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Mi Piace has become one of my regular places to meet friends for drinks, a bite, or both in the center of Old Town Pasadena. Its central location, with stress free parking options of a big public parking lot behind the restaurant or valet in front, make it an easy choice. They have daily specials, a happy hour, and a comfortable ambience that is versatile enough for a business meal or event, while also casual enough to go in on the spur of the moment from shopping on Colorado. Prices are moderate, between $15-$25 for most main dishes, less for pasta dishes, and glasses of wine between $9-$18, with bottles beginning at around $40.

One of my friends saw the photo on the drink menu and asked the waitress for “This” pointing to a fruity vodka libation made with fruit purée and garnished with a real flower:) It was a bit sweet for her taste until she stirred it a bit to mix the fruit purée with the other liquids.

They have some vegetarian salads, but some salads, like the Insalata Mediterranea, with salami, turkey, provolone, grilled zucchini, white beans, cucumber, olives, and red onions topped with feta cheese, make for a complete meal on a plate.

Their seafood pasta, with calamari and shrimp, is normally served with spaghetti but I requested angel hair, and added red pepper flakes, making it a personal variation. The serving was big enough for me to take half of it home, and although the sauce was a bit sweet for my taste, but it was done well enough that I looked forward to the leftovers.

Two friends split an order of the full sized pasta Penne all’ Arrabbiata garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in a marinara sauce as a side, so this picture is of HALF of an order.

One of the daily specials was this salmon with mango pineapple salsa, that my friend praised for the freshness of the fish and the bright fruity flavors.

The Piccata di Pollo chicken scaloppini with artichoke hearts in a white wine lemon butter sauce was a classic recipe served in a portion big enough for a large appetite or to take some home for another meal.

Since we had a leisurely late afternoon meal, we had after lunch drinks, of 12 year old Macallan served in beautiful gorgeous crystal before heading off to take naps 🙂

I ate at Estiatorio Milos in Las Vegas, but their restaurant in New York City was one of the best seafood meals I’ve eaten in the US. Many of the items on the menu are flown in directly from the Mediterranean, and the fresh flavors shone in every dish. It may have “slightly” helped that my eating partner was Greek and spoke to the chef in Greek before our meal:)

The interior decor is a simple wispy white, with a private dining area above the main dining room.

If a chef says, “Let me give you some things to start with”, you should just say “Yes, thank-you” and smile. The first appetizer was a simple crab claw, so fresh, tender, and juicy that we did not even taste the sauce on the side. The olive oil for the bread had freshly snipped oregano leaves in it, which the waiter snipped from the tabletop plant before whisking it away.

The second appetizer was langoustines served with a brandy shot which the chef said should be used to dunk the heads in before sucking out the insides. We did as we were told after eating the ethereal meat from the tail 🙂

The third appetizer was a stack of lightly fried zucchini chips with a wonderful coarse salt and sour cream center which were so addictive we “somehow” finished it.

After THREE appetizers, the chef chose a fresh branzino, already deboned for us. When he asked the simple question of “Did you want the head?”, I was immediately overjoyed. The fish was simply done with capers and parsley, with nothing masking the purity of fresh fish.

A side of greens,

and after the main dish course, there was of course fresh cheese,

and greek yogurt with honey and fruit to finish the meal when you tell the chef that you have no room for dessert 🙂 A bottle of Nichetri wine from Santorini and all this fabulous fresh seafood was over $500 for two with tax and tip, but if you want to taste the best of Greek seafood in the US, it’s still less than the price of airfare….

Circo is across the street from Estiatorio Milos, and is as Italian as Estiatorio is Greek. The Maccioni family’s casual offspring (Sirio is from Le Cirque) has a fun circus atmosphere with seriously old school roots in its menu. A $25 lunch prix fixe menu is a bargain for a midtown restaurant with this kind of quality.

The lunch menu was more than I could eat, so I chose the Cacciucco Alla Livornese, one of their signature dishes, with monkfish, prawns, calamari, octopus, mussels, and clams for $29. It was everything a hearty rustic seafood should should be, with earthy aromas and depth of flavor.

My companion ordered the arugula salad for $14 and added chicken $7, because after the meal at Estiatorio, there was literally no real estate left for more food.

Even though neither of us had room for dessert, a plate of little bites was offered with espresso, a sweet way to start the afternoon.

