21 June 2016

Cinque Terra, May 8-9: Quaint villages, beaches, and lots of tourists

This was the shortest part of our trip to Italy in May, only two nights. We arrived in Cinque Terre after a very pleasant drive from Piedmont. Well, mostly pleasant. We took a slightly longer route, driving south to the coast then along the coast to Genoa. When we left the wine country, the landscape got increasingly mountainous and the scenery more dramatic. When we exited from the highway for the final few kilometers to Monterosso, the road was extraordinarily twisty. It was not a relaxing conclusion to the road trip.

We got checked in to our hotel and then walked around town getting our bearing and checking out restaurants. Of the five towns in Cinque Terre, Monterosso is the first one on the north. The guidebooks said it's the busiest of the towns. We were still a little ahead of the main tourist season, and besides, we were there on a Monday and Tuesday. So it wasn't too crowded. We picked Monterosso primarily because we needed a hotel accessible by car and a hotel that provided parking. (That really tends to limit your options in Cinque Terre.) 

The best way to visit Cinque Terre is by train. For travel between the towns, we found the train to be quick and easy, and it eliminates the hassle of driving and parking. In Monterosso, the train station is right in the middle of town and easily accessible to the hotels and guest houses. 
The beach in Monterosso


I suppose some people go to Cinque Terre to enjoy the beach. There was a very nice beach in Monterosso. We did sit on the beach each of the days during our stay. But we did not have swim suits along, so other than my wife wading on the edge of the sea, we didn't get wet. 

Our main reason for coming to Cinque Terre was to hike the trails along the coast that link the five towns. That's what we did on Day 2 of our stay, our only full day.


After breakfast, we set off on our hike. We had been forewarned that some of the trails were washed out. So our plan was to trek from Monterosso to Vernazza; that took about 2 hours, counting a short break in Vernazza and sightseeing. Then we continued on the trek to Corneglia; slightly shorter, but pretty close to 2 hours after resting in town and planning our next move. 

The trekking is quite arduous, but if you go slow and don't over-exert, it's not that bad. On the first leg to Vernazza, there were a lot of people on the trail. Often the groups would get bunched up at the steep ascents, and you'd find yourself head to tush behind the next person up the trail. But on the second leg, from Vernazza to Corneglia, there seemed to be fewer people, and there were many sections of the hike when we were quite alone. That was a lot more pleasant.

When we got to Corneglia, we had planned to take the train to the southern-most town, Riomaggiore, then either take the train back or the ferry. But our credit card wouldn't work at the train station. So we used the cash that we'd brought to buy train tickets back to Monterosso. After getting back, we took towels down to the beach and rested after our fairly strenuous hike. 

Hotel: We stayed Locanda a Ca du Gigante. As I've already noted, one of our main considerations was a hotel with parking. But this would be a very nice place to stay even if you didn't need parking. It's convenient to the beach. The room we were offered actually was an apartment a block away from the main part of the hotel. It was beautiful and spacious and had a balcony overlooking the town and the sea. The breakfast was very good, and the proprietor, Claudia, was very friendly and helpful. 

Restaurants:
For dinner our first night, Claudia had made a reservation for us at Ristorante Miky. We got a 10% discount and the restaurant is highly rated on TripAdvisor. Our experience was superlative! The food was excellently prepared and attractively presented. We had a bottle of house wine, a local white that nicely complemented the fish and seafood. 

For a starter, we ordered a specialty plate of Parmesan flan, topped with purée of roasted red pepper, and a tower of eggplant caviar. Linda's entree was grilled squid. It was a generous plate with the squid and grilled veggies. I had local fish (which on this night was sea bass) roasted whole and served with very thin slices of potatoes. The fish was brought to the table whole on a platter and then expertly deboned and plated atop the potatoes. Great!

We didn't order dessert. But when we asked for the check, we were brought a complementary plate of little vanilla cookies and a shot of a locally produced fortified wine. Linda made an offhand remark about lemoncillo and voila, the server appeared with a bottle and another glass for her. It was an excellent dinner.

