Shelton, (203) 925-4237, and Stratford, (203) 386-9977 (oronoquefarms.com)
The story of “the little apple pie that could” began in 1949 when one determined Betty Winton, wanting to earn scholarship money for her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, started selling pies at a roadside stand in front of her Stratford farmhouse. Soon the whole family was making pies: the kids shimmied up the trees to pluck the apples, and Betty and her sister-in-law mixed and rolled out the pies. The trademark slogan back then, “Quality is our most precious ingredient,” reflected Winton’s insistence that the pies retain pure ingredients and homemade quality—as they still do today, more than 60 years and several bakers later. Simple, sweet, delicious—just the way we like it.
Orange, (800) 435-3285 (juliasbakery.com)
You may not realize that babka, which originated in Eastern/Central Europe, actually comes in two variations: one made according to Christian tradition; the other Jewish. Julia’s are somewhere in between: Topped with streusel Jewish-style, but otherwise more in the Christian mode—tall, delicate, yeast-risen, reminiscent of angel cakes (baked in a similar pan), once upon a time fruit-filled but now made in cheese and chocolate flavors as well. Perhaps there’s little need to care about the source when the outcome is this melt-in-your-mouth delicious; especially the chocolate babka, ribboned with rich icing. You can get it in cinnamon, cheese, raspberry cheese and apple raisin, too—but keep in mind babka is a special- occasion cake, so look for it only on weekends or order ahead.
SoNo Baking Company
South Norwalk, (203) 847-SONO (sonobaking.com)
CIA-trained John Barricelli (of TV’s “Everyday Food”) has run this slice of bakery heaven since 2005, and continues to dazzle. We’d walk a country mile for his simple cheesecake, but also love his chocolate ganache cake, pretty-as-a-picture raspberry-pistachio and blueberry tartlets, seasonal fruit galettes, croissants and breads. Come for breakfast, lunch (there are savories too) or tea, settle into an indoor or oudoor cafe table and you’ll quickly discover . . . how sweet it is.
Ami’s Hot Bagels
Waterbury, (203) 596-9020
To do one thing, and to do it exceptionally well, seems to be the driving idea behind Ami’s, where bagels are pretty much it. Visit this hole-in-the-wall shop on any morning—there’s a busy little bagel-making area in back and, in front, a tiny counter facing a wall of 14 different wire bins full of big, crusty/chewy bagels in sesame, rye, poppy, cinnamon raisin, salt, blueberry and so on. Biting into a fresh one hot from the oven, you may find yourself saying, “Here is all I really require of life.”
With a view
Kitchen Little, Mystic, (860) 536-2122 (kitchenlittle.org)
Kitchen Little is about as wee as it gets. On really busy days, it bursts at the seams like one of those circus clown cars, but the views Mystic River-side from its outdoor patio-cum-rock garden—giving a.m. noshers a smashing look at Mystic Seaport, too—are well worth any elbow-to-elbow discomfort. A primo occasion to convene here is the Seaport’s annual Antique and Classic Boat Rendezvous in June, but really, any time is right for signature dishes like the Portuguese Fisherman—chouriço and linguiça sausage scrambled with the kitchen’s cage-free eggs, peppers, onions and jalapeño cheese.
Patty’s Restaurant, Litchfield, (860) 567-3335
What weekend morning in the fall would not be improved by an apple-and-sausage omelet at Patty’s? Or for that matter, what morning at any time of year would not be improved merely by walking into Patty’s, where the tables and booths are occupied by happy diners, the waitstaff bustles efficiently and the aromas of coffee, toast, bacon and other savories mingle harmoniously?
City Limits, Stamford, (203) 348-7000 (citylimitsdiner.com).
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially at this superdiner right off I-95 on the Greenwich line, where it’s served from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The menu runs from the Light Omelet, with egg whites, mushrooms, chives, broccoli and tomato, to the house-smoked salmon platter to the Surf and Turf, New York strip with Maryland lump crab-lobster cake and eggs over easy. If you think of breakfast as early dessert, try the lemon-orange waffle or raisin-currant challah French toast. Anything with a bread or pastry component is sure to please with CIA-trained pastry chef Tracy Kamperdyk Assue in the kitchen.
The Corner, Milford, (203) 882-1150
We really have only one word for you: Trio. That’s a weekend brunch special at this downtown nook, consisting of two slices of stuffed French toast (typically strawberry-banana and apple-raisin), which frame a square of homemade tres leches cake topped with strawberries and whipped cream. Divine decadence to the nth power. We’re also glad that The Corner is decorated with so many adorable turn-of-the-20th-century antiques and curios—they allow us to imagine we live in a time when no one talks about obesity, cholesterol and arterial plaque.
Chips, Orange, (203) 795-5065 (chipsrest.com)
Break from plain old buttermilk pancakes (though Chips’ are made from a secret recipe) and try a new type of flapjack from the menu here. Perhaps Coconut Crunch (with chocolate chips, coconut shreds, and almonds)? Or banana with butterscotch chips? Chips’ 30 selections also include Cinnamon Raisin, Bacon, Sweet Potato and White Chocolate Rendezvous (with macadamia nuts and fresh strawberries). These are some of the lightest pancakes around, which means you may even have room for seconds.
Leo’s, Southbury, (203) 264-9190, and Middlebury, (203) 598-0166
Leo’s serves up scrumptious breakfast fare for hearty appetites, and their waffles steal the show. You’ll go nuts for the “Wheel of Fortune”—a Belgian waffle topped with fresh strawberries, bananas, kiwis, raspberry cream sauce and whipped cream. That’s what we call a good morning.
New Milford, (860) 355-4111 (thecookhouse.com)
The Cookhouse’s iconic “spiritual leader” Fat Tommy may not have ever said, “If you ‘slo-smoke’ it, they will come,” but judging by the line out the door on any given Saturday night, maybe he should have! For 13 straight years, The Cookhouse has been voted the best barbecue in the state, and after a recent visit where we sampled everything from the baby back ribs to the pulled pork to the beef brisket, it well earns a 14th nod. Try the Tombo-Combo, which features ribs, chicken, pulled pork and sausage—enough to satisfy any lover of real barbecue.
New Haven, (203) 562-9007 (chabaso.com)
It was love at first bite when we tried our first piece of Chabaso bread, and it’s only grown stronger. The New Haven-based company makes all manner of bread, from ciabattas, rolls and sticks to baguettes, boules and loaves, all with the best natural ingredients, including the finest flours with no preservatives and little or no fat (trans fat is never used). We’re partial to the roasted garlic ciabatta, but that’s just us. Sample the two-dozen varieties and find your own fave.
New Haven, (203) 773-9870, and other locations (archiemoores.com)
Let’s do the math, shall we? Archie Moore’s sells more than 20 tons of its award-winning wings each month—if you figure about a dozen tasty wings (each slathered with Archie’s finger-licking hot sauce) per pound, multiplied by 40,000 pounds and then by 12 months, that comes to 5,760,000 pieces of chicken a year eagerly consumed by Archie Moore’s patrons. Five million chicken wings can’t be wrong—get a dozen or so of your own and discover what keeps so many people coming back for more.
Lake Zoar Drive-In
Monroe, (203) 268-8137 (lakezoardrivein.com)
Just the name sounds impressive: The Zoar Burger. When you hear the history of how Michael Basso, the owner of this lakeside drive-in, has striven for 18 years to make it something truly special, with a quarter-pound of fresh ground beef, grilled to perfection and topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and pickles, all on a fresh-baked bun, it sounds even better. But take a big juicy bite—that’s when you know it’s the best.
Shady Glen, Manchester, (860) 649-4245
Who knew adding three extra slices of cheese to a burger could generate such bliss? That abundance of cheese is melted perfectly on the grill at this 1950s style diner, then folded up around the burger, forming a golden, crispy crown. It’s a simple dish, served with fries, coleslaw and pickle, yet it tastes so good you might feel guilty after eating it. But not while.
Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, (203) 562-5507 (louislunch.com)
Others may claim to be the first, but who are we to doubt that New Haven’s own Louis’ Lunch, est. 1895, is anything less than the true home, indeed the birthplace, of the hamburger? None of us were around back then, but no matter—Louis’ Lunch has been serving delicious, perfectly cooked, juicy-as-all-get-out burgers in their unadorned natural state (on Pepperidge Farm toast, with cheese, tomato or onion if you like, but no ketchup or mustard—don’t even think of asking for them) as far back as any of us, or any of our parents, can remember. The place is small as a shoebox and, like its famed burgers, no-frills—but that’s the charm.
Zeeburger, Woodbury, (203) 405-6011 (zeeburger.com)
Renowned chef Carole Peck does it again with her newest restaurant Zeeburger, offering a spin on the classic burger joint with a menu highlighted by fresh, local, organic ingredients. While the grass-fed farm beef burgers are delicious, we love the selection of burger alternatives, which includes our favorite, the Zee Slammin’ Salmon Burger. It’s served with lettuce, mayo and an Asian pickle on a “Zee” roll, and you can also add toppings such as cranberry carrot ginger relish and smoked bacon. Yum!
