How to beat the rain

When I ducked out for lunch today (as in, I looked like a duck with my rain slicker), I saw a group of co-workers headed back to the office with food from Subway and D’Angelos. Now, I’m a snob about lunch in general (ew, chains with bad food), but today, the 189th day of consecutive rain, I was especially not having it. Instead, I took myself to a fancy lunch at Bina Osteria, and Italian restaurant near the Ritz on the edge of Chinatown.

You should really do this to cheer yourself up, because when you walk in to the restaurant, everyone will be happy to see you because of 1. the recession and 2. the deeply depressing weather. You will feel loved by complete strangers. When the waiter asks if you’d like some bread, say yes. Proceed to eat the entire assortment of bread in the adorable wooden bowl, dipping the crusty goodness in olive oil and salt as you go. Because it’s cold and damp out, order a comfort food like the pasta carbonara for its warmth. Devour the entire thing without pausing. Gaze outside and appreciate that you are not a tourist visiting Boston this week. Repeat the next day. And the next, until the sun comes out (then, switch to their outdoor patio).

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Best meal ever

I’m a restaurant groupie. Just one restaurant though—an indulgence far enough away from my house that I don’t go that often, so I feel it’s totally acceptable. In my boyfriend I have found a willing co-conspirator who loves food, especially this restaurant’s food, as much as I do, so I’m fortunate to have gone twice in the past couple of months. We have considered the fact that we may need to get second jobs to maintain the habit. We are OK with that.

Al Forno in Providence, the object of our affection, is worth the wait. And there’s always a wait. Those in-the-know are savvy enough to plan dinner around the very early opening hour of 4 p.m. on Saturdays. One does what one must to enjoy the bounty, because the bounty is that good. Even if it requires languishing on a small bench near the bathrooms for nearly two hours. Really, we didn’t mind.

In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes a spiritual experience of eating pizza at a little place in Naples. Readers were all in a flutter when the book came out, descending on the pizza shop en masse. I thought about a journey myself. Good pizza is hard to find. But pizza at Al Forno is a near-religious experience, so much so that another friend and I, having experienced the pizza years ago, were appalled when a couple at a neighboring table left half the pizza on their plate and declined to bring it home. I saw my friend eyeing the pizza; had one of us been braver, we might have enjoyed an extra couple of slices. Today, I would have no shame.

al-forno-pizza

Best pizza ever. It's the scallions.

After inhaling the incredible pizza that defied its simplicity (sauce, two cheeses, olive oil, and scallions), I forced myself to lay off the bread gnocchi so I could have some for the next day. I’ve heard good gnocchi described as pillows before, but these handmade gnocchi were made of the finest, highest quality down, perhaps from ducks raised exclusively for that purpose. The spicy tomato and sausage sauce blanketed them perfectly.

 

Downy-soft pillows of gnocchi

Downy-soft pillows of gnocchi

 

For dessert, a record of sorts was set. I ordered something that was not chocolate. Thanks to our last visit there, I discovered that while I thought I didn’t like pears, I was clearly wrong. The pear appetizer that was dressed in a citrusy vinaigrette convinced me that yes, this time maybe the pear and walnut crisp tart for two would be a wise choice. Indeed, it was. The pear slices were soft and flavorful and the tart crust, crispy and omnipresent, because really, it’s all about the bready part.

pear-tart

The best desserts are chocolate. Except this one.

I tried to recall a better meal, but we both agreed: best meal ever. Except for maybe the last time we were there. And the next time we go. And the time after that.

Chase’s Daily: a vegetarian feast in Belfast, Maine

While vacationing recently near Belfast, Maine, a shop owner told me about the place to eat, a restaurant right next door to his photography gallery. Chase’s Daily is a high-ceilinged casual vegetarian space with large wooden tables that serves dinner just once a week. And people in town know that that night is Friday. Chase’s grows its own produce, sells it to the public during the day, and uses the bounty to construct its lunches, dinner, and weekend brunch. 

When I heard at lunch that the restaurant was full up for reservations until 8:30, I took the server’s advice and arrived for dinner early, at 5:30, to snag a seat at the counter. A friendly gentleman seated me and chatted a bit (Mr. Chase?) and we laughed when a couple sat down next to me, looked at the menu, and left. “Our menu scares some people off,” he said. I told him I didn’t know what was on the menu, but I’d been looking forward to it all day—and I’m the furthest thing from a vegetarian. 

