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Italy Day 13: Alba truffle fair

Dec. 28th, 2010 | 12:47 am

Our last full day in Italy was a Saturday. We woke up early to take a train to Alba, connecting in Cavallermaggiore. Early in the nearly two hour journey, I made the horrifying discovery that the bag of peanuts I had placed in my purse was infested with ants. I spent most of the train ride cleaning them out of my purse. The countryside through which we traveled was bitterly cold, much colder than Turin.

Upon arrival in Alba, we had no idea where to find the truffle fair. We followed some other tourists who looked like they knew where we were going, and came upon a busy market, where saw lots of cheese, salami, winter clothing, and a very lucky stray dog gnawing on a stolen beef rib. We also came upon a building with promotional materials about the truffle fair, including a brochure and map showing its location. You'd think this would help, but even with the map, it took us another hour to find the pavilion where the truffles were actually sold. Most of the problem was that a flea market filled the streets, making it impossible to move quickly and extremely difficult to see street signs. After some help from a friendly salesperson, we finally found it and realized we had walked past it several times. Unfortunately, it was almost time for our lunch reservation.

At La Piola, the restaurant we chose for lunch, we were seated in a pretty glassed in area looking out on a lively square. We started by sharing an excellent salad. I then had cheese fondue, with white truffles shaved over. The truffles didn't add much, and I preferred the truffle dishes at L'Agrifoglio. After wavering over his choice, Andy had agnolotti in tomato sauce, which were good but unspectacular. For dessert, we had some delicious pears poached in red wine and a scoop of goat cheese gelato.

The truffle fair did not disappoint. It was set up similarly to the Salone del Gusto, with food sellers hawking their wares from large tables. Around the perimeter were truffle products, truffle accessories, and the usual cheese, salami, and chocolate booths. The back of the tent held a pop-up restaurant, where you could buy the traditional foods that accompany truffles: eggs, raw veal, thin egg pasta, and cheese fondue. A woodworker carved handsome olive wood serving boards while a small crowd watched. We were momentarily transfixed by two men with matching enormous mustaches selling salami. In the center of all this activity were the stars of the show: the truffle hunters, or trifulau. White and black truffles were displayed like jewelry in glass cases. They encouraged us to smell the truffles and smiled encouragingly.

With nothing more to do in Alba, we took the long train ride back to Turin. In our hotel room, I faced the unpleasant task of removing the ants from my suitcase, since the bag of peanuts had been stored there. By the time I finished de-anting my stuff, it was just about time for dinner. We took a bus to Sotto La Mole. It was much more modern looking than the other restaurants in Piedmont, and it was bright and comfortable. I had not yet had risotto on this trip, so I was happy that Sotto La Mole offered a red wine and sausage risotto. It was very tasty and cooked perfectly al dente. I really liked the chocolate covered cape gooseberries served as an extra treat at the end of the meal.

That's the end of our Italian adventure! The only notable thing about the travel the next day is the fact that Andy ate three croissants: one at the Turin airport for breakfast, the free one proffered by the Air France attendant, and a third at the Paris airport.

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Italy Day 12: Exploring Turin

Nov. 29th, 2010 | 05:01 pm

We spent Friday October 22 in Turin. It was a relief to have an unstructured day to walk around and enjoy the city. I found Turin to be very beautiful, in a different and less obvious way from our previous Italian destinations. Its streets are wide and grand, and many of the sidewalks are covered by large porticos, so you can window shop in the open air, yet have a sturdy roof over your head. Turin is filled with very large, pedestrian-only squares, that combined with the extensive use of white stone, give the city a light, airy feeling. The city has plenty of tourist attractions, including an Egyptian museum, the national museum of cinema, a royal palace, and many churches, but Andy was sick of museums, so we spent the day walking around instead.

We started off by looking for a Juventus soccer jersey for Amir. With directions from our hotel, we found the Juventus store, but the jerseys cost much more than Amir anticipated, so we left empty handed. Turin is famous for bicerin, a drink composed of a layer of hot chocolate, a shot of espresso, and topped by foamed heavy cream, so I was determined to try one. We went to Caffe Baratti & Milano, which has been around since 1875. The decor was very ornate, all dark wood, gilding, crystal chandeliers, and plush cream fabric. Stupid Americans that we are, we made the mistake of ordering at the bar, when instead you are supposed to order and pay at the cash register, then give the receipt to the bartender. Oh well. The bicerin is served in clear glasses so you can see the three separate layers. Andy choose to stir his, I did not. Supposedly when you tip the glass you get bits of all three layers, but I ended up getting mostly espresso, followed by mostly chocolate. Anyway, it was delicious and very rich. Next, we stumbled upon a small market, with vendors selling accessories, spreads, pastries, chocolate, cheese, salami, and decorative woodworking.