Bar Bouchée, Madison, (203) 318-8004
Burgers are still ascendant, and these days seemingly anything goes—gourmet toppings (caramelized onions, aioli, avocado et al.), pretzel rolls, outlandish combinations (mozzarella and cherry preserve, anyone?). So how’s a hunk of ground beef supposed to stand out in the crowd? At Madison’s petite French bistro they’ve found the answer: Take eight ounces of juicy natural beef on a house-baked brioche bun, add layers of tomato confit and sautéed mushrooms, then—the pièce de résistance—top with “a voluptuous portion of heaven, lightly seared and still warm from the pan” (in the words of our restaurant reviewer, Elise Maclay). At once indecently delicious and hautely original, this burger gets our vote hands down.
Ted’s Restaurant, Meriden, (203) 237-6660 (tedsrestaurant.com)
Since 1959 Ted’s Restaurant has been serving some of the best steamed cheeseburgers around. The basic burger is cooked on a tray in a stainless steel cabinet, then scooped onto a bun and covered with melted cheese steamed the same way. The burger is so tender, it melts in your mouth. Toppings include lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and mushrooms. A Connecticut classic.
Chef’s Table, Fairfield, (203) 255-1779 (chefstable.com)
Ground turkey, bread crumbs, egg, garlic, onion and a secret ingredient have been magically combined to earn this homemade, healthy alternative to traditional hamburgers the “Best of Connecticut” title. After it’s charcoal-grilled and oven-baked, the burger is nestled in a Portuguese roll with lettuce and tomato, topped with a zesty sauce and served with curly fries. It’s worth a trip to “the Table” for this savory dish.
Plan B Burger Bar & Tavern
West Hartford, (860) 231-1199, and other locations (planbburger.com)
Fresh, pure, never frozen and cooked perfectly is the way to go when you’re in the mood for a burger, and at Plan B this is always the guarantee. What makes these burgers truly mouthwatering is the beef—100 percent natural, Certified Humane and ground in-house daily. Whether piled high with cheese, bacon and caramelized onions or au naturel, the meat is always the star.
Stockbridge’s Cheesecakes and Delectables
Shelton, (203) 924-7853, and Stockbridge’s Cheesecakes, New England Bistro and Bakery, Woodbridge,
(203) 298-9036 (sbcheesecakes.com)
Lucky for us that CIA grad Brian Stockbridge turned his talents to cheesecake. He and wife Lisa have grown their small cheesecake bakery into an inviting bakery-and-café in Shelton where you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner (the latter on weekends), and new bakery/bistro in Woodbridge where you can have breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks (cheesecake martini, anyone?). At either, choose from a dozen or more variations on the theme on any one day, from the classic New York to Reese’s (mixed with mini peanut-butter cups, topped with chocolate ganache) to fall delights like apple pie, sweet potato and pumpkin cheesecakes. We guarantee there’ll be “love-filled deliciousness in every bite.”
West Hartford, (860) 236-1930 (billygrant.com)
Transport yourself to chocolate heaven with Grants’ delicious and near-legendary warm chocolate soufflé cake, accompanied by pistachio crème anglaise and pistachio ice cream. This rich, dense chocolate masterpiece, created by pastry chef Fran Marino, has a hidden surprise inside—a warm chocolate sauce that oozes from the center, taking chocolate cake to a whole new level.
Good News Cafe
Woodbury, (203) 266-4663 (good-news-cafe.com)
We know it’s a cliché to call something “a meal in itself.” But a slice of Carole Peck’s Mile High Coconut Cake really is rich enough to be its own food group. What we love about this dessert is the way the really sweet part—the super coconutty cake itself and gobs of cloudlike egg-white frosting—contrasts with the pool of tart, flavorful mango/raspberry purée surrounding it. We only wish that that fruit factor made the cake as healthy as it is decadent.
Southbury, (203) 264-1606
The Bakery is a wonderful little bake shop that since 1989 has been sitting in the shadow of a Dunkin’ Donuts on a busy corner in Southbury. About 10 years ago, the sister of owner A.J. Hiller conducted a taste-off of three carrot cake recipes she had collected. Everyone who tried them chose the same one as best—and now it really is the “Best.” Moist, not too sweet and full of wonderful things, including walnuts and lots of freshly ground carrots (pineapple, chocolate chips, raisins, etc., can be added on request), this is a cake for the ages—or at least for a day or two, till it’s been reduced to just a few tasty crumbs.
Westport, 203/226-2647 (bluelemonrestaurant.com)
Chef Bryan Malcarney definitely has a way with things from the briny deep. Perhaps it was the years he spent in the Caribbean, as chef at the wonderful Straw Hat in Anguilla, a restaurant actually on stilts in the water, with amazing many-colored fish cruising around in the crystalline water below. At Blue Lemon, he makes pan-seared skate, Hawaiian spearfish and killer crabcakes. The Grilled Baby Squid with Ginger & Lime Vinaigrette is a revelation, the sweetest, tenderest flesh imaginable, perfumed with the faint suggestion of char. We hope it’s on the menu for a long, long time.
New Haven, (203) 776-5306 (modernapizza.com)
Plenty of Modern Apizza’s millions of pilgrims, who’ve been worshipping here since 1934, order exactly the same thing every time they visit, and usually it’s pizza. Nothing wrong with that, except that they’re all missing out on the calzones, the unsung heroes of Modern’s menu. Golden-hot and filled with three fragrant cheeses, served with marinara on the side, the calzones can also be personalized with fillings such as crabmeat, sausage and mushrooms. Warning for first-timers: Even the small is large.
Wanda’s Sugar Shack
Milford, (203) 878-9967 (wandassugarshack.com)
This independently operated and sweetly sinful shop has been in business for decades, and is as unsinkable as the owner, Wanda Hornack, who opened on Harbor Walk, her fifth Milford location, in 2000. There’s a plethora of candies and chocolates everywhere you look, ranging from traditional fruit chews and gummies to Wanda’s chocolate hand-dipped cookies. Have a look around and fill up a basket to satisfy your sweet tooth.
DelPrete Italian Pastry
Bridgeport, (203) 333-6993
There are cannoli and then there are cannoli. DelPrete’s cannoli are the ones to beat. Owner Lou Mezzo and crew whip up their Italian pastry specialties fresh every day using the same recipe Lou’s father used more than 60 years ago. Stop by the tiny shop when the dolci are baking, and the aroma will pull you in. Each crisp cannoli shell is made by
hand, fried and then filled with the creamiest sweetened ricotta and garnished with chocolate chips. The miniature cannoli are equally good—you just have to eat more.
Jordan Caterers & Event Planners
Cheshire, (203) 272-8213, and Darien, (203) 655-8600 (jordancaterers.com)
If you’ve ever attended an event catered by Jordan—perhaps at the New Britain Museum of American Art, Guilford Yacht Club or an off-premise location—you know that they can be counted on to orchestrate the perfect party, wedding reception, business luncheon, etc. The presentation has panache, the service is professional and the food—from clam chowder shooters and butternut squash risotto cakes with apple compote to rack of lamb with Moroccan cous cous and Black Angus beef tenderloin with Cabernet sauce—is all delicious.
Fairfield Cheese Company
Fairfield, (203) 292-8194 (fairfieldcheese.com)
At this thriving two-year-old shop in Fairfield, they don’t “say cheese.” They say Brillat-Savarin, Morbier, Marcel Petit Comté, Neal’s Yard Cheddar and Parmiagiana Reggiano. Partners Chris Palumbo and Laura Downey carry 100 cheeses from around the world, with a special concentration on American artisan varieties with names like Wabash Cannonball (Indiana), Ascutney Mountain (Vermont), Barely Buzzed (Utah) and Hooligan by our own Cato Farms in Colchester. And they’ve got everything you need to go with them: paté and charcuterie, spreads and chutneys, breads by Isabelle et Vincent. All that’s missing is a bottle of wine, right? Not a problem—the award-winning Harry’s Wine & Liquor Market is right next door.
Manuel Romero, Ibiza
New Haven, (203) 865-1933 (ibizanewhaven.com)
It’s easy to imagine that Manuel Romero might spend every waking moment thinking up new ways to cook seafood. Having grown up on the rocky seacoast of Galicia, he knows seafood inside and out. But he doesn’t stop there. At Ibiza, where he is executive chef, every category—meat, vegetables, dessert, tapas, entrées, sides—is an ever-changing showcase of innovation. What chef Romero does not do is seek celebrity status. A true artist, he prefers to get better and better, delighting connoisseurs and newcomers alike.
Farm to Table
Still River Café
Eastford, (860) 974-9988 (stillrivercafe.com)
Kara Brooks cooks what she and her husband, Robert, grow a few steps from her kitchen. Many chefs do the same these days but few do it brilliantly. A former trial lawyer who cultivated her culinary talent at Stone Barns, Brooks cooks with intelligence, passion and panache. Often she prepares the same ingredient three ways, presenting all together in a symphony of flavor, texture and artistry. In a beautifully restored antique barn in Eastford, Still River Café is far from the madding crowd, but savvy gourmets happily make the trek to savor Brooks’ unique blend of farm-fresh goodness and urbane sophistication.
