Best of Connecticut 2012: Food & Drink

 

Julie Bidwell

apple pie
Oronoque Farms
Shelton, (203) 925-4237 (oronoquefarms.com)
In 1949 a determined young woman by the name of Betty Winton started selling apple pies at a roadside stand in front of her Stratford farmhouse. Her goal was to earn scholarship money for her alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, and soon she had the whole family involved in her pie-in-the-sky plans: the kids shimmied up the trees to pluck the apples, and Betty and her sister-in-law, Jeanette, mixed and rolled out the flaky crusts. 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 do today. It’s a success story as American as, well, you know.

babka
Julia’s Bakery
Orange, (203) 799-7106 (juliasbakery.com)
Whether you prefer your babka Jewish style (round or braided, often with a streusel topping) or Christian style (tall, briochelike, often with icing), the European comfort food is turned out in memorable style at Julia’s, which successfully crosses the two. Try the popular cinnamon, or one of the filled types (cheese, chocolate or apple-and-raisin). You’ll find it on weekends only unless you order ahead—so do.

bakery
Sono Baking Co.
South Norwalk, (203) 847-SONO and Westport (at A & J’s), (203) 955-1111 (sonobaking.com)
South Norwalk’s appeal increased incrementally when John Barricelli opened his inviting bakery and café in 2005. Here you can see elegant cakes, perfect fruit and lemon meringue tarts, fruit galettes and artisan breads being made before your eyes, and enjoy them at breakfast, lunch or teatime, indoors or at an outdoor table. While you’re there, pick up Barricelli’s new book, The Seasonal Baker.

bagels
Ami’s Hot Bagels
Waterbury, (203) 596-9020 (amisbagels.com)
Who are the luckiest preppies in Connecticut? Well, they’re all lucky, of course, but we’d nominate the boys and girls who go to Taft School in Watertown. Early every morning, they get a delivery of fresh Ami’s bagels. The rest of us have to go get our own from this hole-in-the-wall shop, where big, crusty/chewy bagels in 14 varieties are always available. You just can’t find better bagels anywhere else in the state.

barbecue
The Cookhouse
New Milford, (860) 355-4111 (thecookhouse.com)
What else can you say about barbecue that has been declared “the best” for 15 years straight? You can sample The Cookhouse’s “slo-smoked” succulence—pulled pork, ribs, chicken, beef brisket, andouille sausage, burnt ends and more—throughout the week, consider visiting on a Tuesday or Thursday when it’s “All You Can Eat BBQ” for $18.99, which includes a pint of draft beer. You can also order it in various combo platters and samplers as well as in stuffed sandwiches and new “flattboys,” which are pressed offerings. Any way you slice (or press) it, you’ll enjoy it!

bread
Chabaso Bakery
New Haven, (203) 562-9007 (chabaso.com)
Fresh artisanal baguettes, ciabattas, rolls, stix, boules and loaves made with only the finest natural ingredients are what Chabaso Bakery does best. In business for more than 30 years, Chabaso hearth bakes its breads  in European ovens, creating classics—such as wheat and exceptional loaves of roasted garlic, rosemary olive oil and cranberry pecan—sold all over New England. Enjoy them on their own, as part of a sandwich, or as a complement to a meal.

breakfast: all-day
City Limits Diner
Stamford, (203) 348-7000 (citylimitsdiner.com)
Since opening 10 years ago, City Limits has put its Stamford neighborhood south of I-95 back on the map. And here, in true diner style, breakfast fare is served all day. Choose from crowd-pleasers like the Surf & Turf breakfast (New York strip steak, Maryland lump crab-lobster cake, eggs over easy, hash browns, multigrain toast), crab-lobster cake Benedict and a lemon-orange waffle topped with fresh fruit.

breakfast: with a view
kitchen little
Mystic, (860) 536-2122 (kitchenlittle.org)
Thanks to its delectable eggs Benedicts, omelets and other egg dishes, Kitchen Little, Mystic’s iconic café, has been a breakfast destination for more than 30 years. Add to its appetizing menu the panoramic maritime views of The Mystic River and Marina, its new location, and you have a Best of Connecticut keeper. Indeed, Kitchen Little features some of the tastiest breakfast plates around, from the “heart-healthy” scramble and Portuguese Benedict (with spicy chorizo) to the Mystic Melt (fresh lump crab and cream cheese scrambled with two eggs and served with raisin toast). But it isn’t over when the noon whistle blows: Kitchen Little owner Flo Klewin is now offering a creative dinner bistro menu—indoors and on the patio deck—seven days a week. (The views after dark are still spectacular.)

buffalo wings
Bidwell Tavern  
Coventry, (860) 742-6978 (bidwelltavern.com)
For almost two centuries, Bidwell Tavern has been drawing patrons to the edge of the Quiet Corner for great food and drink. In recent times, many of them come for the wings. With better than two dozen different kinds—including such creative varieties as Mexican spice, sesame garlic pepper, hickory horseradish and hot teriyaki sesame, and some that feature dry rubs—there’s surely something here to satisfy any wing enthusiast. (Try the “complicated” style!) Add in the warm atmosphere, great beer selection and friendly staff, and it’s always worth the trip.

burger: cheeseburger
Shady Glen
Manchester, (860) 649-4245
Anyone can put together a burger and cheese, but it’s the unique way they go about it at the Shady Glen that makes it so special—and tasty! Each cheeseburger starts off on the grill with four slices of cheese, but instead of stacked, each slice is laid with a portion on the burger and the rest on the grill. As the burger cooks and the cheese melts, it is folded up around the burger, like a crispy, chewy halo straight from cheeseburger heaven! Then carefully removed from the grill, it’s served with fries, coleslaw and a pickle; add one of the Glen’s heralded milk shakes, and you have the ultimate cheeseburger experience.

burger: drive-in
Lake Zoar Drive-in
Monroe, (203) 268-8137 (lakezoardrivein.com)
A quarter-pound of ground beef grilled to perfection and topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and pickles, all on a fresh-baked bun—they call it the “Zoar Burger.” But after sampling it, you’ll be saying, “More burger!” For nearly two decades, owner Michael Basso has proudly operated his burger stand on the shore of Lake Zoar in “classic” style, literally so on every Thursday (through October) when local nostalgia lovers gather for cruise night, featuring vintage muscle cars and trucks from the timeless era of the drive-in. Hot burgers and cool cars—always a great combo.

burger: hamburger
Plan B Burger Bar & Tavern
West Hartford, (860) 231-1199, and other locations (planbburger.com)
Plan B must be doing something right—new locations keep opening up in Connecticut (Milford, most recently), and there are plans to open others in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It only makes sense when you have burgers this terrific, made from 100 percent certified natural beef (no antibiotics, hormones, fillers or chemicals) ground in-house daily and never frozen. Have one in the classic style—lettuce, tomato, onion and special sauce—or try one with cheese, bacon, mushrooms, chili or on a pretzel bun. There are 15 permutations in all, and seven kinds of fries.

burger: original
Louis’ Lunch
New Haven, (203) 562-5507 (louislunch.com)
If you can say that you’re the place of origin for an American icon, then how can we say yours isn’t the best “original” burger? Such is the case at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, where hamburgers are served today in the very same manner they were back in 1895, when Louis Lassen first put his unique blend of ground steak trimmings between two slices of toast for a customer in a hurry—with no condiments, and only cheese, tomato and onion available as toppings. Hey, it’s kept customers flocking back to the same tiny restaurant on Crown Street for over a century, so why mess with perfection?

burger: salmon
Prime 16 Tap House & Burgers
New Haven, (203) 782-1616 (prime16.com)
There’s a lot to love about Prime 16 on Temple Street in New Haven, not the least of which are any one of its gourmet beef burgers or the heavenly truffle Parmesan fries. But it’s the salmon burger that won accolades in this year’s quest for Connecticut’s best burgers. An acquired taste for some, perhaps, this specialty of the sea has us drowning in delight. We’re talking a perfectly grilled salmon patty, seasoned with fresh dill, ginger and red onion, and drizzled with lemon confit mayo, served on a brioche roll—with regular, Cajun or sweet-potato fries as a side. (For an extra $1.95, you can get the aforementioned truffle fries.)

