Monday, October 24, 2011

This One's For The Foodies: Tuscany and Perugia

Is there anyone alive that wants to visit Italy, and hasn't dreamed of spending time in the famous Tuscan countryside? Last weekend I checked the famed land off of my to do list at a villa in the town of Sambuca, located in the heart of the Chianti region between Florence and Siena. With Eurochocolate 2011 in full swing, we took advantage of the summer home of a close German friend of mine to provide a central base closer to Perugia. Food, wine and chocolate were the focus of the weekend and this foodie's dream trip.

View past the "garage"
It mattered very little that there was only one open restaurant in the vicinity of Sambuca, indulgence was the main course on our itinerary. Step #1 was a bottle of local chianti on the table without hesitation. Following the chianti was a first course of Penne all'Arrabiata with the spicy sauce wiped clean off our plates with homemade Tuscan bread. Next up were some local Florentine steaks which need no description. Finally, the meal was capped off with some montenegro, and a shot of limoncello on the house.

Our delectable dinner delayed our arrival to the villa into the night but the headlights of the car uncovered glimpses of awesome rustic beauty as we pulled into the "car port." The three passengers, which included myself, aggressively corrected the driver's mistake as the ignition turned to rest underneath the covered patio in the yard. The old stone and thick wood doors led us into a refurbished kitchen which provided the only modern touch to the beautiful historical architecture. Exposed beam ceilings, uneven hand laid floors fireplaces and even a fire pizza oven at the front door completed the picturesque masterpiece. The fireplace in the kitchen provided two nights of great atmosphere among entertaining company. There was even a wine cellar in the basement complete with its own corking machine which capped off the amenities that our temporary home had on offer.

After drinking wine by the fire into the early morning, we woke up the next day to explore our weekend paradise in daylight. With the exception of the tiny village in the hills below, there was not another man-made dwelling in sight. We were surrounded by hills and trees on all sides in the midst of pure, untainted nature. We descended down our hill in search of breakfast supplies at the one small grocer in the town. We were blessed with perfect sunny weather as we hopped from grocer to baker gathering up goodies before ascending back up "our hill" to eat and prepare for the next leg of the journey to Perugia. Hills, lakes, vineyards, castles, and other unexplored scenery passed by our car windows as we made our way through Tuscany into Umbria. Finally, we arrived at our last piece of transportation, the mini metro, a cable car that serves as the main access route to the hilltop city of Perugia.

Admittedly, the city of Perugia remains vastly unexplored in comparison to the other cities I visited. The chocolate event was so overwhelming with people and chocolate stands that it was as if you were unwillingly and aimlessly herded through the city streets. Every kind of chocolate imaginable and unimaginable exists at Eurochocolate including simple treasures like a true hot chocolate and extravagant treats like a chocolate kebab. We navigated through the mass of people indulging in free samples of chocolate treats and even tried our hand at shots of chocolate grappa. The vast swarms of people deterred any sightseeing and even made picture taking a difficult task.

After consuming some chocolate covered dried fruits, I caught wind of some sausage cooking at another street vendor and decided to indulge in a sausage piadina. This was already my second snack after warming up my taste buds with a porchetta piadina earlier, but after all, this was a weekend full of culinary intent. We tasted truffle cheeses and sauces, and so many more amazing foods. The free tastings were successful in their intent as we made sure to purchase an excellent truffle sauce, among other treats, that would play a role in serving up the amazing evening that would follow back in Sambuca.

Prior to returning to our villa in paradise, we stopped along the ride back to put together a dinner menu for the evening. The inspiration of our purchased truffle sauce would serve as a base for one of the best homemade meals I have ever consumed. The fire lit in the kitchen fireplace signaled the start of the culinary genesis. Homemade wine was uncorked as the thick rustic wood table was set. The first course of fusilli served in a truffle sauce alongside black olives and mushrooms opened the door which led to freshly cut veal steak seasoned with a mustard rub and cooked in balsamic vinegar. Accompanying the second dish were steamed broccoli and carrots. As the first courses were served among laughter and joy, chestnuts were roasting for dessert only to be followed by truffle cheese and pecorino which complemented the endless supply of wine.

