Lancaster County Tours

White Chocolate Mousse with Frangelico. Notice the Whoopie Pies - gobs to Pittsburghers - peeping out from the background.

If I’ve ever needed one of those herbal cleanses I read about in magazines, today might be the day.  I spent the weekend in the Lancaster area on a Wine and Chocolate Tour with Lancaster County Tours, LLC, a culinary tour company. The weekend started with a chocolate buffet at my wonderful home base, The Artist’s Inn & Gallery, in Terre Hill.  The literature for this B&B mentioned that the “horse and buggies” would be clip-clopping past the Inn, and they were right.  It’s the loveliest sound. Really is.  I could have stayed in my cozy bed there all day just waiting for another carriage to pass by, but since chocolate… and wine were on the agenda, I sprung to action at 8AM for Jan’s delicious breakfast, which included yummy white chocolate French toast. The day ended with a special chocolate trio dessert at a trendy restaurant in downtown Lancaster.  The chocolate creme brulee was what dreams are made of.  ( I know, that sentence ended in a preposition. I don’t care.)  Each stop on the tour was delightful. . .  talented food and wine artisans, enthusiastic store owners and creative chefs.  The B& B folks ( five are involved with the tours) and the guests were friendly and fun. Really fun. I came home with a bunch of new Facebook friends.

Notice this old tin says Lunch Chocolate. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner chocolate on this tour!

I’m not sharing any stops on the tour because then it would ruin the excitement for your own trip. Which you really should do.  Oh, and there are other culinary tours coming up in the next few months and they would make great Mother’s or Father’s Day  gifts.

Next blog:  my first barrel tasting.  Definitely not my last barrel tasting.

Feast of Saint Joseph

Last year was the first that I ever heard of the Feast of Saint Joseph.  I was schlepping my grocery bags around the Lancaster County Farmers Market in Wayne, PA when I spied some yummy cream puffs  in the pastry case.  Zeppole De San Giusseppe?  Huh? Whatever.  Of course, I bought a few of the light as air cream filled treats anyway and they were delicious. So that was that.

Then just last week, after consuming a gigantic bowl of polenta with broccoli rabe and sausage at Rizzo’s Malabar Inn in Crabtree, PA, I picked up flyer for their Feast of Saint Joseph.  I told my friend Debbi (an Italian like me) about it and how I’d never  even heard of this until last spring, but Deb knew all about the St Joseph’s celebration.

My family never ate cannoli, but Deb's family did.

Deb can never figure out why my family doesn’t serve cannoli, never eats some something she calls an Italian seven layer cookie (“OMG, are you even Italian?” was her comment over these unknown cookies), and now. . .I wasn’t familiar with St Joseph’s Day.    What sort of Italians are we, anyway? I was starting to feel like a fraud. So I did a little investigating.

This is my family's kind of Italian food - capelletti in broth. We call them "cuplets."

Turns out that because my Italian roots are from the Reggio Emilia region in Northern Italy, we don’t eat the same things as many families from Naples on south past the tip of the boot. The roots of cannoli ( and the roots of half of Debbi) are in Sicily, and so are  the beginnings of St Joseph’s Day. Seven layer cookies?  Still figuring that one out.

So, for those who don’t know the St Joseph’s story, it seems that in the Middle Ages there was a severe drought in Sicily.  The  people prayed to St Joseph to fix the situtation.  They promised that if he came through, they would have a wonderful feast in his honor.  The rains came, and giant buffets of special foods were set up and served to rich and poor.  In many southern Italian communities, a three tiered alter – which represents the Holy Trinity – is set up with food, linens, flower and gifts, all  to honor St Joseph.  (For those who don’t know, this is THE Joseph,  the carpenter who was married to Mary. Joseph,  the father of Jesus.)

". . .some fava beans and a nice chianti." Fava beans are considered lucky to serve on March 19.

