Piccola Roma – Bishops Waltham

We’d been wanting to try this new Italian restaurant for ages but only got a chance last Thursday, a good excuse to celebrate the start of the long weekend!

We went for drinks in the newly refurbished Crown Inn beforehand – absolutely beautiful inside and worlds away from it’s previous incarnation – I actually struggled to believe it was the same pub once we were inside! Definitely worth a visit if you are in the village and the perfect place for a cozy glass of wine before dinner.

We arrived at Piccola Roma about 8pm and it was very quiet in the small restaurant with only a couple of tables occupied. The lovely owner greeted us and said we could pick any table we wanted, a huge bonus in my book! We chose a little table for two right in the window and ordered a glass of wine and a beer.

The decoration is really lovely inside with dimly lit tables and a generally romantic atmosphere. There was a couple on the table next to us and a family  on a larger table near the door. There was a huge print of the Colosseum stretching over the wall next to us which got us chatting about how much we’d like to visit Rome one day.

We perused the menu first and decided to share a couple of starters in order to leave room for what sounded like a stellar line-up of main choices.

We ordered mixed olives and the bruchetta. Both came out looking magnificent!

The olives were perfect – fat, pitted and doused in a flavourful garlic, chilli and herb oil. The bruchetta was presented as a trio and we halved each one to ensure a complete tasting experience. My favourite was the chopped olives – perhaps an olive overdose for some given our second starter but the intense olive hit was just perfect teamed with the crispy grilled bread. The mixed pepper and sliced tomato bruchetta were also lovely and we obviously scraped the plate clean of balsamic glaze.

I was having some trouble deciding what to order for my main and was stuck between a having a bowl of cheesy, creamy, comforting tortellini or just going for it with a massive steak. The owner came over and chatted to us for a bit and eventually I plumped for the steak after she declared it “the best I’ve ever eaten!” Obviously biased but I’m not going to let a declaration like that pass me by and before I knew it I’d ordered it, medium rare please.

Ben was absolutely spolit for choice at this restaurant and had a choice of at least 3 different main courses! We had seen on the online menu that they served an aubergine parmigana which he was quite keen to try but after asking our server we learned it had been taken off due to lack of interest. Unfortunate but understandable. In the end he went for the pesto pasta with a side salad of onions and tomatoes.

Our main courses were brought out and I literally could not have been more excited to see the sheer size of my steak. Ben said as soon as he saw it he knew we’d be coming back! It was a 10oz rib-eye steak with a creamy dolcelatte sauce, chips and a salad. I have recently become obsessed with blue cheese and have been adding it to pretty much everything I eat so the chance to have a steak slathered in it pretty much made my day.

We were both impressed because I have only ever had a steak like this in Florida – sitting proudly on the plate, taller than everything else. Normally I get a bog-standard sirloin or similar which, while delicious, cannot match the impressive appearance of a fillet or rib-eye. The steak was perfectly cooked and in fact next time I may have to chicken out somewhat and order it medium as  the thick, meaty centre was very very rare. As it should have been! Only I wasn’t expecting the sheer girth of it and overcompensated thinking they would err on the side of caution.

The insanely rich sauce complimented every single bite of the steak. I was so tempted to ask for more sauce (pretty much to just drink) but I remembered I am actually on a ‘diet’ (using the MyFitnessPal app, it’s amazing!) and although we had walked to the village and so burned an additional 300 odd calories, I really shouldn’t push my luck. As it was I really scraped my plate clean, using the chips more as a vehicle to get sauce into my mouth than a side dish in their own right. They deserved more than that really as they were lovely chips.

Ben was very happy with his main course and although it appears quite small and forlorn in the vast bowl, he was actually struggling to finish!

His side dish of onion and tomato salad was somewhat resplendent in appearance and rather stole the show from his main.

More balsamic glaze, score! He was pleased because the pasta was cooked al-dente (they actually state this on the menu and you can ask for it to be cooked longer if you prefer) and the pesto was fresh and flavoursome. The salad provided a lovely contrast to the pasta and helped break up the unavoidable monotony that afflicts most pasta dishes.

