Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why I'm Returning the Kindle Fire

When Amazon announced the $199 Kindle Fire, it was the first time I was intrigued by a tablet other than the iPad. I'm a big fan of the Amazon value proposition and I was impressed with their focus on content consumption at a reasonable price.

I didn't have any disillusions about the device being an iPad replacement. I had plans for it being two things: A kitchen counter web browser usable by everyone in the family -and- a replacement for our portable DVD player.

But as it turns out the device doesn't provide a very satisfying web browsing experience and (due to the fragmented content marketplace) it's not a very good value as a portable video player.


Leading up to the device's release there was a lot of information swirling around about which Android apps would be available on the device. By default, you purchase apps through a special section of the Amazon App store, and there are indeed a number of apps there.

But as you push forward and attempt to make the Kindle Fire perform like your iPhone or even your iPod touch you start bumping into limitations. Read this article to get a sense for what it's like install non-approved Android apps on the device. Within an hour of opening the box I'm wandering around the web learning about .apk's, sideloading, and rooting. The fragmented app situation on the device is a total mess.

Web Browser

Amazon made a big deal about the "Silk" web browser when they announced the Kindle Fire. It was said to speed download times as it predicted where you were going to browse next. My complaint isn't so much with the time it takes pages to load as with the lousy overall experience of navigating web pages on the device.

Often you have to tap on hyperlinks several times to be effective, Apple's brilliant "double-tap" to fit a column of text gesture is missing, and some pages don't function properly. I thought the larger screen size would enable the Fire to be a usable web browser, but on the contrary, the device is slightly worse than a 3 year old 2nd generation iPod touch - which has a much smaller screen - in terms of web browser usability. Browsing the web on an iPhone 4S is a much more pleasant experience than on the Kindle Fire due to the iPhone's speed, excellent page rendering, responsive touch screen and intuitive and effective gestures.

Since web browsing was one of the primary things I was looking for in the device it's a big disappointment.


I've never owned an e-ink Kindle, but so many people say they love theirs, I figured this device was a good time to get in on that experience. Unfortunately I'm not feeling the magic. I thought it was pretty nice that I could borrow "Moneyball" for free from the Amazon Lending Library with Amazon Prime, but I find the experience of reading on the Fire a little awkward given how heavy it is.

Compared to an e-ink Kindle, the battery life of the Fire and lack of 3G connectivity is also a concern. I think I'd be better off getting an entry level Kindle e-reader - they start at $79now.


Next to the web browser this was my second area of interest and also a big disappointment. Video playback looks great and purchasing/renting content from Amazon is a breeze (if you know what you want, navigating the Amazon store for free content is still a bit of a morass in my experience).

My beef is with the still-fragmented market for digital content. It's still often cheaper to buy a hard copy than it is to rent or buy. Take for example Rio. $8.99 to buy the DVD (free shipping with Prime) or $14.99 to buy the digital copy. Cars 2 isn't available for purchase - you have to rent it at $3.99 a pop. I see similar with books.

I can guess why this is, but it doesn't make me any more enthusiastic about accepting it. Until it's more convenient and affordable to buy digital content it feels like digital just doesn't make sense yet.

Ripping DVDs for playback on the device is also a complicated mess. After experimenting for a day with the best file format and resolution I still can't get a video to make use of the full screen. It's a total pain in the neck.


The magazines I want to read (for example Wine Spectator) aren't available. I want a model where I pay one price for a subscription and I can consume it any way I want to. Print, online, on the go. I don't think this is any better elsewhere but it's certainly not good on the Fire.


It's not so much that the Kindle Fire is a lousy product. It's that Apple spoiled us and Amazon is doing the best they can within the confines of the ecosystem they're operating within.

It's been magical watching our kids intuitively navigate their way around the iPod touch and iPhone. The Kindle Fire has them peppering me with questions about why things don't work. "You've got to tap it a few times sometimes," says our 6 year old. The iPhone found the perfect intersection of being intuitive, looking gorgeous, and being immensely effective.

About the only thing I like about it is the random high resolution images that greet you after waking the device. Unfortunately, the novelty wears off as soon as you swipe your finger across the device and you're reminded of the laggy, herky jerky responsiveness you experienced last time you touched it.

My experience playing with the device the past few days has made me appreciate what a breakthough device the first iPhone was. And what an amazing device the iPhone 4S is. The core interface of the iPhone hasn't changed much since it was released - it's just gotten better and better. Will Amazon be able to pull the same trick? Release a valiant 1.0 and continually improve it through software updates? We'll see, but I don't think I'm going to be along for the ride.