At Rizzo’s, the menu will include traditional meatless festive dishes like spaghetti with raisns and breadcrumbs, sweet rice, smelts,  baccala, those special cream puffs and fried fritters.  Better wear my stretchy pants!

The official day is March 19, but lucky for us that Rizzo’s celebration runs from Thursday, March 17 through Sunday, March 20.  Make your reservations now at 1-800-794-4323, because the event sells out.  Oh, and you can catch Rizzi DeFabo cooking up a preview of the St Joseph’s feast on  the KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live on March 14.

“Viva la tavola di San Giuseppe!”

Maple Syrup Time!

This past weekend, I drove deep into Somerset County on a quest for maple syrup.Well, really, I was just bored and wanted to get away for a few days and maple syrup was a good excuse.  My first stop was at the Somerset Historical Center, just a short skip off the good ol’ PA Turnpike.  Since the outdoor areas are closed until spring, I walked through the indoor exhibits of  PA history, old farm equipment and maple sugaring accessories. I really liked this place.  Of course, shopping is always in order, so the gift shop beckoned.  I fell in love with an adorable house shaped maple sugar mold, and was excited when Mark Ware   showed me a sample of how the maple sugar house looked when unmolded.  I wish they sold those at the gift shop!

A picture filled tretise on maple sugaring and a little package of goose beans ( the beans are a story in themselves, for another time) in hand and I was on my way. Next stop? Meyersdale, home of the upcoming PA Maple Festival. The Levi Deal Mansion was my headquarters. . .. beautiful B&B, lovelier than lovely hosts, and perfect food.

"Somerset" style chicken soup - yummmmm

With suggestions from Jan and Michael at Levi Deal, I visited the Milroy Farms  Sugar Camp for syrup and sugar, the Springs Store for donuts, Landis Bakery for gobs and more.  Yes, it was a festival of carbs.

Milroy Sugar Camp in Salisbury, PA

In my conversations with locals, I learned a lot about sugaring and maple syrup, and about living in southern Somerset County.  Even without autumn leaves or budding trees, this area still charms.  It’s only about 1 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh, so it works for a day trip, but it’s so peaceful there, with so many culinary treasures, staying overnight is a must.

World’s Greatest Love Story Contest on Regis and Kelly

Last week, I had the chance to meet Anna Jo Noviello, owner of The Sunset Cafe and Aunt Anna’s Biscotti in Greensburg. Besides terrific Italian food and to die for biscotti (she has two of my favorite flavors. . . . coconut lemon and red velvet,) Anna told us that two newly married relatives were vying to win a honeymoon courtesy of Regis And Kelly on ABC if they got the most votes in a World’s Greatest Love Story Contest.  I’m not going into detail here, but go to the show’s site, and read Meredith and Blake’s story.  Then vote for them. And do it by Monday the 21st at 6PM.  Thank you!!!

Spring Culinary Tours

I’ve been super busy researching all of the fantastic stops for the Spring 2011 tours.  The Fork and The Road did a culinary tour to Bedford and to parts of the Laurel Highlands last fall, and both were terrific, but there’s always room  for a little tweak here and there.  The number of high quality artisanal foods in these areas just keep increasing and it’s so hard to decide where the tour bus should go.  So hard and so fun!

New this season is the Italian themed tour.  Of course, lots of testing of all of the stops and products is in order, so as soon as there is a day without ice and snow, I head out on Route 30 to investigate all things food. I’m not giving away any big tour secrets, but I can say I’ve been sampling dark chocolate truffles, freshly made cheese,  delicious pasta, crunchy biscotti and a variety of pasta sauces. Oh, and a little vino always enters the picture, too.  The Italian tour is a mix of “old school” and “cutting edge” cuisine. Good stuff.   We’ve already had quite a  response to this tour, so we’re doing two of them instead of just one.

The small tour size (18 people max.) allows us to have a more personal experience at out stops . . talking with the chefs, store owners or vintners.  So don’t delay in signing up.  A few tours are close to capacity.  For more info, click on the Tours tab above.  For even more info or to register, email me at or call 412.576.1755.  Hope to see you on the bus!!

