A Wonderful Week in Rome

Last week was both the best and worst week in Rome… (Misleading title, I know.)  ‘Best’ because I did lots of awesome things; ‘worst’ because I had a ton of work due for class, lost a lot of sleep, and was utterly exhausted by the end of it all.  The important thing is that it ended on a high note, and the lack of sleep was worth it (2 classes down, 1 to go!).  So what made it awesome?

Let’s start with Sunday.  My friends and I woke up in Siena, ate lunch and stopped by our favorite gelateria in Florence, and returned to Rome early enough to get a good night of sleep.  If that’s not a great start, I don’t know what is.

Monday and Tuesday were slightly miserable – full of paper-writing, journal-writing, and general stress.  But Tuesday night I got to participate in a wine class (in my own apartment too)!  I now know how to professionally open a bottle of wine… You know, just in case I ever find myself in a situation where I need to pretend to be a sommelier.  Who knows what new adventures Paris will bring!  Anyways, we tasted two different red wines, the first of which was quite strong and tasted like black pepper (I’m serious!).  It’s amazing what flavors you can discover when tasting wine more consciously.  I noticed strong vanilla undertones in the second, milder wine, but others (including our sommelier-in-training instructor) tasted green bell peppers.  It was a ton of fun, and I’d definitely take another class.  I guess I’d better keep practicing my flavor-discerning skills in the meantime… ;)

Wednesday was the first day of our third and last course, which I was excited for (despite its copious amounts of reading) because it focuses on the history of Renaissance and Baroque Rome through art.  It’s my first art history class, and I’ve always wanted to take one.  It’s going be more work than our previous two classes, but I’m enjoying our class discussions and site visits so far.  We’re heading to the Vatican this week and Villa Borghese next week!

Thursday marked the official end of the paper-writing frenzy, so that afternoon, after visiting a church for class, a few friends and I went to the movies.  We bought tickets for an Italian movie called Io e Te, Bertolucci’s newest film.

I had no idea who Bertolucci was when my friends and I decided to go see this movie (we saw an ad on the back of a bus), but he’s a famous Italian director (as you probably already knew).  The movie was intense, but amazing.  I highly recommend it (with subtitles).  We saw it without subtitles for the true cultural experience, which was fun and only slightly confusing.  Luckily for me, my roommate read a synopsis beforehand and summarized the basic plot for me during the previews.  The best and most rewarding moment was when I recognized a phrase I learned in class – “Ha un mal di testa” (Her head hurts).  I’m putting my limited knowledge of Italian to good use!  After the movie, my friends and I went out to dinner in Trastevere, ending the night on a good note.

The fun continued on Friday.  After class, a few friends and I went out to lunch at my favorite pizza place in Rome, Dar Poeta (get the pizza by the same name and the nutella and ricotta calzone for dessert).

Zucchini cream, speck, and mozzarella pizza – a winter special (not as good as the Dar Poeta, but not bad)

After an incredibly filling lunch, we headed to the Campo de’ Fiori market.  It was actually my first time at that particular open air market, which is kind of surprising given that it’s open every day and is close to where I have class.  We went to just check it out, but ended up finding a couple of elusive but imperative Thanksgiving dinner ingredients (did I mention we’ll be cooking a giant Thanksgiving feast on Tuesday?): sweet potatoes and a pumpkin for pumpkin pie!

The magical Thanksgiving stall at Campo de’ Fiori

We were pretty ecstatic, and for good reason – since Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday), typical Thanksgiving ingredients are hard to come by, namely, turkeys, sweet potatoes, pumpkin (canned or fresh), cranberries, and pecans.  Now to try to make a pumpkin pie from scratch…

After a nice, long, well-deserved nap, I made dinner and then went to see Balthazar, a Belgian band, perform at Circolo degli Artisti, an intimate music venue/pseudo-club not far from the Termini train station.  I went by myself, partly because my friend couldn’t go at the last minute, and partly because I needed some me time.  It was such a fun experience – the venue is amazing (tons of outdoor seating, a couple of bars, and a cozy concert space) and Balthazar was incredible live.  I had listened to a few of their songs before going, since I hadn’t heard of them before discovering them on the Circolo degli Artisti website, but their live performance was much better than anything I had listened to online.  Like icing on a cake, if you will.

