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the Amuse(d) Bouche

the Amuse(d) Bouche

Cooking at Home in Paris

As much as we like to eat out, you just can’t do that all the time and keep your girlish figure…so, as a rule, we generally cook at home about 50% of our meals.    The food shopping spree left us with enough food for all of our breakfasts, a couple of lunches and a couple of dinners.

Breakfast, French style:

We were talking before about how “civilized” the French are, especially in their attitude toward dining. This is something that has always irked Americans—not the fact that the French are civilized, rather the fact that they keep reminding us that they are. Anyone with half a brain can see how civilized they are— French children in fancy restaurants do not fidget or make any noise, they do not need their hand helds to distract them from having to be at a table with adults. They just sit there quietly enjoying their escargo while contemplating their next course. That’s civilized. Alas, I digress….

We are going to make a quick dinner from the gourmet scavenger hunt that we were on yesterday.

First, gather up all of the ingredients:

Check out the nice packaging of the fully prepared chicken:

Check all of our ingredients: The Chicken and the Potatoes (we’re gonna roast them together)

Split the fingerling potatoes in half, chop about a quarter cup of parsely and slice up a couple of cloves of garlic:

Mix all of the ingredients for the potatoes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper:

And then finish preparing the chicken by (using Julia’s recipe) rubbing the little bird all over with butter then salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, or 165 degrees Celsius. Set the chicken on top of the potatoes in an oven proof roasting pan.

Squeeze some lemon on top of the chicken, add just a little water to the bottom of the dish, and roast for about an hour. I didn’t have a thermometer with me; however, a good rule of thumb is 20 minutes a pound for chickens. I also didn’t trust the oven, figuring that it was probably slow—so I gave it an hour.

Meanwhile, start to prepare the first course, the salad, and the asparagus:

A good ratio for salad dressing is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts olive oil, and since we are in France, a dab of dijon mustard. Remember to peel the bottoms of the asparagus if they are thick.
I like to grill asparagus, rather than steam them—grilling retains the color and you can keep them al dente. Nearly every apartment that we have ever rented in Europe always includes a grill pan in the kitchen and this one was no different.

While we are waiting for the chicken to finish roasting, lemme tell you about the kitchen shops that I use in Paris…this is where we were shopping today. They are all in the same area of Paris so that makes it a lot easier. I always go to Duthilleul & Minart, 14 Rue de Turbigo, metro: Etienne Marcel (http://duthilleuletminart.lookreflex.com/). It is a professional uniform store. Here I find chef coats, bandanas, aprons, just about anything for the well dressed chef. This store has been here for a very long time. It is very professional and very French. You will not find Hot Chili Chef Pants here, only what is proper to be worn and used in the French kitchen. They also carry a large assortment of Italian Chef Coats, Asian and British coats. Beware that the French sizes are very small. A large French Jacket is about a medium in the states. The salespeople are very good at sizing and very respectful. Always remember when you walk into and leave a shop to say “Bon Jour, Madame or Monsieur” even if you do not speak French. This is the civilized behavior that I was talking about. That Bon Jour will go a long ways once you start blabbing away in English (first , of course, ask politely if they speak English). In most all of these stores, they do speak English—usually with a British accent.

Next I walk down the street to M.O.R.A. , 13 Rue Montmartre, metro stop: Les Halles (www.mora.fr/). Whatever you might need in the way of utensils, especially pastry and chocolate making, and paper products, can be found at M.O.R.A. Here you first grab a basket, they you must have an assistant package and price everything that is in the basket. He or she will hand you a receipt which you will take to the cashier and pay. He or she will stamp your receipt and you stand in line to pick up or nicely wrapped merchandise.

The next store is called A. Simon and there are two of them—one for equipment and one for tableware 48-52 Rue Montmartre, metro stop: Les Halles.    This is probably the nicest store for all kinds of kitchen equipment. Their pricing is set for professionals as well. If there is one piece of equipment that I would suggest you buy in Paris, and you have room in your bag, it would be a good mandoline. A. Simon would be the place for it.

My last stop is at the King of all professional Kitchen Stores: E. DEHILLERIN,    18 et 20, rue Coquillière – 51, rue Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Metro Stop, Etienne Marcel (www.e-dehillerin.fr/en/index.php). This is the mecca for all aspiring and accomplished chefs—they have everything. The personnel are helpful and patient. While we were just getting ready to go in, the skies opened up and it poured, I mean really poured. We rushed in to find a scene in the front of the store that perhaps only Woody Allen could have written. There were four American women there, from the south, with their husbands in tow. All speaking at once in a southern drawl about some pepper shakers that they saw in a restaurant the night before and now wanted to buy (I betcha, too, that there was not a “Bon Jour Monsieur among them). The French salesman spoke English just fine, he was just having a lot of trouble understanding their southern accent and was trying to help them as they all spoke at once. They had a long list of items that each one wanted to buy. They would tell him what they wanted, he woul d go and get it, there would then be a debate amongst the four whether it was 1) what they needed; 2) what they wanted; 3) what they could afford, calculating the exchange rate and converting to dollars….all to the Greek chorus of their husbands lamenting the fact that it wouldn’t fit in their carry-ons, beside they could get it cheaper at the local store in Alabama. By this time all of the salesmen in the store were rolling their eyes and wringing their hands, and wishing that they would go away.

