What dreams are made of:  Holleday Productions plans weddings fit for fairy tales

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, February 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

As the wind began to catch edges of the crisp white linens on the buffet table, eyes turned skyward. The focus had been within the Poore home for hours as the ladies primped and family gathered. At the bottom of the garden, a floral arch and rows of chairs stood ready for the couple to take their vows.

Rain began to patter and build and instead of driving guests indoors, they crowded the patio watching nature have its way on a wedding day. The mood remained positive and guests reassured one another that rain is good luck. And in Arizona, rain is generally welcome. The drama passed and a double rainbow took its place. Then, dressed in their finest, folks wiped down the benches, and the ceremony began. It wasn’t the first time the Poore family had rallied in support, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Such devotion is one of the reasons Hailey Muller chose to marry Travis Kasinger in this place. Well, that and her many memories, like youthful tales of Bigfoot living in the rocks nearby. Their theme was Coming Home.

The property’s rambling home began as a dairy barn, built of brick and stone. Suffused with natural light and southwestern art, saddles are mounted across the loft’s bannister and repurposed as end tables, bunking simply alongside a worn hat and striped blanket. Dedication and a doctor’s presence are found in a framed Hippocratic oath while an enormous fireplace begs guests to linger. The roomy kitchen and wall of old photos says, “Home sweet home.” It’s a humble homestead near the woods that has created solace and a love of place for this extended family since 1966.

As Alexis Holle of Holleday Productions says of such events, “It begins and ends with family.” This is her second wedding on the Poore property. In fact, the impetus for Holle’s business was a family event—her sister’s marriage. “We planned it together and did so much DIY,” she remembers. “We thought how much fun it was, and the idea took off.” A winding road of experiences through study of fine arts and art history, retail fashion design via her shop, Sundara, and hospitality gigs combined to provide the necessary skills set.

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Matters of Taste: Josephine’s Modern American Bistro celebrates their 20th anniversary

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, July 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

An anniversary is meant to be celebrated. Doing so demonstrates the event was significant. It also gives us the chance to reflect and push forward. Importantly, an anniversary nudges us away from our daily work to honor and rejoice in its results.

For Josephine’s Modern American Bistro, twenty years of business has added up to some well-deserved praise. Diligent and happy patronage voted it Best Fine Dining this past year, and chef-owner Tony Consentino earned the title, Chef of the Year.

Alongside his wife Marlene, Consentino said, “We’re present on the premises every day with administration and cooking. Marlene takes care of the intangibles—hugs and behind the scenes help, adding warmth.” He attributes Josephine’s appeal to, “the atmosphere and consistency of customer service and food.”

Like the landmark it is, sitting above downtown Flagstaff, the bistro exemplifies a relational tie to the historic home in which it resides. The Craftsman home was once owned by John Milton and other noteworthy figures. Built in 1911 and faced with native, volcanic malpais, it is listed on the Register of Historic Places. Like the home, Josephine’s has stood the test of time as a treasure in the neighborhood.

“We haven’t sat on our heels,” said Consentino.

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Olive the Best invests in quality oils and vinegars for the health of its customers

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, June 4, 2023

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

The happiest diet discovery is something that is both delicious and nutritious. Olive oil—it’s been around for thousands of years, and with the promise of an olive tree, which lives to be 500 years old, those who consume its fruit, can also extend the quality of their lives.

Olive trees originate from the Mediterranean Basin, where some of the longest living populations reside. It’s no coincidence; their diets are abundant with healthy oils, nuts and fatty fish. Packed with potent polyphenol compounds, olive oil protects against chronic and degenerative diseases, boosting immunities while fighting inflammation. It can guard against certain cancers, strengthen bones, promote cardiovascular health and improve memory and mood. Further, olive oil can balance our blood sugar as well as the microbiome in our guts. 

Extra virgin olive oil is particularly packed with antioxidant properties. Polyphenols combat oxidative stress that resides as deep as our DNA. A Mediterranean diet consumes four-plus tablespoons of olive oil daily, but studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration support the claim that one-and-a-half tablespoons can improve heart health.

