La Panarda, or How To Give Up On All Your New Years Resolutions at Once

As we arrive in the Le Virtù dining room, there is a saying written on one of the chalkboards: “Three are the powerful: the pope, the king, and he who doesn’t give a damn.” RayRay and I are feeling decidedly in the third category as we take our seats for our third La Panarda in three years. La Panarda, the 40-course, eight-hour meal, is as much a test of intestinal fortitude as you’ll find anywhere. But this isn’t the reason RayRay and I aren’t giving a damn; it’s just creeping on noon, we’re staring eight hours of unlimited wine in the face, and, idiots that we are, we’ve already had two beers.

We take our usual seats (we arrived an hour before the meal started to get the same seats we’ve sat in the last two years). We happen to be sitting with two of the same people from last year, so the same rules apply: pictures come first, and we cheers with every new wine.

The event starts off much the same as it has in the past: Le Virtù owner Francis Cratil Cretarola makes a quick speech, Sean from Artisan’s Cellar briefly explains the wine, and we are treated to some music from the zampogna, or Italian bagpipes. Throughout the fanfare, we’ve got our first glass of Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante, and the food begins to make its way out.

We begin similar to last year with a torta rustica, though we all agree that, from what we could remember, this year’s seems creamier. We also have crostini assortiti made with Abruzzese ricotta passita, mushroom, and cannellini. Finally, we’re treated to the olive all’Ascolana, which are stuffed with veal and beef and fried. With the olives, we already break our initial promise to try one taste of everything. They’re too delightfully salty (and too small, we tell ourselves) to eat only one.

For the next bit, we’re served a trio of raw fish dishes, starting with oysters with mignonette. Following the oysters is a tuna crudo with apple and fennel, which also demands multiple tastes, and scallop crudo with citrus. While raw scallop may have a texture most people don’t value, the salty taste of sea and the sweet citrus really make the dish pop. The tuna’s texture with the crunch of the apple is probably more palatable to most, however, and the flavor pops just as much.

Our next grouping leads with beef carpaccio with pecorino and salsa picante, burrata with brussels sprouts and anchovy, and sardines in salsa verde. As much as I eat, I’m never sure the proper way to eat a sardine, but the consensus at the table is to eat them whole – including the head. This isn’t a problem, and the fishy taste with the salsa is better than I thought it would be; there is a slight crunch from the bones. The real standout, however, is the burrata. Anything with fried brussels sprouts is a winner, and the fish complements the cheese perfectly.

To round out this section, we get our first non-family-style dish with the scrippelle ‘mbusse, a delicate crepe filled with cheese and floating in a light but heady broth.

Bringing the first third of the menu to an end is an Abruzzese tribute to Philadelphia by way of a smoked lamb hoagie with a stuffed pepper. After the hoagie is a hot cast iron tray of fried potatoes and scamorza, a cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of mozzarella.

After these dishes, we take our first break to stretch our legs, and everyone outside on the patio can’t stop talking about how good the lamb hoagie is. Basically made with lamb prosciutto, a red pepper-like spread gives the sandwich a nice zing and the oily, vinegary stuffed pepper plays perfectly beside it. Most people we talk to agree it is the best dish so far, and it should be added to the menu.

We come back in after our break, refreshed and rejuvenated by the slight chill in the air, which is by no means cold (especially for late January). We’re eased back into the meal with pizz’ e foje, a salad of cornbread over stewed mixed greens. The cornbread is a bit dry for my taste, but the next two dishes have plenty of sauce to fix that. First is a dish of shellfish with ‘nduja sausage, though a lot of the clams didn’t open, and prawns with garlic, peperoncino, and lemon. The prawns have a nice bit of heat to them, and as always sucking on the head is immensely enjoyable.

Next is a selection of charcuterie, beginning with sopressata (supersod for any South Philly Italians out there) with vegetable agrodolce, followed by capocollo (gabbagool) with eggplant oreganata, and finally chilled porchetta with roasted peppers. And while the meat is good, it’s surprising how tasty the accoutrement are – especially the lightly picked vegetables with the sopressata: tangy, but not overly so. This does not apply, however, to the porchetta, which itself has a slight vinegar essence to it, and is thin enough that multiple pieces aren’t out of the question.

Moving along, we’re gifted polpette all’Abruzzese, delicious little meatballs of which we don’t leave any leftovers. We are also brought sweet potatoes with golden raisins and pine nuts, which are better than any sweet potatoes have the right to be. Pine nuts add great flavor, but the raisins (which I usually don’t prefer in my savory dishes), brighten the salad and give it an extra dimension. Finally, we have a pure di fava with chicory, which may be the first time I’ve ever had chicory – at least as a main part of a dish.

For the last section of part two of the menu, we begin with mushrooms sott’olio, which is simply a variety of roasted mushrooms in oil. Simple, woodsy, and bursting with a variety of umami mushroom flavors. We’re also given a bowl of arrositicini, or lamb skewers. Rounding us out is a personal-size bowl of sausage and lentils, which sounds like it is going to be a stomach bomb but is surprisingly light in its heartiness.

We take our second break at this point, and are greeted on the patio with a small fire and glasses of warm, mulled wine. This year may be the chilliest Panarda I’ve been to, even though the temperature is still in the mid- to high-40s. While I wouldn’t say we needed coats, the warm mulled wine keeps it that way.

We return from our break warmed with wine and heartened to be more than halfway through the meal, though the tough part looms: the pasta courses. They are upon us quickly, beginning with one of the restaurant’s specialties, maccheroni alla mugnaia with aglio, olio, and peperoncino. The pasta is a single-strand that can reach up to six feet long, and is wonderfully al dente. It seems if I’ve learned anything from Le Virtù, it’s that I want my pasta to be toothsome.

The other pastas include sagne e ceci, a rhomboid, flat pasta in tomato sauce with chickpeas, anellini with pistachio pesto, and orecchiette with spicy sausage and rabe. While they are all excellent, a grab a few more rings of the anellini before they’re gone, even though I know there is more pasta, and it’s the pasta last year that almost pushed me over the edge. I stay strong.

And then: more pasta. First, Chef Menapace joins us in the dining room to show off the full timballo alla pescolana, which we had a version of last year and we are all looking forward to. In addition to the timballo, we have tagliatelle with boar ragu and chitarra with lamb ragu. In hindsight, with the lack of large portions of meat this year, it almost seems like they are doubling up the meat and pasta dishes. This is fine with me, and my stomach.

Following the pasta is another break, and then lighter fare in the form of fish. A whole porgy with acqua pazza (the broth used to poach it), which we peel back the skin and dig in to. There is also a dish of meaty monkfish with potatoes and olives. Potatoes aren’t particularly appreciated at this point, but the saltiness of the olives help with the heaviness. Finally, as more of a side dish, are long hots – however, the one I take a bite of is more hot than anything. It may be the hottest long hot I’ve ever had, and the gentleman across from me agrees. We need a glass of milk – not the best idea this late in the evening – to counteract the heat.

Finally, we come to the final savory courses of the evening. The first out are a favorite from last year, the pork ribs agrodolce, which remain a favorite this year. We know the end is near, so we each take two ribs: we still have room, and the sweetness and flavor is worth the indulgence. If we were offered another plate, we would take it. Along with the ribs are roasted lamb with polenta and broccoli rabe. As good as the lamb is – and it is good – it pales in comparison to the ribs.

Before desert, we all take another break. Night has firmly set it, even though we are moving along quickly. Music plays throughout the restaurant, and every once in a while the band will come into the main dining room to play for us. Whether or not we know the words (and they’re mostly in Italian, so we don’t), after six-plus hours of drinking, everyone is singing along.