On our second night, we ate at Ristorante il Cosello. Beautiful setting overlooking the harbor. It was a little chilly, but they lit the heater and it warmed up nicely. We had the house white, a Ligurian wine that tasted similar to Chardonnay. For a starter, I had Ligurian style anchovies - roasted and served with olive oil, tomatoes, olives, and pine nuts. There was a small salad of tomatoes and lettuce on the side that Linda ate. For an entree she had roasted sea bass with potatoes. It was similar to mine from Miky the night before. But the potatoes were cubed rather than thin sliced, and the fish was not deboned table side, like mine was. Still at half the price, it was pretty good. I had fresh fish ravioli in olive oil and tomatoes with shrimp and zucchini. The ravioli were very unique, two-colored, green and white. The whole plate was visually appealing and the flavors were very good.
Little towns of Cinque Terre cling to the cliff

Concluding thought: There are a lot of Americans and other English speaking people in Cinque Terre. Also a lot of French. Well, actually just a lot of tourists. The scenery is beautiful. But it's hard to enjoy nature when you're surrounded by people, even pleasant good-natured people as most of them were. In my post about our stay on the Amalfi Coast, I commented that I liked that better than Cinque Terre. From my perspective, they offer similar experiences. So you probably don't need to go to both, unless you have lots of time (as we did). If I were going to do one or the other, I'd go back to Amalfi.

Click here to view an album of photos from our stay on Cinque Terre. 

19 June 2016

Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, May 10-12: In search of wine

I have to admit that this was the most poorly planned part of our trip to Italy in May. Not that we didn't have fun. We had lots of fun and saw some great sights. We ate delicious food and drank wonderful wine. It's just that it wasn't the experience we had planned when we set up our itinerary. 

Here's what I wanted - to stay in a small town in Umbria to use as a base for exploring the Umbrian wine region and sampling some new wines, especially white wines. The town I picked was Civitella d'Agliano. I picked it because it was close to Orvieto, which was appealing because I was familiar with the Orvieto white wine. However, I quickly discovered a few facts. The town is actually in Lazio. And except for Orvieto, we were quite far from the main wine producing part of Umbria. And most of the wine we drank was red wine. And we also concluded that it's possible for a town to be too small for a tourist destination. 

This part of the trip started with a long drive from Cinque Terra. It took about 4 hours, and despite using Google Maps, we did miss one turn after we got off the Autostrada in Orvieto. We ended up going out of our way a few kilometers before we realized our error. 

When we finally arrived in Civitalla d'Agliano, what we discovered was that except for the agriturismo where we were staying, there wasn't really much else to see or do in the town. That included restaurants. But that wasn't too disconcerting. After all, we did have a car and we had planned to take day trips during our stay. 

On Day 2 of our stay, we planned to visit Orvieto. We also got some recommendations from the proprietor of the agriturismo. We started the day by driving 15 km to Civita di Bagnoregio, the so-called dying town. It was founded more than 2000 years ago by the Etruscans. But since it's built on a highly erodible cliff, the town is gradually falling into the valley below. Still, for a dying town, it seemed pretty lively. There were a lot of restaurants and shops for tourists, and apparently there still are about 50 people living there.
Orvieto's Duomo

Next we went on to Orvieto. We followed Rick Steves advice and parked for free at the train station and took the funicular up to the town. It was a very nice hilltop walled city. Rick Steves raves about it, calling it "What an Italian hill town should be." But we felt it was too touristy and not as nice as Sienna, which we saw on our previous Italy vacation. And we didn't drink any white wine there. 

After we left Orvieto, we had time so we drove to Todi. Todi actually is in Perugia. We liked that town quite a lot. It was small and quaint, touristy for sure, but not obnoxiously. There apparently was some kind of youth concert going on because everywhere there were groups of kids hanging out and being rambunctious.

That evening, at the restaurant in Civitella d'Agliano, we had a bottle of Montepulciano wine. We really liked it. So the next day, since we were going to have to drive anyway, we drove north an hour to the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Linda always was disappointed that we didn't get there on our last trip, and I was happy to try their local wine.