74/100 points - Not Recommended

Here's a link to this same review on Amazon.com

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who and How Much? Replacement Windows from Newpro, Marvin, and Window World

It's amazing how when you're shopping around for an expensive item or embarking upon a home improvement project how businesses that never crossed your mind suddenly catch your attention. Or should I say consume your attention. For about three weeks this Fall I became Mr. Replacement Windows as I sought replacement of 4 windows in our 1940s New England colonial home.

Hurricane Irene was the straw that broke the camel's back. Of the four windows in the modest addition that is my home office, one had a cracked pane, one was extremely hard to open and now that the wind was blowing rain sideways, one leaked. It was time to replace these 4 double-hung 6 over 6 windows. Who to call?

When it comes to a job like this I like to call out the most familiar in the field -and- a reliable contractor I'm familiar with to get a sense for the cost of the project.

With that in mind I called up Newpro on Red Sox color commentator Jerry Remy's recommendation. Mention the Remdawg, he said in the ad, and I'd get half off plus free installation. Sounded good to me! I scheduled an appointment for an estimate later in the week. I also scheduled an appointment with a contractor we'd done a substantial amount of remodeling with on our kitchen previously. Somewhat strangely they funneled me over to "the window department."  What is it with replacement windows? Why is it such a specialty item?  I'd soon find out.

Here's the way it goes: Professional looking guy in a foreign luxury car pulls up in front of your house right on time. He's very likeable and is very good at what he does. He captures your hopes and dreams for the project, casts them upon replacement windows, and describes in sometimes excruciating detail why these windows are the most incredible things you've ever seen. By the end of his presentation you're convinced these are going to be a substantial upgrade to your life. When you're replacing all (or most) of the windows in your house the energy savings could reduce your heating bill substantially - and I could see buying into the story. But since we're talking about only 10% of our home we were able to avoid letting our desires get the best of us.

After much discussion we finally, mercifully got a quote from Newpro for our 4 very ordinary, right down the middle, double-hung replacement windows. For some reason I had in my head the job should cost around $2,000; $500 per window including labor. I don't know why I thought this. I guess it had something to do with other windows and doors we've had replaced in the house. $500 per seemed about right to me.

The quote? $6,000. $1,500 per window. You've got to be kidding me! They sounded like nice windows but the thing is - after talking with colleagues, friends and associates who have Newpro windows - they're not even that great. People I spoke with reported all kinds of problems with Newpro windows they inherited after purchasing a house. I can get behind a premium price if the product warrants it - but I wasn't convinced their windows were that great long term.

The familiar contractor representing Marvin came in over $4,000 - still more than $1,000 per window. What the heck was going on here?

I casually mentioned to a client I was working with at the time my dilemma. I just wanted some reasonably priced windows that would slide up and down easily, wouldn't leak, would look nice, and would provide better insulation than my current drafty windows. He said replacement windows should cost about $350 per and that I should call Window World.

I'd never heard of them but a Google search turned up WindowWorld.com - home of the original $189 (installed!) replacement window. I had no illusions about paying only $189 per window, but I liked the starting point. I scheduled an appointment for later in the week.

The salesman came out just like the prior two did. Right on time, very professional, checked out the windows I needed replacing, showed me his product, described the company, and efficiently worked towards a quote.

First off, there's no such thing as a $189 window - at least not in Massachusetts due to efficiency standards in effect here. But the add-ons were sensible. More efficient glass, grids in the glass, disposal fees, etc, etc. But as he's building up the quote I'm thinking to myself: "He could add on anything he wants and he still won't come close to the numbers I'd heard from the other two salesmen who proceeded him."

When he presented me with the total cost of $1,700 for all four windows ($425 per window - below my target cost of $500) I had to contain myself. There might be an opportunity to hold out and get some rogue discount like there was with the other guys. But he made it pretty clear - this was the best he could do today. We agreed to move forward with the project pending our calling a couple nearby references. They checked out and we went forward.

Along the way I kept thinking in the back of my mind that something was going to go wrong. The installation was going to be crap or the windows were going to be lousy. Or they'd increase the installation cost when they found some unforeseen catastrophe. But there was no such event.

An estimator came out for detailed measurements and the windows were ordered. About 5 weeks later an installer came and politely and cleanly removed the old windows and installed the new ones. A day later a different installer did trim work on the outside to tidy things up. I think they look great.

I immediately felt that my usually chilly home office was warmer. More a part of the house rather than a flimsy addition. The windows look great and they slide up and down with ease. They're perfect. They're just what I was looking for and they didn't cost a fortune.

