After a lengthy hiatus that included a pit stop in the U.S. followed by a couple weeks stationary in London, I am hitting the road, this time traveling throughout continental Europe. More to come…
Yesterday an article about my trip and my reflections after four months of travel was posted on the Meet, Plan, Go website. If you are interested, click here to read it!
Well, Italy, you’ve been swell, and I really mean it. I give an endless thank you to the wonderful Pedrocco family for hosting me over the past five weeks and teaching me about Italian culture, both in the kitchen and out. I cannot say anything that will do your warmth and kindness justice and I could not have been any more fortunate to have had the opportunity to live with you and get to know you.
For my last supper (I have yet to see the painting because it’s basically impossible to get a reservation; in other words, I’ll be back), we had a feast of seafood. No recipes necessary, but I’ll share some photos of the meal in progress. I must warn you, the preparation was a bit gory and Massi wasn’t sure I’d eat the dinner after seeing it. It involved decapitating sardines, dismembering calamari (yes, again, although last time it was squid), and killing strange shellfish called capelonghe, a speciality of the Venetian Lagoon. If you’re interested in making it, the calamari is stuffed with a blend of breadcrumbs, Parmesan, olive oil, and parsley and baked at about 200 degrees Celsius for around twenty minutes (you should be able to tell when it’s done).
The In Between
I will be back to Italy many more times. This is a country of huge cultural variety — the different regions could be different countries — and extraordinary geographical beauty. And regardless of where you are, Italians are fascinating people, full of life, and never allowing for a dull moment. In the past month or so I made it to Mestre (home), Venice, Bologna, Bolzano, Verona, Padova, Milan, and Naples (last time — eight years ago — I visited Rome, Venice, Florence, Sienna, and Milan). I look forward to visiting the south, including Sicily, but will not hesitate to return to any of the places I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in so far.
Finally, for the record, I have no doubt, even though I’m still pretty early on in my journey, that the best food of the world is made here. Italians know how to eat and I was lucky enough to be able share with them.
NYAWK-KEE. The Italian “gn” combination is difficult for many people to pronounce and I’ve noticed a widespread mispronunciation of gnocchi among Americans in particular (who often say “no-kee”). While it is a little time consuming, gnocchi might be easier to make than it is to say. Last night I had the long awaited gnocchi di zucca (i.e., pumpkin or winter squash), homemade nonetheless, which is an an alternative to traditional potato gnocchi and one that I prefer. It was so good that it almost eased my bad mood. Although not quite.
To make it, first peel the pumpkin and steam until it is soft (you can also steam it in the microwave).
In the meantime, flour the kitchen bench (or using a bowl would be fine), and when the pumpkin is ready, mash it onto the floured area. You can use a potato masher if that helps.
Next, add, flour, one egg, more flour, and some salt. You don’t need too much salt because the gnocchi is a little sweet, and, in the meantime, you should be boiling well salted water for later.
Massage additional flour into the pumpkin and egg mixture until it results in a sticky, dough-like texture. The batter should not be watery but you also shouldn’t over flour it. More or less, it should look like this, but, of course, the flour will be all mixed in.
Next, drop little balls of the gnocchi dough into boiling water. When they begin to float, it is an indication that they are cooked, however, you should sample one to make sure. You also may want to attempt to cook one gnocchi ball before dropping them all in the water to confirm that you’ve added enough flour. If you haven’t, the batter may fall apart in the water.
That’s it. Strain the gnocchi and serve. We made a simple gorgonzola sauce by adding some gorgonzola to a bit of milk and a splash of flour and mixing and simmering it for a couple minutes in a pan. You could also make what Italians call a white sauce–olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, and Parmesan.
