The Calm After The Storm – Finding Winter Comfort in Rigatoni & Smoked Pulled Chicken in Tomato Cream Sauce at La Vecchia

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The day I enjoyed this hot and delicious, soul-soothing dish of pasta at La Vecchia was a day of kerfluffles of epic proportions: it was the Monday after the ice storm.  24 hours after the city was cloaked in a sea of white and frozen water, knocked out of power left, right and centre and 2 days before Christmas.  And there I was taking 2 buses and the subway into town at the crack of dawn before daylight had even peeked out from the pitch-black sky.

I know.  I can hear the shrill “are you crazy?!” shrieks shouting at me in the distance.  But having a weekday off before Christmas was hard to come by and I just wanted to go out and do some blog work.  Beyond frustrated at the holidays being turned upside-down in more ways than one, I threw caution to the wind and headed out anyway.  I knew it was going to be messy.  But I did it anyway because I was fortunate enough to still have power in my home and able to exit my house and street for some fresh air so it just didn’t make any sense to waste a day if I wasn’t physically homebound, especially since there were specific things I wanted to accomplish on that particular Monday.

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So did I end up doing exactly what I set out to do?  Not exactly!  The power outage in many pockets of town definitely threw a wrench into the first part of my agenda (I bused northbound on Avenue Road, gaped at the wreckage and ghostliness out the window, mentally scrapped my plan and just stayed on the bus as it doubled back around at the end of the route!) so I shrugged it off and decided to sit down to lunch a little earlier at one of my favourite restaurants in the Yonge & Eglinton area, La Vecchia!

I enjoyed weekend brunch there so much during my first visit last March.  I promised myself I would go back for their salads, sandwiches, mains, pastas and of course, more weekend brunch and while it took awhile I finally made my way back and had a fabulous lunch to boot.  I haven’t done pasta justice on Ate by Ate so going to La Vecchia served two purposes: to get some scrumptious pasta in my belly and on the blog and to warm up with some really fantastic comfort food.  With snow and ice surrounding you from all sides, nothing else would do.

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La Vecchia’s lunch menu offers 8 different pasta dishes ($9 to $12) including penne in spicy tomato sauce with olives and scallions, linguini with shrimp, mussels and calamari, spaghettini with Italian sausage, mushrooms, peppers and onions and capellini with grilled chicken, olives and roasted red peppers.  After seeing my boyfriend have their amazing Rigatoni Romani during our first visit though, I knew without a doubt THAT was the dish I needed to have.

The Rigatoni Romani ($11) is served smothered in hot and creamy blush sauce (light cream tomato sauce) with smoked chicken, portobello mushrooms and lots of creamy, tangy goat cheese crumbles on top.  A bright crunchy leaf of radicchio adorned my heart-warming dish and my server graciously spooned some Parmesan cheese and cracked some fresh black pepper over top to complete the mouthwatering masterpiece.

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I admit, rigatoni wouldn’t normally be my first choice off the bat because long pasta noodles are the way to my pasta-loving heart.  My 3 favourite pastas are pappardelle, linguini and spaghetti.  However, that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t love all the others!  I simply don’t have them as often.  After this meal though, I thought to myself, “girl, you need to have more rigatoni in your life!”  Rigatoni is lovely for so many reasons.  The ridges and tubes catch every ounce of yummy sauce and its cylindrical shape is just plain fun.  It reminds me of childhood and shapes and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, I could write a novel on why I love this pasta dish so much.  It was so saucy, so creamy and so comforting.  And it stays hot!  As you dig through it, steam keeps escaping from the bottom up so you’re never left with cold pasta.  The sauce is super smooth and savoury, the rigatoni is cooked perfectly, the portobello mushrooms are juicy and meaty and the chicken?  Oh my goodness.  We’re not talking about plain old strips of chicken.  We’re talking smoked chicken that resembles pulled pork.  In tomato cream sauce.  Surrounded by cracked black pepper and goat cheese.  It is HEAVEN.  The chicken gets all nice and shredded as you’re eating it so you have this great texture to the dish that you wouldn’t have otherwise if was strips or pieces or even a cutlet.  It really plays up the warmth and comfort factor and it is so satisfyingly filling.

