I had been dreaming of going to Europe for 20 years. My husband, Scott and I finally decided for our 25th anniversary we’d go. Unfortunately, the 25th came and went 5 years ago and we never made it due to surgery and then the demands of restaurant life took over. Now we’re celebrating our 30th on time, the one-week vacation has expanded to two weeks (3 days in Barcelona and then a 12-day tour of northern Italy), and my husband’s sister, Rosita, and brother-in-law, Craig, have joined us. So off we go, four hard core foodies on our grand adventure in the “Holy Land” of Mediterranean cuisine. During our trip, I marveled at the awe-inspiring opulence and architecture of a by-gone era and sampled the finest in cuisine. Cured hams carved directly from the leg – hoof and all, perfectly crusted baked breads, squash blossoms stuffed with fresh mozzarella and lightly fried, and thin Napolitano pizza dough let to rise 24 hours in the salty coastal air of Venice (Venezia). Foods were fresh and pastas handmade on site. Italians expected and restaurants showed such pride in having the highest quality of ingredients and treating you like family. I am afraid Italian food at the places I frequently dine when at home will no longer meet the new standard.
By far, the most popular dining setting was the street side café. All restaurants had indoor dining and most extended their seating outside with some taking advantage of every square inch in front of their business clear up to the curb. Waiters successfully seduced tourists from the door step with their pitch of the culinary delights that could only be found at their establishment. Their warm personalities were just as important as the smells drifting from their restaurant. This is a tactic I am not used to in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but it was an inexpensive and effective way of marketing to lots of people who don’t know where to go when a huge amount of options exist. Because really good food is the center of our universe, when traveling we are always looking for the best authentic food experience. We hate to miss out on a great culinary opportunity when we only have a few meals in a city far from home so we ask the locals for suggestions. In Florence (Firenze) when we asked where for the best restaurant was near our hotel our taxi driver scoffed, “Come on! This is Italy all the restaurants are great. I can tell you the two worst – McDonald’s and Burger King.” I guess there are stupid questions. I was also looking forward to comparing fine Italian wines with those of Napa Valley which CNN was reporting was being ravaged with wild fires at the time, however, recently even the finest of wines which used to give me the nicest pre-appetizer “buzz”, now just create an uncomfortable sourness in my stomach so it was mostly water fizzante or still with ice, per favore. Well, it’s time to get down to sharing the best dining experiences on our trip. There were many, however it was not difficult to narrow it down. I just used the Scott Moan-a-Meter. What is that you ask? When my hubby thinks something is delicious it’s easy to tell. He literally closes his eyes and moans. These were the “fives” on the Scott Moan-a-Meter.
Hilton Milano: In Milan(Milano), we had the most delicious ravioli with asparagus, fresh peas, and Chanterelle mushrooms with an assortment of fresh baked breads, and bread stick rods that melted in your mouth like wafers sans the sugar, and night caps of Limoncello. I know. You can’t get more American than the Hilton. We chose this familiar brand as it was close to the train station on our one day stop to the fashion capitol. In the end, it turned out to be a welcomed safe haven, after an extremely long and disappointing day of travel. It turned out, our flight from Barcelona was “overbooked”, we were forced to wait for 8 hours in the airport, and then the airline had the nerve to lose our luggage! I felt like a child at Christmas when the efficient concierge delivered my long list of necessities - tooth brush, toothpaste, European power adapters, sanitizer and cotton, and a place to freeze ice packs for my husband’s insulin during travel. Too bad they did not offer to hand wash our two-day old undies. We were even more elated four days later when the luggage did finally arrive in Florence (Firenze).
Rosso Pomodoro: Venice (Venezia), with its watery freeways and maze-like alleys awed with pizza of ricotta fondue with mozzarella, gorganzola, and mushrooms on a beer dough, with a generous amount of truffle. Their vanilla gelato sundae with black cherry sauce and dark chocolate was a hit. The place was casual, Italian rustic; whitewashed, tiled, and cozy. Tables were close so you could converse with the guests seated at the next. There was laughter and happiness all around. I also caught sight of a shelving unit full of their menu translated into 8 other languages which was a common stop for the hospitality team. My family agreed the meal would qualify for the Food Network show, “The Best Meal I Ever Ate”, so we went for an encore dinner the next night with a few additions to our previous menu and were once again delighted.
Ai Piantaleoni Ristorante and Bar: The next day, we took the water taxi to Murano to see master glass blowers at their furnaces. We found this charming café and enjoyed monk fish drenched in a sublime pumpkin sauce with pomegranate seeds which made me want to lick the bowl. The service was attentive and the table had cool high quality mismatched patterned linens and the water glasses were hand-blown Murano glass.
We thought those were the best until we were directed to go to the Trattoria dei 12 Gobbi in Florence (Firenze) by the concierge. The first night we didn’t write down the name of the restaurant or address and thought we had everything to memory. Not! After being lost on foot for an hour, we gave up and ended up at a sad little restaurant. Determined, the next day we found the following gem:
The Trattoria dei 12 Gobbi: This was not the fanciest restaurant I have ever been, but it is my all-time favorite. The food was out of this world, service was charming and charismatic, and the ambiance was dark, old school and comfortable. This local hot spot, was located on a dark, cobble stoned alley which we would have never ventured down in Los Angeles for fear of mugging. It turned out to be a place you went if you wanted to be seen. You could tell local celebrities were present when the room became a buzz. The waiter told us under his breathe the Chief of Police was dining next to us with his wife and he was “allowed” to sit at the table for four, while most couples were forced to dine at shared tables. Singles were allotted cramped seats at a counter that functioned as a bar. Most looked dejected at first, but all left looking thrilled after sharing their lives over a fabulous meal with their newly discovered friends. Scott, Craig, and I, shared the mouth-watering beef Florentine for 3 which was cooked to perfection and served with savory sautéed potatoes. Rosita had fresh seafood stuffed shells. Unfortunately, we had no room for dessert. I am sure it would have been out of this world. When we were finished, we all felt we had died and gone to heaven. Quite frankly, I think there was divine intervention involved for us to get in without a reservation.
Yes, the food throughout northern Italy was awe inspiring and there were gelato bars at every corner to our delight. We hit them all, sometimes twice a day since my sister-in-law could be a sugar addict. Sorry for outing you, Rosita. Check out the tour of the best gelato bars in Florence.
When we finally arrived home, I was expecting to come home a few pounds heavier because I had eaten so well and didn’t deny myself, however I actually arrived several pounds lighter. I am sure that was due to the other big difference I saw in Italian living besides -men in “high water” pants and lean and happy school children - you may have guessed it. Everyone walks! I have decided to be more Italian and walk more, perhaps ditching the car to go to the nearby market by foot for the day’s fresh ingredients, at least once in a while, and I plan to try my hand at making homemade pasta. Ciao Bella! Share your best food travel story in our comment section.
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