We watched this scene like someone watches a train wreck…you don’t want to watch it, but you can’t look away. At some point one of the women looked at me and drawled, “I just don’t know why he doesn’t understand what we said.” I looked her right in the eye and said “Mi dispiace, signora, ma non parlo Inglese.”    “ I am sorry, Madam, but I do not speak English.”

Elliott said that I wasn’t being very civil.

Chicken is done!

I always carve the chicken so that we enjoy the chicken breast for dinner, and I save the chicken legs and thighs for lunch the next day. I usually put them in a sandwich or on top of a salad.

Allo…first course:


We chose a nice Sancerre rose for this, bread from our local bakery, cheese from the fromagerie on Rue Cler, Olives from Bon Marche.

Plat Principle:

Followed by the Salad and all the goodies that we got at Hediard.

This was the salad that I made the next day with the leftover legs….and of course, some olive bread from our local bakery.


Trust me, this bread was as good as it looked.


Don’t ever be intimidated by cooking at home when you travel. It is a good way to relax, eat some real food, and control the fat and the Euros. As you can see, it is really easy. We haven’t even scratched the surface on all of the 1000’s of gourmet take away…..

Oui, Oui… We’re Dining In Paris

We have sublet apartments in Paris before, and I have to say that our experience has been that Parisian apartments are better equipped than Italian ones—the kitchens especially. We sublet this time from Paris Address (http://www.parisaddress.com/). We have an artist’s loft in the 11th arrondissement, just the other side of the Marais. It is in a real neighborhood with an elementary school on one side and a bakery on the other. About a block walk to the metro.

You can see the great kitchen!

We arrived by train from Milan on Sunday afternoon. Couple of things: I didn’t think that we were gonna get here, there was a train strike in Italy (ok, someone is always on strike in Italy, they even have a strike hot line in Rome that you can call to see who is on strike that day), and they cancelled all of the trains…..except for the one that we were taking. Turned out it was a TGV French train and that saved it. And two, we were arriving in Paris on Sunday afternoon—everything, and I mean everything, was closed. The French take Sundays even more seriously than the Italians. We did notice that our neighborhood alimentarie was open , so we could buy a few things for breakfast in the morning.

Shopping in France is very similar to shopping in Italy with all of the same types of stores. There is a difference in that the department store was born here in France and in Paris, there are some wonderful ones—all with food emporiums on the first floor. We set out on Monday to do some serious food shopping and we visited some specialty shops, our neighborhood farmer’s market and Epicerie Bon Marche. Like the Parisians, we decided to shop for only a couple of meals. Mostly, we like to eat breakfast in when we travel, so we looked for breakfast items and something to make for dinner. No one can bake bread like the French, and even the most modest neighborhood bakery is fabulous and inexpensive. We cannot resist going in the morning to buy fresh croissants, pain au chocolat, or quiche.

The farmer’s markets all have asparagus, leeks, strawberries, raspberries… grapes, currants…


I should mention that when we are in Paris we take the Metro everywhere. It is the best public transit system in the world. At any one time, there are 1000 subway trains running under the streets of Paris. You never have to wait more than 5 minutes for the next one. When it starts to rain, or our feet give out, we take a taxi. If you are here for an extended time, buy a carnet of 10 tickets—it is a discounted price and they work on all forms of public transit. Just don’t throw your ticket away—at any time the French Transit Police can ask you for your ticket and if you do not have it, they can arrest you. The first night we were here, Elliott tossed his and sure enough, 2 blocks from home, he was asked for his ticket. It took a lot of explaining and pleading, but they let him go.

The specialty stores are very similar to the ones in Italy. One of our favorite shopping streets is the Rue Cler—there are so many wonderful food shops here, you can find just about everything that you need.

Cheeses:

The shopkeepers are very professional and very proud of their products!

Charcuterie:

I mean, what’s a chef to do….I bought some of everything…..of course. Then I had to check in with the Epicerie at Bon Marche—this is sort of like Bristol Farms on steroids. This is the scene that greeted us as we walked in:

Not one, not even 10, but many many types of fresh tomatoes from which to choose—all displayed like a florist shop. At Bon Marche there is always a man or woman who weighs your choices and prices them for the cashier. You bag your own selections; he just weighs them for you. Every different department has someone there to help you. We decided that we were going to roast a chicken for dinner with some roasted potatoes, some asparagus, and a salad.

I specifically chose a small chicken; it weighed only a couple of pounds, called a Coquelet Mieral. This young man prepped it for me. He cleaned all of the remaining feathers, trimmed off the extra fat, and asked me what types of herbs that I wanted stuffed into the cavity and then trussed it for me.

Talk about service!

OK, now if you really want to see some gorgeous food, head over to the Place Madeleine where you will find Fouchon and Hediard—these places, like Peck in Milan, are like condensed versions of Dean and DeLuca carried out to the 10th degree. Check out the windows at Hediard:

And another shot of those berries!

Check out the fruit!