Tavernaccia da Bruno is my favorite restaurant in Rome, and my only regret is that I waited until my third day to eat there, because after I ate one meal, I knew I would be coming back everyday. When going to Rome, go to Katie Parla’s Blog Parla Food, for her suggestion and review of this place, I am forever grateful. The medium sized restaurant is a few blocks from the Trastevere Rail Station which has direct service to the airport for only 8 Euros or $9 US, so make this a stop on your way to or from the airport as either your first or last meal in Rome. If you can only eat ONE meal in Rome, come here:)

The space is warm and inviting, and filled with locals during lunchtime. I was the only non Italian speaker every time I went at lunch. Dinner crowds were much more international with virtually every language spoken in the dining room. The wait staff are all warm, friendly, and professional.

I met some fun food loving people at the table next to me from Germany, Heike and Kara, so they let me photograph some of their food, like this tomato bruschetta,

 and this guanciale drizzled with honey.

I can’t decide what my favorite dish was, it’s a tie between this wood oven roasted veal, with the tastiest crunchy skin served alongside garlic roasted potatoes for 13 Euros or $15 US,

or the most tender succulent tripe I’ve ever eaten for 12 Euros or $13 US,

or the moist wood oven roasted suckling pig redolent with rosemary and garlic, 13 Euros or $15 US,

 or the meltingly luscious eggplant parmesan with a crackly crust, 10 Euros or $12 US.

The easier decision is the winner of my favorite in side dishes because after I tasted the chicory with garlic and red pepper, dressed in olive oil and lemon, I ordered it every time with every meal, 5 Euros or $6 US.

The price for a very good quarter liter of wine was only 2 Euros or $2.50 US, which was also the cost of a liter of water, all the main courses ranged from 10-13 Euros or $12-$15 US, and the sides were 5 Euros or $6 US. They have pizza at night if you want a classic Roman version, and an espresso is only 1.5 Euros or $2 US. All my four meals were about 20 Euros or $23 US for a main, side, wine, and water.

The best thing about a neighborhood place like this is that they all welcomed me like family after my first visit, and I made friends with Heike and Kara, who shared two meals with me there. Sharing food with good company is the best part of life, especially in a place where both are excellent.

Even though school has started for many, the Summer lingers on all year long for adults who live by the seashore. My friend Robin recently moved and I went down past the “Orange Curtain” to see her new place and to spend a day by the pool. One of her friends is living on the beach for the month of August, and as the sun set, we decided to go get dinner. Even though I know and love many places in Laguna, like Sapphire and 230 Forest, I’m always happy to try new places suggested by locals.

After going through a list of possibilities, we were driving up PCH when we drove past Mare and both my friends literally swiveled their heads and said, “Let’s go to Mare”! Since they both thought it was a better place than the other options they had suggested, we pulled into the one remaining parking spot behind the Holiday Inn. Ok, I admit, going to a hotel restaurant, especially a Holiday Inn hotel restaurant is not normally my choice for dinner, but when two local food lovers literally decide in chorus that it is the best idea, I put my skepticism aside and enjoy the journey.

The outdoor space is absolutely lovely with flickering candle lights and a wall of warmth. Triangular canopies provide shade in the day but add a nice architectural feel at night. The style is casually elegant with wrought iron railings and a modern interior. Definitely sit outside if there is a table and wait if there isn’t a table.

The first taste of this bright garlic, olive oil, and parsley dip for the bread was addictive. We ate it so fast we asked for a second plate before we even ordered our appetizers.

The second plate of dip ended up being a zesty sauce for the $13 fried calamari we ordered to share as well. The sauces that came with the perfectly crisp squid were fine, but nothing exquisite, so we asked for more lemon and used the the garlic bread dip as our calamari dip!

Since we all loved carpaccio, we also shared the $14 filet mignon and although the picture does not do it justice, this was a great version of the classic, with quality olive oil and generous arugula, capers, and Parmesan.

I ordered the chef’s special, a $22 spaghetti verde with shrimp and peppers that was the definition of summer on a plate. The home made pasta was cooked al dente, the shrimp were tender and the zingy little peppers added just enough color and pizazz to make the lemon and butter based sauce sparkle. Everyone at the table loved this dish and I would gladly order it again. After the hearty appetizers, I barely made a dent in this bowl of pasta, so it became my lunch the following day, and it reheated to be as tasty as it was the night before.

The friend who was living on the beach decided while we were still in the parking lot that she wanted the $24 limoncello infused radiatore pasta* with Maine lobster, shallots and a pinot grigio sauce. If I had not ordered the special, I would have ordered this delightfully rich sumptuous dish.

