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. 

06 July 2016

Piedmont, May 5-7: My favorite part of our trip

Don't get me wrong. Our whole 26-day European trip was great. But the 3 days we spent in the southern part of the Piedmont was the best for me. It had everything - great wine, great food, wonderful quarters in an agriturismo, shopping, art, and culture. I would have been happy to stay longer. 

Our reservation was in the town of Barolo. We drove there from the Lakes region in the northern Piedmont. The drive went smoothly, and we found our hotel pretty easily. (Click here for a review of the hotel, an agriturismo run by Angelo Germano and his family.) After we got checked in, we started exploring the town. It was very quaint. Also very small. We hadn't really intended to do any wine tasting, but we thought it would be fun to buy a bottle and drink it in our room. Our host suggested going to the Marchesi di Barola winery on the edge of town. It was a very enjoyable tour and tasting for €12. But we didn't like the wine well enough to buy any.
Daily breakfast at Cafe Antica

When we got back from the tasting, our host, Angelo, was giving a tasting to another couple, and we decided to try it as well. We liked the Nebbiolo Langhe so well (and so much better than the Marchesi wines) that we bought a bottle in our room; as you might suspect, the room comes stocked with bottles of Angelo Germano's wines. So before going to dinner, we opened the bottle and sat on our balcony, sipping the wine and watching the activity in the town square below.

Unlike the other hotels on this trip, Casa Svizzera doesn't have its own food. Rather, breakfast was served at a little cafe behind the hotel, Cafe Antica is run by a 'Mamma' with help from her daughter. They don't speak much English, but between the two of them and the small amount of Italian that I learned, we managed to communicate just fine. The coffee there is good (Linda liked this cappuccino better than any other we'd had so far). They have a nice selection of food, not just pastries but including more savory items. For example, they served a very tasty spinach tart and delicious marinated zucchini. Besides good food, the cafe draws a steady crowd of locals as well as tourists coming to town to taste wine. It was fun to sit there, enjoying our breakfast and coffee, and watching and listening to the people as they came and went. 

On Day 2, we took a day trip to Turin (Torino). It was about an hour drive, and we found street parking near Parco Valentino. We didn't have a very good idea of where things were in the center city, so we wandered over toward the train station. Not a good idea. It was pretty scruffy. But as we made our way into the city, we found all the piazzas and palazzos that we'd read about. We spent 4 hours just roaming thru the city and seeing the sights, which included ornate bridges over the River Po. We also spent some time in Parco Valentino; it was very pleasant. 
Piazza Vittorio Veneto in Torino

Turin actually was much nicer than I anticipated. I had expected the town to be more gritty, comparable to Bologna, where we stayed during our 2014 trip to Italy. (Click here to read my views of Bologna and the eastern Po Valley.) We found Turin to be very scenic with lots of fashionable shops and beautiful public art. I could envision staying there on some future trip to Italy.

On Day 3, after breakfast, we drove to the town of Alba. It was market day and the town was packed with people. One of our goals was to sample Gorgonzola or local blue cheese. We were told that local blue cheese can't be called Gorgonzola because it doesn't come from that region, which is farther north in Piedmont. Well, we found something labeled Gorgonzola and bought some. So it was either cheating on the label or it was authentic Gorgonzola brought to the market from up north. Either way, it was good. We also bought a bottle of Nebbiolo Langhe and a small loaf of bread, which we ate with the cheese and wine on our balcony back at the hotel. We did shop the market, and bought a few items. 

After our 'market' lunch, we took another short drive to Serralunga. There we climbed to the top of the hill town and into the castle, with beautiful panoramic views of the valley and the town of Barolo on the next hill over. 

Hotel: As I've noted above, we stayed at an agriturismo called Casa Svizzera. It was a great location, friendly and accommodating proprietors, comfortable, clean and modern rooms. One of the nights we had a wine dinner at the agriturismo's wine production and bottling facility outside of town. It was a fabulous experience. Click here to read about it.