And the dried Fruits, too:

Finally the Chocolates…

The proper response in French when presented with all of this largesse, is to say, “I will take some of each”…..so we did. In the next blog I will show you what we did with all that we bought. As Julia would say: “Bon Appetit!”

 

 

Eating with the Family in the Veneto—and a recipe!

I always love visiting my Italian family in the Veneto. First, because they are wonderful people, and second, because I always eat well—whether we go out or eat at home, we just eat well. It reminds me so much of when I was young and enjoyed my Grandmother’s Sunday suppers. When Italians are at the table, they are at their best. Everyone talks at once, and not lightly: politics, religion, the neighbors down the street, nothing is sacred, and whoever is not there is the one who gets discussed thoroughly.

This is the view from my Cousin Adriana’s front door:

And this is the view from the back door:

The Veneto is an important wine district in Italy, and if there is empty ground anywhere, it will be planted out in grapes.

For this dinner, everyone was invited, there were to be 12 of us. A few of the cousins, I had not seen for about 10 years. When all of the sisters get together to cook, it is bound to be an extravaganza. First the table is set:

Naturally we began with salumi. Many Italian households have their own slicer in the kitchen. Italian women buy large chunks of prosciutto or salami and cut it themselves. This is my cousin Gigi in Adriana’s kitchen prepping the salumi platters.    Gigi and his wife Gabriela used to own a fabulous restaurant in the Soave valley—they just sold it. In fact, Gigi has been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years. They are coming to visit us next month, and Gigi has agreed to be our sommelier for a weekend during his visit. I can tell you right now, the man knows wine and he knows wine service. At the restaurant, he worked in the front and his wife Gabriella worked in the kitchen. More about Gabri later.

And onto the table it goes!

Every salumi needs a close up!

After the antipasto is the pasta—this is Gabri’s very special pasta, she makes it with fresh squeezed blood orange juice and mascarpone cheese. The secret ingredient is that she makes her own pasta.

Gabriella’s Orange and Leek Pasta
 Fresh Pappardelle pasta, enough for 4
 1ea    Leek, cleaned and chopped
 2ea    Blood Oranges, juiced
 2tbl    Olive Oil
 1.5-2 cups    Mascarpone Cheese
 1⁄4 cup    Grated Parmesan Cheese
 To taste    Salt and Pepper

Here is the play by play:

Saute the chopped leek in the olive oil until translucent, then add the blood orange juice

Simmer until the leek is soft, but not mushy and reduce the juice by about half. Then add the Mascarpone Cheese.

Mix Well.

You’re looking for a very creamy sauce:

Meanwhile cook the fresh Pappardelle—remember, when the pasta floats, it is done:

Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce

Don’t forget the Parmesan and mix well.

Then we plate:

This is quite possibly the most delicate pasta that I have ever eaten. Gabri says that she stole it from a chef in Milano, we’ll never really know the whole story…

Moving right along, we have the next course (you didn’t really think that we were done did you?) Adriana fixed a beautiful steak for 12. Now, Italians don’t normally eat a steak like Americans. They will take a 16 oz steak and that will feed 4 nicely. First we cook the steak to rare:


Then we slice thinly across the grain, and lay it out on a plate and drizzle with a good quality of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

For the steak Adri also roasted some potatoes and Gabri had fixed some Pepperonata. But wait, we’re still not done! The cheese course:

And there were about 3 different desserts too, but by that time I was seriously struggling to stay in my chair—forgot to mention all of the great wine from the Veneto, I’ll let Elliott tell you about that, but I do remember a couple of Valpolicella’s, some Passito, about 3 dessert wines.

And that, my friends is what dining in Italy is all about: you won’t find your Chicken Parm, or your spaghetti with meatballs, but what you will get is a gastronomical celebration of what is in season and what is local, family all coming together, smaller amounts of pasta and proteins, though varied throughout the meal, wines that match the food (each course, in fact), and a lot of attention to detail. These are the same qualities that we try to copy at LUCCA.

Cooking at the Farm House in Bologna

We had quite a shopping spree in Bologna and now I am going to show you how to make a really fast meal. In Bologna in the stores, they wrapped up everything beautifully. First thing we have to unload and unwrap.

Of course we begin with a beautiful plate of salumi:

And now the pasta!

I bought 400 grams of truffled Tortellonis in Bologna. Usually you use about 200 grams per person. I did a reduction of the can of tomatoes (pictured above)—just like I explained in the first recipe for Pasta Norma.

First you sauté some garlic in olive oil:

Then you add the reduced tomatoes and a big bunch of chopped parsley:


Let that simmer for awhile and reduce. Meanwhile, this is the tortelloni that we bought in Bologna: Heat some heavily salted water to a boil and put the tortelloni in only until they float.

Drain and add to the sauce:

Let the pasta absorb some of the sauce for a little while, then ya plate and douse with Parmesan Cheese and a little knob of butter—we are, after all, in Bologna, where butter reigns supreme!

For the second plate, we fixed the porchetta that we bought at the local market—a little olive oil in the pan, a few sage leaves and you got it. A glass of vernaccia completes it.

