Not goodbye, but arrivederci

On Amy’s first trip to Italy she arrived full of charts and presentations and all kinds of business propaganda. On her first day Antonio, the head of the Rome office told her, “In Italy…numbers are optional”. That pretty much sums up the whole Italian way of life.

After that whole Rise and Fall fiasco the Romans said “To heck with this empire thing…lets party”. So, as our cab driver told us with a smile, “We are a nation with lots of, how you say…laws. But no one obeys them! Sometimes it is safer to go on the red light ”
As he proceeded to blow through an intersection.
Italy uses the metric system. What that means is the cab fare from the airport is regulated unless you are a tourist. Which means, the fare really is what he needs to spend on his mistress tonight and the meter doesn’t work and he doesn’t know why your credit card won’t work but there is an ATM down the block and yes he will take dollars on the unofficial exchange rate…

The beauty of this is the ATM is inside a Gelato store with the most amazing display of candies and ice cream offered up by two to three absolutely beautiful young ladies…

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I think you get the picture.

In Rome, people live in tiny apartments and drive tiny little cars or scooters so they can spend their money on fabulous clothes and wonderful restaurants.
On our last day we decided to join the spending crowd and go shopping. There was a really nice jewelry shop that Amy has bought a lot of things in at the top of the Spanish Steps. They had a second shop…ummm somewhere else. We (well, not really me) decided to check it out.

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Without the aid of the above map, GPS or common sense we struck out.

The line that circles out to the right is the cab route. It shows the maximum amount of meter padding they can legally do. The straight line to the left is the bus route. Considering the trouble with cabs I wasn’t about to try public transportation. I didn’t know if we were suppose to bribe the driver with gelato, vino, or a date with my sister-in-law. We decided to brave the gauntlet and just start walking the dotted blue line.
I might note here, there was no dotted blue line painted on the street. We had only my dusty Boy Scout tracking skills and a crummy “Best Pasta in Rome” map.
The route combined as many twists and turns as the Mr. Toad ride in Disneyland with an amazing number of unmarked streets. We finally arrived in a square by a big church. It was also a dead end. I saw a young priest and figured he might be my best shot at getting a straight answer about where we were. He looked about 20 years old – it was a little weird calling a kid Father, but anyway, I asked, “Do you speak English?”
He said “Sure!” in bright Americanese.
I asked where he was from, “Patterson, New Jersey”
Swell…he had no friggin’ idea where Via della Dataria was. He did send us back in the right direction and we stumbled upon the tiny, and I mean tiny, shop.
You could see the entire inventory by turning around once in the middle of the closet store so naturally it only took Amy 45 minutes to find something.

Retracing our route, we pushed our way through a crown of people in front of a construction site. This was the Trevi Fountain.

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The flag holders droned on to their charges with their prepared scripts like there wasn’t a scaffold in sight. I guess this is how people feel when they visit New York and the Statue of Liberty is closed. Our return was pretty easy and we only had to fend off a few of the souvenir men.

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We dined in a street side cafe, the waiter’s name was Al…Al Fresco.

Sorry – another bad joke I’ve wanted to use

As the sun set and we were serenaded by the small group of Hari Krishners across the Plaza.

It began to lightly rain.
The rain washed away the tracks of a thousand flip flops.
The city was clean again…

 

Damn…that was poetic!

Stormy Monday

One would figure Monday would be an off day for tourists.

Not so.

The fun folks at Perillo Tours “Leading groups, holding up little flags since 1945” weren’t going to waste a day. We, of course, slept in until about 11am. That’s 5am Eastern…2am West Coast.

We did a horse-drawn drive-by of the Coliseum Saturday and figured that the crowds would be lighter because it was early in the week and it was cloudy…with a chance of meatballs. 

I wanted to say that all week.

When we arrived at “Old Town”, as it is seldom called, we discovered to our chagrin that:
1. The place looked like an anthill
2. Amy forgot the battery for her camera.