Balthazar live at Circolo degli Artisti

My exciting week finally came to a close on Saturday, at ‘Cinema’, the Rome (International) Film Festival.  A friend and I woke up really early to try to catch a 9:30 am showing of “Tar”, an artsy American film starring James Franco and Mila Kunis, but we didn’t make it in time.  Turns out it wouldn’t have made a difference because they had cancelled that showing anyway.  Instead, we went to see “Jianshi Liu Baiyuan” (“Judge Archer”), a Chinese kung-fu film.  Fortunately, it had subtitles in English and Italian.  Despite having no idea what to expect, I really enjoyed the movie.  It had a creative storyline and held my interest throughout.

It’s experiences like these that make me feel really grateful to have the opportunity to study abroad.  I feel almost like a local – I know my way around, can function in Italian, and do more than just the touristy things in my free time.  Cultural immersion – once just a phrase thrown around in my study abroad application – has become reality.

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Foodie Friday 5 – Osteria Babazuf

A day late, but better late than never!  I spent last weekend in Tuscany, visiting Florence with my class on Thursday and then spending the rest of the weekend in Siena with a few friends (more detailed post coming soon!).  The highlight meal of the entire trip was our dinner on Saturday night at a little restaurant called Osteria Babazuf.

Osteria Babazuf in Siena

My roommate Jess and I got the same dish – a homemade pumpkin tagliatelle with a sausage and chestnut sauce.

Pumpkin tagliatelle with sausage and chestnut sauce

Tagliatelle (typically homemade, long, flat and ribbon-like) is one of my new favorite types of pasta; it comes in at a close second to tortellini.  The key is that it’s usually homemade here, arguably because it’s an easy shape to make by hand.  What makes tagliatelle stand out to me is its texture when cooked perfectly al dente (which is firmer than what is considered ‘al dente’ in the U.S.).  It’s chewy and almost a little stretchy (sounds weird, I know), and is often wonderfully paired with a meat-based bolognese sauce.  I had a homemade tagliatelle at Colline Emiliane for restaurant week too, as you may recall.

Anyway, this tagliatelle was made with pumpkin, which was unique and so delicious!  I hadn’t seen flavored pasta on a restaurant menu before, and I love pumpkin-flavored things, so I had to try it.  I also love chestnuts (roasted chestnuts by the Spanish Steps, anyone?) so this dish perfectly matched my taste buds.  It lived up to all my expectations and is one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had here.

But the meal didn’t end there.  After taking a quick look at the dessert menu, we couldn’t resist ordering the cooked pear.

Cooked pear dessert

Just look at it!  Delicious is an understatement.  It was cooked in red wine and had a soft, melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture.  Yum.  So now you know about one of my favorite meals in Italy…  I’ve only got 3 weeks left!  More on my time here coming soon :)

Italian Hill Towns & the Best Gelato Yet

Last weekend, I took a day trip to Orvieto, Bagnoregio, and Civita with some friends.  All three are beautiful Italian hill towns – perfect for a quick jaunt out of Rome.  Our first destination was Orvieto, which is an affordable hour-long train ride from Rome.  Since we wanted to make it to all three towns in a single day, we left bright and early Saturday morning.

Starting the day off right: a cappuccino from a cafe by Termini (Rome’s main train station)

Cream and chocolate filled cornetti

Upon arriving at Orvieto’s train station, which is located at the bottom of the hill on which the town is perched, we rode the funicular up to the top.

Orvieto’s funicular

We just missed the bus to the town center (which you could also walk to, we were just lazy and short on time), so we explored the old fortress remains right next to the funicular station, whence you can catch great views of the valley below.

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Panorama

After we had our fill of admiring the view and taking innumerable pictures, we caught the bus to Orvieto’s central square, which is home to its grand cathedral.

Orvieto’s Duomo (cathedral)

The Duomo, as it’s called, boasts an incredibly ornate, gape-worthy façade.  It glitters in the sunlight and is somewhat mesmerizing – the more you stare up at it and its sheer size, the more you notice the intricate details and skilled workmanship.  Mosaics cover nearly every flat surface, and are even embedded in the curved arches and straight columns.

