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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)

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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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Lentil Tales of Autumn (And Sausage Sunsets)

Salsiccia con Lenticchie (Sausage with lentils), a guest post by Gillian Nevers

I used to wonder why I started to crave sausages and lentils in the fall, just as the leaves on the trees began to change color. For a while I thought it was because of their palate – lentils range in colors from yellow to red-orange to green to brown and, even black – or their earthy taste. Then, one day while looking through photos taken on one of many trips to the Abruzzo, I came upon several taken at an autumn picnic next to a small, wetland refuge near Capestrano. I think it was the day after Emily’s birthday, but I’m not sure. However, I am sure that among all the wonderful things we ate that day, my favorite was the salsiccia con lenticchie, prepared by my dear friend, the late Linda Mantini.

Linda and Dan near Capestrano, 2010 picnic

We worked off a wonderful lunch of party left-overs, with a stroll around a little lake, attempting to identify a variety of water birds. Then we drove into Capestrano for cafe and gelato. While the rest of the family sat outside the bar soaking up what was left of the afternoon sun, Silvia and I walked across the square to a small shop. It was one of those dark little places you enter through a swinging tile curtain. An unmemorable place, except for the calendar of Mussolini displayed along with pope and kitten calendars, and a bushel of brown lentils on the floor in front of the counter. Silvia insisted on buying five kilos of the lentils for me. Knowing I was flying home in a few days, and worried about luggage weight restrictions, I protested. When Silvia said she would keep half, I agreed. Now, I regret not having taking all five kilos, as those lentils were some of the best I’ve every eaten and would have been worth the extra baggage charge!

Emily below CapestranoBack home, I searched through my Italian cookbooks for a recipe that came close to Linda’s. Everywhere I looked, the ingredients were things I could source locally, except for the sausage—it’s hard to find a coil of luganega, especially on short-notice, in Madison, Wisconsin. So, I substituted Italian sausage—a mix of hot and mild—from Fraboni’s, a family-owned Italian deli that’s been in Madison as long as I can remember (when I gave birth to Joshua forty-plus years ago, my friend Kathy smuggled prosciutto, crusty bread and gorgonzola into my hospital room, so I wouldn’t starve)! I served my version of salsiccia con lenticchie to friends who would later join us on a hiking and cooking trip in the Abruzzo.

Linda-inspired pasta & lentils

Every fall, when I get the urge to make salsiccia con lenticchie, it seems to strike me on the day I MUST eat it. So, I have to use what sausage is close at hand. In addition to Italian sausage, I’ve tried American brats, local pork sausage, and Spanish Chorizo. All add their own character to the dish, but no matter the sausage I use, my version never comes close to Linda’s.

Here’s my improvised version:

  • 3/4 pound brown lentils
  • 2 ounces chopped pancetta or smoked bacon
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finally chopped
  • 4 to 8 pure pork sausages – If you can find luganega, that’s the best.
Soffritto

Soffritto

Soak the lentils for about an hour. Fry pancetta or bacon until the fat melts. Add onion, garlic and celery and cook until soft. Add the drained lentils and cover with water. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until tender. In the meantime, roast, fry or grill the sausage.

Serve the sausages on a bed of lentils.

(Editor’s note…if you want it spicy, add hot peppers, and if you want to prepare long before serving, cut the sausage into inch-long chunks and mix into the pot of lentils, cover and keep warm until serving).

Carbonara and Muse

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Oh, by the way, hospital food is not good the world over, Silvia and I snuck prosciutto, good bread and gorgonzola into the hospital when Sofia and Emily were born, it’s still my ultimate comfort food, 42 years on. – Joshua

Lentils, Sausage, Fall Sun and Abruzzo Mountain Air Are Good For You

A Plate of Salsiccie e Lenticchi and il Gran Sasso

Carbonara and Muse

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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Mozzarella Cheese on FoodistaMozzarella Cheese


Hard White Weat

Zaffè, when impure coffee is purely satisfying.

