Monday, February 14, 2011

Santo Valentino

It's Valentine's Day. We're not sure if you could find a more romantic spot to spend it. It was slightly cloudy when we woke up, but by breakfast, the sun is pouring into the hotel dining room. It's a glorious day. We're off to Vietri sul Mare, home of classic ceramics from this part of Italy.

In the town of Vietri sul Mare we find shop after shop and factory after factory, many selling the same items. The Campagna pattern made famous in the US by Vietri is everywhere. We find we're actually able to get better pricing and quality dealing with importers from the US. There are definitely artisans in this town, but they're few and far between and they're priced in the stratosphere. It's an interesting experience, though, and it leads us on an excursion that ends in the best meal we've ever had in Italy! We've been here many times and we've had some amazing meals, but today will go down in the annals of Stephen/Frank history as one of the best anywhere.

Driving down the coast earlier in the day we had passed Il Faro di Capo d'Orso. We had read about it as being a good restaurant so we put it on the list of options for lunch. It would depend on how long it took us to get to Vietri, how long we stayed, when we started back, and if we found something else along the way. It was just before 1pm when we came back by in the other direction. It's the very earliest of the Italian lunch hour so it was possible they weren't even open yet. We walked in and inquired about a table. The gentleman at the desk picked up the phone and called to someone. In perfect English he told us they could take us "right now" but later they were booked. We weren't sure if that meant we had to eat and then get kicked out when someone else needed the table, or if he meant we could have lunch but that they were booked for dinner. We didn't really care. Just from what we could see at the doorway, this had to be a special place. The entrance to the restaurant is just a small rotunda off a small parking lot on the side of the road perched on the ocean side of a cliff. We were first escorted down a wide staircase into the main dining room. Every table was empty. Hmmm. We knew we were early but it seemed strangely void of any kind of life. Then through a set of double doors, down a few steps onto a terrace. Again, totally empty. Here we thought maybe we were going to be seated at an outdoor table since maybe everything in the main dining room was booked. Again, no servers, no help, no anything and no stopping here either. Down another path and a few more steps and we were at the door of another building, this one a mix of stone and steel, ceramic and glass, contemporary and classic. And did we mention the view? Miles of coastline stretching out before the wraparound windows. Here we were greeted by one of the owners who showed us to our table - one of only 12 in the room. And just to be clear - our table for the afternoon.

Everything about the room was perfect, from the crystal and silver, the linens, the contemporary Italian lighting, the soft piano music in the backgound (which had accompanied us all the way from the entrance), and again, that view. Menus arrived as did a waiter with perfect English. We really enjoy deciphering menus in a foreign language - it's part of the fun and adventure of traveling to another country - but sometimes it's nice to be able to ask what some unknown ingredient is. On the other hand, sometimes it's better not to know. We'll get to that in a moment. Frank decided on the "Ravello" menu - an assortment centered on "the land". The other menu, other than the gastronomic choice, was the "Amalfi" which centered on "the sea". Stephen ordered a la carte. A bottle of Primitivo from Puglia would be a great accompaniment. We were first presented with the house appetizer, cured tuna, fresh cuttlefish on couscous and topped with sliced beets. The cuttlefish wasn't Frank's favorite but overall an amazing dish. Full of flavors and (like everything we would have today) unlike anything we've ever had before. Next for Frank Tortelli con riccotta di bufala dolce e salata, tartufo nero, salsa di porri e lampredotto al peperoncino piccante. Rich egg pasta filled with sweet ricotta, in a sauce of fresh green leeks and the spiced lampredotto. The lampredotto will be one of the things you eat, you're glad you ate, you thought the flavor was amazing, but you really wished you hadn't asked what it was. Seafood? Vegetable? This one we'll keep a secret. For Stephen, Tataki tono e foie gras mi cuit, carpaccio di rapa rossa, grue di cacao e pistachio. We've had versions of this dish on our travels, but something about this one was extraordinary. The raw tuna stacked with the foie gras, a light touch of sea salt between the layers, was served on a bed of paper thin sliced sweet red beets, strewn with a few leaves of arugula, matchsticks of apple and chopped pistachio and cocao bean. This is where writing can't translate to flavor. We can try but just putting all those flavors together created something so very special. There's more to come. This time Frank is having beef. Not just any beef, but a perfectly cooked filet topped with thick slices of black truffle and topped with a slice of smoked mozzarella baked in bread crumbs and pine nuts. All on a bed of soft polenta. For Stephen, a Ravioli filled with pork meat (again, we won't talk about from what part of the pig) with the same sauce of leeks and vegetables that Frank had on his pasta, but this time with sweet succulent shrimp, a small amount of heavily spiced dried bread crumbs and a tiny sprig of fresh wild sage flower. The texture of the shrimp was so unusual. They were just barely cooked. They were soft, almost, yet still firm. If you had a shrimp in the US with that texture you might think it was bad but these were out of this world.

Frank's meal included a dessert. Stephen decided he'd just share Frank's. It turns out to be a good choice since over the next 1/2 hour we're going to be overwhelmed with sweets. First comes a dessert. Not really THE dessert, but a pre-dessert - for both of us. A slice of baba with a creme of pistachio, and a lemon custard. Next comes the real dessert. A hazelnut mouse enrobed in dark chocolate, a hazelnut ice cream rolled in crushed hazelnuts, and a passion fruit sauce. Then, an espresso. But not just an espresso, but an espresso with a tray of 10 petit fours. We may both go into sugar shock. Time to head back up the hill to the car and the winding drive home. Even the crazy drivers can't stress us out after such a great lunch. This one if for the history books.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Driving Amalfi