The drive went smoothly; Google Maps did a good job getting us there. We drove thru some rain. But when we got there, it didn't look very threatening, so we left our umbrellas in the car. Bad decision. We were in the main plaza when it started to pour. We ducked into a cantina and sampled their wine while waiting for the rain to stop. We didn't particularly like the wine, so didn't buy any. When it quit raining, we went back to the car and got our umbrellas. Naturally, we carried them the rest of the day and didn't need them. The village turned out to be much smaller than we expected, and it didn't take us long to pretty much see it all.

By now, I was getting frustrated by our difficulty in finding wine to taste. I'd read about one winery, Gattavecchi, that had good reviews on TripAdvisor. We passed it while walking thru the town. But when we stopped in, we were greeted by an elderly woman who spoke no English. We finally figured out that there was no wine tasting there. 

Then I remembered that the winery had two addresses, one a business office and another a cantina. So we made our way across the village again and found the cantina. No one was in the room when we entered, but we followed some stairs up to what I thought was the 'sala degustation.' When we got up there, a very harried person told us they were in the middle of serving lunch, so no tasting. 

Disappointed and confused we turned to go. But as we reached the bottom of the stairs, another woman who spoke very good English swooped in and took charge. She turned out to be Daniela, one of the Gattavecchi family members. She showed us their cellar and offered us a tasting. We loved the wines and had a very pleasant conversation with her, during which we learned that their wine is carried by Total Wine in the U.S. We bought 2 bottles. Since returning home, I've had a chance to see how much the wine is at Total Wine. I was surprised to find it was not much more than what it cost in Italy. 

Hotel: We stayed at La Tana dell'Istrice (the porcupine's burrow). It is an agriturismo with the guest rooms located in family manor in the ancient square and watchtower of Civitella d'Agliano. Driving into the square is quite daunting. You have to steer thru a very narrow passage and up a steep hill. We were offered a beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the town and the valley below. We had dinner the first night with the family and one other guest. The food was delicious and was paired with various wines from the family's vineyard (Sergio Mottura). 
Dinner at La Quercia. Note the fried artichokes - delicious!

Restaurant: As I noted earlier in this post, we didn't have too many options for dinner in town. The first night we ate at the agriturismo. The second night, we found a local restaurant called La Quercia. It was quite an experience. We were the only customers for the evening. We arrived at about 8 pm and when we left at 9:15, no one else came in. We started with an appetizer plate of cheese, several different kinds of sausage, two different bruschettas with tapenade, and fresh fava beans with honey. For her entree, Linda had grilled squid and shrimp. As a side she had fried artichokes. Excellent. I ordered ravioli, with hazelnuts and black truffles. I thought the ravioli was filled with meat. But it was some kind of fish. Very unusual and good.We liked it very much so we returned on our last night in town. On our second visit, our starter was tortelloni filled with wild boar and dressed with butter and sage and a bowl of grated Parmesan to top it off. Linda had a repeat of her squid and shrimp. I had 'filletto' of beef with porcini mushroom sauce. Another very good meal. 

Click here to view an album of photos from our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany. 

16 June 2016

Our worst travel day in Italy

I have to admit, I worried about the travel arrangements for Day 19 of our trip to Italy in May. Our goal was to leave the agriturismo where we stayed in Civitella D'agliano (a very small town near Orvieto) and arrive at our hotel in Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. The trip would involve starting out by car, 3 train rides, and then a local bus to our final destination. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised that it turned out badly.

Step 1: 30 minute car ride to Orvieto
We left Civitella D'agliano right after breakfast and drove to the train station where we returned our car. That went smoothly. When we visited Orvieto a couple of days earlier, we had scoped out the train station and the rental car return site. Even though we'd driven the route before, we used Google Maps on my iPhone to make sure we didn't make a wrong turn at the beginning of our journey.

Step 2: 1 hour train ride to Rome
As we waited in the train station, we became worried when we received news that our train was 15 minutes late. We only had 20 minutes to make our connection for Naples. Our concern turned to real anxiety when the train made an unscheduled stop and just sat in the station for at least 15 minutes. When the train did finally start moving again, it seemed to be moving too slowly, and we kept getting later and later. 

