Oakland & San Francisco eats.

I’ll have my annual re-ranking of the top five farm systems up this week, most likely Tuesday, for Insiders.

I only had two meals on my own during my trip to the Bay Area last week to speak at Google and sign books at Books Inc. in Berkeley (which should still have signed copies available), but both were memorable additions to my ongoing U.S. pizzeria tour. Oakland’s Pizzaiolo is on that list from Food and Wine from a few years ago that continues to inform some of my travels – it’s not a perfect list but I’ve done well by it overall – but the pizza wasn’t even the best thing I ate there.

Pizzaiolo is more than a pizzeria, although those are obviously the star attraction on the menu. It’s really a locavore restaurant that also does pastas, mains, salads, and vegetable-focused sides (contorni), with outstanding, largely local ingredients the common thread among all of them. I met a friend for dinner there and we split two pizzas, a margherita with housemade Italian sausage and a pizza of sweet & hot peppers, black olives, and ricotta salata. The sausage was probably the best element of all of this; the dough itself was good, maybe a grade 55 when comparing it to other Neapolitan pizzerias I’ve tried around the country (a list that has to number around fifty now). The pepper and olive pizza was surprisingly good, less spicy than I feared it would be, more briny and salty from the combination of the olives and the ricotta salata, a pressed, salted, lightly aged cheese made from the whey of sheep’s milk left over from other cheesemaking. But the best thing I ate was actually a salad of mixed chicory leaves (especially radicchio) with figs and hazelnuts; I love radicchio in spite of its bitterness (or perhaps because of it), but this had some of the least bitter chicory leaves I’ve ever tasted, and the sweetness of the black mission figs gave the perfect contrast to just that hint of a bitter note. The menu changes daily, however, and I can see it’s not on the Pizzaiolo menu today.

Una Pizza Napoletana isn’t on that F&W list of the country’s best pizzerias, which is kind of a joke because it’s probably a top five spot for me because of the dough. I’ve never had a pizza with a crust like this – it has the texture of naan, which is an enriched dough from India (usually containing yogurt or other dairy), whereas pizza dough is typically enriched with nothing but maybe a little olive oil. The menu is very short: five different pizza options, no alterations or substitutions allowed, with a few drinks, and one extra pizza (with fresh eggs) on Saturdays. Most of the pizzas use buffalo-milk mozzarella, and only the margherita has tomato sauce. I went with the filetti, which has no sauce but uses fresh cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, garlic, and fresh basil. It’s really the dough that makes this pizza – it’s a traditional, naturally-leavened dough that takes three days to make, resulting in that incomparable texture. The pizzas are on the expensive side at $25 apiece, although I think given the quality of inputs and the time required to make doughs like this, it’s a reasonable price point. You’re buying someone’s skill and time for something you’re never going to make at home.

Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. To die for.

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My new friends at Google also sent me home with a few gifts, including a bag of coffee from Philz, which a few of you have been telling me to try for years now. I haven’t opened the bag yet (I am a bit obsessive about finishing one bag before opening the next) but will report back when I try it.

Louisville eats.

I spent three nights in Louisville late last month for the ACC tournament, which was (mostly) held at the Bats’ AAA stadium right downtown, and I ate like a king for nearly the entire trip – to say nothing of the coffee.

Garage Bar had been on my to-do list for years, since Food and Wine posted a list of the best 48 pizzerias in the United States. (I’ve now been to 29, and one of the others closed shortly after the list was posted.) Garage Bar is, indeed, in a converted garage, and the space is very Brooklyn-hipster, but damn, that’s good pizza. The style is Neapolitan-ish, with a spongy, soft dough, but not the wet centers of true Neapolitan pizzas, although they use the classic ingredients (type 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes) of that style and cook in a brick, wood-fired oven that hits 850 degrees. I tried the Local Mushroom pizza, a tomato-less pie that delivered just what I’d want in a mushroom pizza – big mushroom flavors complemented but not overwhelmed by the flavor of the cheese, here fromage blanc, a soft, fresh cow’s milk cheese where the fermentation is stopped fairly early in the process. I also recommend the Caesar salad, which is lightly dressed, not overly garlicky, topped with fried kale strips and two stripes of white anchovy (the good stuff).

After the last game ended on Friday, I walked over to Milkwood in downtown Louisville, mostly because I just wanted to try one of Edward Lee’s restaurants even though I wasn’t that hungry. The menu is a sort of Korean-southern fusion, but I went traditional with the vegetarian bibimbap, a Korean rice dish served in a smokin’ hot bowl that continues to cook the food at the table. Granted, I could eat plain white rice till the cows come home (and it’s a good thing I don’t because white rice is nutritionally worthless), but I killed this dish despite, as I said, not being very hungry. I even got dessert because the bartender told me the peanut butter ice cream that comes with the chess pie can’t be missed, and he was right – you can keep the pie, just give me the ice cream. (Chess pie is an acquired taste; it’s a southern custard pie that typically contains cornmeal and vinegar in the filling.)

Royals Hot Chicken has only been open for about a year and a half, offering what they call Nashville hot chicken, although their version is a little different – it’s all white meat “jumbo tenders” (each of which is a half breast halved again the long way), available at any spice level you like. I’m generally not a fan of chicken breast meat because it’s so lean and, in most cases, flavorless, but the crust at Royals’ has plenty of flavor, even on the mild setting (I like capsaicin more than it likes me). They have a long list of southern comfort-food sides, but I went with the roasted sweet potato with sorghum butter (the cashier’s rec) and the cucumber salad, both of which were excellent and didn’t make the entire meal into a heavy soporific. Speaking of which, I was surprised how little oil I had on my hands after eating the chicken, which is how it should be but rarely is.

Also in New Lou is Mayan Cafe, and I’m going to tell you up front, get the lima beans. It’s a signature item for them, and they’re damn good, and so popular that the restaurant posted the recipe. I ordered the salbutes, a regional Mexican preparation of a fried (flour) tortilla that puffs up and is topped like a cracker, with toppings that change daily; the chilaquiles; and the “chocolate on chocolate” dessert, which I was told was vegan and still can’t believe given how rich the cake was. I’d probably do something different for an entree, as the chilaquiles, while vegetarian (my goal), weren’t remarkable, but everything else I ate was.

Gralehaus was a recommendation from Stella Parks, aka BraveTart, whose first cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, comes out on August 15th; she lives in Lexington but gave me a short to-do food and coffee list for my trip that also included Quills (see below). Gralehaus is a bed & breakfast with a restaurant and bar that’s open to the public for all three meals, and the menu is influenced by southern comfort food but hardly limited to it (there’s a tofu banh mi on the lunch menu, for crying out loud). I couldn’t pass on the black pepper biscuit with duck sausage gravy, served with a sunny egg and and some duck cracklins; it was … decadent isn’t quite the word, but certainly rich and hearty, although the biscuit itself was on the dry side. They have an excellent coffee program, with beans from several artisanal roasters including Intelligentsia and one from right near me, La Maquina, of West Chester, PA.

