Trattoria Calabria

This past weekend I drove up to Utica, New York for a family reunion and I had the pleasure of dining at Trattoria Calabria.

IMG_1583 Now, Trattoria Calabria isn’t like other restaurants – and I don’t just say that because it has 5 star ratings on Yelp and Facebook and TripAdvisor. The food is great. But it’s a bit different because you can’t drop in for dinner on a whim, you can’t order up your favorite dish, and you absolutely cannot find your favorite vintage Chianti on their [non-existent] wine list.

If you want to eat at Trattoria Calabria, you have to call ahead and make a reservation. Danny, the proprietor (host/server/head chef/entertainer) will probably answer the phone. You will tell him how many people you’re bringing, and he will tell you what time dinner is being served that night. On the night of your reservation, you should arrive punctually with a bottle of wine under each arm.

On Friday, dinner was at 6 so we arrived just a few moments beforehand. My grandfather got there first and had already befriended some feisty octogenarians. It’s a very small restaurant with just a few tables, and it’s more reminiscent of visiting a friend than your average eatery. The atmosphere is friendly and the drinks flow freely, since it’s BYOB.

Like eating at Mom’s, there are no menus. Danny and his son cook one massive meal each night using the best ingredients they can find. Each course is a surprise, and none will disappoint.


We started with a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a salad and some bread.


Then he brought us a heaping bowl of mussels. Given the family atmosphere, I wasn’t shy about soaking up the broth with fluffy pieces of bread.


Our next course was sausage and cabbage. This is not something I would normally eat at home, so I was surprised to love it.  I even took second-helpings, which I later regretted.  Stomach space was already at a premium half-way through the meal.


As we were finishing the sausage, Danny brought out one of their signature dishes: the eggplant.  We got a platter with 5 neat little stacks of eggplant parmesan one for each person at the table.


The last course from the kitchen was pasta with meatballs.  If anyone wasn’t full yet, this heaping portion of shells simmered in a homemade sauce definitely took care of that.  Like its predecessors, it was delicious, but I could only stomach a few bites because I was so full.


Just when I thought I could throw in the towel, the table next to us produced a rum cake from a local bakery. Giovanni at the next table (now “Uncle Giovanni” to me) was turning 90. We all sang to him and he blew out his candles, then he shared his cake with everyone in the restaurant.

It was certainly a night to remember. My brother and I have insisted that this restaurant become a staple on every Utica trip, and my parents seem happy to oblige.

Perhaps the best part? It’s only $25 a head, which is a steal considering both the quality and the quantity of the food.  If you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth a visit.  You’ll find them at 706 Culver Ave, Utica, NY and remember to call ahead at (315) 724-0019.


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Rooftop Dinner Party, Southern Style

It has been a painfully rainy Spring here in the DC area.  Almost every day I’ve woken up longing for the temperate, sunny weather I enjoyed in San Diego.  When we did finally get a momentary break from the drizzle, it was cause for celebration.  IMG_1038

Kelly and Hala showed up at my door, champagne in hand, and I whipped up some of my favorite Southern dishes: fried chicken, mac n cheese, biscuits, and fried okra. I’d never made fried okra before, so that recipe needs some work.  But the mac n cheese and fried chicken were top notch.

Here’s how I prepared the chicken:

I gathered bone-in thighs and drumsticks, buttermilk, hot sauce, salt and pepper, paprika, and flour.IMG_1028

Add about 1/2 cup of hot sauce to the buttermilk, then add about 1/4 tsp. pepper, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp. paprika to the flour.  You’ll want to set up a nice little workstation since the whole thing gets a bit messy.

IMG_1030Dip each piece of chicken in the buttermilk mixture, then coat thoroughly in the flour mixture.  Then place the chicken on a baking sheet where it can sit for a while.


After about 30 minutes, the chicken will start to look less powdery – that’s what you want.  Start heating up a big pot of oil (I used peanut).  Once its very hot, you can start dropping in the chicken a few pieces at a time.  Cook it at least 10 minutes, until it’s crispy and golden brown.


Half way there!



Then set it on a plate (covered in paper towels) while you finish the batch.



The last step is to enjoy with friends.  White wine and rooftop views suggested.

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The Virginia Vineyards

IMG_0863Since moving to the area, I’ve been wanting to visit the local vineyards.  There are several in Virginia, about an hour outside of DC.  The wine is notoriously unspectacular, but the scenic views compensate and it’s a great excuse to get out of the city for a day.

Yesterday, the opportunity finally presented itself.  Both the weather and the company couldn’t have been better.  Three cars of us struck out around 10:30 and arrived at Cobbler Mountain Cellars just in time for an 11:45 tasting.


