Friday, October 31, 2008

Mangia! Mangia! Mangia!

Backdated post due to wonky internet access in Italy...

I've been proud of my successful weight loss for a little while now, but a day in Milan has pretty much blown my waistline back to its former proportions. I don't think I've eaten this much on a trip since the infamous month of eating Japan, and that was a lot.

The thing is, that's who I am and it's what I do. Other people travel to see landmarks and museums and great works of art - which I certainly love. But my preference, first and foremost, is to soak up the culture. And the best way to do it - if you ask me - is via food and drink.

Sure, I've been called the F-word before (uh, that'd be "foodie"), but I'm not a high-falutin' Michelin guide-totin' snob. In fact, while hunting for the elusive internet café this morning, we started the day with a coffee at McDonald's. Yes, in the land of cafés at every corner, we went to McDonald's. Really, it was in hopes of finding some Wi-Fi. In Japan, it was the only reliable place to get online, so I was hoping that might be the case here. No luck. And it was too early for lunch, so there'd be no trying out the Italian version of the menu. And for the record, their espresso was not bad at all.

If you're not too disgusted and have continued reading, you can learn about our next bit of masochism. While doing a little shopping (I finally found the ideal Bialetti espresso maker!) and heading back to our hotel to unload, Alannah and I passed by Caballo Loco which is, you guessed it, a Mexican restaurant!

Now, getting decent Mexican food in Europe is like finding a needle in a haystack - a very dull, rusty needle in a flavorless haystack. But after seeing that their menu included tacos with "prosciutto e formaggio," we knew we had to throw down. We also knew we weren't going to get anything close to Mexican food as a couple of taqueria-veteran Californians would know it. So we were pleasantly surprised by the colorful but not over-the-top atmosphere, complete with cheesedick Latin pop music... not to mention the good tortilla chips and *gasp* hot salsa that didn't taste like ketchup! So the tacos did disappoint - I had the aforementioned prosciutto and cheese and Alannah the chili con carne, both just wrapped in a soft tortilla and nuked with a slice of Kraft cheese on top. On the other hand, the shaved fennel salad on the side (WTF!?) went surprisingly well with guacamole and sour cream.

Having dredged the low end, we headed back toward the Duomo in the center of town and located Peck, the gourmet food hall associated with the Michelin-starred Cracco-Peck restaurant. Having not yet found a way to digest food and shit out money, we decided to just drool over the amazing collection of cheeses, cured meats, luxury goods, and high-end prepared foods to go. I was hoping to find (and try!) a traditional Milanese fritto misto that includes little bits like lamb's lung and whatnot, but no such luck. I'd have to gross out Alannah some other time. We wanted to eat every bit of every thing on display, from the gigantic French-style escargot to the saffron-infused peccorino cheese to the hideously overpriced vegetable flans. I felt completely out of my spending league, but wanted to order one of each. Unfortunately, Peck doesn't offer free samples, so we went upstairs to the tea room to splurge on a "light snack."

The two of us had Peck's signature cocktail - a bitter and tart blend of Campari, aranciata, various liquors, and some awesome little tomatillo-like tropical fruit we keep encountering at European markets. Some day I'll figure it out what it is. The cocktail miraculously paired magnificently with our cheese plate, loaded up with seven types of cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses. The hands down favorite: The very peccorino alla zafferana we'd seen earlier. Ensnared in their trap, it wasn't a difficult decision to go buy a kilo of the ridiculously opulent cheese on the way out.

I further proved my inability to control my gustatory spending by ordering a 14€ kopi luwak coffee to cap off our afternoon tea. Considering they sell the stuff for 457€/kg, I figured having one demi-tasse of the stuff would make me not feel like a complete pauper walking out of the place. "I just bought your saffron cheese AND your coffee whose beans have been shit out by Indonesian pandas," I could say as they sneered at my well-worn jeans, snowboarding jacket, and hiking shoes. But they were actually very nice, and I wasn't followed by security even once.

I rang up my mom, and it turned out she and my aunts were just a few minutes away, so we met up in front of the Duomo before heading back to the hotel. We reviewed what we'd done thus far, and I told my mom about having just had some of the most amazing cheese ever... Now, she loves cheese - probably more than she does myself and my sister. So I knew I could make her happy by promising her a bit of the prize that she loves more than her own flesh and blood. "We bought a kilo of the stuff! We'll totally have some when we get back to Paris!" I think it may have been one of the few moments I've seen my mom pleased with my poorly-formed spending habits.

