Thursday, August 31, 2017



 I grew up in the pizza capital of America.  New York City.  OK - "arguably" the pizza capital of America, since Newark, Hoboken and Chicago make some fine pies.  But none of those cities had Rocky Lee Chu-Cho Bianca on Second Avenue near 52nd Street, the originator of thin crust pizzas with a special olive oil that made their slices a gift from God/dess.  Then we had Ray's Original Pizza parlor.  Well, parlors, plural, since there were a zillion Ray's around Manhattan - east side, west side, all sides.  My favorite was on First Avenue around 58th Street, just a few blocks from my apartment where I could walk over and get a pizza "fix" even in a blizzard.  But go to any pizza joint in NYC or NJ and you'll understand our devotion to these pies.  Maybe it's the water.

My first taste of this heavenly food was in Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York, where I grew up.  Sal's was our local Italian restaurant and served hot, bubbly cheesey, traditional NY pizza.  I fell in love at first bite.  I think I was seven.  Is there a more perfect combination of flavors?  I don't think so.  But, full disclosure:  My name is ilona saari, and I'm a cheeseaholic.

I've had pizza in Boston when in college.  Not bad, but no NY slice.  Devoured deep dish in Chicago when I lived there for a year.  Very good, but not real "pizza" for a New Yorker.  Though, I did find the semi-deep dish pies from Goldberg's truly memorable.  Hey, Chicagoans, does Goldberg's still exist?  I've eaten pizza in Las Vegas, Miami, Hartford, and in San Francisco and Sacramento.  All good, but...  

Then there's Los Angeles where I lived for years and where the Wolfgang Puck gourmet pizza revolution that swept the nation began.  Sitting in Spago and biting into my first BBQ chicken pizza or the wild mushrooms olives, sun dried tomatoes w/ Pecorino Romano cheese pizza was a food revelation.  But was it "pizza?"  I love the Margherita pizza, the smoked salmon pizza... even the veggie varieties... the list of tasty gourmet pies is endless.  BUT, as delicious as these all are, they are not NY pies... the classic cheese, at times topped with mushrooms or pepperoni or sausage... sometimes all of the above.  They just aren't!!! 

But my days of eating pizza whenever I want are waning as the nation has become more conscious of making healthier food choices.  Lots of us are eating less carbs - ie: less bread!  Many people are going gluten free.  The burger, yes - the roll, no.  We're designing more and more salads with protein and veggies, and we're exercising more.  Baby boomers are fighting the bulge, cholesterol, and encroaching old age with a vengeance.  But, we lapse.  If I was back in Manhattan I would not be able to resist having a slice (often), so I'm thankful that my Ojai pizza joint, though good, doesn't make me fall to temptation.

Which brings me to cauliflower.

When I must have - absolutely MUST have some semblance of pizza, Richard will make me one (what would I do without him?).  No, not thin crust.  Not deep dish crust.  Not doughy crust.  BUT, healthy, often maligned cauliflower crust.  Yup, cauliflower crust!  Is it NY pizza?  Not even close.  Is it a Wolfgang Puck-style gourmet pizza?  Closer. Put your favorite toppings on it.  I like the
Margherita tomato, cheese and basil toppings. Though we've done others.  What it has going for it is the hot, bubbly cheese, olive oil, tomato, even tomato sauce if you desire.  And it pleasantly stifles the craving.

Here's how you, too, can sate that pizza craving with a healthful substitution.  It ain't real pizza, but then only NYC has real pizza.  

Cauliflower Pizza Crust


Florets from one cauliflower head
3/4 cup ground almonds
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper
3 eggs beaten


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
Line a baking sheet w/ parchment paper
Coarsely chop the cauliflower and blend in a food processor to a nice texture
Put in mixing bowl w/ almonds, oregano and seasoning - mix w/ your hands

Make a well in the center and add the eggs
Shape into a ball
Put on baking sheet and roll/spread out, edges high

Bake 25 minutes
Take out of the oven and cover with toppings

 and bake again for 5-10 minutes.


Sunday, May 21, 2017


Bell Boulevard - Bayside's Main Street

An Homage to Sal’s & McElroy’s

I love food, especially food eaten in restaurants… from funky diner cheeseburgers to five course meals at The French Laundry.  I also love writing about food, so much so that besides this food blog, I am the food and drink writer for the glossy magazine, the Ojai Quarterly… but Bayside (Queens, Long Island, New York) and much of the world were indifferent to fine dining when I was growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s. Fine dining was for people in Manhattan.  The foodie and fast food culture was decades away. Fast food “restaurants” weren’t on every corner and family restaurant chains were few and far between. People in Bayside mostly ate at home. 

Oh, we had a couple of Chinese restaurants in neighboring towns such as Flushing… you know the ones where sweet & sour everything reigned alongside gooey pork lo mein.  And for “special” occasions like Mother’s Day, graduations, or Easter Sunday there was always Patricia Murphy’s family friendly Candlelight Inn in Manhasset, a bit of a car ride schlep on Northern Blvd, but that just made it more “special.” 

