Thursday, July 30, 2009

Seattle Tuesday: A Rough One

There is always an internal struggle to decide how much personal information to include in this blog. Sometimes I don't include things that are hilarious, but might embarass someone.

Sometimes things are just too sad and my intent is to entertain, not to bring everyone down. Most of the time when my travels involve family and difficulties I find some way to gloss over them. But sometimes there is just no way to make life stay the hell out of my storytelling and mind its own business. And so, sometimes I just have to trust that you are my friends, or at least well-meaning strangers, and I open my heart to you.

On my last trip to Seattle, while Lillian was in the hospital, I managed to edit the tough parts out. But most of today was a tough part. Today we laid Lillian to rest. Or at least we attempted to.

My friend Anne confided in me earlier in the week, "I transferred the ashes into the urn and you would be amazed at how reduced the ashes are. I had so much room left in the urn I put my dad in too."

"Anne! She divorced him to get away from him."

"It was her idea. She said, "It's creepy the way you keep him on the mantle."

after a sight pause she added, "Her cat Zsa Zsa's in there too."

The hotel room doesn't have curtains, so the light streaming through the blinds woke me up at 6am. I had plenty of time to get ready and fret over what to wear. I felt vulnerable going over to Anne's, so like any good farm family, my mother and I armed ourselves with food.

Top Pot Donuts were our emotional shield of choice, a casserole not being possible at the moment. The man working the counter was so personable, he lifted our mood.

I was sad that we still can't get peanut donuts, and my mom said, "All because of ONE asshole."

The family house was still in prep mode, and we helped out a little. It was wonderful to see Eartha again. She showed off her unicycle skills (no, this is not your average family, and not your average memorial) and practiced the violin piece she would play at the cemetary.

Eartha and I ran over to Flying Pizza to pick up a gigantic 16" pizza to sustain us until the formal late-afternoon meal. I got a 4-cheese combo, then added hamburger (Anne's request) and olives (Eartha's request) to the other half. The room was cute, with a table and chairs hanging upside down on the ceiling. Eartha and I played pinball, and waited it out. The pizza was alright, but its most impressive feature was the ability to hold massive toppings, not really the taste.

We made our way over to the old, almost-abandoned cemetary and discovered the site that had been dug up was not the site selected. There was much confusion and disturbance.

It took awhile to sort things out, and as these things go, word of the trouble was quietly mumbled from person to person. As the information finally wound its was to where I was later standing with the eldest sister, somone looked over and asked, "Is Eartha poking around in the urn?

We all looked over and were aghast to see her pulling bags of ashes out of the ornate jade urn.

Finally the service went on as planned, with the internment to be competed after the issue was worked out. The sisters' hearts were breaking, and mine was too just to see their raw grief. It was one of the most emotional and difficult services I have attended, maybe the most after my own father's.

Afterwards, we caravaned our way to a Greek restaurant. Since Lillian had not gone to her final rest, she joined us in a place of honor on the table.

Greek salads were set out and Anne asked me, "Aren't ya gonna take a pitcher?" Well, a salad is just a salad. Then they brought platters of gyro (20 percent lamb 80 percent beef), chicken, pork, lamb, and beef. Everything was similarly spiced and hard to identify. They had that wonderful pita you can only find in Greek restaurants, and that was the easiest thing for our dry throats to choke down.

I came home and immediately crawled into bed. My mom woke me up later in the evening when my nephew showed up for another dinner at Brasa, but I was conked out cold. I woke up to an empty room and a take-out container waiting for me with the most delicious ribeye and "smashed potato" cake thing. I dont know. It was delicious. Maybe we will just eat there every night.

The one thing I accepted from Lillian's belongings...old Catholic albums

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back in Seattle Again: Monday

I flew back today for Lillian's memorial service. I brought my mother along this time, both to pay her respects and so we could spend time in Vancouver to meet up with relatives. The flight was quick and easy - I love love love Burbank airport. Getting our rental car offsite at the airport was a total bitch - I hate hate hate SeaTac.

I knew my first stop had to be Serious Pie. Nonetheless I wasn't going to hunt it down...we were just too exhausted. But as we were looking for our hotel parking lot we blew right by it. So we walked a few blocks over and I was able to have my dream realized. I let my mom choose the pizza. She played it safe with the margherita, a slight disappointment when I was so tempted by the sausage and cherry peppers, or Yukon gold potatoes.

But I was able to go a little wild with a seasonal appetizer of artichoke and house-cured pancetta with capers covered with an over-easy egg to break over the top. The fat of the yolk balanced the acidity of the vinagrette on the artichokes. It really is the conceit of the moment, sorry JG. And it works. I love breaking the yolk. Beauty in destruction. The glory of the oozing. Sigh.