My friend Robin ordered the $19 chicken with portobello mushrooms made with a Sicilian Marsala wine served with sauteed spinach and rosemary potatoes. The chicken breasts were tender and moist and the sauce was complex but I felt it need just a touch of salt.

Since all of us barely managed more than two bites of our entrees after eating all of the bread and appetizers, we all went home with lunch for the following day. And even though we didn’t order it for ourselves, one of the friends took home some meatballs for her boyfriend which she said were the best meatballs she has ever eaten. I would have taken an order home if I was not already bursting at the seams with an entree to take home already.

A wonderful night ended with the sight of a full moon as we walked out of the restaurant 🙂

*For people who are allergic to gluten they offer gluten free pasta for $3.50 more or whole wheat pasta for $2.50 more.

Mare Culinary Lounge on Urbanspoon

A couple I met at a wine tasting event at Wally’s recommended Ado to me, and since people who know good wine usually know good food and visa versa, I went to taste for myself. Ado has two locations, the original, located in a converted house, and a smaller more casual outpost, both located in Venice. Both locations are in areas where parking can be a challenge, but the larger one has valet parking, so that was the one I chose.

The current menu is somewhat different with slightly higher prices than what is on their website, so be aware of that if you are planning to go based on what you see from their menu online.

The house is charming with a seating area downstairs, upstairs and on a terrace outdoors.

I rarely see watercress available, so I chose this salad with hearts of palm, roasted almonds, pecorino cheese and watercress for $13. It had a light balsamic dressing and the textures worked well together.

I wanted to order the menu item I saw online for tagliatelle with wild boar, but it was not on the menu. Instead I ordered the tagliatelle with rabbit and dried figs for $24. The pasta was wonderful, freshly made, light, and al dente, the ground rabbit was tasty, and the unusual addition of dried figs somehow worked with this dish, giving it some sweetness, but mostly some texture and a slightly earthiness with the crimni mushrooms.

I had a nice glass of Rosso for $15 with my meal, and a very good decaf espresso to finish.

The service was excellent with professional Italians who were clearly trained professionals, and the ambiance is relaxed yet upscale enough to make this place a destination for either a special occasion or a place to go in the neighborhood when you don’t want to cook. They are open 7 days a week, so you can go to their house for dinner any night you wish:)

Ado on Urbanspoon

Since it is a new year, I wanted to start it with a new place, and originally the plan was to try Public School 310, but since it was an hour’s wait for this hot new gastropub, I settled for a place that was new for me, Novecento. Located literally on Main Street, it has been in business for nearly 20 years serving home made pastas in a cozy space. Friends who are both picky and vegetarian have liked the food so I figured it could be a good place to start off a new year’s blog posts.

The space is warm and rustic with stone walls. The open kitchen and wine selection give the place a pleasant casual feel.

Service was friendly and a tapenade was immediately offered along with drinks. The tapenade had a distinctly spicy and lemony taste which was pleasant, but a bit unusual.

Once we placed our orders, a plate of sliced bread with a caper, herb, and red pepper dipping sauce was offered. Like the tapenade, it had an unusual flavor, in this case, I found it somewhat unpleasant, as if the herbs had been sitting in the olive oil too long.

My friend ordered her favorite dish here, the gnocchi with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce. I had a taste, and it was indeed wonderfully made, with rich blue cheese and light gnocchi. This is definitely a dish that will stick to your ribs and throw you off your diet, especially if you add grated Parmesan to it (which my friend did)!

I opted for a lighter dish, the Pollo Arrabbiata, chicken breasts with a spicy tomato sauce and a side of vegetables. The chicken breasts were cooked properly, and the vegetables were decent, but the arrabiata (literally “angry sauce”) was completely bland and the tomatoes tasted canned. It was a disappointing plate when so many places do excellent renditions of this kind of food. Eating this here made me want to go to Il Grano or Campagnola to replace the food on my plate with better quality and better talent.

My friend wanted dessert, so she ordered the blueberry creme brulee and thought it had good blueberry flavor (the dark spots on the photo are actually blueberries). I thought it was not rich enough to be called a creme brulee, but a good version nonetheless.

It is sad when an experience does not live up to your expectations, but thankfully it was a pleasant experience overall. The service was professional, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the bill for 2 entrees with a glass of DOCG Chianti, a soft drink, and a dessert was only $60 including tax and a 20% gratuity. It could have been much better, but it could also have been much worse, so I am grateful this experience fell somewhere in between.