We were contentedly full after our main courses and I was pleased we had shared a starter (although does it really count as sharing if you order 2…) and happy to leave without dessert in order to avoid the wrath of MyFitnessPal. Our dinner came to £42 which we thought was really very reasonable with a drink each and starters. Saying that, I did order the most expensive thing on the menu so we could have quite easily kept costs down if I’d gone for the tortellini. Oops.

We will definitely be going back to Piccola Roma given it’s fantastic food, convenient location and friendly service. The owner was very pleasant to chat to and we learnt that she lived in Rome for 6 years and actually met her husband there, the chef at Piccola Roma! Fantastic to hear we were receiving real authentic Italian food and for me, lovely to hear the back story from someone who is so obviously passionate about Italy and Rome.

Narcoosee’s at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa

Here is another of the amazing restaurants we ate at while in Florida last year. Narcoosee’s is a Signature restaurant located at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa hotel, near the Magic Kingdom. As I said before, we were on the Disney Dining Plan and used 2 credits each for this meal. It was so worth it! One of the best meals I’ve ever had, ever!

First of all, the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. My dream hotel and WDW’s ‘flagship’ resort. Look how beautiful it is! Of course, it’s very very expensive and we will never be able to afford it but a girl can dream…

(Taken from the official Disneyworld website)

Narcoosee’s is outside the main hotel, down by the lake. It is actually set over the water and offers stunning views across the Seven Seas Lagoon and over to the Magic Kingdom, perfect for watching the fireworks after dinner! We had planned this as our Anniversary dinner as we had been together 7 years which is definitely cause for celebration –  I added this to the online reservation I made 180 days before.

Our ADR was for 7.10pm. We were greeted by a lovely Cast Member who wished us Happy Anniversary and said there was about a 10 minute wait and would we like to wait on the balcony? Ummmm yes please! So we went out the little side door out onto the balcony that goes all the way round the restaurant. Such amazing views!

We had been out there about 5 minutes when we were told our table was ready. We were led inside to a PERFECT TABLE, right against the window, opposite the Magic Kingdom with a view of the castle. Little bit of pixie dust there I think! I was so pleased.

Our server was Amir and he was just perfect – kind, funny, attentive, knowledgeable…I sound like I’m describing a blind date but he was just lovely!

He introduced himself, wished us Happy Anniversary and produced two Happy Anniversary badges from behind his back! Adorable! He then asked us what we would like to drink and produced the menus for us to have a look at. But, not just any menus. personalized “Happy Anniversary” menus with Minnie and Mickey on! I was so excited, we both thought this was such a cute touch and it really made our night.

I just ordered a glass of rose and Benji ordered a Sam Adams. Apologies for the poor photos, it was very dark in the restaurant.

Amir then bought us out some delicious warm sourdough bread, with butter topped with sea salt. Yum! I’m a total salt fiend and had to refrain myself from scraping it all off the top and dumping it on my bread so that Ben could actually try some.

Every time Amir came over to check if we were okay we ended up deep in conversation as he was just a really chatty and interesting guy, we learned he had worked at Narcoosee’s for 12 years and absolutely loved it, you could tell he loved his job and was very proud of the restaurant.  This made me really happy because Narcoosee’s gets very mixed reviews with lots of people saying it is their least favourite signature but right from the moment we stepped in I could tell we were going to love it.

We were REALLY GOOD here and decided not to order starters. Shocker! There wasn’t anything on the starters list I was dying to try and I really really wanted to be able to finish what I was anticipating would be an amazing main course.

Once we’d munched our way through most of the bread and had a good long look at the menu, Amir came over to take our order. I was of course torn between various items and needed help! From the moment I saw the Narcoosee’s menu (like a year ago…) I knew I was going to order the famous Surf and Turf. But, the dish was now being served with mashed potatoes (the menu changes seasonally) which I’m not the biggest fan of, and I was also tempted to order the Filet Mignon as that came with a delicious sounding risotto. As I was uming and ahing about which to order, Amir said ‘Well why don’t we just get you the Surf and Turf with a side of risotto?” Yes please! I was a very very happy girl. I ordered the steak medium rare.

