Archive for the BYOB Restaurant Reviews Category


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, El Sitio Grill and Cafe, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2010 by ballymote

El Sitio occupies the corner spot in Collingswood which once housed Word of Mouth. It has a South American flair with heavy emphasis on steak. They have another location is Quito, Ecuador where the parking might be easier but getting there is another story.

Our Friday night crowd had been wanting to try this place for some time so I was happy when Sue and Jerry C. suggested it for dinner last Friday evening. Carol and Joe B. joined us and after finding a parking spot Jerry and I joined the others in the bright lime green eatery. I had seen several reviews rave about the bread and mushroom offering that preceded the meal but it somehow never arrived at our table and since I am not a mushroom aficionado, I wasn’t terribly upset at missing it. Our server, Nissa, was bubbly and enthusiastic and she recited the evening specials, made some recommendations and opened our wines.

I had brought with me  the 2005 Pine Ridge, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, a full-bodied typical dark fruit cabernet with hints of leather and smoke with a lingering finish. Joe had a 2006 Bosco Dei Cirmioli, Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo, made from the grape of the same name it has subtle cherry and plum flavors and soft tannins.

For our appetizers, the women chose the Grilled Provolone with a dash of olive oil and herbs. It was delivered in a pan with several nice pieces of toasted bread and our wives described it “as a heart attack waiting to happen”. They must have all had suicidal tendencies because they devoured it and thought that despite the gooey danger to their health it was pretty tasty and not a bad way to go. The men chose the Argentinian Style Empanadas stuffed with seasoned chicken or beef. These were accompanied by a nice, tangy dipping sauce and proofed to be a tasty starter. In fact, using that same sauce on the grilled provolone gave that dish an added flair.

While trying to select our entrees, Nissa mentioned more than once that the steaks were “melt in your mouth good”. There were a few to choose from and I went with the Tenderloin filet with Dijon sauce, asparagus spears, a vegetable medley and a baked potato. I had ordered my steak done medium-well and it was delivered in a decidedly medium fashion. I wasn’t as concerned about the undercooking as I was about its lack of flavor. It wasn’t offensive, it just wasn’t memorable and not at all in the “melt in your mouth” category.

Jerry had the Lamb Chops topped with Dijon sauce and a side of mashed potatoes. Kathy had a half-rack of the BBQ Ribs and Joe had a filet with a special sauce made from beer.

Carol and Sue had the highly-touted Lomo Manchego, a sirloin medallion with manchego cheese served on a stone plate with a side of vegetable mix. The dish arrived sizzling hot but they found the manchego portion skimpy and were not overly impressed with the meat.

El Sitio is a pleasant enough dining spot. The employees seem happy working there and the ambiance is fine. It may be that we just caught them on an off-night. We did LOVE the appetizers it’s just that the meal peaked there and the entrees did not live up to the advance billing. The place has some nice reviews on UrbanSpoon so maybe we just picked a less than stellar night. It’s worth trying.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Mirabella Cafe, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , on May 31, 2010 by ballymote


Mirabella Cafe, in the Barclay’s Shopping Center on Rt. 70 in Cherry Hill was the scene of a last-minute, pre-movie dinner on Saturday evening. The evening did not start well as I had neglected to remove my flash card from my computer where I was downloading photos taken earlier in the day at the USA – Turkey soccer match at the Linc in Philly. Consequently, for the first time since I started this blog, I would have no pictures from our meal. Fortunately, Mirabella’s web site had a few photos that I can use. As you can see from this photo. outside seating is available. We opted to eat inside as we were a bit pressed for time.

The menu at Mirabella Cafe is fairly extensive and they have a few specials which are shown to you, plated as they would appear, on arrival.

There was the usual bread and olive oil for starters. Joe and Carol were not in a wine mood so Kathy and I shared a 2008 Marquis-Phillips “Sarah’s Blend”, Australia. We have both had this wine through several vintages and tonight’s was drinking well with crisp blackberry flavors mingled with peppery notes and some licorice tones. This is, in my estimation, one of those wines that you can always count on. It might also be noted that the wine glasses at Mirabella are great; large Bordeaux-style stems.

Kathy, Carol and Joe split the Grilled Fiorella’s Sausage and Broccoli Rabe. I tried a little and thought it was just OK. They liked it more than I did. I had the bruschetta. It wasn’t that impressive. I’m not a fan of the very crisp croutons that the toppings fall right off as you attempt to bite through it. As the meal progressed, it became apparent that our server, Mark, might have a career in politics when his table waiting days are over as he was a true expert at promising things on which he had trouble delivering. Joe is still waiting for his coke that never arrived and each request brought an enthusiastic “Excellent, I will make that happen immediately.” Too many times we had to remind him of what we had requested. I thought it might be that he had a preponderance of tables but Joe said he just seemed to head to the nearby computer after each brief stop at our table.

Salads preceded our entrees. Fresh greens with feta and pecorino cheese with a lemon flavored olive oil dressing were tasty enough to the others but I found it a bit bland. 

I chose Chef Joe’s Spaghetti and Meatballs, a nice portion of pasta with two large meatballs. I found the sauce fine, the meal hot and the meatballs delicious. I would prefer my spaghetti slightly less al dente but that’s just me. The portion was large enough that I took home enough to provide another meal.

