Saturday, November 19, 2011

One Week Left

Sunset on the Grand Canal

Gondola Ride through the canals of Venice

Only one week left out here!  Can’t believe it went by so quickly.  Up until now the weather has been amazing.  We’ve been lucky not to experience the extreme flooding of acqua alta, and the days have still been beautiful.  That was of course until yesterday.  We got our first taste of Venetian winter weather yesterday when the city turned into a scene out of a Steven King horror movie.  
Doge Palace
This intense mist and bitter cold rolled in, overtaking the whole city.  The once incredible views of Venice are gone.  We can barely see five feet in front of our faces.  Vaporetto rides are slightly disconcerting now.  I’m sure the Italian water bus drivers have mastered the art of maneuvering though the waters without seeing anything, but with every ride there is a constant feeling like we’re about to recreate the final scene from Titanic.  Sadie can’t help herself from screaming, “ICEBERG, DEAD AHEAD” every time we get on a vaporetto.
On the Spanish Steps in Rome
Two weeks ago we took our last trip.  It was back to Rome with more of Sadie’s friends.  Yes, that’s right, more of Sadie’s friends!  Her friends and family have put on quite a display of support over the last few months.  Here’s the list of people who have come out to visit Sadie during her time out here...her parents, cousins Brian and Rebecca, NYC friends (Magaly, Aaron, Sabrina, Alexis, Adam, Sherry, Frankie, Sarah Fe, Damian, Roy).  Along with that, her sister, Kasia and childhood friend, Vandana, will be coming out next week to share in our last weekend in Venice.  It’s been incredible having so many people share in our experiences!
Magaly and Sadie in Piazza Navona
We’ve taken quite a few trips to Rome over the past few months and aside from seeing the obligatory sights with our guests each time, we’ve constantly found new things to see and do.  One of the things we always make time for is seeing portions of my family in Rome.  Sadie has been bombarded with wave after wave of my extended family, which I’m sure has been overwhelming for her at times.  She’s finally able to put all the names with the faces, which isn’t the easiest task in the world.  It is on par with trying to memorize the “D” section of the Italian phone book.  
Campo di Fiori Farmers Market
There were two new Rome experiences that we hit up this time around.  The first was the Capuchin Crypt on Via Veneto.  The Capuchin Monks were quite the artists.  They took all the bones from their fellow monks after their deaths and they created elaborate designs all over the walls, ceilings, and floors of this crypt.  It is amazing and incredibly creepy at the same time.  Every bone in the human body was used in some unique design.  There had to be over a thousand monks spread throughout the rooms.  Creepy indeed.  Sadie, as I expected, had a hard time appreciating the artistic aspect of what we were seeing and could only focus only on the creepiness of it all.  She powered through the exhibit, but I could tell she was not really enjoying the whole thing.  As we exited, we had another incident similar to the Como bus ride from a few months back.  Fortunately, she was able to compose herself after a few minutes and yet another crisis was averted.  
Campo di Fiori
St. Peters Square
Best Pizza Shop in Rome
Cacio e pepe at Restaurant X
We had Anthony Bourdain to thank for our latest restaurant experience.  We were in search of a Rome speciality, cacio e pepe.  Nothing fancy...just pasta with percorino cheese and black pepper.  But when done right, it’s phenomenal.  He had labeled one of his favorite Rome spots that served the dish, “Restaurant X,” on his TV show because he didn’t want all his viewers to find out where it was located.  Fortunately, a quick Google search of “Restaurant X Bourdain” led us right to it.  The meal absolutely lived up to our expectations.  The pasta was served in a molded bowl of parmigiano cheese that was otherworldly.  Oddly enough, the waiter who had served Bourdain in the show was our server as well.  We mentioned the show to him, and at first he acted like a reluctant movie star who was spotted by his fans in public.  “No, no, no.  Eye-a don’ta know wat you talk about.  Eye-a don’ta know questo Antoni Bor-dane.”  Sure you don’t buddy.  Two minutes later, he was back singing the theme song from the show, talking about the experience and how it’s lead to some other restaurant opportunities that he was in the process of mulling over. He loved that we had recognized him, which worked out well for us because he ended up giving us some extra glasses of grappa on the house at the end of the night.
Cacio e pepe, our homemade version
The meal was so good that as soon as Sadie and I returned to Venice we recreated the meal at home.  It was a valiant first attempt.  Not quite like what we had in Rome, but passable for pasta making beginners such as ourselves.

