Wednesday, December 22, 2010

PRODUCT REVIEW: Nonni's Bakery

I'm doing a double review for two of Nonni's products, their biscotti and their Tusconi.

Cutting straight to the chase, their biscotti is the best biscotti on the supermarket shelf. They come individually wrapped, which helps keep them all supremely fresh. They are crisp, with not too many nuts, and a good, high-quality chocolate. Their turtle pecan biscotti comes with chunks of toffee inside, which adds a sweet, buttery, cruncy, chew to the cookie. And if you prefer, you can get almonds in place of pecans in yet another variety. The selection of cookies alone is enough to recommend Nonni's. I just wish that a variety pack was available.

I still prefer the biscotti available from local Italian bakeries, such as Scialo Bros. on Federal Hill, which are just epic in their dedication to huge amounts of everything in them. But Nonni's more than makes up for that by being available in most major grocery outlets. I very much like Nonni's Biscotti.

Nonni's Biscotti: RECOMMENDED

Nonni's Tusconi is made of fresh, high-quality ingredients, individually wrapped, and looks delicious. Unfortunately, it tastes like the brownie from my fifth grade school lunch.

Nonni's Tusconi: NOT RECOMMENDED.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

PRODUCT REVIEW: Mario Batali Pasta Sauces

Rao's is the best jarred pasta sauce on the market. Mario Batali's isn't better, but considering that it is cheaper, how close does it get to Rao's? Pretty close, but given the choice, I'd still take Rao's. I compared their vodka, marinara, and tomato basil sauces, and without fail, Rao's sauces had more punch to them, were heartier sauces with greater chunks of fresh ingredients, and also had more body, whereby they coated my mouth with flavor.

Batali's sauces, in contrast, were universally thinner. They were much lighter sauces with milder flavors, body, and few chunks of ingredients. The sauces tasted far from bad. For example, the tomato basil was rich, smooth, and had a fresh, sweet flavor to it. Everything about the sauces was smooth, sweet, natural, with just the right amount of salt to bring flavors out. They're just so lacking in body and flavor in comparison to Rao's sauces, though. Rao's uses more seasoning, more garlic, larger amounts of fresh ingredients; truly, everything about Rao's is one (sometimes small) step above Batali.

Still, if you can get Mario Batali sauces, they're good in every way. A high-quality sauce for a fair price. Jars usually run in the $5-7 range, but I think that I would always opt to spend the extra $2 on Rao's, given the choice.

Mario Batali Sauces: RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

PRODUCT REVIEW: Delacre Royal Moments Cookies

As always I'm on the lookout for pre-made goodies without HFCS or vegetable shortening. Bahlsen and LU cookies are two of my widely-available favorites, and I think that we can add Delacre to this list. After trying a few of their cookies I'm happy to report that they're certifiably good. The biscuits are of high-quality, dense, crisp, but not buttery. Most of their cookies use vegetable oil, not the hydrogenated kind, in place of butter and it tastes it. For example, the biscuit in LU's Petit Ecolier is noticeably creamier on the palate and tastes more, for lack of better descriptors, decadent.

The chocolate in Delacre cookies is also behind LU. There's a bit of bite to the aftertaste and a lack of smoothness that betrays a cheaper chocolate. It's of greater quality than a Hershey bar, certainly, but I expect more from something that crows about its rich, Belgian chocolate. It's weird, because the ingredients in the Delacre are, at least quantitatively, better than the Lu cookies. They use real vanilla, as opposed to vanillin, but there it is; the chocolate in the LU cookies is better.

While this isn't the most ringing endorsement I've ever given something, it's still a damned good cookie. Paired with a hot cup of espresso, it's a good little getaway, even if I'd prefer to have LU's Petit Ecolier.

Delacre Royal Moments: RECOMMENDED

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pies Pies, What Wonderful Pies!

I forgot to mention on Thanksgiving that my favorite bakery in Rhode Island has pies available for the holidays. The Village Hearth in Jamestown makes the most bestest pies that you can buy. If you're in the market for someone else to make your holiday dessert, there's only one place that you need to go. They're a bit pricier than other places, but trust me, these are pies, and pies are important. Spend the extra cash and get some good pies to follow up a good meal. And if your meal is bad, wash the taste out with pie.

Friday, December 3, 2010

PRODUCT REVIEW: Black Cat Espresso

Black Cat espresso is the flagship product of the now officially world-class cafe, Intelligentsia. Because of its fame, widespread availability, and quality, I think that calling it the bar by which other espresso blends are measured is not an exaggeration. I'm a big fan of Black Cat and buy it quite frequently and this product review has been something of a late comer.

First thing that someone coming from Starbucks or grocery store coffees will notice is how light the roast of Black Cat is. I'm not entirely sure what it was, but for whatever reason, America has grown accustomed to super-dark coffee roasts. This has benefits and detriments, of course. Dark roasted beans can make anything taste acceptable, so that's good, but it does that by erasing the terroir of the beans, which for good beans is bad.

The best espresso roasts are loaded with sweetness, chocolate, caramel, with the roasting process creating not char, but the flavor of lightly toasted bread. You don't ruin this with a dark roast! Go try local roasters and their espresso roasts. You'll find that many of them, if not most, will have espresso roasts in the city to full-city range, with some even including roasts as light as half-city. Again, the exaggerated flavor of the espresso process brings out everything the beans have to give, so more so than any other process, espresso demands good beans.

Black Cat is a case study in this. It's rich and smooth, and even when you screw up shots it tastes pretty good. When you get it right, it tastes amazing. I must admit to preferring my espresso a bit richer than Intelligentsia shot for. They obviously want a bit more complexity, which they openly admit, whereas I am totally happy to have espresso marked almost exclusively by chocolate and caramel. This is not a knock against it, obviously, since they are skilled roasters shooting for a specific flavor profile and they achieve that goal with aplomb.

That being said, there is one thing that pisses me off about this roast and that is how easy it is to screw up. It's a very light roast and this means that your espresso machine is going to be hyper-finicky with it, frequently side-channeling and wanting you to change your grind level from day to day. It can be a major pain. It's aggravated if you have an already pissy machine, like my La Spaziale Vivaldi II.

But that's my problem, and yours if you choose to use BC, and the only thing that is a true knock against the beans are the price. They are rather expensive at well over $1 per ounce. You can buy them cheaper from other retailers (Like than through Intelligentsia... for some reason... but it's still far more expensive than other famous blends, like Stumptown's Hair Bender or local blends like that which can be had (in Rhode Island) from Updike's Newtowne or New Harvest.

To put a point on this whole discussion, Black Cat is a high-quality espresso. It's worthy of its fame, and, while expensive, tastes fantastic. You would be well-served to drink this if you like espresso.

Black Cat Espresso: Highly Recommended