Today we're taking a simple drive up the Amalfi coast. Well, not so simple. As we mentioned yesterday the drive is a continuous stream of S's that never seem to end. The road hugs the coast - sheer mountain walls on one side and sheer drop-offs to the sea on the other. The beauty is unmatched. We really don't know if we've seen a more beautiful coastline in all the world. There's no wonder the road is so packed with cars all wanting to enjoy the scenery. Unfortunately they're not always watching the road. We experienced many a close call as cars come careening around a curve, driver on the phone, coming straight for us down the middle of the road. The amazing part is the other driver never seems to care about moving out of the way and just continues speeding down the hill. We drive much further than we've ever been along this part of the coast, past Positano unto the center of the Sorrento peninsula. A one point you can see Sorrento and Naples in the distance on one side and the whole Amalfi coast spreading out in front of you on the other. We eventually turn around and head back to Positano. Positano is a favorite resort of many, but it's just a little too steep for us. In the summer when all the shops are open it might be fun to slowly amble down the tiny streets, finally making it the shoreline and the beach. This time of year most of the shops are closed and it looks a little barren. Actually a lot of businesses are closed this time of year along the coast. As it gets closer to Easter more and more shops, hotels, and restaurants begin to open until everything is in full swing by mid April. They start to close up again between early October and Christmas. Of course some places are open year-round which is a boon for slow going tourists like us. We generally prefer off season, uncrowded travel.

By early afternoon our nerves are a little shot so we decide to look for a place for lunch. Just outside Positano we pass a charming looking place. There happens to be a driveway up ahead where we can turn around. We make a quick U and find a parking space right in front. We don't have any guides with us and are just going by instinct. We walk up to the door which is immediately opened for us by a well dressed gentleman who greets us warmly. We've happened into Taverna del Leone, a beautiful but casual restaurant. The place is packed. We're lucky to get one of the few remaining tables. For us it's a prime spot - right near the glass walled kitchen where we can watch lunch being prepared. The menus arrive and we're pleased with our choice. Really unusual food. This could be a find. We order, sip our wine, and wait. First comes an amuse bouche - a house made bread with simple chopped tomato and olive oil. So delicious, with the tomato having an amazing amount of flavor for February. The first course, for Frank, is a beef carpaccio topped with a few slices of blood orange and olive oil cured with fennel. For Stephen there's a crema di zucca with Sicilian prawns and tuna roe topped with a slight drizzle of the house olive oil. For the next course Frank gets a pasta, a buffalo ricotta ravioli with a sauce of sausage and red raddicchio and Stephen has pork sauteed with pears. The bitter radicchio contrasts amazingly with the sweetness of the sausage and the creaminess of the riccotta. The pear is a not too sweet counterbalance to the pork and sauteed greens. We splurge with dessert. A chocolate torte with vanilla gelato and canoli, again with the restaurant's own ricotta, candied pistachios and fruit. An espresso to pep us up for the drive and we're off.

By the time we get back to Ravello we need to rest. The drive is just so beautiful, but you can't let your guard down for a second.

After a long walk around town we try to decide what to do for dinner. Originally we were going to go for pizza. There is supposed to be a good place on the next hill over. We really don't want to get in the car again and besides it's a little damp out tonight and the roads are a little slick. We decide to stay home and get a bite at the hotel. The owner keeps asking us to try his excellent restaurant so we give in. How bad can it be? A simple plate of pasta and a piece of fish should be simple enough. Let's just say the highlight of the evening was the grappa we had back in the room before we headed to bed.

There's a whole album of Amalfi drive photos on Stephen's facebook page.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ravello without a Netta

Today we're leaving Puglia and heading to the Amalfi coast. Puglia has been interesting but we're eager for something closer to what we look for when we come to Italy. We can't get over the density of Puglia and even though we've had a great time, seen fascinating things we couldn't see anywhere else, had exceptional food, and had a wonderful host in Thomas, we're ready to move on. We head south to Taranto. We'll follow the Gulf of Taranto coast for a short way then cut across the country driving through Basilicata and on to Campania. We'll hit the autostrada outside Potenza east of Salerno. After exiting at Salerno, we'll experience the road that makes or breaks drivers, the Costiera Amalfitana. And we'll get to Netta later.

Taranto was a big piece of industrial town pulled off the Texas Coast - think Port Arthur or Texas City. Refineries and stink. On down an uninteresting coastline we turn inland across Basilicata. What a difference! Suddenly we were in the Italy we remembered. Vast valleys with hilltop towns in the distance - and nothing around them except more hills and farmland. Such a contrast with Puglia. Basilicata is one of Italy's poorest and least developed areas. This looks like a spot to spend some time exploring on a future trip. By the time we get to Potenza (a rather large city in the center of nowhere) we've driven over miles of bridges spanning wide, deep gorges, and through tunnels cut deep into the mountains. It's truly a breathtaking drive with glimpses of Greek ruins and the old Appian Way in the distance. We finally hit a bit of the autostrada east of Salerno and gear ourselves up for the next leg of literal breath taking: the Amalfi Coast, as stretch of coastline on the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Much has been written of this drive. It's not for the faint of heart. Mile after mile of hairpin curves, Italian drivers unconcerned with oncoming traffic or really what side of the road they happen to be on. Throw in a couple of buses and crazy tourists taking pictures from the road and it's a recipe for a pure adrenalin rush. Or a heart attack. While we wouldn't call this a fun ride, it's not at all as hair raising as some claim. There's a reason Stephen drives and Frank keeps his eyes closed though. The road is really narrow in some spots - barely big enough for even one car. We're heading for Ravello, a hilltop town we've been to before albeit 10 or more years ago. We miss the first turn off - not because we don't see it - but because we don't remember it as being the main road to town. Experience on Italian roads will tell you that there may be a sign pointing to the town you where you're going, but another of kilometers down the road there may be another sign and another road going to the same town. Sometimes you just have to know which is the most direct. Today we thought we knew better. Getting halfway to Positano let us know we didn't know better. After finally finding a place to turn around we made our way back down the road and finally up the hill to Ravello. Oh yeah, one minor problem on the way up. We had to wait for a big accident to clear - a Jetta and a bus. The bus won. We finally find out hotel. It wasn't really that difficult, it was just on the opposite side of town from where we stayed before. Since you can't drive across town through the main piazza, we were confused about the location. We checked in to the prettiest hotel we've seen. The Parsifal, a converted 13th century convent. Our room has a nice balcony and a view of the coast. The room is good sized with beautiful tile work everywhere.