The Bet:
I didn’t really want to put this on the blog, but a week has gone by and the wounds have healed a bit.  Last weekend, my Stanford Cardinal football team faced the Oregon Ducks.  Stanford was ranked 4 at the time.  Oregon, 7.  Stanford undefeated, a very real shot at a National Championship birth on the line.  Oregon had lost it’s first game of the season to the current number one team in the country, LSU, but had since run the table and was looking stronger with each week.  It was a battle of epic proportions (at least to those of us with Pac 12 affiliations).  
Sadie is not an official Duck herself, but it’s impossible to deny her connection to the school.  Just about every person in Sadie’s family is an Oregon alum.  Parents, grandparents, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles...on and on.  Sadie’s home state pride is hard to match, so when this game rolled around we knew we had to come up with some kind of wager. 
After much discussion it came to this.  If Oregon won, I would have to jump in a nasty, filthy, freezing Venice canal.  If Stanford came out on top, Sadie would have to eat a delicious piece of top quality prosciutto.  Being a vegetarian, this was a horrific thought for Sadie.  It must be noted, that the bet was Sadie’s idea.  I had no intention of making her eat meat, but to my amazement she came up with these terms, so it was agreed upon.
The night of the game (it started at 2:00am Venice time) I woke up to check the score of the game.  I checked right about the time that Oregon began kicking Stanford’s butt.  It got ugly quickly, so I decided to go back to sleep and forget about the way Stanford had teased all of us Cardinal fans into thinking they were a legitimate National Championship contender this year.  
Or at least I tried to go to sleep.  Sadie isn't a big sports fan.  Football probably being her least favorite of them all, but this didn’t matter one bit for the game.  The Ducks spanking Stanford turned her into a super fan who refused to let me sleep.  She watched every play on the computer letting me know each and every time Oregon scored their 53 points.  It was torturous.  I’m sure she was happy Oregon won, but I think she was more excited about not having to eat prosciutto.  
I kept my end of the bargain as best I could.  After reading up of canal jumping we found out that swimming in a canal is illegal, as well as disgusting.  With my previous run in with the police forces of Lido, I thought it was best that I don’t do anything to bring unnecessary attention to myself during my last few weeks in Venice, so a compromise was made.  I, instead, jumped into the freezing cold ocean on Lido.  It isn’t quite a canal, but it satisfied the bet for Sadie, so I was in the clear.

Video of my arctic plunge...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wine Country

When you think of Italian wine country, most of you probably picture the rolling hills of Tuscany, home of Chianti and Super Tuscans.  Fortunately, there is much more to it than just Tuscany.  Italians have been blessed with a whole country that is not only capable, but in many cases ideal for growing wine.  North of Tuscany lies Piemonte.  The region which is home to the king of Italian wines (Barolo and Barbaresco) and the elusive white truffle.  Yes, both are delicious but per serving, they are almost equal in cost to our monthly rent in NYC, so we tried not to indulge too much.

I can't help myself.
This was the first trip where we rented a car.  We had some friends in from NYC and so renting seemed like the best way to see a lot of different areas in the few days we had to explore the towns around

 Barolo.  It’s fairly common knowledge, but I’ll refresh for those of you unaware.  Italians are crazy drivers.  They are NOT bad drivers...just a little insane.  They all seem to be auditioning for a seat in Ferrari’s Formula 1 car every time they get on the highway.  Neither Sadie nor I was driving, but our friend, who has seen his fair share of overly aggressive cab drivers in NYC over the years, was amazed at the lightning speed of the average Italian driver.  Our cruising speed was a respectable amount over the speed limit.  Nothing crazy, but we have a four hour drive ahead of ourselves, so we kept a brisk pace.  At least that is what we thought until just about every car behind us was bumper to bumper with us flashing their lights franticly trying to pass.  Didn’t matter who it was either.  Dads driving their families in minivans.  Grandma in her fifty year old cinquecento.  The thing most curious about the whole situation is that Italians generally like to take things slow.  Their whole society revolves around four hour meals, midday naps, and going on semi weekly work strikes so they can have a day off.  I don’t know...maybe they are all rushing home to eat or take a nap.  Yeah, that would make the most sense.
Talking with Paolo and Chiara