How nice is that? And what in the heck ever happened to Remdawg's "half off plus free installation" offer? What a bunch of hot air that was. $6,000+ after discount? You've got to be kidding me. Sometimes I feel like I'm too negative about businesses that fall short of my hopes and expectations. And in this case I'm disappointed with some. But with Window World I'm happy. A fair price for a square deal and a pleasant experience. You can't ask for much more than that.

So check 'em out if you're in the market for replacement windows: Window World

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Best Deals Aren't Online: The Future of Price Comparison Shopping

Mandeville Maxens telephone 
You'd think the rise of e-commerce would have resulted in a panacea for deal hounds where you could find the best available price via a simple search on Amazon or Google Shopping. However, in the past month I've come across no less than three situations where the best deal available wasn't discoverable online - even with exhaustive comparison shopping searches. The best deals I found, on identifiable name brand products in the $200- $400 MSRP range, were discovered by comparison shopping old school: Over the phone.

The products I searched for included a musical instrument, a pair of shoes, and a mattress. In each instance, after searching fruitlessly online and seemingly hitting a manufacturer-enforced minimum advertised price, I was able to quickly find a price over the phone which was significantly better from a reputable retailer. I share the information here not because I want to bore you with my purchases over the last month. But because I think it's an interesting comparison shopping technique that could save you time and money.

Further, because it feels like there's an opportunity for crowd-sourced price comparison innovation here. More on that in a moment.

An Electronic Hi-Hat

The first item I was in the market for was a replacement electronic hi-hat: a Yamaha RHH135. For an item like this it's likely I'd check Guitar Center or Musician's Friend. Amazon has it as well. The best price I could find from a trusted retailer: $399. To replace the entire drum set this came from costs only $799 so $399 for a replacement hi-hat is ridiculous.

If I branch out and search Google Shopping I find it for $200. Interesting - that's an improvement. But I don't want to buy it from the no-name retailers offering it for $200 because I don't have a relationship with them, shipping isn't free, and what if I need to return it? What are the terms? How much is it going to cost to ship? And what is their return policy?

I pick up the phone an call Guitar Center. Without much hassle at all they price match it at $200, knock 10% off because they're having a sale. They throw in free shipping too. $180 + tax is all I have to pay.

The item shows up a couple weeks later (it was on backorder). It turns out the hi-hat wasn't the problem at all so I need to return it. I take it over to my nearby Guitar Center for a full easy return.

A Pair of Ecco Shoes

I'm not much of a shoe hound, but I like a decent pair of shoes. Like one every couple years. I was looking for something that was dressy enough to wear to church or a nice dinner out yet comfortable enough to wear to work every day. After some shopping online (Amazon, Zappos, etc) I think I've found the perfect pair: The ECCO Men's Windsor Tie Oxford.

Amazon has them for $225, and searching all over the place (Zappos, Nordstorm, Endless, The Walking Company, Pipelime - you name it) I can't find them for much less than $220. Some used options pop up but I'm not willing to go there.

So off to the nearby shopping mall I go to try them on to make sure they're what I'm looking for. A trip to Nordstrom and the Ecco store confirm they are. But I can't find a deal on the shoes. I even nudge the salesman at the Ecco store - "Do these ever go on sale?". "No" is the response.

Hmm. At that point my options are to buck up and pay full retail and enjoy the benefits of local support (for returns and/or other random issues) or look further for a deal.

But I don't want to spend time trolling randomly around DSW, Marshalls, TJ Maxx an Nordstrom Rack. And I don't want to drive an hour down to the nearest outlet mall with an Ecco store only to discover they don't have the shoes I'm looking for.

So I call the nearest Ecco outlet store. The salesman is super-helpful and tells me they don't have the shoe I'm look for -but- gives me the number of 4 Ecco outlets in the country that have the exact shoe I'm looking for and gives me their phone numbers.

I call the first one and they have it for $179 with $7 shipping. Hmm - not bad. That's already better than any price I could find online. I call the next place and they have it for 25% off $179 so $134 plus $7 shipping.

As a side note I should mention I love free shipping as much as everyone else. But compared to the opportunity cost of a weekend spent driving around trying to track down shoes, not to mention the cost of gas, makes $7 shipping on an item at a great price look like a deal in itself.

So I go for the $141 fully loaded Ecco Windsors. They arrive 3 days later and are absolutely perfect. Just what I wanted.

