A Sparkling Holiday

Thanksgiving is a magical time of year when families across the country join together to raise America’s obesity statistics. Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.

– Stephen Colbert

I do love Thanksgiving. A holiday that revolves completely around gathering at the table, preparing a menu that seems to be inherently seasonal, and celebrating through food. That’s pretty much my ideal day.

Add Prosecco, and I’m sold.

And so we did! As I mentioned, we recently came into possession of one bottle of each kind of sparkling white wine: a Cava from Spain, a Prosecco from Italy, and a champagne from France. It seemed so perfect, we decided we simply had to have a blind taste test – and what better time than Thanksgiving, when there are enough people to drink 3 bottles of wine at once? Answer: none. (A Friday night in college SO does not count.)

Let the recap begin.

Bottle #1:

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Not super bubbly, very grapey at first but mellowed after opening for a couple minutes & became one of the nicest.

Bottle #2:

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This one felt like there were a million teeny tiny bubbles, with a crisper flavor. My favorite by a while, but I tend to think in a “bubblier = better” mindset with any beverage.

Bottle #3:

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This one was everyone else’s favorite – the bubbles seemed “just right” (rather a la Goldilocks), and the flavor was more…mature? I don’t know quite how to describe it. It ended up being my least favorite, but everyone else’s top.

So, any guesses? I’ll give you a minute to review. In the meantime, drool over our little amuse bouche:

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Figs stuffed with gorgonzola dolce + walnut. I’m not usually a big bleu cheese fan but hot damn this was good cheese. You must try it. Get thee to Whole Foods STAT.

Ok, ready?

Bottle #1: Champagne

Bottle #2: Prosecco

Bottle #3: Cava

I was not surprised in the least that the Prosecco was my fave. It was pretty much love at first aperitivo with that one, and I’ve never looked back. The Champagne vs. Cava surprised everyone – especially the champagne – but after it opened up, it was really lovely and much more champagne-y.

The meal was pretty traditional after that – my personal favorite? The stuffing. Oh, the stuffing. I think that is the only dish that actually makes me enjoy celery. I don’t mind it cooked in soups, I can’t really stand the stringyness raw – but in sausage stuffing it is such an oddly welcome addition. I have no idea why. Really, I could eat just stuffing, my mom’s sweet potatoes and a pumpkin dessert and be done with it.

And as for that particular pumpkin dessert…

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I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow. I suggest you save room.

How was your Thanksgiving?

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A Few of My Favorite Things

Sometimes, the world appears to be caving in. When you feel like you are watching helplessly as lives are destroyed by natural disasters and heartless dictators, I find that it can help to turn to what you love. Because when the big things make you cry, you have to find the little things that make you smile.

Like a crusty and perfectly golden piece of baguette.

 

Juicy red plums. As tasty as they are pretty.

 

My long tea spoon that I [not-so] secretly stole from home. I use it multiple times a day. It’s perfect for eating oats, yogurt, nutella, and everything in between.

 

The vino-themed kitchen towels I found on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond. Affordable, adorable, and amazingly wine-stain-free. So far.

 

Warm spring breezes, new flowers, and extra sunlight.

 

What makes you smile?


 

