La Dolce Vita: How Italy Softened the Cynic in Me

I suppose the astounding amount of pasta and gelato I ate over the course my 3 week trip would be enough to soften just about anyone. But in all seriousness, the impact Italy has had on me stretches well beyond my waistline. I’m a city girl and I travel on my toes; I always have my hand on my purse. I talked a little bit in one of my very first blog posts about being defensive pessimist. I tend to assume the worst- so I’m able to better prepare. Before I left, people gave me a lot of well-intentioned warnings, about Rome, about Gypsies, about Italian men. If anything, I found in Italy could let my guard down more than usual. We arrived in a new country not speaking the language and almost everywhere we went, especially in northern Italy, which is a little less touristy, people were so kind to us.

(Since you seen so many of my photos, instead of rehashing them I thought I’d include some of the outtakes in this post.)

There was the shopkeeper from Bra, who talked to me about cheese gave me some of the best parmesan I’ve ever had for free. There was the tobacconist in Barolo, who patiently pantomimed how to find a cab (no small feat). The guy in Milan who offered to help me with my bag, not at a crowded station, but a subway stop before this great lunch and really seemed not to expect anything in return. There was the time the conductor explained my train to Venice had been “erased” and I had accidentally gotten on the wrong one (well, the right train since it was going to Venice, just not my train, it was an earlier one that had been delayed) and then told me not to worry about it. There were all of my Airbnb hosts who I owe a huge thank you to (the picture below is of the cards I made to hand out along the the way). They took time out of their days to give me advice about their cities and even show me around. I was little overwhelmed figuring out how to get to Lake Garda and it was my host suggested I should take the boat to Sirmione. My Florence host welcomed me with a lovely chat and showed me around (including her favorite gelato spot!). It was at her suggestion we checked out Piazza Michelangelo (the crazy awesome view pictures with the sandwich shop).

There were all of the people who helped us along our way on our very first night in Italy. In America we cultivate a faux friendliness but it’s often hollow, or chivalry that borders on chauvinism. Especially in Rome and Venice, there were definitely people out to rip us off, but they were the exception. For me, the attitude of so many of the wonderful people helped make my perspective just a little rosier.

Then again, I suppose I became infatuated with place as much the people. I felt like I was surrounded by so much beauty and vibrancy. Wandering around places like Cinque Terre and Rome and Verona is overwhelming in the best way. Every door, every church, every river. Each place felt distinct. Milan open and clean, Venice filled with it’s winding allies.

And then of course, there was the food. I came looking for pedestrian food at its best and I certainly found it. There were so many tiny shops of the sort that seem to have gone extinct in the U.S. They feel more personal somehow. There were the amazing delis, and superb pasta joints and endless scoops of velvety gelato.

In the real world I spend a lot of time in my head, working on assignments and making sure the rent gets paid. I become fixated on small tasks. Spending so much time exploring new places, and walking around outside listening to great books, and seeing revolutionary art, and historical monuments, and eating great fresh food, all did me a lot of good. I return to the states a happier person for all I’ve seen and experienced, all the more eager to return.

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I’m sharing this post with some of the cool people over at Fiesta Friday http://fiestafriday.net/

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Does a Cooler Count as a Carry-On?

So there it was. One (last) day in Rome. Sometimes I can be kind of down on a last day instead of enjoying every single second. This time I challenged myself to approach it as having one day in Rome instead of a last day. And you know what? I didn’t think there could be a day good enough to cap off this trip, but since I wasn’t busy fixating on it this one was. I was too busy having fun to noticing it ending.

I started with a long walk.  My method of choice for exploring any city is to set a destination, walk (the further the better) and meander. The final destination in this case was seeing the Pope. Along the way I saw all kinds of churches and statues. Last (sorry, I mean next) stop the colosseum. 40 minute walk? Bring it on.

On the way, I picked up one of the best sandwiches I’ve had all trip (chewy crispy focaccia, perfectly cooked eggplant with lots of balsamic, thick slices of spicy salami and tangy mozerella di bufala, along with a slow food orange soda).

The colosseum was so cool to see. It was a little hard to hear but we picked up a couple fun facts on the dirt cheap guided tour. One of the most awaited events was Gladiator vs. Rabbit! Hardly life or death, but more the Colosseum’s twisted take on comedy. The colosseum is huge and rabbits are quick. Makes for a good show. The Roman forum was equally impressive. The ruins were breathtaking from above and you couldn’t help but imagine the hustle and bustle they must have held long ago.