We come back in to a refreshing sorbetto, followed by some house-made digestivi. The digestif flavors include fennel, watermelon and pepper, and two others that it’s far too late to process. The watermelon was the best. We are also served a board of Abruzzese unpasturized formaggio with honey, preserves, and fruit, as well as dolci assortiti, and assorted dessert board. I am excited to see the return of cannoli, as our first Panarda had the best cannoli I’ve ever had. The board also has a favorite of RayRay’s, the olive oil dome cakes covered in chocolate.

We have a round of limoncello to finish the evening, and some of us stick around to enjoy the company, listen to more music, and chat with the owners. The meal has been wonderful, but the food is only part of it. To be able to want to spend an entire day at a restaurant, no matter how good the food is, speaks more to the company than anything else. And not only the fellow diners: Francis, Cathy, Freddie, Chef Menapace, and everyone else busting their asses to put together a massive meal and convivial atmosphere should be incredibly proud of what they are able to accomplish every year.

I used to look forward to Thanksgiving above all other meals throughout the year, but now Thanksgiving is just a training ground. It’s spending hours with people I enjoy and food I love in order to train for the same thing, only longer, bigger, and better. And you’ve got to love anything better than Thanksgiving.

Chef Menapace celebrates the end of Panarda with his crew.

8 Favo(u)rite Places to Eat in Halifax

As I’ve mentioned before, Halifax is indeed one of my favorite cities in all of North America.  I don’t know if it’s the idyllic weather, the excellent waterfront, or the fact that despite continuously growing it still retains a small-town walkability, but I always love going there.  And one of the thing that keeps me going back is the food—of which Halifax has plenty.  The scene there is always growing, and it will keep you satisfied from early morning to, well, early morning, if you want to stay up that late. So whatever time of day you’re out and get a craving for some food, here is a list of my favorite places to give in to that craving.

Stillwell

I’ve mentioned Stillwell before in our beer roundup, but—surprise!—it also has great food.  You should start, without question, with the Okonomiyaki fries: a pile of fries with kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, sriracha, nori, katsuobushi, and sesame seeds.  The southern-fried chicken sandwich and General Tso’s squash, if on the menu, are also worth trying out.  As is anything they list, because I’ve never had a bad dish there. 1672 Barrington Street

Studio East

I’m a sucker for Asian-inspired anything, and Studio East is no different.  The quirky space has some great good and a solid drinks list, which makes it the perfect spot for a nice dinner out.  Start with the fried cauliflower and brussels sprouts topped with parmesan, and then move on to the Ultimate Pork Ramen Bowl. The bowl includes braised pork belly, char siu BBQ pork, crisp pork cheeks, marinated egg, cabbage, sprouts, cilantro, and Chinese fried donut swimming in house broth.  It could have used about twice as much broth as it came with, but it was still worth buying. 6021 Cunard Street

EDNA

Breakfast steak sandwich

EDNA is a top spot for brunch and should not be missed on a sunny weekend morning.  They have a nice mix of standards and more inventive items, whether you’re talking about their cocktails or their food.  We tried one of their specials—a steak sandwich with breakfast potatoes, but also peeped their hummus and eggs, Scotch egg, and breakfast burger, which looks incredibly good despite Canada’s ridiculous laws about cooking burgers.  While we only stopped in for brunch, on the strength of that meal I would go back for dinner without question. 2053 Gottingen Street

Stubborn Goat

Chicken & waffle tacos

Stubborn Goat is another great brunch spot, and in the heart of downtown.  What would make it an even better brunch spot would be if their chicken and waffles had a full-time spot on the menu; the waffles were thing and served as taco shells for the chicken, corn salsa, bacon, and chipotle cream.  One of my favorite dishes put into taco form? Why would you serve anything else?  But they do serve other food—and quite a bit of it.  This spot should not be missed as a hangover cure, or hangover jumpstarter. 1579 Grafton Street

Pizza Corner

No food rundown of Halifax would be complete without a mention of the junction of Blowers and Grafton, known as the infamous Pizza Corner.  Often crowded in the wee hours of the morning on weekends, the spot is home to—you guessed it—some cheap pizza, as well as other great drunk food like donairs at Johnny K’s and the best newfie fries in Halifax at Willy’s.  Regardless of what else I do while I’m in Halifax, Willy’s is a must-stop for me: their poutine portions are robust and their gravy is perfect.  Add on some turkey stuffing and you’ve got the perfect late-night (or early morning, or any time) snack.  Supplement it with a donair (and, of course, donair sauce) across the street. Blowers and Grafton Streets

Bicycle Thief

Bicycle Thief is your stop for a nicer meal, as well as a meal closer to the beautiful waterfront. It will probably require a bit more forethought than the other spots on the list and you should get a reservation, but a nice night out in Halifax should include this restaurant. They’ve got quite an extensive menu, full of everything you would hope for from your general Italian playbook.  Their fall-of-the-bone short rib was a standout, as were the tuna tartare, mussels, and varieties of seafood pasta. 1475 Lower Water Street

2 Doors Down

Smokehouse burger

With 2 Doors Down and, right across the hall, 2 Door Down Bar + Bites, you can’t go wrong stopping in either one, since one or the other has the propensity to be crowded on a weekend night. Their starters and small plates are tops (I couldn’t resist their chili cheese fries, and the haddock tacos are knock-outs), and even their burgers are good—especially the smokehouse with gouda, bacon, bbq sauce, onion jam, and chipotle aioli. And if you ask nicely, they may even take the burger off the grill a few second before it becomes completely well done. 1533 Barrington Street

John’s Lunch

Best fish and chips (and gravy) in Halifax

Okay, so John’s Lunch isn’t necessarily in Halifax but across the harbor in Dartmouth. However, it is well worth renting a car or taking whatever transportation is available in order to get there.  I’m a sucker for fish and chips, and this is the best I’ve ever had.  I mean, it’s a lunch counter that’s been specializing in fish and chips for the last 50 years, so they know what they’re doing.  You can get a few other items on the menu, but the fish and chips is where it’s at.  You should also order a side of gravy for the fries, because trust me.  Let’s just say it’s a good thing the gravy comes in a little cup, because you’re going to want to drink every last drop. 352 Pleasant Street, Dartmouth, NS

7 Places to Have a Beer in Halifax

When it comes to Halifax, there are two things I know for sure: it’s one of my favorite cities to visit, and it’s got an excellent beer scene.  It doesn’t hurt that the city is incredibly walkable, so tracking down a variety of beers is as easy here—and often easier—than anywhere else.  Throw in mild summers and a harborfront that has everything you need for a nice day out, and you can’t go wrong with a visit (in the summer, or any time of year). There’s plenty to see and do (and eat), but for now let’s focus on the most important part: the beer.