Back at the hotel, Alannah and I tried to figure where we'd have dinner. It was just the two of us tonight, so I was hoping we might be able to have a romantic evening, providing we find the right venue. I pulled out my trusty maitre d's knife (no European should leave home without it!) and pulled open a bottle of Barolo I'd picked up earlier at the market.


"Damn, that uncorked like champagne. I hope it's still good," I said as I poured a couple of glasses of the stuff. "Is it just me or is it fizzy?"

Alannah tasted it. "It says frizzante on the bottle. It's supposed to be sparkling."

Now, I've heard of sparkling reds before, but had never bothered to try, figuring it'd be like red wine flavored soda. And for once in my life, I can say I was right. Of course, swinging from low end to high, gravity had to pull us back, and we drank it up.

If red wine soda was an unexpectedly oddball way of starting off our romantic evening together, it was a harbinger of things to come. We hopped on the dodgy Metro line 2 to go to the opposite end of Milan, the canal district near Porto Genova. Because nothing says "romantic" like graffiti-infested subways and dried out canals. But we had a destination in mind: Le Vigne restaurant, a highly-recommended practitioner of Slow Food with an old school Italian atmosphere. What's not to like?

The answer to that question: My navigational skills. Despite having studied the map and pinpointing the location and committing it to memory before leaving, we got to the canals and found nothing. I went to the very roundabout whose shape and orientation I had memorized to the point that I could recognize it through the driving rain - and still, nothing. As the rain grew heavier, we searched the area, and searched, and searched. The more futile our search seemed to become, the more rain-soaked our shoes most certainly became. My once waterproof snowboarding jacket was nearly saturated (and with it the passport in my chest pocket, which now resembles an overcooked blue sheet of lasagne). Things grew even worse when we threw in the towel, headed back to the Metro station and then realized - wait - this isn't the way to the Metro! I started to get the feeling of dread that when traveling can mean a ruined trip. I sensed Alannah becoming frustrated. I knew I'd just fucked up our night, bigtime.

And as I decided to admit that not only would we never find the restaurant, but that we might have to throw the Metro into that same category of despair, we walked right by it. Le Vigne. Nowhere near the point I'd memorized on the map. The warm room and warm hostess welcomed our sorry, rain-drenched asses, and we decided to abandon our earlier plan to just order light starters and a glass of wine - to save money and our waistlines.

In the classic but none too chi-chi atmosphere (hell, there was a big screen in the back room with Sky Tele-Giornale on showing the latest Obama/McCain numbers) we laid waste to a platter of fiore di zucca stuffed with some of the most fantastic riccota cheese to grace the face of the earth. We used our bread - manners be damned - to sop up the freshest pesto this side of Genova. We dove into zucchini wrapped with angler fish wrapped with pancetta sitting in a grape reduction. Some fantastic Milanese rice cake. And, deciding to throw reason out the window, a giant ribeye steak - delightfully bloody and not-so-delightfully priced al'otte (by the 100g). Oh well, at least the local wine we were guzzling was a ridiculous bargain.

Earlier in the day, Alannah and I were a little bummed that we were spending Halloween not doing anything Halloweeny. Sure, there were some youth running around in ghostface "Scream" masks and tons of places had pumpkin decor in their windows, but we lamented not going to any costume parties.

As we ambled toward the Metro (only 50m away, it turned out) after our post-dinner espressos, we forgot about Halloween. Hell, we were in Italy and just ate an insanely amazing dinner. And - as it turns out - a romantic one, at that.

Anyway, it's about midnight and we have to catch a morning train to Liguria. Time for bed!

No, really, to sleep. I've eaten too much today to think about anything else.

Milanese Three-Way

It's not what you'd think.

It seems public internet access is controled tightly by the neo-fascist party in charge of Italy: I haven't seen a single place with Wi-Fi, not even McDonald's, and the janky, slow internet cafe I'm currently using requires that they scan your passport according to anti-terrorism laws. Thanks very much to The War Against Terror. (TWAT) I feel safe, don't you?

So here you go, three posts rolled into one, which I'm copying by hand from my laptop, because I can't even use my USB key.

