Breakfast in Bressanone

Yes, we’re in the road again. This time in  the Italian town of Bressanone. We’re surrounded by mountains nestled in the Tirolean countryside. Breakfast just consisted of prosciutto, salami, mozzarella balls and a delicious soft boiled egg.

Mrs. NH has a stop planned for Trento today and we’re both confident in the prospect of pasta and red wine in our future. It’s my first time in Italy in the winter. This country never disappoints no matter the season.

Homemade Focaccia

Homemade Focaccia

Homemade Focaccia

It has been two days full of cooking around the NH homestead this weekend.  I’ve made and frozen several pounds of crock pot carnitas and crock pot chicken tacos for the return of the NH girls.  I’m also getting ready to whip into meatloaf gravy to be used as pasta sauce and a batch or two of pizza crusts for the freezer to boot.  I’ve also tackled a bread recipe that I’ve always wanted to make – focaccia.

My fondest memory of focaccia is from Monterosso, Italy.  After spending the day on the beach in Monterosso, we stopped in a bakery for a Peroni and wedge of focaccia to take on the boat ride back to the little village of Vernazza.  I just remember that bread being some of the most simple and flavorful that I had ever tasted.  Moist with olive oil and each bite held a little crunch from the generous sprinkling of sea salt on top.  Bolstered by the Peroni and post-beach euphoria, that bread is the pinnacle of flatbreads in my mind.

The recipe I used was from the always reliable “Crepes of Wrath” and was very simple.   If you’re interested in trying it yourself, I would only offer a few observations.  I did mine in my stand mixer and couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.  After adding all of the recommended flour, it still seemed to thin so I added about a 1/2 cup more.  That did the trick.  Also, in the final step, instead of drizzling the olive oil on top of the bread, I’ll brush it the next time for more of an even coating and even browning.  As it was, the top of my bread had zigzags left by the olive oil.

That said, the flavor definitely brought me back to Cinque Terre.   Hmmm.  Time to get planning summer vacation.

International Truffle Festival, Alba, Italy

One doesn’t need to linger long at this site to know that Mrs. NH and I have acquired a real taste for truffles while living over here in the old country.  Of course, while many of my readers see this as just another example that NH has gone all high-falutin’ euro-style, I see it as more of a matter of supply and demand.  You see, over here, they charge a premium for crappy tacos.  Brisket?  Can’t buy it.  Cheeseburger?  $15.  Oreos?  No way, José.

But truffles are relatively plentiful in some of the places we frequent.  For example, you can’t go to a restaurant in Istria without finding several truffle dishes on the menu.  So, since eating locally is in fashion these days, we’ve worked the truffle into our home menu.  We have a cabinet full of them, to be exact.  We’re truffle hoarders.

Interestingly, that came in handy last month while we were in Piedmont at the exact same day that they were having the International Truffle Festival in the quaint, rustic town of Alba – in the heart of the Italian Truffle basket.  The fact that our cupboards are already full of truffles meant that we didn’t have to fork out any dough other than the 2 Euros for entry and a few more Euros for wine tastings.  But we got to witness some of the biggest and most beautiful truffles in the world in a unique, “how did this become my life” setting.

Up until my recent trip to Moscow, this was the most fun I had ever had at a trade show.  Truffles were the main attraction to be sure but another 50% of the show was devoted to regional wines, pasta, meat, cheeses and desserts.  The best part, they were giving out samples.  Truffle cheeses, goat cheeses, truffle sausage, chocolate truffles, wines and even some cheeses that looked like things that had been scraped of the bottom of my shoe.  I tried ’em all.

Then, there were the people.  Let’s not forget, these people are Italians.  They take their food and drink very seriously.  They’re also quite engaging after you ask them a few cursory questions about their product.  Americans seemed in short supply at this show and being one might have actually helped us score an extra nibble of sausage or a little taller pour of wine.  (The myth of Americans being hated in Europe is happily just that, a myth.)  I picked up some of the best Barolo’s and Nebbiolo’s I’ve tasted for a hair over $10 a bottle.  Italian’s know how to do wine.  They make sure it’s all very good.  Then they charge a reasonable price and make their money that way.  By selling all of it.  If it is exceptional wine, they charge a little more, but generally in this part of Italy, wine snobs are the exception to the rule.  With two college education funds to contribute to, I’m thankful for that!

