23 April 2014

Emilia Romagna: Not the ‘Foodie Mecca’ we expected

After three beautiful days in Venice, we departed by train; destination Bologna in the heart of Emilia Romagna. Located in the Po Valley, the terrain is broad, expansive and flat. Emilia Romagna is touted as the new or emerging foodie destination of Italy, and for good reason. It had a very agricultural feel that made me think of the Central Valley of California. It’s the home of Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto, and Lambrusco wine. But as we discovered, as much as it’s a center for food production in Italy, it has a long way to go to match the scenic beauty of Tuscany or other regions of Italy that attract tourists.IMG_0114

The train station in Bologna is located just at the edge of the center city. It was an easy walk, about 6 blocks, to our hotel, The Metropolitan. The hotel, in turn, was only about four blocks from the Piazza Maggiore and Due Torri (Two Towers, Bologna’s answer to Pisa’s Leaning Tower). So the location was ideal for exploring the city and for our day trips by train to Ferrara and Modena.

Quite in contrast to our hotel in Venice, The Metropolitan was sleek and modern. Some reviewers call it a boutique hotel. To me, it was more like a very comfortable business hotel. If I had ever been lucky enough to have a business trip to Bologna, I would have stayed in a hotel like the Metropolitan. Our package included breakfast. While the food itself was fairly standard (cheese, ham, bread, pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit) the presentation was beautiful and very artistic. Appropriate I guess for a food Mecca.

After getting settled into the hotel, my wife and I took a walk around the city to get our bearing and scope out a restaurant for dinner. Our first impression was not favorable. Bologna is a noisy, bustling, gritty city. One of the things that struck me, unfavorably, was the graffiti. It’s everywhere. I mean literally, you can’t go anywhere without seeing walls tagged with stylized graffiti. It was a little disconcerting. We were expecting more of a historically preserved city center, like we did see on our day trips.

And unlike Venice, Bologna and the other towns we visited in Emilia Romagna observed the traditional mid-day break. So in our walk around town, we saw lots of graffiti and lots of shuttered shops. We were quite chagrined. However, as the afternoon wore on, the city gradually took on a different tone. As the midday break ended, the city took on a much more cosmopolitan aura. We also came up with a list of several restaurants that looked promising for dinners during our stay.

Now, as I noted above, Bologna was our base for exploring Emilia Romagna. We planned two day trips. Originally, we reserved a rental car. But we discovered that the towns we wanted to visit were easily accessible by train from Bologna. So we cancelled the car and took the train. To me, that was a great decision. Traveling by train in Italy was easy and mostly relaxing. (I always had a little apprehension about making sure I was on the correct train for my intended destination.) The train stations were quite close to the city centers, and it was an easy walk to see the highlights of each town.

We picked Ferrara primarily for the historic buildings. The city center is dominated by the Castello Estense. The huge impressive castle is surrounded by a water-filled moat. The other dominant feature of the city center is the cathedral Duomo di Ferrara. But as much as anything, we enjoyed just wandering the medieval streets within the city walls and taking in the ambiance of the town. After a couple of hours, we felt that we’d seen enough and headed back to the train station.

I suppose at that point, if we’d had a car, we might have driven around and explored the countryside between Ferrara and Bologna. Instead, when we got back to Bologna, we made an impromptu visit to an art exhibit. It was a collection of Dutch art featuring Vermeer’s painting of The Girl With The Pearl Earring. The exhibit was at the Palazza Fava, an exhibition center just two blocks from our hotel. We enjoyed the exhibit, but also enjoyed looking at the architecture and permanent exhibits in the palazza. IMG_0133

Our second day trip, to Modena, finally gave us the foodie experience we anticipated in Emilia Romagna. The food market in Modena is fabulous. In addition to the stands selling regional food specialties, we were fascinated by the array of vegetable vendors as well as vendors of fresh meat, fish, and seafood. It was well worth the trip. And overall, we found Modena to be a more inviting town. It was more cosmopolitan than Ferrara but much less gritty than Bologna. My highlight of the day was sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying a plate of lasagna alla Bolognese and a glass of Lambrusco. (I didn’t know this before our trip, but I learned that one of Modena’s sister cities is St. Paul, MN.)

