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

Things to Eat in Philadelphia That Aren’t A Goddamned Cheesesteak

Whenever people ask me where they should get a cheesesteak when they come to visit Philly, I always have the simplest answer for them: nowhere.  I’ll get a lot of guff for my outspoken dislike of the cheesesteak–especially since I’ll eat just about anything–but I really don’t see what’s special about some garbage meat put in a bun and topped with melted cheese whiz.  The city can offer you so much more.

For instance, did you know the stromboli was invented in Philadelphia in the 50s?  Sure, it’s basically just a rolled up pizza, but pizza is awesome so you can’t go wrong.  And Philadelphia is filled with the kind of Italians who have never been to Italy and love to pronounce things wrong (“Get some muht-zuh-rell when you go buy the gabbagool!”), so you know they do Italian food right.

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Tomato pie from Corropolese

And speaking of pizza-like concoctions, there is the even-better-than-stromboli tomato pie.  It took me a few years after moving to Philly to try it, because when someone mentioned “tomato pie” I immediately thought of apple pie but with tomatoes, and did not want that.  As it turns out, tomato pie is pizza-adjacent, with a thick crust topped with a sweet red sauce (or as they incorrectly call it here, “gravy”), often sprinkled with some parm powder, and best served at room temperature, or straight out of the fridge the next day.  Plenty of places have good tomato pie, but Corropolese Deli is where you’ll get the most consensus on the best. And they’ve been doing it for almost 100 years.

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Termini Bros. cannoli

Also going strong for nearly 100 years is Termini Brothers, the (originally) South Philly Italian bakery that can really do no wrong.  They can especially do no wrong if you get their top item, a cannoli. Eat it while you’re walking around the city; it’ll be worth however many thousands of calories it is.  Another Philly institution worth checking out is DiBruno Bros., home of any high-end food item you could desire, but especially focused on cheese.

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The cheese counter at DiBruno Bros.

If you’re avoiding the cheesesteak but still want a sandwich, you have two options. Philadelphia, for whatever reason, does an Italian hoagie better than pretty much anywhere in the country. Whether it’s the bread (Sarcone’s or Liscio’s rolls, you savages) or the toppings, any sandwich place worth its salt will have a good one. Just remember, if you want a traditional Italian hoagie, pass on the mayo and stick with oil and whatever hot pepper mixture they have.

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Italian hoagie: far superior to a cheesesteak

The other sandwich option is the creme de la creme of Philadelphia food, and what should be the real shining star: the roast pork sandwich.  Slow roasted pork, topped with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe, should really be the city’s namesake sandwich. The best are from John’s Roast Pork or the more accessible DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market (which itself is worth spending time wandering through), whose roast pork sandwich was named the best sandwich in America by the Travel Channel.

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DiNic’s Roast Pork – make it a priority

I understand, though, you may want to get a cheesesteak just for the novelty of eating one in Philadelphia.  If you do that, have some modicum of self respect and keep a few things in mind: for one, the name basically describes what you should get on it.  Cheese and steak. Onions are acceptable, but for the love of god leave off the green peppers that everyone outside of Philadelphia seems to insist on adding.  Also, it’s just a cheesesteak: there is no other version in another city that you need to differentiate, so it’s not a Philadelphia cheesesteak, a Philly cheesesteak, or a Philly.  There is only one; there is only cheesesteak. Finally, avoid the tourist traps of Pat’s and Geno’s, aka Cheesesteak Vegas. Their signs and lights and rules for ordering are obnoxious.

Philadelphia is such a great food city, with a lot great food that is inherently Philadelphian, so I’m not sure how the city was saddled with the cheesesteak.  If you’re going to come to visit and you want some real Philly food, I beg of you: skip the scrap meat and plastic cheese.

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A sad-ass cheesesteak

Great Chefs Event 2018

On Saturday, just after noon, almost 1,000 people gathered at the URBN headquarters in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand and feast on food from some of the best chefs in America.  The Great Chefs Event, in its 13th year now, experienced some changes this time around but still retains its title as the best food event in Philadelphia.

The three most notable changes were switching the event from a Tuesday evening to a Saturday afternoon, allowing children, and not selling tickets to the afterparty (which was restricted to only chefs, sponsors, and volunteers).

