Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The rest of the rest: Road Trip 2008

I covered most of the highlights and lowlights of our last Road Trip this past July. Some other places of interest:

Garfield's, Susquehanna, PA: Garfield's to me represents the epitome of the boring 1980's styled chain. But we were on the open road from Harrisburg, PA to Geneva, NY and it was way past lunch time and we'd already given up on our original plan to head to Penn State University, since we were running behind schedule. Garfield's, predictably enough, sits at the entrance of an equally boring mall. That said, Mr. Jose was more than impressed with Garfield's for offering locally made Pennsylvania wine. For that alone, the stop was worth it. Bravo to this branch of Garfield's!
Mighty Taco, Tonawanda, NY: Loved it, loved it, loved it! After the lackluster Spicy Thai experience, Mr. Jose decided dessert needed to be at the nearby Mighty Taco. Mrs. Jose, the beautiful woman who I have been married to for 11 years, agreed. She had only one and I had 2, but I could tell they were delicious. Old school, ground beef, mushmeat tacos. I love 'em. My only gripe is that I got hot, only to find out they have a x-hot. Next time, and I do hope there will be a next time. Mighty Taco is a local chain in the Buffalo area with quite a few locations.
Jenny's Ice Cream, Williamsburg, NY: Did I say we got dessert at Mighty Taco? Ahem, well we went for a second dessert then at Jenny's a wonderful homemade ice cream place in the quaint town of Williamsburg, just west of Buffalo and where we were staying. Looks like I can point to the day I gained 5 pounds....
Fireside Thai Jasmine and Pi-Tom's, Toronto, ONT: Two separate Thai restaurants that we had on the two nights we were in Toronto. Remember when Mrs. Jose gets in that zone for Thai food, there ain't no stopping her! Even she wishes she'd stopped herself. Both are entirely uninspiring. Fireside is definitely the better of the two. Nicer help, but the appetizer we had was awful (a variety of the fried spring roll, that had so much filler and dough, it could only be called gross). As for Pi-Tom's - lose the attitude folks. Food is bland-ola. Doesn't matter, it'll close soon. The trendy places always do. The Regular Joe's Guide kinda places don't.
Burgundy's 780, Toronto, ONT: We stopped here for lunch. Very good little tavern in the downtown area of Yorktown. I thought for sure it was a chain, but it isn't! Nothing very distinctive, but everything was good. Worth a stop for lunch if you're nearby.
Adam and Eve Chocolatier, Toronto, ONT: We enjoyed this place so much the first night, we went back the second. They feature gelato rather than ice cream, and is all homemade on the premises. Excellent and recommended to those in downtown Toronto.
Jane's Ice Cream, Saugerties, NY: Jane's is made in nearby Kingston, NY. I can't remember the name of the place we had the ice cream, it wasn't called Jane's, but they serve it. Outstanding. Though I'm sure everyone who lives there already knows this.
Olde Philadelphia Tavern, Philadelphia airport: This was our final lunch before flying home to DFW. Believe it or not, Mrs. Jose liked their Philly Cheesesteak better than Rick's. Go figure. You know what, it wasn't bad at all. There are way worse places in the airports. If you're flying American, this is a good alternative to the chains. I think they're a local chain actually, as I see other locations, but no website to consolidate that evidence.

Luca's Ristorante ~ Flemington, New Jersey

Sometime back in 1999, when Mr. RJG was working in the northeast Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem on a 2 week assignment, I asked the locals where was the best place for Italian food. They said the closest was not south Philly but rather Trenton, New Jersey. I ran out of time and only ended up trying a couple of local Bensalem places which were good, not great (pretty much what my cohorts said). So when I did my homework for this trip, it appears I may have missed my window of opportunity. Apparently many of the classic places in Trenton have either boarded up or are “not the same”. Analyzing the situation, and looking at hotel options in the area, I settled on the community of Flemington instead. And Luca’s was to be the Italian destination of choice.

