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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Palazzo Tursi in Genoa (now town hall)

Last month, Jon and I spent a week in Liguria, the coastal region of northwest Italy.  Of course, this being Italy, there were plenty of regional foods to enjoy, the most famous of which is pesto Genovese (aka pesto) and focaccia.

Because Jon and I flew in and out of Genoa, we decided to spend a weekend there before moving on to the Italian Riviera, which was meant to be the focus of our trip.  What turned out to be pleasant surprise in Genoa were the dozens of beautiful old palazzo lovingly restored and open for tour — the city was a former trade and banking powerhouse — and the food wasn’t half bad, either, though I suspect with a little more research, we would have eaten like kings.

Below is a roundup of what we ate and saw in Genoa:

baby calamari and pesto at Soho Restaurant & Fishworks

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks.  Our B&B owner highly recommended it, and the restaurant has a bar/lounge vibe going on, so we probably would have enjoyed the decor more if we’d gone for dinner instead of lunch.  In any case, seafood is the restaurant’s focus, which makes sense given its location close to the port.  Overall, our food was well prepared.  Jon and I especially enjoyed the baby calamari and pesto, as well as the squid ink tagliatelle with prawns.  We spent 48 euros on lunch, which seemed a bit pricey for two starters, a shared main and a glass of house white, but the food, while simple, was fresh and tasty.  You could do a lot worse.

Mua’ Ristorante also had a bar/lounge aesthetic.  We found the restaurant through this glowing May 2010 writeup in the New York Times, calling it “one of the city’s finest restaurants.” The restaurant aims to serve regional specialties with a twist, but Jon and I most enjoyed the dishes that skipped the “twist.”  A starter portion of mandilli al pesto (wide, flat sheets of egg pasta) for 9 euros was a highlight.  Dinner for two totaled 59 euros with a single glass of wine, and other than recommending that you order the more traditional dishes on the menu, my only complaint was the too-cool-for-school servers who seated us in the back near the loos.  I hate when that happens.

room-temperature fried anchovies at Trattoria da Maria in Genoa

Trattoria da Maria is located very close to Mua’ Ristorante, but is the opposite in style and price.  It’s homey and was described by The Minimalist (Mark Bittman) in this July 2006 New York Times article as “one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I must, however, issue a caution: this is really a workingman’s lunch place, a dive, a cheap eats joint.”  When Jon and I showed up for lunch, we were immediately reminded of another Mark Bittman recommendation, Chez Palmyre, in Nice, but this one compared less favorably.  Yes, the lunch was cheap (8 euros prix fixe for a starter and main), but our food wasn’t especially tasty.  I was most looking forward to the fried anchovies, but they were served lukewarm.  Who wants lukewarm fried food, at any price?

walnut pesto pasta (pansotti) at Gaia Ristorante in Genoa

Da Gaia Ristorante was the worst of the restaurants we tried in Genoa.  It came highly recommended by our B&B owner, but it was old-school in a bad way.  Pricey menu and dingy decor, with food that was weighed down by thick sauces.  We thought a place like this would make a strong showing with regional specialties like pansotti, a  ravioli filled with a variety of greens, marjoram and ricotta cheese, and tossed with a walnut pesto.  But we found it tough going to finish our two starters and two mains.  Maybe Da Gaia shines when it’s cold outside.

hall of mirrors at the Palazzo Spinola in Genoa

Of the palaces we visited, I most enjoyed the Palazzo Spinola, which now houses artwork and decorative knicknacks on the top floor (thus making it the “national gallery”), but I think the real draw were the rooms of the mansion itself.  Touring the rooms is like being on an episode of MTV Cribs, 16th-century-Grimaldi style.

San Lorenzo Cathedral in Genoa

Jon and I also spent many a sunny hour sitting on the steps of San Lorenzo Cathedral, the city’s main cathedral, eating gelato or snacking on focaccia.  There are a couple of places near the cathedral selling both, and though we never settled on a favorite focacceria, we did think that for gelato, the nearby outpost of Grom Gelato was hands down the best option.  Having sampled their wares five times in 36 hours, I consider myself an authority on Grom’s flavors.  It turns out they’re all delicious.

shared lounge area at B&B Quarto Piano in Genoa

We stayed at B&B Quartopiano, wonderfully located in Genoa’s atmospheric old town next to the Palazzo Spinola.  The living room/common area is stylish and comfortable, and our room was also clean and sleek.  However, for 150 euros a night for a small “comfort” (cheapest) room, I was expecting a much better breakfast (comprised of defrosted and toasted pastries, along with large but oddly-flavorless cappuccinos), and more importantly, a lift.  It’s not just that the B&B, true to its name, is on the fourth floor of an old palazzo.  It’s that each floor has incredibly high ceilings, so you end up climbing seven solid flights of stairs, which can be exhausting (with or without luggage), even when you’re not 33 weeks preggars.

Genoa Aquarium.  Unless you have kids, avoid the much-hyped Genoa Aquarium.  Like many port towns hoping to rejuvenate piers and wharfs that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, Genoa has splashed out and heavily marketed a newish Aquarium.  Jon and I had run out of things to do on a quiet Sunday, so we decided to check it out.  It’s dark, crowded, loud and expensive (18 euros per person).  But if you have to go, buy your tickets from a tourist information office.  There’s a particularly helpful one located on the Piazza de Ferrari.  This way you can skip one of the queues (to buy the tickets) and go straight to the queue to get into the aquarium.  Tickets are timed entry, and we found going late in the afternoon minimized the time spent queuing.

Overall, Genoa turned out to be more than just an airport in and out of Liguria.  The cheerleader materials at the Genoa Tourist Information office described the city as like Barcelona before BCN hit the tourist big time.  While I wouldn’t make Genoa a destination on its own, if you’re headed to the Italian Riveria (Portofino, Santa Margherita, the Cinque Terre), it’s worth spending some time in the city.

B&B Quartopiano, Piazza di Pellicceria, 2, Genoa; +39 348 7426779 (cheapest rooms start at 150 euros/night in May).  Closest metro:  San Giorgio.

Da Gaia Ristorante, Vico dell’Argento, 16124 Genoa; +39 010 2461629; closest metro:  Darsena.  Open Monday-Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm.

Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Piazza di Pellicceria, 1, 16123, Genoa; +39 010 247 7061; 4 euros a person admission with no English brochure or map available.  Open Mon-Sat 8:30am-7:30pm; Sun 1pm-8pm.

Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale, the former Doge’s palace,now an art museum and exhibit space, just behind the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  Piazza Matteotti, 9, 16123 Genova; +39 01055 74 000

Genoa Cathedral (aka San Lorenzo Cathedral), just up the road from the Genoa Aquarium

Grom Gelato, Via di San Lorenzo, 81, 16123 Genova  2 euros for a small (two scoops) gelato

Mua’ Ristorante, Via San Sebastiano 13, Genoa, 16123, +39-010-53-2191

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks, Via al Ponte Calvi, 20, 16124 Genova; +39 010 869 2548

Trattoria da Maria osteria con cucina, Vico Testadoro, 14r, Genova; +39 010 581 080; 18 euros for two people at lunch.  Metro:  de Ferrari;  Open Weekdays 11:45am-3pm, 6:45pm-9:30pm; Sat 11:45am-3pm


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Chocolate gelato at Tre Scalini, Pizza Navona, Rome (10 euros!)

Two weeks ago, Jon and I took my visiting-from-America parents to Rome for the first May bank holiday. We spent four sunny, warm days there, and because my parents aren’t keen on time-consuming, expensive meals, Rome was the perfect destination because of how wonderfully you can eat in its many pizzerias and osterias. Overall, everything we ate was very good, but some places were inevitably better than others, so below is my roundup:

Best of the bunch:

fried stuffed zucchini flowers (fiore di zucca) and risotto balls (suppli) at Dal Paino

pizza with onions, sausage and mushrooms at Dal Paino

Dal Paino. Located just around the corner from the much-hyped Da Baffetto pizzeria, Dal Paino was a tip from my friend, Emilia, who loves Italy as much as I love France (which is a lot). A little googling revealed that Dal Paino’s owners are related to Da Baffetto’s owners, and when you turn up at Dal Paino, the sign outside even says “recommended by Da Baffetto.” We ate here twice – once because of Emilia’s tip, and again because we tried to eat at Da Baffetto but were scared off by the mile-long queue. The pizzas at Dal Paino are thin crust with a nice char from the wood-fired oven, and the pastas are similarly simple and beautifully-prepared. The rigatoni carbonara and the onion (cipolla) pizza were two of my favorite dishes on the menu. And don’t even think about skipping Dal Paino’s suppli and superlative fiori di zucca fritti, which perfectly balanced anchovy saltiness, creamy ricotta, and vegetal sweetness. A filling meal here with shared starters, generous-portioned mains and modest drinks cost about 15 euros a person.

porcini mushroom pizza at Il Forno Campo de' Fiori

potato-and-rosemary pizza at Il Forno Campo de' Fiori

Forno Campo de’ Fiori. This place is in every guidebook and highly recommended by Tamarind & Thyme in her November 2009 Rome posts. All I can say is: it deserves its fame. Step up to the pizza counter and order slices of whatever’s coming out of the oven. It’s all good. Trust me – I tried it all. The porcini mushroom pizza and the rosemary-scented potato pizza are my favorites, though the garlicky-sweet melanzane (aubergine) is no slacker, either. We ate well here for about 5 euros a person for a ton of pizza. The Forno is split into two buildings, and the sandwiches and cookies sold across the alley from the pizza part are worth a try too, especially the almond-scented pignoli cookies. The hours seemed a bit haphazard here, but luckily we regularly passed through Campo de’ Fiori and caught the place while it was open.

