OJR Will Tour With The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards Assured Me Of This)

My cell phone rang in late afternoon on a recent Sunday. I answered and an unmistakable phlegmy voice said to me: “Yeah mate, how ya doin’? I’m OK. Just sittin’ here in my hotel room watchin’ the telly. Drinkin’ milk, munchin’ Oreos. They go good together, ya know?” It was Keith Richards calling from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where The Rolling Stones had played a show the night before.

“I know, Keith, I know. Every time you call it’s the same old thing. Milk and Oreos. Milk and Oreos. Come on, amigo. Switch it up once in a while. Didn’t you ever hear of Chips Ahoy? Vienna Fingers?”

He guffawed. “I’m hooked, son. I can’t switch. I won’t.”

“Okay, Keith,” I said. “So what’s the scoop? How was the show last night?”

Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)
Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)

“Cool, man, cool. We had fun. Ya got a minute?” As though I didn’t. Before the phone rang I had been cutting coupons for half an hour. And before that, working on a story idea about celebrities’ genomes that I plan to pitch to Science Magazine, I’d spent 90 minutes meticulously plotting the Kardashians’ family tree. I was pooped. I was ready to have a relaxed phone conversation. “Spill your guts, partner,” I said to my old friend, whom I’d met and instantly bonded with in 1978. This was at a Bingo parlor in Philadelphia the day after a Stones gig in that fine city. Keith’s a Bingo man. He has wandered into Bingo halls all over the world.

“What’s the Stones’ signature song?” Keith asked me. “Ya know, the one we’ve played ten thousand times. The first letter is an S. Here’s another hint. It starts like this: dum dum da da dah da da da da da.”

“Let me guess,” I said “Is it Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?”

“I wish,” my friend said. “I’d like to play that one. I’ll run it by Mick. But I got a problem here, bro. No joke. Every show we hafta play Satisfaction. Last night I almost couldn’t do it. I f – – kin’ hate that song. If I hafta play it again I’m gonna plotz.”

“Relax, chum, relax,” I said. “You’ll get through this. You’re a pro. Drink some more milk.”

“C’mon, pal. I need a boost. Talk to me. What’s good? What’s new and happenin’? Clue me in.”

Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)
Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)

“Okay, laddie,” I said. “There’s something really good that I checked out the other day. Great music by a young guy named Oliver John-Rodgers. Calls himself OJR. His YouTube videos have gotten about as many views as my blog articles, which means that just about nobody ever heard of him. But I think that’s going to change. For him, I mean. Not for me. His new album is fantastic. I ain’t Nostradomus, but I predict that he’s going to be big.”

“Hold up, Neil. Someone just tapped on my door. It’s Mick, no doubt. I can tell by the secret knock . . . dum dum da da dah da da da da da. You heard that, didn’t ya? He’s been doing that to me for the last 50 years. Gotta go, compadre. Send me an email about OJR. Peace, brother.”

With that, Keith hung up. Before I’d forget I sat down and composed my message to him. Here’s what I wrote:

Hey, boyo. Thanks for calling. OJR’s new album, Nashville Demos, rocks like a mother lode. Catchy melodies, nifty lyrics, guitar licks that wrap themselves around your brain. He recorded the album in, believe it or not, bedrooms all over the world. I guess he’s sort of a vagabond. Played most of the instruments himself. I found out about him from WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station I listen to sometimes. OJR has a song called Numb, and it’s in XPN’s rotation. The song’s a monster. OJR put the whole album up on his website (Keith-o, click here to listen to the album). And I found a primo YouTube video of OJR and his band playing Numb in a slowed-down head-warping version (Keith, my man, click  here to watch it). That’s all for now. It’s almost 7 PM, my bedtime as I’m sure you remember. Talk soon, matey. Oh wait, one more thing. Please ask Charlie, Ronnie and Mick to look at my blog. There’s a chance they might like my stuff. Peace out.

A few days later, at 8 PM, my phone rang. I’d been asleep for an hour. Thanks, Keith, for waking me up. He was calling from his hotel room in Lima, Peru. The Stones would be on stage in Lima the next night. “Yo, what’s up, cool guy?” he asked. “You were right. OJR is the friggin’ bomb. Best rock and roll I’ve heard since the end of the Ice Age. Or maybe it was the Cold War. I forget. Anyway, the boys and me had our managers get in touch with him. OJR’s a sweet dude, they said. And you know what? . . . We’re gonna have him open some shows for us later this year. Thanks for the tip, Bingo Boy.”

“No problem, Keith. Glad to help. How about my blog? What did Ronnie, Mick and Charlie say?”

There was a long pause. I knew the news wasn’t going to be too good. “Well, buddy, I sent them the link to your blog. Sorry mate, let me tell you straight — slow and snoozy are a couple of the words they used about your articles. What can I say? But I’ve got a great idea for ya. You’ve never written a story about Bingo. I think ya should.”

“Thanks, Keith. Maybe I will.”

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A Philadelphia Saturday Night

Our plans for a recent Saturday evening came together quickly. Flipping through a newspaper we (my wife Sandy and I) saw a review of a play titled Spine. The play sounded good. Its theater was in Philadelphia’s central section, easy for us to reach from our home in the burbs. OK, Spine it would be. Deciding to have pre-show dinner near the theater, we looked for an eatery where we’d never been before. We clicked here and there on OpenTable and settled on Franky Bradley’s, a place we knew little about. A handful of hours later we arrived at FB’s at the appointed time, 6:15 PM, and the night began.

Some Philadelphians will recall Franky Bradley’s when it was a steakhouse and celebrity hangout and its first name was spelled Frankie. That was decades ago. In its most recent incarnation the place was a gay bar. Last year a new owner turned the property into a restaurant/bar/dance club, resurrecting the name (save for the spelling change) but nothing much else from the original FB’s. Only one steak is on the menu and I doubt if Franky’s is a celebrity hang.

