the richness of the piled meats and cheese. I've had quite a few Cuban sandwiches in my day, and this would certainly top the list.

We also ordered a pizza- A requested the Verde- a white pizza with spinach, asparagus, fava beans and arugula ($12). I was a little hesitant about this combination, but it really created a fresh, crisp, literally "green" take on Garces' flatbreads from his other restaurants. Serving 5 smallish slices, the thin crust pizza was topped with the perfect ratio of cheese and vegetables. The asparagus was thinly sliced and tender, creating a sweet compliment to the spicy arugula. Another good menu item to share, this pizza was the definition of fresh and delicious.

Of course we had to end the meal with dessert, so we ordered a cookie plate ($4) and the Marjolaine ($5). The cookie plate was also totally shareable- two each of a tiny raspberry muffin, a chocolate madeleine, and a grapefruit macaron. The macaron was our favorite- they must use some sort of grapefruit extract, because the flavor was prevalent in both the soft, chewy cookies as well as the sweet tangy "inside" (I actually ate mine like an Oreo, twisting apart the cookies and tasting each part separately). The madeleine seemed to be missing some sugar- I love dark, bitter chocolate but this was almost bland. The muffin was also unremarkable.

The marjolaine, on the other hand, was totally remarkable. It had 5 different layers- a denser pastry crust, a thicker creamy coffee layer and... some other stuff, topped with a thick chocolate ganache. Again, the complexity that the mixture of these seemingly simple flavors created was outstanding.

The restaurant also serves a daily "special" for two to share, which we definitely want to go back to check out (Tuesday duck confit cassoulet anyone??), as well as a deep dish pizza that we never saw but was apparently popular (we overheard our waiter telling a group there were only two left). It's very notable that this place serves top-quality food that really engages your senses, all for an affordable price. Some of Garces' restaurants can really make a dent in your bank account (OK, maybe only if you're poor grad students like us..) and we're so glad he has successfully created this "food heaven" in the middle of the city.

Garces Trading Co.
1111 Locust Street

February 14, 2010

Snow Baking Part Two

J and I did a little birthday shopping for ourselves, and came across a set of quiche pans (like these tartlet pans, but slightly larger) at Williams-Sonoma. We figured we could not only use them for making individual serving size quiches, but also for mini tarts and pies! Yes, we were trying to justify the $26 price tag (for a set of six).

Our mid-week snow day gave us a good chance to give them a test run, and quiche making commenced. We had been planning on making a bacon, mushroom, and spinach frittata, but after buying the little pans we spun the recipe a little in order to make the quiche. These may seem like the same dish, but there are actually a fair number of differences... basically, a frittata is more like an omelette that fills an entire pan, and is usually started on the stove top, and then finished under a broiler to cook that last bit of egg. A quiche usually has a crust (point 1 for quiche, in my book), uses a mix of cream and eggs to create a smoother, custardy consistency, and is baked from start to finish.

First step: make the crust. After making the dough for the lemon bars just a few days prior, we felt confident that we could create our own crust sans recipe, and "health-ify" it. We replaced the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour, and subbed in a mix of olive oil and water in place of the two sticks (!) of butter (granted, we were making a smaller batch of dough as well). In the world of crust, this is probably as healthy as it gets.

I didn't measure very exactly, but into the mixing bowl went 1.5 cups of flour, a teaspoon or so of salt, and about 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil. I started with a healthy splash of oil, then a splash of cold water (from the tap during the winter is plenty cold enough) and started mixing. At first it created a very crumbly mix, but continually adding a little bit more oil and an equal amount of water soon found the dough forming a nice, slightly greasy, ball. We chilled it in the fridge for about twenty minutes to make it easier to roll out for the crusts.

In the meantime, the oven was set to 450, and we started making the filling. We fried two or three pieces of thick center-cut bacon until crisp, and then removed them from the pan and used the bacon grease to saute a chopped onion, half of a package of sliced mushrooms, and the leaves from one bunch of red swiss chard.

