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“We’ll call you about 48 hours before your dinner to confirm the number of guests to ensure that we have the right size of pig for your party.”

To be honest, my heart was somewhere between aflutter, smitten and several other adjectives that are typically reserved for emo kids during prom season. My juvenile excitement was simple: I had ordered a whole suckling pig that was going to be cooked at one of Philadelphia’s finest restaurants and devoured by a hand-picked squad of the some of region’s most ardent swine enthusiasts, The Society of Gluttony.

Special moments like this call for the creation special things. And by special things, I mean bad-ass logos with bacon banners:

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This coat of arms was created by my colleague Mike Burton, a super talented graphic designer who understands the power of pork. His still-in-progress work was unveiled the night of our pig feast and was met with rave reviews by the Society members, who at that point had begun to get slightly rowdy.

Amada is typically thought of as the place that taught Philadelphians what tapas meant. Or it’s seen as a restaurant where an eager fellow will take his lady in an attempt to gain premature admittance into her britches. It’s a place where Philadelphians prove to out-of-towners that Philly is a seriously boss food city. To be honest, I thought it might be a bit too high-brow for nine guys likely to argue over who deserved the jowl meat.

Then I entered the restaurant and nearly tripped over a massive pig statue. Immediately, my fears shrank; my hunger grew.

We were seated front and center in Amada’s dining room, perched atop the restaurant’s largest table. We ordered a healthy round of drinks and waited for the most important guest in our party to arrive. And just like that, he was triumphantly wheeled to our table:

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That’s a half of a baby pig, split length-wise, ready for carving (the other half was carved in the kitchen). The little guy’s only food source was his mother’s milk — hence the “suckling” moniker. That commitment to the healthy world of breast-feeding results in a more tender, flavorful swine. You see, I may be a savage, but I’m a savage with access to Wikipedia.

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The pig was carved table side, and deposited on our plates. With absolutely zero hesitation, we all dove into our plates.

Holy. Mother. Of. Swine.

To be honest, going into this dinner, I thought the pork would be good. I figured it would be more of an event — a curiosity where we got in touch with our inner Cro-Magnon and enjoyed an animal slow cooked over a fire. But it was far, far more than that. It was, quite simply, the best pork I had ever eaten. It reminded me of the first time I went to a great steak house, where I entered with a “I’ve-had-steak-before-so-how-good-could-it-be” attitude and was utterly blown away by the quality and preparation of a simple meat. This pork had a similarly transcendent quality. It was salty, tender and had a lasting flavor that lingered on your palate far more than a supposed white meat ever should be able to.

A quick look on the internet shows how Amada’s Jose Garces gets this pork to be so damn good:

“Chef Garces brines each suckling pig for 24 hours in a salt water and sugar solution, to ensure the meat is tender and flavorful. Then he confits the pig in pork fat for up to three hours. After roasting it at 250 degrees for another hour, to crisp the skin and lock in its natural juices, it is finished with sea salt and arbequina olive oil.”

All that labor was well worth it. In particular, we appreciated the attention paid to the skin, which quickly became the most sought-after scrap at the table. Salty and hearty, this pork rind had bacon-like qualities, which can only be considered a good thing. By the end of the meal, I had an increased interest in porcine dermatology.

The meal, which is an absolute steal for $32 a person, also included four sides: Charred Green Onions, Herb-Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, Chickpeas with Spinach, and Rosemary White Beans with Ham. The sides rested, fittingly, in dog bowl-like dishes, and were consumed with wild abandon. The white beans were particularly great (they had pork in them, natch) and the green onions were surprisingly addictive.

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Our pig provided each of us with a portion of food for our plates, as well as three extra heaping plates of pork that were placed strategically around the table for communal consumption. Being the gluttons that we are, we actually finished the entire feast, a feat that would likely cause post traumatic stress disorder to cardiologists and vegans alike.

And like that, the Society of Gluttony had enjoyed a feast for the ages. Now, it becomes a matter of topping it.

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I could pontificate like a thesaurus-sporting dillweed about what the Society of Gluttony is, but instead, I believe this anecdote sums it up:

I ordered a lamb osso bucco sandwich. For dessert.

As a bit of context, I will offer this: The Society of Gluttony is an elite squad of eaters who will meet once a month to dine at a restaurant where, quite frankly, our wives/fiancees/girlfriends/dietitians would generally frown upon, scrunch their brow, or possibly order some lame salad and/or chicken dish. The SoG had its first convocation at Ansill, a Queen Village restaurant which sports various parts of animals that lesser chefs might discard or run from altogether. This is not to say that Ansill is simply weird for the sake of being weird; rather, it’s a place where creativity reigns and deliciousness is found at every turn. Or hoof, if you will.