Not being on a Tuesday night and not being at the afterparty until 2am drastically improved the way I felt the day after the event, so I don’t have much to complain about there.  Allowing children, however, made navigating a bit of a trial.  While I understand allowing children at a fundraiser for childhood cancer, I also think the same lady with a two-person stroller was moving slowly in front of me the entire event.

One of the nicer changes, though, was the addition of an outdoor beer garden full of local breweries.  Victory, 2SP, Dogfish Head, Twin Lakes, Second District, Stoudt’s, and of course Sly Fox with their Alex’s Lemonade beer were all easily accessible and the never-crowded space was the perfect foil to the bustling inside.  And while it did get a little warm in the early afternoon, it’s hard to complain about that when it seems the rain in Philadelphia this year hasn’t stopped since March (and didn’t start until after the event had ended).

Back on the inside, though, was the same wonderful time as always.  Food vendors—and quite the line-up of which—lined the halls and the main room of the beautiful URBN space.  Michael Cimarusti was the first in line as guests entered the hall with a lobster mortadella sandwich—the perfect size for starting the day, but something I would have had trouble fitting later in the afternoon.  Also present were celebrity chefs Chris Cosentino, Jonathan Waxman, and Bruce Kalman of recent Top Chef fame. And despite my known stance on cheesesteaks, Cosentino’s tripe cheesesteak, nicknamed the “Stomach Grinder,” was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Other favorites were Yehuda Sichel’s Montreal-style short rib sandwich, representing Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher with as delicate a piece of meat as I’ve had, held together by two pillowy-soft pieces of bread: you wouldn’t have needed teeth to eat this.  Another top pick was Gavin Fine’s seared sea scallops with ginger-soy butter, watercress, tobiko vinaigrette, and fried shallots.  Despite Jackson Hole, WY not necessarily being known as a top seafood destination, Gavin clearly knew what to do with this perfectly seared mollusks.  Finally, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook’s cavatelli with fennel sausage and cavolo nero, despite being quite the heady dish near the end of our eating, was absolutely delicious.

About two hours into the eating was a short presentation, as there is every year, from Jim and Liz Scott, the parents of the titular Alex from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, with an update on their fundraising and some personal stories.  They also had a current childhood cancer survivor tell his story before the real fundraising of the day got down to business: a charity auction for some big-ticket items.  The largest of them was Marc Vetri and Greg Vernick coming to your house and cooking for a dinner party of 12, which sold for a whopping $10,000.  The five large auction items raised over $50,000 for the foundation on their own.

The annual event should be attended by anyone who can make it: you are able to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, eat amazing food, rub elbows with some of the top chefs in the country, and hang out in URBN’s beautiful space.  There are myriad silent auction items and raffles.  The list goes on for all the great things that happen here over the space of four hours on a Saturday afternoon, and I suggest you check it out for yourself.

If you were unable to attend the event but would still like to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, you can click here.  There is also a Great Chefs Event in Chicago on August 13, and L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade in Los Angeles on September 9.

La Panarda: A Tale of 40 Courses Over Nine Hours

At the end of January, my friend Ray and I continued our month of indulgence and finally ticked La Panarda off of our bucket list: an epic nine-hour feast with a menu of 42 courses at Philadelphia restaurant Le Virtu.  Though, saying 42 “items” would probably be more accurate, as the menu was broken down into nine “courses” that grouped like-minded dishes.

There were also nine different Abruzzo wines (four white, a rose, and four red), which were paired with each of the courses, and topped off as necessary.  Needless to say, I really could have used a nap about six hours into the meal, but I powered on.

We were told to wear “comfortable and expandable” clothing – I went with my Canadiens hockey jersey, which actually started a lot of conversations, in addition to being roomy enough for me to eat for nine hours.

If you would like to read more about La Panarda and the history behind it, I would suggest Drew Lazor’s piece in Saveur Magazine about it. If you would like to read about the absolute indulgence I feel I had been training my whole life for, please continue.

As a fair warning, the light started to wane near the end – compounded with hours of wine and people being less patient as the night went on, some of the pictures become a little less practiced near the end. But for the most part, everyone at our part of the table was very open to waiting until everyone had snapped their pictures before taking anything.

