Archive for June, 2012

Sailing Italy: Not All Gelato is Created Equal

GelatoGelaterias in Italy are the equivalent of Starbucks in the Northwest: there’s one on every corner.

I rarely eat ice cream at home, but when in Rome…

One of our sayings on our sailing trip in Italy was, “It’s our last night in (insert city name here). We should have gelato!” Never mind that we were in a different city almost every night. Needless to say I tried a lot of gelato, and as I found out as I worked my way through Italy not all gelato is created equal.

I had been curious about one thing: where did all of the gelato come from? It obviously didn’t come in prepacked tubs like ice cream, because it always looked like it had been poured into the pan and decorated by hand no matter where you bought it. But just like ice cream there were definitely varying degrees of quality.

I was wandering the streets of Rome on one of my last nights in Italy when I stumbled upon a place called Gelateria Valentino. I walked in and asked the attractive middle aged man behind the counter my burning question. “Do you make your own gelato?”

Turns out the man behind the counter serving up gelato was none other than Valentino himself, who explained that most of the gelaterias around town used a powdered mix that they pour into a gelato machine. Ah ha, I knew it! I knew there was a difference.

Valentino explained that he used only fresh fruit for the sorbet-like gelatos, and in fact he grew his own lemons, oranges and grapefruits for his fruit flavors. I tasted the lemon and it was like nothing I had tasted at any other gelato stand. You could tell it was the real deal. He insisted we sample almost every flavor in the shop, and explained how he hand crafted each one.

By the time I left Gelateria Valentino with my small Biscotto gelato I had spent 30 minutes with Valentino who was kind enough to not only  share pictures of his wife, his son, and his grandchildren, but to share with me the culinary delights of hand crafted gelato.

Gelateria Valentino – Via del Lavatore 96, Roma (Fontana di Trevi)

Valentino's Gelato

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Sailing Italy: The 4-Euro Pizza

PizzaItaly is like any other country when it comes to food. The quality of your experience depends on motivation, location, recommendations and sometimes luck.

The first day I arrived in Rome to meet my fellow crew members my motivation was starvation. However, most of my crew members were motivated by price and location. So, when I arrived at the hotel we walked a couple of blocks and ordered pizza at a sidewalk cafe. That 4-Euro Pizza Margherita tasted like a hundred dollar-steak and lobster dinner after an entire day of airplane food. Almost anything would have tasted like a feast at that point.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just eaten a meal that I would now rate as mediocre. Hey, but at the time I was jet lagged, starving and dealing with what seemed to be super pollen production of Roman proportions. I was congested and sneezing so how much could I really taste that pizza anyway?

One evening we ventured out to the Pantheon area of Rome, where the piazzas are lined with small cafes with what I call Italian Carnies. You can’t walk by a piazza restaurant without someone trying to hustle you into eating their pasta.

The first thing that I noticed was the menus were all basically the same, and seemed to cater to tourists. The second thing I noticed was that the prices were almost all the same, with few exceptions. I used the basic Pizza Margherita as my yardstick when looking at menus, and it almost always hovered around 4 Euro.

We randomly picked a place based on nothing other than the fact that we were tired of getting harassed by the Italian Carnies. I specifically remember ordering Spaghetti Vongole that night. And I specifically remember getting a plate full of spaghetti and three, yes three, tiny clam shells with little clams in them. At that point I knew I would never eat at a piazza near a major Roman monument again. It’s akin to eating at Denny’s.

The best sources for restaurant recommendations are taxi drivers, waiters, and people who have eaten their way through Italy before. If you take recommendations from friends, relatives and random people you meet on the plane, ask them to elaborate on the meals they’ve had at the establishments they’d recommend. I’d be much more likely to take the recommendation of someone who described a Tortelli di Zucca as “swimming in butter,” than I would someone who recommended a pizza that was “pretty good.”

One of the crew members had a list of recommendations she had gotten from someone on her flight over to Rome. One Sunday evening the two of us ventured out near the Trevi Fountain to look for a restaurant called Il Chianti. The person who recommended the restaurant had given only the following directions, “Stand facing the Trevi Fountain, walk down the street to the right, look for the restaurant on your left.”

We walked up and down what we thought was the right street but couldn’t find the restaurant, so we finally asked someone, who told us exactly where it was. Turns out we had walked by it several times and missed it because it was set back from the street a bit and there were very few people sitting outside. Not usually a good sign.

We noticed a waiter standing outside the entrance and approached him to ask for a table for two.  “I’m sorry but we are closed on Sundays,” he said. “Drinks only.” This was my friend’s last night in Rome and she wasn’t going to get to try the one restaurant she really wanted to try. Then we got the brilliant idea to ask the waiter for a recommendation. He perked up immediately and said, “Piccolo Arancio. First small street on the right.”

You always have to wonder if a waiter or a taxi driver is recommending a place just because their cousin owns it, or if they are really pointing you to something wonderful. We were pretty sure this particular waiter was genuine, and we were willing to take a chance, so we walked up the street, turned onto the first little street on the right and found a sliver of a store front tucked away off the beaten path.