Middle of the Pack.

cipolla (onion) pizza at La Montecarlo pizzeria (6 euros for the whole pizza!)

La Montecarlo. Again, recommended by Tamarind & Thyme. And again, a pizzeria not far from Da Baffeto. (I’ve started thinking of Da Baffetto, Dal Paino and La Montecarlo as “the Pizza Triangle”). La Montecarlo was a perfect lunch spot with tables spilling out into a shady stone alleyway just off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. The fried appetizers (suppli, fiori di zucca) were alright, but not half as good as the ones at Dal Paino. What was very good, though, were the thin-crust pizzas. The crust at La Montecarlo was slightly more brittle and crispy than at Dal Paino, which my father loved, though I preferred Dal Paino’s slightly-chewier dough. Extra points to La Montecarlo for the old italian ladies who sat at the table next to ours and ate us under the table by ordering huge pasta courses and individual pizzas. Lunch with a few shared fried goodies, a pizza each and sodas totaled 14 euros each.

Antico Forno La Stelletta. Two strengths: (a) its location in the heart of centro storico about a block away from San Luigi dei Francesi church (Caravaggio lovers, alert!) as well as from the apartment we rented in Rome, and (b) its open-7-days-a-week schedule. Additional strengths: its focaccia-based pizzas – chewy, olivey bread topped with, say, an bright-sweet tomato sauce or a garlicky-cheesy broccoli. Less endearing were its somewhat-dry cornetti and pastries.

Bringing up the Rear:

margherita and cipolla pizza by the slice (al taglio) at Pizzeria Leonina, sold @ 12 euros/kg

Pizzeria Leonina. I got this tip from Krista’s blog, and you know, the pizza wasn’t awful, but it just really paled in comparison with the other places listed above (especially Forno Campo de’ Fiori). The place serves pizza al taglio, which means you buy the pizza by the rectangular slice. It’s the Roman way. The cheese just seemed extra cheap and greasy here, and the pizza crust lacked the character and flavor that we had at other places. On the (significant) plus side, Pizzeria Leonina sits really close to the Colosseum and Forum, and after walking by several blocks of tourist-trap-looking spots in that area, I can see why Pizzeria Lenonina is such a winner by comparison. The pizza is indeed cheap, with most varieties sold for 12-13 euros per kilo and one kilo being more than enough to feed three hungry people. (100 grams is an etto, by the way).

spaghetti carbonara at Ristorante Maccheroni (10 euros)

Ristorante Maccheroni. I had a great time here when I last visited Rome in August 2006. And it’s around the corner from the apartment in Rome we rented this time. So one night, I dragged everyone here for a bit of nostalgia. The service was lovely and we enjoyed our table outdoors in the Piazza delle Coppelle, but the pastas we ordered lacked oomph (and seasoning, now that I think about it). My spaghetti carbonara was a particularly big disappointment. Lots of egg yolk, but where was the meaty saltiness of guanciale? Even after dousing it with salt, it remained a watery, yolky mess. In any event, Piazza delle Coppelle is a lovely little square for you 30-something yuppies (not me, of course), so perhaps drop by for aperitifs and move on when it’s dinnertime. 15 euros a person for shared starters and individual pastas.

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Forno Campo de Fiori, Campo de Fiori, 22, 06-688 06 6662

La Montecarlo, Vicolo Savelli, 13, 06 686 1877

Antico Forno La Stelletta, Via della Scrofa 33, 66 880-9909

Pizzeria Leonina, Via Leonina, 84, 06 482 7744

Ristorante Maccheroni, Pizza delle Coppelle, 44, 06 6830 7895

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Corso Italia in Cortina with Dolomites in the background

Just a few final notes on picture-perfect Cortina in case you’re thinking of planning a trip there (you should).

We stayed at the Hotel Corona, which is a 10-minute walk from the pedestrianized center of Cortina.  Our group booked the hotel through a travel agent, who definitely exaggerated its virtues.  Jon and I paid £200 a night for half-board, meaning breakfast and dinner were included.  On the plus side, there’s a ski bus stop right in front of the hotel, and the owner/manager is super helpful and speaks perfect English, as did a waitress in the hotel restaurant who we came to enjoy speaking with.  On the down side, the rooms were pretty spare (we were put in an Annex to the hotel) and we didn’t value having a hotel-provided dinner, though out of laziness and a sense that it would be a waste of money otherwise, we ate in the hotel most nights.  The meals provided weren’t bad, but they weren’t memorable, either.

If I were choosing a hotel based solely on location (and knowing nothing else about these hotels), I thought the Hotel Cortina and the Hotel de la Poste were ideally situated, smack in the middle of Cortina’s pedestrianized Corso Italia.

piste taking us back into town

Jon and I are unambitious skiers, so we prioritized finding (1) long, scenic, easy trails (of which there are plenty in Cortina) and (2) delicious lunches (of which there are plenty in Cortina).  The views in all directions were gorgeous; the  snow was powdery; and the sun shone bright on most days of our trip.  We lucked out tremendously.  And the private instructor who helped refresh our skills encouraged us to ski the easy slopes around the Olimpia lift (just west of the main Socrepes lift), and he was, of course, dead right.  The slopes were beautiful and empty despite the high-season crowds on the surrounding slopes (though not even those slopes felt particularly crowded).

Ski passes for all the Cortina lifts/mountains are sold at an office near the bus station just north of the town center (near the Faloria gondola) and in high season cost about 45 euros a day, decreasing in daily cost as you increase the number of days on your ski pass.

spaghetti alla bottarga at Leone & Anna

The two nights we ate dinner in “downtown” Cortina were pretty eh experiences, and one was an expensive enough mistake that I figure I’ll put future diners on warning:

Leone & Anna came highly recommended by a friend of a friend.  And on TripAdvisor, it was rated the best restaurant out of 24 in Cortina.  Because the place is Sardinian, I thought the food would be a nice change from the heavier Northern Italian fare we’d been eating the previous nights, so I booked it.

Our group of seven took a taxi there (it’s about an 8-euro ride  from the center of Cortina), and when we sat down, there were plates of antipasti already laid out on the table.  Initially, I thought it was just a generous offering covered by coperto, but not only were the antipasti not free, but also servers kept appearing with more, and we didn’t know how to say “no.”  Most of the antipasti tasted fine, but the total bill for antipasti alone came to 70 euros, which annoyed me.  I would’ve preferred ordering what we liked from the menu, rather than having the burden of having to turn un-asked-for food away.  It all seemed a bit tricky by the resto.  Although I enjoyed my spaghetti alla bottarga, prices were well in the 20+ euros range for main courses.  Overall, not happy with the experience, especially for 69 euros a person for antipasti, a main course, and three cheap bottles of wine.

Apes-Ski in Cortina

In terms of apres-ski, when the lifts shut down at 4:30 pm, skiers would stick around at nearby rifugios for a beer, but even those rifugios shut down soon afterwards (and the ski bus back into Cortina center became very infrequent).

Back in Cortina center, we dropped by a few bars (some of which came highly recommended) , but most of the spaces were small and therefore quickly grew packed.

Places that we tried for apres-ski:

Cristallino Disco Bar:  While this place had a lot of attitude on Saturday night (in a bad way), in reality it was just a waiting area for those who wanted to head over to VIP Club once it opened at 11:30.  On other evenings, though, if you ignored the ever-turning, slightly-depressing disco ball, the place had a nice, relaxed apres-ski feel.  A surprise winner for a weeknight drink.