Kathy ordered the Whole Wheat Pasta Primavera which came topped with fresh seasonal veggies. She ate what she could and also brought home enough to make another decent sized meal. Carol had the Eggplant Rollatini and thought it was good. Again, the serving provided enough for another meal. Joe was the only one who finished his entire meal and that may have been because he selected the Pesto Crusted Tilapia, broiled and served with warm lentil salad and sauteed escarole in a light lemon citronette.

Joe Palombo’s Mirabella Cafe serves good food at reasonable prices in a bright, cheerful location. The service on this particular night was less than stellar but the meal was fine.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Tre Famiglia, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2010 by ballymote

Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer, and Joe and Carol B, Jerry and Sue C. joined my wife, Kathy, and myself for dinner at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield, NJ. Located on Haddon Ave. just a few short miles outside of Collingswood, it’s an area where parking is a lot easier than in the highly visited BYOB capital of Collingswood, NJ.  After a couple attempts to fix our wobbly table we were moved to a round table nearby. Round tables are so much more conducive to conversation because everyone is in view. We really should request them more often. Our wine was opened as our server, Giulliano, recited the evening specials. Warm bread and some good olive oil for dipping provided a nice beginning as we sipped our wines and perused the menu.

Our wines for the evening were, the 2002 Garretson Vineyards “The Craic”, Syrah, Paso Robles, CA. I dug this one out of my collection. It had been resting for the past few years in my wine reefer and I probably should have removed it a little sooner. A little chill on a red wine can be a good thing but this one bordered on cold, and didn’t really open up until about 30 minutes later. By that time, Kathy had decided that she wasn’t crazy about the wine. I did find it very good with the additional time in the glass was what it needed to reveal the peppery syrah flavors. At 16.4 % alcohol, this one is pretty potent. Joe had brought with him a 2006 Bodega Norton, Privada, a blend of 40% malbec with equal 30% additions of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It has lots of rich black fruit, well balanced, smooth and flavorful. Totally deserving of the 92 points awarded from Wine Spectator. Jerry had the 2008 Corte Gardoni, Le Fontane, Bardolino. My review of this wine will be proof positive that the only person who can truly decide what you like in a wine is YOU. I can’t tell you, none of the experts can tell you, only YOU know what you like. The best I can say about this wine is that it was “light”. I suppose I could also add, “it won’t kill you”, but there ends all I have to say about it. Here though, is a review by someone else who had this same wine in March at a dinner on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their 2008 Le Fontane Bardolino is damn near perfect. An almost mauve colored wine with red cherry and grapey notes on the nose, it is about as refreshing as a red wine can be. Light in body with a touch of effervescence and lip-smacking, juicy fruit on the palate, it may be the perfect Springtime red.”  So, there you are; two polar opposite views of the same wine.

It was time to eat and we started with some appetizers.

I ordered the Gnocchi Duo. Sweet potato gnocchi tossed in a pesto cream and potato gnocchi tossed with braised pork shank. It was a nice combination of flavors; nicely presented and full of great taste appeal. I was totally happy with my choice of a starter.

Carol ordered the Roasted Peppers, freshly roasted red peppers marinated in extra virgin olive oil and basil, with provolone cheese . The squares of provolone resting on this salad made it look very appetizing and Carol was happy with her selection.

Jerry C., our world-renowned expert on all things bruschetta, chose Bruschetta, Italian bread, lightly toasted with garlic & herbs, topped with finely diced tomatoes and fresh basil. I heard him describing it as having a “nice crunch” with the tangy flavor of the toppings soaking nicely into the bread. The only negative was that a couple of the bread pieces had been over-toasted, which is a nice way of saying they were “burnt”.

Joe had no trouble at all finding an appetizer. He quickly decided on the Sausage and Figs, house made grilled sweet sausage with figs in a balsamic reduction. He was hoping they would be fresh figs but it appears we were about a week or two too early for them and although he enjoyed his choice, he repeatedly said it would have been twice as good had fresh fig been available. Content with our starters we looked forward to our main dishes. There were quite a few nice specials in addition to an excellent menu and selecting just one item was no easy task.

Carol ordered the Baked Manicotti al Forno,
delicate crepes stuffed with ricotta cheese and topped with tomato sauce & mozzarella cheese. She substituted fresh broccoli rabe for pasta and thought the dish was very good.

Joe ordered from the specials menu and selected the Grilled Bronzino Filet, puree of white asparagus, sauteed baby spinach, oven roasted red grapes and extra virgin olive oil. The dish was nicely presented and Joe thought it was excellent.

Gerry didn’t feel his decision was all that difficult. He also chose from the evening specials and I would have to say that his dish certainly looked the most tempting of all. He had the Grilled Filet Mignon, black mission-fig demi glace, sauteed vegetables, black truffled red bliss mashed potatoes. I just took a bite out of the computer screen and I can report that it tasted just as good as it looked. If I sound jealous, I really am not. I was quite plesed with my own choice of entree.

I had the Crab Cake Famiglia, house made jumbo lump crab cakes, served over a roasted tomato cream sauce with sweet corn risotto and sauteed baby spinach. This was a great choice. The crab cakes were very well prepared, plump and flavorful with tons of delicious crab, the risotto was scrumptious and the spinach a perfect addition to a great plate.