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We might think to ourselves that pasta dishes are easy enough to execute but it’s the little things and attention to detail that makes all the difference.  This wouldn’t be the star that it is if the pasta wasn’t cooked right, if the mushrooms were watery, and if the chicken was dry, tough and overcooked, things that could feasibly happen if it wasn’t executed properly.  But thankfully for me they got it spot on and I had a lunch to remember on one very memorable day of the year.

*****

La Vecchia is an Italian eatery that serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch (11am lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Saturday, and 10am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Sunday).  They are located at 2405 Yonge Street on the east side of Yonge Street several blocks north of Eglinton by Broadway Ave. in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood.  You can view their menus and contact info on their website HERE.

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Wine Barrels, Pizza, & Marshmallow-Caramel Desserts – A Photo Spotlight on Eaton Centre’s Trattoria Mercatto, Part I!

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*****

Trattoria Mercatto is located at 220 Yonge Street inside The Eaton Centre on the 3rd floor on the northern, Dundas Street end of the shopping centre.  Specializing in Italian fare and seasonal ingredients, their menu features pasta, antipasti, panini, pizza, Italian desserts, and special weekly menus that shine a spotlight on seasonal, local ingredients.  They serve 3 other locations in Toronto under the Mercatto name (Bay & Adelaide, Toronto Street, and the Mars Discovery District on College Street).  They are open for both lunch and dinner 7 days a week (Monday-Saturday 11:30am-11pm, Sunday 12pm-9pm at the Eaton Centre location).  Click HERE to view their website with menus, upcoming events, catering, news, and more!

On My Kitchen Table: Spinach Fettuccine Pasta With Crushed Tomatoes, Vegetables, & Chicken Meatballs

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Let’s talk pasta.  I live for pasta days.  I get excited seeing Mario Batali make fresh, homemade pasta from scratch on The Chew (homemade stuffed ravioli and pappardelle in olive oil, mushrooms, and buttered sage!  OH.MY.GOD), I daydream about ravioli, linguine, and egg noodles, and I almost always dive for the pasta dishes at self-serve, pay-by-weight buffets at supermarkets and gourmet food stores like All the Best Fine Foods and Daniel et Daniel.  The seafood linguine at The Pickle Barrel was even one of my favourite dishes back in the day when my high school friends and I used to frequent the restaurant for girls’ night get-togethers.  And yet, for a pasta and noodle lover like myself, I don’t eat it often enough and it’s sadly one of the more neglected foodie areas on the blog.  I am totally committed to changing that this year though; I love pasta too much to not see it shine! 

I had three very memorable pasta and noodle meals this past month though, including a delicious ramen and pork gyoza dumpling noodle-in-soup bowl, an amazing pesto chicken fusili from Daniel et Daniel (fact: pesto makes everything heavenly), and an Italian all-you-can-eat feast for my brother’s birthday at Frankie Tomatto’s where I had crab stuffed ravioli bathed in a light garlic, tomato, and parsley cream sauce, spaghetti and vegetarian meatballs, and braised beef and butternut squash pasta.  It was wonderful.  

It’s hard to get my pasta fix on a regular basis.  And by regular basis, I mean almost every day.  My entire family has different carborhydrate tastes.  There’s me, the pasta and noodle lover in the flesh.  Then there’s my mum who happily claims she could live on nothing but bread.  Then there’s my brother who will eat rice, bread, and pasta but not really noodles.  Finally, we have my dad who is, what my mum and I call, a “human rice bucket”.  It’s maddening trying to find things we all love sometimes.  Thus, when my mum suggested having fettuccine for dinner, I did my happy-fists dance! 

For dinner: regular and spinach fettuccine in tomato sauce with chicken meatballs, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, button mushrooms, celery, crushed tomatoes, shredded mozzarella cheese, white pepper, and parsley flakes.  I love different cream sauces (garlic, mushroom, portuguese, white wine, the whole shebang) but every so often, tomato sauce hits the spot and for me, it has to be a tomato sauce devoid of meat.  Just plain old crushed tomatoes and herbs does the job.  I currently have my eye on some udon noodle bowls at a few sushi spots in town, some Portuguese chicken spaghetti, any and all kinds of macaroni and cheese, and ravioli.  Lots of ravioli.  The year is still young so we’ll see how many dishes I get around to enjoying!