Enoteca Brio Duino:  A small enoteca, so get there early to snag a booth.  The charcuterie and cheeses made for great snacking, as did the range of local wines on offer.  About ten minutes after we sat down at a booth, the place became extremely crowded with a mix of people dressed in sporty ski togs and elegant outfits (the older Italian ladies dressed in their furs were so retro I couldn’t help smiling).

The bar at Hotel de la Poste:  We dropped by on Saturday evening and discovered it was (1) pretty dead and (2) populated exclusively by the 50-and-over crowd.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but just not our age demographic.

LP 26:  Bigger than most places in Cortina and recognizable by the hams hanging in the windows.  Not especially chic or lively despite the tables being full, but at least they serve beer and there are customers in theirs 20s and 30s there.

VIP Club at Hotel Europa:  this was supposed to be *the* place to be on Saturday night, opening at 11:30 pm.  So we showed up at around midnight and discovered the act of the evening was country music-sounding.  Not what we were expecting.

Cortina was a great destination for skiing, and based on our lunches, it was a superior place for eating.  Dinners in town weren’t half as impressive as the food offered on the slopes, and apres-ski was pretty quiet, but even so, I’d go back in a hearbeat.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also enjoy reading about Baita Pie’ Tofana, a rifugio serving top-notch food in Cortina.

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Baita Pie Tofana, a rifugio (hut) near the Rumerlo chair lift

Jon and I spent last week skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo and despite some residual soreness (seriously, I must have thighs of steel now), I loved every minute of our trip.

I grew up skiing almost once a week in the ultra-icy Poconos, which means that while I know how to ski, I have long associated the sport with anything except glamor and fun.  But when our friend, Jane, proposed a group ski trip and responded enthusiastically to the idea of going to Cortina, I jumped at the chance to experience a little dolce vita on the slopes.  Cortina, several friends had told me, was a great place to ski if you value eating as much as (or more than) skiing.

And just 24 hours after we’d booked our flights to Venice, this article (“Fresh Powder Meets Fine Dining in Cortina d’Ampezzo”) appeared in the New York Times travel section.  Thus validating the feeling that we were on to a good thing.

As the article describes, in Cortina, there are lots of rifugios (huts) where you can eat on the slopes.   A few Cortina rifugios serve what you’d expect at a ski resort – sausages, schnitzel, french fries – all self-service on trays.  But others, like the ones written up in that New York Times article, serve high-quality, delicious northern Italian food, sometimes on white tablecloths.

The rifugio that caught our fancy so much that we ate lunch there three times was, surprisingly, not mentioned in the New York Times article:  Baita Pie’ Tofana.

A friend of a friend owns a house in Cortina, and he recommended Baita Pie’ Tofana as not just the best rifugio in the mountains, but also the best restaurant in Cortina.  So despite having to ski down a few steeper-than-we’d-like bits to reach Baita Pie’ Tofana, Jon and I showed up for lunch on Day 1 of our ski trip, and three lunches later, Baita Pie’ Tofana holds a special place in our hearts.

radicchio and speck salad dressed in balsamic vinegar (16.50 euros)

Our favorite starter was a warm salad comprised of radicchio and speck, both popular local ingredients.  Setting aside the axiom that all things cooked with bacon are winners, this salad was a masterpiece of textures and flavors.  The mildly-bitter, crunchy radicchio complemented and balanced out the crispy speck and tangy-sweet vinegar.  Of course, eating it outside on a sunny deck with views of the mountains and to a soundtrack of happy Italian diners helps.  Perfetto.

speck and aubergine gnocchi (12.50 euros)

Given the kitchen’s masterful way with speck, it’s no surprise that I also loved Pie’ Tofana’s homemade, pillowy-soft gnocchi with speck and aubergine.

casunziei all'ampezzana (beetroot-filled ravioli) (12.50 euros)

I’m not a lover of beetroot and left to my own devices wouldn’t order it when there is speck on offer, but casunziei all’ampezzana is the local specialty, so Jon and I gave it a try.  The beetroot filling was, as expected, sugary, but the dish was saved from cloying sweetness by salty Parmesan and nutty poppy seeds.

bigoli (bucatini) (12.50 euros)

Everyone loves a mountain of snowy Parmesan curls on their rustic bigoli served in a spicy tomato sauce, no?

tagliatelle with veal sweetbreads and black truffle (18 euros)

And on our last day in Cortina, we pushed the boat out and ordered the tagliatelle with veal sweetbreads and black truffle.  The kitchen was generous with the black truffle, and the woody-mushroom shavings mixed well with the creamy sweetbreads.  Definitely not your everyday ski fare.

ossobuco with saffron risotto (22 euros)

Ossobuco needs no introduction, but Baita Pie’ Tofana’s version included the biggest portion of marrow-in-the-bone that it has ever been my pleasure to scoop out and savor.  And because I was skiing in between meals, there was no guilt.  Score.

il coniglio (21 euros)

Despite its somewhat bizarre presentation (i.e., the rabbit bacon cone shoved into the polenta mound), Il Coniglio (rabbit served three ways) was another standout.  There were roasted rabbit ribs and a juicy, meaty portion of rabbit loin stuffed with rabbit liver.

mignardises

And there can’t be many places on the slopes that end your meal with mignardises.

Jon and I loved eating at Pie’ Tofana.  It wasn’t just the food that won us over, but also the unique experience of sitting down for a fine meal dressed in grubby, sweaty ski clothes while taking in the mountain scenery and sunshine.  Servers were always polite and professional, and by Lunch Number 2, they gave us a lot less attitude for not having made a reservation in advance.

The only downside to Pie’ Tofana was the price tag.  For the quality, the food was reasonably-priced, but I’ll admit I was annoyed by the 5-euro-per-person coperto (a bit high, I thought) and 4.50 per bottle of water (because God forbid you can successfully order tap water in Italy).  Jon and I generally each had a pasta and shared a main and starter.  With a shared glass of wine, our lunch tabs averaged 65-70 euros for two.

So if you’re an easy-going skier but a champion eater, get thee to Cortina, and be sure to stop by Baita Pie’ Tofana.

Baita Pie’ Tofana, Cortina d’Ampezzo, at the base of the Rumerlo chair lift and easily reachable from the easy slopes of Socrepes; +39 0436 4258.  [And Cortina is a relatively-straightforward 2-hour drive north from Venice Marco Polo Airport.]

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spaghetti with seafood at Vecio Fritolin

spaghetti with seafood at Vecio Fritolin

Vecio Fritolin was a tip we got from Mark Bittman’s article on Venice last year. The draw for us was his description that it’d serve the best fritto misto in Venice. Fried? Seafood? I’m there.

It took us ages to find the place. Not because it was any harder to find than other restos in Venice, but because we didn’t check a map before setting out. We’re cool with asking people for directions, but for some reason we had to pinball around for about thirty minutes before we hit the place. Luckily, Vecio Fritolin was pretty empty for Sunday lunch.

We shared a seafood spaghetti dish as an appetizer, only because we thought that would be the “healthy” portion of our lunch. It was simple and delicious, and 16 euros got us a portion big enough to split into two plates (the photo at top shows only half the portion). Delish as it was, Mark Bittman was right – all dishes non-fried are overshadowed by . . . (more…)

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Corte Sconta, Venice

Corte Sconta interior courtyard, Venice

Last weekend, Jon and I returned to Venice. We were last there five years ago, and despite Venice’s popularity with tourists (and the expensive-but-mediocre restaurants that abound where tourists go), we’ve been itching to go back for a while.

A week before our trip, we booked a few rezzies based on Mark Bittman’s roundup from July 2007, this blogger’s recent guide to Venice, and most importantly, recommendations by a friend who married a Venetian and who just had her wedding there a few weeks ago. (Finding someone who actually grew up in Venice is like spotting a unicorn, by the way.)

There was a lot of overlap in recommendations from our trusted sources, so Jon and I could only conclude that tasty restaurants are not quite a dime a dozen in Venice. [Contrast with, say, Paris, where there are so many good restaurants that no list of favorites is ever the same.] Also interesting is that these books Jon and I used five years ago had been recommending the same restos we ended up visiting last week on our friend’s and Mark Bittman’s recs. I guess considering Venice isn’t marketing “cutting edge newness” as its selling point, it’s no surprise highly-recommended restos from five years ago are still highly recommended today.

So, our first stop: Corte Sconta. Uniform rave reviews by those books we used five years ago, SlowTrav, multiple blogs, and by our Venetian friend. And now by me.

Let’s start with Corte Sconta’s beautiful outdoor dining area in the back (see photo at top). Grape vines shade you and your table is sun dappled. It’s magic.