The Duomo

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade, with representations of two of the Evangelists – Matthew (winged man/angel) and Mark (winged lion)

I found the four panels of biblical illustrations carved in marble in the lower portion of the façade most interesting.  They depict Genesis, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Revelation/the Last Judgment, respectively.  The detail is amazing, and it’s cool to be able to spot familiar scenes.  According to Wikipedia, these panels are among the most famous of 14th century sculpture.  I’m not surprised.

Scenes from Genesis

We didn’t go into the cathedral, but explored Orvieto and looked for a place to eat lunch instead.  It was a pretty little town, similar to other Italian towns I’ve visited, but with its own feel and character as well.  Turns out Orvieto was the first non-coastal town I went to – maybe that’s what set it apart.  I’ll be going to another (Siena) this weekend, so we’ll see!

Streets of Orvieto

For lunch, we consulted Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook and found a relatively reasonable restaurant with a good sounding menu.  I had the cheese-filled tortellini with tomato sauce.

Tortellini for lunch!

We also tried the Classico white wine, because Orvieto is known for three things: ceramics, its cathedral, and Classico wine.

The Orvieto Classico

Then, it was off to Bagnoregio by bus and from there to Civita by foot.  There’s quite literally nothing to do in Bagnoregio this time of year – we didn’t see anyone in the streets, all the shops were closed, and the town was eerily silent.  Similarly, Civita doesn’t offer much, but because it’s much more of a tourist destination there are a number of restaurants and souvenir shops.  So why go to Civita?

Because this is it:

Civita

As you can see, Civita is a tiny town that’s only accessible by footbridge.  It sits like an island in the middle of a giant valley – it’s been carved out over the centuries by rivers on either side (which may or may not still be in existence).  Architecturally, Civita is stuck in the Middle Ages, unlike it’s Renaissance neighbor Bagnoregio.  There are few native Civitans left, as most abandoned the town after an earthquake in the late 17th century.

“Civita: the dying town”

Civita

On the footbridge to Civita

In Civita

Civita

View from Civita

Civita: stuck in the Middle Ages

“Dining room in Etruscan cave”

After about an hour and a half of exploring, we headed back to Bagnoregio to catch our bus back to Orvieto.

One last look at Civita

We got back to the bus stop with 20 minutes to spare, so we walked around the block to see what was around.  Just down the street we spotted L’Arte di Pane, a bakery recommended by Rick Steves.  The small shop was overflowing with customers, and a little one stood in the beaded curtain doorway while a multitude of families picked out pastries.  Baked goods were just what I was craving, so I promptly began eyeing the cases for the most delicious looking ones.  By the time it was my turn to order, I had decided on a giant cream-filled pastry, two small cookies, and a mini marmalade tart.  The cream puff-like dessert was my favorite.  It was hands down the best cream filling I’ve had yet – a little lemony, not too sweet, and smooth and custardy.  And the outer shell was bready, not flaky, and fresh.  I can see why Rick Steves recommends the bakery.  If you don’t go, you’re really missing out.  Let’s just say I’m really glad we got to the bus stop early and had time to explore the surrounding streets!

Best. Cream filling. Ever.

Back in Orvieto, we had an hour to kill before our train back to Rome.  Orvieto at night is actually quite different than during the day – there were noticeably more people, vendors set up on the streets, and a generally livelier atmosphere.  We browsed a street full of artisan craft stalls, ranging from leather goods to jewelry to cute hand-stitched key chains and animal figurines.  Everything was so enticing – I found myself trying to think of potential gift recipients for the unique pieces.  Sadly, I was relatively unsuccessful; buying for others is harder than it seems.

But, something I was completely successful in: discovering my favorite gelato!  I had actually planned to go to the Cinque Terre with a friend that weekend, but we canceled our trip at the last minute (the trails between the towns are closed, there was a forecast of rain, and we had an exhausting week).  I mention this because I was supposed to look for a special gelateria in Vernazza that has an amazing flavor called the Cinque Terre Special, which was a highlight of my family’s trip there more than a decade ago.  Despite the canceled trip, I still found an incredible gelato place – in Orvieto!  It’s a self-proclaimed artisanal gelateria called La Musa, and it’s located on the main road up from the funicular station.