Twin Mattress

Is there a more difficult to price compare commodity than mattresses? I don't think so. Manufacturers intentionally create private label variations of identical products to thwart comparison shopping and it's nearly impossible to compare the quality of a mattress on your own in a store.

We were looking for a mattress for our 4 year old's first big boy bed. For our 6 year old we bought an organic mattress that wound up lacking sufficient support and given that 4 year olds tend to have accidents - how long do I want this mattress to last?

Just long enough. And it needs to be comfortable enough for one of us to seek refuge in when he comes into our bed during the night and edges one of us out. So I'm looking for a good enough twin mattress.

Strange thing about mattresses is that twin-sized mattresses aren't much cheaper than king-sized. At least not at the low end. So although you think you're "just looking for a kids' mattress" you could be shopping for an expensive product.

I heard an ad on TV from a local furniture retailer (Bernie & Phyls) offering any sized mattress for $99/piece - so $198 for a mattress and boxspring. I really didn't want to go to Bernie & Phyls and experience the inevitable bait and switch. We checked Costco last time we were there ($299) and Ikea seemed to have some cheap mattresses (but again - lots of driving around to far flung places on the weekend). So on Friday night while we were waiting for our pizza to be delivered and planning our weekend I called 1-800-Mattress.

In about the same time it took to order a pizza I ordered a mattress.

The cheapest twin mattress with boxspring we could find on their website was $329. I mentioned a local furniture company was offering a mattress and boxspring set for for $199 and in 2 seconds he matches the price - including delivery and tax.

The mattress showed up the next day in perfect condition. When I saw the receipt I couldn't believe it. The mattress was $155, delivery was $35, and tax was $10. The total was $199 as promised. Amazing - especially since we didn't waste our weekend shopping and hustling around mattresses.


In each of these instances I was able to save hundreds of dollars by comparison shopping and price matching. Not by searching online - but by picking up the phone and calling.

For items costing $100 and up I think this is a significant savings and an effective approach - especially for easily identifiable brand name commodities. What was interesting to me was the interest brands evidently had in maintaining a minimum price for their products online. I can see where they'd want to keep their full-priced retailers happy by making it hard to discover better prices. But I was surprised how effective they were - and how easily I could find better prices with just a phone call or two.

What's Next?

As I was searching online - especially for the shoes - I thought it would be useful to have a crowd sourced price comparison shopping platform to enable consumers to share and discover the true best available prices for goods.

All of the currently available apps/platforms I've found in this space seemed to be beholden to the retailers and brands who listed their goods for sale which in turn results in the same problems as we see with Google Shopping - that authorized retailers aren't allowed to (or don't for whatever reason) advertise prices lower than a certain minimum.

For situations like this - where the best deals aren't visible online currently - I sense an opportunity for disruptive innovation. Start with a repository of uniquely identifiable goods with price comparison facilities (like Amazon's) and link it up with venues (like FourSquare) where users can easily post 140 character (like Twitter) price comparison points and photos alerting other shoppers about values they've discovered. Allow other users to leave comments on deals for crowd sourced feedback.

Question of the Day: What do you think? Have you used similar techniques to get the best prices on brand named commodities? What other techniques have worked well for you?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Fresh Look at Wellesley's Whole Foods Market

Most Wellesley residents didn’t become successful by making haphazard decisions about anything, not even something as commonplace as grocery shopping. For months, speculation, excitement and controversy has surrounded the new Whole Foods Market location. Final preparations are underway and on Monday, shoppers will get to experience the new store for themselves.

The expansion of Whole Foods in Wellesley points to an interesting dynamic at work.  According to Whole Foods Market, their “business is intimately tied to the neighborhood and larger community that we serve and in which we live.” The new expanded store will compete with Roche Bros. which is headquartered in Wellesley. Anyone who has spent any amount of town in Wellesley knows that Roche Bros. is a well-entrenched part of the social landscape. Been to a child’s birthday party? A Roche Bros. cake is almost certain to have been served. So how does Whole Foods intend to serve the community when its new store hopes to lure shoppers away from the longtime hometown grocer?

With a local flair
Taking cues from the old store and what’s worked at other regional stores, the product mix at the new store will reflect local preferences and demands. The store will host local purveyors of goods in a unique outdoor space intended as a seasonal farmer’s market and will continue sourcing from local producers throughout the year. The space that was formerly Tian Fu has been converted to a Community room complete with a demo kitchen which will be available to non-profits and cooking groups. To meet the need of the education-minded Wellesley consumer, the new store will be home to a “Cooking at Wellesley” specialist who will guide newcomers as they explore the bulk foods section. Shoppers who inquire can take a store tour with team members who will share tips for how to find the best values in the store based on the individual's needs and preferences.  Many of those team members will be familiar faces from the existing Wellesley store joined by new transfers from around the region.