With the great taste of Little Italy still on our mind, we stuck to our game plan, and headed over to Luca’s for dinner. We sat down and prepared to order win when the waiter said it was “BYOB”. What? As noted many times in the RJG, BYOB is a concept we love in Texas, and I know it exists in a few other states, but New Jersey is one place I did not expect to hear this. So I immediately asked where the nearest liquor store was. The waiter seemed surprised, but didn't realize we were guests on vacation, so we only had one shot at this. He said there was one only a few minutes away. Hey, Mr. and Mrs. RJG want our wine with our Italian food!

With that out of the way, we settled into Luca’s and prepared for our Italian meal. Could it be as good as the night before? Well, almost! Luca’s is a little bit more modern, and there were nods to the Romano’s Macaroni Grill way of doing things (olive oil and pepper for the bread, extra large portions). And really, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The biggest weakness of the publicly traded Macaroni Grill is consistency, like all major chains. Since we've only been to Luca’s once, I can’t comment on consistency, but overall we were both quite pleased with our meal. I again stuck to the basics and wasn't disappointed. The portions here are quite large, and are ideal for take home leftovers, though we weren't obviously in a position to do so.

Luca’s is a two store local chain. The other being on the way to the New York side of the state in Somerset, NJ.

Website: http://www.lucasristorante.com/

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Albany Pump Station ~ Albany, New York

The next day in Tupper Lake we had a charming “continental breakfast” at our motel. Consisting of coffee and a wrapped powder donut – I’m pretty sure it’s the first powdered donut I've had in 20 years. Afterwards we drove out of the Adirondack Mountains, down to the state capital of Albany, where we arrived at lunch time (could it be a coincidence? Ya think?). Per original plan, we headed to a local brewery / brewpub called the Albany Pump Station just on the outskirts of downtown and the Capitol building. The Albany Pump Station resurrected an old brewery from the past called C.H. Evans Brewing Company. We had such great success with the Appalachian Brewing Company, that we were hoping for a repeat performance. And did it succeed? Well, sort of. Mr. RJG gives it a thumbs up. Outstanding brew (the Quackenbush Blonde) and I went for the cheeseburger, always a good choice at a brewpub. Great seasoning, well cooked, high quality meat, excellent toppings, and just the right amount of grease. For me a pleasurable experience all around. But Mrs. RJG didn't agree (the first time we disagreed about the meal quality on this trip). She enjoyed the beer and all was going well until she got her deli sandwich. With Jreck's fresh on her mind, I think she was expecting something similar. What she got was, in her words, something that she could get at the grocery store. Something along the lines of plain bread and Sysco cold cuts. I can’t say for sure, but it didn't look too inspiring to me either. Her point was why bother to offer a sandwich if it’s something you can get pre-wrapped at 7-11. Can’t argue with that! So we’re chalking it up to she “got the wrong thing”, and if there’s a second visit to Albany, she’ll try something else.

Website: http://www.evansale.com/

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Little Italy Restaurant ~ Tupper Lake, New York

From Gouverneur, we enjoyed a picturesque drive through the Adirondacks and onto to our destination of Tupper Lake, ideally situated in the middle of the mountains and by a lake (naturally). I think we might have even snuck in an ice cream break. The little place by the side of the road served Perry's Ice Cream, which I've only seen in the New York state area. Quite good actually.

Like many of the small towns in the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake doesn’t possess a large chain hotel. Since Mr. RJG travels a lot for business, I tend to stay at Marriott or Hilton owned hotels – generally the more business friendly ones like Hampton Inn or Courtyard. And so I’ve made that a habit for personal trips as well, and Mrs. RJG likes the free breakfasts at the Hampton in particular. We typically eat light for breakfast, nothing more a bagel, coffee, juice, yogurt, fruit, maybe some cereal. And that’s what Hampton excels at. But for Tupper Lake, I needed to be creative. After searching the internet, I settled on the Tupper Lake Motel . For the first time in many years, I actually had to call the motel to make a reservation and then reaffirm prior to leaving. Once we arrived, I knew I had made the right choice. Run by a older Slovakian couple, the Tupper Lake Motel reminded me of the motels of my childhood, traveling with my Dad as a little kid. A classic 1950’s era single story motel, with a pool in the middle of the complex (see website above). Our room was nothing more than a queen size bed, a table with 2 chairs, and a tiny bathroom. All in tip-top shape, clearly having been renovated and the maids take good care of the rooms. After walking around the lake some, Mrs. RJG and I went over to a local liquor store and picked up a cold bottle of Chardonnay, made in New York’s Finger Lakes region. And we sat in our little motel room, and drained the entire bottle, with glasses provided by the proprietors – not to mention they opened the bottle for us (I gambled that their European heritage would come through on this point).