Our server gave us menus, but our friend had made us promise to get the “mixed seafood appetizers” for 26 euros a person. You put yourself in the hands of the chef and eat whatever was fresh that day at the seafood market. It’s omakase, Venice style, and it totally paid off. You get so many plates of seafood that Jon and I probably didn’t need order additional pasta courses for 16 euros each.

Corte Sconta tun and sea bream carpaccio

First, there was sea bream carpaccio with a slightly sweet tang from berries and celeriac slaw (photo above). The fish was melt-in-your-mouth fresh and clean. Jon and I debated whether the tuna carpaccio had been slightly seared before being marinated in a balsamic vinegar. I think it’s likely the tuna “cooked” in the vinegar, ceviche style, but regardless of how it was prepared, it was meaty and again sweet and tangy from the vinegar. A refreshing dish. (more…)

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Smart for Four rental car in Tuscany, Italy

In October last year, Jon and I traveled in Tuscany with our friends, Kate and Ray. We thought that trip was becoming another happy, but distant, memory, and then this week (note: six months after our trip), Kate received a couple of charges on her credit card from the rental car company we used in Florence: 92 euros for a traffic violation and 50 euros for an “administrative fee.”

And apparently we had not one, but two, traffic violations while driving in and out of Florence (just to pick up and drop off the car, bookending our trip driving around in Tuscany). So our total fees came to 284 euros. $451. Impressive. (more…)

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Trattoria dei 13 Gobi, Florence

Jon and I ate only three meals in Florence during our last trip. The best of the three was at Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi, and even there our meal was not without a few issues, so it’s fair to say I was disappointed by the restaurants we tried in the city. It wasn’t a good sign when the restaurants that kept coming up in english-language sources were ones I recognized (and had visited) from the last time I was in Florence, in 2003 (e.g., Il Cibreo, Ristorante La Giostra, Beccofino). I wondered: doesn’t anything change?

I think the problem with small cities that are major tourist destinations is that even if a restaurant serves good food, the servers are so tired of tourists that they just can’t be bothered to be polite or responsive. So perhaps there was a little bit of that going on during our trip, combined with the high likelihood that non-Italian-speaking me wasn’t able to research my way to the really good, new places (i.e., the elusive “where the locals go”).

Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi, not far from the train station, was recommended by a friend who’d visited in 2005, and had rave reviews from recent Chowhound posts. When four of us walked in at around 10 pm for dinner, 90% of the other guests spoke english, which isn’t a deal breaker, per se, but it made me suspicious. But I relaxed when I saw how warm and inviting the trattoria’s dining room is, and there’s a large back courtyard where al fresco dining in the summer must be lovely.

We were in a rush to get on the road to Tuscany that evening, so we ordered only pastas. My spaghetti alla bottarga was deliciously seafoody and salty, though more oily than it had to be. Everyone else’s dishes (ribollita, ravioli and a tagliatelle) ranged from fine to pretty good. Our main complaint was with the service. Our server’s body language and clipped speech conveyed a whole lot of disdain and irritation, which ruined an otherwise nice meal. (more…)

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Dining Room of Il Canto Restaurant in Siena, Italy

You don’t need to travel to Italy very often to know that there’s a lot of deliciousness to be had there. The trick, though, is that like any other country, Italy has its share of really mediocre restaurants, and as a non-Italian speaker, I’m always challenged to find the restos that hit all the sweet spots for food, decor and service. Icing on the cake is that the other diners in the restaurant aren’t foreign tourists, like me (ahh, the selfish “I’m a tourist who doesn’t want to be with other tourists” paradox).

Carrying out my usual eating-on-vacation due diligence, I consulted friends who’d eaten in Tuscany in the past year, googled recent blog posts, scanned the New York Times, and waded through Chowhound boards and Slow Travel opinions. The latter two resources are great for up-to-the-minute tips, but the obvious downside is that I have a hard time deciding whose opinion to trust.

After all that info-gathering, the “fancy” meal I most anticipated was dinner at Il Canto in Siena. The September 2007 issue of Food and Wine magazine annointed Il Canto’s chef, Paolo Lopriore, one of the “top 5 chefs in Italy.” While rankings like these are suspect and never exclusive, I did some cross-checking on Chowhound and Slow Travel, and all voices agreed that the food at Il Canto would be classic, but with a twist (i.e., weird but not too weird).

Il Canto is part of a pretty Relais & Chateaux property, Hotel Certosa di Maggiano. We had quite an adventure finding it, because it’s on the outskirts of Siena, reached only after driving through winding, high-walled roads. Thank goodness we had cell phones and that the hotel staff were friendly and great at giving directions on the fly.

The upside of Il Canto’s location is that I felt like we were in the countryside, and it was easy to enjoy the romance of the hotel’s open-air courtyard.

The dining room is chandelier-big-flowers-thick-carpet formal, but it’s saved from a high-intimidation factor by the oddly frumpy flowery plates displayed on the sideboard and the crocheted doilies on the chargers. I think Il Canto is what your grandma’s house would like if grandma lived in a medieval Tuscan cloister renovated for modern style circa 1800.

I started the evening festivities with my by-now-familiar dance with the waiters to try to get tap water. No can do. Bottled water only. Sheesh.

Grissini came out, and they were crispy and olive oil-y, but served in cellophane. Between the cellophane and the doilies, I couldn’t tell what tone the restaurant was trying to strike.

Our group decided against the 100-euro tasting menu (170 euro with wine pairings) because there were too many things on it that sounded unappealing and too many tasty-sounding items on the a la carte menu only.

Mussels at Il Canto

A la carte, my mussels appetizer was so-so, looking like single-celled organisms (pre-historic times being one of those really gourmet eras, I hear) and tasting like oysters. I’m a fan of ye olde briney oysters, but then why not offer oysters instead of dressed-up mussels? (more…)

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Abbey Sant’Antimo near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Italy

In a way, traveling to Tuscany is just one big shopping trip, because what’s super beautiful about the region are its vineyards, and what’s super tempting to do at vineyards is to taste and buy wines. Every now and then, we’d admire a sight like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (see above), but I’ll admit that seeing the Abbey was incidental to exploring the area around Montalcino, home of brunello.

We visited three vineyards (Badia a Coltibuono, Villa Vignamaggio and Fattoria Poggio di Sotto) in Chianti and Brunello country and four enotecas (wine shops) in Montalcino:

Badia a Coltibuono gardens, Gaiole in Chianti, Italy

Badia a Coltibuono sits just outside Gaiole in Chianti, and handily enough for shopping fans, it’s not far from the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. There are beautiful formal gardens and an old abbey (now an upscale agriturismo, of course), which you can tour for 5 euros a person. We headed to Badia because we’d loved its chianti classico riservas, which we tasted when our friends C & M shipped over a case to London two years ago. The restaurant also got rave reviews on Chowhound and Slow Travel sites.

(more…)

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Florence skyline, Duomo

Buon giorno! Jon and I are back in London after a trip to Florence and Tuscany with our friends Kate and Ray, with whom we traveled in Portugal a few months ago.

Tuscany in the fall is beautiful – New England leaf peepers, eat your heart out – but sadly we had a few days of rain and gray. I could have stayed in London for that.

Florence is also pretty, but is it just me or is the service and attitude in restaurants and shops rather poor there? Jon and I were last in Florence in 2003, and I don’t remember anything bad about it, but this time around, I have a few bones to pick, and it’s not just with Florentine places.

A little bitching and moaning before I get to the happier food and shopping reports:

1. If you don’t want to sit parched through your meal, bottled water is your only option. Ordering a carafe of tap water in Florence and Tuscan towns appears to be impossible. When I tried, at best I got a dismissive ‘no,’ and at worst, I seemed to have flagged our table as a “no service zone,” which meant we waited close to half an hour for any server to even catch our eye again. (You can imagine how popular I was with my tolerant dining companions).

2. Coperto. I hate coperto. In Italy, coperto is supposed to cover the cost of your place setting and crappy, stale bread that nobody ever wants to eat. I actually appreciated that one restaurant, Baldovino, did away with the charade entirely and didn’t even bother with the bread. They just charged the coperto. My two cents': if the place setting costs that much, just add it to menu prices, please! Otherwise, I find it kind of deceptive.

Less rant and more rave to come. Ciao.

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Trevi Fountain

In late August, we spent five days in Rome. The weather was good, but I think a lot of the better restaurants were closed for the August getaway (feria) that Romans observe, or at least, that’s what I tell myself because many of our meals were hit-or-miss despite deep research.

That said, pasta courses were almost always fresh and cooked perfectly al dente, so maybe if all you eat is pasta, you won’t be disappointed. There are worse strategies than going whole-hog-anti-Atkins, I suppose.

