Thursday, July 31, 2008

Girls' Night Out: Carrabba's Italian Grill, Port Charlotte, Florida

Last week my friend LB and I ventured over to Carrabba's Italian Grill on Tamiami Trail in Port Charlotte after work for girls' night out. Good company complemented with good food and drink makes a most excellent evening.

It's been a while since I've visited a Carrabba's and I had forgotten the cozy, friendly atmosphere. Walking in from the parking lot, the aroma from the wood burning oven hugged me and my taste buds were ready for something good.

It was Wine Wednesday, the promo only Florida Carrabba's restaurants ran for the month of July. Ten dollars off a bottle of wine - can't beat that! And, if you couldn't drink the bottle, Carrabba's staff corks it up to go. Despite being Wine Wednesday, I selected a refreshingly sweet and slightly spicy glass of sangria ($6). I LOVE sangria and savored every drop of it.

Where to Begin
LB and I started our meal with the tender and garlic shrimp scampi ($10). It's accompanied by slightly crusty bread topped with cheese and garlic. We drenched the bread in the butter-garlic sauce. Something this sinfully delicious can't be good for you but it tastes oh-so-heavenly that it's worth the indulgence.

We took our time and the Carrabba's waitress was really patient with us. It's summer and although busy, there wasn't a line waiting to get in (until we left) so we could sit and enjoy the atmosphere.

It was fun to see the chefs working in the exhibition kitchen and preparing the food fresh. It's nice knowing the food hasn't been sitting in some freezer for months.

Main Course, A Crowd Pleaser
For the main course, it was hard for me to choose. The Carrabba's menu isn't typical Italian but influenced by the Sicilian heritage and Southern upbringing of Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola, the restaurant founders (yup, those guys in the TV commercials). I decided on a tilapia entrée off the daily special menu. It was described as being lightly breaded then grilled and topped with artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes in lemon butter accented with fresh basil. Doesn't that sound delish?

Turns out the special was a real crowd pleaser, it was sold out!

No worries, plenty of tasty other entrées to choose from so I selected the Eggplant Parmesan. I'm a big fan of Eggplant Parmesan ($14) and this dish exceeded my expectations. The eggplant slices were lightly coated with a breading and layered with fresh basil, gooey mozzarella and romano cheese and baked with pomodoro sauce (tomato sauce). Yum!

It was so tender I didn't need a knife to slice through the eggplant. A side of pasta accompanied it and was the perfect combination. The portion was huge and half of it ended up being my lunch the next day. The entrée came with a choice of homemade soup, House, Italian or Caesar salad - I chose the Italian (you know, when in Rome!).

Wait 'til You Hear About Dessert
The entire meal was delicious but the dessert finale was spectacular. It's actually very clever of Carrabba's to offer this. You know how after a filling meal you want dessert but just don't have room? Or perhaps feel it would be a waste to order a full-size dessert?

Carrabba's now has mini desserts on the menu. Not only are they adorable in their little glasses but just the right portion (about 3 bites) at the right price, just $2.50! (Add a $1 to take it home in the glass.) What an absolutely brilliant idea!

I had the pistachio cannoli (a very Sicilian dessert); the other five choices were...well...I can't remember but look at the photo to see the chocolate, nuts, berries and creamy goodness. What a fab way to end the evening!

Carrabba's Italian Grill: It's All About Food & Value
I wouldn't say Carrabba's Italian Grill is casual, you can dress casual there but it's a great place to go for a special dinner. Whether it's date night or girls' night out or just because, you won't be disappointed with the meal, service or final tab (Our bill came to $54, which included an appetizer, an alcoholic beverage, entrée and dessert each). Most importantly, you won't feel guilty about the tab because Carrabba's is about the entire experience at affordable prices.

Carrabba's Italian Grill
1811 North Tamiami Trail
Port Charlotte, FL 33948
Tel: (941) 743-5299

Open Sundays: Noon to 9 p.m.
Mondays through Thursdays: 4 to 10 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays: 4 - 11 p.m.

