Category: Italy


Traveling With Reckless Abandon

 

Italy.  Milano.  Firenze.  Roma.  Venezia.  Those were the cities the misses and I visited during our trip during the summer of 2008.  There are many memories that come to mind when I reflect on that trip.  It certainly created a lot of memories for me/us as we had the privilege of going a country that I have always loved.  This time around, I was not on a coach bus on a tour, chasing the many wonderful parts of these cities like a group of cattle being herded by a tour director.  This time, we went on our own.  Booking flights, hotels, finding transportation, and all in all, being on our own to find sustenance.  I’ve written here before about our experiences with pizza and gelato,  but it’s this experience of traveling outside the confines of a set tour that has made a deep impression on what it means to be traveler and not a tourist.

The picture above was taken from the Ponte Vecchio of Florence along the Arno River.  A hot day in June, where the sun beat down on a city and its people with full intensity.  On most tours, you would be lucky to have seen the Ponte Vecchio from afar, let alone walking through it.  The fast pace whirl of visiting the Academia [Statue of David] take much of the day that many tours do not even take people into the Uffizi.  After the Academia, you would be whisked away to go shopping for leather goods and gold.  After which, you’re thrown back on the bus that take you to the outskirts of the city where you have a meal at the hotel and call it quits on Florence.

Through our travel through Italy, our friends F & E lent us their little Peugeot, a 2 door hatchback [above] that took us from Milan to Cecina [80km southwest of Florence where we stayed] to Rome and back.  With this little engine that could, we survived driving through most of Italy like we would have never been able to see on any tour.  That little car took us along the coast of Italy down to the Eternal City where once we were able to find our hotel, rested for a week before we took it all the way back to Milan.  This was the first time I/we had ever done anything like that outside the States and it made me/us more confident that in the future, we can do the same.  Driving through Rome with its thousands of scooters coming right along side of your car was both scary and exhilarating.  The city breathes its warm breath through the twists and turn of the streets that took us into the historic part of Rome along the Tiber River.

To travel is to do what all Nike commercials have been imploring us to do for years.  Just do it.  While I realize that for 99% of us, money stops us from doing everything we may want, doing what is within our means is worth all the pennies in heaven.  Our wild and crazy ride from Cecina to Rome, 278km of Italian roadway and countryside.  I know in many ways, we could have been more “reckless” in our travels.  We didn’t do anything crazy and we didn’t get in trouble.  I guess that’s not what I mean by “reckless”.  What I mean is to go off the beaten path, even if that path turns out to be a dud.  We certainly had our share of that on our trip.  We double backed on many roads and got lost many times.  We were tired, hot, thirsty, and just wanted beverages with ice.  But none of that mattered as we went through each city with open hearts.  We got to see and experience things that a tour could never have offered.  We spent over 1.5 hours in the Sistine Chapel alone.  At one point, we just sat there for about 20 minutes.  Taking in all of Michelangelo’s work, unencumbered by time.   We took our time in the Academia, totaling over 1.5 hour while many tours whisk you in and out in 25 minutes.  We sat at the Spanish Steps for about 30 minutes, resting from an otherwise tiring day of shopping and eating.  Many tours wouldn’t have even dropped you off to walk on the steps.

I know at some point in our lives, we will need to take tours and cruises.  No longer will we have the energy and vigor to double back and explore as when we were young.  But until that time I hope we continue to travel this way.  Getting lost in a city because it’s the best way to get to know a city.  And for that, I’m glad that little Peugeot took us to places along the way we never would have otherwise ventured.  It was sad to say goodbye to her when we returned to Milan.  She was good to us.  She was good for us.

I can still hear my friends and family telling us before we went on our trip to Italy a couple of years ago, “You are going to have the most amazing food in Italy!”  Logically speaking, I thought that was obvious.  I mean, how bad can Italian food be in Italy?  For those who have traveled or lived there, you know there is good Italian food and then there is horrific Italian food.  All can be found all over Italy.  In particular, we found the good, bad, and ugly in Rome.  We realized, even though not quickly enough, if the menu of the restaurant came in English, it would be horrific.  Bad pasta, bad seasoning, poor products, and generally, it’s to rip off pour tourists like ourselves.  As I wrote in another post, some of the worse pizza I have ever had was in Rome.  And yet, a place like Dar Poeta, one of the best pizzas I’ve had, can be found just on the other side of the city.