It was just such hope that drove Scott McPeak to reclaim his health. At 57, he had been diagnosed with weight-related diabetes, requiring critical lifestyle changes. He ate plentiful salads and vegetables with a desire to dress them in a nourishing way, finding that in first-rate olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Healthy progress spurred McPeak on to lose 80 pounds within four months.

That was three years ago, and alongside the change in health, came a change in business. Scott McPeak and son Scotty owned an H & R Block in Nebraska, but had their eyes on the West. “When the previous olive oil business went up for sale, we swooped in and bought it in 2018,” says Scotty. “We sold the tax business, looking for one with expediential growth.”

The McPeak families revamped the shop, honing the product line and focusing on superiority for Olive the Best Olive Oils & Vinegars of Flagstaff.

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The Toasted Owl expands and solidifies itself as a northern Arizona favorite

AZ Daily Sun Mountain Living Section, March 2023

Visitors Guide:  99 Things to Do in Northern Arizona

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

We are influenced by our parents. We observed their actions, and they, generally, were our favorite humans. We admired them and often followed in their footsteps. But how does it happen?

Children hear conversations at the breakfast table, where interests, as well as their bodies, are fueled. They are exposed to career paths, especially niche ideas, through daily details. Interviews with those, who mirrored their parents, describe the shared pursuits as speaking the same language.

In fact, data show that a son is 20 times as likely to become a scientist if his mother is one, while a daughter is 49 times as likely to echo her mother’s work in food preparation. And so it was for Cecily Maniaci, who owns Toasted Owl, a cozy, quirky breakfast and sandwich shop in Flagstaff.

As a widow, her mother moved across the country, and over time, opened five restaurants in Tusayan. Of course, Maniaci learned what it takes to run an eatery successfully alongside her. As her mother aged out of the business, Maniaci took over before transitioning to Flagstaff and opening her own venture.

Toasted Owl launched in 2013 with a 395-square-foot shop, containing a sink, convection oven and three-plate burner, but in short order, lines wound out the door. The move in 2015 to the current, larger location on Mike’s Pike required renovations to start, but offered a patio. Two years later, the bustling dining room pressed the urge to expand again to feed the eastside with a second location on Cortland Street.

“Consistency is most important,” Maniaci says, and her aim has always been, “to serve good quality breakfast food with elevated offerings. We’re not Denny’s, but we are fast. Our high end products make the difference.”

She is a morning person, so breakfast and lunch made sense to get home again to family—her initial tasters for recipe twists on standard fare. 

“I enjoy unusual tastes or flavor profiles,” she says. “I eat out everywhere and have a wide palate and love to add things to the menu, whether it’s Indian or whatever tastes wonderful.”

The breakfast tamales are beef or vegetarian, topped with green chili sauce, two eggs, black beans and cheddar and served on mixed greens. Carlotta’s Kitchen, promoting a blend of traditional, yet on-trend recipes, supplies the distinctive tamales.  Or as Maniaci  describes them, “They are yum, creamy with green sauce. People just love them.”

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Asia Station brings heat to downtown’s south side

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, April 16, 2023

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

The allure of Asian cuisine is wrapped up in its exotic, sensory elements. Some are subtle while others are stimulating. Spare meat punctuated with tastes and textures create engaging and vibrant dishes.

Freshness abounds in the veg, garnishes and flash of preparation from raw to ravishing. Ingredients, such as galangal, chili oil, peanuts, coconut milk, fish sauce, lemon grass, basil and tamarind are layered with spices and sauces. These components build appeal, aroma, and often, art.

Flavors are traditionally grouped into categories such as hot, sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent and umami. This broad array of notes builds a delicate harmony. The term fusion was coined in an effort to describe this Asian impact on the West.

Asia Station opened in 2018 in downtown’s south side to deliver this fusion of flavors. Serving Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai cuisine, owners Kampy and Ladda Khonphian aim to offer a little bit of everything. In essence, park at Asia Station and savor the best of Asia.

