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

Zombies and Taxes and Tequila Oh My!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the property tax bill comes in the mail on the very same weekend that Portland hosts the annual Zombie Walk and the Great American Distillers Festival.  The only way to deal with the sticker shock of our outrageous property taxes is to go for a long run, hang out with hundreds of zombies and then go get your drink on. I was prepared to do all of the above.

I was not looking forward to running 11 miles in the rain on Saturday morning, but I knew I would be a cranky bitch if I didn’t do it. I checked the radar on Wunderground and it looked like the first hour would be dry, and then the rain would start. I can deal with that. We started right at 7am, and as predicted it started raining promptly at 8am. I needed that runner’s high to get me through property tax hell.

I honestly don’t remember what I did between the time I finished my run and the moment I left the house to head downtown to walk with zombies, so it must have been totally irrelevant, but probably included laundry and other domestic drudgery that will not be documented here for the sake of brevity.

My friend Salena had advised me that the zombies would be gathering promptly at 4pm in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and that we should get there by 3:30 to get a good seat. It was going to be hella crowded this year because they were attempting to set a Guinness World Record for number of zombies worldwide, simultaneously dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Yes, this was a worldwide event.

This is what I saw when I arrived at Pioneer Courthouse Square:

Zombie Walk Portland
Zombie Walk Portland

Imagine trying to find someone in that crowd. Thank goodness for cellphones!

The zombies were fantastic.

Random zombie
Random zombie
The Jolly Green Giant Girl
The Jolly Green Giant Girl
Two zombies fighting over lunch.
Two zombies fighting over lunch.

And then there was this guy…

Business zombie
Business zombie
Check out the contacts.
Check out the contacts.


And then we ran into Eddie. He thinks he’s Jimi Hendrix. He insisted on taking a bunch of pictures with Salena and me and then asked for money.

Eddie as Jimi Hendrix.
Eddie as Jimi Hendrix.

After the zombies dispersed Salena and I headed back to her car so she could give me a ride to the Distiller’s Festival. This was to be the final chapter of the distraction from the property tax bill.

The Distiller’s Festival had started at 11am, and it was now 5pm, so I figured I’d be walking into an event not unlike a drunken frat party at this point. I paid my $10, got my wrist band, picked up a shot glass and went inside to meet a few of my friends. I didn’t have to walk far to find them, because they were seated near the entrance taking a break, and looking like they’d already sampled half of the offerings.

You really half to pace yourself at these events, because if you don’t you will be passed out within 30 minutes. The trick is to not take a full shot at every booth! I think I probably tasted eight tequilas, five vodkas, one absinthe, a few liquors and a whiskey or two, and I did just fine.

The second trick to surviving these events is to plan to walk to dinner afterwards. My friends, who just moved here from New York, suggested Mediterranean food, Blue Olive to be exact. The restaurant just happens to be owned by a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and I wasn’t even aware that he had moved his restaurant from the Beaumont area to NW 21st.

Homayoon, owner of Blue Olive.
Homayoon, owner of Blue Olive.

Blue Olive was the perfect choice for a post Distillers Fest nosh. We ordered a cold mezza to start that included baba ghanouj, humus, tzatziki, and olives. And of course the wonderful housemade Moroccan style bread. We then ordered a Greek platter to share: lamb kabobs, lamb chops, spanakopita, mousaka, dolmathes, falafel and the most amazing Basmati rice. My friends said it was better than anything they’d ever had in New York, and they are picky customers.

The only leftovers we had were two lamb bones, which we took for our dogs.

We rolled ourselves out of Blue Olive at about 10pm and started to walk back to my car, which was about 15 blocks away. We made a quick stop at the Backspace Cafe, which was hosting a poetry slam. The current contestant was just finishing his amazing delivery, and was about to get scored by the judges. At least two gave him a perfect 10.

We finally made it back to my car, a little soaked from the rain, but happy nonetheless. I dropped my friends back at their place in the Pearl District and headed back home to face the reality of my property tax bill. But for 12 glorious hours I had successfully managed to forget all about it.

Cabana Boy and the $16 Scallop

Cabana Boy and I had an interesting dining experience last week, and he beat me to the punch with his blog “The $16 Scallop.” Not to be outdone, I’ve decided to write my own version!

Cabana Boy starts: Every once in a while we are served bullshit.”

