During my recent stay in Florence, Italy, my friend Larry Weiser kept saying that I needed to check out what he had been told was the best coffee bar in the city. Yeah, yeah, I thought. But I finally did check out the News Cafe, and I wasn't disappointed. Not that the cappuccino I ordered was any better than what I'd been served in any of a half dozen other spots. But it was pretty good. And it was … well, pretty.
Enter to win tickets to the July 13th Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre production of “Mary Poppins” plus a $100 gift card to Scratch Restaurant and Lounge.
Winner will be drawn on June 26. Tickets are non-transferable.
In between seeing two movies on Saturday — “Frances Ha” at the AMC and “In the House” at the Magic Lantern — my brother and I drove out into Spokane Valley to get hamburgers. So, naturally, we dropped by Ron's Drive-In.
Here's what I like about the place, besides its retro feel: Unlike most other places, especially the chain establishments, Ron's specializes in offering actual hamburgers — not massive meat concoctions whose combo-prices run in double digits.
My brother and I got Super Burgers, with large combos. And in additon to walking, not waddling away, I enjoyed the fact that the entire price came to less than $16.
Hey, that was the same price we paid for a movie!
So, the joke goes like this: What do they call Italian food in Italy?
Ah, but not always. The photo above comes from a sign attached to the front of a trattoria in Rome that we walked past last weekend.
Following is a transcribed version of the review of “After Earth” that I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:
Wednesday evening, backstage at the Bing Crosby Theater waiting to be part of the special SPR Goes to the Movies event, my “Movies 101” colleagues Nathan Weinbender, Leonard Oakland, Barb Williamson and I pondered a difficult question.
Whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan?
The literal answer, of course, is he’s still making movies. Trouble is, you’d barely notice it.
After gaining fame with his third film, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” for the next nine years writer-director Shyamalan offered up one big-screen project after the next – all bearing his auteurish trademarks: slick cinematography and patient pacing in support of stories that relied on mystery, suspense and typically one huge surprising twist: “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening.”
Problem is, by the time this string had run out, so – it was fairly clear – had Shyamalan. Plots that once seemed fresh had turned predictable. Even his technical prowess – those cool color tones, precise focus and crisp edits marking artfully crafted scenes in “Unbreakable,” for example – had faded. Much of “The Happening” seems, I don’t know, sloppy?
Then, in 2010, Shyamalan – still writing and directing – gave us “The Last Airbender,” a fumbling attempt at creating a kiddie/martial arts/Eastern religion/magic-action film. Or something.
Now comes “After Earth,” and … again, the question: Whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Seriously, if you didn’t know going in that this film were directed – and, for the first time, co-written – by Shyamalan, you’d never suspect it. Not until the closing credits, that is.
For whatever reason, Shyamalan was hired to helm what otherwise is a Smith family vanity project. Will Smith, who gets story credit, stars as General Cypher Raige, while son Jaden co-stars as the general’s son Kitai. Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith – along with Pinkett Smith’s brother, Caleeb Pinkett – are listed as producers.
Set a thousand years in the future, “After Earth” tells us that humans long age deserted the planet, having both polluted it and encountered a breed of murderous aliens called The Ursa. From the comfort of their new world, Nova Prime – which looks as if an IKEA store has been plopped into the Grand Canyon – General Raige takes his son with him on a space mission whose routine nature turns serious when their ship runs into a bunch of space rocks. Forced to crash-land on, of all places, Earth, the two sole-surviving Raiges must navigate a planet on which every life form poses a threat. Because the general is injured, it falls to Kitai to overcome the elements – including a pesky roving Ursa – and find the rescue beacon that can save them both.
Complicating matters is the fact that Kitai, still traumatized by seeing his older sister murdered by an Ursa, is unable to control his fear – the scent of which makes him vulnerable to Ursa attack.
Listing all that is wrong with “After Earth” would take far too long. Slow, badly acted (the younger Smith simply can’t carry a film), bearing nonsensical plot points (a planet that freezes every night looks like a fern-covered Redwood forest during the daytime) and ultimately predictable, “After Earth” is likely to fade from consciousness even before you exit the theater.
But you might be thinking this: Seeing the name Shyamalan on a movie just doesn’t mean much anymore.
If you didn't make Wednesday night's special SPR Goes to the Movies event, you missed a pretty decent discussion between four movie fans and a big-screen showing of one of Alfred Hitchcock's more entertaining movies, “North by Northwest.” The photo above was taken just before (or after, I can't remember) we went onstage.
