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
Limoncello chicken - a plate of capellini pasta topped with a chicken breast covered in a yellow safron aioli from Judy's on Cherry

Judy’s on Cherry

A view of Judy's on Cherry, looking from across Cherry Street at the exterior of the large stone building

Every year between January and February, I am challenged to find some date-night worthy restaurants for Julie and I to visit. Her birthday falls at the end of January, and Valentine’s Day follows closely behind.

These special occasions have provided us with some of our best meals in six year of Berks County Eats reviews.

Our expectations were high for another memorable meal when Julie and I made our first trip to Judy’s on Cherry for this year’s birthday date night dinner.

The entryway at Judy's on Cherry includes a staircase lined with paintings and sculptures from local artists

Judy’s has been on our list of places to try since the blog began. We did visit Judy’s seasonal restaurant, Plein Air, in 2014 and loved it, but had never dined inside the Cherry Street restaurant.

We made a last-minute decision to go to Judy’s on a Saturday night. Luckily, we called in the afternoon before service started and were able to secure a reservation for 6 p.m. We parked in the lot across the street – free parking after 5 p.m. – and headed inside.

A look at the vaulted wood ceilings inside Judy's on Cherry

It’s hard not to be impressed when walking into the second-floor dining room. The brick walls. The vaulted ceilings. They don’t build them like this anymore.

A lamp with a white base and blue shade on a table at Judy's on Cherry

At our booth along the wall, the lighting was dimmed, limited to a single table lamp. The dim lights didn’t bother us though (except when I was trying to take pictures of the food). From our table, we had a great view of the kitchen, which sits right in the center in the dining area. Some lucky guests were sitting at the bar seats surrounding the kitchen, giving them an even more up-close-and-personal look at everything.

We were greeted quickly by our waitress who went off to grab a basket of bread to accompany our meal.

A basket of bread cut into large points from Judy's on Cherry

The bread basket turned out to be eight pieces of what appeared to be pizza crust or flatbread. A small plate of oil was preset at the table for dipping. The bread was very good with just enough herbs to give it a nice earthy flavor and set it apart from a more traditional bread basket.

The building was once a farmers market – among other things during its history – so it’s only appropriate that the menu includes a variety of fresh ingredients. We tasted the freshness right away with our appetizer: browned Brussels sprouts with truffle cream.

A plate of Brussels sprouts in a white truffle cream sauce from Judy's on Cherry

Judy’s menu included several small plates that we were interested in, including stuffed figs, lamb meatballs and pumpkin ravioli, but the Brussels sprouts won out, and we were not disappointed.

The plate of Brussels were nicely charred – not burnt – to bring out a little bit of a smokiness. The sprouts were slightly bitter which we thought contrasted nicely to the bright, rich cream sauce. And the addition of fresh sage was welcomed throughout the dish.

A Caesar salad with cheese and croutons from Judy's on Cherry

We had ordered our appetizer not realizing that our meals also included starter salads. In addition to Caesar salads, Judy’s offers mixed green salads with a variety of vinaigrettes and other dressings. Julie stuck with the Caesar while I tried the ranch dressing with basil.

Julie’s Caesar salad was very nicely prepared with plenty of dressing, cheese and croutons. We both remarked about the size of the salads being just right.

Mixed green salad with a cup of ranch dressing from Judy's on Cherry

My salad was also excellently done. The addition of the basil to the ranch dressing was perfect and was a nice differentiator. I also appreciated that there were plenty of red onions, my favorite.

The entree menu was extensive and included several dishes that I wanted to try, like the duck confit cassoulet (a bean casserole with duck confit, sausage, ham and braised pork), winter root vegetable curry and black pepper rubbed duck.

Limoncello chicken - a plate of capellini pasta topped with a chicken breast covered in a yellow safron aioli from Judy's on Cherry

But the limoncello chicken with saffron aioli was my choice. The chicken was baked in lemon basil broth and served over capellini, a spaghetti-like pasta that was incredibly thin.

Everything about the dish was mouthwatering. The chicken had a nice crust on it and was cooked beautifully. I enjoyed the aioli, but it was the lemon basil broth that was the real star. The sweet basil worked beautifully against the lemon. Sun-dried tomatoes added a little more sweetness to the dish.

It came together as a single, composed, delicious dish.

A Frenched pork chop atop a bed of mashed potatoes, topped with mushrooms and crispy prosciutto from Judy's on Cherry

Julie’s Frenched pork chop was another great choice. Served over a bed of mashed potatoes, it was topped with mushrooms, truffle cream and crispy prosciutto.

