Friday, April 29, 2011

An Akron Institution For Eighty-One Years

About a month ago, friend and fellow food blogger Kathy from Carano's Cucina and I were having a casual conversation on-line when the idea of grabbing a meal together came up. When she suggested Dontino's Fine Italian Cuisine, I was definitely intrigued by the notion. Having driven by the restaurant hundreds of times, nothing had ever prompted me to consider actually stopping in for a meal. Until today. Seeing as we were both slammed for the holidays, we agreed to wait until the new year to check out this long-time Akron staple.

Having been around for eighty-one years, the restaurant itself was fairly simple to find. Located at the corner of East Cuyahoga Falls and Linden Avenues, there was ample parking behind the restaurant. Technically the restaurant was located at 555 East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue, Akron, OH 44310 and can be reached at 330-928-9530. Interestingly, there were two entrances to Dontino's. The first was the door at the front of the restaurant on the corner. The second was towards the rear of the restaurant on Linden Avenue. Either led you into the restaurant.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Front Entrance to Dontino's in Akron, Ohio
Tonight Kathy and I decided to enter the rear entrance (since we had parked in the lot behind the restaurant and this was the closer of the two entrances) and once inside, we were greeted with tonight's specials board:

Dontino's Specials Menu for Thursday Night
I'm not quite sure what "Guinness" was doing underneath the dessert selection for the day, but I've often considered Guinness to be substantial enough for a meal, so I didn't really give it a second thought. We indicated two for dinner and our hostess led us to an incredibly dimly lit table just off the lobby.

She left us with the menu to peruse:

Dontino's Dinner Menu Page 1
Dontino's Dinner Menu Page 2
Dontino's Dinner Menu Page 3
Dontino's Dinner Menu Page 4
[Ed. Note: For the camera geeks out there, in order to get a non-blurry handheld shot of the menu panels, I had to jack my camera up to an ISO of 3200 and the exposures still took nearly 1/2 a second. Thank goodness for image stabilization and some serious post-processing work in the GIMP. Fortunately, I was able to return to a more sane ISO of 200 for the food pictures since I had my tripod.]

After placing our food order, the server was quick to return with a basket of sliced seedless Italian bread:

Bread Basket
When the bread first came out, it was reasonably fresh, but it quickly staled and by the end of the meal, would've made a good candidate for croutons or French toast. The bread was served room temperature and while useful for sopping up red sauce off my dinner plate, was entirely unremarkable on its own.

As Kathy and I had both ordered an entree for our dinners, each came with a side salad with choice of dressing:

House Salad with Italian Dressing
Among the myriad of salad dressings our server named, only the house Italian was homemade. Both Kathy and I decided to go in that direction. The salad was about as tasty as it looked. The tomato was mealy and hard (it was a January tomato after all), the salad was completely unseasoned, and the dressing had split into oil and vinegar components. Hoping that the seasoning would be in the dressing, I liberally applied it to the greens. While there was definitely a lovely garlic flavor in the dressing, it lacked the kind of seasoning needed to punch up the flavors. Fortunately, a glass jar of grated Parmesan cheese (from the "green" can, I would assume) sat at the edge of our table. I generously dusted the top of my salad with the cheese, "tossed" my salad slightly, and took another bite. Eureka! Kathy repeated the experiment to her salad and came to a similar conclusion.

Tonight I decided to go with the Thursday evening special for my entree, Sausage and Peppers:

Sausage and Peppers with Dried Pasta
At the time I ordered this dish, I hadn't realized that it came with a side of pasta. For an additional $0.75, you can upgrade any of the pastas to homemade pasta. So, unfortunately, it was dried pasta for me. As I lifted the spoon from beneath my pasta, I noticed one of my pet peeves: a pool of water under the pasta. While one can argue whether plain noodles should be topped with sauce or whether the almost-cooked pasta should be finished by tossing it thoroughly in the sauce, one thing that should never be present is a puddle of water under the pasta. Fortunately, the water was fairly minimal and the red sauce thick enough that when I got around to eating it, the two integrated into a decent consistency.