Propeller

Propeller is the OG craft beer in Halifax, and they’re still going strong. Their pilsner is as good as it gets, their ESB is also tops, and their porter may have been the first Canadian craft beer I ever had.  They have a nice brewery/tasting room close enough to the waterfront to be a pleasant walk, or they make a solid stop on your way to the waterfront.  While they may not be the most impressive brewery on Halifax, they’ve been in the game for over 20 years now and are worth a stop. 2015 Gottingen Street

Good Robot

In addition to a comfortable tasting room with solid beer, Good Robot has an excellent outdoor area that hosts various events and concerts.  If you don’t want to spend all of your time downtown on the water, this is a great option to get back in the neighborhoods of Halifax and hang out at a fun brewery, drink some beers, and maybe see a show or a free movie. 2736 Robie Street

2 Crows

With a bright, modern space, and plenty of outdoor seating near downtown, you can’t go wrong at 2 Crows.  The beers tend towards IPA but are varied enough that your palette won’t be overloaded by hops.  The tasting pours are generous, as well, so you’ll be able to spend plenty of time getting acquainted with the offerings on tap.  These guys can also easily be found around town either on tap or in cans, but it’s always better right from the source. 1932 Brunswick Street

Stillwell

Hands down the best beer bar in Halifax—Stillwell knows what it’s doing.  Their taplist always features local breweries, and sometimes even some of their own beer.  If you don’t want to run all over the city but want to experience a cross-section of the best beer Halifax has to offer, this should be your main stop.  They also have a fantastic bottle list which includes a lot of hard-to-find beer that you probably won’t be able to get anywhere else in the city.  Be sure to be hungry when you go, because the food here is excellent as well. 1672 Barrington Street

Unfiltered

While Unfiltered is probably the least-accessible from downtown on this list, it’s probably also the best brewery in Halifax.  The name should be an indication of the kinds of beers they serve—they love hop-bomb IPAs—but is also a nod to the brewery’s general attitude, as evidenced by their website URL (unfuckingfiltered.com).  Don’t expect much grandeur from their stripmall location, but expect to drink a lot of excellent beer.  6041 North Street

Garrison

(You probably won’t run into all these awesome dogs while you’re there)

As a general rule of visiting Canada, I wouldn’t usually recommend drinking Garrison, but their seaport location is big and open and wonderful on a nice summer’s day, and the selection is varied enough to keep everyone happy.  I didn’t have any complains with the beer while we were there, which were all tasty and affordable.  A great spot to meet friends or spend a lazy afternoon having some drinks.  And plenty of bottles and cans to go, if you so choose.  1149 Marginal Road

Alexander Keith’s

Until recently, Keith’s (pronounced by the locals as “Keit’s”) has been a one-beer go-to for maritimers: their IPA (which can barely be classified as such) is the only beer that would come to mind if you said “I’ll have a Keit’s.” Now, however, they’ve started to dip their toes in the craft beer market with some impressive offerings.  The brewery, conveniently located in the middle of downtown, is a must to tour, and you might as well grab the original IPA despite the ominous tagline of “those who like it, like it a lot.” 1496 Lower Water Street

Bonus: Stubborn Goat Beer Garden

You’re not going to find any crazy original beers here, but being right on the water makes this place worth visiting if you’re in town during the warmer months.  Grab a beer, sit in the shade, and enjoy the people watching and the breeze off the harbor.  They have some lighter fare to snack on and are close to plenty of other spots to grab food if you want to make a day of it. 1599 Lower Water Street

Bonus 2: Bishop’s Cellar

Need to take some beer home with you? Bishop’s Cellar is the spot.  Located—you guessed it—right by the water, you’ll be able to find all the local beer you can handle in bottles and cans.  If you have the means to take beer with you when you leave Halifax, this is the place to get it. 1477 Lower Water Street

If you drink too much, there’s plenty of green space by the waterfront…

Cycling the Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail, as I have made no secret of saying, is one of my favorite places in the world.  Between the friendly people, the great food, and the stunning scenery, the 300km (186mi) road around the top of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia cannot be beat. The Trail (and the area around it) boasts over 200km (125mi) of hiking trails, as well as a plethora of activities, scenic overlooks, and fresh local food. The Trail can conceivably be driven in a single day, but even in a car 2-3 days minimum should be required.

The accessibility of the Cabot Trail, the fact that the entire thing is paved, and the abundance of food and shops along the way all contribute to this being a great first-time bikepacking adventure—that I love the area so much also didn’t hurt.  It truly is a beginner’s bikepacking trip, but that is exactly what we wanted.  You’re never too far away from civilization, and someone on Cape Breton Island is always willing to help you out if you need it.

Despite the ease of use of the trail, we did do quite a bit of planning and preparation (as anyone should).  Hopefully some of our preparation ideas can help you out as well.

The entirety of the Cabot Trail
Gear

We had a lot of gear to bring, despite trying to pack as lightly as possible. To accomplish this, I had a large Ortleib 16.5L seat-pack saddle bag, a Revelate handlebar harness (changed from the Ortleib handlebar pack, which was too wide for my handlebars but also not round enough for my sleeping bag), and a Topeak Tribag frame bag. Kaitie used a Revelate Terrapin 14L saddle bag and a system of Revelate washboard straps to hold thing together, and we both had custom-made frame bags (my mom is a seamstress).

Inside these bags was everything we would need for five days (minus food): a Big Agnes Fly Creek Ultralight 2-person tent, a Big Agnes Lulu 15 sleeping bag for Kaitie and a Big Agnes Encamptment 15 for myself, two Sea To Summit Aeros Ultralight pillows, a Klymit insulated Static V all season sleeping pad for myself, and one for Kaitie. My sleeping bag was strapped to my handlebars in a Sea To Summit eVent 14L compression sack, and Kaitie kept the tent and her sleeping pad strapped to her handlebars in a Sea To Summit 13L Evac Dry Sack.

In addition to all of this, we had a pair of clothes to sleep in, a pair of “town clothes” if we needed, raincoats, a first aid travel kit, a pair of Toms for myself, and extra bike gear (mini tire pump, a multitool, and spare tubes). It was a lot of gear to amass (especially the bike-specific stuff), but REI was a great help between their online Outlet sales, coupons, and garage sales. If you are able to take your time in collecting the necessary gear, you will be able to find plenty of deals.

Training

We knew there would be plenty of climbing on this trip—three significant mountains and a total of over 4,600m (13,800ft) of climbing.  This isn’t extreme for a lot of cyclists, but as relative beginners who live in a pancake-flat city like Philadelphia, there aren’t many hills to train on. Luckily, we found a few and made it our job to tackle them each weekend for weeks leading up to the trip. We also embraced some flatter rides for longer mileage to get used to being in the saddle for hours.

Route Planning

The first major decision to make when traveling the Cabot Trail is clockwise or counterclockwise. Counterclockwise will put you on the cliff’s edge of the island for most of the way around, and is said to be much better visually.  However, we’d also heard there would be strong headwinds on the back end of the trip if we went counterclockwise. Between that and being afraid of heights and not wanting to be on the edge of anything, I pushed for clockwise.

We made up a map and a list of potential stops and hikes for each day

After choosing a starting point and a direction, things get much easier: there are a limited number of places to stay, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t have too much mileage in one day (and that we only tackled one mountain per day). Our original plan looked like this:

Day 1: Margaree Forks to Pleasant Bay (79km; 1,041m of climbing)
Day 2: Pleasant Bay to Meat Cove (58km; 1,040m of climbing)
Day 3: Meat Cove to Ingonish (71km; 985m of climbing)
Day 4: Ingonish to Baddeck (104km; 1,190m of climbing)
Day 5: Baddeck to Margaree Forks (43km; 405m of climbing)

While we could have made day four a little shorter, there isn’t a whole lot going on between Ingonish and Baddeck, and I also wanted to have at least one 100+km day, because why not?  And I’ll get more into it in my full recap, but due to weather we had to cut out day two altogether and change day three to Pleasant Bay to Ingonish Beach, which turned out to be 71km with 1,153m of climbing.

Lodging

Knowing we’d be out and about and getting gross on the trail, I wanted a nice split of camping and inside lodging.  Our home base on night zero was Live Life In Tents in Margaree Forks, where we camped the night before we took off, and then we splurged on the Mountain View Motel & Cottages in Pleasant Bay, mostly because there weren’t really any camping options near the town. This got us a shower after our first day of cycling, as well as let us do some sink laundry to put off our stuff getting gross for an extra day. As it turns out, we had to extend our stay for a day since our proposed day two was nothing but rain—luckily, the Meat Cove Campground we had planned on staying at was first-come first-served, so we hadn’t put down a deposit or paid in advance.