burger: steamed cheeseburgers
K. Lamay’s Steamed Cheeseburgers
Meriden, (203) 237-8326, and Middletown, (860) 347-0602 (klamayssteamedcheeseburgers.com)
K. LaMay is the new kid in the land of steamed cheeseburgers and is shaking things up right where the beloved burger was invented. Of course, owner Kevin LaMay honed his skills at the renowned Ted’s before going out on his own to create a bigger one-third-of-a-pounder. Plastic steaming trays, instead of the traditional metal ones, are hand-packed with fresh ground beef, which is steamed to juicy perfection, then topped with a hand-sliced slab of melted sharp Wisconsin cheddar and served on a fresh hard roll. If you’re really hungry, consider the double—it weighs almost a pound.

burger: sliders
Wood-n-Tap
Multiple locations (woodntap.com)
With locations in Hartford, Farmington, Southington, Rocky Hill, Vernon and Orange, a Wood-n-Tap slider fix is never far away. And friendly places they all are, too, extending a warm welcome to everyone except, as they like to say, “people who say ‘yellow’ when they answer the phone.” The excellent sliders here come in orders of four or eight on a plate. The original is Black Angus beef served with cheese, pickles and a honey Dijon spread; newer to the menu are Bison Bites, lean buffalo-meat sliders topped with avocado aioli.

burger: veggie
The Lime Restaurant
Norwalk, (203) 846-9240 (limerestaurant.com)
After a friend said, “I defy any meat eater to try it and not get hooked,” we had to call her on it. The Lime’s veggie-nut burger (it’s served at lunch only) is a concoction of bulgar, carrots, zucchini, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds that’s deep-fried, then stuffed into a whole-wheat pita with garden greens, shredded carrots and cucumbers (avocado, cheese or tofu may also be added). The sandwich comes with a delicious sour-cream-based garlic dressing on the side and is served with a brown rice and veggie salad and a slice of melon. We can’t wait to go back!

cake: carrot cake
The Bakery
Southbury, (203) 264-1606 (thebakeryofsouthbury.com)
About 10 years ago, the sister of bakery owner A.J. Hiller conducted a taste-off of three carrot cake recipes she’d collected. Everyone who tried them chose the same one as best, and now it’s one of the stars of this happy little bake shop. The carrot cake here is moist, not too sweet, and full of wholesome things, including walnuts and lots of freshly ground carrot. (Pineapple, raisins, chocolate chips, etc. can be added on request.)

cake: cheesecake
Stockbridge’s Gourmet Cheesecakes & Café
Shelton, (203) 924-7853 (sbcheesecakes.com)
How much do we love cheesecake? Dare we say it’s up there with the wife and kids? Bottom line is we know a good cheesecake when we taste one. And there isn’t one better than the New York-style citrus cheesecake at Stockbridge’s. That said, we’re also fans of some of their more exotic offerings (Kahlua, raspberry swirl and cranberry-orange come to mind). The shop’s owners, Lisa and Brian Stockbridge, reinvent the classic cheesecake out of their Shelton bakery and café every Tuesday through Sunday. Although you’ll be tempted to eat dessert first, they also serve delectable dishes for breakfast, lunch, and (on weekends) dinner.

cake: chocolate
Grants Restaurant
West Hartford, (860) 236-1930 (billygrant.com)
Chocolate cake reaches new heights at Grants. Available for take-out are the popular chocolate velvet mousse cake (with Oreo cookie crust), classic chocolate birthday layer cake and heady chocolate tiramisu cake (with espresso-soaked chocolate genoise). For eating in, you’ll be in choco-heaven with the warm chocolate soufflé cake, served with pistachio crème anglaise and pistachio ice cream.

cake: coconut
Good News Cafe
Woodbury, (203) 266-4663 (good-news-cafe.com)
The “Mile High” coconut cake has been on the menu since Carole Peck first opened her doors in Woodbury more than 20 years ago—and given the changeable nature of tastes and the discerning palates of the diners here, that’s saying something. It’s topped with light-as-air egg-white frosting and surrounded by a mango-raspberry purée you may want to lick right off the plate.

calamari
Carl Anthony Trattoria
Monroe, (203) 268-8486 (carlanthonys.com)
Having tasted fried calamari in dozens of restaurants over the years, we were thrilled to find an alternative to the lightly-fried-with-marinara classic. Carl Anthony serves crispy calamari as an appetizer—frankly, we’d order this as an entrée if it were offered. “The Original Balsamic” calamari is both sweet and spicy, crunchy and sticky, served with balsamic reduction, sesame seeds and hot peppers. Too much of a hot kick for kids, probably, so they won’t be grabbing at your appetizer before you have a chance to enjoy it. This signature dish will have you coming back again and again. Pairs perfectly with a nice Syrah or Cab.

calzones
Modern Apizza
New Haven, (203) 776-5306 (modernapizza.com)
We all know the pizza’s out of this world, but we have to give a nod to Modern’s outstanding calzones, too. They’re melt-in-your-mouth good and made to perfection, stuffed with just the right amount of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and served with marinara for dipping. Enjoy yours plain or choose a stuffing—will it be meatball, mushrooms or spinach, or perhaps crabmeat? It’s no wonder this New Haven institution has kept ’em coming back for more since 1934.

candy store
Wanda’s Sugar Shack
Milford, (203) 878-9967 (wandassugarshack.tripod.com)
Forget the online sites that sell their “retro” mixes of the candy you loved as a kid. Wanda’s Sugar Shack is as retro as they come—without even trying. Owner Wanda Hornack, 90 years old and still kickin’ it in the shop each day, has kept generations of Milford kids supplied with the sweet stuff for the past 40 years—and counting. Fireballs, Mary Janes, root-beer barrels, Turkish taffy . . . grab a basket as you come in the door and you can mix and match all the old-time and current favorites you crave (candy is sold by the piece or the pound). Mmm . . . Swedish Fish!

cannoli
DelPrete Italian Pastry
Bridgeport (203) 333-6993
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli”—DelPrete’s cannoli are still the ones to beat. The most sublime of all Sicilian dolci are made fresh here throughout every day by owner Lou Mezzo and his team of bakers. The hand-rolled and crispy-fried shells are stuffed with an ambrosial cream made of sweetened sheep’s-milk ricotta embellished with chocolate chips. Miniature, chocolate-dipped and chocolate-cream cannoli are also available. For parties, try the  novel cannoli chip-and-dip platter or the giant cannoli stuffed with 40 minis.

chef: farm-to-table
Chris Eddy
Winvian
His culinary curriculum vitae is haute enough to impress the snobbiest foodie (sous chef for Alain Ducasse; cooked with Daniel Boulud in New York and Palm Beach), but he’s proudest of what he’s doing now: his bit to sustain the planet. As executive chef for Winvian’s four-star, five-diamond restaurant, he not only creates the cuisine, he grows it—fruits, berries, beets, exotic lettuces, fennel and corn. Honey from his own hives, shiitake mushrooms cultivated on logs. Organic gardening is his passion. You can taste it.  

chef: new
Dennis Young
The Old Lyme Inn
Dennis Young knows how to cook for a crowd. From Todd English’s Tuscany Restaurant at the Mohegan Sun Casino to Shelter Harbor Inn in Rhode Island, he’s done it with such brio and attention to detail, he might be cooking for two. At the new Old Lyme Inn, he butchers meat, fillets fish, sources locally and cooks imaginatively.  

chef: pastry
Debra Ponzek
Aux Delices
For years, Debra Ponzek’s Aux Delices shops in Riverside and Greenwich, and then in Darien, were the go-to place for exquisite French pastries and made-to-order cakes. They still are, but there’s more, lots more, on Ms. Ponzek’s plate—a catering business, gourmet food to go, breakfast and lunch service and a new full-service restaurant in Westport. What can this amazing chef not do? She runs a cooking school, writes cookbooks—one for parents and kids cooking together. But her pastries still take the cake. They’re almost too pretty to eat, but one bite and it’s a party. 

cheese selection
Fairfield Cheese Company
Fairfield, (203) 292-8194 (fairfieldcheese.com)
There’s cheese, and then there’s the exceptional collection of artisanal and farmstead cheeses at Fairfield Cheese Co. Whether you’re in the mood to expand your tastes to the French mountains and try Marcel Petite Comté or stay local and savor the excellent Hooligan from our own Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Fairfield Cheese Co. pleases all palates with cheeses from all over Europe and America. The extensive selection (over 100 varieties!) is the main event here, but there are also spreads, chutneys and crackers to accompany them.