Service at Tre Famiglia was excellent and the restaurant had a nice ambience with good spacing between tables. Most of us had been here before and it’s quite likely we will return again in the not too distant future.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Philly BYOB Reviews, Sonata Restaurant, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by ballymote

Quite honestly, until I made our reservation a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of Sonata.  I was searching for a place in the Northern Liberties section of Philly and I stumbled across their website which, by the way, is very well done. Once the reservation was made I started reading reviews on Sonata. They were overwhelmingly positive. The more I read the higher my expectations grew and I couldn’t help feeling I was going to be disappointed. I was not!  Sonata is a great BYOB.

From the moment we walked in, when our server, Kate, greeted us enthusiastically, opened our wines, brought us additional glasses and was there to field any and all questions with a killer smile, I had a hunch it was going to be a good evening.. There were six of us in attendance, My wife, Kathy, and myself, our lifelong friends, Gerry and Joann B. and their neighbors, Tim and Linda G.

Sonata has a roomy feel as the tables are spaced nicely providing an open feel. The decor is simple with musical wall decor keeping with the theme of the place. There is outdoor dining in the busy Liberty Walk plaza. We had some great wines with us to enhance our meal.

My wife had some interest in trying a Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo so I had a 2007 Cataldi Madonna, Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo, this 100% Nebbiolo wine was the lightest of the group and went well with some of the fish and seafood entrees. My other wine was a 2007 Angel’s Landing, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon. This checked in at 14.6% alcohol and had an unusual nose of rose petals, lavender and forest grass mingling with the blackberry and currants. It had a smooth mouthfeel and I felt it was the best of the night despite being outpriced by Gerry’s two wines. His first was the 2005 Silverado, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon. The familiar Silverado “clove” was present along with rich currants and licorice and some dark chocolate highlights. Silverado seldom disappoints. His other wine was a delicious meritage, the 2005 St. Clements “Oroppas”, Napa Valley. Primarily Cab with a small amount of Merlot, the “Oroppas” got 91 points from Parker and I would concur; a very nice wine. Tim and Linda, who were a little late in arriving and had to fight the “find a parking space battle” just as we did, had with them a current PA State Store Chairman’s Selection, the 2007 Shannon Ridge, Reserve, Barbera, Lake County, CA. The Barbera grape doesn’t ripen until late in the growing season and this gives the wine a tangy, strawberry zest that provided a nice option to the rest of our cabs.

Meanwhile, back at the menus, mouths were watering as we contemplated our choices. We all started with one of the many tempting appetizers. Joann chose the lobster crepes / fennel / mascarpone / lobster glace . The three crepes were nicely presented and having had a taste I can tell you they were excellent.

Gerry had the seared foie gras / preserved black currant / brioche puree / cashew crumble. He declared it was right up there with the best foie gras he has had anywhere. That seems like pretty high praise.

My wife ordered the scallop crudo / preserved lemon / chive / vanilla salt. It was nicely presented with delicate thin slices of scallop. She thought the lemon was a nice topping but it just wasn’t her favorite way to have scallops.

Tim and Linda both selected the frisee and arugula salad / serrano ham / braised artichoke / piquillo pepper / shellbark goat cheese. It was alos nicely presented and they both seemed to enjoy it. Personally, I have had my last frisee. I realize it may be the latest rage in garden greens but it just doesn’t work for me. It’s too rough and hard to swallow. I certainly had no complaints about my appetizer choice. I had read so many glowing reviews about the pork belly at Sonata that even though I had never had pork belly before I was determined to break that streak here and now. The crispy pork belly / smoked tomato marmalade / compressed apple/ calvados molasses was wonderful. The combination of tastes and textures was perfect and for me this was the perfect beginning to the meal.

Throughout our dinner, the lovely Alex was assisting Kate and making sure our water glasses remained full and that  we were enjoying our Sonata experience. You could tell from both of them that they felt a pride in the restaurant and truly cared that each diner was taken care of in a personal manner.

Selecting just one item from a menu where everything sounds so enticing was no easy chore. Joann never hesitated from her first choice and had the butter poached lobster “mac and cheese” / fresh paparadelle noodle / fontina cheese. Nice pieces of tender, perfectly done lobster in a rich sauce. She shared a small portion with me and it was really excellent.

I had mentioned to my wife that in reading the reviews there had been more than one person that declared the salmon at Sonata to be the best they had ever had in any restaurant. That was enough to have her try it as she really enjoys nicely prepared salmon. The seared salmon / grilled asparagus / fennel orange salad / blood orange vinaigrette was attractively presented and Kathy thought it was excellent although not the absolute best she has ever had. Hey, nothing wrong with finishing in the top three!

Gerry was torn between a couple of different entrees and he purposely waited to see what I was going to order. Once I settled on the chicken he went for the double-cut colorado lamb chop / braised lamb shoulder strudel / fava bean / potato / baby almond. The dish looked perfect and Gerry thought it tasted the same way.

I could not have been happier with my choice. The pan roasted bacon wrapped chicken / boursin whipped potato / english peas / glazed cipolini onion were like a dance team who had worked together to perfect their steps. The chicken was tender and full of great flavor. The onion provided a nice addition to the mouth-watering potato and although I previously had never met a pea that I liked, I can no longer say that. The peas were amazing. You could have won a sizeable wager from me prior to last night that I would ever write the words “the peas were amazing”!