Step 3: 1 hour train ride to Naples
Needless to say, when we arrived in Rome, more than an hour late, we had missed our connection. We had trouble finding out how to get re-booked. When we finally did get to the customer service desk, we got re-booked on a train that was scheduled to leave in 5 minutes. When I expressed concern, the answer I got was to the effect - no problem, that train is 20 minutes late. 

Now, other than being late, the ride to Naples was the best part of the trip. The train zipped along at 250 kph. We were served a complimentary glass of wine. I was able to plug in my phone to get it charged up. The seats were plush and comfortable. Nice ride.

Step 4: 1 hour train ride to Sorrento
When we got to Naples, we found the track for the local train to Sorrento. We got our ticket with only 5 minutes to spare. When the train pulled into the station, there was a jam packed crush to get aboard. We, of course were not only tired and frustrated, but we were handicapped because we were lugging two big suitcases. We got on, and eventually a few seats opened up. But the train was stuffy and rickety. Definitely not a nice ride. 

But wait. It gets worse. 

Step 5: 1 hour 20 minute bus ride to Praiano
When we arrived in Sorrento, we found the desk to buy bus tickets to Praiano. We had a 20 minute wait for the bus. Of course, when it arrived, there was a mad rush to get on. My wife got seats while I stowed the suitcases. Though I had a seat, the bus was jam packed. When it finally left Sorrento, we began an unimaginably gruesome ride around the hairpin corners of the Amalfi Coast. And at each stop, more people got on than got off, so the already crammed bus became even more overcrowded and stifling as we went along.


When we finally arrived in Praiano, we disembarked, but at the wrong bus stop (according to the instructions of the hotel staff). Fortunately, the correct bus stop was only 2 blocks away. Unfortunately, when we called the hotel to get the shuttle, we were informed that it was too late, the shuttle had stopped running, and besides, it had broken down. So the conclusion of our journey was a half mile walk pulling our suitcases up a steep hill. We finally arrived about 2 hours later than planned.

So what could I have done differently? 

Option 1: I considered driving directly to Naples. That would have cut out two train connections. (But it also would have cut out the one quick and easy train ride from Rome to Naples.) Also, it would not have eliminated the awful train ride to Sorrento or the awful bus ride to Praiano. Ultimately, I rejected this option because I worried about driving in Naples and finding the car return site and the train station.

Option 1a: I suppose we could have driven all the way to Praiano. But we'd heard horror stories about trying to drive on the Amalfi Coast, and we didn't even consider this option. 

Option 2: Hire a private car, either from Sorrento to Praiano, or from Naples to Praiano, or even from Rome to Praiano. This would be the most expensive option. But it may be worth considering for anyone who's wants to visit the Amalfi Coast and avoid the worst of public transportation.

Option 3: Rather than go to Sorrento, there is a high-speed train that serves Salerno from either Florence or Sienna. It's still a long bus ride from Salerno to Praiano, which you could avoid if you hired a driver. For our trip, it wasn't a practical option. It would have been too far to drive to either of those cities to catch the fast train. But it would be worth considering for some future trip. 

But you know, one bad travel day out of 26 days in Europe wasn't too bad. Just frustrating at the time.

09 June 2016

Double delight at Centrolina in DC

When I travel, one of the things I'm looking for is something new - new restaurants, new food, new wine. So when I go to a new restaurant, I rarely return for a second meal, even if I really liked it. The caveat is - I always reserve the right to go again on my next visit to that city. 

I traveled to DC in early June. I was arriving on Sunday evening. The weather was threatening rain. So I looked at what new restaurants would be reasonably close to my hotel. (I was staying at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza at 14th & K NW.) That's how I came across Centrolina. I almost didn't go. My wife and I just got back recently from Italy, and I wasn't sure if I really wanted more Italian food. But it had good reviews on OpenTable, and in the past, I've found Italian restaurants in DC to be very good. (I've lamented that our own Minnesota Italian restaurants just don't measure up compared to those in DC.) 