chocolates
Fascia’s
Waterbury, (203) 753-0515 (fasciaschocolates.com)
Fascia’s handcrafted morsels of delight are genuinely mouthwatering, filled with seductive creams or studded with crunchy nuts, and a true splurge. We’d be hard-pressed to name the best of the best, but our favorites include the sinfully delicious raspberry truffles, pecan turtles, chocolate pretzels, hazelnut meltaways and buttercrunch. Yum, yum. And yum. With 23 retail outlets and a thriving online business, Fascia’s also offers party platters, baskets and custom corporate gifts.

clam chowder: manhattan
Close Harbour Seafood
Southington, (860) 621-7334 (closeharbourseafood.com)
It’s gratifying to find an inland fish market and restaurant that serves chowder this fresh and zesty, composed of hearty tomato broth spiced with pancetta and red pepper, and loaded with quahogs. It’s a dish we never fail to order, ’cause it just goes to show that owner Bill Close—central Connecticut resident though he may currently be—still has the salt water in his veins that he absorbed as a child clamming in East Haven. And great as it is, chowder is just a teaser for the bounty of fresh seafood Close Harbour offers.

clam chowder: new england
S&P Oyster Co.
Mystic, (860) 536-2674 (sp-oyster.com)
We’re talking sublime, satisfying liquid silk, the perfect starter or stand-alone meal whether you visit S&P during the summer months or in the dead of winter. The ratio of chubby clams to chunky potato remains ideal, from the leek garnish on top to the whole-belly-clam lover’s surprise at bottom.

coffee bar
Bean & Leaf
New London, (860) 701-0000 (bean-leaf.com)
The coffees here are fair traded and organic—not to mention some of the best we’ve ever tasted. But there’s more to Bean & Leaf Artisanal Coffees and Teas, which is why it’s a winner in our book. There’s a tasty selection of light bites, toasted sandwiches, soups and salads to go with your favorite coffee (or tea) drink. And the baked goods are excellent. But at the end of the day, it’s the “ESP Triple Ristretto” espresso shots that get our hearts racing—literally—and keep us coming back for more.

coffee bar
Molten Java Coffee Roasters
Bethel, (203) 739-0313 (moltenjavaevents.com)
If you’re a coffee purist (and there are lots of us out there), you’ll adore the fresh-ground coffee at Molten Java. This unassuming shop in Bethel stole our hearts again this year quite simply because the coffee drinks are so darn good (the Turkish latte is an all-time fave). The food—basic breakfast and lunch fare—is reliably tasty. But what puts Molten Java over the top is the music (love the Jazz Jams)—and the sense of community its owners have established over the years. Without it, Bethel just wouldn’t be the same.

coffee bar
Jojo’s Coffee Roasting Co.
Hartford, (860) 524-1488, and New Haven, (203) 785-8888
How fresh are Jojo’s coffee beans? “So fresh, we have to slap them,” according to owners Cathy Wei and Bill Sze. Now that’s what we like to hear. We also like that Jojo’s roasts its beans nice and light, which doesn’t diminish or roast away the unique characteristics of the beans the pair gathers from around the globe. A different coffee is spotlighted each day—so Monday morning’s cup of Joe may “whisk you away” to El Salvador, Tuesday’s to Ethiopia and Wednesday’s to Kenya. Well, aren’t you the world traveler!

cookies
Sweet Maria’s
Waterbury, (203) 755-3804 (sweet-marias.com)
Cookie diva Maria Bruscino Sanchez has been making 25-plus kinds of cookies for nearly 23 years. Her best sellers include peanut butter balls, fluffernutters, magic cookie bars (chocolate chips, coconut, walnuts, graham cracker crust), biscotti and anginetti (aka lemon drop cookies). Sanchez’s four baking books are now available in one volume in the bakery under the title: Sweet Maria’s Big Baking Bible.

crab cakes
Carmen Anthony Steakhouse
Waterbury, (203) 757-3040 (carmenanthony.com)
We don’t believe in messing with a good thing. And good things don’t get any better than the crab cakes at Carmen Anthony’s Steakhouse. Yup, crab in a steak joint. What can we say? We adore the pan-fried Maryland lump crab topped with remoulade and frankly crave it often. Our favorite way to have it? As an entrée instead of appetizer—more to love!—and with a glass (or three) from the restaurant’s impressive wine list.

cupcake
Bleu Squid
Mystic, (860) 536-6343 (dessertsmysticct.com)
Bleu Squid’s Connie Carocari makes cupcakes with the same sense of gleeful adventure some kids have for making mud pies or finger paintings: One day, we’re betting she’ll come up with a “New Car Smell” cupcake that everyone will L-O-V-E. Well, perhaps not . . . but she’s already got a repertoire of more than 40 moist, buttercreamy flavors with built-in appeal, from a whole palette of vanilla and chocolate combinations to fabulously rich and fruity (blueberry cheesecake, triple lemon and a peanut butter banana that could bring Elvis back from the dead). Her “adult” cupcakes—brandy Alexander, toasted almond—may not get anyone drunk, but we get tipsy just thinking about seasonal specials like apple spice and peppermint stick.

deli: italian
Avventura deli
Waterbury, (203) 574-1274 (avventuradeli.com)
Hot grinders, cold grinders, wraps (give Chokes ’n Pesto a try—with fried artichoke hearts, provolone, pesto spread and sautéed spinach), panini (the “Josh” is a nosh that includes fried eggplant, broccoli rabe and fresh mozzarella), salads, imported specialty groceries, stuffed breads, gelato, an in-house bakery that turns out cookies and 18 varieties of pastry every day—Avventura, located in Waterbury’s “Little Italy” (also known as Town Plot) knows how to keep its customers satisfied, and has been doing exactly that for the past 22 years.

deli: jewish
Rein’s New York-Style Deli Restaurant
Vernon, (860) 875-1344 (reinsdeli.com)
This month Rein’s celebrates 40 years of feeding the masses hungry for a New York-style Jewish deli here in the hinterlands. Enjoy comfort classics from matzoh ball soup and lox and bagels to corned beef, pastrami or brisket on rye, the latter washed down with Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, of course. And don’t forget the pickles, which are set out on every table. How popular are they? Rein’s goes through three-quarters of a ton a week!

deli: polish
The Baltyk Deli
Stratford, (203) 386-9400
Of course they still speak Polish at this authentic Polish deli, which opened 22 years ago across from the Catholic church in town, whose congregation was primarily Polish. When the shop moved to its current location in Stratford Center, its charming neighborhood feel was kept intact. Owner Maria Tomaszewski keeps shelves and cases stocked with Polish and Eastern European delicacies from mustard (hot, stone-ground, beer mustard, classic musztarda) and beets (pickled baby, mild-style salad and grated with horseradish) to sauerkraut (sold by the pound) to go with more than a dozen varieties of kielbasa. Warm loaves of Polish rye are delivered fresh from the 100-year-old Brooklyn Bakery in Waterbury.

diner
O’Rourke’s
Middletown, (860) 346-6101
(orourkesmiddletown.com)
Not even the fire in 2006 could keep this diner from doing what it does best—serving a hearty Irish-inspired meal. From the endless array of egg dishes to the Irish Trilogy of French Toast, O’Rourke’s shows its knack for both the savory and sweet. Featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” this Middletown icon attracts crowds who seek a diner experience like no other.

dinner: and a water view
Dog Watch Café
Stonington, (860) 415-4510 (dogwatchcafe.com)
Poised above famed Dodson’s Boatyard, the Dog Watch has evolved into more than simply a café, particularly in the warm months. Let’s see, there’s the DogScoop (selling 10 flavors of Gifford’s Ice Cream), the Dog Pound (an outdoor bar), the Good Dog Store (offering shirts, hats, mugs and jewelry) and live weekend entertainment (surely they’ve booked Snoop Dogg by now). They’re  all a great excuse to check out the boats from everywhere crowding the marina (keep an eye out for a tomato-red 76-footer from Newport named Tabasco). In late fall and winter, the seascape is more desolate, but you can still enjoy the comforting menu of “Dogwiches,” chowders, lobster “stuff” and starters like DogWatch Tuna Tempura, all served with a side dish of neighborly informality.

dinner: and a bird’s-eye view
On20
Hartford, (860) 722-5161 (ontwenty.com)
The food: very, very good. The ambience: lovely. Service: top-notch. That view? It’d be worth the trip even if ON20 were not near perfect in every other way. Located on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler Building, and overlooking downtown Hartford and the Connecticut River, this restaurant has it all. Great reviews (by us, The New York Times and the Zagat Guide) will bring you in; the sweeping vista through wide windows—especially striking at dusk—will mesmerize you.

