20 October 2016

Borough, Mpls revives my faith in sandwiches

I don't usually order sandwiches when I'm out for lunch. It's not that I have anything against sandwiches in principle. It's just that when I'm eating out, I usually prefer something more creative, an entree, or even a salad. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to put some stuff between two slices of bread.

(Exception: Grilled cheese. I LOVE grilled cheese sandwiches.)

Earlier this year, Borough, a restaurant that I really like quite a lot, started serving lunch. So late in summer, when I was downtown during the lunch hour, I decided to give it a try. They have several items on the lunch menu that look good. But for some reason, I decided to try the pastrami sandwich. So glad I did.

Pastrami on Rye at Borough
The pastrami was excellent. Great flavor and very tender. Borough does a nice job with proportions. There's a generous serving of meat on the sandwich, but it's not piled ridiculously high. The sandwich is on a very tasty rye bread that's lightly grilled. Along with the meat on the sandwich is sauerkraut and spicy mustard with a couple of pickle slices on the side. Now this was a sandwich to get excited about. I had a side order of potato salad, made with fingerling potatoes, mustard, egg, celery, and roasted peppers. It was great.

My server was very helpful. I asked him about a catfish sandwich also on the menu. He appropriately raved about it and suggested that I try it on my next visit. So I did. When I was back downtown a few weeks later, I went back to Borough and ordered the catfish sandwich.

Catfish sandwich at Borough
As you can see from the photo, this was a very creative construction. The plank of catfish is blackened and grilled. It straddles two halves of a toasted roll made with goat milk. Piled on the catfish is a generous mound of celery root slaw. There are 3 dabs of hot sauce on the plate and the requisite pickle slices. I loved it. Another excellent, creative and noteworthy lunch that just happens to be a sandwich.

Well, with two great sandwiches in the course of a few weeks, I began to wonder if I've been unfair in my prejudice against ordering sandwiches. So recently, I was shopping at the Ridgedale Mall. It was around lunch time. Ridgedale has several good choices for lunch over and above the offerings in the food court. I've heard good things about Ruscello, the Italian restaurant at Nordstrom's and decided to give it a try. On the menu was a sandwich that sounded good - braised short rib on a baguette. So I ordered it.

Alas. The bread was good. The braised short rib was flavorful. But the sandwich was ... blah. It was just some stuff between two slices of bread. It leads me to conclude that it requires some creativity and finesse to make a sandwich that's worth ordering in a restaurant.

Braised short rib sandwich at Ruscello

18 October 2016

My room with a view

In my whole career, I never had an office with a window. Actually, I guess I'm lucky I even had an office. I understand that the new trend is for something called 'collaborative working environments' and 'nomadic' offices. I'm not sure exactly how it all works, but from what I've heard, you come to the office with your computer and just settle into an open work carrel, or gather round a table with co-workers who are collaborating on a project.

I always tried to be progressive and open to change. I tried to be a champion of more electronic communication and computer technology. (When I retired, I had almost no paper files for the last 7 years of my career. Almost all of my old work records consisted of electronic files stored on my computer.) When I traveled for work, I was pretty comfortable setting up a mobile office in my hotel room. As long as I had a good internet connection, I was able to work and be productive.

But back at the headquarters, I did have an office ... with a door ... that locked. I'm not sure how well I would have accepted giving it up for a permanent nomadic existence. I decorated my office with photos and artwork and plaques and other remembrances. Just no window looking outside.

Now I do. After I retired, I re-purposed a spare bedroom into a home office. I hung some of the same artwork. I put in a nice desk. (It's now almost as cluttered as my desk was at the office.) I have a couch where I sit and read sometimes. I bought a turntable and I play some of my old vinyl records while reading. And there's a big window overlooking my backyard.

Occasionally now, I catch myself gazing out the window. It happened the other day. It was damp and chilly and windy. I watched the autumn leaves tumble to the ground (and started thinking about when I'd have to go out and start raking.)

Actually, it was kind of distracting. Maybe I'm lucky I didn't have a window at work. I probably got more done.