The pizza crust was slightly thinner and crispier than on the chanterelle pizza I had gone batshit over last February. Everything was as it should be. I noticed the menu had changed seasonally from February to May.

We made a quick stop in the Blue Dahlia bakery for a cookie

We headed back to the hotel for a nap. We were given a corner room, with buses and road construction on both sides. And a dog park! Yowling, fighting doggies in addition to the honking, screeching traffic. I called down to see if they had an interior room available. The desk person said, "You ARE in the city, you know." Ohhh, I am such a hillbilly from the sticks I am only used to the lowing of the cows and the cock's crow. Well, I'll tell you this - my hotel on Times Square was not this noisy. But once my head hit the pillow I slept like a baby. It's amazing what one can do with a little help from earplugs and Pfizer.

I woke up around 6 wanting only a simple bowl of soup. we decided to walk down to Tamara Murphy's Brasa, because it might as well be one hell of a bowl of soup. We were led astray by a DineLA-ish 3-course meal for only 30 dollars.

We both started with the tomato soup. It was clean, pure and comforting. My only issue is this thing about finishing soups with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. I am not a fan of olive oil in my soup.

I ordered the Papardelle. It was a little under-seasoned. Maye a lot under-seasoned. It was nice to let the purity of the vegetables remain intact, but I was thinking what a difference a few more shavings of Parmesan would do. Just then I found a hidden stash of Parmesan that must have been pushed to the middle as we split the dish. It really did make the dish sing (did I just say that? I am such a dork).

The cassoulet-inspired rabbit was generous in portion and cooked to the exact right moment of doneness. Surrounded with bits of thick-cut-bacon and pork belly, it was in its element. It was like when God made rabbits, He said, "By the way, they go really well with pork belly." The texture of the white beans and bitterness of the kale rounded things out.

We both ordered the trio of gelato. The dark chocolate was a step up on the usual, the strawberry was the berry reduced to its most intense, and the vanilla - wait, that's not has that creme caramel, dulce de leche feel. Mmmmmm, caramel gelato! In a precious quenelle. The butter cookie could have used an additional spice, but butter is butter, after all.

The food was just so honest and clean. Every dish was well thought-out, with not one ingredient too many or too few. Nothing was extraneous. Even the bread was all that it could be. The employees were all friendly, as people in this level of restaurant tend to be. Our waiter was hesitant and distant until we engaged him, and then became very friendly. The room was comfortable, and invited a slow, langourious meal.

So now I sit here in my room, watching the rain illuminated by a streetlight, the wind howling like a haunting, feeling perfectly content and safe.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Wedding Cake of Deceit

When my friend Kristina told me she was having brownies instead of a cake at her wedding, I was aghast. "You need something to cut! What about the pictures? Don't worry. I'll make you a cake."

Never mind that I had never made a wedding cake before. I grew up watching my mother make a million of them; she baked cakes at home to make money and still be a stay-at-home mom. And I had once made a cake that looked exactly like a drum set, so this would be even easier.

I sold Kristina on a carrot cake because the one thing I have never been able to do it get perfectly smooth icing. I figured with a mix of buttercream and cream cheese frosting, people would expect it to be a little rough.

I called my mom to discuss piping, and she was right on board to come help me. So the plan was set. I would bake the cake and do the crumb coat, then she would come over and do a perfect, smooth icing and gorgeous professional Wilton School piping.

Well, it turned out to be over 100 degrees that week, and my house isn't air-conditioned. So my mom offered to bake the cakes at her house, which is down by the beach and nice and cool.

So early on wedding day, my mom showed up with three coolers, each with a perfectly iced cake set on a board which was set on top of dozens of blue ice packs. All I had to do was assemble them. Oh, and the topper wasn't made yet.

So yeah, my mom made the cake, Kristina. The truth comes out!

I flew around in a panic to a bunch of florists that were all closed on Saturdays and finally alighted at Ralphs supermarket. Luckily, the lady seemed to know what I wanted. I bought white roses and sunflowers and left her to make a topper while I got ready.

When I got back to the store on the way to the wedding, the topper was beautiful, but it was MASSIVE. Oh God, it would topple the cake. We hurridly pulled out stems and cut them closer. As we drove to the wedding, my mom called, "I forgot to tell you. I put some bacon under one of the cakes for you. They were on sale." We considered pulling over and trying to lift the cakes out and imagined total disaster.

I decided, "Well, it's probably sealed. If not, if the cake tastes like bacon it tastes like bacon. Kristina loves bacon."

When we made it to the yacht club and I assembled the cake, I still had to do the piping where the layers meet. Let's just say it was loopy at best. Mom's perfect icing had also suffering a little from the heat. I could only hope that the topper was so spectacular no one would notice the droopy piping.

