Cotto Wine Bar (Stamford) – Food with Love from Italy

I finally returned to Cotto after a long hiatus and I am glad I did. The atmosphere was alive, the staff was friendly and knowledgeable and the food was very good. The chef recreates the cuisine reminiscent of numerous restaurants in Italy, straightforward Italian food that allows the flavors of the ingredients to shine. Unlike many Fairfield County restaurants where you feel rushed, there was not one iota of pushiness at our table and from what I noticed with the staff interactions at other tables, this is the owners’ philosophy.

Upon arrival on a snowy and icy evening we were met by one of the owners, Silvy Ridolfi, and escorted to our table by her husband and owner Claudio. The interior is beautiful, with photos of Silvy’s movie actress mother (she appeared in films with Sophia Loren) adorning one entire wall, a long bar the other, with a rounded wood covered ceiling creating a very European, slick environment

Once seated we were approached by our server, and over the course of our meal he proved to be an incredible source of information, recommendations and exceptional service. He guided us to several of his favorite dishes and was very competent in his wine selections to pair with the meal.

The menu is large and diverse and divided into several sections including Tapas, charcuterie, cheeses, pastas (with a separate section for house made) pizzas and entrees. We narrowed our choices and decided on a few tapas to begin the meal.

The “New Zealand Lamb Chops” were the best of the appetizers that we sampled. They were prepared to our requested medium-rare and accented with rosemary, garlic, Balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and served with arugula. The meat was rich and flavorful and worked well with the Balsamic. The “Grilled Calamari” was flash grilled and topped with a Balsamic reduction and served with lemon wedges and arugula. I recommend squeezing lemon juice on the calamari to balance the flavors. The “San Marzano Veal Meatballs” were served with a touch of tomato sauce and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. The portion of six small meatballs were firm in texture with good flavor. The sauce was a nice complement to the herb-spiced meatballs.

Of the four entrees we sampled, the best was the “Organic Roasted Chicken.” The half chicken was roasted in the wood fired oven and delivered a crispy skin and a delicious and succulent interior. The freshly made “Tagliatelle” was served with wild boar ragu and was very good. The house made pasta was silky in texture and thick enough to handle the robust tomato sauce. I would prefer a little less sauce to allow for the rich flavor of the boar to come more to the forefront. The special “Ravioli” for the evening was a spinach ravioli served in a creamy cheese sauce and we asked if a Pomodoro sauce could be substituted. The raviolis were plump and excellent, and worked very well with the rich tomato flavor of the Pomodoro.

Save room for dessert. We ordered two to share, the molten chocolate cake and the bread pudding, both served with pistachio gelato. They were excellent. The chocolate cake oozed a delicious chocolaty center and the pistachio gelato was a great complement. The bread pudding included raisins and was fantastic, offering crispy and moist textures, sweetness and then offset by the pistachio gelato.

It was a great, fun evening of very good food in a relaxed and vibrant atmosphere. I really enjoyed Cotto and look forward to another meal.

Cotto Wine Bar + Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

850 Wood Fired Pizza (Ridgefield – Needs Works

BL 850 1850 Wood Fired Pizza is located down the alley to the right of Fifty Coins in downtown Ridgefield. The interior is very well done with eight wooden booths and four high top tables in the first room and an equal number of seats in the rear room. There are several TVs on the wall, giving the space a pubby, sports bar feel. They did a very good job on decorating. There are also some tables on the front terrace that would be a good location in much warmer weather. There is an interesting array of condiments on the table. In addition to the normal salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and grated cheese, 850 also serves Tabasco sauce.

There are four styles of pizza, Wood Fired Red, Wood Fired White, Traditional Oven and Ultra Thin Bar Style. Salads and a few pastas are also available. I ordered a Wood Fired Red Margherita with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil. This pie needs a lot of work. The crust, although thin, was a cracker crust, not Neapolitan (as stated on the web site) in any sense, ultra-crispy and unpliable and very bland. The tomato sauce, on the other hand was overwhelming in flavor. It was more a peppery tomato paste than a pizza sauce. There was some cheese that melted into the background on taste and a few leaves of basil. I did not like the pizza at all.