We were one of the first people seated, but it wasn’t long before the staff was fetching tables and chairs out of the storage room across the street to accommodate the constant flow of dinner guests. It was a quiet little street, thankfully absent of the constant flow of moped and motorcycle traffic you get on most streets in Rome.

I scanned the wine list and found exactly what I was looking for: a Banfi 2003 Brunello for Montalcino. I have my priorities.

The waiter brought the wine and a plate of fresh Parmesan to go with it. We ordered the bruschetta, which looked like a pile of freshly diced tomatoes until we cut into it and found the the warm thick slice of bread hiding underneath. My friend had the lasagna, which she rated as “fabulous” on a scale of Never Again to Outstanding. I had the Fusilli alla Malanzane (eggplant) which was simple and perfectly prepared. At the end of the meal we both agreed we had just experienced an Italian culinary orgasm.

The last of the crew members flew back to the U.S. the next day, so I was left to wander the streets of Rome on my own. I made my way back to the street just to the right of the Trevi Fountain, and back to Il Chianti for lunch. It was open, and the Tortelli di Zucca was indeed molto bene and swimming in butter.

Il Chianti – Piazza Fontana di Trevi 81 / 82a
Piccolo Arancio – Vicolo Scanderbeg, 112 00187 Rome, Italy

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Sailing Italy: Walking to Atrani

Today I found my external drive containing all of my stories from a trip I took to Italy two years ago. None of these blogs were ever published. Better late than never!

In 2010 I crewed a sailboat in Italy with a handful of people I’d never met. These are my stories…

Walking to Atrani

Atrani ItalyI have nothing against my boat mates, but there is such a thing as too much togetherness. I was the last one to climb out of my bunk today, only to sit down at the table to hear that an executive decision had been made and we were sailing back to Capri right after lunch.

“Wait a minute,” I asked. “Why?”

I was starting to feel like a traveling salesman. I really wanted to stay in one spot long enough to actually have some down time. I was in desperate need of Me time.

“I have an idea,” I said, hoping the executive decision that had been made earlier wasn’t one that couldn’t be vetoed. “Why don’t we stay in Amalfi another night?” I suggested we relax in Amalfi for a day, and then leave the marina early in the morning. That way we could take our time getting to Capri and even stop for a midday visit to Positano.

My suggestion was met with surprising enthusiasm. My boat mate Val had had enough of the allergens in her cabin, and wanted an opportunity to get more time above deck, and everyone else just shrugged and said, okay, sounds like a plan.

Having made the decision to stay one more night suddenly let everyone breathe a sigh of relief and gave us all permission to scatter to the wind for the day.

I quickly applied some sunscreen, grabbed my purse and basically told the others I’d be back at some point.

My goal was to get as far away from the center of Amalfi as possible by foot. You see there was a Club Med 2, 5-mast cruise ship anchored in the harbor which translates to a few thousand extra people crowding the narrow streets of Amalfi. No thanks.

I started walking south along the road that hugs the coast, with my sights set on getting to the next town, whatever that was.

This is not the wisest decision I’ve ever made. The roads that hug the Amalfi coast are not for the faint of heart, whether you are a driver or a pedestrian. They are only wide enough for one car in some places, and the larger buses will come within in inches of the railing that you find yourself so terrifyingly plastered against. There is no shoulder to speak of.

But I saw little old Italian women walking the windy road, so I figured it was okay. What I didn’t realize is these women are trained professionals, as in, they have been doing this their entire lives. when in Rome… I took a deep breath and stuck with the old ladies.

The first town I came to was Atrani, which is supposed to be an artist community, although I saw no signs of art or artists anywhere. Just the same pizzerias with the same menus I had seen in Amalfi.

There was, however, a nearly deserted beach down a steep set of stairs, and it was at that point that I realized I had been sailing on this sailboat in the Mediterranean Sea for four days now and hadn’t once so much as dipped a toe in it. This had to be rectified.

I walked down to edge of the dry pebbly sand where the gentle waves were lapping at the stones, slipped off my Keens and stepped into the Mediterranean. This is exactly what I needed. Solitude, sun and the sea.

I sat there for an hour, I think. I lost track of time. I took a picture for a young Italian couple, who wanted a memory of themselves by the sea. I collected bits of tiles and pottery that had washed up on the shore, and imagined the Italian kitchens they had once been a part of.  There was the wave-worn terracotta oval, with the blue glaze the color of the ocean. A small triangular piece with a single dot of red glaze that looked like an eye. A bit of white pottery with hand-painted grapes and vines. Someone’s trash became my treasures.

I tucked the small broken pieces of pottery into my purse, put my sandals back on and made my way back up the steep set of stairs. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with my treasured pieces of trash when I got back home, but I did know that those small pieces of pottery will forever remind me of my hour of bliss on the beach in Atrani.

Atrani Italy Beach

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