Benji was a lot easier to please as there was only one veggie option bless him. He opted for the Fall Vegetable Lasagna.

Orders placed, we sat back with our drinks and waited, taking in the lovely calm atmosphere and looking out toward the castle.

Not long after, our main courses were delivered to our table and we just sat there in stunned silence staring at them. They looked incredible!

This was my dinner. I ordered the Butter-poached Lobster Tail and Grilled Filet Mignon with Boniato Mashed Potatoes, Fall Vegetables, and Shallot-Red Wine Butter Emulsion, but substituted the mashed potatoes for the Gruyère Cheese and Caramelized Red Onion Risotto from the Filet Mignon dish. I got the shallot-red wine reduction too which was a bit of a bonus!

I took one taste of the reduction and poured it half over the risotto and half on the steak as it was just the most rich, amazing flavour – it needed to be enjoyed with all areas of the plate. I reserved the butter emulsion for the lobster and dipped each piece in…then pretty much poured the rest on the last mouthful. I promise you, not a drop of either was left in the pots. Very classy.

This was the first time I’d ever had real, properly cooked lobster and it is without a doubt the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The filet was fabulous of course, but the lobster was just in a different league. It was buttery, sweet and tender and I savoured every mouthful. The veggies were lovely too, perfectly cooked and a nice accompaniment to the rich meat and sauce.

Phew! Can you tell I liked this dish!?
Ben had a perfectly cooked lasagna, a huge portion, stuffed with roasted vegetables like courgette, pepper, onions, butternut squash and spinach. It was all bound together in a flavourful tomato/cheese sauce and topped with extra cheese that was mega crispy! It was sat in a crazily vibrant bright green sauce that turned out to be pea sauce. Just incredible. He ate every single last bite of his as well.

Amir came over half way through to ask how we were doing and we asked him loads about the food and I was gushing quite a lot about it all as I tend to do and he seemed really pleased.

All too soon I realized my plate was empty! Nightmare! Luckily I still had a tiny bit of room for dessert, PHEW! Just a tiny bit though.

I had to order the Almond Crusted Cheesecake. Had to! Look how beautifully it was presented to me.

It came with a lambert cherry sauce and it was absolutely to die for. I was so full I thought I might keel over but I managed to force down most of it. The almond crusting gave an amazing crunch to the cheesecake, perfectly complimenting the sweet, rich creamy insides. Mmmm. I ate it with the cherry sauce and it was grand.

Ben pulled a bit of a wildcard here and chose the cheeseplate! Which was really exciting as I’d wanted to see a signature cheese plate but I didn’t think I’d get to. He really enjoyed this, a bit of a treat. Neither of us have huge sweet tooths, I often find I need something sweet after dinner but I normally only need a couple of bites and then I’m done so it was nice to find we could order cheese as a dessert if we fancied.

Artisan Cheeses – Humboldt Fog, Fourme D’Ambert, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve with accompaniements.

While we were enjoying our desserts/trying not to be sick, Amir came over with a surprise!!

How amazing is that. He set them down and said “Happy Anniversary, I wish you seven more years of happiness!” I’m surprised I didn’t cry!  Once we’d eaten all we could of our desserts it was coming up to 9.30 and Amir came over and advised us that the Magic Kingdom fireworks would soon be starting if we wanted to watch it from the balcony. Perfect timing!

It was fabulous to stand out on the balcony, champagne in hand, watching ‘HalloWishes (the Halloween version of the usual ‘Wishes.’)  There were lots of other people out on the balcony but plenty of room for us all to stand and see everything.

Once the show was finished we went back inside to pay for our delicious dinner. We decided to give Amir a super duper big tip because we felt he had just gone above and beyond as a server and we had really enjoyed hearing about his life and his job at Narcoosee’s and just his company in general! At one point we were even considering asking him if he’d just sit down and join us!

He was really pleased and thanked us lots, he then made my night even more as I asked if we could keep the personalized menu’s and he said he could do one better than that and disapperared for a second, returning with two new personalised menu’s for us in a Narcoosee’s envelope. What a lovely, special memento of our night.