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Ray and I arrived about 15 minutes early, just as they were opening the restaurant and letting us take our seats.  We picked seats at the end of a table, against a wall and close to the door to Le Virtu’s outside porch area.  Not only did it afford us great lighting for photos, but we had a quick way out of the table as well as a wall to lean back on when the going got tough. Owner Francis Cratil Cretarola and his brother Fred, the manager, immediately commented on my Habs jersey, as they’re both hockey fans.

At the table in front of us was a bowl of mushroom sott’olio, a variety of cooked mushrooms in oil.  We nervously eyed them as we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive, for our welcome champagne to be poured, and for Francis to give his welcome talk. The best piece of advice he gave us was the line, “The race is not always to the swift.”

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The first item that was actually delivered to our table was the Salumi and Formaggi meat and cheese board, which contained pancetta, coppa, guanciale, ‘nduja, mortadella, and mangalitsa cacciatorini for the meat, three types of pecorino (canestrato, muffato, and brigantaccio – with the muffato bring slightly softer, stinkier, and more delicious), as well as a 36-month aged parmigiano that was delightful.  Also on the board was pepperonata, eggplant, carrots, pickled onions, and grilled bread.

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Once we were nearing the end of the board, with people hesitantly picking at what was left.  The first course, and already the mental strategy had to kick in: Ray and I are the type of guys who will pick at food as long as it’s in front of us, and we’ll finish shared plates if no one else wants them.  But today, we had to stay strong and not overdo it.  We’d have to have tastes, and then leave the rest until the next course.

Then, they brought out another board.  “Ohh, what’s this?” we asked.  “More of the same.”

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More picking, and then came the oliva ascolana, little fried balls filled with green olive and shredded meat.

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The opening course also included palotta cac e ove, which are basically vegetarian meatballs made with bread and cheese.  They were just as good as any “regular” meatball.

Thus ended the “Sfizi” and “Salumi and Formaggi” courses, and thankfully ended the piles of meat and cheese still sitting on the table.  Next came the “Crudi” course, starting with Ikijime fluke with olive, fennel, and citrus.  There were also some peppers on top that helped spice things up a bit.

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It was about this time that we could look outside on the porch and see the chefs preparing the roasted suckling pig in their box outside – another of the perks of sitting near the window.

As we were watching the pig be prepared, another dish was brought to the table, this time a bowl of bay scallops with Calabrese chili and mustard oil. This was a standout, and would become one of the dishes I had to take multiple servings of.

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Following the scallops was a top-notch tuna with porcini powder, celery root, and pomegranate seeds.  I knew it was early, and I knew I had to pace myself, but I also knew I had to have more than one piece. It was so good.

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Next in our parade of food was the peppercorn crusted venison carpaccio with arugula, grana, and lemon. Some people complained about the arugula for some reason, but I loved it and as such had no problem with it.

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Finally, rounding out the “Crudi” section and quickly becoming what everyone thought of as the dish of the night was the charred wagyu with sunchoke, black garlic, and capers. This may have been the only bowl that was sent back completely empty.  We couldn’t stop raving about it, and couldn’t stop eating it.  If you ever see this on the menu at Le Virtu, do not hesitate.

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After this cluster of dishes, we had our first break.  People got up, walked around, hung out in the courtyard outside for a bit.  We chatted, stretched out legs, and just generally relaxed.  Our plates were changed, our wine was refilled, and preparations for the next course were begun.  When it was time to go back in, the owner rang a little dinner bell and we all headed back to our seats to continue the feast.

Up next on the docket was “Antipasti” – and crazy to think that we had gone through 15 dishes already and hadn’t even made it to the appetizers. First up was a heavy and rich fegato – a duck liver mousse with Amarena cherry and fennel puree. At this point, it was the heaviest thing we had eaten all day, and would remain so until the pasta courses.

Following the mousse was a much lighter grilled baby octopus with Umbrian chickpeas and chicory. The idea of chickpeas didn’t thrill me from a trying-not-to-fill-up perspective, but it was still worth eating.

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Alongside this was a house-made Calabrese sausage with broccoli rabe, chili, and agrumato. I don’t know how many times I can get away with just saying “this was delicious.”