Tonight we're off to dine at Cumpa Cosimo, an old Ravello standby full or charm and a little bit of theatre through the owner Netta. You either love her or hate her and think the restaurant is the real deal or a big old tourist trap. We're in the former group. When we were hear years ago, Frank put the charm on Netta and we've talked about her ever since. The food may be average, but it's still a lot of fun. We had walked by earlier and made a reservation. On our way to dinner we walk past and there's nary a soul inside. It's a little early so we walk on the to main piazza. We keep walking and circle back to the restaurant. In the past 20 minutes it's filled to the brim. We're shown to our table. Netta's younger brother comes out (he's a character in himself) and we begin a conversation about the food. We notice Netta is nowhere to be seen. It appears she's on vacation herself - in France. Brother, daughter and nephew still provide us with a great, filling meal and some fine entertainment. Not as good as if Netta was there, but still plenty good.

One last day in Puglia

It's our last day in Puglia. We're trying to decide how to spend the day and of course what to eat and where. We still have some fresh eggs from Thomas as well as some parma ham. Sounds like breakfast at home. We've been going nonstop for days so we decide to take it slow. After breakfast a couple of espressos get us going and we head off to Ostuni again. We had been there Sunday, but today we were planning on arriving after 1pm, knowing the shops would be closed, but that parking would be free (we've learned a little in the past week). Lunchtime would be taking place over the next couple of hours so if we decided to get a bite to eat we wouldn't have a problem. It took us a while to find the old city center. Ostuni is like most of the other Puglian towns we've visited - lots of ugly newer buildings hiding an amazing center core. This village center was a little different, though. I had mentioned the Spanish style cathedral we had seen Sunday. It turns out that was the city hall building. The cathedral was buried deep in the city core. And once inside that core, almost everything felt like it belonged in Spain, not Italy. It was an interesting town - what there was of it. One main street that kept going up and up to the very center and then down again. A couple of side streets and alleys ending in dead ends and that was it. Walking back to the car we bemoaned the fact that we never really saw towns in Puglia like we'd found in other parts of Italy where you could pull your car up and find easy parking near a piazza or town square, find a neighborhood bar or care, have a glass of wine or coffee, and enjoy the afternoon. One last time to the coast, we though. It was only a few minutes away and we really felt we knew the best spot to go. Luck was on our side. We pulled into the miniscule town of Villanuovo (it's not even on our Michelin map), right into a parking space right along the water and walked just s few steps to a waterfront cafe. We sat outside near a large group that appeared to be friends and family of the owner. We ordered beer and wine watched as the whole family, including the kids, were eating huge tubs of sea urchin and drinking copious amounts of beer. When we say tubs, imagine the tub the busboy uses when they clear the dishes in a restaurant. Now, fill it with sea urchin. Now eat it all. Now bring another tub. Unbelievable. We ordered (please don't laugh) french fries. Frank was having a craving, and even though it's not something we'd order outside of France or Belgium, we figured why not. Frank declared these some of the best fries he's EVER eaten. They had been cooked in a great olive oil and had a perfect crust on the outside. It was rather surprising. So much so we had a second order. And another beer and another wine, watching the family and the sea urchins and watching the boats and the Adriatic. Then a slow ride down the coast and then back towards home. The day had already gotten away from us and we still needed to pack for tomorrow. Except for the traffic in Martina Franca, the drive home was pleasant.

We stopped for a bottle of wine since somewhere during the day we had decided to cook at home. Originally we had thought about pizza again, but we still had some homemade sauce from Thomas' mother, some fresh orechiette, and some arugula for a salad. Frank took the remainder of an already opened wine and poached some pears. Adding a little honey and sugar he created a sauce as rich as the Negroamaro Cotto from Fornello Ricci the night before. We couldn't get through dinner fast enough so we could get to dessert. Dinner was a wonderful culmination of the inspiration and experiences of Puglia. A perfect end to a perfect week.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

We go Loco!

...well, not really loco, just a drive to Locorotundo. We had driven through a couple of days earlier, but hadn't had a chance to stop. Today were were headed to lunch at Trattoria Centro Storico, an intimate little spot we had seen in Michelin. We parked relatively easily and walked up the hill. Locorotundo is one of only a dozen villages in Puglia listed in the I Borghi piu Belli d'Italia, a guide to small neglected villages in Italy. (As can be imagined, most are in Central Italy, concentrated in Umbria and Tuscany). Once again it's an old town sorrounded by newer construction that almost butts up to the old city walls. Inside the walls we're surrounded by whitewashed houses houses and the feeling we could be in Greece and not Italy. The hilltop town is really not very big and we're able to wind our way through all the narrow streets in a relatively short time. We notice most of the restaurants are only open for dinner and we've forgotten to check the hours of our lunch destination. We're in luck this time. The trattoria is open albeit almost empty. We get the menus and make up our minds quickly. It's been a chilly day so we're looking for something hearty. We start with an antipasti of grilled vegetables - zucchini, eggplant, radicchio, and carrots. We were going to split the vegetables, then each of us ordered a pasta and then Stephen was having a secondi as well. We confused the waitress with our bad Italian so the antipasti came out at the same time as Stephen's pasta. Not a problem. The grilled vegetables were meant to be at room temperature so his portion could wait until the meat course. His pasta was a strotzapreti (a handmade, handrolled, short noodle) with cream, speck, zucchini, and mushrooms. Just a note here, in case we haven't mentioned, every pasta we've had has been handmade and fresh. Frank's pasta was cavatelli with pomodoro and salsicce. Stephen ordered Stinco, a slow roasted pork shank, remembered with fondness from a long ago stay in Mantua. This version did not disappoint. It was every bit as flavorful and tender as the memory from before. You don't normally see pork shank in the grocery (maybe lamb or veal), but we're going to see about cooking it when we get home. We wanted wine with lunch but didn't think we would drink a whole bottle. The waitress opened a bottle for us and told us to drink what we wanted. They'd just charge us for what we drank. Pretty neat concept. They must use the leftovers for cooking or wine by-the-glass service. Some amazing cantucci came with the coffee. A slow walk back through the old part of the village and then a short drive home for a little rest before we planned for dinner.