From left to right we have yours truly, Barb Williamson, Nathan Weinbender, Patrick Klausen and Leonard Oakland. Barb teaches film at Spokane Falls Community College, Nathan is now a staff writer at The Spokesman-Review, Patrick is the producer of “Movies 101” for Spokane Public Radio, and Leonard is a professor emeritus at Whitworth University.
A good time was had by all, which is leading some people to think we should do it again.
It's still not too late to get a ticket to the SPR Goes to the Movies event, which will be held tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater. The place has some 750 seats, so little possibility exists that it will sell out. The doors are supposed to open at 6, which should give everyone a good chance to get liquored up (assuming that's the kind of thing you do, and it's certainly the kind of thing that Roger Thornhill would do).
As you can see from the schedule, we'll start a live taping of a special edition of “Movies 101” at 6:30. Following that, Leonard Oakland will give a little intro to the evening's main feature, Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 feature “North by Northwest,” and then the feature will screen at about 7:30. (Roger Thornhill, by the way, is the character Cary Grant plays in the film.)
All for just $10, which goes to help sponsor the station. Not a bad deal, when you think about it.
Below: Part the of famous crop-dusting sequence in “North by Northwest.”
I'm back from Italy, where wireless connections are seldom the best, and I wanted to complete a thought that I had at least partially expressed in my last post. The one about eating bistecca fiorentina.
I did eat an order, which usually comes for two people. And between my wife and I, we ate an entire kilo of meat (2.2 pounds) — though that's not so impressive when you consider a portion of each was pure bone.
Anyway, it was done to perfection. And that is a photo of it above, held in my wife's hands. Yum.
Congratulations to all of the winners in the Silverwood “You Win When They Win” Contest. We chose 12 deserving nominees to receive tickets to the northwest's largest theme park. As a thank you for nominating these people, the authors of the winning essays also received tickets to Silverwood.
Click here to see the winners and read all the entries!
All over this hot town.
Here's a link to a page that updates as more concerts are added.
Pack a basket, bring a blanket then kick back and let the tunes wash right on over you. Happy. Summer. Can't hardly wait.
Photo: What's left of a platter of strozzapreti, a pasta dish served with meat sauce.
(This post is dedicated to my friend Leslie Kelly.)
In February 1974, concerned about my weight and wanting to clean up some fairly unhealthy habits, I stopped eating meat. My then-wife Freddie and I opted instead for a fairly restricted vegetarian diet, abstaining from all meat, fish and fowl. Though Freddie and I divorced in 1993, I continued my veggie lifestyle until three years ago.
I won’t go into the whole story, but a medical condition caused me to rethink things. I started taking medication that was, in essence, pure pig enzymes, so I figured … what the hell. If they’re killing pigs to feed me enzymes, I might as well go, uh, whole hog. And so, after 35 years, I again began eating meat.
I started slowly. My friend Leslie Kelly helped me break my flesh fast by preparing me a delicious halibut dinner. And for a while afterward, I was disciplined. But that sense of dietary care lasted barely a few months. Pretty soon I was back on the carnivore train with a vengeance. I ate everything. If it was meat, I consumed it. Roast beef, chicken, turkey, pepperoni pizza, hamburgers, filet miñon and rib eye steaks, swordfish, sausage and salami, lamb chops, seafood of all shapes and sizes, I tried it all.
My now-wife, Mary Pat, finally began calling me a carnivore when she saw me eat a Costco hot dog. Yeah, I ate it. The whole tasty thing. But that was hardly the peak moment. The peak (so far) came during the Christmas holidays of 2010 on Hawaii's Big Island when I ate a meat platter at a place called Huli Sue's. It was so flesh-filled I called it Meat-o-plenty. Ate it to the last bit of gristle.
For the past week and a half, I've been in Italy. And so far I have eaten pork chops in Florence (at a place called I’Che Ce Ce), roasted duck in Cortona (at the winery Teminemti Luigi d'Alessandro), picci with ragu sauce in Perugia (Il Falchetto), strozzapreti (or “strangled priest” pasta) with ragu sauce in Florence (A Casa Mia), porchetta in a panino in Florence (at Pork's in the Mercato Centrale). And before I leave, if I can manage it, I plan on eating the biggest, most famous Florentine meat dish of all, bistecca alla fiorentina, which we’ll consume at Sostanza.
I don’t mean to sound boastful. For three and a half decades, I was a proud vegetarian. And, to be completely honest, I was at times a tad bit judgmental of my non-vegetarian friends. Which, of course, is never a smart thing to do because things have a tendency to come back around. A couple of years ago, when I was regularly traveling to Washington, D.C., for a web-production job, I would have lunch with the whole D.C. staff. One of the young web producers was not only vegetarian but actually vegan, and I could see her nose get slightly out of joint every time I would take a bite out of my tuna-salad or turkey-and-provolone or roast-beef-and-cheddar sandwich.