James Cosgriff, West Street Grill
Litchfield, (860) 567-3885
James Cosgriff, who likes to be called Jim, is head chef at a four-star Connecticut restaurant at 26 because he’s brilliant and because James O’Shea, who owns West Street Grill and is a superb chef in his own right, recognizes talent and generously rewards it. Born and raised in Wolcott, Cosgriff learned to cook from his Italian grandmother, took courses at the Connecticut Culinary Institute and at an early age came to West Street Grill, where he learned by doing under the tutelage of a string of chefs who were rising stars themselves and went on to do great things. A hands-on cook who likes to innovate, Cosgriff is curently in love with curing and smoking. His short ribs are fabulous and he has just perfected a hard-to-resist health bread.
Fran Marino, Grants
West Hartford, (860) 236-1930 (billygrant.com)
Billy Grant thinks so highly of pastry chef Fran Marino’s desserts that he ferries them to all three of his restaurants—Grants and Bricco’s in West Hartford and Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury. Diners are equally enamored, ordering cakes and pies weeks ahead of time to take home for special occasions. Favorite Marino creations include chocolate Nutella pie, ricotta cheesecake with shortcake crust, and olive oil pound cake with mascarpone sorbet and fig and Armagnac sabayon.
Kent, (860) 927-3681, and New Canaan, (203) 801-0538 (belgiqueonline.com)
These authentic Belgian chocolate shops proffer exquisite artisan chocolates that are best of class, notably the Cleopatra (dark chocolate ganache and passion fruit crowned with a likeness of the Queen of the Nile), the Violette (dark chocolate ganache and violet essence brushed with gold) and the Fleur de Sel (milk chocolate ganache and sea salt). All are made with fine Callebaut chocolate by Pierre Gilissen, former chef at the British and Dutch embassies in Washington, D.C., where he cooked for Queen Elizabeth II et al.
Close Harbour Seafood
Southington, (860) 621-7334 (closeharbourseafood.com)
Of all the clam chowder variations (trust us, there are more than you think), Manhattan has historically been the underdog, reportedly getting its name from snobby, cream-based-chowder-eating New Englanders who believed that tomatoes had no place in their soup of choice, and that calling anyone or anything a “New Yorker” was an insult. (The style was actually originated by Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island.) Thank goodness Close Harbour has come along to reveal how yummy Manhattan CC can be—when composed of silky, hearty tomato broth, lots of quahogs, spicy pancetta and red pepper. Simple, bold, satisfying and a great appetite-whetter for the rest of the menu. We especially like ours served with the cocktail of gigantic fresh shrimp.
S&P Oyster Co.
Mystic, (860) 536-2674 (sp-oyster.com)
Sampling the creamy New England clam chowders served by restaurants around the state always makes us feel a little like Goldilocks: This one’s too rich, this one’s too salty, this one has too many potatoes, this one doesn’t have enough clams, this one’s too weird. S&P’s chowder, we’re happy to say, always strikes us as “just right.” Served with oyster crackers and garnished with sliced scallions, its clam (big and many) to potato cube ratio (big and few) mixes well with the silky, refined simplicity of its stock. Also mixing well is the view from the windows and the outdoor patio—Mystic’s bustling downtown, complete with glistening river and historic bascule bridge.
Tisane Euro-Asian Cafe, Hartford, (860) 523-5417 (mytisane.com)
You might be surprised to learn that Connecticut’s best Bloody Mary lives at a place that calls itself a “Tea and Coffee Bar.” Nestled behind a stony garden that protects the place from a slightly seedy section of Farmington Avenue, Tisane features a menu in which Asia meets Europe. And there, nestled in the back pages of said menu, is the “Bloody Good Mary,” made with house-infused vegetable vodka and an original 12-ingredient Bloody Mary mix, presented with a salt-and-peppered rim and a pickled jalapeño suspended on a wooden skewer. Delightful, especially when enjoyed on the patio at noon on an “Oh, what the hell” weekday.
The Loft, South Norwalk, (203) 838-6555 (theloftsono.com)
We thought the Cosmo was played, suffering from overexposure by way of the very tired “Sex and the City.” Then we went to The Loft, which serves up the sweet, intoxicating concoction made from Smirnoff, Cointreau, cranberry and lime juice in a blushing shade that flatters most complexions—that’s what we call irresistible. Stir in live music four nights a week for guaranteed good times.
116 Crown, New Haven, (203) 777-3116 (116crown.com)
It’s been compared to “James Bond’s rumpus room,” and there’s little doubt that 007 would have a ball at 116. The cocktails are the ultimate in mad mixology, featuring exotic and home-grown ingredients resulting in page after page of outrageous libations like “The New Black” (G. E. Massenez Crème de Cassis de Dijon, Miller’s Gin, Campari and mint) and the “$29 Bunny Hug,” starring Booker’s Bourbon, Grande Absente absinthe and Plymouth Gin—not recommended for beginners.
Doc’s Trattoria, Kent, (860) 927-3810 (docstrattoria.com)
St-Germain elderflower liqueur is one trendy cocktail mix-in, and Doc’s elderflower Manhattan makes magical use of it. Traditional bourbon Manhattans can be smoky and heavy—definitely an acquired taste—but Doc’s variation lightens and sweetens the blend in a way that wins over connoisseurs and nonfans alike: We have yet to see anyone try it who didn’t order one for themselves.
Coyote Blue, Middletown, (860) 345-2403 (coyoteblue.com)
This neighborhood Tex-Mex café serves its margaritas in 16-ounce mugs and—ay, caramba!—do they pack a wallop. A perfect blend of tequila, lime and sweetness, the original ’rita is always a stellar choice, but then there’s the strawberry, raspberry, grapefruit and pomegranate, or how about the “Skinny Girl” made with fresh lime juice and agave? So many margaritas, let’s make the time.
Martel, Fairfield, (203) 292-6916 (martelrestaurant.com)
To H.L. Mencken, this classic cocktail was “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” These days, it’s the martinis at Martel that strike us as liquid poetry, whether they’re tangy Lemon Drops or (down ’n’) Dirty. We’ve developed a special taste for the Corleone, a commanding, “don”-like blend of Finlandia grapefruit vodka, Campari and Italian vermouth, and the bracing Vesper Lynd, a variation-on-a-renowned-martini-variation with Hendrick’s gin, Lillet blanc, crème de ginger and housemade rosemary syrup. Both mingle playfully on the tongue with a plate of oysters or the truffled mac ’n’ cheese.
Pacifico, New Haven, (203) 772-4002 (pacificorestaurants.com)
When Pacifico opened on the corner of College and Crown in the early aughts, Mojitos were exotic curiosities. Now they’re positively mainstream, but the Nuevo Latino restaurant still does them right, with the labor-intensive fresh mint muddle, squished limes and fresh sugar cane suspended in top-notch white rum—perfect with chef Rafael Palomino’s exceedingly clean ceviche.
Mansfield, (860) 456-8316 (asianbistromansfield.com), Shelton, (203) 926-1933 (asianbistroshelton.com)
With two beautiful, highly textured restaurants and a popular fusion menu, Asian Bistro has a lot going for it—including a full bar. Loads of libations are available, but Saketinis are at the top of the list. The basic model is made with sake, vodka and Asian cucumber, and strained through crushed ice into a martini glass. Other varieties include Lychee and Ginger, with appropriate garnishes, and the resident mixologists are always fiddling with new variations.
Bean & Leaf
New London, (860) 701-0000 (bean-leaf.com)
Hippies make the best coffee, don’t you think? They’re so virtuous, all “organic” this and “sustainable” that. The Bean & Leaf is peacenik central, but not without a sense of humor: “Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten” reads a sign. There’s live music, a poetry night, board games and superb java—try the cold-brew iced coffee for a righteous jolt.
Hartford, (860) 524-1488, and New Haven, (203) 785-8888 (cafejojo.com)
How fresh are Jojo’s coffee beans? “So fresh, we have to slap them,” according to owners Bill Sze and Cathy Wei. Now that’s what we like to hear. We also like that Jojo’s roasts its beans lighter than the prevailing fashion—all the better to maximize the flavors and aromas the pair gathers from around the globe. If you’re looking for a coffee shop that smells like, well, coffee, as opposed to a crazed “Southern Amaretto-Banana-Cinnamon-Hazelnut-Snickerdoodle” amalgamation, this is the place for you.
Molten Java Coffee Roasters
Bethel, (203) 739-0313 (moltenjavaevents.com)
Owner Wendy Cahill roasts high-quality free-trade beans one pound at a time at this kitschy coffeehouse. Plan your visit right and you can get beans that are still warm. Signature varieties include Barnum Blend (named for native son P.T. Barnum) and Mad Hatter (honoring neighboring Danbury). Lattes, espresso, cappuccino, soups, wraps, burritos and vegan chili are also offered. Regulars drop by for the board games, Wi-Fi, live music and open mic night on Thursday.
