Thursday, 3 April 2014

Picturesque Tuscany

As we drove into the region of Tuscany, I started to get goose bumps.  First of all, take a look at how picturesque this is! It’s exactly how I imagined Tuscany to look like and more, based on all the photos I’ve seen and everything I’ve seen on television.

The cypress trees, rolling hills and castles were all around me and I was trying to take it all in and just enjoy the moment.  You never get a second chance to experience something for the first time, and the first time is always what you remember the most. 

We decided to stay in Montalcino which is 120km south of Florence, for 3 nights. Montalcino is home to brunello wine, a red Italian wine produced in the surrounding town of Montalcino.  Also referred to as Brunello di Montalcino, this wine is made from1005 Sangovese grapes. There are very strict rules and regulations when making brunello.

We stayed in a hotel called Suite D’Artista, a lovely hotel in the heart of Montalcino. Our room came with a kitchenette and was an open concept with our bed and dining area in one big room. It looked like it belonged right out of the ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ movie.  It was nice to be able to sit outside of our room and enjoy the amazing views.  If you do stay here, just make sure you have a map or GPS because a few times, we were lost trying to get back to our hotel by car. The roads are extremely narrow and there are so many turns and exits and one ways streets.
Outside our hotel room at Suite D'Artista
Beautiful view of Montalcino from our hotel room

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Orvieto, Umbria - Part 2

We chose L'Antica Rupe for dinner from another recommendation. Italians are known for eating their dinner very late so we decided a time of 8 pm should be late enough for us to have our dinner.

We had to start the evening off with a bottle of Orvieto Classico wine! We had to have at least one bottle because we were in Orvieto afterall.

Fava beans were in season and we still had not had any in Italy so we asked our server about them.  She then brought over 4 large stalks, fresh from picking and we ate them plain. The were enormous!  They were so fresh and flavorful that it was so easy to eat raw.

After scanning the menu, we decided to ask our server for her recommendation and she selected a baked prosciutto appetizer and 2 pasta dishes (truffle cheese ravioli and gnocchi). Absolutely tasty!

Most of the time we eat dessert with our meals so tonight was no exception. Their dessert was written on a large board and was brought to our table.

I really enjoyed this restaurant because the atmosphere was very lively, and I liked the busy chatter and positive vibe I got from being there.  The pasta was fresh and the service was very good. By the time we finished dinner, it was almost 11 pm. I’m still not accustomed to eating dinner so late and being so full before I go to bed but when in Rome (or Orvieto), do as the Romans do!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Orvieto, Umbria - Part 1

After our 3 days in Rome , we rented a car to our next destination, Orvieto in the region of Umbria. We planned to stay in Orvieto for only one night and we thought of it as a place to ‘rest’ in between our drive from Rome and to Tuscany . Had we known how beautiful and lively Orvieto was, we would have stayed another night.

View of Orvieto from a distance
It took us about 15 minutes to actually find our hotel when we arrived into Orvieto. We had booked a hotel called Hotel Virgilio and we asked a local for directions. As we were driving towards our hotel, we looked at the incredible Duomo ahead of us. It was black and white and just stunning. To our surprise, our hotel was actually right beside the Duomo, literally. You couldn’t get a better location than that.

We were so pleased with our hotel when we arrived! Excellent location, friendly staff and very nice rooms. 

The main attraction of Orvieto, the magnificent Duomo!
We checked into our room and asked the front desk for recommendations on where to go for lunch. She immediately said Trattoria La Palomba and gave us walking directions on how to get there. It took us about 10 minutes to walk there and then we entered a nice, cozy restaurant. Being there reminded me that we were now in a different, quieter region of Italy compared to Rome. 
Inside Trattoria La Palomba
I looked at the menu and a few things stood out. I was really craving a traditional antipasto platter with cured meats and cheeses. I also saw that fresh truffled pasta was on the menu and that instantly grabbed my attention so I ordered it. Since I was in Italy, I wanted to indulge as much as I could on these delicate treasures.  My husband chose the squab in a black olive sauce.

The antipasto platter was delicious. The cheese and meats tasted fresh, and weren’t too salty and it was a great starter to the pasta and squab dish.  

Our antipasto dish appetizer. Soooo delicious!
The pasta dish was hands down the star of the 3 dishes. You could tell the pasta was fresh and homemade. Our server came over to us with a fresh black truffle and a grater and just started grating the truffle onto the beautiful bed of pasta, like it was parmesan cheese. They were generous with the amount of truffle too. As she was grating the truffle in front of me I kept thinking to myself, don’t stop now, keep going.  

The squab was cooked well but we found the olive sauce to be a little on the salty side. But this is dish I’ve never seen at home or at any other restaurant so we were happy we tried something different.

