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Archive for July, 2006

Good morning, Italy

Breakfast in Italy is a simple affair — a jolt of caffiene in the form of a cappucino and maybe a sweet pastry. Once cafes throw open their doors early in the morning, Italians flock to their favorite neighborhood spot. Orders are placed and sometimes consumed while standing at the counter. For maybe 50 cents more, a table outside could be secured, but for the most part, breakfast is 10-minute affair of scanning the newspaper headlines and making small talk with the cafe owner or other customers. You’ve gotta leave room for lunch, after all! Wait, Earl Grey tea is what you want? What’s tea?

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Mid-morning, the cappucino is replaced by a simple espresso. And since summer in Tuscany can be boiling hot without the relief of air-conditioning, what’s better than a sweetened double espresso shaken over ice? The result is a frothy concoction, accompanied by a tiny glass of sparkling water.

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My first semester in college, I enrolled in a seminar entitled ‘Renaissance Florence’.  For three months, we deconstructed the history of this marvellous place.  I left with the impression that the city was filled with artisitic jewels — the Duomo! 

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the Ponte Vecchio! 

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the Medici Palace! 

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Unfortunately, my professor neglected to mention the t-shirt vendors and postcard hawkers. 

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Until I visited Florence, I thought that Times Square was ground zero for tourists.  But it’s not.  I have never seen so many foreign people (mainly American, though) gathered in one place.  The architecture is indeed breath-taking.  It seems like at every corner you turn, there’s another church or soaring tower.  The juxtaposition of cheap souveniers, however, is a little distracting — even more so than the horde of Japanese tourists carrying parasols.  I know, I  know, it’s July.  What do I expect?  Everyone’s on vacation, so the tourist spots are going to be crowded.  But still, what’s the point of all the nylon Michelangelo aprons and fake Gucci handbags?  I guess they wouldn’t be in business unless tourists kept them in business, which leads me to my second question — what do people do with all that crap once they get home anyway? But apparently, nearly everyone enjoys shopping, even admidst historical jewels…

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As for culinary delights, I scouted the boards at Chowhound.com for suggestions.  I expected Florence to be more expensive than Lucca (which it certainly was), and so I settled upon a more reasonable option — the Italian wine bar.  Since Italians consider it gauche to drink wine without food, every wine bar offers a small selection of tapas-like plates, most often simply prepared or served cold.  

My first stop was L’Volpe e L’Uva, which just about every poster on Chowhound seemed to rave about.  Tucked into a little side street, literally only a few hundred feet away from the tourist madness of the Ponte Vecchio, this petite wine bar is unbelievably peaceful.  Though a bit hard to find, since the small square of sorts it’s located on is apparently too small for even detailed maps, L’Volpe e L’Uva is the perfect remedy for tourist-itis. After circling the area for awhile, I noticed a small grouping of tables surrounded by wine barrels.  Aha!  The wine list at L’Volpe e L’Uva (which by the way, means ‘The Wolf and the Grape’, a reference to an Aesop fable that I’m sure I once read, but have completely forgotten) spans all of Italy, which is unusual.  It seems like most restaurants and bars stick to their immediate region only.  (Which makes me realize how much more difficult it is for American sommeliers, who have to know every wine region in the world thoroughly, since Americans definitely like to experiment with their wine choices!)  Anyway, I sampled a glass of Vermintino (4 euro = I love Italian wine pricing!) and a glass of Sangiovese from Montecucco, which the waiter recommended as a slighter lighter alternative to the Brunellos and Chiantis.  Yum!  Chocolate and berry goodness. And since Italians munch while sipping, I ordered a selection of warm bruschetta — wild mushroom and cheese, minced pancetta, choppd black olive, and some sort of slighly spicy roast tomato compote.