If you are thinking that the handsome young man pictured here was the guy who valet parked our cars, you would be totally mistaken. Mark Tropea is the guy responsible for not only the “amazing peas” but the amazing meal. A 2002 graduate of the Restaurant School, Mark is creating culinary classics on a nightly basis at this soon to be discovered Northern Liberties location. It’s obvious from the presentation and food quality that Mark knows what he is doing. He makes sure that he visits every table to insure their satisfaction with the meal. Not only are the entree and appetizers first class, the desserts are equally wonderful. They are light and flavorful and the perfect ending to your meal.


 Pictured above are our dessert selections. A trio of sorbets; carrot cake / coconut mousse / pineapple sauce / cream cheese sorbet / spiced walnut crumble and something called chocolate decadence / warm chocolate beignet / chocolate hazelnut “chipwich“ . All were delicious. As a final note we were presented with some complimentary chocolates just in case the desserts didn’t fully satisfy our sweet toothes. As you may have guessed, the chocolates were “melt in your mouth” delicious.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, I went to Sonata with high expectations. That is not always a good approach to anything. Expectations are not always met. Sonata came through. It’s an excellent BYOB and I am sure we will be back. The real trick, from what I have seen, is meeting expectations when you bring the next group of friends that have heard you rave about a restaurant. My guess is that Mark Tropea and Sonata will be able to meet those high expectations.


Posted in Bona Cucina (2nd review), BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Philly BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by ballymote


It isn’t easy to describe a meal at Bona Cucina. When you read the reviews you will see that virtually everyone raves about the food. When you do see complaints, they are usually about the service. It just may be that Bona Cucina is not a place for everyone and the reason is, Bona Cucina is a place you have to “get”. You have to understand what it is and what it is not. It is quite simply, a small, intimate, local restaurant with an extremely loyal core of diners that comes back again and again for three reasons. The first is the fantastic food, the second is the consistently excellent food and the third is, ok, you guessed it, it’s the incredibly magical touch of Pat Buonadonna, Chef/Owner of Bona Cucina.  What it is NOT, is a fancy, pretentious setting for haut cuisine. Tomorrow’s menu will be virtually the same one they had 10 years ago. They are not attempting to create “nouveau” dishes, nor are they trying to invent new ways to attract diners intent on finding the “hot new BYOB”. It’s not likely Craig LeBan from the Inquirer, who recently reviewed the neighboring Sycamore Restaurant,  will be dropping by soon. You will be able to count on Pat’s wife, Frankie, being out front to take orders, entertain, whisper the latest rumor and make sure you feel welcome. You can’t be in a hurry at Bona Cucina. It’s a place to relax, converse with your dinner companions, drink some wine and your food will be there when it’s done cooking.

Last night I had the 2008 Evening Land, Pinot Noir, Oregon. The 2008 Pinot crop from Oregon is getting rave reviews and the Evening Land should have a few of its own. The wine was crisp with fresh strawberries mingling with cherries and soft plums to create a flavor profile that went well drinking on its own and with my entree. Speaking of entrees, I was determined to order something other than my personal Bona Cucina favorite, the Chicken Celeste. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We started with several of the guys splitting an appetizer of stuffed Portabello mushrooms.

Not being a mushroom kinda guy, I passed on what everyone thought were absolutely delicious starters filled with tasty crabmeat and cheese. I was tempted, but refrained, and ordered the soup du jour which was a Cream of Broccoli.

I can honestly say that I have probably had over 100 different cups or bowls of cream of broccoli soup throughout my life. This one was, hands down, the BEST.  I can’t even think of words to describe the taste. It was simply liquid perfection and I’m pretty sure that Val, who had a cup himself, was equally impressed.

I had raved so much about the Chicken Celeste that Val ordered it. It looked every bit as good as I remembered it from three previous visits and Val finished half and took the other half home for another meal.

One of the evening’s specials was something called Chicken Genoa and it sounded similar to the Chicken Celeste and gave me the opportunity to feel somewhat proud of myself for breaking with personal tradition. The two generous portions of perfectly cooked chicken breasts were topped with spinach and provolone cheese and were scrumptious.

Frank D. and Ange also ordered from the “specials” and chose the Orange Roughy with crabmeat in a spicy red sauce. It looked terrific and their relative silence while devouring the large portion seemed to confirm that they were enjoying each and every morsel.

Steve J., possibly celebrating the fact that he finally was paid his “NCAA Tourney” prize money, ordered the Scallop entree. The dish was huge and looked appealing with lots of nicely cooked tender scallops and crabmeat. Everything that comes out of the kitchen is just chock full of flavor. The sixth member of our dining party, Mr. Thomas H., a welcome if infrequent guest, selected the Twin Crabcakes. It was very evident when these two tempting mounds appeared that there wasn’t much filler being used to hold them together. It was just lots of tangy crabmeat molded into a couple of great looking wonders from the sea. All of the dishes came with your choice of a side of pasta or the veggie of the day which was green beans.

