Category Archives: Restaraunts

Stubborn September Summer

Good Gelato Goes Well With Anytime

Mid-september is when they start taking down the umbrella farms that cover the long sandy beaches that stretch up and down the Abruzzo coast. The crowds of people tempting skin cancer, like many of our fake-palm tree neighbors or hiding in the shade (me) are giving way leaving behind the few of us who insist on ignoring Fall home chores to keep their feet in the salty sand.

It’s dusk today and although the shadows are long the sun still seers, forcing me to turn my shirt-collar up. The waves are just strong enough to compete with the din of scattered card players getting in one last game of Burraco or Briscola before the games must be moved indoors until Spring.

I’m allergic to cards, so I have to fight against the coming Autumn my own way. The choice fell, of course, on the best gelato on this part of Pescara’s northern riviera.

Plinius has always been one of the neighborhood’s more consistent beachfront concessions and it’s seafood restaurant, unlike many in this tourist town, is open all year round. This year they teamed up with downtown Pescara’s upstart artisanal gelato and espresso bar “L’Altro Gelato e Caffe”. The mother store, in Piazza Salotto in the heart of the main evening passeggiata street and square (look up “Piazza della Rinascita”, the square’s official name, if checking on a map) goes out of its way to make tasty, rich gelato with local fruits, Sicilian almonds or pistachios or chocolate and vanilla from Madagascar. The coffee is arguably the best in town, although only one varietal at a time makes it the mile-or-so up the Adriatic coast to the Plunius.

Tell me then, who is enjoying this September Sunday evening more: my friends and family playing cards around the beach cot to my left; or me, with my feet in the cool sand as I gaze towards Dalmatia (too far away too see across the soft waves) and slowly savor Italian ice cream with ingredients from the Indian Ocean?

Or does it really matter?

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Prawns of My Grandfather

Seafood and a Sunday Stroll Along Naples’ New Traffic-free Waterfront

Today I was stranded in Naples. A business trip to Puglia all Saturday kept me in town today and far away from Silvia, Sofia and Emily. There are worst fates, but even if

Castel dell’Ovo, Naples (Capri on the horizon)

I was the first civilian visitor to the moon if it was Sunday I would still rather be with them in Pescara biking along the Adriatic Sea towards pizzette at Trieste or just a ride over the pedestrian bridge to the sailboats docked on on the other side.

Hungry for family but nothing else I headed out this morning to explore the new traffic-free miles of Naples’s waterfront stretching from my apartment here towards Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Borgo Marinara. The waterfront is almost the same as has been for decades, what is new is what it is missing.

Traffic.

Naples traffic-less waterfront, from Via Partenope to Mergellina

Almost a month after this stretch of waterfront was closed to traffic to host the America’s Cup catamaran regattas, the sports villages and tents are gone but the city decided to keep the cars away anyway. It has caused the traffic to build up elsewhere but now Naples now has one of Europe’s longest and most beautiful downtown pedestrian rivieras. And it makes hanging along the seaside on Sunday a dream (and walking home from the office on a Tuesday evening a pleasure).

Neapolitan’s love their cars but those who live and work in this area are quickly catching on and the waterfront has come alive. With no plans for the day I set out along the 3-km (2miles) boulevard towards the Castle that has attracted four generations of my family to this city that too many people foolishly fear. It took over two hours with detours into the Villa Comunale park and a climb along the massive white stones of the Rotonda Diaz breakwater. Familes, groups of kids from elementary school to their twenties fooling around on the beach, couples hand-in-hand, families on rented rickshaws were all around me. I even passed a family taking first communion photos of their two young daughters in white dresses and flowers in their hair. About half way along a young man was on his knees, holding the hand of a young woman sitting on the wall, their forms so sweet and intense that even out the corner of my eye I knew he was proposing. So much everyday living theatre in this beautiful natural cinemascope soundstage.