With a good buzz on, we stumbled into town via foot to the Little Italy restaurant, recommended by both the hotel owner and the liquor store owner. Of course we each promptly ordered a glass of wine! We passed on the appetizer and I settled for a good old fashioned plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Ahhh, old fashioned homemade meatballs! So yummy. Why is it so hard to find these anymore? And the pasta? Al dente, without me having to ask for it that way. Just comes natural to those that know what they’re doing. And it was still steaming hot on the last bite. Mrs. RJG went for a pasta dish loaded with broccoli and other veggies. All outstanding. The perfect fuel for our waltz back to the motel. I believe they have another location in nearby Saranac Lake, but I’m not 100% sure.

I couldn't find another review for this fine restaurant, so we may be first!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Jreck Subs ~ Gouverneur, New York

After Simcoe, and a drive through Hamilton, we enjoyed two wonderful days in Toronto, seeing the sites and walking the quaint neighborhoods near downtown. As for our meal choices, unfortunately nothing stood out, though we did have a nice lunch (all to be covered in the summary). Leaving Toronto in the morning, we headed for our longest drive of the trip, taking a major highway through Ontario. The original plan was to stop in Kingston for a German meal, but frankly neither of us were hungry despite walking many miles around Toronto the prior two days. We felt too full for a large German lunch. So we headed for the border through to Upstate New York. After getting through US customs (not a friendly bunch, that’s for sure), we journeyed towards our destination in the Adirondack mountains. We really had no idea where we were going to eat lunch, but Mrs. RJG was starting to get hungry, and that means Mr. RJG better find a place quick, or Momma ain't goin' to be too happy. We were in the town of Gouverneur, and decided we’ll eat there no matter what. We saw a pizza place, and decided that would be sufficient to get us to dinner. So I turned into a lot to make a U-Turn when we both noticed that we were in the parking space for Jreck subs. Mrs. Jose quickly stated that would be her preference. Sounded better to me too.

We've talked about the corporate chain Jersey Mike’s before in the RJG, and Jrecks has a similar formula of freshly sliced deli meats (high quality) and an array of toppings and dressings. Mrs. RJG also went for the soup du jour (Cream of Broccoli I think). I’d never heard of Jrecks prior, but if you’re living in Upstate New York, then I’m sure the name is familiar. They’re based in Watertown and currently have 42 locations, all in this part of New York. Mr. RJG loves a good regional chain, and Jrecks is exactly the kind of fast food discovery that makes these kind of adventures fun. Another reference point for my DFW readers is The Great Outdoors.

Website: http://www.jrecksubs.com/

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Swiss Chalet ~ Sincoe, Ontario

The next day we crossed into Canada and chose a scenic drive along the coast not far from Lake Erie. Compared to the rather gritty western portion of New York, Ontario is considerably more bucolic. Just to mix it up a bit, I thought it would be a good idea to try one of Canada’s corporate chains, and so I’d selected Swiss Chalet as a good stop on the open road (Simcoe, Ontario for those keeping score). Now I’m sure for any Canadian reading this (as if), going to Swiss Chalet is about as exciting as going to Denny’s. But their website indicated rotisserie chicken and Mr. RJG saw an opportunity for a good meal without all the calories.