29 August 2016

Postscript: Paris and Italy, Spring 2016

It's been 3 months since my wife and I returned from our 26-day trip to Paris and Italy. I've written separate posts about each of the destinations that we visited. This is an overview of the entire trip with some miscellaneous comments.
We couldn't go to Paris without a pic of the Eiffel Tower

Technology: We took our first trip to Europe for our 25th wedding anniversary in 1999. Of course, I was still working and felt the need to keep in touch. I think I had a cell phone in those days; I can't really remember when I got my first one. But I certainly did not get an international calling plan. Instead, I used a toll-free number to check voice messages back at the office and visited internet cafes to check e-mails.

It's a lot different now. First of all, no more internet cafes. Every place we stayed had free WiFi included with our rooms. We were able to use our iPads to get emails every day plus keep up on news back home, send photos, and check TripAdvisor reviews of restaurants and attractions in the cities we were visiting. At a couple of our hotels, the WiFi connection was not great. But at most of them, it was good enough so that we could even have Face Time chats with our grandchildren back home.

Also, my cellular carrier - Sprint - has a free international plan that I activated before we left for this trip. I had free, unlimited text messages, free, unlimited data (at a reduced speed), and phone calls for 20 cents/minute. Since cellular companies are so competitive, I'm sure that other carriers have similar plans available.

I didn't really use my phone a lot for voice service. But where it really came in handy was being able to use the GPS and mapping apps on the phone for finding our way around. We had a car for about half of the trip. On that first trip back in 1999, we also had a car for a few days driving through Provence in France. My wife was the navigator and I drove (stick shift). We survived, but it was a strain. This time, we used Google Maps and it was fantastic. My wife still was the navigator, and I was still the driver (because the car still had a stick shift). But we plugged the phone into the power port in the car, programmed in our destination, and let the Google voice direct us.

Linda still watched the map on the screen. But for the most part, we relied on the voice directions to tell us where to go. In fact, the only trouble we had was when, for some unexplained reason, Google didn't give us a voice prompt to turn. Linda was watching the map, and she said "I think we should have turned back there." But we'd gotten so confident in the verbal directions that we drove on a few kilometers more before realizing that indeed, we should have turned. In addition, Google Maps helped us find our way while walking, particularly in Rome. I hated to look like a clueless tourist, walking around Rome, holding my phone to get directions. But after getting hopelessly lost on our first day in the city, I did it anyway.
Piedmont was my favorite part of the trip, Barolo wine!

Language: Before our trip, I spent 1-2 hours per day on my computer, working with Rosetta Stone to try to learn a little Italian. I also used Duolingo (a free, online language instruction site). Much to my frustration, it wasn't enough. That's not to say that I was totally clueless. I could pick up occasional words and deduce from context what was being said. By the end of the trip, I was starting to pick up some phrases. But for the most part, I found that either the people we met understood English and if they didn't, I didn't know enough to understand them.

We started our trip in Paris. But since we were only going to be there for 3 days, I didn't bother to study any French. When we arrived, we decided to take the train from the airport to our hotel. We got our tickets just fine and got on the train. But when we got into the city center, the train stopped a few stations short of our destination and everyone got off. A helpful person noticed our confusion and told us that the trains were on strike, and we'd have to find another way to go the rest of the way to our hotel. So we got off the train and found an official-looking person wearing a transit uniform. "Excuse me," I said. "Do you speak English?" "Do you speak French?" he asked me (in perfect English). "No," I admitted. "Not even a little?" he chided me. "No," I said. He sighed and gave me a disapproving look, and then told us where to find the subway to our hotel.

By contrast, in Italy, most of the people we met were apologetic if they didn't understand us. A few times, I would try to ask for something in Italian. They wouldn't understand me. Then I'd switch to English, and we'd be OK.

One more technology tool that helped with language - Google Translate. I used the app on my phone or on my iPad to understand something or to help make myself understood when trying to communicate.
Positano, from the cliffs above the sea

Our itinerary:
Paris - After an overnight flight direct from Minneapolis, we were there for 3 nights. We stayed in a quiet neighborhood just at the edge of the Latin Quarter. The weather was chilly with occasional rain showers. But we had a great time walking around, seeing sights that we'd been to in the past as well as many new sights. Click here for my post on Paris.