La Scialuppa on Borgo Marinaio, Naples

As I walked over the bridge towards the castle, Ipassed the sailboats towards the restaurants in Borgo Marinaro the sounds of a jazz group was singing Italian and American standards between the the tables of the restaurants made the walk to my goal and the wait for my table that much more pleasant.

La Scialuppa is one of Naples’s oldest restaurants. Its menu says it’s been serving locals and travelers since the unification of Italy in 1860. My history with the place goes back two generations because my grandfather Richard (“Dick” to most of the people who knew him here in Italy) would always eat most of his meals in Naples when he came almost every spring for twenty years. I’m not even a smidgen Italian-american, but I grew up with his gifts and stories from Italy and Graka – our family name for him, is a big part why I’m here and who I am. And his meals and friendship with the Starita family that run the Scialuppa are part of those stories.

Paccheri con Polipetti e Gamberi (La Scialuppa, Naples)

While La Scialuppa is, as some critics accuse, also up-market draw for tourists staying in the hotels across the footbridge, it’s one that is easy to be drawn back to for the food, wine, and beauty of eating surrounded by sailboats under the shadow of a mediaeval castle. As you would expect for a restaurant in a place who’s name means “sailor town”, seafood is king on the menu. I resisted the urge for sautéed shellfish – not easy as mountainous plates passed by me as I sat down – and I went for paccheri (very large flat rings of pasta) with little octopus, shrimp and and baby tomatoes. As I dug in I remembered that growing up I would have never eaten anything with tentacles or an exoskeleton, now I love them, especially when washed down with their excellent house white wine. I followed with a plate of frittura di paranza (a random mix of small fried fish and squid), all of it fresh and tasty.

Frittura di paranza (La Scialuppa, Naples)

It’s also in the little things that La Scialuppa touches home – the bread basket included thick slices of neapolitan wood-oven pan cafone bread and neapolitan taralli (ring shaped hard bread that are a bit oilier than their counterparts in Puglia). The sorbetto, a champaign flute of a soft, frozen lemon concoction, hid wild strawberries (visible) and a hint of cedro (the big, sweet cousin of

Lemon sorbetto with wild strawberries

Sorbetto al limone con fragoli di bosco (La Scialuppa, Naples)

lemons and limes used in fancy perfumes).
And last but not least, I could leave thanking Salvatore, who still remembers when he was a little boy and my Graka – his “Dick Bell di Wauwatosa – would come to his father’s restaurant in the Spring.

Fragoline di bosco in sorbetto al limone (La Scialuppa, Naples)

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Meal’s end (La Scialuppa, Naples)

Mortadella Below Mount Etna

More Proof that Love is the Best Ingredient

I’ve been trying to spend some time in Catania for years, but it has always eluded me.  I had come close last Spring when I spoke briefly at two conferences on venture capital in Palermo and Catania, but that time didn’t count – we had driven through town on our way to a spectacular hotel and convention center in the northern suburb of Aci Castello.  I had the joy of a quick hour spent in barefoot and in dark blue suit looking across the Messin straits before the conference and a quick dash to the airport.  My only consolation for the missed opportunity was a little jar of Bronte pistachio pesto from Nonna Vincenza.

Last friday was another hit-and-run trip to speak at a conference in eastern Sicily’s unofficial capital, but this time the flight schedule in and out of Naples were clement and I had enough time to dip my toes into a sea of potential discoveries, which was not easy because in Italy’s smaller cities even the cathedral is closed for lunch between 1 and 3 pm.  Food for the eyes and soul will have to wait for another visit.

Not so for food, on advice from a friend I had myself dropped off in front Savia, a famous pastry shop and café where I grabbed an amazing aranicino alla catanese (fried rice ball with eggplant, cheese and I believe tiny pieces of prosciutto cotto ham) and strolled slowly down via Etnea towards the Duomo (Cathedral) and university at the other end, taking in shop windows and sicilian baroque facades.