*****

To view Ate by Ate’s archive of pasta related posts, click here.  More posts to come!

Turkey Sandwiches, Scalloped Potatoes & Fish, and LOTS of Sweet Treats! Courense Bakery on Bloor Street West

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You know what’s better than a bakery that has cakes, donuts, pastries, tarts, mousse cups, cupcakes, and meringues?  A bakery that has cakes, donuts, pastries, tarts, mousse cups, cupcakes, meringues AND fresh baked bread, sandwiches, breakfast, pasta, hot food and plenty of space to sit and eat!  With Christmas decorations!  And a Christmas tree by the window!  Can you tell I’m excited?!  I absolutely lovelovelove bakeries that double as cafés and I happened across a fabulous one in Bloorcourt Village on Bloor Street West, sandwiched between Ossington and Dufferin just west of Dovercourt Rd. 

Courense Bakery is a pretty bakery that lights up from the inside out.  Its dark chocolate brown and frosted gold exterior beckons you inside like a homey Christmas gingerbread house and when I passed by it for the first time a week and a half ago, there was something warm, welcoming, and cozy about the way the lights from the inside shone through the front windows.  It felt like a place I could enjoy some hot cocoa in while inhaling the smell of warm bread and sugary spun desserts.

I had no idea Courense was a bakery and a sit down café!  I was so delighted when I walked in and saw all the tables and chairs to sit and eat on and I was even more delighted when my eyes landed on the trays and trays of beautiful white meringues with Christmas sprinkles!  The dessert and pastry display cases curved around in a J shape – like a candy cane – and carried everything from whole cakes, jelly roll cake slices, frosted cake slices, sweet puff pastries, vanilla cupcakes, donuts, tarts, meringues with Christmas sprinkles and chocolate sprinkles, custards, eclairs, cannolis, chocolate mousse, and more. 

It was so cute how some of the dessert were also decorated for Christmas.  The meringues and chocolate mousse had Christmas sprinkles and some of the pastries were coated in melted chocolate and/or powdered sugar with chocolate cigar biscuits and adorned with a little rainbow candy cane!  The dessert selection is AMAZING.  I can’t imagine anyone not being able to find something that strikes their fancy here!

Courense Bakery isn’t just a place to tickle your sweet teeth though.  They serve sandwiches, pasta, hot food, and breakfast!  Behind the display cases sits a wooden wall rack of fresh baked bread in the form of buns, kaisers, and giant loaves.  When you walk further into the bakery, closer to the back, you’ll find their selection of deli meat, cheeses, and hot food selections for the day.  Here’s the thing though: they don’t have a menu.  Which would probably confuse first-timers big time.  I’m here to the rescue though!  Once you figure out how their portions and pricing works the first time, you’re set for life. 

I know not having a menu with prices to look at might irritate some people (or at the very least cause a little confusion), but for me, it’s okay.  Of course I would prefer a menu to look at.  I can look over something slowly, consider my options, and order my food accordingly.  But the way I see it is that I have no qualms asking the nice girls who work here about the food and pricing.  I have vocal cords.  I am capable of asking questions to find out whatever information I want to find out.  It may not be the most ideal situation, but the food is great and I personally don’t mind because their food falls into 3 categories (sandwiches, hot food, and breakfast), making the situation manageable.  Some might counter back and say that one shouldn’t have to ask about food menu items and pricing and that’s fair.  I’m here to give you the good though, so this is just fair warning!

Courense Bakery serves sandwiches with their deli meats, lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo, and mustard.  The flat price of a sandwich starts at $4 and lettuce and tomato are an extra $.50.  Their deli meats for sandwiches probably change on a regular basis depending on what they have on hand, but they have turkey, salami, and ham among others, and their selection of provolone and havarti cheese is delicious! 