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Up next were some “real” meatballs – Mangalitsa pork meatballs with marinara and ricotta salata.  It was nice to have them as a counterpoint to the palotte we’d had, and I almost wish we could have had them side-by-side to compare.

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Rounding out the Antipasti was arrosticini with rosemary, garlic, and preserved lemon.  It was a bit of a surprise, because in my mind I was thinking arancini, and so expected another little fried ball rather than the skewered and grilled pork that we got.

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After this course was another break, and from here on out everyone seemed to be in full agreement that after every course or grouping, we’d need to wander outside and stretch our legs, walk around, or get fresh air.

When we came back, we had the prospect of the “Primi” course – pasta – staring us down. As much as I absolutely love carbs and all things noodle, this was the course that made me nervous, and could easily derail the entire meal if you weren’t careful. As I’d read in the Saveur article ahead of time, if you can make it past the pasta course, you’re home free.

I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as that, but it is a large hump in the middle of the meal.  We started with probably the best dish of the group, cavatelli with mushroom ragu, egg yolk, and grana padana.  The egg yolk was fashioned into a firm kind of custard, and I could’ve eaten the entire plate of this stuff if I hadn’t still had 23 dishes ahead of me.

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Alongside the cavatelli, we were treated to gnocchi with sweet shrimp, piennolo tomato, Calabrese chili, and basil. Thanks to a meal at the French Laundry a few years ago, all gnocchi is basically garbage to me, but this was still good.  And sucking out shrimp heads is always a delight – which is why I went through four of them.

Once those two were done, we were served crespelle with sheep’s milk ricotta and artichoke ragu. These were like little Abruzzo crepes filled with cheese, which makes them infinitely more delicious than regular crepes.

After the crespelles was chitarra with lamb ragu alla Silvana at Villa Vetiche and pecorino.  It looks like normal spaghetti, but was cooked so perfectly al dente I had to take a second helping.  I’ve eaten lots of pasta – at expensive Italian restaurants and all over Italy, but I had never had al dente pasta like this.  It was a real eye-opener.

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The final course of the pastas was the mugnaia with peperoncino, aglio e olio. This comes out as a single six-foot long thick noodle, which makes it a little difficult to eat family-style, but we made do.

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Another break – this one the longest of them all – and we came back in for some heavy hitters in the “Pesce” courses.  We returned to find a large pot on the table and bowls in front of us for a seafood stew: brodetto vastese with monkfish, sea robins, shrimp, tilefish, clams, mussels, and saffron.

Along with the stew was stuffed calimari with ‘nduja, caper, and raisin. These were delicious, but spicy.  As in, eat too much of the sauce and start coughing spicy.  This, of course, I know from experience.

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Next up was scungilli with button mushrooms, veal jus, parsley salsa verde, and grilled bread. Scungilli is a kind of mollusk that when cooked came out very similar to snails, but is much more fun to say.  Scungilli.  Skoon-jee-lee.

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Rounding out the fish course was a platter of fritto misto: whole fried branzino, tentacles, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, greens, and aioli. One of our tablemates said this was his favorite thing that Le Virtu did.  It was good, but we’d already had plenty that I’d preferred.

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Another break, and then we were back in for the course I had probably been looking forward to most: “Frattaglie (offal) e Fermentati (fermenteds).” Ray and I love this stuff, and a lot of these dishes were no different. I think it may have been about this time that we had our first espresso to keep us going.

We started with honeycomb tripe with Reid’s corn polenta and parmigiana, which turned out much better than I’d hoped and shot to the top part of my experience thus far.  It was a bit chewy, but not unpleasantly so, and certainly not as stringy as the stuff I’d had in pho that, for the most part, turned me off of tripe.

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Following the tripe was probably the oddest dish of the night, made even more so because it was served cold.  It was neonata di sardelle: fermented baby eels on black garlic bread. As horrifying as it sounds, it was just as delicious.

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Next up were spiedini: grilled duck hearts with Agrodolce. These duck hearts would have a lot to live up to – the version at Zahav is one of my favorite dishes – but these were cooked perfectly and tasted almost as good.