Gelateria La Musa!

Of course, they have a flavor called “La Musa” – it’s a combination of ricotta (yes, cheese), cinnamon, and chocolate flakes.  I knew I had to try it when I heard the owner say “ricotta” (a staple in my Italian diet and one of my new favorite cheeses).

“La Musa” flavor

It was unlike any gelato I’ve ever tried.  It reminded me very much of horchata, a cinnamony Mexican rice drink, but that might’ve just been because of the cinnamon.  The point is that it had a great flavor.  Creamy like non-fruit gelato typically is, but with the unexpected addition of a spice.  And paired perfectly with a little chocolatey crunch in every bite.  Mmm.  I’ll probably never find a flavor like that anywhere else.  I also tried their nocciola (hazelnut), which was up there with the nocciola gelato I had in Sorrento.  It’s hard to capture a real nutty flavor in gelato, but La Musa managed to do it and do it well.  Or maybe the deliciousness of their namesake flavor gave me a rosier impression of the nocciola… Who knows.  All I know is that that piccolo cono was the best I’ve had yet.

So delicious!

Soon, it was time to head down to the train station via the funicular (our third ride of the day!).  And that marked the end of our day trip to Orvieto, Bagnoregio, and Civita.

Rome Restaurant Week 2012

Iiiiiiiiiiit’s Restaurant Week in Rome!!

More than 80 restaurants in Rome (and its surrounding area) are offering lunch and dinner set menus all week (Nov. 5-11). Most are 25 euro, with a few at 35, and Michelin-starred restaurants at 40 and up.  Of course, I started researching the restaurants and browsing menus as soon as I found out about it.  Our time in Rome this week is limited, so I knew we had to make a reservation ASAP (we’re all heading to Florence on Thursday for a class trip, and most of us will stay in Tuscany for the weekend).  Five friends and I made a reservation at Colline Emiliane, a small, family-run restaurant that specializes in ‘classic Emilian cuisine’, for a late lunch on Tuesday, as they were fully booked for dinner.

Our set menu included three courses:

Starter/first course: Composto da un misto di tortelli di zucca e tagliatelle alla bolognese (A combination plate of pumpkin tortellini and tagliatelle alla bolognese)
Main course: Choice between (1) Giambonetto di vitella con purea (slow-cooked veal with mashed potatoes) or (2) Il brasato di manzo con purea (red wine braised beef with mashed potatoes)
Dessert: Mousse di zabaione servito con lingue di gatto (eggnog mousse with ‘cat tongue’ cookies)

It’s the same menu for lunch and dinner, so we definitely got our 25 euro’s worth.  We had heard that some of the participating restaurants aren’t actually very good or worth your money, so we made sure to look around for specific recommendations from food bloggers and the like before making a final decision.  The menu sounded delicious, so I had some high expectations…and Colline Emiliane exceeded them!

The homemade pasta was amazing, though I should note that I’m partial to tortellini and pumpkin/squash fillings in particular.  I could really taste that the tagliatelle was homemade – you just can’t achieve that consistency or texture with dried pasta.  The best way I can describe it is chewy with a hint of firmness and a little stretch.  The leaf of basil with the tortellini was the perfect touch – it added a nice flavor (almost a little sweet, too) and a slightly different texture.  Simply delicious.

Tagliatelle alla bolognese and pumpkin tortellini

Pumpkin tortellini close-up

I chose the veal as my main course (veal in general is really popular in Italy).  The waiter said it’s their unique speciality – apparently you can’t find this dish anywhere else in Rome.  It’s slow-cooked in milk for hours (I can’t remember how many but it was impressive), rendering incredibly tender meat.  I don’t think any of us actually needed our knives.

Slow-cooked veal with mashed potatoes – Colline Emiliane’s specialty

It was by far the best veal dish I’ve had so far.  The only thing that would’ve made it better is if I was less full from the first course.  Alas.

Last (and unfortunately least) was dessert – an eggnog mousse with cat tongue cookies. I’ve tried eggnog maybe once, and I don’t remember my impression of it.  This dessert just didn’t suit my palate, though it did grow on me.  It had a wonderfully light and creamy texture, which I loved, but the combination of the egg, lemon, and strong alcoholic (maybe white wine?) flavors ruined it for me.  I really wanted to like it.  On the other hand, the cookies were great!  Crispy and buttery goodness.