Novecento on Urbanspoon

Il Grano is celebrating their 15th anniversary this week and anyone who loves great Italian food should make a reservation! This month is also the last month of their “Tomato Wednesdays” which celebrate the home grown tomatoes of the chef, so today’s post is a visual feast to entice you to go taste for yourself!

The pepper, tomato, and white anchovy with shallots is one of my favorite starters in any restaurant. If the only anchovies you know are the ones usually found on pizzas, you owe it to yourself to try this dish before declaring that you don’t like anchovies!

The pork with spicy corn and chili salsa was offered last week and although it is not technically Italian, it combines the European sensibility of using local market ingredients with quality proteins. If you are brave and love spice, you may want to eat the pepper garnish…..

This burrata and tomato sandwich with pancetta was the cover photo for Bon Appetit. It’s offered everyday for lunch and as beautiful as it is to look at, it is even more beautiful once you taste it. Normally, I would never recommend a sandwich at a restaurant like Il Grano, but this is one of their signature offerings and if you are even slightly tempted, give in to your temptation!

All their pastas are made in house and their canoli stuffed with branzino is no exception. The fresh tomato sauce added a nice acidity to the dish. I loved the fish stuffing because it was done with a light hand; the canoli were thin and light enough so they did not overwhelm the branzino.

A chef who insists on using only the best ingredients will find the rare and wonderful to bring to his guests. This lightly seared piece of sirloin was so tender and flavorful because it came from a cow which was a the ribbon winner. If you love beef, come get this dish this week before it is gone.

The grilled calamari salad with home grown yellow tomatoes was such a delight, I felt as if I had been transported to an Italian village by the sea. Every bite evoked sea, sun, and blue skies.

The burrata stuffed canoli with a fresh tomato sauce is the perfect comfort dish for Italians. It is the Italian version of Mac n Cheese. But with home grown tomatoes and ethereal pasta, this is the Ferrari of comfort food.

I loved the clams with spaghetti. There was just enough red pepper to perk up the pasta and the freshly picked tomatoes contributed to the briny flavors of the sea. A perfect plate to end a perfect meal.

The pastry chef makes all the delectable cookies in house; perfect buttery baci to end your meal 🙂

Il Grano on Urbanspoon

There are some places which I return to religiously because I know they have consistently excellent food and service. Il Grano is one of those rare restaurants which combines an addiction to fresh ingredients (the chef grows his own tomatoes), with consummate culinary skill, and superb presentations.

It has been about two years since I last wrote about Il Grano, and I am glad to report that they have maintained both their gracious attitude as well as their gorgeous decor.

Somehow they have also managed to keep their prices on par with places which are not nearly as fastidious about their purveyors and ingredients.

Bob’s Lunch special is still only $20 for three courses. The Mercato salad is a work of edible art, pleasing to both the palate and the eye. It is a perfect vegetarian starter.

The simple salad with the lunch special was not as spectacular, but still colorful and composed of delightfully fresh (home grown) tomatoes and greens in a light vinaigrette.

The special lunch includes a choice of the market fish or lasagna and I had to try the skate in a sea urchin broth. The dish succeeded in showcasing the fresh flavor of the sea urchin without detracting from the tender skate (picked out earlier the same morning at the fish market). The beautiful edible flowers and dried tomato added both visual and textural accents. The squid ink around the inside of the bowl added a contemporary artistic flourish of flavor which made me smile 🙂

The lasagna made with hand pulled spinach pasta and bolognese achieved that nearly impossible distinction of being both hearty and light at the same time. My 50+ year old Italian dining partner declared this the best lasagna she had ever eaten in her life.

The dessert of chocolate gelato came with personally chosen fruit (yes the chef/owner personally tastes everything he buys at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market). When the owner takes the time to pay attention to the small details like the berries he uses as accompaniments to gelato, it goes without saying that the gelato is superb.

I chose the passionfruit sorbet which was one of the best sorbets I have ever eaten. Served along with a perfect slice of peach and berries selected to compliment the colors and flavors, this is now my favorite Summer dessert.

In addition to the 3 course lunch menu, my friend wanted to try the cannoli, which featured a peach infused filling and caramel sauce on the plate. As a former pastry chef, my friend was so impressed she insisted the chef come over so she could compliment him.

They offer a special weekly menu which features the chef’s home grown tomatoes in every item on the small bites menu, so if you would like to experience the fruits of love, make a reservation on a Wednesday.

For wine lovers, Il Grano has a wine list of over 700 wines and an enomatic wine serving system to preserve the integrity of fine wines by the glass. Keeping it all in the family, the chef/owner’s wife’s family owns the Terrabianca vineyards, and they offer their wines on the wine list.