Inside Franky Bradley's.
Inside Franky Bradley’s.

It’s a two-story establishment. A  music room cum bar occupies floor number two. That’s where late night DJ and dancing action takes place. Sandy and I took up a little bit of space on the ground level. There, dark wood tables and booths fill up the square footage not occupied by a large bar, and the walls are covered with wood carvings, a potpourri of signs and with moody, sensual oil paintings. We sat at a peripheral table. It gave us a good view of much of the room. The lights were low, the noise level high, the waitstaff young and friendly. Recorded music from the 1970s (David Bowie, disco tunes) swirled through the air. The place was mobbed, mostly with an under-40 crowd. Tucked away on narrow way-off-the-beaten-path Chancellor Street (1320 is the address), Franky Bradley’s seemed to be a hit, a destination. From my perspective here’s the deal: Sandy and I loved our meal there. And the vibes were a gas, you dig?

Bradley’s keeps the number of beverage and food selections on the modest side, which seems like a good idea to me. Man, this world is cluttered enough as it is. You could do a lot worse than ordering what we had. Liquid-wise, a toasty beer for me, Ellie’s Brown Ale from the Avery Brewing Company. And, for Sandy, a semi-dry and citrusy Spanish white wine that rocked, an Albarino (2013) from Ramon Bilbao vineyards.

Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.
Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.

Solid-wise, we shared a house salad built from powerful purple onions, three or four types of greens and a Banyuls vinaigrette dressing. “Banyuls?” you ask? Right, I hadn’t a clue either. But it was damn tasty. A minute ago I peered at a foodie’s website and learned that Banyuls vinegar is made from fancy grapes. I shoulda known. For entrées we each ordered pan-seared Arctic char, a thin fish that came out moist, just-right salty and just-right charred. The fish shared plate space with warm lentil salad and orange slices. I’m a sucker for a good lentil salad. In this case, cubed beets and diced carrots and peppers said hello to one another and to the lentils just the way I was hoping they would. Wouldn’t have minded staying at Franky Bradley’s for a couple more hours, testing the desserts, knocking back another Ellie’s or two. But Spine awaited.

A few moments before Spine began.
Ten minutes before Spine began.

Spine (running through March 6) is a 70 minute monologue first performed in 2014 in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its British author, Clara Brennan, probably is a rising star. Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company has staged Spine’s first American production in the smaller (about 75 seats) of two new theaters created within the Drake apartment building (1512 Spruce Street) earlier this year. There’s no intermission, so visiting the loo pre-show ain’t a bad idea.

If I’m sure about anything, it’s that Spine is a whirlwind of words, a rant at times, a collection of colorful tales all recited by Amy, a London teenager struggling to find her way. Amy is not in the education pipeline, can’t hold jobs, has messy relationships with family and friends and recently has become a petty criminal. But she’s no dummy and lacks not for energy. One day this wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl, looking for a room to rent, knocks on the door of a home, in a good part of London, owned by very elderly Glenda. Glenda, an advocate for social justice, takes a liking to Amy and over time gives her barrelsful of counsel.

What’s Spine about? It’s about a lot of things, maybe too many. Brennan takes aim at what she sees as damaging policies by Britain’s Cameron-led government, bemoaning social welfare program cutbacks and the closing of libraries. She believes that young folks like Amy institutionally are ignored and rendered powerless. She feels that the Amys of the world are being deprived of knowledge, but that they yet might come to understand their plights and change them for the better.

Whew, that’s a lot for a play to bite off. And a lot for politically and sociologically semi-conscious characters like me to digest. But let me say this: My attention didn’t waver watching Spine. Emily R. Johnson commanded the minimally-furnished set, bringing Amy fully to life and, by extension, Glenda. When the play ended I shook my head in disbelief. I mean, how does anyone do what Johnson did, spewing a non-stop avalanche of words without a stumble? How can anyone remember all those words? I have trouble remembering the name of the street I live on. Impressed? You bet your sweet bippy I was and am.

But sometimes there’s a but, and I have one. Johnson, a non-Brit, adopted a deep deep Cockney accent. I didn’t understand half the words she spoke. “Huhhh, what?” I said to myself so often I almost started babbling. Sandy had the same problem, even worse. If you didn’t grow up in a workingclass London neighborhood I’m guessing you’d decipher the language not much better than we did. I think that Spine’s director should have decided to soften the blows for Philadelphia’s audiences by toning down the accent. As usual, though, nobody asked for my advice.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Two Million Cheez-Its And Counting

Circa 1970 one of the greatest culinary stories of my life took root: My infatuation with Cheez-It crackers. Just about everyone knows Cheez-Its. They are crunchy and salty one-inch squares, baked amalgams of cheese, wheat flour, paprika, etc.  Back then there probably was only one variety of Cheez-Its. The divine original in other words, the sort I stuck with through the years till recently switching to the Extra Toasty style. Today there are more than 25 Cheez-It types to choose from, including Whole Grain, Cheddar Jack and Mozzarella. They take up a whole lot of shelf space in most supermarkets, so clearly I’m not alone in loving Its. As we’ve been told, great minds think alike.

Cheez-It crackers in two of its many varieties.
Cheez-It crackers in two of their many varieties.

And you know what? I’ve eaten 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers in my life, give or take a couple hundred thousand. That’s a lot of individual food items going down the gullet. Have I ever eaten more separate pieces of anything over the years? I’ve given this plenty of thought. Who wouldn’t? The only thing I can come up with is grains of rice. Maybe I’ve consumed more than 2,000,000 grains of rice. I’ll investigate that subject one of these days and let an anxious world know the results. But on with the current story.