Lunch was at Le Vitel Etonne, a wine bar. Their appetizer menu was almost all flans, so we each had a flan and a pasta dish. My pasta had chunks of guinea fowl in it, which tasted like gamey chicken. The menu cover featured a line drawing of a cow in a chef’s hat and jacket, daintily eating some pasta, while the wine list featured the same cow sipping from a glass. I assumed this had something to do with the name of the restaurant, since vitel sounds a bit like vitello, or veal. The waitress explained it to me, but I didn’t understand, except for the fact that there were multiple layers of meaning and one of them was a pun on vitello tonatto, the classic Piedmont dish of veal with tuna sauce. The food was good and I would recommend this restaurant.

With long train rides and an even longer flight scheduled for the next few days and my reading material exhausted, I opted to stop in an English language bookstore. I looked unsuccessfully for a copy of Eat, Pray, Love before settling on Wuthering Heights.

A building called the Mole Antonella is considered one of the symbols of Turin. Its distinctive silhouette adorns the back of the Italian 2 Euro coin. Originally designed as a synagogue, the Mole was turned over to the city when the building costs exceeded the congregation’s budget. It now houses the Museum of Cinema, and an elevator takes you to the top for a grand view. The one minute ride travels up from the basement, through the museum, and up over the domed roof. Through the open shaft and glass walls, you can see each floor of the building and the inside of the dome as you ascend a harrowing 500 feet. I am not usually scared of heights, but that elevator ride scared the hell out of me. Thankfully, the view from the top was splendid. We asked a young German man to take our picture, and ended up chatting with him. He is a food science teacher and was in town for the Salone del Gusto.

From our hotel, we walked to dinner at Dai Saletta. We got there at 8:00 just as it was opening, and had to wait a few minutes to get in. The restaurant slowly filled with mostly tourists, including two French men and a group of Americans who were hosting a Chinese guest. We were impressed by the woman leading the American group’s fluent Chinese. Some of the patrons’ souvenir wineglasses revealed that they had just come from the Salone del Gusto. Andy started with gnocci with Castelmagno cheese. It was delicious, but very rich, and pretty much filled him up before his main arrived. Andy’s second course was disappointing anyway, two slices of veal with cheese in between and some sort of sauce. I ordered a mixed antipasto, and got to try a number of typical Piedmont dishes, including vitello tonatto and Russian salad. I ordered tripe in tomato sauce for my main course, which generated a grunt of either approval or surprise from the waiter. The tripe was very good, but I was served such a large portion that I only ate half of it. We had no room for dessert, but the waiter offered us a house made digestif of herbal liquor. It was tasty, and did seem to settle our stomachs. Overall, Dai Saletta disappointed us. It was is a very rustic, small restaurant. Because of the difficulty in securing a reservation, we expected stellar food, but overall, the meal was just okay.

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Pictures from Rome

Nov. 24th, 2010 | 09:48 pm

train station
Rome airport train station

train station
In front of the Pantheon

Roman Forum
Roman Forum

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Salone del Gusto

Nov. 24th, 2010 | 04:30 pm

Our guidebook contains no information on Turin or Piedmont, and I ran out of time before leaving to thoroughly research public transportation and locations. The result was, though Thursday was devoted to exploring the Slow Food movement’s biennial trade show, the Salone del Gusto, I had only a vague idea of where it was or how to get there. Stubbornly and stupidly, I didn’t ask for directions at the hotel front desk, so we ended up taking a bus down the wrong side of the train tracks and walking to the Lingotto train station and still not finding it. Luckily, since Lingotto is a major transportation hub, there happened to be a free shuttle from Lingotto train station to the Salone, and we climbed aboard and arrived at Lingotto Fiere, the actual location of the Salone, only 15 minutes before the 1:00 cooking demonstration we had reserved. It had taken us an hour and a half to accomplish what should have been a short two mile journey on one bus. After buying our tickets to enter the Salone, it took another 10 minutes to walk the length of a couple football fields through the other parts of the Salone until we got to the ticket desk for the workshops. With only 5 minutes to go, we stared at a mob of people somewhat organized into four lines each about 15 people deep. Andy astutely realized that the left line moved much faster than the others, so he stood in that line and got our tickets for the cooking demonstration after waiting about 15 minutes. As we got to the front of the line, we realized that the four clerks handing out tickets had to first look up your reservation number on a computer terminal, then rifle through a box to find the paper ticket before walking back to the person and giving him his ticket. The computer terminal and ticket box were both on the left. Therefore, the left line moved faster because the person manning that line didn’t have to walk as far. The whole system struck me as insane, but at least we had our tickets!