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The next day, I returned to Florence and tried another wine bar and retail store called Pitti Gola e Cantina, on the recommendation of a very nice woman I met in an olive oil and vinegar store.  Again, this wine bar is located in a heavily trafficked area (this time right across the street from the Pitti Palace), yet was calm and cool inside.  Tourists would stop, peer inside, appear flustered at the walls lined with bottles and flee.  Too bad for them, because I think that Pitti Gola might be the finest wine bar I’ve ever been too.  Basically, it’s everything a wine bar/store should be — interesting selection, good food, nice decor, awesome music — what else is there?  The entire room is maybe 12 feet by 20 feet (tiny!), but a with soaring ceiling.  Two of the walls are lined with shelves, containing perhaps 300 or so bottles of wine, all from Tuscany, and a library-style rolling ladder to navigate the shelves. pitti-bar.JPG
The bar sticks out in the middle of the room, with about 6 seats, and a few smaller tables sit in the window.  Again, using the waiter’s suggestion (who has probably tried everything and knows best) I ordered a glass of a Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Livorno, which is very near the Mediterranean Ocean.  To eat, panzanella.  If you’ve never tried panzanella, I highly recommend it — it’s the perfect summer snack, and a nice way to get rid of old bread.  Basically, it’s a chilled bread salad (sort of an alterative to pasta salad), and it’s easy to make — you just toss day old cubed French bread with chopped up tomatoes, red onions, and cucumbers and mix with red wine vinegar, olive oil and a little crushed red pepper. 

So, all in all, though Florence was a little overwhelming with the crowds and street vendors (not to mention the hordes of pigeons and swerving Vespas), I think that I managed to find two quiet spots to sit and think, which really, is important to do in any big city, even New York.

After only a few days in Italy, though, I began to pick up the Tuscan food cues.  Besides the do-not-drink-wine-alone rule, there are a few others…

1.  No one here drinks tap water in a restaurant.  Or at least, I’ve never noticed it.  Gas or no gas only.  For that matter, no one drinks water along with another beverage, be it alcohol or soda.

2.  Cappucino (which some people up here call ‘cappucio’) is for breakfast only; it’s espresso at all other times.  And apparently, no one in Italy has insomnia, because these people toss back their espressos at all hours of the night!

3.  Cured meats first, pasta second, meat third, veggies and salad fourth, and espresso fifth.  Dessert seems to be not that special, or fruit only.

4.  Everyone like gelato…  tourists and Italians alike (and me too!)

5.  If you miss lunch, you’re screwed.  Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and most non-tourist-trap restaurants stick to a strict schedule of a big lunch menu, followed by a three or four hour break in the afternoon when the restaurant is closed, followed by a light dinner menu.  Some resturants are open for lunch only, too.  So if you don’t eat your main meal at lunch, you’re out of luck for later on, unless you want to go somewhere expensive or not very good.

6.  Pizza is mainly a dinner treat, and yes, Italians sometimes utilize a fork and knife to tear into their pizza.  Weird, I know.

        

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The old country

When I lived in Philadelphia, I used to think that it was pretty nifty that I lived in an aunthentic colonial townhouse on Quince Street, original fireplace and wooden floors intact.  Located on a cobblestone alleyway, I would walk home and think ‘oh, what history lines these streets!’  About five minutes into Lucca, though, I passed a large stone building with a cornerstone that read 1432.  Um, yeah.  I think Delaware Indians were still pitching teepees on Quince Street in 1432.  Anyway, Lucca is beautiful!  There’s really no other word to describe the city.  The heart of Lucca is completely surrounded by intact brick walls that were erected around 1600 — the whole way around (there’s an elevated path on the inside) is about 2 miles or so. 

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To get into the city, there are a few large entrances for cars and such, and then there are also these funky little winding passageways for pedestrians. 

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Inside, Lucca is dotted with churches large and small, and narrow twisting streets connect everything.  Basically, it looks exactly like what you would imagine a small Tuscan town to look like — piazzas, stucco and red tiled houses, shuttered windows with laundry hanging out to dry, fountains and Italian flags everywhere (hooray, World Cup!).  And I’m pleased to report that Lucca has nary a fast food restaurant or a Starbucks. 

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My first night in Lucca, I suckered a very nice German girl named Jennifer into having dinner with me.  I’m not sure she knew what she was in for.  After some research, I picked out a little place called Trattoria da Leo…  After wandering around the same neighborhood for about 20 minutes, I still couldn’t find it.  Anyone who knows me knows what a common occurence this is — um, I’m sure it’s right around here, um, maybe to the left or maybe down this street?  Like I said, I’m not sure Jennifer knew what she was in for.  We found the restaurant eventually, once we circled the proper block at least ten times.  We snagged a nice outdoor table, ordered the acqua frizzante and red wine and settled in.  To our right was a group of three Italian women, one of whom was cradling a little boy, maybe 18 months old or so.  The women (all of whom were smoking) took turns passing the baby around the table for unabashed adoration —  smooch, smooch, smooch, puff, puff, puff.  One of the women lifted her glass of wine to the baby’s lips for a small sip.  Yep, we’re not in America anymore.  And Italians have a longer life expentancy than us?

