A tray of freshly rolled potato gnocchi

The Culinary Classroom

Teams of people working in a kitchen

For years – long before I started this blog – my wife Julie and I have been wanting to take a cooking class together. We both love the time we get to spend in the kitchen (though now that we have a two-year-old running around the house, we don’t really have the option to be in the kitchen together). 

I finally resolved to make the class happen. For Christmas, I bought Julie and I two spots for a lesson called “Italian Comfort – Gnocchi” at the Culinary Classroom in Reading. The class cost $85 each, but I will tell you up front, it was worth every penny.

 A sign highlighting the menu we would be preparing

The Culinary Classroom is hosted by Chef Linda Bell, who holds classes in her home, which includes a spacious kitchen with two separate cooking areas – perfect for intimate classes of 6-8 people (we had 10 in our class and though it was a little snug, there was still enough space and food).  

Chef Linda runs the classroom with her husband – and sous chef – Mike. She is a retired educator who has combined her passion for teaching and cooking into a business where she imparts that same love of cooking onto her students.

Chef Linda Bell (foreground) and her husband Mike lead the classes at the Culinary Classroom.

The evening began at 6 p.m. with an introduction to basic kitchen rules: never hand someone a knife, always set it down for them to pick up; always announce when you are walking behind someone else; and always gather your ingredients before you begin cooking. 

Mise en place is the proper term for the latter. It’s French for “everything in its place,” and it’s a lesson I needed to hear. In my own kitchen, I have been guilty of making several trips to the pantry for ingredients that I should have had in front of me the whole time. 

After learning the rules of the kitchen, we talked gnocchi. The Italian pasta is most commonly made from potatoes and rolled into oblong dough balls. But really, gnocchi can be made with just about anything and can be shaped in multiple ways.

A hand whisks a cheese sauce for the gnocchi

Our first gnocchi, the gnocchi alla Romana, was made with semolina flour. For this, we mostly watched as Linda went over the basics. Instead of rolling the gnocchi right away, this particular recipe called for spreading the mixture onto a buttered parchment-lined tray then cooling it in a refrigerator or freezer. The pasta would later be cut into rounds and layered to be baked into more of a casserole-type dish. 

The gnocchi di zucca con salvia e Parmigiano was our second dish to cook. We first had to make butternut squash gnocchi; then we made the sage butter sauce. With this, we got a few takeaways to use in our everyday cooking. 

a stainless steel pan of sage brown butter

First, always save a cup of starchy water after you drain your pasta. You can use it to thicken your sauce. 

Second, always use kosher salt, not iodized salt. It has better texture and ensures you don’t over-salt your dish (also, when the recipe says “add salt to taste,” make sure you taste it so you know how much salt you are adding). 

Third, stainless steel pans are better than black-bottomed pans because you can see your butter brown a lot better. 

Two trays of riced potatoes in the center of a wooden table

For the second half of our lesson, we needed the more traditional potato gnocchi. Russet potatoes were baking in the oven while we worked on our other two varieties. This creates a drier gnocchi than boiling the potato. It also meant that the potatoes were very hot as we peeled the skins off. 

The next step was to rice the potatoes. This makes the starchy tuber a lot easier to work with when combined with the other ingredients. 

Eggs are dropped into the center of the flour and potato mixture

Linda combined the ingredients using the traditional method of gathering the potatoes and flour, then putting eggs in the middle, slowly incorporating the ingredients together into a dough ball (helpful hint: never add all of the flour the recipe calls for at the beginning – add it as needed because you may need more or less depending on the size of the eggs and how starchy the potatoes are). 

A tray of freshly rolled potato gnocchi

Then we got to roll the gnocchi. You can buy a gnocchi roller – a small board that will add grooves to the dough – or you can use a fork for the same effect. Either way, the grooves and ridges are key to allowing the sauce to stick to the pasta. 

