A Birthday Gift For My Nephew

Creative Letter Art made especially for my nephew!

It’s lucky for me that my nephew (who will be four next month) isn’t yet reading this blog.  If he was, I wouldn’t be able to show you the gift I purchased for him at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival from Creative Letter Art!

I thought this collage of photographs depicting different style letters would be the perfect gift for him since he’s learned his letters in pre-school and is beginning to recognize words – names especially.  Creative Letter Art has many pre-made portraits available with a wide variety of themes to choose from.  There’s everything from fun and bright neon to subdued black and white nature scenes to the dramatic lines of architecture.

With owner of Creative Letter Art, Ethan Reiss. (photo by Jeffrey Morris)

Owner and photographer, Ethan Reiss, was inspired to begin his Rockaway, NJ business because of his own personal experiences with wanting to show those he loved how much he cared in a unique and meaningful way.  His personal journey of expressing his own feelings through words and images has led to a business which now allows any of us, no matter how much artistic talent or creativity, the opportunity to present our loved ones with a gift that reflects just how much we care about them.  (Sadly though, my photography here doesn’t do the collage for my nephew justice at all!)  In person, the collage is truly breathtaking and I can’t wait to give it to him next month.

You can take my word for it, or you can see the images in better detail on the Creative Letter Art website and facebook page.

My new Simon Xianwen Zeng purchase is the one on the left.

I also picked up a few small things for myself at Sugarloaf this time around.  (It’s hard not to find something – or many things – I want to take home there!)  At a time when so much of what we buy is made in other countries, it felt especially good to know that my purchases were directly supporting people who live and work here in the United States.

The last time I was at the show, I purchased a print from artist Simon Xianwen Zeng.  This time around, I picked up another print to go with it.  I’m thinking though, that these two prints look a little lonely and I might have to make this a grouping of three.  What do you think???  I also picked up another small print from Milltown, NJ resident, John DeAmicis and a beautiful hand sewn bag to use as a camera case.

My new camera case!

The second piece in my John DeAmicis collection.

I might just have to add the new print by Simon Xianwen Zeng to a long list because I’ve already got my eye on other items (like a hand-woven basket from Wanda Summers of Wood Weaving) that I’m planning to get in the fall when the Sugarloaf Craft Festival is back here in Somerset.

They’ll be here October 28, 29, & 30th.

And I’ll be sure to remind you about it when it gets closer!

Shopping for some art at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival in the far left of this pic... (photo by Jeffrey Morris)

~Melissa
The Jersey Girl

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A Weekend of Good Food and Good Friends

Trying to figure when these postcards were issued...

I got to spend some time walking around (as it snowed) in Somerville on Saturday evening.  There, I visited one of the largest antique malls in the state,  Somerville Center Antiques.  The folks there were friendly and extremely helpful.  I wandered around booth after booth of collectibles, and eventually found an old (though I haven’t figured out exactly how old) 1 cent Thomas Jefferson postcard.  And officially started my collection of Thomas Jefferson memorabilia!

Tapastre in Somerville, NJ

After antiquing, and just a few blocks away, I had dinner at Tapastre.  The menu, cleverly organized by countries including France, Italy, Turkey, and Greece, offered a large selection of tapas-style dishes.  I thought the Seared Scallops, with a bacon pesto and blue cheese cracker, were especially delicious.

Sunday brought a great work session (and pizza!) with good friend and web developer, John Conde in Jackson.  We made some updates to the Notes on the State of New Jersey website and more additions are on the way shortly.  We’re almost ready to start posting the articles.  It’s very exciting!

Then, I got to catch up with old friends at Taste in Red Bank where, again, I had a variety of small plates – though this time with a much more American feel.  The Buffalo Deviled Eggs seemed like a pretty unusual idea to me, but they tasted great!

Now, its back to work and back to checking the weather forecast.  We’re under a storm watch again, and it looks like this next storm could be messy.

Be safe and have a great week!

~Melissa
The Jersey Girl

The Art of Nature Show (Environmental Education Center building at Lord Stirling Park)

Relaxing with a book in an outdoor classroom in front of the Environmental Education Center.