At the entrance to the Theater of Taste, where the demonstration was held, I surrendered my passport in exchange for a cool handheld transponder and wireless headphones to listen to the simultaneous English translation. When we finally took our seats, we discovered that they were running late and the demonstration had not yet started. Hooray! For the next hour, I sat in rapt attention as Eneko Atxa of Restaurant Azurmendi in Bilbao, Spain, cooked five dishes. Eneko spoke in Spanish and sometimes Basque, which a woman translated into Italian, which another woman translated into English. All three audio streams were available through different channels on our devices. Eneko seemed happy to be there, as he led us through five dishes, two of which we got to taste. The braised oxtail “ravioli” in a bread shell combined a very deep, meaty flavor with an interesting texture contrast, and the blood sausage meatball was richly flavored as well. Throughout the demonstration he talked about the inspiration for each dish, which were the usual land, sea, his mother, and his childhood, but it was magical to be there watching and tasting it all come together. We were also served breadsticks and unlimited pours of two wines, a Barbara and a Barbaresco. Andy found this side by side tasting very illuminating of the differences between those two wines, both made from the Nebbiolo grape.

The food workshop area is just one part of the Salone del Gusto. The largest portion of the show is a marketplace where you can sample and purchase food products from around the world, but mostly from Italy. There is also a street food area, a wine bar, and a section with large exhibits set up by sponsors, such as Lavazza coffee, Parmigiano Reggiano, the City of Turin, and Slow Food itself. Our very first taste in the marketplace was the best one of the day: Lardo di Colonnata, pork fat cured in salt and herbs. We ended up spending most of the day in the marketplace. It was overwhelming at first, but after a while we got our bearings. Except for the small international pavilion, the marketplace was organized by Italian region. The regional pride was very apparent. Each region had a large booth promoting the superiority of that area’s products. The Piedmont one played some sort of agricultural propaganda film in a loop. We ended up spending a lot of time in that one, sitting on the plentiful wooden crates and resting our battered feet. In the Emilia Romagna regional booth, we got roped into a white tablecloth salami tasting, but we snuck out after tasting only two of the promised five kinds of salami. At that point, we had already eaten what felt like pounds of salami, and could take no more. Also, the explanation was in Italian, which combined with the free wine, was putting me to sleep. Elsewhere in Emilia Romagna, Andy photographed a nineteen year old wheel of Parmigiano, and I tried real, cask aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. This stuff is fantastically expensive, so they only gave me a drop of the thick, syrupy liquid.

Shortly after the cooking demonstration, Andy suggested we get lunch. I thought this was a bit crazy, considering we were surrounded by food and had been tasting continuously, but I understood the need to have hot food rather than a few bites of salami and cheese. We examined every stand in the street food area before deciding on fried fresh anchovies from Sicily for me and Focaccia di Recco, flatbread with creamy cheese, for Andy. Both were delicious.

In the afternoon, we focused our marketplace shopping efforts on bringing home gifts and souvenirs, and ended up buying chocolate, cookies, and truffle spread. Dinner was in the Piedmont area: a bowl of agnolotti filled with roast meat, and a scoop of excellent pear gelato. Then, Andy realized he would forever regret it if he didn’t try some porchetta, whole roast pig stuffed with herbs, so we headed over to Lazio and bought a few slices. We couldn’t finish the porchetta and ended up stashing it in the hotel’s mini fridge, only to completely forget about it. Oh well.

I could find no information on when this thing closed. At 8:30 pm, the crowds had thinned, and we decided it was time to call it a night. As we looked for the exit, we passed through the exhibition area and realized we had skipped it entirely. So, we spent a few minutes looking around, during which a number of funny things happened. First, we accidentally wandered into the press-only area of the Lavazza booth and were politely escorted out. Then, someone from the Parmigiano Reggiano booth encouraged me to “Like” them on Facebook, proffering a tablet computer with the Facebook login screen. Finally, we passed by the European Union booth and got a free apron and tote bag. Hooray for swag!

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Departure from Venice, arrival in Turin

Nov. 23rd, 2010 | 12:52 pm

On our Naples day, I forgot to mention that we stopped in the Jesu Nuovo church and saw the museum full of Ex Voti: small plaques given as thanks for prayers answered. These Ex Voti honor Saint Moscati, a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. A bomb casing that fell into the church in 1943 but caused very little damage hangs in the corner.