Saffron Seduction III – Coffee Consciousness VI

I usually like my coffee black, be it a good American brew or Italian espresso. I understand the appeal of massively large thermal cups with some sort of warm concoction with coffee hidden away somewhere, but it’s hard for me to really consider it coffee. For me it’s coffee like coffee cake is coffee. Something related and even enjoyable, but not the same.

I do make exceptions when a spice or some other flavoring that sparked colonial expansion, pirates, or just very long journeys on camels or wooden sailing ships. Chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and similar concoctions are permitted, because they are part of the same tradition.
There is one spice that still commands the same astronomical prices per gram as it did at the height of the spice rush that sent Christopher Columbus sailing. Saffron. Real saffron, especially that from places like the Navelli high plain just outside L’Aquila, is quoted at over 2500 a kilo this year (about 4000$ a kilo. That’s about 25 euros (40$) per paper clip in weight. Fortunately, you don’t need that much of the little red threads to taste it. And, unlike other costly products from flowers, it’s safe and legal.

San Pio delle Camere is the largest town in the saffron-growing plains around Navelli. It has a real supermarket, a large hardware store, a florist, a bar that serves pizza by the slice and many other amenities that the medieval hill towns surrounding it lack. When the extended family is in town for the holidays, it’s where we go for supplies.

I was on a supply run, when the pangs of espresso abstinence started creeping over me. So, as soon as my daughter and I had finished loading the groceries into the car, we hopped over to the bar.

Zaffè! in San Pio delle Camere, Abruzzo

It was one of those moments when I wanted something more than just an espresso pick me up, but smaller than a cappuccino and different than a veneziano, so I asked for suggestions. “That’s easy, the barista replied, a zaffè”

I didn’t watch the entire process, but it’s basically an espresso with cappuccino foam and, somehow, a noticeably but not overpowering flavor of real saffron. I peaked over the barista’s shoulder as she plucked a red strand of Navelli saffron from a little jar and positioned it on its foamy bed. The look of the zaffè” was inspired by Fontana or Mirò and the flavor was also a bit artsy – fun from time to time, but not the way I want my daily coffee. Perfect for when I want something special.

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Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

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Italian Coffee on FoodistaItalian Coffee

Yellow Pasta Geometry.

Saffron Seduction II

The first time I saw real, raw saffron my host and cook was holding up the tiny ruby filaments up in the middle of the kitchen like it was some newly unearthed relic: “Behold, red gold” I’m not sure he really said that, but memories are there to be embellished.

Joshua at Irene's communion

He was actually talking about how hard it was to find in that form; it was over twenty years ago in the midwest. I’m assuming that in 20 years Madison, Wisconsin has come a long way in easy access to an ever wider array of spices, but that does not dethrone the importance of great, and by that I mean real and uncut, saffron.

What's a party in Abruzzo without Montepulciano?

That night saffron and the best Valencian paella ever cooked on a frigid December evening are still with me and I wonder how many dinners are preludes to where our life will be going later. When that paella evening happened I had already lived a year in Bologna, Italy, where I had begun my transition away from my picky eater past by wandering the open air market on via Sant’Apollonia or the traditional, closed market near Piazza Maggiore. I had discovered fresh fennel and rosemary, both sweet blood and sour Sicilian oranges, dozens of varieties of new tomatoes (new to me, at least). It was discovery with an open nose and a closed budget. Real saffron would have to wait – and the Paella on the tour through Spain lived down to it’s price on the menu.

When I walk with friends or family through the mountain town of Navelli, I’m reminded that the arches, carved doorways and stone-paved streets were all built on saffron, as were many of the buildings and churches in L’Aquila and the surrounding towns scarred and broken by the quake almost two years ago.

Saffron Maltagliatti

Saffron is a traditional crop here in Abruzzo, but not a traditional ingredient. Local cooks have however been busily developing new ways to make up for lost time. L’Antica Taverna in Navelli adds it to their version of Maccheroni alla Boscaiola; long egg maccheroni with sausage, and mushrooms. They also do wonderful things with local black truffles
Saffron is a spice that is sometimes at its best when carrying a dish on it’s own – like in Risotto alla Milanese – or dancing with at most one other decisive partner, like at Irene’s first communion dinner.

