#1 Dinner at Besh’s

If you have even just glanced through this blog, you know that I love great food. It’s not just that I love to eat, it’s that I love to appreciate food.  Perhaps you could say that I love to appreciate saporific beauty.

I heard of John Besh several years ago, but since I still haven’t made it to New Orleans, I just assumed I probably would never get to enjoy his food.  After marking eating at a Bobby Flay restaurant off my bucket list three years ago, I thought I had pretty much emptied that bucket (that’s in the running for the name of this project… #emptythebucket). But there’s something alluring about John Besh, and suddenly he showed up on this not-bucket-list-but-something-list.  Perhaps it’s because he’s not your typical “celebrity” chef.

Or perhaps it’s because he’s Catholic.

Yes, I admit it. I wanted to eat at a John Besh restaurant because he’s Catholic. Because he’s on the board of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Because he likes St. Josemaria Escriva.

Come on. If I can enjoy incredible food and also support a Catholic, I’m in.

So when he opened a new restaurant in Nashville, Marsh House, despite the fact that I had heard nothing about it, good or bad… I knew I needed to convince Manda to go there for our annual joint-birthday dinner.  Lucky for me, she wasn’t hard to convince.

The restaurant is attached to a hotel, which for some reason normally would kind of turn me off. But I was pretty set on liking this place, so I pushed that aside. The two hostesses were wearing adorable blue wrap dresses, and a nice man in a suit showed me to my table. He later stopped by to chat while I waited for Manda, just to make sure I didn’t need a drink while I waited.  I appreciated how down-to-earth the wait staff seemed, while also remaining completely professional.  (Like the wonderfully perfect gesture of folding your napkin for you if you left to use the restroom. Always a nice touch.)  We later found out that the nice man in a suit was the sommelier.

The menu is seafood-based, and the majority of it consists of small plates meant for sharing. There are also several meat and seafood entrees, and a raw bar menu that features a selection of oysters.

We both ordered cocktails – mine was whiskey-based and Manda’s had prosecco.  Both, while very different, were nicely suited for the cold weather.

img_7189

The one article I read about Marsh House was an interview with Besh where he spoke highly of the gumbo, stressing that he had worked with the chefs to make sure they got his recipe – or rather, his mother’s recipe – just right.  So Manda and I split the gumbo (which they dished up beautifully in separate bowls for us).  Manda also ordered oysters, and loved them. I passed.

img_7190

For dinner, I was excited to see swordfish on the menu, so I couldn’t pass that up.  Swordfish isn’t a fish I generally see at the places I frequent. I distinctly remember the first time I had swordfish – it was in 2001 at a restaurant in Rome in a neighborhood near the Aventine Hill. I was told that it had a more meat-like texture than most fish, and I ordered it on a whim… and loved it. Since then, I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had it, and I was anxious to try it again.

This didn’t disappoint. There was a nice light breading on it – more of a slight crust than anything – and it was served with winter greens and a tomato jam. Manda ordered the stuffed flounder, and it looked pretty incredible- almost a work of art, and probably more worthy of a picture than my dish. Oh well.

img_7192

We both saved room for dessert, of course… and when we couldn’t decide between the opera cake – a buttermilk chocolate cake with ganache and espresso – and the pumpkin cheesecake with cranberries and brittle… we ordered both.

img_7194

Good night. They were both incredible, but the pumpkin cheesecake was simply out of this world. I was afraid it would be a bit cliche- a concession to every PSL lover and a throwaway tribute to fall. I was wrong. Manda hit the nail on the head when she said it was more of a mousse than a cheesecake.  It was exactly what you wanted out of a pumpkin dessert – enough spice to bring home the pumpkin (since pumpkin doesn’t actually have much a flavor by itself) but a lightness that left you completely content and not overwhelmed.  The brittle and toasted marshmallow on the top were the companions you would expect – but surpassed expectations – and then the cranberry drizzled around the plate was a completely unexpected guest but rounded out the dessert without being a strange forced reference to Thanksgiving dinner.

