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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Texting At The Table Raises Papal Ire – And Mine, Too

Oh, Hell, Mr. Bell, What Have You Done?

I've finally got an ally in my quixotic campaign to get people to put their damn phones down at the table. And what an ally! The Pope, no less!

In a recent speech at Rome's Università degli Studi Roma Tre (aka Roma Tre University), the Pontiff told a gathering of kids to get off their phones during family meals. Grazie, Papa. I've been beating that drum for years. And His Holiness took the subject pretty seriously, warning that the rapid decline in real, old-fashioned face-to-face dinner conversations can have dire consequences for society. “When we're at the table,” Pope Francis opined, “when we are speaking to others on our telephones, it's the start of war because there is no dialogue.”

War? Okay, even I never took it that seriously.

Of course, when he's talking about “speaking” on the phone, he's more likely referring to texting because the vast majority of phone addicts are texters rather than talkers. Especially among the younger set. I'm not entirely sure most kids even realize you can make calls on a phone.

Back in 1973, Jerry Reed recorded a song called “Lord, Mr. Ford” which detailed the stress, anxiety, traffic jams, pollution, parking problems and other less than positive effects of the automobile on society. The chorus sums it up:

Lord, Mr. Ford, I just wish that you could see
What your simple horseless carriage has become.
It seems your contribution to man,
To say the least, got a little out of hand.
Well, Lord, Mr. Ford what have you done.”

Too bad Jerry's not still around. I've got an idea for an update: “Hell, Mr. Bell.”

Do you suppose Alexander Graham Bell had any notion back in 1876 that the fruit of his labor would someday tear at the fabric of society? That a Pope would liken his device to an engine of war? I doubt it. I don't think he foresaw a miniaturized version of his creation being stuffed into the pocket or purse of every person on the planet. I read about a teenager who bragged about her ability to eat with one hand while texting with the other. I don't believe Bell would have understood that. I don't think he would have understood kids sitting in a room using his apparatus to communicate with other kids three feet away. I don't think he conceived of throngs of people walking the streets heads down while poking at a portable keypad in their hands. Or of the deadly idiocy resulting from the pairing of his invention and Mr. Ford's. Oh, hell, Mr. Bell, what have you done?

Listen, I'm an old guy. I remember when my phone number had letters in it: ROckwell 3-6417. The Pope's an even older old guy. When he was a kid, you picked up the phone and said, “Operator, get me 432.” Us old guys see the world differently because we've been in it longer and remember more of it. Boomers like me have a different perspective on things than Gen X-ers do and Millennials have still another standard of “normal” based on their life experiences. Things I consider “normal” – like not lighting up a movie theater with your damn flickering phone screen or actually sitting at a table and talking to the people right next to you – are often incomprehensible concepts to younger people, not because they are intentionally stupid and ill-mannered, but because they have a different idea of “normal.”

I was watching a “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” rerun from the 70s the other night and was a little jarred when I saw him light up on TV. It was still common practice in those days. My Gen X wife can barely remember people smoking on television and my Millennial kids not at all. If I mention the clever “Benson and Hedges” ads on TV or if I talk about the “Marlboro Man” galloping across the screen to the tune from “The Magnificent Seven,” I get blank stares all around. Cigarette advertising was banned on radio and TV in 1971. What was a normal part of my growing up was no part of theirs at all.

When I learned to dial a phone, it had an actual rotary dial on it. Push buttons came later. I recently saw some hilarious and yet somehow disturbing video of today's kids trying to figure out how to work the very telephones with which I grew up. They had no clue. My wife remembers a rotary phone in her grandparents' house, but my kids – two young men in their mid-30s – have only seen them in old movies and museum exhibits.

The societal sea change, the cultural watershed moment, came in the 80s with the introduction of the cellular telephone. When I was a kid, “mobile phones” existed, but only in James Bond movies and the like. Operating on RCC (Radio Common Carrier) networks, they were the purview of the super-rich. I had a plastic toy telephone when I was a kid. I'd take it along with me in the car sometimes so I could pretend I had a “car phone.” Cellphone prototypes were developed in the 70s, and by the mid-80s my childhood fantasy had become reality. My first cellphone was a whopper: a corded handset attached to a battery mounted on a carrying frame with a handle and an antenna. The whole assembly weighed ten or fifteen pounds. It cost thousands of dollars for the unit and airtime went for a dollar a minute. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly “my” phone: it belonged to the radio station for which I worked.

