Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Great New Jersey Pizza Crawl

As the impending arrival of Hurricane Hermine did its best to throw a wrench into our plans to participate in the “Second Annual Crab Cracking Fest” at Mud City down the Jersey Shore (yes, in my adopted state of New Jersey we say "down the shore"),  we came up with an alternate plan. 

To me, eating crabs, salad, and drinking beer sounded like an activity that would not prevent me from getting into a bathing suit, post-eating fest, but I knew the alternate plan of going on a pizza crawl and consuming copious amounts of dough, cheese, sausage and olive oil would have the exact opposite effect. Regardless, and since it was Labor Day weekend after all, and summer bathing suit season was as good as dead anyway, I acquiesced.

The drive from Jersey City down to the areas we were targeting, Robbinsville and Bordentown, all in the vicinity of Trenton, did not take nearly as long as I anticipated. The dark clouds could be seen above, but my hubby assured me that we were not in the path of the storm. We were on a mission to find the “best” version of “Tomato Pie,” that mysterious delicacy that the area was known for. (I say that lightly, since, I imagine there are other things the area is known for, but they were not on our itinerary.) Our first stop was Papa’s, a very homespun-looking place in Robbinsville, complete with Tiffany lighting and low-maintenance decor. They claim to be “oldest family-run pizza restaurant in the USA," but since we were on a tasting tour and not on a fact-checking tour, we couldn’t validate the accuracy of the claim…and we didn’t care to. We came for the pizza! 

We’d heard Papa’s made something called a Mustard Pie, and that was what we ordered, along with one called Italian Flag—ricotta, spinach, roasted peppers. Both came out of the oven piping hot: The Mustard Pie was a traditional plain pizza with a distinct bite of mustard hiding beneath the cheese. It was different, and while there might be a place for it in the annals of pizzadom, I think I’ll stick with mustard-less pies in the future. The ricotta on the Italian Flag was the creamiest ricotta I had ever tasted. Not spicy at all—probably could have used some hot pepper, but that was my fault, not Papa’s. Bottom Line: The crust on both varieties was excellent; crisp, not too thin. Had I lived closer, the Italian Flag, with a few sprinklings of hot pepper flakes, would be a regular favorite.

Our next stop was Palermo’s. It is off the side of the highway in Bordertown, and so nondescript that we overshot it and had to backtrack to get there. Their Tomato Pie had the thinnest (but not the crispiest) crust of all we'd tasted. The sauce was a bit sweet, and the cheese “layer” was barely discernible, but the combo worked. This was what I envisioned a “tomato pie” would be like. It was not your standard cheese-laden slice, and it was quite good.

De Lorenzo’s in Hamilton was our next stop. It came highly recommended and it was there that we encountered our first glitch. The place did not open until 4 pm and it was only 3 pm. It could be dangerous getting in the way of some die-hard pizza tasters, but in the interim we walked around Bordertown, and brushed up on some Revolutionary War history. When we returned to De Lorenzo's  a little after four, the place was jumping! As unslick as Papa’s atmosphere was, De Lorenzo’s was the exact opposite. We’d heard that they've been in business since 1947, but this was obviously a new location, trying to attract a different crowd. We took our pizza (half sausage and black olive and half plain) to go. 

 I read that De Lorenzo’s “burns” their crust if you don’t warn them, and since we didn’t, they did. I however, like my crust well done, so no worries. I am a fan of this type of pizza. The crust was closer to the Neapolitan-style pizzas you find in Italy; rough and bubbly and alternately flecked with burnt spots. This pizza was more artisanal than the old-school types. The sausage was tasty, but not well-done enough to my liking, which was so ironic since the crust was way past done.

As we toyed with the idea of venturing on, we decided to visit a place hubby had read about that was closer to home: Satillo’s in Elizabeth; known for its Sicilian—And while comparing Sicilian to thin crust is akin to comparing apples to oranges, we rationalized that this was a rather unscientific study anyway (and besides, it's the hubby's favorite). Around a corner, down something like a driveway, Satillo’s had a lot of, shall we say, “character.”  The pizza was huge, and well-done at our request. I am not a real fan of Sicilian—too doughy, but as Sicilian goes, this one was okay. Very saucy, very cheesy. The crust was not as crisp as I liked it, but the melted cheese was nice and stringy when you bit into it. and pulled away. (Pizza mavens will know just what I'm talkin' about.) 

