Restaurant Review: Sagra

Thank goodness I have a family who can eat Italian food any day of the week.
Tonight, we decided to try out a brand new restaurant tht’s just opened up in my town (Dedham, Mass): Sagra.
[For anyone who lives farther away in Mass, there is another one in Somerville!]
Now, not gonna lie, part of the reason we went was so I could look into job opportunities – I want so badly to work in an Italian restaurant! If nothing else, to talk to patrons and use all my food-talk to explain the wonderful dishes. And wonderful they are!
No good Italian restaurant lets a table be without bread.
This was goooood. Garlic bread, light on the garlic. I actually liked that – it makes it more versatile, so anyone opposed to having garlic-breath (or just someone on a date) won’t have to worry. It was very much like focaccia, although the texture seemed a little denser to me than usual. Maybe it’s just their way of preparing though. The beauty of bread is that the same 4 ingredients can make SO many different things!
Oh, and also, that it goes with cheese.
This is not just any cheese. This is ricotta spiked with parsley and orange zest in a ring of olive oil. The olive oil was very light in flavor, which I didn’t totally dig, but this ricotta was pretty incredible. The orange and parlsey combo gave it such a wonderful, fresh flavor! It meshed really well with the creaminess of the cheese. Forget cream cheese – I will have this on a bagel, please!
To start, we ordered my absolute favorite – bruschetta tradizionale. I have been craving it lately – honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t made it sooner myself! Bread + olive oil + fresh veggies. Hard to go wrong.
And Sagra’s was no exception. I loved the grilled bread, and the added arugula underneath (I always eat the garnish!). Could have used a little basil, but that’s my only issue. I love the funky-shaped plate it came on, too! At this point, I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t have any room for my dinner…
But I can generally make room. Especially when goat cheese is involved.
I was feeling some greens, so I ordered the Spinaci Caprino salad – spinach, radicchio, goat cheese, Turkish apricots in a raspberry vinaigrette. I added grilled shrimp to it, because…well, it’s shrimp. That’s just a given.
This made so happy. Unlike SO many restaurants, the amount of dressing was perfect – enough to taste it and, well, dress the salad, but not so much that it was overwhelming [or caused soggy spinach….serious pet peeve of mine.]. The goat cheese was good goat cheese, and the sweetness of the apricots and raspberry complemented the bitter radicchio very well. It was massive, but I ate most of it 🙂

My mom ordered a verdi misti (mixed greens salad) to start [she needs her greens too]:
A truly excellent simple salad. The dressing was just a balsamic + oil, also very well proportioned. And the best part was the addition of fennel! LOVED it. Really added a nice crunch and fresh flavor (yup, I stole several bites ;).
Her entree was too pretty not to show off:
The special risotto: Golden Beet risotto
The risotto was very well done, with a very strong parmesan flavor – very much like mac & cheese with rice instead of pasta. You couldn’t really taste the regular beets – but you sure can see them! That yellow thing would be a bog ole roasted golden beet – and it was de-LISH. We’ve already decided to look for it at the Farmer’s Market (which opens next week – I’m.SO.excited.). It was a little sweet, with a nice smokey flavor from the roasting, and went so well with the strong cheese flavor and rich creaminess. On top are “hen of the woods” mushrooms – I’d never heard of that type of mushroom before, but they sure were tasty! I just love that deep, earthy tasty of mushrooms. Again, a perfect addition to this dish. A little fresh parsley and black pepper, and my mom was quite content. As was I to steal a bite or three.
My brother got a rigatoni pasta dish with broccoli rabe (which I always forget how much I like, but I do!), red peppers, and sausage. He was unimpressed, but I loved it – took my right back to Florence. AND, our waitress studied abroad in Rome when she was an undergrad and, well, I get really excited when I meet someone who’s had a similarly amazing experience in Italy. We bonded over mutual loves of Nutella.
Speaking of Nutella….
Nutella Bread Pudding. Boom.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as hazelnutty as just straight chocolatey, but that did not stop me from helping my brother polish the plate clean. This was lick-the-plate good (I refrained…but it wasn’t easy.). Although I have one teeny tiny criticism – that white scoop was supposedly “hazelnut semifreddo,” but it was really gelato/ice cream. Semifreddo is much more mousse-like, light and airy. It was definitely hazelnit though – it had big chunks of what tasted like caramelized hazelnuts in it and was heaven on a spoon. As was most of this. Cakey, chocolate, melty, moist…if you go and just get this, that would be acceptable. My cooking professor always told us that you judge a restaurant by its desserts – and in this case, Sagra gets a big fat 4 stars.
Why have I never made bread pudding before? Hell if I know, but I think it’s high time that changed. Mission: Bread Pudding is ON.
~Namaste~
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Happiness in a Cone

