Three beautiful days…eating our way through the city of lights…
Part Two: Varenna and Venice, i.e., Italy, where pasta and gnocchi reign supreme! From Barcelona we headed to northern Italy, landing in Milan and taking a train directly to Varenna, a lovely town situated on Lake Como. (Well, to rephrase...the Milan airport is NOT close to the city but after a couple of trial and error attempts with a finicky train ticket machine, we managed to take a train to the city center of Milan and THEN navigate our way through the confusion of finding the correct train to Varenna.) Needless to say, no time for lunch!
Happily, our hotel in a tiny little haven in the hills was a five-minute taxi ride from the train station. We were deposited at the Hotel du Lac, just 8 minutes after arriving, checked in within 5 and out on the cobblestone path to find sustenance within 20 minutes of landing in Varenna. The weather was a little drizzly so searched no further than il Nilus Bar, where we sat on the covered patio directly at water's edge to have our first meal in Italy. Starvation had no bearing on the deliciousness of our roasted sopressata-potato-gorgonzola pizza, which we immediately scarfed down with a glass of wine. Oh my. Superb.
Did I mention that within the 20 minutes from train stop to seated for lunch, we managed to ask our hotel receptionist/concierge/girl Friday to find a reservation for dinner? She found us a table at La Vista, a terraced restaurant atop the Albergo Milano. It's a tiny town but we experienced some trouble finding which little alleyway to climb. But so worth the search, steep hill, and confusion. Sitting outside, wrapped in a fleece blanket provided with each and every table, we watched as the lights twinkled on in Menaggio, the town directly across Lake Como from Varenna. After the hustle and bustle of the big city Barcelona, we were drawn into the calm, quiet beauty of the water and the Alps that towered above.
And our dinner! What a fabulous meal we had that evening. The menu offered a la carte and either a 3 course or 4 course fixed price option which included the entire menu. If you tell me I can have a starter, first course, second course and dessert for 45 euro...it's a no brainer! After all, this is RESEARCH! I definitely researched my way to satiation in the most delicious fashion.
- Starter- RB: charcuterie platter, JB: velvety potato soup
- Primi- RB: ravioli with seafood, JB: risotto with scallops
- Secondi- RB: baked lake fish with creamed potatoes, JB: lamb shank osso bucco
- Dessert- RB: cheese plate, JB: chocolate cake with raspberry sauce
Oof. It was too much food. But so enjoyable.
On the dawn of our 5th day in Europe, we had a light breakfast in the hotel cafe and went out to explore Varenna. At 10am, we were picked up by van to take us to Ristorante il Caminetto (in the hills of Perledo), for a day-long cooking class. Our driver was also the chef, owner and instructor, Moreno Maglia. It was a delightful six hours...Moreno is charming, humorous and well-versed in American culture. The class was made up of two other couples from the US, a couple from Manchester, England, two young girls from Poland and a lady from the Netherlands. We watched our host prep a veal roast, form pasta dough entirely with his hands, and we learned to shape gnocchi. Then he rolled and cut the pasta, adding a dollop of ricotta filling to each square and allowed us to shape the packets into tortelloni. He demonstrated one porcini mushroom sauce for the gnocchi and then a fresh tomato topping for the tortelloni. And finally, we lunched on all of these amazing dishes, helping ourselves to refills of wine and laughing at his references to American rock and roll and movie stars. If you are ever in the Lake Como area for a few days, I highly recommend this cooking class--such an insight into meal prep at a small local restaurant. I loved it.
Following the class and being dropped back in our little town square, we had just enough time to walk to the train station and meet our son, who arrived from Rome after a semester at John Cabot University. What a happy sight to see him step off that train! He looked taller, wiser, and tired; it was so wonderful to put our arms around him after 4 months apart.
That evening, we had a very late supper at Osteria Quatro Pass, another tiny restaurant. Sometimes it is a challenge to order food coherently when trying to soak up each moment with a child you haven't seen in some time. But we managed to have a delightful meal which we shared family style: salumi board, cheese plate, seafood spaghettoni, fish fillets in an almond sauce, and a cheese ravioli before consuming a sweet apple tart to finish. Note: you can never order too much food when you have a 21-year-old at the table.
The next morning, the three of us hiked to Castello de Vezio, a wonderful castle ruin with beautiful views overlooking the lake and town below. It was a gorgeous morning and the hike was a perfect bit of exercise after the previous day spent wining and dining.