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~

Puffy Pizza and Planes

Gah, no update in so long! Didja miss me? Barcelona was SO FUN!!! But more on that later. When we last left Gillianasana…
I’ll be honest, Thursday did not begin well. You may remember my Easter morning surprise when I woke up to find my face swollen to 10 times its normal size. I suspect it’s either a reaction to Italian mosquitoes or something else like bed bugs….EW. Whatever it is, it got me again, and my eyes were swollen shut. As in, I could barely see to walk around the apartment. Thank goodness I had one Italian class left that I could miss. I have pictures…but I’ll spare you. I’d hate to spoil anyone’s appetite.
What upset me most about this little obstacle was that not only was today my last cooking class (*tear*), but it was the class focused on my true carb love, bread. And not just any bread….pizza dough!!!! Yes, today we made pizza from scratch. I was not about to miss this, swollen eyes or not. By the time class rolled around it had gone done a little, so I threw on my big sunglasses and was out the door. 
We all split up into 5 groups – 4 pizzas and 1 dessert. My group went with a veggie pizza – eggplant, zucchini, and mozzarella with garlic and tomato sauce. It was fantastically easy, too – my family better be ready for some pizza a la ME!
We started with the basic bread recipe – flour, water, yeast, a little salt and a pinch of sugar. *Tip*: you always use half the amount of flour for the water. Like, if you have 300 grams of flour, you use 150 ml of water. You melt the yeast in the water first and add the pinch of sugar – the sugar helps activate the yeast to move things along quicker. Mix the flour and salt together and form what I call the flour volcano – bascially make a hole in the middle of the flour pile so the flour forms a kind of wall . Pour some of the water/yeast mixture into the hole and start gently working them together – we used a fork to do this, kind of making a whipping/beating motion. Eventually it will be juuust well-mixed enough to start kneading with your hands.  Add a little olive oil, white wine, and vinegar as you knead to keep the bread from drying out. After about 10 minutes, form the dough into a ball and make an X in the top; let it rest for about 2 more minutes, then work it a liiittle bit more, then reform the ball, remark the X, and let it rest again under a damp paper towel for about 10 minutes. When your 10 minutes are up, roll it out with a rolling pin on both sides – it will probably be a funky shape, not a perfect circle. Personally, I think that makes it more interesting. Just sayin.
For veggie pizzas, the veggies MUST be sauteed at least a little before being put on the pizza and baked. Veggies are mostly made of water, and if you throw em on there raw, they will release their water onto the pizza while baking and the end result is heavy and very hard to eat – no wimpy pizzas!!! We sauteed our eggplant and zucchini in some olive oil and garlic (hard to go wrong with that combo). For the sauce, we just used pureed tomatoes and heated it up, adding a little (what else?) olive oil. Ladel it in small amount in the middle of the rolled out pizza dough and swirl it around with the bottom of the ladel. Repeat this just until it’s covered – don’t oversauce! I promise, there will be enough, even if you like sauce. Just put the ladel down.
Add your sauteed veggies and cheeeeeeese:
And throw it in the oven for baby and me about 20 minutes-ish at 215 Celsius, about 415 degrees Fahrenheit. E voila!
Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?
Ours was my favorite I think. The crust was the perfect thick/thinness, there was just enough sauce, not too much cheese and the veggies gave texture and taste that made this probably some of the best pizza ever.
Another group made a Margherita pizza, which is fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. I liked it, but I think I prefer tomato sauce to straight tomatoes.
Then there was a [mostly] white pizza with mozzarella, parmesan, prosciutto and I believe mushrooms. I LOVE parmesan on pizza. It gives it such a good bite. This was probably my second fave.
The last group topped theirs with potatoes and rosemary. I liked it, but I didn’t love it; the textures of the bread and potatoes didn’t work as well together for me. I would rather have them separate, I suppose. 
We kept it simple with dessert – stuffed peaches. They’re finally in season here, and they were cut open, de-pitted and stuffed with a mixture of chopped almonds, brown sugar, egg yolk, cocoa powder
It was a very tasty little bite. The peaches were a little too underripe I think, but the filling was AWESOME. Like a really good biscotti – crumbly, sweet, almondy. Would actually be really good on oatmeal, methinks…
And no pizza is complete without wine, right? A very light white. My puffy self was grateful.
[I kept my sunglasses on the entire class. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m insane. Don’t care.]
After that, it was a mad rush to GET OUT of the house and get our butts to Barcelona!! My roommate from school is studying there this semester and I was soo excited to see her 🙂 After that the day started getting better (even though the puffiness didn’t fully reside until late the next day…eek). I won’t go into details about the rest of my Thursday, because, um, OY VEH. 
Barcelona – get ready. The ladies of The Palace are coming.
~Namaste~

Deja Vino

Does this look familiar?
It turns out that my cooking class field trip to a wine tasting on a farm in Lucca was at the exact same farm that API took us for the olive oil tasting. I now know Fattoria Il Poggio quite well, I think!
Despite some of us from API feeling a little disappointed at not going somewhere new, the fact that we were here this time for a wine tasting did make a considerable difference in our second experience here. New tour guide, new sights…

A pine nut tree! Mmmm – a great addition to salads 🙂

See those odd-looking spindly stick cluster things? Those are what grow capers (those tiny, salty green balls that pack a wallop of flavor). Also good on salads 🙂