Their hot food includes pasta, meats, and potato dishes and they serve them on large square plates fit for a hearty meal.  Each hot food plate entree comes in at $8.50 and you can mix and match your mains to fill your plate.  For example, you can have half a plate of pasta and half a plate of one of the other selections.  On this particular day, they had penne pasta with olives, feta cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and red pepper in olive oil dressing and herbs, roast beef in a marinara sauce, and a fabulous hot food dish of scalloped potatoes, tuna, flaky cod fish, and herbs.  I shared a plate of penne pasta and potatoes and fish with my mum and brother and shared a turkey sandwich with my mum while my brother enjoyed a whole turkey sandwich on his own.

The food is delicious.  We were especially over the moon with the scalloped potatoes and flaked tuna and cod!  I love scalloped potatoes and don’t eat them often enough so this was a scrumptious, shovel-the-food-off-the-plate-and-into-my-mouth treat!  The cod fish was white, meaty, soft, and flavourful and it was just all-around yumminess.  It was a warm meal that really packed a punch and it was great that we were given an ample portion of food on our plate.  I love potatoes and I love both flaky and meaty white fish so I was so excited to see a dish like this here! 

And their sandwiches?  SO.DARN.AWESOME!  Aside from grilled cheese, and vegetarian and cheese sandwiches, turkey sandwiches are my favourite.  You all know how much I love my turkey sandwiches from Raymerville Deli & Bakery and I’ve always tooted my horn that nothing would ever come close to those scrumptious sandwiches.  I think I’ve found an almost tie for my favourite turkey sandwich!  Courense Bakery uses this amazing soft-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside bread (I was enjoying my half of the turkey sandwich so much I forgot to ask what kind of bread they used!  I’ll remember to ask next time!) and the havarti cheese was deliciously rich and combined with the turkey breast deli meat, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard (just the way I like it!), it was a heavenly sandwich.

I can’t report back on the breakfast because I didn’t have any, but I know they serve breakfast because I saw egg breakfasts being brought to some people’s tables!  Courense is a great bakery with a ton of sweet options at very reasonable prices (we picked up huge jelly roll cake slices for $1.65 each!), and I can’t wait to come back for the breakfast, another turkey sandwich, more hot food, and those chocolate mousses!

*****

Courense Bakery is located at 1014 Bloor Street West between Ossington Ave. and Dufferin St.  The bakery is located just one block west of Dovercourt Rd.  In addition to the dizzying array of desserts and fresh bread, they serve breakfast, coffee drinks, hot food, and deli sandwiches.

The Vegetarian Sandwich Series – Grilled Panini With Eggplant, Roasted Peppers, Artichokes and More at Fusaro’s Kitchen

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Things have been quiet on the Vegetarian Sandwich series front, so I thought it was definitely time to unleash some veggie goodness back into things!  I have my fellow Icing Sugar Queen at Le Dolci, Miya, to thank for the inspiration behind this post.  Not only have I learned so much about cupcake decorating and design during my time at Le Dolci so far, but Miya and Lisa have also introduced me to some fabulous good eats around the studio!  It’s fun bouncing ideas and recommendations off of one another; I tell Lisa and Miya all about my farmers’ market adventures, they show me another island of vegetarian sandwich paradise. 

When I saw Miya eating her veggie sandwich during lunch one day at the studio, I got curious because it looked so yummy and I asked her where she got her sandwich from.  “Fusaro’s Kitchen”, she replied, between bites.  I was quiet for about a nanosecond before the lightbulb went off and I almost literally face-palmed.  Fusaro’s Kitchen!  I knew where that was!  I had passed by it numerous times on the streetcar and walked past it another handful of times.  It was like deja vu all over again when I finally discovered Mela Cafe in Yorkville over a year ago after being in and around the neighbourhood so many times.  I felt so lame.  But I did what any dedicated foodie would do: I went and ate there.

Fusaro’s Kitchen, located on Spadina Ave. just south of Queen Street West, is an Italian eatery with hot and fresh pizzas, pastas, salads, and panini sandwiches.  I went in and instantly thought, “where have you been all my life?!”  Or rather, where in the world have I been?  Fusaro’s has a giant wall full of Italian grocery items including chocolates, wafer cookies (Quadratinis, my favourites!), sauces, olive oils, balsamics, and more. 

