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Italian & Sons (Canberra) August 12, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Canberra, Food, Reviews, Travel.
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This photo has been brightened -- it's a lot darker than this at night

From what I’ve heard, there is only a handful of great restaurants in Canberra.  Not surprising really, considering how awfully tiny the place is.  One of the so-called ‘must-visit’ places is Italian & Sons, a super popular Italian joint that you must reserve to get a table on most nights.

Italian & Sons is located at 7 Lonsdale Street in the suburb of Braddon, very close to the big shopping centre in the retail district of town.  One would think it would be easy to find, but it’s not.  Because there are no obvious signs outside the restaurant (apart from a few tiny scribbles on the dark glass) and it’s dimly lit inside, we drove by several times without even noticing the restaurant.  If the same happens to you, don’t despair.  Just follow the street numbers and you’ll find it.

Inside, Italian & Sons is warm and cozy, with wooden furniture, an open pizza bar and friendly waiters clad in white aprons.  The menu is simple (and can be found at their website, here), with an assortment of antipasti, meats (affettati), pastas, pizzas and main courses (one for every day of the week, except Sunday, when they are closed).  Of course, they also have a few ‘daily specials’.  Additionally, they have the usual — sides, salads, desserts and cheeses — more than enough for one massive meal.

My Canberra resident friend informed me that their pizzas were good, but the real delights of Italian & Sons are their other dishes, especially the mains and specials.  Nevertheless, we went with an assortment of dishes.  Here’s what we ordered:

The wood fired garlic focaccia was one of the highlights, especially with that dipping oil

This was a special -- a double-barrelled pasta with veal ragu and olives in a spicy tomato sauce

An amazing side dish -- the Peperonata -- pan fried peppers, onions and potatoes

The Diavolo Pizza -- salami, fried peppers, chilli and roast garlic

Last but not least, dessert -- a flourless chocolate torte with orange and pistachio gelato

The taste of Italian & Sons can be described as ‘authentic’ Italian.  The dishes are simple, not overly delicate and infused with strong flavours.  Some might consider it a little on the salty side but having had plenty of ‘authentic Italian’ over the years it’s nothing out of the ordinary.  The wood baked garlic focaccia was splendid and I really enjoyed the Peperonata side dish (loved the peppers) and the veal pasta (the chilli and olives gave it a real kick).  While the pizza was also quite good, I have tasted better elsewhere.  I guess my friend was right when he said the mains and specials were the best — and this was backed up by what I saw on other tables.

In all, it was still a pleasant meal.  Among the better Italian restaurants I’ve experienced in Australia, though not one of the best.  For Canberra, it’ll have to do.

8 out of 10

Italian & Sons
7 Lonsdale Street, Braddon, ACT 2600
Phone: +61 2 6162 4888
Lunch: Tues – Fri
Dinner: Mon – Sat
Price range: expect around $35-50 per person, not including drinks 

Hunter Valley Dining: Firestick August 23, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Travel.
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The view from Firestick/ROCK

ROCK Restaurant (don’t blame me for the caps), headed by chef Andrew Clarke, is one of the better known places to dine in the Hunter Valley (with 2 Chefs Hats).  Unfortunately, ROCK is only open for dinner, but its “sister” restaurant, Firestick Cafe, takes its place during the day.

Having arrived at the Hunter Valley around lunch time, we were desperately in search of a place to eat, and Firestick was one of the few places that served lunch and had seats available.  And so we went.

Located at Poole’s Rock Winery Estate, Firestick/ROCK has an exterior that is sleeker and classier than most of the other restaurants in the region.  Inside, the seating area is long and rectangular, with a wide view of the winery and a rare lake (complete with sprinklers) on one side and the bar/kitchen on the other.  It made the place look more commercial than the laid back, family style of the other restaurants we would visit in the next day or two.

Firestick serves a combination of proper fine dining meals and lighter snacks, such as pizza.  The full menu can be found here.  After much deliberation, we went with something light in lieu of the massive dinner we intended to have — a Wagyu burger ($23) and a pork belly and red cabbage pizza ($25).

The food didn’t take too long to come, but the service was not very attentive, even though they were not particularly busy or understaffed.  It took several attempts to catch the attention of the two waiters, and we were constantly needing refills of our water.

The meal started with a free amuse-bouche, a small piece of bread with cream cheese and tomato.  It was not bad — quite refreshing and not as heavy as expected.

The amuse-bouche

Then the mains.  I must admit, they were not as good as I wanted them to be.  The burger, while nice (especially the Wagyu), was tiny and lacking in flavour, though the chips were excellent — hot and crunchy, just the way I like them.

Wagyu beef burger

The pizza, on the other hand, was pretty good — they were certainly not stingy on the toppings and the flavours of the pork belly, cabbage and pear relish complemented each other nicely.  My only complaint is that it looked and felt very oily.

Pork belly, braised red cabbage and pear relish pizza

For dessert, we went with some kind of apple/rhubarb crumble ($14).  Not bad, but not great either.

That is not ice cream. It's just cream!