It, too, was a wonderfully composed dish. First, the pork chops were done perfectly, still very juicy. (For those who don’t know – like me – “Frenched” is the style where the rib bone is exposed). The mushrooms had a nice earthiness to them. The prosciutto was crispy which gave it a feel almost like bacon. And the potatoes were present in almost every bite, bringing everything together.

Like my meal, it was an excellent dish, and one that Julie thoroughly enjoyed.

A view of the open kitchen, surrounded by a bar with stools at Judy's on Cherry

Unfortunately as we polished off our entrees, we both realized that we weren’t going to have room for dessert. “That’s OK,” our waitress assured us. “You can come in again and just have dessert.”

It’s a nice thought, but our meals were so good, I’m not sure we would want to skip out on the main course. The price wasn’t bad either. For our two meals, appetizer and my unsweetened iced tea, our total was $66. We’ve paid more for similar portions before.

Our service was very good, too. We had a seasoned server with a dry sense of humor that we both appreciated. She was attentive throughout the night refilling our drinks and checking in on us while other members of the team brought our meals.

It was one of our best meals we have had overall; it certainly lived up to our high expectations.

We are already looking forward to our next visit.

BCE Rating
Food: Excellent
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Excellent
Price: Reasonable for Finer Dining

Finer Dining Reviews
A plate of tortellini topped with meat sauce, peas and mushrooms from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Gino’s Cafe

A view of the front window of Gino's Cafe from the parking lot

In October 2017,  we made a visit to Gino’s Grille just outside Shillington. The restaurant had just opened two months prior, giving Gino’s a second restaurant. The original – Gino’s Cafe – continued to operate a few blocks away.

Despite what appeared to be creating its own competition, Gino’s Cafe is still going strong. A few weeks ago, we made our first visit to the flagship restaurant in Gino’s portfolio.

Unlike Gino’s Grille which sits right along Lancaster Pike, the Cafe is located off the main drag in a strip mall on Broad Street, across the street from Geoff Penske Buick GMC.

Tables along a wall decorated with generic images of Italy at Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Taking up just one storefront in the strip, Gino’s certainly doesn’t have the largest dining room in Berks County but the tables are packed in, and they needed everyone of them when we visited on a recent Saturday night. We arrived early – Julie, Jakob and I. It was around 4:30, and the Cafe was already busy. It only got busier. By the time we left, there wasn’t a seat left.

Our waitress arrived fairly quickly to take our orders and we had our salads within 10 minutes of sitting down.

A salad plate with lettuce, red onion, cucumber, two cherry tomatoes and a disposable cup of ranch dressing from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

The salads are simple with lettuce, some tomatoes, a slice of cucumber and red onion that was sliced paper thin. It wasn’t anything special, but it served its purpose.

We had a much longer wait after the salads. Twenty minutes went past and instead of food being delivered to our table, we received a basket of garlic bread that we assume was meant to be delivered with the salad, if not before. “I think this is for your table,” I heard our waitress say.

A basket of thin-sliced garlic bread from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

In the cramped confines of the Cafe, the waitresses had nowhere to hide their frustration – and sometimes, confusion. We were seated in the first row of tables, right in front of the counter and the soda fountain where drinks were refilled. I heard the waitresses trying to figure out who should take the next table that arrived. I heard confusion in the take-out area about order numbers.

It’s the type of confusion and controlled chaos that probably happens at a lot of places. But here, with no place to hide, I could see and hear it all unfolding in front of me.

The good news is that our meals were delivered right after the bread. I should also note that the garlic bread was very good. The bread was sliced thin and every piece was very buttery with just enough garlic to give it a nice flavor. I could have eaten them as a snack.

For my entree selection, I had a hard time deciding. For a small restaurant, the menu is disproportionately large. There are more than 25 options in the pasta section of the menu, and that doesn’t include another 25 or so dinners that are served with pasta on the side (not to mention the subs, burgers, pizza, salads and wraps).

A plate of tortellini topped with meat sauce, peas and mushrooms from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

Eventually I settled on the “Chef Tortellini” which had tortellini pasta with Bolognese sauce, peas and mushrooms. I always enjoy tortellini, and I’ve had it plenty of times before on the blog, but I’ve never had it with Bolognese.

I enjoyed the combination of the tortellini with the flavorful meat sauce. I thought it went very well together. The Bolognese had a nice, meaty flavor to it. But I didn’t think the mushrooms and peas added much to the overall dish. I certainly didn’t mind them being there, but neither flavor really stood out against the strong sauce.

It was also a heavy dish. I had to take half of it home with me when the meal was done.

A plate of baked ziti topped with mozzarella cheese from Gino's Cafe in Shillington

The same was true for Julie with her baked ziti. It was your typical baked ziti with a sweet marinara sauce topped with mozzarella. The addition of a little ricotta cheese gave the dish a bit of creaminess and a little different texture from other baked ziti dishes we’ve tried. It was very good, but like my own, half of it came home with us at the end of the meal.