Against the Grain is a brewpub attached to the Bats’ stadium, with the brewery on-site, but since it was midday I didn’t drink anything, I just ate, and the food was fine – better than ballpark food, certainly, but not on par with the other meals I ate around Louisville. I had the BBQ pork belly, which was served just as a giant slab of what was essentially bacon, and it was fine, nothing special, probably in need of a first step to tenderize the meat a little more before hitting the smoke. Get the Brussels sprouts side if you do go.

The one bad meal I had was at a place called Toast, which is just a mediocre diner that doesn’t execute particularly well and doesn’t list major ingredients in some dishes on its menu. If there’s cheese on a dish, that has to be listed, as you’d list something like nuts or shellfish. That aside, the food just wasn’t good and the service was indifferent.

Louisville has quite a thriving coffee scene, including Sunergos, a local roaster whose blend won a “best espresso in America” competition in 2014 – and it’s damn good, top five for me easily (Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, Cartel, Four Barrel), so good I went back and bought a half-pound before leaving for the airport. Their blend is mostly Central and South American beans along with some Indonesian beans as well, and the result is noticeably sweet on its own, and there’s a cocoa undertone that I adore in coffee.

Quills was Stella Parks’ suggestion and they also do a solid espresso, not as bold or sweet as Sunergos’ but creditable, and I loved their space over in the Highlands, within walking distance of Gralehaus and Carmichael’s Bookstore; it was big, bright, and full of people working, chatting, just hanging out, the way a neighborhood coffee house should be. I also tried Press on Market, where I had a light-roast Sumatran bean as a pour-over – notable in and of itself because Indonesian beans are typically roasted until dark – and was surprised to find that the beans had some character beyond the roast. It’s a stone’s throw from the Bats’ stadium if you’re downtown.

Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Stick to baseball, 2/11/17.

No Insider content this week – you’ve had plenty, so don’t get greedy. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

For Paste, I reviewed the asymmetrical two-player game The Blood of an Englishman, which is based on Jack and the Beanstalk. I also returned to Vulture with a post on eight great boardgames for couples, in honor of Valentine’s Day.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • Detroit Tigers owner and Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch passed away yesterday. Here’s a 2016 piece on the hidden cost of cheap pizza, where reducing prices often means taking it out of workers’ pockets.
  • One of the best longreads of the week covered how a Huntington, West Virginia, school official improved school lunches contrary to the meddling efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
  • Another great longread: how a young Wikipedia editor/admin is fighting back against misogynist trolls on the site.
  • Eater has a longread, more a collection of shorter pieces than a single story, on the things people will do to hunt and pick rare mushrooms.
  • As much as I crush the NCAA for some of its policies, they’re leading the fight against anti-LGBT discrimination right now, including a threatened six-year boycott of North Carolina that would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business over that state’s hate bill HB2, which prevents local governments from passing laws or ordinances protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination.
  • There’s a potential famine brewing in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to the spread of the fall armyworm, which is devastating crops in Zimbabwe already and may be present in six other African countries. We can talk about organic agriculture all we want, but if a synthetic pesticide stops this worm, it’ll save millions of lives.
  • Speaking of which, Dr. Paul Offit wrote about how Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring cost millions of lives too, because DDT, while clearly bad for the environment as a broad-use pesticide, is extremely effective at stopping the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria.
  • Betsy DeVos was confirmed this week as Secretary of Education, but let’s recall the damage she did in Michigan with her charter-school endeavors. I’ve said on here before that I favor at least some school choice, but school choice is not a panacea for underperforming public schools, and her appointment is a potential disaster for public education in this country.
  • TIME became (I think) the first major publication to run an editorial arguing that it’s time to impeach President Trump. Meanwhile, good journalism keeps coming from unexpected outlets, like Vogue highlighting five things Trump is doing now but for which he attacked Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
  • Buy stock in telecom giants? The new FCC is going to kill off net neutrality, opening those quasi-monopolies up for greater power to squeeze money from content providers and consumers.
  • Meanwhile, Republicans across the country are fighting to restrict voting rights, moves that are likely to help their candidates in 2018 and beyond. If you live in such a state, make your voice heard now, before it’s silenced.
  • Why did House Republicans block a vote on a resolution stating that the Holocaust targeted Jews? Are they so beholden to party that they wouldn’t even vote on a fact?
  • John Yoo, who was Justice Department official under President George W. Bush and advocated heavy use of executive orders, wrote that President Trump has taken executive power too far. This is like Tony Larussa saying a manager uses too many relievers. And a former National Security Council member also wrote for the New York Times that Steve Bannon shouldn’t be on the NSC.
  • Are Trump’s opponents falling into his ‘trap’ with their outrage? I don’t know that I agree with this National Review piece’s conclusions, but it’s worth considering that there are still many voters who will nod their heads at his populist moves without considering their consequences.
  • Is Trump’s fight against the judiciary his Watergate? I doubt it, although there are some parallels.
  • Marco Rubio has moments where he appears to be one of the few GOP leaders willing to oppose the President or stake out a position near the center, including a little-heard speech he gave this week on the demise of civil disagreements. That’s great, Marco; now vote against your party’s President on something that matters.
  • Meanwhile, the GOP continues to use the term “fake news” to keep up its attacks on respected, objective journalism outlets, such as Alabama representative Mo Brooks calling the Washington Post fact-checkers “fake news” for pointing out that his voter fraud claims were, well, fraudulent.
  • Ah, North Dakota, where two Republican legislators said in session that women should spend Sundays taking care of their husbands. Will they face any electoral consequences for this? I doubt it.
  • Vaccines! There are over 400 mumps cases in Washington State’s outbreak. That’s why Peter Hotez, Ddirector of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, can say that the anti-vaxxers are “winning” in another NYT editorial. (I subscribed to the Times online in the fall, mostly to keep these posts going, because they are producing some tremendous content across the board right now.)
  • If you saw the Daily Mail piece claiming that politicians had been hoodwinked by falsified climate-change data, well, don’t read the Daily Mail, as it’s become an unreliable source on any economic, political, or scientific topic. And the story was utter nonsense.
  • Former Top Chef contestant Mark Simmons of NYC’s Kiwiana made his feelings on the Muslim ban quite clear with a pro-immigration message printed on his restaurant’s receipts.
  • Is artisanal chocolate the next big food trend along the lines of craft beer and coffee? I’m a little skeptical, and this piece glosses over chocolate’s big sourcing issue (there’s a lot of child labor and de facto slavery in the cacao supply chain), but I think there’s a market here for better chocolate that can make consumers feel better about what they’re eating.
  • An Intelligentsia Coffee staffer wrote this informative post on why we steep tea but brew coffee.
  • The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has published research on how to help women and people of color in the film industry, a sort of response to the #OscarsSoWhite criticisms we’ve heard the last few years. (The Oscar nominees are much more diverse this year, quelling such complaints for the moment.) It gets more at the root of the problem than the attacks on the Academy Awards do – you won’t see women nominated for Best Director if women are rarely hired as directors or if their films struggle to find funding or distribution. There were few acclaimed movies in 2016 directed by women; I think the best-reviewed was Certain Women, which received very little distribution at all.
  • Is mining asteroids an essential part of our future? I think it is, in some sense, although I’m surprised this piece doesn’t mention iridium, a critical element in manufacturing electronics; it’s believed most of the iridium on earth came from the meteor or comet that caused the K/T extinction event.
  • Vice’s Noisey asked a person with synaesthesia what several songs “taste” like to him. Synaesthesia is a rare brain function where senses ‘cross;’ Vladimir Nabokov had it. I don’t have this, but I do associate all twelve months with certain colors, because when I was maybe five my mom had a Peanuts calendar hanging in our laundry room where January, May, and September were colored in red; February, June, and October in blue; March, July, and November in green; and April, August, and December in yellow. Those months still have those colors to me today.
  • Humor: This New Yorker fake-dialogue post called “I Work from Home” hit a little close, especially as I’m writing this post at 10:30 am on Saturday while still in my pajamas.