That day this Autumn Irene and her friends ran around the restaurant looking like maidens in an old pastoral painting, dressed in white with flowers braided into her short dark hair. She presided over the children’s table at La Mora Nera just outside of L’Aquila like Alice having tea with the Doormouse and Mad Hatter. She and her mother chose the menu together, so there was a particular tension towards the simplicity that smaller children often insist on. This can lead towards a few gems.

Maltagliatti up close and personal

The prize this time was maltagliatti and saffron. This simple, very essential dish, was a plate of roughly diamond shaped homemade pasta in a balanced Navelli saffron béchamel-like sauce (probably based and cow milk ricotta) with slight traces of guanciale (similar to pancetta, which is similar to bacon). I didn’t get a chance to ask the waiters between as overdressed children ran in and out of the restaurant as the friends we share with Irene and her mom talked about other great meals and rebuilding plans. I’ll just have to go back.

And so will you.

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Other great simple dishes that day

L'Aquila style potato gnocchi with a light meat sauce


Great grilled meats too....

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Maccheroni on Foodista

Bad Crêpes and Beauties in Berets

Cheap on the Nutella leaves Paris crêpes a little flat.

When I was growing up Nutella was almost impossible to find the U.S.A, at least it had not yet arrived in the upper Midwest. The stories of Nutella that my friends who had spent time in Europe mad this mysterious chocolate paste seem larger than life.
Legend, fortunately, is often based on fact. And the fact is that this creamy paste made of blended sugar, chocolate powder, hazel nuts, vegetable oil and powdered milk is hard to resist. They sell it as breakfast food – advertised in Europe much as cornflakes are advertised in America – as part of a balanced breakfast for children and athletes. You can also find it in deserts, cakes, as a pizza topping and any other way you can imagine.

World Nutella Day (Feb )

Its versatility makes it all he more dangerous. Especially since all you really need is a spoon or, even better, your finger. The saltiness adds an earthy accent to it’s flavor (try it on salted crackers or a pretzel if you want, or any way your naughty little mind imagines). Late night snacking and a few more ounces of body fare are only a jar twist away – but at least you’ll sleep with contented grin.
Another legend back then was that the crêpes you bought in the streets of Paris were the best in the world. This might have been true in the 80’s, but this Summer my Nutella crêpe devouring daughters were not thrilled to discover that street vendors in Pescara, Rome or L’Aquila (even post-earthquake) make better Nutella crêpes than the dozen we tried all over Paris.

Emily in Paris (the Crepe Revolutionary)

There are two reasons for this. First, to save time very few of them will whip them up from batter to crêpe in front of you – they will try to throw a pre-made one on before you can protest (if they even have any fresh batter left). And half of the joy is the texture and crisp doughy warmth of a freshly formed and folded crêpe.
The other half is how much Nutella is used and how it is spread along the almost cooked crêpe. Of course purists would say that Nutella came after the legend – and they can be tasty with chocolate syrup, marmalade or just powdered sugar. But Nutella has a habit of nudging aside tradition and grabbing your attention.
Our street vendors in L’Aquila not only pour the mixture on the hot plate in front of you, adding to the wonder as the simplest ingredients evolve before you eyes, but they spread on the Nutella before the first fold so that there are more layers alternation from pastry to Nutella and back. In Paris the spreading only occurs when it is already folded in half. Only the vendor on the side of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés kept to the script on freshly poured, half moon crêpe building (but he was cheap on the Nutella).

Four wonderful sights

Fortunately there is much more to Paris than a loss of respect for visiting crêpe-eaters, so a few touristy purchases of berets and postcards or an improvised musical puppet show on the Metrò later and the disappointment would fade away.
Besides, there was a jar waiting for us when we got home.


February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

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Crêpe on FoodistaCrêpe

Nutella on FoodistaNutella

Hazelnuts on Foodista

I'm Louvreing it