“We have kept the menu choices to what people like and have toned the heat down a little,” Ladda says. “But for those, who love their spices, this is the place. We’re the hot spot in town.”

The hottest chili used in Ladda’s kitchen is the Thai bird’s eye. This distinctive red chili is small in size, but high in heat.

The couple is Thai, she from the rural northeast, while Kampy hails from Bangkok. Speaking of Thai people, Ladda says, “We are all about food—we cook and eat 24/7. In the country, we grew our own food—fresh chicken and eggs daily—cooking for friends and family with love and care.”

This principle guides recipes at Asia Station, where Ladda runs the kitchen with help from their son, Vincent. Asia Station makes every dish daily with no MSG, utilizing mushroom seasoning to supply a savory umami factor. Scratch sauces present unique profiles for each dish from dips to curries.

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First Friday gets a facelift:  April’s ArtWalk to breathe fresh air into the monthly event

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living, April 2, 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

As spring’s light glows in early evening, the silhouetted San Francisco Peaks afford a dramatic backdrop. Nestled below, downtown Flagstaff generates an energy all of its own, buoying people’s spirits. Heritage Square rocks with blasts of brass, and bodies sway to the beat as little ones dance and clap. A boy tugs at his mother’s arm and points at his drawing on display. Lively lit galleries beckon. There is art to admire—paintings and photography, jewelry and glasswork, wood and ceramic, crafts and creations. Some shops offer a treat or a sweet sip, while others stage a musician on guitar. At the corner, a tourist studies a map and points out a historic hotel, neon letters glowing. A happy babble floats upward from crowded streets, and First Friday ArtWalk is in full swing.

First Friday ArtWalk is held monthly, presented by Desert Financial Credit Union in partnership with Flagstaff Downtown Business Alliance and Creative Flagstaff. The venue welcomes and hosts activities with variations of music, art and food. The next event will be held on April 7, 2023 from 5 p.m.- 9 p.m.

“We are coming into a robust year for ArtWalk, and April ends up being the big kick-off for activities,” says community engagement manager Liz Hewat. “People are ready to be out and about.”

As always, 20-30 businesses and galleries participate in ArtWalk, offering integrated venues for pop-up art exhibits, handcrafted items and entertainment. “It’s a great event, community-driven,” says Hewat. “ArtWalk has been around in some capacity since the 90s—the gallery owners established the event.”

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When Personal Chef Nicholas Di Paolo is in the kitchen, everyone is on vacation

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, February 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

The supper scenario can be daunting. There is more drama than drive, more demands than day, and yet, there is that overriding aim to eat well. We have good intentions, but the time it takes to plan, shop, prepare, and yes, tidy up, crowd an already busy life. Do we grab take-out again or snag a ready meal? Those options are fine on occasion, but they won’t deliver a healthy lifestyle, despite Grub Hub’s willingness to drop it at our door.

Perhaps, the solution to the problem is a personal chef. They’re not just for the famous or fabulous; they’re niche operators that cater—literally—to our needs. Aside from basic planning, prepping and putting away, they can satisfy dietary and creative preferences. They can introduce new dishes, like a fish curry stew, or put a spin on an old favorite, like smoked gouda mac ‘n cheese with ham and peas.

Having a reunion? You don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen; you want to spend it reminiscing around the table. Dinner party? Host it with a welcoming vibe without the hassle. Family getaway? Getaway from the stove and focus on having fun.

You might think you can’t afford it. Think again. Seating a large party at a restaurant is impossible while the expenses surrounding a meal out from parking to check stack up quickly. Consider the convenience and comfort of staying put and let the restaurant come to you where your personal chef does it all. Those, who enjoy cooking, can even learn a technique or two from a pro.

Chef Nicholas Di Paolo logs 30-plus years’ experience, and now relishes the most rewarding part of his culinary journey in Northern Arizona, ensuring a client’s every desire is fulfilled. This ranges from family style events to exacting menus for tastings or formals.

“I was always gonna’ be a chef,” he says and began a career in the Bronx. “All of our menu items are made from scratch with the best ingredients—a standard that was born in Little Italy and honed over time to bring you the best experience available.”