A Day Devoted to Shopping and Eating in Italy

Tuesday is the local market day in the small town near the farm where we are staying—Borgo San Lorenzo—so we decided that we would start with the local market in town, then drive to Bologna for lunch and then come back and cook at the farm house. Unlike in the cities where the markets are open every day, in the small towns in Italy, there is usually only one market day and all the vendors come in to display their wares.    There are vendors for everything—shoes, clothes, house wares, vegetables, fruits, a butcher, a fish monger, the cheese guy, and lots of others. I made a beeline for the Porchetta Vendor. Usually a whole hog is boned and rolled and roasted in anticipation of selling it all by the slice or the sandwich during the 6 or so hours of the market.

This is what it looked like. Now, how can you resist that? We bought several slices that we would warm and have for dinner tonight. The booths are small and specialized. This is the booth with the porchetta.

Some are like catering trucks, like this cheese vendor.

We spent a lot of time at the local market just looking at all of the great things that were available. We bought what we needed for dinner and then set out for Bologna—about an hour’s drive from Borgo San Lorenzo. It is a good thing that we also rented a GPS—it directs us right to where we need to go. In Italy, the streets signage and directions are not as pronounced as in the US and you can really get lost (now that would be an understatement). I programmed the GPS to take us the tourist information office in Bologna, and about an hour later we had arrived in the city and were winding our way through the narrow streets of the old part of city. We were just going by what the GPS was telling us turning
down one street, then baring left into another, trusting that the device would get us there. All of a sudden we found ourselves on Piazza Maggiore—Bologna’s major square, about the size of 3 football fields. Now this would not have been so bad, except for the fact that it is a pedestrian square. There we were among all of the tourists winding our way around the square, trying to find an exit for the car. At some point I do recall passing the tourist information office on the square. For about a nano second there was not a cop around–usually the carabinieri (the cops) are parked in the square just watching for any trouble—or idiots trying to drive on a pedestrian square.    It was around lunch time, so maybe they were on their lunch break. Nevertheless, it felt like we were in the middle of a Fellini film-one of the crowd scenes with 3 or 4,000 people. We finally drove off the curb to the blaring of taxi cab horns, and the gesturing of the drivers. By a small miracle, we found a parking garage.

I knew that there was a tangled net of old streets just adjacent to the Piazza Maggiore that are food shopping streets. First we were gonna eat. We found an enoteca (Wine bar, just on the edge of the market. Since we were in Bologna, we began with Culatello di Zibello. Culatello is the heart of of the prosciutto, and before it is cured, it is soaked in white wine for a week. Check out the marbling.

Of course, because we were in Bologna, we had to eat Lasagna Bolognese…

This really is melt in your mouth good. And typical of Bologna, they use spinach flavored pasta. With this, I had a great Rose from Emilia Romana. You will also notice that the lasagna is not as tall as what you find in the states and a much bigger slice. This is probably the best way to serve the lasagna, because it does not dry out. It was only about an inch thick, by about 4 or 5 inches square. Maybe 3 layers total. Coupla coffees and we were on our way to check out the markets.

One thing is certain, the Bolognese know how to eat. Everywhere we turned was a fabulous food shop. You cannot swing a stale baguette without hitting something good to eat. The shopkeepers are very proud of their wares, and the stores are spotless.

Bologna is famous for food, most especially the filled pastas— tortellinis, tortellonis, raviolis, you name it. Many of the gourmet shops have them in many flavors and you buy them by the kilo.

I was getting giddy just looking at the choices!

These shops are just amazing. This photo below is of large slabs of lardo. They cure it lashed to tree branches—one to keep the whole lardo straight, and the other reason is to give it some other flavor.

Of course, you will find the best prosciutto in Bologna, because prosciutto was born in Parma, not far away. And they take their pork very seriously here.

Salamis are everywhere, every differ size and shape and flavor:

The butcher shops are immaculate, they will even tell you how to cook something and what to go with it!

These are skewers, ready for the BBQ:

The fruits and vegetable stands are also amazing:

Check out these basket tomatoes:

We got everything that we needed for a feast and set out for home to have dinner. All in all a pretty good day, if you forget about the part where we found ourselves in a car on Piazza Maggiore.

Under the Tuscan Sun

Our journey continues…

We decided that between Rome and Paris, we would spend some time out in the country in Tuscany and I researched a lot of places and finally settled on “the Monsignore della Casa Country Resort and Spa.”    In Italy when it says “Resort,” it is not quite the same connotation as it is in English. Generally, it just means a place out in the country. This place, though, is really special and fairly remote. You would definitely need to have a car to get here.    We have a small farm house on the site. It is perfectly equipped, the kitchen is wonderful and there is service for 8.

In addition, the owners are gracious and will help you with anything that you might need. This is the off- season in Italy, so the cost of renting this little house is very reasonable. During the high season in the summer it will go for upwards of $600 a night. It does sleep 4 comfortably, and 6, if need be.

This is the view from our front door:

It is truly a Tuscan masterpiece. There is a cherry tree right outside our front door, and I know that the restaurant here has its own kitchen garden.

There will be cherries in about a month and a half!