Two million Cheez-Its. How did I arrive at that figure? It wasn’t easy. The question is deep. And so, at a loss for determining a calculation method, I started where most sensible people would start. That is, I got in touch with someone much smarter than me. I had been in phone contact with Dr. Vinnie Bubalinsky before. He’s head of the mathematics department at St. Louis Institute of Advanced Abstract And Profound Research. I had called him from out of the blue a year ago, explaining that I was wondering about angels gyrating, not dancing, on the head of the average pin. How many might fit there? Vinnie hadn’t a clue, had very little response at all to tell you the truth. I was glad to learn that tough questions don’t necessarily evoke glib answers.

The other day I dialed Vinnie’s number again and told him about my Cheez-It quandary. Vinnie remembered me. “What the f – – k’s wrong with you?” he asked. Patiently. “Get a life, you loser,” he added before ending our conversation. I would if I knew how.

I was on my own. I grabbed my favorite pen, a load of blank paper and a calculator. And I began to work out the numbers. Leave it to the Cheez-It manufacturer to make things difficult. I mean, for decades Its had come in an understandable size, a one pound package. That’s the same as 16 ounces I’ll mention to those of you who left school a long time ago. But in 2008 the Its maker downsized the box to 13.7 ounces, a strange number to be sure. And last year they did it again. The standard Cheez-It box now contains 12.4 ounces of product.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, I had to throw into the equation the fact that my Its consumption habits have changed over time. For years and years I would down three or four pounds of Its weekly. I easily could knock off a box while watching a baseball game on television. But those heights are a distant memory. In the early aughts my intake of Its dropped by half. And it has continued to shrink. For the last few years I’ve eaten about three-quarters of a pound per week.

The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.
The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.

OK. I sat at the dining room table for hours, scribbling, sweating, cursing, punching wildly at calculator keys. The basic fact that I always held onto came from the side panel of each Cheez-It box: Twenty-seven Its weigh 30 grams. And 30 grams, I found out elsewhere, are the same as about 1.1 ounces. Needless to say, progress was slow. But things eventually started to come together, to make sense. Two million Cheez-It crackers was the approximate number that I had chewed and swallowed, I finally concluded. I picked up the phone and dialed Vinnie Bubalinsky’s number, ready to gloat. But I hung up after one ring. He will read about my triumph soon enough, no doubt, on this page. Vinnie, some losers never quit.

I’d like to put my Its consumption in perspective. We all agree that 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers are a massive amount. In fact, if you placed them edge-to-edge on a flat and straight-as-an-arrow highway, they would extend for 31.5 miles, a very sizeable distance. But wait . . . there’s something I hadn’t thought about: In a car you’d cover those miles in less than half an hour. And yet it took me 45 years to eat the crackers. What does this mean? That cars are about 1,000,000 times faster than the human mouth? That highways inherently are inappropriate places to place Cheez-Its? I really don’t know. I’m confused. I need help.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Out And About In Fishtown

On a recent Friday night my wife Sandy and I went to dinner with our great pals, Liz and Rich. We dined in Al Dar, an atmospheric Mediterranean-cuisine bistro in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. As the four of us wolfed down lots of good stuff, Liz asked Sandy and me what we had on the agenda for the following day. Because the Philadelphia area was in the middle of an amazing December warm weather streak, any upcoming rain-free day would be a great one for outdoor exploration. “Maybe we’ll go to Fishtown,” Sandy said. And that’s what we did.

Fishtown is a Philadelphia neighborhood fairly near the city’s downtown sections. It is a maze of narrow streets, with a few big avenues running through, and for most of its existence has held a blue-collar reputation. Until a handful of years ago, Fishtown wasn’t somewhere you’d have had any particular reason to go to, unless you lived there. But times change, and sometimes for the better. Fishtown’s rowhouses and small single homes have found favor with millenials, hipsters, musicians. And with those fine folk have come cool bars and eateries and music venues. Fishtown now is on the map, though its goodly number of empty storefronts and how-do-they-stay-in-business businesses show that there’s plenty of climbing yet to do.

The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.

I like wandering on cute blocks, especially when they have nifty or unusual names. And Fishtown is full of those: Crease Street, Eyre Street, Shackamaxon Street. Yeah, Shackamaxon. I’d never heard of half the streets that Sandy and I stepped upon, which was just the way I like it. Gave me a sense of exploring the unknown. I saw that Fishtown’s byways are crammed with housing and commercial properties that, to my marginally-trained eye, looked to have been erected mostly between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. As with much of Philadelphia, the buildings usually rise no farther than three stories above ground level. And how about those bricks, a construction material that numbers in the gawd-knows-how-many trillions of units in Philadelphia. Fishtown’s share of that bounty must be at least twenty billion.

Fishtown's public library.
Fishtown’s public library.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.

It would take hours to see all of Fishtown, hours that Sandy and I didn’t have at hand. But we strolled around and I think got a halfway decent sense of what the neighborhood is all about. I was glad to see that Fishtown is kind of a small town unto itself. That’s been the case for at least 150 years, from what I’ve subsequently read. Look! A library. A police station. A rec center with a hockey rink. A wonderfully-domed Presbyterian church that has been in place since 1859. A bunch of pocket parks. Sharp, indeed! But the small town feel disappears when you venture off the residential blocks. On Girard Avenue, a major artery that bisects the area, the almost endless lengths of overhead wires are a gritty spider’s web and a quaint-yet-quintessential urban sight. And the traffic on Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue at times is relentless.

Let’s move on to food and drink. Fishtown has become a player in Philadelphia’s emergence as a destination for foodies and/or craft beer aficionados. Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, Interstate Draft House, Pizzeria Beddia (a take-out-only joint with no phone and a policy of baking only 40 pies per day. It gained instant fame when bon appétit magazine, incredibly, crowned its offerings earlier this year as the best pizza in the USA). Hey, if filling the gut and loosening the inhibitions are on your agenda, Fishtown’s as good a choice as any to do that in.