The Colosseo was more moving than I remembered from my backpacker trip in 1999, but even though Rome is a beautiful and lively city, I think there are a lot of other places in Italy (Florence, Tuscany, Amalfi, Cinque Terre, Venice) I would re-visit before I travel to Rome again.

Thursday, August 2006 – dinner at Maccheroni

We arrived at Ciampino airport around 4:30 p.m. Rome time, and just our luck, we ended up waiting in the baggage area for about 40 minutes because the Rome airport authorities were (so the rumor was) concerned about unattended baggage sitting in front of the station. Instead of making a public announcement about it, the airport authorities preferred to rely on a system of communication best resembling the game of telephone. You’d see an Italian-speaking person approach the uniformed guy in the corner, converse for a while, and then that person would tell nearby people what the uniformed guy said, etc. We were told only to move from one side of the room to the other and then back – all in the name of safety. Not sure why we had to make the moves across the room, other than perhaps uncertainty about where, exactly, the unattended luggage was.

Jon and I decided to be adventurous (and cheap) and follow all the Italians in order to get from the airport to Rome. We paid 1 euro each to get on the local Cotral bus to the Ciampino railway station, which was about a 5 minutes’ drive away from the airport. The town of Ciampino looked pretty charming, considering its claim to fame is this relatively dinky airport. We paid another 2 euros each for our tickets into Rome Termini, and the ride to Rome was about 15 minutes, max. Definitely not a bad way to travel and it’s unbeatably cheap. Always a plus. Literally, when in Rome . . . .We arrived at Termini and I couldn’t help thinking how much snazzier Termini looks now than it did when I was there in 1999. It seems urban redevelopment and sprucing up has been a trend the world over.

The Golden Tulip Mecenate Palace Hotel is in a lovely spot on Via Carlo Alberti. The hotel overlooks Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, and it’s a pretty, grand-looking building. Jon and I got a tiny tiny room, which was fine with us since it was clean and well-air-conditioned. In my mind, it’s also nicer to have a smaller (full size-ish) bed that’s in one piece as opposed to a “European King Size” bed that’s effectively two twin beds shoved together such that one person always ends up in that annoying crack. (The Golden Tulip, by the way, is a chain we first encountered in Prague, where we thought the service and style were huge for the money (probably true of Prague, generally), so that’s why we tried it out again in Rome).

Jon and I unpacked and relaxed a little before going running to get rid of the airplane blahs. We ran down Via Merulana and didn’t turn off at the right place (bc bringing a map would slow down our obviously blistering-fast, Olympic-style pace), so it was a real treat when we rounded a corner and had a view of the Colosseo. It looked beautiful with the sun setting behind it and the ruins of the Forum also backlit. I loved how enormous it looked, and I thought about how when I last saw it with my friend Maura, I never thought I would see it again. Well, not in a morbid way. More that I wouldn’t expect to see it again “just” seven years later.

Our challenge of the day was to figure out how to buy bus tickets. Using the crap glossary at the back of our guidebook, we cobbled together the sentence: “Avete bigliottero per favore”? Very fluent are we.

The No. 71 bus was perfect – it stopped right in front of our hotel and ran straight west. We were in Piazza S. Silvestrio in about 6 minutes, and then we walked less for than five minutes to reach Maccheroni Ristorante, Piazza delle Coppelle, 44 (+39.(0)6.580.0919).

At first we were seated downstairs, and when we asked the waiter if there was room upstairs, he gave a non-responsive answer that amounted to “you were told you would be seated downstairs so that’s where you will sit.”

The problem is that the underground dining area was depressing. There were six tables, most seating big families, a woman eating alone, a couple with a baby . . . not deal breakers on their own, but I had seen and felt the buzz upstairs and so that’s where I wanted to be. I kept obsessing about it, and it’s a good thing the food was good and Jon has a lot of patience for my whining.

Our primi piatti (pastas) were excellent. I ordered zucchini flower ravioli which, despite the pretty heavy cheese sauce, managed to keep the delicate flavor of the zucchini flowers going. We could have stopped there, but of course we ordered secondi (meat) courses too.Most happily, after our pasta course, Jon convinced a sympathetic waiter to seat us upstairs. I was thrilled. Upstairs you get the cheerful, casual noise of a place like Two Amys in DC. The room is all white-tiled walls, and this being a trendy place, you of course watch the chefs at work in the kitchen through a glass partition.

My breaded veal breast with fresh arugula and tomatoes was all you could ask for in anything deep fried – crisp and greaseless on the outside while pink and juicy on the inside. With a 1/2 L of house wine and an espresso for Jon, our total tab was about 80 euros. An excellent start to the trip despite my initial unhappiness about the downstairs thing.

Friday, August 2006 – Capitoline Museums, lunch at Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, drinks at Hotel de Russie, and dinner at Il BacaroAntico Caffe Santamaria, Piazza S. Maria Maggiore, 7a (06 446 5863).

Because we had slept too late and missed the hotel -provided breakfast, we went to the place just around the corner from our hotel. We stood at the counter and ate our two cornetti (tasty) and Jon’s espresso. When you stand at the counter, you pay what the locals pay. The minute you sit down at a table, you’re paying triple – mostly for the privilege of parking yourself at a table for as long as you want, which is fine if that’s what you’re planning to do all morning. Cornetti, by the way, is a genius idea. It’s a croissant, but with a sugar glaze on top. It is a universal fact that Butter Pastry + Sugar Glaze = Yummy.

We then walked down towards the Forum to see the Capitoline Museum. Turns out we made a wrong turn at the monstrously-huge Victor EmmanuelVictor Emmanuel Monument monument (Il Vittorio) and got caught in a driving summer rain. Jon was surprised by the intensity of the thunderstorm – there is no such thing in London – and we had expected the day to be cold and gray the entire time. Instead, once the storm clouds had passed, the day was perfectly clear and sunny. We’d forgotten that’s how rainstorms can work.

The Capitoline Museum was OK. It’s comprised of two buildings. One of them, the Conservatore Palace, was not very exciting, though we gamely listened to the two-for-one audiotour we’d gotten. This two-for-one is not to be confused with getting two separate audiotours. With the two-for-one, you get one player, and one person can hold up the player to his/her ear like it’s a phone, and the other person has to trail nearby, listening to the same commentary but using headphones attached to the phone-like part. It’s quite a dorky sight, and you both have to want to see the same works of art at the same time. But it worked for us, because we’re cool like that.

The problem with the audiotour is that the narrator spends a whole lot of time in each room describing things like the ceiling carvings rather than the who, what, when, where Campidoglioof the artists whose sculptures are on display. In one of the rooms of the Conservatore Palace, there’s a famous statue of the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus. The twins are, of course, suckling at the wolf’s teats, and Jon and I watched in total amusement as two college-age-looking guys spent five or ten minutes trying to take a photo of one of them suckling at the she-wolf teats. For a moment, I was proud to be 30.After we had left the museum around 2 p.m., we set out in search of lunch.

Sora Margherita (Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30) turned out to be closed for August (and by the way, the restaurant’s doorway was so run-down-looking that it was hard to believe there’s a highly-regarded restaurant hiding behind, though apparently you’ll have a great meal there if you get in), so we went to our nearby backup: Ristorante Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 21/a-22 (06 68.61.105, closed on Mondays). The outdoor seating was irresistible, and wine really was cheaper than water: a 1 1/2L carafe was 3.50 euros.We tried our first Roman specialty of fried artichoke (carciofo) for 6 euros and kept things light with just one order of fried zucchini flower, a suppli (fried risotto balls with a cheese center), pasta carbonara, and pasta e vongole.

Unbelievably thrilling is that our total came to just 35 euros. The food was uneven (i.e., excellent pastas, really soggy, lukewarm appetizers), but when your bill is that cheap and the weather is so nice, it’s hard to be unhappy. Most of the diners at that hour appeared to be just like us (tourists), and when we went in to use the bathroom, we discovered the interior of the restaurant was depressingly dark and old-school as well as the size of a football field. Not exactly the small local find we’d hoped to eat at. Still, if you avoid eating inside and stick with the pastas, all will be well.

Jon and I did some shopping at the Frette store (it’s cheaper in Italy than in the UK) and then walked along Via Condotti in what turned out to be very hot weather. I walked through a few stores, and when I gave up on my window shopping, I found Jon napping in the sun on the Spanish Steps. To help him wake up, we decided to get some gelato near Trevi Fountain.

Blue Ice Cream, near Trevi, was pretty good, but not a destination. The chocolate-chip-cookie flavor was kind of watery and icy. The décor (all fluorescents) screams teeny bopper. Still, not bad, and you’ll find several locations of this chain in Rome.In the evening, we headed out for drinks at the Hotel de Russie, Via Babuino, 9, close to the Piazza del Popolo (a depressing piazza, I thought).