The food was simple but very good — tortellini en brodo and vitello tonatto.  And a quartino of house wine (which was a perfectly acceptable Sangiovese) was only one Euro more than the liter of sparkling water.  This is definitely not New York.  On the way back to the hostel, Jennifer and I passed a table set up with three women pouring what appeared to be free tastes of wine.  Bella!  I walked over and inspected the bottles, which were white wine from the nearby Montecarlo DOC.  The women wore aprons that said something to the effect of  ‘Sommelier di Italia’ so I apoloigized for not speaking Italian, but managed to convey the fact that I was a sommelier, too.  Ah, the international language of wine.  I asked, Vermentino?  No, they said, vermentino e sauvignon blanc e chardonnay.  Finally, something I could understand!  The wine was minerally and fresh, with a surprisingly long finish.  And it was free, too.  I’m now in a country where impromptu wine tastings just happen.  Enough said.

Besides inexpensive trattorias, Lucca is lined with gelato shops and small cafes, as well as more expensive restaurants.  I’m still gettting used to the pattern of Italian life — awake early in the morning to have a cappucino and small pastry, big meal midday, nap, and a small dinner or snack around 8 or 9 p.m. lucca-snack.JPG And the food is filling!  Maybe that’s why everyone is so skinny.  Or maybe it’s the cigarettes, but still, after just a little bit of cheese or cured meat, I’m full.  And gelato is about twice as filling as ice cream (don’t even get me started on the chemical mess that is Tasti-di-Lite).

Oh, and here’s something else great about Lucca — there’s free mineral water everywhere!  I guess that a natural spring runs through the city, so every few blocks or so, there’s a public fountain to take a sip or to fill up empty bottles.  The city has even handily placed ‘nutritional info’ plaques next to each fountain, in case you wanted to know what the mineral content of your water is.

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The water tastes clean, almost a little sweet.  Every evening, by the fountains families drive up or bike (bicycles seem to be very big here — even the elderly pedal everywhere, with their purchases inside their little wicker bike baskets) and fill up several empty liter bottles.  It seems like a wonderful alternative to regular tap water.  Somehow, I don’t think that Jersey City has any fresh spring water running underneath it, though.

Also, I’ve discovered the wonder that is the local gastronomia.  Lucca has bakeries, wine shops, fruit and vegetable shops, olive oil shops, etc., but the gastronomia is sort of like the corner deli — a little bit of everything.  Every few blocks, there is a new gastronomia, some nicer than others.  In the front of the store, there are baskets of fresh bread.  One wall usually has wine and one wall has a glass refrigerated case for the cheese, cured meats, fresh pasta (oh, to be liberated from boxes of dried pasta!) and some prepared foods, like panini.  Then in the back, there is bottled water, fruit and some boxed things.  And everything is cheap, like maybe half the price such ‘gourmet’ items would fetch in New York. 

This got me thinking.  Why are handmade, artisinal foods like fresh bread so expensive back home?  I remembered a point Michael Pollan made in The Omnivore’s Dilemma — one of the biggest problems with modern convenience food in America is that it’s irresponsibly priced.  Consumers like me complain that real food (i.e. fresh fruit, good quality cheese, etc.) is expensive compared to fast food or processed food, but the relaity is that our wacky subsidies and/or consumer advertising culture make the price of meals at McDonald’s or a package of Oreos artificially low.  So it’s not so much that real food is too expensive so much as it is that fast food is too cheap.  The price is paid elsewhere, as in environmental damage or in the extra pounds Americans carry around with them.  But anyway, getting back to the gastronomias in Italy…  My other realization is that for the residents of Lucca, the fresh bread and aged goat cheese aren’t luxuries.  Wonder bread and Kraft cheese simply don’t exist; it’s not possible to buy them anywhere in the town.  Thus, the food that would be ‘gourmet’ in New York is just their regular, everyday food, so it’s cheap.  Now that’s some food for thought.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for a few details about my side trip into Florence, as well as my next stop, Modena. 