And of course, there were new tastes!
The white.
Very dry, but I really liked it – so much that a bottle came home with me!
The red.
Once this opened up, I really liked this too. In fact, I couldn’t decide which I liked more, the white or the red! Brought a bottle of this home to, so the roomies may offer up their opinions!
The wonderful thing about going to farms is that the wine they produce is always tasty and super cheap. I could so live on a Tuscan farm. The views alone would make it worth it.
The food was equally as delish. And there was plenty to be had! Before the standard wine tasting snacks were brought out (bread, olive oil, cheese, salamis), they served us fresh-made maccheroni pasta in meat sauce:
Now I am not much for meat sauce, but the amazingness that is fresh pasta pretty much balances out everything else. I can’t even describe it; it’s got the perfect texture and bite to it, and you can taste the how the egg, flour and water combine to produce such a wonderful thing. 
Just a note – you can buy fresh pasta in the States! It’s usually in [one of] the freezer sections. If there’s a specialty cheese aisle, it may be around there. It’s not quite fresh off the slicer, but it’s still far and beyond the dried stuff. Or you could get ambitious and make your own…*wink wink*
After this and some bread, delicious olives and pecorino (seriously, best cheese ever. and this is coming from someone who usually doesn’t like cheese.), we had the traditional Tuscan dessert of cantuccini (basically little baby almond biscotti) dipped in Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine:
Last time I mentioned I didn’t like their Vin Santo – it’s suuuper strong! But today, I actually quite enjoyed my tiny sip. And it is nice with the cantucci. As they say, when in Rome Tuscany!
Despite it pouring down rain for most of the day, it was a really fun field trip. In fact, it’s a little unreal to me that I went to a wine tasting on a Tuscan farm for SCHOOL. If this is a dream – don’t wake me up!
~Namaste~

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~

Unreal

On Sunday, my weekend adventures took me to Cinque Terre, five little hill towns on the Mediterranean coast on the northwestern side of Italy that are connected by a loooong trail. We went with Florence For Fun, a local travel agency that arranges spring break, long-weekend, and day trips for students in Florence. It was a great deal, too! Cinque Terre (literally, ‘five lands’) is world-renowned for its incredible natural beauty–it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage List–and it has a fantastic hiking trail with some drop-dead gorgeous sites. It really felt like we were walking around inside a postcard. It was almost too beautiful to be real.
We arose at the obscene hour of 6 AM; well, my travel companions did…I fell back asleep and they jostled me awake at quarter to 7. Whoops! I also awoke to find my puffy face had returned; a mosquito must have bitten me last night. Grrr! It wasn’t as bad as last time, and faded by the time we got off the train in the first town, Riomaggiore. It seems that it’s not just Florentine weather that likes to trick us more than treat us, but all of Italy – it was cloudy and freezing when we got there! (Don’t worry, we sang “Oh Mr. Sun” in Italian and he eventually came out to de-thaw us!)
The big deal history-wise with Cinque Terre is its muretti, “little walls.” Despite its terrain being incredibly steep, rocky, and generally difficult to farm, its people have thrived as farmers from the first centuries AD. They propped up their farms and vineyards by building little stone walls – a lot of them. 11,000 kilometers (6836 miles), in fact, which is similar in length to the Great Wall of China. I know, crazy, right?? The craziest part is they did it completely by manual labor. SAY WHAT???
This mural was painted in recognition of those who built the walls. They deserve this and more! 11,000 KM!!!!
We didn’t actually go in to Riomaggiore; we pretty much got off the train, went to the bathroom and started hiking! Didn’t stop me from snapping away, of course:
The bar where we used the bathroom listed the ingredients used in the breads/pastries they sold. TOO COOL!! Look at all that real food – no artificial unpronouncable chemical ingredients here! This made me happy. [coughfoodgeekcoughcough]
The first trail, from Riomaggiore to Manarola, is called Via dell’Amore – The Lovers’ Walk. It was actually named by a journalist who was writing a story was walking on the path and found a note left by two young lovers. Awwwwwww!!!
Doesn’t everyone proclaim their love on a cactus leaf? I would.
When couples come to Cinque Terre they bring a lock and put it on rails, plants, nets, anything, then lock it and throw the key into the ocean. So sweet!
Ok, get ready for some serious picture overload. I’ll try to let the pictures speak for themselves and narrate only where necessary 🙂
Town #2: Manarola