His resume includes Raoul’s, a bustling bistro dating to the 70s with an utterly French menu. By 1997, di Paolo made executive chef, but over time, noticed an edgy turn in the industry. Her followed his family to Las Vegas, but was unfulfilled. After the 2008 crash, Nick missed the harmony of the house—front and back—when dedicated staff previously had covered for one another. The cutthroat atmosphere he felt—where knowledge was guarded, not mentored–became stifling.

“Chefs produce chefs,” he says. “We’re partners in business—that’s old school.” But he admits, “People grow out of positions. I was 40 years old and wanted to buy a home.”

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John Conley comes full circle as Salsa Brava and Fat Olives sweep up six awards in Food & Drink

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

A satisfying success in this life is to come full circle. Where one’s achievements align with the passions we set out to pursue, and while it takes a steady head, hard work and perseverance, it just might be our attitude—humble and grateful—that allows one to recognize and embrace that success.

In the beginning, any small business boasts one fired-up, know-it-all employee. Heck, he has invested heart, soul and bank account. It wasn’t any different for John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives Wood Fired Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen.

Conley began cooking at 13 and has continued ever since. Coming from a large family, cooking kept him fed in more ways than one, and the loud chaos of a kitchen felt natural. After high school, Conley became a Heber Hotshot for the US Forest Service and attended NAU’s hotel and restaurant management program. Equipped with a penchant for Mexican travel and culture, a job at the original Salsa Brava was also a good fit. Then, rushing headlong, on the cusp of finishing his degree, Conley used his savings to buy Salsa Brava at age 21.

He shut down the place for three months and transformed it from counter service to a full restaurant, opening with one employee—John. “I had $200 to my name and slept in the shop,” Conley remembers. But that first week, firefighters battling a blaze needed 500 lunches each day for nearly a week—he was making money.

The new menu at Salsa Brava was unfamiliar, except in Sonora, known for its seafood, beef and produce. Shrimp and lobster enchiladas, Baja tacos and more, showcased flavors from the grill—al carbon—plus a range of salsa options. Thirty-five years later, that aim remains.

A lot of details have shaken out in the meantime, but the food is unshakable. The salsa requires 1,000 pounds of hand-cut tomatoes weekly, and with inflation and a hurricane, the price of a 20-pound case of fruit has skyrocketed six-fold. Also, COVID brought healthy changes to the salsa bar, where an enormous amount became wasted daily. Still, chips and salsa are free at Salsa Brava, and they come with a trio of scratch salsas.

“We spend four hours a day making salsa,” says Conley. “It’s the most expensive thing in our restaurant.” Best Salsa—an award well-earned.

Voted Best Tacos also, Salsa Brava’s choices range from Maui pork, carne asada, smoked chicken and carnitas to shrimp, cochinita pibil (Yucatan BBQ pork) and adovada pork, and the menu includes combination and traditional plates, enchiladas and fajitas.

Continue readingJohn Conley comes full circle as Salsa Brava and Fat Olives sweep up six awards in Food & Drink

Matters of Taste:  Brekkie phenomenon Over Easy serves up protein-packed power meals

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, January 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

Any time is the right time for breakfast. Whether it’s in the wee hours of the morning with Greek yogurt and anti-oxidizing berries or a brunchy feast with protein-packed steak and eggs, our body eagerly awaits the energy to power us forward. Eating kick-starts our metabolism from snoozy to food-fueled thermogenesis to burn the food we consume. One small bite increases rhythmic contractions and gastric juices in the digestive tract, and it all happens involuntarily. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage our brains to make the meal count. New Year, new you. Start with a wholesome breakfast.

In 2008, celebrated Chef Aaron May and Plated Project partners created a restaurant where they wanted to eat. “Nothing gimmicky,” May says. “I was craving good, old fashioned, scratch cooking.”

Over Easy opened in a repurposed Arcadia Taco Bell, and the fulfillment of breakfast-brunch fantasies took flight. The menu wowed Phoenix critics, and Food Network’s Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives soon crowded the kitchen to learn May’s secret to red-eye gravy. The rest is an expanding story of outstanding eats and added locations.