The progression from there is mind numbing. Within ten years, cellphones had shrunk down to pocket size. They had become infinitely more affordable and were well on the way to becoming ubiquitous and then to being practically indispensable. Especially with the advent of “text messaging.”

Think about the cultural repercussions for a minute: Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone in 1876. A hundred years later, we were still relying on basically the same technology. And then within a decade, the way we communicate turned completely upside down. And not only in terms of technology but in our attitude as well. Nowadays it seems life is all about “being connected.”

When I was a kid, and even into young adulthood, if I wanted to “be connected” and tell somebody something, I had three choices: I could wait until I saw them in person, I could write them a letter, or I could call them on the telephone. I wrote letters to distant family and friends because long distance phone calls were expensive. If I were out and about somewhere and wanted to talk to somebody, I'd have to find a pay phone and drop a dime in the slot. Instant, spontaneous, live streaming communication was not possible unless you were face to face. Today all bets are off. Whether you are in the car, in the boardroom, in the bedroom, or in the bathroom, you are now “connected” with nearly everybody on the planet twenty-four hours a day.

In many cases this is beneficial. Thanks to cellphones, gone are the days of being stranded by the side of the road. Emergencies and critical situations are much easier to handle. Even common “I'm going to be a little late” or “honey, pick up some milk on your way home” scenarios play out more simply and efficiently. For most people, the communication revolution has been a good thing.

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. For far too many people, especially younger people with no other frame of reference, the availability of instant communication has become an addiction. For most people of my generation, it's a matter of necessity. We use cellphones when we need to, and “need” is pretty narrowly defined. For people who have never been without cellphones in their world, cellphones have become their world. And that's not a good thing. I don't know about the Pope's assertion that it's a precursor to war, but it certainly contributes to an overall decline in society. Especially at the dinner table, an area that was once sacrosanct.

I don't know whether to be angry or sad when I see cellphones come out at the table. A little of both, I guess. It makes me angry that younger people have such different norms; that they haven't been taught better by the people of my generation. They think it's perfectly okay to sit down at a table with another person or several other people, pull out their damn phones and start texting away. That it's acceptable to all but tell the other person or people there with you that they are unimportant. That they are not worthy of your attention because you are communicating with somebody you deem more important or you are involved in a game or a video or Facebook or email or whatever it is that takes precedence over the person or people sitting across from you.

The arbiters of all things mannerly at the Emily Post Institute have a definite opinion on this behavior: they say don't do it. “It's not good manners.” According to Emily Post, you don't text when you're involved in any type of social interaction with other people. They advise that if you're breaking out in a cold sweat because you just have to share the latest gossip with your BFF, you excuse yourself, go out somewhere and text your heart out. Then come back with your phone safely stashed away where it will not cause further intrusion. But nobody does that. It's not convenient and, God knows, convenience is nearly as essential to modern life as being “connected.” It's sad. It's rude, it's ill-mannered, ill-bred, discourteous, impolite, and just plain ignorant. And yet it is increasingly de rigueur.

That's what makes my quest so quixotic: I can't do a thing about it outside my own sphere of influence. My anger, sadness, irritation, and disappointment are meaningless. I'm but whistling in the wind whenever I find myself fulminating and raging against the inevitable trend. And I doubt the Pope's words meant anything, either. I'm sure there were secreted or not-so-secreted cellphones in play throughout his entire speech. What can you do? Keep fighting the good fight, I guess. Pray that the pendulum will someday swing the other way. Hey, vinyl records have made a comeback. Maybe good manners and common sense will, too.

