Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Delicious Destination: Italy

Scott and I traveled to Italy earlier this month to celebrate 5 years of marriage. Time flies when you are having fun! Also many thanks to bloggers VA Belle and Elefantitas Alegres for traveling to Italy the month prior and giving us lots of tips and info for our trip…especially…drum roll please…the Rick Steves’ Italy 2011 guidebook and podcasts (these were priceless). We even traveled with only carry on luggage, no checking bags and I even packed lighter than Scott!

When planning our trip Scott wanted to learn all about the history and see the sights, I on the other hand think that is what Google is for and I wanted to eat, eat, and eat some more. Most importantly I didn’t want a vacation boot camp experience that was constant tourist attractions, bad food, and no time for leisure to feel like an Italian. We booked the Italian Dream tour through Trafalgar tours, so that we could visit multiple locations and have our lodging and transportation arranged for us. Dominic our tour director is Scottish and he is hilarious! I’m glad he wasn’t Italian because those British accents are so charming and his constant use of the word brilliant and lots of sarcasm and humor made us laugh nonstop. We also had a great group to travel with; I was expecting a bunch of elderly folks but most everyone was around their 50s (which is the new 30, so technically they were in our age group) and liked to have a good time. Also surprisingly everyone on the tour except for one lone traveler was from the US or Canada, so it was great to also learn about different states and regions in North America. We bonded with two couples from Charleston that were very fun and became our drinking buddies.

For starters all the food and wine was delicious. We are fairly knowledgeable about California wines but know nothing about French and Italian wines. We went with the house or local wine everywhere and never had a bad glass and added bonus it was super cheap!

Rome: Saturday—Day 1
Our flight arrived in Rome at 8:30 am and we met our new friends from Charleston while waiting for the bus to take us to the hotel. We decided to call our new formed group “the troublemakers” since we were determined to have a good time with lots of vino. We dropped off our bags at the hotel, freshened up, and found our way to the metro. Thanks to Rick Steves we had bought our tickets online for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel so we headed that way. With our fabulous guidebook, we stopped to grab some pizza to go from a Pizza Rustica place a few blocks from the Vatican. Believe it or not this is the only time I ate pizza in Italy. The rest of the days were filled with pasta, prosciutto, gelato, and vino! Anyway back to the pizza. The pizza rustica places have giant rectangles of different pizzas, you chose the one you want and they cut it according to the size you request. The pizza is warmed up to crisp the crust and then folded over much like a Panini, then wrapped in paper and napkin so you can eat it on the go. I opted for the zucchini blossom pizza since that is something that would be difficult to find on a menu in Houston, and it was so yummy! Plus I love a crispy crust!

It took us about an hour and half to get through the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. Unlike the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museum is just the right size, well organized, not rooms of repetition, and had just enough variety to hold my attention. When we arrived at the Sistine Chapel we listened to Rick’s podcast, which conveniently also showed the images that were being discussed—this was very helpful since there is artwork everywhere.

That evening we went out with our tour group for a night stroll through Rome to see the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, some Cathedral I can’t remember the name of, and the Piazza Navona.

Trevi Fountain



We consulted the book and found a fabulous restaurant a block from the piazza that is a local favorite, called Cul de Sac. It was a bit chilly out so we grabbed a small table for 2 inside next to the door. The waiter recommended the Lazio Syrah which is grown in the region. I’m usually not a Syrah fan but this wine was wonderful and not to dry and smoky. I tend to think of BBQ when I think of Syrah. We started off with a platter of prosciutto, salami, and some cheeses—they were delicious. For our entrees Scott ordered the pesto pasta (spaghetti) and I ordered a tagiatelle with a hare (rabbit) ragu. Both were delicious, and I had to go with the rabbit since the pesto pasta is easy to reproduce at home.

Antipasti: cheese and meat platter

yummy local wine

yummy pasta, so good I almost forgot to take a pic

We finished the night with a stop at a gelateria, which even had a Viagra flavor! Yes they did, and it was blue just like the pill. I wonder how much of that they sell? I got a cinnamon flavored gelato which was super yummy since I am obsessed with anything cinnamon and always double it in a recipe.

Rome: Sunday—Day 2

We started the day at the Vatican to check out St. Peter’s Basilica. Scott was so excited by everything that he became our photographer for the trip.

The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica

The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica

The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica

The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica

Afterwards we went to check out the Coliseum and Roman Forum. It was a bit crowded so we didn’t get to go inside (we’ll save that for our next Italy trip).

The Coliseum

We walked around and then wandered around to find another Rick recommendation for lunch the CaffĂ© Dello Studente. We were given complimentary outdoor seating and campari spritzers just for having Rick’s book. I had a very yummy sandwich called the Regina which was filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, and arugula.

The Regina

After lunch we travelled outside of Rome to Tivoli to see the gardens of the Villa D’Este. The grounds were beautiful and all the fountains were amazing! We wrapped up the afternoon with some gelato (lemon and mixed berry) on the square.

Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens

Sunday night I had arranged a surprise for me and Scott. I booked a private cooking class through Nancy Aiello tours at the home of Nina and Alfredo. These two Italians were so charming and hospitable, we really felt as if we were among friends. In addition to the cooking lesson it was fascinating to learn about their life in Italy, the culture, and their travels abroad. Despite traveling light I had packed our aprons from home. Scott and Alfredo chatted while Nina directed me in the kitchen. We had a delicious meal that was all made with a few ingredients and very simple to prepare, which is great because we can easily reproduce everything for quick weeknight meal or casual dinner party. For our antipasti we made squash blossoms stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, lemon zest, anchovy paste, and nutmeg. These were my favorite thing on the menu, partially since they are so “exotic”. In Houston I can only find squash blossoms at the farmers market or rarely on a restaurant menu. For the primi we made spaghetti with a homemade tomato sauce. The foundation of the sauce was olive oil, garlic, and I think some red pepper flakes, but also added a mix of sundried tomatoes, anchovies, and onions, plus fresh vine ripened tomatoes. I was informed that no one in Italy buys jarred pasta sauce, everyone makes their own, and canned tomatoes are only used if desperate during the offseason. Four our main course we enjoyed a fabulous little beef roll ups, not sure what to call it but basically had some thin sliced steak, then a layer of prosciutto, some smoked mozzarella, fresh sage leaf, and then roll it all up and secure with a toothpick, coat with EVOO, and sprinkle with a bread and almond crumb mixture, and bake. Our side was some red bell pepper which was super yummy since I love bell peppers. This of course prompted a discussion about peppers and they do not have jalapenos in Italy. And finally for our dessert, we made a balsamic reduction which was sprinkled on chopped strawberries in a demitasse cup with a crushed amaretto cookie at the bottom. It was light and provided just the right amount of sweetness to finish the meal.

Rome to Venice: Monday—Day 3
This was a long travel day on the tour bus but it was also our first autogrill experience. An autogrill is basically a glorified truskstop that is like a Bucees’ with a mini Luby’s inside, except that Luby’s buffet is yummy Italian food and they even have wine to enjoy with your meal. The scenery on the road was beautiful, travelling through Tuscany and seeing the grape vines, olive trees, and old hilltop towns. When we reached Venice, we immediately had a gondola ride to relax and take in the city. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Venice since I’ve heard mixed reviews. Upon arrival we were in love. And it does not smell! Everything is so quaint and picturesque.

Venice: St. Mark's Square

Venice: Tuesday—Day 4

The morning started with a glass blowing demonstration and a little shopping at the Murano glass store. Then we followed Rick’s advice and got lost in Venice with our troublemaker friends. Since we were on a small island it’s really impossible to get lost or go too far. We just kept walking down streets and turning occasionally and then we stopped at one my favorite Venice places…a cicchetti bar! They are everywhere and you can even do “pub crawl” with them. Teeny little wine bars that also serve some crostini and antipasti. The boys had a beer and the girls had a glass of wine and we each had a crostini to snack on. We weren’t there very long and felt like we were chugging our wine, but when we looked around we saw everyone else had come and gone and slammed down their wine. I guess everyone is always in a hurry.

Cicchetti Bar

Afterwards we strolled over to the produce and fish markets and everything was unbelievably fresh. We made mental note to stop by later and pick up some snacks for a little happy hour before dinner. We also stopped by a wine shop to check out the local wines. We had a good laugh about the cranberry juice container that looked like it was written in Russian but said that it was made with real North American cranberries.

Produce Market

Seafood Market

Venetian water fountain

Following Rick’s instructions, we had lunch at charming spot called Trattoria da Bepi, which was a bit of walk but totally worth it, since it was off the beaten path and had some fabulous seafood. After all we were on the coast and needed to take advantage of the seafood since it was so fresh. Scott and I shared the sea bass, which was presented to us as the whole fish and then our waiter cut it up and served it to us.

After lunch we walked through St. Mark’s Basillica and then raced back to the market and wine shop and did a little divide and conquer to get our happy hour goodies…we ended up with delicious assortment of cherry tomatoes, raspberries, bread, prosciutto, salami, cheese, red wine, and some dessert treats.

Verona: Wednesday—Day 5
This was another day on the road with quick stops in two towns on the way to Florence. Our first stop was in Verona, and began at Juliet’s balcony. Then we headed to the Roman Arena and checked out the inside which is still relatively intact and is still used for concerts and other events. Scott and I did part of Rick’s self guided walk starting at the Arena, walking past the devotional column, and around to Porta Borsari and Corso Porta Borsari which was the main entrance to Roman Verona and functioned as a toll booth. We made a quick detour into Enoteca Oreste and had a glass of wine with the owner, who only spoke Italian and talked to us about his wines and pointed to various items with his cane, so we sort of figured out what he was trying to say. Then we made our way through the Piazza Erbe on our way back to our meeting spot.