Back in Venice, we had breakfast, then checked out of the hotel, leaving our bags in the breakfast room. On our way to the vaporetto stop, we passed a museum of stringed instruments. We stepped inside to have a look around at the dozens of violins, cellos, violas, and more exotic variations. The museum also contained a small but informative exhibit on how a violin is made.

We rode the water bus from the Academia stop to the train station, which marked the beginning of the audio tour we had downloaded from Rick Steves’ website. At the train station, we got right back on a different vaporetto and started listening to the tour on our cell phones. I really enjoyed cruising up the Grand Canal, in daylight this time, listening as the voice in my ear pointed out the various palazzos, museums, and important buildings. After the tour concluded at St. Mark’s Square, we briefly considered buying cheesy souvenirs from the many stalls before thinking better of it. No one wants a plastic carnival mask or an ashtray decorated with St Mark’s Basilica, right? Realizing we didn’t have time for a sit-down lunch, we took yet another vaporetto back to our hotel and surveyed the nearby carry out options. I’m so glad we bought a pass for unlimited vaporetto travel; otherwise, at 6.50 Eur for each ride, this day would have been costly.

The cafe nearest our hotel actually looked pretty good, so we got in a short line and waited to order our food. This being Italy, one woman monopolized the counter for ten full minutes as she considered various sandwich options, argued with the cashier, and I don’t know what else, all in loud, spirited Italian. When she was finally finished ordering, the rest of the customers were much more polite and soon Andy and I were able to order and pay for our salami and mozzarella sandwich (him) and tuna salad (me). The vegetables, cheese and tuna came prepacked in a clear plastic container, but I was pleased when after I ordered it, they dressed it simply with olive oil, vinegar, and salt, just as I would have. After I gave my order to the cashier, a patron nicely told Andy that the salad was chicken, not tuna as I had said. When I ate it, I determined that I was right and it was tuna. Ha! I can identify meats, even Italian ones. Andy was happy with his sandwich, which was made to order and then pressed, melting the cheese and toasting the bread. We sat on the elevated sidewalk just outside our hotel to eat.

Our last vaporetto ride took us to the train station. We were sad to leave Venice, but excited about what Turin would hold. Both of us loved Venice, and wish we could have had more time there. Much of Venice’s magic comes from the fact that there are no cars, so people are out in the streets, walking everywhere. You see lots of Italians going about their daily business, toting groceries or walking their dogs. Everything is very compact and close together. Add in the grand architecture and the lapping water of the canals, and you get an atmospheric, beautiful city. I also disagree with the reports that Venice is too touristy to have good food. The restaurants we tried all served reasonably priced, delicious meals.

At the station, I had a challenging time using the pay toilet, and then determining which train to get on, but we figured it out and got on board the right train. We took a slower, regional train to Milan. It was full, and seating was complicated by the fact that no one, including us, sat in our assigned seats. The ticket machine gave us seats diagonally across from one another, despite the fact that we had requested adjacent seats, so we took some available seats that we preferred. As the people whose seats we occupied came on board, they just shrugged and took a nearby open seat. The train was crowded and the man across from us was wearing far too much cologne, so I was very happy when we got to Milan and transferred to a much more comfortable and nearly empty high speed train to Turin. We clocked this one at over 200 miles per hour! Our original train actually continued to Turin, but switching trains (and paying extra) got us to Turin 40 minutes earlier.

As soon as we exited Porta Nuova train station in Turin, we spotted the Best Western Hotel Genova across the street. Check-in was smooth and uneventful, so we set about trying to find a place to eat dinner. The first place we called, Dai Saletta, was fully booked that night and the next, so, figuring it must be good, we made a reservation for Friday night, two days hence. Our next choice, L’Agrifoglio, had a table available, so we left our hotel on foot, and arrived after twenty minutes. The interior, with high, vaulted ceilings and evergreen accents, felt welcoming, and both rustic and elegant.