Our view at Cascina Sant'Eufemia

When we finally arrived at our location it was better than what we had seen in the pics online!  When does that ever happen??NEEEEVVVVEEERRRRRR!!  One of the hostels we had stayed in during a previous trip promised a pool table as part of their guest entertainment.  Not that I was planning on playing a lot of pool, but I liked the option.  When we got to the hostel, we found the pool table and it was the size of a board game.  The pool cues looked like chop sticks and the balls were a set of marbles.  Much different than the pics suggested.

Fall was just taking hold of the hills.  The reds, browns, and yellows covering the endless amount of vineyards was beautiful.  We had found an article on CNN which listed the top hidden secret hotels/B&B in Piemonte.  We decided on one, Cascina Sant'Eufemia, that sat in the hills smack in the middle of Barolo, Barbaesco, Asti, and Alba.  From the moment we arrived the owners, Chiara and Paolo, treated us like family.  After some of the less than stellar accommodations we’ve subjected ourselves to over the past few months, it was so nice to be able to stay at their home/B&B.  

We went to Piemente mainly for three reasons.  White truffles, wine, and to experience the epicenter of the slow food movement (which started in a town called Bra just minutes from where we were staying).  It was the middle of the white truffle festival in Alba, but upon our arrival we were informed of the horrible year it had been for truffles and so they were much more expensive than their already ridiculous prices.  Yes, we were 0-1, but that would be the only missing part of an amazing weekend.  
Head of Council for the Truffle and Wine Guild
On to the food portion of the trip.  Every meal we ate in Piemonte was worthy of it’s own blog entry, but one in particular deserves it’s place on our page.  The day we arrived we asked Chiara and Paolo for some dinner recommendations and of course they were more than happy to oblige.  The first one they mentioned was Osteria da Gemma.  They told us that because it was the middle of the truffle festival, that it might be fully booked, but that it was worth as shot.  Amazingly, it was the only day they had an opening all week and so we made a reservation and headed out to see what this slow food movement was all about.  We asked Chiara and Paolo if it was good and all they said was, “You eat well at Gemma.”  That is Italian code for, prepare yourself for amounts of food no human being could ever possibly eat in one sitting.  Giddy-up!!  We headed to Gemma ready for our feast...

As soon as we arrived we had an issue, that was quickly resolved in a way that we didn’t think was still possible in today’s society.  Gemma is cash only.  We only had credit.  The town of Roddino, where Gemma is situated, is tiny and doesn’t have a bank or ATM.  We were momentarily devastated.  At that point there was no way we could make another reservation anywhere else so we were in a tight spot.  We mentioned our predicament to our waiter and we got our first real glimpse into what makes this part of the world unique.  He asked where we were staying and when we mentioned Sant'Eufemia, he says, “Ah, of course! We know them well.  You eat here tonight and whenever you have the money, you can come back and pay us.  Tomorrow.  The day after.  Whenever...”  WHAT WHAT WHAT??!!?? Did he really just give us the ok to dine and dash?    We all just smiled, thanked him, and understood that we were in for a rare treat.

Barolo Museum
The meal was fixed menu and price.  A beautifully simplified way of taking the guess work out of ordering.   As soon as we sat, they brought out a cutting board with a knife and two types of soppressata.  Soppressata is the more delicious cousin of the salami you think of in the States.  This was the pre-appetizer and I was already in heaven.  Sadie however, was less than thrilled at the all meat start to the meal.  

