Head to Flemington for holiday spirit

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 12/7/16

There’s one Hunterdon County borough that has all of the makings for a classic Christmas.

Flemington, which boasts a historic district, shops large and small and a full calendar of holiday events, pulls in tons of holiday visitors each year — and for good reason.

“The historic architecture makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time when you walk down the street,” said Patricia Millen, executive director of the Hunterdon County Historical Society. “This is such a pretty, charming town with a high concentration of 19th century buildings, plus, it’s very walkable and many of the homes and stores are decorated.”

Laura Cummins, director of membership and events of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce, said that she, too, feels like she is traveling back in time when she sees the simple yet classic holiday decorations, such as wreaths, lights or candlelit windows that adorn the historic Flemington homes.

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Union meadery leads modern mead movement

UNION (Union) – With craft breweries sprouting up throughout New Jersey and people itching to try the latest local beer, it’s no surprise that beer fanatics have been giving home brewing a try in their own basements.

Sergio Moutela of South Plainfield, founder of Melovino Meadery in the Vauxhall section of Union, started out as a homebrewer, too, until he decided that it was time to get a little more creative.

Moutela, who grew up making wine at home with his grandfather and went on to brew his own beer as an adult, stumbled across mead — a fermented beverage made from honey — online in 2011.

“I used to just know honey as the product that comes in bear-shaped bottles at the supermarket,” he said. “However, I soon found out that just like in the grape wine world, different varietals of honey can make completely different products.”

Most people know mead as what they see offered at renaissance fairs, but Moutela soon discovered that it was much more than that. He found that even though wine is also an archaic beverage, no one spoke about it in the way that they do of mead, and if people continued to do so and refer to it as the “drink of the Vikings,” it would continue to stay niche when it had the ingredients to become much more mainstream.

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Where to find local and live Christmas trees

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

There’s nothing like wandering through a maze of trees alongside family to choose and chop the perfect Christmas evergreen to get you in the holiday spirit.

Here in picturesque Central Jersey, there’s no shortage of local fir trees to choose from for your own home.

Everitt Farms of Ringoes, a 130-year-old family-owned farm, has been selling Fraser fir and Douglas fir trees for about 35 years, originally from the front of farm owner Dave Everitt’s house.

Then, a neighboring farm asked Everitt if he wanted to sell the trees there, and when that neighbor’s farm went out of business, Everitt figured that it was no reason to stop his tree sales — with one condition.

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Hoboken Italian food tour offers back-stage pass

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 11/22/16

There aren’t many cities left in the United States where you can find 100-year-old Italian bakeries, restaurants and groceries on every corner, sporting owners that still speak with thick Italian accents.

However, we have one right around the corner in Hoboken — and a food tour run by a local to offer New Jerseyans a back-stage pass to all that’s authentically Italian.

The Mangia Hoboken Food and Culture Tour, a 3½-hour $48 tour that includes eight hearty samples, was founded and has been run by Hoboken resident Avi Ohring for the last eight years.

Ohring, a Hoboken resident for the last 30 years, started and planned the tour itinerary, based on his knowledge of local Italian hangouts, right before the launch of “Cake Boss” in early 2009.

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Island Spa, Edison’s ‘hidden getaway’

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

EDISON – MyCentralJersey.com entertainment and business columnist Bob Makin does not look like the kind of guy who goes to the spa.

With a burly beard and larger-than-life personality, I was surprised when he raved to me about Island Spa in Edison, a Korean spa that offers six dry saunas, massages, facials, body scrubs, hot tubs, Korean restaurant, juice bar, group sleeping rooms and more.

“I was having a really rough week, so I stopped by Island Spa one day,” said Makin. “I saw this sign there that said something like, ‘Need a vacation? You don’t have to go far,’ and I realized that it’s true — going to Island Spa is like a mini vacation.”

Island Spa’s bright, open, modern and squeaky-clean layout in a 32,000-square-foot building hidden inside an Edison mall and full of relaxed, barefoot Central Jerseyans in Island Spa robes — which make it appear like an island getaway — is no accident.

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There’s a new beer destination coming to Somerville

For the past 10 years, beer fans have found their own glass of heaven in Tapastre, a Somerville eatery that pairs tapas with craft beers.

Now, those with a thirst and hunger for beer can find both a meal and a pint at Project P.U.B., a new rotating monthly brew pub restaurant that will be situated over Tapastre at 1 W. High Street.

