The moment he inhaled the aroma of freshly grilled beef, Charles Regnante knew he was about to bite into something memorable. As one of four judges of the 2013 Howard County Fair Iron Chef Competition, Charles had been sampling mouthwatering food all evening. But there was something about the Cajun-rubbed rib-eye steak. He raised his fork to his mouth took a bite and waited.
"It was so delicious," he would say later. "The meat was grilled to perfection -- so juicy and so tender. It just melted in your mouth."
There was no doubt in his mind that this was a standout dish, but if there had been, a quick glance at the expression of his fellow judge and brother, Thomas Regnante, would have erased it. Like Charles, he chewed slowly and thoughtfully, eyes closed, prolonging the experience for as long as possible.
"It wasn't just the flavor but the texture, too," Thomas said.
Texture … melt in your mouth … grilled to perfection …
They're not words you typically hear from teenagers describing food. But Charles, 16, and Thomas, 14, are anything but typical teenage diners. These budding connoisseurs of all things edible have transformed their love of food into a regular blog -- 2 Dudes Who Love Food (2dudeswholovefood.blogspot.com).
But if you're looking for a blog with in-depth flavor profiles of sauces or the latest foodie fascination, you're in the wrong place. While the brothers' vocabulary and knowledge are definitely higher-order for teenagers, their reviews are straightforward with a broad appeal to both adults and their high school contemporaries. The "Dudes" also throw in extras about food prep or history. In a recent post, for instance, they shared step-by-step instructions for making candy-coated caramel apples, which they delivered to the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department for its 125th anniversary. It all makes for a fun, informative blog for those who love to eat in and near Howard County.
"People think at first that it's just a teen perspective, but we're writing an adult blog that is easy to follow, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the industry and just want to know what the food is like at a particular restaurant," says Charles, a junior at Centennial High in Ellicott City.
His brother agrees. "We keep it short and simple, but that doesn't mean it's not informational," says Thomas, a freshman at the same school. "To us, it's important that anyone be able to read our blog and get something out of it."
On a visit to T-Bonz Grille and Taphouse in Ellicott City with their grandparents, Charles and Alberta Gueli of Columbia, the Dudes devoured a pulled pork sandwich, among other items, and raved about it.
"The sandwich was big on taste and loaded with meat and, true to every pulled pork sandwich, a bit sloppy," blogged the brothers, who admitted up front that they are both "devoted" barbecue fans. "Every bite was tender, seasoned meat with sweet barbecue sauce."
Jill Brookhart, one of the owners of T-Bonz, was thrilled by the description.
"That's awesome, because that's exactly how we want people to feel after they eat here," she says, adding that reading a review like that affirms that they are on the right track. "We're an independently owned, family-oriented place, and when the customer leaves happy because he had a nice meal at a good price point, that's when we know we're doing our job."
Food is 'in their DNA'
The brothers began the blog in 2011 as a summer writing activity suggested by their mother, Lisa Regnante, the Ellicott City columnist for the Howard County Times.
"We've always loved food," explains Charles, the more soft-spoken of the two. "It's in our blood. We're 100 percent Italian."
"Plus our mom is a great cook," adds Thomas, who seems to be in perpetual motion. Even sitting at the family's dining room table, he gesticulates broadly to emphasize each point.
The boys and their mother researched how to create a blog and, after a little back-and-forth over the name, 2 Dudes Who Love Food was born. The summer exercise proved so enjoyable that the brothers decided to prolong it after they were back in school. To date, they've written close to 90 entries.
Both are fans of the HowChow blog and read Richard Gorelick's reviews in The Baltimore Sun, which helped drive home that there are many facets to dining in addition to simply how the food tastes.
"Our reviews start the minute we walk into a place, but we know that you can't judge how food is going to taste just by how a place looks," says Charles. "Atmosphere is important, but so is the attentiveness of the server and the presentation of the food. It's a conglomeration of things."
Usually the brothers dine out with their parents, Lisa and Tom Regnante of Ellicott City, or with their grandfather.
"I'm not surprised at all that they are doing this, because they are both very good at expressing themselves," says Gueli, a resident of Wilde Lake. "We're an Italian family. We eat together as often as possible, and food is a very common subject."
A 40-year resident of Columbia, Gueli remembers the early days when Howard County residents had few restaurant choices.
"Forty years ago Roy's sandwich restaurant was the big thing," he recalls of the former eatery near Snowden River Parkway. "From there I've watched restaurants evolve in Howard County. Now whatever you're hungry for, you can find it here."
That means the brothers have plenty of subjects to write about. On occasion, their blog extends beyond Howard County, including a stop at the Eggspectation in Montreal during a vacation.
"We like the one in Maryland, and when we were on vacation we thought we'd try one in Canada, too," says Thomas.
The blog has expanded its presence to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the brothers are considering guest bloggers as well. Their 100th blog should happen around the end of the year, and they're currently devising a unique way to celebrate.
Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, says she invited the Dudes to serve as Iron Chef judges at this year's fair because of their unique perspective.
"This year's Iron Chef featured 4-H clubs, and the brothers did a great job of asking insightful questions and giving really good feedback to the teams," she says. "Their voice is important, because often when young people hear something from a peer they accept it as the truth. That's easy to do with the Regnante brothers because you can really feel the passion behind what they are doing."
The brothers may have dined in restaurants all over the area, but they are hesitant to name favorites.
"You know what's really good? My mom's chicken marsala," says Thomas.
"And she makes a great flounder with asparagus," says Charles, a founder of Centennial High's Italian Club.
Mom Lisa says it's been fun to watch her sons become dedicated to a shared interest.
"We're so proud of them, and it's been so exciting to see their idea take off and grow," she says. "They're truly following their passion, and food seems to be something in their DNA. They eat breakfast in the morning, and when they're done the first thing they'll ask is, 'What's for dinner?' "
Blog posts about dishes like crab-stuffed broiled flounder, baked clams, beef Bourguignon and marinated pork (Masitas de Puerco Cuba Libre) reveal that the brothers aren't your typical chicken-tenders-and-fries teenage diners. The brothers didn't always have such a developed palate, but their parents laid the foundation for it by not catering to picky tendencies.
"At meals, they ate what we ate," Lisa says. "We never made separate kids meals for them. Dining together is important to us and when we are together, we all eat the same thing."
The Dudes' friends and classmates have been supportive of the blog, but the best boost they've gotten so far happened while they were attending a local blogger party earlier this year at Stanford Grill.
"Someone we didn't know at the party recognized us from our picture online," Thomas recalls. "They were like, 'It's the Two Dudes!' "
"Yeah, that was great," Charles remembers. "It was the first time I thought, 'Oh, wow! We're important!' "