Need to find a Carrabba's Italian Grill near you? Visit the restaurant's Web site.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Perfect Meal at The Perfect Caper Restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida

When Liz was in town last week, we had time to taste a few Punta Gorda restaurants. One was Peace River Seafood (which I've blogged about before) and the other was The Perfect Caper. Can I say, "yum!"

I loved the subdued, yet lively atmosphere. Not sure if it's like this every night but the night we visited, there was music and packed with people but nothing overbearing. There was definitely a good vibe going on. Everything from cocktails to appetizers to the entree (plus the lovely bread) was fantastic.

And, Chef Jeanie Roland was a semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in the Best Chef in the South category. This is the foodie's equivalent of the Academy Awards. Who would have thought such culinary talent was here in Punta Gorda? Wish more people would visit so I can discover other treasures waiting to be discovered.

Here's a video clip from the visit. Sorry it's so dark but you get the idea. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Peaceful Day on the Peace River: History, Birds and a Super Grouper

I spent today aboard the Navigator on the Peace River learning the area's history. Had no idea about the colorful characters who shaped the area until taking the tour. The tour is operated by Capt. Louie Desguin (Tel: 941-380-6814) with Punta Gorda River Boat Tours. Capt. Louie is second generation and knows the "real" history of the area.

Departing from Laishley Park Marina, the boat cruises up the Peace River, stopping at a bird rookery then heads to the Nav-a-gator Restaurant for lunch, home of the Super Grouper Sandwich. I opted for half of the superness and was satisfied.

There's a lot of stuff going on in the Nav-a-gator, a lot, but fun. After two hours at the restaurant we headed back down the river, stopping at the site of an abandoned town called Liverpool. In the 1800s and up until the early 1900s, phosphate was dredged from the Peace River in Liverpool. It was an established community and up and left in the early 1900s when the community realized the phosphate was coming down from Bone Valley (near Bartow) and it was easier to mine it from the land than dredge it.

Interesting, huh? Learn that and more on a tour with Capt. Louie!

Enjoy the photos!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Topping Out with the Rays in Port Charlotte

Yesterday was a topping out ceremony at the Charlotte Sports Park (aka: Charlotte County Stadium), which happens to be the new spring training baseball facility for the Tampa Bay Rays (beginning Feb. 2009). What's a topping out ceremony? It's when the last beam is placed on a newly constructed building.

Charlotte County Commissioners were present along with Michael Kalt, Tampa Bay Rays' Senior Vice President of Development and Business Affairs. Part of the ceremony included signing the beam to be placed at the top of building and guess what? I got to sign the beam! I will live in infamy at the Charlotte Sports Park!

Enjoy the photos and get ready to play ball this spring. Go Rays!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys: Swim with a Dolphin!

My sister Liz visited last week and I really enjoyed spending time with her. Our adventures included exploring Punta Gorda followed by a weekend in Key West. Although I got a lot of use out of my new video camera (the Flip Video Ultra), I probably won't be publishing all of the video because...well, they just aren't fit for publishing and we'll leave it at that!

Enjoy this video about our visit to the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys. Here, Lizzy got to swim with a dolphin (everyone needs to do it!). Check out my article about swimming with dolphins in Florida for additional spots to interact with these sea mammals.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Somethin', Somethin', from Key West: Purely Paradise Soap

So my sister Liz and I went to Key West over the weekend, which happened to be Hemingway Days (to celebrate Ernest Hemingway's birthday, I hope to get stuff on that posted later this week). Included was a little Caribbean Street Festival and both my sister and I contributed to the local economy by making a couple of purchases. Along with the world's most comfortable toe ring(s), I purchased this bar of soap. Yes, this sweet manatee is a bar of soap made by Purely Paradise Soaps. The packaging is simple yet gorgeous and the soap itself looks too pretty to use. It has a lovely, light tropical scent. Lucky visitors will be able to enjoy it, it's in my guest bathroom.