In other news, the times they are a changin. It is a pretty interesting moment in Italian politics–the economist Super Mario Monti has replaced Bunga Bunga-ing Berlusconi as prime minister, sans election. Monti is expected to put together a cabinet of technocrats rather than politicians. Dare I say, there might be an arm of government without corruption? That remains to be seen, but I think people are cautiously optimistic and perhaps installing someone with true economic experience will aid in the rescue of Italy from its debt problems and ease the strain on the European economy. Unfortunately, that might not be ideal for my future job prospects, since I (used to) work on the floor where companies go to die, as someone once said to me as I stepped out of the lift. In my opinion, they come for life saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Anyhow, let’s see how it goes.
I leave Italy the day after tomorrow to meet Akane in Paris for the weekend. We have both agreed that 90% of the weekend will revolve around food, so there should be plenty to report on.
Food for thought: what was Ötzi eating that helped preserve him for over 5000 years? Maybe the caveman diet has merit.
At the very least, it earned him a spot on Brad Pitt’s forearm.
For more information click here.
I neglected to adequately document my consumption while in Bolzano, an Austrian/German city in the far north of Italy, over the weekend, so this is all I have. Plus some photos of pretzels. I may have been too distracted by the landscape. As you can see, it is beautiful.
More food to come. Paris and London are coming up shortly and I have to leave Italy with a bang. Thanks for reading.
Today my host family prepared a very special birthday dinner for me — seppie in nero alla veneziana, or squid in black ink. I have had squid ink pasta in the US, but this is a whole different story. Preparation requires dismembering squid, including, among other things, removing their single bone, cutting out their eyes, and cleaning out the inside of their heads, all while keeping their ink sacks intact. Sounds enticing right? I do not think this is something I could make and unfortunately (or fortunately?) I missed the prep time so do not have step by step photos. In its original form, the squid looks like this:
Once the squid is dismembered, it is sautéed for a long time with garlic and onion.
The seppie turns very black from its ink and served with polenta.
I kind of liked it but but had a little trouble eating it when I thought too much about it, or looked too closely at it. It tastes more fishy than any other form of squid I’ve had and it turns your teeth and lips black if you aren’t careful. Never eat it on a date.
Finally, the birthday dinner was capped off with an Italian sweet called cotognata, which is a very nice, light confection made of quince and sugar.
I now begin the final year of my twenties, a thought that makes me queasy. While there is probably no better way to spend it than how I am, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. I guess there is one upside, as Doron was was kind enough to remind me:
Napoli. Home of pizza and mozzarella. Need I say more? Within one hour of disembarking the plane on Friday I was in queue for a seat at Antica Pizzeria da Michele, probably the most famous Pizzeria in Naples. For reference, this is the restaurant that Julia Roberts (or whoever her real life counterpart is) visited in Eat, Pray, Love. And on that point, please never, ever compare my trip to that book/movie; there is no viable comparison and the thought of it offends me. However, if Javier Bardem decides to show up at some point, I won’t complain.
Anyway, Michele is all about no frills tradition. There are two choices – the margherita (mozzarella, basil, tomato, and oil) or marinara (tomato, garlic, oregano, oil, no cheese).
Not a tough choice for me — cheese all the way. I was seated at a four top with three strangers. Although it was uncomfortable, groups of people could wait for hours for a table, whereas I sat down after waiting for less than ten minutes. The pizza arrived quickly.
To be honest, I rate the pizza only rated as only “good.” I have had better in New York, Grimaldi’s in particular. I thought they were too stingy on the cheese and basil. I’m not saying that the pizza needs to be slathered in cheese — I love the classic, light Italian style — but I didn’t think this was enough. The crust was good but a little too soggy in the middle. I knew I could find better.
The next night, my goal was realized. I had what was probably the best pizza of my life at Pizzeria Starita. I learned of the restaurant through the Frugal Travel column in the New York Times, and while Starita has received many accolades for its pizza, it remains off the beaten tourist track (possibly due to its location). Locals line up (well, the Italian version of lining up, which basically means crowd around) outside the door before it opens and I’ve heard they will wait even 90 minutes for a table. I ordered the Racchetta, a pizza shaped like a racquetball racquet. What would be the head of the racquet was topped with buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, and crispy eggplant. The handle of the racquet was stuffed with ricotta and mushrooms. In short, this may be the greatest dish ever conceived.