That afternoon we headed to Venice which also provided some physical exertion in the manner of hauling our luggage through tiny little streets, inaccessible to any other form of traffic. We spent a quick 24 hours touring with just one real sit-down meal. A carafe of wine, a little bourbon, some lasagna, gnocchi, and fried calamari was consumed and delighted in while sitting at a small table on a cobblestone street, 15 steps from our hotel. The next morning when we walked through that same street, any evidence of the quaint little eatery with a gregarious host had been shuttered away, only to be discovered again later in the day by other lucky wanderers.
Next week: follow along as we wrap up our trip in the City of Lights. ❤️ Ruth
Three countries. Five cities. Ten days. It was an ambitious trip but we managed to accomplish two end goals: bring our son home from his semester abroad and eat our way across several different regions. We were also able to celebrate 30 years of marriage with every glass of champagne or prosecco, beginning on the flight over! So the journey was a success and I am excited to share so many delicious memories with my readers.
Our flight touched down in Barcelona in the early morning and we hit the ground running. After a quick Cafe Americano at the charming Cotton House hotel, we hopped on a bus to drive by popular sites and get our bearings. Ignoring the chilly weather and any tinges of jet-lag, we capped off our first evening with a walking Tapas Tour. If you know me at all, you know that I L-O-V-E nibble food, so I was more than ready to check out this very Spanish style of noshing.
Our guide led us and two other couples through the Mercat de la Boqueria where we sampled Serrano Jamon and Manchego cheese from little paper cones, nibbled on cocoa covered hazelnuts and gaped at the butcher stands where EVERY part of the animal was available for purchase. We also visited two different style Tapas Bars--the first served popular tapas family style at the table: Patatas Bravas, fresh tomato bread, marinated peppers and veggies, croquetas, and Tortilla Española all came out in little dishes to be shared by the group. The second establishment offered a pinchos buffet. In this style of bar, you help yourself to any number of tapas varieties, all skewered on toothpicks, and the server simply counts the number of empty picks on your plate to calculate your bill. Seafood figured heavily into these offerings.
My takeaways from casual food in Barcelona:
- Amazing slices of bread on which you spread fresh tomatoes that are so tender, they burst open when you rub the fruit on the crispy surface
- Spanish extra-virgin olive oil which I loved drizzling over the above mentioned bread
- Paper thin slices of jamon (spanish ham)
- Salty, delicious manchego, a sheep's milk cheese that makes my heart sing
You could serve me the above items any night of the week and I would call it dinner! So first day/night done, and we were able to see a little of the city, taste some of it's flavors, partake of some wine and we were off to a great start.
The next day dawned cold and rainy in the city so we headed out on an hour train ride to visit Montserrat and the monastery set in the mountain. Our lunch at the Restaurant Montserrat was surprisingly lovely--surprising because most of the patrons are tourists and we've all experienced mediocrity of touristy establishments--lovely due to the inexpensive bottle of wine we shared (thought we were ordering a couple of glasses, got the entire bottle!), the fresh tomato bread, and the seafood we consumed.
That evening marked another culinary milestone for us...we dined at a Three-Star Michelin restaurant: Lasarte was elegant, subdued, and pleasantly meticulous. The service was perfection, casually friendly but at the same time, oh so professional. After we made our course decisions, a parade of amuse bouche found its way to the table. My favorite: a jalapeño ice cream that melted into a foam with a single salty clam. And of course, I loved the array of flavored butters presented in tiny little logs to accompany our bread selections. There were five flavors to choose from and I couldn't eat enough bread to sample them all! Our main courses of Chargrilled Pigeon (him) and Sea Bass (me) were stunning. It was a gastronomically excellent night and a wonderful way to celebrate our anniversary.
Our final day in Barcelona was spent self-touring the cathedral and Ramblas area and a quick stop at the beach. For a mid-morning snack, we stumbled upon a pastry shop, Caelum, where we sipped cappuccino and agonized over which nun-produced pastries we wanted to try. No lie: the shop specializes in "heavenly" sweets baked by nuns from all over the country! For lunch we sat in sunny Plaça Reial and shared yet another board of tomato bread and serrano ham as well as a bottle of wine. (What?! I was on vacation!) Our only disappointing meal: the paella at Vez Pella, (which came highly recommended) which was served with little shrimp instead of the promised ubiquitous prawns.