The camera thing was taken in stride. The crowd thing? Interesting. I’m a little confused why someone would bring a baby stroller to ancient ruins. Imperial Rome wasn’t exactly as enlightened as us about universal access.

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I’ve seen shorter lines for tickets to a Rolling Stone concert. At the end of the line there was a sign that said “Wait time from this point XCVIII minutes”.
About that time a scruffy looking character in an Oingo Boingo t-shirt sidled up to me and said, “Hey Dude….looking to skip the line? I got connections”. After quickly checking my pockets for my wallet, phone, car keys and the tangerine Amy insisted I take from breakfast I asked “Uhhh…maybe. Quanti soldi?” Which is Italian for “I only have one eldest son and he’s being held as deposit on the hotel room”
”No, Dude this is totally real. Take the tour and you get to skip the line!” Since he was speaking perfect Colloquial Surf Dialect I trusted him completely. I asked, “Are you from Redondo?”
”No man, Romania.”
Weird…

There are two types of Italian women, the curvy Sophia Loren type wearing 5 inch heels or the skinny Milan model type with a barbed wire tattoo, wearing 5 inch heels. Our tour guide was the skinny type…leading us through the 1800 year old ruins in spike heels.

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Being a bit of a history buff and an early subscriber to the Discovery Channel I didn’t learn too much new about the Coliseum. However all the gladiator movies I’ve seen (including the ones where they keep their clothes on) got a couple of things wrong. The women had to sit in the top row separate from the men and the early Christians were not killed in the Coliseum…they were killed in the Circus Maximus. It held more people.

Amy remembered that on her first trip to Rome in 2001 there were a lot of guys dressed up as gladiators around the Coliseum you could have your picture taken with. They were all young, buffed out, wanna be actors or bodybuilders.
They are still there today…in fact it appeared to be the same guys…15 years later. Looks like they closed the Gladiator Gym.

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Back in the bad old disco days I worked on a cruise ship. I learned early on that in the tourist cab world it will cost way more to get back from somewhere than to get there. We got a cab to the  mall…OK the Forum…and it cost 9.65 on the meter. With the clouds closing in we looked for a return ride. The first guy said it was a flat fare…23 Euros. Amy jumped into her best “Hey Buddy, I’m an experienced world traveler” mode and waved him off. The next guy tried to undercut him and quoted 18. Amy gave him that steely eyed stare and we moved a little further away. Half way down the block we grabbed a cab he said “Oh itsa 15 or 18…” Using my best Darth Vader voice I said “HOLD IT. Is it 15 or 18?”, while reaching for the door handle. 
“OK, OK, it’s 15”
Guess who’s credit card meter was “broken”? And guess who didn’t have change for a 20? And guess who finally scrounged the change in coins and still over-charged one euro?

Next time I’m bringing my own horse.

We returned to the Spanish Steps area for dinner.

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We shared a Caprese Salad

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And attempted another selfie…

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One day left on our Roman Holiday…

Sunday In The Park With Dino

Sunday we hired a driver and went to Tivoli to see how real Italians lived. The driver’s name was Dino…of course.

Amy inquired at the concierge desk at the hotel. Alexandra was very helpful and said she would call one of her “friends”. Her phone call consisted of a lot of hand gestures, kissing the phone and saying “Ciao, ciao, ciao”  a bunch of times. It seems the Italian phone system can pick up waving of hands. This secret code got us Dino.

Tivoli is where the Romans got all the marble to build Original Roma. To haul the billions of tons of marble used in the construction they needed a really good road. That worked out so well that they went on to build the greatest road system in the ancient world.
The road system that the barbarian hoards used to invade Rome.

Oops…

The first thing  to get used to in Italy is they use the metric system for money – the Euro. Anything priced with a weird looking  “E” is automatically 4 times as expensive. A Coca Cola that should cost $1.25 is €4. A $35 Polo shirt? Figure on €195. I finally figured it out, they use the same pricing scale as Disneyland.

