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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
12 October 2017.
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

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L’Arte di Venezia

29 Sep
29 September 2017.
Art museums are not high on my list these days. We’ve seen so many. I could live a long time without ever seeing another Egyptian sarcophagus and contemporary art usually leaves me laughing and perplexed, although we have viewed the magnificent Peggy Guggenheim Collection three times. E basta.

Biennale venue, Giardino.

But when you wander into Venezia in the middle of the Biennale, it only seems fitting to take in the event. In this, our tenth trip to La Serenissima, we unintentionally coincided with a Biennale year. So we went. Luckily we got the senior discount.
The venue at Giardino is lovely. I had no idea there were permanent pavilions. In many cases, the building eclipsed the art. Russia’s site and exhibit were very “1984.” That was our favorite of the paid-for venues.
There were some charming pieces around the city that were for public enjoyment. We did not get to hunt down all of them but saw several we liked.

A small portion of Russia’s monochromatic installation.

Korea’s pavilion. The exterior was the best part.

Super-sized and shiny, this rhino contemplates Venezia across the Laguna.

Coinciding with the Biennale was an exhibit at the contemporary museums Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, a first-ever event where one show completely filled both venues: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” by Damian Hirst. Three of Hirst’s pieces were visible in Venezia outside of the museums and they were crazy, huge, classical-looking works of art reminiscent of much we have seen throughout Italy. That drew us in. How could this be contemporary art?

One of Hirst’s classical pieces on public display.

It is a big joke. Hirst created a fantasy about a treasure trove of items collected by a freed slave, Cif Amotan II (an anagram*) These are wonderfully displayed, many in a before-and-after manner: encrusted with sea life, barnacles, etc., then polished and gleaming after restoration. The Guardian called it “art for a post-truth world.” Click on any photo for a better view and caption.
Hirst went so far as to stage elaborate underwater photography of the salvage operation of some pieces. All of the curation supported the myth in detail. Only when one read the fine print about the materials used was the gag given away: granite, marble, resin, MDF, gold, silver….
We thought it was brilliant, although many critics were appalled. Hirst has the last laugh as people are pouring in to see it and reportedly many pieces have sold. I hope so: he spent £50 million of his own money and ten years putting the show together. When you are wildly successful, I guess you can take risks.

We stopped on Mazzorbo for lunch at Alla Maddalena. A far cry from Venezia proper.

I have to mention a lovely experience we had away from the crazy crowds. This is one of the reasons people should stay longer in Venezia: to get away from San Marco and enjoy the islands where the Venetian Republic was born.

A short vaporetto ride from Venezia is peaceful Mazzorbo, incorporating a wine resort, Venissa. Might have to contemplate staying here some time.

We often visit the laguna islands, but this time we went to Mazzorbo, specifically for a quiet lunch on a perfect day. While most people head to Burano, we got off one stop early on quiet Mazzorbo. The terrace at Alla Maddalena was full, mostly with people arriving by water taxi. And they were having the taxi wait while they dined! We only heard one other table speaking English. Seemed to be lots of Italians in the know about this place. Prices are reasonable and it was far more charming than the places we usually eat on Burano. No reservation? Plan on eating inside which is where the walk-ins were escorted.

My delightful lunch at Alla Maddalena, a mixed seafood grill. Ric had lovely grilled eel.

It was a bit of art-focused trip, more so than usual for us. Punctuated by terrific meals and of course lots of walking in one of the world’s greatest cities for wearing off pasta.

Joseph Klibansky bronze turtles entitled “Baby we Made it.”

Newest shopping opportunity in Venezia, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in a 16th-century building. Can you say high end?

Sunrise on the Grand Canal.

*I am a fiction

Familiar faces and places

22 Sep
22 September 2017.
When “Taxi Ivan” picked us up in Bolzano last week, we could scarcely contain our excitement. We were returning to Ortisei for our 6th summer visit. Ivan remembered transporting us with our cats last summer.

The street where we lived, temporarily. So charming!