I peeked inside some of the above-named places, and others, on Girard Avenue. They looked great, but it wasn’t even 5:00 PM yet and I wasn’t ready for alcohol or food. Sandy and I earlier had decided that we needed to patronize, or at least ogle, what probably are Fishtown’s two most well-known spots, just to say that we’d been there. And thus we headed north on Frankford Avenue till we reached La Colombe Fishtown (1335 Frankford Avenue), the crown jewel of the La Colombe coffee empire.

Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.

LCF opened last year and it’s a thing of beauty, a Starbucks-on-steroids enterprise that was created out of a former warehouse. It’s comfortable and fashioned in the rustic chic mode. Dark wood floors go on forever. Exposed air system ductwork looms overhead. At the tables, customers nurse coffees, wines, beers, pastries and sandwiches for a long long time as they stare into their electronic devices or into each others’ eyes. And in the rear of the cavernous space is something I’d have been unable to anticipate in a million years. A rum distillery. Don’t ask me why, but the brains behind La Colombe had a jones for rum that had to be satisfied. The rum is for sale.

Sandy and I, though, kept things simple. We ordered ice coffees. Yes, we’re big spenders. They were strong and delicious. We stared into our devices and into each others’ eyes for awhile, and then hit the streets once again. It now was time for food and alcohol. Next stop was Fishtown’s biggest claim to fame.

Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Avenue) used to be an insular neighborhood bar. New owners took over in 2003. They installed good beers and good food, made nice with their Fishtown neighbors, and set in motion their visions of expanding JB’s audience. Johnny Brenda’s is widely credited as the catalyst for Fishtown’s renaissance. Things really began cooking in 2006, the year that JB’s brought live rock and roll to its upstairs quarters. Brenda’s has become a favorite place for local and touring rock bands. Sandy and I have yet to catch music at JB’s, but we’ve frequently talked with friends about doing that. One day soon we will.

Exterior of Johnny Brenda's.
Exterior of Johnny Brenda’s.
Interior of Johnny Brenda's
Interior of Johnny Brenda’s

JB’s is a friendly place. It has a pool table, local beers on tap, a nice selection of pub grub. And plenty of customers. Sandy and I grabbed a booth in the dining room. We ordered. Sandy’s Italian white wine was delicious. So was my Sly Fox porter. So were our burgers, hers made from beef, mine from vegetables. But before too long it was time to leave, as a movie, in another Philadelphia neighborhood, was on our evening’s schedule. We settled up and stepped outside. Daylight had disappeared 90 minutes earlier.  The air was cooling down. Groups of 20-somethings and 30-somethings were everywhere. We crossed the street, heading westward on Girard Avenue. But Sandy then suggested that we walk back to where we had just been so that we could get another good look at a resplendent neon palace: Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Sandy took its picture. And we left Fishtown on a high note.

JoesSteaks IMG_0076
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

A Meditation On Pizza

Pizza, pizza, pizza. For how long have you been a part of my life? Why do I adore you so? Have my feelings about you changed over the years? And most importantly, where the heck can I find really good examples of you? These are questions I am about to answer. They also are questions to which I will return in future articles on this blog.

Some people write about politics or religion or nanomechanics. I have yet to address those and other heady subjects, and probably never will. I don’t have the smarts for that. I’m not too sure I have the wattage to say anything dynamic about pizza either, for that matter. I’m a preschooler compared to the Einsteins out there whose knowledge of and insights into the world of pies are dazzling. But I’m not embarrassed to lay out some thoughts and observations. Take it away, Neil.

Pizza is my favorite food and has been for 40 or so years. I grew up on Long Island, and it was there in the early 1960s that my pizza habit began. The habit grew, and somewhere in the early 1970s became pretty well an obsession. I was living on Long Island for part of that decade, and in Manhattan and Philadelphia at other times. In all of those locales the pizza was similar. I, and I’m sure most people, didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pizza in those days. Basically, you ate it and you liked it. There were only two varieties back then, regular (a round pie that I suppose now would be referred to as New York style) and Sicilian (a square pie whose crust was thicker and chewier than the regular pie’s). You could get mushrooms or pepperoni with the former if that was your wont.

By the late 20th century though, pizza became a complicated subject with a nomenclature that I can’t keep straight. New York style, Chicago style, Neapolitan, Margherita, thin crust . . . on and on it goes. And then there’s the whole matter of toppings. We live in an age when figs, pineapple, you name it, are fair game to bake atop a pie. For ease of discussion I’m going to keep this essay focused on the type of pizza I like best, the humble round darling composed of crust, cheese and tomato sauce. No toppings.

In the 1970s regular pizza seemed a-ok to me. It was chewy and floppy, often heavily laden with cheese and tomato sauce and usually dripping with oil. That variety is alive and well to this day. Its top makers, such as Di Fara (in Brooklyn) are truly famed. I’ve never had a Di Fara slice, but I gather that that establishment has taken the regular (aka New York style) pie to a new level, probably by using higher quality ingredients than those I grew up with. I wish that Di Fara would open a branch near me. While I wait two or three millennia for that to happen, I’ll instead continue to visit a couple of places in the Philly burbs that make New York style pizza similar to what I devoured years ago. The quality varies from visit to visit at these parlors, but I can’t complain too much. I like their wares fairly well overall, though I now have better alternatives.

There’s something about pizza that strikes a chord with my elemental self. It’s not a fussy or complicated product. The three main components seemingly were created to join blissfully together to make taste buds swoon. But as I’ve learned over the last 20 years, a great gastronomic marriage can become even greater. In other words, pizzas better than those I knew in my youth and middle age exist in this world. Di Fara’s baby is an example. In the USA, pizzas have reached rarified heights of deliciousness.