My meal started with a simple linguini appetizer with three or four red and green varieties of tomatoes, chopped, their juices making a nice broth. I followed that up with a super-thin crust pizza with a nice mix of cheeses, homegrown tomatoes and spinach. Delicious, but I couldn’t finish it all, so I had it boxed up, then promptly forgot to bring home the leftovers. Sadness.


Food trip: Rockland, Maine

If I were a lazy headline writer, I’d say Primo, the charming restaurant in Rockland, ME, that sources its produce from its backyard, is primo. But that would be lame. Instead, let me take you through my meal and make you jealous. 

I love when restaurants are respectful to solo diners and I felt welcome from the start. Immediately, I had trouble deciding on the salad: arugula with a wood roasted peach, gorgonzola crostini and a honey vinaigrette or the farmer salad? I went with the farmer salad: bianca, romaine, and dandelion greens tossed with bacon, olive oil croutons, and a soft boiled egg with a lemon parmesan vinaigrette. Served in a big wooden bowl, it was hearty and delicious.

I tried to resist the bread, but the assortment was too good: a scali bread, a Tuscan bread, and a squishy bread (not its official name) with caramelized onions and a tasty olive oil for dipping. An amuse bouche from the chef came in the form of a warm cauliflower soup with a tiny fried cauliflower on top. Ah, vegetables can be so good.

I got the pappardelle bolognese for my main course with bits of lamb or veal in the sauce and roasted tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and shaved parmesan cheese. When I hesitated over my choice, my server was nice enough to suggest getting a half portion so I could fit dessert. And I really wanted to fit dessert. 

I chose the warm chocolate “Budino” cake that came with a vanilla-based ice cream on a delicate wafer surrounded by dollops of caramel and a bit of praline. I almost ordered another one. My check came accompanied with a little tray of tiny homemade truffles and marshmallows, because hey, what’s a few more bites?

Dining solo you can’t help but eavesdrop, and my favorite conversation was a 12-year-old girl who confidently ordered the duck. “She has a very mature palette,” her mother explained. Who eats duck at 12?? I couldn’t help but be thankful I had come to appreciate good food later in life to avoid all that pretentiousness. Or maybe I was just sad to realize I could have been enjoying such a meal years ago.

It’s the little, little things

The Hungry Mother is a neighborhood restaurant in Kendall Square abundant with little touches. Water is served in Ball jars and inexpensive snacks like boiled Virginia peanuts “to tide you over” are offered even before the first course. The butter served with the bread is sprinkled with sea salt, and tiny chocolates accompany the check.

A couple friends and I dined at the Virginia-inspired spot last week to celebrate a birthday, because nothing says Happy Birthday like a side of grits. Sure, I remember that the catfish was nicely breaded, but it’s the line in tiny type at the bottom of the wine menu that I’ll remember longer: “Order as you please; Massachusetts state law allows you to re-cork and bring your unfinished bottle of wine home for your dog.” Details like that make me feel pampered as a customer.

The brainchild behind the new place is Rachel and Alon, a married couple who ran Rachel’s Kitchen in Bay Village, a not-even-a-hole-in-the-wall gem now with new owners. The food there was excellent as well (can’t go wrong with a Nutella breakfast sandwich), but again, it was the little touches that made it seem bigger than its small size; Rachel had this uncanny ability to remember everyone’s name. My favorite touch: bite-sized cookies at the counter for a quarter that were a perfect ending to lunch. Such treats should be mandatory in all lunch spots.

I also appreciate the little extras in cafes, and Panera is one that takes pains with its hot chocolate, towering up the whipped cream and sprinkling it with chocolate syrup. I was in there recently and witnessed a different moment of kindness. As one always does in cafes, I was checking out my table neighbors. The girl seated a couple feet from me was tackling a stack of thick medical textbooks that I didn’t envy. After about an hour, a guy in an apron approached her, and we both looked up, startled.

“I noticed you’ve been in here studying every day,” he said to her, presenting a bowl of something snacky and a bottled water. “This is to keep you going.” The people at the tables around her, including me, sighed “Awwww…” in unison. It was as if, with this little gesture, he asked her to marry him.

“Thanks!” she told him, before looking at me sheepishly. “But I’m not here every day.”