Despite the calendar, it did not feel like summer.  Lows of 2 C/35 F and highs of 12  C/54 F were not quite what we expected. We each had to purchase a fleece as a warm layer: our long-sleeved tees and rain jackets just did not cut it.
Nonetheless, it felt like coming home. We stayed in the same apartment we shared with our cats, Libby and Jane, last year. Justine and Siegfried at Residence Astoria greeted us like old friends. We were honored to see Justine had purchased our book for use by her guests! Even the staff in the gelato and grappa store recognized us. It really felt great to come back and feel so at home. And my Italian came back rather quickly, if imperfectly.

That view looks fake, but it very real. The Sciliar and Punta Santner with Compatsch in the foreground.

We managed to carve out two good hikes in our four full days. One was crossing the Alpe di Siusi on a favorite route, stopping for strudel at a preferred mountain hotel. The other a very cold hike through fog across the ridge at Rasciesa. Luckily hot coffee and fine strudel awaited us at the rifugio.
Another day we listened to the forecast of rain all day and decided not to risk a mountain expedition, so we took a bus into Bolzano for shopping and lunch. But we never got our umbrellas wet! Not in 36 hours! It looked like rain most of the day so our time at higher altitudes might have been cut short. Hard to know when to believe a forecast.

One of our favorite rifugi, Rasciesa. We were the first customers at 9:45. As we were leaving, the crowds were arriving.

We cooked several dinners (restaurants get tiring when you travel long term) but treated ourselves to one fine meal at what has become our favorite fine dining establishment in Ortisei, Restaurant Concordia. We were one of only three parties on a Sunday evening, all seated in a cozy room with the woodstove burning. We dithered over many fine options on the menu, choosing an antipasto of involtini with mozzarella and grilled vegetables and secondi of venison and pork, with a fine local Lagrein to accompany. Everything was superb! The owners are wait staff and chef, making for a very personal experience. They were thrilled to hear we returned to them after a great experience last year. It is so nice to go to restaurants away from the main streets, no matter how small the town, and find such intimacy.
Here are a few more pictures from our stay in Ortisei. Click any picture for complete captions.

The canal where we live.

We are now in Venezia and the weather gods have cooperated. We were out in shirtsleeves and ate lunch al aperto twice this week.
Venezia is, of course, very familiar to us. We’ve been here 10 times although I am not sure we should count our one-night-stand in August of 2016 when we came here simply to briefly escape the heat in Roma. We know where we are going most of the time although I am grateful for GPS on the phone when we get twisted about. The first few times we visited we used only paper maps. I am happy to have adopted the electronic form when I see others standing around gaping at their maps trying to decipher Venezia.

Incredible saute of mussels and clams at Trattoria da Jonny.

It was another fine meal we got ourselves into at Trattoria da Jonny. Or rather, I should thank Michele over at Meandering with Misha for getting us there. She raved about it in March and I remembered her post was so inspiring we had to go. We were shocked to arrive and find the place lightly attended while out on the main tourist piazzas things were humming. It was to our advantage: a finely prepared lunch in a peaceful location with only schoolkids and local shoppers passing through. We kept it simple: branzino with spinach for Ric, a lovely bowl of mussels and clams for me, accompanied by seasonal veggies and roasted potatoes we shared. A little Soave washed it down nicely. A lot to eat for lunch but after our three-plus mile morning walk (and knowing we’d do four more miles before the day was finished) we deserved it. Again we are preparing food a casa so a simple salad and more good wine (Donna Fugata why are you not exporting to the U.S?) made a fitting evening meal.
When we travel long like this, our evenings are much like being in the U.S. If we do not go out to eat, and if we’ve had an active day, a simple supper at “home” with perhaps some streaming of American TV is a nice way to chill out. Unfortunately, Amazon and Netflix are wise to our use of a VPN. Although Amazon worked in Ortisei, they are apparently on to us now. We found PBS is still willing to feed our need with their fine programming. Is anyone else watching Ken Burns’ “Vietnam?”

Giant hands support a building along the Grand Canal. Interesting metaphor.

In addition to eating at several new-to-us places, this is turning out to be an art tour of Venezia as we finally attended the Biennale. More on that later. Always new things to see even in a place you’ve visited many times.
Per addesso, ciao!

