Five Years And Counting

My little blog is five years old now! I'm still loving writing it, and people tell me they enjoy reading it, so I'm signing up for another five year hitch.

The BEST part about what is ultimately a solitary activity, is the great people I've met along the way - new friends like Jodi K from EatJax, the ViCARIous Cari S, Caron S at Bite Club, Kris C at Blog Your Wine, George S from the Jacksonville Fine Dining Examiner, and many more fellow travelers - friends and family with whom I've shared food experiences, and scores of restaurant / food / culture creators and commentators I've come to know and respect greatly.
Photo courtesy of Cari Sanchez P

The highlight of the year - of the five years, really, was introducing my nephew and niece to his food-idol Guy Fieri, thanks to the kindhearted Chef Howard at 13 Gypsies.

Thanks to all of you who've graced my life with your friendship, readership, and kind words of support for my humble efforts.

I hope you have been inspired to go out and spend some time (and money) exploring the culinary treasures where you are. And thanks to everyone who dined with me over the last few years and gracefully offered up their plates to be photographed before devouring the contents! 

And thanks also for the subtle kick in the pants from those who've suggested I might want to "do something" with this blog someday. Clearly, these individuals are not artists. While I appreciate making money as much as the next guy, that's never what this was about. I'm in it for the experience.

You don't see ads here, and I'm not asking you to buy my book (which I so would if I had written one).... I'm just a participant / observer sharing my experiences here. I'm content to evolve at my current rate of speed, and my blog will continue to reflect that evolution. I hope you'll excuse the grainy cell-phone snapped pics and my less than AP Style ramblings, and hey, feel free to leave comments here - I love to hear from everyone!

If you just can't get enough of me (there's plenty to go around, believe me), come play with me on Urbanspoon, or follow me on Twitter.

Aloha - I'm off on another culinary adventure!


Libretto's Pizzeria - Authentic NYC Style Italian Fare in St Johns Town Center

Mike Libretto’s passion for food comes from growing up in New York preparing traditional Italian dishes with his family.

“Mom would start the sauce at daybreak,” Mike explains. “Before you knew it, the entire family was in the kitchen – my brother and I cutting and chopping ingredients, while my father rolled out homemade meatballs.”

With memories of food and family as his inspiration, Mike opened Libretto’s Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan ten years ago, where it continues to thrive as a neighborhood favorite for pizza and classic Italian fare. His next two locations were a little further south - like, say, CHARLOTTE NC - my "kind of" adopted hometown!

It was the Charlotte connection that made my heart beat a little faster when I was invited to their pre-opening party at their FIRST Jacksonville location at St Johns Town Center.

They are next door to the new nightclub "Suite" on what I call Maternity Row - because there are like three maternity shops right there. I guess that's a good combo - shop for maternity clothes then head over to Libretto's for some Baked Ziti!

My mouth is watering just thinking about that Ziti - and the Penne alla Vodka - and the Chicken Parm - and of course - the star of the show (in my book) - the PIZZAS. Thin, crisp crust, great sauces and topping varieties, not too greasy.

They are doing pizza right over there. Granted, they are cooking with stone-lined gas ovens, not wood, but as Mike pointed out, once those ovens get a little seasoned they will be imparting even more flavor to the already great crust.

I'm not Italian, and I didn't grow up in or around NYC, so I'm not one to judge whether this is the best, most authentic Italian food in these parts, but my friends who ARE, like Jodi over at Eat Jax, do seem to agree that this place makes them very, very happy!

Libretto’s hours are 11 a.m. until midnight Sunday through Wednesday. On Thursday nights they are open until 2 am, and on Friday and Saturdays they will serve up pizza to the ravenous hordes pouring out of the surrounding night clubs until 3 am. 

Mike's Mama would be proud of the crew in Jacksonville. They are dishing up third generation family-style Italian classics like Penne alla Vodka, Spaghetti Bolognese, Chicken Parmigiana, Meatballs (out of this WORLD good, as my mom would say) and Dan-the-Man's favorite Sausage and Peppers, Pizzas, Calzones, Calamari, and some bangin' desserts - including "Homemade" Tira Misu and the best Cannoli I've tasted in recent memory. Check them out for lunch or dinner while you're finishing your holiday shopping!