This particular soap is made from goats milk, glycerin, coconut oil and vitamin E. All good stuff!
The mold is custom-made and other designs include a mermaid, dolphins, a sandal and a palm tree. So, if looking for a unique gift, check out the Purely Paradise Soaps site if you can't make it to the Keys!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Not Sure What to Say About This Sign: Parking for Menopausal Women Only

It's been a busy week and shorter weekend. As I edit videos, collect thoughts and find the time to blog (and write - I've seemed to have misplaced my writing mojo), enjoy this sign my sister and I spotted in Punta Gorda last week during the Third Thursday Gallery Walk (which was a blast!). This sign is at 212 W. Virginia Ave. (Punta Gorda, Fla.) and not sure if the Creative Window Treatment folks are responsible for it or not (they're a tenant).

Not only is the sign great but I love the flowers beneath it.

So, does anyone have any comments about this sign?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Look Out World! Look Who's Vlogging Now

I'm having fun with my Flip Ultra and just put together my first video for YouTube showing bits of the Linger Lodge in Bradenton. I realize it doesn't tell much about the restaurant but there are some fun visuals. Stay tuned for more vlogging and in the meantime, enjoy!

Monday, July 14, 2008

What Were these Floridians Thinking?: Week of July 7, 2008

Why does it seem when someone does something dumb or stupid that half the time they're a Florida resident? Reading about two of last week's "brilliant" citizens has prompted me to blog about these folks. I have to wonder, what were they thinking?

First, let's meet Jacqueline Wimbush, 39 and from Tampa. According to the St. Petersburg Times in an article called, "Woman Loses Fingertip in Tampa Meat Market Brawl," Ms. Wimbush got in an altercation at an East Tampa meat market (the kind to buy beef, pork, poultry, etc., not a place to pick up men) when a woman named Pamela Bumpers (I'm not making this up, maybe someone else is making up her name, but I'm not) tried to advance ahead of Wimbush.

Long story short, Wimbush waved her hand in front of Bumpers followed by a "crunch" sound. The tip of Winbush's left ring finger (scheduled for a manicure later that day) leaving her with a nub. Sadly, this wasn't the first time she's lost a fingertip but the first time the doctors couldn't reattach it. And, it wasn't the first altercation for Ms. Bumpers.

What I want to know is, what position does your hand have to be in to have the left ring fingertip cut off? I mean, try it. Take your left hand and wave it around while extending the ring finger and imagine someone trying to bite it. Seems like it would be difficult to get yourself into that position, but it happened. I also want to know, will she get a discount on her manicures?

The best quote out of the St. Petersburg Times story is from Wimbush, "I don't know who's going to put a ring on a nub." Perhaps Mike Tyson?

Second, let's meet David Partin and his pregnant girlfriend Samantha Bailey. The lovely Orlando couple has a baby due in December and when the bouncy bundle of joy is introduced to the world as "Dixon and Willoughby Partin," his proud parents will be given an $100 gas card. Did you catch that, a $100 gas card. By December, gas will probably be $10 a gallon and a $100 gas card will mean nothing.

So what's the deal? According to the Orlando Sentinel in the article titled "$100 Offer for Baby's Name Gives Dad Gas," the Dixon and Willoughby radio show on 96.5 FM (WHTQ) was looking for the most interesting item to trade for a $100 gas card. Partin offered up naming rights to his unborn child.

When the baby is born and the radio hosts see the birth certificate with "Dixon and Willoughby" on it (yes, the "and" needs to be there), Partin will get the measly $100 gas card.

But wait, if someone can beat that offer, he'd take it. A bidding war is on, folks! Got 500 bucks? You have the opportunity to name the kid whatever you want. How about "Only Vegas Partin?" Or, perhaps the baby will look more like, "Google Partin?" The possibilities are endless.

I understand that desperate times lead to desperate measures, but come on, cheapening the kid's value at $100? Now if a sponsor ponied up a million bucks, then we've got something else to talk about.

Sunday with Friends: Lunch of Road Kill

Yesterday was a good day. It started off seeing Grandma then the afternoon with college pal Val and her boyfriend Rob. We started off with lunch at Linger Lodge in Bradenton, a walk to the Sarasota Bay Front (from downtown Sarasota, not from Bradenton) then Val and I saw "Sex and the City." (Rob saw "Hancock.")