As usual, it was another night of great food and conversation. We closed with one dessert, six small plates and six spoons. The Chocolate Bomba was just the right treat to put the finishing touch on a wonderful meal. Rich chocolate and creamy vanilla ice cream in a chocolate coated ball with a cherry center and plenty of whipped cream. Frankie had destroyed the ball prior to bringing it to the table as she knew everyone would want a taste. That’s why there is no picture. What I do have is another memory of a great meal at this inconspicuous little gem of a restaurant in Upper Darby. Some day, maybe in another 20 or 30 years, Bona Cucina will even have its own website. On second thought, they probably won’t because the people who know and “get” Bona Cucina will keep coming back without a lot of fanfare. I think Pat and Frankie are quite content with things just the way they are.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Philly BYOB Reviews, Tratorria Milano, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by ballymote

In a recent post on Chowhound, someone asked if there were any good BYOB’s on the “northern fringes” of Philadelphia.  My wine drinking friends, Gerry and John, led me on an excursion tonight to Telford, PA which is an area that has to be regarded as the “northern fringes” of somewhere, if not Philadelphia, then maybe it’s the “northern fringes” of Montana. Geographically, I have no idea where we were but I do know this, Trattoria Milano is worth the search and the drive. From the moment we entered  and were greeted with the aroma of sweet Italian sauces we all knew our appetites were about to be rewarded.

We had brought some great wines with us and usually, by the end of the evening, one or two stand out as clearly the WOTN (wine of the night). This was not the case this evening as all five had qualities that made them favorites. First up, we had the Clark-Claudon 2005 3 Stones, Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s well-balanced and chock full of those great Howell Mountain Cab grapes with a touch of Merlot and Cab Franc to give it that rich texture and smooth finish. Next, was the 2006 Bacio Divino Cellars “Vagabond”. This one is a blend of 67% Syrah and 30 % Cabernet that garnered 91 points from Mr. Parker. It wasn’t bashful and was a fine partner with the rich sauces we were devouring.  John G. made sure that France was represented with a delicious 2003 E. Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape. You can never go wrong with anything from E. Guigal, excellent wines that are true representatives of their appellation without breaking your wine budget. This one had a gorgeous floral bouquet and licorice notes, an enticing old-world blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The 2005 Franciscan “Magnificat” is a strong 92 point meritage blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cab Franc. Lots of plums and cherries folded in dark chocolate and smooth as a baby’s butt. I searched through my growing wine stash and found a 2001 Byron “IO”, Santa Barbara County (thats the letters I and O, not the number 10). This was a wine that Gerry and John raved about several years ago and one of the first Rhone-style wines to come out of Santa Barbara County. It is still considered one of the best PA State Store Chairman’s Selections as it was a $50.00 wine selling at the time for $14.99! And now for the food.

Triana and Diana are two sisters from Ecuador. Triana, a first class server whose welcoming demeanor puts diners at ease and Diana, who is married to the Chef/Owner, Francesco, both do a terrific job. Triana brought us some warm bread and a yummy garlic and oil blend that was a delicious starter. We ordered 3 appetizers for our table and all of them were enjoyable. We had the Mozzarella Fritta, the Caprese and some Bruschetta.

Each of these items was tangy and flavorful and did nothing to spoil our appetite for the enticing entrees we were contemplating. The menu includes pasta, chicken, veal and fish dishes that all sound inviting and it was no small feat to settle on just one.

John decided on the Pasta Ai Frutti di Mare, a tempting dish of clams, mussels, shrimps, scallops and calamari. The dish came with a side salad and John disappeared from the conversation for about 20 minutes as he savored his fruits of the seas between sips of the nectar of the Gods.

Gerry, who had been here on other occasions chose the Vitello Ripieno Alla Valdostana, veal stuffed with ham and fontina cheese in a white wine sauce with artichokes and mushrooms. He was nowhere near as quiet as John as he voiced effusive praise after each forkful of this tasty entree. His veal came with a side of pasta.

I finally decided on the Pollo Alla Fiorentina, chicken breast in a creamy sauce topped with spinach and provolone cheese. The chicken was cooked perfectly, the spinach was excellent and the sauce was the highlight of a great dish. Each bite was a wonderful taste treat. The pasta was really good as well, and all three of us were very impressed with just about everything at Trattoria Milano.

We topped off our meal with some desserts which proved the perfect finishing touch.

Left to right, the temptations pictured above are the Homemade Tiramisu, the Chocolate Truffle Torte and the Strawberry Swirl Cheesecake. All of them were delicious although, my choice of the chocolate tort was a bit too heavy and I think the Tiramisu or cheesecake would have been a better choice

Chef Francesco, a native of Milan, Italy deserves recognition for the great meals he turns out of his kitchen here in the hinterlands of Philly’s northern burbs. This was Gerry’s choice and he certainly picked a great spot. I can’t tell you I will be here often as it is a long way from South Jersey but I would say that if you are anywhere within reasonable distance of 4 North Allentown Rd in Tylersport, PA, and have a sudden craving for exceptionally good Italian food, a visit to Trattoria Milano may be just what will work for you.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Cafe Antonio, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2010 by ballymote

Cafe Antonio is another of the plethora of Collingswood eateries that line Haddon Ave. It’s a couple of doors down from Joe Pesce and a few doors up from Villa Barone. I had mentioned in previous reviews of Haddon Ave. restaurants that part of the Friday night scene are the crowds gathered outside the various eating spots. These are composed of hopeful diners that did NOT make reservations. Sometimes, you have to wiggle your way into the place. That was not a problem last night at Cafe Antonio; there were no crowds, outside or inside. It might be noted (and you can see it in the photo of the sign), that the name is actually Cafe Antonio II. When I went to click on the link for this restaurant, up came a Cafe Antonio in Herndon, Virginia. Our party of six was comfortably seated and with the exception of two other tables, we had the place to ourselves. The interior walls are painted with those “faux” scenes of the Italian countryside. Our server, Lee (although it could have been “Leigh”) recited the evening specials and brought us a basket of warm rolls with a dish of peppers and garlic in a red sauce for dipping. Joe B. & Jerry C. split an order of mussels and the wives shared some broccoli rabe. Not being a huge fan of either of these items, I passed. Carol B. thought the broccoli rabe was frozen rather than fresh and the guys found the mussels “fishy” tasting. I reminded them that they did, afterall, come from the sea, so a “fishy” taste might be expected. They reminded me that I knew nothing about mussels. Touche!