IMG_7197 (1).jpg

The atmosphere of the restaurant gave me the same feeling I had at Bar Americain – it was more relaxed than I expected, and there were people in jeans — but it was just the right mix of classy and casual – definitely an elevated feel that was comfortable without being ostentatious.  Our waitress mentioned that the decor was supposed to evoke a train station (which it did, without being over the top) because of back in the day, that’s what used to be in the neighborhood.  Any indication that a place recognizes the history of Nashville gets props from me, especially in a neighborhood like the Gulch that is congested with brand new restaurants, condos, and bars that are trendy today and will probably be closed tomorrow. So many of the places – and people – that have come to Nashville seem ignorant of the true charm of the city, which is quickly disappearing as it grows faster than is probably healthy.

How many of these new places are worth the hype?  Probably very few. But, while I admit I went in tonight pretty biased … I’d like to see John Besh’s place stay. The menu was elevated without elevating anything just for the heck of it.  Most of the ingredients were recognizable, and while brussels sprouts and beets made an appearance, the menu was largely devoid of the trendy ingredients that people probably only eat because the person next to them told them they should.

First item of the list complete.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Chef Besh had come out and talked with us about Josemaria Escriva. Maybe next time.

Advertisements

Biscuits and Bikes

Saturday was a gorgeous day – one of those Nashville February days that make you forget there has to be a March before April.  It was 65 degrees and sunny, and luckily I filled the day with fun to take full advantage of the beauty.

Manda and I had decided to celebrate Saturdays being work-free (a relatively new concept for me, and a brand-new one for her) by hitting up a new brunch place for breakfast. Biscuit Love began as a food truck and now has a brick and motor location.   We got there in the nick of time – not ten minutes after we ordered, the line was out the door.

IMG_0750I couldn’t resist the basic biscuits and gravy, which is not the most photographic food.  It was great, and my only complaint was that the gravy cooled off too quickly, which is always a danger with biscuits and gravy.  IMG_0749Manda had the Lily- biscuit french toast with lemon mascarpone and blueberry compote.  I’m definitely getting that next time.  And there will be a next time. To seal the deal, they had good coffee and absolutely delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice.

After hitting up the sales at the Ann Taylor Loft next door, I dropped Manda off back at her house… but quickly called her while I was still in her driveway.  It was a beautiful day… why not go bike riding?

Nashville has a bike rental program that features stations of bikes throughout the city – rent a bike, ride it around, and return it at the same station or a station across the city.  There is a station right on a greenway, so it’s the perfect opportunity to rent a cute red bike and jump on the greenway. We rode to the grocery store, visited a friend at work, and ended up riding to another park a few miles away.

I’ve missed riding, so it definitely inspired me to get my bike down here and ride more often.  It was the perfect Saturday adventure!  And maybe I began to burn off that gravy. At least began.

Here’s to 65 degree days in February.

comfort food to comfort

Today was a rather blah day. The kind of day you’d rather me not blog about.  If I was poetic, I would come here and blog about my problems in such a beautiful way you’d be moved to tears and find answers to unasked questions in your own lives through my metaphors.  But I’m not a poet.

Instead, I came home and decided I wasn’t going to dwell on my problems.  I was going to do what JoaninOrdinaryTime does best.

I was going to go out to dinner.

Okay, so I had already decided to go out to dinner, but if I hadn’t, I would have.  Or should have.

Good thing it’s everyone’s favorite week of the year… restaurant week!

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t as excited at the offerings as I have been in the past, but Manda and I knew one restaurant had never disappointed. Flyte.  Even their menu didn’t look very exotic this time around, but we knew that they delivered quality no matter what.

So I put on some makeup, threw on a cute pair of crazy pants, and went out for a single gal’s night on the town.

Course 1: Caesar. grilled anchovies / local romaine / black garlic

IMG_0632

Verdict: It was better than this picture.  I was initially going to pick the turnip soup option, because Caesar salad seemed a little boring to me. But our waiter (who was great) sold me on it — and not in a used-car-salesman type of way.  I decided the black garlic (that’s what you see smeared on the side) and the white anchovies were daring enough to merit trying the “boring old Caesar salad” option.  And I was glad I did – it was delicious.  It was just elevated enough — not too crazy so as to cease being Caesar salad or look like they were trying to hard, but raised to the next level so that I didn’t feel boring eating Caesar salad during restaurant week.  The white anchovies definitely tasted like anchovies, but not in an oily, I-feel-like-I’m-licking-the-bottom-of-a-boat type of way.  They had been in vinegar rather than oil, and their distinct anchovy taste was far more gentle than what you’d expect.