The Euro replaced the Lira 15 years ago. The Lira was much more fun because it took 2.3 million lira to equal one dollar. A kid could get his weekly allowance and claim to be a millionaire. A lot of people don’t know that Italy invented paper money because of this. Hauling a payroll for the legionnaires in billions of coins led to the fall of the Roman Empire, I think.

In Tivoli (Italy, not Copenhagen) there are two fascinating sites. Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este.

Villa Adriana looks like this…

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it use to look like this.

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Due to that whole invading hordes thing they really haven’t been able to keep up with the maintenance.

Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, after the disappointment of a failed bid for the papacy, revived the magnificence of Villa Adriana by building Villa d’Este.  Sorta like Al Gore building his big place in Nashville, “The Carbon Footprint Plantation” .
As Governor of Tivoli from 1550, he came up with the idea of creating a garden on the hanging cliffs of the “Valle gaudente”.

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There were a lot of Roman baths at Adriana…not sure if the Cardinal went in for that.

We finished the day discovering the park above the Plaza de Popolo. Amy thought it was just the place where Italian men took unsuspecting tourist ladies “…to see the sunset”…if you know what I mean.

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But there we found a really cool urban oasis, the gardens of Villa Borghese.

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Right nearby is the Villa Medici. Owned by one or another of the Medici popes, there were four of them (sorta like the Bush family), it was later taken over by Napoleon who moved in a bunch of French painters and named it Académie de France à Rome, which pissed off the local marble sculpture crowd. I’m sure there was some war fought over it.

Just before dinner we failed at a selfie again…

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Prego isn’t just for spaghetti…

Day 1.5…Roma

Arriving Saturday morning with approximately 2.4 hours of sleep under my belt and a 6 hour time change I arrive at the hotel. It is a “boutique hotel”. One of those trendy-ass places people who read Vogue Magazine whisper about in the 1st Class Lounge at the airport.

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Can you find the hotel? Neither could my cab driver…here’s a hint…

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Yup the door to the right of the shoe store…yes I’ve walked into the shoe store 4 times…I think that’s why they call it a boutique hotel.

Amy was ready to go so, not wanting to look like tourists, we decided to take a tour of the city. The obvious choice was to rent a horse drawn carriage. Subtle – nice and subtle.

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Evidently the same traffic rules apply to horses as Fiats. It is pedestrian beware. We scattered a crowd of Asians tourists like a 9th frame strike and sideswiped a number of other vacationers engaged in that popular sport “Taking cell phone pictures of things 1800 years old that I’ll never look at again”.
An interesting note…between our driver and every other tour guide I’ve overheard, everything in Rome is 1800 years old. Since the internet I get in the hotel is in Italian I can’t really fact-check.

DSC00080 On our circle tour we passed all of the 1500 churches in Rome (all over 1800 years old). Our driver said most Romans don’t go to church, “but hey…we gots the Pope!” We asked to do a drive by on Ancient Rome and we were corrected…”It’s Original Roma.”
There, after block after block of souvenir stands, stood the glory of Rome…The Forum and the Coliseum. As soon as we got within 50 yards we were attacked by swarms of street sellers. We seemed to look like we were in desperate need of selfie sticks, shawls and “free” roses. Beating them off like John Wayne in Stagecoach we galloped back to safety of the winding cobble stone streets of Rome. Amy was able to practice her favorite sport photo-sniping. There were pretty girls, characters and an unexplained mannequin parade.

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We went to an early dinner at 8:30pm.

I am recovering enough to post my next report.

Ciao

Roma Calls

Today is a travel day with a vengeance.

Leaving the house at 9am Friday and landing in Rome on Saturday morning.

Fortunately the travel wizards at Sully’s Bar, Grill & Discount Travel have me on the Italy Acclimation Route…I have a 4 hour layover in Newark NJ.
Having resided in the “Fergeddabout it State” for nine years I should be OK.