The following day we woke up to another simple and relaxing breakfast. After eating, we ventured through the surrounding woods and I even came across a possibly lost dog up wandering through the woods which I carried back down the hill while his tongue hung joyously out of his mouth. This fun was the cork to our amazing weekend. I had never before experienced a culinary weekend quite like this and it will be a memory of fulfillment and gastronomical satisfaction

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mister Assister: Repubblica di San Marino, Un Giro di Rimini

San Marino remained unchecked off of my imaginary to-do list for significantly too long. Monday's respite from class provided the perfect opportunity to exercise my penchant for spontaneity. The result of said spontaneity is a seasoned traveler of the bel paese spawned from a constant necessity to adjust and react to unexpected travel plans. This trip outside the country was another unplanned masterpiece with the extent of the planning being my wake up time, catching any train to Rimini and figuring out how to get to San Marino from there..

One might assume that I am quite informed and prepared while traveling because I always seem to turn into an information desk. Maybe I just have a friendly face but tourists from Italy and abroad always seem to approach me to solve their problems This morning I befriended an Italian woman seeking to clarify that her ticket would be valid due to a barely visible time stamp. Eventually, I guided her to the platform of her train as if I were a Trenitalia employee, albeit a vastly superior and significantly more helpful one. In Rimini, I sought out my own help determining the bus route to San Marino but regardless of my own ignorance, I once again played tour guide for a group of Eastern European girls headed in the same direction. Not only did I become their guide, I had to correct a local Italian man that provided them with the wrong information for the bus and ticketing. In San Marino, I provided advice to an Italian family regarding a tower that was closed to the public but had a beautiful view of the foreign country of Italy below. At the train station in Rimini I was asked where the TRAM office was (I didn't even know what TRAM was because I have never used it). This time my helpfulness was put to the ultimate test as the man was Chinese and spoke neither English or Italian. Finally, the same man that couldn't help the Eastern European girls laughed as he saw me provide further assistance to an Italian girl attempting to figure out the train stops. Of course, this is all in a day's work and I take quite a bit of pleasure in the assumption of others that I know what I am doing. It also allows me to revel in life as an Italian when I spend a day wandering the country alone without the use of the English language. It is a learning by doing and seeing, and that seems to me to be the best kind of learning.

Returning to the topic at hand, San Marino was a very beautiful place. The oldest constitutional republic in the world rests atop the Appenine Mountains overlooking surrounding Italian land below. San Marino miraculously remained neutral during WWII amidst the powers of both Italian and German armies. It was a refuge for the surrounding war torn cities and towns, and from what I understand, even many Jews escaping persecution. It is a remarkable place that is home to a significant level of wealth recognizable simply by the increasing size of the cars as you ascend the mountain. I'm almost positive that the winding road leading to the city-state was the same one that played host to the epic battle between Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. Each turn of the road circled the mountain with one wrong turn providing a steep drop into the beautifully menacing scenery below. Upon arriving at San Marino, you are ushered through the only entrance to the city by a guard. It is instantly apparent how proud the San Marinese are of their heritage, history and independence from surrounding Italy.

Inside the city walls the dichotomy between history and modernity is widely visible in the proud representation of the citiy's history combined with tourist street shops lining some streets. A Tabacchi in San Marino often consists of expensive cologne or even jewelry rather than being a more typical dingy little convenience store. Italian leather bags, jewelry and souvenir weapons were scattered throughout the streets. The foodie in me was disappointed in search of a small non-tourist spot to eat. If they existed, they weren't open leaving instead choices consisting of hot dogs, hamburgers, piadinas and french fries. I finally broke down and scarfed down a plate of cappelletti in panna with proscuitto cotto in a very unimpressive restaurant with few other patrons. I was however inspired to partake in the extensive souvenir market with the purchase of amaretto and vino liquoroso which came in decorative bottles. I figure, I might as well have a decorative souvenir to show for drinking, right?

San Marino is an interesting case in Europe as it was founded as early as 301 and recognized by the Papacy in 1631. It was a refuge that survived in poverty and seclusion but has now become one of the wealthiest countries in terms of GDP per capita. The city itself has often been a refuge because of its inaccessible location, especially during the unification of Italy and World War II. I was able to spend my day aimlessly wandering this refuge and exploring its famous three towers which demonstrate the cities proud military history and independence. I even wandered around off the paths to find myself within inches of dropping off Monte Titano. At times, I was almost in fear of the safety of children in a city where you could drop hundreds of meters from a million places.