The tiny streets surrounding the covered Sant’Agata covered market between the Duomo and the elevated train tracks towards the sea are a foodie’s paradise:  seafood in a rich variety of colors, shapes and sizes (the tuna and swordfish called out to me saying “grab a big lemon and a knife and just come to me!), local cheeses, butcher shops specializing in lamb, carts full of local produce.  Little eateries were carved small nooks along the stone wall in fish market…but I wasn’t ready to eat just then.

Eventually my wandering took me up the slow slope of Via Garibaldi because I had heard there was a castle up that way (I‘m a sucker for castles) and stumbled upon one of Catania’s many under-appreciated gems: Piazza Mazzini.

Piazza Mazzini’s is a small square sliced into quarters by Via Garibaldi and Via Auteri.  Each corner had an a simple sicilian-style arcade supported by what appeared to ancient greek and roman columns that were a bit worse for wear The winter sun was warm and three of the corners had restaurant-bars with tables outside and a few people milling about.  I chose the Vineria e Trattoria Da Vincenzo because the heavy wooden tables outside were different shapes and colors and spread out like scratched treasures at an old neighbor’s garage sale.

After a bit of give and take with the waiter (the only person working that day) I was talked into a mortadella sandwich with a touch of olive oil, fresh hot pepper and herbs to transform a cold cut that is usually special only up around Bologna (in fact, its poorer, inbred cousin is what we call Bologna – or Boloney – in America).  I had him suggest a glass of white wine from the slopes of Etna because I love the mineral tones of white wines grown on volcanic soils.  But what really blew me away was the panino’s bread – dense, just moist enough, slightly yellow as tough durum wheat and traces of finely ground corn flower had been woven into it.  The bread itself was a full meal and the dough a blend of milled grains.  The waiter told me he had tasted breads for weeks before choosing this bread and it’s bakery.  He also uses it for olive-pate toasted crostini.  He spoke of the bread as though he was telling me about choosing the perfect puppy to take into the family

He also told me that the columns in Piazza Mazzini were taken from ancient ruins when the square was build, long before cars.

 

 

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Drinking With the Enemy – Could Starbucks Make it in Italy?

Beware of Yanks Bearing Pastries (and Free Wi-fi)

Emily loves Starbucks, which is not easy for her because we live in a country without a single Starbucks: Italy.  She was 11 when she first tried a Mocha Frappuccino.  We were at the Louvre in Paris resting between visiting exhibits and the line was short so I grabbed their largest size, a Venti, and we passed it around the whole family.  It didnt seem like I was acting against my love of Italian coffee, because I wasn’t thinking of it as a coffee drink at all.  It was a light dessert drink (light because there were four of us).

Emily in Geneva (Starbucks?)

Starbucks has since become one of her minor fixations – and she forced us to take her to one in both Chicago and Geneva. Like many adolescent Italians she has her favorite bits of american popular culture and where in the 80s and 90’s she might have chosen Levi’s and McDonalds, she likes Abercombie & Fitch and Starbucks.

She was therefore quite let down when she found out that the advertising poster announcing the imminent arrival of a Starbucks store last week in Milan was just a prank by a design student (who, by his youtube video, seems to really want a Starbucks to come to Italy).  Thousands of Italians and Italy-lovers fell for the provocation, and virtually no-one had a mild opinion on it. What was also striking that a store that does not even exist in Italy is so well known – even hated or loved – here.

Emily in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Although Starbucks is inspired by Italian coffee culture, it is in essence an American model – from the sizes of the drinks to the recognizability of their stores throughout the world. Entering into one of their stores is however an experience light years away from what would happen most coffee joints in Rome or Milan.  The Italian relationship with coffee is different as defenders of true espressos and cappuccinos claim very different, and it has nothing to do with drinking out of disposable cups.  Most of it boils down to image and price.

But all need not be lost for the Seattle-based chain. If they do decide one day to break into Italy the price of failure for a company that says it draws inspiration from Italy would be high.  It can be done, if the corporation is willing to turn its business model on its head.