Gino’s has a decent kids menu, mostly pasta with a few sandwiches thrown in (and pizza, of course). We ordered Jakob the kids’ ravioli. The pockets of pasta were smothered in a mound of mozzarella cheese. The full-size raviolis were good, but Jakob probably would have been happy just eating all that cheese.

A mound of mozzarella covers an order of kids lasagna at Gino's Cafe in Shillington

(At one point I gave him one of my tortellini and he kept asking for more of my food instead of eating his own).

Our final bill at the end of the night was right around $40. It’s a fair price, especially for the hearty portions. And other than the garlic bread arriving late to the party, our service was good. What I saw and heard just seemed like the staff wasn’t exactly working like a well-oiled machine, at least during our visit.

Still, we found Gino’s worth a visit. Maybe next time I’ll request a table by the window, at the far end of the dining room, away from the commotion.

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

Ginos’ Cafe
400 W. Broad St
Shillington, PA 19607

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews
An order of chicken Paremsan, featuring an extra large chicken breast topped with red sauce on a bed of spaghetti, from Temple Family Restaurant.

Temple Family Restaurant

A view of the entrance to Temple Family Restaurant.

I have always enjoyed a good diner, but I’ve found that I appreciate them even more since becoming a father because I know they are a safe bet for a night out with my son.

Diners always have plenty of seating (including high chairs), the service is quick and there are always kids options on the menu.

So when we were struggling to decide on a place to go for a family dinner on a Sunday in December, my mind went to diners. And that’s how we ended up at the Temple Family Restaurant.

A view of Temple Family Restaurant's large dining room, featuring tables, booths and blue accent lighting at the ceiling.

It had been years since Julie and I last visited Temple Family Restaurant – at least five because we hadn’t been back since Berks County Eats became a thing. We had always enjoyed it, but with so many places to visit, it had fallen off our radar.

Julie, Jakob and I arrived around 5 p.m. and found the restaurant to be busy, but not crowded. The dining area is very large with booths lining every wall and free-standing tables in the middle.

Our waitress was very attentive, arriving at our table within moments of being seated. She was happy to help as we worked to keep Jakob occupied – providing us with an extra menu for him to entertain himself with and also ensuring that his applesauce arrived with our salads.

Mixed greens topped with croutons, cheese and red onions, served with a side of Ranch dressing at Temple Family Restaurant

The menu is large and varied, but all of the “American Classics,” “Pasta Specialties,” and “Steaks and Chops” are served with a choice of soup or salad.

The salads were simple, mostly greens and croutons topped with shredded cheese, onions, green pepper slices and cherry tomatoes. It also came with more than enough salad dressing – at least twice as much in the cup than we usually see with diners.

A pair of dinner rolls in a basket with 10 packets of butter

Our meals were also served with fresh rolls and butter. The rolls were served warm and were very good. They also came with a pile of butter packets (I think I used half of a packet for mine).

For my entree, I chose the chicken croquettes. I have always enjoyed the fried chicken dish, but it’s not something I order very often. I was, however, very glad that I ordered it here.

Two chicken croquettes and a side of potato filling, smothered in gravy, from Temple Family Restaurant

The croquettes were delicious. The breading was nicely seasoned and the chicken had a great flavor to it. And as simple as it was, the bed of mashed potatoes the croquettes were served on were a perfect complement. And the croquettes were huge. I decided to save one for later rather than overdoing it at the restaurant.

Was it a steak dinner at a five-star restaurant? Absolutely not. Was it delicious comfort food? Absolutely.

Not taking the time to study the menu as much as I should have, I ordered potato filling as a side – even though the meal already came with mashed potatoes. (Full disclosure: when I was a teenager, I would do this on purpose when we went to diners. That was not the case here). The filling was fine, but nothing special. I actually enjoyed the mashed potatoes a little bit better.

An order of chicken Paremsan, featuring an extra large chicken breast topped with red sauce on a bed of spaghetti, from Temple Family Restaurant.

Julie had ordered the chicken Parmesan (both of our meals were listed as “homemade” in the menu and had pictures to further sway us on our decisions). It, too, was very good. The chicken breast had a crisp breading on the outside. The sauce was a little sweet and a little thicker than some places. But I thought it all came together very well.

And it was also huge. The chicken breast covered nearly the full length of the oblong plate. Julie didn’t even attempt to finish the whole thing, bringing home half for a later meal.

Her meal also came with a slice of garlic toast. It was not as good as the dinner roll. I thought it tasted more like Texas toast. Either way, it was completely unnecessary given the size of the chicken breast and the fact that we already had bread at the table.