After descending from San Marino by bus, I partook in a brief tour of Rimini before returning by train to Bologna. It was a nice little city but I found little to note in the short time there, and it is not a place on my list of those to explore while on Italian shores. Regardless, it was nice to see another place and check it off the list of those that I have been so fortunate to experience.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Firenze: Renaissance and Rebirth

November is now in full swing and the Christmas lights are being hung throughout Italy so I figured now is the time to publish this post that I have been holding out on for so long. If there is a city in Italy that has captured my heart, it is Florence. It's one of the most beautiful, and awe inspiring cities that a person can imagine ever seeing. Its magic is sometimes hidden under the mass of tourists that flock to see the place where the Renaissance began, the home of artistic masterpieces and breathtaking views. Florence has a special place in my heart for a few reasons. It is a city where you cannot help but fall in love. It has the power to move your heart and soul, and there are few experiences in my life greater than Florence in November. The beginning of the Christmas season is nothing less than magical as you walk down narrow streets filled with lights and love. This can be in stark contrast to the summer when you try in vain to avoid sweating among the masses of tourists that block your path in every part of the city. This contrast is where my story begins my story with Italy began.

I first experienced Florence about three years ago when I decided on a whim to spend all the money that I didn't have as a college student so that I could visit my girlfriend studying there. I had always wanted to see Italy but I had never really experienced much outside of the U.S. except for beach resorts in Central America. I wasn't really prepared for the things I was about to experience. I stepped off my plane and met my girlfriend at the airport in Pisa where we took a bus Florence. I remember looking out of the window into the Tuscan countryside still not really prepared for what I was about to experience. I admit I postponed my experience with a nap the second that I arrived, while she attended class .

When she returned from class I got my first real experience of Italy as I fell in love with the character of the city and it's charming, clean narrow streets. The duomo in the center of city is one of the most impressive sights that you can imagine. As you turn the corner, you are immediately, and unexpectedly, struck by one of the most amazing churches in the world. As you cross the Ponte Vecchio filled with jewelry shops that contain a million pieces of jewelry that would sweep any woman off her feet, you can then make your way to Piazza Michelangelo. There, you can see the entire city from a hill above and become even more enamored with the beauty. It was an eventful week for me seeing these sites, and the week even included a trip to the hospital which, if I remember correctly, was built in the 14th century. My girlfriend burned her leg with hot oil trying to prepare us a Thanksgiving dinner, and while that took away from me ever stepping foot inside the duomo or even seeing the David, it took little away from me loving the trip. Sure, I even missed out on the secret bakery in the morning which I was looking forward to because I love baked goods more than the average human being. It was on this trip, seeing these sites, that I must admit I fell in love for the first time. I had been dating my girlfriend before going to Florence, but it was the magic of the city, and my time there together with her that made me fall in love under the dangling Christmas lights that lit the city in late November.

Fast forward three years to July of this year when I returned to Florence with the same girl having recently broken up. Somehow the city still had the same magic for me, and I could see that it did for her as well. This time was different though. It was summer, and the crowded tourist streets detoured us from certain activities that we wanted to do because it was just impossible. The Jersey Shore cast wandered through the cluttered market. Florence was still beautiful, and the duomo still struck me as always when I turned the corner into the main piazza but this time was different. We saw all of the familiar places that reminded me of the of three years ago, and even went bar hopping this time. We spoke Italian as we wandered through the streets. We even tricked some American students into believing that I was her Italian boyfriend for our own enjoyment, and, of course, they were extremely jealous. We went to Aqua al 2 to enjoy the steaks that won over our hearts and stomachs the first time, but even they didn't have the same effect this time. I had to wonder if maybe this is just Florence in the summer.

The last beautiful place that we saw on our summer trip was the town of Fiesole which rests on top of a Tuscan hill thirty minutes outside of the city. It was at the top of that hill that was the end of our journey together. She sat in my lap in the piazza as we overlooked the city and watched people pass through the quaint town. It's beauty is magnificent just as the city below. Fiesole was the calm after a 10 day storm that was three years in the making. It was Florence in November that won over my heart, and Florence in the summer where that period of my life came to an end. It is a place that has been at the heart of two moments that have been responsible for my growth into a better person, and the last picture left in my mind as the end of a first love. Florence truly is the home of the Renaissance, as it was twice responsible for a renaissance in my life that I am now reminded of every time I pass through it.