Yes that about sums up the entire experience. However, I will expand for the sake of you dear reader!

One evening last week Cabana Boy and I decided we were still quite ravenous even after polishing off a plate of potato chips and a couple of pints at the Lucky Lab, so we wandered down to Carlye for more sustenance.

Carlye is very unpretentious on the outside (located under an overpass in the Pearl District of Portland), but you soon realize when you walk through the door that you have just arrived in the land of $10 cocktails and food that’s more fancy than filling.

The waitress came over, introduced herself and rattled off the evening’s specials which included an appetizer of pan seared scallops. Cabana Boy knows I love the pan seared scallops and insisted I order that for an appetizer. As he readily points out in his blog he was paying, so order the $16 scallops I did. I also asked for an order of bread, yes an “order” of bread. Three dollars for bread and butter! Strike one.

We also ordered a salad of butter lettuce with some fancy dressing, and an entrée of roasted chicken to share. We asked for the scallops and salad to be brought out first as the appetizer, but all three dishes arrived at the same time. Strike two.

When the “scallops” arrived I thought there was a mistake. As Cabana Boy put it in his blog, “One lonely pan-seared mollusk sat in a sea of white china; a small flower by its side.” It’s true. One scallop and what looked like an edible flower, with some fancy drizzle of something occupying the rest of the real estate. I can just hear the chef giggling to himself as he instructs his assistant, “Just drizzle this brown stuff in a fancy pattern in the white space and it will look like a meal!”

Actual size of scallop:

I was waiting for a second plate to come out. Maybe they split the order. We did make it clear we were splitting everything. But no second plate appeared.

I looked at Cabana Boy and said, “Didn’t she say ‘scallops’ as in more than one?”

Even if she didn’t say “scallops” we both decided that $16 was just highway robbery for one scallop, so Cabana Boy called the waitress over.

Cabana Boy describes it this way, “Cabana Boy swung into action with all the frenzy of a cocktail blender.” A cocktail blender? More like the Tasmanian Devil dear! With visible steam coming out of his ears, he asked, “Excuse me, but we ordered the pan seared scallops. That’s scallops plural, and there only seems to be one on the plate. Sixteen dollars is a little steep for a single scallop, don’t you think?”

“I only do as I’m told,” the waitress replied.

Are you kidding me? What kind of response is that? Are you a Stepford Wife or a waitress?

“I’d like to talk to the chef please,” Cabana Boy asked with all the calm he could muster. The waitress disappeared and was soon replaced with a tall thin man in a suit who was most definitely NOT the chef.

“What seems to be the problem sir?” the suit asked with all the authority of a wet blanket.

I could see the Tasmanian Devil was about to resurface in Cabana Boy, but was thankfully replaced by a slightly continental British accent only reserved for situations such as this.

“Well, the waitress described the appetizer special as pan seared scallops not pan seared scallop, so we’re a bit disappointed in tonight’s catch. Do you regularly charge $16 per scallop?” CB said, testing the waters.

“Sir, the chef sets the prices. He has been basically giving away the store lately so we have adjusted the prices,” the suit said, passing the buck. Strike three.

No one wanted to take responsibility for the fact that someone thought they could get away with charging $16 for a single scallop and a flower. The thin man in the suit did offer to take the lonely scallop off the bill, which to his credit was the best he could do at that point.

Cabana Boy ends his blog with a simple moral of the story: “Perhaps the lesson is that when it comes to bullshit be aware of its innumerable disguises and never ever be afraid to address it by its real name.”

Its real name is Carlye! The website says:

Carlyle, for many, is an oasis. Located within the ever-expanding Pearl and warehouse districts of Northwest Portland, its intimate cherry wood bar and tailored urban appointments invite an evening of quiet luxury, impeccable service, and rarefied culinary adventure

Yep. It’s a culinary adventure all right, or rather an adventure in culinary BS.

Now on a happy note, there are two restaurants I CAN recommend.

I can whole heartedly recommend the food at Paley’s Place on NW 21st. Sit at the bar and enjoy the company of the two bartenders Chris and John, while eating the homemade spicy potato chips.

And, the Cabana Boy and I just had a fabulous meal at Paragon last night. Not only was the food wonderful, but the waitress knew her wine and brought out three wines for me to taste before I made my choice. She was attentive but unobtrusive. The perfect combination as far as I’m concerned.

Happy dining!

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