When I arrived, at 8 on a Sunday night, I found a hopping, busy restaurant, right in the middle of downtown DC. In the past, I've often found downtown restaurants to be very dead on a Sunday night. So that was a good sign. The location was new to me, in a development called City Center. There are several restaurants as well as high-end fashion shops and condos and offices. Centrolina is on Palmer Alley in the development. It does have outdoor tables on the alley. But on Sunday night, they weren't seating there because of the threat of rain. 

I liked the ambiance of Centrolina, which is actually two businesses - a market and a restaurant/osteria. The dining room has high ceilings and the decor is shiny and modern. There's lots of chrome, but also brick and wood and decorative lighting. 

The service was friendly and efficient. During the course of the evening, several different people came to my table, to give me menus or refill my water or bring a plate of food or a drink. The bartender came over and took my drink order. I asked for a negroni, which he acknowledged. But before going to the bar and making it, he asked my name. At first I wondered if they'd checked my profile on Open Table and saw that I do write restaurant reviews and this blog. (That has happened to me, but not often.) But I finally concluded that was just his shtick. I decided it's his way of connecting with the customer and making the experience more personal. 
Octopus salad

The menu was very appealing, and I had a hard time deciding what to order. I finally opted for an octopus salad and a pasta dish. The octopus was outstanding. It was grilled tenderly. It was still very moist and tender, not at all chewy or rubbery. It was served with little medallions of potato confit and a melange of kalamata olives, celery, roasted cherry tomatoes and something called cotechinata. Cotechinata, I later learned, is a pigskin roll-up. I didn't know that at the time; I ate them anyway. 

The pasta was bucatini, a kind of thick spaghetti. It was dressed with a tomato sauce with sausage and squid. Also very good, though not as unusual as the octopus salad. I decided to treat myself with dessert. I had a crostini with strawberries and little dollops of lemon meringue and gelato. 

I enjoyed it very much.

Now fast forward two days. I attended an event on Tuesday evening, but didn't have time to eat before the event. So when it ended, I decided to get some dinner. I was just a few blocks from Centrolina. I recalled some of the intriguing items on the menu that I had passed over on my Sunday night visit. So contrary to my usual practice, I decided on a return visit. 

It was worth it. Same friendly service. When the bartender took my order (this time a glass of white wine) he asked me my name again. When I told him, he did a double take, pointed to the table where I'd sat on Sunday and got a quizzical look. Yup, I told him, I'm back. 

This time I ordered tuna. It was roasted on a wood fire, and was served rare. The tuna was very tender and delicious. On the plate with the tuna were yellow peppers, butter beans and garbanzos with Greek yogurt and a spicy Calabrian pepper sauce. 

So once again, I have found an outstanding Italian restaurant in DC, and it left me wondering - why can't we have one like Centrolina in Minnesota? 
Rare fire-roasted tuna


05 June 2016

The Amalfi Coast, May 13-16: Gorgeous scenery, wonderful food, horrendous transportation

In many ways, the Amalfi Coast was the best part of our 26-day trip to Europe in April and May. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. Our hotel in the town of Praiano was comfortable and accommodating. We had fantastic fish and seafood. We 'discovered' a couple of Italian white wines that we really liked a lot.

But as a counterpoint to how wonderful it was, transportation was a terrible hassle. We'd heard how treacherous the roads are on the Amalfi Coast, so we decided not to have a car. I don't regret that decision one bit. It would have been unbearably stressful trying to drive there. It was bad enough riding the buses. I have to admire the bus drivers. They somehow managed to get around the hairpin turns and through some of the narrowest roadways you could possible imagine. 

On Day 2 of our stay in Praiano, we had perhaps the most unique experience of our trip to Italy. We decided to take a hike up into the cliffs above our town. The path we took climbed up 2000 steps to a convent. Then a trail continued toward the next town where we planned to catch a bus into Positano. 

