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Real Gusto, Medford

As unlikely as it seems, owners Matteo and Francesca Ronzio were visiting Boston from Italy, fell in love with the city and decided to move here, opening a restaurant & grocery. It's like the bizarro version of Under the Tuscan Sun.

The restaurant just opened on November 8th and it is located in Medford Square, in what used to be a book store. The space is sparse and bland. The beige walls and white décor feels more like a real estate office than a restaurant. We had a super early dinner (5:30pm on Saturday) and the dining room was 1/3 full with couples and their small kids. It feels like a nice neighborhood place.

A specially imported from Italy oven dominates the open pizza making area. We ordered a simple margherita pizza ($13), well done. The crust was thin and had good flavor and texture; however the tomato sauce was watery, causing the middle of the pie to be a soupy mess. All the pizzas are 12", which is small for the price. The single wilted basil leaf was just sad.

The mushroom risotto was excellent ($20). The rice was perfectly cooked and it was chock full of tender, flavorful porcini mushrooms. There was a weird glob/swipe of red wine sauce that was oddly saccharin and had over reduced, so it was thick and syrupy. There was no reason for it to be there.

It is hard for me to resist eggplant parm. The appetizer portion was small for $12. It was done in the Sicilian style, where the rounds of eggplant are not breaded. It may be more authentic, but I really prefer it with breading. Steve was not a fan and barely had more than a bite.

The bread basket had rounds of a dense, crusty baguette and it was served with a fruity olive oil that you can buy at the front of the store. Our server was friendly and competent. They are still working on a liquor license, and there is no BYOB in the meantime.

We wanted to like it more than we actually did. Steve summed it up aptly with, "It's fine, but Nappi is better,"

They don't have a real website, so here it their facebook page:


Loyal Nine, Cambridge

"What was this before? The liquor store?" Jes said to me as we waited for Loyal Nine to open for brunch.

It's hard to believe that 25 years ago, Jes and I roamed the streets of East Cambridge with our little gang of friends. I spent my summers at the Gold Star pool, first as a child, and then as a lifeguard, and the walk would take me down Cambridge St, every day. Between Lone Star Taco Bar and Loyal Nine, it appears the hipsters have invaded East Cambridge and are here to stay.

The dinner menu takes inspiration from the colonial era (as in foods the pilgrims ate) using local New England ingredients. I read a neat article about how every 2 weeks, chef Sheehan wades into North Scituate to get 30 quarts of water to dehydrate to make his own homemade sea salt. The brunch menu is more staid. I got the Augusta potato rosti ($12). It came with creamed chipped beef with a fried egg on top. Rosti is essentially a Swiss version of potato latkes. It was a nicely composed dish; the rosti was crispy, the beef was tastier than it sounded and the egg was perfectly runny.

Jes ordered the milk and honey cake ($12) and I was conflicted about this dish. The cake was excellent. It was moist, with a tender and airy crumb and deep honey flavor. She was given a whole loaf (probably, 5.5" x 3.5"?) with the small amount of stewed prunes and whipped cream. It was listed as an entrée, so she basically ate a large brick of cake for breakfast. Why not sell a slice, as a side, for $4 instead? She had to order potatoes to supplement her meal ($6). They were over-priced, but beautifully golden brown and well-seasoned.

You know what they say, you can't go home again. But if you do, get a maple latte ($5) – it was delicious.


Steel & Rye, Milton

We celebrated Steve’s birthday at Steel & Rye in Milton, a large, industrial looking space serving new American fare with locally sourced ingredients. I have been a fan of Chef Chris Parsons since his days at Catch in Winchester and was glad to see him back in the kitchen.

The complimentary valet was a nice surprise. We arrived a few minutes ahead of our reservation, so we took a seat at the bar, but they promptly seated us a few minutes later. Steve expressed surprise at the size of the restaurant; he estimated 175 seats.

We started with Maine mussels (smoked tomato, chorizo, torn bread, soffritto, lobster broth, $14). The portion size was moderate, but the mussels were tender and the broth was bursting with flavor from the chorizo. I made sure to spear every last bit of chorizo.

We shared the fusilli Bolognese ($22) for our pasta course. The homemade fusilli were large and toothsome, but the sauce was under seasoned and the beef was gritty. It was the weakest part of the meal. It reminded me that I need to return to Sweet Basil in Needham soon.

Sampling the fried chicken at Cook the night before whet my appetite for more, so I readily agreed when Steve suggest the buttermilk fried chicken ($25). Two pieces of deboned dark meat rested atop a warm Napa cabbage and apple slaw. The chicken was tender and crispy, but I missed the bones – eating fried chicken with a fork and knife just seems wrong. The slaw was also mayo based, so the warmth was disconcerting.

I had called ahead to request coffee ice cream for Steve’s birthday (he prefers it to cake). They kindly brought it, as well as a mini frozen lemon soufflé, with a candle in it. The ice cream was excellent – smooth, dark and roasty. I loved the frozen soufflé, as well. It was a perfect balance of sweet and tart and bright lemon flavor.