DC eats.

Rose’s Luxury is consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the country, so well-regarded that it has spawned a cottage industry of people who will wait in line for you (RL does not take reservations) for a fee. We were very fortunate to have Kent Bonham (of collegesplits.com) local and willing to wait for us to get a table, and his efforts were not in vain as I think we all agreed it was a meal for the ages. Even with all we ordered – probably a little more food than was reasonable, but we wanted to try everything – and some booze, I think we only paid about $80-90 a person, which is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we got.

Rose’s menu varies often and comprises mostly small plates, with one or two larger ‘mains’ on it at any one time; with a table of six, we ordered one of everything (except the caviar offering) and got to work. I posted the menu on my Instagram feed (which reposts automatically to my public Facebook page), so I’ll hit the highlights. Their signature dish is the pork sausage salad with lychee, habanero, and peanuts, and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten because there is just so much going on in the dish yet it still manages to work . You’re supposed to just mix it all together, so each bite ends up this little explosion of sweet, spicy, savory, and tart all thrown together; I get the sense that this is supposed to feel like Thai street food, because it’s so bright and messy and satisfying but nothing special to look at. Several people, including Jack (@unsilent) Kogod, specifically said beforehand to get this dish, and they were spot on.

We ordered a second helping of the fried Brussels sprouts with tahini, eel sauce, and bonito; I’m a sucker for fried Brussels sprouts anyway, but this was also bursting with umami from the bonito and benefited from the dairy-like texture of the tahini (made from sesame or benne seeds). I also could have eaten the stuffed dates with walnuts and cultured butter pretty much all night, but again, dates stuffed with walnuts or almonds are one of my favorite things to eat. Raw oysters aren’t for everyone – I’ve long had to fight my Long Island-infused aversion to the things, since growing up there we only heard about pollution and contamination – but Rose’s are marinated in sake and wasabi and served with a little apple granita on top, so the oyster is more the vessel than the star, and that’s absolutely how I like it. I’d compare these favorably to Richard Blais’ “oysters and pearls,” where he serves the oysters with little frozen pearls of horseradish and a yuzu or other citrus vinaigrette on top.

Of the four pasta dishes we ended up with, the simplest one was the best – the hand-cut trenette con cacio e pepe, just a simple, freshly-made ribbon pasta with pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the starchy pasta water to thicken the sauce. It’s peasant food done up Roman style, with an expensive cheese instead of whatever’s on hand, but showcases the pasta beautifully. I thought the pasta in the rigatoni with tomato, eggplant, anchovy, and mint was a shade undercooked – too al dente for me, at least – although the sauce was really bright. We had one member of our party who has celiac disease, and the chefs were incredibly accommodating, making her a faux-risotto with Carolina gold rice and no end of butter to substitute for the pasta courses. There was also a straciatella special that came with long slices of focaccia that had been grilled and smeared with a rich garlic puree, and if you call those “breadsticks” I will come to your house and punch you in the face.

The main course the night we were there was a smoked brisket, served in thick slices, with Texas toast, a fresh horseradish-cream sauce, and a slaw of pickled vegetables, so everyone at the table could just make his/her own mini sandwich from it. I was just about out of gas by this point, so I went sparingly just to say I tasted it, and while the meat itself had a good texture, it was the horseradish sauce that stood out the most, making up for the fact that the beef didn’t have a lot of bark or a ton of smoke flavor to it.

Rose’s alcohol options are also very impressive for a restaurant that’s primarily a restaurant and not a bar that serves food – I know my friends were pleased with whatever wine they got, and I was impressed to see several aged rums, including Ron Zacapa’s Centenario 23, available. I also went back for coffee the next day to Rose’s sibling restaurant, Pineapple & Pearls, located next door. The back of P&P is a $250 a head tasting menu place, but during the morning and early afternoon, they serve third-wave coffee (Lofted for espresso, Parlor for drip) and a few small breakfast and lunch items, including the great breakfast wrap and these great little lemon-thyme shortbread cookies. If we’d been closer I would have gone there every morning. Both halves of P&P are closed on Mondays.

On Tuesday night I headed out with longtime partner in crime Alex Speier to All-Purpose, a pizza, pasta, and small plates place from the folks behind DC’s Red Hen and a recommendation from a reader, Jim H., who gave me tons of recs for my trip. All-Purpose’s menu has a lot of pork on it, but several small plates that focus on vegetables, as well as a couple of mainstay pasta options, six standard pizza configurations, and a chance to make your own pizza as well. We started with … wait for it … the fried Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re really good for you, at least until you fry them), which here come with horseradish cream, togarashi spice, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and I could have licked the plate clean if my parents hadn’t raised me correctly. The strange mixture of a Japanese spice mix with some real heat and the umami-rich Italian cheese worked well together, and I couldn’t get over how thoroughly cooked the sprouts were – I’ve had a lot of fried Brussels sprouts that were still a little underdone in the center and retained some bitterness, but these did not.

