Thursday, May 12, 2016

New England Traditions Collide in Somerville Pizza Joint

“Hi there. My name’s John and I’ll be your server tonight.” John is in his late twenties, tall and lean with long hair pulled back into a loose knot at the back of his head, and a scraggly beard just a few centimeters longer that simple scruff. This description could be used for about three quarters of the guys around me. A few are standing next to two massive clay wood-fire ovens with bandanas keeping their long locks out of the stretched dough in their hands. “Think good thoughts, ” “drink local beer” and other sayings are written on the walls in a precise but free style. The Beatles’  Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da comes on over the sound system and John Lennon’s cooing harmonizes with the whoop and hollers coming across the room from the eight lanes of candlepin bowling. This is the Flatbread Company.

Raucous twenty- and thirty-year olds stand around munching pizza and slurping micro-brew beers next to parties of seated retirees with their grandchildren as the smells of burned dough and garden herbs wafts over them. The Flatbread Company began in 1998 with one location in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This company began with the goal to bring organic locally sourced food to its customers, and it relied heavily on the growth of local farms and producers to sustain its own expansion.

Between 1998 and 2016, the Flatbread Company has opened nine more locations in New England, including one at 45 Day Street Somerville, Massachusetts. Located in the building that from 1939 to 2010 was home to Sacco’s Bowl Haven bowling alley—a Boston institution to the hardcore candlepin bowlers—the Flatbread Company made sure to renovate around the candlepin lanes in order to preserve part of Boston’s history and a New England pastime.

Nothing quite yells old-time Yankee spirit like candlepin bowling. Red Sox in the summer, pond hockey in sub degree temperatures in winter, and candlepin bowling all year round. It’s a New England staple that is as much New England as Vermont Maple Syrup or clam chowder. The sport was invented in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1880. Since then New Englanders have been chucking grapefruit sized balls at small skinny sticks sixty feet away. Though at one point the Somerville Historical Preservation Commission says that you could take your pick from four different bowling alleys around Davis Square, Sacco’s was the lone survivor. 

Bowl Haven was a smoky pool hall with ten bowling alleys that had been in the Sacco family for four generations until 2010. At one time there were nineteen Sacco bowling alleys in the Boston area alone, but over time this number dwindled down to just the Davis Square location. This was a place where a shoe rental cost $1.50, and a lane was $3.00 ($2.75 on weekday mornings and afternoons). No food or alcohol was sold because this was bowling for Spartans with a thirst for hitting things with balls.

Sacco's Bowl Haven motto said it all, “we've got small balls, but we're big on fun.”

Nowadays there is a slightly different motto inscribed on the wall. The Flatbread company’s motto “renew their spirit” holds no reference to bowling, but to their organic and locally sourced pizzas and salads, Managing Partner Evan Fetras explains. Free-range chicken, nitrate-free meats and organic vegetables top the wood-fired pizzas offered in organic wheat or gluten-free crusts. New Hampshire’s Peace of Mind Baking Company supplies the gluten-free, vegan crusts, made with *Brown Rice Flour, *Garbanzo Bean Flour, Arrowroot Powder, *Tapioca Flour, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, *Flax seed Meal, *Pure Cane Sugar, *Xanthum Gum, *Active Yeast, * Sea Salt, *Cider Vinegar (*Indicates Organic).

But the spartan bowling continues in this hip establishment that still has eight bowling lanes, where score is kept by hand with pencil and scorecard. The ninth and tenth lanes are no more, but instead there is a full bar where New England distilled spirits are concocted into a variety of seasonal cocktails.

“If I may, I would say that a large is good for two hungry adults,” John said in response to my friend, Nathaniel, and I deciding to split one twelve inch gluten-free pizza. John was quite astute. Both Nathaniel and I were adults and we were quite hungry. John, obviously worried that Nathaniel and I would start eyeing each others less vital limbs in fits of hunger, convinced us to get another small pizza: the Punctuated Equilibrium. What is another $12.25 to “two hungry adults.”

As John moved off I shouted, “Oh hey, how long until a lane opens up?” John looked back with a smile and said, “Oh you can count on waiting another hour.”

I looked at my watch. It was already 9:30 PM on this Sunday and the Flatbread Company closed by 10:30 PM. Oh well, at least the pizza was tasty, but I still want to hurl some balls.

The Flatbread Company Sacco’s Bowl Haven, open Monday through Saturday, 9:00 AM. to12:00 AM, and Sunday, 9 AM to 10:30 PM, is at 45 Day St., Somerville, Massachusetts. Lane rental is $25 an hour; shoe rental is $2. Pizzas range $9.75-$19.75 with gluten-free crust available for an additional $4.50. By public transportation, take an outbound MBTA Red Line train toward Alewife, and get off at Davis Square. Sacco’s accepts lane reservations for groups of eight or more; smaller groups are accommodated on a first-come, first served basis in designated walk-in-only lanes. Make reservations at 617-776-0552.

by Kit Norton

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Turnaround Twelve Hours in Chicago

At 4:30 am the train pulled into Chicago’s Union Station, fourteen hours late, meaning an unexpected and weary day in Chicago until the next train east at 9:30 pm. Not surprisingly, my traveling companion and I were exhausted and uncomfortable. We had been assured for more than ten hours that Amtrak would put us up in a hotel and rebook our travel home. Being hyper vigilant about bed bugs I always check the online Bed Bug Registry prior to booking accommodations. Blurry-eyed (without enough reading glasses to read everything on my cell-phone screen), very hungry (I ran out of food around seventeen hours prior), and grumpy to my core, I scanned bed bug reports and, sure enough, the hotel we had been comped had fourteen bug alerts. I start Googling the hotels that showed zero reports and they were all fully booked.