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After the hearts was another one of the best dishes of the night, animelle: glazed veal heart sweetbreads. These were topped with a chili sauce that made them taste like chicken nuggest with sriracha multiplied to the 1,000th power.  I could eat a bucket of these things.

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The final offal dish turned out to be my least favorite dish of the night.  I love delicious and interesting innards, but when you get too much of the pasty, mouth-coating kidney flavor in something, it just ruins it for me.  This was the mazzarelle teramane: lamb, goat, and pork offal in a grape leaf. I’m not even sure what kind of pieces and parts were in there, but the one flavor dominated the entire roll.  Thankfully, Ray and I split one so I only had half.

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Now we were nearing the end.  Only two more sections of the menu to go.  We were still feeling good, and not nearly as full or as drunk as we thought we would as we neared the 6.5-7 hour mark.  We were really more sleepy than full after all of that, and I took a cue from a helpful gentleman outside.

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By this point, some people had even abandoned the meal and left early.  I couldn’t imagine paying all that money and not sticking around to have some more drinks and maybe a bite of everything, even if you were full.  And I certainly can’t imagine leaving after seeing the pig being taken in.

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Which happened to the the beginning of the next course, “Carni arrosto (from Four Story Hill Farms).” This was maialino (suckling pig) with fennel pollen and potato. The skin wasn’t quite done enough to chew on, but the rest of the meat was delightful.

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Along with the pork came roasted chicken, which was not on the original menu. While this probably would have been delicious on any other night, chicken was a little boring after everything else we’d had. Accompanying it was a delicious crock of beans, because we needed more filler at this point.

Following the chicken was probably my favorite meat course, also accompanied by a crock of beans, in the salt baby lamb in a China box (which is what they cooked the pig in).

Following the lamb was roasted milk-fed avian poularde with red wine prunes. I usually like my duck rare, but this was extremely rare and I wasn’t very into it.  I’m sure it was delicious, but the nearly raw bird texture turned me off.

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Finally, the final savory dish and one of the most delicious of the night, was the 50-day dry-aged PA pasture-raised cote de beouf. This beef was seasoned perfectly and cooked perfectly.  I’m not usually one to get hyped up over beef (there’s so much more out there.  I mean, look at everything that came before this!) but this was well worth the wait and a worthy cap to the meal before dessert.

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One more break, and then we were ready for dessert. While there was unfortunately no dessert wine (which I’m a sucker for), Ray and I each ordered an espresso and a limoncello to help us chug along through the “Dolci” course.  This began with a biscotti plate: polenta, pine nut, raspberry, biscotti, red wine, pizzelle torrone.

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The cookies were nice, but the chocolate olive oil cake with pistachio and cannoli cream that came next was much better.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I generally hate chocolate.  As it turns out, though, my love of olive oil cake trumps that.

The penultimate dessert, a cannoli with pistachio and chocolate chip, was one of the highlights of the night.  The cream was the lightest, fluffiest cannoli cream I’d ever had, and Ray and I both agreed it was the best cannoli either of us had ever eaten – and Ray is a baker. Who makes cannoli.  I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but I’d eat one of these every day.

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Finally, the last item: buttermilk panna cotta with brown butter cake, cranberry and apple. It wasn’t as firm as you would expect from panna cotta – it was more of a pudding – but man was it good.  I probably would have preferred to end the night with the cannoli, but this was just as nice a way to finish.

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In the end, the meal was as much physical as it was mental, but we never ended up as drunk or as full as we thought we would.  We paced ourselves well, and we made it through relatively unscarred (though I did drag a bit at work the following day).

The food was wonderful – over 40 or so dishes, there is bound to be something you don’t like.  But to only find two or three plates that I didn’t prefer, I feel, is really something astounding.  Especially with as many dishes that would just flat out delicious.  And it was a great tour of the cuisine of Abruzze, besides, which was something I didn’t have much experience with.  Plus we got a gift bag, which is always cool.

We had a great all-around experience, and it quickly changed from “this is a once-in-a-lifetime meal” to “what are we going to wear next year?”  Whatever we decide on, I hope you’re there to see it.

Experiencing the Kitchen Table at Alinea

Fair warning: this post will be extremely photo-heavy.  I wanted to document every detail of our meal, and my friends did as well. The photos used come from everyone at the table. Any of the smaller images can be clicked on to see full-sized.