As for the flavor, the spaghetti and red sauce were good, consistent with most mom and pop Italian restaurants. The pasta hadn't been cooked to death and once I topped the pasta with a bit of hot pepper flakes, it was spiced to my personal preference. The sausages were a little on the dry side, but definitely not so dry that it crumbled. While there was seasoning in the sausage, I missed the anise flavor that fennel seeds would have brought to the party (a traditional flavor found in most Italian sausage). There was also an absence of any chile heat that red pepper flakes usually provide. I didn't find the flavor objectionable, per se, but more uninteresting.

Kathy, knowing that her entree came with a side of pasta, opted to upgrade to the homemade spaghetti topped with the same red sauce that I had:

Chicken Parmesan with Homemade Pasta
Kathy ordered the Chicken Parmesan and she let me try a bit of her chicken (I had let her try some of the sausage from my dish). It certainly wasn't the best Chicken Parmesan I've ever had (that honor goes to Monte Carlo Italian Kitchen), but it wasn't bad either. It was clear the breading had herbs in it as not only could I taste them, but I could also see them.

When the subject of dessert came up, our server rattled off a list of several usual suspects (tiramisu and spimoni) as well as one that had been highlighted on the specials board at the front of the restaurant, Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie:

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie
Not surprisingly, Dontino's didn't make any of their desserts and this was more than likely standard food service fare that you could get at any of the national chain restaurants. But, since Kathy and I wanted to end our meal on a sweet note, we each donned a fork and split the wedge of pie within just a couple of bites. It tasted good, but as I suspected, it wasn't exceptional or even really that unique.

Our meal complete, the server brought our check. Since Kathy and I had ordered virtually identically priced meals and split the dessert, she agreed when I suggested we divide it right down the middle. With tip and tax, each of us shelled out $18 for our meal tonight at Dontino's. While this certainly didn't break the bank for either of us, it wasn't exactly inexpensive either. Neither of us left physically hungry, but I can't help but think that tonight's visit didn't really quench my craving for really GOOD Italian food. I'm certain that being around for eighty-plus years has made for some arduous fans of Dontino's food. Based on the food from this first visit, I remain unconvinced.

Dontino's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

AMP 150 Gift Card Giveaway

For those of you out there who happen to be Facebook friends with me, you might have seen a status update or two regarding a food photography shoot I had over the weekend. Chef Ellis Cooley from the restaurant AMP 150 approached me a little over a week ago and indicated that the restaurant was in need of photographs of their new menu items for a redesign of the corporate website. He asked if I and fellow foodie Edsel would be interested in doing a photo shoot. Feeling quite proud of how far I've come in my food photography in the last seven months of study, I quickly agreed.

I decided to drop off the finished photographs last night and since the weather was crappy (really, when will this rain end?) and the traffic going south on I-71 backed up, I decided to stay and try a few of the dishes I had photographed over the weekend. You might be tempted to think that with all of the food Edsel and I photographed over the weekend that we would have also tasted it, too. One of the dirty little secrets of professional food photography is that the food doesn't have to taste good, it just has to look good. Thus, if an ingredient doesn't contribute directly to the appearance of the food (like, say, salt), it wasn't added.

So, what did I order? First up was a Shrimp and Pea Risotto with Fresh Local Ramps:

Shrimp and Pea Risotto with Local Ramps
Creamy, buttery, sweet, and garlicy. If I could sum up a dish in four words, those would be it. This was an amazing small plate that did much to feed not only my stomach, but also my soul. The rice was creamy without being mushy, the peas added little pops of sweetness, the shrimp were cooked without being rubbery, and the ramps (kind of like wild garlic) added a much needed sharpness to balance the entire dish. If you are interested in trying this dish, get to AMP 150 soon as ramp season will be over in a matter of weeks, not months.

My second small plate tonight was Poached Sea Scallops over Squid Ink Farro, Fines Herbs, and Fumet:

Poached Bay Scallops with Squid Ink Farro
Again, this was all about texture and flavor balance. The scallops were tender and buttery, the farro had a slightly chewy texture that felt like a cross between barley and rice, and the squid ink, although dark in appearance, had a certain brightness in flavor. I can't tell you which one I enjoyed more as they were both outstanding.