The Hotel was very sleek and built in expensive, somewhat-cold materials. It was like being in a luxe monastery surrounded by all this neutral, buff-colored stone with no color or textiles to warm up the space.

The “Stravinsky Bar” was empty at 8:30 when we arrived for aperitifs, so Jon and I sat outside in the hotel’s courtyard garden, which was pretty and lit by torchlight, but we could’ve been sitting in someone’s (really nice) backyard.

There was a lit-up double staircase to the formal restaurant that hinted at the possibility of something dramatic, but we didn’t hop up there. Maybe then we would’ve at least had a celeb spotting.

Our drinks were 18 euros each (sheesh), but luckily the drinks we ordered could double as tranquilizers for an elephant. Jon ordered a “baby peach martini” and I got one with a funny name that was a martini with lychee and ginger. What arrived at our table: The“baby peach” in Jon’s glass looked suspiciously like an olive, and his martini looked and tasted like a regular martini (read: strong). Mine might have been better with a little bit of sugar syrup. We were both overwhelmed by the alcohol in these little drinks and could’ve used some sweetness to help it all go down. Overall, I don’t regret the stop in. The little bar nibbles were elaborate and tasty, and the service was attentive. So perhaps it’s all about avoiding the martini list.

We ate dinner that night at Il Bacaro, Via degli Spagnoli, 27 (06.687.2554), near the Pantheon. Our total tab for dinner here, not including tip, was 74.50 euros, which wasn’t bad, but not exactly a bargain. Continuing the trend of not getting a good table, we arrived at 9:45 pm for our reservation and were seated at a table near the bathroom. While this table wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting in a basement (i.e., it was still part of the warm, buzzy room, at least), I was kind of annoyed that if we had arrived as walk-ins, we probably could have gotten a nice indoor table (or maybe even an outdoor table) simply by waiting 10 minutes for people from the last seating to leave. A plan was hatching . . . .That said, the Il Bacaro staff seemed pretty friendly – asking us if it was OK that they’d run out of water glasses and could we please use wine glasses instead.

My first course was a spaghetti bottarga (salt-dried cod roe) with carciofo (fried artichoke), but it was way too salty and not very fishy, and I suppose it was inevitable that I wouldn’t taste very much carciofo given what a strong flavor bottarga has. Jon’s tagliolini with zucchini and ricotta was much tastier than my spaghetti, but he was annoyed halfway through his meal when he realized he’d gotten spaghetti (a dry pasta) instead of tagliolini as advertised on the menu (a fresh pasta). I’m not sure how much Jon would have cared but for a recent New York Times article describing how Americans get served cheaper-quality ingredients than Romans get served), but his pasta was still really delicious even if he didn’t get the homemade fresh tagliolini.Jon’s second course was kind of bland – it was beef with a broccoli puree. Frankly, it’s something you would expect in a hospital, not in a romantic little Roman restaurant.

My beef (stracciatelle di filetto di something something) had the opposite problem – way too strong a flavor. Basically, the beef was marinated in balsamic vinegar and then grilled and served with arugula and shaved parmesan. The first few bites were good, but then I couldn’t take any more of the intensely sharp tang and of the vinegar. My dish was much improved after I took some of Jon’s bland beef and put it in my sauce to dilute the vinegar’s acidity.

Overall, we’d give Il Bacaro another try because of the atmosphere and service, but maybe stick with the pastas and try to fight back against the table near the bathroom.

Saturday, August 2006 – Colosseo, lunch at Carlo Menta, dinner at Boccondovino and food shopping at Volpetti and Elite

We woke up in time to catch the hotel breakfast, which was lovely bc breakfast is served on the rooftop garden, and the sunlight in the morning on the hotel rooftop is irresistible. Jon on Roof of Mecenate Palace HotelWith complimentary copies of the IHT available, what’s there not to like? I read important stories like the one about David Bouley’s super-gourmet wedding at a castle in the Loire. The reporter asked him how much his wedding cost, and Bouley says something like: “oh, you’d be surprised how cheap it can be with friends in the biz,” and of course I’m thinking: hello?? “friends” my ass – he calls up his vendors and says “it’s my wedding, what can you do for me” and what do you suppose his vendors are going to do to keep their highest-margin customer happy? They must be tripping over themselves to make sure he keeps using their supplies!

On our way to the Colosseo, we tried to find Taverna Romana (Via Madonna dei Monti, 79, +39 06 474 5325) where a May 2006 NYT article claimed the best cacio e pepe (pasta with black pepper) was to be found. Of course the place was locked up for August feria. We increasingly think that if you try to find a non-tourist place, it will be closed, which of course leads to the disappointing thought that anything we can get into right now is touristy.

Anyway, we were mildly disappointed that our first option for lunch was closed, but we moved on to the Colosseum. Jon and I were glad to see that our Roma Pass allowed us to (1) get into the Colosseum for free; and (2) allow us to skip what looked Colosseolike (at least) a 1.5-hour line of people waiting just to buy tix. So, key tip: Buy the Roma Pass at a place with zero line (i.e., Capitoline Museums) and then use it at a huge-line place like the Colosseo. Just for avoiding the long line, the card is worth it. You’ll be so grateful for this tip, I promise.

superior about hitting the turnstiles at the front of the line that included an empty aisle for Roma Pass holders and tour groups. Awesome.The Colosseum itself was enormous and yes, awe –inspiring. It was extremely sunny and warm, Colosseo interiorbut thank goodness the heat wasn’t particularly high. There is now an elevator in the Colosseum, as well as bits of seating that have been reconstructed. Otherwise, everything looked as it did when I came with Maura seven years ago, which I guess isn’t remarkable when you think that it’s stood for almost 2000 years.

Instead of walking to the nearby Forum, we decided to search for lunch. Our second try of the day was to go to a pizza place called Pizzeria Ai Marmi (as recommended in the Great Eats Italy book and in a Feb 2006 NYT article), Viale di Trastevere, 53/59, but of course it was closed for August.

In search of our third option, Da Lucia, Vicolo del Mattonato, we wandered around forever in Trastevere, and then we found it, it, too, was closed for August. Argh.Tired and hot, Jon and I gave up on finding recommended/researched places, and we ended up at a bustling restaurant called Carlo Menta Ristorante on Via della Lungaretta, 101 (06.58.03.733).

At first, we sat outdoors, which sucked because the plastic tables were claustrophobically close, and the tinny radio soundtrack made me feel like I was at the Jersey shore. I know it seems I am super critical of where we’re eating, but I figure when you’re in touristy areas, it’s so easy to end up wasting your money at bad restaurants. So I guess I hope I can help other travelers avoid the waste.

So we switched indoors, where the décor was old-school, but simple – plus there was decent a/c. The food could have been delicious, but it seemed nobody cared enough to go that extra inch. They were so close as far as the pizza was concerned, for example. Jon and I each ordered a pizza margherita for 6 euros each. So cheap, right? The pies were fresh, but the sauce was such a disappointment – no tomatoes that I could see. So we cannibalized the bruschetta Jon had ordered and the tomatoes transformed the pizza. In the restaurant’s defense, our tab for two was less than 20 euros.

After lunch, we hopped on the bus along and over the Tiber river to turn onto Via Marmorata in a neighborhood called Testaccio. We searched out a gourmet Italian store called Volpetti, Via Marmorata, 47 (06 574 2352), and of course it was closed. But this one was just closed for siesta and would reopen at 5 p.m., so we revisited Volpetti around 7 p.m. to pick up a few goodies for tomorrow’s planned picnic.Because the weather was so tempting, we decided to run from our hotel to Volpetti, so started off down a small road to the Colosseum, which turns out to be very close to our hotel – must be less than 1 km away. It was amazing how, when you run behind the Colosseum to Via Gregorio, it empties of tourists, and instead we saw two Italian wedding parties taking photos with the Colosseum as backdrop.

We ran along the edge of a pretty-looking park (Palatine park) and then took a detour near the ruins of the Circus Maximus. I definitely see why the place isn’t on tourist itineraries. There’s really nothing left – it’s just a long flat, mildly-grassy field with a sort-of-oval indentation. There were a few other runners there, too, but it’s so barren and strewn with glass fragments that it’s not even welcoming if you want to go running.

If you run up along the southern side of the Circus Maximus ruins (which is a word I use lightly), you get a dramatic view of the Palatine ruins, which do look impressive, especially around sunset. What is about a sunset that gives off such a sense of time and history?

We kept running until we hit the Pyramid, which is really kind of weird to see in this otherwise unhistoric-looking part of Rome. This ancient-looking Pyramid sits near a traffic circle and metro stop, which makes a pretty jarring image.