Kogod tipped me off beforehand that the eggplant parm dish was “the veteran move,” and Alex was game, so we got that as well as the Cosimo pizza, which has roasted mushrooms, taleggio cheese, truffle sauce, but no tomatoes, which I think was a sharp choice because the eggplant parm dish is like a smack in the face of huge tomato flavor. Eggplant is one of those items I would generally just pass over on a menu – I don’t hate it, but it’s always going to be near the bottom of my list of choices. A-P’s version makes the eggplant the structure but not the center of the dish – this is about the tomatoes and cheese, and if you’d given me some crusty bread to make it like an open-faced sandwich I could have just laid down on the floor afterwards and slept like a baby.

The pizza was solid, but a sort of in-between style that had the crispiness of Italian-style pizzas but was probably cooked at a lower temp, so the outside browned evenly rather than getting the puffy crust around the outside with bits of char around it. I prefer thinner crusts, but A-P’s held up well under the heavier toppings of this pizza, and I’m glad we went with a white pizza and went meatless for the whole meal given how much meat I consumed the night before at Rose’s and the next day at lunch (see below).

I probably should have skipped dessert, but A-P does a ‘rainbow cake,’ a larger version of the Italian flag cookies I grew up eating from New York bakeries and have made a number of times around the holidays. The cake was six layers of a sponge cake made with almond paste, dyed to form a pastel version of the Italian flag, with raspberry and apricot jams between the layers and a thin coating of dark chocolate on top. The hardest thing about making the cookies is getting the layers to cook evenly – the outer edge wants to try out before the center is truly cooked – but this was perfect despite the fact that the layers were thicker than you’d find in a cookie.

Across the street from All-Purpose, Smoked & Stacked is the new breakfast and lunch place from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who appeared on Top Chef Season 13 and made it to the final four, with the menu focused on their house-made pastrami. I don’t particularly care for pastrami; I loathe corned beef, but pastrami is smoked after the same kind of curing process, giving it a different taste and much better texture. S&S’s most basic sandwich is the Messy, which has pastrami, Comte cheese, sauerkraut, and slaw on very good rye bread, and it is indeed messy, as the bread can barely handle all the liquid coming from the fillings. It’s also more than I typically eat for lunch, but I ate the whole thing anyway because the bread was so damn good.

I ate one significant meal at National Harbor, at Edward Lee’s southern restaurant Succotash, which was certainly fine for a meal served to a captive audience but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat. The skillet cornbread was the best thing we ate, a traditional southern (that is, it had no sugar) cornbread served in the cast-iron skillet with sorghum butter. The fried catfish I had was good if a little pedestrian – I’ve had this same dish lots of times before and there was nothing special about this one. They make a good Old-Fashioned, though. These fake shopping villages kind of give me the creeps – it’s like they’re trying to create what’s great about a city and build it from the top down in a remote area, in this case a good 20 minutes outside of DC, rather than stay in the actual city and build it up organically. And the traffic situation down there has apparently just gotten worse now that the MGM Casino opened the day after we all left; the roads in/out of National Harbor are not built to handle volume, and driving within the complex just to get to the hotel where I stayed (the AC) was a complete pain in the ass.

Stick to baseball, 10/22/16.

My second dispatch from the AFL covers Michael Kopech, Francis Martes, Dillon Tate, and more. I also wrote a column on the Dbacks’ hire of Mike Hazen and the lack of diversity in front offices. Both pieces are for Insiders, and neither mentions Tim Tebow. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, a gorgeous game that plays slow and dry.

You can also preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

San Francisco and Los Angeles eats.

The San Francisco pizzeria del Popolo is run by Jon Darsky, who worked for a little while in player development and scouting for Cleveland and another MLB org … I forgot which one because we need to talk about how good the food was. The pizza was outstanding, both the dough – thin, not quite Neapolitan thin but close to it, with just the right bit of chew too it – and the homemade sausage that they use as a topping. The menu is simple, with about a half-dozen starters and a half-dozen or so pizza options, nothing more, which is more than enough when the pizza is this good. Jon, whom I didn’t know before that visit, sent out their Brussels sprouts starter, charred but still firm and bright green, with salva cremasco, shaved turnips, and hazelnuts; as well as the ridiculously luscious coconut-lime sorbet, since I was with Ian Miller (the bassist for Puig Destroyer and Kowloon Walled City), who is vegan. Del Popolo was on that Food & Wine pizzeria list I’ve mentioned several times and have been slowly eating my way through, and it’s one of the best I’ve hit.

Also on that list is the very highly-regarded flour + water in the Mission district, although I get the sense their pastas are better than their pizzas. I went with the margherita, feeling a bit uninspired by the other options, and what I got was just sort of average – the tomato sauce was pureed too evenly, the crust didn’t have much char or good chew, and the whole thing was a little bland. It’s a good pizza relative to most, but compared to the other places on that F&W list – Bianco, Keste, even Roberta’s which somehow missed that list – it’s just okay. The salad I got, however, was outstanding: curly endive with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, artichokes, cardoons, taggiasca olives, & fried capers. It was a big reminder that California produce is often the best produce of all.

I was famished when I got into San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon after appearing on a panel at the Stanford GSB sports analytics conference, so I went to Cotogna for a big meal rather than trying to eat light and hold on for dinner. Cotogna is fairly new and I found it on that Eater list of the 38 “most essential” (whatever) restaurants in the U.S. for 2016, a list I’ll mention a few times in this post. Cotogna does “rustic” Italian cuisine, but it’s not peasant food by any stretch – the restaurant includes a giant cast-iron, wood-fired hearth for spit-roasting meats, and a pizza oven where I presume they’re also baking their ridiculous focaccia ($4 for a giant strip of it). Their broccoli starter, which is so new it’s not on their online menu, was an out-of-this-world homage to my favorite brassica: the florets are cooked two ways and are tossed with neonata (a southern Italian condiment of small fish preserved in vinegar with garlic and chilis), then are served on a layer of bright green broccoli and parsley puree, seasoned with espelette, and topped with shaved bottarga and fried kale leaves. The chef de cuisine, Chris Marcino, was kind enough to explain the dish to me – also, he’s a Phillies fan – and said they pan-fry some of the florets and broccoli leaves, and then cook other florets and small stems in a cast-iron skillet in their pizza oven to get some caramelization. It’s ornate, but it’s like a monument to broccoli.

For the main course, I went with what I think is Cotogna’s signature pasta dish, agnolotti del plin, a classic Piemontese dish of small pockets of pasta around a filling of mixed pork, veal, and often turkey or chicken. Cotogna roasts the meats before grinding them into the filling for the paper-thing pasta, and then uses the juices from the meats to make the sauce (sugo d’arrosto, the “sauce of the roasting”) for the dish. The dish probably originated as a way to use meat scraps that weren’t enough for a full meal, but this is a plate I’d fly across the country to eat. I’m not treating Eater’s list as gospel, but they absolutely nailed it on Cotogna.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the coffee I had in San Francisco, where you can’t swing a cat around by its tail without hitting three hipsters discussing their favorite artisan roaster. I finally got to a Four Barrel location, even though I’ve been drinking their coffee on and off for years – it’s served at Giant Coffee in Phoenix, and I’ve bought beans from them online. It’s … well, it’s great coffee, really. I happen to really like their Friendo Blendo espresso mix, which varies seasonally but is usually half an East African bean (Ethiopian this time) and half a Central American (Guatemalan). I also stopped by a Sightglass shop for a cup of their Ethiopian coffee, which I found a little underwhelming just because I expected more brightness and fruit. I liked the fact that their space, right down the street from flour + water, is so bright.