BL 850 2

The staff is very young and needs a lot of training. When I asked what the difference was between the “fresh Mozzarella” and the “Mozzarella Cheese” (as stated on the menu) I drew a blank stare. When I paid my $12.50 bill with a twenty-dollar bill she asked if I wanted change.

Overall, with a lot of other choices in the area, I think I’ll take a pass on returning until some significant changes occur.

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Joe’s Pizza (New Canaan) – Decades of Great Pizza

When the subject of pizza arises in my travels, Connecticut is always included in the discussion as a destination. Many consider New Haven the epicenter of Connecticut pizza with the Big Three, Sally’s, Modern and Pepe’s, each creating pizzas baked in their decades-old coal-fired ovens. But throughout our state there are numerous local establishments that also create fantastic pies. Many of these pizzerias are local hangouts, some are co-located within bars, a few offer pizza as a choice on independent Italian restaurants’ menus and still others have great pizza hidden amongst higher end menu items. Joe’s Pizza in New Canaan ranks as one of those local pizzerias that has delivered fantastic pizza for decades to the citizens of New Canaan.

Joe’s (a single word is all the regulars require) has been a fixture in town for two generations. After Joe retired, his son Lorenzo (Larry to friends and neighbors) took over the peel and oven. Over the last 18 years I have enjoyed 100s of Joe’s pies and I am not alone. During lunch Joe’s is overflowing with firemen, local officials, and police officers; teenagers are constantly crowding the counter whether after school, practice, into the early evening or on any given Friday and Saturday night; and the constant ringing of their phones from late afternoon through early evening indicate many residents are enjoying Larry’s pies for family dinner six days a week. In addition you will see Lorenzo and his staff at various town and school functions; they are a fixture in town.

Larry continues experimenting with toppings, techniques and increasing the menu offerings with non-traditional pizzeria items including several varieties of “Wings.” Great pizza begins with the dough and each day Lorenzo combines his secret recipe. It is a labor of love. The end result is a delightful combination of chewiness and softness plus a very mild flavor that adds just a little taste without interfering with the other ingredients. The sauce has always been house-made and many of the toppings are also created on the premises. Each day the sauce is started with plum tomatoes which are first roasted to enhance the flavors. Then the roasted tomatoes are brought to the back where the sauce is made every day. Lorenzo also makes is the sausage, which is a balance of spiciness and fennel flavor which I love on his pizza and he roasts the peppers on premises, and fresh, never canned mushrooms are hand sliced.

Several years ago Lorenzo installed new glass enclosed circulating gas fired ovens in the middle of the floor where all can watch the pizzas as they cook. This four-tiered steel monster has pizza stones on each level and allows constant attention to the pies. The temperature gauge reads between 550-600 degrees, less than traditional coal and wood fired ovens, but this temperature works well with his dough. Whether Lorenzo or one of his trusted assistants is creating one of hundreds of pies each day, the end result is fantastic. Toppings include traditional mushroom, sausage, pepperoni, meatball, peppers, fresh tomato, as well as specialty pies that target the non-traditional pizza customer with BBQ Chicken, black olives, garlic, bacon, salami, pineapple, broccoli, ham, spinach, anchovies, eggplant, and onion. The end product is a semi-crispy, semi-pliable crust with great ingredients and oozing cheese. Joe’s technique allows for a nice crust around the circumference. On the larger pies it is necessary to apply the “fold” method while the smaller pies allow for a non-fold execution.

My recommendation…I cannot choose between these two so I order half bacon and tomato and half sausage and peppers. You gotta have diversity. Eighteen years, hundreds of pies and I still look forward to each of them, and they deliver.

Joe's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Cafe Boulud (Palm Beach, FL) – Perfect in Every Sense

When a restaurant is perfect, just relax, enjoy, and file this incredible evening in your memory banks. And my visit to Café Boulud in Palm Beach was impeccable from the minute we approached the host desk until we exited 2+ hours later.

Located in the Brazilian Court Hotel on Australia, valet parking is simple and efficient. I knew to call ahead and ask for a table outside overlooking the courtyard and this is a strong recommendation, the environment is delightful.