dinner: and a sunset view
Hopkins Inn
New Preston, (860) 868-7295 (thehopkinsinn.com)
It’s hard to improve on an 1847 hilltop view overlooking Lake Waramaug, where you dine on Old World specialties (jagerschnitzel, trout meunière, apple strudel, carioca cake) on a tree-shaded terrace. But it does get better at sunset, when the trees turn into a dreamscape of twinkling lights, the sky over the lake turns gold, pink and blue, and chirping tree frogs provide the accompaniment to nature’s nightly show.

dinner: and live music
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro
Norfolk, (860) 542-5531 (infinitybistro.com)
Sometimes dinner-and-a-show—when tossed together like that—can leave patrons wanting more on both fronts. That’s not the case at Infinity Music Hall, where the owners celebrate good food and great music in equal measure—and offer both under the same roof. You can dine in the bistro before or after a show, or on the theater mezzanine during performances. Either way, a visit to this refurbished 1883 concert hall—hosting more than 200 shows a year—is one you won’t soon forget.

dock & dine
Fresh Salt at the
Saybrook Point Inn & Spa
Old Saybrook, (860) 388-1111 (freshsalt.net)
Few experiences are as gratifying as pulling into port for dinner at a fine shoreline restaurant like Fresh Salt at the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa. Fortunately for the rest of us, it’s also accessible by land. As its name suggests, this gem overlooks the point where the fresh water of the Connecticut River meets the salt water of Long Island Sound. In summer, take a seat on the terrace to enjoy local oysters, food and drink from regional farms and brewers and the spectacular view; when the weather turns chilly, a table by the fire is just the thing, and the water view from inside is still a stunner.

doughnuts
Dottie’s Diner
Woodbury, (203) 263-2545
Here are doughnuts that are worth the drive. Yes, doughnuts. You’ll see them arrayed before you as soon as you come through Dottie’s front door, each variety perfect in its own way. The cinnamon is crunchy on the outside and silky within; the powdered offers that luscious confectioner’s sugar-melt on your tongue; the chocolate-
frosted is rich, chocolaty and potentially addictive. Does the blue color of Dottie’s doughnut box remind you of Tiffany’s? Well, friend, that’s no accident. They both shine.

farmer’s market
City Seed Farmer’s Market
New Haven, (203) 773-3736 (cityseed.org)
Eating fresh has become de rigueur, but the City Seed Farmer’s Market has been at the cutting edge of the slow-food movement since 2004. What makes this our favorite venue for Connecticut farmers (and the people who support them) is its unwavering belief that everyone deserves access to fresh, ripe tomatoes—and fruits, herbs, honey, cheese, milk, eggs and more. To that end, the City Seed program runs markets in five New Haven neighborhoods: Wooster Square, Downtown, Fair Haven, Edgewood Park and The Hill. A City Seed market is worth a visit, no matter where you live or what’s on your menu.

fish-and-chips
Mansion Clam House
Westport, (203) 557-4811 (mansionclamhouse.com)
Mansion Clam House, a landmark in Westport for over 60 years, is still the go-to place for local seafood lovers, and it’s better than ever with chef-owner Rigo Lino at the helm. Lino is a stickler for freshness and can be found on the docks of New York early in the morning to get the best of the catch. On a menu with everything a seafood fan could wish for—from oysters Rockefeller to crab cakes, clam chowder (New England, Rhode Island or Manhattan) to stuffed rainbow trout, plus delicious pasta dishes—his fish-and-chips still shine. Just take it from our critic, Elise Maclay: “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.”

fish market
Flanders Fish Market
East Lyme, (860) 739-8866 (flandersfish.com)
While we like our fruit of the sea prepared every imaginable way (barbecued, broiled, baked, sautéed, pan-fried—you get the picture), there’s one place we like to catch it as often as we can, and that’s Flanders Market. For nearly 30 years, they’ve been providing finicky fish lovers the highest-quality seafood, plus a selection of prepared dishes. Flanders also ships live lobsters, and offers catering, from clambakes to kids’ parties. For those who can’t wait to get their fish home, they also operate a 150-seat restaurant, which was featured on The Food Network.

french fries
Super Duper Weenie
Fairfield, (203) 334-3647 (superduperweenie.com)
When you’ve built your reputation on your dogs—and justifiably so—like Super Duper Weenie has, you might make the fries a mere afterthought. Oh, no, not here. Not for a minute. While they’re still technically considered a “side,” we love the french fries here so much we’ve been known to order them solo. Or should we call them “fresh” fries? The beauty of these crispy, golden treats is that they’re made from local potatoes (specifically grown for this purpose), then cut and fried before our very eyes. Perfection.

french toast
The Corner
Milford, (203) 882-1150 (thecornerbrunch.com)
In “Best Of Connecticut 2011,” we effused over The Corner’s Trio, a combination platter of strawberry-and-banana-stuffed French toast, apple-stuffed French toast and a slice of vanilla cake soaked in sweet cream, which truly will make one’s down-and-dirty comfort-food-lovin’ soul stand up and shout “Bravo!” But we failed to grant the crunchy pecan-crusted and peaches-and-cream variations their well-deserved props. Given the restaurant’s love of adventurous menus, we’re waiting for the day its “very special items”—kangaroo, elk, rattlesnake, black bear—find their way into a French toast concoction. How about buffalo-and-fresh-cranberry-stuffed for the fall season?

fried chicken
Greer’s Chicken
Bristol, (860) 583-3191 (greerschicken.com)
They say don’t judge a book by its cover—good advice when it comes to Greer’s. Because from this unassuming little stand comes the most glorious fried chicken. The perfectly seasoned secret-recipe batter applied to the fresh chicken results in a light, flaky coating that’s crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Take it home in an eight-piece assortment or by the individual piece, or try the boneless chunks.

food truck: dessert
The Cupcake Truck
Westport, (203) 675-3965 (followthatcupcake.com)
Please make a note of the Web address above. If you’re lucky enough to spot this rolling cupcakery in the course of your daily travels, we highly recommend you check it out—and pronto. The seriously delicious cupcakes here include flavors like Chocolate Ruin, Red Velvet Jones, Salted Caramel and Sweet Potato Pecan (the truckers’ own a-maz-ing take on carrot cake). Frostings include peanut buttercream, caramel and cream cheese. And let’s not forget toppings like toasted nuts, coconut, Oreos and candied flowers. Check in via the Web to learn where in Fairfield or New Haven counties the truck—and its new companion, an antique bakery “trike” from Holland—plan to be each day.

food truck: ethnic
El Charrito
Stamford, (203) 940-0922
Parked alongside Richmond Hill Avenue, El Charrito offers an extensive menu of authentic Mexican cuisine. Mexican tacos, enchiladas and burritos are tasty bites available at this big yellow vehicle, but the popular quesadillas (filled with cheese, lettuce, Mexican cream and your choice of meat) and Mexican sandwiches, (crispy bread topped with refried beans, cheese, chipotle mayo, onions, cilantro, and choice of meat) will soon make you crave another visit.

food truck: pizza
Big Green Truck
New Haven, (203) 752-9547 (biggreentruckpizza.com)
Caterer Doug Coffin adapts to the times. In 2003, the slowing economy inspired him to try something different: a brick-oven-pizza operation run out of a restored 1940s International Harvester truck. Three more trucks later, he’ll cater birthday parties, wedding receptions, or any occasion you choose March through November, and can be found at Milford’s Robert Treat Farm Wednesdays through October.

gelato
Piccolo Pizza & Jazzeria
Ridgefield, (203) 438-8200 (piccolopizzeria.com)
This snazzy gelato bar/pizzeria/jazz joint makes its premium gelatos from scratch each day—and it shows. Eight flavors are rotated daily, with some 28 in the repertoire. The fruits used are fresh and local, and the nuts and chocolate are imported directly from Southern Italy. Consider dulce de leche, watermelon, Key lime pie, Almond Joy, pistachio or maybe stracciatella. There are also sundaes, shakes and floats made with the sweet stuff (hello, chocolate-cream soda float) and sophisticated desserts like the Nutella crêpe: hazelnut gelato topped with Nutella and crushed nuts. We’ll be the ones with the remnants of a s’mores sundae on our face.  

grilled cheese
Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro
New Haven, (203) 624-3373 (caseusnewhaven.com)
Mere grilled cheese isn’t made at Caseus; but try grilled gourmet cheese and we’ve got ourselves a winner. The superb grilled cheese sandwich starts with thick-sliced artisanal bread to which a house blend of cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss, Grûyère, Comté and Gouda), along with a daily leftover assortment of cheeses from the fromagerie, are added. This grilled cheese is cooked on the stove until the bread is toasty and the cheese is oozing—perfection at first bite.