Moving south to the LA area, I chased Guerrilla Tacos (also on that Eater 38 list) for two days before I finally caught them for a lunch that was absolutely worth the effort. The truck typically parks in front of some local coffee shops – Cognoscenti and Blacktop appear to be the current favorites, although they’ve been near a Blue Bottle location befroe – and are only open 10-2 on days they’re out. The menu changes daily, with four taco options and an agua fresca each day. The day I went the menu featured a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, pancetta, pinto beans, and queso fresco; an ahi poke tostada with uni and scallions; and a sweet potato taco with feta, scallions, and almonds. The breakfast taco was my favorite of the three, in no small part because the flour tortilla was so good (made with lard, perhaps?), and the sweet potato taco was also superb, even though I’d never have thought to put feta with sweet potatoes. The eggs really benefited from the salt and spice in the pancetta and beans; I do love eggs in most forms but plain scrambled eggs are a little too boring. The tuna poke was more like sashimi and should have been sliced more thinly so it was easier to eat, although the quality of the fish itself was obviously very high.

Blacktop Coffee sometimes uses beans from Sightglass, but the day I was there they were using some local private roaster; their menu couldn’t be simpler as you order your espresso “black” for $3 or “white” (whatever milk-based drink you want) for $4. The coffee was good, well-balanced with good body, but should have been a little hotter. They also have a toast program, because of course they do.

I mentioned on Twitter that I had a serendipitous encounter at ink., the main restaurant of Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio; I was sitting at the chef’s counter when Voltaggio came out to speak to the diner next to me, which turned out to be season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga, whose namesake Philly restaurant I visited (and loved) in January. Anyway, I’ve been dying to get to ink. for a few years now, and just barely sneaked it in this trip – I was so tired I didn’t want to make the nearly hourlong drive from my hotel, but I figured I’d regret not going. I had four dishes, and three were just out of sight, stuff I couldn’t make at home and that was unlike most restaurant dishes I’ve had elsewhere. Their twist on cacio e pepe involved paper-thin vermicelli made of celery root, served over shima aji (striped jack or cocinero) sashimi with a truffle coulis, taking an Italian concept and making it over as a Japanese dish, pasta without pasta, lighter than a wheat-centric dish but more satisfying than raw fish would be by itself. Their octopus with “ink. shells” (a play on words, since the pasta is made with ink), shaved fennel, and paprika was a little more traditional but still exceptional because the octopus itself was well-cooked, meaty just up to the edge of toughness without crossing over, as masticably satisfying as red meat but lighter and almost sweet thanks to the browning on the exterior. And the dessert … the deconstructed apple pie dessert, with crumbled shortbread, apple gelee, apples, and “burnt wood” semifreddo (it had a slightly smoky flavor but if you hadn’t told me I would have said it was fior di latte) was just unreal. If you got everything in one bite, it was apple pie a la mode, but with new textures and a brighter flavor. I had one dish I didn’t care for; the radishes with togarashi-miso butter were not at all what I expected, just plain, whole radishes, served with shiso leaves to wrap them and dip them in the butter. We grow radishes in the backyard every year, so this was nothing I couldn’t do at home; I expected some kind of preparation of the radishes, at least, but the server noticed I didn’t eat much of the dish and took it off the bill without a word from me. I also had one of their house cocktails, a rye drink with cardamaro bitters, burnt orange, maple, and toasted pecan bitters that gave the whole drink the aroma of brown butter. I could drink this every night very happily.

I tried another spot on that Eater list, the Thai restaurant Night + Market Song, and was … confused, I guess. I don’t know authentic Thai food that well; I know Americanized Thai, and I think I know when something is more or less Americanized, but this menu mostly comprised foods that were new to me (not a bad thing), and somehow I ended up ordering a lot of meat. The “boxing chicken” is gai yang, a street food authentic to Bangkok that is coated in a wet rub of cilantro, sugar, garlic, pepper, and fish sauce, and then grilled until the skin is crispy. Night + Market Song’s version is all thigh meat, which is the best part of the bird anyway, and comes with papaya salad (medium or hot; medium was plenty hot for me) and sticky rice, which was served in plastic wrap and came out in a slab. You’re supposed to use your hands (fine) to roll pieces into a ball, but this slab was so tough I couldn’t make that happen. I also thought the knife work on the papaya salad was really rough – some vegetables weren’t even cut through. The pork toro, grilled fatty pig neck served with a chile-soy dip, was a good starter, salty like bacon but chewier like jowl meat, although it merely added to the sense that I was just eating way too much meat.

Jon & Vinny’s is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria, located across from their famous meatery Animal, in Fairfax, with a focus on southern Italian fare and a lot of dishes that showcase great produce. I went with a friend of mine who lives in the area, and he ordered the LA Woman pizza, essentially a margherita with burrata in lieu of the mozzarella, with a dough I’d put in between those of del Popolo and flour + water for overall taste and texture. It was the other stuff that set J&V’s apart, though: their meatballs are huge yet evenly cooked, rich but not too dense, served with enormous slabs of garlic bread in a garlicky tomato sauce with a pile of ricotta on the side of the plate. That could easily be a meal on its own, but we kept going. The salad of shaved zucchini with arugula, fennel, hazelnuts, meyer lemon vinaigrette, and a blizzard of shaved pecorino pepato, a sheep’s milk cheese with peppercorns in it, was a big pile of spring – very bright flavors, vibrant green colors, tangy and sharp with a hint of sweetness from the fennel and the nuts. The bruschetta was really about the bread; the tomatoes were certainly good, but the bread was a sponge of olive oil by the time I arrived and I was debating whether to eat it or exfoliate my face with it. (I ate it.) The fried scallions were amazing and stayed crunchy even as they cooled because of the cornmeal coating, although we overordered and didn’t expect the giant pile that arrived at the table. For dessert, because we are pigs, I got the Italian flag (rainbow) cookies, which were sublime thanks to the dark chocolate on top, although I didn’t get any real almond flavor from the sponge cake layers, while Jay got the cream-filled donut which was a tad better than your local Krispy Kreme’s version.

