30 September 2015

Italian fantasy–behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo

When my wife and I were in Italy (April 2013), we rented a car for a few days of driving around Tuscany. It was a Fiat Punto. It was a nice little car. In Italy it’s classified as a ‘super-mini.’ Here in the U.S. I guess it would be called a subcompact. It was reasonably fun to drive while visiting the medieval hill towns. On the highway, it would cruise along fairly easily. I think the fastest I pushed it was 120 km/h (72 mph).

But, it was basically just transportation. And being on vacation in Italy, I couldn’t help but wish for a more stylish ride. AlfaRomeo1

Fast forward to 2015. I had an opportunity to drive a 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider ‘Quadrifoglio.’ One of our auto dealers in Minnesota has a collection of ‘heritage’ cars available to rent. (Check out Morrie’s Heritage Car Connection.) When I first heard about it, I wondered why ‘heritage’ and not ‘classic’ cars. At least according to Wikipedia, the most common definition of a classic car is 25 years or older. (An antique car is 50 years or older.) At least according to that definition, the 1987 Alfa Romeo I checked out from Morrie’s would qualify as a classic. But some of the other cars available are newer than that.

But I wasn’t so much interested in whether or not I was driving a classic. I’d never driven a sports car like the Alfa. I was just interested in the experience. It was great!

When I started planning the outing, at first I thought about taking a day trip along the Mississippi River to Red Wing for lunch. But within a few hours of picking up the car, I changed my mind. A trip to Red Wing would involve too much highway driving, and for this car, I wanted more of an engaged driving experience.

Morrie’s recognizes the character of the car. On its web site description it says that the Alfa “may not please your inner speed demon.” That’s true. The car has a 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Again, the web site says it best: “It needs to be coaxed a little to make the most of it.” But the coaxing is fun. The engine revs eagerly and shifting is quick and smooth.

When I picked up the car, I drove it around the parkways and lakes in Minneapolis, just to get a feel for its personality and to get used to driving a stick shift again. When I learned to drive, the car had a manual transmission. And since then, I’ve driven manual transmission cars, like the Fiat in Italy. But I don’t do it every day, and it does take a while to get back in the swing of it.

There were a couple of notable things about the car. First of all, it was a convertible and it was small. We kept the top down thru the whole time driving it, only putting it up at night. It made a big impression on me how close everything seems while driving it. For example, backing up – I twisted around to see where I was going, and the back of the car is right there. I could reach back and put my hand on the trunk. And driving down the highway, even small American cars seem to loom over the Alfa. IMG_0685

Another thing that I really loved was the dashboard. The car had full instrumentation. Besides the speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, there were little gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, and ammeter. That was another flashback to my early days of driving. It used to be that those instruments were important things to watch, to make sure things were running smoothly and you didn’t overheat the engine.

Like I noted earlier in this post, I abandoned my original plan to drive to Red Wing. Instead we drove to Woodbury and then cut across country to Afton. Then we followed the river road north to Stillwater where we had a nice lunch overlooking the St. Croix. It wasn’t exactly like driving through Tuscany. But it was fun.

And really, that’s why you’d rent a car like this. Or own one, if you have the garage space and if you have the mechanical ability to tinker with it. (It is, after all, an old car. It had 91,000 miles on the odometer. It rattled a little bit on rough roads.)

You’d also drive one to be noticed. That worked for us, too. As we were cruising along the freeway, in the middle lane, 60-65 mph, there was a steady stream of cars in the left lane zooming past us. We saw a few look over with a combination of curiosity and (dare I say) envy. One of the cars that blasted by was a Maserati. I’m sure I saw the driver ease up a bit as he passed us and give us a respectful nod.

28 September 2015

Riverview Wine Bar, Mpls., hits the right notes

Sunday of Labor Day weekend seems to be lucky for us. (Yes, I know. Labor Day was almost a month ago. But keep reading.)

We were just looking for a relaxing place to have a light bite and listen to some live music. Several years ago, that’s how we discovered Nikki’s. (Now sadly defunct.)

There aren’t a lot of places in Minneapolis that offer live jazz on a Sunday night. So it’s a wonder why we hadn’t discovered the Riverview sooner. It’s a cool and inviting locale in the Longfellow neighborhood. It was just what we were looking for.

The interior is warm and comfortable. Customers can choose to circle the bar or take a table. There is a fireplace which I can imagine would add a lot of ambiance on a cold evening. At about 7 p.m. on Sundays, the band sets up in a corner by the door. Looking at the Riverview’s online entertainment calendar, it appears that the Zacc Harris Trio plays nearly every Sunday. The trio’s music was very engaging and easy to listen to. RiverviewWineBar

Riverview’s menu offers a lot of variety. They have a nice selection of cheese and charcuterie and a lot of small plates. If you have a heartier appetite, they do offer 6-8 full-sized entrees. They also have salads, sandwiches, and flatbread/pizzas. Prices are very reasonable, ranging from $6-$15 for the small plates and $15-$25 for entrees. All of the pizzas appear to be $12. Their burger is $12 and three-cheese grilled cheese is $13 and comes with a choice of salad or soup.

We started with duck pate from the charcuterie menu. It was rich and smooth and delicious. It was served with bread, spicy mustard and cornichons.  Next we split a ‘Figaro’ pizza with figs, caramelized onions, almonds and chevre cheese. It was excellent. We tend to be light eaters, so that’s all we ordered. But I think most diners would probably order one or two more small plates. The menu offers a lot of intriguing choices including spinach and artichoke spread, caramelized Brussels sprouts, mussels, seared scallops, and mushrooms. Lots to consider for our next visit.

Of course, it is a wine bar, and it has a very extensive and interesting wine list. I felt the wines were pretty reasonably priced. Not inexpensive, but good value. Since we planned to spend the evening there, we ordered a bottle of wine to go along with the food and continue sipping while we listened to the music. I saw several interesting Italian wines, but unfortunately, they were out of most of them. Still, we ended up with a Valpolicella that we liked quite a lot.

So for us, the Riverview goes down as a place to definitely return to. Especially if we’re looking for music on a Sunday night.