Saturday, October 24, 2009

Venice: Wandering the streets and markets

Venice was the last stop on our trip. We almost didn't come here. We heard it was overrun with tourists (true), smelled bad (not true), expensive (true), and was not nearly as romantic as everyone made it out to be (not true).

In spite of all the tourists and the obvious "Disneyland" feel that the whole city has, Venice was a thoroughly enjoyable place with great food and stunning architecture. As I've mentioned before in posts about Siena, there is something very peaceful about a city without cars. The air feels cleaner, you notice your neighbors more since you have to walk everywhere, and everything just seems to slow down a little bit. In Venice, you get all of those benefits plus canals. There's no other place like it, and as you walk around the city you are constantly struck by the opulence of it all. To build an entire city state on water at the time that Venice was built takes an extraordinary amount of wealth and no small measure of conceit.
In building there city, it is clear that Venetians wanted no visitor to have any questions about the extent of their wealth. While modern Venice may be overrun with tourists, they are all concentrated in a very small swath of the city. It's almost as if they are cattle, being herded along the widest streets and canals which are lined with shops, stands, and restaurants all selling the same thing.
If you go off these well trodden paths, however, Venice offers a maze of quiet streets full of these doorbells.
I'm not sure how anyone could walk by these and not press them. Among the many places to visit is the Rialto market. This market, which is more than 900 years old, is THE place to go for fresh food, and, when we went, it was surprisingly uncrowded.

The Rialto market is divided into two sections. One sells a large selection of seasonal produce ranging from assorted mushrooms
to squash blossoms, tomatoes, and cucumbers
and a colorful assortment of chiles.
The second part of the market is filled with tables piled high with fresh seafood, much of which comes from the waters surrounding Venice.

Fresh scallops are in abundance, and, unlike many of the scallops I see for sale here in the U.S., these are sold in there shells, so you can use the whole scallop, not just the abductor muscle. I actually didn't know you could eat the other parts of the scallop until we had an amazing scallop tasting at Sushi Yasuda, where Chef Yasuda served us every part of the scallop.You can also get octopus
freshly caught sardines and anchovies
and monkfish. I really wish I had a market like this near my place.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cinque Terre: Osteria a Cantina de Mananan

Unlike its four sister villages, Corniglia sits high up on the hillside, affording amazing views of the coastline, but at a cost. In the the summer, or, at least, in August, the long staircase up from the train station can be an unpleasant effort, and it acts as a deterrent to many of the tourists that pack the waterfront cafes of Cinque Terre's other villages. Those who take the hike up the hillside are able to stroll down the single street of this tiny village in relative solitude and, if you make a reservation at Cantina de Mananan, you can have some of the best Ligurian food around
One of the first things that catches your eye as you pass by (actually, the only thing, since there isn't much else) is the doorway, which is plastered with endorsements and awards from the various groups that hand these things out to deserving restaurants.
Hidden behind the door is a tiny little dining room with stone walls, a chalkboard with the daily menu, and precious few tables. Every seat in this restaurant is by reservation, and they are only open for a few hours around lunch and dinner each day. Most table don't get a single turn in, so don't expect to eat here as a walk in.
In keeping with the Cinque Terren tradition, this place specialized in seafood dishes. We began out meal with a seafood antipasti consisting of anchovies three different ways (with vinegar and lemon, olive oil and garlic, and fried), smoked tuna, white beans with tuna...
...and, on the side, salt cod with olives, tomatoes, and capers in a light broth.
we also had artichokes, which were good, but still no match for the legendary artichokes of Volpetti, in Rome.
Next, it was on to the main courses. It's worth noting, if it wasn't clear already, that this place takes its food very seriously. They even offer eating instructions on their place mats.
The directions were printed in English, German, and French, and perhaps they were prompted by one too many tourists asking for cheese or pepper to put on their pesto or seafood pasta. These are perhaps the two most popular dishes here. We didn't order the seafood pasta since you could only order it in servings for two and we wanted more variety. Instead, we opted for the pesto, which, they boast, is the best in all of Liguria.
We also had a whole, grilled branzino, which was served with nothing but a slice of lemon. The fish was so fresh and well prepared that it needed nothing else.
We ended our meal with a panacotta with blackberries, huckleberries, and blueberries. This was a really light, tart dessert. Neither of us really like sweet food, so this was perfect for our palates.
I would say that this was one of the best meals of our whole trip. If you are in Cinque Terre, this is a restaurant that you cannot miss. Just make sure to make a reservation ahead of time or you will miss out on this gem.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cinque Terre: La Lanterna