I also want to give props to Jason Kang over at Seoulmate, right next to Blair Field in Long Beach with a new location out in Fullerton; this wasn’t my first meal there but I don’t go to Long Beach without eating there. Seoulmate is fast-casual Korean food, both traditional dishes like bulgogi (Jason’s mentioned some of the recipes are based on family versions) and Korean tacos and burritos. Everything is top-notch, but it’s the preparation of the meats that separates Seoulmate from other Asian taco places I’ve hit; I had the pork bulgogi this time, pork belly heavily marinated in a spicy soy and ginger mixture that starts to inundate the rice underneath, served with kimchi (also spicy) and a small salad. I’ve also had the tacos, the beef bulgogi, and the bibimbap on previous visits, and can vouch that they’re all excellent, with the two bulgogis my favorites. Jason’s a reader, but I promise I wouldn’t recommend his place if I didn’t genuinely like the food.

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2016 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. This is now my fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB: I’ve had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all; it rivals Virtu and crudo for the best restaurant in Phoenix, with a menu of smaller plates that often showcase produce of a quality I didn’t think you could get in the state of Arizona. Chef Charleen Badman was just nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southwest, for the second year in a row.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Best coffee in Arizona. Full writeup below in the Tempe section. This shop is on 5th street right across from Citizen Public House and FnB.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

* Defalco’s Italian Market is a great spot to grab an authentic Italian (specifically New York-Italian) sandwich while you’re on your way to a game anywhere in Scottsdale. I prefer it to Andreoli’s, which offers a similar menu and is much closer to Salt River Fields.

* I should mention Franco’s Italian Caffe, right on Scottsdale Road, as it’s very highly regarded by locals, but I was very disappointed. Authentic Italian cuisine is light, focused on simple recipes with big flavors but rarely heavy, while Franco’s menu skews toward what I think of as New York-Italian cuisine, with heavier dishes including lots of heavy cream and salt. It’s not my thing, but I won’t judge you if it’s yours. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird. I ate at EVO in Scottsdale in October and had a uniformly awful experience.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

* Andreoli’s Italian Market is a decent spot for New York-Italian sandwiches, although I prefer Defalco’s in south Scottsdale.

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

* nocawich. Nestled right off University within the heart of ASU is this fantastic sandwich shop serving breakfast and lunch, with the Dolly, a fried chicken sandwich that is so good I’ve scheduled layovers at this airport just to eat it at their Terminal 4 location. (I’ve done the same to get coffee at Cartel, too.) They also offer an amazing patty melt sandwich, triple-cooked fries, and H&H bagels for their enormous breakfast sandwiches.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Convenient to the A’s ballpark. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking, and there’s one within a mile of the Giants’ place in Scottsdale.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of the best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. Also very convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor, in downtown Phoenix, and right in Old Town Scottsdale near Citizen Public House.

* I haven’t tried Moroccan Paradise yet, where they serve Moroccan (duh) and French food, but it’s garnered some nice reviews, as has BP Street Cafe for its Malaysian food.

Mesa (Cubs):

Most of the places I suggested for Tempe are also quite close to here, including Crepe Bar, Cartel, and the Revival.

* The best smoked brisket I’ve ever had outside of Franklin BBQ in Austin is at Little Miss BBQ on University Avenue in Tempe, right near the airport. If you’ve been to Franklin or read about it, you know what to expect: Get in line by 10:30 or so if you want to eat before 1 pm; they start serving at 11 and they stop when they sell out of meat; and don’t expect a lot of variety. The menu is short but amazing, with all meats smoked over oak and pecan. The brisket is amazing, the sausage is excellent, but everything’s good, and it’s a great place to go with a group because you can only order some items – like the occasionally available smoked lamb neck – by the pound.

* Republica Empanada offers outstanding empanadas, small plates, a few entrees, and beer. I loved everything I tried here but particularly recommend a side of maduros.

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10. There’s another location near the A’s ballpark in Phoenix as well.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

* Tia Rosa’s: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa’s is a taqueria that offers a few other Mexican dishes in a casual setting; the large, high-end restaurant that used to be here burned down, although they offer that menu at a location way out in east Gilbert.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Life is nasty, brutish, and short. Don’t make it any worse by going here.

(Okay, fine, here’s an actual recommendation for this neighborhood: the Phoenix New Times just reviewed a place called Machete Azteca, which sells the machetes (like giant quesadillas) of the Distrito Federal region of Mexico.)

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Ground Control. In the Avondale/Litchfield Park area, but kind of between Goodyear and Glendale, this coffee-shop has upgraded its menu so it’s now a craft-beer paradise and upscale sandwich shop and coffee bar and even gelateria. I’ve been twice; the service can be a little spacey but the food is very good and I even liked the coffee. They do breakfast as well. This place should be so much more popular than it is, given the paucity of quality non-chain options in the area.

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

* For finer dining and good cocktails, try Cuff right in downtown Glendale, which does very unpretentious but fresh, high-quality food, including burgers, sandwiches, and salads that use much better inputs than most places that try that sort of menu. I’m underselling it a bit – it’s basic food, but done exceedingly well.

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

* La Piazza Al Forno: thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s, but are certainly authentic Neapolitan pizzas with the wet center you’d expect. It’s a couple of doors down from Cuff.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best option I know is the local chain Grimaldi’s, mentioned above.

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

These places are no longer near any ballpark other than Phoenix Muni, which now houses Arizona State but no spring training teams.

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. There’s now a second, larger location just off route 51 in the Town and Country shopping center, serving a few pasta items as well as the signature pizzas. By the end of March, a trattoria serving house-made pastas with locally grown wheat will open in the space next to that Town and Country pizzeria.

* Welcome Chicken and Donuts: Located in a former KFC location, this spinoff of the Welcome Diner serves “Asian” fried chicken, lots of donuts, and not a whole lot else. You can get one of three sauces on the chicken; I don’t recommend the Vietnamese option unless you really love fish sauce. I thought the chicken was plus and the donuts were Hall of Fame-worthy.

* Noble Eatery: Artisan European-style breads from the Noble Bread Company, with 3-4 sandwich options each day in a tiny (“intimate”) cafe. It is truly some of the best bread you’ll ever have this side of Italy.

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates. Chef Silvana has also opened a cocktail bar with lots of small plates, serving three meals a day, at The Yard in Phoenix.

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a great job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark. This is now my go-to rec when someone wants a splurge meal in Phoenix or wants more adventurous cuisine.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but the veteran move is breakfast at Matt’s original location with coffee or espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso from Four Barrel and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs. Matt’s recently opened a second location that should take some pressure off the lines at the first spot.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco.