grinder: cold
Cavallo’s Italian Deli
Waterbury, (203) 753-8425 (cavallos1.com)
Cavallo’s was first opened 45 years ago by Santuccio Cavallo, a former cook in the Italian army. Today it remains the real deal, a no-nonsense deli/market on busy East Main Street, selling imported groceries, breakfast sandwiches, pasta dishes and luscious hot and cold sandwiches and grinders. Want a real taste of Italy? Order the Italian Combo—mortadella, cooked salami, capicola and prosciuttini—on a half-loaf of Milite’s bread. Il cielo!

grinder: hot
Gaetano’s
Stratford, (203) 377-8860, and Monroe, (203) 268-6982 (gaetanosdeli.com)
In the old days, Shakespeare brought visitors to Stratford, but ask anyone nowadays, and they’ll tell you it’s Gaetano’s that pulls them in. Customers come from far and wide for the gourmet grinders served at this tiny Italian deli where everyone is treated like family. The hot grinders are especially comforting and include traditional homemade meatballs and sausage slowly simmered in a delicious tomato sauce, eggplant and tender golden-fried chicken cutlets, all layered with slices of mozzarella (made fresh here each day along with smoked mozz) melted on crusty Arthur Avenue rolls. Sandwiches will easily feed two, but you may just decide to save half for later.

guacamole
Besito
West Hartford, (860) 233-2500 (besitomex.com)
Besito boasts that it has more than 38,000 Facebook fans. We’d bet anyone a house margarita or two that at least 35,000 of those signed on because they love the restaurant’s guacamole en molcajete so much. Prepared tableside, it’s a superfresh blend of ripe Hass avocados with chopped cilantro, jalapeño chilies and tomato that you can order mild, medium or caliente (don’t ask for lime, however: it’s not authentic). Served with housemade chips, there’s enough for two—or so the menu claims. Maybe it’s time for Besito to start buying those stone bowls in “extra extra large.”

health food store
New Morning Market
Woodbury, (203) 263-4868 (newmorn.com)
Over the past 40 years, New Morning has inspired a loyal following that is passionate about healthy living. Now in larger quarters, it’s even more of a health food supermarket with a significant organic produce section, an extensive supplement and homeopathic department and a wonderful selection of storemade ready-to-eat natural and organic foods, including vegetarian and vegan options. Fresh meats. fish and cheeses are also stocked. Classes and lectures on everything from healthy eating to reducing your carbon footprint are open to the public throughout the year.

hibachi
Feng Asian Bistro
Canton, (860) 693-3364, and other locations (fengrestaurant.com)
At Feng, dinner is an art form. The talented chefs will dazzle you with their tricks—from flaming onion volcanoes to bouncing eggs to flying spatulas—all while whipping up one heck of a meal as you enjoy the show from one of the U-shaped hibachi tables. Choices include chicken, steak, seafood and veggies, all served with two grilled shrimp, a bowl of mushroom soup and fried or white rice.  

hot chocolate
Chocopologie
South Norwalk, (203) 854-4754, and New Haven, (203) 786-5000 (chocopologie.com)
Chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt offers several variations on the hot chocolate theme. The classic libation, made with 70 percent cocoa, can be enjoyed traditional style or spicy, i.e., jazzed up with chipotle, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, with both available iced or frozen as well as hot. If espresso’s your thing, try Chocopologie’s signature drink—half dark chocolate and half espresso—double bliss.

hot dogs
The Original Swanky Frank’s
Norwalk, (203) 853-3647
Don’t let the name fool you—Swanky Frank’s is far from a ritzy destination. But when the hot dogs are this good, who cares if the counter’s a little worn and the tables a bit weathered? The juicy dogs are the unquestioned draw here: deep-fried or split and grilled; smothered in chili and cheese; laved with relish and onions; or straight up with a dash of mustard and relish. Toppings can also be mixed and matched, making for your own custom treat. A must-have on our Connecticut road-food bucket list.

hot food bar
Stew Leonard’s
Norwalk, (203) 847-7214, and Newington, (860) 760-8100 (stewleonards.com)
Hungry, but don’t know what you feel like having? Our favorite hot food bar solves that dilemma once and for all. The variety of foods offered on steam tables, in warming ovens and under hot lights at Stew Leonard’s flagship store will amaze—and satisfy. Choose from a variety of tasty soups, chili and chowders, freshly grilled meats (and a midday carving station), casseroles aplenty, crowd favorites like lasagna, sesame chicken and pepper steak . . . plus all the veggies and sides you can shake a fork at. Stew’s hot food bar has all the answers, but then again it may possibly lead to even more indecision. You decide.

ice cream
UConn Dairy Bar
Storrs, (860) 486-2634 (dairybar.uconn.edu)
There are a lot of places around the state that serve premium ice cream, but UConn’s Dairy Bar is one of the only ones that also makes it right on the premises—seven days a week, year-round—from the milk of its own cows.No matter, when you make the pilgrimage to Storrs, there will be 24 great flavors to choose from, such as the always-popular Husky Tracks (vanilla with fudge swirl and peanut butter cups), coffee espresso crunch (coffee ice cream with chocolate-coated espresso candy) or the signature Jonathan Supreme (peanut butter-vanilla swirl with chocolate-covered peanuts). Get it in cones, cakes or cups, or handy half gallons to take home.

italian ice
Vecchitto’s
Middletown, (860) 346-7301, and Old Lyme, (860) 434-9231
In 1930, Gaettano Vecchitto, along with his wife Giuvanina, opened a small grocery store in Middletown, and decided to make Italian ice, which soon became a neighborhood hit. Eighty-two years later, the grocery store is gone but Vecchitto family’s frozen treat is still a hit, except now the entire state knows. Gaettano and Giuvanina made sure to pass everything on to their 11 children and their children, who still welcome droves of fans to their shops in Middletown and Old Lyme. Stop by and try any of the 14 flavors, though the lemon and chocolate will most likely be the ones that keep you coming back.

italian sausage
Liscio’s Meatland
Bridgeport, (203) 372-2264
Using a secret family recipe that includes chunks of freshly ground pork and whole fennel, second generation sausage maker Charlie Murawski makes stellar sweet and hot Italian links and patties right in the back of his butcher shop. The sausage holds rock-star status locally so if you don’t get their early enough on a Saturday, you might miss out. Liscio’s sells about 250 to 300 pounds per week to regular customers who prepare it in a variety of ways, from seasoning the spaghetti sauce and baking it with peppers to grilling it at picnics.

jerk chicken
Tropical Breeze Jamaican Kitchen
Bridgeport, (203) 372-0441, and West Haven,
(203) 931-7115 (tropicalbreezejamaicankitchen.com)
Jamaican hospitality oozes from this small friendly restaurant (there are six tables) that serves wholesome fresh dinners at very reasonable prices. Jean Ross’ irresistible jerk chicken is made from a family recipe, slowly grilled to fall-off-the-bone tender, with a rub of Scotch bonnet hot peppers, scallions, garlic, thyme, coriander and allspice that makes for a nice spicy crust. A dinner served with Jamaican-style rice and peas runs from $5.75 for a small portion to $10 for bigger appetites. Jerk chicken wraps served with crunchy homemade slaw are just $6. Now fans can eat-in or take out all of Jean’s Jamaican specialties at her new Bridgeport location, too.  

late-night bite
Mamoun’s Falafel
New Haven, (203) 562-8444 (mamouns.com)
Midnight snack anyone? Open for lunch through 3 a.m., Mamoun’s Falafel serves delicious but inexpensive falafel, tabouleh, shawarma and kabobs, among many other authentic Middle Eastern dishes. Mamoun’s is open late seven days a week, satisfying even the hungriest night owls and insomniacs.

meatballs
Roseland Apizza
Derby, (203) 735-0494
Even on a hot weekday afternoon, the kitchen at Roseland Apizza is animated—and loud, with the telephone ringing off the hook and takeout orders shouted over the din of clanking pans and chitchat. The demand for tasty, thin-crusted pizza from this unassuming Derby restaurant is high, but we recommend you go for the meatballs. Generously doused in a perfectly seasoned Bolognese, they’re good-sized and flavorful, tasting more of slow-cooked beef than bread crumbs—but the breading (along with eggs and cheese) provides just enough texture to hold them together nicely. They’re good alone, divine when served alongside a plate of pasta. Our favorite way to feast on them: Sliced, between two pieces of Roseland’s signature bread, sprinkled with mozzarella and pressed in a panini maker. Paradiso.