If you’ve ever entertained the slightest thought of visiting this festival – do it.  If you’ve entertained the thought of visiting Piedmont but aren’t a hard-core truffle head, plan your visit around the time of this culinary trade show and you will be a convert before you drive out of town.  It’s a real European curiosity and a particularly awesome part of Europe.

Pesto Filled Panzarotti

I totally lucked into the meal pictured above after a morning strolling around the International Truffle Festival in Alba, Italy.  It was probably one of the best tasting days of my life.  Truffles the size of your fist in the morning, Panzarotti for lunch and wine tasting all afternoon long topped off with more pasta and veal for dinner.  But I digress.

The pasta pictured was a delicate, hand-made Panzarotti with a perfectly smooth cheese and pesto mix in the center and a rich, creamy, sauce to coat.  Mrs. NH looked longingly at my plate all meal long – even with her delicious meat-stuffed ravioli in front of her.  I had ordered the best meal.  But, since she’s carrying the 4th member of the NH clan, I gave her a fair share.

Since eating this pasta I’ve been dreaming of it.  Ravioli is hard to make.  I still haven’t found a recipe that I’ve perfected.  But having eaten this dish, I feel the inspiration to try again.  Any hints or recipes to recommend?  Leave ’em in the comments.

Barolo, Italy

We’re home, the house is still not clean and bigwigs from the home office will greet me on my first day back at work tomorrow.  However, all is well.  I got to fulfill an adulthood dream and see Peidmont and as pictured above, I got to see where they grow and make Nebbiolos, Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas.  That and the fact that I came home with a trunk full of wine makes me one happy camper.  More on the 2nd leg of the trip in the coming days.

Pizza al Volo – Venice, Italy

Pizza al Volo is a bit of a Venice institution.  Some friends told us about it a few years back when we went to Venice but we didn’t manage to find it on that trip.  On this visit, Mrs. NH had it on her itinerary an Little NH and I were happy to be along for the ride.  After a twisting, turning walk through the streets of Venice, we arrived at Campo Santa Margherita.  The campo (or plaza) is really neat in and of itself.  Cafes line the periphery and you get a pretty authentic feel.  It’s definitely not as full of white tennis shoed tourists as much of the rest of Venice and that’s a nice change.

Having arrived, we took a look inside of Al Volo.  About three different pizzas were on display, all were incomplete.  I decided to let Mrs. NH and Little NH go inside and investigate further and I stayed outside to people watch and guard the stroller.  “I’ll be happy with whatever,” I told them.  (I also completely neglected to take any decent pictures of the place which explains the cropped, crummy picture.  Sorry.)

They came back with a couple slices of Margherita pizza and a slice topped with zucchini.  Both were very good.  Was it the best pizza I’ve ever had?  No.  I had probably become jaded on Italian pies by that point in the trip.  That said, it was tasty.  And when Mrs. NH went back inside for another piece, I was glad to see her come out with another one topped with zucchini.

So, would I recommend it?  Sure.  Is it the best pizza ever?  No.  Is it better than most?  Yep.   For Pizza al Volo, two out of three ain’t bad.

La Zucca – Venice, Italy

If I am a seeker of delicious food, Mrs. NH is a “Dog the Bounty Hunter” of it.  She found the best restaurant in Venice, made reservations, and made darn sure we got there on time.  This, on the second-to-last day of our trip, all while dragging an over-caffeinated NH and road-weary Little NH with her.  She rules.