It was a lot like hiking around Cinque Terra. Some parts of the trail were better than Cinque Terra. But some parts were a lot more strenuous. Overall, we liked this hike better than Cinque Terra because the views were more dramatic. 
Goats on the hillside above Positano

At one part of the hike, we were way up high on the cliff. We heard bells ringing, and pretty soon a whole herd of goats came into view. The goat herder was calling out and whistling, and two dogs kept the goats sort of in formation. The goats were climbing all over the cliffs munching on the vegetation. One part of the herd came down to the trail and we found ourselves walking right among them. The photo doesn't do justice to how steep the cliff was and how close we were to the goats. It was a memorable experience.

We did eventually arrive in the next village and took a bus to Positano. We shopped for a while, but then it started to rain so we caught another bus back to our hotel.

One of the reasons we chose to stay in Praiano was because it's centrally located. But the practical implication is that no matter where you want to go, you have to take the bus, the generally over-crowded, usually smelly, often late bus. On Day 3, we wanted to see Pompeii. That meant that we had to take the Sitabus to Sorrento and then the Circumvesuviana local train. So it was 2 hours of hellish travel there and 2 hours back, for 3 hours of touring the ruins. 

Still, it was worth it. The ruins were amazing. We decided not to hire a guide. We had notes about the main things we wanted to see. But when we entered the ruins, we asked for a map and received an extraordinarily helpful guidebook to go along with it. So we could take our time looking at the things that most interested us. We did have a few periods of light rain. But we didn't even bother to put up our umbrellas (which we had carried with us). 

On Day 4, the weather improved. It was still cooler than normal, and there were periods of cloudy skies that looked threatening. But no rain, and when the sun was out, it was quite pleasant.

After breakfast we took the bus to Ravello and the town of Amalfi. Ravello is a hill town that's known for its concert series every summer. Linda had read that they have concerts in the park every day. But they must not have started yet because we heard none. Still it was a pretty and quaint town to visit. 
The Duomo in Amalfi

Amalfi was bigger and more touristy. We strolled thru the town and just looked around. The local duomo is famous for its large brass doors which were made in Constantinople in the 11th Century. It also was the only town during our whole stay in this part of Italy that was actually on the beach. I thought it was ironic that all this time we had beautiful views of the sea but always from the cliffs high above the surf.

Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Margherita in Praiano, another recommendation by my brother-in-law who stayed there a year ago. We had a wonderful stay. The rooms are comfortable and reasonably priced. When we arrived, we got a room with a small terrace beside a lemon grove. But after our first two nights, we were offered an upgrade to a room with a balcony and a view of the sea. Nice! The staff was outstanding. They were very knowledgeable and helpful with advice on how to best get around. The hotel is located high up on the hill above the main part of town. We walked up and down during our stay. But there is a local bus that you can take as well. The hotel has a rooftop open-air restaurant. It was not open during our stay because of the weather (cool and rainy). But one morning we took our coffee up there to enjoy the view. 

Restaurants: 
Day 1 - Dinner at La Strada, which was wonderful. We shared a starter of grilled octopus. Then Linda had sea bass with lemon leaves and fennel. I had sea bass with a potato crust. Both were very good, but hers was better. We were served a delicious local white wine made from Greco grapes. (The DOC designation is Greco di Tufo.) Definitely one to look up and try to buy in the U.S.

Day 2 - Dinner at La Dolce Vista (The Sweet View). It was a family-run restaurant in a nice hotel. To start, we had the night special of ravioli stuffed with a local provolo cheese (similar to ricotta) and mushrooms and topped with a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent! Linda's entree was seared tuna with greens (rucola) and fresh tomatoes. I had sea bass with lemons. It was excellent (but not as unique as Linda's sea bass last night.) We did have dessert, a pear and ricotta mound that was light and refreshing. And it was a sweet view, though the weather prevented us from dining on the terrace overlooking the bay.