milk shake
Arethusa Farm Dairy
Bantam, (860) 361-6600 (arethusafarm.com)
The award-winning Jerseys, Holsteins and Brown Swiss that provide the milk and cream for these sinful creations can be found living lives of comfort and ease a mere five miles away at Arethusa Farm in Litchfield. This is one of those dairy shops (it also sells yogurt, milk and cheese) where the ice cream-making machinery is visible through a big window. The thick, flavorful shakes are available in a variety of flavors, and even though they cost $6.50 you won’t feel cheated. In fact, you’ll probably feel very happy.

muffins
Aux Delices
Greenwich, (203) 622-6644, and other locations (auxdelicesfoods.com)
The traditional muffin has never been the delicacy it is at Aux Delices. The triple chocolate chip and blueberry are the most popular, but corn, pineapple coconut, banana crumb, and even the cranberry muffin, made with fresh fruit, are flavorful masterpieces. We wouldn’t expect anything less from chef extraordinaire Debra Ponzek.

munchies
Trader Joe’s
Westport, (203) 226-8966, and other locations (traderjoes.com)
Where else can you find cinnamon-coated almonds, Snap Pea Crisps, Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix, chocolate-covered blueberries, Irish soda bread cranberry crisps and roasted Gorgonzola crackers, and a host of other delicious snacks, all under one roof? Thanks to unique items and great prices, Trader Joe’s is a must-stop for foodies across the state.

mussels
The Whelk
Westport, (203) 557-0902 (thewhelkwestport.com)
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that shellfish at a place named The Whelk, helmed by supernova chef Bill Taibe, would be stellar—but the mussels here still blew us away. Taibe starts with Icy Blue Lip Mussels from Prince Edward Island, then pan-roasts them with garlic, shallots, Wolfer Estate verjus and Gewurtztraminer, butter and tarragon. De-lish—and pure bliss with the glass of the racy, bone-dry 2011 Xavier Frissant resident wine expert (and partner) Massimo Tullio chose for us from The Whelk’s innovative wine list.

neighborhood restaurant
First & Last Tavern
Hartford, (860)-956-6000 (firstandlasttavern.com)
The rustic brickwork of the walls and flooring, the photos (of favorite people and moments from the past), the pervasive fragrance of Italian spices and sauces, the vegetables lining the counters around the central brick oven—we’d bet Nonna dreamed of a kitchen like this. Hungry families have been coming here to dine since 1938 on linguine with clam sauce and manicotti doused in First & Last’s homemade marinara; we just discovered the joys of the tavern’s stuffed artichokes and meatball sliders (on homemade focaccia). Thanks to the bakery/café across the street, you can send the love—sauces, breads, cakes, cookies—to friends across the U.S., or bring some home for yourself.

neighborhood restaurant
Noah’s
Stonington, (860) 535-3925 (noahsfinefood.com)
What does it take to be considered a neighborhood restaurant? Well, it usually has a cozy atmosphere, is filled with locals at any given time, serves some of the tastiest homemade dishes around, and is perfect for the whole family. Four out of four—not bad, Noah’s. One visit to this charming, chef-owned and -operated spot that specializes in “slow scratch” cooking, located in the heart of Stonington Borough, and you’ll soon be a regular, too.

neighborhood restaurant
Seven Seas Restaurant & Pub
Milford, (203) 877-7327
It’s nice to feel welcome—and that’s exactly the feeling you get the moment you step through the door of this Milford eatery, a neighborhood staple since 1965. Take a seat at the bar or settle in at one of a dozen or so tables—either way you’re soon invited to help yourself to some hot popcorn from the machine in the back. Along the way, there are bits and pieces of Milford history to check out (a vintage felt pennant from the old Milford High, a black-and-white of smiling Little League sluggers from the ’50s) and antiques and collectibles mixed in among the checked tablecloths. And the Seven Seas eats? Excellent. Watch for the ever-popular fish-and-chips, mile-high clam-strip platters, hot lobster rolls and freshly ground burgers.

neighborhood restaurant
The Village
Litchfield, (860) 567-8307 (village-litchfield.com)
Located in the heart of Litchfield on the green, The Village is an inviting family restaurant with solid food and and a hearty atmosphere. Two dining arrangements, the taproom and the dining room, are available to enjoy all-time menu favorites such as baked eggplant Parmesan and prime rib, and specials like the Village Lasagna ala Vodka.

neighborhood restaurant
The Woodland
Lakeville, (860) 435-0578 (thewoodlandrestaurant.com)
Other restaurants have come and gone, but The Woodland endures. In the same family for the past 30 years, it’s been run for the last 10 by chef-owner Robert Peters, under whom it’s maintained its small size, friendly atmosphere and appealing menu, ranging from pistachio-crusted salmon to hanger steak to sushi. Locals keep coming back for the generous portions, fair prices and comfortable ambience.

neighborhood restaurant
Darien Social
Darien, (203) 614-8183 (dariensocialct.com)
How does a restaurant barely eight months old win this designation? By doing a lot of things right. First, it’s a warm, inviting, totally unpretentious place headed by a team of restaurant professionals. The menu is a crowd-pleaser, with interesting snacks and small plates (dry rub wings with house-made bleu cheese and hot sauce, pulled pork sliders, artichoke gratin), excellent crackly-crusted pizzas and great burgers. And there’s a nice selection of beers on tap, 31 in all (“Flights available!”). A quote on the menu, attributed to Ben Franklin, kind of sums up the place for us: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

omelets
Patty’s Restaurant
Litchfield, (860) 567-3335
Here’s a place that knows what breakfast is all about. The pancakes are great, the waffles are terrific and the omelets—well, the omelets make you want to eat breakfast out every morning. Try one of Patty’s apple, cheddar and sausage numbers on a fall morning and watch your whole day improve. Or make yours a spinach and feta, a ham and Swiss, or whatever is fresh in the kitchen. It’s very hard to go wrong.

oysters
Carpetbaggers at Match
South Norwalk, (203) 852-1088 (matchsono.com)
Chef Matt Storch used to run this succulent creation as a special at Sono fixture Match, but the dish was such a hit he put it on the menu. He breads and fries six plump “just shucked” Blue Points, then puts them back in their shells and tops them with truffled steak tartare, black truffle crema and a dot of truffle aioli—voilà, a little bit of heaven on a plate.

pancakes
Chip’s
Orange, (203) 795-5065, and Fairfield, (203) 332-3370 (chipsrestaurants.com)
On the Chip’s menu, they’re called “perfect pancakes,” and we find it hard to argue with that. And when you try one of the choices, such as Black Forest (five buttermilk pancakes loaded with chocolate chips and topped with black- cherry compote and whipped cream) or Candy Apple (five buttermilk pancakes filled with sliced apple and cherries and dusted with cinnamon sugar), we know you’ll completely agree. Top yours with gourmet syrup, like coconut, apricot or strawberry, and you’re sure to have a good morning. Although, thankfully, these light and fluffy pieces of heaven are served all day long.

fresh pasta
Pasta Fina
Shelton, (203) 922-0041 (freshpastafina.com)
Want to cook like an authentic Italian chef, or at least use the same ingredients? For the past decade, Claudio Mancuso has been making fresh pasta—linguine, spaghetti, lasagna noodles and more—in his small shop on Howe Avenue in downtown Shelton, and hordes of home chefs have been coming to buy it. Born in Naples, Italy, Mancuso learned to cook at his mother’s knee and later perfected his craft as one of the principals at Fairfield’s once-popular Three Brothers restaurant. In addition to every kind of egg and specialty pasta, Pasta Fina also offers tasty prepared items such as mushroom ravioli and four-cheese whole wheat pizza.

pasta
La Tavola Ristorante
Waterbury, (203) 755-2211 (latavolaristorante.com)
Delicious pasta is one of the big draws at La Tavola. Using his grandmother’s pasta-making techniques and recipes from over 50 years ago—and a new Italian pasta machine—Chef Nicola Mancini Jr. creates fresh spaghetti, gnocchi, cavatelli, fettuccine, penne and two types of ravioli daily. Specialty pasta dishes, including Penne Peppered Vodka (with plum tomatoes, prosciutto, cream and Grana Padano cheese) and Tuna Puttanesca Spinach Fettuccine (with olive oil-poached tuna, capers and anchovies) are all the more delectable made with the freshest pasta around.