Follow the “Indiana Jones” bridge to…
Town #3: Corniglia

LUNCH BREAK!!!
After all that walking + 382 stairs to get to Corniglia, our collective blood sugar was very low. BUT we were determined not to let our stomachs take us to the first (or second or third) touristy restaurant we found and wandered to find the “right” place. Jackpot!!!! We found a wine bar with a restaurant upstairs. Quiet, music in the background…and some seriously incredible eats & drinks.
We started with a necessary bottle of wine:
Cute label, right?! 
They only produce white wine in Cinque Terre, and I am not complaining – this was delicious! A little fizzy, a little sweet & sour. Very tasty. (and for 16 euro, I should hope so!)
I also split an appetizer with Alaina:
Anchovies!!! They are the specialty fish here, and I see why – these were amazing. Soft, tender, almost silky in texture, and they were drizzled in a garlic-infused olive oil with I think a bit of pesto on top. I need to find anchovies at home.
For our main course, we all ordered the same thing and it was brought on one big platter:
Pasta in a tomato sauce & pesto
Cinque Terre is in Liguria, where basil is grown and hence is the region from whence comes the holy pesto sauce. And I must say, this pasta was a downright divine experience. The pesto was a beautiful, vibrant green color and the basil used was sooo fresh. Mixed with the slightly sweet tomato sauce, I was sad when my plate was empty and there was no more sauce to sop up with bread. We were happy little hikers!
After lunch, the trek continued to…
Town #4: Vernazza

^Corniglia from the trail^
Vernazza from the trail
This trail called for some serious hiking & rock-scrambling! It was a little rough at first, what with that big lunch sitting not fully digested in my tummy, but after a quick breather I was good to go, and by the time we got to Vernazza, it was definitely gelato time!
Frutti di bosco (mixed berry yogurt), mint chocolate chip, dark chocolate
It was amazing gelato, but the dark chocolate was quite good. We had more chill time in this town and we got to walk and shop a bit – I found one store with some faaaabulous turquoise jewelry and I wanted to wrap the whole shop up and put it in my pocket!
We also, as usual, made some furry friends:
The hike from the 4th town to the final 5th is the longest and most difficult, and because we were quickly running out of time before out train left in the last town at 6:30, we took the very fast 5 min. train ride to…
Town #5: Monterosso
Loved the turquoise/coral colors of this house!
What a charming little beach town! We have been planning to go to a beach in May before we leave, and we are thinking about coming here to explore it more and do the last hike we missed out on (it’s also supposed to be the prettiest).
Before leaving, I had to try the limoncino, which is Liguria’s take on the southern Italian limoncello (basically lemons, sugar, and alcohol – it’s a very typical after-dinner drink). The only difference between the two is the lemons; limoncino uses lemons from the north.
I could definitely taste a difference between the ‘cino and ‘cello – the lemons had a distinctly different flavor, more mellow and sweet maybe? I liked it well enough but just like limoncello, I can only handle a few sips and after that my tastebuds just get bored. Even though it’s poured in a small dessert-wine glass, it still seems like a little too much to enjoy. But I’m still happy to have satisfied my curiosity!
[More gelato may or may not have been consumed at this point. I am powerless to anything melon-flavored.]
We also bought some focaccia for dinner on the rather long train ride home. Focaccia is the bread specialty of Liguria, and my cooking teacher expressly specified that focaccia con formaggio (with cheese) must be tried in Cinque Terre. No arguments here! I got some with cheese, tomatoes, and more anchovies (so amazingly good here!), and swapped half for some of Alaina’s cheese and tomato piece. It was really good, especially with the anchovies. Very light, airy and buttery (well, olive oil-y, in a good way). Although I think I prefer the focaccia we made in class last week for being denser and doughier, both have their own place in my carb-loving heart.
A long, glorious day of walking, eating, oohing and aahing. Now it just seems like a dream! Every moment was like stepping inside a picture on a postcard. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, mouth-watering, exhausting, rewarding, and above all…
Unreal.
~Namaste~

A Very Unique Easter

Buona Pasqua…err, 2 days late! The internet has been a serious downer, but I can only get so low before I remember I’m living in Florence. That makes everything so much better.
Easter was…certainly unique. Oh, where to begin. 
I woke up and knew something was off. My head was pounding and I just felt weird. I figured out the problem pretty quickly…
No, I did not get beaten up in the middle of the night. Well, actually, I guess I kind of did…by a MOSQUITO. Mosquitoes are bad all year round in Florence, and the one buzzing around our room last night got me good. Really good. 
I had planned on doing some Easter morning yoga, but I was a little distracted, for obvious reasons. I needed chocolate, and I needed it immediately. Lucky for me, chocolate is how Italians celebrate Easter, in the form of eggs:
All wrapped up perty!