We started in front, where we sampled about five wines and befriended Maggie, this glorious hound, who was a wonderful hostess and kept us company throughout our visit.



Then we moved to the back of the building where we sampled seven or eight of the ciders they make.  I’m generally ambivalent to ciders, but some of theirs were surprisingly good.  We started with one they named after Jefferson – made with nothing but apples.  It was crisp and light and almost too drinkable.


The last three they gave us were my favorites – a ginger peach cider that was crisp and refreshing, and smelled so good I wanted to shower in it.  A honey cider made with local clover honey – it had the perfect balance of sweetness without being too syrupy.  And last, the cinnamon brew which can be served hot or cold, and tasted like apple pie in a glass.


Once we’d finished our tasting, we purchased a few bottles of our favorites and retreated to the lawn for a potluck picnic lunch.  We loaded up our plates and ate and drank and laughed in the sunshine; it was my personal Nirvana.


After a while, we packed up our things and headed down the road to Philip Carter, another winery, where we enjoyed another tasting.


The rose there was delicious, so we grabbed a couple of bottles and took them outside to enjoy in the sunshine, while a handsome gent crooned country classics in the corner.

FullSizeRenderEventually, we succumbed to the wine and the sunshine (and adult responsibilities).  Tired, but happy, we climbed back into our cars and caravanned into the city and the real world.

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Lamma Island

IMG_0787Our final day in Hong Kong, we took a ferry to Lamma Island.  It’s a tranquil little island known for it’s beautiful natural scenery and diverse, international population.  For decades, free spirits have flocked there to enjoy the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and beauty.


The ferry ride to Sok Kwu Wan was choppy and uncomfortable.  I was delighted to finally arrive, albeit a little blue in the face.  We disembarked among little fishing boats and walked through a pathway flanked on both sides by seafood restaurants that were just opening for the day.


There are no cars on Lamma, but there are lovely paths for walking or biking.  We took a path from Sok Kwu Wan to Yung Shue Wan, which is the other ferry station on the island.  It was a little under four miles and we stopped along the way to enjoy various attractions.

One of the coolest things we saw was this kamikaze cave.  In WWII, they hid speedboats in there that could easily be deployed to launch attacks against Allied ships.


After a couple of hours, we reached Yung Shue Wan, which is quite a bit more robust than Sok Kwu Wan in terms of dining and shopping.  It’s probably 3 – 4 times as large – which is to say that it’s still very small.  We strolled the length of it, observing everything, then settled on a beautiful little spot along the water for lunch.


I grabbed a couple of starters and my brother took charge of ordering our mains.

IMG_0778 He settled on a whole snapper, fried rice, and some fried squid.  When the fish arrived, our server kindly filleted it for us at the table.  Everything was DELICIOUS. It was probably my favorite meal of the whole trip.


After lunch, we took the ferry back to the main island of Hong Kong.  Fortunately, the ride back was much shorter and smoother.  It was a little strange stepping back into the modern city, awash with sky scrapers after being on an island stuck in time.  I don’t see myself moving to Lamma any time soon, but I highly recommend a day trip!



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Hiking Dragon’s Back


On our third day in Hong Kong, the adventure bug bit.  Around 9 AM the four of us piled into a taxi and headed out of town and into the mountains.  The car wound its way up a two-lane road, darting around slower vehicles, until dropping us off at a spot so inconspicuous that I thought we’d gotten lost and he’d given up on us. Fortunately, my Dad and brother had done the hike before and were able to confirm that this was indeed the trail head.  A closer inspection even produced this sign:


The hike started off somewhat ambitious, with lots of stairs and uphill climbs.  The work paid off quickly, though, with amazing views in every direction.


From there, we followed the path along the ridge and enjoyed the crisp, cool breeze.  The ocean views on both sides were beautiful, but my favorite view was the one of downtown peeking through the hills. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t really do it justice (although it does give a pretty good representation of the smog situation).


Eventually the trail started to descend and we wove our way through the woods and onto a nice little beach, where we stopped for some rest.


Traipsing on further to the end of the trail, we found ourselves in a quaint little town where we stopped at a local Thai spot for lunch. It was a cute little hole in the wall, where we enjoyed generous portions of pad Thai, spring rolls, fried fish balls, kale, and curry.


With our bellies full, we grabbed another cab to the town of Stanley, which I won’t discuss because it was totally lacking in character and not really worth the time.

For such a major metropolitan area, Hong Kong has a surprising number of accessible hiking trails.  My brother blogged about this one and another here, if you’re interested in reading more.