At Volpetti, I have a feeling shoppers in workout clothes are not welcomed. People there were pretty rude to us, but I am guessing that the store considered it rude that we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts. It’s the kind of store where the guy has to gather your groceries for you, then you pay at the register, and then your groceries are given to you in a bag.So the man “helping” us was glad to pull down the two bottles of wine we decided to buy (low effort for him), and then he was annoyed that we wanted to try fresh pecorino (more effort for him). He kept trying to give us dried stuff, which we didn’t want (we thought saying “pecorino fresca” would let him know we wanted it fresh).

Then we asked for salami, and he started to slice us 100g of one of dozens of salamis without letting us taste it. I’m glad we insisted on tastings because of course the salami he wanted to give us was flabby and spiceless. We pointed to some type of Toscana salami, and he objected by saying “but it has fennel,” as if that meant we would not want to try it. We tried it, liked it enough that we just wanted our experience there to end, so we bought it and left.

I was unimpressed with the store even if you assume (being generous) that my running outfit was a huge faux pas.I can only guess that Catharine Reynolds, who wrote the March 2004 NYT article that recommended the place, must be BFF with the store owner. Same with the Food & Wine writer who wrote it up (article displayed prominently in the store window).

We caught a bus (72) headed back in the direction we wanted, and we got off at Via Cavour, near a fancy-looking supermarket we went to yesterday, Elite, Via Cavour, 230-236 (06 485 687). We stopped in bc we’d seen some pici we wanted to buy, and we also found some black linguini and bottles of Vignamaggio (only one bottle left of the 2000 Mona Lisa and a few bottles of some kind of anniversary bottle (“600”) in honor of the vineyard’s 600 years of existence, I guess. Yes, we’re suckers for marketing, perhaps, but we really have a soft spot for the Vignamaggio), so I’d recommend picking up food souvenirs at Elite over Volpetti.

We showered and then got dressed up because we were tired of getting bad seating (either bc we make the reservation ourselves on the phone in American English or because our hotel rats us out as clueless tourists). So today we were going to try something drastic – the walk in.

Ristorante Boccondivino, Piazza in Campo Marzio, 6, (06 6830 8623, Closed on Saturday lunch and on Sunday).

We had a really good meal here. And we got a table outside without any problem. Our fiore de zucca was freshly fried and the salty anchovy had melded perfectly in the gooey texture of mozzarella and the sweet, vegetal aroma of the squash blossom. Jon greatly enjoyed his fettucine with shrimp and zucchini, and my vermicelli con vongole was al dente and tasted of the sea. Simple and good.Jon’s secondi was a grilled dorado for a pricey 18 euro, and my duck breast (petto d’anatraco), was solid. With a side dish, espresso and a 20 euro bottle of slightly-too-strong nebbiolo, our total was 91 euros, plus a 10 euro tip. Of all our meals in Rome, our dinner here included the best mix of food, décor and service, other than Maccheroni after we moved upstairs.

After dinner, we hopped on the trusty 71 bus back to S. Maria Maggiore and got a piccolo coppo of dark chocolate gelato at the Orso Blanco (polar bear) Gelateria-Yogurteria, Via Carlo Alberto, 7, (06 4434 0765), just next door to our hotel. Good stuff.

Sunday, August 2006 – St. Peter’s, Pantheon, gelato at San Crispino, drinks at Hotel Eden, dinner at Piccolo Abruzzo

This morning the church bells were going crazy (it being Sunday and all). It was another bright, sunny morning, and we had another breakfast on the hotel roof during which I scarfed down two cornetti (the number of cornetti I eat seems to increase the longer I’m in Italy).

Jon and I were pleased to discover that it had been totally unnecessary for me to stow away two dinner rolls in a napkin from breakfast in anticipation of a picnic lunch, because the supermarket across the street was open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday! Who says the Italians take Sunday off from work?Armed with expensive buffalo mozzarella (12 euros a kg) and a Sunday porchetta special (seriously, the guy is standing there carving up a giant roast pig – it’s like the village market continues its tradition at your mega chain supermarket), we hopped on the metro to St. Peter’s. It was our first ride on the Rome metro, and the train we were on was super new with some fancy TV screens showing you visuals of all the sights above ground. A nice touch pour les touristes.

At the Vatican stop, clouds had rolled in and it was drizzling (new country, new climate, I suppose).We followed the crowds over to St. Peter’s square, where we got on a super long line that moved orderly and quickly until the last 30 feet, when it was just a big chaotic crowd pushing its way through four or five metal detectors. What’s even more irritating is knowing that these metal detectors are just for show. As far as I could tell, the guy manning the detector wasn’t watching any kind of screen showing what the scanners found in people’s bags, and he certainly wasn’t doing anything when people walked through the metal detector beeping all over the place. What a waste of time.St. Peter’s Facade

We checked Jon’s bag and then headed in to see the Pope’s tombs. It was a pretty fancy place for a crypt – all white marble, and you passed not nearly as many tombs as you’d expect. Pope John Paul II’s tomb was the big draw, and it was in a clean, simple style that seemed almost ugly. Maybe it was the two potted plants nearby – the kind you’d expect in your doctor’s office. Jon thinks the tomb is very bobo – expensive materials but a simple look.

In contrast, St. Peter’s tomb around the corner is all crazy colored marbles and gold-and-bronze carvings. His tomb is a continuation of the Bernini madness above the crypt, so we won’t blame St. Peter for the gaudiness of his tomb. It was just the style then.We walked around the enormous interior of St. Peter’s, trying to appreciate all the details, but there are just too many to St. Peter’s Navenotice all at once. I focused on the floor, partly because it was so accessible. And if you think about all the care that goes into making the floor beautiful, you can start to appreciate the effort that goes into, say, the ceiling. Only the best for the Church, that’s for sure.

If ever you want to talk about an extremely wealthy religious group, you definitely should check out the Catholic church first. It’s not every religion that gets a half dozen works of art by Bernini, you know.

Jon and I exited the church and had our picnic extravaganza on the steps of the south colonnade. We felt so guilty that we didn’t come close to finishing our food, so we re-wrapped the salamis and cheeses and breads and planned to give them to someone begging in the street. Of course we didn’t see any beggars on the walk from St. Peter’s to the Vatican, and instead we passed at least a dozen guys selling fake bags and sunglasses.I loved the Vatican post office, by the way. Jon thinks it’s solely for money-making and then he made the good point that the Vatican has probably ‘outsourced’ its mail function to the PT (Italian Post).St. Peter’s piazza

We hiked around the high walls of the Vatican gardens to reach the entrance to the Vatican Museum, only to discover the place closes at around 12 noon (last exit at 1:45 p.m.). argh.We decided to take a break at a touristy café on the square surrounding the Pantheon. We chose to Pantheon rotundahave our overpriced (i.e., 4 euros for a can of diet coke) drinks at Night and Day, Piazza della Rotunda (next to the McDonald’s that happens to have an outdoor terrace). Of course we got our money’s worth by sitting for an hour, reading books, watching the crowds (esp. the two Japanese guys to our left who spent most of the hour taking turns posing with espresso cups and taking pictures of each other) and using the toilet twice. If that’s not worth 8 euros, I don’t know what is.

We took a 5-minute walk through the interior of the Pantheon (dedicated to all the major Roman gods), which is pretty impressive even though it’s been stripped of all its gold and such. And it’s now a Catholic basilica of course. Waste not, want not.

The big skylight in the rotunda is the only source of light, and it still does a good job after a thousand years. What’s curious is that it’s not glassed in. So when it rains, there’s water everywhere (as evidenced by the water on the floor today from the light morning drizzle). I wonder why it’s not glassed in? It gets too hot, maybe? What a pain to wipe up all that water, right?

We walked from the Pantheon to try the famous Il Gelato di San Crispino, Via della Panetteria, 42 (06 679 3924), which is Jon at San Crispinoso close to Trevi that you think it’s another tourist trip. But it was very good and just 2.50 euro for a cup with two flavours. Definitely the best we’ve had yet, though we’re not connoisseurs (but we are picky, generally). I loved the stracciatella, which had blended the chocolate chips smoothly into the vanilla, and Jon had “San Crispino,” which is vanilla and honey.

In case it’s not clear you’re at a special gelateria, there are food magazines and articles from all over the world posted along the walls, with the Sophisticated Traveler section of the NYT having pride of place in a large blown-up sign outside the entrance. The gelato here is great stuff. This destination lives up to its high rep.