Traffic to the airport was pretty light so I was able to get something to eat before the flight

Mistake One

DSC00038 Peet’s may make some mighty fine coffee…
However one does not make a turkey sandwich with stale raisin bread…ever. Stale raisin bread can be disguised as edible by toasting and slathering with butter…and then serving to a person with a horrible hangover.
True, that does describe a number of air passengers today, however…as the kids say “I just can’t…like just, can’t”.

The Air Travel gods are messing with me today. On my flight to Newark I have been upgraded to seat 1F. That’s right sportsfans, right up there in first with the business execs and trophy wives. My flight to Rome? I’m in seat 321B. In that cabin, I think you are allowed to carry on livestock.
Fortunately I have a bunch of complimentary drink tickets so I’m thinking, “Happy Hour in steerage tonight!”

Flight One: Boston to Newark

As I predicted I was seated next to a typical New York biz-hole. He was travelling in a casual outfit his wife probably picked out at Nordstroms. When I sat down he gave me the once over and, noticing I didn’t have a polo pony on my Hawaiian shirt, I got the “How did you get this seat…peasant?” look.

Unfortunately for him, the freeby TV was not working so I needed to get myself in trouble. Twizzling my Virgin Mary, in my oh-so-friendliest voice I asked, ‘”So what do you do?”. He mumbled some corporate double talk about Advanced Response Digital Marketing or something and then asked about my business. I smiled behind my Ray-Bans and said “I’m the tour manager for Jimmy Buffet”

Mister corporate hotshot immediately turned into a slobbering fanboy.

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“You like, know Jimmy?!? I’m like, the biggest Parrothead forever…I’ve seen him like 7 or 8 times in concert…is he coming here soon…what’s he like…is he like, really cool?…”

I said, “Yeah he’s a nice guy”, and then leaned my seat back and looked out the window. Sometimes it’s so easy.

Flight Two: Newark to Roma

A very good sign…first guy in line at the gate? A priest.
I strolled down the aisle following the “If you need  extra time boarding…” crowd. I think I put almost everybody’s suitcase up into the overheads. It’s a big plane – my seat was actually in Pennsylvania. Still there’s nothing more entertaining than being on the aisle right next to the restrooms.
Seems United is trying a new menu in the cattle car cabin. They were bragging about how their new dinner trays fit better on the fold down tray…read smaller dinner trays.

I always approach airplane food like going to your in-laws house for a “special” dinner and not being able to identify anything on you plate. The flight attendant was able to keep a straight face as she offered “Pasta, meatloaf or vegetarian?”. The guys on either side of me got the pasta and veggie. They all smelled the same, just different shapes. I assumed the miniature serving size would save most folks from Airplane Food Syndrome…I was wrong.
We’ll leave it there.

For some reason right in the middle of potty time they decided to turn off the cabins lights. This only added to the confusion around the “facilities”. I was really ready to to see some aisle rage. One scruffily bearded guy who looked like he had knocked off a couple of terminal pizzas in Newark got cut off twice by determined old ladies. I heard him mutter, “What’s the deal? They got Depends!”. Of course in the middle of the relief rush the captain turned on the seatbelt sign.

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At last in Rome Airport…major confusion at the passport checking line. Combine Italian planning and engineering with two plane loads of Chinese and Egyptian tourists and it was every man for himself.

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I found Amy for breakfast
On to Rome!

Preparing to roam…Rome

I’m temped to call this a Spaghetti Western.

For the first time, I am joining Amy at the end of one of her business travels. She casually suggested, after her meeting in Berlin, that I “…meet her in Rome”. Kinda like a co-worker saying, “Ya wanna get a beer after work?”. Such is the life of a business traveler.

I have gone with Amy to Europe twice without causing an international incident. Although it was close in Madrid one time. I am, proudly, an American traveler. I’m here for the party. I have no problem hitting all the tourist spots. There are reasons they’re tourist spots…most notable, they are near where the pickpockets live. When traveling in Europe one is always warned of pickpockets. It is a skill that has been lost in America, like cursive writing and bidet design. In America we have done away with the pickpocket problem by introducing a plan where the government takes your money and gives it to people who call the 800 number to tell a lawyer they have been denied benefits…
Where was I? Oh yeah.

