Monday, June 28, 2010

Italy: It comes down to style

This is three weeks overdue. I've been back in France for 20 full days now, and I've barely bothered to do much chronicling for myself. It's not that I'm overloaded with work. Or too busy. Or have better things to do. It's just that since being in Italy, I went from do-everything-at-a-breakneck-pace American style to a bit more of a Mediterranean tempo. Maybe it's the heat. Or maybe my head's still in the clouds a bit. Never mind that there were hardly any clouds.

Or maybe it's because I enjoyed Italy so much this time around, that the old lady and I have been chasing that high, a futile endeavor as any addict will tell you. It's never as good as that first hit... or the second, as the case may be.

Biking around Lucca: Far more rewarding than any
museum packed with tourists.
The first time we went to Italy, we didn't particularly love it. Some parts of it we just hated. The constant fleecing by vendors and restaurateurs. The hidden charges. The lines. The lines to get in line and be fleeced by hidden charges. Italy was like one big tourist trap. It was up and down for me last time around, but mostly a downer for Alannah as she stayed on for another week, playing tour guide for my mother and aunts who'd come from Japan.

The difference, this time, was major. No, it was not my mom and aunts – they're wonderful to have around. We'd want them to come visit every year if they could. Rather, it was the style of travel. Whereas in the presence of middle-aged Japanese ladies, one has to hit every attraction in the guidebook and eat what's supposedly "typical," this time we did it our way: No big museums, no cafes on main piazzas, and most certainly not any place with an English or Japanese menu. We just hung out, ate, cooked, and most important of all, spent time with our friends and family and locals instead of dashing from point to point.

Granted, we did get around quite a bit. We blazed ourselves a nice rail-trail from Pisa to Portofino to Cinque Terre to Florence to Lucca, back to Florence and Pisa again [click links for photo sets], but with no stress. No real schedule. No must-do's. Other than eat, analyze, and rate gelato at every place possible, of course.

The ginormous brioche gelato. A little bird told
me this Italian treat will be served in Paris soon.
Like last time, we stopped near Portofino on the Ligurian coast to see my cousin, the rockstar sushi chef. This time around, he's got a wife and new baby – it's amazing how much can happen in a year and a half – which made the family time that much more special. Since we'd already done the tourist thing of strolling the entire windy coastal route between Portofino and Rapallo last time, it gave us more time for family bonding over beer, wine, sushi, and more beer. I'm not sure anything can match the sushi-high we got there, so we haven't even bothered going to our favorite joint in Paris since we've been back. (Sorry Andy, we'll be back soon!)

We left Santa Margherita bummed that we only had one night to spend with our growing family, but we knew what was next: The awesome beauty of the Cinque Terre (see previous blog post).

Vernazza - one of the five towns that comprise the Cinque Terre
His royal gawkiness Rick Steves may have blown the place up, but even with gaggles of tourists hunched over their guidebooks, the rugged natural beauty and fresh ocean air trump anything the ugliest of mankind can throw at it. For centuries these five villages were the symbol of steadfast resistance to Genovese rule in Liguria. Now the vertical-gardening rabblerousers are holding their own against millions of tourists, and they're doing a damn fine job of it. The whole region was even declared a national park to keep it from being spoiled by t-shirt vendors and faux Prada bag hawkers.

Only half a day was spent there, hiking the stone steps and paved seaside trails and smelling the ocean mist and lemon trees on either side. But we took note of all the vacation rental signs – in the stunning Vernazza and Manarola in particular – vowing we'll have to spend one of our long, French-style vacations here in the future. At the very least to eat Ligurian-style seafood again...

Spaghetti all'inferno at La Scogliera, Manarola.
We've recreated this one perfectly at home,
except the octopus isn't nearly as fresh this far inland.
Chase, chase, chase the dragon...
Alas, we had places to go and people to see, so after a brief stop to change trains in sad little La Spezia – where at least there was a so-so gelato shop open – we got into Florence by evening to see my other cousin (from the US) and family.

We had a blast in Florence. (See previous post.) Reunited with one of my lifelong best friends, his lovely wife, and two adorable kids, it was at once a bit odd (I feel so old!) and at the same time refreshing (it's a whole new gig!) playing the family role as a traveler. That, and we had our own kitchen.