I hope everyone reading this will get to experience this city near Christmas time in their life because it is this time of year, not the summer, when the beauty of Italy is truly in full bloom. It is something that I wish everyone could have the opportunity to see, and to fall in love with, just like I did.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two Months To Be A Foodie

Today's post is an update for those of you who follow me religiously. One thing that I have failed to relay to everyone around the world is my appreciation for food and wine. I think maybe it is time to chronicle some of the most amazing foods that I encounter. I was inspired to do this by two recent realizations. One is the maccheroncini con salsiccia e porcini that I had the great fortune to enjoy at Trattoria Trebbi just last weekend.  The other realization is that I have basically been a part of the "Slow Food" movement without really noticing.

I have had the pleasure of attempting local dishes all over this country, but also in the other countries I have visited. I am fairly sure I ate an amazing dish in Slovenia that consisted of horse (sorry for those who are disturbed by this). I ordered hot dogs wrapped in bacon off a menu that I could not read in Klagenfurt, Austria. In Ancona I was able to taste rabbit wrapped in pork for lunch followed by fried fish for dinner with all the heads and bones intact for consumption. Unfortunately it is not always a winning decision to take risks on the menu as I found in Venice. I agreed to take over a dish of pasta with squid ink and cuddlefish for my travel partner who was unable to eat it. Let's just say being a good guy didn't pay off in this case as I pretended not to be struggling through the dish to make her feel better about pawning it off on me (maybe I offered). It was definitely no fritto misto or piadina like the ones in Ravenna.

It isn't just that I have tried all types of local cuisine but I also find cooking more enjoyable now too. I think part of it is the ability to go to the market and buy the cheap ingredients that are in season. If you ask anyone who knew me before they might tell you I was a picky eater. It would be rare to see me in the kitchen chopping up assorted fresh vegetables to cook, although I still have to argue with everyone about how disgusting raw onion is (and even onion on pizza, gross). Anyway, now it is something I truly enjoy to figure out what I would like to add to my meal whether it be mushrooms, meats, vegetables, or anything else. It makes the decisions at the market much more difficult and time consuming, but it is worthwhile nonetheless.

Lastly, those who know me know that I have liked wine for a very long time, especially red wine. Whether it is Negroamaro, Primitivo, Chianti, Nero d'Avola, Montepulciano, or the local Sangiovese, I love to taste, and enjoy them all. My wine tastings are ever expanding so when I return you might want to consider taking me along for a trip to the liquor store, or packie for those in Connecticut, to help find a great Italian red wine for dinner.

So for all you ladies reading that love a man who cooks and enjoys wine, you can keep an eye out for me in the local food markets around the world. You can also keep reading here as I try to chronicle some of my food and wine experiences. Oh, I should also mention eating out is not a regular occurrence on my student budget so the posts might be scattered about sparingly (don't let that money thing hold you women back either though).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Il Topo Houdini

If you sometimes sit at home and wonder what a Saturday night in Italy might be like for me, then you came to the right place. I don't imagine most of you do, but, watch on as we search for the magical disappearing mouse wreaking havoc in our apartment.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lost and Off The Beaten Path in Paradise

Last weekend I began my day bright and early with a 3 and a half hour train ride to Cinque Terre that left from Bologna at 6:30. I thought I would sleep my way through the trip but fortunately that didn't turn out to be the case. I've recently realized that travelling through the country, and even seeing places by train can be very interesting. Quietly watching as new towns pass by can be a useful time of contemplation and reflection. I specifically remember thinking of the story of Candide by Voltaire on this Saturday morning. Reflecting on life, as I very often do, I watched the scenic farms fly by and wondered what it would be like to live a more simple life. Candide lived a life of suffering, always maintaining his optimism until he came to the conclusion that a simple life, one of living off the land was his key to happiness. In keeping with that theme, this post will be very simple and give way to the beauty of nature. It will consist mostly of pictures and reflections because I don't feel that my words could ever do justice to the views of Cinque Terre.

My first act in Cinque Terre was to climb down the rocks, strip down, and jump in for a swim. The water was matched the blue sky above in both beauty and clarity.

Wandering off the beaten path into the woods where I found a beautiful location to relax and take in the landscape with crystal clear water.

At this point in the trip I had already hiked far more than was necessary. My curiosity and desire to see everything got the best of me, but I reaped the rewards of exploring even the smallest of paths in the cliffs. I must admit it's quite easy to get slightly lost. So for those who are not into walking 15 miles in a day, you might want to stay the course. That being said, this is only a short trip through the beautiful pictures of the landscapes so far...