On our second day in Cinque Terre we decided to get lunch at La Lanterna in Riomaggiore. While it wasn't a Slow Food restaurant, it was recommended in our guide book and it was just down the street from where we were staying. La Lanterna is located in the marina area of Riomaggiore, pictured above, and if you can land a seat on the patio you get a nice view over the marina.
Like most of the restaurants in Cinque Terra, La Lanterna excels in preparing seafood dishes. Many of them were displayed in bright lettering on the chalkboard by the entrance.
Of all the choices, the fried anchovies have to be the best. These things are sooooo good. I have no idea why they aren't everywhere in the U.S. The only other time I had fried anchovies was in Spain, where a beachside bar near my apartment in Malaga would serve up plates of these. Few things go together better than fried anchovies, an ice cold beer, and a nice hot day at the beach.
We followed up the anchovies with a dish that was described as green "gnocchetti," or tiny gnocchi, with tuna in red sauce. This dish was another winner.
All in all, I thought La Lanterna was a solid place, and I would highly recommend it if you are looking for a meal in Riomaggiore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cinque Terre: Enoteca Internzionale

Cinque Terre is one of the places that gets rave reviews from just about everyone who has ever travelled through Italy, and with good reason. This is a place of breathtaking beauty, and the food and wine don't disappoint either. For those of you who haven't read about this place, Cinque Terre (Five lands) are a string of five small villages built into the steep hillsides of Italy's Ligurean coast. Villages are connected by a single train line and a footpath, and, if you're the active type, you can spend your day hiking through all five villages, winding your way along the coastline and through the terraced vineyards that hug the hillside. These vineyards produce some excellent wines, which go well with the seafood dishes that Cinque Terre specializes in.
We had read that anchovies were a popular snack in Cinque Terre, so we ordered up a plate at the first place we could find, a beachside bar filled with tourists. This was a total waste of money, but it was also the last bad thing we ate on our trip. It was at this point that we started following the snails to our meals. Our first "Slow Food certified" snack came shortly after our failed attempt to get good anchovies on the beach. As we were wandering around some of the interior streets of Monterrosso, we happened across Enoteca Internazionale.

This little shop claimed to be the oldest wine shop in town, and they proudly displayed a Slow Food sticker in their window and their chalkboard advertised a trio of anchovies.
This seemed like as good a place as any to have another go at anchovies. These more than made up for the crappy anchovies we had at the other place. They were awesome. All of the anchovies were cured in house, and the trio consisted of anchovies with slow roasted tomatoes and capers

anchovies on a thin slice of lardo (yum!)

and, last but not least, anchovies on toast with butter. This last preparation was awesome. I've made anchovy butter a number of times, but for some reason, serving anchovies on toast with butter never occurred to me. It is such a good combination (if you get high quality ingredients, that is).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Florence: Trattoria Marrione