The best meals are the shared ones. Cin cin!
There was nothing more inspiring than to have the Mercato Centrale just steps away from the front door. It's not that we lack great markets in Paris, but to have one gigantic one that's open every day (except Sunday, of course) was fantastic. Each morning, I'd get up with the burning desire to go to the market, if only to get a couple of items. Of course, I was largely motivated by the fact that Nerbone starts serving lunch at 7:00 am.

Nerbone is a Florentine institution that's been feeding market people for years. That means having lunch in the morning. Their traditional best-sellers are bollito (boiled beef) and lampredotto (tripe, from the fourth stomach of a cow). And while neither may sound appetizing to the typical palate, believe me when I say I still wake up in the morning wishing I could run downstairs for a sandwich made with these.

This dragon, by the way, has been halfway chased down. While I haven't yet found a proper triperie in Paris to make my own lampredotto, I was able to recreate Nerbone's panino bollito, albeit using baguette for the bread. In fact, I've been able to pack it and assemble it for lunch at work in times of need.

In addition to laying waste to some ginormous bistecca alla fiorentina and mountains of gelato, we also drank like kings – and for cheap. During one of our hunts for local foods, we stumbled upon a mescita (stand-up wine bar) and bottle shop that I found highly reminiscent of my favorite Parisian joint. The guys at Fratelli Zanobini, while perhaps less bearded, are a lot like the guys at Le Baron Rouge: Friendly, happy to recommend plenty of wines (many of small, local production, and most at below 2 euro a glass) and willing to humor tourists.  Needless to say, we ended up making a pitstop in here every day.

To burn off all the calories, we did some biking in under the sweltering Tuscan sun in Lucca. A remarkable change of pace, the town was almost moribund, and it seemed almost everywhere we went short of the central luxury shopping district (ugh) we had to ourselves. Our group took over a backyard patio and scarfed down lardo pizzas and huge German beers (a happy alternative to the Heineken-owned Moretti pisswater that's all over the place), cooled off in a gelato shop (of course), and freewheeled all around the ancient city walls on our baby seat-equipped cruisers that cost hardly anything to rent.

Cousins and the kidlets and cameras.
I swear, I'll get back to shooting myself bungie-jumping
and partying with half naked drunk chicks again. Maybe.
After a couple more days of Florence, we went our separate ways, with family off to Rome and beyond, and us to Pisa before catching our flight home. It was lucky that we'd decided to spend our last night there... I had thought of maybe going back up to Liguria – it's not very far – for one more night (and more sushi), but we thought better of it and stuck around Pisa. It's best not to rely on Italian regional train schedules when there are flights involved, after all.

This was the best decision, because Pisa fucking rocks. Simply doing a day-trip to Pisa to see the leaning tower – as most people do – really doesn't do the city justice. Granted, we were gifted a killer room in a luxury bed-and-breakfast due what may have been a booking mix-up (I can hold my own in Italian, but not enough to know what a front-desker is furiously discussing with a hotel owner), but all we did there was sleep anyway.

And even then, if I'd had any energy left, I'd have opted to stay out all night... on a Sunday, at that!

Once you've seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Battisteria and the Piazza dei Miracoli (which are all in the same place, hence why it's such a simple day trip), Pisa begs not to be explored for its sights, but to be thoroughly enjoyed. It's a university town, so it leans toward being funky, alternative, and affordable. The Piazza della Vettovaglie, which serves as the central market during the day, becomes a hub of affordable but hoppin' bars and restaurants, bustling during aperitivi (early evening drinks and happy hour buffets) and beyond.

Aperitivi in Pisa. Excellent wine at reasonable prices,
all the happy hour food you can handle, sunshine in the evening.
We drank there. We nibbled there. We had late night drunken street food dinner there. And in the morning we had breakfast there.  And all that on top of a marathon of going out elsewhere... The finest Italian microbrew (as in, brewed on premises, hoppy, and not Moretti or Nastro Azzurri) at Orzo Bruno. The reputedly best cecina (chickpea galettes, not unlike socca from the south of France) in all of Italy at Il Montino. (Their pizza was only so-so.) And – naturally – the most amazing gelato at De' Coltelli, an ice creamery run by descendants of the man who first sold ice cream to the public in Paris.

Again, we avoided the tourist traps (save for the leaning tower and trying the Bottega del Gelato) so we could simply hang out instead, and we were rewarded mightily. We skipped going in the Duomo – one of a gazillion cathedrals in Europe, whoopie – and dispensed with getting pastries at the well-known but overrated Salza. Instead, we followed our nose – and admittedly some pointers from Lonely Planet – and wound up having a brilliant night.