It was looking like this was going to be a foodie day. When we got back to the house we happened to check out the Michelin web site and found there was a one starred restaurant right in our midst - al Fornello di Ricci - right down the road in Ceglie Messapica. Right down the road would turn into a long, long road however. When we left the house we were shrouded in dense fog. We drove slowly back towards Martina Franca and then on the side road to Ceglie. The restaurant is on a small side road, in what appears to be an upscale residential district on the other side of Ceglie. (of course with the for it could have been right next to a high rise hotel and we wouldn't have been able to tell). If you missed the sign to turn off the road you'd never no it until miles later. Sharp eyes prevailed through the haze. A short ways further and we entered a long drive the ended at a charming country house. We walked up and the restaurant was empty. It was early (8:30) by Southern Italian standards but because we didn't know where we were going and since we hadn't been able to call ahead, we wanted to get there early in case they couldn't take care of us and we had to find somewhere else to go. The place was empty. A little man came scurrying out of the kitchen. In limited Italian we asked if they could accommodate us without a reservation. He kind of shrugged and scurried back to the kitchen. A moment later the chef came out and said they'd be glad to have us. The little man (who would turn out to be our waiter) took us to an out-of-the-way table (which actually was perfect for us), aplogized profusely and explained that all the other tables were reserved. Then the proprietress came over to welcome us and thank us for joining them that evening. It was like we were in their home and we were there special guests. We began to peruse the menus while our little waiter (who had now changed into his Burberry shirt and vest) came and poured a lovely rosatto aperitif. The first thing we noticed on the menu was:

Preferiamo che non si fotografino i nostri piatti in maniera non prefessionale ma se proprio dovete chiedete la possibilita agli Chefs.

Loosely translated, please don't photograph the plates. We must be in a foodie destination! Out of respect for the chef and for the restaurant and for the other patrons (who eventually filled the restaurant up around 10pm) we didn't take any photos. You can check out the restaurant's web site for some great photos of their food -

The restaurant specializes in Pugliese food - heavy on greens and vegetable, but with a sophisticated twist. We started with their version of polpette, small bread and meat (usually liver) balls that are fried crisp. There's were like no other we've had. Crisp on the outside but not greasy and full of flavor. The antipasti consisted of house cured salame and capicola, a cheese and fennel pastry with fennel cream, a toast point with a puree of radicchio drizzled in their own olive oil, rapini in broth, crab croquette, cheese and spinach croquette, and a chicory salad. Even though many of the ingredients could have been bitter greens, all the flavors were almost sweet with flavor. We followed with a primi of a house orechiette with rapini and tomato topped with highly spiced breadcrumbs and a piccolo lasagne verde with truffle and chanterelle. Only one secondi came after that - a veal loin grilled and topped with small fried baby artichoke and a highly reduced negroamaro sauce. Everything worked well with the Negroamaro wine we chose for the evening. The waiter was so quick to pour and decant that we neglected to write the name down in time. We'll definitely be seeking out Puglian wines for the shop when we return. We have yet to be disappointed. A short break and then dessert: an apple tart on a bed of caramel topped with fior di latte capra (a sweet goat milk ice cream as thick as butter), red fruit sauce, and almond brittle, accompanied by the house dessert wine, Madrigali.

A little espresso didn't help the fog outside but it helped keep our heads clear for the drive home.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Staying close to home

So today we finally decide to explore the old town of Martina Franca. Every day we've made an effort to go out exploring the countryside, but this is a day for staying close to home. We'd been reading a lot about Martina Franca but the traffic we always encountered in the city kept us from exploring further. We're starting to feel a little more comfortable driving through town and have figured out where to go to park and how to avoid some of the major traffic. We lucked into a parking space close to the old town, paid the attendant, and began our walk. What a contrast! The newer city of Martina Franca is full of mid to late 20th century 4 and 5 story apartment buildings, traffic-filled streets, and crazy drivers. The old town is an amazing village with no cars, beautiful streets, and the most amazing concentration of spectacular doorways we've ever seen. There are lots of photographic journals of doorways and entryways, but we don't know if we've ever seen this many in such a high concentration. The stone ornamentation, the quality of wood carving, even the color of the paint - such interest in such a small area. We've posted a whole section on the store's facebook page. We wandered for most of the late morning and early afternoon, in and out of baroque churches and past rococo palaces and ancient mansions. We realized we hadn't eaten anything, so we stopped in a bar and had a glass of wine and a snack...and another glass of wine and a snack....and a coffee and a sweet snack. Very relaxed, we made headed back to the house to rest for a little while.

We were meeting Thomas later in the evening for him to show us a new restaurant for dinner. At the appointed time we drove into town to the meeting spot where Thomas was waiting. He jumped in the back seat and directed us back to the old town. We found parking after not too long a time and proceeded to the restaurant, Braceria di Martellotta Francesco. Introductions were made and Thomas handed us over to the owner and a genial waiter. A braceria is a grill. In this case the owner also had a butcher shop so this was a natural extenstion. We first picked an assortment of meat from the case - pork chops, sausage, and lamb. Then the antipasti came. Grilled vegetables, marinated peppers and tomatoes, roasted potatoes with olive oil, involtini of beef in ragu, and assorted olives. We shared a pitcher of house Negroamaro, a local red. Eyes bigger than stomachs had ordered the meat. The antipasti was overwhelming. We could barely touch the grilled meats when they finally arrived. We at least had to taste some of everything, but no way could we finish. We were so full we even decided to skip the walk into the center of town for what had been promised to be the best gelato in the area. We'll save that for another day.