The destination on this outing was La Zucca, a largely, but not totally, vegetarian restaurant in the back streets of one of the least touristy areas in Venice.  She had seen it written up in review after review on the Internet and managed to get a reservation before we left Prague.  It’s an unassuming little corner restaurant, right next to a tiny canal, small bridge and skinny pedestrian street.  It’s just about as cozy as it gets in Venice.  There were about 6 outdoor tables and two ladies taking orders.

Service was friendly, efficient and they even offered to make a half portion of pasta for Little NH.  Since little NH had consumed 1/2 a bag of bagel chips on the way, we took the server up on her offer.  On the other hand, Mrs. NH and I were starving.

We both ordered the Lasagna with Zucchini and Pumpkin Flowers and split an order of the Broccoli Aglio Olio.  The lasagna was rich, gooey and striated by fresh, perfectly cooked pasta.  The pumpkin flowers gave the dish bright highlights of orange amongst the cream and green of the zucchini.  It was earthy and full of good texture.  I could have eaten a whole pan of that stuff.  It was perfection.  The broccoli was simple, straightforward and equally tasty.  That’ll be a dish I’ll try at home very soon.

After all of this and a liter of wine, the caffeine edge was worn away leaving a blissed-out, pleasantly full, food-lover sitting across from a food bounty hunter on a mission.  Next stop, pizza.

Twist my arm.

Agriturismo La Colti – Cannigione, Sardegna

“Aw, crap.  I think I’m eating donkey.  Oh, well.  Who ever knew that donkey tastes so good?  Tastes nothing like chicken, though.”

I had this little conversation with myself during the umpteenth course at Agriturismo La Colti somewhere outside of Olbia, Sardegna on a warm spring night.  Mrs. NH had sought out another great restaurant and managed to program the Garmin nüvi to get us there.

Before that thought hit, we were served with course after course of good food.  We had artisan gnocchi (also called Gnochetti Sardi), gently fork-dimpled just enough to hold a generous coating of meat sauce.  The gnocchi was a firmer consistency than I was used to but Mrs. NH was happy to finish what I didn’t.  The other dish that stuck out was the puffy, pastry/lasagna-like dish.  It’s pictured at the top-left of this post so if you know what it is, let me know.  Topping that all off was a tender, fatty suckling pig (Porchetto Mirto) served on top of some myrtle branches.

But back to the burro.

So, there I was, in the middle of a freshly prepared, delicious, typical Sardegnian meal wondering if I was eating Eeyore.  Donkey is apparently a typical dish in those parts.  Luckily, I’ve eaten plenty of weird things in my life and the though of it didn’t bother me too much.  But it did get to the crux of my only beef (pun not intended) with the meal at La Colti.  There were some awesome dishes but as it was pre fixe, nothing was written down and when plates arrived I had little idea what most of them were.  The girl who slapped them on the table said what some of them were in rapid Italian but others she just placed on the table and ran off looking like she was about to go put out a fire on the roof.  Sure, I could tell there were tomatoes on the plate and I managed to catch the word for pork in the split second after she slammed the plate down and disappeared into thin air, but lots of other things just got devoured without knowing exactly what they were.

Also served were local wines in La Colti labeled bottles and a super-tasty jug of Mirto for dessert.  Those, I had no problem identifying.

That said, it was all good.  I’m afraid I’m just not in much of a position to tell you what all of it was.  But I did catch one word in particular.  “Pecora.”  It sounded like Pecorino so even the slightly mirto-dulled synapses in my head fired enough to register it.  And, I remembered the word until the next day, 99% sure it was Italian for Eeyore.  When I pulled the Italian dictionary from my backpack, I was relatively pleased at what I found.  Pecora – Sheep.  Huh.  Not baaaad.  Better yet, I can still record episodes of “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” for Little NH with a clear conscience.

Matricianella – Rome, Italy

Some day in the future, when I make bazillions on some great idea that I have in the middle of the night, I’m going to buy houses and apartments all over the world.  One of them will be in Rome and it will be just down the street from Matricianella.  Not because the neighborhood is any better than any other place in Rome, but because I know Mrs. NH will want to go there all the time.  At least if I have an apartment near it, it won’t take long to get there.  Not to mention the fact that I’d hate to miss a meal there.