We did return to Bologna for dinner each night. Here are the restaurants we picked:

Ristorante Il Moro: I suppose this would be considered a tourist restaurant. Its menu includes a line up of pizzas. But we had a very enjoyable meal here. It’s not far from The Metropolitan and sort of off the beaten path for the city’s restaurant district. We happened by on our way back to the hotel. We stopped to look at the menu, and a waiter who spoke very good English invited us in for a bite of lunch. We declined, but we liked the menu and liked the way the restaurant looked. So we came back that evening for dinner. It was very good, and the service was friendly and accommodating.

Ristorante Victoria: This was my least favorite restaurant of our whole trip to Italy. In fact, after eating here, I decided we had to check diner reviews of restaurants before deciding on a restaurant. (I actually installed the Trip Adviser app in the hotel that evening and used it the rest of our trip.) It had all the prospects of being good – menu, décor, ambiance. And it’s not that our meal was bad. It was just … so average.

La Capriata: This was a great restaurant. We got the recommendation from our hotel (so I bet that means they cater to business travelers). But on our last night in Bologna, it was not at all busy, and we got great personal attention from the servers. We played it up a little bit by telling them that our trip to Italy was in celebration of our wedding anniversary. They made a truly great effort to make the meal memorable, and they succeeded.

After our dinners on two of the nights in Bologna, we went to Cantina Bentivoglio to listen to music. Billed as a restaurant, wine bar, and jazz club, Bentivoglio was a wonderful find. The cover charge for the jazz club was only 4.5 Euros and the drinks were not expensive. One night we heard a trio with sax, piano, and bass. The second night was a duo of piano and drums. They were great performers and the venue was really cool. It was downstairs and had a feeling like a wine cellar or underground vault. It was my favorite part of our stay in Bologna.

One final note about our visit to Emilia Romagna: For being a center of food production, especially meat and dairy, I didn’t see a single cow or pig (or chicken, sheep or goat for that matter) during our whole stay. Perhaps if we had rented a car and driven around the countryside, we might have seen some farm animals. But I was surprised by that.

22 April 2014

Basking in the sublime beauty of Venice

One of the top items on my list of things to do in retirement is travel. After 9 months of being retired, we finally took a major trip. We spent two weeks in Italy in late March and early April. That wasn’t literally the first travel since retiring. We took a trip to New York in October and to Los Angeles in January. But both of those trips were related to Mazon board meetings, and so felt more or less like when Linda would travel with me on business trips for Land O’Lakes.

But our Italy trip was a real vacation. We could plan it any way we wanted with no worries about working around work schedules and no worries about missing e-mails. We could go for as long as we wanted, and that’s what we did.

So to begin the vacation, we flew into Venice. We had never been to Venice before. We both wanted to see the city. But we really didn’t know what to expect. As we did our planning, we consulted many friends and family members. We found that people either loved Venice or hated it. We didn’t know which category we’d fall into. So we planned Venice for the beginning of our trip. That way, if it was a disappointment, we could just spend our three days getting over jet lag and then go on to other destinations.IMG_0017

But it turns out, we loved it. We got off to a good start. The sun was dipping low in the sky as our plane circled the city. The golden hues of the late afternoon sun gave the city a warm, welcoming glow. After we landed and retrieved our luggage, we scurried to catch the waterbus (vaporetto) for an hour-long ride to the dock closest to our hotel. The sun slipped below the horizon as the boat neared the dock, and I took a photo that captured the moment.