I'm not here to review the movie. No, I'm waiting to put together my first YouTube video to do that. Yes, I just got my new Flip Video Ultra (it's PINK!) and hope to be vlogging soon. So stay tuned!

In the meantime, enjoy these photos from yesterday.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Results of a Spicy Saturday

I was given a bag of mangoes last weekend by my friend Zelda Mae. Her yard was FULL of them. I had some leftover jalapeños from my hot pepper jelly madness a couple of weeks ago.

What to do, what to do.

Make mango and jalapeño jam! I found this recipe over at Recipe Zaar and used up most of the mangoes and most of the peppers. So what did I do with the additional leftover peppers?

Made mango jalapeño poppers. I sliced and cleaned out the peppers, added mangoes in each then topped with cheese I had in the freezer, one a cocoa-goat cheese and not sure about the other, but they blended nicely. Popped them in the oven at 345 degrees for 25 minutes, until the cheese was a nice golden brown.

They were quite tasty. A little hot (spicy hot), but good.

The big accomplishment of the day was using extreme caution when working with the peppers. I used vinyl gloves so not to get the pepper juice on my fingers, which usually end up on my contacts and burning my eyes. This time, I learned from previous mistakes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cow Appreciation Day: I Was a "Recy-cow-le"

Yesterday was "Cow Appreciation Day" in Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country. Not one to pass up on free food (free things are always good on a single gal's budget), my coworker EP and I ab-libbed as "cows" for lunch.

The deal was to dress somewhat like a cow for a free entrée or dress as a cow head to hoof to get a free meal. Our strategy - wore black tops and cut out "spots" from recycled office paper and wore the "Eat Mor Chikin" sign around our necks. Hence, we called ourselves, "recy-cow-les."

We thought we'd score free meals but only landed free entrées (we weren't dressed head to hoof; were told one woman brought a REAL cow to the store down the street!).

Despite not getting a free lunch, it was fun. We did get some funny looks from people as we walked from the office, through the mall to the food court.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don't Feed the Celebs: What the Heck's a Clay Aikitten?

You can see a photo of the allusive Clay Aikitten here, along with the other peculiar animals like the Rottweiller Kelly and the Rosie O'Dung Beetle at the site called "Don't Feed the Celebs." It seems as though Park Ranger Pete is the only one capable of capturing these odd critters in their natural habitats and he's graciously created the site to share his snapshots.

Park Ranger Pete also includes related info about these oddball creatures, like their habitat, known predators, mating habits. He also provides the code so the images can be used on MySpace, Facebook and Friendster profiles. How sweet!

Now go visit "Don't Feed the Celebs"

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Moo! Dress Like a Cow, Get a Free Meal at Chick-fil-A on July 11, 2008

Chick-fil-A is one of the reasons I'm not a vegetarian. I absolutely LOVE their chicken strips and waffle fries. I also appreciate the company's wholesome, family values.

To show appreciation to their customers, Friday, July 11 is "Cow Appreciation Day." What's this mean? Dress head to hoof as a cow and get a FREE combo meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner). Need ideas on how to dress like a cow? In an email from Chick-fil-A, they sent a link to these handy, dandy ideas so even the least creative fan can join in the "Cow Appreciation Day" celebration.

I know what I'm having for lunch on Friday, what about you?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sarasota Farmers Market: July 5, 2008

After the Freedom Swim on Friday, I headed up to Sarasota to see Grandma. The next day I hit the Sarasota Farmers Market at Main and Lemon. I was really surprised at the strong turnout. Breakfast was an Italian Sausage - yum! and some fresh O.J. I picked up some cat grass for my cat, hoping she'd chew that vs. my house plants.

I'm trying something new, Picasa's slide show, so enjoy the few photos from yesterday.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Freedom Swim Across the Peace River: I Did It! Well, Kind Of...

Today was the annual Freedom Swim across the Peace River (Charlotte County, Fla.). As I sit and write this, I can't believe what I went through today. In the middle of the river, I thought I was going to die. Well, that's a little dramatic but I did think I was going to get washed out into the Gulf of Mexico and perhaps end up in Cuba. Despite it all, I finished (although I had some help), am glad I made the swim and am considering doing it again next year.