Milan - We took a 7-hour train ride from Paris, arriving late in the day. Our hotel was a contemporary business hotel centrally located for most of the things we wanted to see. Besides exploring Milan, we did a day trip to the town of Bellagio on Lake Como. We had one day of heavy rain during our 3-day stay. Click here for my post on Milan and Lake Como.

Lago d'Orta - Besides seeing Lake Como, we wanted to spend some time in the Italian Lakes region. We rented a car in Milan and drove to the town of Orta San Guilio where we spent 3 days relaxing and enjoying the scenic splendor of the lake and quaint little town that doesn't see many American tourists. Click here for my post on Lago d'Orta.

Piedmont - From Orta, we drove to the town of Barolo in the Piedmont region. We stayed for 3 nights at an agriturismo, went wine-tasting, and explored the small towns nearby. We also did a day trip to Turin which was a delightful city (may be worth a return visit some day). Click here for my post on Piedmont.

Cinque Terra - We continued by car from Barolo to Cinque Terra, where we stayed for 2 nights. The main attraction here was to do the scenic hikes between the towns on the coast. The weather was mostly overcast, but that was probably OK. It kept the temperatures cool so that the hiking wasn't so draining. Click here for my post on Cinque Terra.

Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany - We drove from Cinque Terra to another agriturismo in a very small town in the Lazio region, right on the border of Umbria and close to the southern parts of Tuscany. Here we did more wine tasting and explored the small towns in the region. Click here for my post on this part of Italy.

Amalfi Coast - We turned in our car at the train station in Orvieto. After a pretty long day on trains and buses, we arrived at Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. We stayed there for 4 nights, did a lot of hiking in the hills above the sea, did a day trip to see the ruins at Pompeii, and visited several of the other towns on the coast. This part of the trip was similar to Cinque Terra, except that the towns we visited were more sophisticated; there's nothing on Cinque Terra to compare to Positano or Ravello. Between the two regions, I'd go back to the Amalfi Coast in a heartbeat. Click here for my post.

Rome - We concluded our trip with 3 nights in Rome. We walked through the city and saw all the big sights - Vatican Museums, Roman Forum, Jewish Ghetto, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, antiquities everywhere, and great food. Click here for my post on Rome.

In Rome, we saw antiquities everywhere

21 August 2016

St. Genevieve: Come to South Mpls. for a French wine bar

There's a relatively new place in south Minneapolis that's getting a lot of favorable buzz. St. Genevieve is a French wine bar in a quiet residential neighborhood. We had a 7:30 reservation on a Saturday night. So, yeah, they take reservations! Big plus in my book. 

Friends had told us it's quite noisy, and in the entryway, it was. But we were seated at a table near the back, and it wasn't too bad. Probably the most impressive thing was the friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating staff. It was our first time there. The hostess sat down next to us and explained how things work - mostly small plates, encourage sharing, wine by the glass or bottle, half glasses of wine available. Very nice. 

When we had questions about the wine, our server was very helpful - accurately describing the ones we were interested in. We liked our choices. My wife usually shies away from Pinot Noir, but when she inquired about it, the server noted that it's a white Pinot Noir - Pfeffingen blanc de noir. It was actually a German wine, and my wife enjoyed it. I also chose something that I'd never seen before - a rose of cabernet franc (Plouzeau Chinon Rose). It was an easy-drinking wine that went well with our food.

We ordered 4 plates to eat, not knowing if that would be enough or too much. The server asked about food allergies, and my wife said she's sensitive to cilantro. No problem; nothing we ordered had cilantro. Except, a couple minutes later, she reappeared at our table to advise us that one of the items (squid) had cilantro in the marinade. We thanked her and canceled that plate. So we ended up having the Gem salad, and like other reviewers have noted, the kitchen split it for us and sent it out on individual plates. (Very Nice indeed.) We also had the octopus and an order of pommes frites. The salad was ample, as was the serving of fries. Our other plate, the octopus, was quite small. We didn't leave hungry, but we maybe could have had another plate. 

My bottom line - great ambiance, great service, they take reservations, good food, interesting wine selections (and reasonable prices), shared 3 plates between 2 people and 2 and 1/2 glasses of wine for $60 plus a tip.