For my birthday this year I wanted to go back to Chicago, a city I love but haven’t been to in years, to eat all of my favorite things as well as to try things I’d previously missed.  Hot dogs, pizza, Italian beef, my favorite sandwich in the world, Tanta, XOCO, Avec – we definitely didn’t hold back on the food consumption.  But the shining star, and the real reason for the trip, was the ultimate food splurge: the kitchen table at Alinea.

I had to buy all six seats for about $3,000, but I didn’t think it would be hard to fill them.  And while it came down to the wire, we got it done: my girlfriend Kaitie bought a seat, of course, and my best friend Ray’s wife bought him one.  My good friend Brett and his girlfriend Michelle took two, and the final seat was taken by a random person on Reddit, who actually turned out to be great to hang out with.

After meeting at Goose Island and having a few beers to calm our nerves, we all walked through the cold Chicago winter to the unmarked, unassuming grey building that houses Alinea.  We turned in our coats and were taken to the table, already giddy that we could see the entire kitchen and, most importantly, Grant Achatz.

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After we were seated with a welcoming glass of champagne, we were brought cloches filled with smoke.

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The cloches were removed to reveal osetra caviar and sturgeon.

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Which was then topped with the heaviest, creamiest, most delicious parsnip soup I’ve ever had.  We were then given a banana-flavored meringue to accompany the soup.

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Following the soup, we were asked to leave our table and to enter the kitchen – Grant Achatz’s actual kitchen – for the second part of our meal.  Here, one of the chefs constructed a pomegranate cocktail in front of us using The Imperial Shaker – a hand-cranked cocktail shaking machine.

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It was accompanied by a sponge cake with black walnut sauce.

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Once done, we were invited to head back to our table. Having watched the Chef’s Table documentary on Alinea, we knew to keep our eyes opened and immediately noticed that the light fixture had been removed.

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There was also a bowl of oranges at the center of our table, as well as a mysterious card filled with letters.

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Once we were all settled back in and had time to examine the card, we were presented with a small covered bowl and a lime with a wedge of compressed romaine. Inside the bowl was “wet snow” that tasted of Asian pair with roe and shiso.  The romaine was topped with avocado and tosaka.

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Next, we were brought a leaf of dehydrated cabbage that covered spanner crab, coconut, and curry.

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To accompany this, liquid was poured into the bowl of oranges, which began to smoke as the scent of orange filled the room.

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We also had glowing plates with small one-bite spheres that contained spiced orange juice.

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After the orange course was finished, the oranges were removed.  After seeing the documentary, we had all assumed there was something hiding in the bowl, but there was not.  However, another bowl was brought out, filled with salt and grain alcohol, which was promptly lit aflame.

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We were presented with a large rock-slab plate, which contained squid with black garlic and chrysanthemum, and also contained squid ink.

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Next to our plates, we were also presented with a dish of rocks.  As our server noted, “You’ll also see a dish of rocks.  Some of them are squishy.  Eat those.”  They were flavored with olive oil and artichoke.

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Next, a large branch of juniper was brought out and placed over the fire, so we could experience its aroma for the following course.

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With that, we were brought out some small crunchy nori rolls.

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We were also brought a bowl with what looked like rice paper.

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This turned out to be a piece of pressed langoustine, which when combined with a broth, turned into the consistency of a noodle.  A delicious noodle.  We were then instructed to drink the broth straight out of the bowl.

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Oh, but that wasn’t all.  Remember the decorative balls on the juniper branches?

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As it turns out, these were savory donuts filled with pork and venison.

But, in true Alinea fashion, that wasn’t to be the only surprise.  The juniper branches were removed, and a few accoutrement were brought to the table.

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As it turns out, there was a potato cooking in that flaming pot the entire time.  A potato that had previously been sous vide in butter for 10 hours.

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The potato was then dusted off and mashed table-side, where the bacon and onions and celery were added.

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Once divided into bowls, the potato was then topped to make a velvety clam chowder, which is what the house-made tobasco sauce and Old Bay oyster crackers were for.

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Following the clam chowder, we were brought beautiful (and large) plates containing black truffle and maitake mushrooms covered in blueberry “glass.”