So if you are like that young colleague and what I have written here offends you, well, I apologize. I do understand that, 1, you may have different values; 2, that you might not understand how I could have changed my opinion about food so easily, if not cavalierly; and, 3, that it might seem strange how few regrets I have. Fact is, I could have gone the rest of my life eating a diet of tofu and veggies and rice and beans and all the good nutritious foods that are available to the average American eater. And I would have been fine with that decision. But fate intervened.
And when I do bite into that bistecca alla fiorentina, and the first chunk of flesh gets masticated slowly into succulent bits of pure carnivorous lust that I will wash down maybe with some fava beans and a good Chianti, just know that I will be thinking one thing.
Yeah, sometimes karma is a bitch. Other times, though, it’s simple deliciousness.
Photo: Florence's famous Duomo, on a cool night between rain showers.
It’s raining today in Florence. Spring here in Italy has been what we normally experience in Spokane – an extension of winter. Cold, wet and often miserable.
Except that we’re in Italy. And anytime you find a decent coffee place, you realize just how lucky you are. And by decent, I mean … well, pretty much any coffee place you stumble upon.
Florentines have so many coffee spots it’s virtually impossible to count them all. Every bar on every corner will give you some version of a coffee drink, from a caffe normale (simple espresso) to a cappuccino (a shot of espresso served in a larger cup with steamed milk) to a macchiato (a shot of espresso with just a splash of steamed milk) … and so on.
We all have standards as to how to judge a cup of coffee, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Italy, those standards often have to do with atmosphere. You can find great old buildings, with immense bars and baristas dressed in pristine white who serve cappuccini boasting designs in the milk that are pure art. Tourists in particular love these places.
Or you can opt for the cheap corner bars, the ones that serve a local population that drinks (and maybe eats a brioche) while standing – the whole process taking maybe five minutes and costing less than 3 euro (a little less than $4).
I prefer the corner bars. But just as I judge most things in Italy, I tend to spend my money in places where I feel appreciated. A year and a half ago, when I worked for a month in Rome at an online news agency, I stepped into a bar a minute before 7 – a bar at which Italians were already drinking their coffees – and I was refused service. I had to wait for the bar to open, the barista said with a sniff. And when was opening time? I asked. At 7, naturally. Well, excuse me. Despite its sitting just below the office I was working in, I never went back. So many choices, so little time for attitude.
This brings me to the Caffe Accademia, a Florentine bar that sits on the Piazza San Marco. Its appearance is hardly prepossessing, what with its only distinguishing feature being a red “Illy” sign out front, advertising the type of coffee it serves (Trieste’s best). The hall-like space holds barely enough room for four or five medium-size people. And no one speaks much English.
But for the past several years, as I have taken classes at Gonzaga University’s Florence program (or simply visited with the faculty members I know), I have stopped in and ordered my cappuccini or macchiati at Caffe Accademia. And I have always been greeted with a smile and a “prego” to my “mille grazie.”
In coffee serving, as in most everything else, substance tends to win out over style.
Friday is final day to save up to $200 on your 2013/14 Mt. Spokane season pass! You know you're gonna go up there. Shop now or you'll regret it once the snow starts to fly.
So a couple of months ago I made the switch to a gluten-free life. For the most part I've gotten used to living off almonds and eggs and Greek yogurt. I know, I know, there are zillions of gluten-free options. But I'm lazy. The thing I miss the most is bread. Every option I've tried has tasted an awful lot like cardboard (yes, I have tasted actual cardboard so I know what I'm talking about) and is so dry it can't be swallowed without the aid of an oscene amount of water or wine or coffee or whatever slippery liquid happens to be handy.
And then I met this gorgeous sandwich at Geno's. Yes, it was meaty — kind of like someone had slid a slab of the world's most tasty meatloaf on the plate. But what was even better? The fact that the slab was nesteled within the most moist, most flavorful bread I've had since March. OMG. I forced my gluten-friendly lunch partner into a taste test. We both agreed … gluten-free for the win.
Get yours at Geno's, 1414 N. Hamilton, in the Gonzaga District.
There's salad to be had? I DO, duh.
Sadly, the fine folks at Fire Artisan Pizza don't have a gluten-free menu. My girls ate the holy hell outta the pie that came to the table, but this girl had to settle for a spinach gargonzola with chicken bowl. To be fair, it was a damn good salad. But it wasn't a fancy pizza cooked in fire. Sigh.
You'll find Fire Artisan Pizza at 816 W. Sprague, across from the Davenport, downtown.