And we were on to the next city...
*The above title translates to "Part One: Barcelona, city of tapas and paella."
Guest post by Lara Slabisak
Salty. Sour. Sweet. Spicy. The four components of nearly every Thai dish, and the underlying structure behind what allows Thai food to strike that delicate balance between brightness and warmth. Think: yin and yang – seemingly contradictory forces working together to create complex flavor profiles worthy of lending Thai food the epithet “French Fare of the East.” It’s one of those cuisines that has an answer to every occasion and craving.
This January, my family and I were able to spend three incredible (delectable) weeks in Thailand, where my father was born. I had not been back to visit my family there for a few years, but felt instantly at home as I was greeted with plates of coconut sticky rice and mango, mounds of pomelos, and bowls filled with green and yellow curry. I was inspired this trip to taste each food with a discerning tongue and the intention of bringing back some Thai culinary know-how and dishes to add to my arsenal. I tried not to shy from anything, even the street carts boasting unidentifiable seafoods and congealed pigs blood soup…but don’t worry, I left everything I ever wanted to know about pig’s blood there.
What I learned: Cooking Thai food can be deceptively difficult. If you look at a list of ingredients in a recipe, they are seemingly simple and few. The tricky part lies in achieving that delicate balance of flavor I spoke about before. You don’t want to overpower the subtle hints of lemongrass and galangal in Tom Kha with too much salt, or assault your Pad Thai with an overabundance of lime juice. To master this, the structure-loving, rule follower in me wanted to know exactly how much of each component is required to attain that intricate balance so I can reproduce each dish perfectly and consistently every time. However, this trip I learned that to authentically create harmony and complexity in a dish, I had to throw my measuring spoons and desire to strictly follow a recipe to the wind and instead “cook with my tongue”…as my aunt would say.
I can’t help but think that this is great life advice too. It’s okay to deviate from the script in the name of exploration. Maybe you’ll happen upon a new favorite flavor combo! Don’t shy from trying new ingredients or methods. If there’s a better way, find it. Allow space for your palette to grow! Maybe you can only stand one Thai chili pepper per dish before scurrying to grab the closest glass of water (me), but eventually your tastes will mature and change.
Life certainly doesn’t give us the perfect recipe to follow. This can sometimes be scary, but it’s also exhilarating! That means we have the chance to discover, even if through our mistakes, something new and exciting each time we have the audacity to step out and take a risk. So here is my charge…As we approach this week, may we be adventurous, make mistakes, and cook outside the lines!
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Summer, the most magical of seasons, is drawing to a close. Many of you were as busy during June and July as you are the rest of year..but I hope you had some respite from the crazy, frenetic Spring.
My favorite summer activities include going to movies to escape the oppressive heat, shopping the local farmers markets for amazing produce, picnics & concerts at the Dallas Arboretum and lazy afternoons by the pool. I also love eating dinner as late as we want to, outdoor exercise and the sun rising with me in the morning.
The images of summer that I adore are drippy ice cream cones, children in pajamas and puppies running around the farmers markets, colorful pedicures in chic summer sandals and emerald green waters with white sandy shores.
Soon the hot days will shorten to cooler evenings and we’ll be back on our patios sipping wine. The lights from Friday night football games will fill the neighborhood. The cross country runners will be on the streets early in the morning. After school activities will have us running, dividing and conquering. It’s all good, all part of the natural progression of things. One season closes, another begins. The goal is to enjoy each and every moment.
Recently, we returned from a vacation to the Florida gulf coast with three out of four off-spring and two respective spouses. We were so fortunate to have time with family for our week because it doesn’t always work out that way. Now that most of our adult children are married, they must divide time between us and their in-laws so a week together here and there is a real treat.
So, in brief, here’s a look at our week by the numbers…
1 round of golf, 1 stand-up paddle board, 1 date night
2 days of rain at the end of our week, 2 sheet-pan breakfasts*, 2 martini nights
3 girls on the beach, 3 books finished by yours truly, 3 family meals at the vacation home
4 boys in the water, 4 absolutely-drop-dead-gorgeous days on the beach, 4 delicious dinners in restaurants
5 walks on the beach, 5 days without rain, 5 ways to eat oysters
6 games played, 6 different swimsuits, 6 water bottles consumed each day
7 sunrises & sunsets, 7 days of laughter, 7 cruiser bikes
Countless: inside jokes, photos snapped, snacks consumed, waves ridden, eye rolls, quotable comments by JB, songs shuffled, cocktails created, memories made.
