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 – Bologna

Historically a hotbed for free thinking and modern intellectual ideals, Bologna hasn’t changed much in many ways. Its young energetic inhabitants continuously pump a frenetic energy through this dynamic city, and its unique orange brick and terracotta architecture provide a kind of parchment upon which a living history is written day to day.

We spent the morning walking around the neighborhoods surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, but as we only had time for a quick stop before having to head out to Venice, we set our sights on finding a great place for a bowl of spaghetti bolognese.

Trattoria di Pietro is a small unassuming restaurant that feels comfortingly claustrophobic like your grandma’s house while at the same time, macho and masculine like an old school mafioso hangout. Was it the stuffed wild boar at the front of the restaurant or the table of four well dressed gentleman sharing a huge platter of grilled meats? Shrug. Either way, we knew were in for a no-nonsense rustic hearty meal.

Spaghetti bolognese
This dish deserves the fame it’s garnered across the world. Simple, rustic, hearty, bursting with flavor, and perfectly executed.

Stinco di maiale alla Pietro
As if the pasta wasn’t filling enough, I could not resist the roasted pork hocks and potatoes. This is definitely one of my favorite parts of the pig and these wise guys were well seasoned, roasted with juniper, and as tender as just-baked cake.

The only problem was trying to finish everything on my plate and convince my waistband it could stretch a bit farther; and not fall asleep on the drive to Venice.

Although, either way, it would be a beautiful death.

Next up: On the Venice-front

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 – Cinque Terre and the fruits of the sea

A word of caution to those “adventurous” travelers.

Don’t drive up to Monterosso in the dark while it’s raining! I don’t care how much you like to travel on the edge! At the very least, you’ll be able to take lots more pictures on the way up when it’s light out since you won’t be clinging to your seat like your life depended on it.

Thank ye gods that after what seemed like endless hours of twisting and turning – sheer cliff on one side, rocky mountain wall on the other – my heroic hubby and his impressive driving skills got us to the charming fishing village we’d be calling home for the next few days.

Even in the dark, this place was incredibly beautiful. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow morning when we’d start our hike to the other 4 villages that make up this incredibly scenic part of Italy!

After checking in at Hotel Pasquale – our charming B&B right off the beach – we took huge gulps of sweet briny air as we trotted down to Ristorante Belvedere. We were here for one thing. The famous Amphora Belvedere. This dish roasts lobster, mussels, clams, octopus, and sward fish flavored with spices, herbs and tomato, in an Etruscan-style earthenware pot (amphora). The entire pot is brought to the table and its contents poured in a huge sharing bowl.

Yes, it was really really good. And yes, everyone else sitting around us were really really jealous.

We devoured every juicy morsel and even had room for a light panna cotta with burnt caramel sauce.

This made the harrowing drive up here so worth it. No question.

Next up: Hiking Cinque Terre and finding the perfect seafood risotto!