After these were nicely browned, softened, and wilted, respectively, we diced the bacon up and re-added it to the pan. Then, we allowed it to cool slightly so that when it was added to the eggs it wouldn't start their cooking process. In another bowl, we combined three eggs and about 3/4 cup of half-and-half (although you could use cream, milk, whatever you'd like) with some salt and pepper. After whisking, we added the sauteed mess and stirred it all together. It wasn't very "wet", but we figured the more substantial the filling the better.

First though, the crusts needed to be rolled out, formed into their pans, and pre-baked. We also just purchased a handy little pastry/dough roller, which was helpful here. The dough ball was placed on a well-floured counter and rolled out to about 1/8th inch thickness. Then, we placed one of the quiche pans onto the dough as a guide, and cut a rough circle. The circle should be about an inch or so larger in diameter than the pan so that it has room to cover all the way up the sides.

After pressing them gently into their pans, we baked them for about 10 minutes (at 450 degrees).

They didn't look very "done" when they came out, but they still had some baking to do! We lowered the oven temp to 350, and poured the filling equally amongst all of the pans (6 in total). If you do the math, that's only 1/2 a piece of bacon and 1/2 egg per quiche... not doing so bad on the health-o-meter. We baked them until they felt done to the touch- about 25 minutes. Quiche will continue cooking slightly even after it is pulled out of the oven, so normally you would want to pull it out before it is completely done. However, our filling had so much solid volume to it that the "setting" of the custard was hard to visualize.

After cooling for a few minutes, we freed them from their pans- very easy to do as the pans have removable bottoms. Just push the bottom up from the center (levelly), and the side drops away. We did not grease the pans in any way; the oil from the crust is enough to prevent them from sticking.

Paired with a simple salad, it made an easy, light dinner (good for those days that you sit at your computer working ALL DAY since you can't go outside into the blizzard). We also froze a couple of them for future consumption.

The quiche had great texture and flavor- even with the small amount of bacon, the pork flavor was fully present, and it was chock full of greens and sauteed vegetables. The egg made a great binder for all of this, and provided smoothness in every bite. The crust also helped hold the whole thing together (as crust normally does...), but it was a little bit too... healthy. Sad to say, our efforts to raise the nutrition content may have backfired. We still enjoyed it, but the whole wheat-i-ness was a bit overpowering- it almost had that raw, uncooked flour taste. Perhaps next time we will try to use a fraction of all-purpose flour, and maybe experiment with a little butter.

February 7, 2010

Paesano's "Two"

Finally! After many months, we reunite with the deliciousness that is Paesano's. J and I have been to the original Paesano's on Girard Avenue only once, but I literally dream about the experience... if I was to be featured on Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," the only problem I would have would be deciding WHICH sandwich from Paesano's I liked better. This tiny sandwich shop (counter seating for 6-8, although most of the business is take-out) has received a LOT of recognition that has extended well outside of the city- nods in both Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. The menu of 10 sandwiches and a few sides is small but each sandwich is made with gourmet ingredients, amazing bread choices, and a lot of time and love. A meal tops out at $10, which is insane when charted on the Deliciousness vs. Money scale. Unfortunately, the original Paesano's (at 152 W. Girard Avenue) is not exactly.. convenient, which makes my taste buds more than a little sad. We're not big into any form of transportation that isn't walking, and the trek is a little longer than we'd like (and yes, I walk 2 miles twice a day every day to get to school and this is still too far- Google Maps tells me its 3.2 miles away).

We read in September (on Foobooz, our favorite source for restaurant and food news in Philly) that Paesano's was opening a new location in the Italian Market. Would we prefer that they moved into the little food market next door? Yes. But the Italian Market is certainly within walking distance, which satisfies us.

After a snowed out attempt, we made it the following day- a good trek through snow drifts and icy sidewalks was well worth it. We're not sure whether it is because the place just opened or whether the snow was keeping eaters indoors, but it was pretty quiet for a weekend afternoon. Instead of placing your order at the counter as you do at the original, the space is much more "restaurant-y". Only about a third of the 12 or so tables were occupied (I hope on future visits we will again escape a wait!). The space is kind of awkwardly used and the decorations leave a little to be desired, but the atmosphere was not why we were there. We sat ourselves at a sunny table, and started the tough job of making sandwich decisions.

*Note: Click pictures to make them lifesize (especially the sandwich pics!)