I know I don’t blog about it enough, but god do I ever love pasta.  Pasta is my weakness.  I love it more than rice and bread.  I suppose rice comes in at a close second when it comes to carbs and starches, but pasta makes me really happy.  Spaghetti, lasagna, linguine, macaroni, fettucine, I love it all and I would be a happy clam if I was just given a bowl of spaghtti with nothing but olive oil and herbs.  The pasta lover in me instinctively wanted to down a bowl for lunch, but I quickly remembered why I was there: to stuff my face with a delicious veggie panini.

Fusaro’s has menus dedicated to grilled panini sandwiches, pasta, salads, and dishes such as eggplant, chicken, and veal parmigiana, meatballs, and others.  Prices for pasta come in at around $10-$11, parmigiana and meatball mains at $8.50-$10.50, salads from $4.75-$10, and panini sandwiches from $7.50-$8.  Fusaro’s has two vegetarian sandwich options and I chose menu item number five (cinque), a grilled panini with grilled zucchini and eggplant, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, baby spinach, and goat cheese.  I ordered a side salad ($2.50) to go along with it and waited in excited anticipation for my lunch.  I was so excited like you wouldn’t believe.  I know it’s “just” a sandwich, but I was excited about the veggie toppings (I rarely get to eat artichokes!  And you all know how I feel about things like roasted peppers, spinach, and goat cheese!) and I really believed this panini would be a knockout.

Grilled paninis have been touch and go with me.  They’re either a total hit or a dismal miss.  I love the idea of a grilled sandwich and when it’s executed well, it’s heaven.  When they’re a miss though, often times it’s not necessarily because they don’t taste good or that the flavour isn’t there, it’s because they’re either too small, they don’t have enough substance between the bread, or the topping combinations are ho-hum and nothing to write home about.  Sandwiches of this variety will always range from about $5-$11 depending on where you go, so a fabulous panini has to be bang for my buck and it has to have ingredients worth get excited about, especially when it’s a vegetarian sandwich.  It just doesn’t make sense to eat something with nothing but lettuce and tomato and a few strands of something else.

I loved this sandwich.  This sandwich makes me want to come to Fusaro’s every day of the week.  Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.  But only a little.  For one thing, it wasn’t small.  This was a good-sized sandwich in both length and width, comparatible to a submarine bun from a bakery.  It wasn’t the size of a foot-long, but definitely larger than 6 inches.  I’d say it was closer to 8 inches.  The bread was so crunchy on the outside and so super soft on the inside.  The hallmark of a good sandwich is whether or not you can envision yourself eating the bread alone.  If the bread needs toppings to make it taste good, it means it isn’t.  The bread should make your mouth water all by itself and this bread does. 

And the toppings.  Oh my god.  Vegetarians rejoice.  There was so much going on in this sandwich and it was all amazingly delicious.  It was so stuffed with juicy vegetables and mouthwatering, creamy sauce.  A bed of leafy spinach sat on the bottom with strips of roasted red pepper, chunks of artichoke, eggplant, and zucchini on top with goat cheese wedged throughout.  The sauce was fantastic.  It was a cross between a cream sauce and a mayo and it was delightful.  I would eat this sandwich over and over again in a heartbeat.

Oh, and the salad!  The salad was a simple salad of greens, tomatoes, and cucumber and it was made especially delicious with an olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and I’m telling you, their balsamic is top-notch.  I never used to like balsamic, but after an amazing meal at Southern Accent with a fabulous balsamic reduction and a great balsamic my mum bought, I’ve done a 180 and now I really enjoy it and can appreciate good balsamic.  I was so happy with everything about this meal and I can’t wait to eat here again.  Judging by the crazy line-ups here though, I’m going to have to luck out again next time.

 

*****

Fusaro’s Kitchen is located at 147 Spadina Ave., just south of Queen Street West on the east side of Spadina.  Fusaro’s Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and offers a breakfast menu 7 days a week.

Round and Round the Fork it Twirls: The Old Spaghetti Factory

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This may sound ridiculous, but pasta is such a treat to me.  I love pasta like nobody’s business and I make giddy “mmm” noises every few seconds when I eat it.  This is a passion that I unfortunately can’t share with everyone as my dad touches pasta with a ten-foot pole, my brother is apathetic towards it, and my best friend does not like spaghetti *cue incredulous, confused look from me*.  That leaves only my mum and me.  And my honey Richard. 