Convenience served up
The new store has features that may appeal to the typical Wellesley shopper looking for convenience. There are extensive options for prepared food options ranging from the antipasti bar, wood fired pizzas, gourmet deli, taqueria and a full line of ‘grab and go’ foods. All of these options take convenience one step further by helping health-conscious consumers make smarter choices. Prevalent throughout the store and in the prepared foods, standards are in place guiding the products the store carries. Shoppers won’t find items with artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, hydrogenated fats or a host of unsightly ingredients. Convenience does come with limits however. For the consumer who has Diet Coke on their weekly list, Whole Foods may not be the place for one stop shopping. And unlike Roche Bros and Super Stop and Shop, Whole Foods doesn’t offer grocery delivery.

Gourmet options
The store has several premium features aimed squarely at competing with the town’s local specialty retailers. Toward the rear of the store is a case filled with dry-aged steaks and premium cuts that could replace a stop at John Dewar & Co. Pigeon Cove fish and seafood fires a shot over Captain Marden’s bow and the Fromagerie and Charcuterie gives the Cheese Shop a run for its money. While prepared foods are definitely a focus of the store, chef-worthy raw ingredients can be found in the aisles too.

Store features
While the new store is technically a remodel of the former Star Market, there is little reminiscent of the old space. The new building has received a Green Globes certification assuring that it was built with sustainability in mind. The inside features slate and concrete floors, reclaimed wood, recycled materials and LED lights, which all contribute to the unique aesthetic found in their newer stores. Signage is quirky and abundant with personal, hand-written flourishes throughout. The overall feel of the store reflects how you want your groceries -- fresh, vibrant and clean.

In the redesign of the building, a walk up window was added where customers will be able to approach from the outside and order takeaway items like gelato and made to order coffee. A small café seating area will make dining-in an option too.

While the old location had the character of the original Bread & Circus, the new building offers space for many more products. The new store isn’t nearly the size and scope of the Dedham flagship store but it is a far cry from the tightly packed shopping experience of late. Almost as notable is the much improved parking experience with more than 200 spaces in a dedicated lot.
Check it out for yourself
More than 1000 previewers are expected at the new 442 Washington Street location for Friday’s “sneak preview.” Registered attendees can participate with a $5 donation to the Wellesley Food Pantry. Frequent shoppers at the old location should say their goodbyes this weekend as the store will be closing Sunday night for the last time. The Grand opening begins with a 7:30am bread breaking ceremony (coffee, anyone?) followed by the official opening at 8am on Monday, August 22nd.

Whole Foods Market Wellesley
442 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA
Hours: 8 am - 9 pm daily (except holidays)
On Facebook

Further Reading from the Wellesley Wine Press:
Inside the Bread: Whole Foods to Open New Location in Wellesley

Thursday, August 04, 2011

First Look: Pinkberry Wellesley

Trendy frozen yogurt purveyor Pinkberry opened in Wellesley tonight, offering up free t-shirts and yogurt from 6-9 pm. The t-shirts were gone by the time we go there, and given the lines it all felt a little illogical at times. But in the end we got our free treats and I'm glad we got a taste of what Pinkberry is all about.
I thought I'd heard they were taking over the space vacated by The Gelato Cafe last year, but Pinkberry is actually a couple doors down. It's a prominent location they've got on the corner, and along with recent aesthetic improvements to Linden Square the area felt lively. I don't think I've ever seen so many people out in Wellesley past 7 pm.
Judging from the crowds, buzz, and smiling faces, Pinkberry knows how to run a grand opening. Along with employees offering small samples to people waiting in line they had what felt like as many people as they could possibly fit behind the counter:
Even Miss Massachusetts was there:
The hook, as far as I could tell, is a frozen yogurt product with health benefits like live active cultures like you find in non-frozen yogurt. I was wondering what differentiated it from old school frozen yogurt like TCBY so I had a look at their website and noticed they have a new product called Super Fro-Yo. Gotta love the competition and America's thirst for the new.