The Art of Nature Show held at the Environmental Education Center at Lord Stirling Park (part of the Somerset County Park Commission) was brought to my attention by friends who know I’m always interested in learning about local artists.  Not being familiar with any of the artists featured, or the facility itself, I was eager to take a trip to see the show.

The Environmental Education Center is situated next to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on 950 acres of land, that in the 1600s had been the home of the Lenni-Lenapes, and in the late 1700s had been the home of Revolutionary War major-general, William Alexander (Lord Stirling).  Within walking distance from the Environmental Education building, you can find a myriad of wildlife living in the midst of forests, open fields and meadows, swamps, rivers, streams, and ponds.  For those interested in exploring the surrounding area, there are 8.5 miles to hike, and maps can be picked up in the Environmental Education building.

The Environmental Education Center building.

Inside the building, there is a gift shop with trinkets commemorating both the fun and beauty of nature, a library, and the gallery where I found the Art of Nature Show that I had been looking for.  The show is on display in a large room with high, slanted ceilings, and features the impressive work of about twenty local artists.  As I began to walk around the space, the word that immediately came to mind was “respect.”  It is evident that the artists have a great respect for their subjects and through their work, that respect was transferred to me (someone who doesn’t stop to smell the roses or appreciate the beauty of the bald eagle as often as I should).  I felt humble and human as I quietly walked around with my notebook and pen in hand, focusing on each raindrop, each feather, each moment captured by either a painting or photograph.

Unique among the watercolors and photography were the scratchboards of the talented Basking Ridge native, Colby Krolak.  Krolak has always had a deep appreciation for nature and when studying at the duCret School of Art, her subjects were often wildlife, animals in particular.  While classmates enjoyed working with media like acrylics and charcoal, Krolak found a strong connection between her primary subjects of owls, raptors, and other birds of prey, with the scratchboard drawing technique.  Scratchboards have been around since the 19th century when people would use sharp tools to etch drawings into a surface of white clay or chalk covered in black ink because it was less expensive than the wax and metal or wood materials that had been used previously as templates for printing.  The practice was not used as much once photography presented another way to accomplish printing goals, but in the 20th Century, scratchboards as finished pieces of art themselves became popular.

Scratchboards by Colby Krolak on display at the Art of Nature Show.

When talking about why she chose to use scratchboards, Krolak says, “I fell in love with it from the first piece.”  She enthusiastically speaks about how through her favorite medium, she is able to uncover the story hiding within each board.  And with her masterful technique, each whisker or claw or curve of a beak is brought out of the ink and into life.

Krolak loves domesticated animals as well as the wild ones and is also available for pet portrait commissions.  Information about the portraits can be found on her website:  http://www.colbykrolak.com/.  The Art of Nature Show will run until April 26, 2010.  Afterwards, you can find Krolak’s work during July and August at the Bernardsville Audubon Center.

My favorite of Krolak's scratchboards in the Art of Nature Show.

Reminding you to stop and appreciate the nature around us,
~Melissa 🙂
The Jersey Girl

Related links and sources:
http://www.somersetcountyparks.org/
http://www.colbykrolak.com/
http://www.hmdb.org/Marker.asp?Marker=18231
http://www.nanticoke-lenape.org/
http://www.scratchboard-art.com/about.html

(You can read a related post about my trip to Colonial Park, part of the Somerset County Park Commission, here.)

Luca’s Ristorante (Somerset, NJ)

Luca's Ristorante in Somerset, NJ. (Notice the Zagat sticker on the door.)

Luca’s Ristorante, a BYO in Somerset, NJ, is the first restaurant I chose to share with you because I have dined there countless times and each time the food and service have been exceptional.  Spoiler alert!!! So much of my initial thrill in discovering Luca’s (about two years ago) was in walking through the unassuming exterior and entering into not just a restaurant, but an experience.  If you’d like to experience this phenomenon for yourself without my description of it first, stop reading now, don’t look at any more photos, and please visit the restaurant; then come back to read the rest of this post.

A sampling of the charm inside Luca's Ristorante.