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So after landing in Manchester, I hopped onto a train for Newcastle.  Now, I can’t say that I’ve ever had plans to visit Newcastle…  it just so happens that after several hours of scouring the discount flight prices (side note: why do we have nothing like this in the U.S.?  Europe has maybe 15 discount carriers, with one way prices sometimes starting at less 5 euro, plus taxes and fees!  Take that, Jet Blue!) between various points in England and Italy/France, the cheapest just happened to be from Newcastle to Pisa. 

On Wednesday, all the headlines in all the British papers screamed, “Hottest day in 100 years!”  Well, compared to my apartment in Jersey City last week, the air still felt pretty breezy to me, except for the fact that nothing is air conditioned in Northern England, including the train.  Sweat aside, I heart the train system in England.  Polite, efficient, on-time…  what more could you ask for?

Newcastle itself is a nifty little city.  In a way, it reminded me of Philadelphia a bit.  Totally secure in it’s own uniqueness and not at all trying to aspire to life in the Big City, Newcastle has an amazing useful subway system and a several nice pedestrain/bike walkways winding through the downtown of the city. 

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Since I only had about 6 hours to explore before bedtime, though, I knew one thing was in order: a nice pint of ale. 

I circled around downtown, avoiding the drunken masses heading towards the city’s arena.  (Guns and Roses concert!  Who knew that they were even still on tour?)  After a few passes, I found a rather large pub, located inside an old stone building.  Inside, I realized one of the reasons why eating/drinking out in Europe is so much more affordable.  Tipping, which is quite possibly the main thorn in the side of every American server confronted with European tourists, actually works in our favor this time around!  I’m a nice girl.  I don’t want to stiff anyone, so I carefully observed those in line in front of me.  Each person paid the exact amount and walked away.  Woohoo!  No tip required!  My lovely, hand-drawn Abbot Ale cost a mere £1.90.  That’s about $3.80 for you yanks.  ‘Tis a steal, right?  And I’m happy to report that the ale was just as flat as I expected — barely carbonated and roughly at the same temperature as the room. 

On a side note, my jet lag subsided enough to allow some hunger pangs to emerge, so I ordered a burger and chips to go with my ale.  I know British food needs some help, but I think that the burger would have bounced off the floor if I threw it there.  Yuck. 

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The only redeeming not to the meal was the homemade ketchup, which is something I developed a taste for at Savoy.  Why exactly do Americans have such an attachment to Heinz?  I can’t count the number of times that a customer would scowl at the little bowl of delicious homemade tomato goodness and ask for “real” ketchup.  What is so real about tomato paste and corn syrup?  Anyway, the ketchup at Savoy is tomatoey and smoky and sweet and salty all at the same time, since it had molasses in it, along with smoked paprika and a dash of fish sauce.  This ketchup at the pub in Newcastle was a little different — sweeter, with chopped up pickles — but just as lip-smacking nonetheless.

On the walk back home, I had to chuckle at this sign:

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Do you think I’ve lived in the New York area for too long, since my first thought was ‘Awww, Newcastle! A knife turn-in! That’s so quaint!’ ?? I mean, getting involved in a knife attack really isn’t on my mind so much in New York. I’d have to say that machine guns, anthrax, bomb attacks and druken men from Parsippany rank higher than knives.

Thursday morning, it was off to Pisa.  After a few minor problems trying to navigate the train system in a country that is a little (no, a lot) more relaxed than England, I made it to Lucca, a beautiful Medeival city surrounded by its original walls.  Bella!

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From what I understand, travel used to be glamourous.  I’m thinking of all of the old 1950’s movie starlets, with handkerchiefs in their hair and giant sunglasses, walking daintily up the steps to the waiting airplane. a_southern_twa.jpgToday we have airline attendants that are more like crowd wranglers, trying to appease the cranky masses.  Let’s take for example my flight to Manchester on Tuesday.  As we’re boarding in Philadelphia, the gate agent shouts into the microphone, “Okay, let’s hurry up everyone!  It looks like there’s a big storm coming, so let’s try to beat it!”  I look out the window.  Half the sky (and quickly growing) is dark purple.  I board the airplane.  Fifteen minutes later, the boarding is halted, and the plane is shaking back and forth from the force of the wind.  Rain is streaming down the windows, and visibility is practically nil.  The attendants are holed up in the back of the plane reading magazines and nibbling on salads.  An hour passes.  Then another.  The crowd is growing restless — someone asks an attendant to throw him a bag of pretzels, or maybe order in a pizza.  Apparently, food service is not officially permitted under 15,000 feet or some such nonsense like that, however. 