Vestri, a wonderful chocolate company here in Firenze (with excellent gelato!)
300 grams of dark chocolate. Yep, this helped the puffy-face situation.
For comparison 😉
I sought further consolation in my good ole stand-by – oats!
I used raisins for the first time in my oats – I loved it! Added a really nice sweetness.
I also added blackberries and strawberries my roommate bought for pancakes. I LOVE berries in my oats, but they’re not quite in season and Italians are big on eating on in-season fruits, so they’re not as easy to find. Don’t worry – come summer, you will see a LOT of berrylicious oat bowls around here!
Raisins, berries, cinnamon, oh my!
The puffiness slowly receded throughout the day, but I was still quite comical-looking when we ventured out into the torrential downpour for a nice Easter dinner. We went to Dante’s, recommended by many students because they offer free, unlimited wine. And puffy face + pouring rain = definitely a good day for wine. 
I ordered my first pizza in Italy!
Foccaccia al salmone
Suuuper thin foccaccia (very much like naan) with mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula, and smoked salmon. Basically, the perfect bagel, with mozzarella instead of cream cheese and a different carb on the bottom. Smoked salmon + arugula is a match made in heaven.
I pretty much demolished this massive pizza, but the thinness of the crust made it lighter than it looked. The wine was nice too…but then they brought a second bottle. And then a free shot of limoncello. And then I was a liiiiittle bit tipsy.
We gave up on the idea of walking home when we looked outside and it was raining even harder, so we called a cab. Alaina generously made a crostata for our dessert that was awaiting us patiently in the refrigerator:
So perty! And quite yummy also!
However, Alaina got upset that Sam and I ate “all” of the fruit (her accusation, not my admission), and things escalated quite quickly into a full-out berry/crostata WAR. Berries in our hair, on the floor, on our clothes, and basically every other surface in our apartment was at some point or other covered in berry juice. True, not so fun to clean up…but totally worth it.
Our Easter Monday was pretty uneventful. Slept in, did a bit of shopping, and sent angry vibes to Mother Nature for not giving us spring weather. I did make a pretty sweet bowl of oats though:
KINDEREGG OATS!!!
If you have never had a Kinderegg before, please find one now. They look like this:
Made in Germany, they are milk chocolate.white chocolate on the inside with a little toy inside.
When I was little, I had several au pairs and two of them were from Germany (in fact, one of them is pregnant with twins!! SO exciting!!! Hi Tina!!) and they gave these to me and my brother a bunch – SO fun. They are huge in Europe and one of my roommates here has discovered them and is full-on addicted, and so she bought us each one for Easter. My first thought when I saw it was to add it to oats. We all have our addictions, I suppose.
So, there you have it. My Easter in Florence. Crazy, weird…and definitely one-of-a-kind.

San GimignanOMG!