Our waiter poured us complimentary glasses of prosecco while we reviewed the menu. As soon as we saw the three course white truffle menu for a reasonable 60 Euros, we knew we had to order it.  The meal began with plates of raw, hand chopped veal. Thin, silver dollar sized slices of meat slightly overlapped each other and were lightly dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. We later saw versions of this dish where the meat had obviously been machine ground, but this one was carefully sliced by hand, and the meat was very high quality: tender and free of fat and gristle. On a cart next to the table, he shaved a dusting of white truffle over our plates before setting them in front of us. I inhaled deeply, letting the rich scent fill my mouth and nose, and took a bite. Bliss. The veal was very clean tasting, but it was enriched and deepened by the truffles. I ended up adding a bit of salt, but otherwise, it was perfect. The most intense truffle aroma faded within a minute or two, though traces of it were still left in the olive oil on the plate when the veal was nearly gone. Next were servings of tajarin, thin egg pasta sauced only with butter. By our table, the waiter tossed the pasta with a raw egg yolk before plating, then grating the raw truffles over. I took one bite, looked at Andy, who was still photographing his plate, and said, “This is insanely good.” In contrast with the previous dish, which was cold, the hot pasta made the truffle aroma more intense, and the soft, rich noodles were the perfect base to taste the white truffles. After a pause, we were served the final course, two orange-yolked eggs fried in butter sunny side up, again topped tableside with fresh shaved white truffles. This course was Andy’s favorite, as the rich eggs gave the white truffle aroma more weight and depth. Strangely, the eggs were unsalted, but we remedied that with the shaker on the table. We concluded our meal by sharing a scoop of perfect lemon sorbetto and floated back to the hotel.

Later, we reflected on how fortunate we were to have eaten this meal. In the United States, white truffles have to be flown in, adding to their already high cost, and restaurants tend to gild the lily and add them to already elaborate dishes. In Italy, restaurants are proud to serve traditional recipes without embellishment, and we were served the three traditional dishes that best showcase white truffles. For some lucky Italians, the type of meal we had may be a yearly indulgence, but for us, it was a possibly once in a lifetime experience that could only have occurred in the Piedmont, in the fall, when white truffles are in season.

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Italy day 9: Venice

Nov. 15th, 2010 | 03:34 pm

Our hotel in Venice, B&B Zaguri, pleasantly surprised me with its quality. It is very inexpensive for Venice, and it has a great central location. Since it only has three rooms, I expected a converted apartment with a minimum of amenities. Instead, our high ceiling-ed room was nicely decorated with quality furnishings, and the staff was efficient and professional. The front desk was only available from 8:45 - 11 am, but they arranged for someone to be there if you wanted to check in later, and lent us a key so we could leave our bags in the breakfast room after checking out and fetch them at our leisure. The view from our room was laughably bad; one large window looked out on a wall, and there were two tiny windows near the ceiling, but I didn’t mind, since it made for quiet nights.

Tuesday October 19 was our only full day in Venice. After sampling the continental breakfast provided by the hotel, we set off for the Rialto market. The produce area was exceptionally colorful and varied, and we bought some pluots and clementines. The seafood market, however, was extraordinary. The seemingly endless rows of stalls sold tiny creatures from the Venetian lagoon, such as shrimp, clams, and crabs no more than an inch or two long, but also seafood from the Mediterranean to the deep ocean, like octopus, monkfish, and even tuna. All of the fish were so brightly colored and glossy that I swear they could have lept into the water and swam away. Many of the crustaceans were still squirming enthusiastically, and in fact we saw several shrimp that had succeeded in flipping out of their container only to find themselves on the ground.

For the rest of the morning, we wandered around. The Rialto bridge area was crowded, so we tried not to stay there too long. The bridge itself is jammed with souvenir shops and tourists. If you want to stand at the ledge and look out, you have to wait a few minutes for a space to open up. I don’t understand why this is the case, because I found the view from the Accademia bridge to be much lovelier. As we made our way away from the Rialto area, Andy was amused by a store that sold quills, though I pointed out that they had diversified into bookmarks as well. At a small tabacchi (smoke) store, I found a pretty watercolor postcard for my sister, and Andy refilled his SIM card. Nearby, the aroma of toasted coconut drew Andy into a bakery, and we bought some pastries.

Google Maps failed us in finding our lunch destination, Osteria Alla Botte, placing it on the Campo San Bartolomeo. Luckily, Alla Botte appears on a map in our guidebook, and we located the narrow alley off the square containing the restaurant. We shared a mixed seafood antipasto with a little polenta, a plate of pasta, and a whole fish. Notably, the antipasto contained many of the tiny lagoon varieties we had seen at the market a few hours earlier. The food was good, though service was a bit brusque. I think they only had one waiter for the two small rooms.

After lunch we went to St. Mark’s square. We toured the basilica (cathedral). Every available surface inside is covered with gilded mosaics. Within the church, we paid the supplement to see the Golden Altarpiece, a 5 foot by 12 foot panel of solid gold set with almost two thousand precious gems. We also entered the Doge’s Palace, in which I was most impressed by the enormous size of the rooms, a statue in the courtyard resembling a young Paul Newman, and the small, sad prison connected to the palace by the Bridge of Sighs.

