Mister M and I recently returned from Puglia, a region in Italy, with hearts filled with warmth from southern Italian hospitality and bellies full of the beloved Apuglian cuisine my Italian family was raised on.

No longer hangry, Mister M and I enjoying the best pizza we've ever eaten

Towards the end of our trip we headed for a quick stay in Rome before flying home. But not before stopping in Naples for the best pizza that has ever passed my lips. For me, it was the best bite of 2013.

Carlo, our driver, and Mister M became fast friends over the many miles we traveled throughout the region, chatting for hours about International Basketball and the NBA. Instead of stopping in the Amalfi coast on our way up to Rome as scheduled,  Carlo suggested a detour. Carlo is Neapolitan and he grew up a few blocks from L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which he touted as the best pizza in the world. Neapolitans take their pizza seriously, so when he spoke, we listened.

Da Michele is hardly a secret—in fact, the unnamed pizzeria Julia Roberts visited on a road trip to Naples in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed at da Michele. But because of its off the beaten path location, it’s relatively unknown, so I didn’t let a little mainstream Hollywood attention detract from my anticipation of the pie.

Naples is a town of a different breed and we waited while Carlo tipped the business owner across the street to watch the car, a practice that is commonplace in Naples. Then we joined the growing crowd outside waiting for a table for lunch.

There were 20 parties ahead of us, but within 30 minutes, the three us were seated in the green and white tiled-room, grazing the very short menu. There are only three choices you need to make at da Michele: margarita or marinara pizza, cheese or double cheese, and beer or soda.  And for only five to seven Euro! We quickly placed our order. It had been a long day, and we were all hangry (so hungry we were getting angry).

Da Michele is family-owned pizzeria that runs like a well-EVOO’d machine, and has been since 1870. Watching the pizza ovens kept us distracted while we waited for our pies. People are pumped into the restaurant and four men run the wood-burning oven—the key to great Napolitan pizza.

Rick Steeves would be unimpressed with my interpersonal skills when this man sat down at our table.

We were surprised when a stranger was seated at the remaining seat at our table 20 minutes after we sat down.  True confession: I was thankful for the language barrier when my pie arrived while he still waited for his, because I didn’t feel obligated to share. Rick Steeves would be unimpressed with my interpersonal skills.

But enough about the unique atmosphere, let’s get to the main event. Plate-sized Neapolitan pizza is best eaten with a fork and knife, I found, so that was my plan of attack. Da Michele’s crust had a satisfying tug to it, and a slight char from the oven, leaving a subtle, almost chicory flavor to the crust. The drizzle of olive oil contrasted with the fresh tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella, with cloud-like air pockets in the crust offering the only respite from our total domination of the pies placed in front of us.

It’s one of those food memories I will always cherish.

Checkout more snaps from our recent trip to Puglia and Rome on Instagram.

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3, 80139 Napoli, (T) +39 081.5539204

Sidebern's Ham Hock Cannelloni paired well with Knob Creek's Rye Whiskey. Credit: Djamel Ramoul

Knob Creek invited me to one of their Big Flavor Dinners last month. Hesitant since bourbon usually knocks me on my sweet behind, I decided to jump outside my gin, vodka and red wine comfort zone and accept the gracious invitation to the event hosted by Sidebern’s, armed with the number to yellow cab in hand.

The evening was a complete blast. Not only did I get to see Sidebern’s Executive Chef Chad Johnson carve up an entire hog, I learned about Knob Creek’s take on Bourbon, and managed to sip the spirit without falling out of my chair.

What I walked away with was a new appreciation of this truly American spirit and now, I am much more likely to indulge in bourbon the future. Here’s why my interest has been piqued, and dare I say, has made bourbon a bon vivant obsession:

Bourbon Whiskey got its name from a county in Kentucky. In the early the 1800’s, the county where the spirit was made had to be stamped on the barrel, so whiskey from Bourbon County, Kentucky would say “Bourbon Whiskey.” That region started putting out great product and people started requesting Bourbon Whiskey. The name stuck.

I learned that to be considered a true bourbon, the only flavor that can be added in the distillation process is via the oak barrels—you can’t add color or other flavors. Knob Creek in particular makes what’s called a “Super Premium” bourbon, which is aged for nine years in charred, American, white oak barrels, and then bottled at 100 proof.

The extra aging allows more of the sugar in the wood to be absorbed, giving it an almost maple sugar aroma. The resulting flavor is rich and hearty, and a little bit smoky.

Knob Creek Manhattan with Doulin Rouge, Dry Curacao and Angostura Bitters.

During the tasting, my astute and sophisticated dinner companions (see below) explained to me that pork naturally pairs with bourbon because pig shines when smoke is integrated in the cooking process—mesquite, applewood, whatever—and the bourbon’s smokiness complements pork the same way. This is why the lard-poached shrimp and blood custard with candied pork belly served at the dinner were such home runs with the KC bourbons we sampled.

I’m not the only woman interested in bourbon.  Apparently, women are becoming more interested in Whiskey, with one study suggesting that frequency of Bourbon consumption among women has increased 9% from 2011-2012, much of which is attributable to the resurgence of flavored whiskies.

My dinner companions

My suggestion to the ladies, start slow and head to one of Tampa Bay’s establishments that focus on quality hand-crafted cocktails—places like Ciro’s, Anise Global Gastrobar, or Mandarin Hide—and order one of their bourbon cocktails that showcases a super premium bourbon (like the Basil Hayden’s Bourbon that we sampled).

Or, participate in a bourbon tasting (Datz has one of the best bourbon selections in the State of Florida) so you can begin to appreciate the nuances of the different distillation processes.

And, one more thing. Sniff bourbon with your mouth open, otherwise, you’ll be sure to burn your nose and blow out your taste buds.  It would be devastating to miss out on plate-licking good dishes like Sidebern’s Ham Hock Cannelloni with a Liver Sabayon.

I was not compensated for writing this post, however my meal at Sidebern’s was provided gratis.

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