Restaurant Review: Gran Gusto

What to do when you’ve just returned from a semester in Florence and are itching to go right back?
Go to one of the best Italian restaurants nearby.
Enter: Gran Gusto.
Located in Cambridge, Mass., Gran Gusto is owned and run by native Napolitani. Chef Giuseppe Castellano was generous enough to bring a taste of his home country to my home state, and boy am I grateful. Everything is homemade – from the focaccia slices brought in classy metal conical baskets, to the pasta and pizza, to the classic Italian dessert offerings. Oh, I was home!
After reading the menu and listening to our waiter (who spoke to me in Italian – I wanted to hug him!) list the specials with a certain flair that can only be described as veramente italiano, my parents each started out with a salad – and I stole plenty from each of their plates.
This is baby spinach, fresh asparages, roasted red peppers and a slice of what I am mostly sure was an aged pecorino (but might have been a good parmegiano reggiano…my tastebuds’ memory is failing me). It was all dressed up in a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and drizzled with a touch of balsamic. It was just lovely. The freshness and different flavors of the veggies, the sharp pungent taste of the cheese, and the sweetness of the balsamic was Italian simplicity at its finest. 
I should also mention the wine – my parents ordered a really nice red from Montalcino and gave me sips. YUM! Oh, I miss a glass of wine with dinner. It really makes the whole thing more satisfying.
For our entree, my parents and I ordered the same thing – boring, yes, but it sounded SO good!
Fresh fettuccine with morel mushrooms (some of the best funghi in the world), spinach, and baby squid called calamarelle. I heard squid and I was there! None of us were sorry, either. The pasta was perfectly al dente. The sweetness of the squid melded beautifully with the earthy mushrooms flavor, and I was just so happy. There’s just something about a wonderful plate of fresh pasta that gets me grinning every time.
No picture, but my brother ordered a pizza with ham, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and the mandatory fresh tomato sauce and bufalo mozzarella. Though I’m quite sure no slice will ever top the pies we made in cooking class, this was as authentic as it gets. My dad said it really took him back to his childhood, when he could wander down to a pizza place that used the fresh tomato sauce and mozz. The boys at the table were quite satisfied 🙂
When dessert time rolled around, the words of my beloved cooking professor resonated in my head: “The true way to judge a restaurant is by its dessert list. The way the chef chooses to finish the meal is very important.”
Couldn’t agree more.
My brother went with the tiramisu – one of our mutual favorite desserts. The thing I love about tiramisu is that it’s always a little different every time I taste it. This was no exception. Though I still prefer our rendition, this was good with a thicker than usual layer of cocoa, giving it a really nice deep cocoa-y flavor. 
My parents, hankering for something lighter and fruity, went with the delizia limone:
A wonderfully light lemon sponge cake with a chilled lemon cream in the middle and a couple big fat slices of strawberries hiding!
I ended up helping them out a lot with this – I love that it was chilled! It turned the tart lemon, sweet cream and airy cake into a light lemony cloud of dessert perfection. And the strawberry slices in the middle were like finding buried treasure!
If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Cambridge and have a hankering for bell’ Italia, or even just want to brush up on your Italian language skills, take a trip to Gran Gusto. It certainly helped this homesick Florence-sick chick!
~Namaste~

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!!!

A Most Gratifying Day

Anyone who can tell me what my title is quoting gets a goodie!!!
I’m currently struggling to write a paper on the role of the Tarantella and tarantism in Italian society. I can’t take the mental strain anymore…so it’s blog time!!
It is Thursday. And Thursday means…COOKING!! Thursday is the one day that I don’t feel the desperate need for a morning nap after Italian because I get so jazzed about going to class. It’s really great. And speaking of great…
Blueberry-chocolate oats. I hope I’m not boring you too much with all my oat pictures – ’cause I sure ain’t getting tired of eating them!
On to the real show. We had our first quiz today on the film Super Size Me, which was relatively easy. And when we finished, our teacher had coffee made for us. I’m pretty sure that’s what all quizzes & tests should finish with, don’t you agree?
*sizzle sizzle*
What could that be?
The menu today was:
Home-made ravioli with a ricotta-spinach filling in homemade pesto (Yes, we made the ravioli dough in class.) I can’t even begin to describe how much better fresh pasta is than the regular old out-of-a-box stuff. It’s just something everyone should experience. Holy yum. And the pesto sauce was wonderful – so fresh but not overpowering! And very easy. As with all our recipes, our teacher showed us how to reduce the calorie-count without taking away any of the flavor – in fact, it probably tastes better than the super-high-fat kind! A lot of people are very judgmental I think about recipes that are “lightened”, but it is my experience that those people have usually never given it a real chance. I’m not talking about sugar-free fat-free “food-like” things mostly made up of chemicals just edible enough for the FDA to let pass – I’m talking about REAL. FOOD. It tastes good. If you don’t believe me – invite me over to cook for you sometime!
Next up: 
Penne alle Vesuviana.
The penne wasn’t fresh but MAN this was so good! Very simple, but that is so often what tastes best, ya know? It was all about the sauce – garlic browned in olive oil and then added with 3 colors of bell pepper (SO pretty!), cherry tomatoes, olives, and basil. You can also add capers if you like; our teacher advised against it because he finds the saltiness of the capers to add too much complexity to the dish. We trust him.
I was in the dessert group – I was a little sad I didn’t get to make the ravioli, but I’m pretty this was just as much if not MORE fun to make:
Oh yes. It was good.
It is kind of like tiramisu, but not quite. We wanted to avoid the use of raw eggs (used in the traditional tiramisu recipe), and the thick, sogginess of the soaked lady fingers to create something with a similar flavor but lighter. We put some water in a double-boiler and when it was simmering, we took it off and beat egg yolks and cane sugar together. Doing this over the almost-boiling water heats the yolks enough to kill any bacteria in the raw egg without cooking the egg itself. When it was beaten into a very creamy pudding-like texture, we set that to cool and brought the water in the double-boiler back to simmering. We then beat the egg whites over the double-boiler (for the same reason – no salmonella in this baby!) until it formed peaks and set it to cool. We next folded marscapone cheese into the yolk/sugar cream – called zabaione – and then folded in the egg whites. We also whipped up some cream and folded that in, but you don’t necessarily need to do this step. We poured this creamy amazingness into ramekins, topped with 2 amaretti (little cookies with intense and wonderful almond flavor) that had been soaked in coffee, sprinkled them with mini chocolate chips and coffee powder, and then set it in the fridge to chill.
HOLY WHOA this was SO GOOD. It was kind of like a cross between vanilla ice cream and vanilla mousse. Next time I make this I think I am going to add a little cinnamon and perhaps some coffee to the cream. I really wanted the coffee flavor to penetrate a bit more – really gave it that good tiramisu feel. I’d probably also sprinkle it with cocoa powder instead of chocolate chips; I really think the cocoa would make the chocolate flavor more present. The chocolate chips added nice texture but the flavor wasn’t as good because you have to bite into them to get to the chocolate and let’s face it, this is dessert – instant gratification is what it’s about!
Came home and have been “writing” this paper since then. There have been countless bouts of procrastination, frustration, and eating. Dinner was a mish mosh of snackiness, nothing particularly photo-worthy. But…
Tomorrow me and the roomies are off to VERONA!!! As in, fair Verona. As in, ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’ Verona. The four English majors are going to a holy land. So. Freaking. Excited.
The paper seems to be beckoning me back…blast. I will return in a couple days with pictures – and maybe if I get lucky, a Romeo?
…Doubtful.
~Namaste~

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~