Ever since Mike Proske, founder of both restaurants, purchased the singular building from his father in 2010, the upstairs floors have remained vacant following its stint as an Italian restaurant as Proske debated how to use the space. He toyed with the idea of opening a brewery, but earlier this year, he came up with a much more distinctive concept for his building.

Each month, Proske’s team will select one brewery – the first one being Founders Brewing Co. – and dedicate all of their taps to them as well as create a food menu with items cooked with the beer as well as those that can be paired with the beer. Project P.U.B., which stands for “pop-up brew pub,” will also be doing brewing collaborations with some of the local breweries.

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My 5 top international eateries in Central Jersey

When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m always pretty psyched to tell them that I write about local travel and food in my Tuesday column and our Wednesday Table section.

Immediately, they usually have quite a few questions.

“How do you find restaurants to review?”

“What if a restaurant turns out to be bad?”

Every time, I launch into my usual speech — I don’t review anything. I only write about restaurants that I like in the first place, but as a journalist, I was trained that no one cares about your opinion. So in my food/restaurant stories, which often sneak into my travel column as well as my Table stories, I never critique the restaurant.

Pork barbeque combo by chef Homer Reyes at La Parilla de Manila, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Colonia, NJ. (Photo: Jason Towlen/Staff Photographer)

Pork barbeque combo by chef Homer Reyes at La Parilla de Manila, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Colonia, NJ.
(Photo: Jason Towlen/Staff Photographer)

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An Asian food fan finds underground paradise in Jersey City

Today, I’m an ever-hungry Jersey food writer for this blog as well as Gannett New Jersey’s MyCentralJersey.com and DailyRecord.com, which congregate from the Courier News, Home News Tribune and Daily Record. But as a kid, I was labeled as a picky eater.

Today, I also know better. I was never a picky eater – I was a selective eater.

I crinkled my nose at bologna sandwiches at lunchtime and my mother’s dinnertime microwave meals. I passed on frozen pizza and plastic-looking macaroni. I wasn’t interested in questionable buffet items or soggy french fries.

However, I was definitely down to try colorful sushi rolls, exotic meats and other eloquently prepared dishes that I had never seen in a school cafeteria or even in my own fridge. I’m still the same way today – I gravitate towards something a little stylish, a little fashionable or a little odd over a burger any day, most of which I’m totally incapable of cooking or creating myself.

Many of these dishes that I love the most tend to be of Asian influence – I could eat Thai, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese cuisine every day of the week. However, there are two outstanding issues with this – one, I frequently don’t really know what I’m ordering and two, I’m often dropping quite a chunk of change at fancy restaurants.

Cellar 335 is an Asian fusion restaurant. (Photo by Jenna Intersimone)

Cellar 335 is an Asian fusion restaurant. (Photo by Jenna Intersimone)

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Escape rooms bring puzzles to life in N.J.

You’re trapped in a room with seven of your closest friends. With only an hour to spare, you frantically search the room for any clues to escape, solving riddles and asking for hints along the way.

No, this isn’t a video game or a movie. Actually, it’s real life.

Escape rooms, which are live, interactive puzzle games that require groups of about eight people and up to work together to find a key to set them free within a set amount of time of usually an hour, are the newest international craze to sweep those looking for something different to do on the weekend.

“Escape rooms are the perfect balance of real life and virtual reality,” said Christopher Lagrada, co-owner of The Escape Plan, a puzzle room facility that opened in April in Highland Park. “You hear a lot of people talk about video games, but with those, you miss the physical components, scripting and actors to make it into a whole scene.”

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Italy lands in Bernardsville kitchen with pasta-making classes

Back in the day, if you knew the best recipe to make your own Jamaican jerk chicken, Polish pierogis or Creole red beans and rice, it was because your grandmother taught you.

However, thanks to the exploding popularity of the Food Network, food knowledge isn’t limited to family history — which has led for a search for cooking knowledge like never before.

“We are so surrounded and saturated with food and we always want to know more,” said chef Kevin Knevals, of Raritan Borough, who has worked at Osteria Morini, a northern Italian restaurant in Bernardsville, for five years (since it opened) and with the Altamarea Group, which owns the restaurant, for nine years. “People are not just wanting to cook — they want to cook great things and get involved in the process.”

It was because of this demand of knowledge that Osteria Morini began offering pasta making classes led by Knevals about one year ago. The restaurant that had been housed in the space before it — Due Terre — held the popular classes, and after the restaurant was replaced with Osteria Morini, guests continue to come in and ask for them.

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