25 July 2016

Paris, April 26-28: The beginning of a wonderful trip

When we started planning a trip to Europe, our goal from the beginning was Italy. But we decided to make Paris our first stop. We had several good reason. First, we like Paris. Second, it had been a long time since we'd been there. Third, we could take a nonstop flight from Minneapolis to Paris. So, we thought, this would be a nice way to begin the trip, by getting over our jet lag in the City of Light

Of course, we thought a little bit about the possibility of terrorism. We hadn't made our reservation yet when the terrorist attack occurred in November 2015. That caused us to reconsider our plan. But we finally decided that we would stick with the plan. If the situation got more threatening, we could always cancel the Paris segment of our trip. 

Well, the situation in Paris did not get more threatening. The only trouble with our three days in Paris was the weather. It was much chillier than usual for late April, and we had periods of cold rain. One day the rain turned to sleet for a while. But the weather wasn't all bad, and we had periods of bright, crisp sunshine to enjoy walking around the city. (It could have been much worse. A month later, heavy rain caused the Seine to flood and many of the areas where we walked were inaccessible.) 

Thankful for the periods of sunshine in Paris
Oh, we did have one other difficulty. The day we arrived there was a strike in Paris. As a result, it took about an hour to clear Customs at the airport. Then, when we took the RER train into the city, the train stopped two stations short of our destination, and we had to haul our luggage onto a crowded subway to get to our final stop. 

But we did not regret starting out trip in Paris. We enjoyed revisiting parts of the city that we'd been to on previous trips. And we explored some new parts of the city. We revisited a few favorite museums and went to some new ones as well. We had some excellent meals, and we found a couple of jazz venues - one new and a return visit to one we'd been to before. 

Our flight from USA arrived mid-morning. But by the time we got through Customs and dealt with the train strike, it was early afternoon by the time we checked into our hotel. Our plan was to go, go, go so that we would stay awake all day and try to get over jet lag. So after unpacking, we got a sandwich and coffee at a patisserie on the corner, then grabbed our umbrellas and started walking. We walked to the Pantheon, the Luxembourg Garden, saw the Church of St. Sulpice, walked along the Seine River over to the Eiffel Tower, and then went to the Rodin Sculpture Garden on the walk back. According to my activity monitor, we walked 11 miles that first day. 

On Day 2, we started by walking to Marche Monge which was about 2 blocks away. We had read in a guidebook that it was a great neighborhood market. It was cool but we didn't see anything we'd buy on vacation. Then we walked back to a little square near our hotel where we had croissants and espresso. From there we walked the Seine from Notre Dame to the Tuillerie Garden, then thru the garden past the Ferris wheel to Champs D'Elysee. We continued our walk to the Arch d'Triumph and then back toward the Ferris wheel. It rained on us a little, but not dissuaded, we walked to Place de Madeline. Got lunch at a cafe near there and then walked to the Musee de l'Orangerie. The museum was very nice, lots of Monet plus other artists from that era - Picasso, Chagall, etc. We spent about 2 hours in the museum. Total walking distance for the day was 10.6 miles.
Our breakfast cafe

On Day 3, we had breakfast again at the little cafe in the square near our hotel. Then we started walking again. The route we took went passed Notre Dame to Pompedeau Center. We hadn't seen the Center before, and we were surprised that it was such a modern (ugly) building. Then went to Forum des Halles, which we'd heard was a fabulous shopping mall. Sorry, but to us, it was too much like the Mall of America. Instead, we continued our shopping venture along Rue de Rivoli where Linda found some clothing that she bought. Then went to the Jewish Quarter (Rue de Rosiers); many of the delis and cafes were closed for Passover. One falafel stand was open, and it was doing fantastic business. Linda bought some more clothing at a vintage shop. From there we went back to Rue de Rivoli and had lunch in a cafe.

When we were done with lunch, we realized that we were near the Shoah Memorial. We decided to go in, not really knowing what to expect. I felt that it did a fair and forthright job of dealing with the shameful collaboration of the occupied French officials and the Vichy government with the Nazis in rounding up French Jews for execution or transport to concentration camps. At the same time, there were informative exhibits of decent French people who risked their own lives to shelter Jewish compatriots. And there also were exhibits that highlighted the role of French Jews in the Resistance. It was very well done, informative, and moving.