I’m not talking about all pizzas by any means. Most American pies still are very ordinary, maybe way too heavy on the cheese or cursed with a cardboard crust or hampered by an indifferent tomato sauce. However, new pizza orientations have taken hold in many establishments, and the one I’m especially all for is this: Thinner and charred crust. High quality cheeses and tomato sauce in balanced proportions. Oil in moderation, not cascading from each slice like a waterfall. This is not New York style pizza, though I’m a bit uncertain as to the name(s) it has been given by the pizza intelligentsia.

The above paragraphs are a long lead-in to my recent visit to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a chain with a branch in Horsham, PA, not far from my home. My wife Sandy and I dropped in on a hot August Saturday night. We’d been there before, each previous visit knocking our socks off. I know of a few places in Philadelphia with pizzas that match my updated criteria for excellence. In the burbs, Anthony’s is the one and only that I’ve discovered.

Our lovely salad at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.
Our lovely Italian salad at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

Anthony’s has a small menu. I’d guess that pretty much everything on it is swell. Sandy and I, though, have had only the Italian salad and what Anthony’s calls its traditional pizza. Both are so good we order them again and again. The other night the salad was fine as usual. Crisp lettuce, chick peas, tomato and hard boiled egg wedges, all glazed with a tart light vinaigrette dressing. Simple and satisfying.

Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony's.
Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony’s.

The pizza came on a flat wood throne. Visually the pie was beautiful — you have to love those darkened areas, the basic color palette. Tastewise, beautiful too. The cheeses, mozzarella and romano, were earthy, the plum tomato sauce bright and lively. And the crust’s charcoal bite brought me joy. I’m an easy guy to please, given the right circumstances. At Anthony’s I was a happy eater. Good salad and superb pizza. And a hoppy brew to wash them both down, Arcadia Brewing Company’s Cheap Date Pale Ale. There was nothing more I needed or desired.

I’ve previously written about Capofitto, a fine joint in Philadelphia serving up blackened soul-satisfying pies. I know that pizza greatness extends far beyond Capofitto and Anthony’s. Fussy me will continue to search for pizzas way above the pedestrian, and will report back now and then as I discover them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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We Said “Cheese Please” At Iron Abbey

I’ve grumbled before on these pages about the paucity of loveliness in the townships that surround my suburban Philadelphia home base. Stuck in the middle of a large section of this haphazard overdevelopment is a place that I think is a-ok. Iron Abbey is its name, and beer and good food is its game. It is a gastropub. Location: Horsham, Pennsylvania. My wife Sandy and I ate dinner there recently. One part of the meal, a cheese plate of all things, particularly opened our minds and eyes.

Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.
Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.

Iron Abbey is a large establishment. Its dining areas and bar are on ground level where the look is woody and stoney rustic. Kind of like, who’d have guessed, an abbey. Upstairs are an espresso café and rooms filled with beers for takeout purchase. The beer rooms are wondrous, packed with microbrews, many obscure, from the corners of the globe. For this article, let’s stay on the ground floor, where the beer selections are no less mind-blowing.

Sandy doesn’t like beer. She is a wine lady. Unfortunately for her, Iron Abbey does not cater to wine-by-the-glass ladies or gents. Those selections are slim. The two Sauvignon Blanc choices were overpriced at $10.50, so Sandy, a white wine devotee, instead sipped an eight dollar glass of Cielo Pinot Grigio, direct from Italy. Sandy says she has had better. I took a sample and approved of its dryness but quickly decided its flavor could be richer.

Enough about wines. The Philadelphia region has become a haven for beer geeks, and Iron Abbey is a top example why. I spent five minutes poring over the beer menu. The choices were nearly endless, around 40 on tap and 250 in bottles and cans. The pressure was on. Twice I told our waitress that I needed more time to decide. On her third visit to the table I was too embarrassed to ask for another extension. Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA I said, pointing it out on the menu’s draft beer section. With craft beers, one usually can’t go too wrong, so skilled have the world’s brewers become. My selection, birthed in sunny California, was proof. Bitter and hopped-up it was, as all good IPAs should be. One of the hops varieties in the recipe imparted a husky tinge of grapefruit flavor to the brew. I liked that a lot.

The best segment of the meal came next. Sandy and I were all set to bypass any starters and simply place our main course orders when I absentmindedly began to pay some attention to the menu section titled “The Board.” There, one may select from various cheeses and meats, all of which are accompanied by an eclectic mix of nibbly stuffs. Why not, we decided. When the waitress reappeared we picked two cheeses and sat back with our drinks. We’re not naïfs, but neither of us had ever before ordered a cheese plate at a restaurant.

The cheese board that we loved.
The cheese plate that we loved.

The cheese plate arrived and we couldn’t have had a better time. It came with salty olives, crunchy excellent French bread, fig and apricot jams, roasted Macadamia nuts,  pickled red onion slivers and membrillo. Yes, I hadn’t a clue either as to what membrillo is. Turns out that it is a firm soft paste made from quince pulp, sugar and water. Some post-Iron Abbey research told me it’s commonly found in Portugal, Spain and Italy. I caught what I thought were flavors from the apple and pear family. Quince, as additional research told me a little while ago, is indeed related to those fruits. Bottom line, the membrillo was delicious. The other accompaniments were too. As for the cheeses, we had selected  Ubriaco Classico from Italy and Ossau Iraty from France. As with membrillo, I’d never heard of either of those cheeses before. For the most part I’m a Kraft swiss and Cracker Barrel cheddar kind of guy. But I know there’s a world of cheeses out there to be explored. The Ubriaco was semisoft and hinted of wine and citrus. The Ossau Iraty was dense and dry and pungent. Sandy and I swooned over both of them and the bread and the nibbly stuffs. This was the most exciting platter of food we’d had in quite a while.

Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).
Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).

After the cheese extravaganza we’d have been happy to pay up and leave. We knew that it would overshadow the next course. Which it did. My grilled ground chicken burger, though, was awfully tasty, a comfort dish covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese and sautéed bits of red peppers and onion. The side salad I opted for in lieu of fries was fine too. Sandy’s crab cake entrée was done nicely. The grilled crab cake was charred outside, soft inside and good. Some extra doses of spices and flavorings wouldn’t have been a bad idea, though. It sat atop dreamy mashed potatoes, mushroom slices blended through. Blanched then sautéed itsy bitsy asparagus and carrot pieces, very flavorful, surrounded the mountain.

We had no room for dessert. We paid our bill and thanked our waitress, then squeezed past the crowds to the front door. Iron Abbey is a popular spot. Though it is by no means perfect, there are good reasons why it’s bustling.

(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Beer Here!

I’m not much of a shopper these days. I don’t spend a lot of time in most stores. A huge indoor mall is near my home, but I rarely go. My visit there recently, a fruitless search for a pair of humble bedroom slippers, was my first in several months. Supermarkets, though, are another story. They are where I head to  indulge what’s left of my urge to buy. I look forward to visiting them, not only to purchase the items that my wife and I inscribe on our refrigerator notepad, but also to check out the remarkable amounts and varieties of just about anything you can name that Americans are able to choose from. There are two supermarkets not far from my house that I especially like to visit, though not to buy food. I go to these stores, Wegman’s and Weis, to ogle (and buy) beers.

In my pre-beer days as a kid in Brooklyn and then Long Island years ago, I wasn’t too big on shopping either. But I did like to spend plenty of time in candy stores. Candy stores were modest establishments that sold a wide variety of items, and usually included a soda fountain and lunch counter. Adults might pop in for cigarettes or greeting cards or a grilled cheese sandwich. The younger set primarily was interested in candy bars and other important stuff like comic books and yo-yos. At candy stores I used to gaze at the colorful rows and rows of teeth-destroyers before making a pick. PayDay, Mr. Goodbar, Chunky, Milky Way, Chuckles and on and on. What a choice. What a decision. What a pleasure. Candy stores linger fondly in my memory bank, but probably all are long gone. I haven’t seen any in decades.

For the last three or so years great pleasure has been mine at Wegman’s and Weis, whose beer aisles are my adult candy store. Wegman’s and Weis are among the few supermarkets in my area near Philadelphia that sell beer. I guess I’m lucky to have them, because it’s not easy for Pennsylvania supermarkets to sell suds. Only a few years ago, Pennsylvania’s State Liquor Control Board, the alcohol overlord, opened the door a crack to supermarkets willing to jump through hoops to obtain a license. So far not many supermarkets have chosen to deal with the process. Pennsylvania has gained fame for its archaic and labyrinthine rules governing the sale of alcohol. Possibly a Talmudic scholar would be able to understand them.

A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What's not to love?
A beer rack at my local Weis supermarket. What’s not to love?

In any case, my eyes widen and my heart flutters when I enter the beer section at my local Wegman’s or Weis. Loyal supporters of the microbrew revolution, these stores specialize in the types of beers that I swoon over. Hoppy ones and dark ones and spicy ones, for example. I love nearly all of them, as long as they are loaded with flavor. To me, the craft beer explosion in our fair country is one of the greatest and most positive developments of the past 20 years.

The thrills that rock me in the beer aisles are not very different from my younger self’s thrills in candy stores. Basically, eagerness to ingest the products and giddiness from staring at terrific looking packaging. Yes, not only do most microbrews taste really good, as with candy bars they also are well-dressed. In fact, beer labels are way cooler than candy wrappers ever were.

The six beers that I brought home from Weis.
The six beers that I brought home from Weis.

My aim during my visit to Weis last week was to assemble a create-your-own six pack mostly of beers that I hadn’t had before, and I know that in a few instances my right hand was stealthily guided towards bottles whose labels were too pretty or funky to ignore. I headed home with winners, taste-wise and label-wise, such as Victory Brewing’s Summer Ale and  Left Hand Brewing’s Sawtooth Ale. The photo to the left shows all six purchases (click on the photo to get a bigger image). Dig those crazy labels (excepting the one on Flying Fish’s offering).

More about beer as this blog progresses. Till then, drink in moderation and drive safely.

Dinner Was Better Than The Movie

When my wife Sandy and I go to movie theaters, which is often, we usually go to a restaurant for dinner too. Movie times dictate when we eat. Seems to me that when we both were gainfully employed we’d dine around 7 pm and catch a flick about two hours later. That meant we’d arrive back home at 11:30 or so. I can’t recall exactly why or when that pattern changed a bit, but getting home late at night, and to bed even later, must have set us thinking about schedule alternatives. A sign of aging? Nah, not a chance. In any event, these days we seem to watch maybe one third of our movies in late afternoon, which allows us to dine at a pleasant hour and arrive back at the ranch before 9 pm.

The Ambler Theater, cornerstone of beautiful downtown Ambler PA
The Ambler Theater, cornerstone of beautiful downtown Ambler PA

Such was the case this past Friday at the Ambler Theater in downtown Ambler, Pennsylvania. There we settled into our seats for the 4 pm showing of Far From The Madding Crowd, the fourth film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s apparently still-beloved novel, first published in 1874. As far as I can recall, I never read the book nor saw the previous cinematic versions. I’m not a completist, so after watching the latest incarnation of Far I have no plans to visit any of the previous efforts.

Far From The Madding Crowd is by no means a bad movie. I’ll hand it, generously, two out of four stars. But it certainly didn’t floor me. It’s kind of slow, which didn’t put me off. It is also a soap opera, which didn’t rub me too wrong either. Soap operas can be fun. What I think I mainly didn’t enjoy were the lines of dialog that seemed to fall flat, or were poorly captured by the boom operator so that I couldn’t make them out (this English-speaking movie cried out for subtitles now and then). And the transition from scene to scene sometimes needed oiling. Other than that . . .