A sauce pan filled with a reddish-orange fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce

From here, we split into teams to work on our sauces. One team was tasked with creating a fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce (with homemade marinara sauce as a base).  Our team was in charge of the gnocchi alla bava, literally translated as “drooling gnocchi.” It’s not the most appealing name, but it is a delicious cream sauce that includes Parmigiano-Reggiano and Fontina cheeses. 

Fontina cheese, I found out, is very soft and very difficult to shred, but I managed. And everything managed to come together nicely and almost at the same time. 

It was about 9 p.m. when all of the meals were done. Though the time had gone by very quickly, we were more than a little hungry by this point and couldn’t wait to taste-test all of our dishes. 

Maybe it was because I was so hungry, but I think these were the four best gnocchi dishes that I have ever tried. 

Plates of prepared gnocchi waiting to be served

The semolina gnocchi is one that Linda recommends being served as an appetizer. Because it is baked with cheese and not sauced, it is an easy snack that can be eaten like finger food. 

A plate with three kinds of gnocchi and a small side salad

Julie and I both love butternut squash gnocchi (and ravioli) and sage butter sauce. We are so glad that we now know how to make it ourselves because this was better than any store-bought variety and the butter sauce turned out perfect (in a way I have never been able to pull off). 

A large blue bowl filled with potato gnocchi topped with the fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce

The fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce was amazing. We were all invited to taste the marinara sauce before it was added to the cream and that on its own was amazing (the key is using real San Marzano tomatoes). With the cream and the slightly spicy sausage, it was perfect.

A plate of gnocchi alla bava - drooling pasta

My favorite, though, was the alla bava. Maybe it’s because I helped make the sauce. Or maybe because it was so rich and creamy that I could eat it as dessert. Either way, I loved it. 

One other thing I should note: the class was listed as running from 6 to 9 p.m. but we were there until almost 10. The food was worth the wait, though.

We learned a lot more during the class than will fit into this column. But beyond that, we also had a great time with the other eight people that were in the class with us (and Linda and her husband). Everyone else in the class was either a repeat student or came with someone who had taken a class before. The Culinary Classroom is certainly creating a loyal following, and it’s easy to see why. 

Linda was an excellent teacher and there were plenty of laughs to go with plenty of delicious food. 

Julie and I were both very glad to have taken the class. And I’m sure someday we, too, will be repeat students. 

Italian Reviews
Cosa's ragu bolongese has layers of flavor from the sauce, homemade pasta and herbs

Cosa Pizzeria & Restaurant – CLOSED

Cosa Pizzeria and Restaurant opened in May in the former Basil outside Sinking Spring.

Editor’s Note – Cosa Pizzeria & Restaurant closed in fall 2017 after less than a year operating in this location.

Restaurants close and restaurants open. There have been more than a few times on Berks County Eats where I have visited the same location more than once to try a new restaurant that has taken the place of one that went away.

Early in 2017, Basil Restaurant and Pizzeria outside Sinking Spring closed its doors for the last time. In stepped in Cosa Pizzeria and Restaurant, giving us the opportunity to return to a familiar place for a new experience.

The dining areas look much the same as they did when Basil Restaurant and Pizzeria operated at the same location.

Cosa opened in the space on Fritztown Road in May, picking up where Basil had left off. And while the restaurant looks much the same as it did when it was Basil, subtle changes have already begun. Lunch service was ended and the restaurant now opens at 4 p.m. daily.

The menu is all-new. There’s a strong focus on pizza, but Cosa also offers 10 entree options and a selection of sandwiches.

Also new was the pairing for our complimentary bread. Along with the olive oil was a bowl with a mix of potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and oil.

Bread, olive oil, and a potato and tomato salad made for an interesting appetizer.

It was an interesting combination with the thick, airy slices of bread, but it worked. It felt like an Italian potato salad more than a bruschetta because there was no crunch of the crostini or strong balsamic overtones. The potatoes were soft and created a unique taste and texture. Julie and I both tried it and liked it, but left most of it because it was too heavy for us to finish without ruining our appetites.