The road less traveled

Enough with the autostrada and highways. Today we're driving down to Lecce and want to go a scenic route. As we've mentioned we've been seeing a lot of industry and density so we're hoping to find a much more rural Puglia. We started out in the right direction - right out of the driveway. We turned away from the main road and headed off the map. We knew we were going in the right direction, so we just followed the road signs. Immediately we knew me had made the right decision. There were rolling hills, original Trulli, farmland, and lots of space. It was a long and leisurely drive through the countryside. This was the kind of Italy where we're at home. On towards Lecce we went, arriving just before lunchtime. Lecce has been termed the Florence of the South. We're not sure we'd to that far, but it has a beautiful old town at it's center. After circling the main part of town we finally found an entrance into the old part of the city. We've become unconcerned with Traffico Limitato signs. Look closely and they'll specify certain hours or limitations - not everyone, all the time. Do be concerned with parking limitations, though. In most (but not all) towns they will still ticket and tow. We just headed into the old part of the city and eventually found parking on an out-of-the-way street not far from the main pedestrian thoroughfare. We strolled along until we found a pleasant trattoria where we had a simple antipasto and a couple of plates of gnocchi - one with pomodoro and one with pesto. After lunch we continued our stroll back to the car. We decided to keep exploring the back roads so we headed again for the coast. This time we wanted to check out the coastal drive down to the very heel of the boot. Coastal Italy is almost empty in the off season. We drove along kilometer after kilometer without ever passing another car. Lovely coastal vistas, pine canopied roads, and flat rock outcroppings filled the afternoon. We realized we couldn't make it to the very end of the peninsula so we headed back inland and north to where we started. Keeping to our original plan, and sometime to heavy delays, we stayed on back roads all the way home. It was a fascinating drive and gave us lots of options for places to visit later on.

We still had pizza we brought home from al Sagittario the night before. Reheating the pizza and a salad of fresh arugla made for a simple, but delicious, dinner.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Truly Trulli and There's no Boardwalk in Monopoli

Another morning and more fresh eggs and cheese from Thomas. Add a little pancetta afumicatte and it's almost a traditional American breakfast. We have another recommendation we want to try today so we're headed back to the coast. This time we're headed a little further north from yesterday. Again, the plans are a little free form. We'll see what lies ahead. Driving back down the hill through olive groves, stopping briefly in Locorotondo, an interesting town built in concentric circles around a hilltop. On to the ocean for first a bit of bad luck and then some good. The hotel/restaurant we had heard about was closed for the season. Most of Italy's coastal resorts don't stay open in the winter or are open only sporadically. Today we didn't have any luck with our destination. Pulled up at the gate but got no answer. Not to be deterred, we kept on going and came upon the tiny town of Savelletri. This was just our type of place. Miniscule but quaint. Found a cute restaurant on the water and had a simple lunch of fresh seafood - a fritti misti and grilled, just-caught, swordfish. We spent a little while watching the guys clean fresh sea urchin then headed further north, following a coast hugging road. Next stop was Monopoli, a very old city and a naval starting point for the Crusades. Of course we had to have a look at the coastal castle of St. Stephen. Monopoli has a beautiful old town that hugs the coast and a great spot for an after lunch stroll. The Adriatic and the sky were both brilliant blue. The sun was glinting off the whitewashed buildings. We could have been in Greece. The air started to get a little cool and we had left our jackets in the car, so we backtracked to where we parked. Off we went, headed inland.

Even using our map, it's really easy to end up someplace other than where you intended. We weren't really sure where we were headed, but suddenly we saw a sign for Alberobello, a town that has huge areas of Trulli. Why, not? Around the round-about and Trulli-ville was our next stop. Again, we first hit a whole post-war modern section of town and almost turned around. When you read about Alberobello in the guidebooks it seems like a Disney fantasy land - Snow White might live right around the corner. While we found amazing sections of Trulli, they seemed in small intimate groupings scattered thoughout town. We may have missed the heaviest concentration, but it really was much nicer to walk through quieter areas where people were really living. It's been a long afternoon and we still have to go home and get ready for dinner!

We decided to go back to al Sagittario for dinner tonight. We saw so many great antipasti coming out of the kitchen that we decided we'd just have that and maybe a pizza. We weren't sure what to expect. The waiter on Saturday night had told us they always have different items on the antipasti. We figured we'd just take a chance. We each chose a pizza to go with, a bottle or wine, and we were off. First came a couple of small plates with grilled marinated vegetables and some marinated seafood. The waiter disappeared. We looked each other and shrugged and decided that maybe Monday night wansn't the best night for antipasti. Before we had taken a bite, the waiter reappeared with another 2 plates - the same items we had on the Saturday antipasti. A moment later another 2 plates, this time small ribs cooked in ragu and tripa (you figure out the translation - we decided we could skip this one), then finally 2 more plates. This time the 2 we had been waiting for - an assortment of fresh soft cheese - buffalo mozzarella, primo sale (fresh ricotta with hazelnut), a fresh creamy burrata-like string cheese -- and the second plate a smoked pancetta wrapped around the buffalo mozzarella but this time put under the broiler. We weren't sure how we were going to finish all this, much less our pizza. We managed to put a dent in the antipasti but barely a slice or two of the pizza. Even though it's not common in Europe, we still asked to take our pizza with us. Just a note about the wine. We let the waiter choose for us. He brought us a Apollonia Valle Cupa 2004 Salento Rosso. An unbelievable selection. However, we were a little concerned throughout dinner about the price. We needn't have worried. 18 euro for the bottle. In a US restaurant if would have been at least $45-50 on a wine list.

Back home and to bed.

There are pictures from Monopoli, Alberobello, and al Sagittario and Stephen's facebook page.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Drivers

Awoke with no real plans for the day. We're in our house outside Martina Franca for a week. There's no need to push ourselves. We've decided to pick a town or a general direction, head there, and see what happens. Thomas was scheduled to come by with some items for the house. He not only shows up with a few more necessities, but with fresh (still warm) pastries. What a great host. Even though Thomas and family left us pretty well stocked, we decide to go to the market to get some things we might like to cook during the week. One of the nice things about renting a house is the freedom to eat in if you want and not have to worry about going out to a restaurant for every meal. Plus we love the fresh ingredients we find at the Italian markets. After a quick trip back to the house to unload we head out in the direction of Ostuni. With no real plans for the day, we just meandered around the countryside. We drove through mile after mile of ancient olive groves, with gnarled trunk trees over 3 feet in diameter. We eventually wound our way up the hill to Ostuni, a whitewashed village of narrow streets and winding walkways. In the center of town is a huge gothic catherdral, seemingly more at place in Spain than in southern Italy.