Greasy Italian
Thursday, 9:30 am

I just dropped my MacBook on the laminate floor of my hotel room. My grip slipped and "SMACK!" there was the sound of plastic and metal and whatever else is inside these contraptions hitting the floor.

It's not that I'm careless. It's just that after one night and only one "light" meal in Milan, every pore of my body is seeping grease.

Luckily, my trusty laptop is OK, and so far, so am I.

A little puzzled, but OK.

We (that'd be me, the wife, my mom who is visiting from the US, and my two aunts visiting from Japan) arrived from Paris by train yesterday afternoon. You'd think rolling across the continent by train with a gaggle of ladies is glamourous, but really, itàs filled with knitting, iPod Italian lessons, Japanese picnic food, and teaching little French girls origami. The latter involves my aunt explaining her technique, my mom explaining it to me in English, and me trying to explain it all to a bemused family in French. (Long story, never mind...)

Back to being puzzled.

After resting up, we decided to roam the streets of Milan, sans guidebook or map. This strategy usually works for me, as I'm pretty good at sniffing out cool neighborhoods and finding nice holes in the wall to invade. Unfortunately, the Italians seem to have jammed my radar. All but the most wannabe upscale café/bars (i.e. with big gaudy displays of Belvedere vodka and Moet champagne) were open. My aunts wanted to eat, but nary a restaurant was open save for the same nasty kebab shops and faux Japanese joints that are all over Paris. Don't Italians like to eat???

We eventually located what seemed like a tourist trap bar/café/restaurant near the central business district. I had no desire to eat at such a place, but I figured since the aunties were hungry, Alannah and I could have something light to hold us over until the real restaurants open later. Oh well, at least the prices were cheap!

So we ordered a round of simple pizzas, spaghetti (no, really, my aunt ordered spaghetti!), and what appeared to be the lightest item on the paltry menu: A caprese type salad of mozarella, tomatoes, and some Parma ham. The elder ladies could load up on their stereotypical carbs, whlie Alannah and I would share a light pizza and salad before taking on the true Milanese cuisine.

Now, I've often heard from fellow American travelers that they like the food in Italy best. Me, I'm partial to the miserly-portioned richness of French chuisine, or the utter simplicity and variety of Spanish food. But now I see the appeal of eating in Italy. In fast food terms, Italian food is the Super-Sized Extra Value Meal of European eating. And - hey - we Americans love to buy in bulk.

What I thought would be a light holdover snack turned out to be a virtual Costco run on cheese, bread, and cured meats. There was an orgy of whole balls of mozarella di buffala, baskets of tomatoes, kilo servings of ham... and that was just my plate! Hell, the plates were so heavy, the waiter had to make four trips to our table to serve us.

Needless to say, I didnàt need any further dinner afterward.

But I did want a drink. or several. After mom and the aunties retired for the night, the lady and I decided to go out on the town. Maybe get ourselves some gelato, and definitely start quaffing some wine.

One problem. Still, nothing was open. Again, a few of the upscale restaurants near hotels, and one or two horrendously well-lit bars (i.e. creepy fluorescent lights), and otherwise... nothing!

"Well, it is a Catholic country and they have Wednesday night mass," Alannah explained.

She's always been the smart one, so her explanation made sense. After all, if our crazy huge dinner was composed of what people consider starters here, people are going to need more than just Sunday to confess for their sins. And that's just taking Glutton yinto account.

Speaking of which, as I write this entry (and hopefully find an Internet café to send it in...) Alannah has run off to a nearby bakery. She'll hopefully come back with an armload of zeppele.

Going to Extremes
Thursday, 8:21 pm

We just got back to the hotel aftr downing a couple of birre and a glass of vino rosso at one of the overly well-lit neighborhood bars. Grand total? 5€50. That's what I'd pay for one drink in Paris. I'm starting to see the pull of Italy. If Milan is one of its most expensive cities, I can't wait to see the drink prices further south.

And I'm going to need the drinks.

I've mentioned time and again how I don't particularly enjoy traveling in groups. When it's my mom and her sisters, that goes tenfold. Not that they're not nice, very gracious and often very entertaining people. But group decision-making is at its absolute worst with this bunch. Deciding when and where to eat goes from being a thrice-daily decision that should take no more than a few minutes to a dramatic production that'd be too big for even the famous La Scala theatre. Which we saw, by the way, and for such a famous place, it's tiny.