I’ve lived here for 3 months. You might think I’m sick of Tuscany and it’s rolling hills and vineyards and awe-inspiring landscapes…all that beauty must get overwhelming and old, right?
Nope. Loved every single second. And I’ll love all the seconds that are yet to come.
You might recall our first pilgrimage to San Gimignano, a medieval hill town in the Siena province. We went for one reason, and one reason only: gelato. And not just any gelato. Oh no. We’re talking the World Champion gelateria. Oh yes.
Our first trip in February was a huge disappointment when we, with tastebuds fully prepared for some cold, creamy amazingness, were met with a closed door and a sign that read: Closed until March 7th. ‘Let down’ doesn’t even begin to describe what we felt. [It certainly didn’t stop us from having a great time anyway!]
Now obviously, having developed into full-blown gelato connoisseurs during our semester here, this was not something Alaina and I were missing out on. Armed with a restaurant recommendation for lunch and 3 euro umbrellas, we ventured off…and got on the wrong train. Whoops! That’s the first time this has happened, which is pretty darn good for 3 months, right? [Humor us.] We did not miss a beat, hopped off at the next stop, and got cappuccinos while awaiting the right train to come along. One [correct] train + bus ride later, we were back in San Gimignano:
We found the restaurant relatively quickly, which our stomachs were greatly appreciative of 😉 It was a little fancy-schmancier than we expected – the guide book that recommended said it was a “local favorite” and it seemed more like a hotel restaurant with nice tablecloths and multiple forks and all that high class business, but hey, we were up for anything.
I ordered bruschette miste, mixed bruschettas (toasted Tuscan bread with different toppings):
From left to right: Prosciutto (a darker kind than usual?) and melted cheese — I’m 90% sure it was pecorino, roasted pepper/zucchini on melted mozzarella, and the classic tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and basil. The prosciutto-pecorino one was my fave (I know, you’re shocked). I really just love bruschette – it’s like pizza but more fun 🙂
I also got a side dish of roasted veggies – I was feeling like some fiber, I guess 😉
A tad heavy on the oil, but it’s Italy, so at least it’s really good olive oil they’re bathing in. Roasted eggplant is one of my favorite foods. If you haven’t  tried it, you must! It’s perfect in the summer – just throw some on the grill, drizzle with a little balsamic, S + P, and you’re good to go. I especially like the burned pieces, which is BAD because (as I learned in my cooking class) burnt foods contain free radicals that can cause really icky stuff in your body. So, if you’re like me, up your antioxidant intake – they pretty much kick free radicals’ cancer-causing butts!
After a lovely lunch, it was time. You know what for.
GELATO.
On our first attempt, the gelateria looked like this:
Today:
Ah, the fruits of tourist season.
After we elbowed and kneed our way into the teeny tiny store, we tried our best to scope out all the flavors – and there were a lot! Typical ones, like nocciola (hazelnut) and fondente (dark chocolate), but fun creative ones too, like raspberry with rosemary and pink grapefruit-champagne! After much rushed internal debate, I made my selection. I was not disappointed.
Dark chocolate, mint, and zabaione al vin santo 
That last one was an egg nog flavor spiked with Vin Santo, the sweet Tuscan dessert wine traditionally served with little biscotti. I had a Vin Santo gelato before and really liked it, and when I saw the eggnog flavor added, my choice was made. Mint and chocolate for me are no-brainers; when I was little my hardest decision at the candy store was between Junior Mints and York Peppermint Patties. Definitely one of the most wonderful flavor combos ever.
Now, as for the gelato? It was good. Even great. One of the best I’ve had in my almost-4-months here. The cone itself was wonderful – made with almond extract that went perfectly with the eggnog flavor. Come to think of it, they make pumpkin egg nog – I think almond egg nog would be to die for! Culinary innovations aside, this was good, but I must say my gelato-lovin heart still belongs to Perche No. Vestri has by far the best dark chocolate – the rich flavor and creamy texture is exactly what gelato should be; but Perche No has more flavors, uses all-natural ingredients that you can taste, and have the best soy gelato ever. But, this vin santo-egg nog was definitely one of the best flavors I’ve tasted. We were happy, happy ragazze
We did some shopping – San Gimignano has some great pottery places that are perfect for gifts! We made it back a liiiittle later than planned due to finicky train schedules, but we’re pretty used to that.
We made reservations at Trattoria 4 Leoni, a restaurant recommended to my mom by one of her real estate clients as their “favorite restaurant in Florence.” (Clearly they have not been to Sergio’s.) Because my parents were held hostage in America in April because of that evil Icelandic volcano, they took my roommates and I out to dinner from across the Atlantic! Being the good college kids we are and always up for free food, we were pretty excited.
The restaurant is on the other side of the Arno River (Oltrarno), where I almost wish I lived just because the minute you get to that side it becomes so much quieter. Fewer tourist attractions. 
4 Leoni was in a little piazza off a main road. The decor was very cute – teal stucco with uncovered bricks artistically placed. Very upscale, too. So far, so good!
We started with an antipasto plate of – what else? – mixed pecorino!
Pecorini misti
There were 3 different types of pecorino with a little bowl of honey for drizzling and pear slices. Pear and pecorino is another stellar flavor combo – and honey just puts it over the edge! The fruitiness works with the softness of the cheese and the honey accents the strong taste that I can only describe is cheesy – it’s Finals week, give me a break 🙂 All I have to say is, I better be able to find pecorino at home. I might cry…or just move back here.
And then, dinner was served…
Insalata 4 Leoni
This salad, served in a huge cabbage leaf, was arugula, emmenthal cheese (a kind of mild swiss), avocado, and pine nuts drizzled with arugula pesto. Yes, you read that right – pesto made with arugula instead of basil! I saw that and had to try it. I think I have mentioned my arugula obsession – I never tire of it. It just makes such a flavorful salad! It’s got a very strong, peppery flavor that’s perfect with balsamic vinegar. The pesto was good, but a little too salty – I wish they had offered a pasta dish with it, I think the fact that the salad itself was arugula-based made the pesto’s flavor get a little lost. But really, I adored this – the pine nuts were a great addition, and the mild emmenthal matched the strong arugula really nicely. Might have to recreate this at home.
Since we had already had gelato, we went a different direction for dessert…
Tiramisu. Can’t go wrong with a classic.
I think the best I’ve had was the one we made waaaaay back during our orientation week here (pre-blog – say what??), but really, tiramisu is hard to screw up. It’s just such a good combo – coffee, cocoa, marscapone; creamy, cakey…mmm. Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts in general; it’s hard to for me to speak badly of it, ever.
All in all, a very culinarily-satisfying day. Aren’t those the best?
Thanks Mom & Dad!!!