Day three was back outside at the Ingonish Beach campground, which was a great little spot with all the amenities you could possibly want at a campground. Night four was Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground, but we splurged on a glamping cabin (which had no electricity or water), just for the bed.  This gave us at least three days needing our camping gear (minus the tent), so we didn’t feel like we’d brought it in vain. If you wanted to cycle the trail, though, without bringing a ton of shit, you could very easily stay at a motel, cottage, or bed and breakfast every night.

Food

Another thing we didn’t want to do was haul around a week’s worth of food, especially at the beginning of our trip.  We brought along a few of our favorite Clif bars and some Nuun Endurance drink mix, but other than that we relied on the towns and shops along the way to stay fed—which worked out well, as a surprising amount were well stocked with energy bars and Gatorade (something we’d been warned would absolutely not be the case).

Stopping at restaurants and shops to get food also gave us an excuse to spend more time off our bikes, which was a welcome break every once in a while. Especially at nice little coffee shops like the Frog Pond Café in Cheticamp, Danena’s Bakery & Bistro in Dingwall, or the Wreck Cove General Store (which had surprisingly good coffee).  Other great stops included the Dancing Goat in Margaree, which has awesome sandwiches for breakfast and lunch; the Clucking Hen Café & Bakery in Englishtown (which also had great lunch sandwiches); Andrew’s Pizzeria in Ingonish (where we devoured two large pizzas after our second day of cycling); and my personal favorite on the entire island, the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay.  Get the lobster roll.

I wish we could do it all again.  Not because I would do anything differently, but because it was such a great trip.  Being able to see the Cabot Trail from a different perspective, and with a lot more time to process it all, was a great experience.  Being on the bike for a week, being able to leave it outside while we went into a restaurant and not worry about it being stolen, just spending a week with Kaitie—it all made for a perfect adventure.  And a perfect beginner’s adventure for anyone thinking about giving it a try.  The Cabot Trail should be a must-visit anyway, but to do it on a bike is a special treat that I never thought I would be able to accomplish.

Almost through Day 1, before attacking French Mountain

I would be remiss without thanking my former travel partner LeeAnne for not only providing tips for the trail and where to stop or eat, but also driving it two weeks before we arrived to do some recon (and finding out about some construction on one of the mountains that might be a bit hairy for us). I also used the official live Nova Scotia construction map to keep an eye on things. Cycle Nova Scotia is also an excellent resource.

La Panarda 2019: 40 Courses in 7 Hours

We’re gonna do this again, right?

My good friend Ray and I went into La Panarda 2018 as a once-in-a-lifetime experience: we would pay a lot of money to spend an entire Sunday, from noon until who knows when, eating and drinking non-stop. But then, about a week after we’d completed that task (and when we had finally started to feel hungry again), it became obvious to both of us that we were going to do it again.

This year we arrived early once again, wanting to get seats not only close to the end of the table, but also against one of the walls–when you’re sitting and eating for eight hours, having the option to lean back against something is very welcome. I once again wore my most comfortable shirt, my Canadiens jersey, and Ray wore a Flyers jersey; both sparked plenty of conversation with Le Virtu owner Francis Cratil Cretarola, who has been an avid hockey fan since before I was born.

I also was surprised to be recognized by many people who had read last year’s description of the meal, saying it was what they had shown friends who asked what they were getting into, and what they had used to plan for this year. I was asked for my advice on how to make it through the entire day, and I just echoed Francis’s advice from last year: the race isn’t always to the swift.

Soon after we were seated, Cantina Fretana Cococciola Spumante Brut was poured, and introductions were made to the folks we’d be spending the balance of our day with, Cretarola made a small introduction thanking everyone for being there and introducing us to a musician who would start us off with some “war music” played first on a goat’s bone, and then on what amounts to an Italian bagpipe.

The first item to come out was the torta rustica, a small quiche-like square served cold. I wasn’t expecting it to be cold, but it was delicious all the same, and just like that we were underway. No one having eaten breakfast, of course, the first few courses went quickly–we were all hungry and ready to eat.

Along with the torta was the mushroom polpette, an umami bomb of salty mushroom goodness served in ball form. At this stage in the game, despite repeated warnings not to get too ahead of themselves, a few people took some extra servings so as not to leave any food on the table. I admit I was one of them.

We then had a crostini with olives, and all the salt was working to get our saliva and digestive juices flowing. It also made me pretty thirsty, so the first few glasses of wine went down a little easier than they probably should have.

The final course of our first section was vegetable fritto misto, a selection of vegetables lightly fried in a tempura-like batter that worked because it was neither heavy nor greasy.

How do you eat this thing?

After the initial amuse offerings, we got started with fish–a change from last year’s movement into cheese and charcuterie. The first course, octopus with fennel and red chili pesto, would stand the test of time and remain a favorite of everyone by the end of the meal.

With the octopus were mussels and calamari with saffron, another delicious dish that was light and easy to eat. It was at this point I realized the day would move a little more swiftly than last year: courses were coming out two or three together rather than one at a time, which was definitely a step in the right direction for moving things along.

Next were baccala polpette, little salty bombs of fried salt cod. These were much smaller than the mushroom polpette but just as delicious, and everyone got two (and I took one extra).

One of the final fish dishes was shrimp with brodo piccante, whole shrimp in a spicy broth. While the broth wasn’t too spicy, it definitely had a slow burn and was the spiciest dish we’ve had in the two years I’ve done this. We made sure to suck the brains out of the shrimp as best we could, and between this and the mussels, it was really hard not to ask for bread to soak up all the delicious sauce we were missing out on. Bread, however, would have been a terrible idea, and we had to be happy with spoonfuls of the broth.

The final fish course was sardines with salsa verde, and was the first course that was not served family style: we each got our own sardine. And while I’ve eaten a lot of food, I am very rarely faced with an entire animal to try to get through, so I was a little unsure of how to proceed. The gentleman across from me–a hearty Italian who knew his way around–pulled the spine out like some kind of cartoon cat and was left with only the meat.

I gave up on that method almost immediately and ended up treating the fish like pulled pork, pulling it apart with my fork. That worked, for the most part. I still ended up swallowing some small bones, but on the whole I made it through the entire sardine, despite it being one of my least favorite dishes thus far.

Oh, just what we need: beans

Following the fish course was our first break. Everyone got up, went outside, stretched their legs, and chatted about the nine courses we’d just eaten. Francis made his rounds, talking hockey and once again thanking everyone for coming out for the meal. Once again, we’d lucked out with a beautiful late January afternoon, and no coats were necessary.

We returned from our short break to personal bowls of lentil soup and while it looked like a lot, it was just a small layer on the bottom of the bowl. Still, lentils and bread aren’t really what you want to load up on this early in the game, so most people opted to not finish. I was not one of those people.

More groans came as we were delivered sausage with white beans, another course that was sure to be heavy. Of course, as with almost everything else, it was exceptionally tasty despite the heaviness, and it was very hard to leave any remnants in the bowl–but we did, leaving most of the beans to be taken away. It was for the best.

Next were lamb polpette, a succulent lamb meatball served with cherry tomatoes that almost tasted as if they were candied. While I only wanted one of the meatballs, I ended up taking an extra spoonful of the tomatoes–they were that good.

One of the highlights of the day was the pork ribs agrodolce, ribs in a sweet and spicy sauce that would win my family’s yearly wing competition without a problem. And while we all hemmed and hawed over how great the sauce was, Chef Damon Menapace told us it was simply water, honey, vinegar, chili, and garlic.

The final course of this portion of the meal, and course #14 overall, was scrippelle ‘mbusse, delicate crepes rolled up in a clear broth and sprinkled with cheese. These were soft and fluffy with a subdued flavor that was a bit out of place with the other courses in this section.

What is this? Salad??

After the scrippelle, we were delivered two types of salad: escarole with citrus, and arugula with pistachio and pecorino. While we all jokingly complained that we were being given salad instead of real food, this turned out to be a brilliant move as far as meal pacing went. We were too fond of the escarole with citrus, but the acid probably went a long way to helping digest what was coming up. The arugula salad, however, was a big hit, and there was none left as we got up to venture outside to stretch our legs once again.