So this is what happened...

I showed up at Fishermen's Village with my floating raft thing and met up with LB, her husband and two daughters. We rode the trolley over to the beach area north of Gilchrist Bridge and waited for instructions. The goal was to swim to Fishermen's Village.

Instructions weren't really instructions, it's a "freedom" swim, but was warned the past two years' swims have been easy and today would be difficult because of the tide and current. The man in charge (I assume he's in charge, think I saw him on TV the other night) said it was best to swim up then over vs. over, due to the current. Have I told you this is a 1.5 mile swim? Although, one of the swimmers on the trolley said it's really 1.75 miles.


About 12:49, we were off. Hundreds of people had eased into the river. There were a handful of serious swimmers, those with skin-tight Speedos, goggles and head caps. Others were like us, floating out on bright Styrofoam noodles, floats and rafts. The smartest ones were those who wore personal flotation devices and swimming fins (duly noted for next year). Then there were those wearing patriotic colors of red, white and blue with hats, hair scrunchies and beads. I considered wearing red, white and blue beads I saw at Wal-Mart but opted against it. Not because it would have dragged me down but because it would make me shark bait (remember, black-tip sharks have been pulled from the Peace River!)

Not sure if this was a good sign or not. Shortly after leaving the shore and swimming upstream, a big dead fish floated by. Yuck!

I tried to keep up with LB et al but I let the boats get in the way. (The boats, including kayaks, were out there spotting people and giving a little help when needed.) And other swimmers. I tried doing the backstroke on my raft thing, but couldn't keep up. I decided to just go with the flow and at my own pace.

I kicked, paddled and stroked but didn't seem to make any headway. I soon thought, "What did I get myself into?" The swim reminded me of some of the stupid things I've done in my life, like the time I went skiing in Yellowstone, alone, and almost falling off a cliff (a tree saved me then) or walking the streets of New Orleans, alone, and befriending the homeless. Yup, this swim was not going well.

But, not giving up (I had no choice) I kept on going, trying to swim forward, keeping a positive attitude. But no matter how much I kicked and swam, Fishermen's Village still looked far away. I looked behind me to see orange, lime green and lemon yellow noodles bobbing up and down with little wet heads in the center. At least I wasn't at the end of the group.

I passed by boats resisting to ask for help but then the wake kicked up and into my nose and down my throat. I HATE drinking sea water! It's not just the salty taste but the fishy aftertaste that grosses me out.

My mind raced and I decided I would just drift back towards the bridge and hope someone would pick me up before I was swept out into the Gulf.

But help came before I was swept into the Gulf. A fishing captain came by, using a trolling motor.

"You okay?" He called out.

Letting pride get in the way, "Are you moving or am I drifting back?" I replied.

"We're moving."

"I'm okay."

And the boat moved on but common sense kicked in when I saw four teenagers floating behind the boat.

"Is he giving tows?" I asked.

"Yeah, come on!"

I grabbed the kid's hand and he pulled me to a loop in the line.

I have no shame, I was saved! I was going to make it to the other side. While being dragged behind the boat, I noticed others were being towed behind other boats, too. Marine patrol, the police and even the tow boat was picking up weary swimmers. The boat captain's wife told me the current is really bad this year and she had to be towed her first year. Suppose she was trying to make me feel better. Didn't matter to me. I was saved!

Turns out the captain placed in the 2008 Oh Boy! Oberto Redish Cup. Unfortunately, although I was staring at his name painted on the back of the boat, I can't remember it! Captain Jim something.

A strange thing happened to my body soon after I grabbed the line. It got weak, really weak. My calves and feet had cramped up and my arms felt like rubber. My toes and fingers turned to little prunes.

Other than saving my life, the ride gave me a chance to bond with my new neighbors. I learned about the local high school baseball scene and some of Charlotte County's early settlers.

I bobbed along, feeling like a barnacle latched onto the rope, enjoying the scenery when I heard, "Jenn! Jenn!"

It was one of LB's daughters! LB's husband and daughter were bobbing along. Long story short, we picked them up.