Finally, to finish up my meal tonight, I decided to go with one of AMP 150's new desserts, Lemongrass Rice Pudding, Herbed Tapioca, Coconut Foam, and Passion Fruit Caviar:

Lemongrass Rice Pudding, Herbed Tapioca, Coconut Foam, Passion Fruit Caviar
As with all of the dishes at AMP 150, this was a clever combination of tart and sweet, creamy and chewy. The rice pudding had a soft, but still chewy texture to it. The herbed tapioca (readers familiar with Bubble/Pearl Tea will understand the texture) had a vegetal quality to it that worked well with the lemongrass and coconut. The passionfruit caviar was practically unsweetened, and as such, contrasted brightly with the sweetness of the foam and rice pudding. This dish was light and airy, yet not overly sweet and ultimately satisfying.

Now that I've whetted your whistle with some of the new menu items available at AMP 150, I think it is high time to announce the gift card giveaway! As part of the compensation that AMP 150 offered me for my photography services, they graciously agreed to include a $25 gift card to give away to one lucky reader of my blog. Considering that $25 is enough for one person to eat a complete meal at AMP 150 (which was pretty much what my bill came to last night with water), it's a great way to experience one of Cleveland's premiere dining destinations.

The contest will work as follows: starting now, simply leave a comment stating that you'd like to win the gift card. You will have until 11:59:59 PM on Friday, April 29th, 2011 (that's 1 second before midnight Saturday) to leave your comment. At 12:00 AM on Saturday morning, I will use to randomly select the winner from all the posted comments. IF YOU LEAVE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS IN YOUR COMMENT, I will contact you to tell you that you've won. If you only leave a name in your comment (which is entirely your option), I will post the winner's name and that person will have until Monday morning, May 2nd, 9:00 AM, to contact me and claim your prize. If no contact has been made by Monday morning at 9:00 AM, I will select another winner.

Bottom line is ... if you want to be entered into the contest and don't wish to leave your email address, make sure you check back to see if you've won!

Once the winner has confirmed their interest in claiming the prize, I will get them the gift card in the manner which is easiest for them (most people prefer the US Postal Service).

Good luck! Even if you don't win the gift card, take the time to check out the fantastic menu at AMP 150. Chef Cooley and crew are really doing some marvelous new dishes on the spring menu.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Passover Seder 2011: A Pictorial(ish)

Oh my goodness, has it been a year already? Yes, yes it has!

Just one year ago I was invited to spend the evening with friends and hosts Nancy (from Fun Playing With Food) and her husband Bob as they shared their home, their traditions, and their food during last year's Passover holiday. I was tickled once again to receive an invitation this year to their Passover festivities. Because Passover wasn't on time again this year (because according to Nancy, the holidays are always early or late, they are never on time), the meal fell closer to the end of April this year instead of last year when it was in March.

As with last year's entry, I didn't want to belabor the dishes I had already described so thoroughly the first year I blogged about them (Part 1 Part 2), so today's post will be mostly a pictorial of the meal from beginning to end, with notes interjected from time to time to bring up any interesting facets of the meal. This past Tuesday night, we all gathered in Nancy's kitchen around 6:30 PM to put the final preparations together for the Seder. Some of us chopped, some of us washed, and some of us opened bottles of wine to let them breathe and photographed others' activities (that'd be me).

Preparation of the Fennel SaladDiane prepping a delicious fennel, lemon, and pistachio salad.

Preparing parsley for the ceremonyBob and Edsel prepping the parsley leaves for the Seder ceremony.

Non-kosher Wine SelectionIn addition to traditional Kosher for Passover wine, we had lots of regular wine on hand, too.

Lighting the candlesIt is important to begin the Seder ceremony before sundown. Here, Nancy was lighting the candles and singing the first prayer from the Haggadah.

Traditional Seder PlateThe traditional Seder plate with roasted egg, roasted shank bone, charosis/charoset, two bitter herbs (onion and horseradish), and fresh parsley. Each played a symbolic role in the Seder.

Shmurah MatzohThis was a special matzoh flown in from Israel, Shmurah Matzoh. In accordance with tradition, each unleavened wafer was cooked precisely eighteen seconds, not a second more or less.