Course 2:  Bear Creek Bourguignon. cippolini / root vegetables

IMG_0633

Verdict: Again, not too adventurous, but again, delicious.  The meat was so very tender and the root vegetables were soft inside with a seasoned almost-crust on the outside.  Everything was on top of a whipped potato puree that I wish I would have had more of.  This was comfort food at its best.

Course 3: “Creamcicle” Parfait. blood orange / vanilla cream/ orange lace

IMG_0639

Verdict: It tasted like a orange pushup from the Schwan’s man, topped with a little whipped cream.  Only a million times better.  It’s only now that I’m blogging about this meal that I realize the unwritten theme of it all was “traditional favorites, elevated.”  The blood orange dots on top were incredible.  I probably would have licked my plate if I could have.  The orange lace was a little disappointing… sure, it’s elegant and fun, but I didn’t taste any orange. Just some caramelized sugar.  But it didn’t matter. This thing was good.

IMG_0638

We didn’t get a little “taste” at the beginning of our meal, but instead these little treats came with the bill.  (always helps with sticker shock).  Passion fruit tarts and Italian wedding cookies.  Let’s just say you can tell Flyte has a pastry chef.  Good night.

Of course, all of this was accompanied by a flight of three red wines from Europe.  Go big or go home, right?

So while I don’t have any grand life lessons at the end of this day, I do have a full stomach and a grateful heart. Thanks to Flyte, for turning this day around with your attention to detail, wonderful service, and delicious food.  And thanks to Manda, who is always willing to wine and dine with me.

IMG_0630

The (passing?) trend of celebrity chefs

For those of you who live in Nashville, there’s an enjoyable article on the front page of the Tennessean today about celebrity chefs.  Those of you who have been reading this  blog know that I love my food, and I’m usually drawn in by the usual foodie lures: “farm-to-table,” “sustainable ingredients,” and celebrities.  Well, at least if that celebrity is named Alton Brown or Bobby Flay.

So after reading the article, I felt I had to comment here.

Yes, on one hand it thrills me that Bobby Flay has been spotted around town.  At the same time, would I really want a Bobby Flay restaurant in Nashville?  We have a lot of good restaurants already, and I can’t help but wonder when we’re past our saturation point.  At least two of our “older” restaurants have closed in the last year, and I can only imagine several of the ones that have just opened will follow suit in the next year or two.  A city can’t really sustain 20+ new restaurants opening every year, can it?  I hate to see our classics suffering from the new flashy (and ultimately unproven) places.

Would a Bobby Flay restaurant in Nashville put us on the map? I think we’re already there, and I’d rather be Nashville than the next “it” city. Although it’s probably too late for that.  Go home, people. You don’t want to live here.  It’s terrible here.

And let’s be honest.  Like he mentions in the article, how many of these celebrity chefs are willing to really make their home in Nashville?  I don’t want to go to a restaurant that just serves food like Bobby Flay makes.  I have his cookbook at home, thanks.  I want to go to a restaurant where the chefs have learned under him.  Don’t just put your name on something and walk away.

My favorite parts of the article, that help you see just what makes Nashville Nashville:

On “celebrity”:

“Country music has long made Nashville a destination. It’s an industry built on performers’ and songwriters’ ability to connect with common folk. Our stars will sit behind a folding table and sign autographs until the last fan is gone.

What that means is celebrity is special to us in its ordinariness. We don’t treat stars as something apart from ourselves, and we respect them with privacy, grace and distance. Paparazzi are anathema to Nashville.

I say this because I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt. Celebrity doesn’t move us like it might in other cities, and your television-earned status might not carry the same cachet.”

On our restaurant scene:

“We have already elevated Southern food to the point of altitude sickness. We have shown we can take rustic Italian and inject new hybrid identity, and farm-to-fork is no longer a novelty but an expectation.”

Don’t come in here and try to show-off:

“This community will help you source ingredients, share line cooks and drink whiskey with you into the wee hours, but it won’t abide one-upmanship. Hospitality is not an industry here, it’s a way of life.”

Whole article here.

Of course, let’s be honest. If Bobby Flay does open a restaurant here, I’ll be blogging about it before too long.  But if he’s just in Nashville hanging out, that’s great too… it’s a fun place to hang out.