We had a destination dinner already in the works. Our walk took us through a super cute neighborhood and ended at unpretentious fresh pasta place with a Julius Cesar-esque mascot. This is exactly the kind of food I most wanted to find. Unpretentious, cheap, excellent (and open!). Tripadvisor served us well. For 6 euros they served up, hands down, some of the best pasta and ragu we’ve had all trip. The gnocchi were tender and light, possibly thanks to their smaller than average size. The sauce was rich with the perfect ratio of meat to tomatoes. We were coming dangerously up on the end and I figured some antidote was in order my method of choice? Alternating wine with some of Rome’s best gelato. The wine we had with our pasta was a typical house wine very drinkable not too much kick.

Or first gelato of choice was Gelateria del Teatro just a block away. They had so many amazing flavors I did the unthinkable and ordered three scoops (!). With flavors like peach lavender, which was delicate and refreshing, pine nut, sweet and creamy, and fondente chocolate wine, so dazzlingly dark and rich no american institution would attempt it, how could I resist?

So it’s 9 o’clock on our last night in Italy. We’ve had fresh pasta wine and gelato. Time for one last trip. Where do we go? Eataly of course! You might remember me getting all excited about Eataly in Turin, thinking it was only in Turin? Since then, I’ve been highly amused to find one in nearly every city I’ve visited. I have to admit they remain refreshingly consistent and unpretentious with a hilarious number of locals for a place called “Eataly”. Finally, with only one last luggage lug ahead of me it was time to stock up before heading back to the states… Where Eataly was founded…. But, hey, I figure at least stuff is probably more expensive there…. Right? We made a brief detour to Campo di Fiori which seemed to fall in the famous but overly touristy category.

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Fortunately, Eataly was a suitable destination for another glass of wine. I had a final glass of Piedmont wine (the syrah I tried was a little too peppery to stand alone) before loading up on olive oil, rose jam (a personal favorite) and hazelnut goodies.

So it seems the night should have been over right?

Wrong!

We still had to visit Anothony Bourdain’s pick for top gelato in the city (I was so not leaving my last Italian gelato up to chance).

I had toasted almond orange and dark chocolate which proved irresistible. The perfect way to end an amazing adventure.

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Arrivederci Roma (e Italia)! I’ll do my best to back.

When in Rome: A Farewell Dinner at All’Oro

So I said I wasn’t going to eat at anymore Michelin starred restaurants. After all, I’d carefully researched where I wanted to have my one Michelin meal and decided San Sebastien was where I could get the best value. Besides, I had a whole lifetime for once in a lifetime meals.

But then I was almost in Rome, and my trip was almost over, and I found the perfect place, and besides I couldn’t resist going out with a bang. So I did. I spent one last night swept off my feet (though it was a little premature with one night to spare!).

“Good value” isn’t a phrase that mixes well with Michelin. With Michelin it’s less about “good value” and more about “best value”. There at least, All’Oro fares quite well. The food is spectacular. Furthermore, it was exactly what I was looking for: perfectly mastered traditional flavors paired with innovative techniques.

One of my favorite parts of the entire meal was the amuse bouche. It was a reimagined antipasto platter, all tiny elegant bites. There was an olive macaron and salty sardine paste between two thin crackers, and the smallest amount of salmon wrapped in refreshing cucumber and many other perfect tiny bites. In each case, it seemed the flavors were distilled augmented and then put back together into playful petite packages. There was also a rich spoonful of vegetables pureed with olive oil so smooth it reminded me of gelato and a piece of watermelon soaked in negroni, a strong drink from Florence.

The first course was a play on tiramisu, it came out a perfect impostor of the traditional Italian dessert. The twist? Instead of whipped cream there were mashed potatoes, so luscious they could pass for clouds of pure cream. They were balanced by fish and wonderfully savory bits of salty bacon. It was the ultimate comfort food and could almost masquerade as high class.

The next course was mascarpone ravioli in a duck and red wine reduction sauce. The filling was still hot enough to effortlessly ooze out of the firm pasta at the slightest pressure. The sauce was amazingly complex and had a complicated sweetness further enhanced by the nutty parmesan.

The main course was succulent lamb paired with sheep’s prosciutto and earthy cheese. The lamb was cooked perfectly, the fat rendered to ideal crispness. The whole dish was topped with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction which balanced the lamb’s strong flavor.

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Dessert was real tiramisu, but this time it came in disguise, seamlessly artful. A white sugar dome topped with a delicate curl of chocolate and a traditional filling done to perfection, creamy and sweet with just a touch of bitterness.

