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.

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

Will Run Hills for Wine

Dundee Wine Run 1When a girlfriend asks you to run a half marathon on her “birthday weekend” you can’t refuse. When she tells you it’s kind of hilly, but there’s a great after party, you just have to suck it up and sign up.

July 10th 2011, marked the second annual Fueled by Fine Wine One-Half Marathon held in Dundee, Oregon in the heart of wine country, and Team Bubbles was there to suffer and celebrate.

I picked up the Team Bubbles Captain (the birthday girl) at 5:30am to make the drive from Portland to Dundee, and we arrived with just enough time to drop off our post-race paraphernalia at a friend’s house, meet up with the other members of Team Bubbles and head to the park down the street for the 7am start. I knew I was in trouble when the first turn across the start line was straight up a 45-degree hill into a Dundee neighborhood. The paved road quickly turned into gravel when we turned off into a winery at Mile 2.

Then the fun began.

Running along dusty dirt paths between rows of vines reminds me of the fact that picking up the rear on a dusty road is never a desirable position to be in. I used the water at Mile 3 to wash the grit out of my mouth.

Dundee Wine Run 2

And Miles 4-12 weren’t much better. Some of the terrain was so steep that I could power walk it faster than I could run it. I heard more F Bombs uttered in this race than I have in any other race, including the three marathons I’ve run.

“Are you f*cking kidding me?! Another f*cking hill?!” was the mantra of the day.

At some point between Mile 12 and 13 we turned onto a paved road and encountered one of the few downhill portions of the entire route. Thankfully I still had a good kick left and sprinted the last mile of downhill to the finish line where the rest of Team Bubbles was already standing in line to collect their wine glasses for the after party. We quickly grabbed our glasses and went straight to the Argyle table for a glass of what else but bubbles.

Dundee Wine Run 3

I pity the poor people who chose this race as their very first half marathon. They have probably all hung up their running shoes and decided this whole half marathon thing just isn’t for them. Don’t give up! The Fueled by Fine Wine Half Marathon is just some crazy person’s idea of seeing how much torture runners will endure if there’s free wine at the end.  Apparently the answer is “a lot.”

We worked our way through the post-race nosh of salami, bread, cheese and brownies, and sampled plenty of wine. In the end we raised our glasses of bubbles in a toast to surviving the crazy course, and swore we’d never run this race again.

Team_Bubbles

Epilogue

The day after the race I drove 647 miles to Lake Tahoe. When I stopped to get gas after four hours of driving I could barely get out of the car, let alone walk. I have been running for 30 years, and I felt like I had just run a marathon for the first time. I lived on Advil for three days after this race. But like childbirth, you forget the pain, and even though we all said we would never do it again I’m sure you’ll see us standing in line at the wine tent after the race next year with dirt on our shoes and smiles on our faces.

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Mother's Day is about Running, Friends, Shopping and Wine

I knew I was going to be spending time with my kids on Mother’s Day, so I took some time the day before to do what I wanted to do. Because, after all, isn’t Mother’s day about pampering Mom?

I got up at 5:30am on Saturday morning to do what I thought was going to be a 12-mile run. But when I met my faithful running buddies in the parking lot of the Centerpointe Starbucks, they informed me they had re-mapped the route and it was now well over 13 miles. “Fine,” I said, “Can you spare an Advil?”

It was a beautiful morning, and the route was fairly flat, so who am I to complain. I love my Saturday runs and my girlfriend time.

By 11am I had finished the run, caught up on all of the gossip, showered, and I was in a little private room at La Belle getting the hair ripped out of my legs by my favorite sadist Cindi. We meet for this special event about once every two months or so. I haven’t had to shave my legs since the 80’s. It’s a beautiful thing ladies. And guys, get that hairy back taken care of. Just take a Valium and have a friend drive you.

Two of my girlfriends recently mentioned a women’s clothing store called Barbara Johnson in Lake Oswego. It’s a samples clothing store, and well, it happens to be oh so conveniently located about a block away from La Belle. So after I got off the torture table I headed to check out this supposedly fabulous samples store.

I had heard that this store had samples from Pategonia and other activewear companies, and I was on a mission to get some quick-dry clothes that I could wear sailing. I explained to one of the women working there that I was looking for clothes that would look fabulous even after they had been wadded up in a little ball in a duffle bag and been out to sea all day. She somehow knew exactly what I was talking about and started to bring piles of clothes to the dressing room.

The one thing you need to be aware of at a samples store is the sizes are not true. They are samples after all. I tried on everything from a size 4 to a size 12. The DKNY Golf line size 12 was like a regular size 6. And the Exofficio size 6 was all over the map.