But until such a miracle happens, I will continue to use my phone as a tool rather than as a social crutch. I carry a Swiss Army knife in a pocket near my phone and I'm comforted in the knowledge that both are there when I need them. I don't have a co-dependent relationship with my knife and I don't intend to have one with my phone either. I will use it to make calls as necessary, text when forced, and look up information as required. Otherwise, the damn thing will stay in its case on my hip. I will not use it to endanger my life and the lives of others as I drive or even as I walk down the street. It will not come out at a movie, play, or concert and it will not interrupt the flow of conversation among friends and family at the table. I will not overshare minute details of my existence on Facebook nor will I tweet every breath and bowel movement on Twitter or Instagram every bite that goes into my mouth. In short, I will not sit with glassy eyes cast down upon a flashing screen over which my nimble thumbs dance as I participate in the decline of civilization and the apocalypse to come. Call me old-fashioned if you like. I will thank you for the compliment. Just do it in person, please: no phone calls or texts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

TV Cooks Set Bad Examples For Health And Food Safety

Don't Try This At Home

I used to watch a lot of food TV. Not as much anymore since Food Network became nothing more than a useless collection of mindless game shows, but I suppose I still watch more food programming than most. It's part of what I do. And I've been a little concerned by what I see: TV cooks setting really bad examples for health and food safety.

It's surprising because, theoretically at least, these people should know better. Anybody who has been through culinary school or run a restaurant should have a thorough working knowledge of food safety. But considering the caliber of “stars” Food Network is turning out these days, maybe it isn't so surprising after all.

I've run a couple of restaurants and I've done some catering, so I'm quite familiar with health codes. The average consumer would not believe the standards to which the people who prepare and serve their food are held. State, county, and local health departments establish incredibly strict policies and practices aimed at making sure the food you eat away from home is handled as hygienically as possible. Health inspectors enforce these regulations. Most restaurateurs will tell you that some of the enforcement borders on the ridiculous. But whether restaurant management and staff like them or not, the rules are there for public safety.

As many as one in six Americans are exposed to foodborne illnesses every year. Sometimes the results are nothing more serious than a little “stomach bug,” but oftentimes “food poisoning,” as it's commonly called, can be much more serious, even fatal. And it's up to us, the people who cook for other people, to make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen on our watch.

It's not just the responsibility of professional cooks. Home cooks have to be just as diligent in following health and safety rules in the kitchen. If I screw up in a restaurant kitchen, I could sicken or kill a customer. If you screw up in your home kitchen, you could sicken or kill your kids. And that kind of brings me back to my point: a lot of home cooks look to the pros for examples. But it's not just recipes they're copying. They're also looking at the way the professional TV cook conducts him or herself in the kitchen. And some of that conduct is pretty scary.

For example: you almost never see any form of hair restraint on TV. Let's face it, hairnets look dumb. Hats, bandanas, skull caps – it's hard to look like a TV star while wearing stuff like that. Some TV chefs, like Mario Batali, wear a ponytail. Then there are the guys who sport those curly locks and big bushy beards on TV. Bet they kept 'em covered in culinary school. Guy Fieri might look super cool rockin' that spiky 'do on TV, but he'd have to keep a lid on it in a real restaurant. Of course, guys like Michael Symon and Tom Colicchio don't have to worry about it. But I can't recall the last time I saw a female “celebrity chef” wearing anything that would resemble something the health code for her restaurant would require her to wear. I know these ladies spend lots of time and big bucks maintaining their stunning coiffures, but a health inspector in my county would throw the likes of Anne Burrell right of the kitchen. Sometimes contestants on “reality” shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” or “Hell's Kitchen” make an effort to reflect actual reality. But the scripted shows? Almost never.

And it's not just hair covering. Have you ever noticed TV cooks touching, brushing back, or just generally fussing with their hair? I promise you, if a health inspector saw that in a restaurant kitchen, he would make the cook stop what he was doing and go wash his hands. Same goes for scratching your nose, wiping your eyes, or touching your face in general.

It's not just me noticing these things. Separate studies conducted last year by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Kansas State University, and Tennessee State University all reached similar conclusions: that TV cooks are failing to demonstrate proper safety and food handling techniques. In the Kansas State and Tennessee State studies researchers watched a hundred TV cooking shows featuring twenty-four prominent celebrity chefs. The results yielded numerous instances of unsanitary food preparation practices. The study noted, for instance, that twenty percent of the TV cooks viewed touched their hair or dirty clothing or other dirty objects and then touched food again. The same study found twenty-three percent of the cooks licking their fingers. Nasty. Other egregious findings included not changing out cutting boards between prepping raw meat and vegetables, and not using a meat thermometer to check meat doneness.