Excellence should be applauded, and Il Grano deserves a standing ovation.

Il Grano on Urbanspoon

It’s sad when a place than locals love lose their chefs. This happened in my neighborhood with La Petite Creperie (five times in one year), and it has apparently happened at Eat Italian.

On the bright side, Bob brought this wonderful Italian wine and I brought my French Chateau Courreges 2006, so our drinks were great (it’s not a good first sign when you must bring what you want to drink because their menu does not offer a selection you would want to imbibe).

Their thin crust pizza with prosciutto had excellent prosciutto, but that was the only thing going for it. There was no texture or flavor to it. If you like matzo bread, you will like this “pizza”. I am a huge fan of of a Napoli style thin crust, but this one did not work for me.

I ordered the Napoli with anchovies, and although it was decent for a flat bread, but I would not order this (or any) pizza here again.

The grilled vegetable salad was one of the best plates we ate all night. Simply grilled eggplant, red and yellow peppers, onions, and zucchini in a balsamic glaze was done simply and perfectly.

My friend Dar ordered the spaghetti carbonara which was so bland she added salt to make it palatable. I tasted it and found it lacking any depth or richness, which is the whole point of a carbonara!

Katie (the future food blogger) and her mom Janet, ordered the tagliatelle bolognese with their home made pasta. Although the pasta was cooked perfectly, there was no seasoning in the dish, and it was about as good as the blurry picture of it.

I ordered the spaghetti puttanesca which promised a spicy anchovy flavor and delivered only a salty  pasta with olives, capers, and the barest hint of anchovy and pepper. I will never order this dish here again.

Bob and John ordered the lasagna and although their orders took at least 10 minutes longer to arrive to our table, they were looking forward to it until they tasted their plates and found their lasagna was lukewarm (or cold in parts). They asked for their orders to be heated and when they arrived for the second time they were piping hot, but still bland.

It’s nice to see the open factory where they make their pastas.

And to see an open clean kitchen is always a plus.

A nice assortment of pastries and desserts makes the industrial space warmer and more welcoming.

The best part of this entire dinner and space is their home made gelato!

I got the coconut and passion fruit and both flavors made me forget the mediocre meal I had eaten.

Katie (the future food blogger) got the nutella and mint.

Bob got the caramel and cappuccino.

Dar got the strawberry.

John got the green apple and berry.

We were all happy with the gelato ending of our meal, but my South Bay friends (who have been here many times before) apologized profusely for the meal we ate. I told them that they did not cook it, so they had no reason to apologize.

Would I ever come back? Only for their gelato, which is made in house and absolutely epitomizes fresh perfect Italian cuisine. But I would eat elsewhere, at least until they get a new replacement chef.

Eatalian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ever since Antica Pizza closed, I’ve been searching for a pizza place to love. Bravo does a very good job, but their pizza is more New York style than Napoletana style, and the closest VPN member is in Pasadena, so I tried nearby Sotto.

Located downstairs under the wonderful Peruvian restaurant Picca, Sotto has a slightly speakeasy feel, as if you need a password to get a seat. No need to worry, your name is enough of a password if you make a reservation. You should definitely reserve a table, the place was packed in the middle of the week in the middle of the day.

The Dine LA menu is a steal at only $20 for three courses. I started with the shaved beet and mixed lettuce salad, composed of wheatberries, lemon vinaigrette, and Fiore Sardo. The beautiful rainbow beets added an unusual visual dimension to this salad, and the thinly shaved Parmesan added a nice sharp and slightly salty enhancement without overpowering the greens. I loved this salad and could probably eat it several times a week.

But I came for the pizza, so I chose the classic margherita, made with tomato, mozzarella, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. The ingredients were all high quality and the crust was chewy and thin in the center, but somehow the center was soggy! The pizza was also a bit too salty since they salted the dough and the tomatoes (salt one or the other, but both is overkill). It was still a very tasty pizza, although after eating at Antica Pizza, they fell short on the texture and flavor of the dough.

Dessert was a cannolo Siciliano, made with riccota, orange marmalade, pistachios and chocolate. I didn’t taste any chocolate (unless they were tiny chocolate chips hiding in the filling), but this was one of the few cannoli I’ve ever liked. The crunchy exterior was as great container for the light and flavorful filling.

Service was very slow (more the fault of a full Dine LA onslaught than the server), so be prepared for a leisurely meal. My search for my perfect pizza continues, but Sotto is a nice local option.

Sotto on Urbanspoon

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