We rented a car in Rome and drove here. Now…..renting a car in Italy….we did it the easy way, we went to AAA in California and had them arrange everything for us. Picking up the car in Rome and dropping it off in Milan. That was the easy part. On the last day in Rome we got into a taxi and went to pick up the car. We had reservations, it had already been paid for…yada yada yada…when we got there to the train station to the Hertz counter, there was a line (of course it was the only counter with a line….). When you rent a car in Italy, no matter how much preparation has been done, plan to wait—the documents will be scrutinized over and over, and then someone else will be called in to scrutinize them, papers (and I mean papers) must be signed, computers must be consulted, in the old days, a fingerprint was taken too. I bought a house in California in less time than it took to rent a car (with reservations, pre paid) in Rome. Also be prepared that the cars are not anywhere near the counter; it will be a bit of a schlep to the parking garage. That said, we took off for Tuscany….luckily, we rented a GPS for the car.

The first night that we were here we drove into Florence for dinner, parked at the train station and began to look for a restaurant that had been recommended in a guide book. It was pouring rain and we walked and walked and walked, only to find that the restaurant had been closed….nice. So I consulted my book, we changed direction and walked and walked and walked (in the rain) until we got to another recommended restaurant….it was full. At this point, we are lost and it is raining. We are in a part of Florence that tourists don’t see. There were no cabs. We turned around and saw a small restaurant and decided to give it a closer look. It was an osteria (an Inn) called Osteria Dago. http://www.osteriadagofirenze.com/.    From the moment we walked inside, it was pure magic. This is a restaurant that tourists don’t much see. Turns out it just opened 2 years ago. It is owned by a husband and wife—he is the chef and she works the front. The service was gracious, and the food, OMG! This is a must try when in Florence. We had a beautiful asparagus risotto, followed by an incredible Florentine Beef Steak.


The Chef presented the T-Bone carved off the bone, with roasted potatoes and grilled artichokes… and of course, some extra virgin olive oil for drizzling. The server told us how to get back to our car (all the short cuts, so we didn’t walk around in a circle in the rain), and we said a heartfelt “Buona Sera.”

Tomorrow Bologna….and eating like a Bolognese!

Cooking in Rome: Pasta Norma [RECIPE]

Pasta Norma is actually a Sicilian pasta, and it is named after Puccini’s opera “Norma” because it is thought that no other pasta has this perfect symphony of flavors.

For 2 or 3
Couple of Italian Eggplants, sliced
2ea   Garlic Cloves, minced
3tbl   Olive oil
1can   San Marzano tomatoes, or plum tomatoes
1 bunch   Fresh Basil
4slices   Fresh Mozzarella di Buffala
3tbl  Grated Parmesan
To taste   Salt
To taste   Pepper
1lb    Penne pasta or pappardelle

The first thing that you want to do is salt your eggplant—give the slices a generous sprinkling of sea salt, set them in a colander and put a weight on it. Let them sit for about an hour—look for the dark water that seeps from the eggplants. This is an old grandma’s trick to take away the bitterness from the eggplants. You want to rinse off the slices and dry them thoroughly. By salting the eggplant, you will also use less oil when you cook them—eggplants are like big natural sponges, they will absorb as much as you put in the pan.    While the eggplant is crying (yes, in Italian, that is what they call it). Open the can of tomatoes , put them in a pan on medium heat and reduce the liquid. When they have simmered for about 15 minutes, hit them with a burr mixer (or use a couple of forks) to puree them. Continue to reduce them until they are the consistency of watery ketchup. Slice the mozzarella.

Heat the olive oil in the sauté pan and add the eggplant, fry until mostly soft and a little brown, then add the garlic and continue cooking until the garlic is translucent.    Add the tomatoes to the eggplant in the frying pan and simmer it all together.    Cook the pasta (add enough salt so that the water tastes like sea water). Drain the pasta. Just before adding the pasta to the sauce, julienne the basil and add it to the sauce. Check for salt and pepper (yes, even though you salted the eggplant, the sauce is gonna want some salt). Add the pasta to the sauce and toss. Add some Parmesan cheese and toss again. Then portion it out onto plates and put the buffalo mozzarella on top. Add more Parmesan.

Note: Don’t take seriously the print on the reverse side of the lb of pasta that says “5 to 6 servings” who are they kidding? I would say 1 lb of pasta will serve 3 nicely.

These are most of the ingredients + the knife that I got from my friendly housewares vendor:


And the notorious stove and kitchen:


Blew another couple of circuits, but luckily the electricity went right back on! These are my herb scissors that I also got from the housewares vendor. Cool, huh?

They really julienne great!

Here’s a shot of the progress:

Then we plate—always check for salt and pepper!

Enjoy!

Shopping in Rome

I long ago gave up trying to buy clothes in Italy (ok, when I was younger and a lot smaller and hip—and the dollar was stronger– I did get some cool stuff). And Italian shoes…..well, you remember what I said about the “bella figura” right?    They are gorgeous, seductive even, and they slip right on and you convince yourself that you absolutely should take them home. And from the time you get them home they pinch your feet like an unrelenting vise. Like teenagers on a rage, they rebel at every possible moment. Nah, now I shop for kitchen things, books, and food. A lot safer.