* The Gladly. The second location from the folks behind Citizen Public House, the Gladly’s location and menu are built more around the alcohol – I think the atmosphere they’re going for is cocktail party, or upscale happy-hour, with smart food to go with the booze. I had a mixed experience in my one meal there, loving the chicken-liver pate starter but finding less success with the duck ramen (which I’m told is a dish they frequently tweak). Given their track record at CPH, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Blue Hound. Another great cocktail bar that happens to offer good food, mostly sandwiches and other items you’d expect at a quality bar, although I’ve only been here for drinks and bar snacks (like the tater tots, which I highly recommend).

* Frost Gelato. Located at the Biltmore, right by Zinburger, Frost has the best gelato or ice cream anywhere in Phoenix. The sea salt caramel is their top seller; I suggest you pair it with the dark chocolate. They also have locations in Gilbert and Tucson.

* The larder + the delta, the new place from former Blue Hound exec chef Stephen Jones, specializing in southern cuisine, located inside the Desoto Market downtown.

Some of the places I’m hoping to try on my spring training trip this year: Okra, the new place from the folks behind crudo; Forno 301, serving thin-crust pizzas and salads plus daily pasta specials; Couscous Express, another Moroccan place, this one on East McDowell in Phoenix; Craft 64, serving pizza and beer, which is like the meaning of life; TEN, serving simple, well-done pub food in the Biltmore area; and Ocotillo, a combination coffee bar, beer garden, and restaurant serving lunch, dinner, and weekend brunches.

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried in the comments below. I believe everything I’ve listed here is still open, but if you know that one of these restaurants has shut its doors, again, please let me know.

Philly eats, February 2016 edition.

Standard reminder, since I’ve been asked this several times a day lately: The top 100 prospects package starts to roll out on Wednesday, February 10th, with the organizational rankings; the top 100 list itself follows on Thursday, with the org reports (including top tens) posting the following week.

I was both inspired and shamed by Philadelphia magazine’s latest list of the top 50 restaurants in Philly, since I live just 35 minutes away and had only been to three of the entries on the list: High Street on Market, Barbuzzo, and Osteria, which are all fantastic. I’m up to five now and would like to try to get to about half of the entries on the list by the end of 2016 (it’s down to 49 after Il Pittore closed in January), especially Laurel, Zahav, and Vedge, all nationally known establishments that are among Philly’s culinary stars.

Top Chef fans likely remember season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga – whose response to “You are Top Chef” was “I am?” – and his namesake restaurant, Sbraga, made the top 50. The menu is a $55 four-course prix fixe, very reasonable for the quality of food you’re getting, with plenty of options for each course to suit most diets. All meals start with a gruyère popover (outstanding) and foie gras soup (a little strongly flavored for my palate – the taste lingered for much of the meal). The menu changes frequently, but here’s what I had in my meal there at the end of January. For the first course, I got the hamachi crudo, served with thinly sliced honeydew, jicama, and coconut; the fish was as fresh as it gets, although I think it was a bit overpowered by the variety of other flavors on the plate. For the second course, which comprises pastas and a risotto, I went with the gnocchi with sunchokes, Brussels sprouts, and pine nuts, a dish that really worked when I could get every flavor in one bite – the sweetness of the sunchokes (a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes), the faint bitterness of the sprouts, and the mixture of flavors in the well-browned gnocchi, although they could have been a little lighter in texture.

Course three is the proteins and this was where Sbraga kicked into high gear. I’m ridiculously picky about octopus – more than 90% of the times I’ve had octopus, it has been terrible, but I figured this was the kind of place that would do it justice. It’s cooked sous vide and finished on the grill, so the texture was perfect, and the restaurant’s version of piri piri – a chili pepper and lemon sauce that is kind of like a Portuguese chimichurri – was the ideal complement to the meaty but kind of neutral flavor of the octopus. The dessert option was a no-brainer – the mint cookie has a scoop of chocolate mousse sandwiched between two flat meringue cookies, topped with a quenelle of mint ice cream and a sprinkling of chocolate cookie crumbs. Both of the last two courses were memorable, the octopus for how it was cooked and the perfection of that sauce, the dessert because oh my God it’s like a Thin Mint on PEDs.

Late last week, my daughter and I went on a date to Brigantessa, a Southern Italian trattoria with wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas in the Passyunk neighborhood of Philly, and another entry on the top 50. The biggest hit of the meal was the cappellaci dei briganti – hat-shaped pasta pieces – made with arugula pasta dough and served with a wild boar ragù that was everything you want a slow-cooked meat sauce to be. My daughter ended up eating about half of my plate, so I shared her margherita pizza (her standard order), which was solid; they’re using really good San Marzano tomatoes, because the sauce was bright and sweet and just a little tangy. I loved my appetizer, charred beets with salsa salmoriglio (which really is just an Italian chimichurri, swapping oregano in for the cilantro), grilled treviso, and toasted pistachios; if I’m really nitpicking, I’d say it could have used a dollop of the sheep’s milk ricotta that was on my daughter’s starter plate. Hers had that ricotta, prosciutto, pepitas, and a roasted and caramelized winter squash puree, but the cheese and squash were underseasoned, probably to compensate for the prosciutto. Even when I tasted everything at once it didn’t quite click, and my daughter, who has never met a cheese she didn’t like, ended up just crushing the prosciutto. As traditional as much of the menu is, the dessert menu is rather untraditional – not bad, necessarily, but not what we had in mind, so we passed. They have a nice menu of Italian beers that you don’t see everywhere else, including beers from Birrificio Italiano, a brewery located north of Milan near Lake Como.

I only managed to take advantage of Philadelphia Restaurant Week once, since I was sick for most of it, meeting a friend for lunch at FARMiCiA, a farm-to-table spot located right across from Menagerie Coffee and around the corner from High Street on Market. Farmicia’s lunch menu (I’m not going to bother with the weird capitalization again) is very straightforward, like diner fare done right, with way better ingredients and attention to detail. The roasted beets and kale salad was calling my name, even with its “veggie ricotta;” I’m not sure what that was made of, but the dressing on the dish was so flavorful that I didn’t mind the intrusion of the soy or nut “cheese” or whatever it was. The turkey and avocado club was enormous and not over-mayonnaised. The fries are freshly cut and properly fried. The desserts appear to have been specials for restaurant week; both my friend and I ordered the apple tart, which was … a good apple tart, although I hate when the pastry chef sneaks raisins into a dish, because, as John Oliver said, “no one fucking wants them there.”