At our last visit, we tried the "Paesano," which at that time was a beef brisket sandwich topped with cole slaw, pepperoncino, and Gorgonzola, and the "Arista": shredded suckling pig, broccoli rabe, and Italian long hots. My mouth is watering typing these words. Since that time, they've changed the Paesano, leaving the beef brisket but changing the toppings to roasted tomato, horseradish mayonnaise, and fried egg. We had to try this new version to give it a comparison to the "original" and also ordered the "Daddy Wad" (great name, guys). It is a classic Italian hoagie with sharp provolone, onions, arugula, tomatoes, and sweet and hot peppers. We also decided to start with a cup of the minestrone- it's a new addition at the new location.

Another change is the drink selection- all of the drinks come from a self-serve soda fountain with interesting choices- RC Cola? Really? It's nice to be able to refill your glass and not have to try to ration your water through your meal- not a huge deal, but notable for us.

The soup ($3) was a good rendition of a classic- it had a very flavorful tomato base, and was filled with chunks of tomato, chickpeas, shreds of greens and pasta. A bit salty, and the broth was slightly oily (oh hi bubbles of grease) but that is probably where all the flavor was coming from! It's also served with a few slices of bread (they use Liscio's which is ironic since the new space is practically adjacent to Sarcone's) which were good for dipping but not really necessary when ordered with a sandwich.

Our sandwiches only took a few more minutes, and come wrapped the same way we remembered- no "real" dishware is used in the restaurant, including plates.

They cut the sandwiches in half, which made it easy for us to share. I started with my half of the Paesano ($8). Unwrapping it was almost a feat- the whole thing was just dripping in egg yolk. For those who are a little wary of runny eggs, don't order this sandwich. Thankfully, we love them. The juice from the meat and the yolk made the bread pretty wet. If I had ordered this to go, it may have been inedible in its sandwich form after more than a few minutes. Somehow, the meat still felt a little bit dry and the salt factor was off the chart. It was also a tad spicy- it seemed like there were some small bits of hot peppers, although that's not advertised on the menu. The spiciness overwhelmed the horseradish flavor, so if I had constructed the sandwich I would have added twice as much of that. The egg was a great addition, and overall the sandwich was fantastic, but it left me wanting something else. Dear Paesano's.. please please please bring back the original "Paesano"?

Moving on to the Daddy Wad ($7). Our dad is a huge Italian hoagie fan, and we tried this sandwich partially to make him jealous. We think it'll work. It was stuffed with delicious meats and toppings, and unlike the other sandwich was cold and not dripping wet (neither are bad things). The arugula, onions, and peppers added terrific spicy flavor, but the cheese was a little too "sharp". Some people love sharp provolone but we were not the biggest fans- it has less of a creamy texture and way more salt, making it almost taste like slices of Parmesan. Again, the sandwich was seriously amazing and I feel bad picking it apart like this, but it wasn't the sandwich perfection we had on our first trip to Girard Avenue.

Our total bill was $18- apparently tax is included in the prices. Money well-spent- a great afternoon meal, with some extra walking to burn off some of those sandwiches. It even gave us an excuse to poke around the Italian Market- a place we never find ourselves visiting. As soon as our parents come to Philly, we'll be making a return trip!

Corner of 9th and Christian Streets

February 6, 2010

Snow Baking

A & I had a few plans for this weekend- checking out the new Paesano's, doing a little shopping for new kitchen implements, and a few other errands- but Mother Nature had other plans. With the accumulation of a foot and a half of snow, much of the city has closed down, and the trek to the Italian Market seemed fairly formidable. Stuck inside (sort of..), our alternative plan was to bake! I've been on a recent lemon kick (LemonZest Luna bars are my new favorite pre-run snack...) so A found a simple recipe for lemon squares.

Obviously we didn't have all the ingredients, so we made a quick phone call to our local produce shop (Maxx's at 20th and Manning for our Philly readers), and the super sweet Asian woman assured us with "I am here for you!" We trekked through the snow (up to my knees in some places) the two blocks to this little shop and picked up everything we needed.