Pittsburgh’s Food Network Connection

Read on to find out where you can eat this luscious chocolate dessert.

Last Saturday night, while flipping channels on our television, I came across a show called Food Network Challenge.  Claire Robinson, the host,  caught my eye, because she was in town last fall for the GoodTaste! Pittsburgh Food and Cooking Expo. I didn’t get to meet Claire, but I heard she was really nice. So  I paused from my channel surfing to watch for a minute. As the four chefs on the Challenge were introduced, lo, and behold, one of the chefs was from Pittsburgh!   Naomi Gallego, the executive pastry chef at the newish Fairmont Hotel restaurant, Habitat, was a Pittsburgh representative on this episode.  The episode was called Chocolate Surprise Proposal, and the mission  was to have the chefs construct a chocolate creation  to celebrate a marriage proposal.  Naomi made a light green, swirly chocolate structure with a beautiful white chocolate flower,  and although she didn’t win the 10k on the show, she was a winner to me.

Meryl Hellring from VisitPittsburgh with Chef Naomi Gallego from Habitat

Skip to Tuesday, when I had a meeting with Meryl Hellring from VisitPittsburgh. We were talking about food (what else?) and I told Meryl about  Naomi and the Food Network show.  Meryl suggested we walk across the street to Habitat for lunch.  After my savory and earthy mushroom soup, with local mushrooms courtesy of  the guys at Wild Purveyors, and a huge grilled tuna sandwich, I mentioned to Tyler, our server, that I saw their pastry chef on TV last weekend.  Minutes later, out popped Naomi to say hello.  A native of Texas, this talented chef has also spent time cooking in Germany and Washington DC.  She loves competitions and is currently training for one with a group of female chefs.  It is wonderful to have talent like this here in our city.

Meryl and I were lucky to be able to  share two beautifully executed and very tasty desserts from Naomi’s kitchen  that day.

Look at this lovely, yet exotic creation!

Sometimes hotel dining leaves a bit to be desired.  But not at Habitat. They focus on local and seasonal foods and I haven’t been disappointed there.  So give it a try . . and make sure to try some of Naomi’s fabulous desserts.  Oh, and watch The Food Network on February 12 at 6 PM for another airing of the show.

A Lesson in Coffee

Yesterday, we bypassed the Steeler frenzy on Penn Avenue in the Strip District and snuck into La Prima Espresso on Smallman Street for a coffee  tour.  Held on the first Saturday of every month at 10 AM, the behind the scenes roasting tour was a nice break from the craziness outside  for the six who  signed up. There are usually a lot more people, but hey, it was the day before the Super Bowl and most folks were thinking black and gold, not Arabica and Robusta.

In my house, the better half is the coffee connoisseur. I’m not sure if I can tell the difference between a gas station grind and a fresh roasted, high quality blend.  Since  the hubby has (in my opinion) some odd coffee buying habits, and my coffee palate could sure use some refining, I thought the class would be good for both of us.

Burlap Bags of Unroasted Beans

David and Johnny were our teachers for the morning, and they shared great information about coffee prices, organic and fair trade growers, and types of coffee beans.   We sampled two different blends and ate a few biscotti while we listened and learned.  Then we watched Johnny roast a 25 pound batch of beans.  Who knew that there were just a few seconds between the perfect roast and burnt?  Not me.  The whole coffee blending and roasting process involves lots of skill and experience.  I was impressed.

The Final Step of the Roasting Process

This was a great way to spend a few hours.  I always make a stop at La Prima on 21st Street, sometimes for a coffee, but more often for their Bitter Combo, the Miller females’ favorite citrus-y pick-me-up. Now that I know what goes on just to get their terrific coffee into my hubby’s cup, I might now opt for a cuppa Joe.

Perfect for a Valentine's Day treat!

To sign up for La Prima’s  next tour on March 5, call   412.565.7070 or register online at