As we headed home, the suggestion of trying just one more place was vetoed by one of us…guess which one. I felt I was supplied with enough ammunition with which to make my recs. And so, here they are:
Best crust: Papa’s 
Best sauce: Palermo’s 
Best all-around: De Lorenzo’s (They also get a star for atmosphere.)

Did I learn anything from this culinary crawl other than that my pants do get tight after eating slice after slice of pizza? Yes…Pizzeria owners are like mothers, they each claim their baby is the best. I've never met a pizza I didn't like, but I have met pizzas I did not love. I'm still partial to NYC pizza, and Motorino is my fave, but I do have to send a shout out to Otto in Harvard Square. Their Butternut Squash Pizza (probably a blasphemy here in NY) still calls my name to this day.

 I predict that I will be coerced into going on more pizza crawls in the future, but not before a few sessions at the gym. I hear they make a mean pizza in Tucson, so I'll add it to the bucket list.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book Review: A Front Page Affair

The year is 1915. War has been declared in Europe, the US is on alert due to the sinking of the Lusitania, and there’s been a murder in New York City that needs to be solved. So begins Radha Vatsal’s debut novel A Front Page Affair, presumably what is to be the first in the “Kitty Weeks Mystery” series. 

I am not a huge fan of historical novels per se, but I can’t pass up anything having to do with New York City, so when I heard the author being interviewed as part of a “Reading With Robin” Literary Series in Bryant Park, I was drawn to this story from the start. The time period, when women surprisingly enough, were writing, producing, and directing films, as well as holding positions in many prominent fields also intrigued me.

A murder mystery set in Old New York City

The feisty Capability Weeks, better known as Kitty,  is a writer for The Sentinel who has been relegated to covering stories for the “Ladies Page.” While working at a party attended by high society, one of the guests winds up dead. Kitty becomes enmeshed in the story and soon realizes that one and one don’t add up, making for a very complicated tale that involves foreign intrigue and may even change the course of history.

The determined heroine who’s been raised in Europe and struggles to find her niche in the US, does not comply with the rules that conventional 1900’s culture tries to impose upon her. She drives, runs her father’s household, and is very much her own person. I found her to be high on the “likability index.”

Young sleuth tries to solve a murder against all odds.

The author’s skill at weaving an entertaining mystery and intertwining it among the strings of an historical setting is quite good. The story wends its way as quickly as Kitty does through the streets of Old New York in her bright yellow Bearcat. Scattered in with the unraveling of the murder are interesting details about the city, world events, and life during that period. Their inclusion is deftly handled, and seems to fit in rather well with the narrative.

Ms. Vatsal has put together a highly engaging story for her debut. I look forward to reading more of her writing and hope she has more escapades for Capability Weeks up her literary sleeve.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Review: Busy, Stressed, and Food-Obsessed

This piece originally appeared in
Way back when, we were young moms, balancing a kid or two (or more) on one hand, and a household and perhaps a job on the other. Our lives were hectic and we were constantly in motion running from one activity, meeting, obligation to another. There were many times we grabbed what we could and ate on the go or from off our kids’ plates.
Now that we’ve reached a “certain age” and things may have calmed down a bit more–our kids are older and possibly out of the house, and we have some more time to focus on ourselves and our own well-being–that doesn’t mean we are any less stressed internally and that our eating habits have changed for the better.

In “Busy, Stressed, and Food Obsessed!” author Lisa Lewtan sets out to help us take a hard look at the lives we lead and how to make the adjustments needed in which to create a thriving, nourishing environment. It’s not a “diet book” in the traditional sense, but it does guide us on how to approach our diets in a sane and healthful manner. It’s not really a “relationship book” in the classic sense of that genre..but then again, it is loaded with strategies on how to better handle our often very complicated relationship with food. And it’s not really a “how to book,” but the chapters are jam-packed with practical advice about how to “finally figure out what your body needs to thrive.”