After our brief respite, we were treated to a course of charcuterie. As with the salad, this was a perfect way to slow things down before the pasta courses came up: we were given light ruffage, as well as a few small pieces of cured meat–not a lot of food to take up room before we got to the hard part. All the meat was house-cured, and included capocollo (or gabbagool for all your South Philadelphians), salame aquilano, ventricina vastese, fennel salame, and mixed pickles.

The fennel salame was the overwhelming favorite of the group we’d established, in no small part due to the delicious beets served with it. And being a sucker for anything pickled, I made short work of whatever was left of them once everyone had their share. The stewed tomatoes on top of the ventricina were also excellent.

You just have to make it through the pasta

The one thing that has stuck with me from all the articles I’ve read about Panarda is: you just have to make it through the pasta courses. Once you’re through them, it’s all downhill from there. This year, however, was slightly different. Chef Menapace said he went hard on the pasta, and it showed. Last year, there were five pasta courses and five offal courses. This year, offal was cut out entirely and we’d have to make it through eight pasta courses, separated by some vegetables.

It was time to put our game faces on. The first pasta to come out was the gnocchi with saffron and baccala, our second go-round with the salt cod. The gnocchi was dense, but the little pillows mixed in with the cod were all delicious.

Following the gnocchi was one of my favorite dishes of the night: juniper-smoked ricotta ravioli. Anyone who knows me knows I love smoke, and it was a subtle and delicious addition to these little raviolis. I definitely ate too many of them.

Next, the fazzoletti with swordfish and lemon may have been my favorite dish of the night. I don’t know why. Fazzoletti is known as “the handkerchief pasta” because it’s a long, flat sheet, and combined with the lemon flavor it was perfect. I love lemon as it is, and I think that contributed to my spooning serving after serving onto my plate.

I should mention that, after last year’s meal, I either wasn’t super full or don’t remember being super full. We had played the meal conservatively, being our first time, and so I felt I could dive a little deeper into the dishes this year. This thought process–especially as it relates to the fazzoletti–is where my hubris got the best of me.

The final course of the first round of pasta was the maccheroni alla mugnaia with garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino. This is an uneven, long, fresh pasta, and was very chewy, which I have really come to love in my noodles. This one was very good, but I only had one serving since I kept spooning the fazzoletti onto my plate.

After the first round of pasta (and after the first abandonment due to vomit out front of the restaurant), we of course went back outside to stretch and give everything a chance to digest. We came back to the duck and porcini timballo, which is a baked dish usually containing pasta, rice, or potatoes. This one, we were told, we should consider to be like duck lasagna, but the noodles were replaced with crepe, so it wouldn’t be as filling.

Despite looking like an odd lump, this turned into a quick favorite, and was the only thing I took home a portion of. After eating two slices, I couldn’t bring myself to eat any more, but also couldn’t bear to see any go to waste. Our tablemates seemed surprised that I claimed I could’ve eaten the entire portion were it the only thing served at dinner.

Along with the timballo was mushrooms with garlic and honey, a variety of grilled mushrooms that was meaty without being too filling. On any other day, I could’ve eaten much more than I did (I love mushrooms), but under the circumstances–as well as sharing the table with the timballo–the mushrooms were more of an afterthought.

The final dish in our pasta break was radicchio with apples and red wine vinaigrette, another salad that served it purpose: it was light, but delivered much-needed acid to combat all the heavy, fatty foods we were getting into.

And just like that, we were once again under attack, this time with anellini with pistachio and panchetta. The pasta was toothsome enough that some of the people at the table posited that it may be undercooked, but once again I really liked the bite the pasta had. I don’t know enough to know if it was undercooked or not, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Maccheroni alla chitarra with lamb ragu. This is where things started to blend together and get difficult to remember, and where I started to really regret taking fourths of the fazzoletti. If it makes things any better, I don’t remember this dish being bad.

Sagne e ceci, a flat pasta served with chickpeas–just what we needed, more beans to fill us up.

Finally, course 32 and the final pasta course: taccozelle with pork sausage, truffle, and saffron. Truffle and saffron makes this pretty decadent, and I am usually a truffle slut, but once again I couldn’t enjoy this dish to its fullest potential as all I could think of was getting up and going outside to get some fresh air.

Ryan, are you okay?

We came back in from our break to find a citrus sorbetto placed at our seat, which would have been a nice break from the pasta had I not been already getting too full. I made sure to eat it, though, as it was quite good and very refreshing. And then the piles of meat came out.

We started with aged ribeye with fried potatoes, cooked extremely rare. As put-off as some people would probably be, I ate an entire slice. It was soft, tender, and delicious. I did not find the “undercooked” texture off-putting at all, as some others claimed it to be.

With the ribeye was porchetta with long hots and broccoli rabe–an Abruzze nod to the Philly classic roast pork sandwich. The pork itself was succulent and tasted phenomenal, and I wish I had more room. I took one piece and struggled with that as it was.

Thankfully, there was only one more meat course to go, which was a lamb shank with polenta. Being in the same city as Zahav, I’m always leery of anyone serving any kind of lamb shank, but this stood on its own merits and I would order it again, despite only taking a small piece to taste, and not having any of the polenta.

After our final meat course, I immediately went outside and laid down on the convenient little wall they have in the courtyard. The cold concrete felt wonderful on my back, and my stomach felt like it was reaching to the sky, nine months pregnant. At one point I stood up and got the spins–maybe the two shots of limoncello among the endless wine wasn’t such a good idea. At one point Cathy Lee, one of the owners, came over to make sure I was okay. It was nice to feel cared about.

We went back in (with a little reluctance on my part) to a 75% ABV Centerba sorbetto and decided it would be a good idea to order espresso. When it arrived, I took a sip and almost immediately felt the pushing sensation on the bottom of my chin that signifies vomit is imminent. I excused myself from the table and walked to the bathroom, where there was a line. I waited, I took deep breaths. Luckily, I was able to get myself under control while I was in line so nothing came back in when it was finally my turn to go in. Disaster averted.

I came back to the table no worse for the wear (though no better, either) to find something I would have enjoyed seven hours before: cheese. There was a pecorino canestrato with honey, a ricotta passita with citrus preserves, and caprino stagionato with pepeoncino jam. They were all great–especially the sides served with them–but I could only bring myself to take a small bite of each.

We were also brought housemade lu parazzo, another plate of small desserts I only had a bite each of. This was the only thing that doubled up from last year, and the olive oil cake was definitely welcome back.

Finally, we had cicerchie, which was almost like a caramelized gnocchi. It was sweet, chewy, and had I been in a better state of mind and body, I could have eaten it all on my own.

We’re gonna do this again, right?

For Ray and I, La Panarda has transitioned from a once-in-a-lifetime marathon of food to a yearly friends day out, so we will most certainly be back next year. Last year I under-ate, this year I over-ate, so I feel like I’m really going to hit the sweet spot on the next go-round. I asked everyone at the table if they would do it again, and they all said yes. Whether I actually see them there next year, time will tell.

The whole ordeal is a great testament to the entire staff at Le Virtu: from the owners and servers making everyone feel welcomed and appreciated to the chef and his staff for the marathon of cooking they have to go through for us to have our marathon of eating. To do something like this really shows a love for and dedication to the Abruzzo region of Italy, and I almost feel like I’ve been there. I certainly know what their food is like.

