Daniel’s Restaurant and Catering

By Jessica Mohr

This review is special to me because I have been going to Daniel’s Restaurant and Catering for as long as I can remember. Whenever extended family came into town from Philadelphia, we would always take them here for a delicious Italian meal that was also reasonably priced, especially when compared to some of the places in Raleigh or Cary that were also on the list of “grandparent accepted” restaurants in the area. In addition to being affordable and delicious, Daniel’s is right down the road from my house! Google Maps calculates it as 1.8 miles away. That’s walkable, if you’re desperate. Due to my long history with this place, and its location 0.8 miles from Highway 64, Daniel’s was a natural choice for this review. 

The appetizer I selected for this review is their arancini. For those of you who have never experienced the Italian magic, arancini is a deep-fried ball of risotto with a gooey glob of cheese in the middle, served over homemade tomato sauce. I like it with extra Parmesan cheese on top and more pepper than most people deem tasteful. Not only are Daniel’s arancini large (think tennis balls), they are also robust and substantial. As soon as you cut into them you know there’s about to be a party in your mouth — the hearty, warm smell of a well-made risotto combined with melted mozzarella cheese comes wafting out of the ball, inspiring a reaction I can only describe as excitement. The first thing you notice when you take a bite is how crisp the fried outer shell is. Despite sitting in a bed of moist tomato sauce, that outer shell is still sharp and crisp when you take a bite out of it.

Once you get through the fried outer shell, flavorful risotto and creamy mozzarella cheese greet you on the inside. Risotto is an Italian staple made with rice, meat broth, onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and usually some butter for good measure. Whoever Daniel is, I want to find him and ask him where he gets his seasonings, because this is some of the most intense flavor I’ve ever experienced out of a risotto, and I’ve been to Italy! This appetizer reminded me of the small hole-in-the-wall restaurant my mother and I ate at no less than three times during our two-day visit to Florence. Everything in Daniel’s arancini tasted fresh, authentic, and vibrant.

While I could survive on arancini alone if I really put my mind to it, I also opted for an entree, and what better dish to select for the main course than pasta? There were plenty of “pastabilities” on the menu, but I decided to go for the house favorite: penne alla casa. This is, as written on the menu, “a heavenly concoction of red sauce and cream, garlic, Romano cheese, sun dried tomatoes, and spinach.” I also added chicken so I could pretend I was having something healthy. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish as well. The sauce was indeed heavenly, with just the right amount of kick from the garlic, the pasta was nice and al dente, and the chicken was well-prepared. The only critique I had was that there was a bit too much spinach in the mix for my liking, but that’s too much a personal preference for me to count it as a negative aspect of their recipe. After all, I had more than enough pasta to eat off of for three days after my meal, and that’s far more exciting than worrying about the quantity of spinach. Between the leftovers and the half a loaf of garlic bread in the takeout bag, I was one happy customer.

Do What You Know Do What You Love

By Dustin Swope and Anne Marie Glen, 2013

Selling pumpkins and strawberry shortcakes- the two don’t exactly shout “match made in Heaven,” but one North Carolina matriarch and her family have found a way to make it work. Following yard-stake signs for a pumpkin patch right along Highway 64 between Apex and Pittsboro, we broke north on your standard country road, weaving through peaceful wooded areas between farms, nurseries, and homes. Just under ten minutes later, we were pulling off the east side of the road into “Ragan & Holly’s Pumpkin Patch,” run by the Hopeland family.  Not particularly hungry, but our interest piqued by the state-fair food truck enjoying at least as much business as the actual pumpkin patch, we strolled over to meet the woman we soon knew as Mrs. Jean Hopeland.

A well-kept, smart, and sincere woman by appearance, Jean Hopeland is, by at least one account, the area’s resident Jane Lynch. On this day, Jean was looking comfortable behind the counter of the food truck, teaching her niece the tricks of the trade and clocking in some quality bonding time. Curiosity was knocking impatiently, so we had to ask Mrs. Hopeland: What was a state-fair food truck doing on a farm? Apparently, it was the intersection of good business sense and a childhood love. Mrs. Hopeland was selling beverages, fresh apples, and jars of her homemade strawberry jams, but the pride of her food truck was her strawberry shortcake.

Jean shared with us warm memories of cooking and taking meals with family. She told us about the trials and rewards of strawberry growing. She was laid-back, happy to talk to us at length and answer all our questions, an attitude you just don’t see in the city. Jean is living on country time. The pumpkin patch itself was not bustling, but it was bright with the familiar colors and sights of Autumn in the country. There were several tractors for decoration, and colors of all sizes and even colors (white and green pumpkins were a new experience).

We had never heard of pumpkin farming in the area, though, which was what made the set-up so curious. Mrs. Hopeland took clear pride in her baked goods, preserves, and of course in her strawberries – the last of which was probably easier to brag about than not! But Jean was understanding enough when we asked her how she liked farming pumpkins, wearing our agricultural ignorance on our sleeves. Alas, she reveals, the Hopeland family does not grow the pumpkins sold at the Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch. If they did, there probably wouldn’t still be a Hopeland Family Pumpkin Patch today.

The pumpkins are outsourced from Ohio, where pumpkin farming is actually lucrative. Jean decided to incorporate the pumpkin patch into what she enjoys – growing strawberries, cooking with strawberries, and spending time with her family – and let synergy take over.  It was hard not to envy Mrs. Hopeland. Between the “seasonal” plot of land now occupied by pumpkins, the food truck that apparently truly does take in business at fairs and festivals, and of course the family farmlands, each generation of the Hopeland clan was having fun, making a comfortable living, yet never farther than a short stroll away from the woman that started it all.

The pumpkins rested on haybales, wooden pallets, and right on the ground, and the patch wouldn’t be there forever, with winter slowly approaching. But the little community surrounding the pumpkin patch takes life as it comes, setting up shop when the leaves turn and moving on when the air starts to get cold. Jean Hopeland goes back to her strawberry gardens in the woods off Route 64. Next year, when the foliage begins blossoming into orange again, the cycle will repeat and the pumpkin patch and Mrs. Hopeland will return to share North Carolina’s bounty with curious passers-by like ourselves.