Sofia in Chicago (Starbucks?)

Three reasons why Starbucks would fail in Italy with its current model and two ways it could succeed.

Why it could fail: 

1) Cost. Not that Italians are cheap. At home or abroad they will go out of their well to spend a fortune on quality food and drink, especially if it familiar to them. But staple foods – pasta, olive oil, bread, coffee, and others are a more delicate matter. They will pay for high quality pasta made from the perfect mix of grains that is cut with bronze-edged tools and then slowly dried in the cool micro-climes found in the mountains in Abruzzo (De Cecco and others) or in the rising lands near Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking Naples that destroyed Pompei (Gragnano), but the everyday pasta found on every corner store also has to be excellent AND affordable. It’s the same with espresso and other traditional italian ways of drinking coffee – they will pay for the right mix of caffè bar real estate and selected beans, but even in the best parts of Rome an excellent espresso will rarely go over 1,10 a shot at the bar.

2) Size.  At most java shops in the US, not just at Starbucks, the small espressos are too big and watered out.  Of course it you are paying three to five times as much as they are used to back on the Boot, the temptation to get a lot bang for your buck is strong for Italians too.  Most Europeans, however, don’t binge their favorite poison.  (A glass of wine or a beer with lunch on a workday is still considered as normal as drinking water).

3) Simplicity.  Drinking coffee is an essential experience, a simple excuse for a break in the day to recharge both physically and mentally, either through a moment alone, or a quick pause to shoot the breeze with a friend or coworker. Not that there are not choices –  ceramic or glass, sweetened naturally, synthetically or bitter, a touch or milk, etc. – and they can speak volumes about a person.

I had a colleague who’s order – an caffè d’orzo (not really coffee but a roast barley coffee substitute), a small shot in a large cup with extra hot water, warm milk and unrefined sugar on the side… i would get a black unsweetened espresso (“caffé normale”) just to realign the heavens

It’s also usually a short experience (it’s called “espresso” for a reason), unless it’s one of those rare moments when you sit down and hang out with a friend for a while.  Coffee in Italy is simple and elegant, if not sweet.

Christmas edition cup

They could succeed by playing to their strengths:  the desserts and the ambiance.

1) Desserts.   Last time I was with Emily & Sofia in a Starbucks not far from Watertower place in Chicago I chatted with the barista (it was an off-peak hour on an August Saturday.  He confirmed my suspicion that most Italians that came through stayed away from  espresso, cappuccino, and their Starbucks derivatives.  They preferred normal brew coffee if caffeine was their goal. But the loved the pastries (muffins, banana-bread, cookies, scones) and sweeter milk-based concoctions (“Frappuccinos” and their ilk). The solution could be to turn the menu and the marketing upside down. Starbucks in Italy would be an up-market pastry-shop and gelateria that also sold international sandwiches and salads and milkshake-like drinks with coffee, if you really insist, to go with it.

2) Ambiance & comfort.  Although coffee is quick-fire experience, it is one of the few things they like doing in a hurry (driving is the other).  And despite their love for hanging out with friends and strangers there are surprisingly few places that offer a calm, relaxing environment with couches, free wi-fi, and big windows to the street in front of you.  And it goes well beyond hanging out and snacking. Just like the places where Starbucks is strong a working people are always on the lookout for good place to wait between business meetings or eve to hold them, and too many bars in Italy are just not comfortable enought.

Or cool.

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A Slice of History – Pizza Where (They Say) it All Began

Enjoying the oldest tourist trap in naples.

There are two things that Neapolitans all seem to be experts on: espresso and pizza. I have known people from Naples who brought their own tap water north to Italy’s fashion capital because they were convinced that it’s just not the same without their water.