The complimentary rolls were hearty and rustic and served warm. They also offer still or sparkling water, free of charge. The service was excellent. Steel & Rye is a great choice if you are on the south shore. All of the extra nice touches really elevate the restaurant.


Cook, Newton

I have no artistic skills, so it was surprising how much I enjoyed paint night last time enough to try it again. Paula, Erin and I descended upon Paint Bar in Newton and this is my attempt at Lover’s Lane.

It was going well until the lampposts – I’m horrible at drawing straight lines. Next time I am going to pick a painting with no straight lines.

Afterwards, we went to Cook, conveniently located right next door. The menu is eclectic, ranging from udon noodles to shrimp tacos and flatbreads. We shared some truffle fries; they were crispy, dusted with parmesan and came with a nice rosemary aioli for dipping.

I had the Mediterranean flatbread (chicken sausage, creamed spinach, roasted tomatoes, feta, $15). The crust was thin with a satisfying chew and even though I thought creamed spinach on a pizza was weird, it worked pretty well. The flatbread was generously sized.

Erin’s fried chicken was a winner – 3 large pieces of dark meat chicken with mashed potatoes, slaw and a biscuit. I got to sample the chicken (it was excellent) as well as the biscuit (tender and flaky). It was a bargain at $18.

Paula’s burger ($14) looked appropriately medium rare. It came with more of the tasty fries. She seemed to enjoy it.

Cook feels like a great neighborhood joint - definitely check it out if you are in the area.


Playska, Cambridge

International Thursday made a reappearance this week – although technically it was on a Wednesday. Tim Weichmann of Bronwyn restaurant has opened Playska, a new sandwich shop in Inman Square where Rosie’s used to be. It features Balkan inspired sandwiches and pastries. You know me, I am always up for trying something new and I was able to convince my intrepid coworkers to join me. The menu has several meat options, as expected, but there is also a selection of vegetarian sandwiches.

Kristin and I shared two sandwiches; the first was the signature “Playska” which is a play on pljeskavica, a traditional Balkan dish of ground meat, made in to a patty. At Playska, they serve this patty on lepinje bread, a thick homemade pita with ajvar relish, cucumber pickle and bacon cream cheese rémoulade. Essentially, it’s a Balkan burger. The patty was tender and flavorful. They did not ask how I wanted it cooked; so the rare patty was fine for me, but probably too pink for Kristin. The sandwich was on the small side for the $9 price tag.

The pickled pork shank sandwich featured pork, chopped bbq style, on challah bread with cabbage-apple pickle, kardizi pepper bbq sauce. It was hearty, filling and I loved the crunch and freshness of the cabbage apple slaw. At $12.50, it’s most expensive item on the menu.

The chicken boudin and urnebes cheese sandwiches were also well received. All sandwiches came with a small foil package of pickled beets.

I also picked up an almond custard kolache (basically a Danish). It was dry and not enough almond filling.

Although I enjoyed both sandwiches, the prices are too high. Olecito is just around the corner, where I can get a larger and equally delicious torta for $9.


Lone Star Taco Bar, Cambridge

The original restaurant is in Allston, but even my parking mojo can’t conquer Allston, so I never attempted to go there. I was thrilled when I found out they opened a second location in East Cambridge, my old hood.

I met my friend Regan there for dinner; it was Wednesday at seven and the wait was about 20 minutes long. The restaurant is small, but it was certainly hoppin’ with hipsters. The menu is small as well, with only seven tacos available, and alongside some larger plates. The pricing is inconsistent. The tiny tacos feel like a rip-off at $4 each, but the nachos were three times the size and only $6. A medium torta sandwich was $13, which seems crazy. Go up the street to Olecito; their tortas are $9 and delicious.

Our waitress warned us that all the food just comes out when it is ready, so she recommended to order in stages - that just feels lazy to me. I started with a carnitas taco, while Regan had a beef barbacoa and we shared an order of the aforementioned nachos.

The nachos came topped with cheese, avocado crema, sour cream, jalapenos and, strangely enough, shredded Napa cabbage. I was weary, but it turns out I really liked the cabbage. I thought it added a nice crunch and freshness to the dish. At $6, it’s a far better choice.

However, they did pack a lot of flavor into that $4 taco. My 3-bite carnitas taco was tender and flavorful with a bright salsa verde and cilantro. I didn't try the barbacoa, I wish I had. Regan liked it very much.

Our next round of tacos, I opted for the Baja fish, which came with a lightly fried and battered tender piece of fish. I thought the pickled cabbage slaw was great, but the flavor of the chili mango aioli was non-existent. Regan had the grilled avocado with griddled queso, a decent option for the vegetarians (I got one of the 3 bites).

Lone star seems like a great place to stop by after work, if you're hankering for a small snack. If you are hungry for more I would strongly recommend getting nachos because the tacos are not going to fill you up.


Gracie's Ice Cream, Somerville

Gracie's is a "quirky parlor scooping unique flavors of ice cream in blowtorch-toasted cones with fun toppings," according to Google. Their ice cream is homemade in small batches to ensue freshness. The menu always has dozen flavors, including a non-dairy option. Steve and I were hankering for dessert, after our unsatisfying dinner at Viale. For the sake of the Flog, we drove passed Christina's to Union Square to try Gracie's, a new ice cream shop that opened last year.