They offer up a wide range of toppings which are positioned as being high quality and fresh:
The free offer for their grand opening was any flavor small yogurt with all the toppings you wanted. I went with a coconut yogurt with blueberries, yogurt chips, and -- since they were out of praline hazelnut crunch -- Heath Bar pieces. The coconut yogurt was outstanding. Just the right about of coconut flavor, just the right amount of tart, and a very clean finish. I think could have used more guidance, a la Cold Stone Creamery, because I don't think the sum of the toppings I chose was much better than the components. Still, I enjoyed it very much.
I think Pinkberry is a welcome addition to Wellesley that will do very well. I'll look forward to getting back there again when the lines are shorter and with a little more time to think about which toppings work best with which flavors.

3.75/5 Stars: Very Good Stuff

Check 'em out:
Pinkberry Wellesley
180 Linden Street
Wellesley, MA

Question of the Day: What do you think of Pinkberry? What's your favorite place for a frozen treat near Wellesley?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

A sun smart guide to a summer without regret

Summer is time for building sand castles at the beach, playing in the lake and taking swimming lessons.  It's all great exercise but the sun can take a toll on young, delicate skin.  According to the Skin Cancer Foundation,  just one severe sunburn in childhood doubles the chances of developing melanoma later in life.  With a family incidence of moles and displastic nevi (a precursor to cancer) I wasn't taking any chances with all the arms, legs and noses I'm responsible for.  I am always thinking about how to minimize the amount of sun exposure for my kids while not turning into the fearful killjoy who threatens to lock the children indoors.  A smart mom (or dad) needs to manage the risk, letting kids enjoy life while taking preventative steps wherever feasible.  Along the way, I've found some products to make playing outside safer.

Our first line of defense is trying to schedule outdoor play first thing in the morning.  Our kids are early risers so heading to the beach when we're on vacation at 8AM (sigh) isn't a problem and that keeps us out of the most intense rays of the day.  Next, we create a shade situation where the kids can choose to play.   A large
umbrella like this one and/or a pop up tent like this one can help provide some shade for little diggers.  But since nobody stays in the same place very long, both boys are used to wearing their sun protective beachwear.  I am a big fan of Coolibar hats and long sleeve rashguards from Lands End.  I wash them gently so the specially designed fabric doesn't lose any of its sun protective properties as the weave breaks down.  I replace them seasonally and now and then test them by holding them up to a lamp or window to see how much light filters through.  I strongly recommend getting children accustomed to sun protective gear sooner rather than later.  My kids have been wearing long sleeve rashguards to the beach their whole lives so they don't know to complain about it!

The last line of defense is sunscreen and I've tried plenty of them.  I've also read a lot about them because there's a lot of information out there about the chemicals used in sunscreens and whether or not they may be too harsh for a child's skin.  I prefer to balance out the physical and the chemical blocks used in my products while the jury is out on micronization and nanoparticles.  If you care to read more, check out HealthyChild.org.

My husband's dermatologist likes Blue Lizard sunscreen and I really like it too but it's relatively expensive and hard to find in stores.  It rubs in easily and doesn't leave a white residue.  More accessible
choices which I also like are BabyGanics Cover up Baby which is also available at my local Toys R Us and Badger sunscreen face stick which I can pick up at Whole Foods.  The Badger stick is easy to swipe over little noses anxious to get back to playing.  All of my personal picks are also on the Environmental Working Group's list of "Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens." 

Do you have any must-have techniques or products to keep your kids safe in the sun?

Friday, March 25, 2011

First Look: Old School Pizza in Wellesley

If there's one thing Wellesley has plenty of it's banks and pizza places. The latest addition is Old School Pizza which takes up space vacated by College Square Pizza which mysteriously disappeared last year.

According to The Townsman's Teddy Applebaum Old School is owned by Joe Perdoni Jr. with help from highly regarded Tutto Italiano's Bobby Palizzolo. Though they don't have delivery (yet) we decided to try Old School for this week's Family Pizza Night. How was it? I'm glad you asked.

Ordering the pizza for pick-up over the phone was an interesting affair. I was left on hold for 3 minutes and able to hear what sounded to be a crowded and hectic restaurant. I got disconnected, called back and placed my order:
  • 1 Small White Clam Pizza ($14.99)
  • 1 Small Tomato Pie w/Mozzarella and Mushroom ($8.99 + $0.75)
  • 1 Greek Salad ($6)
Total: $36

A little pricey but we could have kept he cost down if we'd gotten 1 large instead. I wanted to try a couple different pizzas so I think it was worth it. Good start.

Pick-up was a little hectic. We had to pay for parking across the street and there was a line for pick-up. Our food was ready by the time we got through the line, we got what we wanted, and it was still warm by the time it got home.

The Greek salad was nicely loaded with toppings including stuffed grape leaves. The dressing was typical pizza house quality. A good salad for $6.