The water idea is a bit overblown, but in the right place, I have tasted some of the best espresso in the world here (Bar Mexico in Piazza Garibaldi across from the main train station is one of the best http://wp.me/pfkhI-70 ). The real question is, can we really tell the difference between an excellent neapolitan pizza and a sublimely excellent neapolitan pizza? And if we cant’ get the best, is it really such a tragedy to settle for excellent?

Pizza at Brandi......

For some people living under the shadow of Vesuvius, it is. Which is why they frown on Brandi.

Brandi, on a side street of via Chiaia, not far from the San Carlo opera house and the Royal Palace, claims to be the place that made the first pizza named for Queen Margaret of Savoy, Italy’s queen in 1889. The “pizza margherita” is pizza at it’s most basic and essential – dough, mozzarella, tomato sauce, a drop of oil and a few basil leaves to give it the three colors of the Italian flag. Choice ingredients are one of the reasons why it can be so good: buffalo mozzarella from the town of Aversa and tomatoes gown in soil embedded with volcanic ash from Vesuvius are a large part of it. The art of the the few pizzaioli (pizza-makers) who know the exact mixture of flour the best timing for the yeast according to the weather can take whole mix over the top to pizza heaven.

Pizza and fried antipasti at Brandi, Via chiaia

Brandi, despite the history, is not considered the pinnacle of pizzerie like olther famous places like Da Michele, Starita and Sorbillo by the pizza lovers I know here.

In fact, among many it’s reputation in town is not very good. It appears for years it rested on the laurels of history and the convenience of its location and forgot the pizza part. But other friends her have reminded me they got their act together and have talented pizza makers again.

Which is good because the last time my girls were in town with me we happened to be around the corner from Brandi in Piazza Plebiscito just when our sore feet and grumbling stomachs caught up to us. It was early – only 8 p.m. – so we were able to swing the impossible on a Saturday night: the last of the eight little tables outside on the street. We ordered a plate of fried antipasti and four Pizza Margheritas. The two old men singing and serenading the guests had the place as their official territory, making their presence more friendly and less imposing and, of course, we sang along. The atmosphere was both touristy and authentic, and above all fun.

PIzza Margherita yum

Were we missing the best pizzas the world has to offer? Probably. But as we nibbled away at our our excellent pizzas in the cool evening air, we really didn’t care.


Antica Pizzeria – Ristorante Brandi, Salita S. Anna di Palazzo (on the corner of via Chiaia) http://www.brandi.it, Tel 081- 416928
Brandi dates back to 1780, but under another name.

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Hard White Weat

How Not To Lose weight – Aperitivi at Caffè Venezia

There’s no more free lunch they say, but are they right?

Today Italy celebrates its 150 year anniversary as a unified nation. So everyone had a day off. This weeks forecast of week of constant rain was wrong for the first half of the day at least, so the four of us walked down town to look for an Italian flag.

And of course, around lunchtime, we got hungry. But not enough for dinner. So we decided to toast in Unity Day at Caffè Venezia.

Caffè Venezia prosecco cocktail


I first heard about Pescara’s Caffè Venezia in the months after l’Aquila’s earthquake. It was late April 2009 and tens of thousands of us were dazed April guests in summer hotels and apartments up and down the Adriatic. Our hotel-refuge, “Nel Pineto” was in Montesilvano, a northern suburb of Pescara separated from the sea by a sandy strip shaded by centuries old pine trees. It was much better than the tent cities our former neighbors were enduring back home but, as anyone who has ever visited a major summer sea and sand tourist stop in winter can tell you, it can feel pretty isolated. Evening visits to modern downtown Pescara (Abruzzo’s largest city) was the closest escape from the lobby we had.

Caffè Venezia snackplate

During our first weeks there the legend of the aperitivo at Caffè Venezia had already started to spread, at least in our hotel. And there was one reason – the snack plate. When you’ve been shaken, getting a huge plate of pizza and fried snacks with your drinks can feel like fresh water after a dry desert trek.