But the topper was too heavy. It was going to make the cake fall. The flowers were set into a plastic tub filled with that green florists sponge. So I grabbed an empty plate and a knife and cut out the middle of the top layer of cake in a perfect plastic-tub-sized circle. I forced the topper's plastic tub down into the hole and prayed it wouldn't collapse.

Pictures were taken, the cake taken to the kitchen to be cut, and it turned out to be the most delicious, moist carrot cake ever. Everyone complimented me and I said, "Oh, it was nothing."

Mom’s Carrot Cake

2 cups sugar
1 1/2 oil
4 eggs
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
3 cups grated carrots
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1/2 cup shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Cream sugar, oil and eggs.

Gradually add dry ingredients.

Stir in carrots, nuts and coconut.

Pour batter into a greased 9 by 13-inch cake pan.

Bake about 50-55 minutes

They had cute retro finger sandwiches to nibble on while the wedding party took their photographs.

Never eat anything bigger than your head

Ironically, the brownies were set up as I had feared - as a symbolic wedding cake, topper and all. So I basically forced a cake upon a bride who already had a "wedding cake."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Amazing Spuderito

Rick's Drive-in in Pasadena serves old-style burgers, shakes, and fries, but those in the know go there for one thing - the spuderito. Stuffed with french fries, tomato sauce, cheese, onions and salsa, this messy burrito comes with a huge handful of napkins. Really, it is so spicy it is almost more like a salsarito. If you like, you can add meat for a dollar ten, but that really isn't what the spuderito is all about.

The owner, Ralph, started making spuderitos for himself around 10 years ago and so many people asked for them he finally put them up on the board next to the French burger (on grilled sourdough) and the pineapple milkshake. Sadly, the milkshakes are no longer made with real ice cream. You can "blame the guy who came to fix it."

Other exciting menu items at Rick's are the taco burger and the Combo E., which is a burrito with everything. But for us it's about the spuderitos. Get one before Rick's is forced out by condos and has to move. You just might get addicted and have to buy spuderitos three at a time and hoard them like certain people we know.

680 East Walnut, Pasadena CA 91101

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ciao Cristina! Hello Fantastic Pizza!

There are certain signs that you can recognize as harbingers of great Italian food. Men greeting each other with hugs upon entering Ciao Cristina was a very good sign, as was the lyrical sound of Italian being spoken by nearby diners.

The menu is standard, everyday Italian fare -- panini, pizza, and pasta. But upon closer inspection, the pizza is NY/Neopolitan style, the lasagne is pastisso, and the panini are stuffed with fillings like bresaola, prosciutto and capiciolla (gabagool, for you Sopranos fans). The room is packed, the men are hugging, the food is flying past, and the pizza is practically paperthin. This is definitely not your standard, everyday Italian cafe. Ciao Cristina is a family-run restaurant whose dedication to the food and love for people comes through in every dish.

You have probably passed the old building that houses Ciao Cristina on Barham traveling between Hollywood and the valley and not even noticed it. It is easy to get distracted by the gigantic Warners Brothers TV posters and insane new glow-in-the-dark mural of The Superfriends and Daffy Duck. The location was previously occupied by Que's River Bar, where rumor had it the "special of the house" was more of a happy ending than a happy hour.

Husband and wife team, Cristina and Alan Donovan opened the bar/pizzaria/tavola calda just a few months ago, and there are already crowds out the door. They certainly have the chops needed to take on their first venture. Cristina started out as a pastry chef, honing her craft in kitchens that included The Beverly Hilton. Venice-born Cristina learned how to make Italian food not in a culinary school, but at her mother's knee. Interestingly, her family had booked passage to the United States on the Andrea Dora, but her mother changed her mind at the last minute to sail out of Venice instead of Genoa. Alan's professional life has been varied, including working as an airline pilot. he is a certified "Verace Pizziolo Neopolitino".

The warm interior, designed by Alicia St John is subtly influenced by the Italian comedie del arte. The building was refurbished green, recycling as many of the original elements as possible, and adding environmentally-friendly air-conditioning and heating. Although the bare tables and wooden chairs do not seem to invite lingering, one can't help but fall into easy conversation with the owners, the employees, their friends, and even people standing in line for gelato. It is already a neighborhood joint.

The paninis are more filling than bread, an exciting rarity. The prosciutto stuffed into one of the paninis is an embarassment of riches. The Salume, which includes a variety of meats including salami and capicolla oozes with melting mortadella.

The soups are house-made, and the Zuppa di Pesce, served only on Fridays and Saturdays, is worth a special trip to the restaurant. The rustic tomato soup thick with bits of cod is flavorful and comforting. Just like you wish mama used to make.

