Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Taste of Little Italy

When most people think of Cleveland's Little Italy, they think of The Feast of the Assumption.  They are also known for their Columbus Day parade.  This year, I found out about another wonderful annual event, the Taste of Little Italy. It's an annual fundraiser for the Montessori School at Holy Rosary that features food, wine, silent and live auctions, a raffle and live entertainment.

When I first heard of the event, my curiosity was piqued.  Of course I would be interested in an Italian themed food event!  But there weren't many specifics on the website so I was wondering if I should spend the $70 on a virtual unknown. When I found a Living Social deal that cut the price in half, I couldn't resist.

When we arrived, we were greeted by festive decorations and helpful staff. They checked us in, gave us each a wine glass and explained that in addition to the giant food tent, there was a room for desserts inside.  This was sounding great already!

Le Dolce Cafe was full of desserts and coffee
When we entered the tent, we were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of vendors! Over 30 food booths were set up for our eating pleasure.  And from what we could tell, there were plenty of wine booths too.  We decided to head left and make our way around clockwise so we wouldn't miss any.  We started out with some olives, cheese and roasted red peppers and a glass of wine. Then we scoped out the surroundings. 

I was happy to see Murray Hill Market there because the owner is a friend of a friend and I've been dying to try the food there.  She was offering apples with marscapone and paper-thin slices of fried eggplant.
Michele Iacobelli Buckholtz, owner

Another place that was on my must try list was  Washington Place Bistro.  I went to their restaurant once before and was looking forward to another taste.  I loved the presentation of a corn chowder in mugs - easy to carry, cute and delicious!
Michaelangelo's was another must taste for me.  Chef Michael Annodono was a featured chef for a Cleveland International Film Fest Film Feast and he really impressed me.  They offered cavatelli with a veal, muscovy duck, guinea fowl and tomato-barolo ragu - what a mouthful!  A delicious mouthful!

Gusto was there too and their offering was a mixed green salad with berries.  It was delicious but I was disappointed because I know that their kitchen really makes some fantastic pasta.

The reincarnated Club Isabella is the new kid on the block in Little Italy. I loved the original restaurant and was eager to see what they were cooking.  Their short ribs were tender and flavorful.  I liked that they were served on mini bamboo skewers - no fork needed!
A special treat of the event was the Loretta Paganini International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute booth.  They were making homemade pasta on site.  It was served with a fresh tomato sauce that took advantage of the abundance of seasonal ingredients.
And what's an Italian food event without PIZZA! These guys were working the ovens like crazy.  It was a very popular booth.
I was even brave and tried Primo Vino's tripe soup.  I know my Italian Grammie LOVES tripe but I never cared for the texture or taste.  I found that I still don't like the texture, but the taste was delicious.

For the first time ever there was a tie in the top food category.  La Dolce Vita  tied with Mia Bella for best food of the event! La Dolce Vita's vegan friendly pasta was fresh tasting and would be a great dish to take on a picnic.

Terry Tarantino, owner
Their Mediterranean younger sister  La Strada was also represented by a wild mushroom arancini with red pepper coulis, truffle oil and porcini dust. Yum!

The other winning dish was from Mia Bella. It was pasta with a lobster sauce that contained peas and prosciutto.  It was luscious and decadent!

And we had more food:
Luciano's crew

breaded chicken cutlet and pasta

mushroom ravioli with osso bucco sauce

short ribs, polenta and lemon garlic greens
And wine:

One of the restaurants that I was most looking forward also ended up being one of the last ones we tasted.  It was worth the wait!  La Campanga is a unique family run restaurant in Westlake.  The restaurant has very limited choices because they do not actually have a traditional menu, but the food is seasonal, authentic and fabulous!  The Campagna sisters were featured at the Garlic Festival (see my blog here) and I couldn't wait to see what magic they were whipping up for the Taste.  They made braciole with truffled polenta.  The polenta truly was magical!  The truffle paired with the creamy polenta was addictive. The best ever!