To be honest I was expecting a fast food place, but to my surprise it’s an actual sit down restaurant. Mrs. RJG likes that. I ordered the white chicken sandwich on a Kaiser role, and it comes with a Greek Salad (well, as an option for a small charge if I remember right). Mrs. RJG had something similar. And I think it came with a soup as well. Well… the salad was good anyway. As for the sandwich, I guess the appeal is in the dipping sauce. Unfortunately for us, we’re not into sweet sauces too much – and the honey cinnamon concoction wasn't to our liking – at all. Without the sauce, the sandwich is bone dry. Not the moist tender bits one would expect with the term “rotisserie”. Mrs. RJG seemed to enjoy the soup, but I was nonplussed. OK, it’s a boring chain, and I should not have expected anything more. But it sure was painful paying 30 some dollars (and at 1 to 1, that’s the US price!) for two ordinary chicken sandwiches and side salads. Oh well.

Website: http://www.swisschalet.com/

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spicy Thai ~ Tonawanda, New York

We left Geneva in the late morning and headed towards Rochester for a quick tour of the town and enjoyed some authentic New York pizza for lunch (will be covered in the final summary). From Rochester we drove towards Niagara Falls, and did the mandatory touristy thing, though we decided against the boat tour. Rather, we paid the $1 to walk out to the bridge in the middle of the river and watch some crazy folks make their way up to the stairs to be swept away by the Falls themselves (actually it did look like fun). But we were getting wet just being on the bridge! Later, we checked into our hotel in Williamsburg, a pleasant community just west of Buffalo. As mentioned before, Mrs. RJG loves her Thai food, and this was to be our first experience on the trip. I chose a restaurant in the suburb of Tonawanda. Prior to dinner we journeyed into the Buffalo downtown area to take a look-see and also drove past the legendary Anchor Bar, most known as the place where Buffalo Wings were first invented. So far, so good.

We ordered a bottle of wine and a chicken satay appetizer, and all seemed to be on course for a fine meal. Then the trouble began. As stated before, Mrs. RJG likes her vegetables with her chicken dish. She asked if they would add some veggies to her chicken basil. A rhetorical question as far as we’re concerned. The waitress said she would ask and later came back and said they would not. To be clear, we said that we would be glad to pay extra for it. “Sorry, it’s not possible.” What do you mean “it’s not possible?” Are you kidding me? What, are all the dishes pre-made or something? Are we at McDonalds now? Throw some broccoli, carrots and bok choy in there and we’ll all be happy. No can do. As for Mr. RJG, I asked if they had ground chicken. They didn’t (not uncommon) so I asked if they would chop my chicken up. NOPE! “Can’t do that”. Must be rough in the old kitchen, so busy and all, especially since we were THE ONLY PEOPLE IN THE RESTAURANT. Well now I know why. I mean, it’s got to be so difficult to get a knife out and chop up the chicken pieces. Mrs. RJG took a peek in the kitchen and said the cooks looked like rap gangsters. They were Thai, but they dressed like they lived in the ‘hood. LAZY LAZY LAZY. Since we were already half way into the meal, we went ahead with our orders. I asked for mine Thai Hot, and they warned me (the usual). I said “kill me”. When delivered, she stated that the food was going to be too spicy for me, but that’s what I asked for. Yea, if Taco Bell fire sauce is too hot, then maybe? I won’t say it was mild or even medium, but it wasn’t even close to Thai Hot. To be fair, our food was pretty good, as even the cooks couldn’t ruin the quality recipes the owners obviously possess. Too bad the owners don’t care about anything else. I’m sure there are better Thai restaurants in the Buffalo area than this. It would be depressing to find out otherwise.

Website: http://spicythaibuffalo.com/

Monday, August 11, 2008

*** CLOSED *** Wing Tai Oriental ~ Geneva, New York

Part 2 of our dinner adventure in Geneva, NY. See here for the inauspicious beginning.