pâtisserie
Isabelle et Vincent
Fairfield, (203) 292-8022 (isabelleetvincent.com)
You’ll imagine you’re in Alsace, where Vincent Koenig was a seventh-generation baker, once you step inside this authentic pâtisserie.You’ll see chocolates being made by hand, a rainbow of macarons, divine napoleons, glorious Trois Chocolats Mousse and other special-occasion cakes, baguettes, brioches, quiches and more. Savor them at home or enjoy them here.

pizza
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
New Haven, (203) 865-5762, and other locations (pepespizzeria.com)
The continuing expansion of Pepe’s out of New Haven and into other parts of the world can only be viewed as a good thing, at least according to our extensive research into the subject. At each new location—Fairfield, Manchester, Mohegan Sun, Danbury, Yonkers, N.Y.—Pepe’s thin, heat-blistered crust reigns supreme; the toppings are fresh, high-quality and generously applied. We have no problem calling it Best of Connecticut, since many believe it’s the best in the world.

quiche
Passiflora
New Hartford, (860) 379-8327 (passiflorateas.com)
The freshest local organic vegetables of the
season meet farm-fresh cheese and eggs for a healthy, flavorful quiche. Drawing upon seasonal produce, Passiflora offers buttery-crusted quiche that on a recent day included pepper, mushroom and Swiss or tomato, basil, Provolone and Parmesan. Served with a seasonal side such as homemade gluten-free soup, grain salad or organic greens salad, this quiche is sure to satisfy.

raw bar
Liv’s Oyster Bar
Old Saybrook, (860) 395-5577 (livsoysterbar.com)
Liv’s wins raves for its selection of shellfish, which includes daily fresh oysters from all over the world (you can enjoy a sampling of every available variety for $15), littleneck and cherrystone clams, shrimp, lobster and crab. We’d suggest the Seafood Sampler—a feast of six oysters and six clams of choice with five shrimp—with a cucumber martini (Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, basil and fresh lime juice), simply because the combination of brine and basil/lime speaks to us. If only we knew a sea chantey or two.

restaurant bar/beer selection
Eli Cannon’s
Middletown, (860) 347-ELIS (elicannons.com)
Thirsty? How does 36 ales constantly on tap sound? Sounds like plenty of selection for any beer lover! Domestic, imported, local, ales, lagers, stouts, pilsners—it’s all here. Eli Cannon’s also rotates its selection daily to ensure quality and freshness, and offers weekly “real ale” tastings, regular beer dinners and other events. To go with your draft, there’s also the “American Trailer Park Fusion” cuisine, which includes a creative array of appetizers, wings, burgers, wraps and other great pub grub.

risotto
Bin 300 World Bistro
Wolcott, (203) 879-5858 (bin300.com)
Here’s a restaurant that makes friends easily. Chef Richard Morotto’s wide-ranging and reasonably priced menu includes solid favorites (chicken Marsala, eggplant parm) as well as imaginative nightly specials. But be sure to try, as appetizer or main course, Bin’s wonderful risotto—something Morotto perfected while working in a restaurant kitchen in Parma, Italy. Always on the menu are three varieties: Parmesan and sweet butter, rock shrimp and sweet pea, and wild mushroom and prosciutto di Parma.

salad: salad bar
Whole Foods
Westport, (203) 227-6858, and other locations (wholefoodsmarket.com)
Whole Foods easily wins this category with 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 edamame succotash. Imagine the possibilities!

salad: caesar
Carbone’s
Hartford, (860) 296-9646 (carbonesct.com)
As far as we’re concerned, great food is all about the taste and the preparation. At Carbone’s, not only is the Caesar salad consistently delicious, the tableside preparation is an exciting addition to the experience. Using the original over-50-year-old recipe, the servers at Carbone’s create a blend of anchovy fillets, roasted garlic, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, Tabasco sauce, egg yolk and oil. After sprinkling in cracked pepper and lemon juice, the signature dressing is drizzled over mounds of romaine lettuce, shreds of Romano cheese and pieces of crispy croutons. Voilà—a feast for your taste buds.

salad: chop
The Dressing Room
Westport (203) 226-1114 (dressingroomrestaurant.com)
The Dressing Room, a groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurant, continues to wow us with its Newman Says: “Use a Spoon” Chopped Salad. Restaurant founders Michel Nischan and Paul Newman created this salad using only the freshest seasonal ingredients. Bite-sized pieces of fresh strawberries, spring peas, baby carrots, asparagus, watermelon relish, goat cheese, toasted almonds, Sea Island peas and frisée combine with a cherry vinaigrette in the current incarnation (ingredients change with the seasons); absolutely perfect for this time of year.

salad: cobb
Max Downtown
Hartford, (860) 522-2530 (maxrestaurantgroup.com/downtown)
A Cobb salad is a Cobb salad—good and hearty, but plain and simple, right? If that’s what you think, you haven’t tried  the one at Max Downtown in Hartford. And you must. Gary Craig’s “Hollywood” Cobb is a generously portioned departure from your typical salad, studded with chopped greens, chunks of chicken, Applewood-smoked bacon, avocado, egg, tomato and Gorgonzola cheese. To keep it tasting fresh, order the classic vinaigrette on the side and add it as you go.

salad: tomato
West Street Grill
Litchfield, (860) 567-3885 (weststreetgrill.com)
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. 

sandwich: beef brisket
Chester’s Barbecue
Groton, (860) 449-6868 (chestersbbq.com)
“Barbecue is not the sauce, it’s what the sauce goes on,” says barbecue master Chester Dugas, who learned his slow-cooking and smoking techniques in Kansas City and St. Louis—two barbecue meccas—before returning to Connecticut to open his own restaurant. He cooks all his chicken, pork and beef in giant metal smokers for at least 15 hours, which is the key to producing his signature melt-in-your-mouth brisket. Piled high on white bread and served with homemade sauces, it’s one of the meatiest—and tastiest—sandwiches you’ll find anywhere.

sandwich: fish
Cove Clam Shack & Café
Stonington, (860) 536-0061 (covefishmarket.com)
Tucked away in a little spot just off U.S. Route 1, this classic seafood stop offers both a takeout window/picnic table option and an indoor “café” (and there’s a fish market, too, if you want to bring something home to prepare). In any case, what we’re vouching for here is the fried fish sandwich, made with either flounder or cod. The coating is light and crispy, the fish always fresh. Their website touts a $5 special price for the sandwich (and fries) every Wednesday. We plan on taking them up on that.

sandwich: hot pastrami
Katz’s Deli Restaurant
Woodbridge, (203) 389-5301 (katzsdeli.net)
If you’re looking for a great pastrami sandwich, forget New York and head for Katz’s in Woodbridge. You won’t regret it. As soon as you push your chair up to the table, bowls of half- and full-sour pickles and homemade coleslaw are plunked down by a friendly server who can size up whether or not you can handle the whole sandwich. But order it, anyway. When it arrives, smear on some mustard, then open wide and take a bite out of a glorious mountain of tender, thinly sliced, piping hot, perfectly seasoned pastrami on real Jewish rye. It’s pure gastronomic ecstasy. (Pastrami is also available to take out by the pound.)

sandwich: lobster roll
Lobster Landing
Clinton, (860) 669-2005
First, understand that when we say “lobster roll” we mean the Connecticut variety, with nothing but warm lobster meat and melted butter served on a sturdy roll. This delightfully simple sandwich was invented in Milford in the 1930s and now can be found all over the state. Our choice of Lobster Landing has as much to do with its massive charm and its location right on the water as it does with the actual lobster roll itself (which after all does not vary a great deal from place to place). We do love the toasted bread, however.

side dish: escarole
Pane e Bene
Westport, (203) 292-9584 (paneebene.com)
Scarola saltata, or escarole “dragged” through olive oil and garlic, is a staple in Italian kitchens. Pane Bene turns it into something special with pine nuts and tart-sweet cranberries.

side dish: mac ’n’ cheese
Salute
Hartford, (860) 899-1350 (salutect.com)
Four cheeses, caramelized onions, bacon. Who can resist?  Dip into the kids’ and you’ll end up eating it all.  Order your own.

side dish: creamed corn
Capital Grille
Stamford, (203) 967-0000 (capitalgrille.com)
Small, sweet kernels of fresh corn, lightly creamed with crispy bits of applewood smoked bacon . . . a great steak deserves nothing less.