From there, the dishes started coming out rapid fire each in a platter that could have easily fed ten people.  Four appetizers, beef tartare (one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, anywhere), two different types of pasta with boar sauce, specially made butter and sage pasta for the vegetarian eaters at the table, veal in a barolo reduction, roasted rabbit....on and on and on.  All washed down with the house Dolcetto, which was, as you might expect, fantastic.  Just as I slipped into my expected food coma, the deserts were brought over.  To this point, Sadie had been enjoying the meal, but with so much meat throughout she hadn’t quite reached my level of bliss.  Sadie has a pretty significant sweet tooth, so when the four gigantic desserts were placed at each corner of our table, she finally had her magical moment of the meal.  Coffee and chocolate flan, whipped cream and pineapple cake, apple strudel, and an insanely delicious cream hazelnut and cookie concoction.  So. Much. Food.  
The meal surpassed anything we could have imagined.  As strange as it might seem we’d like to thank McDonald’s, as well as Gemma, for the amazing meal.  A group of Italians were so outraged with the opening of the first Mac in Italy back in 1986 that they went on a mission go combat the fast food movement around the world with their own slow food movement, which has become worldwide hit in recent years.  So, thank you McDonald’s for pissing off Italians so much that you helped keep places like Gemma open and relevant.  
As we waddled out, we promised to return at some point to pay the bill...
Castle in Barolo
The people of Piomonte know their wine.  It’s in their blood the way fake tans and fist pumping is in the blood of the neanderthals on Jersey Shore.  It is the lifeblood of their existence and they are happy to show you what they are have to offer.  We toured the towns of Barolo, Barbaesco, La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Mango, Nieve, and a bunch of others.  On our last day we were hoping to have some wine at a vineyard as opposed to the tastings in the town centers like we had been doing.  At one of the tastings, I saw a listing for one of my favorite wineries, La Morandina.  Their Moscato d’ Asti is one of my all time favorite wines, so that became out last day destination.  We had no idea if they were open or if anyone was actually there, but we went anyway.

As we pulled up, it looked closed.  We got out and walked the grounds trying to find someone.  No one was around.  Damn.  So close to getting inside Willy Wonka’s Wine Factory, but no luck.  I called the number I had on hand and I could hear the phone ringing inside the building.  No answer.  Just as all hope was lost, I tried the number one last time and after a few rings, a woman answered.  I told her we came all the way from the States to try some wines and asked if there was any way she could open up for us.  I held my breathe hoping for the best, but I knew it was probably a long shot.  Without hesitation, the doors opened and we were welcomed by one of the owners into the Morandina wine cellar.  The day was on the verge of becoming legendary.
Inside La Morandina Cellar 

The cellar was built in the 900’s and had the feel of an old bunker.  It was stacked with huge barrels filled with various aging varietals, labeling machines, corking contraptions, and a perfect bar area for tastings.  We sat down and the bottles popped open.  Sadie and I have been to a couple tastings in Napa, but we’ve never experienced anything like the set up before us.  The owner of one of my favorite wineries opening every bottle they make specifically for us.  What an awesome experience!  
Not Quite White Truffles.  More like a Smurf Home.

Started with the reds, worked our way to the whites, then to the moscato, then the desert wine, and then grappa.  She probably opened about eight different bottles just for us.  By the fifth bottle or so, things started getting a little hazy and hilarious.  We drank, asked questions about the winery, and got insight into the whole wine making process.  After a couple hours, we were in such a deliriously happy state that we wanted to buy every bottle they had available...and we almost did.  Sadie and I ended up coming home with six bottles and a magnum of the moscato, all for a fraction of what it would have cost in the States.  We stumbled back into the daylight and endlessly thanked our host for her incredible generosity.  What was originally just a shot in the dark, turned into one of the best experiences we’ve had in Italy.  

Inside the cellar
The weekend was filled with small towns, big meals, and some of the best wine we’ve ever had.  We were constantly checking out new places the whole time we were there, but never felt rushed.  They have perfected the art of living well out in this part of the world.  The hospitality of the people of Piemonte is something I don’t think you can find too many other places.  We told Chiara and Paolo that we wanted to come back sometime soon to help with the next harvest.  They said the room and the wine would be waiting for us.

La Morandina:
Osteria da Gemma:
Cascina Sant'Eufemia:

View from Grinzane Cavour Castle