Mediterranean Category

An EDD-ter’s Tour of Italy: Venice

After desperately navigating a mega-riot of cars at the bus terminal in Venice, and saying a fond farewell to our trusty rental car, we met our guide Takayo who took us to our hotel.

Honestly, I have absolutely no idea how we would have ever done it without her. Venice was by far the hardest city to navigate without walking in circles, triangles and rectangles first. If it wasn’t for its supreme charm and romantic waterways, it could feel like trying to find your way out of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Make no mistake that Venice is a tourist town and the prices for everything from Carnival masks to fish charged by the kilogram make it one of the most expensive places to visit in Italy. But its fascinating history as a hub for trade and politics seep deep into its ancient walls, streets, and wood piles upon which this city stays afloat. And you feel it.

One of the highlights of my time in Venice was visiting the Rialto Fish Market – a place where it seems you’re walking underwater while swaths of sea colors dance around you.

Cuttlefish or squid ink pasta is one of the most famous dishes from Venice. Our very well-read guide Mr. Sabino tipped us off to a local joint called Rosticceria Gislon which supposedly had an excellent Spaghettini Nero and other tipico dishes without the ridiculous prices.

Downstairs was an open a la carte trattoria with hot and cold dishes (it was extremely difficult not to try each one!) and upstairs was their sit-down restaurant. We opted for the restaurant so we could rest a bit and get a little down time from the throngs of customers downstairs.

Feast your eyes!

Seafood was the star in every one of the dishes we tried. Even the mozzarella en carroza acciughe or fried cheese sandwich with anchovy delightfully punched you in the face with the incredible briny flavors swimming through the gooey crispiness of the cheese and bread.

Spaghettini Nero
The squid was as tender as braised abalone and the sauce had an intense seafood flavor that was also sweet, almost chocolatey. While eating this, I knew I’d never find its equal in the States.

Scampi
Simply boiled shrimp with lemon. Crisp meaty refreshing nibbles.

Spaghetti acciughe
Sweet soft onions, fruity olive oil, and anchovies offered well-rounded mouthful after mouthful of comfort with every bite.

Fritte di frutta di mare
Very lightly fried in extra virgin olive oil. This isn’t your Long John Silver’s fried fish platter. Those little fish and shrimp heads had so much incredible flavor!

Sure Venice is a tourist town with its tourist trappings.

But by nightfall, it was impossible not fall in love with its people, culture, history, and food. And hey, if you’ve got your honey to spend it with, it truly feels like you’re starring in your own romantic movie.

Awwww. 🙂

An EDD-ter’s Tour of Italy – Cinque Terre hike and fresh catch of the day!

We set out bright and early the next morning to begin our hike from Monterosso al Mare to each of the four other fishing villages – Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – along the gorgeous coastline overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The weather was perfect, sunny and sublime. The hike would last all day and cover about 8 miles of uphill, downhill, and everything in between. Needless to say it was difficult not stopping every 2 minutes to take what seemed to be postcard-quality shots no matter where we turned.

Starting in Monterosso meant hiking the second most challenging part of the trip first as the next part from Vernazza to Corniglia is considered the most physically challenging. Then it’s smooth sailing from Manarola to Riomaggiore where we’d take the train all the way back to Monterosso.

By the time we reached Vernazza, we had hiked about 3 miles along a skinny trail mostly uphill. It was invigorating but we definitely wanted to do some exploring in the village and maybe catch a bite before the next part of the hike.

And by “catch a bite” I meant only one thing – seafood!

We landed on a brightly painted Trattoria Sandro a little ways down a shop-lined street, right by the Vernazza train stop. What sold it for us was a chalkboard advertising a seafood risotto which was the “speciale per due,” as well as, the gaggle of local grandfolks setting a lively familial mood a few tables away from us. A little later in the meal, their grandkids would get a flood of kisses as they came home from school for lunch. Made the meal even more special.

The risotto arrived steaming hot with a perfect balance of fresh shellfish – mussels, shrimp, langostines – and creamy al dente rice. The sauce was garlicky and slightly sweet and was flavored with a strong seafood stock with just a touch of silky tomato sauce. Not only would we fill up on carbs and protein for the rest of our hike, the risotto was warm and comforting. We dug in and didn’t leave anything but shell behind.

I frankly could have hung out with the locals until dinner (something told me they’d still be there), but the trail was calling to us. So off we went!

We must have taken hundreds of pictures along the way and even had some of our fellow trail hikers take a few of us, but really the best thing to do is go to Cinque and see for yourself. You won’t regret it!

We arrived back in Monterosso dirty and needing hot showers, but Cinque’s beautiful craggy rocks against myriad shades of green from olive trees, mountain grasses, cacti, and cooling trees, as well as, the hidden fey waterfalls and endless sea of blue, captured our hearts and imprinted the stuff of dreams on our spirits.

