Saturday, August 17, 2013

10 Days of Italian Paradise

My mom (aka Pammers, aka BFF) and I had the pleasure of spending 10 days eating, touring and frolicking throughout Italy. And for 10 days, I ate more bread, pasta and cheese than I ever had in my entire life. It was so worth it. The quality of fresh ingredients is outstanding, and it’s obvious how much we “Americanize” traditional Italian dishes here. After walking all over Rome, Florence and Sorrento in 97+ degree heat, I didn’t feel one bit guilty about indulging. And I didn’t have a bad meal.

Like the Germans, Italians begin their day with extremely strong coffee – cappuccino in my case – and a variety of cold cuts and sweets. I chuckled whenever I saw a sign offering a “big American breakfast” – including, eggs, bacon and sausage. I enjoyed my European yogurt and thinly shaved Pecorino each morning, and couldn’t get enough of the juicy, perfectly ripened Nectarines!

There is one truth that unites all of Italy: wine is plentiful and delicious, and house wine is cheaper than water. I’m struggling to decide which of the cities was my favorite, but when it comes to food, there is no contest: Rome has the best. My first meal really stuck with me – Rigatoni all’Amatriciana, sprinkled with salty Parmesan - OH the PARMESAN! There are recipes all over the internet for this tomato-based sauce, with red pepper flakes and pancetta. This was my favorite meal of the trip. I was also eager to try Cacio e Pepe after hearing Tony Bourdain rave about it on his episode of No Reservations: Rome. Unfortunately, it was a rare find on menus, and our encounters with it weren’t that mind-blowing. But who doesn’t love buttery, cheesy noodles? I was just looking for something unique. Enter Tripe. I was very pleased with my first experience with it. If you aren’t sure what Tripe is, Google it. The red sauce masked any unfriendly flavors, but it was indeed chewy. Probably best described using the words of my mother: “I’m not really sure what I’m eating.”

Over the course of the trip, we sampled three variations of pizza. My favorite was in Florence, topped with Eggplant and Olives. The tomato sauce was pure and fresh, the cheese was high-quality and the crust burst with a flavor all of its own. I couldn’t get enough. I was expecting to get the best seafood at the Amalfi Coast in Sorrento, but alas, it was the worst food of the trip. Not that it was bad, but compared to Rome and Florence, it seemed the most touristy and Americanized, ie. ice cubes and lemon slices in the water, and salty peanuts and potato chips as freebies. I was shocked by the number of bones in the fish in Sorrento, and the lack of herbs in the Pesto Ravioli – it was more like green cream. Rome offered a wonderfully grilled Swordfish, topped with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. Add a squirt of lemon and call it perfection on a plate.

I had been dying for a thick wedge of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and finally on the last night, my wish came true. The flavor is so wholesome – salty, crumbly, buttery – it will be impossible to go back to buying the pre-shredded variety in the refrigerated section of Harris Teeter. Other notable dishes include Panzanella (Italian bread soaked in tomato water and tossed with tomatoes, cucumber and onion – WOW), and a vinegary Chickpea salad with red pepper flakes and celery. I’ve never had a flavor bomb in my mouth quite like this. I cannot wait to try and recreate it. Even a common dish, Prosciutto and Melon, seemed decadent.

We sampled Gelato in each of the three cities, and Rome’s offering won. Flavors like Stracciatella, Coconut, Strawberry, White Chocolate, Pistachio and Mint are irresistible, and available on literally every single corner. We were looked at a bit funny when we asked restaurants about having dessert only. After checking with the manager to see if we could even get a table, we were pleased with our Tiramisu, much more so than what you’d find in the States. I wish we could have bar/restaurant-hopped a bit more, like one does here, but I understand that they don’t want to waste a table for just a 4 Euro purchase.

On the evenings we didn’t indulge in Gelato and Tiramisu, we sipped Limoncello, a lemon liqueur produced mainly in Southern Italy and Sorrento. How convenient! We were introduced to a yummy creamy version – it seemed like the love child of Vanilla Gelato and Limoncello, resulting in a cold, milkshake-like experience.

Italy is a foodie’s dream. You’ll never visit the Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill again. In fact, Italy is any vacation-lover’s dream. The art, history, culture and sights are astounding. The Vatican is indescribably grandiose, and the most spectacularly ornate thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Touring the Colosseum, throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain, seeing Michelangelo’s David, cruising the Island of Capri, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea – it will be hard to ever top this experience.

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