Along busy Route 27 there are dozens of strip malls with places to eat, but there are a small number I have found to offer quality food, top-notch service, variety, affordability, and a pleasing atmosphere.  From the outside of the restaurant, Luca’s seems to be like any other eatery in the area, however, when you open the front door, you are instantly transported far away from the highway traffic and congestion you traveled through to get there to someplace very unique.  Every inch of the restaurant is saturated with rich texture and your senses are immediately engaged.  A stone half-wall adorned with pottery lines the entranceway and guides you inside.  The ceiling is dressed in hanging lanterns and latticework covered with crawling vines.   The painted areas of the walls are finished in deep red Venetian plaster and the rest of the walls are covered with vibrant murals, ceramic masks, dishes, and other wall hangings. From the woven seats on the chairs to the custom candleholders on the tables, it is evident that attention to detail is important here and not a single thing has been overlooked.

A glimpse of the ambiance found at Luca's Ristorante.

The man responsible for bringing the majority of the decorations directly from Ischia, an Italian island off the coast of Naples, to New Jersey is the owner of Luca’s, Andréa Di Meglio.  Born in Ischia, Di Meglio is proud of his heritage and combines with it the traditions of Italian cooking (with which most of us are familiar) to create the unique experience that is Luca’s Ristorante.  Di Meglio learned his way around a restaurant at a young age and developed a passion for cooking which exemplifies the culture found in Ischia, an island made up of craftsman and artisans who learned to make the most of what was immediately available to them and took pride in the work they created with their own hands. Understanding a bit about Ischia is helpful in appreciating its influence (and those of Ischian occupants including the French and Moroccan) found at Luca’s.

My most recent visit was the first opportunity I had to sit on the side of the restaurant from where it is possible to see the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.  At first, I thought it may be distracting, but it wasn’t at all.  Instead, the movement, along with the greenery, stone, and pottery, gave me the sense that I was at a party in someone’s backyard or on their terrace, with the dining room on the other side being another party at a next door neighbor’s.  Though the initial impressions of the restaurant may be rustic, the wait staff is trained in a formal manner and their exceptional service gives patrons a fine dining experience while in a relaxed atmosphere.  It is easy to glance around and see, whether at a couple or a large group, smiles and boisterous conversation radiating from each table.

Evidence of Di Meglio’s attention to detail and desire to make his customers happy continues as the first food of the night hits your table.  A warm basket of delicately arranged, freshly made breads and sesame sticks is served with a spice infused oil and (my new personal favorite) a homemade butter made with sundried tomato, garlic, olives, and capers.

Mushroom special

My friends with whom I was dining and I wanted to try as many different things as possible and we started with two appetizers.  The Spedini Di Mozzarella (fried mozzarella in a brown brandy sauce, $9) is creamy and fresh and very addictive.  Mushrooms stuffed with vegetables and cheese, a special for the night, with its fresh basil and finely chopped vegetables is a perfect dish for early spring.  Following the appetizer course, we were served salads of fresh greens and tomatoes, with a house balsamic vinaigrette.

Gnocci di Spinaci Genovese

The entrées we ordered, served on thick red dishes, represent some of the variety offered on the menu.  First, the Organic Whole Wheat Penne Serafino (grilled vegetables, goat cheese and fresh basil in a cherry tomato sauce, $19) is an example of Di Meglio’s efforts to accommodate his customers who are vegetarian or health conscious.  Next, the Agnolotti Di Cacao (cocoa pasta filled with roasted butternut squash in a creamy herb sauce, $18) is a unique dish that tickles the palate with its sweetness, and thought it is creamy and rich in flavor, it is made with very little cheese and is surprisingly not a heavy dish.  Finally, the dish that I had to make sure we ordered is Gnocci di Spinaci Genovese (spinach dumplings with braised sirloin, caramelized onions and Parmigianino Reggiano in a white wine beef reduction, $20).  This woodsy looking dish of deep green and brown served steaming hot is a favorite among Luca’s regulars, and when the delicate beef falls apart on your fork and savory sauce covered gnocchi dance in your mouth, it is easy to understand why.

Quintessential Italian desserts of homemade pistachio gelato and homemade tiramisu rounded out the night’s dinner.