So that’s that.  Our first meal in the Hunter Valley was pricey ($62 for lunch + drinks) but didn’t quite give us the satisfaction we craved.  Clearly I cannot comment on ROCK because it is a different restaurant (albeit same venue) with a different menu, but Firestick was ultimately a disappointment.

6 out of 10

Pizzas we had in Italy! (with pics) April 22, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Travel.
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Rummaging through some more photos from our recent European adventure I came across a common theme: Pizza!

So I thought I’d post some of the pictures we took of the pizzas (and calzones) we had throughout Italy.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get photos of all of them.  These were the only ones I remembered to snap before we devoured them!

First off, Pisa – it was our first day, fresh off the plane, and we stopped for a short visit to see the Leaning Tower.  After much wandering we settled on this touristy-looking restaurant and sat outside, with the Tower still within our sights from where we ate.  We shared a sausage pizza, which was average, a tad on the salty side.  We also had a ham and mushroom calzone.  Those who follow my Travel Diary will know that I had the best calzones ever in Barcelona, so when I saw calzone on the menu I just about flipped out.  Unfortunately this was a traditional calzone (unlike the ‘gondola’ style ones I had in Barcelona) and it was surprisingly bland (though still salty).  6/10 for the pizza and 5/10 for the calzone.  They weren’t bad, but this was Italy, and my expectations were high.  Check out the pics below.

A Pizza in Pisa

A Pizza in Pisa

Ham and Mushroom Calzone

Ham and Mushroom Calzone

Next stop, Florence – where we went into one of these little pizza shops on the side of the street, lured by the tasty smells emanating from their ovens.  This place sold squarish pizzas, and they sold it according to weight (I believe).  We had ourselves a square pizza (either sausage or meatball, can’t recall) and a calzone.  This place was about half the price of the Pisa restaurant but was much tastier.  8/10 for the square pizza and 7/10 for the calzone. Photo below.

Square Pizza and Calzone - cheap but tasty

Square Pizza and Calzone - cheap but tasty

Venice was next, and I’m sure we had more than just the one taken below but I must have forgotten to take photos before eating them – a sign that they were too enticing!  This one was prosciutto I think, and we got it in one of those typical pizza vendors in the narrow streets of Venice near St Mark’s Square.  Very delicious and very big, with a thin base.  Very cheap too, like 2 or 3 Euros a slice!  I’d have to give this one a 9/10!

Big slice pizzas in Venice

Big slice pizzas in Venice

Of course, we ventured into Rome, where we stayed for 4 nights and enjoyed pizza I think almost once a day (what else is there to eat in Italy?).  I know, fat city, but we had to try as many as we could get our hands on.  The two photos below were from this family Italian restaurant on the same street as our hotel, very close to Roma Termini station.  We had a plain Margherita (with garlic) and another, you guessed it, sausage pizza.  Both were nice, but very different.  The Margherita had a very crispy base, and it was simple yet flavoursome.  The sausage one had a thicker base and had cheese on top, but it was a little stingy on the sausage.  I’d give each 7.5/10.

Your plain Magherita in Rome

Your plain Margherita in Rome

Another sausage pizza

Another sausage pizza

Just before we left Rome, we had one last meal at Roma Termini station.  We went for this average, chain-store looking place called Spizzico and got 2 slices there.  Can’t remember the flavours but one was plain and the other had meat with buffalo mozzarela, but both were sensational.  Surprisingly, the best pizza we had on the entire trip!  Hot and juicy and the flavour was simply superb, really hitting the spot.  It was so good that we got another slice (the meat one), but for some reason it wasn’t quite as good as the first, as it was slightly salty.  I guess that just means they’re a bit inconsistent.  Nevertheless, I give their pizzas a 9.5/10 (because nothing’s perfect).  See below.

The best pizza was had in Italy

The best pizza we had in Italy

Spizzico at Roma Termini Station

Spizzico at Roma Termini Station

Lastly, here is a photo of another pizza was had, but it was taken in Freiburg, in the South-Western corner of Germany (in the Black Forest), so technically it doesn’t belong here.  We had this at a restaurant near the train stration that was supposed to serve both German and Italian food, but it was all Italian from what we could tell…Nevertheless, we had this one with 2 types of meat and mushrooms.  It was okay, a bit on the oily side (evidence below).  Clearly not up to the Italian standard.  I’d give it a 5/10.

Pizza in Germany too

Pizza in Germany too

We haven’t had pizza for a while…

A Few Quick Thoughts on Italy and Vatican City March 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Religion, Travel.
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Note: Travel Diary has been updated!  Pictures to be added

I’m having the time of my life on this awesome 3-week European journey, and I’ve tried to put in the effort to write as much as possible during this time, even if it’s just to keep the creative juices flowing and so I don’t ever forget this amazing adventure.

However, I’m falling a little behind with my Travel Diary entries.  I just completed my lengthy entry on Rome (still no pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll try and add some soon), though I have been in Switzerland the last couple of days and from tomorrow will be in Germany!  I’ve finished listening to Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing but I’m still yet to write a review (but more importantly,  jot down some helpful tips from King that I’ll want to employ in my own writing from this point forward).