Restaurants:Dinner our first night was at a small cafe down the hill from our hotel, Osteria la Cantinella. It was a mixed experience for me. We started with a bowl of pasta with sage and nuts. It was delicious. The pasta was very tender and tasty. For entrees, Linda got chicken, and I got beef braised in Barolo wine. Linda's chicken was excellent, but my brasato was disappointing. The meat was nice and tender and tasted good. But the sauce was heavy like thick gravy and not very enjoyable.

On our last night in Barolo, we ate at Osteria Rosso Barolo. It was one of the best meals we had on our trip. We started by splitting a salad (Insalatina con Robiola di capra e nocciole). It was shredded carrots on a bed of greens with 4 wedges of goat cheese and chopped hazelnuts, dressed lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Linda's entree was roasted octopus on white bean cream (Polpo arrostito con purè di fagioli Cannellini). It was excellent. I took a chance and ordered brasato again. This time it was great. The meat was tender and flavorful. The braising sauce was good without being too thick or overwhelming. 
A wonderful dinner at Rosso Barolo

For wine, Linda had a local white made from arneis grapes. I had two different barolos. The first was 2006 and it was good. When I ordered my second glass of wine, our server advised me that your second glass of barolo must always be older than the first. So the second was 2002 and it was excellent, all for only €9 per glass. (Linda's wine was only €4!) Great service too. Our server spoke good English. She was friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and had a sense of humor. 

Click here for more photos from Barolo and the Piedmont. 

02 July 2016

A tale of two 'agriturismi' in Italy

One of my goals for our trip to Italy in May was to deepen my knowledge of Italian wine. I had three strategies for achieving that goal:

1. Drink wine with meals during our trip;
2. Visit tasting rooms at different wineries;
3. Stay at an agriturismo where they make wine. 

We stayed at two 'agriturismi' during our trip, one in Piedmont and one on the border between Lazio and Umbria. Both were very enjoyable experiences. There were many similarities between the two places; also many differences. 

Our first agriturismo was Casa Svizzera in the town of Barolo in the Piedmont. It's owned by the Angelo Germano family and features their wines. The guest rooms are located above the winery tasting room in the heart of town. At the time of our stay, they had three rooms (though we were told by the owners that they are in the process of renovating additional rooms in the building for the future.) The rooms are clean, large, modern, and comfortably decorated. Our room had a narrow balcony overlooking the town square. We enjoyed sitting on the balcony before dinner, sipping wine and watching the activity in the square. 

When we arrived at Casa Svizzera, no one was there to greet us. That wasn't totally unexpected. We had been advised to provide an estimate of when we would arrive, and we were a half hour early. Since it is a family-operated business, family members often have multiple duties, so it's not always feasible to have someone at the reception desk when you arrive. However, after only a short wait, Angelo Germano arrived and checked us in, giving us a choice of any of the rooms we wanted. 

I suppose you could just stay in town and sample Angelo's wine in the tasting room. But the authentic agriturismo experience requires a trip to the winery's production and aging facility a few kilometers outside of town. There you can get a tour of the winery and arrange for either a lunch or dinner with wine pairings. 

With Viviana at Angelo Germano's winery in Barolo
My wife and I opted for a dinner with pairings on our second night in Barolo. At about 6:30, Angelo drove us up to the winery where we met his daughter, Viviana. (I say he drove us 'up' because the winery is located high on a hill overlooking the town and the vineyards below.) Most of our communication prior to arriving at Casa Svizzera was with Viviana. Her English is very proficient, having lived in San Francisco for a while earlier in her life. She was the tour guide for the winery and the chef for our tasting menu. 

Viviana takes great pride in the food she serves. Especially during the summer, many of the vegetables are grown in her garden at the winery. The food we tasted was excellent and nicely paired with the wine. There are a couple of meal variations available to guests. My wife wanted an option that included one sample of white wine. I preferred to have all red wine from the Nebbiolo grape. Viviana graciously accommodated that slight difference. 