And, I loved it when my dad would pack up my mom, brother and me into the car and drive us to Howard Johnson’s in Little Neck (or was it Douglaston? Great Neck?) for a family dinner of burgers with that “secret sauce” and fried clams… or when he took us to the car hop diner across from Kiddy City on Northern.

But these were “family” restaurants and weren’t in Bayside. There were no Thai, Korean or Greek restaurants in town, nor French or nouvelle cuisine restaurants for that matter.  But Bayside did have Sal’s Italian fare, and McElroy’s, an Anglo-American is it a pub, a bar, a restaurant? restaurant.

Even though we would walk “downstreet" to Sal’s on Bell Boulevard (as my New England bred mother would say), going there as a family seemed a very grown-up outing.  

The old movie house marquee that is no longer a movie house

This wasn’t a kids’ place… it was an “adult” neighborhood red sauce restaurant. I usually put on a dress for dinner at Sal’s. The dining room had a couple of Italian scenic paintings, white table cloths and red candle “globes” in plastic webbing, after all. Atmosphere. It was at Sal’s that I had my first pizza (pizza chains weren’t even in their embryo stage). 

Of course, we always started with a “first course” salad made of iceberg lettuce, cut up tomatoes, shaved carrots and maybe an olive or two. You had a choice of dressings including “Russian” (ketchup and mayo), Italian or blue cheese.  Blue cheese dressing!  How exotic was that?  When we didn’t have pizza (another exotic food to me), spaghetti with meatballs was our family’s popular second choice. There was no fettuccine alfredo or picatta or marsala anything on the menu, though I think steak pizziaola, eggplant parm and lasagna made nightly appearances.

It didn’t matter if the food was good or bad, to be at Sal’s, sitting at a white table-clothed table, white cloth napkin on my lap, having foreign food made me feel worldly and oh so sophisticated (well, I was in a dress). Yes, mom made spaghetti, even eggplant parm, but that was at home, and I could only have pizza at Sal’s (I never counted the pizza my mom made using American cheese and a slice of tomato on an English muffin).

After my dinners at Sal’s, I yearned to go to McElroy’s. But for me, McElroy’s was for grown-ups only. It was the place in town where my parents could go “on a date,” sometimes after seeing a movie at the old Bayside movie theater.  A sitter would show up at our house and dad would put on a sports jacket and mom a dress and they’d take the car “downstreet.”  I wanted to go, or at least be a fly on the wall so that I could discover the mystery of McElroy’s. What was behind its doors? What kind of food did they serve? Was it really forbidden to children?

I think I was about ten when I got my first glimpse inside. I was strolling down Bell Blvd. when I came to the restaurant. Its doors were open and I couldn’t resist. I peeked inside.  It was dark with a bit of amber glow from a few lighted lamps that was diluted by the daylight glare streaming in from the street through the open door.  I squinted to focus my eyes and saw a dark wooden (probably mahogany) bar and a few tables. Liquor bottles were lined up behind the bar like bowling pins and I wondered where the coca cola soda fountain dispenser was. I guessed that grown-ups didn’t drink cokes when they went out to dinner by themselves.

I liked what I saw. The room reminded me of bars I’d seen in old movies on TV where Nick and Nora Charles might get a nightcap, though I had no idea what a nightcap was. But it wasn’t until my dad died and I was in my early teens that I got to finally experience McElroy’s… the food and the total restaurant ambiance. 

My mom was working for a local contractor and asked my brother and me to meet her there for dinner. I was stunned. We were still kids! But I trusted she knew what she was doing even though I was at the age where I thought she was the dumbest adult on the planet.

My brother put on a good shirt and I wore my nicest skirt and blouse. It was summer, so the sun was still shining when we walked “downstreet” to the restaurant where she was waiting outside to take us in.

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit bar, but once they did, I felt I had entered another world. As we went into the adjacent dining room and were seated at a table I was overcome with déjà vu. Why did I feel comfortable in this cozy dark wood paneled room? I thought. Why did it feel so familiar? As I looked at the menu with entrees of Salisbury steak, pork chops, chicken and London broil, it came to me. I felt as if I was in Manhattan’s famous Sardi’s that I had read so much about in movie magazines, sans all the drawings of famous theater people. I had arrived!

My mom ordered a perfect Rob Roy and I was given permission to have a coke with dinner (brought to me in a bottle). I ordered the London broil with mashed potatoes and peas and when I finished every last morsel, I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten. In fact, the mashed potatoes were instant and the peas canned, but I didn’t know that. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered, my palate was not that educated and I was in love with the room.  Atmosphere.

I went to McElroy’s many times for dinner after that and each time I ordered the London broil with those potatoes and peas. I was never disappointed. I loved it there, and years later when I was a young writer in New York, I loved going to Sardi’s. Each represented my parents’ era, a pre and post WWII time I found so very sophisticated and glamorous. I wanted to be Kate Hepburn in “Stage Door” or Bette Davis in just about anything.

The last time I was in McElroy’s was the weekend I left my Manhattan apartment to go home to Bayside for my mother’s wedding shower. Eight years after my dad died, my mom had found a man whom she wanted to marry and family and friends from near and far came for the shower.