In my last post I wrote about this wonderful little cake store near the Colosseum called Cristalli Di Zucchero.  Anyway, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts about Italy and Vatican City before I forget it all!

Must-see attractions

I visited 4 cities in Italy: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.  I’d say Venice is the prettiest, with its beautiful turqoise canals, clean, narrow streets and lack of modern architecture.  Rome, of course, is a must visit because of its history, the abundance of attractions, and Vatican City.  Florence is very nice, kind of charming and relaxed in its own way, and Pisa is just good for the Leaning Tower.

Of all the places I visited in Italy, my top 5 attractions (in descending order) are:

5. San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – a massive square and a world heritage site in Venice and home to Basilica Di San Marco.  Moreover, the journey through the canals to get there may be as amazing as the place itself.

4. Galleria dell’Accademia – in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, a truly magnificent masterpiece.  See it if you plan on seeing just one sculpture.

3. National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria  or Il Vittoriano for short) – in Rome, very close to the Coloseum.  Big, white and not ancient, but amazing to look at nonetheless.  Plus you can walk up all those stairs to the top where you can enjoy the best views of Rome!

2. Vatican City – corridor after corridor of art in the Vatican Museum (and the most famous ones in the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica are unforgettable regardless of your religion.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Museum if you want to avoid the long queues.

1. Palantine Hill – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum in Rome.  Head around the walls to the North-Western side and look down from above.

Pizza

Pizza is everywhere and we had it at least once a day (fat city).  It’s difficult to find BAD pizza in Italy, but some are clearly better than others.  Prices can also vary significantly, from a couple of Euros a slice in corner stores to twenty-plus in posh restaurants.  Chances are they won’t taste all that different.  The best ones we had were actually from the small shops where you buy a slice and eat it standing on the side.  The worst would be from chain store restaurants that look too neat and touristy.  However, the most amazing tasting ones we had were actually from a takeout joint called Spizzico, at Roma Termini station.

Most pizzas we came across were pretty authentic – meaning tomato base, cheese, and one or two simple toppings such as mushroom, prosciutto or sausage.  None of the crazy toppings you’d find at Pizza Hut or Dominos.  However, a common problem (for me at least) was that they were too salty, especially the tomato base.  It seems they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.  You can get two pizzas from the same place and one could be just right and the other too salty.

Gelato

We (well, my wife) are big gelato fans.  There are plenty in Italy, just about on every touristy street.  The majority taste pretty similar, to be honest, but prices vary.  €2 for a small cone would be a decent price, but some can charge as much as €3.50 for a single scoop.

The best and cheapest we had was at Old Bridge Gelato (address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5) just around the corner from the Vatican Museum.  The smallest cone is just €1.30 (and the next up is €1.50).  The gelato is top notch and you can get up to 3 flavours regardless of size of cone – plus you can get free cream on top!  Here is a review of the place.

The crepe place next door is very good too.

Coffee

I’m not the biggest coffee fan but my wife likes to look for good coffee places.  There are quite a few in Italy, but some can be quite expensive.  The best one we went to came highly recommended, and it’s very close to the Pantheon.  It’s called Caffé San’ Eustachio and it is quite small and seemingly always crowded.  You order at the counter then give your receipt to the coffee makers.  Most people stand and finish their cup, though a few take them to the limited seats outside.  I found this blog post about the place.

Safety

Before I came to Italy I was warned by family members that it was a dangerous place.  People get mugged all the time.  If you don’t keep an eye on your bags they could disappear any second.  Hoards of kids crowd you in and pick your pockets.  Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the above.  Not even close.  For the most part, I found Italy to be seemingly quite safe.  Of course, I took the necessary precautions, such as not going out too late, keeping my belongings zipped up when I go out, and keep to the main streets.  The street vendors were actually quite nice and polite, totally unlike the thugs we encountered in Paris that try to force you to buy their crap.

Vatican City

Visiting Vatican City was a dream come true.  I’m not a Catholic, but I had always been fascinated by its history, and more importantly, the amazing architecture and priceless art works.  In that regard, the visit was everything I had expected.

What I didn’t expect were the long lines (silly me) and the number of people who tried to push in and sneak to the front.  When everyone’s waiting patiently, seeing people who blatantly break the rules can be frustrating.  So be smart and purchase tickets in advance to avoid the hassle.

Another thing I found disappointing was the over-commercialization of the place.  Sure enough, the tickets were expensive, but I didn’t expect there to be so much merchandise everywhere I went!  And people (I assume mostly the religious ones) were lapping up the over-priced products like Pope pens and pendants like crazy!  Don’t they make enough money from the entry tickets already?  It almost felt like they were exploiting people’s faiths.

Most troubling were the school groups, where the guides would point to various paintings like The Last Judgment and try to scare kids into Catholicism by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t do this and that.  Surely there has to be a better way to teach religion to children?

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