Sorry for no post yesterday – my internet was not being cooperative. Sometimes it’s like a small child; it gets cranky if it doesn’t get a nap in the afternoon.
Friday was super exciting because it was my cooking class field trip to an organic farm in San Gimignano, a town made of little hills in Siena and what I think is one of the most beautiful places in the world. 
Exhibit A (and then some):
The farm, San Donato, dates back to 1001!!! How cool is that??? They mostly produce wine, olive oil, saffron and spelt, but they grow other crops as well, and just a couple years ago became an organic farm. In fact, they recently bottled their first organic wine product in 2009. We were there to taste the wine and the olive oil, and taste we did! They produce Vernaccia wine, which comes from a grape introduced to the San Gimignano area dating back to the thirteenth century. The Pope’s cellarmaster declared it the finest white wine in Italy! It was also the first Italian wine to be given DOC classification and was later upgraded to the higher DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) , which is basically the highest award of quality insurance possible for a wine to receive. 
We got off the bus, the farm owner gave us a brief history of the farm and the vineyards, and then it was on to the eat/drinks!!
There was a spread of olives (of course), picked peppers, Tuscan bread topped with salami or prosciutto, and garlic bread bathing in olive oil. And wine. Lots and lots of wine.
I swear I was not in any way inebriated when I took this picture. But I think Frida may have been…
I started with the white – the Vernaccia (you are supposed to start with white – see, I’m learning!) OH MY GOD even I could tell this was good freaking wine. I actually had seconds! (And by seconds, I mean I poured myself a 2nd tasting portion, so like 2 oz) It was delicious. And because we were at the farm it was produced at, they sold it there for 5 Euros a bottle. I bought 2 and a half! Cha-ching!!
There was also a blush wine and a red wine, which were nice. I liked the blush a little more than the red. I wish I could use sommelier terms to describe them, but all I can tell you is I liked them. Baby steps, people.
On to the food! 
Salami isn’t really my thing, but I’ve been feeling like I’ve not been getting enough protein, and I wanted to try at least a bite of everything. I have, however, discovered my love for prosciutto….
Italy just knows how to do food right.
There were also bite-sized pieces of bread spread with fresh ricotta cheese mixed with the farm’s saffron (hence the yellow color) – I was a little disappointed, I really couldn’t taste much after 2 or 3 tries. I love saffron; perhaps ricotta is just the wrong vehicle for it? Or maybe my tastebuds just weren’t awake yet. 
These other pieces were spread with a very soft and creamy cheese, and I think it was bleu cheese – this I adored. Usually bleu cheese is too stinky for me and I really don’t like it, but this was incredible! Very mellow, but with just enough bite to it to satisfy. I kept thinking my mother (bleu cheese’s #1 fan) would have died. I’ll have to ask my teacher what it was! 
Ok, these olives are probably the best. I’ve. ever. tasted. And I am quite the olive connoisseur – when I was a tyke I ate an entire can (and then some) of black olives for breakfast. It was unreal how good these were. I left quite a little collection of pits behind.
With olives that good, the olive oil must be drop-dead amazing, right? 
YEP! 
They brought plate after plate of toasted Tuscan bread slices that had been salted and baked with garlic, drowning in pools of liquid gold, aka the best olive oil my taste-buds have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The aroma was so fruity and fresh and the flavor was just out of this world!! I just…I can’t….no words. Ohsogood.
After our “light lunch” (HA!), we wandered around the farm. What a life. I could so live here.
My kind of stone lion – napping in the sun.
Limone!
Farm=Animals!!!
And vineyards=wine cellar:
And get a load of their backyard:
The wine I drank at lunch came from these exact vines. It is pretty cool to see the actual vines that went into my glass. Pretty freakin cool.
I  got back around 2:30 to pouring rain in Florence. The sun came out bright and shiny not 10 minutes after I had gotten back to the apartment….love ya Florentine weather. I went to the grocery store and got OATS!!! because they finally restocked them, and then Alaina and I ventured off to a chocolate store I had heard about to look at the Easter goods!
Benvenuti a Vestri!
In Italy, instead of baskets, each child gets a BIG hollow chocolate egg that has a little present inside. I considered it necessary for my cultural assimilation here to partake in this tradition…and bought myself a big ole dark chocolate egg. Don’t worry, you’ll see it…I can’t wait to open it!!!
Alaina and I had planned on getting some gelato after our chocolate quest, and whoda thunk that the chocolate store would have gelato? This we had to try!
Mango + dark chocolate
OH.EM.GEE. This is quite possibly the best gelato I’ve had here yet – the mango was just perfect (I’m a little mango obsessed – it’s just so dang delicious!), and the dark chocolate was so…so…completely satisfying. Rich  and dark, but not overwhelmingly so. I enjoyed every last bite.
Quite a gastronomically successful day, I would say. My favorite kind of day.
~Namaste~