After that rather somber interlude, we walked through Isle de la Cite, and back to our hotel. Total walking distance was only 6.5 miles.

Hotel: Hotel Des Grandes Ecoles. It turned out to be a great location. The hotel is quaint, comfortable, cordial, quiet, and clean. The neighborhood is a little scruffy, but not scary. It's close enough to Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter nightlife to be convenient, but not as touristy as actually staying in the area, like we did on our last visit. There are some great local restaurants.

Day 1: Le Maison de Verlaine. As I described above, after an overnight flight from USA and walking for 11 miles, by dinnertime, we wanted to find someplace close to our hotel. This restaurant was only about 3 blocks away. It was like a cozy sanctuary after a long day. The ambiance is very comfortable and relaxing. There's nice jazz music playing in the background (and photos of notable jazz artists posted on the walls). Service was friendly and attentive. We had no trouble communicating, though I'm not sure how much English the wait staff actually understood. The food was excellent. We both ordered the daily fixed menu. My wife started with a duck salad, and her entree was fruit de mer (cod, salmon, shrimp in Normandy sauce). Her dessert was creme brulee. My starter was salmon carpaccio with olive oil and plenty of fresh dill. My entree was duck with carrots and parsnips and potato croquettes, and my dessert was tarte tatin. We enjoyed this restaurant so much that we considered coming back on our second night. But when we walked by the next morning, we were disappointed to learn that the restaurant would be closed that evening. We also were surprised to see a plaque outside the door that says that Ernest Hemingway lived in the building from 1921-25. That bit of trivia isn't mentioned on the restaurant's web site. But the Smithsonian's 'Guide to Hemingway's Paris' notes that he did his writing in that building. 

Day 2: Saint Severin. This wasn't our first choice, or even our second choice. We had wanted to return to Le Maison de Verlaine, but it was closed. Then we wanted to eat at Le Petit Chatelet, which was nearby the music venue we planned to try after dinner. But we couldn't get in without a reservation. So we made a reservation for the next night and then wandered through the Latin Quarter and that's how we ended up at Saint Severin. It wasn't a bad experience. But when you're only getting three dinners in Paris, you don't want one of them to be just average. 

Day 3: Le Petit Chatelet. For our last dinner in Paris, we really wanted to find a good restaurant. This one gets a lot of great reviews online. So we made a reservation. Our dinner here was ... interesting. The decor was charming. The food was excellent, it was the best meal we ate in Paris. We were a little annoyed by our table. The downstairs was full when we arrived for our reservation. We were led to a table on the second floor. The only other people there was a group of six Americans and Brits. They weren't obnoxious or anything. It just didn't feel like being in a Paris restaurant, except for the view of Notre Dame and the palace. We did feel like we were stuck in the English ghetto. Our server was polite and attentive, but not particularly friendly. The fixed price menu included any of the starter items, which were substantial and tempting. But the entree course was only a choice of veal or cod, and that didn't appeal to us. So we ordered off the menu. To start we split a salad of Roquefort cheese on a bed of fresh greens and a light vinaigrette. It was a substantial wedge of cheese and very tasty. For an entree Linda had coquille Saint Jacques. I had a duo of sea bass and scallops, in a light cream sauce like Linda's sauce. Both of our entrees were on a tower of sautéed vegetables - zucchini, carrots, parsnips. For dessert I had pears poached in red wine served with a scoop of violet ice cream. Overall, it was a very nice meal. But if I were to return to any of the three restaurants where we ate in Paris, it would be La Maison de Verlaine. The ambiance and friendly service made Verlaine a nicer experience.