Okay, so every chef I know can tell the doneness of a steak by touching it. There's a little trick you learn that involves touching the heel of your palm and touching the meat and comparing the feeling. But that doesn't really take the place of temping a piece of meat with a thermometer, especially when you're trying to demonstrate proper food safety. There are tons of little kitchen short cuts that every chef knows. And every chef knows the health inspector will bust him if he gets caught using them.

Another thing cited in the studies was improper handwashing. It was noted that some TV chefs washed their hands when they started cooking something but failed to do so again at times when they should have, like when handling raw meat and then picking up other foods or utensils. Some chefs didn't seem to wash their hands at all. Technically.......technically they should be wearing gloves when working with food they're going to serve to other people. That's they way they work in restaurant kitchens. I can show you loads of citations issued to restaurant workers around my area who violate that regulation. I even saw one the other day where some doofus washed his hands while wearing gloves. Needless to say, that one didn't get past the inspector. Does that mean you have to wear gloves at home? No, of course not. But you should exercise hygienic handwashing procedures, and if the people you're watching on TV aren't doing it, you likely won't do it either.

See, there's the problem: the balance between entertaining and educating. Intentionally or not, these people are setting themselves up as teachers. In our current era of government mistrust, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that only thirty-three percent of recently polled consumers said they trusted the government for food safety information. An astonishing seventy-three percent of respondents said they got their food safety information from the media, with twenty-two percent of that figure saying they used cooking shows as their primary source of food safety information. Wow.

But in order to be successful, you've got to be glamorous and attractive on TV. It's all about personality and hair and makeup and sets. You've got to be witty and entertaining. You've got to make it look so easy and appealing. TV cooks have everything laid out for them. They just smile, assemble and stir. You seldom see the hours of work the prep cooks behind the scenes go through in order to make the “star's” work look effortless. And that's a shame because proper prep is more than half the battle. I'm not saying the people in front of the cameras aren't real cooks because most of them certainly are. With the exception of the current crop of talentless “talent” produced by “Next Food Network Star,” all of them have paid their dues and have the chops to show for it. But when you take them out of real kitchens and put them on kitchen sets, they become less professional cooks and more TV personalities with greater concern for the camera, the lights, and the clock than for actually teaching you how to cook.

One of the study authors feels that the TV chef's purpose should be not only to to entertain but also to educate about food preparation techniques and helpful kitchen hints, including proper food safety practices. And some of them do. Although none of the chefs studied had a perfect record, a few were seen saying things like “remember to wash your hands” or “don't forget to change your cutting board.” Some even did it onscreen. But most weren't going to squander valuable air time walking over to a sink and spending precious seconds washing up several times during a segment. And according to those conducting the studies, that's setting a bad example.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsor a program called “Fight Bac!”, a campaign that encourages home cooks to properly clean, separate, cook, and chill to help prevent foodborne illness. (www.fightbac.org) It was by the standards of this initiative that the TV chefs were judged by Kansas State and Tennessee State. Researchers at U Mass Amherst developed their own nineteen question survey adapted from the Massachusetts Food Establishment Inspection Report. The survey measured hygienic food practices such as use of utensils and gloves, protection from contamination, and time and temperature control. A panel of state regulators and food safety practitioners participated in the Massachusetts study, viewing a total of thirty-nine episodes of ten popular cooking shows. Like the studies conducted in Kansas and Tennessee, researchers found a lot of problems. Safety practices were out of compliance with recommendations in at least seventy percent of the episodes viewed. Worse, appropriate food safety measures were only mentioned in three episodes.