Ro-ma-Ro-ma-mA-a…

First of all, I apologize for the late posting. 3 days in Rome = BIG blog post and I was up to my ears in reading due today. Better late than never! (And yes, the title of this post is in reference to the Lady Gaga song. We sang it pretty much the entire trip.)
I will start out by saying that quite frankly, I do not care for Rome. This was my second visit, and it only confirmed my feelings. It is just not my city; big, loud, touristy, and quite often sleazy. However, I do think it is a place you really just have to go to and do the tourist thing once, because it has some jaw-droppingly cool sights. On with the show…
We boarded the bus at 7 and arrived around 10ish, where we began a walking tour of the city. I was really surprised at how familiar everything was, even though it’s been almost 4 years since I was there. 
The tour guide was great and really knew her art/architectural history, which when on a tour in Rome is a very good thing. We stopped at the Pantheon, which is just a super cool thing to see:
 Yes, it has a hole in the top. BUT because of the way it is built, the air pressure rises and keeps rain from flooding it. Cool, right?!
And of course we hit the Trevi:
And then took a quick lunch break. The others went for pizza but it didn’t appeal to me, so I got this:
(Sorry for the blur – I was HANGRY!)
Rather mediocre prosciutto & mozzarella panino. Whatever, it filled me up.
We met back to continue the walking tour. I actually really like tours – when the tour guide is good – because they often know tiny little details that take the experience to a new level. For example…
This is one of several “talking statues” in the city. In ancient Rome, people would write poems or prose, usually making a statement (and usually a not-so-nice one) about the government and current political issues. This practice is still continuing:
Rock on, Romans.
I thought that this was TOO cool. I wanna take part in a tradition that’s been done since BCE!
We checked into the hotel and proclaimed it NAP TIME. After a 3.5 hour walking tour, we deserved it. When we got up, we checked out an exhibit of remakes of Leonardo da Vinci’s many inventions:
This picture looked like an open book (listen, I’m trying to become a better photographer…I gotta throw myself a bone here and there).
Defying gravity!
The first piano.
The first army tank.
An entire hallway of little inventions from an oil press to a wind speed measuring tool. The man’s genius is utterly intimidating.
This would make the coolest present…if it weren’t 30 euro. Oh well.
DINNER TIME!
When I first came to Rome with the fam, I was moving towards the peak of the worst point of my ED (eating disorder). My fear of gaining weight was irrational to the point of hysterics, and being in a different country and out of my comfort zone only made it worse. I spent the majority of that trip depriving and starving myself because I was petrified the 50 pounds I had worked for the past 2 years to lose would suddenly hop back on  during this 3 week vacation. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I can not truly articulate how real and looming that fear was for me. I left my first trip to Italy with many regrets, and many about food – I was too scared to ever order anything but salad and had given up my chance to experience what I can definitely assert now as some of the best food in the world. But here I am, back in Italy. And I am not leaving this time with regrets.
That story did have a point – on our first day in Rome, my parents went to find some lunch. I was so horrified with myself for eating a croissant on the airplane for breakfast that I decided I would nap off some jet lag instead of going to eat. My parents came back absolutely raving about the food they had had and I was green with jealousy. The next night, we found a lovely rooftop restaurant for dinner. I, of course, could not bring myself to order the pasta, but upon tasting my mom’s plate of fresh tagliatelle, only got greener.  Thus, I was determined to find these two restaurants on this second trip to Rome and finally get vengeance on that stupid ED.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the first restaurant, but it turned out that it wasn’t a dinner place anyway, and the rooftop restaurant was very close, so all was not lost. I found it. And I got pasta.
Calamarata – fresh pasta with calamari and tiny shrimp and tomatoes. It. was. SO GOOD. Victory.
After dinner, I dragged the roomies to the gelato place we went to on our first trip known as some of the best in Rome. It didn’t disappoint:
Valhrona Cocoa + Vanilla Bourbon. I could have eaten 5 more of these cups.
On our way back to the hotel, I decided I was in dire need of fruit and water so we stopped at a little market, and I did a baaaad thing…
Yes, that is a mini bottle of Prosecco. 1,50 euro. I said “hey, I’m on vacation!” Oy. Note to self: Do NOT buy 1,50 euro Prosecco. Hardly worth 50 cents. I swallowed about an ounce of it before the food snob in my head told me to get real. It was fun to get though 🙂
Saturday began with breakfast at the hotel:
2nd Note to self: Never, under any circumstances, get – much less consume – a cappuccino from a machine. Your taste buds will not forgive you.
I would also like to say that I really love muesli + yogurt. Oh, and I don’t like oranges. You know you love my randomness.
Today we toured St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Castel San Angelo, a fortress where the popes stayed when there was danger. I did visit the Vatican on my first trip here, and I’ll be honest, it’s not a place I cared to visit again. I don’t want to offend anyone and won’t comment further, just saying that it’s not high on my list – but it’s also totally subjective.