The kids personal pan pizza at Temple Family Restaurant

The kids menu isn’t huge, but there are enough choices to keep most children happy. Jakob was pleased with his personal pan pizza. It didn’t look like anything I would eat, but Jakob finished every bite so I guess it served its purpose well.

He did not want his applesauce, though, so I ended up giving him my buttered corn, which he happily ate for me.

A small cup of rice pudding topped with whipped cream and dusted with cinnamon from Temple Family Restaurant

At the end of the meal, having saved a little bit of room, Julie decided to splurge for some rice pudding for her and Jakob. It came topped with whipped cream and was dusted with cinnamon. Rice pudding is not my favorite – it’s a texture thing for me, mostly – but Julie loves it, especially at diners. Jakob didn’t have much interest in anything other than the whipped cream so I ended up eating most of his share.

We certainly got a lot for our money during our meal as our two entrees, kids meal and rice pudding cost us $31.

It was an enjoyable meal, and kid-friendly at that. Mommy, daddy and Jakob all enjoyed our food and were happy with our decision.

Diners are once again moving to the forefront for me. And Temple Family Restaurant has earned a place near the top of our list.

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

Temple Family Restaurant
4949 N. 5th Street Hwy
Temple, PA 19560

Dessert Diners Lunch & Dinner
B2 Bistro's steak frites - steak with fries and Brussels sprouts

B2 Bistro + Bar

B2 Bistro is located in first floor of the former Narrow Fabrics factory.

In more than five years of Berks County Eats, there have only been a handful of restaurants that arrived with the hype of B2 Bistro + Bar. Recently opened in the former Narrow Fabrics building in West Reading, the restaurant had been anticipated since the first tenants moved into the Lofts at Narrows, the luxury apartments on the upper floors.

B2 Bistro has an unfinished look, including exposed beams and rough-hewn paint.

The creative re-use of the building has led to a unique atmosphere. “Unfinished” paint and exposed beams – some still with original safety warning posters – can be seen throughout the space. A large rectangular bar is surrounded by high-top tables with a couple booths along the sides. A row of stools can be found in front of the open kitchen, providing a unique experience for diners wanting to watch their chef in action.

Guests can sit at the chef's table and watch their meals being prepared.

On the opposite side of the room, large garage bay doors open to create an outdoor feel during the warm weather months.

Another smaller dining room is located toward the back of the building and features low-top tables for those who prefer them.

The best way to describe the menu is eclectic. There are shareable small plates, pasta dinners, a raw bar, pizza and charcuterie. Other mains include everything from the 50 oz. bone-in ribeye (shareable for most) and roast suckling pig to burgers and chicken.

B2 offers an oversized bowl of French onion soup

We decided to start off our meal with a couple small plate appetizers. I ordered the French onion soup, expecting a typical crock.

What I got was an enormous bowl about twice the size of what normally constitutes a “bowl” at most restaurants. It could have easily been a meal by itself, especially with how good it was. It was heavy with onion and thick chunks of bread. And there was more than enough cheese layered on top to go with every salty-sweet bite.

The beautifully presented shrimp cocktail with six interlocked pieces of shrimp.

Julie also ordered an appetizer, the shrimp cocktail. As she told me, she was craving shrimp for a while and was not disappointed.

The six shrimp were presented beautifully, each one connected gracefully. While cold shrimp are cold shrimp, these were colossal in size and even better for scooping into the cocktail sauce. Julie’s craving was satisfied.

A big bowl of pasta Bolognese from B2 Bistro.

Deciding on a main course wasn’t easy but I eventually settled on the Bolognese pasta, one of five such pasta options on the menu. The pappardelle pasta was served with a sauce of Iberico pork (an imported meat from the Iberian peninsula of Europe), veal, tomato, cream and grana cheese.

It was a good meal – very hearty and more than enough food – but I had enjoyed the soup more. I have also had Bolognese pasta other places and I didn’t find that this version stood out among the others.

B2 Bistro's steak frites - steak with fries and Brussels sprouts

For her meal, Julie had opted for the steak frites – steak in demi glace, served with fries and Brussels sprouts. The steak was cooked beautifully and the semi-sweet demi glace paired beautifully with the savory cut of meat.

The fries were good – thick, fresh-cut fries and plenty of them. Brussels sprouts are a vegetable where you can only do so much to them. They were fine but better with a little of the demi glace.

B2's focaccia bread featured thinly sliced tomato baked on top

Before our meals arrived, we were served a plate of thick focaccia bread, unique in that there were thin slices of tomato baked into the top. It was served with a cup of oil for dipping and was very good.

Take one look through the Yelp reviews and you’ll see a range of opinions, mostly centered on price and service.

A thread guide from Narrow Fabrics hangs on the wall in one of the private rooms.