After the Nonna's Trattoria disaster, we decided to go with the original game plan, a local tavern called Parker's Grille and Tap House. It was about a 15 minute walk through the somewhat shabby town center. It's actually pretty depressing, reminding me of many similar town centers in the 1980s before the gentrification renaissance began. And would you believe, no one greeted us here either? Must be the way things are in Geneva, NY. If I were the leader of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, I'd hold a quick training session on the art of making customers feel welcome. It was pretty hot inside, and one look at the menu didn't seem overly inspiring, so we left pretty quickly. Honestly it felt more like a biker bar. We weren't there long enough to really know much about the place, so it won't draw the Mr. Jose ire as did Nonna's.

Again, things happen for a reason.

Mrs. RJG had remembered seeing a Chinese restaurant on the drive into town, and it was only one block over from Parker's. Now you won't see too many Chinese restaurants in the RJG. We just haven't had much luck with them. A couple of places in Denver were pretty good, and almost all in the DFW area have been disappointing. For one thing, they seem to confuse the terms spicy with sweet. The hotter we ask for it, the sweeter it gets. We don't like sweet food, unless it's dessert. Or habaneros of course. But not much was going our way, and we were running out of options as nightfall was approaching.

"Welcome, please have a seat" said the waitress as we walked in. Wow! What a concept! Greeting us as we enter a restaurant. Somebody needs to get word to the city leaders that Wing Tai actually wants customers. Can't have that.

The interior was old school all the way - dark, lots of red and gold. Worn carpet and panelled walls. The kind of place that went the way of the dodo after the Asian Fusion rage of P.F. Chang's and its thousands of imitators. The kind of place that the Tong's would feel comfortable conducting business in. A Regular Joe's Guide kinda place.

Remember the $7 chintzy wine glasses at Villa di Roma in Philadelphia? How about $4 large glasses of local Finger Lake wine? YES! I ordered the Chicken Chili. That's what it was called - chicken chili. I asked the waitress what it was. She said, it's pretty much chopped chicken, very spicy, with rice and very little vegetables. Sounded like something Mr. Jose designed for them! I had to have it. Mrs. Jose had the Lo Mein with chicken. And something magical occurred for both of us: This was the best Chinese food we'd ever had! Maybe Brandy Ho's in San Francisco's Chinatown gives it a run. I freely admit we are not Chinese food aficionados, but we've had plenty over the years together and personally I've had Chinese food since I was a little kid - going back to the House of Gong off of Northwest HWY in Dallas (anyone remember that place?).

Looking for old school Chinese food, like the kind you'd see in an old "Thin Man" episode? Go to Wing Tai.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nonna's Trattoria ~ Geneva, New York

From Manheim, PA where we had spent the night before, we drove through York and onto Gettysburg to see the Civil War monuments. Afterwards we drove north through the Susquehanna Valley area and mountains where we had lunch (to be covered in the final summary), into New York, through Corning, visited a winery and finished in the Finger Lake town of Geneva.

For dinner, we altered our plans, as we both noticed an appealing looking Italian restaurant called Nonna's Trattoria across the street from our hotel. We arrived and noticed a small crowd waiting for a table. So we stood at the hostess stand and awaited patiently to put our name on the list. 2 minutes nothing. 5 minutes nothing. Oh sure there were waitresses in the dining room, who could see us in plain view. There was a bar to the left as well. 8 minutes nothing. 10 minutes. Another couple walks in and asks us if there's a wait. We said we think so, but not sure, since no one has spoken to us yet. They left. We waited another 5 minutes and our patience ran out. We left. 15 minutes and no one said so much as welcome, we're busy, we'll be with you in a few minutes. Nothing. Nada. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU NONNA'S TRATTORIA? You don't want business or what? Fine, when you do go out of business, don't act surprised. Zero customer service leads to a boarded up restaurant. Everyone who is reading this that happens to visit Geneva, NY - don't go to Nonna's Trattoria. They don't want your business.

But things happen for a reason... and we are forever grateful for their inability to run a restaurant... to be continued....

