August 2, 2015

You Have to Eat This Before Summer Ends: Gelato at Gran Caffe l'Aquila

Gran Caffe L'Aquila opened last January as Philadelphia's first "grand Italian experience:" a fancy coffee and wine stand up bar, a pastry counter, a complex menu of meats, cheeses and entrees in the dining room, wait staff with Italian accents and chic fedoras, bold decor shipped directly from Italy and more. 

Ever since our honeymoon in Venice seven years ago, we've wished the U.S. had more (if any) drop in, stand-and-sip/socialize wine and coffee bars like we frequented in Italy, so Gran Caffe drew us in several times during winter and spring. The espresso did not disappoint, the pastries were delicious and the uber thick, rich hot chocolate made from chocolates found only in L'Aquila, Italy, was excellent. A little taste of of the motherland, found! Keep that in mind this winter. 

Come summer, what really stood out at Gran Caffe L'Aquila, though, was the gelato. Dare I say that it rivals - if not surpasses - Capogiro?! My first bite of regular chocolate was so creamy it stopped me in my tracks. Combine with pistachio for sweet bliss. The selection of traditional and unique flavors - including blends spiked with alcohol! - will have you salivating to try them all. No wonder it just won Best of Philly for 2015. Gran Caffe's owners have also won the World Cup of Gelato. Michael Klein has more on that and how the devastating 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, destroyed their original cafe and motivated them to reopen in Philly. 

The rest of the food at Gran Caffe has been met with mixed reviews, but definitely take a break from your regular gelato or ice cream shop and give this one a try before summer is out. 

Beautiful coffee and almond croissant...

This delightful pastry below is called a Sfogliatelle, a "shell-shaped filled Italian pastry native to Campania. "Sfogliatella" means "small, thin leaf/layer," as the pastry's texture resembles stacked leaves." And it had chocolate inside. Winner!! To the right, Italian hot chocolate. Thick, rich and perfect on a winter day.

July 21, 2015

Where to Eat in Ocean City, NJ

If you follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you would have seen the play-by-play of our Ocean City, NJ, vacation last week. It was the perfect family trip with a newborn. We lucked out with five beautiful beach days and four grandparents eager to occupy the little guy, giving us a healthy break.

Cookouts, crabs and ice cream took over our menu for the week. Our Twitter friends offered some solid recommendations but we also just went for whatever was convenient and looked good at the time. Here's a quick recap of some of the best things we ate in Ocean City in case you hit the beach this summer.

Browns Doughnuts - also serves full breakfast!
Sunrise Cafe Meat Lover's breakfast sandwich

No trip is complete without a hunt for the best doughnuts. We ate an exceptional volume of them last week, from the Fractured Prune (made hot to order in all sorts of fun flavors), to Cathy's 14th St Cafe (more traditional, fluffy style and very good) to the famous Browns Restaurant. Browns came to us via Twitter as a Laban family favorite. With only six flavors of fairly small doughnuts, sold at $5 for a half dozen, it's worth getting one of each to try a bite and pick your own winner. Bradd's favorite was honey glazed; despite being a chocolate girl, I actually liked the vanilla frosted most. All six were fantastic little creations, hot and slightly crunchy on the outside. Browns is at the very north end of the Ocean City boardwalk so walk or ride a bike there to make up for eating waaaay to many of them.

The Sunrise Cafe was a little corner breakfast/lunch shop near our rental house. Big portions of pancakes and french toast, perfectly cooked eggs and tasty smoothies kept our family satisfied for breakfast a few mornings. The highlight had to be the meat lover's egg sandwich, shown above. Holy moly. This sandwich was loaded with full servings of pork roll, scrapple and bacon for only $6.50. That will fill you up before hitting the beach.

Manco & Manco Sicilian pie
Tomato pie at Bennie's Bread

On the pizza front, who can resist a slice (or seven) of Manco & Manco pizza? Bradd had his share throughout the week but one day on the beach we tried something new - their Sicilian pie. We highly recommend it for a change. The hearty thick crust pie will feed the whole family. Bradd also stopped in Bennie's Bread, an Italian bakery and market with meats, cheeses and delicious slices of tomato pie. Get there early for fresh slices topped with basil.

Jibarito Puerto Rican sandwich on flattened plantains, empanadas and zucchini fries from D'Caribbean 
Coconut crusted tilapia at Cousin's Restaurant, two nice size pieces of fish plus rice and veggies

For lunch in downtown Ocean City, check out D'Caribbean. The casual Caribbean bistro seems a little out of place among the beachware clothing stores and American fried food that typically occupy Main Streets at the shore. But free samples of their excellent empanadas drew us right in to order more. D'Caribbean also makes good little sandwiches and smoothies, served with a smile by enthusiastic staff. Nice break from the boardwalk food.

We cooked and ate dinner on the porch most nights, but ventured out one evening to Cousin's in the north end of Ocean City at 1st & Asbury. It satisfied our need for a seafood dinner with a big menu covering everything from coconut tilapia to fresh grouper to crabs & spaghetti. Remember Ocean City is a dry town so no bar or BYOB. Have happy hour at home first. And if you really want a great meal, hire Bradd's dad to make blue crabs cooked in homemade pasta sauce and stuff yourself into oblivion...