As for price, our final total was around $80. It wasn’t a cheap night out, but with two appetizers, an iced tea and two entrees (both of which were enough that we took home leftovers), I can’t say we were cheated, but the price of every item was a couple dollars higher at B2 than other places. A margherita pizza, for example, costs $12 at B2; the same costs $9 at Nonno Alby’s a block away.

The service was fine during our visit. Our server was a little slow to take our food order and with our check at the end of the night, but we were still in-and-out in just under an hour so it wasn’t a long wait by any means. (And I didn’t mind that he called me “boss” throughout our visit).

Overall, I was impressed. It’s a cool spot and all of the food was good-to-great. Though I saw high chairs, it’s not a place we would take our little one (he spent the evening with his grandparents).

But for a date night or a night out with friends, B2 Bistro + Bar is a good choice.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Ambiance: Excellent
Service: Good
Price: A Little Pricey

B2 Bistro + Bar
701 Reading Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Finer Dining Lunch & Dinner Reviews

5 Favorite Entrees of 2018

Our annual end-of-year tradition continues as we take a look back on the best things we tried this year. Today: our five favorite entrees of 2018.

Brocmar Taco – Brocmar Smokehouse

When we visited Brocmar Smokehouse for our first blog of 2018, it was a relative newcomer to the Shillington Farmers Market. When we left, it was our new go-to spot for barbecue in Berks County thanks to the inventive Brocmar taco – a fried Johnny cake topped with choice of meat, coleslaw and barbecue sauce. Between return visits to the market and sandwiches at Brocmar’s Reading Fightin Phils stand, it was probably our most-visited restaurant of the year. Read Full Review

Savory Grille Five Spice Duck Breast

Five-Spice Duck Breast – Savory Grille

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that duck – when done right – is one of my absolute favorite foods. The five-spice duck breast from Savory Grille may be the best that I’ve tried. At the time, I described it as one of the best dishes I have ever tried – thanks to the addition of blueberry compote and sauce gastrique that gave it a complex sweet and sour flavor. It was an absolute highlight in one of the best meals we had all year. Read Full Review

Sal's Pizza Style Stromboli Pizza

Stromboli Pizza – Sal’s Pizza Style

I’m not going to go so far as to say this is my favorite pizza in Berks County (that honor still goes to the Chicago-style pie at Romano’s) but it is certainly the most original pizza – or Stromboli – in Berks, and that’s reason enough to make the list. Taking a traditional Stromboli and using the top fold as the base of a pizza is brilliant. It’s also very good and something that’s worth trying at least once. Read Full Review

Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

Moroccan Chicken – Fork  & Ale

Hands-down the best chicken dish that I have tasted on Berks County Eats. The Moroccan chicken from Fork & Ale featured confit chicken in an incredible spice blend, served over housemade pasta. The addition of sweet golden raisins and crunchy chickpeas gave it additional flavor bursts and needed texture and helped make it one of the most memorable dishes we have tried. Read Full Review

Kwik Shoppe Pulled Duck Sandwich

Pulled Duck – Kwik  Shoppe

This may not have been the gourmet-style duck described above from Savory Grille, but I have to give kudos to the Kwik Shoppe for creating a fast-food style pulled duck sandwich that exceeded my expectations. The subtle sweet and tangy sauce and the crispy onion ring on top were nice additions. Is it a five-star meal? Absolutely not. But it’s a unique only-in-Berks County dish and that’s reason enough to make this list. Read Full Review

Best of Berks County Eats Entrees
Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

Fork & Ale – Return

Editor’s Note: Chef Seth Arnold left Fork & Ale in July 2019 for a position at Terrain Cafe in Devon.

One of the hardest things about doing weekly Berks County Eats blogs is not being able to return to the restaurants that we have enjoyed.

In March 2017, we made our first visit to Fork & Ale – the new gastropub that had opened in the former Tim’s Ugly Mug outside Douglassville just a few months before. We had enjoyed everything we had, especially their take on poutine, but we had no real motivation to return with so many restaurants left to visit.

Then a new chef arrived on the scene.

Chef Seth Arnold started at Fork & Ale at the end of May. By mid-summer, he was tagging @BerksCountyEats on every Instagram post. At the end of July, he sent me a direct message, introducing himself and inviting me out to the restaurant for a visit.

Fork & Ale Menu

Over the next weeks and months, Fork & Ale was always in the back of my mind and at the top of my Instagram feed. Finally, Julie and I made plans for a date night. We found a babysitter for Jakob and headed east for dinner on a Saturday evening in early December.

We arrived around 5 p.m., beating the dinner crowd and taking a table for two. Fork & Ale does not take reservations so we wanted to make sure we had a seat, not knowing how full it would get by night’s end. The dining room looks exactly as we remembered with painted brick walls, Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling and reclaimed wood furniture.