Matricianella is nestled in a side street just down the way from the Spanish Steps and features a steady yet unobtrusive promenade of scooters and delivery vans just off its skinny front deck.  What happens on the other side of that deck, however, is the creation of some of the most delicious, classic, Roman food I have ever witnessed.  Mrs. NH discovered it in Food and Wine magazine about five years ago and we haven’t missed a stop there in any trip to Rome since.  Of course, that’s not always easy.

If you don’t speak Italian, good luck trying to get a reservation.  Mrs. NH tried twice.  As soon as she called and English words escaped her mouth, “Click.”  Both times.  Pshaw, I though.  She’s just not doing it right.  “Buon giorno! May I make a res…” “Click.”  So, we took our chances and walked over with Little NH hoping to score an open outside table for lunch on a weekday without a reservation.  The gods smiled upon us and we got a nice table outside.

After the reservation fiasco, I was a little worried that the previously friendly service had been replaced by some snooty staff that hated gringos with only a passing knowledge of Italian.  My fears were unfounded, thankfully.  Service was quick, courteous and even extra sweet to Little NH.  They’re pros at Matricianella.  No wonder they don’t take reservations in English over the phone.  It is Italy, after all.

The food is rustic, hearty and not at all fussy.  It’s just excellent and perfectly executed.  We started out with the fried ricotta and bresaola salad.  The fried ricotta was like eating little pillows of pure epicurean pleasure.  I had never had the dish before but I intend to never miss it on a menu again in my life.  The bresaola was elegant and perfect, served with a good slab of lemon, peppery arugula and savory chunks of parmesan.

For the main course, I had the Veal Saltimbocca and Mrs. NH had the Gnocchi alla Romana.  We ended up splitting the dishes and it was a great combo.   The Saltimbocca had a rich gravy and excellent cuts of meat.  Melt in mouth.  Mrs. NH’s pillowy pasta was amazingly rich and incredibly comforting.  Kind of like something mom would have made if she was Italian.  Just yum city.

That and a bottle of wine and we ended lunch as two happy patrons.  Little NH didn’t fare too poorly, either.  She had penne with tomato sauce and lots of grated parmesan and she, too was in a pretty big food coma by the end of lunch.

Topped off with a little biscotti and life-giving espresso, we were ready to tackle the afternoon in Rome.  It was the perfect Roman lunch.

Now, I can’t wait to get back there.  Say, maybe the next time we go, we’ll be apartment hunting…

Civita, Italy

There are a few places in the world that look like they belong in children’s story books.  Civita, Italy is one of them.  Perched on an eroding bluff in the middle of a wide open Italian canyon, Civita should be the model for every fantasy movie set ever.

Fortunately, it is real and you can visit it.  Just about 1 hour outside of Rome, it beckons you.  I’ve been there every time I’ve been to Rome.  It’s just that cool.

About 15 or so people live there.  The dusty streets are filled with beautiful, weathered stone buildings.  The long metal bridge that leads to the town gives you a great view of the countryside and leads you up a path, directly into the main gate of the city.

Once there, seek out the old, donkey-powered olive press.  Once inside the building, ask for some bruschetta with tomato and an order with cheese as well.  If it’s cool, sit inside and enjoy the smell of always-on fire or, if it’s sunny, sit in the courtyard and sip local wine with your snacks.

The more adventurous can seek out the path that circles the bluff and tunnels below the streets of this ancient town.

Whatever you do, bring your camera. Pictures manage to capture at least some of the beauty to take with you.  Or, if you’re really creative, you could use them to make your own story book.

Home in Prague

We’ve logged over 2500 miles on the car odometer (not counting distances traveled on ferries) and now we’re back home.  We made a pit stop in Munich yesterday to enjoy a really sunny afternoon/evening in the English Garden.  It is always a nice way to wrap up a trip.

Now we’re home and unloaded but not totally unpacked.  I whipped up a batch of guacamole and we all had a nice chip and guac lunch.  Tacos are for dinner.