One place that we stumbled upon that turned out to be an amazing restaurant is right around the corner from the Colosseum.  Very close, in fact, to the church St. Peter In Chains [San Pietro in Vincoli] along Via Del Fangutale in the Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli .  Along Via Cavour resides a restaurant that blends in well with the surrounding architecture and a little nondescript.  But we read about this restaurant in our guidebook and decided to take a chance, even though the menu was all in Italian and the people in the restaurant did not speak English.  Adjusting to the “laid” back life of Italy was tough, waiting for someone to finally come around to take our order after about 15-20 minutes seemed like an eternity.  And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how the rest of the world lives, and only in America do we expect instant service.  In many ways, we responded to this foreign restaurant like many Americans, ordering something familiar.  We ordered a vegetarian lasagne and a plate of mixed meats [salami, ham, etc] and cheeses.  What we got was truly sublime.  The lasagne was truly homemade and the flavors were both delicate and robust at the same time.  The photos below were taken during the days when I would still snap photos of food [back in 2008], so I get to share them here:

Beyond those dishes, were the desserts.  The homemade pistachio gelato and nougat with chocolate sauce was truly beyond reproach.  Never had I had ice cream, much less gelato, with cracked black pepper right on top.  It sounds weird and maybe even disgusting to put pepper on desserts, but as my friend once told me, “When the chef puts cracked black pepper on ice cream, he’s almost daring you to eat it.”  And dare we did and we were rewarded with the most amazing pistachio gelato I have ever had, still to this day.  Yes, these superlatives are well warranted and although it may appear that I’m merely exaggerating to make a point, I am not.  It was truly that good.

And so we learned another lesson in traveling and eating, especially in Italy.  If you see items in English, just walk away.  Find places where they only have menu items in Italian.  We were rewarded time and time again when we followed that golden rule.  From a trattoria in Florence, to Cavour 313 and Dar Poeta in Rome, and a typical Tuscan restaurant in the small medieval village of Bibbona, we never left angry or feeling duped.  I would never tell anyone to not be a tourist when you travel, because that’s part of the reason why people go to places like Rome and Florence.  To see the Sistine Chapel, to see the Colosseum, and to walk across the Ponte Vecchio.  But with food, I feel that’s where we can be more like the locals.  We ought to really try things that truly IS foreign to us, even if that might mean we just plopped down $60 for 2 for a dud.  But what this experience has taught us is that the duds are far and few between than plopping down $40 for 2 for the crappiest pizza on this planet in Rome because the menu is in English.

I Am Not Ice Cream. I Am Gelato

Anthony Bourdain, in his latest book “Medium Raw”, writes that given the hard choice of giving up pork or taking a cholesterol drug due to ridiculous cholesterol levels, he chose the drug.  “Give up pork???” he writes.  I think many of us feel the same about ice cream.  “Give up ice cream?  Are you mental?”  Haagan Daz, Ben and Jerry’s, Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone are just a few of the madness we have about ice cream.  But in Italy, ice cream is something so familiar and yet, so entirely different.

During our trip to Italy a couple of years ago, I certainly had my fair share of gelato.  Every day, to be exactly.  All 14 glorious days of gelato.  And some days, more than once.  There is nothing, let me repeat, nothing like it here in the States.  There are these phoney ice cream places that tell you it’s gelato, but…it’s not.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the “gelato” at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, but it’s still not gelato.  What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream?  First, it’s the butterfat.  You would think gelato, being so creamy and smooth would contain higher butterfat.  Well, it doesn’t.  Gelato contains 4%-8% butterfat as compared to 14% butterfat in regular ice cream.  You would think because it’s so damn good, it would have higher sugar content.  It doesn’t either.  Gelato contains 16%-22% sugar compared to 21% of most ice creams.  Wikipedia suggests that “The sugar content in gelato is precisely balanced with the water content to act as an anti-freeze to prevent the gelato from freezing solid.” So how can gelato taste better when it has less fat and less sugar.  Does that go against all laws of taste buds?  One lasting memory is how creamy and smooth it is compared to ice cream.  After you lick your way past one scoop, you almost want another one.  Then another one.  Then another.  It’s like crack for adults and kids.

Not all gelateria’s in Italy are like the picture above.  There are thousands of gelaterias all over Italy and many claim to be the best.  I don’t know which is the best, but I know the flavors I like.  Pistachio, amaretto, hazelnut, and the ever elusive biscotti.  Let me tell you about the biscotti gelato.  Think of the best ice cream flavor ever and you will scratch the surface of the biscotti gelato.  We had it at an Ice gelateria [one of many franchises in Rome] near the Vatican and yet, we never saw it again in any other Ice locations.  It’s that ONE near the Vatican that has this damn flavor and it’s like they’re holding it hostage.  We searched high and low near the Campo Di Fiori, Trastevere, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, all to no avail.  I even looked for it when we went back to Milan and Venice, but came away empty handed.

It certainly brings me back to Italy.  If I ever taste an ice cream that comes close to gelato, I get sent right back to Italy.  Milan, Florence, Rome, and Venice.  Alton Brown, on “Good Eats”, said that while the Americans were busy inventing and building the atomic bomb in the 1930s and 40s, the Italians perfected gelato.  While that is clearly one man’s opinion, it certainly captures the essence of this dessert.  And if you’ve never gone to Italy, you know that when/if you do, all your friends and families will remind you to eat gelato.  And they would be right.  Have your fill, because when you return, no matter how much you love Haagan Daz and Ben and Jerry’s, it won’t ever be the same.  And sometimes, that’s a good thing.