By the time we had to catch our 8-minute train to the airport the following afternoon, we were sad to leave. Sad to leave our family and friends. Sad to leave Italy. And surprisingly enough, sad to leave Pisa. Most people only give it a few hours, and we found that even one overnighter isn't enough.

Drinking chilled beers with the arty kids... Cooling down with a cup of gelato while sitting on the banks of the Arno... Walking under the yellow-tinted streetlights over centuries-old cobblestone... Sipping wine in the piazza... Talking with local artisans about things as simple as coffee or cured meat... Watching the local pizzaiolo blow his top and start yelling at someone in the way you only see in movies... (That last one was awwwwesome!)  We were able to take in all these stereotypically Italian things in one place, without the hassle of trinket-vendors or cover charges or multilingual menus. And yet there was plenty more I still wanted to try out.

This time around, we were able to enjoy Italy on our own terms, in our own style: Eating and drinking our way through it.

Along the way, I think I picked up some insight and expertise.

Insight: The way and the reason I travel continues to evolve. Whereas I used to hunt for adventure and new experiences by going out of my comfort zone (bungie jumping, swimming in crocodile-infested or shark-infested waters, eating bugs), I now find that it's perfectly fun and rewarding to do more "family-oriented" things. Perhaps because for such a long time, that's what was outside of my comfort zone. Playing with infants and making sure the little ones like what I prepare for dinner is a bigger test to me than launching myself off a bridge. I can throw myself down the side of a mountain for no good reason, but can I rise to the challenge of keeping a child entertained or quiet on a two-hour train ride? I can party past dawn with a bevy of hot Scandinavian backpackers, but can I actually be happier going to bed after a quiet bottle of vino rosso with my wife?  Yes, on both counts.

Expertise: The search for authenticity is often bogus. You can look for what's "real" based on your experiences or a particular paradigm, but does it matter? It really boils down to what you like. This trip I hunted down and tried what's supposed to be the best of the best food and drink from the best purveyors. Pesto from Liguria. Limoncello from Cinque Terre. Lardo di Colonnata. Prosciutto di Parma. Salsiccia di cinghiale. Brunello di Montalcino. Gelato from every freakin' reputable gelateria in Tuscany. And I gained an appreciation for new flavors (lampredotto, for one). Through it all, I learned the paradigm for what is best: Whatever is the freshest, simplest, and most true to the base ingredients. Because that's what I like.

So in coming back to Paris, despite how hard we chase the high, we're never really going to catch it.

The things you enjoy when you travel are often satisfying not only because of what, but when and where. The panino lampredotto is good not only because Nerbone makes tripe, of all things, taste like heaven,  but also because you're having it at the unusual hour of 7:30 am with a €3 carafe of red wine on the side. The Chaianti classico riserva is enjoyable not only because it's well made, but because it's the man who made it pouring it for you.

That said, we have run into some success in the dragon hunt.

After our long project of trying every gelato shop in Paris (a lot of which are barely edible garbage), we found one that fit the above paradigm of freshness, simplicity, and respecting the ingredient. (I wrote about it, Mary - the Gelato Shop, for VINGT Paris magazine as soon as Alannah had sniffed it out.)  The snowball effect of others catching on to it has apparently been really good for their business, and although we have to wait a little bit longer to get a scoop, we still get the individual treatment and passionate talks about the ingredients that made us love the spot in the first place.

Our neighborhood Italian favorite Rossi and Co. – fully subscribed to the fresh/simple paradigm and on the newly-appreciated family-friendly tip – was recently discovered by the trendoids at Le Fooding. This means that while they'll probably be inundated with the foodie version of mindless fashionistas, they'll probably also keep their 5 little tables occupied and be raking in the dough to keep them in business. Their food is dead simple, but it's – bringing in time and place again – the hours you spend yakking with the proprietor and his wife and making faces at their baby that makes it that much more like what we loved about Italy.

In all, via the latest travels I've stopped looking for what's real, but instead for what's good and provides a good experience. What traveling and sampling and tasting and talking has done is help me establish my own baseline for good.

And that's starting to be what traveling and visiting are all about for me: Not where you go, but what you bring back.

(For the record, I brought back a huge supply of cuore di prosciutto and lardo di colonnata. Come on over.)


  1. Very good. I think it took you a while to write up this recap because it actually Says Something Worthwhile. Craft takes time, foodman. ;)

  2. Grazie... Hey, you saying I usually don't!? ;)