Cosa offers the standard house salad with mixed greens, cucumbers, carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes and croutons.

Our house salads were next to arrive a short time later. It was your basic starter salad with mixed greens, sliced onions, cherry tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers, topped with a handful of croutons. It was presented beautifully, and everything was fresh. It was everything I look for in a salad, setting the tone for a good meal to come.

Both Julie and I picked from the selection of entrees. My choice was the ragu alla Bolognese.

Cosa's ragu bolongese has layers of flavor from the sauce, homemade pasta and herbs

It featured house-made pappardelle pasta and a traditional ragu with ground veal, sofrito, red wine, crushed tomato and cream.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of veal, but I was a big fan of this dish. The meat added a richness that was perfect for the slightly creamy tomato sauce. The sauce was thick enough and the pasta cooked well enough that that sauce stuck, never sliding off to pool at the bottom of the bowl.

There was a depth of flavor to the dish as well with just enough seasoning to bring out the best in the ingredients.

Cosa's ricotta gnocchi is served in brown butter with pancetta and parmigiano reggiano.

Julie’s ricotta gnocchi was another excellent dish.

We have had gnocchi served many different ways. This was our first taste of ricotta gnocchi, using the rich cheese as a base instead of potatoes. It was tossed in brown butter with pancetta, fresh sage and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Brown butter is a favorite of both of ours – a guilty pleasure because a big pool of butter is not the healthiest sauce – and it worked really well with the ricotta gnocchi here. The fresh sage mixed in really shined through and gave a bright, herby flavor to the whole dish. And the pancetta added salt to the dish while giving it a savory element.

Both of our meals were very well done, and we took half of each home for later meals.

Our total bill was about $35, but we only had to spend about $10 because Cosa accepts gift certificates from the former Basil, including our $25 gift certificate that had gone unused.

We certainly did not want to see Basil close, but Cosa is proving to be a worthy replacement, carrying the mantle and providing delicious Italian food to the Sinking Spring area.

Hopefully others enjoy it, too, so we won’t be returning to review another new restaurant anytime soon.

Cosa Pizzeria and Restaurant
776 Fritztown Rd
Sinking Spring, PA 19608

Cosa Pizzeria and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Closed Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Windsor Inn at Shillington

windsor-inn-sign

The best meals are always the unexpected ones.

I had zero idea of what I was going to get last week when Julie and I visited the Windsor Inn at Shillington.

The only thing that I knew was that the owner’s daughter, Rachel, reached out to me over a year ago to come in and review the restaurant.

Fifteen months later, we were finally there. Better late than never.

windsor-inn-interior-2

I’m not going to lie. The inside is a little dive-y. We walked through the bar to a tired looking dining room. On the yellow walls were photographs from when the building was a doctor’s office in the 1950s. Behind me was a fireplace, it’s mantle lined with vintage cameras.

windsor-inn-interior-1

It wasn’t a busy night; there was only one other couple in the dining room and a handful of customers sitting at the bar when we arrived. Our waitress was doing double-duty, handling orders in both rooms with help from an assistant.

The waitress also happened to be Rachel, and she was more than happy to talk to us about the food: how it’s locally sourced whenever possible, how they make a different pasta in-house every day, and how they had in-season peaches for their martinis and margaritas.

windsor-inn-peach-margarita

The last one caught Julie’s attention. She nursed her peach margarita throughout the meal, leaving nothing but a little peach pulp at the end.

The name “Windsor Inn” certainly doesn’t scream Italian the way others do, but the menu certainly gave it away. Cioppino (mixed seafood simmered with tomato and wine) and carciofi (veal sautéed with artichokes, dried tomatoes, dill and cream) were among the unpronounceable dishes for a man with Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.