Narcoosee’s is a wonderful restaurant with delicious food and is second only to California Grill in our opinion. Obviously we didn’t get a chance to try any of the other signature restaurants (that is for our next trip!) but judging by these two, the standards will be pretty high! They’d have to be very good to beat these two though. Incredible food and one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza – Cooks Illustrated

I love Valentines Day. I really do.

I don’t understand the seemingly widespread dislike of it (at least judging by my Facebook feed this year!) and the accusations of it being ‘commercialised’ and ‘invented by card shops’ as it clearly isn’t, it dates back to the Middle Ages!  I especially don’t understand people who say “I don’t need a set day to tell my other half I love them.” Fair enough, none of us do. Or we shouldn’t. Me and Ben say I love you every day, often multiple times a day, but still we enjoy a chance to celebrate our love and spoil each other. And, I love the idea that lots of other couples all around the world are doing it at the same time.

So, V-Day 2012. Bit of an annoyance as it was a Tuesday night, possibly the most un-romantic day of the week. But we made it work. We decided against going out for dinner and paying extortionate amounts for a lame-o set menu with a ‘free’ glass of lukewarm bubbly and opted instead to stay in with a home-cooked dinner. I’d had an idea in my head for quite some time and I decided Valentines Day would be the perfect time to put it into action.

When we were in Florida in October we unwittingly ordered a pizza one night that would go on to become the pizza by which all other pizzas would be judged. It was a Chicago style, deep dish stuffed pizza from Giordano’s; original cheese with added pineapple (don’t ask, it’s Ben’s favourite pizza topping…) and when it arrived we were a little gobsmacked:

 

The thing was huge! And so heavy! I swear it weighed at least half a stone. We forced down a slice each while staring in horror at the side order of mozzarella sticks that had seemed like a good addition when we ordered, before admitting defeat. The rest of the pizza (and the mozzarella sticks…) were carefully placed in the fridge in our hotel room for the next day. The only problem was, we were never really hungry enough for it! Largely due to the amazingly huge American portion sizes. Sadly, we had to throw the majority of the remainder away! (Ben bravely managed to squeeze in a slice late one afternoon.)

We haven’t stopped talking about that pizza since. Unfortunately, it seems you cannot get a deep dish stuffed pizza over here for love nor money so it was becoming clear that my only option would be to create it from scratch myself – a nerve-wracking concept as the only time I’d made pizza dough was at school! A depressingly long time ago.

A couple of weeks before Valentines Day I was so excited about my big plans that I designed a little menu for the evening and gave it to Ben whose face lit up when he read it. I added a spinach and artichoke dip for a starter, (another hard-to-find favourite from our holiday!) Mickey rice krispie treats for dessert (these need no introduction for hardened Disney fans but if you are not, have a look here) and a dress code of ‘Disney’ which we actually didn’t really follow as we decided to dress up nicely instead.

On the Monday night I was in the kitchen for three long hours preparing most of the food, so that I could enjoy a nice relaxed evening with my sweetie the next night. Up first was the dough. I had my beautiful pink Macbook Pro on the side with about 8 tabs open, all holding different blogger’s versions of the Cooks Illustrated recipe, plus a YouTube video of the pizzas being made. You know, just in case.

Here is the Cooks Illustrated recipe that I followed, kindly posted by Thirty Bucks a Week. I chose it firstly because it seemed to be universally popular with multiple accounts of successful recreations, and secondly because it made two 9′ pizzas which coincided nicely with my Mum’s two 9′ cake pans.

First up, all the dough ingredients went into the bowl of my Mum’s brand new super shiny KitchenAid where they were mixed into a lovely plump ball.

I left it to rise for an hour while I got on with prepping the other two courses. When I took it out it looked like this – unintentionally heart-shaped, how quaint!

Next up was the laminating – spreading a thin layer of butter on the dough and then rolling it up to make the dough flaky, buttery and crusty. Mmmmm. Worked perfectly!

I split the dough in two, rolled them into perfect little ovals and placed them side by side in a bowl in the fridge where they would sit patiently  overnight, awaiting their grand reveal on V-Day.