Our party was ten hearty eaters, so we were able to sample a comically large portion of the menu. In fact, there was a debate if we should simply ask our server for “one of everything” which was vetoed (rather unfortunately if you ask me) at the last minute. Since my last visit there, Ansill has upped their portions from smaller tapas sized plates to slightly more substantial dishes. This is probably easier on the wallet than before, but it might make sampling more offerings slightly more difficult if you are part of a smaller party. This did not apply to us.

We began with an onslaught of appetizers, which had two main highlights. One was a steak tartar, where a quail egg provided a rich drape for an indulgent pile of uncooked beef. The second was pig trotters, which was astutely described as a “pork crabcake” by one of my fellow Gluttoneers. If not for the name “trotters” we would not have had any idea we were downing a pig’s hooves.

Our main courses were really dominated by the aforementioned osso bucco sandwich, which might be one of the best dishes in Philadelphia. It’s got a meaty richness that gets better with every bite, including the final ones, where the slice of brioche bread has soaked up all of the juices and creates an intense taste that, well, might cause a man to order a second helping for dessert. We also had a special of a sliced cold beef that was pretty awesome, as well some pretty banging sweetbreads. There was also a pretty damn good cheese plate that balanced the ends the spectrum so that there were really smooth, great cheeses and those funky stank-bombs that more adventurous cheese lovers enjoy.

While we were attacking various animal parts at our table, we were treated to a wild-eyed, gravelly-voiced ball of energy who dramatically entered the restaurant holding a gigantic, over-sized banker’s check. It turned out to be David Ansill himself, who had just won $500 and a title at some regional cooking competition where his bold take on flavors was rewarded. It was a surreal cap on a fairly wild dinner. I would imagine surreality is fairly commonplace at Ansill. Fortunately, deliciousness is as well.

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Let’s cruise around the information super slip ‘n slide for a few minutes for things that are currently cool, useful, and/or amusing.

First, I wanted to write something here about how Pedro Feliz is pretty much a soup bowl of suck, but then figured that the new blog “Pedro Feliz Walks” illustrates my point nicely. It plans to track Pete Happy’s base on balls, which might make it the only blog updated less than this one.

Next, I’d like to direct you to my friend Nick’s podcast that he does with his buddy Dan, which is called “On the DL.” In just a few months, they’ve turned it from two guys talking about sports (mostly Philly-centric) to being a legit enterprise, where they interview folks like Will Leitch and AJ “The Balls” Daulerio from Deadspin, Chris Carlin from WFAN and others. This week they’re interviewing Mike Missanelli, who will hopefully spout off and reveal that Howard Eskin has superseded Jerry Penacoli’s position as Philly’s preeminent gerbil stuffing media personality.

Just cause I’m addicted it to it, Muxtape is an awesome music site.

On the beverage front, anyone who lives in Pennsylvania knows that visiting another state’s liquor stores opens up your world view as much, if not more, than your first handjob. However, we all try to make due with our state stores. Phoodie, the new site by Philebrity, has a great running feature called “It’s Vintasastic” that helps navigate the pre-Glasnost shelves of PA liquor stores and find well priced bottles of wine.

And finally, because every batch of links on the internets must conclude with a You Tube video (it’s the rule right after the brilliant “Internet Fuckwad Theory“), here’s a clip comparing the Phightin Phils to Foo Fighters (or should they now be the Phoo Phighters?):

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I am Veruca Salt with a Golden Ticket in my hand. I am Jack Whittaker, clutching my Powerball ticket. I have won the Delaware Valley’s culinary jackpot.

Yes, I secured a last-second seat at the most famous table in Pennsylvania’s mushroom country, Talula’s Table, and have lived to blog about it. For those who don’t know, Talula’s Table has become part culinary experience and part burgeoning myth. First, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Leban nearly gave himself lateral epicondylitis from the stroking he gave Talula’s in this review. The subsequent hype has spiraled to the point where there is now a year waiting list to dine at one of the table’s 12 nightly seats.

But this is not about the hype. This is about the food. And thankfully, the food is damn good. Is it life-changing, wait-for-a-year good? Who knows. Living up that expectation for the restaurant is probably as difficult as securing the reservation is for the diners in the first place. But rest assured, Talula’s Table serves tremendous food in a completely unique, personal setting.