I really liked the wine I had chosen for the evening, the 2008 Klee Pinot Noir, Williamette Valley, Oregon. I had read quite a bit about the 2008 vintage for Pinot in Oregon and how it may be the best in many years. This was my first opportunity to sample a 2008, as most have not yet reached the local shelves, and I thought it was delicious with bright cherry and plum flavors, well-balanced tannins and a smooth finish. It also got better with time in the glass. Sue C. brought a bottle of the popular Aussie granache, the 2008 Bitch. Her choice of wines naturally lent itself to a hundred comments that could be made right here but I will do the intelligent and civil thing and say nothing. It did make for a few laughs at the table and, it’s a very decent wine, anyway.

All entrees at Cafe Antonio come with your choice of soup or house salad.

Joe and Carol ordered the Eggplant Rollatini which came with a humongous side of pasta and was topped with a generous portion of mozzarella cheese. I didn’t hear any comments on how they enjoyed their choice so I have to assume it was fine.

Sue and Jerry ordered from the “specials” with Sue choosing the Tuna with peppers and Jerry having the shrimp in a brandy creme sauce that was very similar to an “alfredo” sauce”. His plate gave the appearance of  a heart attack waiting to happen. Sue sent her soup back as not being hot enough and I think I did overhear them in the kitchen say “she must be the one with the “Bitch” bottle.” Damn, I promised I wasn’t gonna do that!!

My wife, Kathy, has the Pollo Saltimbocca, big portion of chicken breast topped with spinach, cheese and prosciutto while I ordered the not very adventurous Chicken Parmigiano. Again, two large pieces of chicken with a generous helping of pasta with red sauce. I can safely say, you won’t leave Cafe Antonio hungry as the portions are quite large. We took home half of our chicken dishes. I think, overall, the food is ok, with nothing standing out and nothing delivering that “wow” factor. If Cafe Antonio was your local restaurant, a block from your house, it would be a safe choice for dinner. The prices for virtually all of their entrees are very reasonable. The problem is, it is located right in the heart of the Big League of South Jersey restaurants, and it is not a contender to win the pennant.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Modo Mio Restaurant (second review), South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2010 by ballymote

Eight of us converged on Modo Mio Restaurant last night for an early pre-theatre dinner (we had tickets for The Lion King at the Academy of Music, sorry, that’s neither in the Wine or Dine category so you get no review). This was the second time in less than 2 months for my wife, Kathy and I and, as usually happens, it’s often difficult to repeat a great performance. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our meal, as we certainly did. The food at Modo Mio is unique and wonderful. It just didn’t totally click like it did the last time we were here. It may have been that, at our early 5:00 P.M. reservation, there was also a party of at least 30 people, who had arrived just before us, and that may have put an added burden on Chef Peter McAndrews kitchen.

The wines were very good. Gerry C. had the wine of the night with his bottle of 2003 Jean Louis Vermeil, Cabernet Sauvignon. I brought with me the 2006, Proprieto Sperino, Uvaggio, this is the work of Italian winemaker, Paolo de Marchi and his son, Luca, who resurrected a long dead vineyard in Piedmonte at the base of the Alps for this soft and supple wine. Joe B. had his new, favorite wine, the 2006 Luigi Bosca, Single Vineyard, Malbec.  Tom and Barbara T. who have joined us for the first time in a few months, had the 2008 Tanguero, Malbec, Mendoza.

We again all chose the “Tourista” menu offering 4 courses for $33.00. We started with appetizers, and although I can’t recall what everyone had, I will do my best to mention the ones I do remember. I know Jerry C. had the mussels in a spicy red sauce while my wife, Kathy, had the mussels in a white lemon butter sauce. Although, as I have mentioned numerous times here, I am not a mussels fan, I did dip some bread into Jerry’s and Kathy’s sauce and would have to declare Jerry’s as being more flavorful.

Joe ordered the Carciofi al Mattone, smoky artichoke, smoked mozzarella, roasted tomato and lemon butter. I went with the Sformato (ya gotta love these names), crab and ricotta cake, hazelnuts and asparagus. Joe enjoyed his. I loved mine.

Sue selected the Verdure Grigliata, grilled seasonal vegetables, capers, shaved bottargga and new olive oil (I hate when they use the old olive oil). It looked good but just a tad too healthy looking for my taste.

Before I move on to the pasta dishes I would be remiss in not mentioning that Danielle, our server, did a great job all night long in describing each dish, assisting with entree selections and simply being a good-natured, high energy professional who obviously took pride in her job. We sometimes forget that those who serve us add a great deal to the ambiance of the meal. Thank you, Danielle. We all thought you did a great job!