Look, let's be real. In my home kitchen I'm generally only cooking for my wife and myself. So do I wear gloves and keep my hair covered? No. When my wife cooks or bakes does she remove her nail polish as the local health code would demand if she were in a professional kitchen? Of course not. But we do adhere to the same basic standards in our home kitchen that we use in restaurant cooking. We wash our hands as required by whatever we're preparing. We have a spray bottle of the same kind of chlorine sanitizer used in restaurants and we spray down countertops and cooking surfaces as necessary. We keep our utensils and appliances clean, sanitized, and in good condition. And we practice good technique. I made sauce the other day. Like Julia Child famously said, I was alone in the kitchen. Could I have just stuck a finger in the sauce to taste it? Sure. Who would have known? But I used a tasting spoon and I got a clean one the next time I tasted the sauce. I find it's easier to maintain a higher standard if I just do it all the time. And if I'm cooking for other people – like if friends come over for dinner or something – I ratchet that standard up even higher. I actually do have gloves in my home kitchen and hats are hanging with the aprons on the back of the door. I like it when guests sit in my kitchen and watch me cook. They can observe what I'm doing and sometimes they even ask why I'm doing it. Those are called teaching moments, and if I can do it in my kitchen for a handful of guests, the TV chefs who make the big bucks and have huge audiences should certainly do it in theirs.

Study authors have thoughts regarding opportunities for improvement in televised food programming. One of the ideas put forth is to require food safety training for TV chefs and guests on their shows. That's okay, but most real chefs already have such training. It was part of their culinary school curriculum and it's a daily factor in the restaurant world. Another idea involves changing the structural environment to support safe food handling. That'll be a hard sell among the bean counters and suits, I'm afraid. But one suggestion that might actually work is to include food safety elements in the shows' scripts. That one could fly because it wouldn't cost anything and it would enhance the chef/host's image as a knowledgeable source.

Bottom line? As with most things you see on TV, don't try this at home. There are numerous sources and resources available to home cooks seeking to improve their health and food safety knowledge. Local health departments and community colleges often offer courses and classes. There are scads of websites that provide tips and tricks. Don't put your health and the health of your family and friends in the hands of some TV cook, no matter how “famous”, who's primarily being paid to entertain you. Salmonellosis, listeriosis, hepatitis, and hemorrhagic colitis are awfully high prices to pay for a little entertainment. Cooking is not a clean business. It's full of blood and guts and dirt and raw meat and smoke and grease and lots of other unpleasant things. A major part of learning to cook is learning to cook safely. Don't rely on TV for that vital education.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Pizza La Stella, Raleigh, North Carolina

Don't Expect Italian Flags And Dean Martin Muzak

A recent rainy winter night found our party of four at Pizza La Stella, a new downtown pizza place in Raleigh, North Carolina. Searching for a dining spot convenient to the North Carolina Symphony concert we had just attended, La Stella's “authentic Neapolitan pizza” hook got my attention.

If you're looking for the comforting kitsch of a run-of-the-mill pizzeria, keep looking. You won't find it at La Stella. There is nothing here that says “Italian” except for the writing done in tile work on the pizza ovens. The place looks, acts, and feels more like a trendy downtown fast casual establishment. It's all barn wood, heavy wooden beams, and casual banquettes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I've been to plenty of “Italian” restaurants where the décor was a lot better than the food. I'm just sayin' don't expect Italian flags on the walls and Dean Martin muzak in the background.

Upon entering, we ordered at the counter and were given the option of seating in the first floor dining area or upstairs in “The Loft,” La Stella's cocktail bar, billed as a “rustic retreat straight out of a forgotten era.” We opted for the dining room and were shown to a table where I could see one of the enormous custom made Stefano Ferrara wood-fired brick ovens at work. You can tell they are wood-fired as soon as you walk in; you'll probably leave smelling slightly smoky. The oven I could see was emblazoned with “fatta a mano.” The one I couldn't see said “con il cuore.” This is apparently the eatery's motto, even though when I questioned the server, she hadn't the slightest idea what the writing on the ovens said. I enlightened her and she got kind of an “ah-HAH” look on her face. Later I spied the English translation printed over a door. Now, I'm not suggesting that everybody in the place should speak fluent Italian, but surely somebody else must have noticed the writing on the ovens and asked about it. But I digress.

I had to have the Pizza Margherita. Made on a thin “doppio zero” crust with imported San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and leaves of fresh basil, it is the definitive authentic Neapolitan pizza. All other pies are variations or imitations. You want a real pizza? The kind God orders? Gotta be a Margherita. My dinner companions, however, are carnivores, so they had to have something with meat. They ordered the Carnoso, a concoction of San Marzano tomatoes, Fontina cheese, soppressata, Italian sausage, and guanciale.