After lunch, we bought tickets to Torre del Moro, which basically took you to the top of the tower so you can get the best view of Orvieto. It was sunny with some clouds in the sky and a little windy but the view was fantastic and we took some great pictures. 

View of the Duomo from the top of the tower
After this, we explored the city and walked up and down the cobblestone streets and into some stores and gourmet shops. Orvieto is also known for their pottery so we found a nice pottery store where we saw the pottery maker hard at work on one of his creations. It's nice to walk into a pottery store and actually seeing the pottery hand made so you see with your own eyes that it is made the old fashioned traditional way. He stopped his work when we walked in and helped us select a nice little bowl. I asked if this was handmade by him and he said yes so I said I would take it. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Fragola di Bosco - Italy's Wild Strawberry

The first time I saw a fragola, I mistook it for a raspberry. They look nothing alike but it was the small size of the berry that confused me. I was sitting in a restaurant and noticed the table next to me eating a bowl of fragolas for dessert (as you can see, a lot of my food discoveries come from watching what other people eat).  I was actually craving something refreshing after eating a pastry for breakfast and pasta for lunch so I ordered a bowl of fragolas. 

They are unlike anything I have ever tasted. It is small in size, fragile, has a soft texture to it, and has an intense flavor and taste.  
Fresh fragolas from the market
Also known as an Italian wild strawberry, the fragola is a bright red berry and you can eat it plain or have sugar sprinkled on it or even add red wine to it like we had below.

 But the most amazing way we had the fragola was when it was incorporated as a gelato. Next time you are in Rome , you must stop by Gelateria dei Gracchi. We had planned to each get one cup with 3 flavors in it, but the gelato was so good, that we ordered another cup each.  Our favorite flavor was the fresh fragola gelato!

Friday, 28 March 2014

I'll have a Cappuccino please!

There are a few moments that I look forward to every day.  One of them is sitting down with something to read and enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning. The beautiful aroma as I’m about to take my first sip of coffee brings a smile to my face and it’s my form of zen, where I just  tune the world out and enjoy my hot cup of coffee in peace.

Two of my favorite coffee beans are Blue Mountain Coffee from Jamaica and Kona Coffee from Hawaii. The flavors are so crisp and clean to me, and don’t give me that acidic after taste that I find with a lot of other coffees.  Blue Mountain Coffee is known for being one of the most in-demand and expensive coffees in the world and is grown in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica. Kona coffee is also one of the most expensive coffees in the world and comes from the Kona Districts of Big Island, Hawaii. Both have a remarkable flavor from the ideal growing conditions of the beans.  But I was really looking forward to Italian coffee and adding it to ‘my favorite coffee’ list.

Italian coffee is wonderful. It tastes so smooth and it seems slightly stronger and rich in flavor.  Every time I see pictures like the one below, it puts a smile on my face and makes me wanting more. The espresso, the warm milk, the foam, the taste, the cute spoons and cup, the aroma…. and I could go on.

While enjoying my morning cappuccinos in Italy , this is what I observed and learned:

-         When you go into a coffee bar, you normally drink coffee standing up at the bar. The bar is usually a nice granite countertop of some sort, and then you take a few sips of your beverage and you are finished and ready to go. 
-         You pay for your beverage first, get the receipt, show it to the barista and then you wait for your coffee drink be prepared.
-         Cappuccinos are drunk in the morning and generally not in the afternoon. To be honest, I’m not sure why that it is but that’s what I was told from someone local.
-         The size of the beverages are much smaller than in North America . You would never see a grande or vente size drink at a coffee bar.
-         The coffee machines are unreal. What I mean is that the machines look so sophisticated, so fancy, so beautiful, so shiny, so powerful, and so big.

Look at this beautiful espresso machine! I wonder if it will fit on my kitchen counter....

There are so many different coffee beverages in Italy that you can order. The ones that I tried while in Italy are:
o       Caffe – a shot of espresso
o       Caffe Ristretto – a more concentrated form of the regular caffe
o       Cappuccino – espresso with hot milk and foam (my drink of choice)
o       Caffe Macchiato – an espresso with just a splash of milk or ‘stained’ with milk
o       Caffe Americano – espresso with hot water added
o       Caffe Latte – hot milk mixed with coffee and served in a glass
o       Caffe Con Panna – espresso with sweet whipped cream

What makes coffee in Italy so good is that they seem to have the right formula for the perfect cup of coffee. The perfect roast, the grind of the beans, right temperature of the milk steam, right ratio and quantity of coffee grounds, right type of bean, etc. I was also told that the milk they use in Italy also contributes to the delicious taste. Similar to how the water in New York is one of the factors that makes a New York pizza taste so good and distinct.