We did actually have a little confusion finding our way from the bustling waterfront through the winding passages to our hotel. But we found it, and it was fabulous. Casa Nicolo Priuli is scarcely three blocks from the waterfront. But it could have been miles away in terms of quiet peacefulness. That’s actually something that we experienced a lot in Venice. There are locales with throngs of people. Yet in just a few minutes, you cross a bridge and find yourself virtually alone on a quiet walkway.

Our hotel was great. The location was fantastic, very close to the major sites of Venice. But once evening fell, the neighborhood became very quiet and subdued. I keep thinking in terms of the streets becoming empty. But of course, in Venice, there are no streets. Just canals and bridges and porticos and walkways that wind through the city, promising the visitor an endless variety of things to discover.

The weather was fabulous while we were there. In the morning, we’d open the windows and listen to the sounds of the city waking up – shop keepers opening their stores, gondoliers preparing their boats, and people scurrying by to find a cup of coffee and a bite of breakfast. And always the sounds of church bells echoing through the city.

Restaurants in Venice

Trattoria da Nino: After a day of travel, we were tired and just wanted to find a restaurant nearby to have a quick dinner and then go to bed. We checked out a few places and settled on Trattoria da Nino. It offered a ‘menu del giorno’ that looked good, and we could eat on a covered patio outside. (This was a significant thing for us after the long, brutal winter we experienced in Minnesota.) The restaurant was ok … average really. We both liked our first course best. I had gnocchi and Linda had a lemony vegetable soup. The rest of the meal, roast chicken and greens, was pretty ordinary.

Agli Artisti da Piero: During our first full day in Venice, as we wandered through the city, we checked out the restaurants we passed with an eye toward where we would return for dinner. Most of the restaurants that were geared to serving tourists had someone standing outside engaging people who walked by, trying to lure you in. It’s really kind of annoying. But as we walked by Agli Artisti, there was something about it that was appealing to us. We wanted a fish/seafood restaurant – a specialty of Agli Artisti. The menu looked good, and we liked the décor. So later that evening, we found our way back and enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Italy. IMG_0088

Luna Sentada: On our last night in Venice, I really wanted to find someplace that was not a tourist restaurant. Luna Sentada was very close by. We walked by it often going to and from the hotel. We liked the ambiance. But what intrigued me was its food concept. It was Asian Italian fusion, with the chef trying to imagine and prepare the combinations of flavors that Marco Polo might have experienced during his world travels centuries ago. It was a very creative and delicious meal and a great way to end our stay in Venice.

Every night after dinner, we strolled to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) and mingled with the crowds, enjoyed the mild spring weather, and listened to music. There always were bands performing on outdoor stages in the square. They’d quit playing around 11 p.m., and we’d be back in our hotel by 11:10. Otherwise, we didn’t find much nightlife in Venice. But no matter. We were still recovering from jet lag.

Departure

We left Venice the way we arrived, on a vaporetto. After breakfast, we packed our luggage, checked out, and made our way to the waterfront where we caught a waterbus to the train station. The boat was jammed full as it made its way past the stately buildings of Venice. We watched wistfully and vowed that we would return someday.

10 April 2014

Who decides what is 'good' food technology

There's a great article on the St. Paul paper's web site about an innovative project using the old Hamm's Brewery to grow fish (tilapia) and use the fish waste to fertilize greenhouse veggies. http://www.twincities.com/News/ci_25497427/At-former-Hamms-site-its-the

Don't get me wrong. I love the concept and I hope it works. But I was curious to see that it's being celebrated as an organic food production system. And since I'm an organic skeptic, I wondered: If cows and pigs and chickens have to have access to sunshine and pasture to be considered sustainable, why aren't those same activists criticizing this project for confining the fish and failing to provide them with access to open water? For that matter, why aren't organic plants required to be grown in dirt and have access to sunshine, rather than hydroponics in a greenhouse?

Who decides that this project's industrial technologies are laudable while conventional 'industrial' agriculture (like my dad practiced) should be castigated?

I've felt for a long time that the organic movement has gotten so wrapped up in self righteous rhetoric and food politics that it's lost its way.