Set in rural England in the early 1870s, Far From The Madding Crowd concerns one Bathsheba Everdene, a young lady aged 18 or so whose innate charms knock men off their feet. Smart and independent, she is not seeking a husband, however. She does not wish to be stifled by the opposite sex. Politely rejecting two decent suitors, she eventually falls for and ends up marrying nogoodnik Frank Troy, an army sergeant who looks so fine in his uniform that Bathsheba’s latent sexual yearnings are forced to the surface. The movie has many plot twists from start to finish. Wait, this is a spoiler alert: Suffice it to say that in the end all is well, or mostly. Frank Troy exits, and steady and sturdy Gabriel Oak, a shepherd and Bathsheba’s first pursuer, finally captures her heart.

One moment at the very beginning of the film didn’t compute, and I’m still wondering how it got past the screenwriter. In voiceover, Bathsheba says that her parents died when she was young and, as there was no one thereafter to ask, she never knew why they gifted her with her uncommon given name. No one? How about asking her aunt, on whose farm Bathsheba is working as the movie opens. Or how about asking the relative from whom, several scenes later, she inherits a farm.

Oh well, that’s a mere quibble. Let me say that I enjoyed the acting of three of the four leads. That trio is Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba), Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel), and Michael Sheen (Mr. Boldwood, a rejected suitor). I didn’t clap for Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy, though. Tom’s pencil-thin mustache and darting eyes brought back images of too many silent movie era villains.

The beer I fell in love with at the Broad Axe Tavern.
The beer I fell in love with at the Broad Axe Tavern.

Time to eat. I’ll give three stars to the meal that followed Far, and much of that because of the lovely beer that I discovered. The repast took place in Ambler’s outer limits at the Broad Axe Tavern, where Sandy and I have dined at least 20 times. It’s a gastropub, meaning the food choices extend beyond hamburgers and hot roast beef sandwiches. And, like so many establishments in the Philadelphia region, it carries an incredible number of beers from around the world. That, more than anything, is the draw for me. After studying the beer menu for five minutes, at last I opted for one I’d never before tasted, Franziskaner Weissbier. It is a wheat beer from a German brewery that claims to trace its roots to a Franciscan monastery in 1363. Two thumbs up. Smooth, multi-spicy (pepper, coriander, who knows what else), a tad citrusy. And dig that satisfied monk on the label. Gotta love it.

Crab cake sandwich on left. To its right is grilled chicken panini.
Crab cake sandwich on left. To its right is grilled chicken panini.

Broad Axe’s food is good. I went with the crab cake sandwich and my wife ordered the grilled chicken panini. The former was light on filler, heavy on excellent meat, and pan-sautéed. The latter was large and flavorful, its thick slices of rustic Italian bread delicious. Like countless places these days, Broad Axe, not giving a hoot about contributing to America’s collective expanding waistline, accompanies its burgers and sandwiches with fries. But we weren’t in a fries mood, so for an extra two dollars we each substituted a side salad. On the surface there was nothing unusual about this salad, but it was strikingly fresh and crisp, which is not always the case. The bouncy red wine vinaigrette dressing was an ideal host for romaine lettuce, cucumber, red cabbage and feta cheese. Simple ingredients, top-notch outcome.

We had no room for dessert, though. Around 8 pm, our Ambler evening concluded, home we headed.

My Coca-Cola Relapse

How much cola have I consumed in my life? Thousands of gallons I’d guess. Not to mention the huge quantities of other soda varieties that have passed through my body. But cola always was my favorite. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, RC Cola, store brands – I proudly and happily drank them all. Over time, Coke became my top cola choice.

My cola habit was strong in my teens and went up some notches in my early 20s. But it ended in my mid-40s when I gave up cola and other sodas. All of that sugar for so many years, combined with sad dental hygiene, had made a mess of my teeth and gums. I needed to stop drinking the stuff, and it’s a good thing that my willpower was strong enough to follow through. I didn’t switch to diet sodas because I’ve never liked the taste of artificial sweeteners.

The scene of my relapse
The scene of my relapse

But cola is back in my life. Coca-Cola, to be precise. Its return began not long ago at a pizza place I’ve been going to for a couple of years, Tony Roni’s. Roni’s resides at a remarkably congested and dangerous road intersection in Willow Grove, PA, not far from Philadelphia. Customers might somewhat put their lives in jeopardy to visit Roni’s, but that doesn’t keep them away. And that includes me.

I love pizza, especially the more traditional and unadulterated types, but I can’t find many by-the-slice places that make it the way I prefer: crisp charred crust, sweet tomato sauce, good quality cheese and not an overload of it nor of oil. Tony Roni’s traditional pies seem to vary in quality from visit to visit. They are not too bad overall, but in a better world they consistently would be less floppy and oily. So, a bit frustrated, last year I started ordering slices of Roni’s tomato pie instead. It’s a pizza variety I had rarely had before. They do a nice job with tomato pie, its underside heat-darkened, the crushed tomatoes ripe with good flavor, very little oil, a dusting of cheese. The crust could be better, but what the heck.

Initially I drove to Tony Roni’s once every two or three weeks and, for various reasons, most frequently on Wednesdays. Wednesday is the one day when they offer a free fountain soda to anyone who buys two pizza slices. For a long time I rejected the free drink. After much cavity filling and periodontal work, my teeth and gums have been pretty good for quite awhile now, so why press my luck? But the lure of Tony Roni’s free soda must have been nibbling at my subconscious. Earlier this year my resistence grew thin. Paying for two slices on a January Wednesday I said “oh well” to myself and accepted the cashier’s proferred paper soda cup. Off I went to the soda dispenser and allowed six or so ounces of Coca-Cola to descend. I took a seat, took a sip, and was in heaven. Coke is heaven. I knew that all along.