Libretto's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Libretto's Pizzeria
Authentic NYC Pizza and Italian Kitchen
(904) 402-8888
St Johns Town Center  
4880 Big Island Drive, Suite 1 
Jacksonville, FL 32246


Old Friends in the Ancient City

"One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating."  ~ Luciano Pavarotti

I am blessed with friends and family who indulge me in my food chronicling behaviors. Some of them live nearby, some I only get to visit with for precious few hours or days as we swing by one-another's home turf on life's journey.

In this instance it was my friends Alison and Dan from St. Louis, who, on a recent vaca to Florida, parked their deluxe camp-o-rama vehicle at the KOA in St Auggie long enough for us to get caught up on friend time over late breakfast at the Sea Oats Caffe - a sweet little spot in the Anastasia Publix shopping plaza on A1A.

We chose this spot precisely because they claim to have the fluffiest, tastiest buttermilk pancakes on the Island" - but by the time we arrived (10:30 AM) they were already 86ed from the menu for the day!

Although disappointed, Dan, who doesn't eat eggs, settled instead on the Strawberry French Toast (shhh - don't tell him they are drenched in eggs before frying). He seemed satisfied with the outcome, but then I've never heard Dan complain about anything. It certainly looked lovely, with a healthy sprinkling of fresh strawberries.

Alison avoids wheat altogether, so her breakfast choice was a lovely omelette with home fries - which they were also out of, but the nice man behind the counter offered to make her some to order anyway. Score one for excellent customer service.

She asked for some fresh fruit to substitute for toast and the waitress told her they didn't have any - despite the obvious strawberries that go with the french toast, the ubiquitous orange wedge that adorns every plate, AND a lovely bunch of bananas sitting on the counter. 86 that excellent customer service score.

We laughed it off and she chose to try grits instead. Although the grits at the Sea Oats Caffe looked lovely and creamy, she's still not a fan. I ate a pretty decent orange-cranberry muffin and a couple of fried eggs. I'll spare you the pic. Coffee was forgettable and served in one of those stoneware mugs covered in ads for neighboring businesses.

I guess if I was staying nearby I might try this place again, but only for early breakfast before they have a chance to run out of their specialty items. Truth be told, I'd probably just grab a muffin from the counter and head over to the neighboring Starbucks for a Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

Sea Oats Caffe on Urbanspoon
Sea Oats Caffe
(904) 471-7350
1075 A1a Beach Blvd
St Augustine Beach, FL 32080

 A lovely food related surprise in our all day shopping - gabbing - catching up fest was this awesome shop - The Spice & Tea Exchange where they hand-mix spices and seasonings with their own proprietary recipes right there in the store. Alison had just told me about a lovely tea infuser mug  she had purchased on a bike-trek but had subsequently been broken. She was thrilled to find the exact same item in this store - and snapped it up post-haste!

I bought a few things for my holiday food-coma inducing rituals, including a packet of my favorite English Rib Rub - which makes the PERFECT succulent salty-sweet crust on a beef rib roast. Tried it out on chicken and it was great that way too! BTW - the St Augustine store is the original, but they do franchise, so seriously check them out - if you're in a well trafficked area where they haven't established a store yet - go for it! 

The Spice & Tea Exchange
(877) OLD FLA 1 - (904) 826-3770
59 Hypolita Street
St. Augustine, FL 32084

Just as we were noticing a general grumbling in the tummy area, we turned the corner onto St George Street and beheld a wondrous sign.

Alison and I used to go for lunch together often when I lived in St Louis. In the decade since then (where does the time go?) we've been known to share "virtual lunch" via email, and more recently, facebook. On this occasion, we shared an actual face-to-face lunch - IRL.

Now, for someone who is avoiding wheat and gluten, sandwiches are out of the question, but TACOS and NACHOS can really hit the spot.

Luckily for us - these weren't just any tacos or nachos...
The Burrito Works Taco Shop serves up freshly prepared tacos, nachos, burritos and more. There's even a concoction they call "Ninja Nic's Mexicake" but we were not that adventurous. Prices are reasonable and the service is fast!

Alison settled on Nachos, which she claimed were the best she's ever had.

We all know I can't resist a taco, so I had two! One shrimp, one pork, both Baja style with cabbage, onion, cilantro and lime.

LOVED the baja, and the fillings. Fresh and tasty, cabbage was crisp and the creamy sauce was a great accompaniment. The tortillas were less than stellar - white corn and not steamed or the freshest - but they got the job done.