Whether you are looking to have a romantic dinner, spend time with family, or catch up with friends, Luca’s Ristorante is a fabulous choice.  Di Meglio is at the restaurant daily and spends the majority of his time in the kitchen working with his staff to prepare the meals.  When he speaks about his restaurant he is energetic and enthusiastic, saying, “It’s fun.  It’s what I do.  I love doing it.”

Toasting to a good time at Luca's Ristorante. (Notice the artwork on the walls.)

We are very fortunate that he does.

See you at Luca’s!

~Melissa
The Jersey Girl

Information:
Luca’s Ristorante: http://www.lucasristorante.com/index.html
2019 State Route 27, Somerset, NJ 08873
(732) 297-7676.

Also offered, are wine tastings (usually running around $45-50) but they are only advertised about one month before the event.  If you are interested, ask your server about the events when you have lunch or dinner, or call and let them know you want to be notified when the next event takes place.

A sweet time at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival!

Admiring the work of photographer, Jon Mullen, at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival.

When I think of crafts, I think of things along the lines of what my late grandmother used to make and hang on her Christmas tree.  You know what I mean, lots of multi-colored yarn, puffy pom poms, glitter, and those three-sided beads (that were always so much fun to stack).  I think of crocheted tissue box covers decorated with dried flowers.  I think of hot glue and tiny dolls made of clothespins and fabric rosettes.

These were the sorts of things I imagined I would see when I visited the Sugarloaf Craft Festival at the Garden State Exhibit Center on Saturday, March 13th.  To my delight, what I found instead was an abundance of accomplished jury-selected artisans showcasing collections of art ranging from sculpture to wearables (like scarves, jewelry, and handbags) to paintings and drawings to photography and so much more. The Sugarloaf Craft Festival, travels through the New England and Mid-Atlantic areas, and is one of the nation’s best shows of its kind.

Marty Silverman demonstrating his work at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival.

Once inside, I shook the rain off of my coat and immediately began to search for the many NJ artists in the show.  The first I came across was Marty Silverman as he was sharing the magic of his work with a sculpture demonstration.  Silverman, a retired art teacher from Jackson, NJ, uses a hammer and chisel to sculpt alabaster, lava, and Rhyolite-Farrago (a stone found in Colorado) and from these raw rocks, manages to capture emotions of daily life as well as the graceful fluidity of nature.  Silverman says of his work, “I let my feelings and the natural forms in each stone lead me on the journey to a finished work of art.”  It is a journey well worth taking.

Continuing on my journey through the festival, I came across a great weakness of mine, accessories (scarves in particular).  When I saw a booth full of vibrant handmade scarves of a variety of designs, I had to stop and (at least) try them on.  Terry Lo, a Manalapan, NJ resident, makes all of the scarves herself, including “string” scarves, shawls, and hybrid scarf necklaces (what I ultimately purchased).  Lo has been crafting her scarves, through her home-based business, for about six years and travels to local craft shows with her daughter, Jimay, who helps her with sales.  Besides keeping busy selling her scarves at local crafts shows, Lo is also available for hostess parties in private homes.  You can reach her by email at terrylo@optonline.net and find out how you can update your look for spring with a beautiful new scarf.

Terry Lo demonstrates for Joan Morris the many ways to tie her beautiful scarves.

After a few attempts to get his attention, I was finally able to speak with a talented artist who lives in my hometown of Milltown, NJ, John DeAmicis.  DeAmicis’ work has appeared in galleries all over the world and includes whimsical and inspirational, limited edition pencil and ink prints.  Some owners of DeAmicis’ work whom you may recognize are Elton John, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Henry Kissinger, Pepsi, and the Dr. Seuss estate.  And very recently added to the list, yours truly.  I purchased a print with an encouraging Tennyson quote, “That which we are, we are, and if we are ever to be any better now is the time to begin.” You can view an image of this meaningful and delicate print here.  DeAmicis will be appearing in a show in Verona Park, NJ in May and a show in Haddonfield, NJ in July.  A full list of upcoming shows is available on his website.

John DeAmicis standing with his work at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival. (If you look closely, you can see the print I purchased.)