My companion was equally exhausted, but less concerned about bed bug contamination than I was so we were at odds. Finally I proclaimed that she could go to the hotel without any luggage (she didn't), but that I was going to stay at the station and wait the forty-five minutes until the lounge for sleeping-car travelers opened up. I felt like I was on a camping trip where it starts pouring, the tent leaks, and you’re having car problems….you are so uncomfortable you just want it to all go away (especially since the expectation was that we would be spending a whole night (instead of a partial morning) in a comfortable hotel bed (sans bugs). Expectations mixed with no sleep and low-blood-sugar made for tender and trigger-cranky emotions.

My companion decided to fly home due to work commitments (our new scheduled arrival home was a minimum 24-hours later than originally planned.) My day had grim prospects. I thought likely I would spend it curled up on a stained, lumpy love seat in the windowless lounge room of Union Station, dozing on and off, hopefully not visibly drooling. I didn’t have motivation for much else, but the love seat was less than appealing, so I mustered my last shred of energy and headed off to Whole Foods, not far from the train station. This was slow-shopping in the extreme. My daze was reminiscent of how I used to feel after working a twelve-hour shift all night at the hospital. I was working hard at concentrating and was slightly aware that I looked like someone on drugs or newly homeless (after three and a half days on a train from California I was doing a good imitation). Then I slowed down even more when I realized I had nothing to do for twelve hours. S-l-o-w shopping. If my companion had stayed she would have killed me.

After stocking for two more full days of travel, I settled into the cafe area and ate, which fortified me enough to think about spending my day outside of the station.

I knew I would be a horrible companion in that I needed every ounce of reserve to function and couldn’t expend any on niceties or social interaction, so I did not contact the handful of people I know in Chicago. It was sunny, with a slight breeze and perfect temp, so off I went to explore. Since not all my cylinders were firing, I took a water taxi to Navy Pier, where I boarded a larger boat for an architectural tour of Chicago. This was the perfect solution for the worn-down traveler: I was sitting outside, soaking in the sun, but learning things about the “windy” city: the bridge designs are from Paris, the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) can sway three feet in any direction at upper stories; and, the Haymarket Riot, a tragic event in labor history resulting in the hanging of union organizers, took place in downtown Chicago.

After the informative and, for me, therapeutic boat ride, I wandered around the shoreline and city beach, then made my way towards a day spa where I had booked a massage. Exploring the neighborhoods on the way, I stumbled onto Local Root, a local-foods restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating in the Streeterville neighborhood of the city. I had plenty of time before my appointment, so I savored a full, fresh meal for the first time in four days. While vegetarians will find a number of things to eat, the menu is heavy on meat and fish. My salad of local greens and pickled onions was delicious (the pickled onions were especially good) and went well with my perfectly cooked grass-fed burger. Chicago’s tap water tastes heavily of chlorine and has other known contaminants in it, so I would recommend ordering bottled water (although I would rather see restaurants doing their own in-house filtration of tap water).

Next stop on my grim-day-turned-fabulous, was the Allyu Spa located along the Riverwalk in the River North area. The large, airy, Buddhist-inspired day spa offers a range of massage and spa therapies as well as a far-infrared sauna. There is a meditation/relaxation sanctuary where you can wait before and after your therapy, as well as outside seating along the river. From start to finish Allyu was what this weary traveler needed.

The sad love seat where I might have spent my day was still at the train station when I returned, waiting for some other desperate traveler. My message to them—you have options.

Full Disclosure: no businesses listed here had any knowledge that I would be writing about them and provided zero comp benefits.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Driving Green in Paris and More

A cross between Zipcar and the successful citywide bike rental programs like Velib in Paris and Citybike in NYC, Autolib lets drivers rent electric cars at stations dotted around Paris. The brainchild of French billionaire, Vincent Bolloré, the pay-by-the-hour Autolib uses 100% electric “Bluecars". Drivers sign up for annual memberships and then pay by the 30-minute use.

Hugely successful in Paris, Bolloré has expanded the service into Lyon and Bordeaux and has announced that a program using red cars will soon be available in London.

Stateside there are whispers that the program may come to Los Angeles and Indianapolis—stay tuned!

* Photos by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The BEST Gluten-Free Pizza—Hiding in Edinburgh

This writer found the best gluten-free he has had in a place that is not thought of when it comes to fine pizzas: Edinburgh, Scotland. However, this is exactly where it was found in the La Favorita Pizzeria and Restaurant on 325 Leith Walk, Edinburgh.

If a really good pizza is one of those foods that is missed or craved above all else while maintaining a gluten-free diet, then look no further than to this bustling Italian eatery and its delicious gluten-free pizzas. The majority of the meals served at La Favorita have a gluten-free option as well as on all of the pizzas. The only thing that is lacking is the ability to settle into your pizza with the company of a fine gluten-free brew, but they do offer a cider and of course a wide range of wines that should keep any appreciator of alcohol happy.

For gluten-free beers, check out Green's, a dedicated producer of gluten- and wheat-free beer in the UK.

Guest blog post by Kit Norton