Friday, November 5, 2010

Last Day in Italy Before Going Home

 The Locanda Vigna Ilaria is different from other hotels where we have stayed since it is primarily a restaurant and secondly a hotel. 

The breakfast is an extra, € 9 per person and is served at the late hour of 9:30 am.  This was ok with us since we were staying 2 nights and weren’t traveling anywhere in this rain.  Besides, judging from the unique dinner menu the night before, breakfast promised to be a special event and it was:

Goblet of fresh fruit
Freshly baked miniature rolls
Goat cheese, salami
Butter and 2 kinds of marmalade
Orange juice and the most incredible cappuccino

The second morning’s breakfast varied a little from the first with the addition of: Egg en cocotte, Prosciutto from the Tuscan Cinta Senese (black pig with a white belt), Homemade pastry cream served  with the cornettos, Pecorino with herbs instead of goat cheese

After breakfast, still pouring down rain, we took a short drive along the Strada del Vino and enjoyed the colorful countryside with the changing leaves of the trees and grapevines.  The olive trees still have their olives but the picking will begin soon as the catch nets are in place for the 2010 olive harvest.

Except for this morning foray, we hung out at the hotel and ended up having the food experience of a lifetime.  The Truffle man arrived with a styrofoam box – Fall is truffle harvesting time in Italy.  Lucca has a white truffle that does not have the reputation of the Alba truffle because they are mild but still very tasty and as a result, less expensive.  Rob watched and photographed as the truffle man weighed out 3 truffles and money was exchanged.  We have no idea of how much they were but on the menu it says they are priced at an extra € 3 per gram.  I entertained thoughts about bringing some back but decided to simply enjoy the moment.  

On our second evening we came down early for dinner and settled in at our preferred table by the fire and watched Andrea’s father shaking and roasting chestnuts in a long handled pan punctured with small holes in the bottom.

The chestnuts were then dumped onto a tablecloth on the floor to cool.  We were brought a plate with the cooled chestnuts and wipes for the charcoal that accumulated on our fingers.

Dinner was:
Forest and Field Salad (picked by forager, Lia), Seafood soup, Fillet of branzino over sautéed seasonal vegetables with slivers of white truffle strewn on top, Bottle of crisp white local Italian wine

We ended up eating for 2½ hours having short talks with Stefano, Andrea’s brother and our server, who was leaving for London the next day.  He wants to improve his English and work in an Italian restaurant, and maybe even in the United States.  We suggested he come to Tucson and  stay with us for 3 months (the maximum time of stay for a foreigner) – we agreed to keep in touch.

One more interesting aspect about Andrea’s restaurant is that he does not charge a coperto, for bread basket and linen, which is a common charge in all Italian restaurants.  We have paid as much as a € 5 coperto pp in Chianti which is outrageous.  He also doesn’t charge for bottled water, a pitcher of tap water is brought to each table.  Andrea says that an after dinner coffee is also included in the price.  He desperately wants to be in the Slow Food Italy travel book but they have told him his prices are too high.  Considering he doesn’t charge for all these extras, the bill seemed very reasonable to us.

So ended our 3 week Gourmettravelers adventure to London and Italy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Detour to Lucca

Arriving in Levanto in a downpour and hearing tomorrow’s weather report of ‘more of the same’ we made the decision to turn around and go instead to Lucca, a small Roman town north of Pisa.

But first, we checked out Campeggio Acqua Dolce and Grill L’Igea that our friends, Joan and Andrew, highly recommended. They were right, the campground was charming with many terraced sites (too bad it was raining like cats and dogs).

The restaurant had many Ligurian specialties and fish dishes.  With a pitcher of Ligurian white wine (vermontino grapes), we enjoyed seafood salad, fritto misto (fried seafood) and spaghetti with seafood – our last chance for seafood dining.

The drive to Lucca was treacherous with such an intense rain our wipers would not keep the windshield free of water.  We made several stops to wait for brief letups. Travel information was entered in the GPS so we could find a place to stay in Lucca for our remaining 2 days in Italy.
We looked for signs with the symbol i which stands for tourist information.  This led us to the ancient wall around Lucca and thousands of people dressed up as cartoon characters.  This is the annual weekend Comics Festival and there were no rooms available in the city.

The very enthusiastic tourist director found us the perfect place to stay outside the city on the Strada Del Vino with a highly rated restaurant, Locanda Vigna Ilaria.  The owners, Andrea and Elena, have only owned the locanda since April but the restaurant has already received an 80 (out of 100) in the 2011Gambero Rosso, the highest rating in Lucca.  It’s easy to see why after our spectacular dinner:

Forest and Field Salad (picked by forager, Lia)
Risotto al Tartufo Bianco, Nebbiola wine
Trofie nel Pesce, Vermignon wine (vermontino and sauvignon grapes)

It was incredible, pure serendipity luck that we ended up here!