 

here’s to the fun stuff

When it comes to personal blogs, it seems that there are two types of blog posts.

A) The ones when people’s lives look incredible

B) The ones when you feel sorry for them.

Example A:  The SAHM posts a recipe for the incredible dinner she made last night that just happened to be gluten-free, nut-free, and organic, alongside pictures of her adorable children wearing clothes she made by hand while homeschooling them, with a Downton Abbey reference thrown in and a final picture of the flowers her gorgeous husband bought her “just because.”

Example B: The SAHM writes about the fact that she hasn’t slept in five weeks and has gained eight pounds just by looking at a Snickers bar and has to take a break from this blog post because her youngest child just pooped on the floor and where did Johnny go? but hopes to finish the eightieth load of laundry before lunch because she knows the child she just finished potty-training will probably wet the bed during her nap and why is the fire alarm going off? but maybe tomorrow she will get to take a shower if …

As a single gal, I fully recognize that I too can write either of those posts.  I can either tell you about my fun social life or I can bemoan my singleness, the state of the world today, or the various chores, errands, and to-do list tasks that haven’t gotten finished because I work all day and come home to other things that need priority- and therefore am probably just eating cheese for dinner because that’s what in my refrigerator.

Let’s go with the first, shall we?

The Derby party that almost wasn’t

The Saturday of the Derby, I went to a lovely baby shower for my friend Lori and then headed back to town for the first Musician’s Corner of the summer.  Musicians’ Corner is a fun free concert series in the shadow of the Parthenon.  A group of us met up there in the afternoon and enjoyed the beautiful (very warm) spring day.  It was a really fun, low-key afternoon with people coming and going, eating at food trucks, sweating, and listening to good music.   Holly Williams was one of the artists — she turned my head when she announced, “My granddaddy wrote this song…” and then launched into a Hank Williams song.  One of my friends wryly commented, “I think she’s going to make it in the business.”

IMG_7938

Jars of Clay

We were planning on heading back to my friend Manda’s house to watch the Derby — we had the makings for mint juleps, Kentucky browns, and two Derby pies waiting for us. The last band to play was Jars of Clay, and we were enjoying their concert and I was losing track of time when I saw Manda packing up at the corner of my eye.  I glanced at my watch.  5:20.  Holy cow, we were going to miss the Derby.

We went into action, throwing all our stuff into bags and scattering our different ways towards our cars.  My friend Matt called back, “Do you need anything!?” as he headed to his car.  “Ice!” Manda called back, and we ran for mine.

I laughed the whole way to her house.  We were throwing a Derby party and we were going to miss the Derby.  Who does that!?

We ran into her house, I turned on the TV, we all put our hats on, KY Browns went into the oven, Matt arrived with the ice, and the Derby began.  A few people did end up missing it, but they arrived in time for mint juleps, so it was all okay.

IMG_7927

We just threw this together.

 

Birds and Brandy

That next Monday, Manda and I headed south of Nashville to hit up Hobby Lobby for our Steeplechase crafting.  She needed a ribbon for her big hat and I needed some props to build my fascinator.

I love Hobby Lobby.  It’s a good thing there isn’t one near my house.

IMG_7951

I was persuaded not to get this for my head.  Maybe next year.
(I hope you all are thinking what I’m thinking right now)

After shopping, we treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner at Gray’s on Main, the former-pharmacy turned brandy bar in downtown Franklin.  Their menu is delightfully southern, while their cocktail menu honors the drink culture of the late 19th century, when the building was constructed.

IMG_7962

fried green tomatoes with roasted creamy corn and goat cheese,
fried pimento cheese with moonshine pepper jelly, shrimp and grits on collards, and bacon-wrapped figs with goat cheese and a balsamic reduction

The cocktail menu features brandy, the drink of the late 19th century, and so we let our waiter choose the drink he thought we would like.  After hearing what we usually drank, he advised us to try the White Mule, a play on the Moscow Mule. I loved it.  I would drive to Franklin for it.  It featured Delord Blanche Armagnac, a cognac that is sold nowhere else in the United States.  Looks like I am going to have to drive to Franklin for it.

IMG_7964

complete with a copper mug.

 

It’s all in the family

I hope I don’t sound like an alcoholic, but one of the other highlights of last week was a random Thursday afternoon bourbon tasting at one of the wine stores near my house. My friend Liza had seen on Twitter that Belle Meade Bourbon was doing a free tasting and featuring mint juleps. I convinced Manda to meet me there.  We were going to pick up some things for Steeplechase, taste the Belle Meade Bourbon, and go on our merry way.  I didn’t expect that the person giving the tastes would actually be one of the owners of the distillery, nor did I expect his story to be so fascinating.  You can read more here, but basically two brothers discovered that their great-great-great grandfather had owned one of the three most notable distilleries in Tennessee (the other two being George Dickel and Jack Daniels, and he was far out-selling Jack Daniels).  The distillery closed during Prohibition and had become family lore. The brothers decided to reopen the distillery a few years ago, a hundred years after it had closed.

I loved hearing his story and was fascinated by the history and the details of distilling.  Kind of a random Thursday afternoon, but I’ll take it.

IMG_7993

 

Am I in Italy?

My friend Mario turned the big 3-0 on Friday, so we all went out to DeSano’s, a local pizza place, to celebrate.  Father had told me that it was the closest I would come to Italian pizza, but I’m a bit of a snob and a skeptic, so I had to taste it to believe it.

IMG_7997

It was pretty darn delicious.  The atmosphere was amazing — big communal tables, lots of noise and laughter, and a full view of the pizza-making process, complete with dough-tossing and audience participation.  Father announced that it was Catholic, and it was true.

Mario even got to catch some dough… while wearing a birthday cake hat made of balloons.  (the perks of having a balloon artist as a friend.)IMG_0013

 

The Social Event of the Spring

Last but certainly not least… the social event of the spring… Steeplechase.  You can read all about the event in last year’s post, when I became enamored with how easy, fun, and classy the event was – for only $15.  Of course, you also have to factor in the expense of your picnic and your fascinator.  But who needs to buy a $80 fascinator from Macy’s when you can make your own!?

My friend Megan got a series of awesome texts like this a few nights before….

IMG_7976

but with her help and Manda’s shopping guidance, I managed to pull of a fascinator that didn’t not cost $80, did not feature a bird, and still made a statement.

The finished product:

IMG_8011

It even held up in the wind.  Well, most of it.  I had a bit of a casualty with the big feather in the back, but that just means it’ll be easier to change up and update for next year’s race!

Oh, Steeplechase, how I love you.  I love your bow ties and your seersucker and your picnics and your horses.  I love the thrill of the race and the laziness of the afternoon.

The rain even held off, which seems to be a theme when it comes to the second Saturday in May.

IMG_8031

I have the most beautiful friends.

Cheers!

Pinewood Social: A Review

I have a few posts in the docket, but wanted to write about my night tonight while it was still fresh in my mind, and to give credit where credit is due.

My city is booming.  I kind of take it for granted, until I realize that it’s not usual for a city our size to have four new restaurants open in the last two weeks.  Everywhere you look, something is being built or a new business is opening.

Several months ago, a new place called Pinewood Social opened.  My friend Manda and I have been wanting to check it out, especially since the brothers behind the local speakeasy, The Patterson House (home to the best artisan cocktails in town) and one of the co-founding chefs of The Catbird Seat (rated by Esquire as one of America’s best new restaurants) were behind this venture as well.  What is it?  A bowling alley, coffeeshop, bar… I’ll let them describe it:

Pinewood Social is based on the idea of creating a social gathering place that provides customers a variety of high-quality options to enhance their experience. Taken from the ideology from Ray Oldenburg’s book, “The Great Good Place,” Pinewood Social will be a welcoming new hangout, providing an alternative spot to the local coffee shop or neighborhood restaurant where people generally congregate. The relaxed atmosphere will provide a haven for a cup of coffee and a place to work early in the day, which could then lead to a refreshing poolside lunch, which may then turn into a lively gathering of friends for cocktails and dinner after work.”

With that in mind, we decided to get a big group together to check it out.  An email went out to a bunch of our friends, and we thought we could get a group to hang out, bowl, order drinks, grab dinner, etc.  You know – be social.