The giant NY-style pizza is barely contained by the takeout box, and the ends of the crust curve up at the sides to fit. The margherita is traditional, and delicious with fresh mozzarella and basil. It is so thin it almost has to be folded in half and eaten New York-style.

Attention and care is put into even the side dishes. The polenta is addictive, and made me realize everyone else has been making it wrong all of these years. Paninis are served with house-made potato chips or an organic salad, and both are good choices.

With a former pastry chef at the helm, the desserts at Ciao Cristina are heaven. The cannoli is rich and smooth with whispers of chocolate and candied fruit. The gelato is from Beto's in Arizona, a family company. It is smooth, creamy and refreshing.

The restaurant also serves natural, antibiotic and hormone-free chicken, organic greens like wild arugala, and is certified by The Green Reataurant Association as a green restaurant. The only other restaurants in Los Angeles that are GRA certified green are Alcove, Le Pain Quotidien and Mozza. Ciao Cristina purifies their own water, "makes" their own sparkling water, and serves organic wines and vodka. Their takeout containers are compostable, and they don't use foam or plastic bags.

Ciao Cristina has a full bar, with 14 beers on tap and a signature martini, the "Ca' d'Oro" flecked with gold. There are a variety of interesting nonalcoholic beverages, including espresso, naturally.

Ciao Cristina is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I have a feeling we will all be hugging the owner at the door ourselves in no time.

4201 W Olive Ave Burbank, CA 91505
(818) 563-2426

Sunday, July 19, 2009

It's a Regular Sausage Fest at Wurstkuche!

Third and Traction in downtown LA has long been the unofficial town square for punkers, loftdwellers, artists, and the slightly unbalanced denizens of LA's outer reaches. With the closing of Al's Bar, and the more recent closing of Bloom's General Store, the corner has had little more than a sushi place, a Mexican hole-in-the-wall and a proliferation of guerilla art keeping it alive.

Wurstkuche, which opened last November in the former location of the Wolfskill Theater (and before that, Alberto's underground "Clubhouse"), has brought the crowds back to Third and Traction with free-flowing Belgian beer and simple food done right.

The door to sausage heaven

Restaurants that try to diversify too much are always a bad sign. Cousins Tyler Wilson and Joseph Pitruzzelli knew the secret of a successful restaurant is to serve one or two items that are pure perfection. What goes better with beer than sausages and french fries? As American as that may sound, this place has a decidedly brewhaus bent, with over 20 German and Belgian beers on tap, along with one concession - a Pabst Blue Ribbon - maybe just for the irony.

The food is simple, but not without flair. The thick pomme frites are served with a variety of dipping sauces, like Curry Ketchup, Thai Peanut and Pesto Mayonnaise. You can also order them with a white truffle oil glaze. Swank.

Along with some truly exotic sausages (Rattlesnake and Rabbit with Jalapeno Peppers, Alligator and Pork smoked Andouille) there are four vegetarian sausages, including Mexican Chipotle and Apple Sage. Other than the vegetarian options, all of the sausages are made with natural casings, all of them pork casings except for the Apricot and Ginger, made with chicken and turkey in a lamb casing.

You can even pick the specific sausage if you want, "No, mister! That one! On the left!"

There are four toppings available for your meat: Caramelized Onion, Sweet Peppers, Spicy Peppers, and Sauerkraut, not to mention a wide variety of mustards.

The sausages come from at least four different purveyers, so although they are all high quality, there will not always be a consistency from sausage to sausage. The Kielbasa had a tight snap and was nice and juicy with lots of flavor. The andouille had a similar snap, but a much heartier, slightly tougher texture. The heat was not so intense as to make the sausage inedible, which is a common mistake with Louisiana sausages. The apple and sage flavors in the vegetarian sausage were not very pronounced, even after scraping all of the toppings off. Without a casing, there was no snap at all. The texture was that Gardenburger-esque veggie softness that may not be to everyone's taste. But vegetarians should love it.

Top-to-bottom, Kielbasa with sauerkraut, Alligator Pork Andouille with onions and sweet peppers, and Vegetarian Apple Sage with onions and hot peppers

The fries are like thick pomme frites, with a crispy exterior and steaming hot soft insides. This was the large, or "Groot" Hey, if Starbucks and IKEA can make up their own languages, why not these guys?

The ambiance is open and comfortable, with wall-to-wall crowds at lunch rush and weekend nights. During a weekday afternoon, the mood is slow and easy.

The restaurant stays open until midnight, but sometimes the bar will stay open a little later if there is a good crowd. Prices are reasonable, starting at six bucks for a classic sausage, and only 7.75 for an exotic. Beers are mostly 5.50 or 8 dollars, but we are talking about imports.

Speaking of sausage fest, did I mention that most of the employees are really cute and flirtatious boys? (makes the "call me" gesture)