Waterbury (203) 755-3804 (sweet-marias.com)
With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein: How do you eat a cookie like Maria’s? Well, if you’re smart, you do it slowly and savor every tasty morsel. Chocolate almond, gingersnaps, pignoli nut, thumbprints—Maria Bruscino Sanchez has been making 19 different kinds for the past 20 years, each one more delicious than the next, using real butter, fresh cream and a lifetime of baking experience. And if you want a taste of that experience to go along with your cookie, Maria and her staff even regularly offer baking classes. Sweet!
Carmen Anthony Steakhouse
New Haven, (203) 773-1444, and Waterbury, (203) 757-3040 (carmenanthony.com)
Carmen Anthony’s oh-so-delicious potato-encrusted crab cake tops our list again, with good reason. It’s made with Maryland lump crab, pan-fried to a golden brown and served with a special remoulade sauce. Pair it with a glass of vino from their Wine Spectator Award-winning list.
Mystic, (860) 536-6343 (dessertsmysticct.com)
Don’t know about you, but we hate the trend toward froufrou designer cupcakes that are about one inch in diameter and piled high with sparkly, tasteless icing. Bleu Squid makes cupcakes (pictured opposite) like Mom always made: two-fisted in size, moist, with good ol’ buttercream frosting that often has twice the personality of the cake beneath it. We’re sure Mom never had an inventory of close to 40-plus playful flavors, however: Chocolate pretzel, coffee and walnuts, Creamsicle and s’mores are among those we have yet to try (not to mention “adult” flavors—toasted almond, piña colada and brandy Alexander).
Hank’s Dairy Bar
Plainfield, (860) 564-2298 (hanksdairybar.com)
Hank’s may be a northeastern Connecticut icon that dates back to 1957, but that doesn’t mean the folks here don’t know how to shake things up. Yup, you’ll find burgers, dogs, fries and damn-good house-cut onion rings on the menu, but you’ll also find signature sandwiches like the “395 Pileup,” a seasoned burger with cheese, pickles, ketchup, Hank’s secret-recipe coleslaw and french fries all stacked high on a toasted roll, and the “Dog Gone Wilde,” a snappy hot-dog combo with coleslaw, ground beef, mustard, onions, chili and Cheddar cheese.
Waterbury, (203) 574-1274 (avventuradeli.com)
Tucked away on a side street in Waterbury’s traditionally Italian section known as Town Plot is Avventura, where since 1990 Rosario and Lucy Minnocci have been serving a combination of fresh, wonderfully prepared foods and imported groceries to an increasingly appreciative clientele. Of very special interest are the pastries (zeppoli, cannoli), prepared fresh every morning, gelato, stuffed breads, grinders and the daily specials, which can range from pasta fagioli to Philly cheesesteak grinders and even corned beef and cabbage.
Rein’s New York-Style Deli Restaurant
Vernon, (860) 875-1344 (reinsdeli.com)
For over 30 years, this bustling New York-style Jewish deli has been serving everything from challah French toast, potato pancakes and corned beef to pastrami Reubens and cheese blintzes. They even offer a brand new gluten-free menu, complete with bagels and cream cheese and hot pastrami or corned beef on a gluten-free roll.
The Baltyk Deli
Stratford, (203) 386-9400
A trip to the Baltyk Deli is like shopping at a market in Krakow. Owner Maria Tomaszewski stocks everything: a variety of kielbasa, more than 10 kinds of savory and sweet pierogis, cheese blintzes, sauerkraut in a barrel (sold by the pound), cheese and plain babka, poppy-seed strudel and her own glorious homemade stuffed cabbage. And to wash it all down—Polish beer, of course. In case you’d like to pick up some souvenirs on your trip, a variety of Polish linens, greeting cards and newspapers are also available.
Dinner and . . .
A Bird's-Eye View
Hartford, (860) 722-5161 (ontwenty.com)
Who says dinner with a view always has to involve the ocean or a blanket of rolling hills? Nestle into ON20’s big windowed aerie on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building and see why this dreamlike restaurant captivates everyone who dines here. Survey the city, the Connecticut River and beyond as you enjoy cutting-edge cuisine from top chef Noel Jones. At dusk it’s the perfect romantic setting as the sun drapes its light all around the building.
A Freshwater View
The Grist Mill Restaurant
Farmington, (860) 676-8855 (thegristmill.net)
Serving traditional European-style cuisine with a contemporary flair, The Grist Mill offers an up-close view of the Farmington River from almost every seat in the house. Enjoy the view at the newly renovated Mill Tavern with light offerings and cocktails, or sit on the canopy-covered patio listening to the calm currents of the river. Heighten your waterside experience with one of their signature dishes, perhaps Maryland crab cakes with a spicy remoulade drizzle or osso buco braised veal shank with risotto.
A Saltwater View
The Flood Tide
Inn at Mystic, Mystic, (860) 536-9604 (innatmystic.com)
It’s all about blue views at this oft-celebrated Mystic landmark set high on a hill overlooking Mystic Harbor and beyond to Fishers Island Sound. First things first: a table by the window. Second: curry-dusted Stonington diver scallops with a tomato ragout and microgreen salad. Third: A nice glass of Stonington Vineyard’s chardonnay to savor along with those views. Perfect.
A Sunset View
New Preston, (860) 868-7295 (thehopkinsinn.com)
What could be lovelier than an 1847 inn high on a hillside overlooking Lake Waramaug, where you dine on Austrian specialties (notably backhendl with lingonberries, listed as one of the “50 Dishes to Try Before You Die” in our May 2009 issue) on a flagstone terrace shaded by towering horse chestnut, catawba and maple trees, or on an old-fashioned umbrella-tabled porch, drinking in the panoramic view? Doesn’t get any better, you think? Oh yes, it does—when day turns to evening, the trees are illumined by hundreds of magical twinkling lights and the sky over the lake turns into a glorious splash of golds, pinks and blues. Benches across the street (no parked cars to block the view) and chairs on the lawn are also available for sunset viewing. The twittering of the birds and chirping of the tree frogs are included free of charge.
Gilson Café Cinema
Winsted, (860) 379-5108 (gilsoncafecinema.com)
Named for Warren Gilson, an early film-industry pioneer who taught café-cinema owner Alan Nero the technical ropes 25 years ago, this moviehouse is the definition of “unique concept,” from its Art Deco marquee to the roster of darn tasty bar food: How ‘bout an appetizer plate of pâté and Brie, a Cobb salad and a hot fudge brownie to go with drinks before the feature? (We also heartily recommend Padre’s Place, a tiny, terrific Mexican cantina next door run by former Gilson kitchen manager Lacey Lizzi.) The movies—generally second-run fare—are a steal at $7.50, the popcorn with real butter even more so ($2). And it’s a great destination for “date night”: No one under 21 is admitted Friday or Saturday
Torrington, (860) 489-8900 (backstageeatdrinklive.com)
With an antique mahogany bar and trendy zinc counter, Backstage serves up tasty American fare like crisp salads, hot soups, hand-formed Angus patties on house-baked rolls, sandwiches and comfort favorites. What’s more, enjoy all this while listening to live music from local bands or after catching a show at the Warner Theatre, located right next door.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro
Norfolk, (866) 666-6306 (infinityhall.com)
Doesn’t matter if you’re Generation X, Y or Next, there are plenty of shows that’ll move you—and your Boomer parents/grandparents, too—at the “all genres are welcome” Infinity Music Hall. The 300-seat 1883 opera house (with original proscenium stage) offers fine acoustics and encourages plenty of friendly informality. You can dine downstairs in the bistro (on small plates, salads, sandwiches and fine entrées like pan-seared sea scallops) before a show or take advantage of the “mezzanine menu,” served in the music hall itself. Upcoming acts include bluesman John Hammond, Tower of Power and the Zombies’ 50th anniversary show.
Middletown, (860) 346-6101 (orourkesdiner.com)
After being devastated by a fire in 2006, O’Rourke’s has risen from the ashes to do what it does best, serve us tasty options for breakfast (Cajun Firecracker Omelet, Irish Benny) and lunch (Smokin’ BLT, Traditional Reuben)—and we’re ever so thankful. They’ve even gained national attention, being featured on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” We’re proud to call this Middletown institution our own.
Dining at the Bar
The Black Duck Café
Westport, (203) 227-7978 (blackduckcafe.net)
The Black Duck is one of the few last vestiges of Old Westport, back before Main Street was a mall, with stores like Remarkable Book Shop and Klein’s, and cherished restaurants like The Ship’s, The Big Top and Rocco’s. They’re all long gone, but the Duck is still where it’s always been, on the Saugatuck River in an 1840 ice-storage barge. Its tiny kitchen produces a remarkable range of good solid American fare: killer clams casino and New England clam chowder, lobsters, steamers and fried clams; the burgers come in two sizes,“big” and “bigger.” If you’re lucky enough to get a seat at the bar, you’ll swear the food’s even better while watching the boats coming and going right in front of you.