For his pasta dish, Joe B. ordered the Gnocchi, potato dumplings, prosciutta, peas and cream. I had a taste of this dish and although it was very good it fell shy of the potato gnocchi at Blackbird in Collingswood. That one was in a league of its own.

I had the Malloreddus, chewy Sardinian pasta, sweet sausage and red pepper ragu. I really liked this dish. It was tangy and flavorful and just the right food to serve as a link to my entree. The portions here are just right so that you leave feeling well-fed without that bloated feeling.

Jerry C. chose the Lasagnette, tarro lasagna, basil pesto, buratta and plum tomato, I was a little concerned that his dish didn’t look like lasagna but then I was reminded it wasn’t supposed to because it was Lasagnette. It was different and Jerry enjoyed it.

Now it was time for the entree and we had all put a lot of thought into our selections.

Both Joe and Carol B. were talked into the Veal Cheeks. Danielle was nice enough to clarify that the “cheeks” in question were located a fair distance south of the face. This item is offered often on the Modo Mio menu and prepared differently each time. The menu asks that you simply trust the chef. My wife, Kathy had this on our last visit and really enjoyed it. Carol and Joe found it less than what they had hoped. The cheese was too overpowering for the meat and Joe found the meat to be of a texture that was not what he had expected.

Sue C.  had the Melanzana Ripeina (which, to me, sounds way better than saying “eggplant”), tomato braised stuffed eggplant, Molise style ( I almost wanna look that word up), mint and house-made ricotta. I think they both enjoyed their entree.

Jerry made his choice from the “specials” menu and although I do not recall how it was prepared, I do remember it was Lamb Shoulder and that he had it medium rare. Jerry is an avid hunter and I’m sure he has gunned down a few lambs in his day but this was probably the first time he had the shoulder of lamb. He thought it was very good.

I believe it was Barbara T. who had this unusual looking dish as her entree. It’s the Brook Trout but I don’t believe it was prepared as listed on the menu and I vaguely recall Danielle explaining the evening’s preparation. I think I see strawberries on the plate.

Kathy had the Bistecca Siciliana, breaded grilled rib-eye, aged provolone, fried egg, lemon anchovy butter. Personally, I could not get past the fried egg sitting on top of the meat. That is such a total no-no to me unless it’s 10:00 AM and I am having breakfast. Fortunately, much of the world does NOT share my opinion and Kathy thought her rib-eye was excellent.

My entree was very unusual. Pesce Spada was a grilled swordfish, balsamic braised onion, golden raisins, pine nuts, radicchio, smoked mozarella, rosemary pangratugiatto. It was such a unique combination of flavors that it almost drowned out the swordfish but not quite and I really enjoyed each bite as the tangy balsamic flavors mingled with the others to create a really different taste experience.

For dessert Carol had the Deconstructed Cannoli while the rest of us who obviously had no mind of our own, all chose something that featured a deep, dark, absolutely scrumptious chocolate mousse topped with a berry whipped cream. My only complaint on this dish was that it should have been four or five times larger as it disappeared quickly while the sweet memories lingered on.

I’m using the smaller picture because without being able to see that yummy, dark chocolate under the berry creme topping there is little to validate my praise of this dessert.

Chef McAndrews did stop out to say hello and bring us the complimentary shots of Sambuca. He was having a busy day and as I mentioned earlier. This was not on a par with the first visit but it’s still a great place that I would return to often. Modo Mio serves a no-menu Sunday Dinner that replicates an authentic Italian family dinner. These Sugi Sundays are priced at $33.00.

It would certainly be worth a drive to this Brewerytown restaurant, located at 151 W. Girard Ave., to give it a try.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Rustico, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , on April 17, 2010 by ballymote

I had no idea we were going out last night until my wife called me on my way home from work to inform me that Joe and Carol B. would be picking us up at 7:15 and we would be meeting Jerry and Sue C. at Rustico on Berlin-Cross Keys Rd. in Sicklerville.  Berlin-Cross Keys Road, for as long as I can remember, was nothing more than a slightly treacherous stretch of asphalt that connected the Black Horse Pike with the White Horse Pike and points behind. It was the “back way” to Cherry Hill and Marlton. None of that is true any more. It’s like I went to sleep one night and when I awoke I found that 30 million construction workers had converged on the entire roadway and transformed it from farmlands to, not just one or two, but a multitude of mega shopping areas. It’s little wonder we had only a vague idea of which strip mall contained our dining destination, Rustico.

Fortunately, Joe and Carol were excellent navigators and we found the location without much difficulty. Let me start by saying that Rustico is worth finding. Maurizio De Luca and his family have created a warm and inviting dining destination where you can enjoy some good eats without breaking your dining budget. It’s also a BYOB so you can bring your favorite bottle to compliment your meal.

Last night I brought a 2005 Hug Cellars Paso Robles Syrah. Hug Cellars makes several different bottlings of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cab and Zinfandel from single vineyards in the Paso Robles area. Virtually all of their wines are made in limited quantities (182 cases of this Syrah) and not found in many of our local wine shops. I found this and a Pinot Noir at Hops n Grapes in Glassboro in the $20 range. This was a nice bottle of wine with plum and blackberry flavors, a hint of black pepper and supple tannins producing a smooth finish.