Gennaro is the chef/owner of Vivaro
Day 3 - Dinner at Vivaro Wine Bar. It was sort like performance art. The chef/owner is a one-man show. He does everything from seating the customers to cooking to serving to busing the dishes. When you dine there, it's a fixed price menu. You have a choice of either fish or meat, red wine or white. He does the rest. It was great art, and a very good dinner. We both choose fish. There was an amuse bouche. Then the first course was spaghetti with shellfish - clams, mussels, and shrimp. It was a large serving. Frankly, because we weren't sure about the program, for a while we thought it was the main entree. So by the time we'd finished it, we were starting to get full. But then came a whole entree. We each got a pan roasted whole fish. Linda's was sea bream and mine was a local fish that I don't remember. They were very good, and there was a small salad on the plate with the fish. Dessert was two different kinds of ricotta tart. And for wine, we had a bottle of an excellent local white (another one that I'm going to seek out here.) Before the evening was over, a group of itinerant musicians came in and played a few songs, and then passed the hat. It was a very enjoyable evening. 

Day 4 - Dinner at Kasai. This was my favorite meal of the whole trip. I've written a separate blog post about it. Click here to read it.

Click here to view my photo album from the Amalfi Coast, including our trip to Pompeii. 

02 June 2016

My favorite meal in Italy - Kasai, Praiano

We ate a lot of great food on our 26-day trip to Europe in April and May. But I do have a favorite. It was on the last day of our stay on the Amalfi Coast. The restaurant was Kasai. (They don't have a web site, just a Facebook page. Click here to view it.) It was located just a half block away from the hotel we were staying at in Praiano. Every night, as we trudged down the hill to the main square of Praiano to find a restaurant, we walked by Kasai. Every night, it was overflowing with customers with music pouring out the door. It looked appealing. So on our third night, as we returned to our hotel, we made a reservation for the following night. 

The headline says it. It was my favorite meal of our whole trip. 


When we arrived, our table wasn't ready yet. So we were served a glass of prosecco and some fried zucchini and eggplant, which we consumed outside overlooking the sea. (That was our only outdoor 'meal' because of the chilly weather.) 

When our table was ready, we got a cozy table by the window. The nightly special menu was tuna. It sounded so good to us that we both decided to get it. The first course was tuna tartare. The tuna was diced with apple and served with 3 dipping sauces - a peppery olive oil, soy sauce, and a thick sweet balsamic vinegar. Excellent. 

The second course was fusilli pasta with tomatoes and tuna. It was my favorite dish of the menu. The main course was seared tuna cut in square sticks coated in sesame seeds. 

I only had one complaint. I planned to get the local white wine like we had the night before at Vivaro. But our server commented that a red would go better with the tuna. It was good, but not as good as the white. 




31 May 2016

Rome, May 17-19: Art and Antiquities, and farewell to Italy

I liked Rome better than I thought I would.

Rome was the last destination of our 26-day trip to Europe, mostly Italy (but with 3 days in Paris at the beginning). I was impressed by the culture, the art, and the antiquities that we saw there. Not to mention, some good food and an exciting evening of live music. 

At first, I didn't even want to go to Rome. But as the itinerary for our trip came together, we decided to spend 4 days on the Amalfi Coast toward the end. So it made sense to fly home from Rome. And since we were going to fly home from there, it made sense to spend a few days there. I'm glad we did. 

From our hotel in Praiano, we got up early and caught a bus to Sorrento. It was the first and only bus ride on the Amalfi Coast that wasn't packed. The bus eventually got full, but every passenger got a seat. Then we took the local train to Naples. Because we got to the station with time to spare, we got a seat and were able to stow our suitcases. But before the train left the station, it filled to overflowing; another miserable, stuffy, smelly ride. Just to add to the discomfort and anxiety, along the way they made an announcement advising passengers to be aware of pickpockets working on the train. After we arrived at the station in Naples, I was so glad to be done with the Circumvesuviana.

From there we got a fast train to Rome. We got to Rome early afternoon and got checked in to our hotel. Then we took a walk to the popular attractions, like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. It was a good way to get a feel for the city. Seeing the Trevi Fountain was a special priority for Linda. We actually walked by it each day of our stay in Rome.

On Day 2, after breakfast we walked to the Vatican Museums (via the Trevi Fountain). We spent a little more than 3 hours looking at all the fabulous art. After the Vatican we walked some more and made our way to the Jewish Ghetto. It was interesting. We saw the synagogue and the kosher restaurants and bakeries. We had kosher gelato. But we both felt that the Ghetto was less interesting than we what expected.
The weather on Day 2 was the best of our whole trip. It was mostly sunny with temps in the hi 70s. On our way back to the hotel, we saw a little bar, Enoteca Barberini, that advertised live music. We stopped in and asked about it. No cover charge. Jazz, blues, rock. We decided to come back for dinner and the music.