Wherever you vacation this summer, enjoy! 

July 4, 2015

Sidecar Delivers Sandwich Quest Hit with Beer Can Chicken

Sidecar has been a Graduate Hospital favorite for as long as we've lived in the neighborhood. With a lengthy, rotating beer list and a simple, straightforward food menu, it's easy to understand why.

The menu was completely revamped last June to focus primarily on double-stacked burgers, a move we initially found perplexing since you can get a great burger at so many places today. We've since grown to accept the change with some help from Sidecar's neighborhood-friendly decision to keep several other go-to crowd pleasers on the menu, such as the BBQ pulled pork and the clam chowder that was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2013.

An overlooked gem, though, is Sidecar's beer can chicken sandwich.

The two-hands-required sandwich is unlike most of the pulled chicken I've had over the years. Rather than being dried out, the chicken is done right, with the juices and rich flavor of chicken plus beer shining throughout. Sharp provolone is also expertly mixed with onions throughout the sandwich, while long hots on top of the Goldilocks variety (not too hot, not too bland).

The surprising kicker was the snowflake bun, which I don't recall having before. Light and airy with a hint of chewiness, it does a great job holding the sandwich together, while soaking in the juices.

The result is an instant Sandwich Quest favorite.

June 13, 2015

Where to Brunch in Graduate Hospital: Little Spoon Cafe

Little Spoon Cafe took over the corner of 15th & South in October, adding a nice brunch option to South Street West's emerging restaurant row. It was clearly needed in the quickly growing family neighborhood - wait times instantly soared during peak hours.

Our first visit to Little Spoon was packed with great bites. On the savory side, their version of a Monte Cristo sandwich, made with honey ham, smoked gouda, fried egg and jalapeno mayo on country white bread, was as good as it looks below and the egg scramble of the day, almond pesto, added a hint of creativity and a lot of great flavor to otherwise standard eggs. The breakfast burrito also hit the spot, but know that it's served with the potatoes inside the wrap making it quite a large endeavor!

Monte Cristo
Breakfast Burrito

The bacon waffle, which understandably draws a lot eyeballs on the menu right away, was, well, a waffle that tastes like bacon. Might be just the thing for you, but to us it was not as special as it sounds like it should be, so temper your expectations there.

Winner!! Carrot Cake Waffle
Sweet dishes always catch the attention of brunchers, and at Little Spoon the carrot cake waffle was one of the best parts of our meal. It wasn't overly sweet, even with the dollop of cream cheese icing on top and maple syrup. The waffle had just enough of that comforting, familiar carrot cake flavor without making you feel like you were actually eating cake for breakfast.

The only disappointment was the cheese plate. It rotates all the time but on our particular day the two cheeses just weren't thrilling. Also, it's not the best thing to order on a hot day, especially if you snag one of the couple tables in Little Spoon's back courtyard. Maybe save that for cooler weather brunches.

I've stopped in Little Spoon other times for quick take out, too. On the warm morning of the Broad Street Run, their Death By Sunshine smoothie (a Dominican-inspired smoothie with orange juice, pineapple juice, mango sorbet, soy milk and vanilla) hit the spot while I watched Bradd run, but my bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel did not. The bagel either wasn't toasted enough or sat too long before being stuffed and served to me - too common of a problem when getting breakfast sandwiches to go from any cafe. I need to remember that in the moment.

Little Spoon is definitely worth a little bit of a wait on a nice morning and a welcome brunch addition to the neighborhood, serving a hearty mix of traditional brunch items and fun, creative dishes. Also serves lunch food, which we hope to try sometime this summer, too!

Outdoor tables behind Little Spoon - cute area, look for their homegrown herbs!

June 2, 2015

5 Questions with Adam Richman of Man Finds Food

Adam Richman has traversed the country in search of culinary gems, eating challenges and America’s best sandwiches through his popular Travel Channel series Man vs Food and the Best Sandwich in America contest.

Of course, Philadelphians know that he named DiNic’s roast pork the best sandwich in America so he clearly knows his sandwiches.

His new show, Man Finds Food will air a Philly-focused show tomorrow night, June 3. Several sneak peak videos and photos are posted on the Travel Channel website.

We had the chance to catch up with Adam to discuss Man Finds Food, Philly’s food scene, a Philly-based dumpling idea and even some soccer.

It was a refreshing interview as Adam is a down to earth food hunting celebrity who clearly has much love for Philadelphia.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Hope you enjoy!

Tell us about Man Finds Food and what you’re hoping to provide viewers with the concept? 

AR: The greatest thing about Man vs Food was that it gave people a little bit of a road map for iconic good, quality local eats that are revered by locals so you don’t fall into tourist traps. Man Finds Foods is more representational than presentational. So Man vs Food was all about the spectacles and the big challenges and stuff, but Man Finds Food is much more about what is actually in the city and showing places that locals themselves may not know about or dishes instead of very famous ones.

The other thing is showing my crew. Breaking the fourth wall by making the search for places as real as possible and being honest about the way things taste or where they are. Man vs Food was like telling you where to eat, where Man Finds Food is like giving the keys to the car to everybody so everyone gets to know what the special thing is.