I also found out I have been pronouncing gnocchi wrong all my life. Apparently it’s not NOH-chee, it’s NYOK-ee. Who knew?

windsor-inn-meatballs

We started our meal with something easy to pronounce: gigantic Windsor meatballs.

They were certainly big — gigantic is stretching it a little — but they were delicious. There is nothing like a homemade meatball from a real Italian kitchen. The hand-formed meatballs had plenty of nooks and crannies to grab the sauce that was just as good. What little sauce was left, I made sure to soak up with some bread so it didn’t go to waste.

windsor-inn-pepper-parmesan

Along with the meatballs came the optional Parmesan cheese and red pepper, the latter being made in-house. Our waitress warned me that because it was freshly made, it would be stronger than a typical red pepper. I ignored her warning and quickly found out she was right. Tread lightly with the pepper. It’s fantastic, but it is hot.

We were happy to have ordered the meatballs because the courses were slower to arrive because so many things were made from scratch and everything was beautifully prepared. Even the salads were crafted, not made.

Salads usually don’t make it into my reviews because more often than not, it’s nothing more than mixed greens with a cup of Kraft dressing. That’s not the case here. The restaurant was serving three homemade salad dressings so Julie and I each got to try a different one. I chose raspberry herb for mine; Julie chose garlic dill for hers.

windsor-inn-salad-garlic-dill-dressing

I really like creamy salad dressings. The garlic dill was certainly that, having the consistency of a good ranch dressing but with the very distinct flavors of garlic and dill mixing together beautifully.

windsor-inn-salad-raspberry-vinaigrette

My raspberry herb was also very enjoyable: a little puckery and a little sweet with fresh raspberries scattered throughout.

By this point, we were very excited to see our main courses, both of which were daily specials and highly recommended by our waitress and rightly so.

windsor-inn-stuffed-eggplant

The stuffed eggplant, my choice for the night, was a beauty of a dish. It was almost a shame that I had to ruin it by digging in. The eggplant was stuffed with ricotta and peppers and topped with prosciutto. On the side was fresh made pasta with the house tomato sauce.

I absolutely loved it. The eggplant was cooked so it was perfectly tender. The ricotta and the prosciutto played extremely well together. And the pasta was delicious. Even the portion was perfect. While it looked small on the plate, it was just the right amount to be filling.

windsor-inn-shrimp-gnocchi

Julie’s bowl wasn’t quite as nice to look at, but it sure tasted good. She went with the shrimp and gnocchi. Julie likened it more to a gumbo than your expected pasta dish, with everything tossed in a nice broth-like sauce. It was a heartier meal than my own, but Julie managed to finish it.

Neither of us were really hungry for dessert, but I had overheard the dessert options when they were read to the other table and upon hearing the words “flaming peaches” I knew we would be getting dessert no matter what.

windsor-inn-flaming-peaches

It was a few minutes before the dish arrive: pound cake topped with mascarpone cheese and fresh peaches in Bacardi rum (with whipped cream and a cherry on top, of course), aflame upon delivery to our table.

Like two kids with trick candles on their birthday cake, we struggled to blow out the flames and dig in. Once we did get to it, it was good to the last drop. The pound cake had absorbed the melting cheese (and a lot of rum). The peaches were warm, sweet and melt-in-your-mouth good. I have absolutely no regrets about ordering it.

Even our final bill didn’t leave us with any regrets. It was about $65 for the two of us, three courses with two drinks (one non-alcoholic). I’ll gladly pay that for quality food.

The Windsor Inn at Shillington provided one of the most memorable meals of the past year for me. Before we left, we got a frequent customer card.

For every $15 you spend, you get a stamp. Five stamps equals $10 off your next meal. We’re three-fifths of the way there.

I plan to fill out that card sooner than later.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Windsor Inn at Shillington
38 W. Lancaster Ave
Shillington, PA 19607

Dessert Finer Dining Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Anthony’s Trattoria

anthony-s-trattoria

A century ago, Carsonia Park was a destination. People flocked by the thousands to take their turns on the rides, catch a show in the ballroom or take a swim at the park in Lower Alsace Township.