I had trouble getting a hold of them to reserve a bowling alley (since it’s so new, I knew I should reserve a lane, even if only a few of us were going to bowl), but I finally reached them and reserved a lane for six.  The woman on the phone was very nice and we even had a little conversation about how busy they might or might not be on a weeknight.  I got a confirmation email and I thought we were all set.

…Until Manda and I arrived at ten ’til 6 and told the hostess we were there to bowl.  We got a confused look, then she asked my name (twice).  She was very kind, but explained that the bowling alley had been booked out to a private party.  She found my name under the dinner reservations.

Thanks to smartphones, I quickly pulled up the email confirmation, which very clearly said “bowling reservation.”

Kudos to her — she looked a little stressed, but had one of the waitresses show us to a big booth that could comfortably seat our party of six or eight or however many were going to show up (I was inwardly wishing I had been more particular about people telling me if they were coming or not) and she told us the manager would be by to talk to us.

Pinewood Social is in an old warehouse, so the layout is very open — the coffeeshop with its couches and long tables flows very naturally into the restaurant, which is a number of booths and tables that wrap around the outsides of the open space. In the center is a very large bar, with several tables close by. The bowling alley is at the far end of the room, closed off enough so that the sound doesn’t carry into the rest of the room but still open enough to feel like it’s one space.  I was impressed by the look and feel.

But I was not very happy about the bowling mix up.

We hadn’t been seated long before the general manager, Matt Buttel, appeared at our table.  He could not have been more apologetic.  I had to resist the urge to say, “Oh, it’s okay…” (because I tend to want to avoid conflict) because really, it wasn’t okay — and props to him, he wasn’t acting like it was.  He told us that normally he would try to fit us into a lane, but since it was a private party that had booked every lane, there was nothing he could do — except make sure we had a great night.  He told us he wanted to comp appetizers for our party, and then he whipped out a gift card, loaded enough for a free hour of bowling for our group to come back.  He apologized again (and again), and assured us that we were in good hands with our waitress, Molly, and she was going to make sure we had a good night.  Then he gave me his card and told us to tell him if we needed anything and when we were coming back in to bowl.

My mood went from disappointed and skeptical of the place to very pleased.  We texted the other members of our party to warn them we wouldn’t be bowling, but everyone still wanted to come.  By the time our friends started arriving, I was beginning to believe in the place.  Matt had done exactly what he should have done — convinced us that Pinewood Social was worth forgiving, especially as they make their way through the growing pains.

And then our waitress showed up with free champagne.  Yes, Matt, you were making us believers.

The appetizers were good — we got fried cheese curds, oysters, chicken wings, and fried broccoli (which was my favorite — it was pan fried, not at all what it sounds like, and was light and almost crispy).  I wouldn’t say I was enamored with them, and I might not go back with a craving for any of them, but hey, they were free.

IMG_6970

Our friends kept arriving… and arriving.  But to her credit, our waitress was fantastic.  She never seemed overwhelmed that our party grew for the next hour, until there were 12 of us crowded in a little booth. The booth was much more spacious than we originally thought, and with three chairs at the  end of the table (the booth was a U shape), we fit 12 almost comfortably.  Due to the shape of the table, we were also all close enough that we could generally converse easily, which isn’t something that happens in a group of 12 very often.

The cocktails were fantastic, which is what we were expecting from the artist of the Patterson House.  I got “The Honesty of Constant Human Error,” which was a gin-based drink with yellow chartreuse, Lunazul Blanco tequila, strawberry and lemon.  Manda and Laura both got a drink called “Act of Contrition” (which tasted good but I have no idea what was in it), and  Marisa got a Pimm’s based drink, which reportedly tasted like Christmas — a neat twist, since Pimm’s always says ‘summer’ to me.  The guys got beers, and they seemed to have a fair selection for a place not known for their beer.

IMG_6968Their dinner menu was interesting — a few traditional “bar” options, like a cheeseburger, but some twists on comfort food, too, like a mushroom pot pie.  Manda chose the pork chop, and the bite I had was incredible.  I opted for the cheeseburger, which was very good and juicy (two smaller patties with cheese on top and in between).  It was better than your average cheeseburger, and I would probably order it again.  Some would balk at the price tag, and since there wasn’t anything extraordinary to knock it to the next level, especially topping-wise, maybe it was a little over-priced.  But it was good. For a side I chose their cauliflower salad, which was a twist on the old Church potluck broccoli salad — a light dressing with some nuts and white raisins.  It was very good.