There was a moment when I said to myself “Lacey, consider whether you should really eat the whole thing. You are going to get fat.” That thought quickly passed when I realized how I may never again have the opportunity to eat the best pizza of my life. I devoured the Racchetta.
Yesterday, I made sure to have one more mozzarella experience before leaving Naples. Mozzarella is made daily and is best only for that day. It is acceptable to eat it the day after, but certainly not after that. I now realize how much crap is sold in supermarkets and how much of a difference fresh, good cheese makes. Take this caprese salad. After looking at it, can you ever eat anything but fresh mozzarella again? I don’t think I can.
Coffee is another form of art in Naples. Many say it is the best in Italy and, interestingly, they serve an espresso, or “caffe” as it is called in Italy, already sweetened. I don’t usually put sugar in my coffee, but when in Rome, do as the Romans (or as the Napolitani, whatever). This is a pretty famous coffee shop called Cafe Mexico on Via Toledo.
Sometimes, rather than regular sugar, baristas use a sweet coffee cream with the caffe. I don’t know what this concoction is called, but it is delicious and was introduced to me by Michele (i.e. Italian for Michael and unrelated to the pizzeria), a co-owner of the B&B pictured below. I love the Napolitani.
Any attempt to describe Naples in words is destined for failure. It is a city that is simultaneously decadent, decaying, beautiful, gothic, filthy, thriving, and vibrant, all in its own comical way — a way that most Western cities would consider a failure. Everywhere you look clothes are hanging from the buildings to dry. A city without dryers. Garbage is everywhere, even taped to street signs. Beautiful, grand chapels are caked with dirt and decay, so much so that you might not even notice them if you don’t look closely. You could get lost in the dark, ominous, alley-like streets making up half of the city and never see the sea from where the Sirens lured Odysseus. The museum holding some of the world’s greatest archeological masterpieces is full of dust and cracks, and somewhat ramshacked. Nothing is protected from your touch. Naples is the Cairo of the West. It is, quite simply, fabulous.
Over the last month, much of the dinner time conversation with my host family has involved stories of Naples. I had visions of the Wild West, a lawless city ruled by organized crime, if organized is even a word that can be used to describe anything in Naples (I am still not sure about that). Once, my host’s father went down the wrong street while visiting Naples and was beaten up by a gang of children. He continued to love the city. Another time a friend, who lived in Naples, had his car stolen. When the police were useless and couldn’t find it, the man took matters into his own hands and went to speak with the “right person,” explaining that he was not a tourist, that he lived in Naples despite his BMW, and, the next day, the car was returned. The police were angry. Because one third of the population is unemployed, Napolitanis are artists in creating jobs. For example, if there is a long queue at a bank, there will certainly be someone standing in line, solely for the purpose of selling you his spot. Men demand payment for your parking spot just because they were standing there, even if the spot was public. I am sure you have experienced those annoying guys who try to wash your car windows when you’re stopped at a traffic light? Here, drivers say no and often turn on their window wipers to halt the efforts of the washer, but it doesn’t matter. The guy just says “no problem, no problem” and washes the windows anyway.
Napoli is a huge theater, showcasing a grand comedy that you shouldn’t miss if you are cut out for it. Some may not be. I was picked up from the airport by Maria, the woman who runs my bed and breakfast. From the time Maria met me to the time we arrived at the B&B, she never stopped speaking on her phone while also acting as my tour guide, driving a manual car, and cursing out other drivers in cars or on motorbikes. She assured me, mid-phone call, that I shouldn’t worry– in Naples, it is normal to talk on the phone while driving, at least until you see a police officer. As if that makes it safe. The traffic here is like nothing I’ve seen outside of Cairo or Marrakech (though nothing can beat Cairo). Whole families share one motorcycle. Cars drive in both directions, on both sides of the road. If you look one way, the correct way, and it seems safe to cross, you must remember to look the other way too, because nine times out of ten, there will be a car or motorbike going the wrong way down the street. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights are merely a suggestion, not a rule. The trick is to just take a deep breath and go. The cars will stop if you’re in front of them, but never if you’re not.