Linda's first course was marinated vegetables with a garlic sauce and potato cream. The wine pairing was a chardonnay that Viviana told us was made in the style of an ice wine. It was good with the vegetables, but not a wine that either of us probably would drink very often. My first course was a carrot flan seasoned with cinnamon and topped with a white cream sauce. It was served with Langhe Nebbiolo Visette; this was one of the wines that we both liked so much that we bought some to drink there and to bring home. 
Pasta course served with Langhe Nebbiolo

The rest of our courses were the same.  Our second course was a 'plin' ravioli, plin meaning 'pinch' the technique of pinching off the dough to form the ravioli. They were served with Barolo Bussia. It was an excellent wine, but we preferred one of Angelo's other Barolos that we had tasted in town. The dessert was a shortbread tartlet with chocolate cream and apples cooked in Nebbiolo. The pairing with dessert was described as being a recipe like vermouth made with Nebbiolo grapes, but with many different spices.  I thought it tasted more similar to Campari. It was a fun experience and a beautiful setting above the valley, where we watched the shadows fall as the sun set and the lights came on.   

Our second agriturismo experience was later in the week after we left Piedmont. The guest house was La Tana dell'Istrice; it's a manor house that used to be the family home of the owner, Sergio Mottura. located in the town of Civitella D'Agliano. The town is located in Lazio but close to the border of Umbria. I mentioned the agriturismo in my post about our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany (click here). 

Like our experience at Casa Svizzera, when we arrived at La Tana it was locked and no one was at the reception desk. But we just walked around the town (which didn't take long because the town is so small) and pretty soon Sergio's wife arrived to let us in. The guest house has 8 rooms and two suites. When we checked in, we were offered an upgrade to a suite, which was very nice indeed! The room was very clean, comfortable and spacious. 

The guest house includes a wine cellar, a tasting room, and dining rooms. But like Casa Svizzera, the production facilities are located outside of town. Guests are welcome to visit the vineyard, and they have a swimming pool there for guests to use in the summer. This time we did not go out to the vineyard. 

We did, however, have a tasting meal featuring Sergio Mottura's wine. When we descended to the wine cellar for the reception, we discovered that we were the last of the group to arrive. We had a pleasant time sampling white wines and noshing on cheese and bruschetta and focaccia and chopped liver. After we arrived, the other guests, all Italians, wanted to talk about American diets and eating habits. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it was unexpected. 
Elegant menu at La Tana

After a tour of the cellar where the wines are aged, we were lead to a dining room for dinner. Dinner was elegant. It started with a tomato, bread, garlic, and basil 'soup' which really was more of a purée than a soup. Next was a delicious risotto with asparagus and served with Parmesan cheese, which we were advised to put on lots. I asked about the rice variety and was told it was baldo. I've heard of it, but I've never cooked with it. That was followed by saltimbucco. So far, all of the food was accompanied by white wines. But the saltimbucco was served with a Syrah. 

We had a lot of pleasant conversation over dinner. But remarkably, very little of the conversation was about wine. Sergio asked about my job, and when I explained that I was retired from a farmer co-op, he got very excited to tell me that he was a farmer. He talked about the same difficulties of trying to make a profit as a crop farmer. He said he raised corn and wheat and farro and canola and alfalfa, but no livestock, and ultimately, the only thing that was profitable was grapes. It was the kind of conversation I would expect to hear from any American farmer at his or her dinner table.

Dessert was strawberries with cream and a digestive wine. Then we adjourned to the living room for coffee and more conversation. It was an extraordinary and enjoyable evening.

So what did I learn from our two agriturismi experiences in Italy? First, it was a pretty good strategy for learning more about Italian wine, especially if you do a tasting meal. (We did buy some of Angelo Germano's wine, but not Sergio Mottura's.) Second, an agriturismo seems to offer pretty economical lodging. Casa Svizzera was the least expensive hotel of our whole trip, and while La Tana was somewhat more expensive, it was still quite reasonable. Third, staying at an agriturismo is a great way to meet and mingle with real, every-day Italians. And finally, for me at least, it was interesting to observe that indeed, farmers are pretty much the same everywhere. 
Sergio Mottura & family members