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Appalachian Brewing Company ~ Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

We had a wonderful day of touring the Amish Country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, including driving through a couple of interesting covered bridges. Multiple times we passed the horse and buggies, with the whole Amish family in authentic 1800s attire. The anachronism is striking. Mrs. RJG was so impressed with their seemingly peaceful nature, that she said she wanted to become an Amish woman. Mr. RJG quickly stated "you'll have to give up your jewelry". And that was the end of that.

We stayed in the cute town of Manheim, but had planned to head to the state capital of Harrisburg for dinner, which is about a 30-40 drive from Manheim. No problems here since we have Hertz's NeverLost - right? Our first experience with the NeverLost system was some six years ago traveling through the Midwest, and was a near disaster. We dubbed it AlwaysLost and NeverSafe. The damn GPS system had a knack for dropping us in the 'hood and couldn't figure a way out of it. You haven't lived until you've driven through the inner ghettos of Detroit... No need to ever get a thrill at Disneyland again.

But the system seemed to have improved immensely, deftly navigating the streets of Philadelphia as well as the Amish countryside. Then came Harrisburg. "Freeway exit on your right". We're back in the 'hood. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it said we were only 0.4 miles from our destination. Then 0.3 miles. A few boarded up old storefronts, a couple of open liquor stores, a Western Union - all 3 establishments complete with iron windows. Lots of people on the street and none too happy about it either. 0.2 miles. Mrs. Jose says "here we go again". 0.1 miles "right turn ahead". All we see is boarded up places. "You have arrived". And, sure enough, there it was - the Appalachian Brewing Company, right on the edge of an industrial district and the 'hood. Had a gated parking lot with security and looked to be a nice place. So we ventured in.

The Appalachian Brewing Company holds up the high standard that the name Brewpub has come to represent. I went for the Purist Pale Ale while Mrs. RJG attacked the Mountain Lager. We quickly guzzled our first beer even before we'd ordered. She went for another lager and I tried the Susquehanna Stout, which was served room temperature as it would be in the Isles, though I admit to preferring the non traditional ice cold variety. Strange as it may sound, but many of the brewpubs I've visited have mediocre suds. Not the case at the ABC - these were excellent. For dinner, Mrs. RJG had one of the specials, a seafood wrap, which she enjoyed immensely. I had the stromboli, an excellent choice for pub fare.

The Appalachian Brewing Company also has brewpub locations in Gettysburg and Camp Hill.

Website: http://www.abcbrew.com/

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bassetts Ice Cream ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It probably should come as no surprise to the readers of the RJG that Mr. RJG also likes a good, independent homemade ice cream place. I'd first gone to Bassetts, and the Reading Terminal Market for that matter, in 2004 while in downtown Philly for business.

With the Villa di Roma and Rick's experience fresh on our minds, Mr. Jose needed a win with Mrs. RJG to demonstrate that I did indeed research properly for this trip. We were both in the mood for a little ice cream after Rick's, and I figured Bassetts could be the savior of the trip, since I'd been there prior.

And Bassetts came through in a BIG WAY. Mrs. RJG, about 3 mouthfuls into her pistachio cone, looked at me and said "This is the best ice cream I've ever had". Mrs. RJG just doesn't say things like that casually. She's a tough customer. But she is still talking about how wonderful the ice cream was. I had the coffee ice cream (Mr. RJG's favorite flavor), and it was as delicious as I had remembered it 4 years prior.

Website: http://www.bassettsicecream.com/index.html

*** CLOSED *** Rick's Original Philly Steaks ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Reading Market)

The Reading Terminal Market is maybe the singular greatest food idea - ever. Enclosed within its walls, are literally hundreds of independent, locally owned Philadelphia eateries, food shops and markets. You'll see Amish ladies working the Dutch kitchens next to African American managed rib places. Everything that is good about the American food experience can literally be found all in one place. The Reading Terminal was an active railroad station only some 25 years ago. Once it closed, the cities' leading visionaries moved the already existing food markets into the terminal itself. To only be able to eat all day long. If I could, I'd do it here.