Eggnog mousse and ‘cat tongue’ cookies

That wraps up my Rome Restaurant Week adventure!  I guess I need to take part in Chicago’s next year…

Colline Emiliane: Via degli Avignonesi 22, 00187 Rome

Foodie Fridays Are Back!

Foodie Friday 4 – Seafood in Sorrento

I’ve been horrible at keeping up with this blog over the last month and a half, but things are picking up again, which means Fridays are once again dedicated to food!

Last weekend, some friends and I headed down to Sorrento, a small town just south of Naples that lies at the northern end of the Amalfi Coast.  It’s famous for its lemons and limoncello, a digestif (alcoholic drink that supposedly aids digestion and is meant to be enjoyed after a meal).  It’s a quaint, touristy little town – perfect for our off-season weekend getaway.

Dinner in Sorrento was great.  We happened upon a restaurant with a covered outdoor seating area right by the water, and the waiters arranged the tables for us so that we could all sit and enjoy the view.

Our dinner view.

Dinner in Sorrento!

Since we were by the coast, I decided to splurge on their sea bass special.  It was delicious!  Perfectly prepared and just the right amount of food.

Sea bass fillets with tomatoes and salad

After dinner, we headed back up the hill (via the restaurant’s complimentary shuttle service!) to find the gelato stand that sells my roommate’s favorite hazelnut gelato in all of Italy.  I had the nocciola (hazelnut) and stracciatella (chocolate chip) – yum!  And it was so good I forgot to take a picture… I’d say that’s one of the best nocciola flavors I’ve tried.  But my search for the best pistacchio continues!

Croatian Adventures, Part II – Plitvice & Zagreb

One of my first views of Plitvice National Park

Nothing says “Welcome to Plitvice!” quite like this view.  After a 5-hour bus ride from Split to Plitvice (pronounced pleet-vitse, based on the Croatian pronunciations I heard on the trip), we arrived at the park in the early afternoon on Saturday eager to explore and see all the lakes and waterfalls.  Although we didn’t have quite enough time to see everything, we walked along the trails for a solid few hours and took lots and lots of pictures.  Here are my (many) favorites.

Autumn in Plitvice

Reflections

Gorgeous trails

Autumn leaves and waterfalls

You know you’re good roommates when you can travel together without killing each other (and get along well – that too!).

See the hint of a rainbow?

The trail took us around most of the lake, so we got to see this view from every angle.

Happy

The side of Plitvice you usually see in pictures. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go down there – next time! (Note: this is when my camera died…poor quality iPhone 3 pictures starting with this one.)

THE BIG ONE from afar!

Close up of the big waterfall.

We ended our afternoon in Plitvice Lakes National Park at the big waterfall, and then headed back up to the main entrance to catch our bus to Zagreb.  I was exhausted at that point, so I knocked out on the bus.  Once we arrived in Zagreb, we took a taxi to our hostel and then went out to dinner.  The hostel receptionist recommended a place nearby for Croatian food (where  the servers don traditional Croatian dress), so we headed there and enjoyed an amazing meal.

Starter: Pumpkin soup with homemade croutons

Starter: meat and cheese filled pastry (if I remember correctly..)

Main course: Sesame-covered turkey fillets with mashed potatoes and a cucumber yogurt sauce

It was quite late by the end of our meal (we’ve caught on to the whole European long dinner thing) and pretty chilly out, so we decided to go back to the hostel and get some good sleep before our early morning the next day.

On our way to the train station before daylight on Sunday, we passed through the square that our hostel was right next to.  Too bad we couldn’t stay in Zagreb longer!

A “piazza” in Zagreb

Sunday was full of travel – we started out before sunrise and arrived in Rome after dark.  Along the way, we passed through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Italy via 2 trains and 2 buses.  Quite the adventure.  But it sure was beautiful!

View of Austria from our bus to Venice!

Another breath-taking view.

All in all, a wonderful trip to Croatia.  I already want to go back (Dubrovnik, you’re next!).