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We were also given a tea made with matsutake mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. It was like drinking pure butter and is the best tea I could ever hope to have.

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We also had some liquid poured into small bowls of lavender, once again to present a pleasant aroma as we ate.

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Oh, but in case you hadn’t noticed (and I hadn’t, as I was too busy looking at everything else), there were small “sandwiches” of black truffle and foie gras mousse perched in the lavender to eat at our leisure.

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After this progression came our last savory course, which I found odd because it felt like we had only been there for about an hour (though we had been there longer) – but Grant has mentioned that no one wants to sit through a four-hour meal anymore, so it made sense.  I guess it’s true what they say about time flying when you’re having fun.  And this meal was extremely fun.

For this course, we were brought a piece of squab with a white-hot coal (known as binchotan) on top to sear it while it was brought to the table and accompanied by forbidden rice.

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Along with this was a tightly-wound spiral of beet in a sauce made of mustard and chili.

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We were also presented with jars of vanilla beans.

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But, as our server said, “It looks like vanilla.  It smells like vanilla.  It ain’t vanilla.”  As it turns out, they were pieces of beef jerky fashioned to look like vanilla beans.

Following this, huge bowls were placed in front of us for our first dessert course, which included the flavors of sweet potato, miso, and chocolate.

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As we were told, the “river rock” was filled with liquid chocolate.  Even as someone who hates chocolate, I found it delicious.

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The next dessert course, which was labeled “Nostalgia,” presented us with a very Alinea take on pumpkin pie, which turned out to be tiny and invisible.

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As well as “s’mores,” which was dark chocolate wrapped in marshmallow – which was, of course, cooked – and served on birch branches.

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After everything we’d been through, we weren’t sure if the branches were edible or not.  Ray tried it out. They weren’t.

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After this, finally, came the course that we had all hoped for but didn’t want to get our hopes up for: the balloons.  If you’ve seen the documentary, you know all about it.  It’s a special kind of taffy that is inflated with helium and is 100% edible – “string” and all.  This one was green apple flavored, which just so happens to be one of my favorite flavors.

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As you can see, we were all delighted by our balloons.

But, as happy as we were for the balloons, they were not the end.  Next came the grand finale.  It began with our server climbing a ladder and taking down one of the pieces of art hanging above us, which would become our “plate.”

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The folks sitting nearest the two entrances to the room were asked to shuffle their seats a bit, and we were then told that a few chefs would be coming into the room.

Then, suddenly, all the lights turned off – including those in the kitchen – except for the light above our table.  Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” began to play throughout our room and the kitchen.  Grant Achatz led off the proceedings.

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We were awestruck. It was quite the finale, and left us with flavors of coconut, mint, cinnamon, almond, and raspberry, which we were invited to dig into.

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And, since you only live once…

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To finish, we were also brought a small tray of chocolate truffles wrapped in gold leaf.  The entire presentation was edible, and is officially the first time I’ve eaten gold.

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But wait, there’s more.  I did say this was my birthday dinner, and I made sure to let Alinea know when I booked the reservation.  Why wouldn’t you? After all was said and done, I was presented with a candle, which I blew out.  The smoke was caught in a champagne glass, which was then filled with champagne.

The sommelier explained that everyone had to have cake on their birthday, and at Alinea they’d made just a plain old Duncan-Heinz chocolate cake.  Only, the cake was distilled into a liquid – which he then poured into my glass of champagne.  The end result was a glass of champagne that tasted of chocolate cake and had the remnants of candle smoke, as you would usually get at any birthday party.  It was absolutely perfect (and you can see Ray’s delight).

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After we settled the tab for the drink bill, we were given actual copies of our menu. The back also included the key to the mysterious card of letters we’d had on our table the entire time: it was a word search that had the menu on it.

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Finally, since chefs are my rock stars, we requested to have our picture taken with Grant, where he shook all of our hands.

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One million thanks to Kaitie, Jeremy, and Brett for allowing me to use their photographs and videos.  Check out Brett’s website, and if you’re in the Chicago area, he’s a great photographer.  Also many thanks to my friend Matt Spade for editing together our different angles of the dessert presentation.