 

In Amsterdam, get away from the damn Damrak!

13 Sep
13 September 2017.
Katerina, Deb, and Catherine will be sad to hear I really did not care for Amsterdam: at least until we got away from the damn Damrak. Our first day wandering this bastion of all things commercial I was almost sorry we came to The Netherlands. The Damrak was crowded with trams, buses, bicycles, cars, and clueless pedestrians maneuvering helter-skelter around one another. It is a wonder more people are not taken out by cyclists. The mayor is now actively discouraging tourism and suggesting people go to Rotterdam instead.

Sunday by the Canal, Amsterdam. Locals kick back with coffee and a newspaper.

Amsterdam, awash in tourists and their trappings, does have quiet sectors where one can appreciate the history, the beauty, and the determination of the Dutch. Like other great cities, one must leave the main arterials funneling tourists who have not done their homework and find the neighborhoods where dogs are walked and Sunday papers are read on sunny benches along quiet canals.

Love the old tile work in the Haarlem station. “Washroom First Class.” 

We stayed in Haarlem, which is quite charming and untouristed as far as we could tell this first week of September. At least the only English we heard was from the Dutch who can switch languages in mid-sentence, so used they are to dealing with non-Dutch speakers. We were quite flattered to be mistaken for Dutch a couple of times having used a rudimentary “Morgen” or “Guten Abend,” in greeting. Even Utrecht, a day trip destination for us, seemed to harbor more travelers than Haarlem. It also harbored a terrific railroad museum where we whiled away a couple of rainy hours.

Haarlem is much more laid back. Even cyclists are less intense.

Most mornings, we traveled the 15 minutes to Amsterdam from Haarlem via commuter train with students and workers who had parked their bikes in front of the station in confusing swarms. In the evenings, we traveled “home” with the same crowd, enjoying the feeling of being temporary locals who lived in the small town of Haarlem.
We could walk a few minutes to the Albert Heijn market and try to decipher labels to stock our kitchen. We wandered the back streets of Haarlem and took in the history thanks to an obscure book of walking tours I found. The cafes and restaurants of Haarlem were excellent and frequented by the Dutch, not our own ilk. This endeared us to The Netherlands.
The Van Gogh Museum, though lovely and certainly with an incredible collection of the master’s works, was horribly crowded even on Friday night at dinner time. (My introverted and crowd-avoiding self specifically booked tickets for an evening opening that was said to be less crowded.) To our amazement, the museum was not full of English speakers, but mostly Dutch, with some German and Italian sprinkled in. I guess the American kids hanging around Dam Square had little interest in Vincent.

Rijksmuseum before the masses descend. If you go, get a ticket in advance. I cannot believe how many people miss this simple trick at museums all over Europe.

By contrast, the Rijksmuseum at opening on a Monday morning was accessible. We almost skipped it based on our Van Gogh evening. Proving again that getting out early pays, we sailed in shortly after 9:00 and after a highlights tour returned to the main hall to find a rising tide of people as 10:30 approached. The line for those without advanced tickets was a block long outside when we left at 11:30.
We found the Joordan neighborhood as well as the area around the Stopera and Zoo to be peaceful places to roam on a Sunday morning. Re-emerging in central Amsterdam after wandering the Joordan was startling. Much like walking the Champs Elysees in Paris or making the march from San Marco to the Rialto in Venice, if you do not leave the Damrak, Spui, or Leidseplein, you miss the character of Amsterdam, and getting completely out of Amsterdam allows at least a  glimpse into how people live.

This is half of our Indonesian Rijsttafel.