I also make no attempt to “blend in”. I remember my brother, who was an airline pilot, explaining this to my Mom. His normal outfit for daily wear was an overcoat, fake round eyeglasses and a hat pulled down on his head. Sorta like the bad guy in the first Indiana Jones movie. He said it made him look German and nobody would bother him.

I, on the other hand, love to be “bothered” by the local citizenry (as long as it doesn’t involve their hand in my pocket…without permission). I remember standing in front of the famous clock in Prague telling a carriage driver all about growing up in California. I think he thought I was talking to the horse.

I’m glad to be going to Rome. I already have some experience with “real” Italians, as opposed to New Jersey Italians. Many, many…many years ago I worked on a cruise ship that had an all Italian crew. They taught me many pick-up lines and curse words in Italian. I’ve also been to Florence and Tuscany (where I commented that it looks just like Southern California…and earned myself a punch in the arm).

These experiences made me realize I must prepare for this trip. The first thing I have to do is stop eating for the next few days. There is a saying around the dinner table in Italy mangi – mangi – mangi…which means “has your stomach exploded yet?” Italians eat the Mediterranean Diet which magically allows one to eat 26 pounds of pasta at a sitting and never gain any weight. It also only works on Italians…sorry Hollywood.

Rome became well known as a center of high-cuisine, since some of the best chefs worked for the popes. A chef, working for Pius IV in the Vatican in 1570 wrote a cookbook Opera dell’arte del cucinare. In the book he describes recipes, cooking techniques and tools, giving the first known picture of a fork. It also explains singing waiters.

I’m excited to see the Coliseum (site of the first Super Bowl),  The Circus Maximus (although I don’t gamble) and the Spanish Steps.

Amy loves the Spanish Steps. Her favorite hotel in Rome is at the top of the Spanish Steps. I felt the need to educate myself on Spanish Steps – Facts and Fantasies.

The Spanish steps have their own Wikipedia page..as do all famous places like the Bunny Ranch and the Corn Palace. The Spanish Steps is a real wide staircase. It leads to a church. They started planning it in 1580 and finally finished it in 1717.
And you thought road construction was slow in the US.
Evidently it took the reigns of two or three Popes to get this thing done. Who knew they were interested in civil engineering too? In the Piazza di Spagna at the base is the fountain called Fontana della Barcaccia (“Fountain of the ugly Boat”). John Keats (who wrote most of ABBA’s songs) had an apartment nearby. The first McDonalds in Italy opened there in 1986 officially ending the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately no one seems to know why it is called the Spanish Steps.

Dinner for One: Episode 5 – Food Memories

Mom was not a fancy cook

With 4 boys and ol’ Walt at the table 3 times a day she really had no choice.

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I remember her talking about the time she made Baked Alaska (waaaay before the brood). She told of how, as she was putting the meringue covered ice cream in the oven, her Mom drawled “That’s the damndest thing I ever saw anybody do”.
She was enormously proud it worked perfectly, to the amazement of all…her included.

She was a ‘50s cook with a vengeance.
Raised in the depression, she lived through the wartime rationing…back in the days when carbs were under the hood of the car and gluten was some kind of paper glue. She wrangled the budget and her time to feed our little army. We may have been the only house in the neighborhood with a padlock on the refrigerator.
Yes, the pork chops were cooked to death and mashed potatoes were on the menu every…single…night. She was no saucier, but she was a hell of a pâtissier. The cupcakes, pies, cookies and her world famous Wacky Cake…to die for.

I thought, what great food memories from my youth could I recreate?