Roughing It

Ah, the weekend. What everyone looks forward to. This weekend was especially exciting though – for our last excursion, API took us to Siena and Perugia for a weekend of thorough relaxation. I would have to say this mission was most certainly accomplished.
We boarded the bus on Saturday morning  [for once not at the butt crack of dawn!] and headed to Siena, an idyllic Tuscan town a bit south of Florence. It is world-renowned for its natural beauty; in fact, if you google Tuscan landscapes, there’s a pretty good chance that one of the first pictures to pop up will be in Siena. I gave Frida a firm talking to before we left – this was not the trip to be without a camera, and her best behavior was mandatory. She grudgingly complied.
Siena’s Duomo.
Fun fact: The word ‘duomo’ has nothing to do with domes! It was taken from the German word for house and in Italy a “Duomo” is the “house of God”, meaning it is the most important church in its city.
Siena and Florence were HUGE rivals, and Siena began constructing their Duomo with plans to make it greater than Brunelleschi’s creation for Florence. They didn’t succeed, but this is nevertheless an immensely impressive structure. Just look at the detail!
InTENSE.
Main piazza – can you see the seashell shape?
Siena is also known for its horse race, a tradition dating waaaaaay back that draws thousands upon thousands of people into this small city. Siena is divided into sections called contrade, and each contrada has its own symbol and horse. Most of the symbols represent strength, including a rhinoceros, a griffin, and the tower on top of the elephant that you see above^. A horse representing each contrada gathers in the main piazza and in 75 seconds, it’s over and done with. The prize is pretty much the ability to say “hey, we won!”, but the loyalty to one’s contrada is fierce and quite endearing. Being the good little tourists that we are, we each bought a banner with the symbol of a different contrada on each.
I got the porcupine. Duh.
After our walking tour we went on a lunch-hunt. After a failed search for a recommended restaurant, we settled for another one, which turned out to be slightly mediocre, but fit the bill.
I was feelin the veggies today, and definitely made the right choices!
Melanzane alla griglia fatte in casa – Grilled eggplant made in-house
This was quite amazing, I will say. Very garlickly and tender. Perfect for this veggie-loving soul.
And bruschetta:
Certainly not the best I’ve had, but when in Italy it’s hard to find “bad” bruschetta. Olive oil, bread, fresh basil + tomatoes. Simply amazing…or amazingly simple?
After doing some souvenir shopping, we made sure to get some of the Sienese specialty called panforte, a kind of sweet whose recipe dates back to the Middle Ages when it was eaten as a kind of “trail mix” for the Crusaders.
Panforte al cioccolato
It’s a very dense mix of dried fruit, nuts (mostly almonds and pistachios), honey, and various spices. It was heavy on the cinnamon and cocoa – which I loved, and also on the orange rind – which I was not so much a fan of.Overall though, the cakey texture mixed with the variety of other textures and the complex flavors made this a very enjoyable treat for my tastebuds – those Crusaders had good taste!
Now, prepare to be jealous. The main event of the day was a trip to a thermal spa, located in the Rapolano area just outside of Siena. This area is located above thermal waters that have been enriched by the minerals of the soil deep within the earth. The Etruscans discovered that the minerals in the water were amazingly beneficial for the body both inside and out, helping everything from smoothing skin to cleansing the internal organs. There are many spas in this area that have tapped into the thermal waters and constructed pools for people to sit in and soak up the minerals to receive their many health benefits. 
Oh man, this was incredible. The water was like a warm, comforting bath, and it was so relaxing to just sit and soak and chat for a couple hours. I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and all-around happy.
Rough weekend so far, no?
After our perfectly lovely afternoon at the spa, we went to our hotel – the Grand Hotel Boston! They must have known I was coming (well, me and the hundred other kids with API from Mass…). In case we hadn’t been pampered enough just yet, API had planned a four-course dinner for us at the hotel. It was nothing more than your average hotel food, but we were excited for a free meal and to be waited on regardless!
They even had menus on the table for us:
The obligatory bread and wine:
First antipasto: CHEESE!
The upper one was tomino, a very soft creamy cheese that is exactly like brie in its consistency but has none of brie’s pungency. I enjoyed it, but it paled in comparison to this guy:
Maybe I was just starving, maybe I don’t eat fresh mozzarella plain often enough, but this tasted absolutely incredible. Soft, milky, with a rich mouth-feel but a light flavor. This was the most delicious bite of the entire meal.
Second antipasto: Fritture
This was an assortment of fried veggies and rice balls. I took a taste, but nothing more. When I was on my weight-loss diet, I completely cut out all things fried and ever since then, I can’t eat it without getting horribly sick. I can’t ever taste what has actually been fried, it all tastes like the same cheap, greasy lump to me. I also think I’ve developed a conditioned taste aversion – I immediately connect the taste of deep-fried food to the unbearable nausea that I’m always stuck with after, and I just can’t do it. Alas and alack, I simply cannot appreciate it. Perhaps some day…
First primi: Zuppa di verdure – Vegetable soup
Well, the name pretty much says it all. Soup of vegetables. It was a bit too salty, and not much more impressive than something that I can get out of a can. But, I’m always happy to have some fresh vegetables, and it was perfectly edible – just nothing more.
Second primi: Lasagna vegetariana
Apparently this hotel defines ‘vegetarian lasagna’ as regular ol’ lasagna without the ground meat; the only vegetables in here were the tomatoes in the sauce. It had a hint of what I thought was nutmeg, and I did appreciate that surprisingly little tough of sweetness. The crunchy outer noodles were also a nice contrast to the soft, melty middle. Not bad, just unremarkable. I probably ate about 3/4 of it.
Secondi: Roasted Chicken
This was actually pretty decent. Very simple salt+pepper+rosemary seasoning (although a little too heavy on the salt). Too much dark meat for my taste, and I will admit for the amount of work that goes into picking the meat of the bone, the acutal amount of edible chicken I was left with was not worth it. But, I enjoyed the few bites I had. Again, nothing special. It did get me excited for summer at home though – my dad makes a mean lemon-pepper bbq chicken!
Dessert
You know me; this was what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it followed suite with the previous courses in its overwhelming mediocrity. It was kind of like a tiramisu cake; something like angel food cake with a whipped topping drizzled with a coffee-chocolate sauce and a light chocolate cream layer. The cake was only slightly better than tasteless, and the filling was more like a pastry cream with a hint of cocoa than a chocolate filling which I found disappointing. The whipped topping was like Cool Whip in texture (thankfully without the artificial chemically taste) with a coffee-cocoa drizzle that was clearly trying to imitate tiramisu, My main complaint is WHY did they not just make tiramisu (very hard to screw up) instead of producing this subpar impostor? But, it was dessert, and I of course had no problem lapping it up within minutes.
Ok, I kind of bashed the dinner a little bit; but I promise, it was a truly wonderful evening! It was the perfect end to a long, luxurious day and the company of my sweet roommates made the dinner a success. We had laughter, wine, and plenty to talk about – luckily for me, they like talking about food, so we discussed the dinner as we ate!
Morning brings my favorite part of staying in hotels: the free breakfast. Most important meal of day, right?
Tea, yogurt, muesli, a roll [which went uneaten], and MELON! If you had only seen my face when I saw that platter piled with infinite melon…like a kid on Christmas morning. I am a full-on melon addict, and could (and when I’m at school, do) eat it every day and never get sick of it. I must have gone back 4 or five times, probably at least half a melon’s worth! It was exactly what I wanted after that heavy meal the night before. I’m so excited for summer fruits!!!
After breakfast we boarded the bus and zoomed off to…
PERUGIA!
We entered the city through what was the residential area of the city in the Middle Ages. It was a huge labyrinth of arches where people used to live under one big roof, and was really cool to see.
I was too amused with this scene: the escalator leading down into the medieval residences. I am endlessly fascinated by past-meets-present collisions! *NERDALERT*
Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, just under Tuscany, known as the “Green Heart of Italy.”
Give you one guess why:
Those Etruscans looooved their aqueducts!
There were these little yellow flowers sprouting up out of the most random spots! Frida thought it was poetic.
Ca-RAZY church!