One of my favorite places where I enjoyed my morning cappuccino was at Sant Eustachio Il Caffe which is just steps away from the Pantheon. I had read about this place beforehand and I noticed that it was packed with people when I walked in. The coffee here is incredible and I highly recommend this place!  The way they make their crema, the frothy cream which tops their espresso, is unique and a well kept secret that they will not reveal.  

Of course a perfect cup of coffee should be accompanied by non other than a canoli! I mean, this is Italy afterall…..

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Artichoke Season in Italy

I love artichokes. I can eat them steamed and dip the leaves one by one in butter, I can eat them deep fried, I can eat them as a dip with asiago cheese, I can eat them out of a jar with crackers and I basically, can’t get enough of them.

The artichokes I’ve had at home are smaller so imagine my delight as I sampled my first artichoke in Rome.  They are nothing like the ones I have ever had before!  I knew they were seasonal so I tried to eat them often in restaurants or order them in gourmet shops. If I had the time, I would strip the layers one by one and eat them slowly!

There is a lot more substance to an Italian artichoke. It tastes meatier, there is a lot more of the edible portion available, the flavors are light and subtle, and there are so many variations of what you can do with it.  The main way they prepared it when I was in Italy was to steam it and drizzle olive oil and lemon on it.  At home, I would have to eat a couple because of the size, but in here, one was plenty, even for sharing.

Artichokes are one of the staples of Italian cuisine and they even have artichoke festivals every year to pay homage to this wonderful vegetable. Many restaurants offer prix fixed menus centred around the artichoke. It is low in calories and fat, a good source of dietary fibre,  folic acid and contains many antioxidants. So the next time you are craving a donut, reach for an artichoke instead!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Pasta in Rome

When someone asks, ‘what’s the first thing you that comes to your mind when you think of Italian cuisine,’ instantly you hear the word pasta! I often wondered how something so simple with only a few ingredients of durum wheat flour mixed with water or egg, can taste so delicious. But it’s such a versatile dish that you can dress up with different sauces, meats, vegetables and cheese or eat just plain.   My philosophy is that if the ingredients are fresh and the dish is prepared with passion and care, I will hands down choose the plain version of anything so I can actually taste the true flavor of the dish. However, Italy is also known for their wonderful sauces so my philosophy also holds true with pasta sauces. A few fresh, seasonal and local ingredients from the sauces combined with pasta is my idea of a perfect meal.

I was determined to have the best pasta experience while I was in Italy . I’m not an expert in pasta or pasta making but I do know the following things:

- There are both fresh (pasta fresca) and dried (pasta secca) pastas in numerous shapes, sizes and thickness
- In Italy, dry pasta is cooked al dente style which is slightly firm with a chew rather than soft and mushy
- Some pastas are made with egg and flour versus water and flour
- There are just over 350 different forms of pasta

The large selection of dried pasta available at Campo de Fiori market in Rome
- The rule of thumb is that simple sauces like a plain tomato sauce goes well with thicker pastas (i.e. linguini) while more complex sauces with different ingredients go better with pasta shapes (i.e. penne) as it can cling onto the shapes of the pasta better.

You can generally serve pasta 3 different ways:
Pasta asicutta – the version that many of us think of where you have cooked pasta served with a sauce (i.e. spaghetti with marinara sauce)
·       - Pasta in brodo – this would be where pasta is part of a soup dish (i.e. minestrone)
·     - Pasta al forno – this is where you have pasta that is baked into some dish along with some other key ingredients (i.e. lasagne)

I know it’s hit and miss when you go to touristy areas of cities where you may want to experience something authentic.  Some restaurants may serve something of poor quality or disguise something that is pre-packaged or pre-made, where they try to capitalize on tourists who have money to spend.  But I try to research most food establishments first before deciding to go, or ask locals for some recommendations, or if a restaurant is packed with people inside, I’ll give it a try.

I’m pleased to tell you that I had one of the best pasta experiences when I was in Rome! It was in a restaurant called Pereli in the Testaccio area.  The d├ęcor was old fashioned and had a cozy feel to it. There were a lot of locals dining there so it was fairly busy but the mood was lively inside and the staff were very attentive considering that it was the lunch time rush.  But the food… wow, it was amazing! Very authentic, Roman specialities here. My 2 favorite pasta dishes in Rome actually came from this restaurant.

Penne carbonara – carbonara is a sauce made with eggs, cheese, garlic and bacon. This dish was so flavorful and the pasta was cooked perfectly. Look at the deep and rich yellow color of this dish. This obviously comes from eggs that are high in quality.

Bucatani with tomato sauce – resembles a thick, hollow spaghetti with a hole running through the centre of the pasta. It was simple and not complicated by too many ingredients so I could actually taste the excellent quality of the fresh tomato sauce with just the right amount of seasoning and al dente chew to the pasta.