The first step in making lemon squares is making the crust. A simple combination of flour, sugar, and butter- however, this recipe's proportions seemed a little off. When we cut the butter into the flour, it was still really flour-y. Even when we molded the crust with our hands, it was more of a loose powder than a dough. So if you make this- add another half stick of butter or so! We also didn't have parchment paper, so we just greased our trusty 9x13 and hoped for the best. After pressing our "dough" into the pan (no rolling pin needed this time), we stuck it in the oven and started on the filling.

This step was also very easy. Just add the remaining ingredients in a bowl and whisk. The recipe called for concentrated lemon juice, but we used the juice of 4 lemons (use more or less to achieve your optimal lemonyness). Pop lemons in the microwave for ten to fifteen seconds and give them a good roll (sort of like a rolling pin) to maximize juice extraction. If you have a juicer, great- if not, just use a strainer to catch any wayward seeds. We also used the zest of one lemon because... it just makes it better.

After the twenty minutes of baking, our crust looked puffy and slightly browned. We poured the filling on top and popped it back in the oven- A took this time to shovel a pathway from our backdoor to the street while I stayed inside and enjoyed the yummy baking smells.

When the filling had set (~25 minutes), we pulled it out, sprinkled powdered sugar on top (keeping with the snow theme, of course) and immediately dug in. The lack of parchment paper made it a tiny bit difficult but that made the first lemony bite that much more enjoyable. The crust was like a very flaky shortbread- a thin firm layer to support the gooey upper layer. The powdered sugar on top actually helps cut the acidity of the filling, causing each bite to be a conglomeration of different tastes and textures in your mouth. It was exactly what I was in the mood for! After cutting our taste test pieces, I looked at the pan and proclaimed "lemon bars for life!"- it makes a big pan full. We covered the pan and stuck it in the fridge. Cooling for a few hours will firm them up a bit if you prefer that texture. Come to think of it, I might go check on them *cough*eat another one*cough*


I had the tough job of picking a restaurant for my birthday dinner date with the boyfriend. I started with some criteria: I wanted to go somewhere I hadn't been before that was fairly inexpensive and somewhat romantic. Running through recently opened restaurants, I came upon Zavino- a new pizza and wine bar on one of Philly's up-and-coming "restaurant rows"- S. 13th Street. The area surrounding Zavino is chock full of awesome little places- Lolita, Bindi, Capogiro, Vintage, APO, and El Vez just to name a few (there's also quite a few fantastic little boutiques, but that's besides the point). The addition of another restaurant in the area just adds to the growing list, continuing to turn this into a hot spot in the city.

We arrived around 8 on Friday night, at the start of what would become the second big snowstorm of the season. The restaurant was still quite busy- which isn't tough seeing as the space is TINY- about as big as Village Whiskey, for those who have been there. For those who haven't, it is basically a long thin space, the left wall lined with small tables- about 6 tables that can fit 4-5 people each- and the right side containing a long bar with less than 20 seats. At the front of the restaurant is a tiny hostess stand and a charcuterie station- someone manning a deli slicer and wielding a cheese knife. At the back is the pizza oven (I've heard it's a gas oven; it's definitely not a big brick oven like the ones at Pizzeria Stella or Mama Palma's).

The hostess was very sweet, but delivered the bad news: it would be a two hour wait for a table or 45 minutes for seats at the bar. She added the fact that the wait was usually not that long, but on this night there were a lot of big parties with reservations (you can only make a reservation if you have a party of 5 or more). We decided to wait for the bar seats- and went back out in the snow to find a temporary distraction. Not even ten minutes later, she called us. Normally, if we had been waiting at the restaurant, this would have been great news. However, since the place is tiny and we were now comfortably settled elsewhere, it was rather annoying. I'm not sure how you can misestimate the waiting time THAT much.

We were a bit slow in returning, so of course our seats were now occupied. She assured us that it would only be ten minutes or so, which we were perfectly fine with- it still wouldn't be anywhere near 45 minutes. As we waited, we stood by a lone cafe height table next to a coat stand- really, the only place for us to wait that was out of the way. After a couple of minutes, a waiter stopped by to offer us drinks, and then brought us complimentary charcuterie-- as an apology for the "wait"! I was surprised, but of course excited- free food is always accepted here.