I was delighted with my choice. The flavors were wonderful and the ratios were perfect. The crust had a delectable char. My only complaint was that it was a tad floppy. It could have been a little crisper to stand up to the toppings. If I were a New Yorker who liked to fold my slice in half and stuff it in my face, it would have been perfect. However, I prefer the more Italian style of using a knife and fork to start with and then finishing the slice by picking it up and eating the area around the cornicione. This otherwise perfectly thin crust was so.....I don't want to say “soggy,” but......a knife and fork were nearly impossible and even just lifting it and eating it from the pointy end was tricky without wearing the toppings on my shirt. New York style was about all you could do with it. Not really my thing. That said, overall it was a delicious offering to which I ultimately did some serious damage. Even if I did have to take a ribbing from my friend for abandoning my utensils.

My wife had a slice of the Margherita, which she also pronounced as wonderful, but her main focus was on her generous Caprese salad; light and fresh and drizzled with a tart-sweet balsamic vinegar. It was also big enough to share.

Our friends were not quite as impressed with their fare. I suppose when you're accustomed to “regular” pizza with mozzarella and pepperoni, Fontina and soppressata may be acquired tastes. Their chief grievance was that the “bacon” overpowered everything else. Again, guanciale is a highly flavorful cut of “bacon,” made from the cheeks of the animal, and its strong flavor takes some getting used to. It couldn't have been too objectionable, though; I noticed there were no leftovers.

Service was a little odd. The Margherita came to the table in minutes, followed fairly quickly by the salad. My friends were left sitting and watching as my wife and I somewhat reluctantly chowed down. Not wanting to be rude, we offered them portions of salad and slices of our pizza because theirs was so slow in arriving. We were nearly finished with our pizza before their pizza came out, and that only happened after I got a server's attention and asked about it. My wife sampled a bit of their pie and her sensitive palate detected what she perceived as a slight difference in the tomatoes used in the two sauces. When I asked our server if different sauces or different tomatoes were used in the preparation, she obviously didn't have a clue. But give her points for faking a good answer. Note to management: menu training?

Pizza La Stella has a varied menu that includes both red sauce pies and a selection of white pizzas. (There's actually no such word as “pizzas”; the proper Italian is pizze, but I've long since given up on that lost cause.) Besides the aforementioned Margherita and Carnoso, they also have a Bolognese and a vegetarian offering called “The Shroomer,” among other specialties. The “Pollo Sporco,” a rosemary, Peppadew peppers, apple cider chicken, red onion, and garlic confit pizza, had me wondering. The name means “Dirty Chicken.” And, naturally, being in the middle of North Carolina, there has to be a “Carolina Classic,” a pizza consisting of Carolina pulled pork, red onion, pancetta, and La Stella slaw. Of course, they have “classic” cheese, pepperoni, and pepperoni and sausage pizza as well. There's a nice variety of antipasti, including fire-roasted Brussels sprouts, to start off with. Lots of salads in addition to the Caprese, including the option to “craft your salad” from an impressive list of toppings and dressings. The menu also features wood-fired wings, calzone and stromboli, and some tempting desserts.

The prices at Pizza La Stella are reasonable considering what you're getting. Can you get a pizza for eight bucks somewhere else? Sure, but not one with mozzarella di bufala on it, capisci? I'm not gonna kick about $15 for what I got. Ten bucks for a salad was okay because it fed the whole table. Some of the other salads were cheaper and some of the other pizzas – like the Carnoso – were more expensive. You can eat for less at Pizza Hut, but.......you get what you pay for.

Pizza La Stella is located at 219 Fayetteville Street in the heart of downtown Raleigh. I understand there has been a fairly high restaurant turnover at the location. Maybe this one will work. They don't accept individual reservations, but large groups can be accommodated with advance notice. Parking is....well, it's downtown, folks. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight on Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, call them at 984-200-2441 or look them up on the Web at pizzalastella.com.

La Stella is Italian for “the star.” A lot of things have changed since my last visit to Raleigh in 1978. With “stars” like this one on the scene, I'll definitely go back more often.