People in Naples have heart. They are full of expression and emotion, screaming, touching, crying, cursing, selling, all the time. One night as I was walking home, I saw a commotion ahead in the street. A woman was standing outside of her car, in the middle of the street, wailing. There were police officers. At first I thought she hit someone or had a bad accident. There was no ambulance, no one else seemed involved, and I didn’t see any damage to the car. A crowd started to form. Not the type of crowd that rubbernecks from afar. No, the Napolitani gathered right around, practically on top of, the car, as if they were waiting for a ride, as if it was their business, as if they couldn’t bare to miss a tiny detail of what ensued.
Every night there are firecrackers. Not the odd firecracker here or there. But one big celebratory display that goes on for minutes. Yesterday morning I was getting dressed and I heard someone on a loud speaker making an announcement while driving past. He seemed to be going through all the streets saying the same thing. I was a little concerned something was wrong (Naples is not the safest place in Italy). I asked Maria, and it turns out he was just selling potatoes.
My first night in Naples, I ate at a typical Napolitana restaurant (more on that and the food in another post). There is a ridiculous looking basket in the middle of the restaurant that is lowered for you to place the money into if you would like go leave a tip. When you do, the waiters all stop, cheer and clap, scream out grazie (thank you), make you blush, and then turn back to work. It is embarrassing, corny, and endearing.
Yesterday, I experienced one of the funniest things that ever happened to me; only in Naples. Literally it should have been a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode if Larry David was a woman. Unfortunately, it is not appropriate to write about on here, so if you want to know, ask me when you see me and I will share if you are an appropriate audience.
Sorry this post got sappy and romantic. Because it is already so long, and they are so worthy, I am writing a separate post to share some of Napoli’s epicurean delights, to be uploaded shortly.
Yesterday I went it Bologna for the day, which is a bit over an hour away on the fast train and a bit under two hours away on the regional train. I took the latter because it was one third of the price. Bologna is a beautiful city — one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It is home to the oldest university in the world, and, while there are no “superstar” basilicas or pieces of architecture that draw tourists like some other cities in Italy, Bologna is home to miles of beautiful arcades and twenty medieval defensive towers (two major ones in particular), some of which stand at very precarious angles. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal yesterday, so my photos aren’t so great, but Bologna is certainly worth a visit, even just to walk around for the day as I did yesterday.
Ok, now onto the good stuff. Bologna is also home to the ubiquitous pasta sauce ragù alla bolognese. While much of the world does it, traditional bolognese ragù should not be paired with spaghetti; instead, tagliatelle pasta should be used. Also, many non-Italian recipes portray bolognese ragù as a tomato based sauce, but really the sauce is primarily meat, with just a small amount of tomato paste mixed in.
I arrived in Bologna at lunch time and immediately set off in search of an authentic looking restaurant. I found one in a little alleyway deep in the city. It was very crowded with what seemed to be all Italians. When I asked for a table for one, the young waiter gave me a funny look — I am not sure if it was because I was eating alone or because I was a foreigner. Anyway, after a very small confusion with my order, my tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese arrived and it was exactly as I expected. Delicious.
This was not going to be a particularly cheap lunch on my budget — with the pasta, drink, and service/cover charge, it would have been somewhere around 23-25 USD. After I finished eating, I went to the counter to pay. That’s when the real magic happened. The owner of the restaurant, a friendly older man who was referred to in broken English by my waiter as the “master” spoke to me happily in Italian, which of course, I did not understand. The waiter standing nearby translated, saying “today, it is on the house.” As I thanked him profusely, the owner kissed my hand and bid me farewell. I am not sure exactly what prompted this generosity — probably a combination of the confusion with the order and the fact that I was there by myself. Regardless, who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?