If ‘Perugia’ sounds familiar to you, it might be because it is the birthplace of the chocolate company Perugina. They produce Bacio (literally, ‘kiss’ – we have Hershey’s, Italy has Perugina!). A Bacio is a dark chocolate shell with a chocolate truffle filling dotted with chopped hazelnut and one whole hazelnut in the middle! Don’t worry, I have pictures coming tomorrow…patience, grasshopper.
This was our non-negotiable first stop.
Perugia is also home to one of the world’s most famous chocolate festivals! Every October, thousands of people flood the streets – they say you can smell chocolate everywhere! Fall Break trip to Italy, anyone?
LOOK at the Hedgehog cakes!!! Iwantonenow.
You may have noticed a key element missing from our trip so far…
GELATO! We quickly made up for its absence.
Raspberry + Bacio, because, well, when in Rome Perugia!
After a walking tour and an espresso in the sun, we were off to today’s main event: a wine tasting in Chianti!
Like I said…rough weekend.
It took place at Castillo di Verrazzano, as in the Verrazzano who discovered New York. I guess it’s not too surprising that his family has a castle, huh? We were welcomed by the owner, who was a very charming Italian man. He may have been a little too charming, because I couldn’t even dislike him despite the fact that I was absolutely green with jealousy over his “house”:
And I thought I had it rough.
He talked for a while about how wonderful it is to walk around a vineyard and take in every sight and smell it has to offer, because then when you taste its wine, you can appreciate it all the more. You can taste the cherries from the cherry tree, and the lemons growing on the lemon trees. Wine is not for “getting drunk”; as he said, a baby could get drunk! Wine is about respect. AMEN! To be honest, I only really like wine when I sip it slowly and only have a couple small glasses; I find I get bored with the flavor and forget to really ‘taste’ it if I just mindlessly pour and drink. And that takes all the fun away!
We proceeded with a tour of the castle & its cellars:

Their reserve bottles – check out that layer of dust!

We were all ushered in to a big room for the sit-down tasting. Just as I had hoped, the owner walked us through the first sip, explaining how to hold the glass, look at the color, check the alcohol content, and even how to smell it correctly! What I learned in Italy…
We started with a simple table wine, red of course:

Then proceeded to the Chianti Classico – this was my favorite:
What a fox, that Verrazzano.
Just like the other tastings, we were served lots of “snacks” with the wine that turned into a perfect dinner! Tuscan bread, olive oil, toasted garlic bread (my favorite), salami and prosciutto, pecorino (my love!), salad, white beans…the works. Oh, but I was happy.
We also got to taste one of the Reserve wines; I could definitely taste the difference in its age and quality, but to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. It was too strong for my underdeveloped palate 😉 But it was such a fun experience!
We ended with the traditional cantucci (Tuscan biscotti) to dip in Vin Santo, the classic dessert wine.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. I liked this vin santo better than the last I had – less strong/bitter. I really like the two together! Really, I just love cantucci. A lot.
Before we left this beautiful trip behind and traveled back to the semi-reality of Florence, I took some pics of the castle’s “back yard”:
Now that’s rough.
~Namaste~