I did not have high expectations for food. Outside of Italy, it can be a struggle for us to be truly happy with meals, so I must comment on some of our best meals here.
  • We were stunned to discover a truly Italian pizza in Haarlem at Pizzeria Back-to-Basics . The owner, Francesco, is a Neapolitan who came to Haarlem 30 years ago. He produces masterpieces from a tiny wood-fired oven and kibitzed with me in Italian. Even the wine was a good Italian negroamaro. (More on that soon at www.OurWeeklyPizza.com.)
  • Another night we experienced the Indonesian rijsttafel, an experience we’ve not had prior and would not mind repeating. At Restaurant Flamboyant, an array of 12 dishes was not unlike a Lebanese mezza. Each dish presented a different flavor palate from mild to spicy, from sweet to savory. Deep-fried tofu, stewed lamb, tender braised chicken, fried bananas, coconut vegetables, zippy sautéed eggplant: too many to name and each a bit of heaven on the tongue.
  • On a stormy night, we arrived soaking wet and found a cozy yet trendy interior and non-traditional menu at Popocatepetl. Pollo asado was served with sweet potato fries (side of mayo, of course!) and Ric’s birria, a lamb stew, was something we’d not seen before on a Mexican menu. The playlist varied from jazz to Mexican and the hang-out factor was huge. No wonder the place is always crowded with the young Dutch.

Happened upon a wedding party celebrating in a little side street.

We did not get to see as many places in The Netherlands as we had hoped. The weather was terribly unsettled and wet for much of our stay so we did not venture to some of the other spots on my list of possibilities. Funny that we timed this trip so we’d have some warm late summer weather in Northern Europe. September is usually amazing. But watching what happened with hurricanes in the U.S. and downpours flooding Italy, we are feeling pretty darn lucky.
Off to München!

Can you tell why this train is called a “dognose?”

I love the little sheep. If I had room in my luggage I’d place one in our yard at home.

One Thanksgiving just isn’t enough

26 Nov
In the U.S., our Thanksgivings were usually over-the-top: 13 people in our tiny condo for a 5-course meal, for example. This is definitely the holiday I miss most living abroad and replacing our U.S. traditions just doesn’t fit. So we do Thanksgiving differently. One year it was a non-traditional hike. The next we cooked dinner for 11 Italians at our friends’ house. Last year we fed ourselves on American nostalgia by touring the Norman Rockwell exhibit that was here. This year, we celebrated twice, because once is not enough.
A week prior to T-Day, the American Women’s Association of Rome held their annual Thanksgiving dinner and we joined about 110 ex-pats and Italians for an Italian-ized dinner at the ever-so-elegant Hotel Hassler. If you want a room there tomorrow night you would pay €330.00 non-refundable for the smallest room. For only an extra €100.00, you do not have to pre-pay and get breakfast too. Such a bargain. Personally I’d prefer a 3-night stay in a cute B&B in Venezia.
Elegant tablesetting at the Hassler.

Elegant table setting at the Hassler.

Cin Cin!

Cin Cin!

The AWAR dinner was beautifully prepared and served with prosecco and wine flowing freely. So freely I had to put my hand over my glass a couple of times to prevent the constant topping-off.  As I said, the menu was Italianized. Of course, there was a pasta, in this case perhaps the most delightful lasagna I’ve ever eaten, made with pumpkin and porcini. It was my intention to NOT complete each course, to pace myself and not overdo it. I managed to do so with the soup, but the lasagna demanded to be eaten. If there had not been 10 other people at the table, I might have finished off Ric’s too. (Note bene: all of the Italians finished their pasta. I was just trying to blend in.) While on the menu it looks like we had five side dishes (Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, corn, apple/soy cabbage, and chestnut with baby onions), in actuality only the sweet potatoes were a portion; the other four were a melange, more of a garnish than a vegetable dish.
OMG to-die-for lasagn of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

OMG to-die-for lasagna of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

 
Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

 
The little garnsih including the Burssles sprout and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu. More of a garnish,actually.

The little garnish including the Brussels sprouts and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu.

 
The dessert buffet was insane and totally Italian. I managed — only being polite — to down a wedge of something intensely chocolate. We finished the evening with a visit to the rooftop for a moonlit view over Roma. Fabulous.
Our “second Thanksgiving” is barely underway but is decidedly low-key. Setting up the house for Christmas, watching a movie or two (last night, the annual viewing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and later dinner with friends at a favorite trattoria. 
May those of you who celebrate this great American holiday have a truly blessed day. We look forward to hosting one of our classic dinners when we return to Portland. 
Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

 
Roma by moonlight from the hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

Roma by moonlight from the Hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

 
 
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