Dock & Dine
Fresh Salt at the Saybrook Point Inn and Spa Old Saybrook,
(860) 388-1111 (saybrook.com)
Fresh Salt, which opened in May, is the crown jewel of the Saybrook Point Inn and Spa, which sits dramatically at the point where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound. The cuisine makes the most of the surrounding bounty, and there are few finer summer pleasures than sitting on Fresh Salt’s patio under a market umbrella, supping on pedigreed oysters and watching the boats bob in the marina at your feet.
Woodbury, (203) 263-2545
Destination doughnuts? Really? In a word, yes, when you’re talking about Dottie’s. Step inside this roadside diner, whose lineage goes back over a half-century, and the first thing you’ll see is the bakery display cases. Order three cinnamon (crunchy outside, silky inside), three chocolate frosted (the state of the art), three powdered (well worth the confectioner’s sugar avalanching down your front) and three plain (dunk you very much). Whether you proceed into the diner’s interior (where, rumor has it, the food is just fine) is up to you. Your main mission has been accomplished.
Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant
East Lyme, (860) 739-8866 (flandersfish.com)
Since 1983 Flanders Fish Market, located in a renovated single-family house, has been providing customers from near and far (they’ll ship live lobster anywhere via their online marketplace) with the highest-quality fish and seafood. They also offer a selection of prepared dishes, ready for take-out or to heat and serve later or, of course, you can stop in and stay awhile at their 150-seat restaurant, and feast on delights like fish-and-chips (named a “Finger Lickin’ Favorite” by The Food Network).
Mansion Clam House
Westport, (203) 557-4811 (mansionclamhouse.com)
Mansion Clam House, a landmark in Westport for 60 years, was the go-to place for local seafood lovers until it closed in 2006. There were stormy seas in between, but current chef-owner Rigo Lino got things back on an even keel. And if his fish-and-chips are any indication, it’s smooth sailing according to our own food expert, Elise Maclay. “Hail Britannia, look to your laurels when it comes to the fish-and-chips,” she says. “The Mansion’s center-cut cod dipped in Ernie’s Original Recipe beer batter, served with soft-center six-inch skinny-strip fries, will blow you out of the water.”
The Cupcake Truck
New Haven, (203) 675-3965 (followthatcupcake.com)
The Cupcake Truck offers rich and decadent treats for just $2 each. Flavors include Lemon Meringue, Red Velvet Jones, Salted Caramel and Ultimate Vanilla. Frostings include chocolate, peanut, vanilla buttercream, caramel and cream cheese. And let’s not forget the toppings: toasted nuts, coconut flakes, sprinkles and Oreo bits, to name a few. It’s hard to pass up such a delicious and convenient treat—just visit fooddriven.blogspot.com to learn its location any weekday in downtown New Haven.
Stamford, (203) 940-0922 (elcharrito.info)
Parked alongside Richmond Hill Avenue near the Jackie Robinson Park of Fame, the El Charrito truck sends out a lively and welcoming vibe. Customers can walk up to the mobile food counter and order from a menu of several different Mexican dishes. One of the most popular, huaraches, are sandal-shaped wads of cornmeal dough filled with black beans and lettuce, and your choice of salsa, meat and cheese. Featured on The Learning Channel, this big yellow truck is sure to satisfy.
Big Green Truck
New Haven, (203) 752-9547 (biggreentruckpizza.com)
While the Big Green Truck’s home base is New Haven, owner Doug Coffin is happy to cater your event wherever you are and serve delicious, thin-crust pies from his restored 1940s International Harvester trucks, each equipped with an Italian wood-burning oven. Traditional toppings are offered, as well as adventurous choices including BBQ chicken, clams casino and mashed potatoes. Catch the truck Wednesdays through October at Robert Treat Farm in Milford.
Isabelle et Vincent
Fairfield, (203) 292-8022 (isabelleetvincent.com)
Seventh-generation pastry chef Vincent Koenig and his wife, Isabelle, came to the U.S. just four years ago with their two children and a dream: to recreate their Strasbourg pâtisserie in America. Now, their very French pastry shop is our dream—a little piece of la belle France right in Fairfield. Handmade chocolates, delectable éclairs, napoléons and fruit tartlets, a slew of artisanal breads and beautiful gateaux like the Trois Chocolats mousse cake—they’re all there to enjoy in the cozy parlor with a café au lait or to take home and enjoy en famille.
Bridgeport, (203) 333-4596
The Iacovetti Family at Valley Farm has been serving up its famous dogs, burgers, grinders and pizza at the same small stand for 60 years. But don’t assume the fries that accompany most orders here are the underdog. The cooked-to-order (we take ‘em well-done) deep-fried crinkle-cut Idahos are heavenly. The cook’s watchful eye doesn’t stray from the Fryolator until the potatoes reach the perfect golden hue and have just the right crunch. “Salt and ketchup on the fries?” he asks, before handing over these sizzling-hot beauties. Is there any other way? We dare you not to dive in before biting into that burger or dog.
Bristol, (860) 583-3191
Hidden-gem alert! Tucked away down a quiet Bristol side street, Greer’s is for the most part a caterer, but the fried chicken is always available for takeout and it’s crispy, juicy and delicious—a real local favorite. There’s no indoor sit-down dining here, but on a nice day visitors may be able to find space at a couple of picnic tables out front. And to fill out your meal, the companion macaroni and potato salads are very tasty, too.
New Haven, (203) 772-0607 (gelatogiuliana.com)
Sail to Italy in an instant with this silky frozen treat. The artisan gelato, inspired by Giuliana Maravalle’s Italian heritage, offers a delicious alternative to high-butterfat American-style ice cream. Using milk instead of cream and adding less air, Maravalle creates a dense, smooth texture with more flavor and less fat. Go traditional with flavors like chocolate, coconut and pistachio, or try the Lagiuliana (espresso-mascarpone-chocolate swirl) and straciatella (Italian crème with chocolate). Gelato Giuliana is available all across Connecticut and the East Coast (check their website for a list of purveyors).
Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, New Haven,
(203) 624-3373 (caseusnewhaven.com)
The ultimate grilled-cheese sandwich starts with thick-cut wheat or rye bread slathered with Provolone, Comté, Swiss, Grûyère, Gouda and Cheddar (and usually something extra from the fromagerie, so no two sandwiches are the same). It’s cooked on the stove open-faced, then put in the oven until all the cheese melts, finished off on the stove until the bread is buttery, brown and crisp. Served with cornichons and whole-grain mustard, it pairs nicely with the soup du jour (perhaps tomato-red pepper) or pommes frites. It’s huge—”rarely does anyone finish one”—but what a great leftover!
Stratford, (203) 377-8860, and Monroe, (203) 268-6982 (gaetanosdeli.com)
Hot is a relative term. At Gaetano’s, all the grinders offered are a hot commodity because they’re all so good. In fact, customers wait in a line that trails out the door at this authentic Italian deli to order some of the finest grinders this side of heaven. Try the homemade meatball, sausage-and-pepper, eggplant (oh, the eggplant) or the exquisite chicken parmigiana. Just one bite of the tender breaded and golden-fried cutlets covered in sauce like Nonna makes, with slices of fresh mozzarella (made here daily) melted on a crusty Arthur Avenue grinder roll, has been known to bring on waves of ecstasy. Grinders are large enough to share, but you probably won’t want to.
Cavallo’s Italian Deli
Waterbury, (203) 753-8425 (cavallos1.com)
There are still a few places in Connecticut that take the bread seriously when they are putting together a grinder, and Cavallo’s, which has been around for more than 40 years and is as down-to-earth and authentic as it gets, is one of them. The friendly folks behind the counter here offer four bread options for their delicious big sandwiches: hard roll, Portuguese roll, a softish “French” grinder roll and, our favorite by far, a half-loaf of crusty, heavenly Milite’s Italian bread, made locally and much loved. The cold grinder options are many, with an emphasis on Italian meats, and the tangy sauce is not to be missed.
(860) 233-2500 (besitomex.com)
Guacamole en Molcajete (a traditional Mexican lava stone bowl used for grinding and mixing), made tableside, is one of Besito’s signature treats. Order it mild, medium or caliente and watch as your server develops the ideal mix of fresh, ripe Hass avocados with chopped cilantro, jalapeño chilies, onions and tomatoes (seed-free) and a sprinkle of salt—but no lime (that’s not authentic). Served with a basket of housemade (but not greasy or oversalty) tortilla chips, it’s plenty for two, but if you’re anything like us, you’ll be disinclined to share.
Feng Asian Bistro
Canton, (860) 693-3364, and other loca-tions (ginzacuisine.com)
Hibachi cooking is at once an art form and an interactive show, and the chefs at Feng have mastered both. Bring a large group or get to know your neighbors as you sit around the tableside hibachi grill. Be dazzled by the spinning spatulas and flaming volcano onions, but be ready—your chef may want you to lend a hand for one of his tricks. Choose from meat, seafood, vegetables or a combination, and share some laughs during this fusion of food and fun.