“The food you eat is one of the best health investments you can make.”

I approached this book as a “mere spectator,” someone who did not have any issues with food, unlike author Lewtan, a certified health coach, who admits very early on to at one time being all of the things her title addresses: Busy, stressed, and food obsessed. When she quite literally almost ran herself into the ground, she pulled herself together and began to scrutinize her lifestyle and dissect her habits, piece by piece,Lisa Lewtan book cover 
in order to figure out just what was causing her to crash and burn. This detective work and her method of self-care have led her to a more calm, stable…and healthy life. Reading about her own challenges encouraged me to take an honest appraisal of my own habits—both good and bad. (And yes, this “mere spectator” finally admitted to herself that the handful of chocolate chips she has with her morning coffee each day borders on obsession, and probably has something to do with the afternoon stomachache.)

Lisa’s methods in spurring the reader on to action involve using powerful verbs such as “investigate,” “alleviate,” and “eliminate.” In page after page we begin to learn how interdependent we are with the foods we eat, and how that relationship can be a vey toxic one. She helps us weed out the “bad” and weed in the “good,” with help being the operative word. There are no lectures as she puts us in the driver’s seat so that ultimately, the conclusions we arrive at are our own.

Identify your habits, and why you eat…Are you hungry? Bored? Happy? Sad?
Think about what you eat…Are there foods that “trigger” your patterns?
How does what you eat make you feel? Full? Depressed? Sick to your stomach? Guilty?
Judgment is thrown out the window and mindfulness is brought in. Being mindful about what we eat and why doesn’t mean being obsessive.  In fact, our obsession is what is leading so many of us on the path to ruin. Helpful charts and assignments to assist us on a better path, the one to reconnecting with our bodies, are included in every chapter. This is not a reference book filled with scientific terminology about carbs and protein, and in no way does Lewtan advocate one “diet” over another. What is provided is encouragement, with a little humor thrown in for good measure. Dancing, meditation, everything that may help you get in touch with your emotions and forge a connection with your true inner self are recommended…even encouraged. 
The author doesn’t expect miracles, and she does account for setbacks. Her message is “Stop being so hard on yourself, just be honest.” She inspires us in her mission to rid the world of the over-stressed crazy-woman. We believe her–even when she says you can maintain a healthy lifestyle while allowing yourself to stray every once in a while. The main thing is to “ditch the inner critic bitch.” If by the end of this book, you have learned how to stand up to that “bitch” in your mind, then Lewtan’s job has been done.

“Life is short and being too restrictive is not fun or particularly mentally healthy.”

The Accidental Cruiser: A Trip Through Bordeaux on a Viking Riverboat

I am "cruise liner-phobic"—I have never been on one, I’ve got a fear of the water and I get seasick. But if you had seen me just a few weeks ago, sitting on the balcony outside my room on the Viking Forseti,enjoying the view of the water and the sound of it lapping against the sides of the boat, you would have thought I was the poster girl for river cruising.
I’ve never really had the inclination to get past my cruise phobia. The thought of being on a huge floating city bobbing up and down in the middle of nowhere without seeing even a slip of land for miles and miles makes my stomach turn even as I type the words. I have never been enticed by on-board theaters, nightly Vegas-like shows or pools with waterfalls that would overwhelm Poseidon that most large ships boast about.(I can see all you cruise lovers shaking your heads and rolling your eyes, but I am my father’s daughter.Yes, him being the big burly guy who almost died of seasickness when he, my mom and my older sister sailed to this country many years ago. I keep that secret close to my vest, and if that vest is a nice, puffy orange one with straps that fit around your middle, even better.

I am "cruise liner-phobic"—I have never been on one, I’ve got a fear of the water and I get seasick. But if you had seen me just a few weeks ago, sitting on the balcony outside my room on the Viking Forseti,enjoying the view of the water and the sound of it lapping against the sides of the boat, you would have thought I was the poster girl for river cruising.