After cleaning up, we were still drunk with pleasure as we set out for a very special dinner in Manarola.

Trattoria dal Billy has got to be one of the hardest restaurants to find in Cinque Terre especially when you’re trying to find it in the dark when the village streets are completely empty and you’re delirious from a whole day out in the sun hiking. Just when we had given up walking up the same hill and backtracking yet again, I spotted a hand painted sign on a wall barely readable in the dark – Trattoria dal Billy [insert arrow pointing down].

And boy did they mean down! The restaurant itself is built into the cliffs of Manarola. Entering the restaurant means doing a little steep “hiking” downwards, only this time in heels. After a little futzing about with a hustling bustling waiter, we were given a little table in their indoor dining room that seated about 12 people. The walls were adorned with family pictures of fisherman, local paintings, and silly ocean paraphenalia – netting and all. The waiters all had a no b.s. style that I instantly liked and as I spied the crawling lobster, crab and fresh fish of the day on a tray next to us, I knew we were in for some good eats!



Marinated white anchovies with sweet yellow peppers

We decided to start with a simple marinated white anchovy on crusty Italian bread with sweet roasted yellow peppers – a combination that’ll surprise you.

After our jovial waiter who looked as if he’d lived his entire life on a fisherman’s boat quickly explained the specials, we decided on the fresh crab clicking its claws in the tray. Without another word about how it’d be prepared, he moved on to the secondi. This was my chance to get the whole fish I’d had on my list of to-eats while here. He grabbed the tray and picked up each fish by the tail measuring its size with his eyes. “Ah, this one is good for you. Size is good. Very fresh.” We were delighted.

Whole crab with homemade fettucini

When the dish arrived, I thought “this it the way to eat crab!” Forget using lump crab meat in a sauce and tossing with pasta. Do as Billy does! Just crack up the crab and using its sweet meat and innards, create a sauce and coat generously over beet-dyed fettucini. For crab lovers like us who enjoy sucking the succulent meat directly out of its shell, this was a revelation. The crab pieces, all tangled up in the noodles like in a net, had so much flavor, I almost forgot about the whole fish up next…

Whole grilled branzino with fried potatoes
…well, almost. Really it’s just about fresh fish. There’s nothing like it. Salt, extra virgin olive oil, some fried potatoes. Forget about it!

Stuffed and tipsy from the ocean air and chianti, we successfully ate our way through dinner. How could anything else top this?

But wait…of course, our gregarious waiter decides to top off our incredible feast with some healthy doses of fiery grappa and limoncello. Cincin!

P.S. Later back in the States, I discovered that our joking waiter actually was the Billy. No wonder we got it so good. Ha!

Next up: A stop in Bologna, and then Venezia!

An EDD-ter’s Tour of Italy – Along the A1…

One of my favorite things to do while traveling, especially in foreign countries, is to stop and eat at rest stops dotting the highways or at shopping mall food courts. Sure the food is fast and cheap, but it’s the weird snacks, foreign takes on typical foods like burgers, never-before-seen or sampled local eats, and of course a unique view of local life that make for some of the most memorable impromptu visits.

On the A1 toward Florence, we stopped at a Cafe Express. The name sounds innocuous enough, boring really, but my jaw dropped when I walked through the automatic sliding doors. Imagine a dungeon crawl of sorts, only the “walls” are stacks of dried pastas, cookies, pastries, bread, chips, canned tomatoes, chocolate, candies, and pretty much anything else that comes in a shiny vacuum sealed package. It’s a labyrinth of food of every kind, in every foreign language, and it beckons you further and further into its winding corridors.

And you can’t get out.

The walls are high enough that you can see a lit-up array of salami, prosciutto, and mortadella paninis glowing like a beacon on the other side, but any attempt at a short cut would cause a disaster of Godzilla-like proportions.

So you have no choice but to press ever further into the maze of delectable delights – picking up too many things a long the way – wishing you’d grabbed a basket at the beginning. Darn it!

Seconds later (or apparently 20 minutes later according to your husband waiting for you on the other side), you realize you’ve made it through despite the ache in your arms, both of which are embracing (and balancing) 3 chocolate bars, 2 bags of chips, a package of cookies, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a jar of Marcona-stuffed olives, and a bag of trofie pasta with a pretty red, green and white bow on it.

But a waft of fresh espresso and fragrant savory salami draws you out of the haze, and you realize, you’ve made it. And now, yes now, is the time to partake of your spoils.

Mwahahaha!

OK, OK so I didn’t make it out of the store with ALL that stuff, but boy was it glorious while it lasted. See how much fun road stops can be?