Fork & Ale Uovo da Raviolo

One thing I learned through Instagram is that the chef loves introducing creative specials every night. On the specials menu during our visit was an appetizer we had to try – uova da raviolo – egg yolk ravioli.

The pasta pouches were filled with herbed ricotta and egg yolk, topped with smoked bacon, rainbow chard, purple cauliflower and a sage butter sauce.

Fork & Ale Uovo da Raviolo

Eating it was quite the experience. Pressing into the ravioli, the egg yolk began pouring out, mixing with the sage butter sauce on the plate. It added a completely different dimension to the dish that I enjoyed. And with the savory bacon and slightly bitter chard, it was full of flavor.

Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

The main menu has completely evolved in the 20 months since our last visit (no more poutine). The only common item between the two menus being the Fork & Ale Burger. One new dish that caught my attention was the Moroccan chicken.

The dish featured confit chicken served over house-made Fettuccini with golden raisins, bell pepper, arugula, crispy chickpeas, Marcona almonds and a Moroccan-spiced butter sauce.

Fork & Ale Moroccan Chicken

I absolutely loved it. It was one of the most flavorful dishes that I have had in a long time. The sauce was incredible (for the record, I still have no idea what spices constitute “Moroccan spice”), and there were little surprises throughout. The chickpeas added needed crunch to the plate while the raisins were little bursts of sweetness throughout. I can’t say enough good things about it, and neither could Julie when she had the leftovers a few days later.

For her meal, she went with the warm Brussels sprouts salad. The waitress recommended adding the grilled shrimp (grilled chicken was also an option) and Julie was glad for it.

Fork & Ale Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad

The composition was interesting – the sprouts were shaved like cabbage and drizzled with balsamic, always a good pairing. The fatty pork belly was a great addition and made it a truly savory dish. All in all, it was well done.

Being a date night, dessert was almost mandatory. There were two dessert options the night of our visit, a crème brulee that sounded delightful and our selection, the butterscotch lava cake.

Many places will do a chocolate lava cake – chocolate cake with a melted chocolate center. The butterscotch version was similar with a melted butterscotch center that was topped with housemade whipped cream.

Fork & Ale Butterscotch Lava Cake

Neither of us are big butterscotch fans but it sounded too good to pass up, and it more than lived up to our expectations. The cake was dense but flavorful and the filling was perfect. It was sweet but not too sweet, buttery but not overpowering. It was the perfect ending to a perfect meal, one of the best meals we have had in many months.

Our total bill for the evening (one unsweetened iced tea included) was around $60. It was a bit of a splurge for us, but with both an appetizer and dessert, it felt like a fair price for an exceptional dinner.

If you haven’t been to Fork & Ale in the two years since it’s been open, or if you haven’t been there since Chef Arnold arrived in May, do yourself a favor and make the trip.

I know we will be back sooner than later.

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

Fork & Ale
1281 E. Main St
Douglassville, PA 19518

Bars & Pubs Dessert Lunch & Dinner Reviews
Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits Tuscan Pasta

Brickstone’s Mighty Fine Food & Spirits

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits

At the end of 2017, Berks County lost a mainstay of the finer dining scene when ViVA Good Life Bistro (then known as Fields Kitchen & Bar) closed its doors.

The Wyomissing restaurant had been ahead of its time – at least by Berks County standards – with a modern menu and a younger vibe.

When the restaurant closed, I had concerns about whether a replacement would appear. Sure, it had high visibility from Penn Avenue, a large parking lot and a hotel next door. But it was also one of the largest spaces in the county (that means a larger staff) and the construction (or is it deconstruction?) across the street at the former VF Outlet doesn’t help the ambiance.

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits

But my fears were unfounded and a new restaurant has taken over the space: Brickstone’s Mighty Fine Food & Spirits.

Brickstone’s is the newest offering from the owners of Austin’s, Coastal Grille, and the region’s J.B. Dawson’s restaurants (Select Grille LLC).

Inside, it hasn’t changed much since the days of ViVA. From the main dining area to the bar and lounge, it feels very much like the former restaurant.

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits

The menu is a great complement to Austin’s. There is some crossover, and the types of foods offered are similar, but Brickstone’s has built upon the familiar to create something new.

And the menu knows no cultural boundaries. Tikka masala, pad Thai, enchiladas and the South Philly spaghetti and meatballs can all be found in one place at Brickstone’s.

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits Tex-Mex Egg Rolls

Julie and I started our meal with the Tex-Mex egg rolls, a delicious cultural mash-up with chicken, corn, black beans and cheese.

I’ve had similar before, but that didn’t make this any less appetizing. Everything about it worked, especially the avocado ranch dipping sauce. It added a nice, cooling touch to the mild spice.