Charosis/Charoset and HorseradishNancy's homemade charosis and Bob's homemade horseradish from his garden. I think these two flavors alone are what make me yearn to return year after year.

Hillel's SandwichAs part of the Seder tradition, Hillel's Sandwich (Korech/Koreich) was made from two pieces of broken matzoh that had been stuffed with charosis and one of the bitter herbs, either raw onion or horseradish.

Steamed EggsSteamed eggs from Aaron Miller's farm.

Eating eggs with salted waterAt the end of the first half of the ceremony, after we've eaten the parsley dipped in salted water, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, and Hillel's Sandwich, we finished by eating one of the steamed eggs that has been drizzled with some of the salted water.

Gefilte Fish with Carrots and ParsleyNancy's homemade gefilte fish made with whitefish, pike, and carp; a special grind that she gets from Mr. Brisket in Cleveland Heights. As odd as it seems, pairing this with the spicy horseradish makes the perfect complement.

Shaved Fennel Salad with Lemon Zest and PistachiosShaved fennel salad with lemon zest and pistachios and dressed in a simple olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. So simple and so delicious!

First Course of Seder MealHere was my first course plate. You have to be careful not to fill up too early because there are three more courses coming! And trust me, it's hard because everything was so delicious.

Second Course of Dinner: Matzoh Ball SoupThis was our second course: Nancy's homemade matzoh ball soup. If I were sick, this would be exactly what the doctor would order to make me feel better. After the soup, we took a breather to clear the plates and make more room in our stomachs.

Sweet Farfel Kugel with Apricots and Vietnamese CinnamonSweet farfel kugel with apricots and Vietnamese cinnamon from Heather's Heat and Flavor. While I always love this dish, everyone agreed that this year's version was simply outstanding. I was even fortunate enough to bring a square home with me for breakfast the next day.

Carrot and Prune Tzimmes with Shredded BrisketThis was a carrot and prune tzimmes with shredded shortribs (also known as flanken). While this was the first time I had eaten a tzimmes for Passover, I remember eating Linda Griffith's amazing version at the last Rosh Hashanah meal I attended. It was amazing to me to see the range of this one dish.

Spicy Potato KugelAlong with the sweet farfel kugel, Nancy and Bob always serve up a slightly spicy potato kugel as well. While the farfel kugel reminds me of a bread pudding, the potato kugel is a wholly different beast and really was its own thing in term of texture. Absolutely delicious though.

Aaron Miller Slow-Braised Brisket with OnionsOf course, having a Seder meal at Nancy's house meant that the final savory course of the meal would contain brisket, this particular one from Aaron Miller's farm from grass-fed cows. She also served up a contrasting brisket that had been finished on corn from a different purveyor. It was a treat to get to try and contrast the two styles to see which we liked better. It really fell 50/50 among the guests. Both, however, were tender, juicy, and quite flavorful.

Third Course of DinnerHere was a shot of the third course of tonight's Seder meal, all the usual suspects: brisket with onions, sweet farfel kugel, spicy potato kugel, and carrot and prune tzimmes.

Mint CordialAfter cleaning off the plates from the savory courses, desserts began making their way to the table. This was a mint cordial, unwrapped. Also available were my major weakness, cherry cordials. I had one of each.

David Leibowitz's Idiot-Proof Chocolate CakeJust like last year, David Leibowitz's chocolate flourless cake, also known as the Idiot-Proof cake, made an appearance.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Creme AnglaiseMy final taste of the evening was a slice of the ultra-dense flourless chocolate cake with some of Nancy's homemade creme anglaise. Talk about a rich and decadent way to end an amazing meal!

What had begun as a group of very hungry diners at 6:30 PM had morphed over the next four hours of ceremony, conversation, laughing, and eating into ten very satisfied, tired, and full eaters. With the meal at its conclusion, Nancy finished the Seder by reading the last of the incantations and blessings from the Haggadah. We gathered our coats and leftovers and headed out into the stormy, wet evening. I, for one, never get tired of spending so much time on a single meal. Coming from a non-Jewish household, and even though I'm not particularly religious as an adult, I love being able to see this wonderful culture that seemed so foreign to my childhood.

Even more importantly, I know that whatever Nancy and Bob prepare will be at its peak of flavor. I am so grateful to them both for exposing me to this wonderful alternative to the Christian holiday of Easter (with which I am much more intimately acquainted). While I do admit that at the first Seder I ever attended, there were some items about which I was fairly skeptical (gefilte fish downright scared the crap out of me ... have you ever seen those jars in the Jewish section of the supermarket?), I learned to step outside of my comfort zone and discover a world of new flavors that I now find quite delicious and look forward to every year.

For those celebrating Passover (it is actually a week long holiday), I wish you a very happy and healthy celebration. For those of my gentle readers out there celebrating the Christian holiday of Easter, I wish all of you a happy and healthy holiday, too. As for everybody else, have a great weekend and enjoy it with family and friends sharing good food and great conversation. It's really what makes life so enjoyable.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I Never Realized How Boring Potatoes Were

[Ed. Note: I often receive solicitations to try out various food products or services and while most of them are usually met with a gentle, "Thanks, but no thanks." response, this popped into my Inbox over the weekend and I thought it too funny to simply delete. I hold no ill feelings for those choosing to use Stove Top Stuffing Mix, but seriously, did the person putting this list together even bother reading any of my blog posts? Enjoy!]

from: Blogger Outreach
date: Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 6:05 PM
subject: Bloggers - Are you ready for the un-potato fest contest?

Dear Tom Noe,

Are you ready to show that STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix "tops" the potato?

STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix is challenging families to escape the same old, boring potato routine through a contest held by Technorati Media - you could win a $100 American Express gift card!

What We Want You to Write About

We're inviting the blogosphere to participate in a contest to create humorous posts about how potatoes are a boring alternative to STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix. By providing creative, funny and memorable content that takes a jab at potatoes as "boring," we want to encourage families to consider STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix as an everyday and easy-to-make side dish alternative to instant potatoes. STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix is so "un-boring" it's the "un-potato!"

With its everyday meal appeal, delicious taste and easy prep, STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix is the perfect side dish solution that complements meat and vegetables alike. Each serving from the convenient STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix flex canister takes just two minutes to prepare in the microwave no extra pots or dishes to wash. The STOVE TOP Everyday Stuffing Mix canister is re-sealable, so you can make as little or as much as you need, as quickly as you need it.


- An image and story of talk show host potato that has put its guests to sleep

- An image and story of a potato totally underdressed in it's [sic] plain old skin for an event

- Showcase kids talking about how boring potatoes are and how they love STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix

- Showcase how potatoes don't cut it - they're so worthless to eat - doorstoppers, brick-fixes (spoof on home entertainment show sponsored by Stove Top)

Seriously, the more creative your posts and images are (as well as appropriate and non-offensive) the better! If it helps, think of the type of humor found in The Onion ( and incorporate that style of comedy into your story.

All you need is your sense of humor (and we know bloggers have the best sense of humor in the world)!

Post Requirements For Contest

- At least 200 words with your "story" about the STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix being the "HERO" over th [sic] BORING POTATO.

- At least one image and/or video about your BORING POTATO or STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix.

- Include An outbound link to: - mentioning the STOVE TOP Stuffing Mix campaign.

- Include the following tag in your post - #unpotatofest

- Post a minimum of one Facebook update, a tweet, or an upload to YouTube (if applicable) to promote your post.

- Video stories about your potato or STOVE TOP stuffing as the "hero" are highly encouraged, though not required.

- Submit your entry by 4/26/11 at:

Looking forward to your creativity and good luck!

Scott Lyon

Blogger Outreach Manager

Official Contest Rules:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cleveland's First C-Town Chow Down

It can be argued who started the food truck craze in Cleveland. Of course, the Seti's Polish Boys truck has graced the exterior of Dean Supply on East 30th Street for quite some time. But it wasn't until about a year ago when then co-owners, Chris Hodgson and Jeremy Esterly, started the buzz and eventually opened the very popular Dim and Den Sum that the food truck craze officially became "on." A lot has happened in a year's time.