When I thought it couldn’t get more perfect they brought out fruit leather and another macaron post-dessert.

Naples: Octopus, Octopus Pizza and Pompeii

By the time we hit Naples I thought I might be too well-seasoned of a traveller to find new intrigue in Naples’s markets. I was wrong. Naples has a gritty feel that reminded me a little of Marseille. More importantly it has a crazy fish market that was unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s funny to find such fresh fish in a city that feels so rundown. I was impressed that when selling seafood in San Sebastian that they don’t bother with glass. In Naples, I was amazed to find much of seafood is sold still alive (!!) in all sorts of spectacular varieties.

We saw so many different kinds of shells and squid and swordfish. We saw a guy casually bag an eel. We even watched an octopus escape its confines onto the pavement only to be tossed back a moment later. My cousin suggested absent-mindedly that we might purchase some fish but with a long trip to Pompeii and back to Rome ahead of us it seemed imprudent.

We made our way to Pompeii. I think I had it in my head that it would be smaller and it felt strange that it really was the size of the city. Even so many years later, the ruins felt bizarrely deserted.

We made our way back to Naples for dinner and when you only have one dinner in Naples there is only one option: Pizza. I guess I’ve already used up my that’s amore reference (and really one is already pushing it) but pizza in Naples is legendary. The secret’s in the sauce but the real clincher is the crust. A real Naples crust is puffy on the outside thin throughout the rest and cooked in an incredibly hot oven. We headed to a fan favorite and were excited to see people coming and going only to discover they were in the midst of a remodel. But the place next door looked pretty promising so we took a seat. After wandering around the market I was determined to get some seafood in my system so we got two pies to share. Diabolo (cheese, spicy salami, red sauce) and mixed seafood (no cheese!). Both pies were obscenely delicious. All in all Naples exceeded expectations.

I’m participating in fiesta friday: http://fiestafriday.net/2015/08/28/fiesta-friday-83/

We walk into a tourist trap with open arms: Florence’s food a mixed plate

For most college students the goal while traveling abroad is to eat as cheaply as possible without getting food poisoning (and even that last bit is somewhat negotiable for backpackers with stomachs of steel). As a college student traveling explicitly to try local food, my priorities are a little different. I’m not as interested in price as I am in value; some (ok, most) days that’s a piadini or a great sandwich but others (ok, like twice tops) it’s a Michelin starred meal. The way I see it all restaurants can be ranked according to their price to quality ratio. Nepal is low price, high quality whereas, all options in Switzerland are astronomically expensive for moderate quality (which is how I ended up eating a lot of nuts…). I’m ok with spending more, but I want to get my money’s worth. Florence’s restaurants are scattered across the board.

We knew our first stop, Cafe Zaza, was a tourist trap. It said so in Rick Steve’s guidebook. Also we have eyes. The whole décor seemed to scream: why yes we are going to overcharge you in the name of atmosphere. Much to my chagrin when we left we noticed there was an accordion player serenading the patio (the money might as well have been allocated toward a giant neon sign reading cliché). It went against every instinct I had to go in but as the guidebook suggested, my host had suggested it. Apparently it’s still a favorite among locals because their portions and food are good. Unfortunately, their prices are not. The pasta with wild boar was tasty, if nothing spectacular. The fried zucchini flowers were rather good crisp and succulent. But ultimately, Spain upped the bar on how far I could stretch my euros and this place just didn’t quite cut it in terms of value even though the food was pretty good.

One of our best picks, was also touristy but more importantly incredibly delicious and relatively cheap. Excellent delis have been a staple of my time in Italy and Panini Toscani definitely exceeded expectations. The downfall of many delis has been just ok bread (a reoccurring theme in Italy). I suspect this is because most delis don’t consider themselves sandwich shops: they’re meat shops that happen to sell sandwiches. While they didn’t take top honors for bread they did up the bar by having fresh bread and lightly toasting it. Really the showstopper was the salami studded with anise that was superb though the savory sundried tomatoes and sharp arugula also played an important role. Plus they let you try everything before you commit. We took our sandwiches to the astonishingly beautiful Piazza Michelangelo.

One of our best meals throughout the entire trip was on our last night in Florence. Trattoria la Burrasca was a cozy and unpretentious place right around the corner from where I was staying that had amazing food at reasonable prices. I was amused by the degree to which they don’t cater to tourists (when someone requested pizza the waiter explained patiently that pizza is from Naples and they are a Florentine restaurant) even though their location must attract a fair number of them. I’ve rarely ordered meat because it’s so much more expensive and the pasta is already so so good but we splurged and split the mixed grill plate. The meats were all incredibly smokey and salty and fatty and delicious. We were almost tempted to order another one. I also had some Tuscan beans simply dressed with olive oil. We finished off the night with a shot of limoncello and left full and content.