One of the major differences we've found in this part of Italy and the regions we've explored to the north is the density of Puglia. There aren't the vast plains and rolling hills void of industry or houses you find in Tuscany or Umbria. Here you'll have vast olive grove or a winery, but you'll find small industry right next door. Here the old villages have continued to grow so they're surrounded by apartments and business that butt right up to the old town. The architecture outside the old parts of the villages is very stark - sharp edges, flat roofs, and little ornamentation. Yet, beyond the newer buildings surrounding the old towns, there is an amazing amount of Romanesque architecture. There are influences of the Normans, Arabs, Lombards, and Byzantines which all coalesce to produce a magnificent hybrid knows as Puglian-Romanesque.

Something we never can figure out is the hours of shops and restaurants. It seems everywhere we travel there are different customs. Plus, Sunday is always confusing. We expected to have lunch in Ostuni at a restaurant highly recommended by a customer at the store. The town was deserted. Every shop and restaurant was closed. Fortunately we had had a big breakfast so we weren't really hungry. We drove a little more through the town then headed down the hill and towards the coast. Coming down the hill was a beautiful panorama of the Adriatic spread out in front of us and Ostuni capping the hill behind. Again, we really had nowhere to go, just wanted to see what was out there. We drove a little along the coast, but in this area, you can't really get near the ocean. It's all private property taken up by beach clubs and beach developments. We decided to head back to the house to have a snack and plan dinner.

Instead of risking not finding a restaurant open on Sunday we decided to cook at home. We had the fresh tomatoes, sausage that Frank didn't finish from last night's dinner, plus lots of cheese and the orechiette from Thomas' family. The tomatoes in Italy are amazing. They don't have much water, so when you chop them up and heat them you have an instant thick sauce. Add some sauteed garlic and onions, poor over handmade pasta, tear some fresh basil over the top and voila, dinner. Open a bottle of local Primitivo and we're in the finest restaurant in Italy. Finish off with a little grappa and we're ready for bed.

On the road to Puglia

Overslept again! That's what happens when dinner isn't over until after 11 p.m. Today we're leaving Abruzzo and heading to Puglia. We had hoped to get an early start and take a leisurely drive down the coast. Headed down to breakfast and then quickly packed and headed out. We decided to take the autostrada at least part of the way. Our destination was much further away than we thought. By now we've finally figured out our way around town so there wasn't much of a problem heading to the highway - but this time we just missed the entrance ramp. That's ok. We just kept following the signs through a couple more villages until we got where we needed to go. The drive towards Pescara is beautiful. The snowcaps were behind us and rolling farmland punctuated with rock outcroppings lay between us and the coast. Unfortunately the autostrada doesn't have any spots to pull off and enjoy the amazing vistas and since driving while shooting photos is not the safest way to travel we don't have too many photos to show. The highway turned south right before Pescara as we headed out of Abruzzo. The coastline was visible in the distance as we traversed bridge after bridge across deep valleys and gorges. The terrain began to flatten out as we left Abruzzo and crossed into Molise. We suddenly were lacking in vistas. We kept plugging along, only to stop for a late lunch at an AutoGrill. For those not familiar with the Italian motorways, all the toll roads have spots along the highway where you can pull off for gas and food without actually having to leave the tollway. We've eaten at AutoGrills quite often in our travels and find them quite good. Generally we only have panini, but often they'll have full kitchens with specials of the day. They're definitely a step up from most US fast food. The panini are always fresh and are grilled to order. There's even wine by the glass and beer on tap!

We had rented a house for a week near the town of Martina Franca. Thomas, the owner of the house, was going to meet us at the train station and then we'd follow him to the house. This was the first time we were using the phone and text in Italy and we were having trouble making a connection. Whenever you travel, always check with your provider to make sure you completely understand how to dial overseas. We thought we had, but still had some problems. Ultimately we made a connection and let Thomas know about what time we'd meet. We didn't anticipate the traffic in Martina Franca, though. Franca got to mean frantic in Italian. It was Saturday and everyone in the town and from the surrounding villages must have been out - in their cars. And their driving had to be the most aggressive we've encountered outside of Rome or Paris. We expected the train station to be a snap. Most every town we've been too has clearly marked signs pointing the way. Before we left Sulmona we plugged the address into google maps so it was saved on our laptop if we need it. Needless to say, we still managed to get lost. First, there was no sign for the train station and second, you couldn't see a street sign anywhere. Occasionally you'd notice the faded remnants of one on the side of a building but before you could read it the driver behind you was blasting his horn or tearing around you and cutting you off. Asked at a service station and then another and then finally found Thomas patiently waiting.

The house is just a few minutes yet worlds away from Martina Franca. It's composed of several Trulli with more rooms added. Trulli are fascinating structures. There's a lot of folklore of where and why they originated. They're mortarless stone structures with conical roofs. We think they look like hobbit houses. This being the 21st century, they've been rebuilt inside with additional traditional rooms added to the original conical structure. We'll have lots more photos of the Trulli when we go to Alberobello in the next few days. Thomas made sure we were set with everything we needed. He brought cheese and eggs from his family's farm. He's left us with fresh orechiette, the traditional pasta of Puglia as well as fresh tomatoes canned by his mother last summer. If we weren't so tired from driving all day we'd probably cook for ourselves. Tonight we need someone else to do the work, though.