A special shout-out, too, to Cantina Frentana, who supplied the wines for the evening. The wines we were served were Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante Brut (sparkling), Terre Valse Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2016, Cirelli Bianco Organic Terbbiano Pecorino 2017, Costa del Mulino Pecorino 2016 (all white), Terre Valse Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2015 (rose), Cantina Frentana Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015, Cantina Frentana Rubesto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2014, and Cantina Frentana Panarda Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riverva 2012 (all red). I don’t know much about wine, but I would drink them all again.

To put something like this on with two new chefs in two years, and to not repeat a single dish (other than the dessert cookies) seems astounding to me, as does the ability to get it done in less than 12 hours. This year moved even more quickly than last, and we were done eating by 7:30 at the latest. In my short experience, it seems to get better every year, and the people in charge are able to tweak enough to make it run just a little more smoothly each time.

So, as things stand, I will see you next year. We’ll be in our loose, billowy hockey jerseys, hopefully not eating too much pasta or drinking too much wine. Although if we did, who could really blame us?

9 Places to Eat in Chicago

To get to be one of my favorite cities in the US, you’ve got to be one of my favorite places to eat.  Chicago certainly is that, which is the main reason I keep going back—as a Cleveland sports fan, it certainly isn’t for their wretched baseball teams.  I also go to visit some good friends, but this isn’t an article about my nine best friends in Chicago; I’m talking about food. So if you do go to Chicago—and I pray that you do—go hungry. There’s a lot to eat.

1. Portillo’s

While the huge building in the middle of downtown may scream “tourist trap,” Portillo’s is a great one-stop shop for most of the Chicago food you need to experience.  They have a solid Chicago-style hotdog, which includes mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, and peppers (and no ketchup, just the way god intended).  Also not to be missed is their Italian beef sandwich, topped with giardiniera (basically a chunky Italian relish) and either drizzled with gravy or “dipped”—completely submerged in the gravy.  I suggest the latter. 100 W. Ontario, Chicago, IL 60610

1 port

2. Pequod’s Pizza

You’ll never get a full consensus on where to go to get the best pizza in Chicago, or if you even should eat the pizza in Chicago.  A lot of east coasters balk at the pies, but I prefer pizza in Chicago—if you want a meal, that is. If you just want a little snack, stick with your thin New York pizza.  In any case, you can hit any of the big names: Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, Giordano’s, etc. But I’ve found, and have a few locals backing me on this, that Pequod’s is one of the best places to stop in the city.  It’s a little out of the way from downtown, but airier crust and caramelized cheese on the sides will make the trip worthwhile. 2207 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

2 pequods

3. XOCO

While any of the Rick Bayless empire would be worth stopping into, XOCO is a little less upscale and a bit more traveler-friendly if you’re just breezing through.  The fully-dressed guacamole (with spicy roasted poblano, chicharrón, grilled onion, smoky bacon, tomato, queso fresco, and pumpkin seeds) is worth snacking on while you wait for your order, and their caldos (hearty soups) will revive you from the worst of drunken nights (I’ve seen it first-hand).  The real star, though, and frontrunner for my favorite sandwich of all time, is the torta ahogada. Pork carnitas, black beans, and pickled onions on crusty bread and sitting in a tomato-arbol chile sauce—I would walk to Chicago to eat this sandwich again (and have eaten it on three consecutive trips). It comes in mild, medium, or hot, but I would stick to mild. 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

3 xoco

4. Avec

Another one of my long-time favorites, Avec is a must-visit for a casual spot with top-notch food.  While the menu will change, the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates (baked in a delicious spicy tomato sauce) should always be there—and should always be ordered. Probably two or three times. The oven-roasted cauliflower is surprisingly good, and the braised lamb neck was excellent.  Be sure to go hungry, and be sure to plan some time to walk off your meal (this is very important). Our bartender asked us if we wanted a half order of the cauliflower and, taking it personally (he doesn’t think I can finish an entire cauliflower dish?) I of course opted for the whole.  I probably should’ve gone with the half order. 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

4 avec

5. The Purple Pig

As the final meal of our last trip to Chicago, we couldn’t have asked for a much better note to go out on.  With a tagline of “cheese, swine, and wine,” it’s hard to imagine The Purple Pig being bad. In addition to the wine, they had a solid beer selection, and the Mediterranean-style shareable plates were all hits.  The biggest hit was probably the salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio butter, while the beef tendon chips (puffed out like huge pork rinds) with salt and vinegar made an excellent snack. We definitely left Chicago on a high note. 500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

5 pp

6. Tanta

Ever since my trip to Peru in 2014, Peruvian food has been on my radar. When I learned Gaston Acurio had a restaurant in Chicago, I had to swing by—and was glad I did.  Tanta‘s pisco sour was delicious, the chicha was refreshing, and the lomo saltado brought me back to Cusco. I also loved being able to re-experience the huge corn that is so popular in Peru, which showed up in both their beef heart dish and the cebiche we ordered.  We went for lunch on a weekday, so the place was almost empty, but I would go anytime. The food and drinks are well worth a stop. 118 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60654

6 tanta

7. Eataly

I know there’s nothing very “Chicago” about Eataly, but if you’re staying in the River North area, it is incredibly convenient.  There are a variety of restaurants and bars, as well as shops for everything you can imagine. Beer, wine, fresh pizza dough, high-end Italian food products—whatever you need, Eataly will have it.  What we used it for, however, was the coffee. Being a scant half block from our hotel, each day in Chicago began at the coffee counter at Eataly (and some ended there), sampling the various styles to either jumpstart our day or to wind down.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, but if you’re in the area, definitely swing in. 43 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL 60611

7 eataly

8. Alinea

I’ll be honest: Alinea is expensive. It is, however, worth the expense.  As the only Chicago restaurant with three Michelin stars, it is often ranked among the top restaurants in the world.  If you’ve seen the episode about Alinea on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, you’ll know what kind of treat you’re in for—food that looks like something else, food you didn’t know was at your table, dessert that could be classified as art—the experience is incredible, and ranks as one of the best meals I’ve ever had to boot.  If you need more information, I wrote an in-depth rundown of my experience at the kitchen table in January. 1723 N Halstead St, Chicago, IL 60614

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9. Taco Bell Cantina

Perhaps this is just due to the draconian liquor laws in Pennsylvania and the incredible expense of getting a liquor license in Philadelphia, but the novelty of being able to get a crunchwrap and a beer was not lost on me.  Maybe it’s because in addition to loving the highest of high-end food, I’m a garbage person who loves Taco Bell as well. The Baja Blast Freeze with a shot of rum was incredibly sweet, which I suppose should have been expected, but it was still a fun stop to make.  And I don’t mind admitting that I would do it again. 1439 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

9 tbc

As you can tell, Chicago has something for everyone—and we didn’t even graze the surface. There is so much to see and do, the city requires multiple extended weeks of visiting, especially if you want to make the most of the incredible food scene.  But unless you love to be cold (which I do), I would suggest avoiding visiting in the middle of January.

Our Favorite Cleveland Eats

It should be obvious that, being one of my favorite places in the world, Cleveland would have some excellent food.  From cafeteria-style Polish food to haute cuisine, there’s a little something for everyone.  Hell, even if you like shitty fast food (and who doesn’t?) there is a wonderful local option.  Be sure to check out some of these spots when you head in to the Best Location in the Nation.

Jonathon Sawyer

While Michael Symon put Cleveland on the culinary map, while he’s off in Hollywood being a celebrity chef, Jonathon Sawyer is holding down the position of best chef in Cleveland.  He has the Greenhouse Tavern on the pedestrian-friendly East 4th Street downtown, where you can order a whole pig’s head (and Symon name-checked their gravy frites on The Best Thing I Ever Ate).  Among his other restaurants is personal favorite Noodlecat, a fast-casual ramen spot that originated in the West Side Market, moved downtown, and has finally (and unfortunately) ended up in the suburb of Westlake. This seems to be poised to be franchised, though, so there may be more in the near future.  The ramen is great, but awesome sides like their grilled ramen and cheese and fried kimchi balls are must-orders.