Caffè Venezia and Love

Bar Venezia is the city’s downtown food service juggernaut (steamroller). Other places may be cozier, closer to the sea, serve more creative food and cocktails or have a better wine list. But the Venezia wins in size and scope while somehow also being good. Nothing amazing, just good. On the inside there’s a pastry shop with amazing ice cream and chocolates as well, it also has pizzas by the slice and a cafeteria serving local dishes and seafood enticing enough to make me hungry while walking through on a full stomach

Caffè Venezia aftermath

I still, however, have not yet gone beyond eating and drinking what makes it to the sea of tables outside. The cocktail list is long but I usually end up with the fruity house cocktail with a dash or prosecco or an Aperol spritz, but my main goal, like that of my post-earthquake companions almost two years ago, is the complimentary food plate. A mountain of pizzette, miniature panzerotti (little deep fried pizza pockets) and a dozen other fried and oven-baked delights. Not good for the waistline, but comforting.

Work and parenting make my pre- lunch or dinner aperitivo escapes few and far between (Although my teenage daughters do agree to a non-alcoholic escape with there dad from time to time).

But it at least when we want to celebrate after a walk to downtown Pescara we know where we can sit oustide all year round and toast the day.

Pescara’s Caffè Venezia

Caffè Venezia, Pescara

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Deep Fried Balls of Sunshine

Palermo Has Changed for the Better, and the Arancini are Still Awesome

Over twenty years ago during college I spend a few weeks traveling in Sicily by train and ferry. It was just before All Saints day and there and the first cool autumn rains were signaling that, even on an island just of the coast of Tunisia, Summer does end. I was in Palermo for only three days on that trip and my views then were mixed. So much of the city was breathtaking, a swirl of ancient Greece, Arab domination, Norman invasion and dozens of other chapters of human history permeated the streets of the city.

Maybe it was incessant drizzle or maybe it was the “unconventional” business climate that so many of the shopkeepers were working under, but I did not always feel that welcome when I went into the shops looking for something to eat. But even if the sellers were often surly, sometimes their aranicini made me feel welcome anyway.

Arancino ragout at Bar Alba, Palermo

Aranicini, basically fried, filled rice balls, can be found in street food places up and down the boot and they can be tasty elsewhere, but somehow I’ve never found one as good as any of those I ate during that trip, with the sole exception of the ones I’ve had coming back to Palermo two decades later.

In my three trips back this year Palermo has given me completely different sensation. People are engaging everywhere, even taxi drivers, and every downtown neighborhood seems to have an area where you can enjoy hanging out at night. I’ve found good pizza and rediscovered amazing almond and ricotta based pastries, but I’ve been longing for arancini.

The most traditional arancini are filled with either a meat and sweet pea ragout or béchamel and prosciutto, but you can find store specialties with other fillings. They can be small, like the ones I had as appetizers at the Foccacceria San Francesco a few months back, but the softball-sized ragout arancini are still my favorite. I think you can only fully grasp the importance of eating real Sicilian arancino if you hold it in you hand and bite in. Popping one into your mouth is too similar olive ascolane (which much better in their Ascoli Piceno birthplace or in Amatrice than anywhere else) to have their own magic.

A Great Fried Ball, Bar Alba, Palermo

Last week at my insistence Italo took us to the Pasticceria Alba on our way home. Alba is a full-service bar and pastry shop with an elegant glass corner with table service. There were other distractions – even a sweet basil pesto arancino – but we were able to stick to our goal and I had my long-awaited ragout Sicilian arancino (and a glass of Nero D’Avola red wine). Part of their secret is that they usually made them every few hours.

I was happy, but being from Palermo, my guide had other motives for choosing Albe – their ice cream is, well, dreamy sandwiched inside a brioche bun. But I’ll write more on Palermo’s frozen treats later on.

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Pasticceria Alba http://www.pasticceriaalba.it/newpasticceriaalba_en.html; also http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=86980155573&v=wall&viewas=0

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