For a table share, we ordered a plate of “Tagliatelle con Funghi” served with chanterelle ragout, soft pecorino pepato, and topped with a soft poached egg. The staff was efficient and brought three plates plus serving utensils. The pasta was prepared to al dente and then combined with the chanterelles. Sitting atop was a soft egg which, when opened, oozed creaminess throughout the dish. This pasta dish was fantastic.

As an appetizer I ordered the “Torchon of Foie Gras” with herbes de Provence gastrique, crushed hazelnuts, pickled blueberries, with a few slices of toasted brioche. The torchon was extraordinary, with a decadent smoothness and richness from the foie gras. The sweetness of the brioche was delightful and the surprise to the entire dish was the gastrique, which added a flavor contrast that was brilliant. My daughter and I swapped appetizers mid-stream and I also enjoyed the “Octopus à la Plancha” with white bean salad, burnt lemon, celery, and piquillo peppers. The octopus was served firm in texture, but not chewy and the accompaniments added both flavor and texture

I ordered the “Duo of Beef” for my entrée. This included a boneless, braised short rib, a few slices of seared tenderloin, a “cubed” pommes anna, spinach subric, with sauce bordelaise. The dish was a 40, as in four tens. The short rib was beyond fork tender, full of rich flavor and glazed with the bordelaise. The sliced filet was soft, delicious and mild in flavor. The cube of potatoes was actually a myriad of thinly sliced layers of potato formed into a cube and deep fried. But the highlight of the presentation was the subric, a spinach leaf wrapped around a spinach “mousse.” This dish was a mini-tasting menu in and of itself.

To complete this outstanding experience we ordered two of the desserts, the “Warm Upside Down Guanaja Chocolate Soufflé” with pistachio ice cream, plus an apple tarte with vanilla ice cream.  Both were incredible. The cake was liquid chocolaty heaven, and the ice cream was a perfect paring. The tarte was equally fantastic, sweet, complemented by the delicious crust and accompanied by a dollop of pistachio ice cream.

And if this was not enough, the chef sent lemon madeleine cookies, soft, crispy and topped with powdered sugar plus a plate of pastries, including one of the best macarons I have ever tasted.

Overall Café Boulud continues as one of my favorite restaurants in the world.

Cafe Boulud on Urbanspoon

Harlan Social (Stamford) – Still One of the Best

The new menu at Harlan Social is in full swing and there are some fantastic options emphasizing Chef Lewandowski’s philosophy of bold and balanced flavors.

The “Baby Tuscan Kale & Blue Cheese Salad,” topped with apples, spiced pecans and cider vinaigrette is delightful. The salad delivers bold flavors in the Kale and the Blue cheese and complemented by the sweetness of the apples and the acidity of the vinaigrette. The “Spicy Pork Meatballs” are delicious, served with soft polenta, San Marzano tomatoes with a touch of Pecorino. The slightly spicy and moist meatballs pair well with the creamy polenta with the Pecorino adding just a touch of saltiness. The “Local Burrata” is fantastic and is accompanied by red wine caponata with incredibly bold flavors. The Burrata is creamy with a soft lusciousness while the caponata takes the palate to the other extreme with olives, capers, eggplant and a touch of basil. These are all great choices to start the meal.

For entrees I really enjoyed the “Red Wine Braised Short Rib.” Served atop a sweet carrot puree and accompanied by Brussels sprouts, the soft, moist meat is perfectly glazed with the wine sauce. The sweetness of the carrot puree is delicious and works perfectly with the crunchy earthiness of the slivered almonds. Another great choice is the “Grilled Long Island Duck” served with butternut squash and apple puree, and finished with lingonberry sauce. A large, sliced duck breast sits atop a creamy and sweet apple puree that is offset by the slightly sweet-sour lingonberry sauce. The butternut squash adds an earthy quality, creating adish with rich flavors. Carnivores will be satisfied with the “Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb.” A rack of four encrusted chops are served with braised lamb shoulder, rye spaetzle and acorn squash. The chops are full of flavor with the shoulder, spaetzle and acorn squash adding additional flavors and texture. One dish that I am not as fond of is the Goat Cheese Ravioli, which is served with Serrano ham, picholine olives and braised tomatoes. The flavors fought with each other and did not offer the full flavor and balanced flavor profile as the other dishes.

Service is always spot on, knowledgeable, friendly and constantly checking to see if all is perfect for the guests.

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