Michael Symon

Symon does still loom large in the city, with plenty of outposts around town.  Near Noodlecat is his B-Spot (burgers, brats, and beers), which features the Fat Doug—a burger with coleslaw, pastrami, stadium mustard (more on this later) and Swiss cheese, and is well worth the trip to any of the Cleveland suburb locations. There are also some awesome shakes; the vanilla bean apple pie and bacon shake with the added shot of bourbon is just what you need after a stomach-busting burger.  On the aforementioned East 4th Street, you’ll also find Lola Bistro and Mabel’s BBQ, Symon’s “Cleveland-style” barbecue joint.

West Side Market

While the market is packed with butchers, cheese sellers, pierogi makers, and other take away and make at home style places, there are a few great stops for food.  Steve’s Gyros is probably chief among them, and always has a line.  This is a line you’ll want to wait in, and it goes pretty quickly because you can either order a gyro, or a gyro with extra meat—though, after eating the regular one, I’m not sure how extra meat is physically possible.  Though, if you want, you can cut to the front of the line to just buy a bag of pita.  There is also Maha’s Falafil, which has a pretty extensive menu for a small falafel stand, though the falafel is still the best.  I take umbrage with their “Philly” sandwiches, but I can ignore that for their other delicious food.  Finally, don’t pass a stop at Czuchraj Meats, which has all manner of cured meats for you to snack on, chief among them their variety of house-made jerky.  It’s thick, chewy, and slathered with sauce—definitely a requirement if you stop by the market.

Beer

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There is a lot of great beer in Cleveland, and if you’re in Ohio City (where West Side Market is), you’re in a good stop. Directly across from the market are Cleveland’s craft beer kings, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Swing in and get some swag, have some beer, and taste some of their ice cream creations they’ve partnered with local Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream to create (like the Edmund Fitzgerald porter chocolate chunk). Right next to the market is Market Garden Brewery, another local favorite with an extensive taplist.  On our last visit, their Nano OG Lager became a quick favorite, and Kaitie fell for their Hella Mango.  Do pop in for some refreshments after a long day of wandering the market.  Also, if you’re downtown, head over to Noble Beast, the open, garage-like brewpub with excellent beer and good food.  It’s a few blocks from the middle of downtown, but a great way to get away from the traffic if the Browns are playing, and a nice stop if you enjoy drinking quality beer.

Mr. Hero

Yes, of all the places on the list, the shitty fast food joint gets its own heading.  This is because everywhere in Cleveland is optional when I visit except Mr. Hero.  And the crazy thing is, I’ve only ever had one item there.  My entire life has been spent either living in the city, the suburbs, or visiting regularly, and the one constant has always been the Mr. Hero Romanburger.  It doesn’t look like much—and my description won’t improve upon that—but I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t one of my favorite sandwiches in the world.  Greyish hamburger patties with fried salami, onions, mayo, cheese, tomato, and lettuce that is wilted and soggy from the sheer amount of grease in the sandwich, it is a fatty, salty overload of joy.  Since I don’t get there as often as I would like, I can usually justify the gut-busting 14” version, but it also comes in 10” and, for the faint of heart, 7”.  Throw on an order of waffle fries with warm cheese sauce, and my trip is complete.

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Greasy, fatty, salty, perfect Romanburger

Odds & Ends

Sokolowski’s University Inn is a Polish cafeteria-style mecca for all your pierogi and stuffed cabbage needs, among other things. Hot Sauce Williams, which has two locations, is the place for barbecue in Cleveland.  Big Al’s Diner is great for breakfast, and their corned beef hash is unrivaled.  If you want to get out of the city a bit Corky and Lenny’s is a great Jewish deli with massive sandwiches and pickles on the table. Finally, if you want to take home some souvenirs, swing by the local Malley’s Chocolates to grab some sweets, or any grocery store to get the famous Bertman’s Original Ballpark Mustard served at Indians games.

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Picking up some Ballpark Mustard…among other things

As you may have noticed, I can go on and on about Cleveland, whether it’s things to do, places to eat, or just dumb facts about the city.  I love it there with my entire being, and am already looking forward to going back—as I always do, just after I leave.

While you’re eating in Cleveland, you might as well check out some things to do.  Here are a few of our favorites.

Flee to the Cleve: Things to do in Cleveland

IMG_4579Of all the places I’ve been, there are few I love visiting more than Cleveland.  It could be the family I have there, or just the fact that it’s where I was born, but I look forward to every trip.  I am immensely proud of my home city, and boast of it whenever I can (which I’m sure people get tired of real quick).  I can rattle off “interesting” facts about Cleveland all day long.  Did you know Cleveland had the first black mayor of a major American city? Or that Superman was invented there? And Tom Hanks credits Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival with jumpstarting his acting career?

But I digress.  If you’re going to Cleveland, you don’t need fun facts—you need things to do and places to go.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Ohio City

This neighborhood is one of the best in the city.  While traffic and parking can be a bit of a pain (especially on weekends), you’ve got the Great Lakes brewery (swing in for a flight of beer and some Edmund Fitzgerald chocolate chunk ice cream), along with Market Garden and Nano Brew breweries across the street. There are a ton of places to eat—Flying Fig is nice, and TownHall is a great place for brunch. However, if you’re heading down there for food, you’re going to want to stop at

West Side Market

Open since 1912, this is the oldest indoor/outdoor marketplace in Cleveland.  While it mostly specializes in various cuts of meat (you wouldn’t think so many meat purveyors could flourish in such a small space), if you’re not planning on cooking anything there are still plenty of prepared foods and other market items to check out.  Urban Herbs is a great place to pick up any spices you need.  Czuchraj Meats was namechecked by Michael Symon on The Best Thing I Ever Ate for their out of this world beef jerky.  Man vs Food alumn Steve’s Gyros always has a line, and it’s always worth standing in (but get the regular gyro—there’s one with more meat for $2 extra, but I’m not sure how it’s physically possible to fit any more than they already give you). Side note: get as many napkins from Steve’s as you can. Maha’s Falafil is excellent, too.  Be sure to take your food up to the balcony to eat and overlook the entire market.

Downtown

To the unexperienced, there aren’t a lot of phrases less exciting than “downtown Cleveland,” but the place has its charm—unless you’re trying to drive around down there when there’s a Browns game.  Right on the waterfront is the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, as well as the Browns’ stadium.  Head over to East 4th Street for a small pedestrian-only road of shops and restaurants (where you’ll find Michael Symon’s Lola and Mabel’s BBQ, as well as Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern)—including Cleveland Clothing Company.  Go there and get a shirt; you’ll probably notice it seems like a requirement for Clevelanders to wear some kind of clothing denoting this.  It’s also a few blocks away from Quicken Loans Arena, where you can see the Cavs or the Rockers play, and Progressive Field.  Go to an Indians game, and get the famous stadium mustard (also available in stores).  You’ll also be near the Arcade, America’s first indoor shopping center (est. 1890), partially funded by John D Rockefeller.

Metroparks

If you enjoy nature, the Cleveland Metroparks is the place for you.  Spanning over 23,000 acres in 18 separate reservations, you can do pretty much everything.  There are miles and miles of bike paths, over 100 hiking trails, water activities—you name it.  Often dubbed the Emerald Necklace because of the way it wraps around Cleveland, you’re never far from a trail or a wooded area, which is extremely refreshing for a big city.  You can also swing by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo if you’re into that sort of thing.

Odds & Ends

There are endless things to do in Cleveland and the surrounding area, and I love it so much I could go on forever.  If you like Christmas, head to the Tremont neighborhood to see the actual house A Christmas Story was filmed in, which now functions as a museum for the movie.  You can head to Lake View Cemetery to see John D Rockefeller’s grave, or check out the spooky Weeping Angel.  If you want to get out of the city, the nation’s best amusement park, Cedar Point, is a little over an hour away (but we’ll talk about that later).