Spring Sprang Sprung

I know, I know, long time no post. Bad blogger, bad! But I come with pictures! LOTS.
I don’t know how or why, but on Wednesday I slept until 1. PM. I did NOT see that coming! It was literally like someone just hit me over the head with a hammer. It was sooo good though – I haven’t slept like that in months. After all, what would a real vacation be without some great sleep? After a little get-together with Minerva the yoga mat and some breakfast, my roomie and I decided to try our luck with the Uffizi.
Note to self: Do NOT expect to just saunter on in to the Uffizi Gallery at 3 in the afternoon. Ain’t gonna happen. In my defense, there is a reason I thought this was feasible: my study abroad program gave us each an “Amigli degli Uffizi” card that gives us free admission to all state museums in Florence. We were told that with these card, we had to enter the Uffizi at entrance #2 (yes, there are multiple), so I figured there was a special entrance reserved for people with the magic card. Well, the card may be great, but it is not a miracle-worker. There are 2 entrances to the Uffizi – the one for those with reservations, and the one for those ignorami without. So, you say (at least I did),”well why not make reservations for tomorrow?” Because you are reserving a ticket, not just an entrance time, and the magic card means we don’t pay for the ticket, and thus no reservation. I realize that this has not been the most enthralling story…sorry. I like to rant.
SO, Plan A up in smoke, we improvised and visited an old friend – Dante. As in, Alighieri. As in, the Divine Comedy and Inferno. As in, the brilliant poet who lived in Firenze for a good chunk of his life. His “house” is now a museum (read: tourist money suck), and we being the diligent English majors we are just had to see it! It was kinda blah, but this was pretty cool to see:
Firenze ca. 13th century.
Notice anything?
NO DUOMO! Not built until 1476. Thank goodness it was – that thing has saved me from getting completely lost many, many times.
All this tourism shtuff really works up my appetite…what better a reason for gelato?
Mango + strawberry mousse
The mousse had a little of that artificial “cool whip”-y taste to it, but the mango was deeeLISH. 
Dinner was a bit of a re-run:
My vegged-up bruschetta!
Toasted bread with spinach, basil, garlic and tomatoes baked along side the bread on the oven, spinkled with pecorino romano. Bruschetta rock my socks.
So do gorgeous sunsets from out apartment window.
Frida doesn’t like it when I turn the flash off. But the colors are perty!
Thursday was significantly more eventful. It was a gorgeous Spring day – perfect for my first trip to the Boboli Gardens!
But first, lunch at Sergio’s since I didn’t make it Wednesday:
Paste e fagioli! The real deal. 
I want to put this restaurant in a box and take it home with me. So. Good.
On to Boboli! It’s a huge park behind Palazza Pitti (Pitti Palace), where the Medici lived when they were in power. It was absolutely beautiful. I could totally get married here. You know, with my millions.
back of Palazzo Pitti
My favorite part. I. Love. Tuscany.
Do you see this house? It’s turquoise. I have no idea what it is/was…but it’s more important what it will be: my house.
Cutest little spot. Good for reading/napping, I’m thinking.
Old (serious understatement) vineyards
The stone work looked like melted candle wax…no idea how that happened.
Check OUT this bathtub. Maybe the horses used it.
No words.
On the trek back, I, being the bottomless pit that I often am, was feeling some gelato. A neighbor from home told me about this gelato place across the Arno, which is where the Gardens were, and this was the perfect opportunity!
After-eight (as in, the most amazing dark chocolate covered mint candy ever. If you haven’t tried them before and like the mint-choc combo, seek these out. They leave York patties in the dust.) and yogurt & nutella.
The yogurt-nutella was ok; I have discovered I don’t really like the “yogurt” flavor of gelato after 3 tries. It’s tangy in an odd way. But the After-eight….WHOA. Yum-my. I know that the green color means they added all kinds of artificial crap (nautral mint ice cream is white)….but I don’t really care. This was amazing.
BUT – I still think I like Perche No! better. I guess I will have to go back to confirm…;)
If you want to see the rest of my Boboli pictures (or the rest of my pictures in general), check out my photobucket @ http://s32.photobucket.com/home/NorbertsShiksa!
Stay tuned for my solo adventure…where in the world is Carmen Sandiego Gillianasana???