Biscuits that came in a tube, where the seam splits open like a wardrobe malfunction at a Weight Watchers Zumba class? Spaghetti with butter and those dried cheddar cheese crumbs from a shaker? And one notorious evening when she served chicken from a can. A whole cooked chicken shoved in a pineapple juice-sized can. The only other time I’ve seen this was as a mystery ingredient on Chopped.

OK, this isn’t really working out…So I searched a bit more for food memories…

I recall a crab dip I had at a picnic, brought by a college aged kid who either stole his Mom’s recipe…or she made it. It was my first crab – and I liked it.

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My first real dinner date..at 19 years old…Donna. We went to the Princess Louise Restaurant, a converted luxury cruise ship. She wore tight, white hot pants…I wore a goofy, drooling grin. I’m surprised I remember what I ordered…

Not long after that, the ship rolled over and sank 28 feet to the bottom of San Pedro Harbor…a mini Poseidon Adventure.

nws-southbayyesterdy24   File photo. The SS Princess Louise Restaurant lies on its side after it capsized in drydock in San Pedro Oct. 30, 1989.

About the same time Donna started dating a senior at UCLA with a Camaro.

So, for dinner tonight we are starting with Crocodile Crab salad with Tzatziki tomato. Followed by our entree – Sunken Ship Seafood.

Let’s Rock…

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First we have to make the cucumber dill stuffing/sauce/whatever. Peel, seed and dice about 3 inches of cuke. It’s real easy if you have a dusty Cuisinart left over from the 80’s. You want the cuke super fine.

 

 

 

Into a bowl with DSC_00882 tbl. of Mayo and the same of sour cream. You can adjust this depending on your need for tanginess. Now spice it up with a whole mess of dill (I used about 3 tablespoons) onion powder, white pepper and salt. This made enough to stuff 4-6 tomatoes.
Put in the fridge to allow the flavors to marry (if you live in a state that only allows traditional marriage take out the refrigerator light).

 

 

DSC_0090 The crab salad base is so easy. For crunch, chop up some celery…tiny pieces…like 1/8”. If you have no objectors you can do the same with some onion. Now, dump a can of picked over canned crab into the bowl and add just enough mayo to get it moistened. Don’t let this get too loose as it has to hold together in a form. Pull out the Cajun spice mix you got for the Jambalaya and season to taste.  Banish to the fridge to await plating.

Let’s get after the Newberg sauce that will hold this all together. Start a few onions ( or shallots or the whites of green onions). Pour in 3/4 cup of heavy cream and spike it with some cayenne pepper, bring it to heat and add some dry sherry. Three egg yolks are beaten with 1/4 c. of cream and then they join the party in the pan. As things get thicker, season with salt, white pepper and a whiff of grated nutmeg.
SEASONING WARNING!: Nutmeg will destroy your dish in an instant. It is the radical terrorist of the kitchen. Think about what a “pinch” is, half that…then put half of that in.

I’m a believer in cooking things separately and then throwing them together. Get a bunch of butter going in a sauté pan and plop the scallop pieces in, give ‘em a minute or so, then add the lobster. Now spice up the party with some white wine and lemon juice and it’s the shrimp’s turn.

Here we add the sauce and toss in the crab pieces to warm.

Appetizer time!
Fan out a sliced avocado. Use a circle form or a round egg mold or a tuna can with both ends cut out and drop a disk of crab fun on the plate. Now top it with a stuffed tomato (cherry size or larger) with a few tiny cucumber spears sticking out. Dust with paprika so it looks good in the pictures.

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To plate this entree – first put a sauce of contrasting color in a squeeze bottle and draw a circle. Any kind of easy colorful sauce will do. Ya like green? Get a can of tomatillo sauce. I’ve seen ready made roasted pepper sauce in the market. I cheated and thickened up some Choppino (Yeah, I know, who has choppino in the fridge?)…anyway…

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Now artfully place the empty lobster shell on the plate and fill with the seafood mix. Allow the white sauce to flow out to the second sauce. Garnish with whatever the hell green things you can find, and a lemon wedge.

OK…who wants to ring the dinner bell?