Two puffs of silky proscuitto (normally $6) was the perfect start to our meal- not too salty or fatty, although not exactly super flavorful. However, the texture more than made up for it. We commented that even the simple act of pulling it apart to tear off a bite was satisfying. The other two meats offered are Mortadella and Baby Jesus. Whh-hat? The couple seated next to us later on had the guts to ask about this. Apparently it is a salami-type meat, and in its full uncut form is the approximate weight and size of a newborn child. Perhaps its so heavenly tasting it was the named after Jesus?

Because I was so surprised about the free food, I missed what type of cheese we were given, but I believe it was the "Blue de Basque" ($3). It was a good portion of cheese, but came with just one skimpy piece of bread. We later realized that the bread is basically pizza with no toppings- it was passed down the bar from the pizza oven to the charcuterie station in a big circular puff, and then sliced into tiny pieces for the cheese plates. I definitely could have had a bit more of it... but hey, it was free.

A few minutes later, we were seated at the bar looking at the menu. Thankfully for me, there aren't a ton of options (makes it easier to decide)- 5 "veggies" to choose as appetizers, and 7 types of pizza. I went with the roasted beets ($5), which came with goat cheese and pistachios. The veggie plates are also on the small side, and reminded me of what Pub & Kitchen would call a "snack" (seems to be a trend to add "snacks" to menus recently). However, the beets (both your typical red and the less common golden) were perfectly roasted. Also, instead of the crumbled goat cheese that I expected, the beets sat over a super creamy cheese sauce- thankfully not too strong on the goat flavor. It was fun to scoop the beets up with the sauce, instead of having to try to snag the beet and the cheese in one forkful. The pistachios added some good nutty flavor, but I would have preferred if they were roasted- they needed a lot more crunch factor.

We went with two pizzas- I would recommend about 3/4 of a pizza per person. They aren't exactly personal sized but they are small AND thin crust so you can eat a lot without filling up. I ordered the Fratello- described as bechamel, broccoli, roasted garlic and mozzarella ($11). I usually prefer tomato sauce on my pizza, but this bechamel was a really good rendition of the white sauce- it didn't overwhelm the crust at all. J and I are both major "dough" lovers- the chewier and bigger the crust, the better. I loved the base of Zavino's pizzas- they have a great chewy texture while still maintaining that "thin crust" feel that can be hard to perfect. The bottom was dusted with flour, which is something I personally appreciate. The hot oven added big blisters to the outer rim of crust, which added good flavor without drying it out at all (I hate crispy crackery thin crusts). The one complaint I might make is about the overall flavor of the toppings- I didn't taste the garlic at all, and the broccoli, while well cooked, could have been roasted more to bring out its flavor.

We also tried the classic Margherita ($10)- tomato sauce with mozzarella and fresh basil. The mozzarella was in those circular melty clumps that you know come from fresh balls of mozzarella (not that shredded crap that most big pizza places use). The cheese only covered a small portion of the total pizza, which I personally like (too much cheese is basically death to the crust..), and the fresh basil gave a good herby spice every time it found its way into your mouth. Overall, the pizza was very much enjoyed- reasonable prices, perfect dough, and decent toppings. Granted, we didn't exactly venture too far out in terms of originality, although the menu doesn't offer as interesting of toppings as Stella or Mama Palma's.

Zavino also offers a couple of desserts- a panna cotta, a biscotti, and a chocolate cake, if I remember correctly, but we decided against them. They also have some "seasonal" items, which on our visit included two seafood crudos and a lasagna, among a couple of others. It's nice to have some options if you're not in the pizza mood, but again I'm glad they don't venture too far and include too much. The bill comes tucked into a card labeled "The Damage"- which I found adorable, but even better was the fact that our damage was extremely minimal- a meal I would easily have paid over $40 for was only $28. I think this is the best deal I have ever gotten in Philly... thank you Zavino!

I'm sure I will be back- I have to let J experience it too, plus I feel happily obligated to give Zavino repeat business since they treated us so well. I won't even mind the potential long waits- there is so much else to do in the area while you wait (Macy's is also right around the corner!). I would also highly recommend this as a date spot- we had a great time.

112 S. 13th Street