The decor is college funky and the walls are covered in graffiti - they even hand out sharpies to diners so they can make their presence known.

I passed on that but Alison was happy to find a little spot in the corner to leave her mark. Would I return to the taco shop? Heck yeah! Snack central!

Burrito works Taco shop on Urbanspoon
Burrito Works Taco Shop
(904) 823-1229
114 St George st
St Augustine, FL 32084

Our ultimate destination on this voyage was "The Hyppo" - a charming little shop on Hypolita -( hey, think that's how it got the name?) where the owners are purveying the ultimate in hipster-cool trend-forward dessert items - the humble Paleta.The establishment had been on my Urbanspoon Wishlist for some time, and I was thrilled to share it with my friend from the midwest.

On this Florida fall day (bright sunshine, temps in the high 70s) the treat was a welcome respite. The flavor options on these chilly gourmet goodies range from the basic to the sublime.

Being the hothead that I am, my selection was the Mango-Habanero. Silky smooth and sweet with a spicy back-beat and a touch of peppery heat. It was love at first bite.

Traditionalist Alison opted for the Pumpkin Cheesecake pop - a creamy dream of holiday festivities with just a touch of decadence. She liked it so much she returned the next day with her hubs Dan and enjoyed The Hyppo's fabulous Paletas all over again!

As for me, I'll be back - again, and again, and again.

See you in St Augustine, Beasties!

The Hyppo on Urbanspoon

The Hyppo
(904) 217-7853
15 Hypolita St.
St Augustine, FL 32084


Intuition Ale Works - Hip Hops - Hooray!

Now Brewing in Riverside

Jacksonville native Ben Davis shares his new line of locally made brews with you at the tap room at his Intuition Ale Works - which opens to the public today at 720 King Street in Riverside!

Come celebrate the Grand Opening - Saturday from 1:00pm to 10:00pm - with a variety of draft and cask ales - and wood-fired pizzas from  Pele’s Fire Catering.  

Sign up for the Intuition Ale Works Mug Club while you're there - benefits include discounts on beer and merchandise, special access to limited release brews, invitations to exclusive Mug Club events, and a bag of Intuition Ale Works gear.

After the Grand Opening on November 20th, the Intuition Ale Works tap room will be open from 1:00pm to 10:00pm Wednesdays to Saturdays.  Takeaway kegs and growlers will be sold from the tap room.  Pele’s Fire Catering will be parked outside the brewery Wednesday to Friday from 4:00pm to 10:00pm and Saturday from 1:00pm to 10:00pm and will sell pizzas, dips and salsas from their mobile wood-fired oven. (Y'all - no lie - these wood-fired pizzas and their dips and salsas are amazing - and what goes better with beer - right?)

Intuition Ale Works has teamed up with Movember Jax to support men’s health throughout the month of November.   
On November 24th the brewery is hosting a Stache Bash and will donate 50 cents from every pint sold in the tap room to Movember.  Donations benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation and LIVESTRONG, the Lance Armstrong Foundation.  

Here's the IAW lineup:

People’s Pale Ale
IAW's flagship beer is an American-style pale ale inspired by the hoppy pale ales of the West Coast.  Features two-row malted barley, caramel malt, and wheat malt.  Magnum hops for bittering and the traditional pale ale hops of Centennial and Cascade for flavoring and crisp, citrus aromas.

King Street Stout
This is a Southern-style imperial stout brewed with two-row malted barley, a variety of roasted and caramel malts, and brown sugar y’all. (I got a sneak peak of this one last week - It's sweet and mellow like a caramel macchiato, only better, because this one's made with BEER!)

Wild Child Wheat
This is an easy-drinking wheat beer influenced by the Wits or “White Ales” of Belgium.  Brewed with Belgian Pilsner, flaked wheat, malted wheat and flaked oats.  Czech noble hops compliment the traditional Wit spices of coriander and bitter orange peel on the nose of this incredibly delicious beer.

I-10 IPA
The West Coast comes to Jax with this extremely hoppy, true India Pale Ale. Our two-row malted barley and caramel malt come to life with a ?@!#-ton of Northwest hops.  It’s music to your nose.