On the other hand, the Duomo - Milan's biggest tourist attraction - is huge. Enormous. Bigger than the Milanese misplaced sense of fashion. It's ironic that all around one of the most stunningly beautiful cathedrals I've laid eyes upon are some of the worst dressed people in the world.

I'm not talking about the tourists here. North Face jackets and Keen sandals are functionally unfashionable, but somewhat understandable. What I don't get is this supposed fashion capital's penchant for piling on the brand names. Patent leather stilettos are paired with neon green leggings, then further "matched" with a Louis Vuitton belt, Diesel shirt, trendy all-over print hoodie, and a Prada shoulder bag.

And that's just the men.

If you think Italian cars are conspicuous, the fashion makes "bling bling" sound like an understatement. I can't walk five minutes down a Milan street without the term "ghetto fabulous" coming to mind.

And the noise. I suppose growing up in giant Catholic families, you compete for attention. So not only do you pile on clashing colors and sparkly bits and baubles, but you have to speak at volumes generally reserved for guitar amps and emergency vehicles. Riding the metro or standing in front of a café is an exercise in restraint, largely with me gritting my teeth and praying I don't act upon my urges to sock the mouth of each person that feels it appropriate to hold their conversations at 140 decibels.

But not all blanket generalizations are as harsh as that. And this is where I'll hurl a complement. The local penchant for overdoing it also applies to the friendliness and warmth of every waiter, every barman, and - well - every person you might converse with. Not once have I been tut-tutted or tisk-tisked for my m angling of the Italian language. In fact, no one seems put out by the fact that I always try to learn a new vocabulary word with each transaction. My Italian lessons have been helpful, but entirely too formal. So it's been up to my waiters and bartenders to tell me the normal way to ask for the bill, or how the locals ask for another beer.

And another complement: The food. Sure, the portions are enough to kill me with my now Frenchified appetite, but I can't fault the quality. It seems the simpler a food item gets, the better and more "real" it tastes. From my strippe ddown eggplant panino to the slow food chocolate gelato to last night's ridiculously huge ball of mozarella di bufala, everything has benefited from being stripped down to the simplest recipe. Each and every espresso has been "one of the best espressos I've ever had" you even if it was purchased right in front of some hideously crowded tourist attraction.

But I can see why all the tourists flock here. In fact, as much as I love my new home in Paris - and vastly prefer it - so far I think I'm going to have to hop the train to Italy more often. Just not to do any clothes shopping. I'll stick to Parisian all black, grazie.

Sleep When I'm Dead
Friday, 9:49 am

I had that new Cure song on my mind when stepping out last night. Alannah and I were going out on the town (or trying, again=, and sleep was not a priority. The plan: Eat a ginormous multi-course Italian meal full of local specialties, then bar hop our way through a good chunk of Milan. We'd rest when the eventual food/wine coma set in.

Well, at least the first half of the plan worked.

We ate at a restaurant near our hotel, consuming ridiculous portions of fried zucchini flowers wrapped in ham, saffron-infused risotto, napalm-hot lasagne, amazingly tender osso bucco, and a sublime veal milanese. It was all washed down with a a bottle each of local minearl water and red wine. So far, so good.

Now that wead eaten Milan out (har har), it was time to drink her dry.

Only one problem: Even more bars were closed last night than the night before. WTF!?

So it was toward the Stazione Centrale, where I knew for sure - with the glut of big hotels - that at least one bar would be open. And there was - go figure - only one. The wannabe-swanky champagne-and-Belvedere joint we had previously passed up was open for business. So in we went to the very chain-looking, yuppie-magnet Metropolis.

And despite being as hopelessly superficial as feared - down to the not-hot-enough-to-be-such-a-bitch cashier - it was pretty nice. The friendly bartender was more than happy to pour what would be the most enormous glasses of rum I've seen at a retail establishment, and it was my beloved Brugal rum from the Dominican Republic - a treat very rarely found back home in San Francisco, and never found in Paris. Sure, it may have been 10€ a pop, but considering we got poured nearly a quarter bottle each, I wasn't about to complain. Except about the cashier's unwarranted bitchiness.

With each sip of the rum, the douche-yness of the contemporary-urban-fashionista bar melted away, and by the time we got to the bottom of our respective glasses, we were ready to call it a night.

