A Return to the West

So, in the end, I had to flee India a week early. I had a great experience there but 31 days was more than enough for one go, and although I plan to go back, I need a break for a while. I was verging on the brink of agoraphobia (1.2 billion people can do that to you) when I booked a last minute ticket to London for the week (originally, the plan was to fly from Mumbai to Geneva to going skiing at Chamonix for a week; instead I will fly to Geneva from London). Anyway, I don’t have too much to report in the way of food, but my first stop from the airport on Sunday night was for a cheeseburger and it was fabulous.

Although London generally doesn’t have good coffee, there are a few gems, particularly Sensory Lab, which, of course, is owned by Australians. And what a pleasant post-India reminder of how good coffee can be.

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Tonight I’m going to a restaurant launch, so I hope to retrieve some material for the Blog.

Pizza Pizza Pizza (Plus)

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Granada

My initial impression of Granada was accurate. I love it here. The people are warm and the city is beautiful, but in a real way where the history is underneath and surrounding the people going about their business. Yesterday I took a walking tour of the city and visited the Alhambra, for which I will write a separate post.

Granada is where Spain was born in 1492 when Ferdinand defeated the Moors, but, of course, its history extends far beyond that. There is too much to go into in a blog post, but basically, lots of Muslims and Jews lived here, and when the Moors were defeated by the Christians, Ferdinand and Isabel were initially respectful of these people. Eventually, and unfortunately, due to various factors, the Muslims and Jews were expelled to the extent they would not convert to Christianity. The north African history and influence is obvious everywhere you go — the architecture, tiling, tea and spice shops, and the souk-like street markets, as well as the Moorish quarter called the Albayzin, definitely give this Spanish city a unique twist. There is also a beautiful cathedral, the second largest in Spain, and the Royal Chapel, holding the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabel that are fascinating to visit.

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(We have all seen those silver street men, and I am sick of them, but I have never seen one with a dog who holds perfectly still playing dead for a long time — amazing!)

Across from my pension is a cute park on a square (of which there are many) that is swarmed by thousands of birds each night — Mom, you would love this. They are so loud! Needless to say, I don’t walk through there at night and am very careful where I sit during the day, as there is a plethora of bird poop.

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As far as food goes, I am thoroughly sick of pork/ham/cured ham (jamon as they say here), not that I was ever a huge fan. Last night, I made the mistake of ordering it yet again. In the U.S. when I order a “hamburger” I incorrectly use that term interchangeably with “burger,” (the latter implying beef and the former, technically, implying ham) as many people probably do because in the States, beef burgers are the norm. Well, here, a hamburguesa is actually a patty of ham, not beef as I had been craving. This was stupid of me, but I had been on my feet from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. and was exhausted and hungry. To make matters worse, I ordered a “hamburguesa completo” assuming that completo meant lettuce and tomato. It did mean lettuce and tomato, but it also meant fried egg. Yuck. This experience was particular disappointing because the night before I had a “scramble” with shrimp, ham, and mushrooms, the consumption of which resulted in a stomach ache of course. The bartender (more on bartenders as waiters below) told me (well, acted out to me) that if I ate the whole portion, which was as big as my head, I would be fat. I didn’t finish it.

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One thing that I love about the food culture here is the bars and coffee shops that are usually indistinguishable from tapas restaurants (though there are some tapas places that are clearly restaurants). There is often a long bar made of wood or metal and you just walk up and order coffee (or beer, depending on the time of day) and some food. There are bar stools, but most people just eat standing up. I think this is similar to coffee shops in Italy. The bartenders are the waiters and they are usually characters — friendly, funny, and warm, but disguised as grumpy old men for the first few minutes you encounter them (kind of like superintendents in New York). There is an old world quality to these places, almost like they have frozen in time. Below is a photo of the little place I had breakfast this morning. Breakfast is plain here, usually just bread and coffee, which works for me. A few minutes after I ate, I came back with my camera to take this photo. I was a little embarrassed when one of the bartenders saw me, but I smiled and he smiled warmly back.

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Just for completeness, this is the place where I ordered lunch yesterday. It is a shop selling meat and some cheese and they prepare fresh bocadillos, or sandwiches, on a baguette. As I have said before, pork and cheese are really the only options, although there are a variety of both, but the sandwiches are good and fresh.

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