Imperial Red Ale
An aggressively hopped, high gravity red ale.  Brewed with two-row malted barley, caramel malt, and chocolate malt.  Magnum hops for bittering and Simcoe hops for flavoring, aroma, and dry-hopping.


Pollo Tropical Comes to Town Center

Pollo Tropical, famous for its citrus-marinated grilled chicken and Caribbean flavors, is bringing a taste of the tropics to Jacksonville with the grand opening of its restaurant at 4863 Gate Parkway at the St. John's Town Center.
Be one of the first customers in line November 22, starting at 10:30 a.m., and receive a free voucher for a Family Meal - featuring a whole grilled chicken, choice of two sides and rolls.

Chicken lovers can take advantage of free Pollo Tropical offers by texting "POLLO104" to 30241 or logging on to www.pollotropical.com/contest to sign up for Pollo Reward$. Everyone who signs up between November 20 to 29 will be automatically entered for a chance to win Free Chicken For a Year.


Serious Sandwiches - Pork Arepa - Mi Pueblo Bakery

If you haven't been to Mi Pueblo Bakery on Beach Boulevard - you're missing some mighty fine fresh pastries, breads, etc. - Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, they've got it. GREAT prices, friendly, knowledgeable proprietors.
We stopped in this morning for a breakfast treat. LOVE their Pork or Chicken Arepas and Empanadas, but my favorite is their Bunuelos.

Love soft, warm, cheesy buñuelos? Your search ends here, mi amigo!

Guava and cheese filled pastry

They have many regional specialty pastries and cookies.

Empanadas de Carne are filled with warm shredded beef and soft potatoes.

Mi Pueblo Bakery
11969 Beach Boulevard
Jacksonville, FL 32246

Mi Pueblo Bakery on Urbanspoon


One Fish, Two Fish, Lunch Returns To Blue Fish!

Woot! Great news! 

The Blue Fish in Avondale is 

resuming lunch service 

Monday November 15!

11:00 - 2:00 Monday - Saturday. 

See you there!

The Blue Fish Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Creating a Stir - 27th Annual Caring Chefs

Wow. Last weekend was one for the books. The 27th Annual Caring Chefs event at The Avenues Mall in Jax - featuring scores of tastings from local restaurants - raised $104,220 for the children and families served by the Children's Home Society of Florida's Buckner Division.  Want an idea of how many people it takes to get a project like this event off the ground? If you were there - congrats for a job well done. If you missed it, get it on your calendar for 2011. Seriously! Check out their list of sponsors and participating restaurants!

I love this event - I always find new places (and old favorites) to visit based on who we met and what we tasted there. Because they cared enough to take time out of their busy weekends to really embrace the spirit of this event, I am looking forward to my next visits to culinary standouts Bistro Aix, Blue Bamboo, bb's, Cafe Nola, The Grape, Galangal Thai, The Reef, Soul Food Bistro, Tacolu - and more! 

Chef Tom Gray and the Crew from Bistro Aix served a luscious lamb risotto  with butternut squash puree - a pure taste of autumn.

Roy's Hawaiian Fusion delighted me by bringing along my new fave appetizer - Golden Lobster Potstickers! According to a fellow taster - it's like a little lobster doused itself in butter and exploded in your mouth.

The folks from The Grape brought these amazing lamb chops and their killer Lobster Mac & Cheese. I almost had to wrestle someone to make sure my friend Jodi from Eat Jax got a taste of this. If you haven't tried it, run, do not walk to The Grape, at the St Johns Town Center.
Shellfish stew from The Reef was salty-sweet and generous. LOVED the brothy, briny goodness.

Taco Lu was out in full force with a fabulous beef taco - such great, fresh flavors. GREAT to see the BEACHES rep'd so nicely there!
Tacolu gets into the spirit with their Dia de los Muertos display. Looking for a place to honor and celebrate lost loved ones this weekend? Taco LU!
bb's proffered this elegant bite of braised meat with pearl barley and pomegranate "risotto" - another harbinger of fall.

Galangal Thai offered tastes of their Chicken Yum Salad and lovely Steamed Sea Bass.

Blue Bamboo's Dennis Chan was serving his Hip Asian Comfort Food - I loved the sweet heat in this cold noodle salad.
Jacksonville Golf and Country Club chefs brought their molecular gastronomy exhibit, and among the standouts in the dessert category was this little semifreddo cone - flash frozen on demand. Yum!

See you next year, beasties!