For our main courses, we went in completely different directions.

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits Tuscan Pasta

I went Italian with the Tuscan pasta. It featured penne pasta with chicken, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes in a Parmesan cream sauce.

It felt like a dish I had before at Austin’s – maybe it was a special once, I’m not sure – but it was very good.  I love sun-dried tomatoes, and Julie and I are always looking for recipes that use them. The sauce was rich and creamy. Even the spinach was a nice little throw-in.

All in all, it was one of the best pasta dishes that I have had outside of a traditional Italian restaurant. And it’s definitely one that I would order again (perhaps for Julie and I to split as half of it went home with us).

Brickstone's Mighty Fine Food & Spirits Coconut Curry Bowl

Julie’s dish was more reminiscent of south Asia. Her coconut curry bowl included chicken, carrots, broccoli, onions, green beans and zucchini in a Thai red curry sauce, served over rice.

The vegetables were fresh, the chicken was done well, but the real flavor in a dish like this comes from the sauce.

At first, she didn’t even notice the heat. But as the dish went along, her bites got more and more spicy. Now, neither of us will ever claim to have a high tolerance for spicy food so this may taste milder to others. The spice level was certainly high for Julie, but not high enough that it made the dish unenjoyable.

She brought some of her dish home, but not as much as I did.

Julie also added a drink (not pictured). This being a date night, and one of the few evenings where Jakob – now 10 months old – was not with us, it seemed the perfect opportunity for us to unwind a little.

With entrees, appetizer and drinks (I had an iced tea), our total was between $45 and $50. Our service throughout the night was very good, though it seemed to take a while for us to get our check (we were happy to savor the alone time so we didn’t mind).

It was a great night at what is surely to be another hit for the popular restaurant group.

And it certainly is a great fit for a location that could have easily fallen away with the closure of ViVA.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Ambiance: Excellent
Service: Good
Value: Reasonable

Brickstone’s Mighty Fine Food & Spirits
901 Hill Ave
Wyomissing, PA 19610

Lunch & Dinner Reviews
Juliana's Tigliatelle alle Norcina

Juliana’s

Juliana's

In 2015, we paid a visit to what became one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Berks County – Basil Restaurant and Pizzeria.

Located in the village of Fritztown, just outside of Sinking Spring, Basil was headed by Chef Gianluca Longo, whose resume included stints working for Giorgio Armani’s restaurant in Milan and De Niro’s Restaurant in Miami.

The restaurant closed abruptly in April 2017, and in its place, Cosa Pizzeria and Restaurant arrived. Cosa was a worthy replacement, but unfortunately it closed after less than a year.

Juliana's

Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, and what’s old is new again. Juliana’s is the new restaurant in town, but it’s headed by a familiar face – Chef Gianluca.

Juliana's Bar

The interior of the restaurant has evolved. It’s still split into two seating areas, but they feel more cohesive, whereas before there was a distinct difference between the restaurant and the pizzeria. A bar has been added, replacing the waterfall that once adorned the dining room wall.

Juliana's Dining Room

Juliana’s menu features a mix of classic Italian pasta dishes, pizza and sandwiches with rotating dinner specials.

We started our meal with an order of homemade ricotta balls. The cheese was rolled, baked to a light crisp on the outside, and served in the house marinara sauce.

Juliana's Ricotta Balls

The red sauce was nearly perfect – thick with tomatoes and just a little sweet. The ricotta melted in your mouth and worked so well with the sauce. It was an excellent starter.

Juliana's Salad

Also with our meals came starter salads with choice of dressing. I enjoyed the fact that the salads were actually prepared – instead of whole cherry tomatoes and large slivers of onion, both were diced and mixed in with the greens. It wasn’t the largest salad but it was large enough with a full meal to follow.

Juliana's Pasta Al Forno

I ordered my entree, the pasta al forno, off the special menu. The dish featured penne pasta in Bolognese sauce with soppressata (a type of salami), ham, peas and mozzarella.

I have to say, first impressions were not that impressive. The Bolognese was fine but my first bite had just ham, and it really didn’t do much for me.

Then I took a bite with the soppressata, and the whole complexion of the dish changed. The meat was packed with flavor, a spice that complemented the Bolognese perfectly. And after that first bite, the flavor stuck with me through the whole plate. The longer I ate, the more the flavors mixed and the better the dish became.

Juliana's Tigliatelle alle Norcina

Julie ordered the tigliatelle alle Norcina off the regular dinner menu. Her pasta was tossed with pancetta (think Italian bacon) and onions in a white cream truffle sauce.