Today's gathering of food trucks on Lincoln Park in Tremont represented the first time that so many different styles of food had converged at a single location. The good folks from the Jibaro World Food truck suggested the gathering and fortunately, this event appears like it will be monthly, especially given how popular the food truck idea has become. Starting at 11:00 am on Sunday, March 27th, eight of the area's prominent trucks lined West 11th Street and began serving up food to the crowd. By the time I got there, around 12:30 pm, what I encountered truly qualified as masses of people. Even with the temperature hovering around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it didn't stop at least a thousand cold and hungry people from showing up.

Here was a shot of the crowd from the northern end of the park:

Massive Crowds, Angle 1
And here was a shot from the southern end:

Massive Crowds, Angle 2
Before getting in any one particular line (because trust me, with the crowds today, you had to pick just one), I decided to walk down the line and take a picture of each truck participating in the first C-Town Chow Down:

Oh! Babycakes TrailerBabycakes

After walking the gauntlet, I decided on trying out StrEat Mobile Bistro, in part because good friend and former owner of Market Gourmet @ Montrose Jeff Winer was now on board, and partly because fellow foodie Stuart Spivack was waiting in line and had texted me to get my attention. Between the time I joined him in line and the time we made it to the front was probably a good thirty to forty minutes. I was concerned as we approached today's menu that we would get to the front and find that they were all out of food.

Fortunately, they still had some items left:

StrEat Mobile Bistro's Menu
After placing and paying for our orders, we simply had to wait just a few minutes before we could finally collect our food. Miraculously, we found a small table in the park where we could sit for a few minutes and eat.

Here was a shot of Stuart's Asian Ginger Turkey Sandwich:

Asian Ginger Turkey Sandwich
And we each ordered some of the waffle fries:

Spiced Waffle Fries
While these pretty much felt like a fried-from-frozen product, the fry job on them was actually pretty good. Since StrEat had been moving through so much product, pretty much anything out of the fryer was hot and fresh. These particular waffle fries had a bit of a spicy kick to them, probably from a bit of cayenne in their seasoning. On a frigid day, these were a nice way to warm up inside.

While Stuart went for the sandwich, I went for the Buffalo Macaroni and Cheese:

Buffalo Macaroni and Cheese with Chicken
Studded with tender white meat chicken, buffalo sauce, and various vegetables, the macaroni and cheese was a modest success. The flavor was good, but as one could imaging, holding cooked pasta for a long time before serving it led to it being slightly mushy. Nothing terrible, mind you, and given the number of people each of these food trucks fed today, actually quite remarkable. That being said, were I served this at a "normal" food truck visit (where there weren't 990 other people competing to be served), I might have been a bit less forgiving.

Our main meal now finished, Stuart and I thought about packing it in, but decided to give the Traveling Treats by Cakes Plus food truck a try in order to finish our meal with something a little sweet. Stuart decided on a simple brownie pop (if I remember correctly), but I decided to get two of their brownies to go for later-in-the-day consumption.

First up was the Raspberry Chambord Brownie:

Raspberry Chambord Brownie from Cakes Plus
And second was the Triple Chocolate Brownie:

Triple Chocolate Brownie from Cakes Plus
Both were immensely dense and almost fudge-like. Both had great flavor. However, both were a bit too sweet and the texture had an almost crystallized sugar-like grain to them. I liked that they contained chocolate chips, as this contrasted nicely with the smoothness of the brownie batter. On the whole these were okay, but I didn't find myself clamoring for more.

All in all, a very successful trip up to Cleveland to experience some of the latest food truck offerings. While the event officially ended at 3:00 PM, by the time Stuart and I were standing in line waiting for our dessert, most of the trucks had already run out of food. The second C-Town Chow Down is this coming Sunday, April 17th in Lincoln Park from 11 am until 3 pm. Since the weather is supposedly going to be much nicer this time around, I am expecting that the number of people could easily double from last time. My advice to you, gentle reader, is to get there early, early, EARLY! Better yet, go with friends, and then you can each stand in a different line so that you can experience a variety of foods.

I have to admit that I find the allure of the food trucks to be compelling and they definitely add a coolness to Cleveland's already cool dining scene. I encourage you to head out to Lincoln Park on Sunday and discover a bit of this cool all on your own. Perhaps I'll even see you there.
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