The Rustico menu offered lots of choices in both the Pasta and Entree areas in addition to tons of sandwiches and specialty pizzas produced in their brick oven. Jerry and Joe split an order of Mussels in white sauce. They mentioned that I don’t usually photograph mussels since one plate of mussels usually looks like another. I told them I liked the green plate. They liked the mussels. They REALLY liked the juice and requested extra bread for dipping. Their only minor complaint was that the dish contained several unopen mussels and although that happens with lots of mussel dishes there were too many in this one and they should have been removed before serving. They told me all of this while constantly dipping bread into the leftover sauce and making little “mmmmmmmm” sounds between bites.

There were a few chicken selections among the six of us and I was one of them with my Chicken Florentine. Two tender, thin sliced breasts of chicken on a bed of spinach served with a side order of capellini. The chicken was nicely prepared, the spinach tasty and the sauce was delicious although it was neither red or white or even blush. It was a reddish brown and had great flavor. I could have finished the meal and been full but I saved a portion for today’s lunch.

Sue C. did something with what should have been a Chicken Italiano sandwich. For a second, I thought I was sitting next to Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. “Could you take the chicken off the bread, keep the spinach and mozzarella and replace the fries with a side order of veggies and then just serve the entire thing on a plate?” I think the final answer was “yes AND no” because she still ended up with a side dish of fries.

Joe ordered the Chicken Siciliano, with roasted peppers, olives, mushrooms, hot peppers and butter in a wine sauce. He gave it two thumbs up. Carol had the Chicken Parmigiana and thought it was very good and Jerry was pleased with his Eggplant Rollatini. All of the entrees were accompanied by your choice of salad, vegetable or pasta. My wife, Kathy, ordered a personal size brick oven pizza and although I neglected to take a photo of it she managed to bring a couple of slices home with her.

We passed on dessert and went back to Jerry and Sue’s house for coffee and cake. Rustico is an excellent value with good food and great prices.


Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Philly BYOB Reviews, Sycamore Restaurant, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on April 9, 2010 by ballymote

Sycamore Restaurant in Lansdowne, PA is not that hard to find. I managed to make a minor adventure out of it but a phone call from one of my dining companions guided me to the door. Tonight’s group was the childhood perv, oops, I mean, the guys I grew up with. We last met at Pesto on Broad Street a couple months back. This evening we were meeting at a BYOB within walking distance of our old neighborhood. Joining me were Steve J, Ange C. and Val S. Our fifth derelict, Frank D. was not feeling well and became a last-minute cancellation. Our wine for the evening were a couple of PA State Store Chairman’s Selections. The 2008 Pillar Box Red and the 2006 Clare Luce Abbey, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of these reds showed lots of dark fruit, some pepper on the Shiraz blend and some smooth mocha on the Cabernet. I had previously had the Clare Luce Abbey at the Spring Mill Inn in Conshohocken back in 09. The Pillar Box has been one of my favorite QPR (quality/price/ratio) wines for many years and the crazy price that it is currently selling for as a Chairman’s Selection makes it a strong candidate for case purchase.

Our server, Elenore, wasn’t quite sure what to make of our group but to her credit she maintained her composure and good humor throughout the night.

Sycamore offers a Cheese Plate, a Charcuterie Plate and a Combo Plate  (3 cheese selections and two meats for $19.00) as an appetizer. The others all passed on appetizers but I ordered the Pancetta, Onion and Goat Cheese Tart, Phyllo Crust and Deep Carmelized Onion for $7.00.        

 It proved to be a nice flavor combination with the crispy tart and tangy cheese and a few dressed greens on the side. Entree selection was a little  more difficult. I was considering the chicken but it was served with scrambled eggs. There was another item that came with a fried egg. I am seeing this more and more and I have to confess I am not a fan of eggs with my dinner. In my mind, eggs are a breakfast item and should be limited to pre-noon meals. That’s just a personal flaw in my culinary make-up. Anyway, I quickly reduced my choices to the Scallops and the Crab Cakes.  Elenore helped me settle on the crab cakes and it turned out to be a good choice. Two perfectly cooked cakes low on filler and high on crab were joined by the Chipotle Like Jimaca Slaw and a delicious Roasted Pepper Remoulade that was a great marriage for the crab cake.  Ange C. also ordered the same dish and he too enjoyed his meal. Val opted for the Poussin, Deboned Young Chicken, Stuffed with Seasonal Greens, Mushrooms and Brie, Scrambled Eggs with Spring Asparagus. As I mentioned earlier, I would have been unable to get past the scrambled eggs but Val found his dish flavorful and nicely prepared. He even paused once in a while in his story-telling to eat a bite or two. I was proud that he was able to feed himself without his wife, Patty being there. The guy is making real progress.

Steve J. took time out from insinuating that my Grand Prize Win in the NCAA Tournament Pool run by my son, Brian was more than just good fortune and coincidence  to place an order for the lamb.  Cumin Dusted Lamb Steak, Artichoke Pistachio Pesto, Merguez and Spinach Fricassee. His medium well dish was just as he had requested and, although I think he still feels the pool was fixed, he at least did not go home hungry.

As with most of these “neighborhood” dinners, stories were told and retold for the 200th time and lots of laughs accompanied the meal. We split two of the desserts , the Banoffee Tart  (Banoffee = Banana and Toffee explained Elenore) and the Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. Both of these were very good but I would give a slight edge to the cake which was extremely good.

Sycamore is a very nice BYOB with some great menu choices, a warm and welcoming atmosphere and very reasonably priced. The meal, with tax and tip was $41.00 per person.


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