She really enjoyed her dish. Pancetta is a great addition to any pasta dish, but it starred here. The truffle sauce was a perfect partner for the salty pancetta. The pasta was homemade and cooked perfectly tender. And the shaved parmesan finished off the dish nicely.

Juliana's Bread

I also want to mention the complimentary bread basket that included slices of olive loaf and toasted Italian bread served with oil and balsamic. Did we need it? No. Did we eat it all? Yes.

Our service was also very good – though there really were not many other people in the restaurant with us for our Sunday dinner. (It was the first week of pro football so I didn’t expect to have much company).

The final bill – just shy of $50 – felt right for a nice night out.

We’re happy that Juliana’s is here. Basil was a favorite of ours and our extended family and the new restaurant, while completely renovated, feels familiar.

And the food is just as good as we could have hoped.

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

Juliana’s
776 Fritztown Rd
Sinking Spring, PA 19608

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews

Calabria Italian Restaurant

There’s always an anticipation around a new restaurant opening. Sometimes there’s a lot of hype; sometimes there’s only a little. But there’s always people who are anxious to try it and anxious to taste it.

When the restaurant is reopening, that anticipation is even greater. A loyal customer base is waiting to return. And the longer the wait, it seems, the larger that customer base becomes as word spreads.

Calabria Italian Restaurant built up two-and-a-half years of anticipation for its reopening.

In December 2015, a fire broke out in the restaurant. It seemed like a small fire and that clean up and repairs wouldn’t take too long.

But days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and months turned to years. Instead of repairing the building, it had to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. Driving between Wernersville and Robesonia on Route 422, we could watch the painfully slow progress that was being made.

In late April of this year, we drove past and for the first time in 29 months, the parking lot was filled with customers and not construction equipment. Calabria was back.

 

Fast forward to June, and we paid our first ever visit to Calabria. Despite growing up in Robesonia, I had never stepped foot in the old Calabria. I remember the building looking more like a dive, but the rebuilt restaurant is a thing of beauty. The outside is clean and modern with large curved windows and a hint of Old World in the brick facade.

Inside, the bar and dining area are much nicer than I would have imagined. The black tablecloths with white disposable covers make it feel like a premium dining experience. While the blue uplighting at the ceiling and around the bar make it feel cool.

Julie, Jakob and I were joined by our friends Matt and Tori. Matt is a lifetime resident of Wernersville, and like me, had never eaten at the old Calabria.

It was a Wednesday evening, and the parking lot was packed. We didn’t have reservations, but we only had to wait a minute or two for a table to be cleared before we were seated.

Our meals started with a basket of garlic bread, complimentary with the purchase of an entree. The bread was sliced small so the slices were easily snackable. Though not toasted to a total crisp, there was plenty of garlic and butter flavor throughout. We ate through them quickly and almost finished the entire second basket that came during our dinner.

Entrees were also served with a simple house salad or Caesar. The house salad came with mixed greens, two large slices of tomato and cucumber – the usual. It was topped with shredded mozzarella, a nice touch, and served with your choice of dressing. There were no complaints at all from the table about the salads.

Our entrees arrived relatively quickly. Each of us ordered a different Italian pasta dinner. For me, it was the tortellini in vodka sauce.

Vodka sauce (a creamy tomato sauce infused with vodka) is not something that I normally order when I dine out, but it caught my eye and I had to give it a try.

It was a good dish. The tortellini (I choose meat instead of cheese) was small so it looked like I ate more than I actually did. The sauce was good and very creamy. There wasn’t a lot of herbiness to it, but it was still a good dish, overall.

Julie ordered her favorite Italian meal: baked ziti. This was different than most versions of the dish that she has tried. Normally, it’s a lot of the traditional red sauce with cheese on top. This version was cheesier with a mix of red sauce and ricotta that gave it a different texture and a slightly different flavor.

It was a good change of pace, something that definitely stood out. She wouldn’t call it her favorite version, but it was good.

Matt’s manicotti was loaded with both ricotta and red sauce. The oversized stuffed pasta was a hit. I got to try a bite. I thought the red sauce was good, nothing outstanding, but the dish overall was good.

Tori also enjoyed her chicken Parmesan. There was more than enough chicken – plenty of it went home – and the rest of the plate was filled with pasta. As far as our party was concerned, we had four meals, and four winners.

For Julie and I, our total bill came to about $35, average for what a similar meal would cost at Italian restaurants across Berks County.

I have to say, Calabria made a great first impression on us. The food was very good. The service was great. And the building, itself, just seemed to enhance the experience.

And judging by the parking lot every time we drive past, it’s made a good impression on a lot of others, too.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Great
Ambiance: Great
Value: Reasonable

Calabria Italian Restaurant
6646 Penn Ave
Wernersville, PA 19565

Italian Lunch & Dinner Reviews