The White Clam pizza is described as coming with "Whole Belly Clams, Grated Cheese, Fresh Garlic & EVOO, Basil & Shaved Parmesan." I'm not a big clam guy but visually the pizza looked and smelled delicious. Our 6 year old blurted out an unsolicited "this is better than Upper Crust!" My wife said it was "garlicky" - and she likes garlic.

I went with a simple mushroom pizza wanting to compare it to one of my favorite pizzas I've had the past year - a mushroom pizza from Upper Crust paired with a 2006 Radio-Coteau La Neblina Pinot Noir. The combination of earthy and slightly sweet notes in each combined with their focused flavors was a brilliant pairing.

That said, I think the Old School mushroom pizza was better. The mushrooms were sauteed to perfection, and the crust found that perfect combination where it's crunchy on the outside but still soft on the inside. And the sauce - the sauce! Ripe tomato flavors with a touch of sweetness with the perfect amount of saltiness for my taste. I can't think of a better sauce I've tasted. A delicious pizza.

Overall Rating:
4/5 Stars: Very Good/Outstanding

Conclusions and Outlook:

Old School Pizza is a welcome addition to the crowded Wellesley pizza scene. Add delivery and we'll look forward to trying them again. I thought the simple mushroom pizza was delicious and some of the "Favorite Pies" on their menu look intriguing.

Further Reading:
Check 'em out:
No delivery (yet)

    Thursday, March 03, 2011

    Roku: First Impressions

    I bought a Roku from Amazon – it arrived yesterday.

    Setup took less than 10 minutes. The reason I bought it over the Apple TV is that it works with our old SD TV but it’s also capable of streaming 1080p HD.

    First thing I did was Netflix and streamed the kids favorite Busytown Mysteries for free. Loved it.

    Next thing was hook up Pandora. Nice interface, connects to your existing account and remembers your stations. It works with or without the TV on and hooks to the stereo with an optical cable. Sounds great through the house.

    Then, a free kids movie via Amazon. Amazon has started streaming some content free for Prime subscribers.

    Finally: The big creshendo - Breaking Bad Season 3!! I bought the season from Amazon in SD for $16.99 (13 episodes) less a $5 credit I had for some past Amazon digital purchase. Haven’t been able to find that anywhere else yet.

    It doesn’t have YouTube, it doesn’t stream podcasts, it doesn’t play nice with Apple products, and it can’t stream from our music collection without some effort.  But for $99 it does a whole lot of stuff that I like. They make a $59 model too but I liked the optical audio out, the better wireless networking, and the 1080p streaming for the future.

    Thursday, January 06, 2011

    Things To Avoid: Guardsman Furniture Insurance

    We bought a bunch of furniture from Domain 3 years ago.  Though I normally avoid extended warranties and insurance - especially for stuff like this - one of the pieces was a light-colored upholstered sofa.  We didn't want to have some type of protective chemical applied to any of the furniture so we were going to decline the protection plan.  But the beauty of the Guardsman plan, or so we thought, was that it insured the furniture for 5 years against accidental breakage and even damage inflicted by youngers without applying any products to the furniture.  It's just a financial protection plan.  We paid $99 to insure the 4 pieces of furniture we bought.

    We had a feeling the kids might mar the sofa in some way - and they did.  A red marker stain now stretches about 4 feet across the sofa.  It took a few days to track down the policy information and figure out the procedure for filing a claim with Guardsman.

    I called them to report the damage about a week or two after it occurred.  While I was going through the hassle, I thought I'd get them to repair the back of an upholstered leather chair that was coming loose.  When I called they took down all my information and then E-mailed me claim forms.

    One of the requirements spelled out on the claim forms was to submit a copy of the sales receipt showing we purchased the Guardsman protection.  I was hoping they'd have our information on file already but no such luck.  If we couldn't produce the sales receipt we'd be denied coverage.

    Fortunately after much searching I was able to track down the sales receipt.  I filled out the forms, faxed them in, and waited.  A couple weeks later they left a message saying they needed some additional information.  I called back and they told me they were denying the claim because I took too long after the damage occurred before filing the claim.  They said their policy is that claims need to be filed within 5 days of when the damage occurs.

    When I filled out the forms they asked when the damage occurred.  I arbitrarily said December 1st, not realizing it would be the information they'd use as justification for denying my claim.  The thing is - the loose back on the upholstered chair was a gradually occurring condition that didn't have a definitive date.  I told the claim agent I thought it was a ridiculously tight time frame to report a claim.  She said it was important to have a tight time frame because they didn't want stains to set before they sent a repair technician out to the house.  If that's true - why does it take 3 weeks to go through a claims process?  And what sense does that make in the context of damaged furniture having nothing to do with stain removal?