One girl’s food is another girl’s shoes

I apologize for the lack of postage yesterday; there was a good reason, which you will shortly see!
Sleeping in on Wednesday was a very good decision, because I woke up yesterday feeling considerably less hatred towards my alarm clock, and was actually alert throughout class. Listen to your body before it screams at you! (That was written on some post-its my mom got from her massage therapist. Post-its don’t lie!)
Then of course, it was OAT time. I had a particular experiment on my mind this morning involving this:
Pineapple yogurt
And this:
Succo tropicale! (mango-pineapple-papaya-passion fruit-apple-orange juice)
Now, ok, before you go running around shouting “This girl is putting JUICE in her oatmeal?? What kind of crazy Italian crack is she on??????” – let me ‘splain. No, there is no time – let me sum up. (Princess Bride? Anyone?) In all reality, how different is putting the juice of fruit in oats versus the actual fruit? Um, not very different at all. Same flavor, without the texture variety. It’s like making a smoothie and throwing some oats in. Which, if I had a blender, I would try – I’ve heard it’s yummmy!
Thus, TropicOats was born…
It’s a…girl?
It was quite tasty. I think it would be better cold, as overnight oats perhaps. Tropical fruity flavors call for colder treatment, I think. Would have been amazing with some fresh mango! I probably wouldn’t jump to make it again, but that’s more because I am berry/applesauce oat addict.
I then proceeded to take a nap on the couch. Thrilling, I know.
Instead of having class today, my cooking class was going to a restaurant with several other of our teacher’s cooking classes to have a typical vegetarian Italian dinner (hence the lack of posting yesterday), so I was trying to stay extra-balanced (oxymoron?) with eating today. I didn’t want to get there bottomed-out starving and eat so fast I wouldn’t even taste it, but I obviously wanted to be good and hungry for it! Ah, the complex politics of eating!
All that to say, I had a salad for lunch.
Skillet-grilled zucchini, cannellini, arugula. Good stuff.
I was desperately seeking somewhere to venture, and I hit the jackpot! I was on http://www.happycow.net/, which is a website with recommendations/tips/recipes/etc for vegan and vegetarian food, and it’s international! They have a list of veg/vegan restaurants and health food stores in Florence, and on it I found….the Italian Whole Foods. Much smaller, no food bars or anything, but a small market chain dedicated to natural/organic foods. A.k.a, my mecca. Cha-CHING!
I dragged my roommate out with me, got lost a time or two, but eventually we found it. It’s farther than it looked on the map, but that’s probably a good thing, because I’m pretty sure I actually heard my wallet crying when I walked out. I was fully expecting tear stains on my euro bills. Some girls buy designer shoes, others expensive jewelry…I buy organic food.
It was SO exciting – don’t worry, you will see my loot as it is consumed 😉 
Marissa and I were feeling like it was cappuccino time, so capps it was:
I swear, it’s like medicine.
Not gonna lie, it was a struggle to not eat dinner at my usual 6. I do ok if we’re out and about, walking around, but at home it’s like a dinner bell goes off in my head. 8 AM classes are NOT conducive to the Italian late dinner, let me tell you. But I managed with a pb & j and a little cereal.
I was, of course, the first person to arrive at Dino. My professor was there and I love him, so I enjoyed just listening to him. I asked him about how this dinner fit into our class’s emphasis on nutrition, and this restaurant is apparently known to cook with a lighter touch. He also gave me a tip that I will share with you: If you want to check the quality of a restaurant, look at the waiters’ shoes. If they take the time to take care of themselves, they will do the same for the customers. Shiny shoes=good food.
We had the WHOLE restaurant to ourselves – there were about 70 hungry American students in total. After we were all seated and our professor gave the “yes, the wine is free, but please don’t get hammered” speech (unfortunately very necessary – and I’m quite doubtful it was observed by the majority), the meal began.
(Please excuse the less-than-brilliant pics; I was hungry and not very patient with the camera.)
For the anitpasti, there was bruschetta:
My fave! Still not as good as the kind we made in class, though.
FRESH pecorino (my true cheese love):
Have I mentioned you need to try this? Because you do.
And fagioli all’uccelletto, which is a dish if white beans in a sauce of tomato, garlic, and sage:
The beans were amazing, akin to what I would consider Italy’s version of baked beans.
For primi piatti, we had garganelli alle verdure di stagione (a tube-shaped fresh pasta with sauce of seasonal vegetables) and risotto al taleggio:
I adored the pasta shape! The pasta was very interesting; I tasted some spice that was reminiscent of India, curry or turmeric maybe? I liked it MOLTO.
Taleggio is essentially the Italian brie. Less stinky, quite mild, but I like it a lot. I found this risottto a little underwhelming, probably because I was expecting…well, I don’t know, something insanely flavorful, I suppose. It was pleasantly simple, and smelled great; the flavor itself was just rice and creamy cheese, neither of which do much for me. It was a big hit with others, though, so it’s very much a matter of opinion.
This restaurant is known for 2 things: their eggplant parm, and their tiramisu. So, quite clearly, secondo piatti was melanzane alla parmigiana:
This was pretty amazing, I will say. I do like eggplant parm but have only had it once or twice because I can’t stand how most restaurants serve it: breaded, fried in crappy hydrogenated oil, and piled with cheap provolone cheese and mediocre tomato sauce. This was…not. The eggplant was so soft and tender, the only way to know that it was in fact eggplant was its flavor, kept very much in tact. The tomato sauce was super fresh. My only complaint was that the cheese had made a kind of stale crust and felt too much like it had been sitting out for a while (which, considering there were 70 of us, is entirely possible) – but there wasn’t an abundance of it, which I was very grateful for, and the flavor it added was good.
Dessert. The course I had been waiting for. On our first day of class, my professor explained that he really didn’t approve of typical tiramisu because it calls for raw eggs. (I’m thinking he’s not so much a fan of cookie dough then either…probably the single point upon which we completely disagree.) There is away to serve tiramisu, however, by using a double-boiler method to make the cream. This restaurant is known to use that method, and I was very excited to see how different it was.
(One picture was too yellow, the other too blurry – I figured between the two, you could get the gist.)
The entire night the waiters had come around asking if we wanted more, except for dessert. Cruelty at its finest.
This was some damn fine tiramisu. There was come kind of spice added that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – a cinnamon/nutmeg/clove flavor that was just subtle enough that I couldn’t figure it out. Hmm, experiment time? I think so.
The wine served was a classic chianti; I probably had about 3 oz over the whole night. I only like wine in teeny tiny sips throughout the meal. It was quite tasty though! I still feel like a dunce about wine though, and I think I’m going to start reading up on it a bit. If I’m going to be a wine snob connoisseur, I’m going whole hog – go big or go home, people.
All in all, it was a lovely meal. Not mind-blowing amazing, perhaps a bit underwhelming, but a wonderful experience as a whole.
I was not at all paying attention to the clock last night. I started a crossword puzzle online, made some tea and put on some Michael Buble and BAM! it was 2 AM. Whoops. Three cheers for sleeping late! 
I’ll be back soon with more food commentary and general ranting – ciao ciao!
~Namaste~

Happy Omega-3 Awareness Day!

Have you had your omega-3s today? Get on that 😉

Ok, I did a bad thing. Well, not really bad…semi-bad, if you will. I was unable to go to bed early as planned last night (long story), and when I did finally get there, sleep was not happening. I can not even begin to articulate how frustrating it is to be beyond exhausted and NOT be able to fall asleep. Ever happened to you? GRR!

ANYway, my alarm went off at the usual 6:50 AM (yes, you see where this is going), and I debated for a good half hour whether or not I should go to Italian. I could have gotten up, forced myself out the door, struggled to keep my head off the desk and been generally miserable for the stupid 50 minutes of class…but it just wasn’t worth the fight. I knew I would only prolong the exhaustion for another day and only feel worse, which often leads to sickness, and that is even more inconvenient than missing one class. Sorry, but health has to take priority over perfect attendance. Not even my perfectionism can go so far as that. So, I closed the shutters, reset my alarm for 10, and fell into a sleep coma. Totally worth it.

I ended up getting up at 11 and having a light breakfast before heading out for some errands – most notably Mercato Centrale and LUNCH (of course).

I will admit, I find the mercato rather intimidating. I often find myself disappointed because the vendor sees me and immediately switches to English, or just nervous in general about how much to ask for, where to go, etc. It’s very confrontational and I am…well, not. BUT, I refuse to buy my cheese anywhere else, and the produce is generally better and cheaper. It’s such a Florentine institution, and sometimes it makes me feel like I’m just not part of the club yet. Well Florence, I got news for you – I’m here for the next few months, and I WILL be a card-carrying member by the time I leave. Now get me some spinach!

After our shopping, we went to lunch at Sergio’s, the same place as last Wednesday. I have deemed it my Wednesday lunch place. They will know me well there. I ordered soup again, this time ribollita! I have been waiting for the perfect place to try this because it is a staple Florentine winter dish and I wanted my first time to be authentic, not touristy-fake. And BOY, this was worth the wait:

No, soup does not make for the most aesthetically pleasing food photography, but the smell and taste more than compensate.