small plates menu
Molto
Fairfield, (203) 292-8288 (pizzeriamolto.com)
Having endured countless restaurant meals that, portion-wise, would scare off a lumberjack, we’re all for the small-plates concept. Especially at Molto, where we can order a serving of crispy artichokes that’s satisfying, not overwhelming, particularly when enjoyed with a glass of Rock Hollow Chardonnay. And the setting—the 40-foot Carrera marble bar, the red-and-black decor—is just so “kewl.” But wait—there are about 30 other dishes on the menu. Do we want to miss out on the potato gnocchi with butternut squash cream sauce, or the baby lamb chops? What about the grilled bronzino with avocado salad? That “formaggi” selection (goat cheese, gorgonzola dolce, parmagiano reggiano) looks awfully good. Sigh . . . next time, we’re bringing a corps of lumberjacks and forcing them to share.

smoothie
Granby Village Health
Granby, (860) 844-8608  (granbyvillagehealth.com)
This friendly neighborhood health food store is more than a destination for supplements and gluten-free foods (although it surely is that). What we like most about Village Health are the smoothies—the very best around. All drinks, including freshly squeezed juices, are 100 percent organic and 100 percent delicious. One of our all-time favorites is a classic: the Berry Smooth (made with apple juice, banana, blueberry and strawberry). Even better: You can request a custom smoothie made with all of your favorite flavors.

soda
Foxon Park
East Haven, (203) 467-7874 (foxonpark.com)
The worst thing about Foxon Park soda: It’s impossible to choose a favorite from the 18 original flavors. Is it strawberry, grape, white birch or Gassosa? Or perhaps good ol’ fashioned root beer or cream? Lucky for us, we can sample these all-natural sodas anytime we want by picking them up at area restaurants and stores, or ordering them online by the case. After 90 years of producing the most beloved soda in the state, Foxon Park is, as their motto says, “all-ways in good taste.”

soup
Liquid Lunch
Shelton, (203) 926-6038, and other locations
(liquidlunchrestaurant.com)
The folks at Liquid Lunch have one question for you, and it’s an important one: “Where’s your spoon?” You will need one, of course, to indulge in the oh-so-good soups that are the star attraction here. Count on finding delish chicken noodle, beef barley, vegetarian lentil, tomato-basil, French onion and split-pea with ham on the menu every day, but then there are “souper,” so to speak, daily specials like roasted artichoke chicken Gorgonzola, creamy kale and meatball, and spicy black bean—it all depends on which gourmet goodies chef-owner Fred Bialek (a grad of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.) decides to rock the pot with that day—his repertoire includes more than 300 different soups!

splurge: dinner
Rebeccas
Greenwich, (203) 532-9270 (rebeccasgreenwich.com)
With entrées starting at $36 (free-range chicken) and peaking north of $80 (fettuccine with black truffles), Rebecca’s truly is a splurge for most. Still it’s a dining experience to remember, and worth the investment when you consider how many delicious stories you’ll have to tell. Our favorites include the presentation and sublime flavor of the asparagus soup with lobster, the unforgettable freshness of the kanpachi sashimi with wasabi dressing, the aforementioned fettuccine, and the not-to-be-missed (even if the rent is late) pear tarte tatin.

sushi
Miya’s
New Haven, (203) 777-9760 (miyassushi.com)
Both palate and environment are better off with the sushi at Miya’s—it’s superior and sustainable. Avoiding the use of seafood that is overfished and using locally-grown ingredients, chef-owner Bun Lai has taken sushi to the next level. Calling all omnivores, Bun recently introduced a new roll combining falafel (from neighbor Mamoun’s) and fried clams topped with grilled baby eggplant, drizzled with a champagne tahini sauce. Vegetarians will love rolls like Kiss the Smiling Piggie (sweet potato, mango chutney and pine nuts). How about sushi for dessert? Try the deep-fried roll of banana, strawberries, hazelnut butter, chocolate and mocha topped with homemade rose petal ice cream. Simply awesome.

tacos
Tacuba
Branford, (203) 208-0736 (tacubataco.com)
All you have to do is hear the names Arturo and Suzette Franco-Camacho, and you know you’ve found a great restaurant. This unstoppable husband-and-wife team has delivered yet again, recently opening another killer eatery, Tacuba, this one serving traditional Mexican cuisine, with the outstanding taco as the star. You’ll love the cool Latin vibe that includes Mexican-made movies projected on the wall as you dig in to these delights, made with soft corn tortillas and fillings such as carne asada, mahi mahi and pork.

tapas
Ibiza Tapas
Hamden, (203) 909-6512 (ibizatapaswinebar.com)
Firmly established as a pleasing alternative to dining on too many courses served on too-large plates, sharing tapas is a ritual that has come into its own. Trust us, you will swoon when you taste the miniature morsels prepared by chef Ignacio Blanco at his restaurant in Hamden. Classic and traditional choices (like imported Serrano ham and Chorizo sautéed with chickpeas) are offered alongside Blanco’s more creative dishes (crispy noodles with seafood and squid ink aioli, for one). Indeed, these “small plates” are very big—on flavor.

tearoom
Savvy Tea Gourmet
Madison, (203) 318-8666 (savvyteagourmet.com)
Whether you’re a tea aficionado or just want to learn, this modern-day tea shop/café (forget grandma’s tearoom) is the place. Owners Phil Parda and Judith Guard offer 300 loose-leaf teas from around the globe, as well as tea education. Come to browse, buy or taste, perhaps at a Saturday tea (by reservation) or tasting (no reservations). Every day, sandwiches, salads, quiches, etc., are offered in a café setting.

truffles
H. Mangels Confectioner
Milford, (203) 783-9770 (hmangels.com)
That weight you’re going to gain during this holiday season? Blame H. Mangels. If they didn’t make such amazing truffles—by hand, and using only the purest chocolate, butter, heavy cream and liqueur—you wouldn’t eat so many! But who can resist, especially with tempting flavors such as Double Dutch Chocolate, All White Chambord, Amaretto and Bailey’s Irish Cream? You are not going to be able to resist 114 years of truffle-making experience, so don’t even bother. Just get a box (or two) and enjoy.

vegan menu
G Zen Vegetarian Organic Sustainable Cuisine
Branford, (203) 208-0443 (g-zen.com)
Chef Mark Shadle and wife Ami Beach Shadle don’t just talk the talk; they live the life and their restaurant is a reflection of their philosophy. And they mean business. Not only do they use locally grown ingredients, but you won’t even find refined sugar or table salt here. Open your mind to the delicious vegan food, like vegan bruschetta and guilt-free raw pasta with cashew crème Alfredo, as well as the good selection of organic, vegan wines, beers and sakes on offer, and enjoy it all in this relaxing Zen-like retreat. Namaste.

waffles
Leo’s
Southbury, (203) 264-9190, and Middlebury, (203) 598-0166  
Waffle lovers hit it big every time with Leo’s “Wheel of Fortune”—a thick and crisp Belgian waffle topped with fresh strawberries, kiwis and bananas, raspberry cream sauce and a big ol’ dollop of whipped cream. The “Vanna White” adds a scoop of vanilla ice cream to the mix—both are breakfast specialties that the waffle whisperers at Leo’s serve all day (Southbury is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while the Middlebury location serves just breakfast and lunch). For purists, a sweet-and-simple Belgian with powdered sugar or your choice of strawberry, peach or blueberry compote should fit the bill nicely.

wedding/specialty cakes
Ana Parzych Custom Cakes
Cheshire, (203) 439-7979 (anascustomcakes.com)
It’s no fluke that Ana Parzych’s masterpieces have been featured on The Food Network and “The Today Show,” in People, Harper’s Bazaar, Martha Stewart Weddings and, of course, Connecticut Magazine and The Connecticut Bride over and over again: This “sugar artist” knows her stuff. A top cake designer nationwide as well as abroad (one of her cakes was flown to a wedding in Dubai), Ana works with only the finest natural ingredients and fillings, and hand-crafts all flowers and decorations from sugar right in her Cheshire studio.

wine selection: retail store
Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits Co.
Hamden, (203) 281-0800 (mtcarmelwine.com)
For over 70 years, oenophiles have continuously delighted in the rare and specialty wine collection at Mt. Carmel Wine Shop. Featuring thousands of labels, and specializing in European wines from France and Italy—especially Bordeaux and Burgundy—this brothers-owned store has long been a true wine mecca. Whether you’re in the mood to splurge, or simply want a nice bottle of wine, Ben and Bob Feinn have an extensive selection that is sure to satisfy all wine enthusiasts.
 

Best of Connecticut 2012: Food & Drink

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