First, we arrived to an empty store, rather than a restaurant, which immediately foreshadowed the unorthodox dining experience that followed. Before Talula’s Table was a phenomenon, it was a market, and each day, it still is a market. But each evening, the shelves of freshly prepared treats and cases of cheeses take a back seat, and the lone, hand-carved table moves to the forefront. We took our seats at that famed table and settled in for a long night of gullet stuffing. We immediately met Aimee Olexy, one-half of the husband/wife duo behind Talula’s, who couldn’t have been friendlier or more enthusiastic about the experience. My friend Kyle, who got the reservation, had been emailing with her for the days prior, finalizing the menu that you see below, prepared by her husband Bryan Sikora.

Yeah, we were pretty excited. Through eight courses, we would be consuming animals large and small, we had a small arsenal of wine, and an entire restaurant to ourselves.

Our dinner was in January (I apologize for not writing about this earlier, but the birth of my daughter took precedent), so it interestingly began with a light, summery dish like the salmon terrine, with a vibrant, lemony sauce. I’m not a huge salmon guy, and I found the roasted part of the terrine a bit overpowering, but the Meyer lemon winebroth was a nice start to the gigantic feast that followed.

In a menu filled with a plethora of culinary fireworks, the second course was the simplest and possibly the most delicious. Making use of the nearby fungal bounty of Kennett Square, the mushroom risotto was earthy, creamy and utterly addictive. At this risk of sounding like a pompous bag of douche, the only risotto I’ve had that was better was at Le Petit Zinc in Paris. Several people in our group (dudes, even) wanted to run back and kiss chef Bryan Sikora for this amazing bowl of rice.

One of the great facets of Talula’s Table is the interaction with the staff (though kissing them is out of the question, I would suppose). Our servers were all enthusiastic and knowledgeable, enhancing the experience with a passion for the dishes that kept emerging from Sikora’s kitchen. On top of that, they were fun. Because we were the only people in the entire market (and the aforementioned stockpile of wine), our group got comfortable. And loud. And slightly rowdy. Yet the staff rolled with the punches, not missing a beat even when one member of our group told a joke whose punchline involved sodomy. That’s a sign of a good dining experience: servers who can wax poetically about artisan cheeses and also roll with a well-crafted butt-banging joke.

The meal kept churning along, with a solid salt-cod fritter that I don’t really remember that well, and an interesting take on Beef Wellington that substituted rabbit for steak. The meal may have hit its peak, though, on the fourth course, a chorizo stuffed quail. With an aromatic broth that tempted us all when they first put down the plates, the dish featured a (thankfully) de-boned quail with a spicy sausage unearthed after a few bites. It was creative and delicious, and actually overshadowed the next course, which would have been a tremendous hit any other time. It was a smoked short rib and beef tenderloin dish where the smoke was pronounced and delicious. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t still thinking of that quail.

It’s worth noting that at this point, we were all getting full. You don’t get shortchanged on courses here, as each dish would be similar to a nicely-sized appetizer at most restaurants. So the cheese course, which is hand selected by Aimee, and thoughtfully presented from lightest to most flavorful, might have been more appreciated had I not been re-adjusting my belt at the time. But I sucked it up and had the dessert, a steamed lemon cake, which was a tasty and interesting bookend to a meal that also began with a light, lemony dish.

After the meal, we were able to buy things from the market, speak with the chef and soak in a wonderfully unique experience. It was unlike being at a restaurant, and more like attending a friend’s dinner party. If, you know, you had a friend who was a world class chef. The meal takes over three hours, which has apparently aggravated some diners, the staff told us. Those people, frankly, must be assholes. Because the Talula’s experience is about taking time to savor things, whether that means the hand-selected ingredients and Sikora’s thoughtful cooking, or simply savoring three hours of fun with friends, escaping a world where most things are too rushed, too processed and too un-delicious. So is that worth waiting a year for? You’re damned right it is.

*Unfortunately, because I only found out I would be going to Talula’s the day of my visit, I had no camera to document it.

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My wife is expanding nightly with a child somewhere in her stomach, and I, as a good father-to-be, am supposed to pork up as well. This is what hefty fathers tell me, at least. Heretofore in my life, I had admirably met the challenge of gaining girth during the one time it was presented to me. In other words, I returned from college fat and bloated from cans of beer. However, for whatever reason, I was not meeting the obligation of gaining weight with my pregnant wife.

