Day: December 30th, 2006

Out and about in Beantown

Saturday, December 30th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Family, Film, Travel

New York City’s unseasonably warm winter — with its longest snowless streak since 1878 — almost made me forget how icy late December can be in the Northeast. That night in Cambridge, the mercury dipped to the upper 20’s. Luckily we had our very own drill sergeant vigilantly monitoring that we all were properly geared for the wind and cold at all times.

Boston Carriages

After assessing some of our options, we decided on a trip to Quincy Market for a little shopping among the post-Christmas lights. I like how the small, white bulbs delineate the outlines of the Greek Revival rotunda. The area has come a long way since its 19th century origins as a market for produce and freshly butchered meats — though the detritus of the nearby Haymarket manages to bring some of the gritty tradition back downtown on Fridays and Saturdays.

Quincy Market Tree

Mare in the North End was suspiciously devoid of diners, so JC suggested Giacomo’s Ristorante as an alternative. I later learned that the restaurant is something of a Boston institution for authentic Italian fare. Despite the early-ish dinner hour, we came upon a line of diners, huddling for warmth and stamping their feet in the biting cold, patiently waiting on Hanover Street for an opening inside the tiny, no-reservations dining room. We decided to brave it out, at one point seeking brief respite in hot coffee (no sfogliatelle this time) from Mike’s Pastry Shop down the block.

North End

JC pointed out to me the sign in the restaurant window, touting Giacomo’s appearance on Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day. Ray had the Pumpkin Tortellini, after which she no doubt left the server with one of her customary paltry tips.

Sooner than expected, we were ushered in through the set of double doors — open one at a time to keep out the chill! — to a wooden table from which we had a clear view of the open kitchen and the wall-mounted chalkboard menus. The waitstaff was friendly, yet brusquely efficient; we’d barely taken off our coats and listened to descriptions of the five house sauces when our appetizer order (Fried Calamari) was taken and shouted to the kitchen. It hit the table minutes later, piping hot and crisply battered.

The House Special Zuppa di Pesce platter is advertised for two, and features a whole top-split lobster, circled by shrimp, scallops, rings of calamari, whole clams and mussels, tossed in a steaming heap of al dente linguini with our chosen spicy, lobster-based Fra Diavolo sauce. Ha, I’d like to meet the two people who could finish this.

Zuppa di Pesce

We supplemented the seafood mountain with the waitress-recommended Butternut Squash Ravioli with diced Asparagus in a Prosciutto, Marscapone Cheese Cream Sauce, which was wonderfully sweet and creamy. The Chicken Marsala tasted strongly of sweet wine and was generously studded with mushrooms and pieces of prosciutto. With this meal, I officially joined the ranks of Giacomo’s devotees.

We were about 2/3 of the way through our Zuppa, when the waitress came by to ask nicely, but meaningfully, if our party would be needing anything else that evening. With table space at such a premium — and front windows offering full view to the sidewalk lined with impatient, would-be diners — the staff does not encourage lingering; Giacomo’s doesn’t even offer dessert.

We hastened our exit and with bellies full, drove through wintry streets, taking in the sights of Boston on the eve of First Night. JB had described the annual event, now in its 31st year, as “pretty corny, but sweet in its way.” Beginning the afternoon of New Year’s Eve through the stroke of midnight, the city hosts a large party with cultural activities in venues throughout downtown: live theatre, visual arts, dance and music performances, interactive exhibits and films. The grand finale features fireworks on Boston Harbor, a Mardi-Gras style Grand Procession and a midnight countdown on Boston Common. I alone would be missing out on the festivities this year, while the rest of the family stayed on in Boston to ring in 2007. Maybe someday.

Credit to Dad and his new Christmas camera for the two photos below.

First Night Sculpture

First Night Sculpture

The Massachusetts State House (1798) with flag flown at half-mast. A bit of trivia (via Wikipedia): Highway signs indicating the distance to Boston are measured not to the city limits as is usual, but to this State House dome.

Massachusetts State House

On the drive up to Boston, I told Dad about my neighborhood Blockbuster Video’s recent closing (going the way of so many other video stores) and we got onto the topic of the Netflix business model, which was the subject of recent features on 60 minutes  and in The New York Times. Netflix’s site claims that the company is democratizing movie distribution, promoting small, well-made films as widely as major studio, big-budget films. One of its great success stories surrounds Hotel Rwanda, a small, critically-acclaimed film which made only $23.5 million in theater when it was released in 2004. Netflix subscribers rallied around Hotel Rwanda, rating it highly on the site’s recommendations system, which in turn raised the film’s profile, and launched it into becoming Netflix’s fifth most-rented movie of all time, outperforming such blockbusters as Wedding Crashers and The Bourne Supremacy. (2005’s Crash, which made a middling $54.5 million in the theaters, holds the title of Netflix’s most-rented movie of all time.)

Dad found inspiration in Paul Rusesabagina’s story of one man’s courage in the face of mass slaughter, and as it happened, none of us had yet seen the film either. Off we went to JE & JC’s (still open) local Blockbuster — and its Chagall-inspired murals outside.

Chagall Inspired Mural

Chagall Inspired Mural

Of note… according to the New York Times piece, out of the 60,000 titles in Netflix’s catalog, the number of films that are rented at least once on a typical day is an astounding 35,000 to 40,000. (Most people vastly  underestimate the number to be about 1,000.) “Every day, almost two of every three movies ever put onto DVD are rented by a Netflix customer.” This statistical distribution model is further explored in Chris Anderson’s 2004 Wired  article and 2006 bestselling book, The Long Tail.

Hotel Rwanda  was gut-wrenching as we knew it would be, and Don Cheadle’s Academy Award-nominated performance was powerful and brilliantly understated. I’m convinced he would have taken home the Oscar that year, had he been up against anyone else but Jamie Foxx. Tough break. As the final credits rolled, we were so drained that we couldn’t even bring ourselves to start The Break Up, which we had rented as a palate-cleanser. Perhaps it’s just as well.

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To Boston

Saturday, December 30th, 2006 | All Things, Family, Travel

Good-bye, Whitestone! 

Throgs Neck Bridge

Met Mom and Dad this cloudy morning for the ride North to visit JE & JC in the 02138. Here’s the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, as seen from our rear view mirror.

Whitestone Rear View

Putting our full faith in the GPS system directed us onto an unfamiliar route, through stone tunnels (“Remove sun glasses”) and winding Connecticut roads, lined with snow-dusted trees. The detour ended up shaving about 40 miles off the entire trip. Cheers to Garmin!

CT Tunnel

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