Since then, my trips to Tony Roni’s have been almost weekly, and exclusive to Wednesdays. Each time I buy two slices of pie, usually tomato pie, and savor about six ounces of free Coke. I try very hard not to drink more Coke than that. So far I’ve been successful. And when I get home from my pizza and soda outings I brush my teeth. Coke is delicious. Dental work isn’t.

Willy Porter Anchors A Visit To Jim Thorpe, PA

Another weekend has come and gone. It was a good one. The locale: Jim Thorpe, PA. The main reason for being there: Willy Porter, a terrifically talented singer-songwriter and guitarist.

As with Kim Richey, whom I wrote about recently, I’ve known of Willy Porter for years but actually knew almost nothing about him. I’d never seen him perform, couldn’t have named a single song by him. One thing I did know, though, is that he would be at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on April 25. The idea of visiting Jim Thorpe had been spinning quietly in my head for a couple of years, ever since some good friends of mine told about the fine time they’d had there. My wife and I recently were thinking about nabbing a weekend getaway, and at seventy miles Jim Thorpe isn’t too far from where we live. But our visit would need an anchor, a strong reason for going. To wit, Willy Porter. Something told me he’d put on a good show, and I was right.

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Jim Thorpe is a cute town nestled in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. From the early 1800s until 1930 or so it was a prosperous place, a cog for coal mining and railroad industries. Its name then was Mauch Chunk, derived from a Native American language. Over time, there came to be not only Mauch Chunk, but also the adjacent town of East Mauch Chunk. As coal mining in the area dwindled in the 1900s, both Chunks’ fortunes headed south. People and money left. Town leaders had a plan, though a very odd plan, to try and reverse the decline. It revolved around Jim Thorpe, the celebrated Native American athlete who died in 1953.

Jim Thorpe lived in California at the time of his death, but was a native Oklahoman. His burial was to be in Oklahoma. It seems, though, that Oklahoma had trouble raising money for a Thorpe memorial, something that his family wanted. His widow Patricia somehow had heard that the two Chunks were looking for an economic boost. So, she and the towns’ officials made a deal. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and became Jim Thorpe. Town leaders hoped that the new name would prove a draw for businesses and tourists, a pretty wifty notion if you ask me.  Jim’s remains were transported to the newly-christened community, which built a memorial to him. Possibly Patricia was paid for all of this. The details are quite cloudy.

I doubt if the name change helped business grow at all, but during the last 20 or more years Jim Thorpe has become one of those places that people like to visit. With its old fashioned look as key, it has evolved into an artsy, craftsy and happily hippyish town. Bed and breakfast establishments have blossomed. The historic district is small but well-preserved, with strings of nice neat 19th century structures on twisting and narrow streets. Jim Thorpe is close to beautiful areas where you can hike, bike and water raft. But if you aren’t overly jazzed by those activities, then a one night stay, or even a day trip, is all you need. We arrived on April 25 and left the next day.

The highlight of our excursion was indeed Willy Porter. We also enjoyed walking around town checking out the architectural details and the town’s surrounding mountains, though that becomes old pretty fast as a steady pace will bring you from one end of the historic district to the other in eight minutes. But the addition of an excellent restaurant dinner, a bit of shopping,  and a tour of the Asa Packer Mansion made the weekend worthwhile, as did The Parsonage, the comfy B&B where we landed.

Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson at Mauch Chunk Opera House
Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson at Mauch Chunk Opera House

If you are a fan of good singer-songwriters, then Willy Porter is your man. His subjects often are love and personal freedom, and he peers at them intelligently from a spectrum of angles. One of many tunes that had me head-bopping was the Caribbean-flavored Elouise, a gentle love song that put me in mind of artists such as James Taylor, Jack Johnson and Martin Sexton.

If you are a fan of singer-songwriters who do more with their guitars than simple strumming, then Willy is totally your man. His abilities on amplified acoustic guitar made my jaw drop. He can play pretty much any which way he wants, and often had several harmonious interweaving lines going at the same time. Think Leo Kottke or Michael Hedges.

Willy was on stage for over two hours. Carmen Nickerson, his vocal accompanist, added depth and deft atmospherics to the mix. The funky Mauch Chunk Opera House, occupying its site in town since 1882, was another plus. Porter, a nationally-touring musician, has played there many times, becoming a Poconos fixture.

Food? Don’t miss Moya, a stylish and casual restaurant on Race Street. Before the Porter concert, my wife and I both ordered crab cakes, which came with a wonderful cilantro sauce. Delicious. Dessert, a shared crème brulee, was rich and vanilla loaded, and was served at the correct temperature, warm instead of piping hot. I’m always in search of beers I haven’t had before, and I found a great one at Moya, the Fort Collins Brewery’s very hoppy and dry Rocky Mountain IPA.

Asa Packer Mansion
Asa Packer Mansion

Well-presented history? Take the tour of the Asa Packer Mansion. Asa Packer’s name has been substantially lost in the mists of time, but he was a rich and powerful man in the 1800s, a railroad magnate and founder of Lehigh University. He lived in the mansion with his wife and several children from 1861 until his passing in 1879, and it continued to be the Packer home until 1912, the year in which his last surviving child, Mary, died at age 73. Mary left the house and its contents to Mauch Chunk. Everything there today is pretty much intact from that date.

Now, house tours can be kind of a snooze, but this one wasn’t. The home is full of lovely objects, and the tour guides are lively and make Packer history interesting. I especially liked the gorgeous but modest stained glass windows in the dining room and second floor landing. They stood out in a house dominated by various shades of brown.