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Off to the Races, Hong Kong Edition

imageOur second day in Hong Kong was my favorite of the trip.  We spent the morning visiting Chi Lin Nunnery, which is an oasis of serenity nestled among the city’s urban sprawl.  It’s a quick and easy walk from a metro stop and well worth a visit. The gates and gardens are beautiful but the treasures tucked away in the interior (where photography is prohibited) are the most breathtaking: massive golden statues, stunning architecture, and incredible altars.  I’d never seen anything like it!imageI found the stark contrast between the temple’s architecture and the modern city in the back ground to be very striking.imageimageimageAfter exploring the temple, we moved to the lovely gardens.  We’d hoped to enjoy lunch in the on-site restaurant, but we had to go because we’d promised to meet my brother across town at one.imageimageimageWe grabbed lunch on the go, rendezvoused with my brother, and all headed off to the race track to watch the ponies run.imageimageAfter watching a race or two, my brother and I were ready to put some skin in the game. Utterly clueless, about horse racing, we trotted off to and placed our bets. The first race, my brother’s horse came in third and he recouped his money.  We placed another bet and rushed back outside to catch the next race.  I couldn’t stay in my seat any longer, I had to get closer to the action.imageFrom my spot along the rail, I could feel the ground tremble as the horses sprinted by.  It was such a thrill – compounded by a big win with my horse coming in first!  I felt like a million bucks, despite having only won about $25 US.  With that, I decided to retire from betting (for the day, at least) so I just basked in the victorious glow for the rest of the afternoon.

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So This is Hong Kong

imageAfter a mere 26 hours of travel, I arrived at my hotel in Hong Kong where I was greeted by two of my favorite things: hugs from my parents and a glass of red wine.

The next morning, thanks to a 12-hour time difference, I rose early. We enjoyed a lovely family breakfast in the hotel lounge and then my brother and I headed out to explore the city on foot while my parents went to church. Our hotel was in the Central District, perched above a shopping mall that looks like it was plucked straight from America. We navigated our way past Gucci and Chanel, out to the surprisingly quiet street. I took a look around and thought, so this is Hong Kong. If not for the signage in Cantonese, I could have been in almost any major American city. We turned left and started walking. My first impression was how beautiful the city is. Surprisingly green, the lush mountains provide a lovely background for all the modern architecture. We passed one sky scraper after another, plus the occasional Starbucks or Circle K. The weather was beautiful but I felt a little disappointed. I’d just flown halfway across the world to visit someplace that felt, initially, very much like homeFullSizeRender

Just as these thoughts were starting to take root, my surroundings began to change. We were leaving the nondescript business district and entering the Hong Kong I expected. My body began to tingle with excitement as the environment became new. My brother, who has visited Hong Kong before, began pointing out things I may have missed. For example, that all their scaffolding is bamboo. All of it. Even the skyscrapers. It’s quite a sight to see 30-something stories of bamboo scaffolding, if you’re not accustomed to it.

He also pointed out an interesting social custom – people gathering in open urban spaces to just hang out. They bring cardboard from home to sit on, and come together to picnic, play cards, and catch up with one another amidst the concrete jungle. At the end of the day, people go home.

imageAs we walked farther, the city began to feel much more Chinese. Stores took on a more local flavor and the buildings between high rises became much less pristine. This was the Hong Kong I’d anticipated.

Reuniting with our parents, we continued to explore the city on foot. My favorite pockets of the city are the markets.

imageWe passed stall after stall of fresh meat, seafood, and produce.  My favorite stalls to look at were the seafood, with much of it still alive and flapping about on the table.  I tried to absorb as many of the sights, smells, and sounds as I could but it was truly sensory overload!imageimage

imageOf course, I found the bakeries the most irresistible. We popped into one and got a couple of things to share: a warm, savory ham and cheese delight with a flakey bean-stuffed pastry for dessert. We devoured them instantly.

imageThat evening, we went over to Kowloon to see the light show. It plays every night. The lovely and dynamic Island skyline dazzles in symphony- or that’s the idea, anyway. Despite drawing a healthy crowd, we found it sorely disappointing.  If you’re ever in Hong Kong, I don’t suggest you waste your time.

imageWe left early and grabbed a table at Din Tai Fung (affectionately known in my family as “DTF”). It’s a casual dumpling spot graced with one Michelin star, and can be found in many cities across Asia. They have a few in other major cities as well, and they’re well worth a visit if you enjoy authentic dumplings. It was my first foray into proper dumpling eating and my technique needs some work. There’s an art to plucking the dumpling without puncturing the delicate wrapping, getting the right balance of sauce, rupturing it so that the juice fills the spoon, and then consuming it in one proper bite.image Despite the instructions on the table, I found it to be no piece of cake. I’ll be practicing though.  Those little dumplings haven’t seen the last of me!


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