A few of us opted for dessert – Manda got the cherry-bourbon pie and Marisa and I both chose the lemon-lavender pie.  The cherry pie was strange —  it was cold and very heavy on the bourbon.  I think my pie was better, although it was definitely on the tart side.  I’m glad we got desserts (since we weren’t paying for appetizers!) but I don’t think I’d get them again.

All in all, we had a wonderful evening, but I have to chalk it up to the company (we had a really fun group and conversation ranged from the Loch Ness monster to 90s music to Martin Sheen) and the service of Pinewood Social more than Pinewood Social itself.

Food: It was good, but I think it could be a little more elevated for what we were paying.

Cocktails: Fantastic.  Worth every penny.

Atmosphere: An interesting blend of elevated without being snobbish and laid-back without being sloppy.  Now that I’ve been there, I know that you can’t just tell all your closest friends to meet you there and play things by ear.  From the way they advertise themselves, you would think that would be perfectly natural — go and hang out, bowl a little, drink some coffee, wander.  But it’s actually pretty formal and restrictive — you don’t waltz up to the bar and order a drink, you don’t wander around the bowling lanes if you’re not bowling, you don’t just “hang out.”  That’s not a bad thing- once you know it. Now I know it.  But the name and the aura they’re advertising makes it seem a lot more laid-back than it actually is.

Bowling: I wouldn’t know, would I?  It looked like fun, and the lanes are from Indiana, so how could you really go wrong?  And who wouldn’t want to bowl while having a waitress bring you nice food and cocktails?

Service: Superb.  Our waitress was never pushy and I felt like we were free to take our time.  She was knowledgeable without being pretentious and helpful and cheerful without being phony and annoying.  She rolled with our punches (“there are seven or eight of us. Just kidding, there are three more coming.  Did I say three?  I mean four. Yeah, there are 12 of us.”) and made sure we had a great time.

Final verdict: I’m going back, and I would be going back even if I didn’t have a $40 gift card sitting on table.  I was really looking forward to the Pinewood Social experience, and while I was disappointed in some things, I was intrigued enough to return.  Even if it’s only for a game of bowling and an espresso.

Peter, Paul, and Paola

Hands down, the best time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica is when it opens at 7am.  Especially these days, when the tourist crowds are overwhelming (I’ve never seen the likes of the crowds I saw this trip, except maybe during Holy Week and Easter), the earlier you go to the Basilica the better chance you have to actually pray.

Armed with a good night’s sleep, we headed out to St. Peter’s bright and early Thursday morning, hoping Father was able to secure an altar for us.  As we approached the sacristy, we saw him waiting for us, fully vested in Sts. Cosmas and Damian red, with a server waiting by his side.

The server led us to the first free altar, the altar of St. Wenceslaus (whose feast we’d celebrate a few days later).

IMG_5453Once again, it was moving to experience this through the eyes of the pilgrims.  Morning Mass at St. Peter’s is not exactly a new experience for me.  But experiencing it with the pilgrims reminded me how incredible it is — to be at a small, intimate Mass in such a grand, beautiful, immense place — to hear the dozens of other Masses taking place simultaneously — to hear the different languages, witnessing the universality of the Church … Yes, 7am Mass at St. Peter’s is a morning Mass like no other.

I knew that since there was so much to point out in the Basilica, just giving the highlights while outside wouldn’t suffice.  Yet I wanted them to have the chance to really take in the Basilica before getting a nitty-gritty tour.  So after Mass I gave them all an hour and a half of free time to pray and wander around, taking advantage of the calm before the tourist storm.  After that, we left the Basilica and headed to get coffee, then got back in the now very long line to return to the Basilica.

The line was long (and it was only 10am!) but while we waited I gave a overview of the history of the basilica, pointed out things in the piazza, etc, and it timed perfectly — when I was finished with the “exterior of St Peter’s” tour note cards, we were heading into security and ready to go inside.

Tour groups are required to use whisper mics now, which is actually really nice– tour guides just whisper into their own little microphone and their groups can wander around more freely.  It was fun to use them — it made me feel important, and it was nice to be able to talk without worrying if everyone could hear me.