While all the people around me were getting louder and lounder in their complaints about the lack of provisions, however, I decided that it was time to stop empathizing with my fellow passengers.  In her second book, Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda Hesser addresses the issue of airline food in one succint chapter.  It’s a non-issue, according to Hesser.  Pack your own, and make it a special treat while you’re at it, she says.  I like that philosophy.  

So in an attempt to recall some of the glamour of airline travel, I stopped at DiBruno Bros. in Philadelphia during my layover and carefully constructed my meal.  For those who have never been there, DiBruno Bros. is a Philadelphia foodie staple.  Though it’s been around for years, the store recently relocated to more spacious quarters on Chestnut Street.  Inside is everything from artisinal cheese and salumi to prepared foods and a pastry section.  I made my choices carefully.  Starting with the main course, I chose a homemade ravioli with portabello muchrooms, red peppers and spinach.  Then I added on two sides: roasted cauliflower with chooped black olives and red pepper flakes and sauteed asparagus, prepared simply with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic.  For dessert, three small, flaky rugelah in three different flavors.  I threw a small piece of Petit Basque cheese and a package of crackers into my basket as an afterthought, and followed up my visit to DiBruno Bros. by a stop at Sue’s, a great family-owned produce store on the next block.  There I added a nectarine and a pint of freshly picked Jersey blueberries. 

So while on this stalled airplane of irritated strangers, I decided that it was time for my first course.  Out came the Petit Basque and crackers and some of the bueberries.

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Another hour later, by the time meal service actually started, and everyone was chomping on their gummy pasta, stale roll and Chips Ahoy, I was thanking Amanda Hesser.  Smart lady, she is.  With enough leftover cheese and fruit to turn down the airline’s breakfast, too, I landed in Manchester a little groggy, but with a stomach ready to forge ahead.

My meal:

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Everyone else’s meal:

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And she’s off!

600-europe.jpgTomorrow morning, or should I say, in eight hours, I’ll be leaving for a six week jaunt through Western Europe. I’m flying into Manchester via Philadelphia, then I’ll be taking the train to Newcastle. Thursday morning I fly from Newcastle to Pisa, and then it’s off to Lucca, Florence, Modena and points beyond. After that, the route is more or less flexible until August 21, when I will be in London for my fancy “Advanced Sommelier” course. I’m hoping that there will be some good eats happpening over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for updates…

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I scream, you scream…

Today was a sad day. During a visit to my parents, we stopped for dessert at Goodnoe’s, a Newtown, Pennsylvania institution and well-deserved pitstop in Roadfood, the excellent guide for hungry travellers written by Jane and Michael Stern. After 50-some years in business, Goodnoe’s is closing on Labor Day weekend.

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Located on a former dairy farm, Goodnoe’s is perhaps best known for their homemade ice cream –- there’s the old standbys like butter pecan and mint chocolate chip, as well as a few new characters like “muddy sneakers” and “tiger stripes” (what these are exactly, I never figured out). From milkshakes to root beer floats, the dessert menu covers all of the major sugar bases.

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Goodnoe’s also boasts an impressive sundae list, including the Atomic Sundae, which is literally massive enough for one small family. To be honest, though, after a few renovations, the restaurant has lost some of its 1950’s charm, but the menu still has the diner classics like chicken croquettes and greasy burgers. Put simply, it’s just good honest American food. Nothing fancy, but always satisfying.

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The area around Goodnoe’s, and lower Bucks County in general, has changed drastically over the past few decades. What used to be rolling farmland has mainly been replaced by tracts of five-bedroom, three-car garage McMansions, or in Goodnoe’s case, “village” style shopping centers and office parks. Throw up a fake cupola and you have instant presto Ye Olde Country Village.

So in honor of Goodnoe’s and times past, I had some chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a bright red cherry. Bye Goodnoe’s! I’ll miss you!

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