Rome does not have the incredible kitchen stores that we will see in Paris. There are, however, a couple of notables:

C.U.C.I.N.A is pretty cool and there are about 4 of them in the city (http://www.cucinastore.com/). I can honestly say that I have spent hours in this store—the one up by the Spanish Steps. Another fabulous place is actually a collection of restaurants and it is called ‘Gusto (http://www.gusto.it/). This is located just opposite the Ara Pacis museum, on the Piazza Ara Pacis. They have just about everything here including a bookstore with lots and lots of cook books. The complex also has an Enoteca, a Pizzeria, an Osteria, and a Ristorante. A third store, “Spazio Sette,” is a magnificent display of anything Italian relating to kitchens (http://www.spaziosette.it/).

I usually rely on my neighborhood market and the kitchen gadget man. This trip we went down to Testaccio to the Neighborhood market there and found the motherload of kitchen gadgets.

The quality is generally pretty good and reasonably priced—though read the labels; you want to buy something made in Italy, not China. I bought some herb scissors—that you will see later, and a really good kitchen knife, for about $18.


There are several ways to shop for groceries in Rome. Unlike Americans who like to shop for a week’s worth of groceries at a time, Italians shop for one meal at a time (probably because they all have tiny refrigerators that alternately freeze or warm their purchases).    There are supermarkets here in the city, they are just hidden well. I mentioned “Billa” in the first blog—it is a chain in the basement of the Standa Department Stores; there is also a chain called “Despar.” This trip I have used both of these markets. There are small alimentarias, gastronomias, and pasticcerias—like Castroni, Franchi, and il Fornaio–also mentioned in the first blog. Then there are public neighborhood markets, and each neighborhood has one. Perhaps the best known is the open air market at Campo di Fiori. Usually you can find a fish monger, a butcher or two or three, a housewares booth, a cheese shop, bakery, and many many produce vendors. There is a market in the Monti district that has only organic products. Most markets open with a flower vendor stall. The one in Testacchio even has a pet supply booth . These markets are open from about 8am to noon or 1pm only.


The fish monger had some of the freshest fish that I have seen. Those are Branzinos, by the way. At about $8.5 a pound.

Bread, produce in season, you name it. Romans really take their crust seriously. They like the smaller bread rolls with a lot of crust, they even go out of their way to create more—layers and layers of crust.

We have eaten our weight in artichokes this trip—fried, poached with mint, grated into a salad, all very fresh and very good.

And we happened to be in season for rare wild strawberries, grown in the country outside of Rome. These are about the size of your little finger nail and so packed with flavor it is unbelievable. We have been eating them for breakfast every morning.


So, many opportunities for different marketing experiences—none will be similar to what you experience in the US. As mentioned before in the smaller specialized shops, you tell the person behind the counter what you want and they hand you a receipt, you pay at the cashier and then go back and pick up your stuff, all neatly wrapped and tied with a bow. In the public markets, the products are generally fresher, a lot of the produce is picked that day. Here, you cannot help yourself, you tell the vendor what you want and he or she puts it in a bag for you and weighs it. Most of the vendors are very friendly, and they will on occasion slip in a few extra things into your bag on the house—a smile goes a long way. I love these markets for their color and choices.

You might think that shopping in a supermarket would be easier than the options listed above and you would be right, to a point. In Rome, out on the street, you are constantly dodging vehicles—cars, motorbikes, mopeds. Now imagine Italians with shopping carts; they drive them the same way. I usually stick with a hand basket. When you get up to pay, everyone forms a line at the cashier (which is unusual for Italians to wait in line). There is a little protocol: you do not put your groceries onto the belt until the person ahead of you has finished with all of their stuff, and inevitably, this usually includes a long conversation with the cashier about the state of her mother’s health, the price of zucchini, and how her son is doing in school. Just when you think that it is your turn, the cashier’s cell phone rings and she is having an argument with her boyfriend about the coming weekend and having to spend it with his mother. One hand is on the phone, and the other hand is gesturing in the air (instead of on the cash register where it should be). The line stops dead. Oh, and each person is usually asked if they need a plastic bag (you bag your own stuff—and pay for the bag) and if you have the exact change— every time. You would think that people would anticipate this by now, have the cash ready…..but no, in fact they always look surprised that they even have to pay at all. Then the fishing begins, looking in pockets, checking the purse, until the right amount is found. Then there is another cell phone call, another argument, which is just as well because the person ahead of you still has to bag her purchases.

Finally, it is my turn….”do you need a bag, do you have the exact change,” I hear her say, aw crap, where DID I put those Euros?

Italian Easter

Most Italians spend the Easter Holidays with their families and friends—they gather as a family for Easter and then the next day—Monday, (a National Holiday) in Italian called Pasqualina (little Easter), is spent with friends, usually outside for a picnic. Since we had just gotten in, I didn’t want to roast a leg of lamb (besides….just WAIT until I tell you about the oven in our sublet apartment), so we went out. About 30 years ago I had gone to a restaurant out on the Via Appia Antica; basically the countryside and where most of the catacombs are located.    I wanted to see what had happened to it in all that time. So after trudging over to hear Pope Benedict XVI send his blessing and offer peace to the citizens of Rome and to the world (that was us and about 300,000 other pilgrims, an intimate gathering in the Piazza San Pietro). We snagged what looked to be the last cab leaving the city of Rome for the Ristorante L’Archeologia. (http://www.larcheologia.it/) This was quite a ways out in the country and more than a few times I wondered how we were going to get back, but the thought of someone else cooking for me made me get over this quickly. This restaurant is very famous for it’s outdoor wood burning ovens and it didn’t disappoint.