Ribollita is a thick soup made with white beans, various veggies and stale Tuscan bread, which makes it thick and amazing. Olive oil is drizzled on top to finish. Forget Campbells – THIS was the definition of mm, mm BUONO!

In complete contrast to yesterday, it was rainy, cold and generally dreary today, so not much more went on other than computering and various bouts of snacking.

I was not sure what to do about dinner; all I knew was that it needed to involve the spinach, tomatoes, and pecorino I bought at the market today. I turned to one of my old stand-bys I make almost daily when I am home, which is essentially a crustless pizza. I take a piece of foil or parchment paper and throw spinach, tomatoes, a little olive oil, and whatever else I want – tonight it was a garlic clove, fresh(ish) basil, oregano, white beans and my pecorino – throw it in the oven, and bake it until the spinach is wilty and the cheese melted. I made some toast with it, because no meal in Italy is completely without good bread. Piled it into a bowl and got…bruschetta? Yep. And oh MAN was it good.

Pre-oven baked.
Plated!

As my inner foodie has come to take me over, I have often pondered what my favorite recipe is. Not just individual food or ingredient, but what recipe I could make any given day and be instantly brightened. Tonight, it hit me: I. Love. Bruschetta.

I mean, what’s not to love? Fresh vegetables (and fruit – tomato!), good bread, yummy herbs. Pretty poi-fect in my book. I have had it SO much since coming here (the best so far in my cooking class), and I have every intention of making it. Think of the possibilities: so many veggies, so many spice combos! And then there is the dessert potential…fruit, nutella, jam…oh man. I have a feeling Summer 2010 = Summer of Bruschetta. Bring. It. On.

Speaking of dessert…

Chocolate makes any rainy day better. I promise.

By the way, if you want to see more/all of the pictures I have been taking, you can check out my Photobucket account here –> http://s32.photobucket.com/home/NorbertsShiksa. Just thought I’d mention it!

Ok, shower time for this signorina. Buona notte!

~Namaste~

SuperSize THIS

I know I’ve said it before, but I really love my cooking class. Like, really really.

Today we watched the movie SuperSize Me, the documentary about (and made by) Morgan Spurlock who ate McDonald’s food three times a day for 30 days in order to prove just how toxic fast food really is. This was my third time watching it, but I realized that each time I’ve seen it, I’ve been at a different place in my life in terms of my own eating habits and preferences. I first saw it when it first came out on video in my high school health class.  got it, it grossed me out, but I was never a Mickey D regular anyway, so I didn’t put too much thought into it. The 2nd time I saw was the spring of my freshman year in college, a time when I was overly conscious of calories and fat – and really had no real concept of what those things actually are. Now, I am a bit more enlightened on the nutrition-front and less concerned with caloric value as I am with the quality and freshness of the ingredients. It was really interesting to see it from my newer perspective. There is a downside – that movie makes me incredibly angry with the U.S. food industry. Especially in the discussion of school food programs. It would be so simple to get more natural, healthily-prepared and nutrition-conscious foods in any and all schools, and yet nothing is done about it because of MONEY. WHAT are kids supposed to do when the french fries are a dollar and the turkey sandwich on whole grain bread is 4??? It really just infuriates me. Opinions/comments/thoughts?
Back to my class – to bring home the point that food can be delicious AND good for you, my teacher made (because we were watching the movie, he did the majority of the cooking) fresh burger, fresh fries, and homemade ice cream. And it was…well, a foodgasm, quite frankly. He made and baked the bread for the buns, the beef was bought and ground right in front of my teacher this very morning, and the fries were simply baked potato slices with rosemary, garlic and olive oil (which my mom makes a lot and I ADORE them!). We topped the burgers with fresh mozzarella and had sauteed spinach and mushrooms as a side.
1. Next time you make a cheeseburger, use fresh mozzarella (don’t melt it on top, just throw it on). I don’t even LIKE cheeseburgers, and this was amazing.
2. This bun was some of the best bread I’ve ever had. Yes, I will be emailing my teacher for the recipe. Holy. Yum. 
3. Never in my LIFE have I tasted ground beef like this. After giving up red meat for a year in 2008, I realized how much don’t care for it…but clearly it’s because I had never tasted this. I didn’t eat all of it, because I still really can’t eat it in large portions…but whoa. This burger blew my mind tastebuds.
(In case you are curious, he grilled the patties on a dry skillet and towards the end of cooking time poured white wine over them to dry up any excess fat in the burgers.)
4. Make these “fries.” You will never feel the need to darken the doorway of the Golden Arches again.
Have I convinced you of the ridiculous deliciousness of my meal yet? No? Well, wait for the grand finale…

What my pictures lacks in aesthetic appeal, the contents made up for and then some with taste.
That would be homemade berry gelato, eaten within minutes of being ready. It was a mix of strawberries and some raspberries, and then a little orange thrown in, with just 2 eggs, a liiiiitle bit of sugar and skim milk.
In my ice cream rankings, it is currently tied with my grandfather’s homemade peach ice cream (which is a SERIOUSLY difficult thing to even come close to, much less beat out). Yes, it was that good. *Tip*: The pink color means the berries are perfectly fresh; when the color is redder, it means artificial something-or-other has been added.
As you may imagine, I floated out of that class on quite the food high and took a walk. Really, I was in search of the Culinary Institute of Florence building, just because I know what street it’s on and I just really want to see it. Ended up getting semi-lost, one of my favorite things to do in this city, and unfortunately didn’t find it (I think I walked the wrong way down the street. It’s a long street.) I made a trip to the grocery store and headed on home. I was makin dinner tonight!
One of my roommates wanted to make bruschetta, and did a lovely job:
Nothin like fresh bruschetta in Italy. So. Good.
I have heard several times from various sources about lasagna made with thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini instead of the noodles, and I figured there’s no better place to try it out than in Italy! It turned into more of an “Italian pie”, but hey, it was good. Needs some improvement, but here is what I did:
-Rub the bottom of a pan lightly with olive oil (or use PAM – they don’t have it here).
-Place thin slices of eggplant on the bottom (I should have cooked it a teeny bit before I did this)
-Layer that with cannellini beans and pasta if desired (I threw probably under a half a cup of whole wheat penne in there, to add a little bean + grain perfect protein combo)
-Place fresh mozzarella slices and then layer with zucchini
-Cover with sauce (I would recommend layering the sauce more throughout, because I like more sauce. I just didn’t have enough).
*For the sauce, I heated up a pan slightly drizzled with olive oil and garlic and added a can of crushed tomatoes, basil, salt and oregano.*
I topped it with the remainder of my pecorino sardo cheese (grated), which made a really yummy thin crust on top.
It was pretty good, but there is room for improvement. Difficult to cut – maybe I will cube the veggies next time and go for more of a pie effect.
No complaints = Good sign!