Florence has a ton of good restaurants. At least, that's the impression I got while sifting through various online sources. We were in the mood for something simple and inexpensive, so we opted for Trattoria Marrione. I really don't have too much to say about this place. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. It was more or less what we were looking for, a simple meal that tasted more like home cooking than restaurant food. Perhaps that's why this restaurant gets a fair amount of local business even though its located so close to all of the tourist attractions.
We started with a caprese salad, which Abby followed up with yet another salad. This one, a panzanella. This panzanella was quite a bit different from the version I make. They use bread crumbs rather than chunks of bread and I like to cut the vegetables into a smaller dice.
I had roasted lamb and potatoes. It was good, but I'll bet it would have been twice as good if it had been the middle of the fall or winter. It's one of those warm, savory dishes that is best enjoyed on a brisk November night rather than a humid August evening.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Florence: Cooking lessons at Toscana in Bocca

One of the things that I really wanted to do during our trip to Italy was to attend a cooking class. We looked into several different options and settled on Toscana in Bocca since it fit into our schedule and budget. One of the things that appealed to us about this cooking school is that they offered private lessons, which enabled us to give some input into the dishes that we wanted to make. Stefania, the instructor, runs the private lessons out of her bed and breakfast, which is located here, just south of the Porta Romana area in Florence. Stefania has several years of experience as an instructor at a local culinary school, so she could probably teach you how to make just about anything you can think of. She sends you home with a cookbook that includes many of her own recipes. I have yet to try any of them, but I am sure that they are all fantastic.

For our lesson, we made squash blossoms filled with ricotta, stuffed pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, an eggplant souffle with a tomato salad, chicken cacciatore, and a plum and apple crostata. I had made chicken cacciatore and stuffed pasta before, but everything else was pretty new, and I specifically requested the stuffed pasta since I haven't been happy with my previous attempts to make them. Everything was very good, and we were left with more food than we could possibly eat.

Here are some more pictures from the lesson:

Abby mixing together the egg and flour for the pasta.
Stefania shows us how to make the stuffed pasta before letting us give it a shot.
She showed use how to make two different shapes. Here they are, assembled and uncooked.
Bakes, stuffed squash blossoms.
Abby, looking about as domestic as she ever will with her freshly baked crostata.
Here's the finished pasta. The sauce is simply fresh, diced tomatoes with a bit of salt, basil, and olive oil, quickly sauteed and tossed with the pasta. This is a really nice way to do pasta in the late summer when tomatoes are in season.
Here's the eggplant souffle and tomato salad. The souffle is wrapped in squash blossoms and stuffed with provolone cheese.
And, here is the chicken cacciatore.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Florence: Bistecca alla Fiorentina @ Perseus

In Florence, steaks are such a tradition that they have their own name, bistecca alla Fiorentina. Usually measuring at least two inches thick, these giant T-bones come from special cows, I am told, which sets them apart from a "regular" T-bone. Aside from the breed of cow, these steaks are not cooked to order. If you order bistecca alla Fiorentina, you are ordering a rare steak. That's just how it is. A bistecca alla Fiorentina that is cooked to medium or well done is not a bistecca alla Fiorentina. Personally, I would call such a steak a waste of perfectly good beef.

Given the special place that this dish has in Florentine cuisine, it was a "must have" on our list of things to try. The hard part was finding a place to try it. We searched through the online forums, where scores of different eateries received the "best steak in town" title from as many different reviewers and settled on Perseus. This restaurant did not disappoint. When you walk in the door, one look at their refrigerated display case (above) signals that this place doesn't mess around when it comes to steak. They aren't an all purpose restaurant that happens to serve bisteccas. They are a steak place that happens to serve a few other dishes.
Of those other dishes, we decided to try the grilled vegetables, and the beef carpaccio with arugula and grana cheese. This was similar to the salad we had at Pierluigi and it was every bit as good.
The main event, though, was the bistecca. These massive steaks are adeptly carved tableside by the servers, and served with no accompaniments (not that there was any room on the plate).
I can't say whether this was the single best place to get bistecca alla fiorentina in all of Florence, but I can say that if you eat here, you won't walk away disappointed. The restaurant had a nice atmosphere, good service, great side dishes, good house wine, and, being a bit off the beaten path, they don't get a ton of tourists. I think this is a good thing since you have to turn out a better product to attract local customers.