This is the outside kitchen and the oven behind. It sits right in the middle of the garden outside, I felt right at home.    In almost all Italian restaurants you can see what they have that is fresh that day, by what is on display—in this case it is artichoke, asparagus, and puntarelle season here in Rome. And lots of citrus.

Servers take your order and hand them to the chef behind the counter, meanwhile everyone is invited to walk around and take a look at what’s cooking. There are two outside ovens. I wanted to jump back there and check them out.

We were seated in the garden in the patio:

They were offering oven roasted suckling pig, roasted lamb, and so many great things, but we opted to start with a pasta and then get a whole oven roasted turbot, boned tableside. Turbot is hard to find in the states and they cook it so well in Italy. Generally, it is my habit to eat my weight in fish while in Italy. Italians prefer to eat smaller whole fish, rather than the fillets and steaks that are so popular in the states. If you have ever had our Branzino in rock salt at LUCCA you know what I’m sayin’…

I was too busy gawking at the ovens to realize that our fish had arrived, or I would have shot a photo of the monster before the server began to filet….but you get the picture.

We decided after lunch to “walk it off” and start to walk back to Rome, thinking well, maybe, we can catch a bus (However, we had to have bought tickets in the city beforehand)…we were even thinking about playing the innocent Americans and just jump on a bus that came by….but none did. We kept walking. I figured that I was good for about a mile in the shoes that I was wearing, while mentally calculating how far away the closest metro stop might be. ‘Bout 3 miles if my memory served me. We were just about at the spot on the Apian Way where Jesus was said to have revealed himself to St. Peter as Peter was fleeing the city of Rome to avoid persecution (Domine Quo Vadis…Peter said: “Sir, where are you going?” and Christ said, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again” Peter returned to the City with hime and was martyred). And just as I was contemplating that and the fact that it was Easter, a lone cab pulled up behind us and asked if we needed a ride! Needless to say, we jumped in and I asked him to take us to the Coliseum and Forum (I figured that we would walk the rest of the way back to the apartment from there).

 

Of course as we were walking back, we had to go by the Spanish Steps. Remember what I was saying about clean rest rooms? Well, there is a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps with the largest and cleanest public toilets in Rome (you heard it here first!), then we headed over to the Trevi Fountain with all of the other pilgrims. My motives were different, however; near the Trevi Fountain is possibly the best ice cream shop in Rome. It is called the Gelateria di San Crispino (http://www.ilgelatodisancrispino.it/index.php?lang=en). Now, most Americans think that when they go in they can only get one flavor of the ice cream in the cup, Italians know that you can get two or three, just ask. I got half Valrona dark Chocolate and half Caramel Cream. Elliott got Lemon Basil Sorbet with Coconut Ice Cream. I liked mine better.

Ok, enough of the travel log, back to renting apartments in Europe. I had mentioned earlier about the Italian “Bella Figura.” Bella Figura means that you always put on a beautiful front, no matter what (and no matter what is inside—think FIAT). The apartment that we have rented is absolutely beautiful, they have taken every care to make it look wonderful…. however, there is a reason that I always travel with an extension cord, adaptors, and a bathtub plug. There are two things in a European apartment that will become either your friends or your enemies: the plumbing and the electricity. You really have to be flexible and you have to have some basic knowledge. Always find out where the fuse box is and where they keep the plunger and the water heater. In this apartment, the kitchen is brand spanking new with a refrigerator, stove, microwave, washing machine, oven, and dishwasher. You should also know that even when an Italian refrigerator is plugged in, there is a switch (that looks like a light switch) above it that turns it on and off. The first day we loaded up the refrigerator and went out for the day and turned off the lights—we thought. We turned off the refrigerator and mostly lost everything we had just put in it. I replaced them with new items and cranked it up to medium. The next morning, everything was frozen.    I put some bread into the oven to heat it up for breakfast and the electrical circuit blew. The refrig and the oven are on the same circuit and apparently, you cannot use both of them at the same time.    Well, duh.


The instant water heater decided to also shut down in sympathy for the other appliances. We found the fuse box and reset the switch. Damn, if it didn’t happen again. We reset it again, and I climbed up on a stool to reset the water heater (which is hung high on the wall). And tried it again and blew it again. Ok, so that’s why that switch is on the wall: first you turn off the refrigerator, then you can use the oven or the dishwasher, when you are finished with the oven, you turn it off, then turn the refrig back on (but ya gotta remember to turn the refrig back on before you leave). Every Italian apartment has it’s electrical sweet spot, you just have to find them, and be very patient in the process. I have a collection of adaptors and plugs that I always bring with me—they don’t take up too much space and they really come in handy. Italy has one basic electrical plug and two different sized prongs, narrow and wide. Inevitably, your appliance with wide prongs will not fit into the outlet with narrow openings…..hence the adaptors. And the bathtub plug is self-explanatory, though I have been known to use a wadded up plastic bag in a pinch.

 

On the good news side, I found a wonderful kitchenware street vendor! Really cool stuff!