Can’t wait to do it again.
*Recipe for Sheet Tray Pancakes for your next family vacation/reunion!
I just love how everyone has their own name for certain dishes…whether it’s a regional thing, family history or even happenstance based on a memory or experience. I ran across this situation recently when in New York, having dinner with a group of women. If I recall correctly, we were discussing dietary limitations and I mentioned that I had gone “Whole30” for the month of January and thereby consumed a lot of eggs for breakfast.
Growing up, I must admit that I was not a “breakfast girl.” I didn’t like oatmeal, pancakes, waffles, or eggs. Cereal, toast and bacon were the few things I enjoyed for my morning meal. My father, however, adored all breakfasts, especially any variety of eggs my mother was serving up. One of her specialties was Roundin’ Eggs, for which she would cut perfectly round disks out of the center of a piece of sandwich bread using an upturned juice glass. She would then toast the bread and the little disks in a frying pan and crack an egg into the center of the hole in the toast. She’d slather the little crisp round toasts with butter & jam to serve alongside the Egg in Toast. I would happily eat all of those little disks but she insisted I eat an egg as well, much to my pouty disappointment.
What? Your version of Egg in Toast wasn’t called Roundin’ Eggs? Maybe you called yours Egg in a Basket or One-Eyed-Jack? Egg in a Hole? Moonstruck Eggs? (Do you remember the scene from that movie with Cher and Nicholas Cage? Olympia Dukakis plays Cher’s very Italian mother and cooks these eggs for her, adding roasted red peppers on top of each egg before serving them to the breakfast table. It’s a very famous foodie scene.)
My favorite variation has to be the cute story one of the ladies in NYC relayed to me about her parents. Terry told me that when her parents were newly married, her mother, Ronnie, wasn’t much of a cook. But she worked hard to please her new husband and one morning he requested french toast for breakfast. Well, she didn’t have Google to help her look up what a recipe for that dish entailed! So she made the fanciest (and to her, French) breakfast she could imagine, by cracking an egg in the middle of toast. He loved it and the dish was christened Ronnie’s French Toast.
I have finally grown up and love many things for breakfast…bagels & lox, green chile scrambled eggs in a tortilla, chicken ‘n waffles, blueberry pancakes, and of course, Roundin’ Eggs!
My sister-in-law, Diane, turned 60 this month and she decided that for this momentous occasion she would like her sisters, mother, and sisters-in-law to meet for a girls’ weekend in a city to which she’d never visited. Nashville won the bid so the 7 of us traveled there from New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois a couple of weekends ago for a fast & furious 48 hours.
The weather was a bit chilly but warm for the upper midwesterners. We stayed at a boutique hotel in downtown Nashville, attended a concert at the Ryman, caught live music at Robert’s Western World, toured Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, and dined at a restaurant whose chef’s recipe was featured on the March cover of Food & Wine magazine. It was a fun, informative, tasty weekend but my biggest takeaway…
Nashville is THE bachelor/bachelorette party destination for 2017 weddings.
I have never seen so many brides-to-be and gangs of guys on Pedal Bars in a single downtown area. Not that they were especially wild or obnoxious but that the sheer number of party vehicles was astounding. Traffic flow was definitely inhibited by their slow progress so our Uber to dinner was a 25 minute ride when it should have been 10. The positive is that all of the partiers were having fun with no risk of DUI...
But back to food. I think my favorite meal of the weekend was breakfast at a restaurant in the Omni Hotel. We didn’t plan to dine there but when our driver tried to deliver us to Biscuit Love and we saw the line down the block (it was cold, remember!) we quickly checked our smartphones for “breakfast near me” to find an alternative. Kitchen Notes was a hit. I ordered hot chicken and waffles. Yum-yum-yummy. The chicken was tender and spicy and the waffles, buttery but substantial. Good stuff.
I hope to visit Nashville again but next time, I think I might:
a) stay off the beaten path a little
b) take the river cruise to see more of the beautiful natural surroundings
c) spend more time seeking out live music
d) go with my best friend and hubby! <3