On the Way to Cinque Terre

I’m excited about where we are right now – outside the village of Pontremoli, county of Lunigiana, region of Toscana (Tuscany)  - and are having a real Slow Food experience.  Our original destination was Levanto in Cinque Terre where we had a reservation but it was getting late with at least an hour’s drive to go so we exited the autostrada to find ourselves in this beautiful, scenic valley. Seeing signs to agriturismos we made a left following one that said, Il Podere Benelli Offre.  The narrow, winding drive went on forever until we were just about ready to find an area wide enough to turn around when we came upon a grouping of houses.  There was no answer at the podere so we went next door to inquire about a room.  The Signora was very helpful and found Signore Benelli for us, but, mentioned that she also had rooms to rent.  Signore Benelli said he couldn’t possibly get ready on such short notice so we went back to Signora’s and rented her best room en suite with breakfast, € 50.

We inquired about dinner and she offered to prepare it for us.  In the meantime we went back to Signore’s for a tour and wine tasting only to find that he was active in the local Slow Food presidia and had attended Salone.

We exchanged cards and he proudly showed us his display of Slow Food memorabilia and photos, several with Carlo Petrini.  He said that Carlo was fond of this area and came here often.  We bought 2 bottles of wine from him (Pollera, Val di Magra) and returned to Signora’s for a home cooked dinner.

Polenta with Porcini sauce
Torta di Verdure (I wrote down all the vegetables/greens but I’ll have to wait to look them up in my large dictionary at home - the only one I recognized was zucchini)
Platter of sliced carrots, small onions, green pepper and tomato, all from her garden (orta), served with her own vinegar and olive oil
Platter of salami, prosciutto and cotto
Bread basket
Carafe of house red wine
Crostata di frutta
House grappa
Limoncello (about the only thing she didn’t make, besides the salami)

WHEW!  What a wonderful, agriturismo experience!
Cost of the dinner €15 per person
Oppilo Agriturismo Filippi
Localitá Oppilo di Pontremoli


We arrived just before the causeway to Venice and left the car in a secure car park – 5 € per day.  A few minutes walk found us at a small speedboat dock where we arranged for a ride to Venice. 

A short ride later, we arrived on the island of Venice.  The captain arranged to pick us up at the same spot 3 days later around 1:00 pm.  We walked (struggled with our luggage) to the train station, bought our 72 hour pass on the vaporetti and proceeded to our hotel,  Albergo Guerrato, near the Rialto bridge.  

Our last visit to Venice was with 2 girlfriends and we stayed at Piccolo Guerrato, their 3 story apartment, but our breakfast was at the Albergo.

We couldn’t wait to get to our favorite cicchetti place near Campo Santa Marina.  The sign said it opened at 17:30 but when we tried to go in, they said it opened at 6 pm.  Back at 6, it was filling up fast and we grabbed the last table.

Let the sampling begin!  Cicchetti are small tastes of local appetizers. 

Our last stop was Trattoria Alla Madonna, which was very near our hotel, where Rob had fried scampi and I had risotto del mare and an insalata mista.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lago di Garda Revisited

We returned to Hotel Marconi after spending quality time there 4 years ago.  Approaching the castle and crossing the drawbridge can be a challenge but, thanks to our GPS, it was easy.  In spite of the continuous downpour, the area and the hotel were as beautiful as we remembered.

The Hotel is run by the charming Famiglia Visani.  Besides the first rate service and accommodations, the breakfast is the most outstanding part of the stay. The pastries are by the father who was a baker before retirement.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Piemonte South

Since we would be driving through Piemonte on our way to Lago di Garda and needed a place to stay for the night, we picked up the B & B guide at the Piemonte info booth at Salone.  Our choice was Casa Fonte Volpe in Castelletto D’Orba, a village nestled in low mountains with a stream running alongside the B & B.

It was still early in the afternoon and the restaurants were soon to close so we stopped at Ristorante Enoteca Il Moro in Capriata D’Orba for lunch.  Sunday is family day in the restaurants and the main dining rooms were filled so they seated us in the Enoteca part.

We ordered local specialties: I Nostri Agnolotti, nei tre modi della tradizione, a culo nudo – nel Vino – al Tocco (House pasta, 3 ways: without sauce, with sauce and soaked in wine)

Guancino e polenta (Beef cheek sliced served with polenta).  A lovely lunch!

We discovered that the B & B owners were dining at the same restaurant - we were introduced to them – what a coincidence! 

The B & B was a charming reconstruction.  Sandra had 3 books of before and after photos.  The husband, a psychiatrist specializing in forensics, fixed us breakfast the next morning.  We drove to Sirmione and Lago di Garda in a downpour.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Salone del Gusto Highlights

We had a most delighful lunch on the floor of Salone del Gusto at a Campania restaurant offering a single price menu with wine for 10  

Pranzo in Caserta, Campania Menu:

Panella aversana, salumi bufala assortiti
Pasta con ragu di bufala
Bocconcini di carne bufalina con mela annurca
Degustazione di prodottti biologici
Casatiello casertano