This morning, feeling well rested, we're going to do our pub crawl by day. Only we're going to hit up cafés and drink espressos and eat pastries in a serial fashion. And, ok, maybe some wine... and Fernet... and more wine.

Something's gotta help warm us up in this nonstop rain.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Little Brit o' That...

I was having fun sending little Twitter updates from my phone on Saturday, gloating about my glamorous life. I found a last-minute deal on Eurostar for a daytrip to London, and thought, "Why the hell not? That's why we moved to Europe." Well, that and getting away from the festering pile of decay that is the political/economic atmosphere in the US - though that doesn't matter much in a globalized economy where we're all screwed anyway.

But I digress. While Joe Sixpack and Caribou Barbie are concerned about their insolvent banks and soon-to-be-foreclosed homes, we were living it up, sipping champagne and quaffing Scotch, hurtling toward London at some respectable fraction of the speed of sound.

We were on a First Class car full of Welsh pensioners on their way back from a coach tour of Switzerland, a jovial group averaging about 126 years in age. Give or take a few years. As the youngest people in the car, we apparently warranted a huge round of applause for our young newlywed status - or perhaps for our ability to withstand cold weather. Asked where we were from, we told them that we were Californians but now lived here. "What's wrong with you!?" one demanded. "It's too sunny in the States," we snarked back. "Skin cancer, you know."

"We love Florida," one of them said.

"I know," I wanted to say, "Old Brits love Florida more than George Michael loves anonymous sex and crack cocaine." But considering the company, I had to lie. "Oh, it's wonderful there. Orlando's brilliant any time of year!" I pandered to the couple who'd be sitting across the aisle from me for the next couple of hours.

To be honest, I don't blame them for loving Florida. All my memories of the place are fond. Gorgeous beaches, gorgeous women, gorgeous sunshine, more gorgeous women. Like me, they probably think "Beaches, binge drinking, and bikinis," and their subsequent perpetual boners, as opposed to "The Florida Gators, Katherine Harris, and Jeb Bush," which are enough to make anyone permanently flaccid. Florida is like Viagra - fun for the young who indulge in it, a last grasp at life for the aged, and a huge contributor to our fucked up system. How appropriate that it's shaped like the hanging schlong of America.

If Florida is America's cock, then London is Europe's pussy - or at least the loose-moraled hussy that keeps letting America fuck it. I'm not sure what the "special relationship" that Bush and Blair consummated is, exactly, but it doesn't seem like Gordon Brown has done anything to clean up the wet spot it left. Like its fellow sputtering empire, Britain is all commerical freewheeling and part police state.

Peppered amongst the 9,587 adverts flung at you every minute are stark reminders from the state. I don't mind being told to "Mind the Gap" on the Tube, but I get a bit uncomfortable being told, "Your town, your street, your home - it's all in the database." Or, "To find out what an illegal minicab can cost you, ask a rape victim." Or, "Think your belongings are safe? Think again."

Fear, fear, fear, and more fear!

Luckily, London is full of beer, beer, beer, and more beer!

Between rounds of shopping in the hipster-clogged new markets in the East End and the tourist-clogged high street shops of the West End, we downed some much-needed hand-pumped cask ale. Sure, you can get beer with a little bit of color in France, but even a pint of the crappy stuff costs an arm and a leg. After drinking beer (or attempting to, at least) in Paris, I somehow didn't mind putting down £3.30 ($5.80) for a pint of real ale. After all, you pay roughly $9 (with today's strong Dollar/Euro exchange rate, at that), for a single pint on the continent. Who knew that drinking in London could ever be considered cheap!?

The fact that a full pint of the good stuff costs less in London than a happy hour-priced pint of the yellow swill in Paris makes the trip worthwhile. Even if much of that trip is spent battling the morons of the London Underground.

I swear, I was about this close [gesturing with pinched fingers] to taking the head off of the next person who stood in the middle of a walkway, shoved me as I was moving faster than traffic as it was, or dragged their wheelie luggage across my foot with the 500-page hardcover tome on Ferran Adria I picked up at the bookstore.

That'd be the English-language bookstore. In England. Where the English books don't have to be imported. And subsequently don't cost as much as a mortgage or small vehicle, as they do in Paris.

Which has me thinking... Maybe more countries should dive into the downward spiral of financial mayhem. It makes for great bargain shopping. Anyone fancy a trip to Asia? I hear their markets are screwed, too.