South Norwalk, (203) 854-4754 (knipschildt.com)
At Chocopologie you can enjoy hot chocolate anytime. This traditional drink is listed on the menu in a number of pleasantly different ways: Hot (rich, dark, 70 percent cocoa), Spicy (with criollo cocoa beans and a blend of chipotle, cinnamon, clove and ginger spices), Iced (regular or spicy) and Frozen (regular or spicy, blended with ice). Their signature drink is half espresso, half dark hot chocolate and topped with lavender foam—
Super Duper Weenie
Fairfield, (203) 334-DOGS (superduperweenie.com)
Get a taste of major U.S. cities through the different dogs on Super Duper’s menu. Choices include the Californian (homemade meat chili, freshly chopped onion, American cheese and hot relish), the Georgia Red Hot (sausage, sauerkraut, mustard and sweet relish) and the New Yorker with sauerkraut, onion sauce, mustard and hot relish. If the hot dogs themselves aren’t enough to entice you, the superb fries and various sandwiches should seal the deal. This Food Network-acclaimed joint has come a long way from its beginnings as a mobile hot dog stand.
Hot Food Bar
Newington, (860) 760-8170 (stewleonards.com)
Choose the food category, and chances are “the world’s largest dairy store” does it proud. Case in point: the hot food bar at Stew’s in Newington, where you’ll find not only the crowd-pleasers developed at the Norwalk flagship, e.g., chicken chili, New England clam chowder, sausage and peppers, but international fare (Italian, Chinese, Polish), freshly grilled meat (New York strip and rib-eye steaks) and a carving station from 11:30 to 1 p.m. (roasted pork loin, smoked salmon or beef). One of the most popular items is an Asian delight: steamed salmon with black bean sauce.
UConn Dairy Bar
Storrs, (860) 486-2634 (dairybar.uconn.edu)
For almost 60 years this dairy bar has been serving rich, mouthwatering ice cream. It’s all made right at the creamery, and there are always at least 24 flavors on hand. The signature flavor, “Jonathan Supreme” (named for UConn’s mascot), combines peanut butter swirl with chocolate-covered peanuts in vanilla ice cream and is sure to fuel Husky spirit. Seasonal flavors include Butter Pecan, Peppermint Stick and Pumpkin, making this treat enjoyable and accessible whatever the time of year.
Vecchitto’s Italian Ice, Middletown, (860) 346-7301,
and Old Lyme, (860) 434-9231
A frozen delight that has won over generations of Italian ice lovers. For over 80 years, the Vecchitto family has been making this creamy treat fresh daily during the summer months, churning out 14 different flavors—including lemon, almond, chocolate and, our favorite, watermelon. Here’s our only problem with Vecchitto’s Italian Ice: It’s served in those old-school paper squeeze cups, which can make it challenging to suck and slurp out every single delicious drop!
Liscio’s Meat Land, Bridgeport,
“Sunday gravy” wouldn’t be as good without handmade Italian sausage from Liscio’s. When John and Donna Pozezanac bought the neighborhood butcher shop in the 1980s, John’s kielbasa and sweet and hot Italian sausage drew customers from all over the state. Now nephew Charlie Murawski and his wife Margaret run the shop, keeping its glowing reputation for prime meats and friendly service intact. Most notably, Charlie churns out the same sweet-and-spicy plump links and patties made from John’s secret recipe, which includes freshly ground pork and whole fennel, and no fillers or preservatives. Between 250 and 300 pounds of the savory stuff go out the door each week. Now that’s gotta be good.
Tropical Breeze Jamaican Kitchen
West Haven, (203) 931-7115
This chicken is so authentic, you’ll think you’re in Jamaica. Jean Ross’ Tropical Breeze Jamaican Kitchen makes jerk chicken that’s as good as it gets. Prepared in what she calls “the old home style,” the chicken is marinated with a rub of Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, garlic, thyme, ginger, coriander and allspice. Then it’s grilled slowly, producing sumptuous fall-off-the-bone barbecue with a spicy, flavorful crust. It’s served with Jamaican-style rice and peas made with fresh coconut milk. Pairing it with Jamaican kola champagne raises the experience to a Caribbean dream.
Mamoun’s Falafel, New Haven,
(203) 562-8444 (mamouns.com)
A favorite of night owls and insomniacs since 1977, Mamoun’s virtually introduced Middle Eastern cookery to New England, and continues to serve up delicious, inexpensive falafels, baba ghanoush, shawarma and kebobs until 3 a.m., 365 days a year. It’s also a favorite place for lonely Yalies far from home: Mamoun’s busiest day of the year is Thanksgiving.
Macaroni and Cheese
85 Main, Putnam,
(860) 928-1660 (85main.com)
No, mac ’n’ cheese is not just a kids’ dish. It’s a regular special at 85 Main, a reflection of chef-owner James Martin’s creativity with fresh ingredients he gets from area farmers. Expect delicious variations on the theme—like “Maine Lobster Adult Mac & Cheese,” four ounces of pulled lobster meat—equal to a pound-and-a-half lobster—with baby spinach, artichoke hearts, roasted sweet corn, vine-ripe tomato and fresh herbs with Cabot cheddar and Gruyere Mornay-tossed penne; and “Adult Mac & Cheese Pesto Chicken,” free-range heritage-breed chicken with sweet basil pesto, roasted cherry tomato, baby spinach, roasted yellow and red peppers with Cabot cheddar and aged Parmesan Mornay-tossed penne. We’ll be right over.
Basta Trattoria, New Haven,
(203) 772-1715 (bastatrattoria.com)
At Basta Trattoria the simple meatball becomes an Italian delicacy—made with ground Black Angus sirloin and Pecorino Romano cheese. Add in some of their own San Marzano tomato sauce with caramelized onions and a dollop of locally produced ricotta and you’re in for an experience rather than a meal. You can order Anonna’s Meatballs as a small plate, or find them as a part of the “Italian Summer Dinner” entrée. Either way, they’re delizioso.
Joey Garlic’s, Farmington,
(860) 678-7231, and Newington, (860) 372-4620 (joeygarlics.com)
How can you go wrong with 25 different flavors of old-fashioned, hand-dipped milkshakes? Made with premium Häagen-Dazs ice cream, whole milk, fresh fruit and fruit syrups, this frothy treat really is the cream—ahem—of the crop. We went with banana, our usual shake of choice, and got the creamiest milkshake we’ve ever tasted. Joey Garlic’s has it all, from classics like vanilla and chocolate to unusual flavors like Blueberry Amaretto and Funny Bone.
Koffee, New Haven,
(203) 562-5454 (koffeefamily.com)
Here’s what we consider when looking for good muffins (in addition to the good flavor): 1. Are they fresh? At Koffee, muffins (and other goodies) are baked daily from scratch, right on the premises; 2. Is there variety? Yes, from corn to cappuccino, and numerous flavors in between; 3. Are they generous? A single Koffee chocolate-chip muffin seems to have more chips in it than an entire bakery, and can probably feed two (if you wanted to share—and we don’t!); 4. Do we want to try another? Yes, please.
Trader Joe’s, Westport, (203) 226-8966,
and other locations (traderjoes.com)
Where else can you find cinnamon-coated almonds, Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix, banana crisps, chocolate-covered blueberries, Irish soda bread cranberry crisps and roasted Gorgonzola crackers all under one roof? Thanks to unique and reasonably priced items like these, Trader Joe’s has become a must-stop for foodies across the state.
Cuckoo’s Nest, Old Saybrook,
(860) 399-9060 (cuckoosnest.biz)
Cuckoo’s Nest’s “Connecticut Nachos,” satisfyingly crunchy corn tortilla chips topped with melted cheese, refried beans, spiced ground beef, jalapeños and tomatoes and served with guac and sour cream, are a treat unto themselves. If, however, you’re looking to prove that nachos alone can make a meal, start with the “Original Nachos,” with that same yummy cheese and those refried beans, then build your own nacho masterwork. Add-ons include ground beef, steak, chili con carne, shrimp, chicken, tomato, scallions —the list goes on.
Milford, (203) 877-7327
This Milford fixture is the definition of a neighborhood restaurant: A family-run eatery for the entire family with (in this case) great fried seafood, friendly service and reasonable prices. On its third generation of ownership by the Smith family, it’s a place not long on pretense where you can belly up to the bar for appetizers or to watch the game, or sit in the dining room for a full meal—in addition to seafood (be sure to try the lobster roll), the menu also includes burgers, steak, chicken and pasta.
Lakeville, (860) 435-0578
This cozy local gathering place (it seats 80) stays while other restaurants come and go. It could be because it has all the right ingredients: friendly atmosphere, varied menu—from pistachio-crusted salmon with lemon beurre blanc to grilled steak with crisp red onion rings to the ”hot grill” sushi roll—an extensive wine list and great drinks served at a fun 14-seat bar. Most important, portions are generous, prices reasonable, and it’s all served with a smile. No wonder locals love it and out-of-towners quickly feel at home.