Caveau de la Huchette. The music was fun - sort of ragtime/honkytonk with some modern charts thrown in to the mix. But it's really a dance club. There were several dancers, they appeared to be regulars, who were fascinating to watch. The club charged €13 entry and no pressure to buy drinks. We did order beers during the break between sets.
Impromptu jazz at Aux Trois Mailletz

Aux Trois Mailletz. We've been here before, on a previous trip to Paris. It's great! They have a piano player performing. But throughout the evening, they get drop-in performers. Some sing along with the piano. Some take over the piano for a couple of songs. On this particular visit, a jazz trumpet player and a friend were at the table next to ours. They ordered huge, rare steaks. But before their food arrived, they took the stage, the trumpeter and his friend on piano. They were fun to listen to and very talented performers. We would definitely come back here on any future trip to Paris. 

Click here for more photos of our 3 days in Paris.

14 July 2016

Milan, April 29-May1: Slogging through rain in the fashion capitol + Como

We arrived in Milan late in the afternoon, after a 7 hour train ride from Paris. The ride was smooth and uneventful. The train from Paris arrives at the Milano Porto Garibaldi station, not Milano Centrale. That shouldn't have been confusing. But when we arrived, I hadn't yet learned the lesson to always get directions for where we wanted to go. So while I thought the 25-minute walk seemed straightforward and foolproof, it wasn't. We pulled our luggage for about 45 minutes before I used Google Maps on my iPhone and got the correct directions. 

So by the time we got checked in to our hotel, it was already early evening. We set out to explore our surroundings and find a place for dinner. We were almost ideally located, only a few blocks from the opera house La Scala and the fashion shops of central Milan. 

View of Bellagio as the ferry crosses Lake Como
Since the train ride from Paris took basically a whole day, we only had two full days to explore Milan. We had two goals. First we wanted to see the sights of the city. Second we wanted to take a day trip to Lake Como. The weather forecast was for rain to move in. So we decided to do Como on our first full day in hopes that the weather would hold. 

When we told the concierge at our hotel that we wanted to take a day trip by train to Lake Como, he gave us some advice. Rather than take the train to the town of Como, he advised taking the train to  Varenna and then take a ferry to Bellagio. He said that we probably would enjoy that town more than Como. 

Good advice. It was a one hour train ride to Varenna from the Centrale station. We sat with a group of Scots who were in Milan for a long weekend, for shopping and to see a soccer (football) match. They very good natured, talkative, and funny. When we started talking about Scottish accents, then they really hammed it up, putting on a brogue that was almost impossible to understand.

We had a mice scenic ride with views of Lake Como. Varenna is a small quiet town. It was a short walk from train station to the ferry docks. The ferry ride to Bellagio was smooth and calm, about 15 minutes. Bellagio was quaint and picturesque and packed with tourists. We spent about an hour and a half walking around, taking pictures and doing a little shopping. Then we did the reverse trip back to Milan. 

After we got back, we walked to the Galleria and had a cocktail with complimentary snacks at Camparino in Galleria. We sat for an hour and watched the parade of people go by. From our table at the bar we had a nice view of Milan's Duomo. After our drink, we took a walk around the square outside the Duomo to admire it. I think it's one of the prettiest 'Duomos' (Duomi, I guess, is the actual plural) that we saw in Italy. 

Milan's beautiful Duomo
That evening, while we were at dinner, it started to rain. 

The rain continued into the next day, which we intended to be our day for sightseeing in Milan. But we opened our umbrellas and set. We walked throughout the city despite a steady rain. First we went to the Castello Sforzesco, Parco Sempione, and the 'Arch of Peace' (or Arco della Pace). I like how the Milanese named their arch 'Peace' rather than 'Victory' or 'Triumph' or some other name with more military connotations. 

After the Castle and the park, we walked to the Brera District. We had read that it's an artistic area with good restaurants and nightlife. We were excited to find a restaurant with live music for dinner. Then we walked back over to the Duomo and the Galleria and spent most of the afternoon shopping.

Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Cavour and liked it very much. It was a classy, modern business hotel. It's conveniently located to the two major train stations (Garibaldi and Centrale) and to all the major attractions of Milan's center city. We found the staff there to be very accommodating and helpful. As you might expect for Milan as a fashion capitol, the hotel is very cosmopolitan and all the staff was comfortable communicating in English. The rooms are clean, modern, and comfortable, and the WiFi was quick and reliable. 