The licensed franchise is an Arizona concept with 11 sites throughout the Valley with new spots in Gilbert, Mesa and Queen Creek plus four metro stops to come. Fortunately, Flagstaff made the list four years ago.

The brekkie phenom caught the attention of Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset and USA Today with stints on foodie shows, such as Cooking Channel’s “Food Paradise” and Learning Channel’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”.

According to partner Ryan Field, “Over Easy makes a bigger splash in smaller markets.” The secret? “We endeavor to create great experiences.”

With yolk yellow and aqua contrasting colors, it’s a light, bright space. A long bar with 50s-style barstools and a wall of windows welcomes guests—Good morning, Sunshine!

The idea is a Chicago diner-driven neighborhood place. “We wanted to duplicate the old school, hand-sliced bacon, crack-every-egg, creative, lively concept,” Field says, “a place where we would want to go.”

Continue readingMatters of Taste:  Brekkie phenomenon Over Easy serves up protein-packed power meals

NiMarco’s proves itself to be a true hometown pizzeria

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

In 2022, NiMarco’s celebrated 42 years in business. Making good pizza wouldn’t grow the venture; making the best pizza was the only option. Fresh, not frozen, dough, cheese grated daily, scratch sauce and of course, quality, creative toppings build their premium pizzas.

Their winning objective: To provide a great product with a smile and do so in a timely fashion.

Dough is critical to a good pie, and NiMarco’s makes it “Flagstaff-style,” a term coined to describe the thickness and texture that doesn’t easily fall into Italian regional categories. Daily, dough is mixed and kneaded.

NiMarco’s is particularly picky about cheese, sourcing an aged product and grating it fresh. “I’m paying someone hours each day to grate cheese,” says co-ower Dave Ledbetter, “but it makes all the difference—creamier, melts better and tastes best.”

The sauces are house-made from quality tomato products. In fact, Ledbetter visited the Modesto, California farms to see where his tomatoes are grown and packed.

Hands down, the most popular pie is the pepperoni pizza. The Popeye, jam-packed with a garlic butter base, piled high with spinach, Roma tomatoes, red onion, bacon and mozzarella is a top seller as well. South of the Border begins with green chili sauce, topped with jack, cheddar and mozz cheeses, jalapeños, black beans and fresh tomatoes to bridge the choice between Mexican and Italian for dinner. Monster meat is billed for the carnivore, loaded with the usual suspects plus handmade Italian sausage and ham. The homage pie, Gary’s Special, shoots the works with pepperoni, sausage, olives, onions, mushrooms and bell peppers.

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Satchmo’s struts their stuff winning Best BBQ and Catering

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

Everyone knows what great barbecue tastes like, but only devoted pitmasters understand the balance of fuel, fire, fastidious poking and flavor that is required to elevate it. It also takes rubs, char, smoke, method and a little madness to craft meat that melts in your mouth.

A smoker is a delicate environment, affected by variables, such as humidity and temperatures. Critically, smoke is an ingredient, not a method of cooking where spice is crucial. And pros will tell you, it’s not in the numbers on a thermometer, but in the nudge and jiggle that define when the meat is just right.

From the dedication and skill required, it’s clear, barbecue is serious stuff.

“Aside from the coals, achieving the perfect smoke ring is affected by weather, humidity and more,” says Jamie Thousand, pitmaster and owner of Satchmo’s, winner of Best BBQ and Catering. Thousand is self-taught—and education earned in a fervent, backyard relationship with meat and grill. This led to competitions, pulling a trailer on the Phoenix BBQ circuit where he honed his smoke skills before opening Satchmo’s in 2009.

There is a whole Creole side to Satchmo’s as one might guess from the name attributed to the King of the Trumpet. The décor, from instruments and paintings, mounted on Mardi Gras-colored walls in deeper shades of mustard and plum, gives more than a nod to New Orleans jazz. Recipes honor the Holy Trinity—onions, bell peppers and celery—with a personal, style-enhancing gumbo, jambalaya and catfish.

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