 I recommend serving it with some good Tuscan bread. But then, I recommend serving everything with good Tuscan bread…

Off to Rome very early tomorrow, and I have been procrastinating packing. I’m not over-the-moon excited about it, but I am bound and determined to see the Sistine Chapel, and that I am excited about. And restaurants. And gelato. Ok, I’m a little excited about it.

I will be back Sunday evening – with lots of pictures!

~Namaste~

Baker-to-be

Getting up for Italian is not getting easier. Even if I go to bed at a reasonable hour, the sound of my alarm always comes too early. The snooze button and I are good friends.
Today was busier than usual; came home from Italian to make my daily oats:
Chocolate-orange yogurt oats (oats with cocoa powder with orange yogurt). I’m actually not even a fan of chocolate-orange things, but variety is the spice of life. And it’s hard to make oats that I won’t eat 🙂
I had barely enough time to scarf this before I had to run back out to meet an Italian student who wants to learn English. My school here runs a program that hooks an English speaking student with an Italian and they exchange conversation to improve our respective language skills. My partner was a really cool chick…but she has been learning English since she as 8. Left me and my 3 semesters of Italian in the dust. But I’m so grateful for the practice. Sono determinata parlare l’italiano correntemente!
We talked for a while, and by the time we finished it was too late to bother walking home before my cooking class, so I just read a bit outside our classroom/kitchen. Class was, as per usual, completely wonderful. The menu today was fresh bruschetta – for which we (sepcifically, I) made the bread, pasta alla norma, chicken marsala, and an apple cake.
I was on Team Bruschetta, and I have definitively decided that baking is my favorite activity next to yoga. Making bread is the BEST therapy. And eating fresh bread ain’t so bad either!
For the bruschetta, we first blanched the tomatoes to make them easy to peel. We peeled, seeded, and cubed them, and then made a kind of “cream” simply by blending the seeds and skin together with a tiny bit of olive oil using an immersion blender:
 
All the wonderful lycopene, a a kick-butt antioxidant, is found in the seeds and skins, so you want to find a way to incoporate them into your recipe. You mix this with the chopped tomatoes and a little basil, salt, pepper, and oregano:
As for the bread, it was SO easy. Melt yeast into some lukewarm water and mix it with the flour, essentially. We added fennel, cumin, and sesame seeds to boost the flavor and nutritional profile of the bread:
Ta-da! I apologize for the semi-icky picture, the bread needed to be toasted with the tomatoes and it ended up coming out last – it made a great dessert!
Pasta Alla Norma is a Sicilian dish named for a character in a Bellini opera. It. was. a-ma-zing.
It’s your basic pasta with marinara sauce, then fried eggplant (I have taken to calling them eggplant chips), then pecorino and basil on top. Now, when I say fried, we are not talking your typical battered in refined flour and drenched in nasty hydrogenated oil. For these babies, you cut the eggplant into chip-like slices and dust (very important – dust, not drench!) them with flour. The flour protects the eggplant from being saturated with oil and instead creates a crispy texture on the outside that is to LIVE for! You pan fry your dusted eggplant in sunflower (or vegetable) oil. E voila:
So. good.
There was also chicken marsala, which was tasty enough but I wouldn’t have missed it either. I’m honestly not a fan of the dish, regardless of how well it is prepared.
Here it is in the prep phase:
That’s the chicken in the pan on the left; the mushroom sauce is on the stove. I will say this – it was very pretty and colorful, which always makes it taste better!
The dessert was torta delle mele, or apple cake. 80% apples, with a spongy batter in the middle. It was very good. The cake part actually reminded me of this wonderful pancake-like baked dish that a neighbor used to make that was so good, I can still remember the taste. It’s hard to explain – almost like a custard, I suppose.
I’m not much for fruit pies, but this cake was excellent. Very light, lovely flavor. A good early fall dish, I think. And super healthy!
I have yet to show you my APRON:
 
It may be a little embarassing how excited I was to get this. But I don’t care. Chef Gillian is on the job!
Ooh, Chef Gillian. That has a nice little ring to it, doesn’t it?
I wanted to get out more and walk around, but that meal was so satiating that I came home, bummed around a bit on the computer and eventually fell asleep. I was running around and busy from about 7 to 2:30, and it was nap time. My problem is if I nap in the late afternoon, 9 out of 10 times I wake up with an awful stomach ache. Something about naps totally unsettles my stomach. Dinner was still pretty great though!
I was craving a big bowl of GREEN, and that’s exactly what I had! Spinach and arugula with tomato and pecorino dressed in a little bit of olive oil, good balsamic, and pesto. The pesto made this salad – if you haven’t tried it before, DO IT. This is one of the best salads I think I have ever created. I think a good rule is the simpler the ingredients, the better the taste. Works for me!
I have decreed tomorrow David Day, as I have been in Florence mere miles away from The David and still have yet to pay him a visit – time to fix that! I also have a wicked recipe up my sleeve and my roommates are going to be my guinea pigs…get excited. The Chef is in.
~Namaste~