Today’s Carsonia Park bares little resemblance to the grand amusement park that once thrived here. Very few reminders of the old park exist. The old Carsonia Inn (now Klinger’s on Carsonia) still stands, and the original swimming pool continues to draw crowds in the summer.

Also surviving is the former beer garden that was added in the 1930s, now known as Anthony’s Trattoria, one of Greater Reading’s favorite Italian restaurants.

IMG_6290

Driving down Navella Ave toward the park, the sign for Anthony’s Trattoria stands on the corner. Behind the sign, almost against the house, stand a pair of street lamps that look oddly out of place. These lamps once lined the midway of the park.

Inside, the restaurant is cozy. Lighting is dim, but not dark in the three distinct dining rooms. With a little chill still in the air, it was too cold for Anthony’s to open up the outdoor patio.

Anthony’s menu is really two-in-one. There is the base menu, which includes typical fare for an Italian restaurant: spaghetti, linguini, pizza and seafood entrees, with a few surprises like tuna wasabi and chicken livers wrapped with bacon.

Then there is the daily specials menu, a collection of more than 30 entrees, appetizers and desserts that add depth to Anthony’s offerings like calamari tossed with white wine, olive oil and spaghetti; lasagna Bolognese; and lemon risotto.

anthony-s-trattoria-cream-of-garlic-soup

I started my meal with a bowl of cream of garlic soup. The garlic was tempered only slightly by a hint of sweetness. Every spoonful was like a bite of a perfectly done piece of garlic bread.

anthony-s-trattoria-bread-basket

After I finished my soup, our waiter dropped off a bread basket. In addition to the toasted Italian bread (wet with olive oil), there were two zeppolis—small balls that looked like donut holes. Essentially, that’s what these Italian pastries are: fried dough topped in powdered sugar. Served warm, these little bites melt in your mouth.

I stuck to the daily specials menu for my main course, gnocchetti al ragu biaco tartufato, ricotta and potato gnocchi in a creamy veal ragu with peas and Parmigiano, finished in black truffle butter.

anthony-s-trattoria-gnochetti

I’m not normally a big fan of veal, but it was perfect in this dish. It was cooked tender to the consistency of shredded chicken, but with a much meatier flavor. The homemade gnocchi melted in my mouth in every bite. The cream sauce was very dense and stuck to the pasta to ensure the rich flavors were present in every bite.

Julie followed suit and ordered another one of the daily specials: pasta al Forno alla Napoletana, a crock of baked pasta in San Marzano tomato sauce with sausage, a hard boiled egg, Parmigiano and buffalo mozzarella topped with scamorza cheese.

anthony-s-trattoria-pasta-al-forno-all-napoletana

The sauce was made of crushed tomatoes and basil with a consistency more resembling salsa than the pureed red sauce at other restaurants. The simple sauce was the perfect complement to a complex dish. The fried egg that was waiting to be discovered beneath the blanket of cheese was a welcome addition to the dish, adding an unexpected element to a more traditional pasta.

anthony-s-trattoria-angel-food-cake

Anthony’s portion sizes left us full, but not too full that we would pass on a look at the dessert tray. After salivating over the assortment of cake, cannoli and tiramisu, we decided to share a slice of “angel food” cake. While it is true that there was angel food in our slice, it was surrounded by mousse and a layer of chocolate cake, and wrapped in a smooth chocolate shell. Every bite was heavenly.

We went into the meal expecting to pay a premium for our meals. But with a check of $55 for the two of us, it was actually a little less than we had expected.

The amusement park may be gone, but there is still a crowd around Carsonia Park, at least at dinnertime. And it will stay that way as long as Anthony’s Trattoria is around.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Anthony’s Trattoria
900 Byram St
Reading, PA 19606

Anthony's Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Dessert Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews