Archives for May 2012

On the Road: More from Rome

We arrived home on Sunday evening and have been slowly getting back into the swing of things after a whirlwind two weeks in Italy. As you can probably tell if you’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks, our days were pretty full (In fact, I got to check off 33 places in my copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I should be finished in no time!). Since I was posting from a cell phone while I was away, I tried to kept things short  since the tiny keyboard and I are not really friends. But, I have a lot more to say, especially about the most important element of this trip: the food!

So, here we go, starting with our five days in Rome.

As I mentioned previously, this was my second visit to Rome and while I was excited for the opportunity to see all of the sights again, what I was most looking forward to as we stepped off the plane was the pizza.

I’ve heard many theories about why the pizza in Italy is so amazing. Some people say it’s the water and flour that are used for the dough. Others swear that it’s the bricks that are used to construct the ovens. One thing that I noticed is that the tomatoes in Italy are not very acidic, so that makes for a very mild tasting sauce that doesn’t overpower the other flavors of the dough, the buffalo mozzarella and the toppings.

Whatever the reason, it really must be something that you can only find “over there” because I’ve yet to have any other pizza that even comes close to what I’ve had in Rome, where it’s wafer-thin, crispy and cooked in a wood burning oven. And, since it is sometimes larger than the plate it’s served on, it definitely requires a knife and fork.

Pictured below are two of the classic combinations—the Margherita and the Capricciosa, which translates roughly to “everything in the house” and thus features a pretty random assortment of toppings.

I imagine you can’t go wrong with any pizzeria that you come across, but two that we really enjoyed were Porta Castello (where we snapped the photo) and Dal Pollarollo.

Oh wait. There was one other thing I was looking forward to as I stepped off the plane: gelato.

You know how there’s at least one Starbucks on every block in Philly? Well, that’s kind of how it is with the gelato shops in Italy. And, everyone seems to be eating it—locals and tourists alike—at all hours of the day.

Giolitti, located near the Pantheon, has been around since 1900 making it the oldest ice cream store in Rome. If you go, chances are it will be packed with people and they won’t be organized into any kind of orderly line. So, make sure to pay at the little desk when you first walk in the door, jostle for your place in front of the cases and decide on your flavor combination from the seemingly endless options so you’ll be ready to place your order as soon as one of the servers behind the counter catches your eye. Resist the urge to turn around and head to the place two doors down. Giolitti is one of the best places anywhere to get your gelato fix, if you ask me. The gelato is smooth and creamy, but not too dense or too sweet.

As much as I would have loved to eat pizza and gelato for the duration of the trip, we did venture to other places. The Trastevere neighborhood seemed to be quite the restaurant hotspot and we had two of my favorite dinners of the trip there.

L’Invincible is a wine bar that features simple dishes that make the most of fresh, seasonal ingredients. First course options included triangles of buffalo mozzarella lightly fried and stacked together, for more sophisticated, grown-up version of grilled cheese sandwich. Another highlight was the creamed pea appetizer, topped with a poached egg and fresh ricotta cheese. I also really enjoyed the Bucatini All’Amatriciana, a classic dish featuring thick spaghetti, topped with a spicy tomato sauce that gets a bit of heartiness from bits of pork that are simmered in the sauce. Even the bread was homemade and included interesting flavors such as apricot and chestnut. and the service was very friendly.

Antico Arco offers more contemporary takes on traditional dishes. My favorite dish was the lasagna. Instead of traditional lasagna noodles the layers were comprised of thin slices of potato, layered with asparagus and guinea fowl and topped with a bechamel sauce. I had never had guinea fowl before, but it was rich and flavorful in a way that reminded me of braised short ribs. I also tried the amber jack filet, which is a fish that is kind of a cross between halibut (in texture and flavor) and tuna (in that it is a darker meat). It was paired with a flavorful fennel sauce and accompanied by thinly sliced zucchini that was simply dressed in olive oil and sauce. Chester really enjoyed the pea soup, which included rings of tender squid and the lamb tenderloin wrapped in a crunchy, herb crust. A rich chocolate soufflé cake with vanilla ice cream and a light ricotta mousse with dark cherry sauce were the perfect desserts to finish the meal with.

Of course, food is not the only reason to visit Rome, and there are enough museums, churches and ancient sites to keep you busy for several weeks. You can find some ideas about things to see and do in the Eternal City here, here and here.

I’m slowly working my way though the photos I took on the trip, and here are some of my favorites from Rome.

Trevi Fountain

Castel Sant'Angelo

Spanish Steps

Piazza Navona

Pantheon

On the Road: Venice and Milan

We spent the last two days in Venice. Sadly, the Internets did not cooperate with us while we were there, but everything else about that city is absolutely amazing.

We had a full itinerary planned of museums and other sites to see over our two days there, but the minute we stepped out of the train station and caught a glimpse of the Grand Canal in front of us, those plans went out the window. Instead, we just wandered wherever the city took us.

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Have you guys ever seen the great ’80s movie Labyrinth? Well, Venice is kind of like that (if you haven’t seen this fine film, I’m sad for you. Put it on your summer movie list, stat). It’s basically a series of little islands connected by bridges. And, within each section, there are little narrow alleys and passageways that lead to the city’s main squares.

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Of course, this makes it pretty easy to get lost. Thankfully, my husband is pretty handy with a map.

We saw a few of the sites, like St. Mark’s Church and the Doges Palace, but, our favorite moments were just watching the boat traffic and the way that the water sparkled under the sun. We took a gondola ride as well, and yes, it’s touristy and overpriced, but it’s a lot of fun and a great way to appreciate the city.

In short, you need to put Venice on your travel bucket list. Someday, it will probably sink into the Adriatic Sea and you won’t want to have missed out.

Today, we arrived in Milan, which is our final stop before heading home on Sunday. The highlight for today was seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”

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It’s been a wonderful trip and we feel really fortunate to have been able to take it together and see and do so many awesome things. Traveling is truly one of my favorite things in the world.

If I don’t get around to posting tomorrow, hope you have enjoyed following along. I will have plenty more to share–including a lot of stuff about food and some of the 1000-plus photos I have taken–when I get back to the PHL!

On the Road: Town Hopping in Tuscany

Tuscany may be one of my favorite places ever.

We’ve been out and about exploring small towns for the last few days and each one is more charming and has more beautiful views than the last. The only drawback is that it has been raining off and on throughout the day, sometimes very heavily, but we are making the best of it. We purchased attractive ponchos and I’ve been singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” in full Annie voice. It seems to help, and I know Chester is a huge fan of my vocal talents.

Yesterday, we stopped in Volterra, which is located way, way high up on top of a mountain.

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Several scenes for New Moon were filmed in this gorgeous town. Sadly, I did not see anyone resembling Edward Cullen anywhere around. Some enterprising street performer could make a killing posing for photos with tourists.

Today, we were in Siena. We climbed up to the top of the bell tower at the city hall. It was windy and cold, but once again the views were amazing. We’ve probably climbed more than 1,000 stairs on this trip so far, but that’s how I justify my frequent gelato stops.

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Our last day in Tuscany before heading to Venice is tomorrow and we are hoping that the weather cooperates so that we can just sit out and enjoy the farm. I have pretty much decided that I  would take this over a beach vacation any day.

On the Road: Down on the Farm in San Gimignano and a Visit to Pisa

Well, friends, we made it to the countryside. I am writing this from a farm near San Gimignano in Tuscany, where we are staying for the next few days. This is my view at the moment:

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Seriously. I may never leave. It’s pretty frickin’ amazing.

Before you start with the jokes about how I’m not cut out for roughing it, this place is totally modern. It has a real bathroom and electricity (not like that one–and only–time I went camping. But, I can hear farm animals from time to time and last night I looked up and saw hundreds of stars. That I can handle.

The nice thing about this part of the trip is that we’ve been in busy cities for the last week, and this is so much more relaxed. We have our own kitchen so we can buy our food from the market and cook it instead of eating in a restaurant.

We are driving distance from a bunch of small towns, that can be explored easily in a few hours time. Can you guess where we went today?

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Climbing to the top of the tower is pretty cool. You seriously can feel it leaning to one side, and when you come down, it takes awhile to be able to walk and stand straight again. It was the oddest feeling!

Yes, we took the typical touristy photo of ourselves pretending to hold it up. But, that’s on my real camera, so for now, you will have to settle for this shot of us at the top:

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On The Road: Florence, Part 2

Since it was the hub of the Renaissance, Florence is bursting at the seams the amazing art, architecture, literature and scientific discoveries of that time period. The whole city is pretty much like a museum.

Yesterday, we visited the Accademia to see Michaelanglo’s David, which is spectacular in person. I pretty much have no words for it other than that. We visited the Chapel of the Medici family and San Marco Church, where Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo and others are buried.

Finally, we climbed the 463 steps to the top of the dome at the Duomo for some of the best views of the city. It’s a bit harrowing on the way up. The staircases are windy and steep, the space gets very narrow the higher you go, and since there is only one staircase to get up and come down, you are sharing close personal space with others. In short, it’s a claustrophobic’s nightmare.

I got a bit of vertigo and had to hold on to the wall for a bit at the top before I was able to look out and see this:

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And, this:

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Totally worth it.

Today, we are picking up a rental car and are heading out for a few days in the countryside of Tuscany, so that’s all for now!

On the Road: Florence and Bologna

Yesterday, we took the train from Rome to Florence. I have to say that I am a huge fan of train travel over here. You get an assigned seat, the trains are super fast and they leave and arrive exactly on time.

After we dropped our bags at the hotel, we spent some time just wandering, and I pointed out a lot of jewelry that Chester could buy me in the expensive stores that line the winding streets. We also visited the Uffizi Gallery, which holds the art collection of the Medici family. The collection mostly consists of religious art (I am officially on Baby Jesus overload at this point) but also includes several more well known paintings such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

It’s truly a beautiful city and I doubt that my cell phone photos will do it justice, but here are just a couple:

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Ponte Vecchio

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Duomo

Today, we took another short train ride to Bologna, 30 minutes from Florence. It’s a really charming city, with lots of arcaded passageways, medieval architecture and good shopping. Our guidebook described it as one of Italy’s hidden gems, and I guess it must be, because it was not at all packed with tourists.

What makes this city pretty amazing is the food, though, and that’s the main reason we wanted to visit (are you shocked?). Among other things, Bologna is the birthplace of tortellini, Bolognese sauce, and mortadella.

We sampled everything we could, starting with a stop at Tamburini, which has been selling meats, cheeses and other delicacies since 1932:

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Clockwise from the top: Bresaola (dried beef), Prosciutto, Mortadella, Provolone, and Fontina cheese; Salami in the center

We had lunch at Osteria dei Poeti, a restaurant off the beaten path. The meat filled tortellini were not as thick as the versions of this pasta I’ve had here at home and the broth was flavorful without being too salty. A couple of spoonfuls of Pecorino Romano enhanced the flavor. The tagliatelle featured a hearty ragu, which stood up well to the slightly chewy pasty.

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Oh, and in case you were wondering, they have Dr. Seuss over here:

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Ciao for now!

On the Road: Rome, Part 3

One of the things that I love most about Rome is that it’s kind of like being in a time warp. You can walk out the door of your fairly modern hotel or cafe and come face-to-face with the ancient city walls or the ruins of an emperor’s bathhouse. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt several times on top of itself and there are just all of these layers to discover.

Yesterday, we toured the ancient sites. In the morning, we took a walking tour through the Colosseum, Imperial Forum and Palatine Hill. We had a great guide who had illustrations of how things would have looked during that time period, which is helpful in making sense of what has now become a collection of broken columns and rocks. It was quite a bit of walking, but luckily it was also the coolest day, temperature-wise, of our time in Rome (also, it was extremely breezy. I felt like I was covered in dust and grime kicked up by the wind at the end of the tour!).

Interior of the Colosseum

Then, in the afternoon, we went went with another group to tour of the early Christian catacombs and crypts around Rome. The catacombs are interesting, but the real highlight for me was a visit to the Basilica of San Clemente, which is a 12th century church, built on top of a 4th century church, built on top of a pagan temple and remains of what is thought to be the early Roman mint from the 1st and 2nd centuries. The church is a bit of a distance from some of the other ancient sites, but it’s totally worth the trip. It’s like time travel, but in a really cool, non-Star Trek sense.

Our five days in Rome were fantastic. We packed them full of sightseeing and I already have a list of the things we need to do on our next trip here. I threw my coin in the Trevi Fountain so I am sure there will be a next trip.

Today, we are catching the train to Florence. If our next hotel has wi-fi, I will talk to you when we get there!

On the Road: Tivoli

Yesterday, we spent part of the day in Tivoli, which is just about 25 minutes outside of Rome.

We made stops at the site of Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

The photo above is where the dining room once stood. I think I will put an inground pool in mine, too.

Then, we headed over to Villa d’Este. During the 16th century, a wealthy cardinal spent most of his fortune creating the spectacular fountains and gardens here. I could have wandered around for hours taking photos and listening to the sounds of the water.

Today is our final day in Rome and we are off to the Colosseum and other ancient sites. See you later!

On the Road: The Amalfi Coast and Pompeii

Yesterday, we took a day trip from Rome to visit the Amalfi Coast. We had originally wanted to do this drive ourselves, but decided to go with a small tour group. A good thing, because the drive is quite long and involves climbs up steep mountains and curvy, narrow country roads. Luckily the driver had no problems navigating them and we all made it back it one piece.

This also gave us more time to appreciate and enjoy the spectacular views of the sea and the towns built into the sides of the mountains.

Like this:

I didn’t know that citrus fruits grow like crazy in the Amalfi Coast. Our driver said that the green, step-like formations in the photo above are covered in lemon trees.

Our first stop was Amalfi:

We wandered around town, stopping to try a few citrus flavored treats, including lemoncello:

And, two varieties of lemon sorbet, which is made with lemons that are the size of a small child’s head:

The white sorbet is made simply with lemon juice and the brighter yellow version is made with the lemon peel. I had never had anything like the latter version, which was creamy and had the most intense lemon flavor. I must try to recreate it at home when I break out the ice cream maker this summer.

And then, it was on to Positano:

While we were there, we stopped for lunch at Chez Black, which is reportedly a favorite with celebrity visitors (Denzel Washington was proudly mentioned several times). We didn’t see anyone famous, but I did have one of best caprese salads ever:

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And, of course, pizza. Since the Amalfi Coast is close to Naples, pizzas are made in the Neapolitan style, which includes a bit of a thicker crust. I don’t like it as much as the Roman version, but this one gets extra points for being heart-shaped:

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After lunch, it was back in the van to head to Pompeii.  I am sure you know the story of how the city was partially destroyed and buried under thick layers of ash for centuries after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Many of the houses, temples, the expansive red light district, mosaics and frescoes are surprisingly well preserved and  a tour through Pompeii gives an interesting look into what life was like in ancient times. And, it is just a bit eerie to see the volcano in the distance, and wondering when it might blow it’s top again.

If you find yourself in Rome and have some time for a few side trips, this is one that’s definitely worth taking. We booked ours through Avventure Bellissime, and although the price may seem a bit steep, having the transportation is definitely worth it!

On the Road: Rome, Part 2

I am a terrible Catholic, but I love visiting churches: Especially the churches in Europe. They are just so spectacular. When I was growing up, my parish church had green shag carpeting on the altar. I have yet to find anything similar over here. Thank goodness.

Vatican City is pretty much a must when you visit Rome. Perhaps it even helps those terrible Catholics among us score a few extra points. I can only hope.

We started the day off yesterday at the Vatican Museums. It’s kind of like the Louvre in that it is filled with so much art you don’t know where to look first. Of course, the highlight is the Sistine Chapel. It’s crowded; but try to elbow your way through the crowds to just stand in the center and look up.

Equally spectacular is that Chester believes that he found Chase Utley of the Phillies in tapestry form. Could it be? You decide:

And that, friends is just a small example of why I am a terrible Catholic.

Then, it was off to St. Peter’s Basilica (photo above). In addition to the Church itself, Chester had found out that you can take a tour of the Scavi, the underground necropolis where the bones of St. Peter were supposedly buried. It was really amazing how well preserved the site is and to hear the story of how they uncovered the bones after centuries of them being
hidden. You need to purchase tickets in advance, but it is well worth it.

We ended our day with a long walk home from dinner, to see all of the sites, like Castle Santangelo, looking all pretty.

We don’t look too bad either.