Piazza Erbe and the whale bone

Porta Borsari

Roman Arena

San Gimignano: Wednesday—Day 5

The name of this town is a bit of a mouthful, so we have some nicknames for it…I call it “San G” and Scott calls it “San Chimichanga.” This medieval town is on the hill with a fabulous view of Tuscany. We chose to spend our time here doing two things, eating gelato, and sitting outside drinking some local wine enjoying the view. San G is home to the gelato world cup winner Gelateria Pluripremiata di Piazza and I enjoyed the lavender blackberry and rosemary raspberry flavors

View from San G.

San G.

Florence: Thursday—Day 6
Prior to the trip I really expected Florence to be my favorite city, but it was my least favorite (not that I didn’t like it, l I just liked all the other cities more). Maybe it was because it was one of the last places we visited so I had too much to compare it to, maybe it was because it felt more cramped and crowded, or maybe it was all the blog posts I read prior to the trip of people enjoying many a delicious meal so this is what I was expecting to be the culinary mecca…unfortunately I wasn’t there long enough to eat my way through the city but I ate as much as I could during the few hours I was there. We of course saw the David, he is so much taller than I had expected and even more perfect that he looked on Google Images. After the David it was time for me to begin my brief culinary experience. Scott and I went to the big market aptly named Mercato Centrale or Central Market. Since Central Market in Houston is my favorite upscale grocery store I knew this building had delicious treats inside. All the booths of meats, cheeses, pastas, and wine, all looked amazing, and it was a maze, very easy to get lost. I purchased four pastas while here to take home with me and was thankful I had packed the recyclable shopping bag to assist with transport since I was determined not check any bags at the airport…oh so back to my pasta purchases. I bought 3 flavors of tagliatelle: truffle, arugula, and plain, and then one package of saffron spaghetti.

Thanks to one of the bloggers for sharing her Rick Steves’ recommendation we lunched at a darling little place called Trattoria Icche C’e C’e. We enjoyed a bottle of the house white wine, and for antipasti Scott had a caprese salad and I had some melon with prosciutto. I never knew cantaloupe could be so tasty and juicy, it was seriously the best cantaloupe I’ve ever had. I can’t remember what Scott ordered I just remember being disappointed he didn’t order some pasta with boar since boar meat is very popular in the area, but he liked what he ordered so I guess that’s all that matters. Per the blogger recommendation I ordered the truffled cream tagliatelle which was every bit as delicious as it sounds. When the waitress first brought it to the table I sat there for a minute just wafting the savory truffle scent into my nose before digging in. There is a similar recipe in the Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook which I have made at home, so it’s good to know that with a little truffle butter from Central Market, I can go to Florence any time I want.

Scott and I walked around a bit after lunch and then made our way across the Piazza della Repubblica to enjoy a glass of wine at Osteria la Congrega. This fun little spot has a variety of indoor, covered, and outdoor seating. We enjoyed the patio while sipping our vino. Then we stopped by Festival de Gelato to get my daily gelato fix (one of the goals of the trip was to eat gelato everyday).

The Duomo

The Duomo

View of Florence

That evening we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Fattoria Il Poggio winery in Tuscany. I don’t remember everything we ate, just that it was all delicious and the wine was bottomless and the night culminated with a dance party under the stars and singing along to the Mamma Mia soundtrack on the ride back to the hotel. The parts of the meal that do stand out, the bruschetta was amazing! I loved the soup and the chicken was very good. I bought their little leaflet cookbook which of course does not have any oven temperatures or cooking times, I guess they are masters and just know when everything is just perfect.

Assisi: Friday—Day 7
Assisi is another picturesque tiny town and the home of St. Francis. With my various European travels I really thought once you’d seen one Cathedral you’d seen them all, but the Basilica of St. Francis I found to be the most interesting since it had so many levels and worshiping spaces, and not to mention amazing panoramic views! After strolling through all the facets of the Basillica, Scott and I strolled into town to find a spot for lunch and were on the hunt for a little deli type shop called La Bottega dei Sapori. We got some delicious sandwiches; mine was on a rosemary foccacia with arugula, salami, and cheese. And one thing shocked me, they had bagged salad greens just like any grocery store in Houston. I thought “oh my they are cheating!” The owner let us sample various “salsas” and pestos with a variety of truffle and mushroom combinations. We bought a tiny jar of the black truffle salsa which is amazing! We would have bought a larger jar but were worried about our limitation of the airline mandated quart sized ziplock bag. Hopefully I can find more of this amazing stuff at Central Market or Spec’s. We of course also got a bottle of wine to enjoy with our sandwiches.

View from St. Francis Basilica

Roman Forum

Piazza Comune

St. Francis Basilica

Then it was on the road back to Rome to share in a farewell dinner with our new friends before parting ways and heading home the next morning.

1 comment:

Virginia Belle said...

It sounds like you had a fantastic trip! I am beyond impressed that you only packed a carry on. Aren't the podcasts fantastic! I learned so much without having to have my face in a book while we took in the sites. Glad you had such a great trip :)