Rick's is not the only steak sandwich establishment at the RTM (not surprising given it's Philly's most famous export), but his is the most famous and has the purest pedigree. Rick Olivieri is the grandson of Pat Olivieri, the founder of Pat's, which is generally considered the first Philly Cheesesteak place, along with Geno's across the street. Mr. Jose visited those fine establishments back in 2005, while on a business trip.

With all this going in my favor, I felt this would be a safe bet to introduce Mrs. RJG to an authentic Philly Steak sandwich, a food she's only had in bastardized forms in the DFW and Denver areas.

The tide from the evening before at Villa di Roma was still working against me, and Rick's was another swing and a miss. Sometimes a guy can't get a break. And poor Rick can't seem to get good help. Rick himself had to take our order since one of his employees didn't feel like working that day apparently. It looked like Rick fired him right there on the spot. Must be a tough man to work for. Later Rick yelled at one his minions to clean the tables. She did, using the wettest cloth she could find, drowning it in more water, and then leaving all the tables in puddles of water. Lovely. Mrs. RJG was sulking by now. Mrs. RJG said to order it the way I do - which is the Philly way: Wiz wit (cheese whiz and onions). Hey, that's an authentic Philly cheesesteak! When Kraft introduced Cheese Whiz in 1952, it became all the rage to douse your cheesesteak with it. I know it sounds gross, but Mr. RJG likes it. Mrs. RJG did not. At all. So we learned, next time get it with provolone and easy on the onions, eh buddy! As for me, I've had better cheesesteaks at Texadelphia. Sorry Charlie, but one can do a lot better in Philly than this. Like at Geno's or Rick's grandpa's place.

Villa di Roma ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

So now that I've explained how to research for a Regular Joe's Guide Italian restaurant, I'll demonstrate right away with a place that did not work.

It seemed so perfect:

Old Italian neighborhood: Check
Vintage restaurant: Check
Red Sauce Italian: Check
Classic signage: Check it out: http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/market/villa_de_roma/index.html

I was truly excited about this place. Mrs. RJG and I had driven there straight from the airport, and it looked so good (and loved the edgy neighborhood it resides in). Since there isn't convenient parking anywhere, we decided to head to our hotel a couple of miles further into downtown, and we'd cab it back. As we left the cab and wandered into the front door we were greeted by two entirely different Philly personalities: The gregarious bartender and the jerk "host". Naturally Mrs. RJG quickly got her nose out of joint with Mr. Rude, but I calmly explained that's part of the scene, and it's actually kind of endearing, if you're in the right frame of mind. Once we sat down, and viewed over the menu, I started to feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with food.

Mr. RJG apparently didn't do all his research, and I have to take some blame here. First off, I didn't realize Rachel Ray had shilled for the place recently. Personally, I like the perky and cute Ms. Ray, and she does go to places we've been to in the past, and have also enjoyed. But not always. And when it comes to hole in the wall Italian joints, I would be very skeptical of where she goes. A visit like that can ruin the very essence of a classic RJG Italian spot.

Second, they don't take credit cards. This one just MAKES ME MAD. There's absolutely no excuse for this, unless they pass the card's service charge savings back to you. And I assure you, they do not. Mr. RJG doesn't like to take wads of cash with him, especially when in a major inner city like Philadelphia. We barely had enough money for 2 pasta plates, 2 chintzy glasses of wine and the cab fare to the hotel. Our meal cost $55 with tip and all we had were two simple pasta dishes and two tiny glasses of wine. We would've had more of course, had we extra cash. What an embarrassment to not take cards in 2008.

As for the food, well... it was OKAY I guess. If I lived in the neighborhood, and was looking for a quick bowl of pasta, and didn't want to take the 15 minutes I'd need to prepare my own, it would be a good substitute. That's really all I can say. It's very plain, non unique, nothing special red sauce Italian. Big deal.

Huge disappointment. I had one shot at a classic Italian joint in Philly and I messed it up. My research failed me.

Positive review here: http://www.foodaphilia.com/2007/04/villa-di-roma.html
Mixed reviews here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/villa-di-roma-philadelphia (Ms. Ray's visit has a lot to do with the quantity of reviews here I think)