Pizzas Are Not All Created Equal

Like everyone else in this country, I have had my fair share of pizzas.  Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Dominos, Papa Johns, BJ’s, and the like.  I’m a subscriber to something I heard a while ago, “Even when pizza is bad, it’s still pretty good.”  So, if that axiom holds, I haven’t really had any “bad” pizza.  But some of the worst pizza I have ever had in my life, I hate to admit, came when we were in Italy.  You would think you couldn’t get bad pizza in Italy, but some of the worse I have ever had were when we were in Florence and in Rome.  We clearly went to the wrong places for pizza and before we left Rome, I was determined to redeem the awful pizza experience we had.  And then, we found Dar Poeta in the Trastevere district in Rome.  From that point forward, that would be the standard of all things sublime.  The dough was thin, yet chewy, and the toppings were the freshest during the summer – zucchini and peppers.  Everything about that pizza was perfect.  Even though there isn’t such a thing as “bad” pizza perhaps, it’s tough to go back to Pizza Hut and Dominos again with the same vigor as before.  I wish we had found Dar Poeta before one of our last nights in Rome a couple of years ago, but it still sticks in my mind as a great Roman pizza.  Of course, we didn’t go to Naples to try a Neapolitan pizza, so perhaps my mind will change yet again if we get to go there some day.

As much as I love deep dish pizza, like Zachary’s in Berkeley, a great pizza starts with the thin crust with really fresh ingredients.  Not too much sauce and not too much cheese.  And if you’re in Rome, you must try a pizza, if it’s on the menu, with a fried egg on it.  There are impostors out there that put a limp quarter of a hard-boiled egg.  That’s not real Roman pizza.  Must be an actual raw egg on top of the pizza when they slide it in the pizza oven so when it comes out, it is perfectly cooked.  Here in the States, as good as pizzas are, sometimes it’s a little too much of a good thing.  Meat lovers, Pig out, Double Meat pizzas are good, but can you really eat more than once slice and not call it a day?  The classic pizza, wherever that is, ought to be somewhat light in its ingredients.  Nothing too overwhelming.  Nothing too heavy.

A pizza is not just another pie.  They’re not all created equal because there are some that are definitely a class above the rest.  In Rome, we found it at Dar Poeta.  Here in the States, there are hundreds of places that serve great pizza.  I can name a few just thinking about it in SoCal alone:  Andre’s in West LA, Pizzeria Mozza in Hollywood, Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, and Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock.  We definitely have some great pies here.  Chicago.   New York.  The debate can be endless.  But there’s always that experience of a great pizza that sets the standard.  And that is Dar Poeta in Rome.  I can still smell the pizza there while sitting out in their little patio on uneven ground.  The table wobbly and the seats, a little hard.  But when that pizza comes out, all is forgotten.  The taste buds take over and it is off to pizza heaven.

Coffee is one of those beverages that people digress about, talk about, debate over, and really, just plain love.  I don’t know if that’s because Starbucks has gotten all of us to think and drink coffee twenty four seven, but a “hot cup of coffee with a good book on a rainy day is bliss”, a lot of people declare.  I know people who roast their own coffee because it’s better tasting.  To them, I say, “I am not worthy.”

We discovered Lavazza, the Italian coffee maker, while vacationing in Italy.  To me, it’s got the right amount of bitterness, roast, taste, and aroma.  Lavazza is tough to get here in the States at a grocery store, where I still feel that it is dominated by crappy instant coffee like Folgers.  Some are getting upscale and stocking Starbucks whole beans, but even that is not Lavazza to me.  Lavazza is more of an experience.  The experience of sitting at our friends’ balcony at their Tuscan flat along the coast in July, where the smell of the sea quietly drifts through the town.  Talking about life and how different our two countries are, not just statistical factoids, but culturally and historically.  The sound of the percolating coffee in the Bialetti stove top espresso maker, signaling it is ready to be consumed.  All of that come roaring back when I use my own stove top coffee maker once or twice a week to enjoy a cup of Lavazza.

The science of percolation, especially with coffee grinds, is one where the Italians and other European countries have perfected more than Americans have.  Here in the States, we want things now, we want things fast, and we want things cheap.  Or probably more accurately, we feel entitled to things now, fast, and cheap.  There in Italy, it’s about the quality and experiencing life more fully.  They still work very hard, as my friend does, so the stereotype of Italians taking afternoon naps is not accurate.  But they get six weeks of vacation a year, which is pretty normal.  And culturally, August is a time when they all go on holiday to the sea or mountains for some rest and recuperation.  They appear more passionate about living a good life, not hoarding everything they can with the least amount of effort like we do here.  And the Italians have done that with their coffee.  Certainly, Lavazza is not the only coffee they have there.  Nor, perhaps, the best.  But the process in which they extract flavor from the coffee beans through percolation is magical.  The solvent, or water, passes through a permeable substance [coffee] and it extracts the flavors from the beans to a rich and full bodied cup of coffee.  You can’t set up a time to have it ready.  It doesn’t turn off by itself.  And if the heat is too strong, you can destroy the water chamber of the espresso maker.  The old adage of “patience is a virtue” is true for Lavazza.  It’s worth the wait for that cup of espresso that will take me back to the Italian coast.  And that’s always a good thing.