Old Saybrook, (860) 399-4166
In an unassuming strip-mall location, Alforno Trattoria has been serving Italian fare with panache to shoreline couples and families, weekenders and tourists, even area chefs, for the past 20 years. And now, after a face-lift that resulted in a warmer, cozier feel (think peachy colors) and a new menu that encourages grazing, the place seems more welcoming than ever. The casual-chic ambience, crowd-pleasing brick-oven pizza (cheese is No. 1, though the white pie with asparagus and caramelized onions gets high marks, too) and chef-owner Bob Zemmel’s house specialties keep the fans coming back—Lowell Weicker has a standing order for the cannelloni Florentine, food writer Lee White favors the arugula chicken, and we go back time and again for the pumpkin ravioli in butter-sage sauce and veal and ricotta meatballs. Sounds like all the ingredients are in place for another delicious 20 years.
The Village Restaurant
Litchfield, (860) 567-8307
The fare is hearty and so are the folks who gather for food, drink and conversation/gossip at this Litchfield landmark, located just across the street from the town green. The Village is divided into two rooms—on the left side is the lively bar, on the right is the dining room, but on a busy evening there’s a fair amount of movement back and forth. As for the food, there’s a wide selection ranging from pub fare (good onion soup and burgers) to paella, fresh seafood and a nice weekend prime rib.
First & Last Tavern
Hartford, (860) 956-6000, and other locations (firstandlasttavern.com)
Maybe it’s the vintage photos that adorn the walls of this rustic tavern, or the regulars who come to enjoy the unforgettable pasta sauce and other original family recipes that haven’t changed since 1938. Whatever it is, you feel at home from the moment you walk in the door. The Neapolitan pizza, topped with simple yet exceptional ingredients, is delicious, and the bread made at their bakery across the street will have you singing “Home Sweet Home.”
Stonington, (860) 535-3925
Sometimes a “Neighborhood Restaurant” winner has as much to do with the neighborhood as it does the restaurant. This is certainly the case with Noah’s, located in one of Connecticut’s most charming communities, Stonington Borough. Noah’s does a good job of capturing the spirit of the place (it seems a comfortable spot for locals to congregate)—and the three meals a day it serves are very good, too, all homemade using fresh, wholesome ingredients and “slow scratch” cooking methods.
La Tavola Ristorante, Waterbury,
(203) 755-2211 (latavolaristorante.com)
La Tavola divides its wonderful pasta menu into two sections. There’s “Pasta,” where you’ll find penne, paccheri, spaghetti carbonara (with soft onions, peas, pancetta, cracked black pepper & Grana Padano cheese) and rigatoni with sausage, broccoli rabe, Italian butter beans, garlic & chili oil. And then there’s the dreamy, truly exceptional “Fresca/House Made” pasta, which on a recent evening included garganelli with wild mushrooms, parmigiano crema and truffle oil; cavatelli pomodoro with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil and perlini mozzarella; and asparagus ricotta ravioli with orange zest, fennel pollen and Parmigiano Reggiano. Add a glass of Chianti and it’s amore at first bite.
Pasta Fina, Shelton, (203) 922-0041
Pasta Fina is a wonderful little throwback: a small, friendly neighborhood shop where you can go in and get any type of freshly made pasta—say a pound of lasagne noodles, linguini or spaghetti—cut to order. Since 2002, former restaurateur Claudio Mancuso and his family have been making every variety of egg and specialty pasta, as well as prepared items such as mushroom ravioli and whole wheat pizza, for customers to take home and cook in their own kitchens. But be warned—once you’ve had it fresh from Pasta Fina, you may never buy dried commercial pasta in a box again.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven,
(203) 865-5762, and other locations (pepespizzeria.com)
It’s no surprise that Pepe’s pies have made our “Best of Connecticut” list again—their overly generous, brick-oven-baked, thin-crusted slices have been a Connecticut staple for over 70 years. The best part about Pepe’s? They have expanded out of the original Wooster Street venue: now Danbury, Fairfield, Manchester, Uncasville and Yonkers, N.Y., share the secret to the success of this small Italian pizzeria that set the standard for brick-oven pies.
Passiflora, New Hartford,
(860) 379-8327 (passiflorateas.com)
This all-natural tearoom and herbal apothecary features a homemade quiche of the day in a variety of vegetarian options made with locally farmed ingredients. Three cheese and chive is always available, while tomato, basil and feta, potato and cheddar, and broccoli, red onion and pepper take turns on the menu. The organic crust is scrumptious but if you’re gluten-intolerant, be sure to try the crustless gluten-free miniquiches.
Liv’s Oyster Bar, Old Saybrook,
(860) 395-5577 (livsoysterbar.com)
Tucked inside a converted movie house on Main Street is some of the freshest, most creative seafood imaginable. Chef Brescio is obsessed with shellfish, and every day Liv’s Oyster Bar presents succulent oysters from all over the world, as well as clams, shrimp, lobster and crab. Raw is awesome, but don’t skip dinner: The chef also makes lots of artful seafood dishes—served hot.
Restaurant/Bar Beer Selection
Eli Cannon’s, Middletown,
(860) 347-ELIS (elicannons.com)
Eli Cannon’s likes to think of itself as one part Irish pub, one part English pub, one part American trailer park. Well, whatever they are, we like it. The atmosphere is fun, with barber chairs, theater seats and leather couches among the seating options, and all sorts of neat memorabilia covering every inch of wall and ceiling space. Then there’s beer, the real reason we keep coming back for more. They’ve got 33 real ales on tap, rotated constantly to ensure freshness and “revolutionary selection,” including Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale and Smuttynose IPA.
Bin 300 World Bistro, Wolcott,
(203) 879-5858 (bin300.com)
Bin 300 is one of central Connecticut’s true hidden gems. Located in what was once, long ago, an A&W Root Beer drive-in, Bin offers a menu of impeccably prepared local favorites (chicken marsala, eggplant parm) and all sorts of more adventuresome, chef-driven specials. By his own admission, however, chef Richard Morotto’s first love is risotto (he learned a lot about it while working in a restaurant in Parma, Italy), and there are always three on the menu: Parmesan and sweet butter, rock shrimp and sweet pea, and wild mushroom and prosciutto di Parma. Give them a try, please, but mum’s the word. We don’t want the place to get too crowded.
Whole Foods, Westport,
(203) 227-6858, and other locations (wholefoodsmarket.com)
Whole Foods easily won this category last year, and that was before the recent renovation, which doubled the salad bar space. There are now two giant salad bars with three types of greens (romaine, mesclun and arugula), all of the usual add-ons (peppers, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and the like), plus Virginia ham, chicken and turkey, pasta and grain combos, fresh feta and mozzarella, and lots of other intriguing, healthful choices like lentil salad, sesame broccoli, pineapple quinoa, tomato-eggplant salad and endamame succotash. Imagine the possibilities!
Carbone’s, Hartford, (860) 296-9646 (carbonesct.com)
Carbone’s has been tossing its signature Caesar salad tableside for more than 50 years, and honestly, we’ve yet to find a better one. Consistently delicious, the salad has become a ceremonial staple for patrons who come here to celebrate special occasions, meet up with friends and enjoy romantic dinners. When the spotlight is on the salad making, servers use a bit of showmanship, especially when cracking the egg over the anchovies (oh, yes, Carbone’s still follows the original recipe). The suspense builds as the olive oil, garlic, vinegar and lemon are whisked into the dressing before it’s poured over crispy Romaine and topped with a grating of fine Parmesan and homemade croutons. Then comes the best part—the eating.
Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant, Westport,
(203) 226-1114 (dressingroomhomegrown.com)
You gotta love a salad listed as “Newman Says ‘Use a Spoon’ Chopped Salad.” We do, especially because it’s a virtual chef’s field day, a display case of local produce “harvested at the time.” Thus it’s always changing, so we can’t tell you exactly what it will include when you visit Michel Nischan’s Dressing Room (Nischan‘s original partner was, of course, the late great, straight-talking Paul Newman). Our July salad offered celery, carrots, radishes, yellow wax beans, sea island peas, cherries, local goat cheese, garden herbs and sunflower seeds—nutritious and delicious (BTW, Sustainably Delicious is the title of Nischan’s latest cookbook). Served at both lunch and dinner, at lunchtime it can be beefed up, so to speak, by adding chicken.
West Street Grill, Litchfield,
(860) 567-3885 (weststreetgrill.net)
West Street Grill’s tomato salad is out of this world. Seriously, it is simply sublime. It all starts with the star—the tomato. Rich, ripe, fresh-picked heirloom tomatoes from Waldingfield Farm in Washington and Tara Farm in Watertown are sliced thick and accompanied only with fresh basil, balsamic reduction and fleur de sel. Sit out front overlooking the historic Litchfield Green and discover a whole new love for this summer staple.
Groton (860) 449-6868 (chestersbbq.com)
Owner and barbecue master Chester Dugas lives by the mantra “It’s not the sauce, it’s what the sauce goes on.” With that in mind, he devotes 15 hours to slow-cooking and smoking chicken, pork and, most importantly, beef, which is the key to his melt-in-your-mouth brisket that is piled high on white bread and served with homemade sauces. After one bite, you’ll understand why it’s one of the most popular items on the menu, and why people come from near and far to try it.