And I have been eating my weight in Spaghetti with Clams (Spaghetti con le Vongole Veraci)!

 

Europe On Your Own (or with a little help from your friends…)

Our European vacation begins…

For several years, Elliott and I have sublet apartments in the US and in Europe, shopped at the local markets and cooked at home (this is not to say that we don’t eat out at some fabulous places—more on this later). It is not as difficult as you would imagine, mostly less expensive than a hotel, more comfortable, and usually a little more real. I figured that I would share some of these experiences with you. We are going to be in an apartment in the historic center of Rome, at villa in the North of Tuscany (about 20 miles north of Florence), with relatives in the Veneto, and an artist’s loft in the center of Paris.

I knew that we had arrived in Italy, when upon landing the cockpit door flew open with a roar of frenzied soccer fans on Italian radio. Both the pilot and the co-pilot high fived one another— with a lot of ‘atta boys– as Rome scored the winning goal against Pescara (you’d have thought that they themselves scored that goal). I have actually been on a Roman bus during the World Cup when Italy was playing Germany and the bus driver had the match cranked up as loud as he could; finally, he pulled over and made us all get off so that he could concentrate better on the game. When someone complained to a cop nearby, he got on the bus, and then closed the door behind him so that both of them could better concentrate on the game. Welcome to Italy.

This time we chose to rent an apartment through Home Away Rome (http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rentals/italy/rome/r2440). If you want to see where we are staying, click on: http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p894905. They have completely renovated the place since the photos were shot—so it is even better than in the photos. The owner informed us that we were the first guests to stay at Crown Orsetto since the remodel. We have found that most places that we have rented are pretty much true to the photos on the rental site. This is a 16th century palazzo right on the Piazza Navonna. The location is incredible, and the apartment is beautiful….more about the details and the Italian penchant for “la bella figura” later.

This is the view from our living room window:

First a couple of rules for traveling in Italy: Do not give nasty looks to smokers (this is not California)—it just annoys them and frustrates you.

When crossing the street (especially in the cities), do not ever lose eye contact with drivers, instead, stare them down, better yet, grab a nun and cross the street with her—there is not an Italian alive who would hit a nun, a priest maybe, but never a nun.

If you are shopping on the street, do not pay the asking price, shake your head, mumble to yourself and walk away—they will come after you with a better deal.

Italy is a pay it forward country, meaning that everything is paid for in advance. You must purchase transit tickets before you get on the bus, subway, train, etc (and these can only be purchased at a tobacco shop—which interestingly are closed on holidays). You pay the cashier in a bar before you order (I know, I know, it is crazy but they have been doing it for 100 years). So, you have to know in advance what you want before you order.    In other food shops you tell the person behind the counter what you want, he or she presents you with a receipt, which you then present to a cashier (there is always a cashier, usually the owner’s mother), she tears it, gives the nod of approval and you can go back and pick up your goodies.

Pay attention to opening and closing times, everything is different; stores close in the middle of day when restaurants open for lunch (usually between 12:30 and 1pm), when restaurants are open, there are very few food stores open—except for supermarkets which, although they are becoming more plentiful, are harder to find. When the restaurants close (at about 3pm), the stores open again until about 7or 8pm. Open air markets are only open during the morning until about 1pm. Each store has one closed day a week and it varies.

Location, location, location. The same espresso that you paid .80 Euro for while standing in the neighborhood bar will cost you 3.5 Euro to 5.0 Euro (depending on the view) if you sit down.

You can assume that most older people do not speak English, and most younger people do.
Under most circumstances, do not eat at a restaurant where the menu posted out front is translated into several other languages.

And this one is important: never, and I mean never, pass up a clean public bath room. You will live to regret it.

That said, we begin:
We arrived on the Saturday before Easter. Italians take their religious holidays pretty seriously, so I knew that we had better get out and shop, since a lot of stores (ok, almost all of them) would be closed on Sunday and Monday.

I have some very favorite shopping places, so here we go. We dropped our bags and walked over to the Via Cola di Rienzo. This is a shopping street in the Prati section of Rome, very near the Vatican. On this street you will find a neighborhood produce market that stays open until 7pm, an incredible deli called

“Franchi,” a gourmet shop called “Castroni,” and a supermarket in the basement of the department store Standa,called “Billi.” This photo is the front window at “Franchi” Incredible stuff here:

I bought a whole roasted chicken, cheeses, charcuterie, antipasto, pasta, you name it. I could just move in and live. You buy by the “etto” or “100 grams.”    With a trip to the supermarket, the produce market and Franchi, I bought everything that we would need for several breakfasts:

When we came back across the Tevere, we went over to my favorite bakery near the Campo di Fiori, called “il Fornaio.” And bought bread and lots of snacks. I just love the pastries in Italy because they do not use a lot of sugar, you can actually taste the other ingredients. This is their front window:

Ok, I charmed the cashier with my best Italian, including Happy Easter and all that, and she gave me some free cookies and a smile (sometimes hard to come by in Rome…the smile, not the free cookies).

Shopping done, we headed home, cleaned up and went out to dinner at a neighborhood trattoria….more on this later, as well as an incredible way to spend Easter.

Ciao!