We stayed latched to the line as close to the ladder up to Harpoon Harry's as long as possible. It still meant we had to swim 50 yards or so. We saw LB and her other daughter getting out ahead of us. When I reached the ladder, my legs were wobbly like Jello. A man grabbed my raft thing and I somehow pulled myself out.


I was tired, heavy with sea salt and hungry.

Fast forward to tonight. As I sit writing this, my legs and arms are still sore. My face, head and shoulders are red from sunburn. Although I've showered, I can still taste the salty Peace River. Even after it all and having been towed in, I still feel accomplished. Next year I can do it, with the help of a personal flotation device and some flippers.

I'll add photos to this post tomorrow. I didn't take my digital but a disposable waterproof one and will need to scan the images in . Stay tuned!

Another note about today, it would have been my 10th wedding anniversary. Where has the time flown?

[Updated: July 6 with photos: Top - and we're off! Swimmers/floaters heading into the Peace River; Middle - that's me, early on; Bottom - being towed behind the fishing charter's boat]

Thursday, July 03, 2008

For the Sunshine State Only: Wine Wednesdays at Carrabba's Italian Grill

I was excited to hear about this tidbit today, since I'm a fan of good food and wine. Carrabba's Italian Grill kicked off Wine Wednesdays yesterday. This means on Wednesday nights, take $10 off a bottle of ANY wine from the Carrabba's menu. Mmm, I can just taste it now, a nice bottle of a bold red with lasagna or grilled salmon. Where's the nearest Carrabba's to me? 1811 North Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte, FL 33948, tel: (941) 743-5299.

There's one catch, this special is only valid in the Sunshine State!

Non-Floridians, I know you're feeling left out but here's how you can be part of the Carrabba's wine action this summer, it's a name game! Carrabba's is looking for fans and foodies to name a limited-edition vino debuting this fall. (Floridians, put Wine Wednesdays to work, everyone knows great brainstorming happens when adult beverages are mixed in so let the creative juices flow.)

Here's the deal:
  • Carrabba's is debuting an exclusive, limited-edition baby Super Tuscan wine later this fall.
  • Winemaker Ruffino is blending the wine.
  • Foodies and Carrabba's fans are encouraged to name the wine based on four aspects, uniqueness of the name, appropriateness for the wine blend, match with the Carrabba's personality and description of the wine inspiration.
  • Entries must be submitted by July 31, 2008, visit www.Carrabbas.com for more info and to submit a wine name.
So what does the winner receive? A fabu $1,500 epicurean prize package with:
  • A case of the exclusive Ruffino wine.
  • A catered 2008 holiday celebration for 12.
  • A year’s worth of Carrabba’s dinners in 2009.
  • Can't forget bragging rights!
What are you waiting for? With rising prices EVERYWHERE, it's nice to know some places remain affordable and Carrabba's is it. Meals are already affordable, 10 bucks off a bottle of wine is a nice bonus. Why not turn Wine Wednesdays into date night?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hey Charlotte County - Get Ready for the Freedom Swim Across the Peace River

I'm so excited about this and I probably wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have someone do it with. My new friend LB invited me (thank you!) to join her family in the annual Freedom Swim across the Peace River on Friday, July 4 at 1 p.m. I wasn't going to go, I thought I had plans for the 4th but turns out I don't, so this is it.

Don't worry, I'm not going to actually SWIM across the 1.5 miles across the Peace River (only if there's a black tip shark chasing me) but I'm going to float. Float on what, I'm not sure, but I'll figure something out. The swim starts at the northwest side of the Gilchrist Bridge (Port Charlotte) and ends at Fishermen's Village.

Now, I was concerned what "freedom" meant and after Googling, I see that some participants take freedom to mean free from clothing. Nope, not me and not for most of the participants. Although, I understand the true freedom swimmers de-cloth while in the water and their swimsuits are hoisted up sailing masts.

Will I see you there? I'll probably be the one with red, white and blue water wings. Now where can I find some of those?

Oh, this is a FREE event and check out the Charlotte Harbor Visitor's Bureau Web site for more info.