What a great decision. The food was good (see below). But the real treat was the music. Two brothers playing guitars, amazingly talented with a wide repertoire. At the beginning of the evening they played jazz standards and some Django Rheinhart. But after their first break, they switched to more rock and pop. The server who we initially spoke to in the afternoon got up and sang some old rock favorites. There was a group of Australians who were really getting wild. We stayed until they quit playing at midnight.  


On Day 3, after breakfast we walked to the Pantheon (via the Trevi Fountain), and from there to the Roman Forum. We bought our tickets and spent more then 3 hours looking at all the ruins. It was even longer than the time we spent in the Vatican Museum. To see the Colosseum we had to leave the Forum area and get in another line. We spent about an hour in the Colosseum. So it was a big day of sightseeing.


Before dinner we walked to Piazza Navona for a cocktail on the piazza. Naturally it rained on the walk over, but ended by the time we got seated. I had a Campari and Linda had wine. It was very pleasant and relaxing ending to our trip.


Hotel: We stayed at the Mascagni Hotel. It was conveniently located to the train station (important since we arrived in Rome by train). It also was an easy walk from the hotel to all the major sites that we wanted to visit during our stay. When we arrived, we were very warmly welcomed by the staff at the reception desk. We got a quiet room away from the street and with a small balcony. The staff was very helpful, providing maps and advice on how to make the most of our time in Rome. And at the end of our stay, they made arrangements for transportation to the airport - 50 euros in a Mercedes sedan (compared to 48 euros by taxi). I only have one quibble about the hotel. The WiFi in our room was inconsistent, and occasionally lost the connection to the network. I was surprised. The hotel seems to get some business travelers, and I would have thought a reliable WiFi connection would be a priority. But for us it was only a minor inconvenience. 


Restaurants: 
Day 1: Ristorante La Pentolaccia. This was a recommendation by the staff at our hotel. It was a very good choice. It was a short walk from the hotel, which was appreciated because of the threat of rain. We split a starter of artichokes, shredded and served with Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Linda had grilled squid. I had an unusual pasta dish with thick, round noodles served with squid and garbanzo beans. 

 
Day 2: Enoteca Barberini. I mentioned this bar earlier in the post for the live music we enjoyed. We considered going to another restaurant for dinner, and just going to Barberini for music. But we were tired from all the walking and decided to take a chance that the food would be acceptable. Better than 'acceptable' it was actually quite good. We started with a salad of mozzarella and tomatoes with pesto. Then Linda had spaghetti carbonara, which was delicious. I thought I ordered caci e pepi. But I was served pappardelle with polpettini (little meatballs). The pasta was dressed in a meaty tomato sauce with a skewer of meatballs on the side. I think they were veal, but could have been anything. Linda wanted me to send it back and get what I ordered. But I didn't want to sit there while she ate her meal and vice verse, make her sit there when my meal finally came. Besides, I think it was an honest miscommunication about what I wanted. Besides, I liked it.



Day 3: After our cocktail at Piazza Navona, we walked to a trattoria we walked past on our first day in Rome, La Buca di Ripetta. We had a 9 p.m. reservation. When we arrived, our table wasn't ready yet, and we were whisked outside to wait. But to salve the slight, we were served a glass of Prosecco to sip while waiting. We got our table at about 9:30. To start our meal, we shared a fried artichoke. It was very unusual and tasty. Linda had squid ink pasta with squid and olives. I don't think it was the best squid either of us had on the trip. But it was an interesting contrast of the salty olives and the briny pasta from the squid ink. My dinner was caci e pepi. It was served very attractively. There was a crisp noodle 'bowl' with the spaghetti and cheese sauce in the middle with plenty of black pepper. Yum! This is definitely something I'm going to try to replicate at home.

Here's a link to view more photos from our visit to Rome, click here