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So please, serve me food on paper placemats bring me wine in a juice glass or a panini from a back alley, at my age I have no interest in paying for candlelight or canal views. When the prices are good and the food is better, that’s when I am happy.

Florence’s Central Market

Part of me wonders if I’m destined to travel the world searching for pockets of San Francisco. In Barcelona, I sought out a hipster coffee shop. In Florence, I found one of my favorite markets but couldn’t help but wonder if part of it’s attraction was how much it reminded me of home. There is no equivalent to European style markets in the U.S., but the sleek upstairs food court filled with local products and rapid fire Italian instantly reminded me of Westfield’s food court in San Francisco.

While it doesn’t have the diversity of Turin’s sprawling market, or the Quadrilatero’s awesome prices :), Florence hold its own.

You can try to take it with you: Cooking Classes in Florence

Initially, I was determined to take a cooking class that wasn’t intended for tourists. This proved somewhat problematic since a) I don’t speak Italian and b) I didn’t want to learn how to make Thai food. Most of the courses offered for Italians aren’t about Italian food because, well, presumably you have a grandmother for that.

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I for one, have a grandmother who is an expert in all things breakfast and learning to cook from her has always been wonderful (with the possible exception of the time I drank sour milk intended for pancakes…). I considered attempting to learn from someone else’s grandmother but quickly found classes, especially the less touristy ones, are often super expensive. I had 7 cities to sift through which was great and terrible. It was terrible because there were so many options way out of range and I got discouraged.

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It was wonderful because I finally found the perfect class in Florence. They advertised a market trip followed by a full day of cooking in the Tuscan hills and were better than their word.
It was somewhat inevitably a little touristy but it was relaxing and luxurious- and the food was really really good.

First they took us on a tour to pick up ingredients adding in a couple fun food stops like the old grain market that got turned into a church (we read about a church elsewhere that lost it’s accreditation and got turned into a quarry) and a bakery where they explained how to this day bread in Florence isn’t made with salt, since for a while it served as currency. Once we’d collected our ingredients we went just a little ways out of Florence to a gorgeous hillside. From then on, it was basically 6 hour of non stop eating (oh and some cooking too I guess).

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First we put the Bolognese sauce on to boil since it would need simmer for most of the afternoon. Next we made bruschetta, a go-to on left over night at my house. If there was one take away from this class, it’s that Italian cooking takes lots and lots of olive oil. Interestingly though, garlic isn’t as universal, just a little in the bruschetta and none in the sauce.

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Next up: homemade pasta. I’ve already mentioned my last foray into homemade pasta (tasty but time consuming). I would definitely recommend rolling rather than hand shaping pasta (at least if you don’t have the practiced fingers of an Italian grandmother). Pasta is surprisingly simple: flour egg and you’re done (after cutting out a gazillion pieces of pasta).

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We were hungry after all that kneading so we headed outside to make some Neapolitan style pizza. Lucky for us, someone had handled the prep work: for real Neapolitan style pizza you have to let the dough rise for around 2 days! It sure makes up for it in cooking time though, 3 minutes in a wicked hot pizza oven and they come out perfectly puffed (a real pizza oven is definitely up there on my “someday list” with the oh so pretty and expensive Kitchen Aid mixer.)


The time had come to get the pork ready. Herbs garlic and (shocker) lots and lots of olive oil.
At last we made tiramisu (marscapone and cold coffee are key). I picked a new method for separating eggs with my fingers (don’t try this at home kids; if your eggs aren’t as incredibly fresh as these were, the yolks might not hold up).

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We also whipped up a boozy batch of amaretti (a crunchy italian almond cookie) gelato which was basically pure cream.
Finally, the time had come to eat (well again). It was all delicious especially with the chianti wine we had to wash it down.


The pork was unbelievably juicy the potatoes were crisp and the pasta was only slight uneven. The tiramisu was light (probably all those uncooked egg whites, sorry mom, I know you taught me better). The gelato was creamy and sweet.
We received our, I was highly amused to note, “certificates of attendance” (and I thought there couldn’t be a lower bar than participation…).
So maybe we aren’t certified Italian chefs just yet; but if you have to start somewhere the Tuscan hills aren’t a bad place. So maybe you can take it with you (well at least techniques, sorry guys, your soft cheeses and meat will be confiscated by customs)