Carmella and Marie

Carmella, Marie, cousin Dave, and brother Michael
Last but not least was the dessert room.  Unfortunately, most people had beat us to it so the pickings were slim.  Thankfully the dessert winners Mama Roberto's had plenty of cannoli.  I had not one, but two!  It was fantastic and huge!  It contains a creamy mixture of ricotta and whipped cream mixed with maraschino cherries, chocolate and almonds.  
We also managed to score the last cannoli from Presti's, baklava and Baci candy.  They also had an espresso machine serving up coffee.  This was the only long line I had to stand in all day.

In addition to the fantastic food and wine, there was also musical entertainment and local celebrities including legendary Browns coach Sam Rutigliano, Judge Dick Ambrose,  former Cavs coach Mike Fratello and Bob Serpentini showing their support for this worthwhile cause.
Sam Rutigliano
Afterwards we paid a visit to Holy Rosary

And then stopped in to see Nido Italia.  They served up some super hot stuffed peppers at the Taste that were delicious.  We wanted to end our night on their beautiful patio.  
Angelo, owner
Awesome patio!
I'm so glad we took a chance at went to the Taste of Little Italy!   We knew it had to be good and we weren't disappointed.  In fact, it was so much better than we ever imaged. We will definitely be back next year!

Gordon Square NEO Food Tour

So I think I have a problem.  I just might be addicted to the NEO Food Tours!  I've kept it hidden, not wanting to admit that I have a problem.  But admitting it is the first step to recovery, right?  

I knew my secret couldn't be kept for long but never expected to be outed in the Plain Dealer!  The reporter Debbi Snook talked about the food bloggers on the tour but never mentioned us by name (Bite Buff was there too.) BUT the giant color photo on the front page of the Style & Taste section (see it here) let the whole world know that I was there.  Again.  I laughingly joke with our tour guide Todd that I'm going to need my very own lanyard instead of the usual name tag or frequent flier miles or something. This was my 3rd tour.  Previously I have gone to Tremont and Shaker Square.  It was my little secret and I've never blogged about.  Until now.

Gordon Square is one of my very favorite destinations in Cleveland.  I go there regularly for Indian Delight my favorite Indian restaurant and also my favorite Vietnamese restaurant Minh-Anh. They just happen to be directly across the street from one another and I've been known to eat at one and get carry out from the other!  In fact, I'm the area so often I almost didn't sign up for the tour but since I have a problem, I had to go.  Glad I did!
We started off at the Cleveland Public Theater with a tour.  Really funky old building with a lot of history.  Battery Park Wine Bar started us off with in style at a really cool pop up upstairs.  We had great wine (of course!) and a hearty first course of two different flat breads served with some lemony mixed greens.  We found out they were testing the flat breads out on us and both are menu worthy for sure!  One had a pumpkin seed pesto with chicken and goat cheese and the other had spaghetti squash with spinach, raisins, pecans and a kick ass maple sriracha drizzle.My favorite was the one with the squash - I loved the sweet/savory/spicy combo.  The owner Mike Graley was charming and personifies the YOLO (You Only Live Once) motto of the place.
Squash on the left and chicken pesto on the right
We left there and walked past the Capitol Theater and a lovely church.  Our delightful city ambassador Genna Petrolla filled us in on how the revival of this area has taken place.  
Next up was Stone Mad.  Thanks to the weather cooperating, we were able to sit out on their hand crafted stone patio.  It's a work of art that came to being through a lot of sweat and hard work.

Stone Mad's famous patio

We were served a tasty mini beef slider with a creamy horseradish sauce.  While I've heard in the past that this is a destination better for drinking than for food, this makes me think that the kitchen offers more than I had heard.  This and the Guiness were delicious - I only wish the beer wasn't served in a little plastic cup.