    I think it's just one of many ways they deny claims based on technicalities.

    The only thing that annoys me more than the aggressive sale of extended warranties and insurance plans is when the companies behind them make it difficult to file a claim then deny claims for minor technicalities.

    I spoke to two agents, the second being Kristen, employee ID number 7001.  She seemed entirely too comfortable rejecting a claim outright for such a minor technicality, as if she did it all day.  I've filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Consumer Affairs Division of Insurance, and I wrote this blog.

    With that, Guardsman, you're dead to me.  It's not the end of the world that our stupid furniture has some damage, but we paid you money to insure it and you failed to live up to your end of the bargain.  You know your operation is a sham.  I hope you go out of business soon.

    Saturday, January 01, 2011

    If you're not Dutch, you're not much

    A friend of mine once uttered this phrase, and it makes me laugh now just as it did then. As long as I’m going to pay homage to my mother’s side of the family, I should also show a little love to my dad’s. He was born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania and as a result, he carries with him a bit of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. One of his family traditions was for the first dinner of the year to be Pork Roast and Sauerkraut. He insists that the meal brings good luck. Although I haven't seen any compelling evidence to that effect, I'm a sucker for the tradition. For many years, my mother made this dish for the family and although I didn’t love it growing up, I’ve come to appreciate it. Now my family loves it and it's an easy way to get my Dad to come and visit. (Now if only I could make him a Shoofly pie.)

    This one is super simple and the perfect meal to throw in the oven on a cold Winter day. The ratio of pork to sauerkraut is very forgiving so whatever size roast is used, the finished product should turn out well. Serve with applesauce, mashed potatoes and pan roasted brussels sprouts and you’re good to go.

    Good Luck Pork Dinner

    1 onion, roughly chopped
    2 apples, roughly chopped
    Boneless pork loin roast, I used a 3 ½ pound roast
    2 large jars of sauerkraut, I used 64 ounces total

    For the dumplings:
    2 cups of all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon of baking powder
    ¾ teaspoon of salt
    1 cup milk
    3 tablespoons butter, melted
    finely chopped herbs to taste, I used about a tablespoon of Herbes de Provence

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer a large covered casserole dish with apples and onions and then sauerkraut. Rinse and then season the pork with salt and pepper and place in the middle of the dish atop the sauerkraut. Cover and bake until pork registers 150 degrees.

    Next, make the dumplings by combining the wet ingredients and then adding the dry ingredients. Stir with a fork until the mixture just comes together. Drop dumpling mixture in balls onto the surface of the sauerkraut, cover and return to oven. Cook until the dumplings have a brownish tinge and the pork registers 160 degrees.

    Enjoy with a German Riesling or your wine of choice. Here’s to a great year!

    The Feast of the Seven Fishes, Casa Dwyer style

    As a little girl, I remember Christmas Eve as more than just the night Santa came to visit. I remember my mother and Grandma cooking fish; the only suitable Italian dinner for that special evening. There wasn’t much discussion about the whys of having fish, it was more a tradition than anything else. My mother would make Shrimp Scampi; some years there would be fried flounder and on good years, there would be panzerotti. In Grandma’s northern Italian interpretation these were deep fried, hand rolled balls of potato. She pronounced them as if there was an “a” at the end of the word – "panzarotta." This recipe was the closest approximation I could find.

    I couldn’t bring myself to make the time consuming panzarotti but I did want to honor Nonna and my Italian heritage by making fish on Christmas Eve. While my Grandma isn’t cooking anymore, I wanted to make a dinner she might enjoy. My other goal was to accomplish this without spending an inordinate amount of time on the meal – there were still presents to wrap! I did all my grocery shopping on Christmas Eve morning, which ensured that it was all as fresh as possible.

    Here was the menu for the small crowd who joined us:

    Lobster spread with crudite and crackers
    Bacon wrapped scallops
    Maryland crabcakes
    Baked, stuffed clams
    Caesar salad
    Lobster ravioli with herbed brown butter sauce
    Roasted salmon

    A very busy life has made me more than once want to throw in the culinary towel entirely but the truth is that I enjoy the tradition of food and the memories they bring up. So even though I'm not trying to recreate the original meal exactly, I hope to recreate the experience of everyone gathering in the kitchen and enjoying food and conversation that is celebratory, symbolic and delicious.
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