Day 1 - Il Salumaio di Montenapoleone. This was the most elegant restaurant meal that we had on our whole trip to Italy. (The wine dinners that we had at the two agriturismi later in the trip were equally impressive.) It was also the most expensive meal of our trip. We saw several things on the menu that looked appealing, and we asked if we could order several things and split them. They very accommodating and even split the items for us, serving us on our own individual plates. We started with a salad of fresh mozzarella on a plate with roasted vegetables. I lightly dressed it with a drizzle of olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Next course was ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Finished with an entree of grilled sirloin with roasted potatoes. The steak was excellently done, exactly to our liking. The potatoes were good but not remarkable. 

Day 2 - New Art Cafe, located in the Brera District. I wish I had brought either a camera or my phone. The decor of this restaurant was very interesting and engaging. We were seated in a little enclave decorated in a nautical theme. The main dining room was adorned with different images of Marilyn Monroe. Our meal was not as elegant as Day 1. It was more casual but flavorful, colorful, and equally delicious. I started with a tomato salad, a bowl of tomato pieces that I dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My entree was green gnoccetti (little green gnocchi) drenched in a rich Gorgonzola sauce with pieces of walnuts. Linda had tagliatelle with squid and artichokes dressed in olive oil. I really wish I could have taken a photo. We had a half bottle of Chianti with the food.
Fantastic serving of seared tuna at Hosteria della Musica

Day 3 - Hosteria della Musica, also located in the Brera District. When we walked by, I saw a sign or poster that said they have live music at this restaurant. So we took a look at the menu. When I saw that they had ossobuco on the menu I was sold. We made a reservation, though I don't think it was necessary. It was a new restaurant, only open for a month when we were there. They really bent over backwards to please us. They brought us a free glass of prosecco and a plate of focaccia bread, plus a regular bread basket. We started by splitting a salad of squid and salmon mixed with fennel and greens. For her entree Linda had tuna. It was a large piece just seared rare and seasoned with black pepper. It was amazing. I had the ossobuco with Milanese risotto. It was very good, but not as amazing as hers. The musician was a very good entertainer. He played an electric keyboard with recorded electronic accompaniment. So it wasn't very sophisticated music, but he was very entertaining. There was a group of women from England celebrating a 60th birthday, and they were quite rowdy.

The next day, we picked up a rental car near the Centrale train station. Within 10 minutes, I was lost and couldn't find the route out of town. Once again, Google Maps came through for us and we wended our way toward the next part of our Italian adventure. 

Click here to see more of our photos from Milan and Bellagio. 

10 July 2016

Orta San Giulio, May 2-4: Shhh. Don't tell anyone!

During our trip to Italy in May, we'd often be asked: Where else are you visiting while you're here? And when we'd tell them that Lago d'Orta was on our itinerary, we'd get this quizzical look.

"How do you know about Orta?" they'd ask. Then they'd usually tell us that the town of Orta San Giulio was sort of a quiet little resort town usually only visited by other Italians. I couldn't tell if they were impressed that we were such savvy travelers, or worried that their little, secret gem might get overrun by Americans. 

Lago d'Orta - Photo taken by a very nice French tourist
We got the travel tip from a friend (an American friend) who was a former travel agent and had stayed there. When we were planning our trip, we mentioned to her that we wanted to spend some time in the Italian Lakes region, probably Lake Como. She told us about Orta and the wonderful hotel where she and her husband has stayed. We looked into it and decided to stay there as well.

This was definitely the most relaxing part of our trip. Our stay in Orta followed a pretty busy week that included Paris and Milan. After those two busy cities, we were ready for some quiet relaxation. 

When we arrived in Orta (about a 90 minute drive from Milan depending on traffic), the sky was bright and sunny and the temperature was pleasantly cool. From our hotel window, we could see the Alps in the distance with snow-covered peaks. We later learned that they had had a week of cold rain in Orta before we arrived and lots of fresh snow at the higher elevations. Over the course of our 3-day stay, we saw the snow-line gradually recede and eventually disappear as the more typical May temperatures melted it. 