Though I had been here many times, I never ventured down to the basement.  In it you will find some pretty amazing bathroom tile work that is definitely worth the trip. I only have pics of the ladies room but I have it from a reliable source that instead of unicorns and flowers, the men's room is decorated with horses.  The sinks here are unique as well.  They were salvaged and refurbished and fit with the funky decor down here.
From there we headed toward one of my favorite restaurants Luxe.  I was really happy that we cut through The Gordon Square Arcade on the way!  I never knew this existed.  It used to be filled with shops and even a market but now it's home to a few businesses including the offices of The Gordon Square Arts District.  I loved the old photographs that lined the walls and the little hidden courtyard.

At Luxe we were treated to what was touted as the Chef's Whim.  It was a double quacker - duck breast served atop lentils and duck confit.  Simply amazing!  The lentils were my very favorite and I could have eaten a whole bowl of them!   The seared duck on top was delicious but almost seemed like over kill because the lentils really stole the show.  They explained to us that they specialize in off-the-wall wines from far flung places so their wine list is interesting and affordable.  We drank a declassified Brunello that was smooth and rich and complimented the duck perfectly.

We had guests from the Tri C Hospitality Management Center at Public Square with us.  They were there to explain their programs and provide a teaser for the upcoming NEO Public Square tour.  Unfortunately, we couldn't hear anything that they were saying because the music from the live band in the bar was just too loud.  

my own little piece of heaven

We had another teaser when we walked by Sweet Moses - an old fashioned ice cream parlor that makes homemade caramel, hot fudge, root beer and candies.  We weren't stopping here but were assured that we would be getting a treat from here later.  They have a bananas foster ice cream here that is soooo good!  And I love how they serve a pretzel with your ice cream as an extra special bonus.

Finally we heading to our last stop XYZ the Tavern.  They are the younger sister to ABC the Tavern just up the road on W 25th Street in Ohio City.  This is the one place on the tour that I had not been to before so I was really excited to finally check it out.  They explained to us that they are known for an amazing craft beer selection and food that is way better than your average bar food.  I agree on both counts!  
We started off with our choice of wine or beer.  Then we feasted on a really unique napoleon.  Normally this would be our dessert course but they decided to interpret this as a savory continuation of dinner.  This was a butternut squash napoleon (circles of thinly sliced squash layered with chevre) served along side apple smoked pork loin, with apples and caramelized onions.  I loved the creativity of this dish and the squash was a taste sensation.  I enjoyed the pork also but would have preferred a little less smokiness.  I much prefer a more subtle smoke flavor but my table mates gobbled it down and declared it dee-lish.
Our End of the Trail cocktail was "Rye Not" - a flavorful cocktail of whiskey, maraschino cherry juice, OJ and bitters.  They ended with a bang!  We were presented our take away bag of goodies and sure enough, there was chocolate from Sweet Moses tucked inside.  We received two large pieces of candy - one filled with their homemade caramel topped with sea salt and the other was peanut butter filled. 
Both were rich and creamy and delicious; however, they were a mess to eat!  Glad I waited until the next day.  The fillings were too runny and oozed out when you took a bite.  I still recommend them, just consider yourself warned!  

Also in our take away bag, we were treated to a muffin and ground coffee from Gypsy Beans and Baking Co.  What a perfect parting gift!  It was so nice to make the coffee and savor the cranberry nut muffin in the morning as I reminisced about the fun we had the night before.
So, like the dearly departed Amy Winehouse sang. "They try to make me go to rehab and I say no, no, no!"  Yes, I'm addicted but it's not illegal and it's a blast!    So why am I hooked?  It's because I love the combination of food, cocktails, local history, architecture and fun!  The NEO Food Tour group is really special!  A great combination of people ensure that you will have a blast.  Especially if you stay late.

Late night fun with NEO's Elizabeth
The Public Square tour is already sold out but thankfully I already bought my ticket.  But NEO Food Tours has other fun stuff planned for the winter months and will be starting up the tours again in the spring. Check out their website for details.

If you want to see more pics from the night, check out my Facebook album by clicking on the link below.

More Photos