Little NH is enjoying a nap in her bed and I think Mrs. NH is enjoying one on the couch.

For the first time in a week or two, I’m wearing clean clothes.  What a concept.

Bottega Vini – Verona, Italy

We’re fairly unorthodox when it comes to parenting.  We think our kid should adapt to what we want to do.  Some would call that immature, others would realize that no parent, no matter how patient, ever wants to watch Barney.  So, this is our way of doing things.

On an early spring evening in Verona, Italy, Mrs. NH, Little NH and I headed to the Bottega Vini smack dab in the middle of Verona.  It was a beautiful restaurant/wine bar that came recommended on some web site or other that Mrs. NH found.  It was worth the trip.

There is no outdoor seating save for a banqet nestled into the outside wall but once inside, you’re transported to a really cool Northern Italian experience.  There’s vino alla spina (wine on tap), and a chalk board full of several other varieties, ranging from Soave to Barbera. The guys behind the bar were getting ready for the evening dinner crew but treated us well and even found a chocolate filled cookie in the kitchen for Little NH.

We spent our time trying two or three of the wines while Little NH was anticipating the chime of the cuckoo-clock overhead.  By the time our 30 minutes in Bottega Vini were up, great wine had been consumed and a little cuckoo-clock had chimed, delighting a 3-year-old.

In my book, that beats Barney any day.

Why I Travel

Having traveled over 1500 miles in the car and a few hundred more on a ferry, we’re about to begin the northern swing of our trip and head out of Sardegna.  I’m sporting 2-week beard and have told and heard just about every story known to man to and from my traveling companions.  Still, I’m not sick of them and I don’t think they’re completely sick of me.  I’m not tired of traveling, I’m not tired of hotels and I’m not tired of the beach.

The fact is, these are the two people and times that I wish for every time I am away on some trip to some far-flung, God-forsaken post-communist country.  Heck, it’s not even the travel with my girls that I miss, it’s just them.  (But yeah, the travel is cool.)  So, it’s good to know that when we are all together for an extended period, we don’t totally drive each other nuts.

Things are completely fluid in my job right now so we decided to take this trip and really make it count.  It has.  When we were in the midst of planning, I only had to remind myself that it might one of the last trips we get to take to this part of the world.  That help to put things into perspective and has made it easy to check work e-mail on a non-compulsive basis.  That’s the only way to live.  Besides, it’s really hard to hold a phone in the right hand, scrolling and reading e-mails, while sipping from a Negroni in the left.

Priorities, peeps.  Priorities.

Drinks of the World: Negroni and Aperol Spritz

When I go to Italy, I drink lots of wine.  I also drink my fair share of Peroni and Moretti beer.  But when it’s about 5:00 and I’m perched in an out-of-the-way square in some forgotten corner of town, nothing says “happy hour” like a Negroni.  Negroni is a mixture of equal parts sweet vermouth, Campari and gin.  Served on ice with an orange wedge, and maybe some lemon, it’s an awesome drink for a sunny Italian late-afternoon/early-evening.  Here it is usually served alongside a bowl of salty potato chips and maybe, if things are really going your way, some delicious olives.

When Mrs. NH goes to Italy, she also drinks vino and birra but loves, more than most anything, the cool, mellow flavor of an Aperol Spritz.  Served in a stemmed glass and of a lighter, bubblier, sweeter shade than the Negroni, it’s the perfect drink for all the ladies out there.  It’s a mix of Aperol (a bitters) and Prosecco.  It is also served with the orange wedge (blood orange in Sardegna) and is just a touch more elegant than the gin-sporting Negroni.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of ladies out there that would say they like Negronis just as much or more than a Spritz – that’s fine.  Just telling you how it works in the NH house.

However, if you ever find yourself in a sunny, secluded corner of an Italian town on a warm Spring day, order a Negroni or an Aperol Spritz.  Don’t tell them NotHemingway sent you because I’m sure they don’t remember me.