After years and years of hearing about The Old Spaghetti Factory (located at 54 The Esplanade, south of Front St.E, in between Yonge and Church St.), I finally skipped on over for the first time this past August for my birthday and was I ever brimming with excitement!  And it did not disappoint in the least.  I can’t even begin to tell you what a nutcase I looked like as soon as Richard and I were shown to our table, which by the way was the cozy, private, romantic vintage elevator booth with actual buttons inside!!  Oh my word.  Talk about cute.  Oh right, back to me looking like a nutcase.  This restaurant is BEAUTIFUL.  Up high are stained glass light fixtures, a gorgeous chandelier in the front foyer, and each section of the restaurant has its own “theme” and decor.  There’s a section where you can be seated in an old-fashioned streetcar, an an Amsterdam bicycle club, in a library-like space, and much more.  At the centre of it all is an elevated carousel with beautifully painted horses and I ran around the perimeter of the restaurant snapping pictures like I was part of a brigade of paparazzi.  That, or an over-eager tourist with a forefinger spasm.

If you’re a pasta head like me, the menu is heaven.  Besides the appetizers such as salads and soups, the first portion is dedicated to 9 spaghetti dishes with different sauces and meat, and the rest of the menu is dedicated to lots and lots of pasta!  Penne, lasagna, manicotti, linguine, fettuccine, cannelloni, the list goes on and I could seriously eat here for the rest of my life.  There are 6 vegetarian dishes and you can substitute for whole wheat spaghetti and gluten-free. 

Not only is the pasta so yummy, their drinks are fantastic.  Seriously, how many places do you know of that serve flavoured Italian soda, flavoured lemonade, and drinks like iced cappuccino?  I love lemonade and wish so many other places served it.  And to make things even sweeter, The Old Spaghetti Factory has a daily price fixe menu that you can order from, as well as a separate dessert menu if you wish to forgo the spumoni icecream that is included at the end of your meal.

Wait, end of your meal?  Included?  Yet another wonderful thing that I love about this place is that all main dishes include an appetizer (your choice between a green salad or bowl of minestrone soup; if you want clam chowder, spinach salad, or Caesar salad instead, you can upgrade for an extra $1.29) and icecream for dessert!  They normally serve their special Spumoni icecream (a mix of pistachio, chocolate, and vanilla), but you can order plain chocolate or vanilla icecream as well.  Oh!  As well, a nice warm loaf of crusty bread is served with your meal with regular butter and garlic butter and let me tell you, the garlic butter is delicious.  It’s a yummy, comforting, well-rounded meal and it’s great because a lot of the time want you go out for a meal, you want to try an appetizer or you want to order a dessert but the prices for both are just out of your range sometimes, so this is really fab as you’re looking at an average $20 dinner.

I had myself a jolly good time sipping my bowl of minestrone soup (which by the way is very good as they put lots of vegetables, beans, and little pastas in it; they do not skimp on ingredients), slurping my beer mug of flavoured mango lemonade (ignore my scrapbook page that says peach, I made a boo-boo), stuffing my face with delicious clam spaghetti, with butter clams and white béchamel cream sauce and LOTS of freshly cracked black pepper!  I am a fiend for cracked black pepper and this is the scene that usually plays out when the waiter or waitress comes back with the grinder.  Waiter/waitress: “say when” *starts twisting the grinder*.  Me: *watches for 5 minutes*.  Just kidding!  I’m exaggerating, but really, I do love it when places offer the cracked pepper, and if it suits your fancy, you can also ask for some parmesean cheese or chili flakes too.  To end off the meal, I had the special Spumoni icecream.  It was a fantastic meal and the atmosphere was fun, the food was delicious, and the service was super friendly.  Especially as I ran around like a monkey with my camera.  Staff just looked on amusingly.

Scrapbooking materials used: forest green, goldenrod, red, and pink cardstock (Recollections), Purple Daze patterned paper (Recollections), pasta stickers and carousel embellishment (Jolee’s), adhesive gems.