Apparently, I just didn’t have enough house guests.

The middle of October in 2007 was filled with out-of-town visitors from California, London, Massachusetts and even Havertown. As the majority of these visitors had some degree of Irish heritage, that meant drinking. And eating. And talking about drinking and eating.

And I will now share the highlights of the venues in which we ate and drank, and leave out details like drunken uncles playing Nintendo Wii in my living room in between shots of Jameson at 1 AM. Har har.

Because we had a wide range of guests, we mostly took them to our tried-and-true haunts. These are the places where a good meal is nearly guaranteed, the price is right, and good times will be had by all. But to mix things up, we also had a night at a white-hot, crowded newish restaurant (Tinto) and one massive splurge (Barclay Prime) because it was a group that rarely sees one another and wanted to blow it out for a night. Without further ado, here are the impressions that I waddled away with:

meat, stick, shot glass, sauce, bliss.

Tinto: Everyone in the world loves this place, and I now know why. Small plates are like the skinny jeans of the restaurant world, but I think this cooking trend works far more successfully than that damned fashion one. For one, you get to sample a lot more of the chef’s cooking. In the other, you’re exposed to some second-rate hipster’s chicken legs and/or ballsac. But I digress. Tinto’s Basque menu is loaded with tons of temptations (around 50 small plates), and nearly everything we had was stellar. Among the standouts was a Clam Rice dish with shaved artichoke, a great cheese plate and an obscenely decadent dish of Kobe beef and truffle poached egg. The only thing I regretted was that we didn’t order enough of their skewers, which are perched in shot glasses filled with sauce. Take that in for a moment. It’s three great things (meat on a stick, shot glasses, sauce) all on one plate. Service was great, and they have a totally interesting menu design. As someone in the advertising/design industry, I tip my hat to their menu designer. Good show, Mac Monkey!

Barclay Prime: Everything here is big. The steaks, the wine, the sides, the bill. Especially the bill. Not much needs to be said about this popular place, but I ate probably the best steak of my life (a dry-aged porterhouse) and downed a lot of great wine. The standout side dish was the Lyonnaisse potatoes and the Kobe slider appetizers were a crowd favorite. Our server was friendly and attentive, but her penchant for up-selling grew a bit old. This place is pretty amazing and I had a blast with my rollicking Irish family here. The neighboring table’s opinion may differ.

La Viola: After a night at a place as big, over-the-top and expensive as Barclay, we took my Dad and stepmother to a place that was as conversely small, intimate and cheap: La Viola. This walk-in closet-sized Italian restaurant is a favorite of my wife and I, and we wanted to show our California guests what a Philly Italian BYOB is all about: good food, cramped quarters, low prices and unintelligible Italian waiters. We had it all at La Viola. I tend to experiment on entrées there, but I always find myself ordering their grilled calamari as an app. It’s laced with lemon and capers and is super tender, but has a great grilled flavor. Apropos of nothing, I ended up getting accidentally rocked off my ass at this dinner. Thanks for bringing the boss bottles of wine, Dad!

North Third: We’re into group two of house guests: my mom and sister-in-law, who was visiting from across the pond, which is how irritating people refer to London. Anyway, the first night she arrived, it was a torrential downpour, and my wife and I think of N. 3rd as our rainy day restaurant. This gastro-pub is built for damp weather–it’s dark, homey and the food is hearty and awesome. The soups here are top-notch, but big enough to be a meal by themselves. So I opted to simply order a special I had loved there one time before : an Asian-spiced tuna burger. To be honest, this sounds like something that I would hate: fish masquerading as a burger. However, it has tons of flavor, as wasabi and cilantro brighten the sandwich, which feels like you’re devouring a gigantic spicy tuna roll. This is a good thing, I reckon. My sister-in-law ordered the wings, which I think are among the best in town. If you’ve never been to this place, well, you’re probably a dork. And if some idiot with a blog is calling you a dork, that makes you like a dork of the highest order. Let’s move on.

Lolita: This is a great place to take out-of-towners. The food’s flavorful and exciting, the bring-your-own-tequila gimmick is unique, and the vibe is pretty raucous for a BYOB (mostly because everyone is ripped to the nipples on margaritas). I love the food here. It’s got all the flavor and spice of Mexican food, but with refined cooking techniques and fresh ingredients that steer the dishes clear of the heavy, leaden, rice-filled dishes of too many Mexican eateries. I had an entrée of veal cheeks with shaved Brussels sprouts that was the most memorable dish of my entire 9 day binge. The meat melted in my mouth, and the flavors were spot on. Just a great dish. And a fitting end to a wonderful 9 days of food, drink and family, where I was thankfully able to spend time with great people from all over the world, who could see my beautiful wife and the child that is amazingly growing inside of her every day, and share in this miraculous time of our lives. It all makes me say to myself:

Savor it while you can, fat boy.