After our visit to the palace, we walked around the square itself. The clock tower dates from 1493, but is most notable for the digital display added in 1857. Large blue panels flip every time the minute or hour changes. Several kids stood in the middle of the square, luring pigeons to their hands and shoulders with food. One boy in particular was very successful and was just covered in pigeons. I also saw the carcass of a pigeon with its wings ripped off. Who would be that cruel?

After some window shopping at the nearby designer boutiques, we walked to Alle Testiere for dinner. My high expectations for this tiny restaurant were met. Both the food and service were stellar. We had raw oysters, gazpacho with octopus, spaghetti al vongole, and a fillet of fish with some interesting spices. We ordered the oysters to taste the difference between the Pacific ones we usually eat, but these Atlantic oysters weren’t anything special and I wish we had ordered something more creative. The spaghetti al vongole was epic and featured tiny clams from the Venetian lagoon. For dessert, we walked to Grom for two types of chocolate gelato.

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Pizza in Naples and arrival in Venice

Nov. 7th, 2010 | 11:07 pm

I thought we built lots of slack into our vacation schedule, but it still never felt like we had enough time. On Monday morning, we barely had time to eat breakfast and pack before the 11:00 checkout. We used the hotel's computer and internet for another hour, catching up on Facebook and looking at some of the pictures we'd taken, before taking the bus down the hill to the train station. Since we needed to kill 20 minutes before the next train to Naples, we passed the time by people watching. A large group of school age children milled around and got on the train. The kids never bought more than one ticket for every 2 to 3 people, and they tailgated in and also knew exactly what spot on the ticket gate to cover up and make the doors open. Happily, they all got off the train after a few stops and the journey was quieter once they'd left.

It was close to two o'clock when we found Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, surrounded by a throng of about 30 people waiting for a table. We took a number and waited for forty-five minutes for a table, and another 15 or so for the pizza. As we waited, we sipped our Cokes and read a poster bragging about Da Michele's recent inclusion in Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts. Finally, the pizza arrived. It was a revelation. A salty, chewy, and charred crust, topped with crushed tomatoes, a little bit of fresh mozzarella, lots of olive oil, and just two basil leaves. Salt, richness, smoke, and acidity balanced each other, but the crust was the real star of the show. It more closely resembled a good pita than the typical American pizza crust.

After lunch, we returned to the Naples train station to fetch our bags. The square around the station was surrounded by trash and what looked like piles of discarded clothes. We waited for 30 long minutes for a bus to the airport, and then found out that we had been waiting at the wrong bus stop the whole time. Fed up and running out of time, we took a taxi, which was both thrilling and surprisingly affordable. I vividly remember one gridlocked intersection where cross traffic, including left turners, all drove through at once. They were going pretty slowly, maybe 10 to15 miles an hour, and everyone had to dodge and weave to avoid collision. In their midst, a mother boldly jaywalked her stroller diagonally across the intersection.

At the airport, the crowd jockeyed for position at the gate. A bus waited on the other side of the door. When the bus was full, it drove no more than 30 feet and opened doors opposite the ones from which we entered. Everyone broke into a run to get on the plane and secure a seat. We were able to fit in the first bus load and found a window and middle seat near the middle of the plane. The flight was short and uneventful.

Upon arrival at Marco Polo airport in Venice, we quickly located the transportation desk and bought tickets for that night's journey. On the very comfortable ATVO bus to Piazzele Roma, Andy was astounded to see wide, straight streets, and cars staying in their lanes and actually pausing at stop signs. We couldn't believe how immediately apparent the differences were between northern Italy and the south. After getting off the ATVO bus, we found the vaporetto (water bus) stop and got on a line number 1 boat. Since Piazzele Roma is the first vaporetto stop, we were able to score open air seats in the very front. That first night's cruise up the Grand Canal was magical. Andy couldn't stop taking pictures of the palazzos, with sparkling chandeliers visible through their large windows, or of the bridges we passed, and the light reflecting off the canals.

B&B Zaguri provided an excellent map and directions from the vaporetto stop, and by 9:00 we had checked in with Mario. He was very friendly and took time to orient us, talking about Venice and the hotel's location on a big map, and asked us about our dinner plans. I showed him the list of nearby restaurants suggested by Rick Steves, and of them he recommended Enoteca e Trattoria la Bitta. After dropping our bags in the room, which was much nicer than the pictures online had led me to expect, off we went in search of dinner.