Don’t let the old jokes or stories about a burning river (though true) deter you.  Cleveland has made plenty of must-visit lists in recent years, and as the city moves past its steel mill history, it will only continue to get better.  Like any big city, it’s got something for everyone, but only in a slightly smaller package, with a more friendly Midwest wrapping.  There’s got to be a reason Randy Newman, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Scott Weiland all have songs about Cleveland.   Right?

Now that you’re in Cleveland, check out some of our favorite places to eat.

FEASTIVAL Changes Direction for 9th Year

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Jesse Ito’s dish, the highlight of last year’s event

Feastival has long been one of Philadelphia’s top food events, always gathering the city’s top chefs to raise money for the FringeArts program.  This year’s edition—taking place on Thursday, September 27—is no different, though the concept has changed slightly.  To more fully honor the city of Philadelphia’s extraordinary food scene, chefs will be paired together to represent cuisines from five of Philadelphia’s most iconic neighborhoods.  The pairings were chosen by two of the event’s co-hosts, Michael Solomonov (Zahav) and Nick Elmi (Laurel).

The event, presented by Audi, will as always go beyond the food and offer a night of live art and music to accompany the delicious drinks and dishes. Running from 7-10pm, tickets will set you back $300.  If you’d like to spring for the VIP experience, which gets you into the event an hour early, tickets will cost $450.  Each ticket includes a year-long FringeArts membership (which gets you 30% off all tickets for the season) and benefits the FringeArts program.

If you’re wondering exactly what you’ll get for that money, take a look at the chef pairings and the neighborhood cuisines they’ll be representing:

West Philadelphia

Aaron Bennawit (The Good King Tavern) & Scott Schroeder (Hungry Pigeon)

Eli Collins (a.kitchen) & Adan Trinidad (Sancho Pistola’s)

Nick Elmi (Laurel) & Nick Macri (La Divisa Meats)

Matt Fein (Federal Donuts) & Jon Rodriquez (Mission Taqueria)

Nate Horwitz (Morimoto) & Todd Lean (Pod)

Armando Jimenez (Harp & Crown) & Charlie Schmidt (Philadelphia OIC)

South Philadelphia

Chris Baretta (Continental Midtown) & Abigail Dahan (Parc)

Jezabel Careaga (Jezabel’s) & Clark Gilbert (Louie Louie)

Jason Cichonski (Ela) & Andrew Farley (High Street on Market)

Joncarl Lachman (Noord) & Ben Puchowitz (Bing Bing Dim Sum and Cheu Noodle Bar)

Richard Pepino (Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality) & Michael Yeamans (Audrey Claire)

Seth Petitt (Urban Farmer) & Rakesh Ramola (Indeblue)

Chinatown

Nich Bazik (Kensington Quarters) & Aaron Gottesman (Oyster House)

Camille Cogswell (Zahav) & Manny Perez (Walnut Street Café)

William Kells (Capofitto) & Peter Woolsey (La Peg)

Michael Loughlin (Scarpetta) & Jeremy Nolen (West Reading Motor Club)

Michael Strauss (Mike’s BBQ) & Michael Sultan (Revolution Taco)

Kensington & Fishtown

Kenneth Bush (Bistrot La Minette) & Richard Landau (V Street and Vedge)

Jonathan Cichon (Lacroix) & Ari Miller (Lost Bread Co.)

Christopher Curtin (Eclat Chocolate) & Ari Miller (1732 Meats)

Chris Kearse (Will BYOB) & Joe Thomas Jr. (Bank & Bourbon)

Francisco Ramirez (Tredici and Zavino) & Greg Vernick (Vernick Food & Drink)

Northeast Philadelphia

Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca (Poi Dog) & Marc Vetri (Vetri Cucina)

Michael Brenfleck (La Calaca Feliz) & Doreen DeMarco (American Sardine Bar)

Rob Cottman (World Cafe Live) & Andrew Wood (Russet)

Jesse Ito (Royal Izakaya) & Townsend Wentz (Townsend, A Mano and Oloroso)

Samuel Kennedy and Matthew Hettlinger (The Farm at Doe Run) & John Patterson (Fork)

I, for one, am excited to see what teams like Poi Dog and Vetri can come up with, as well as how some of these chefs represent my neighborhood of Fishtown. And as I can attest from years past, the event is always worth the price and one of the best food- and drink-related nights of the year.  For more information and to order tickets, you can check out Feastival’s website. While it remains to be seen whether or not this is the most delicious incarnation of Feastival, it will certainly be the most interesting.

On a Mission for Mission Chinese

Whenever I go to San Francisco (which has, admittedly, only been twice), there are two things—both food related—that must happen.  One, of course, is a stop at In-N-Out for a burger (and probably two).  The other is a trip to the Mission for Mission Chinese.

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Sichuan kimchi

Mission Chinese Food, which was started by Chef Danny Bowien and partner Anthony Myint, began as a two-night-a-week pop-up in established Chinese takeout joint Lung Shan.  As the Sichuanese pop-up grew more and more popular, the owners of Lung Shan eventually said the Mission Chinese folks should take over and serve their food full time, and they would ditch the normal Chinese takeout fare.  The restaurant still has the original signage and Lung Shan name, with only a piece of paper posted in the doorway to tell you any different.

With most of the original décor and an impossibly tiny kitchen that you have to walk through to get to the bathroom, it’s easy to think maybe you walked into the wrong place—is this dining room with the peeling tables and cheap dragon lanterns really the critically acclaimed Sichuanese spot?  Well, grab yourself a cheap Tiger beer and open the menu: you’re in for a surprise.

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Chongqing chicken wings

I’m not typically a fan of chicken wings—they’re too much work for too little payout—but the Chongqing wings are an absolute must-order.  The right amount of spice, including powdered dried mushrooms, and a dusting of numbing Sichuan peppercorn make them irresistible.  With much of Sichuanese cooking, I’ve found the more numbing and spicy it is, the more I can’t stop eating it.  The Sichuan kimchi, with spicy macadamia oil and hijiki (a brown Japanese sea vegetable), is probably the best kimchi I’ve ever had. The smashed cucumber, with whipped tehina and black garlic oil and sorrel, was another palate pleaser.

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Kung pao pastrami

We also tried one of their standard dishes, the kung pao pastrami, which I wasn’t able to get on my first trip in 2012 and I think I had been looking forward to ever since.  Add to that the Westlake lamb dumplings, a perfect mix of Greek and Sichuan: fried dumplings in ma la vinaigrette with peanuts and tzatziki.  A perfect balance of spicy vinaigrette cooled by the tzatziki. On my first visit, I’d also tried the ma pa tofu, one of my favorite Sichuanese dishes (and made to perfection with a hearty sauce with black beans and pork shoulder) and the cumin lamb belly with charred green beans.  I wish I could’ve bottled the smell of the lamb belly, because it was one of the best-smelling dishes I think I’ve ever been in the same room with.

The flavors here are a bit more subtle and nuanced than at a lot of Sichuan restaurants I’ve been to, as is the spice level.  Not to say that bold flavors and lots of spice are a bad thing; in fact, those are some of my favorite descriptors when it comes to food.  But Mission Chinese does a great job of dialing back the spice just a bit so you can experience more of their incredibly original flavor combinations.

If you’re in San Francisco and you like food, you should not miss Mission Chinese.  You shouldn’t miss the Mission in general, really, which is an incredibly colorful neighborhood with plenty of food, interesting people, an incredible Carlos Santana mural, and a wonderful park to lay back and enjoy the day.  But definitely do Mission Chinese first.

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Cumin lamb belly