After we got checked in to our hotel, we took a walk around town to get acclimated. We followed a road up the hill above the town, Sacro Monte di Orta, one of a series of 'sacred mountains' in Italy. The devotional complex at the top of the hill includes 20 chapels and a church. The whole complex overlooks the town and the lake and the island (Isola San Giulio) with its basilica and monastery. At the top of the hill, we wanted a photo taken. We asked another couple to take the photo. Trouble was, they didn't speak English. But somehow, 'foto' seems to be universally recognizable, and they took a photo that's one of my favorites from our trip.

When we got done with our hike, the weather was just so gorgeous and inviting that we stopped into a little shop and bought a bottle of prosecco. We brought wine glasses from our room down to the lawn by the lake and drank it in the late afternoon sun. It was such a fun experience that we did it again each of the remaining two nights we spent at Orta. 
Our daily ritual, prosecco by the Lake

We did have our car, and we considered driving to other nearby villages. But Orta San Giulio was just so quaint and inviting that in the end, we just stayed there. Both days we hiked on the paths along the lake and into the hills above it. One day was market day in town. We enjoyed browsing thru the market and shopping. 

Our stay in Orta was ahead of the main tourist season. Still, during the day there were a lot of day-trippers in town. But they were gone by dinner time, and we mostly had the town to ourselves. 

Hotel: The hotel recommended by our friends was the Hotel San Rocco. It was gorgeous. Now, despite the fact that English-speaking tourists are not common in Orta, we were able to communicate with the staff at the San Rocco just fine. There are two buildings in the hotel complex. We chose a room in the villa rather than the main building. Our room was spacious and comfortable. We didn't have a balcony and our window overlooked the town rather than the lake. But the rooms in the villa are slightly less expensive, and definitely nice and quiet. The hotel has a very elegant restaurant and bar. We probably should have eaten there at least one night, but we didn't. It also has extensive banquet facilities, and we read that it's a common wedding venue. But during our stay, there were no events. 

Day 1: We wandered down the street from our hotel to the town square to find a place to eat. This is when we discovered that the day-trippers who had filled the streets earlier were gone and many of the restaurants were closed or had very few customers. We ended up at Ristorante Venus, primarily because it had a few customers and we knew we wouldn't be eating alone. We had an adequate but not noteworthy dinner. Linda had mini ravioli stuffed with Guinea hen. Good but kind of rich. My meal was better - lamb chops with roasted potatoes and onions. The lamb was cooked perfectly and was tender and flavorful. For dessert, Linda had a chestnut mousse that she didn't really like very much. I had a pear Napoleon that was quite tasty. Probably the highlight of the dinner was the wine. Linda had a white that she'd tasted in Minneapolis and loved (Gabi). I had a glass of Prunotto Barolo for only €6! (A precursor to our stay in Barolo coming up next on our itinerary.)

Day 2: This night we 'discovered' La Motta which turned out to be a brand new restaurant, only about 2 weeks in business. They were very accommodating, and eager to make a good impression. The menu was all in Italian, but our server (who might have been the owner) very patiently translated for us. After we ordered, we were brought an amuse bouche of buratta cheese with flakes of dried horseradish. We started with a 'salmon trout' very lightly cured in orange juice (like a ceviche) with tiny dollops of caramelized red onions and a delicate yogurt sauce. Linda's entree was a fresh fish caught from Lake Orta served with thin shavings of vegetables. I had gnoccetti with fresh perch also caught in Orta. For dessert, we split a scoop of gelato in a chocolate shell with candied walnuts. When they served it, they poured a hot orange liqueur over it. Delicious. Our wine for the evening was a local white wine.
Dinner at Cafe des Artes

Day 3: We always like to try to find restaurants that also have live music, and we'd read about one in Orta called the Jazz Cafe, but we couldn't find it in town. Finally we realized that it had changed owners and changed names. So on our last night, we ate at Cafe des Artes. When we came into the cafe, there was only one table of diners. But as we sat, others trickled in and eventually it was almost full. We really enjoyed the meal. It was more like a neighborhood Italian cafe rather than a tourist cafe. We ordered a salad to start, but they brought our entrees almost immediately after. Later we realized it was because of the Italian tradition of eating salad after the main course. We had a nice dinner and enjoyed the ambiance. But alas, no music. 

Click here to view more pictures from our stay at Orta.