No Better place to rest in peace.

The town of Corniglia is the one of the five that I really fell in love with.  The streets are narrow and the buildings are full of character. Unfortunately, I missed a picture opportunity with two Italian girls on a side street that asked if we wanted our nails painted. Could have used the manicure...

At this point we had come across a few groups of obnoxious Americans. Don't be those guys when you go. Let the people around you enjoy the memorizing world around them. Don't be the ones complaining about walking too much on an amazing hike that you chose to sign up for...

It's right here that I am sad to not have a picture of the lemon 'farmer' at his stand. He served fresh squeezed lemonade and a liquor made from lemon grass. He took his opportunity to tease the American tourists behind us but left me alone because I look "part mafioso." Should have told him the lemon products were free or he would be sleeping with the fishes.

The Day's End.

The day consisted of about 8 hours of travel, starting at 5am and ending at 11pm. Very tiring but surely worth the time and effort. I'm now an expert at travelling Italy on the cheap. I probably spent 40Euros for the entire day of travel, food, and everything else. My advice for those travelling Cinque Terre is to explore as many paths as you can. The towns are nothing extraordinary with the exception of Corniglia, but there are things waiting to be discovered in the cliffs. The last photo that I will leave for everyone is the real Italy with some Cinque Terre locals...

Friday, October 7, 2011

On The Rails, On My Feet, An All Day Travelling Treat

It should come as no surprise that one of the places near the top of my list to visit was Trento. Situated in the Dolomite mountains near the German border, Trento was home to the famous Council of Trent. Three reasons that Trento was of interest to me were the beautiful landscape of mountains surrounding the city, its history as the home of the counter reformation, and the mixing of culture that occurs between German and Italian in the region.

Those who know me can understand my desire to see this place because of my love of observing cultural contrasts. One of my roommates didn't believe he'd be a fan of the city because of its German influence. I didn't really know what to expect either, but I instantly took notice of the German first, Italian second advisory signs on the northern regional train. With each train stop blonde hair became steadily more prevalent, and I even saw my first redheaded Italian. Professionals such as doctors and lawyers in the region must take mandatory language proficiency tests to demonstrate fluency in both German and Italian despite residing in Italy. I don't mean to insult the Italians but maybe the German influence is a good things because I noticed Trento seemed to function a little better than other Italian cities, and it is known to be a bit wealthier.

As I arrived in another picturesque city, this time nestled in the mountains, I realized that I had made a crucial mistake. I forgot to charge my camera following the previous weekend's match between Bologna and Inter. I walked past one prime picture opportunity after another until I finally found a camera shop that stole the clothes off my back for a universal charger. The charger alone cost as much as the travel expenses. The best purchase of the trip came in the shape of the 3 Euro lift ticket from Trento to the small town of Sardagna resting on top of a mountain above.

Sardagna was almost like a ghost town. The town office was open for 8 hours, per week. I think I saw about eight people the entire time I was there, and I maybe four were tourists. The place itself was amazing. The view of the mountains was awe inspiring, and the vineyards surrounded by villas made it one of the most 'picturesque' places that I have ever been to, again. The town sits about 650 meters above sea level with views as far as the eye can see. It's a place that I wish everyone could experience to realize the quiet beauty of its barely touched, and perfectly sustained nature. This beauty that surrounds Trento and Sardagna that made me fall in love.

Unfortunately, on the return leg of the trip I stopped in the city of Verona. I probably shouldn't talk down about a city that is loved by so many. The home of Romeo and Juliet, and the amphitheater that I had heard so much about was quite a disappointment after visiting Trento. The theater had a renovated modern interior which left a lot to be desired, and there was nothing romantic about the tourist trap of Juliet's balcony. The wide open piazza in the center of Verona may have been lovely but it was littered with tour groups and camera wielding foreigners which could not have resembled the Verona that Shakespeare wrote of.

A full day of sightseeing and travelling filled me with life despite the disappointment of Verona. The fresh mountain air, beautiful scenery, adorable town and amazing city at stop one had inspired me to fall in love with the northern treasure. My wanderlust continues to grow with each journey I make. Next up is known worldwide for its scenery, and I can't imagine Cinque Terre will leave me with any feeling of disappointment..