We had drinks that night at the Hotel Eden, which we reached by taxi because when we got off the No. 71 bus in the middle of a side street, we realized the little 116 bus that would take us to the Spanish steps wasn’t running on Sundays. We asked the bus driver to take us to the Spanish Steps, and just before we got there, I thought of asking him to drop us off at the “nearby” Hotel Eden. Well, the guy made all these huffy/puffy noises to tell us that the hotel was nowhere near the Spanish Steps, so he took us on a long route to reach the hotel. So we spent 10 euros instead of 6.50 euros.

According to the Hotel Eden concierge, we were just 3 minutes’ walk from the top of the Spanish steps, so it’s one of those things where driving just takes a lot longer than walking.The bar was nice, but in a very generic-looking-nice-hotel way. At first we were seated outside with a large group of Japanese tourists and after ordering our drinks (17 euros a drink seems to be a magic number), we moved to the indoor, main bar area. The snacks were not inspired or good, and our drinks were so-so. I ordered the “Garden of Eden,” which didn’t taste at all alcoholic. The views from the hotel bar are pretty, but nothing too stand-out. I wouldn’t do it again. It was like having drinks at a Ritz-Carlton.

And then dinner was at Piccolo Abruzzo, Via Sicilia, 237, which turned out to be a 10-minute walk from the Hotel Eden. We walked in and were encouraged by the checked table cloth and funky décor. There was top 40 radio on (the volume of which was raised a lot during a remake of Owner of a Lonely Heart – weird). The concept is that you pay 35 euros a person and get a “fixed price” menu. I wouldn’t go here again despite the rave reviews on the international chowhound board.

First came a plate of cold appetizers – a slice of roasted eggplant (kind of limp and flavourless), some cannelloni beans (creamy and yummy), and cole slaw (no joke – mayo and cabbage in an Italian restaurant!). Then we got a plate of hot appetizers, which had clearly been sitting in an oven for a while – suppli e telefono and empanada-looking doodads had gone kind of soft on the exterior, and while they were hot, they lacked the freshness you’d expect from a deep-fried goody.

We got to help ourselves to salamis, of which one was excellent, and the other two (including a soppressata) were just OK. The wine, a montepulciano d’abrezzo, was pretty good.Throughout the meal, I swear there were mosquitos under the table, because I am definitely not imagining the four or five mosquito bites on my legs and feet right now. Unpleasant, to say the least.Our first pasta course was rotini with a few limp and skimpy pieces of zucchini and tomato thrown in. The rotini could have been cooked for just another 30 seconds, and the dish was definitely oversalted. Overall, it is something we could make at home a lot better.

The second pasta course was good, assuming the arrabiata sauce was home made. It was penne served with a nice tomato-y sauce and with a little bit of kick from the pepper.I couldn’t eat anymore after that, so we ended up sharing a meat course that was horrible. It was three turd-like bits of homemade sausage that tasted mostly of the limp breadcrumbs inside, and then some baked potato and wedges of toast. You could call it “plate of randomness.”

We skipped dessert and ended up with a huge hunk of watermelon and as much grappa as we wanted (not much).At the end of the meal, our waitress (to her credit, she was extremely nice and friendly) asked what price she had quoted us at the beginning of dinner (35 euros), so she charged us “only” 65 euros for dinner because we’d skipped dessert or something. Jon threw in 5 euros tip and we were out of there. Never again!

I think it’s the kind of place where you’d love to go with a big group (family or friends) in the same way you’d like going to Buca di Beppo, right?We jumped on one of several buses leaving from Salaria back to Termini and then walked back to our hotel. Quite a night.We should have stuck with our original plan, Dal Bolognese, 1/2 Piazza del Popolo (06 361 1426), but when we called around 7 p.m., nobody picked up the phone, so we figured they were closed.

Monday, August 2006 – Campo de Fiori, lunch at Shaki’s Wine Bar, National Pasta Museum,

This morning, Jon asked the hotel front desk if they’d look up our RyanAir flight time, and they refused, telling him he should call RyanAir. So Jon asked for the RyanAir number, and the guy claimed he could only find the Ciampino airport number. Jon tried calling that one, but it was no good. Clearly the hotel was not going out of its way to be helpful.

So we packed up, checked our bags at the hotel and headed out to see Campo de Fiori. We had hoped to catch some market action there – we hopped on the 71 to Piazza di San Silvestri, and then we walked a block to pick up the little electric 116 that took us to Campo de Fiori. There wasn’t much to see – six or seven stalls at most.

We tried to find Grappolo d’Oro- Piazza Cancelleria 80-84, (06)6897080, the cheaper (but supposedly still delish) pizza-and-pasta cousin of Ditirambo, but it was closed, of course. Reopening tomorrow! We were so close.Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona

On our way to find Da Luigi near Chiesa Nuova, we popped into an Internet place. You had to hand in your ID, and your name and address were dutifully recorded before you were assigned a non-transferable plastic card loaded with the minutes you ordered (15 minutes, in our case). This handing over of your ID is an anti-terrorism measure, though given the number of sketchy-looking Internet places, I doubt every seller enforces this rule.Unfortunately, the address we had written down for Da Luigi must have been wrong because we didn’t find it, but we did come across a very good, attractive place called Shaki’s Wine Bar, Via Governo Vecchio 123 (Piazza Navona/Chiesa Nuova) tel 06 683 08796.

The service was not very friendly or prompt, but the outdoor seating was pretty and so were the pastas, which were slightly pricey at 12-15 euros a plate, but good. Glasses of wine were particularly good. Jon’s 6.50 chardonnay was refreshing and flavourful.

We had just beaten the Italian office crowd lunch rush – immediately after we sat down, tables around us filled up. So the scene became very lively. During our lunch, an old beggar woman leaned on our table and held out her cup. Jon put some money in, and then she reached for the overripe orange that was sitting as decoration on our table. I felt so sad that it hadn’t occurred to me that our orange centrepiece could be considered a treat of a meal to someone.

After lunch, we walked over to Riscimento so that I could go to the S. Maria de Novella store. It’s not half as atmospheric as the original in Florence, but I couldn’t resist popping in. I picked up four bars of my beloved melograno sapone (pomegranate soap). The store offered to charge me in GBP rather than in Euros, but I was suspicious and went with the Euros. Who knows what exchange rate they were charging?San Crispino GelatoJon and I then walked over to good ol’ Il Gelato di San Crispino and greatly enjoyed our stracciatella, peach and cioccolato gelatos. We ate our fab ice cream while sitting on a sidewalk. I love all the functional public water fountains in Rome, by the way. There was one next to us, which, while wasteful seeming, was also handy for washing your hands and cooling off in the afternoon heat.

We continued on to our original destination, which is the National Pasta Museum.All I can say is that we Air Conditioning at National Pasta Museumshould have been suspicious when the sign out front bragged in five different languages that the museum was air conditioned. Having now experienced the museum, I’d say air conditioning is the only thing the museum has going for it!

When we walked in, there were three middle-aged Italian women waiting to sell and collect our tickets, which of course were 10 euros each. One woman was very snippy about my pushing the wrong button on my “audio guide.”Feeling smart alecky, Jon and I went through the 1-1.5 hours of bland, vague, uninteresting narrative. One entire room (four posters that looked straight out of your Harcourt Brace Jovanovich elementary school textbook) focused on the structure of wheat. And that was the interesting part! There were lots of drawings of industrial pasta machines and such that were not comprehensible without better visual aids. The only room we thought was entertaining showed these weird theatre sets National Pasta Museum displaythat looked like they could be used for puppet shows (see photo). But instead of puppets, there were people-shaped glass containers filled with pasta that echoed the shape of the glass figure.

We were glad we left the place behind, though sad that we spent 20 euros on it. Even sadder is that we could have gone to see the Vatican Museum (Sistine Chapel, anyone), but we actually discussed matter and concluded that the Pasta Museum would be more interesting to us! Ai ya.After the Pasta Museum, we walked over to the Spanish steps, read books and relaxed for forty minutes before we headed back to our hotel. We got our bags, walked over to Termini, handed an American stranger our stamped postcards for mailing, and then caught a 6:35 p.m. train to Ciampino. We were there by 7. Excellent.

A mother-son duo on line were sad to learn that they’d exceeded the weight limit big time by buying so much wine. Having had this happen to us in Montpellier, we were sympathetic. They ended up having to give away bottles of wine because the weight surcharge was more expensive than the bottles were worth.The flight back was uneventful, though I was annoyed at Stansted when there were just two immigration officials checking the “other” line’s passports. I mean, if we’re going to pay taxes with no recourse to benefits, the least we could have is reasonably well-staffed service on bank holiday.We arrived back in our flat around 3 a.m. Clearly a long day, but what a great trip.***

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