As expected of a restaurant unanimously recommended by Rick Steves, Slow Food, and our host Mario, La Bitta was excellent. The restaurant was cozy and dimly lit. Andy had some nicely cooked pork tenderloin with mushrooms over what I think was white polenta but may have been cream of wheat, and I had a salad topped with a hockey puck sized wheel of excellent cheese. After dinner we stopped at Grom gelateria and shared a cup of dark chocolate and salted caramel. The salted carmel was delicious. It was more delicately flavored and less salty than Bi-Rite's version of the flavor, but it was nicely balanced and had good texture. The dark chocolate was astounding - chewy, deep, and complex, with so much chocolate that it was slightly bitter. I was so happy to have finally found gelato that I liked.

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Nov. 7th, 2010 | 02:10 pm

After again helping ourselves to the excellent hotel breakfast buffet, we rushed downhill to Marina Piccolo to catch the 11:10 ferry to Naples. The ferry sped across the Bay of Naples at 35 miles per hour, much faster than the one from Positano the day before. It was the clearest day so far, and we were treated to excellent views of Mount Vesuvius and the surrounding area as we made the 40 minute journey.

Once we docked at the ferry port in Naples, it took some time to find a bus stop and even longer to catch a bus to the Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, the mosaic collection and the Secret Room, containing erotic art, were closed, but we still saw many artifacts. The famous statue of the dancing faun had been moved from the closed mosaic room, and I particularly enjoyed the cooking implements and some of the frescoes.

We hailed a cab to take us to the Hosteria Toledo for lunch. I gasped as the taxi dodged in and out of lanes and across intersections in Naples' completely lawless traffic, and again as we squeezed through impossibly narrow lanes in the Spanish Quarter.

Hosteria Toledo was crowded with tables. A dumbwaiter brought dishes between the two floors. Postcards from all over the world hung from the ceiling, with compliments from people who had eaten there. I ordered a mixed antipasto plate of vegetables, and knowing it would be large, asked Andy to share with me. He refused and got his own large plate of clams. My second course consisted of 2 inch wide, flat pasta noodles tossed with shellfish, tomato, and parsley. Andy ordered the chef's surprise, which turned out to be linguine with swordfish, tomato, and parsley. Everything was delicious and this was one of the best meals of the trip.

After lunch, we tried to follow Rick Steve's walking tour from the guidebook, but it was boring since the whole town was pretty much shut down for Sunday. We did find the banks with fascist architecture, and ate some terrible gelato, before heading back to the Spanish Quarter. Laundry lines bridged the tight spaces between buildings, and trash and abandoned cars made the streets even narrower. We could see right into many of the small apartments. I later found out that there was some sort of garbage strike going on, but at the time we just assumed that Naples was always full of trash. It was surprisingly quiet on the streets until simultaneously, everyone in the surrounding buildings shouted, and several cars honked their horns. We realized that everyone was inside watching soccer.

Since we couldn't find much to do, we took an early ferry back to Sorrento. It was nearly empty. That evening, we walked around the very touristy shopping area in Sorrento, rubbing shoulders with lots of Americans. Our huge lunch ensured that as the hour approached 9:00, we weren't hungry, but we stopped to eat anyway at the Rick Steves recommended Ristorante Pizzeria da Gigino. I suppose we should have ordered pizza, but we had plans to eat pizza the next day for lunch, so I had prosciutto e melone and Andy had some sort of cheesy pasta. My dish came with honeydew instead of the proper cantaloupe, but it was all edible and cheap, so we filled up and stumbled up the hill and into bed.

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Amalfi Coast

Oct. 31st, 2010 | 04:12 pm

Saturday October 16 marked the halfway point of our vacation and another quiet morning. The breakfast buffet offered slightly different meats, cheeses and cakes from they day before, and we helped ourselves to generous servings.

After some time relaxing in our room reading, playing Angry Birds, and enjoying the view, we took a SITA bus to Positano. This bus ride was as spectacularly scenic and motion-sickness inducing as I had read. After exiting the bus in Positano, we resolved to take the ferry on the return journey.

We walked through a cascade of pastel shops and cafes down to the sea, stopping for gelato. All around us there were young people speaking American English. It rained on and off, but never very heavily. In lieu of lunch, we ducked into a cafe and ate a tart filled with fragolini, tiny wild strawberries. I loved the giant teacup they used to hold sugar packets.