Fast-forward 24 hours…

Ben arrived at my house and we decided to get the evening off to a good start by cracking open a bottle of bubbly (interestingly, the reward at my works Christmas Party for being the proud owner of ‘Highest Hemline!’) and toasting our love 🙂

Then it was time to get down to business! I removed the laminated, risen dough from the fridge and rolled both balls out into discs. I then impressed Ben immensely by managing to whip the dough onto the cake tins first time using the classic rolling pin trick. Genius!

I flattened the dough into each cake tin and it fit perfectly. Check out that hiiiiighhhh crust!

Domestic Goddess.

It was shortly after this photo was taken that a minor disaster happened. I went into the fridge to get the mozzarella out to start layering on the dough…and there was not a shred of mozzarella in sight. Oops! We must have left it in Ben’s fridge…at his house…15 minutes away by car when you haven’t had the best part of half a bottle of champagne. I started to panic with visions of a cheese-less deep dish pizza and a ruined Valentines Day.

But, I needn’t have worried. Ben to the rescue! Before I could say ‘lets just use cheddar’ his trainers were on, coat zipped up and he was out the door and halfway up the street on the way to the shop. I wandered nervously around the kitchen while he was gone, sipping my champagne and silently praying that the shop (Tesco Express) would sell sufficient amounts of grated mozzarella (the C.I recipes calls for a pound of the stuff!)

In no time at all he was back, two bags of grated mozzarella AND a bonus ball of buffalo mozzarella, “because it was cheap.” God I love you. We were back in business!

I made two pizzas with different fillings so we could experiment a bit. One was plain cheese with one half topped with pineapple (to recreate the magic of Giordano’s) and the other had sliced Quorn sauasges in between the (homemade!!) tomato sauce and the cheese. We layered the pizza, cheese, filling, tomato sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan, and they were ready for the oven. As they cooked, we ate our spinach and artichoke dip which I’m afraid I neglected to photograph because frankly, mozzarella-gate had somewhat thrown me off course. It was really lovely though.

In a perfect timings situation, our pizzas were ready just as we finished our dip. You just can’t make that stuff up. I left them on the side to cool for a bit as we cleared away the dip debris, as advised by my fellow stuffed-pizza-makers. This would make them easier to slice. I took the opportunity to take some photos while we waited and honestly you’d have thought they were newborn twins in the baby ward the amount of cooing and ahhing that took place as we gazed at them.

Twin number one – Sausage (odd name for a baby but this is 2012)

Crust!!

And Twin number two – Plain, half pineapple

And the finale of any deep dish pizza recipe…innards shots!

They were incredible. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy! The crust was perfect – it tasted EXACTLY like the Giordano’s one…dare I say it, better! It was flaky, buttery and rich. Delicious. It cooked perfectly in the amount of time stated on the recipe too even though I was afraid the bottom wouldn”t crisp up, it did! The tomato sauce was probably the best one I’ve ever tasted – grating the onion and cooking it really slowly as per the recipe made it so intense and deep, I’m glad I didn’t buy a sauce like I was originally planning to.

Obviously this makes a lot of pizza so we had leftovers for the next day…and the next! Easily fed 2 of us for 3 meals.

I was so thrilled that my pizzas had turned out perfectly that I didn’t even care about dessert! Honestly, I was on a dough-based cloud 9. But, I had a boy to feed, and dessert was the cutest part!

Check out these babies 🙂

Mickey and Minnie cake pop rice krispy treat…things. In my head they were a lot more polished and less…homemade looking…but that, I think, is the beauty of them! They were super easy to make – I melted a jar of Marshmallow Fluff, mixed it with rice krispies and moulded them into tiny little balls – a very difficult task; the fluff mixture was so sticky that they just stuck to my hands and not to each other! Eventually I got them to stick, dipped them in a mixture of chocolate and cream and stuck chocolate buttons on as ears. In a stroke of genius, I added heart-shaped cupcake decorations for Minnie’s bow 🙂

They looked really cute on the plate and they were really delicious but we’d unfortunately eaten so much pizza that we could only manage once each! These also worked well as leftovers so in fact our Valentines Day stretched to accommodate the best part of the week!

Overall, a very successful Valentines Day and one of our best to date. Happy Valentines Day Ben, roll on next year!