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This much is true:

If I sit down at a table and there are six glasses of wine sitting in front of me, I am almost certain to enjoy myself.

That’s the first thing you experience with Tria’s Fermentation School, and it is, quite frankly, a wonderful introduction. But the entire experience is not simply about pumping people full of wine, though that thankfully does happen; it’s about teaching the history, traditions and cultures of various wine regions. It’s all part of these classes put on by Tria, the wildly popular cafe at 18th & Sansom (and new location at 12th & Spruce), which focus on their three (all fermented) specialties: wine, cheese and beer.

I attended the “Taste of Tuscany” class because I generally know as much about Italian wines as I do about shoe polish, and figured that an Italian wine class would be far more entertaining than a shoe polish lecture. I have a decent grasp on California wines, and Australian wines as well, but the Italian wines confused me more than a David Lynch movie. On a recent Friday evening, I went to the class with my mom, since my wife now has a child growing daily in her stomach, and I would hate to waste quality wine on my unborn son or daughter’s unrefined palate.

I kid. I kid.

Walking into Tria’s Fermentation School is probably the only non-awesome thing about the experience. The classes don’t take place in a Tria restaurant, but rather the sixth floor of a fairly nondescript office building on Walnut Street. After signing in at the front desk, heading up an elevator and then wandering through a maze of hallways straight out of Being John Malkovich, you wind up in a tiny corner room, where a friendly face hands you a glass of white wine. This is reassuring.

You take your seat and see six glasses of wine, a bruschetta (ours was fig and blue cheese), a wedge of cheese (we had an awesome truffled pecorino), several pieces of bread, a biscotti and a glass of water. They had me at hello.

The class was roughly 25 people, and the room was a bit tightly packed, though tastefully decorated. The class began with an introduction by Michael McCaulley, sommelier and beverage director for Tria. Within a few minutes of the class beginning, it was easy to see how his personality translates to Tria. He clearly enjoyed his job, which–seeing as how he drinks all day–makes sense. But what makes him, and Tria, unique is that they make wine approachable. There was no pretense, no snobbery, none of the general dickheadednish that alienates rugged blokes like myself and has us reaching for ales at dinner parties. McCaulley seems like a guy who probably could talk about Super Tuscans as easily as he could about Larry Johnson’s tragic fantasy football tailspin.

On top of that, he knows his stuff. With a slide show guiding him, he walked us through the history and sub-regions of Tuscany, as well as the rankings, ratings and laws of Italian wine (I learned that, as a quick rule, I should buy wines marked DCOG on them). After a detailed set up, we began tasting. Our first glass was a Carmignano “Barco Reale,” Capezzana, ’04, which was a great, earthy start. We began the whole swirl, smell, taste ritual. As we progressed through several glasses, the class, not surprisingly, became bolder in describing smells and tastes. A girl behind me, who was knocking back glasses at an unwise pace, yelled out that her glass of Brunello smelled like pineapples. Then a guy who described a wine as smelling like Budweiser knocked over two of his glasses. This, apparently, is the height of wine humor.

I would describe some of the wines in more detail, but my notes become slightly less legible towards the bottom of the page. But I was able to take down some really helpful advice for my next time in the liquor store, such as “only buy Chianti that is labeled Chianti Classico” and “1999, ’01 and ’04 are years to buy,” as well as a less useful “I wonder if Italian men ignore mustached women or if they are simply too drunk to no [sic].”

The entire experience was truly one of the best experiences I’ve had at a Philadelphia dining establishment. They didn’t skimp on wine, as one of the bottles we tasted retails for around $50 (it was the Le Serre Nuove Tenuta Dell’ornellaia, 04). They made things fun. They taught me something. They got my mom bombed.

The classes sell out very quickly, so I’m clearly not the first person to find them. But there are enough interesting topics to keep me coming back. I am, after all, a lowly drunk at heart.

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CIMG1524

I’m hungover from going to the game yesterday, so here’s my in-depth analysis of the game: The Schmitter is a tasty fucking sandwich.

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