There isn't much to do in Positano besides stroll, so after only a couple hours, we decided to take the 4:20 ferry back to Sorrento. We sat on the upper deck and had an excellent view of the coast. Tiny towns sprouted from protected coves. We saw a few abandoned buildings and several of the ancient watch towers used to sound the alarm for approaching pirates. Perceiving that the ferry traveled very slowly, Andy downloaded a smartphone application that clocked our pace at 11 miles an hour. No wonder it took an hour and a half to get to Sorrento.

Near the dock in Sorrento, we came upon a community of about ten cats, just sitting around. Nearby plates of food and water showed that someone was feeding them. People don't seem to spay or neuter their pets in Southern Italy, and I read that many pets are abandoned, leading to a huge population of strays.

We splurged on dinner at il Buco. The restaurant sits in the atmospheric cellar of an old monastery. We ordered a fixed price six course meal, substituting fish for the chicken. I particularly enjoyed the pasta with an unusual almond-anchovy sauce. The best part of the meal, however, was watching the song and dance of service around us. Whenever anyone ordered an expensive wine, the waiter would make a show of washing the decanter and glasses with a small amount of wine, then filling the decanter and glasses. Whenever anyone ordered the truffle pasta, the room would fill with fragrance as the waiters tossed the pasta with butter and egg yolk, then grated the fresh truffles over.

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Pompeii Day

Oct. 31st, 2010 | 01:00 am

After the stressful events of the previous night, Andy and I allowed ourselves to sleep in Friday. I panicked a bit when we woke up at 9:45, thinking we would miss breakfast.

We brought limited clothing on the trip and planned on washing it in hotel sinks was we went along. This worked well in Rome, where the apartment had a washing machine and plenty of places to hang the clothes to dry. This bathroom, however, was poorly ventilated, so clothes left on the towel racks to dry did not, and Andy had the unpleasant experience of putting on damp underwear. I helped him out by using the hair dryer on his boxers, and we made it to breakfast. What a breakfast it was! A buffet spread of yogurt, juice, milk, cereal, pastries, toast, cheese, cold cuts, roast potatoes, sliced tomatoes, and chocolate hazelnut cake was laid out for the hotel guests. The waiter brought coffee and eggs to order, and it was all served on fine china. A spectacular view out over the Bay of Naples accompanied this feast.

We took a long walk down the hill into downtown Sorrento and embarked on a mostly failed effort to buy a Campania ArteCard Pass. We went to the tourist information center, which doesn't sell them, then went to the store at the train station, which does, but was closed for lunch. I don't understand how Andy could eat lunch after that breakfast, but at Pizzeria da Franco, he made most of his mushroom and sausage pizza disappear while I nibbled on a mozzarella and prosciutto panino. The restaurant is very casual, with long wooden tables and benches, and a lively atmosphere.

After lunch, we successfully bought the three day museum and transport pass, and after several failed attempts, managed to get the train turnstile to accept it. You have to put it in one way to validate it, then turn it over and reinsert it to actually go through the gate. We rode the dirty, graffiti-covered train to Pompeii Scavi.

Pompeii was amazing, though minimally signed and with no informational labels at all. Without our trusty Rick Steves audioguide, we would have been lost. Annoyingly, they don't give you a map with your ticket unless you ask for one, and of course we forgot, so we had to get around using the guidebook map. Pompeii is huge! It was a real city, and like any Italian city, you can get lost. It's also full of stray dogs, which I was happy to learn can be adopted through the (C)Ave Canem Project.

We saw the famous Cave Canem mosaic, warning visitors to "Beware of Dog" and displaying a likeness of the beast in question. The permanence of this entryway decoration cracked me up, because as Andy pointed out, it's like getting a tattoo for your house with your dog on it. What if your dog dies? Will you have to get a new mosaic made, or look for a new dog that resembles the old one? I also loved seeing a bakery and the numerous fast food joints, identified by the round holes in the counters that once held big pots of hot food.

For dinner, we attempted to walk into Viva lo re in Herculaneum without a reservation. They squeezed us in at 8:00 on the condition that we give up the table by 9:00. We only ordered one course, which arrived at 8:45. We managed to finish eating by 9:00, but it took another 15 minutes to get the check and exit. The food was delicious, but a bit over-designed. They served it on big plates, with several different small components spread out across an expanse of white. I had rabbit wrapped in pancetta, which was too salty. I wonder if the pasta would have been better, but since we only had time for one course, I will never know.

Just as we got to the train station, it started pouring. Andy fell asleep on the long ride back, but I stayed awake and alert for pickpockets. Fifty minutes after leaving Herculaneum, we arrived in Sorrento and made some halfhearted attempts to find a bus, finally trudging up that stupid hill.

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