Though my focus at the festival was with New Jersey artists, I was also hypnotized by the breathtaking photography of Colorado photographer, Jon Mullen.  Mullen is an accomplished photographer, having published his work over 200 times, and was recently awarded the prize of “Best in Show” at the Boulder Creek Festival’s juried competition.  With his work capturing both the serenity and complexity of nature, it was hard for me to choose just one print to purchase at this show.  I ended up choosing a print called “Yellow Pond Lily” for my office.  (I’m hoping that the next print I purchase from Mullen will be one he takes of our beautiful state, New Jersey.)

Christina Rudczynski and photographer, Jon Mullen at the Sugarloaf Craft Festival.

Aside from the 275 artisans at the show, there was also live music, craft demonstrations, shows for children, and plenty of specialty food to purchase (and sample).  I couldn’t possibly experience it all in one day, so I’m looking forward to the festival coming back to NJ in October!

INFORMATION ABOUT THE SHOW:
Tickets for the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival are $7 if purchased online, $8 for adults if purchased at the door, and free for children under 12.  (Be sure to visit the website before purchasing tickets to see if any coupons are available.) Tickets are good for all three days. Free parking is available.  http://www.sugarloafcrafts.com/index.html

~Melissa
The Jersey Girl

Let it rain, let it rain, let it – enough already!

Trying to navigate the flooded roads in Somerset County (don't worry, I wasn't moving when I took the photo!)

Those of us in the Central New Jersey area are experiencing quite a storm!  Thunder, lightning, strong winds, and torrential rain have shaped this weekend for many of New Jersey’s residents.

It started raining on Friday and (with only a few short breaks here and there) is still raining heavily now as I type this entry on Sunday night.  According to The Weather Channel, we won’t see the sun until Tuesday or possibly Wednesday.

We’ve had winds over 45 miles per hour and downpours causing much property damage including leaking roofs and flooded basements, power outages, and road closings due to both flooding and fallen trees.

The Raritan River flooding local roads. (photo courtesy of Andrea Dulow)

When this storm finally ends, we will have gotten over 4 to 6 inches of rain.  I can only imagine what we would have done if it was cold enough, as it often is this time of year, for snow…

Luckily for me, my adventures this weekend have been close to home and mostly indoors.  In the next few days, I will post entries about my trip to the Sugarloaf Craft Festival and Pi Day in Princeton, NJ.

Please keep in mind those who have been impacted by this storm and the damage it has caused.  Contact your local American Red Cross chapter to see how you can help.

March 2010 flooding in Central New Jersey (photo courtesy of Andrea Dulow)

Additional and related sources:
http://mobile.mycentraljersey.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100313/NEWS/100313012/-1/WAP&template=wapart

http://www.mycentraljersey.com/article/20100314/NEWS/100314035/-1/newsfront

http://www.njredcross.org/contactUs/index.asp

Colonial Park, Franklin Township

Thankfully, the weather cooperated very nicely yesterday!

Colonial Park, Franklin Township

Colonial Park, Franklin Township

When I arrived at Colonial Park around 8 o’clock in the morning, there were already plenty of other people there, walking their dogs, sitting and chatting with friends on benches, or exercising.  (The latter is what I should have really been doing myself!)

I packed a bag with the map of the park, my camera, voice recorder, pen and paper, a novel, and some snacks.  Because I had the map ahead of time, I had a general sense of where I was going.  I parked my car near the entrance to the Lois Howe Nature Trail.  Until recently, I have not been much of a hiker.  My first true hiking experience was the nearly seven mile hike through the Cinque Terre in Italy earlier this summer (not a bad first hike, if I say so). The idea of intentionally setting out to explore a trail in the woods is still a new notion of mine, and so I carried a bit of trepidation with me as I started the trail.  The ground was damp and increasingly growing hotter with the intense morning sun.  It was a lot buggier than I had thought it might be.  Normally bugs don’t bother with me.  These did.  So, it took me a few seconds to become accustomed to walking with them landing on me every now and then.  I think one of them actually bit me above my right knee.  Pretty soon though, none of that mattered. Continue reading