When I heard that Viking River Cruises don’t offer all those carnival-like bells and whistles that so many of my cruise-loving friends adore, I considered “thinking” about it. When I heard that cruising on a river is nothing like cruising out on the ocean (hint, no bumps and land is never too far away), I was game. And I must admit, even Dad would have a hard time passing up a relaxing trip on a longship, gliding down the nice, calm Garonne, Gironde, and Dordogne rivers, to and from the city of Bordeaux and the wine region that is home to some of the most famous wine producers in the world such as Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Sauternes, and Margaux. Without much "arm-twisting, my friend Kathy agreed to join me, and our adventure on Viking’s Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise began.
Viking Forseti Atrium
Viking Forseti Atrium
Our first glimpse of Bordeaux was late at night, when we were driven through what looked like a lovely, quaint town, its trees drenched with white Christmas lights that appeared to be dripping from their boughs. In the daylight, the “quaint town” of Bordeaux showed its true personality: An elegant city, not unlike Paris, having been transformed after undergoing massive renovations in the late 1990s. A tour past magnificent architecture, open-air food markets brimming with local produce, regional seafood (mussels and oysters), and the ever-present signature pastry, caneles, could be done on foot or by tour bus, as it was one of the trip's included excursions. Kathy and I chose to walk that day, and our meanderings took us to some antique flea markets and the well-known chocolate shop, Maison Larnicol, where its chocolate Christmas ornaments had us in awe.
St. Louis des Chartrons - Bordeaux
St. Louis des Chartrons
Extra excursions were also part of the trip, and on one of those, Kathy and I spent the morning in the Dordogne, learning about the art of truffle hunting on the farm of “The Trufflle Master” himself, Edouard Aynaud, and his trained sniffer, Farrah the border collie. After some digging and scratching (mostly by Farrah), Kathy even found some truffles herself. (Henceforth, she will be known as “The Truffle Queen of Long Beach, California.”) A five-course, truffle-laden lunch (including ice cream with truffle caramel sauce which was surprisingly delicious), prepared by the owner’s wife as we sat in kitchen of their 17th-century stone farmhouse was included.
It’s only natural that this wine-centric trip attracted many wine enthusiasts of all ages, but the average age of the entire group seemed to be hovering around sixty-five. In addition to the wine-oriented excursions, additional ones to a cognac producer and an oyster farm appealed the the non-wine lovers. For those who were not up for the many walking tours, the long bus trips through beautiful countryside and vineyards galore, and past stately medieval chateaux were quite adequate.
Viking River Cruise
The Viking Forseti offered a welcome respite at the end of each day’s journeys. The central atrium was light-filled and we could see how inviting the outdoor decks could be in warmer weather. Our stateroom, although not overly spacious, was certainly roomy enough for the two of us, and view beyond the sliding glass doors leading to our balcony gave it a very open feel. Lovely for all while cruising, but depending upon where your room was when the boat docked, you could be looking at concrete and pylons, so that was something to consider. Staterooms with river views, French Balcony staterooms, and true suites were also on board.
Meals on the boat were always delicious, and quite often featured specialties of the region. There were options available for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. More formal meals were served in the dining room and a buffet, which we preferred for lunch, was offered in the lounge. Breakfast was also a buffet that included made-to-order omelets. Across the board, the staff was friendly, attentive, and focused on making sure we were all comfortable and satisfied.
Chocolate ornaments from Maison Larnicol
Chocolate ornaments from Maison Larnicol
Because there were no "distractions" on board, many guests took the time to read, rest, and chat. As one of the cruise leaders stated, unlike their ocean liners, Viking’s river boats are not to be thought of as destinations—the historical sites and cities are the true attractions. Bottom line, if you’re looking for fun, activity, and adventure…on a ship, these cruises are not necessarily for you. But if you are seeking rest and relaxation with some good food, interesting people, and lots of history thrown in, get on board!

This post originally appeared in
I was compensated for my review, but my opinions, as always, are my own.