Afterward, some of us ladies met up with our husbands and boyfriends at McElroy’s for nightcaps (I had had a few nightcaps by then – often in Sardi’s). We sat at the bar and toasted my mom as memories of my London broil dinners and of mom going there on dates with my dad came flooding back.

A memorable restaurant for me is not always about the food… it’s about the feeling the room gives you and the memories it may trigger or the memories you create there. In that context McElroy’s and Sal’s were memorable, so when I walked Bell Blvd. the last time I was in Bayside after a thirty year absence, I was sad to see that both these restaurants were gone. There are so many more choices in Bayside now and I hope some of these new restaurants will feed fond memories to those who go there.

Bourbon Street - one of the hippest bars in Queens - and written up in the NYTimes

I wish I had had time to dine in all of them, creating new Bayside memories and food fodder for my blog.

For now, I’m content with the glorious memory of instant mashed potatoes and canned peas… and dinner with my mom.

Friday, April 21, 2017


Be Still My Heart

This is a simple tale:

Some time ago dear friends gave us and another couple Christopher Idone's "LEMONS - A Country Garden Cookbook" and organized a dinner for the six of us where we'd each made a course from a recipe inside the book.

Our assignment, if we chose to accept it (we did) was appetizers and one of the dishes we made (let me clarify that -- Richard made) was the lemon pizza with creme fraiche and red caviar... it melted in our mouths.

The "dessert couple" chose the cookbook's lemon meringue pie with a crust to truly "flake" over.

But it was the host couple's pappardelle dish that won my heart and has become my new favorite pasta.  Fresh. Creamy.  Cheesy.  As I wrote above... be still my heart!

End of tale.

Pappardelle w/ Lemon & Asparagus


1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, approximately 32 stalks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound fresh or dried pappardelle
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of one lemon
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Zest of one lemon, cut into julienne
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving


Cutting on the diagonal, trim the tough ends of the asparagus.  Cu the asparagus into 3 or 4 even pieces on the diagonal.  In a nonreactive kettle of lightly salted boiling water, cook the asparagus for 2 minutes or until just crisp.  Blanch in cold running water and drain.
In sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter and cream.  Allow to cook at a low simmer.

Cook the pappardelle in the kettle of salted boiling water until al dente and drain well.  

While the pasta is boiling, heat the oil in a large skillet and add the blanched asparagus.  Add the hot cream/butter mixture and fold in the lemon juice.  Season with pepper.

Add the drained pasta to the sauce and toss well.

Divide among 4 or 5 warm soup plates and sprinkle with julienned zest.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 to 5

Monday, February 13, 2017

COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE... California High Country

California High County

In the fall of 2016 Richard and I winged our way north on the I-5 in search of gold country, not in a covered wagon, but in my Highlander Hybrid SUV.  We stopped in Sacramento to connect with brother Bob and sister-in-law, Nguyen then made our way to California High Country and our latest road trip adventure...  We camped at Angel's Camp, Mark Twain's old stomping grounds.  Well, not exactly "camped" as we had a two bedroom, two bath condo at the Worldmark resort with a fabulous terrace overlooking a gorgeous 18 hole golf course... 
 ... where deer wandered below...
...but back to the topic at hand...

... we toured the High Sierras 
 and various mining towns, lunched amid the sequoias, waded in glacial lakes...

 ... and lived through a horrific traffic jam situation at Yosemite which prevented us from entering the Valley (another story - another blog).. but on our last day in Gold Rush country we discovered, almost by accident, the historic mining town of Columbia, and a gem it is.

And, to our surprise, the old City Hotel Restaurant, in the still operational charming City Hotel was open for lunch...
The hotel and restaurant's decor was perfect, taking you back to a different time we only know from books and movies (unless you're very, very, very old)... 
The menu by chef and co-owner Christopher Segarini was a cross between today and yesterday - from tomato bruschetta made on grilled Kalamata roasted red pepper bread with pesto, baby heirloom tomatoes and drizzled with Hurst Ranch olive oil and reduced balsamic... to fish & chips and burgers... a food writer's delight.

We had bloody Marys to start, then I had to try sarsaparilla, a kind of root beer with licorice "notes."

Dressed in period garb, Clover (the perfect name for the era) was our warm and friendly waitress.  Our lunch consisted of a couple of crisp wedge salads with blue cheese, bacon and tomato...

 Some Cajun fried chicken legs and thighs...

And for me, the cheese-aholic, grilled Colby cheese that oozed out of toasted sourdough bread and into your mouth when you bit into it.  Heaven.

It was a drizzly day, but that didn't stop of us from touring the town...take the tour with me.

The assayer's office

The assayer's office
The blacksmith
Boarding house where miners stayed
even a bowling alley
 candy store - most candies made in the "back"

the emporium

A location for "High Noon" - that's the buckboard used in the movie

Inside the jail

The schoolhouse
My favorite building - the newspaper office
The livery
Even the Masons came to town
The old General Store
The hearse inside the wagon stable
exterior of the wagon stable
inside the wagon stable
Wells Fargo, of course

If you find yourself exploring California's High Country and mining towns make sure you don't miss Columbia.  Say hello to Clover for us.