An EDD-ters Tour of Italy – Rome

Buon giorno! Or should I say, buon appetito!

I’ve just returned from a magnificent trip to Italy where its sights, smells and tastes continue to imprint themselves on my culinary consciousness every day. And although I’ve only just scraped the surface of what Italy offers in terms of its proud but also surprisingly simple cuisine, one thing is for certain – ingredients are tantamount to the Italian experience. Whether they are foraged at their peak like the porcini’s or favolosi’s that were in season or roasted until caramel-ly sweet like the chestnuts I ate hot off the street, every ingredient, every cook used in every pizzeria, caffeteria, rosticceria, or osteria was prepared with love and respect.

Food across the board in Italy was fresher, more flavorful, and for lack of a better word, more “real.” The higher quality ingredients Italians use are not only apparent in how beautifully red-ripe the San Marzano’s look; you can bet that tomato is going to have the fragrant grassy sweet flavor and aroma that makes a tomato a tomato. Remember what that used to be like?

Of course this isn’t news for a lot of you, but I can’t stress enough the startling differences I tasted in such simple foods as tomato foccacia, arugula salad, or pork sausage as during my travels in Italy. Flavors popped and delighted and lingered. And it was wonderful.

Rome

Pizzerias of all kinds were everywhere in Rome. Whether the pizzas are oval, circular, or square, they were deliciously adorned with all manner of fresh toppings and glistening green extra virgin olive oil. They glittered like jewels behind those glass cases, except these ones you can eat! My favorite – sliced porcini with cherry tomatoes – was one I ate on the go from this little place near the Trevi Fountain.

This was the first hot food I ate when I touched down in Rome, and I craved the combination, especially the juicy meaty porcini’s, throughout the entire trip!

Babbo’s

As we were challenged with only a few days in Rome and had not strictly established where to have dinner every night, there were bound to be some misses in the bunch. We decided to wander around our hotel neighborhood after a very full day that included the Colosseum, St. Peter in Chains, The Roman Forum and A LOT more walking all over Rome. We settled on a bustling place called Babbo’s.

The most memorable parts of my dinner at Babbo’s were the long colorful dreadlocks on the zia taking our order and two Chinese tourists – the pair strangely Abbott and Costello-ish – wolfing down their pasta like some niu rou mien back home. The skinny one ate twice as fast as the chubby one and would spend the rest of the time watching the other eat (was that disgust I saw in his eyes)? Hilarious.

The food was uninspired, but I appreciated the freshness of the ingredients and the place was energetic and bustling, making for some fun people watching. The complimentary Vin Santo and cantuccini after dinner was appreciated as well. 🙂

Ristorante Pizzeria “Andrea”

Finally, a revelation.

Frustrated with not being able to fully capture Rome on our palettes and leaving for Tuscany later in the day, the Fates intervened and we stumbled upon this neighborhood trattoria and al forno pizzeria. I saw fresh made pasta in the window, and a warm soul of a woman (Andrea) chatting with some locals sprinkled about, and took one last chance.

Feast your eyes on some of the dishes that filled our souls.

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One of these I actually end up eating again on our last day in Italy. Can you guess which?

Yep, it was the fresh homemade fettucini della casa d’Andrea. The pasta is tossed in Andrea’s own mushroom and truffle cream sauce – each noodle luxuriously but not overzealously coated with an emulsion of these wonderfully complementary ingredients.

The traditional Roman bucatini amatriciana was fully dressed in a robust zesty tomato sauce – each hollow noodle bursting with sauce as one chewed the smokey bits of pancetta. The trippa a la romana – another traditional Roman dish – was also sensational. If you like honeycomb tripe, this dish is so rich, rustic and homey. Plate me up some trippa a la romana and a big hunk of shatteringly crusty bread, and watch as it seems I’m sinking into an invisible hot tub.

The proscuitto di parma in the salumi misti was so delectably sweet and so incredibly fresh, I pretty much hogged the entire portion for myself (sorry Jordan!). The little anchovy stuffed peperoncino was a spicy surprise along with each piece of cured meat as well. I should mention Andrea came by whilst we were enjoying ourselves to say hello and also pick some fresh peperoncino from the planter hanging above our heads.

I was tempted to stalk her as she returned to the kitchen, then beg her to teach me everything she knew. At least the fettucini, please Andrea!? But I chickened out. I figured there was no way I wasn’t coming back here before we left Italy, so I would have another chance. Mwahaha.

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Now, with our bellies full and crooked grins across each of our faces, we were ready to leave Rome and set off in our mini-Mercedes rental car on the A1 out to Tuscany.

Next up: Siena, cooking at the Castello di Tornano, and Florence!