This was a really blurry picture that turned out looking really cool (IMO). Maybe my photo skills are improving?
Swiss guards. Check OUT the sweet uniforms. I’m pretty jealous.
It was nice to see this again though…
Michelangelo’s Pieta. When I went the first time, it was so crowded I could barely breathe and it was pretty much “hey, look, famous scuplture – ok let’s leave!” This time I got to stare at it for a while, and the expression on the Virgin’s face is absolutely amazing. You would never know this was stone, it’s so full of life.
It was great to have the tour guide back, because of her art history knowledge – St. Peter’s is full of artworks from almost every artistic era and it was really cool to see and compare almost side-by-side a Baroque style sculpture to that of the Neoclassical style. Yes, I’m a geek. Don’t hate.
Next up was Castel San Angelo, which seemed like a semi-random place to tour but was pretty cool neverthless. 
Definitely had some sweet views over Rome:
St. Peter’s Basilica
The tour ended and we dragged ourselves to this cool salad place we’d heard about, Insalata Ricca:
The Tropical: mango, sesame seeds, crab, spiny lobster, pine nuts, avocado, greens. It was a little too heavy on the olive oil and not enough on the fish, but it did the trick – I was craving greens like no other!
Following lunch, we were determined to see the Sistine Chapel – I didn’t see it on my first trip here and it was really the only thing I felt I “needed” to see in Rome. It is a part of the Musei Vaticani, which is basically one ginormous museum of Catholicness. It had some cool stuff…
The longest gallery in the museum. They weren’t kidding.
They really like intensely-painted ceilings. Like, a lot.
LOTS of tapestries. Really big tapestries. Considering the average life span back then, these are pretty much three lifetimes-large.
The floor. No joke.
You thought I was kidding about the ceilings. Nope.
But it was just too much. I thought the Sistine Chapel stood alone, separate from the others museums, and was NOT prepared for an hour of other major artworks before actually getting to the chapel. After a while I stopped trying to appreciate the works as fast as possible and just started following these:
I was starting to feel like I had missed it after all those long, important-looking galleries. But trust me – when you are in la Capella Sistina – you know it. It was so incredibly colorful and just…whoa. No words.
That was about 6 hours of touring. My senses were completely battered and I was feeling it. Rome is just too much for me. I was ready to PEACE out.
We were ready for a chill dinner, and found a restaurant recommended to us by our program. It was really perfect – noisy but in a cozy way, with good bread and a cool waiter. And of course, pasta:
Whole wheat tagliatelle with asparagus and mushrooms. I had major trouble deciding what to get, but whole wheat pasta is so rarely on restaurant menus and I love it so, I just had to. It was not amazing, but it was quite tasty and I felt good about my choice because that’s one of the many great effects of healthful food!
We also had some very nice wine with dinner:
I am starting to taste good vs bad wine. I am sticking to my guns on the “no-drinking” thing, but I am a whole-hearted supporter of the Italian custom of a glass with dinner. It’s more the custom than the actual taste that I enjoy. And all I ever want is about a 2 oz pour, so it’s really perfect. I’m so growed up!
The cool waiter got cooler when he brought us free dessert wine. Yum yum! And such cute little glasses 🙂
I was still craving gelato, so we stopped at Blue Ice, a Roman gelato chain, just to see what it was like. I got mint chip and wildberry yogurt. No, they did not go together well, but they were separately exactl what I was craving and I enjoyed every bite. Sorry, no picture, it was super crowded with drunk Scottish soccer fans. Don’t ask.
I considered going out, because, well, it’s Rome…but I crashed. I’m sorry. Rome ain’t for me.
Breakfast was a repeat of Venice, involving lots of filched fruit, nutella, and various cracker packs. That’s how us college kids roll.
We had to check out of the hotel at 10 but weren’t boarding the bus until 12:30, so we decided to wander. All of a sudden I looked to my left and recognized Sant Eustachio, the cafe I went to on my first visit there. It is the “espresso temple” – the best espresso. ever.
I had two. Amazing.
Right before boarding the bus, I noticed a juice bar right next to the hotel – totally my kind of place. Raw food, amazing fruit-filled smoothies…yup. A Gillianasana temple.
I got the Noio – not sure you can see the menu, but it was raspberry, melon, banana, lemon, ginger, honey, yogurt, and apple. It was awesome. Worth being the last one on the bus. What I won’t do for a smoothie.
We toured the Colosseum before heading back to Firenze, which is probably one of my favoritest places in Rome. I really love it – there is something about walking around knowing that you are stepping on the exact stone that people stepped on thousands of years ago that is just incredible. Goosebump-inducing.
I took this picture just because I thought the juxtaposition of ruins and paved streets was kind of cool. Past meets present type-of-thing. I’m an English major, I’m trained to see symbolism in everything.
The trip home was blessedly shorter than expected, mostly involving sleep, Michael Buble, and muesli I snagged from the hotel.
Rome. I went, I saw. And I was happy to go.
~Namaste~