Since I haven’t done a recent Philly eats post, I’ll just mention some of my other favorites that aren’t cited above: Pizzeria Vetri is my go-to date place with my daughter – we went tonight, in fact – and while everything is good, I’m very partial to the sausage and fennel pizza because I’ve never had fennel that good. That’s our favorite pizza in Philly, and Pizzeria Stella is second; Stella has some pasta options if you’re going with some freak who doesn’t like pizza. I mentioned Menagerie Coffee, a very cool space that uses Dogwood Coffee’s Neon blend for its espresso and rotates in various micro-roasters for its pourovers. I also love the local roaster Re-Animator, now with one location near center city plus the original in Fishtown. High Street on Market is still my go-to spot for breakfast or lunch, especially when I want to impress someone; you can’t go wrong with their Forager breakfast sandwich, or just with anything involving their amazing breads. El Vez tries a little too hard to be hip, but I was impressed by their guacamoles, both the variety and the freshness. I’m sure there’s better Mexican to be had – everyone raves about Lolita, which is owned by the same team that runs Barbuzzo (get the gnocchi and the salted caramel budino), Jamonera, and Bud & Marilyn’s, but that’s still on my to-do list.

I haven’t done many brunch spots in Philly, but we all liked the Farmacy in West Philadelphia, which offers a build-your-own Benedict and a lot of crazy twists on breakfast classics. No trip to Philly is complete without a stop at the Reading Terminal Market and a pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone at Dinic’s. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, I liked the Big Gay Ice Cream shop down here better than the one I tried in Manhattan (which was the original location, I think). My daughter and I were in a bookstore in Philly recently, and I’d promised to take her to the BGIC afterwards, but she confused her favorite dish there with the name of the place and said in a fairly loud voice, “I wanna go to the Salty Pimp!”

Arizona eats, October 2015 edition.

My second and final Arizona Fall League post for this year is up for Insiders, covering Dom Smith, Clint Frazier, Jake Reed, Jason Garcia, and more.

The biggest news in Phoenix food has been the arrival of the Noble Bread Company, crafted artisan loaves of classic European breads, so good that every restaurant I tried all week that served bread bought it from Noble. (One such restaurant: the estimable FnB, still outstanding and one of the best bets in town if you want to eat a lot of vegetables and still feel like you had a real meal.) Noble now has a second spot, the Noble Eatery on McDowell, where the menu changes daily and includes two or three sandwiches, a flatbread option, and a salad. I went with their open-faced tuna salad sandwich, made with olive oil rather than mayo and including chickpeas and potatoes, served on a dark, crusty peasant loaf; with three slices and a huge portion of the tuna it was more than a meal for me, closer to two. The bread is just to die for – this ranks among the best breads I’ve ever tasted, with the texture expert bread bakers describe as “creamy” inside a crackling crust.

nocawich reopened in a new location in Tempe on College Avenue, right in the heart of ASU’s campus, this summer, with their justifiably renowned fried chicken sandwich still on the menu, as well as a giant patty melt served on good rye sandwich bread and triple-fried French fries that are out of another world entirely. On this trip I tried their breakfast, getting an oversized egg and chorizo sandwich with arugula, avocado, tomato, mayo (not much), and cheese on a sesame bagel from H&H in New York City. Everything Elliott creates there is amazing, and if I wasn’t behaving myself a little bit this week I would have grabbed one of the incredible pastries available – he has a pastry chef fly in from Portland to make them weekly. Other than nocawich I stuck to morning favorites on this trip: crêpe bar, the Hillside Spot, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Cartel Coffee Lab, and Giant Coffee.

My frequent dining partner-in-crime Nick Piecoro introduced me to a new taco/burger place in Arcadia called the Stand, where the menu is very simple: a burger, three types of tacos, hand-cut fries, and shakes. I tried all three tacos, for research purposes of course, and would recommend the short rib and chicken tacos but not the vegetable taco, which couldn’t hold the fillings in and was decidedly flat in flavor, with a lot in it (mostly quinoa and some sort of winter squash) but nothing that really popped in flavor. It needed something with umami to bring it together.

Speaking of that fifth taste, Umami in Tempe (very close to nocawich, at 7th and Mill) does ramen, and a few other things, but mostly ramen, customizable to order with five choices of broths and about a dozen or so toppings or add-ons, including chicken, roast pork, and pork belly. I went with the pork and chicken bone broth, roast pork, and a soft-cooked egg, all of which came out perfectly – the broth itself was a little salty but full of body and depth of flavor. They could probably stand to use better noodles, though; these tasted like they came right out of the package, even though more hip ramen joints in other towns have gone with fresh ramen noodles instead. The ramen, a small seaweed salad, and an iced tea ran about $13 before tip, and it was plenty of food for one.

La Piazza al Forno isn’t new – it’s been open since around the time I first moved to Arizona in 2010 – but its location in downtown Glendale, next to Cuff (one of my favorite spots on the west side), isn’t that convenient to any of the ballparks, so I hadn’t tried it till this week. Their specialty is Neapolitan-style pizzas, and they have the VPN certification that is supposed to go only to places that correctly follow the standards of Neapolitan pizza … although in my experience the VPN designation means virtually practically nothing. La Piazza’s pizzas are thin and they use top-quality ingredients, including San Marzano tomatoes and the option of using mozzarella di bufala, but the pies’ centers aren’t wet as they should be in Neapolitan pizza, and they put the basil on before baking the pizzas so it comes out very dark and loses its bright, faintly sweet flavor. Still, if you’re looking for pizza on the west side of Phoenix it’s this and Grimaldi’s and nothing else I’d recommend.

My one real disaster meal of the week was at a new modern Italian restaurant in Old Town called Evo, where the focus is on handmade pastas but not on service or even execution. The concepts for the dishes are sound, but neither item I ordered was well-constructed, and one of them came out wrong (spinach, which I can’t eat, instead of the promised escarole, an essential ingredient in the dish). The white-bean hummus with the roasted cauliflower was too thin and coarse, and didn’t add anything to the cauliflower itself, which was beautifully caramelized. The house-made orecchiette in the main course were shaped incorrectly – more like thimbles, so that the individual pieces couldn’t pick up any portions of the sauce or the other items in the dish. Even the fennel sausage in the dish was off, cut into inch-long rectangular blocks rather than broken up into smaller pieces when cooked. My meal also took forever; I don’t think my main course was fired until I reminded my server about it, a half hour after I ordered, despite the fact that the restaurant was almost empty. I would guess that EVO will be gone before I get back in March given the food and the rent at that location.

Still good: FnB, especially their socca with pickled butternut squash and cultured butter, and their salad of persimmons, pecans, pomegranates, and shaved Parmesan with mixed greens; and Welcome Chicken and Donuts, although I think the next time I go there I’ll try the chicken without any sauce at all. I tried a chocolate-glazed donut with pistachios and what I think were rose petal-flavored marshmallows; it was good but the donut tasted a little past its peak. Crêpe Bar in Tempe (Elliott and Rural) appears to be expanding, and they still bring out all kinds of little bites that the kitchen has thrown together. I can also verify that Citizen Public House still makes a mean negroni. The Revival in Tempe has closed; however, former executive chef Kelly Fletcher is now at Phoenix landmark El Chorro as chef de cuisine.