It is a small storefront, but we were able to grab one of the three tables to enjoy our ice cream. The menu was eclectic, eschewing traditional flavors with offerings such as: salty whiskey, Fruity Pebbles, lemon verbena, subtle creamsicle and leftover Halloween candy.

Steve ordered the Heath bar crunch and I got scoop each of lemon verbena, and subtle creamsicle ($4 for a small). The ice cream was thick, creamy and had the right mouth feel. The lemon verbena was better than the subtle creamsicle, which lived up to its name, in other words, too subtle. I sampled the salty whisky (strong alcohol flavor) and the Halloween candy (weak candy flavor). I think Gracie's is a fine opinion if you are in the area, but Christine's has a far better selection of flavors and seating.


Viale, Cambridge

“Central Square doesn’t know what it wants to be,” Steve commented as we walked back to the car. He’s right – Central Square is changing. There is still a Payless shoe store and a furniture rental store, but the Middle East has shut its doors and the H Mart is bright, shiny and filled with hipsters.

We dined at Viale, located on Mass Ave, where Rendezvous (and a Burger King before that) used to be. I liked Rendezvous and enjoyed their happy hour tapas, so I was sad to see it go. Viale “serves ingredient-driven, Mediterranean-inspired food in a warm and casual environment,” The restaurant was almost full at 7pm on Saturday Night with a happy group of people celebrating a 50th birthday.

Steve and I started with the Neapolitan pizza ($13). The wood grill added a nice char, but the crust was dense and chewy. The marinara was too tart and the scallions were out of place.

Steve got the baked mushroom gnocchi (maitake, romanesco, cauliflower cream, grana breadcrumbs, $24) and was unenthused about it. I thought the dish was okay, but heavy-handed.

My orecchiette with braised octopus, grilled leeks and castlevetrano olives ($24) was more successful. The octopus was tender and the olives were fruity and briny. My friend Mj doesn’t like olives, expect for castlevetranos; I think she would have enjoyed this dish.

Our server was proficient and the bread service offered small, but flavorful ciabatta rolls. The prices are high for what it is.

I miss Rendezvous.


Flavored Chip Attack

I am a sucker for weird potato chips, so when I saw Trader Joe’s Turkey and Stuffing Seasoned kettle chips I knew I had to try them. That reminded me that I never flogged about the Lay's Do us a Flavor contest (New York Reuben, West Coast Truffle Fries, Greektown Gyro and Southern Biscuits and Gravy) chips, so here it all is.
The TJ's chips promise "all the flavor of Thanksgiving in each potato chip," and it delivers (other than cranberry, but I understand why they omitted that flavor). There are a ton of herbs (parsley, sage, and thyme) with a kick of black pepper as well as salt, onion powder and celery. It's really the subtle hint of sage that differentiates this from a run-of-the-mill sour cream and onion chip. The chip is a thick cut and crunchy – a perfect vehicle for the flavors. My friend Hallie commented, "the chips made me want to not cook Thanksgiving dinner and just eat a bowl of these instead – it's easier and cheaper."

I wish I could rave about the Lay's chips as well, but the New York Reuben and Greektown Gyro were failures. Sauerkraut is just not a great chip flavor. Steve inadvertently ate a gyro chip and spit it out. I was most excited about Southern Biscuits and Gravy (you know how I love my biscuits) but it was a disappointment. There was no hint of biscuit or gravy. West Coast Truffle Fries was the most successful, but that makes sense – it was just chips sprinkled with truffle oil. Last year's ginger wasabi chip was more interesting and innovative than all of this year's entries.


Gin U Dee, Stoneham

One of my favorite eats during my Southeast Asia trip was mango coconut sticky rice. The ripe, tender mango, sliced over warm, sweet, salty, coconut-scented rice, topped with crispy mung bean sprinkles for crunch was a perfect snack, dessert or a way to get the nasty taste of durian our of our mouths. I have found a few recipes to try, but in the meantime I wanted a quick fix.

I happen to be near Gin U Dee in Stoneham Center this weekend. It is related to Rod Dee in Boston and Cambridge and my web search states that they have excellent mango coconut sticky rice. Sadly, it is considered "seasonal," so I had some consolation pad Thai instead. It is a small storefront, mainly takeout, but there is counter seating with 5 low stools. They have some more traditional Thai offerings, but it's hard for me not to get pad Thai, the first time I try a Thai restaurant.

I was pleased with my dish. The noodles were not overly sweet, and they were the right texture. The chicken was on the dry side. I got the $10 combo, which included choice of appetizers (I got 2 spring rolls) and a soup (vegetable soup with tofu). The spring rolls were crispy and not oily. Steve's pan fried rice noodle with duck ($8.65) was similar to a chow fun. We both enjoyed our meals. I think we have a new Thai take-out joint.

I can't wait till mangoes are back in season.


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