Cove Fish Market, Stonington,
(860) 536-0061 (covefishmarket.com)
Cove Fish Market is a bit off the beaten path (Old Stonington Road instead of Stonington Road), but well worth the effort to find it. The fried-fish sandwich here consists of fresh-caught flounder or cod, nicely breaded and served on a hot dog roll with homemade coleslaw and french fries. The outdoor picnic tables seem like a throwback to an earlier day, but there’s indoor seating, too, along with a fish market for take-home items.
Blue Lobster Seafood
Berlin, (860) 828-5833 (bluelobsterseafood.com)
Blue Lobster is so small that it can get lost among the larger restaurants on the Berlin Turnpike, but we guarantee you’re going to like what you find inside. The mouthwatering menuincludes clams, scallops, crab cakes and oysters, but for us, it’s all about the hot lobster rolls. They’re made just the way they should be: stuffed to the max with lump lobster meat and saturated in butter. Order yours with potato chips, clam chowder or lobster bisque on the side, or go for the twin rolls with fries—so good.
Da Pietro, Westport
(203) 454-1213 (dapietros.com)
Luscious portobello and shiitake mushrooms warmed in fine virgin olive oil and, at the last minute, showered with white truffle shavings.
Bar Bouchée, Madison
These pale gold, crispy french fries are so thin they’re almost transparent and so light they threaten to blow away in a high wind. No wind around? They disappear anyway. Talk about irresistible!
The Watch Factory
Cheshire, (203) 271-1717 (watchfactoryrestaurant.com)
Austrian-style red cabbage à la chef Markus Patsch is a revelation—ruby-red, with the texture of al dente pasta, made with apples and an intriguing hint of cloves or allspice.
Small Plates Menu
Pizzeria Molto, Fairfield,
(203) 292-8288 (pizzeriamolto.com)
So many delicious treats, so little time! At Molto, the ambience is ’50s Roman café, the noise level near-deafening; there’s a 40-foot carrera marble bar and a big screen in back showing ’50s Italian movies. But it’s the food that keeps ’em coming back for more. Molto does a lot of things right—pizza, pasta and salads, to name a few—but we seldom get past the small-plates menu: There are 29 “Italian tapas” listed, including crispy artichoke hearts with tomato sauce, mushroom risotto, roasted beets and fennel, grilled branzino, lobster tail and even osso buco. And if you count the mozzarellas (five kinds), salumi and formaggi, there are well over 40. At Molto, good things do come in small packages.
Granby Village Health, Granby,
(860) 844-8608 (granbyvillagehealth.com)
Whether you’re on a health kick or just in the mood for a fresh and tasty drink, you have to try one of the smoothies at family-owned Village Health. Their specialties include Berry Smooth (made with apple juice, banana, blueberry and strawberry) and Coconut Tropical (pineapple juice, coconut milk, banana, mango and grated coconut). You can also customize your smoothie from an extensive list of fruits, milks, juices and add-ins.
Foxon Park, East Haven,
(203) 467-7874 (foxonpark.com)
For nearly 90 years family-run Foxon Park has been offering 18 flavors of soda made with only natural ingredients. Traditional tastes include Cream and Kola (yes, with a K), while unique ones include Gassosa (an Italian lemon-lime) and Iron Brew (a blend of cola, root beer and cream). Find these superior sodas at local restaurants and stores, or order them online for picnics and barbecues
Liquid Lunch, Shelton,
(203) 926-6038, and other locations (liquidlunchrestaurant.com)
Soup is comfort food, and there’s nothing more comforting than knowing that on any given day there will be 10 different great soups at Liquid Lunch to choose from, including six always on the menu: chicken noodle, beef barley, vegetarian lentil, tomato basil, French onion and split-pea with ham. Other choices depend on what specialties chef-owner Fred Bialek and his crew whip up, anything from chicken-and-sausage gumbo to collard greens and chorizo. Whatever it is, it’s sure to make your spoon—and your mouth—happy!
(203) 255-6115, and other locations (asianbistrogroup.com)
We’ve been fans of this pan-Asian gem since it opened back in the ‘90s, and we’re clearly not alone since there are now spinoffs in Greenwich, Darien and Milford. The formula for their success? Sparkling-fresh sushi, a creative hand in the kitchen and remarkable consistency over the years. The special rolls are wonderful (our favorite: the Angel Roll—blackened tuna, tobiko, asparagus and radish sprouts topped with yellowtail, salmon and eel), the unagi top-of-the-line, and there are plenty of alternatives if you prefer your fish cooked.
Porricelli’s Market, Trumbull,
(203) 268-7569 (porricellis.com)
Grocery-store sushi? C’mon, no self-respecting sushi eater would even consider it, right? Wrong. Porricelli’s Market in Trumbull has an in-house sushi bar (operated by Mr. Sushi and Dumpling catering based in Bethel), manned daily by a Japanese itamae who prepares a variety of delicious maki and sashimi from fresh tuna, yellowtail, spicy salmon, crab, eel and octopus. It’s like having your own sushi chef on call. Made-to-order party platters are also available. If you’re not sure what to order, just ask the chef for his recommendations.
Ibiza Tapas, Hamden, (203) 909-6512
Just because they’re called “little plates” doesn’t mean that chef Ignacio Blanco puts anything less than a big effort into creating his tapas. Fusing creativity, traditional Spanish cuisine and culinary expertise, Blanco creates wonderful dishes, including modern cold tapas like atun marinado (marinated bluefin tuna with tomato, scallion, black olive, sesame oil, lemon and sea salt). Just as terrific are the hot ones, such as pimientos del piquillo (wood-roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with oxtail), or even “larger” ones such as braised short ribs in a caramelized garlic and oatmeal beer sauce, with cabbage, potato and smoked bacon. Great things in small bites!
Savvy Tea Gourmet, Madison,
(203) 318-8666 (savvyteagourmet.com)
If you’re a tea connoisseur, or are just looking to learn more about tea, head straight to Savvy Tea. Owners Phil Parda and Judith Guard offer 250 loose-leaf teas from around the world, as well as ways to further your “tea education” at special tea tastings hosted by Parda. The spacious shop, located in a glass trestle-style building at Station Square near downtown Madison, is worth visiting, but you can also sample tea in the comfort of your home after ordering from Savvy’s online tea shop.
H. Mangels Confectioner, Milford,
(203) 783-9770 (hmangels.com)
It’s hard to find truffles that live up to the trifecta of superior chocolate standards— homemade, great melt-in-your-mouth taste, and none of that artificial stuff. H. Mangels has been using only fine chocolate, butter, heavy cream and liquor for over 100 years to create a tempting array of flavors, including the popular Bailey’s Irish Cream, Champagne, All White Chambord, Grand Marnier and traditional Peppermint.
It’s Only Natural, Middletown,
(860) 346-9210 (ionrestaurant.com)
ION has delighted diners for more than 30 years with a menu of vegetarian and vegan specialties, with all dishes prepared using the best available, organic, local ingredients. The diverse menu, which is updated frequently, includes sweet potato enchiladas (available with vegan mozzarella or cashew Parmesan) and tempeh “crab” cakes. The restaurant doubles as an art gallery, featuring the works of local artists, and the deck/herb garden is adorned with benches from Higganum’s City Bench Furniture.
Ana Parzych Custom Cakes
Cheshire, (203) 439-7979
Make no mistake about it: Ana Parzych is no mere baker—she’s a “sugar artist.” And believe us when we call her elegant cakes “every bride’s dream come true.” Each and every cake accent is hand-crafted from sugar, whether dahlias, roses or lily of the valley “fresh from the garden”; a fondant lace appliqué inspired by the bride’s dress or Parzych’s exquisite signature “brushed embroidery.” As for flavor, cakes and fillings are made from the freshest and finest ingredients. Hello, Tahitian vanilla filled with fresh strawberry and vanilla mousseline and finished with meringue buttercream and vanilla fondant . . . mmm.
Wine Selection: Restaurant
Ristorante Luce, Hamden,
(203) 407-8000 (ristoranteluce.com)
Connecticut’s mightiest wine cellar sits quietly under a lovely Italian eatery in the Mt. Carmel section of Hamden. Curated for decades by restaurateur Raffaello Iannaccone and his sister, Elena Fusco (now of Bin 100), Luce’s impressive collection consistently wins top honors from Wine Spectator. No wonder: The 27-page wine list has something for all tastes and budgets, from a $28 Tuscan “Conti Contini” Sangiovese to a 1961 Chateau-Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux for $1,500.
Wine Selection: Retail
Mt. Carmel Wine Shop, Hamden, (203) 281-0800 (mtcarmelwine.com)
Is it coincidence that the state’s best wine retailer is across an alley from Ristorante Luce, the restaurant with the state’s best wine list? Well, yes. Since the repeal of prohibition in 1934, the shop has been building a spectacular wine collection and now specializes in rare Bordeaux, white and red Burgundies, Rhone and Port (many in the four-digit price range). But it’s a neighborhood place, too, and owners Bob and Ben Feinn (nephews of the founder) shop the globe to find great values for everyday wine enthusiasts.
Best of Connecticut 2011 Food and Drink