Thomas suggests a popular place in town and agrees to meet us later to take us there. Under other circumstances we'd figure that he was taking us to a local tourist trap and going in with us to make sure he got his cut. Nothing could be further from the truth. First off, he's a genuinely nice and generous host as evidenced by the larder he left for us. He lives in Milan but his family lives here. In fact his grandfather used to own this house and while his parents manage it when Italians visit, Thomas flies down from Milan whenever he has English or American tenants. Traffic was still crazy in town. We were stuck in a line of cars waiting to get to the meeting point when we saw Thomas coming towards us and waving us into a hidden parking spot. We then walked together to Ristorante al Sagittario. We arrived just before 8:30 and after quick introductions to the owners, we got seated right away. Within 10 minutes the restaurant had completely filled up and stayed that way until we left 2 hours later. The must have been the most popular restaurant in town. Full of families and This wasn't going to be a fine dining experience, but a fun, lively evening. They gave us menus with English translations. They must have used a digital translation service because most of the names made no sense. Le Stracciate di maiale was "tear her of pork" - appetizing! We made some selections but then found out that the English menu was everything the restaurant ever made, however each evening there was a limited selection of items made fresh for that day. Our waiter was very good with his attempts at English and managed to steer us towards some excellent fare. We started with Stuzzichini, a selection of polpetti ( fried bread and meat balls), foccacia, and potato mashed with olive oil. Stephen followed with angelotti with fresh porcini and cream, then Bistecca di vitella, quickly roasted in a wood fire oven. Frank skipped the primi and went right to the secondi. For him, Salsiccia, 2 long thin fresh sausage rolled and also cooked in the wood oven. They cook most of the meats in the same oven as their pizzas. We paired it with a local wine Salento Primitivo, a local wine similar to Zinfandel. We saw so many more dishes we wanted to try but just couldn't manage any more. We'll definitely be back for their pizzas and assortment of fresh cheese. One is called primo sale, which is much like burrata and made from fresh morning milk. Tonight we finished up with aged grappa. We were using a credit card to pay (not so typical in Europe) so had to go to the front desk to close out our bill. We were shocked at the mass of people waiting to get in. By now it's almost 10:30, the restaurant is still packed as is the entryway and the surrounding area outside. Clearly the choice of the locals. We find our way to the car and it's a quick drive back to the house and another good night's sleep.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Exploring Abruzzo

Slept in a little later than usual. It surely couldn't have had anything to do with our eating and drinking the day before. Went downstairs to a wonderful breakfast at the hotel. The usual setup of mixed meats and cheeses, assorted freshly baked breads and rolls, cereals, fresh fruit, juice, yogurt, and espressos or cappuccinos.

Today was going to be a day of exploring. Frank's family came from a little town in Abruzzo called Rosciolo dei Marsi. That was going to be our first destination for the day. Of course we first had to get there. Once again we drove round and round Sulmona until we found the right direction for the highway. We wanted to take a scenic route instead of getting directly on the Autostrada so our roundabout way was perfect. The countryside around Sulmona is breathtaking. We wound our way through farmland and hill towns backed by the most dramatic mountains. The weather is still a little brisk this time of year and occassionally there was a little snow along the road in places, but the sun was bright and warm and the sky was brilliant blue. After a while we managed to make our way to the main highway and head for Rosciolo. We had to backtrack a little from yesterday's drive from Rome, but it gave us a different perspective on the route. As is typical of many towns in the region, you climb, climb, climb until you get to the town and then you continue climbing through the town since it's usually built into the side of a hill. We found the church and the small main piazza, but that was about all there was. All the little ladies looked just like Frank's mother. She must have been with us, though. We happened to have some things that Frank had written down about his heritage that were stuck between the pages of a guide book that got thrown in the suitcase at the last minute before we left home.

Of course, since it's Stephen and Frank traveling, lunch was just around the corner. In this case though, it turned out to be many, many corners. We headed back to the highway to almost where we began this morning. There was a town we read about that looked intriguing and was just about the perfect spot to stop. One thing you always have to think about when traveling the small towns of Italy, as well as most of Europe, is you can't always eat when you want. Most small towns serve lunch from about 12:30 until 2:00. If you don't make it you might be stuck. We were going to Scanno on the edge of Lago di Scanno. We had no idea how precipitous the drive was going to be. Having driven in Rome and along the Amalfi coast, Stephen tends to not let anything bother him. This road was by far the narrowest and curviest (is that a word) we've driven on. Short two foot wall were all that separated you from a gorge hundreds of feet below. But what beauty. Pictures can't do it justice. Around every turn (and there were lots of turns) there was a new vista. We passed the village of Villalago and then came upon the lake and then the town of Scanno. There was still a lot of snow on the roofs. Another postcard view. Once again we drove up and through the town. Since Scanno is on a lake it tends to be a summer resort. We did find a cute place for a plate of pasta, but this would not be the meal to write about today. Give us a few hours, though. After a little walk and a short drive around town and it was time to head back. The sun sets early in the mountains and we didn't want to get caught after dark on such a scary road.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was almost time to get ready for dinner. We asked the hotel for another recommendation since they'd done such a good job the day before. They asked if we wanted to go up or down from yesterday. Since it was our only other night in town we decided to go up - all the way to the best restaurant in town. One of the nice things for us about traveling in Italy is most of the restaurants here don't make it into American guidebooks or English speaking web sites. The better Italian guides are only published in Italian. Not that we speak Italian, but we know to always ask the locals. You may have a hard time making it through the menu and you may end up with a surprise on your plate, but you'll not have a room full of people from your hometown in the room.