My favorite purchases: a black low-cut hoodie dress from Exofficio, navy quick-dry pants from Exofficio, and shorts and hoodies from Nautica.

As I was paying for my purchases I noticed the clock behind the counter. “Oh crap!” I blurted. “I have people showing up at my house in 15 minutes.”

I raced home and pulled into my driveway just as my friend Beth was pulling up to my house. I quickly got dressed as we waited for the third musketeer (Jim) to show up. We were spending our afternoon at the Sixth Annual Portland Indie Wine festival.

We had decided we would take a cab to be safe, so I called the Lake Oswego taxi service since I figured they’d probably have a driver in the area. Here’s how the conversation went after I dialed the number:

“Hello?”

“Is this Lake Oswego Taxi?”

“Yes. But not today.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m in California visiting my 92-year old mother in the hospital, so I’m not available. But I’ll be back.”

“Okay. But I need a taxi now.”

“Let me give you a tip…”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll just call Radio Cab. Thanks.”

Yes, that was the actually conversation.

We did finally get our cab, and we made our way to the Bison Building in NE Portland for the Sixth Annual Portland Indie Wine Festival. What a perfect venue! Forty wineries and 15 local restaurants providing fabulous food and drink in a light and airy warehouse. The sun was streaming through the skylights and it was just a gorgeous day.

There were 40 wineries and 15 food establishments to sample, and we only had three hours in which to get through them all. It was a daunting task to say the least, but we were up for the challenge.

The more responsible side of me knew we would be in a world of hurt if we actually tried to sample every wine from all 40 wineries, so we picked a few “must-tries” and started with those. I won’t ramble on about every wine we tasted, but I will say we had a most amusing time when we dropped the pretentious wine snobbery adjectives and started to describe the wines like we would describe a man.

There were the wines we didn’t care for: “Bag over the head.”

And the wines we did like: “Ooh, he’s still wearing pants, but I want to take them off.”

And the wines that were a bit too young yet: “I don’t want to date him right now, but he has potential.”

A wine with a stinky nose: “This one is like a software engineer who has been wearing the same shirt for five days.”

And the wine that just blows your mind: “Wow. This is 9 1/2 Weeks in front of the fridge with the fruit.”

We ran into some old friends, some new acquaintances and some people who just defy description in this blog.

And did you know that no one liked Mike Erickson’s previous girlfriend, and that he’s getting married to Nurse Katie over Labor Day weekend? And , wow that’s a big piece of meat! These are the kinds of conversations you will either overhear or be directly involved in when you are shoulder to shoulder in a room with a few hundred people with a wine buzz. Okay I confess, I was the one who made the comment about the big piece of meat, but get your mind out of the gutter. I was referring to a big hunk of meat that was being carved up on a carving board.

At 10 minutes before six we realized we only had a few minutes to get one last taste of a favorite before we would get kicked out. I opted for the Barking Frog Syrah.

We finally called a cab—Radio Cab not Lake Oswego Taxi—and when they finally answered the phone I said, “I need a cab at NE 10th and Flanders,” to which the dispatcher answered, “You’re at the Bison Building aren’t you. I’ve already sent all of my available cabs to that location. Just go outside and flag one down.”

Sure enough the first cab came down the street about two minutes after we walked out.

Beth and Jim and I climbed into the cab and reviewed the afternoon:

  • No one knew it was Jim’s birthday until right before we left, so I admit to being a lame friend when it comes to remembering birthdays.
  • Beth and I decided that the wineries need to hire hot guys to pour the wine.
  • Stiletto heels are not the best choice in a warehouse with a cracked concrete floor. We both opted for wedges.
  • It’s not against the rules to go back to the Moonstruck chocolate booth multiple times to “clear your palette.”
  • Not all men and women are like wine. Some age better than others.
  • The Cattail Creek lamb ragout, Bob’s Red Mill polenta and salsa verde at the Wildwood booth was heaven.
  • We want Phresh Organic chef Rob Leon to open a late-night food cart that serves nothing but the Griddled brioche, wild Oregon mushrooms, vintage extra sharp white cheddar and fresh goat cheese sandwich.

Take my advice and attend this fantastic event next year. And don’t make evening plans because you will probably too wiped out to keep them.

Inside the Portland Indie Wine Festival at the Bison Building

Portland Indie Wine Festival 1


Beth and I about halfway through the tastings.

Portland Indie Wine Festival 2

Hydrating at the end of the day. Kelly, Beth and Kevin (a work colleague of Beth’s whom we ran into).

Portland Indie Wine Festival 3


Always take a cab.

Portland Indie Wine Festival 4

Birthday boy Jim, who preferred kisses to spankings once we found out it was his birthday.

Portland Indie Wine Festival 5

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