 It definitely means less noise, and even traffic jams are somewhat lessened, since tour groups don’t need to stick together as closely.  There are simply so many tourists these days, though, the basilica is still very, very crowded and hard to maneuver.

IMG_0507

photo courtesy of Cathy

We worked our way around clockwise, starting at the baptismal font and ending at the Pieta.  There is so much to point out in the basilica — from the tombs of Popes Pius X, John XXXIII, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, John Paul II, not to mention Sts. Simon and Jude, to the works of Bernini, to the history (“that’s where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor…”) to the the fun statistics (“you could comfortably fit the space shuttle, with all its external rockets and fuel tank, in the space under the dome…).  There are also plenty of fun stories, like the one about the tomb of Pope Gregory XIV.   Supposedly the Pope ingested gold dust and ground gems to cure his stomach maladies.  As a result, there was nothing left in the papal coffers to build him a proper tomb…

In order to compare, you can see the tomb of Gregory XIII opposite it, in all its glory (namesake of the Gregorian calendar, the commencement of which is depicted on his tomb).

IMG_0511

tomb of Gregory XIII
photo courtesy of Cathy

IMG_0513

Tomb of Gregory XIV
photo courtesy of Cathy

I don’t know if it’s true, but it sure makes a good story.

The tomb of John Paul II is still roped off so only people who want to pray can linger.

IMG_5472

After battling the crowds, we deserved every bit of our lunch.

IMG_5493

Gnocchi!

After a morning at St. Peters, it only seemed fitting to spend the afternoon with St. Paul.  I gave them the highlights while we stood in the beautiful courtyard out front, then we headed in to look around, pray Vespers, etc.  They were having a large multi-lingual Mass imminently, so we spent about forty five minutes in the basilica and then left to hit up the gift shop as Mass was starting.

IMG_5492

We took the bus back (I avoid the B Metro line) and, as usual, they were great sports while we sought out the best bust stop and waited for the bus to come.  Twice in the trip we took the wrong bus (or at least the bus didn’t go where I thought it was going to go…) but everyone was pretty easygoing about it.

DSCN1417

photo courtesy of Cindy

For dinner, a group of us went to a place called Trattoria der Pallaro.  It’s near Campo di Fiori, so we had nice night walks to bookend our meal.  The secret of der Pallaro is to go for the experience.  It is a tiny kingdom run by a queen named Paola.  What she says, goes.  Don’t come looking for menus — your five course meal is going to be whatever Paola made that night.

IMG_5476

Paola loves nuns and priests, so we had it made.  She was constantly hugging and blowing kisses at the Sisters, and she gave Father an enormous bowl of pasta.  We laughed all night — whether it was Paola’s cat that sat at the table next to us (that’s pretty Roman, so that didn’t faze me much) or Paola ordering a Dutch priest to come speak with us (it actually turned out really neat, because he knew a priest the Sisters knew — but it was so random… Paola just told him he had to go talk to us), we definitely just rolled with the punches.

Five courses, all pretty typical Roman.  A mix of antipasti including lentils and yummy fried rice balls, two types of pasta, a secondo course that included two types of pork and fresh mozzarella, and a nice cake and fruit juice to finish it all off.

IMG_5479

I love pasta so much.

IMG_5483

oh, fresh mozzarella, I love you too.

IMG_5486

Our dining companion didn’t really surprise me, but I suppose through American eyes, it is rather alarming to have a cat eating its dinner at the table next to you.

IMG_5490

Paola likes priests:IMG_5481

Paola misses Pope Benedict, just like I do.  In fact, she started crying as she talked and talked and talked about him (all in Italian, so I don’t really know what she said).  It was really nice to talk to an Italian who loved him, because you only hear about people who didn’t.  Although maybe this slightly-crazy woman shouldn’t be my consolation. Hm.

IMG_1117

Photo courtesy of Rick & Julie

It was good we had a nice walk back home, because we were pretty stuffed.  If I’m staying remotely close to St. Peter’s, I try to visit it every night.  My favorite approach is across the Bridge of the Angels and up Via Conciliazione. So that’s exactly what we did. Rick captured this shot — just incredible.

St_Peter_at_night

Photo courtesy of Rick & Julie

All in all, a good day.