Tonight's choice was Ristorante Clemente. The hotel had not been the best of giving directions, so we weren't sure if we were going in the right direction. We walked down a side street into an alley and then down a small almost hidden passageway before we found what had to be the most out-of-the-way restaurant in town. Yet when you get to the front door you see the restaurant is covered in accolades from every prestige Italian food journal. Owner Clemente Maiorano met us like old friends. We were seated and began to peruse the menu and immediately began to salivate. Too many choices for just one meal. We finally settle on our plan. First courses: L'elogio del porco (degustazione di salumi di piccoli artigiani serviti con bruschette e frittele) and Antipasto vegetariano. Since we know Stephen is not a huge fan of vegetables then we know who had the array and who had the vegetable antipasto. The pork was a huge selection of artisinal salamis and cured hams served with grilled bread drizzled with olive oil and little fried bread balls. The vegetarian version had an array or grilled marinated vegetables, fresh mozzarella rolled in breadcrumbs and sautees, and then an involtini or grilled eggplant rolled around ricotta and spinach, topped with crushed tomato and mozzarella, and slight warmed in a broiler. Only Stephen had a primi, this time Paparadella con ricotta cremosa, guanciale, pecorino & zafferano, a house made paparadelle, (a very wide but very thin noodle), with a ricotta cream, guanciale (the Italian jowl bacon) cooked crisp, pepper flakes and saffron. The pasta was rich with egg and the pepper flakes added just a hint of heat throughout the creaminess of the sauce. It was like little spice devils dancing on your tongue. This was followed by Salsicce alla Grillia con verza ripassata in padella for Frank and Braciola di maiale al mosta cotta con purea di patate all aglia rosso for Stephen. The salsicce was a house made sausage grilled and served with a pan roasted napa cabbage and the Braciola was sliced roast pork accompanied with an potato puree mixed with cheese and cream and red garlic until it was so rich and thick and clung to the fork. Since we couldn't pick one dessert we had to have a whole assortment. There was a pear and chocolate tart, lemon curd with forest berries, panne cotta with chocolate sauce, a rich brownie like cake, and finally a marzipan cake. Not to be left out was a digestif, this time a Vin Santo-like dessert wine called Zibibbo, from Sicily. While we sell Vin Santo at the shop, Zibibbo is a new find, soon to make it to our shelves. Basta as they say. We're done. A short walk back to the hotel and we're ready for a heavy sleep. Tomorrow we're off to Puglia.

You can check out more photos of Scanno on our store's facebook page and food items from tonight's dinner on Stephen's page.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Benvenuti in Italia

It was touch and go Wednesday as we kept waiting for the weather to clear and get confirmation of our flight from New York to Rome. The flight was cleared for departure but unfortunately the bad weather followed us across the Atlantic. The awful storms that had been tearing across the country resulted in one of the most harrowing flights we've ever experienced. Finally Thursday's dawn broke along with the weather as we headed over the Mediterranean and the Italian coastline appeared in full sunshine. With little fuss we landed, retrieved our luggage, picked up our car and headed into the mountains of Abruzzo. This region has some of the most spectacular scenery we've ever seen. Huge craggy snow-capped mountains and medieval villages clinging to the sides of hills. Our destination was the beautiful town of Sulmona. If you've seen the George Clooney film, The American, much of it was shot here. (Unlike Hollywood, however, you won't find pictures of Mr. Clooney posing with every shopkeeper in the piazza). After driving in circles for a while we finally found and checked into the Hotel Rojan. This is a charming spot on a quiet out-of-the-way street in the historic old part of the city. We were able to park the car and walk to everywhere.

The lunch hour was long over but the hotel owner was able to get us a table at Il Vecchio Muro, a quaint (is there any other kind) ristorante not far from the hotel. We started with a shared appetizer Fantasia di Ricotta, an aged juniper smoked ricotta topped with an assortment of housemade condiments. We both followed this up with Chitarra alle Castagne, a hand made, hand cut pasta with guanciale and chestnuts. Yum! -- Chitarra is made by rolling out pasta in sheets and then placing them across the top of a board that has wires strong along it (like a guitar), then pressing into the wires which cuts the pasta. -- After coffee the owner offered us a local digestif, Amaro d'Abruzzo. How could we resist? The herb based after-dinner (lunch?) drink was the perfect cap to a great meal.

A long stroll back to the hotel revealed many hidden gems in this lovely town. In our round and round of driving to find the hotel we missed most of the sights. Sulmona is a secluded and often overlooked small city. It's about the same size as Laguna Beach but instead of hills on one side and an ocean on the other, Sulmona is surrounded by imposing mountain ranges.

Recuperate from lunch, have a light jet-lag easing nap and suddenly it's time for dinner! This time the hotel recommended Hostaria dell'Arco, an intimate rustic locale far off the tourist track. The owner explained about the antipasti, an enormous assortment of grilled & marinated vegetables and peppers, marinated porcini and spinach, fried balls of ricotta, and an amazing ricotta baked in a wood-fired oven. Next for primi there was another Chitarra, but this time with tomato and basil and a Raviolini all'abruzzese, large ravioli stuffed with porcini and cream topped with pomodoro and cheese. As if this wasn't enough we (well Stephen really) still had one serving of Agnello alla brace, lamb, rubbed with herbs, cooked in the wood fire. Simple, pure, delicious. Again, espresso and Amaro then a long walk home. Then a welcome sleep.

We promise tomorrow we'll do more than just eat! Ciao.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New York Gift Show

We're just finishing up with a flurry of Gift Shows. The past few weeks we've done the shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and today we're finishing up with New York. New York has been the most exciting and most productive of all - not to mention New York is a great town to visit. The weather hasn't been our best friend here, but we've still had fun.

In the next few months there are going to be some great new products in the store. Julia Knight has introduced a lot of new colors in her floral collections. She's also designed a stunning seahorse base serving platter. We're bringing in a new collection of lighting from Vietri. These are beautiful rustic Italian designs that match back to their garden pottery collection. We're also featuring a beautiful new ocean inspired collection of serving pieces from Vietri.

We can't leave New York without at least some mention of food. As usual, we've had some really good meals. When we arrived we headed for a late dinner at Union Square Cafe. This has always been a favorite of ours and this time it didn't disappoint. The food, drinks, service, and ambiance are always superb. Whenever we walk through the door, whether it's been 2 days or 2 years, we're treated like an old friend. One other highlight was a place we happened in to by chance. We had tried to get into a celebrity chef Italian restaurant but it turned out to be a mob scene. Instead we decided to try a little place right across the street, North Square. This is a charming spot in the Village featuring new American cuisine. Chef Yoel Cruz has created an amazingly diverse menu, all well prepared, and extremely reasonably priced - especially for New York. One last restaurant of note was lunch right before departure today at Il Punto. Il Punto is an Italian trattoria specializing in food from Puglia. Another happy accident, the restaurant is in an out-of-the-way spot not far from our hotel. Again, great food and great service - a perfect end to New York and the perfect start to our trip to that region.

Coming in the next few days we'll be posting regularly from Italy. Ciao.

We're back!

Welcome back. It's nice to see you. If you've been here before you know this blog originally originated from our Laguna Beach boutiq...