May
15
2014

Wandering Traveler

It could only be Rome: sunset from the Hotel Eden atop (just behind) the Spanish Steps... evenings in Rome are magic

It could only be Rome: sunset from the Hotel Eden atop (just behind) the Spanish Steps with the Vatican in the distance… evenings in Rome are magic

12 Food & Drink Destinations in ROME

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Inside Glass Hosteria

Inside Glass Hosteria

My beloved Roma, my favorite city in the world. The most romantic. Ancient. Chic. Otherworldly. I cherished being back for the third time to Rome (fourth time to Italy) in October for my 10th anniversary. The Renaissance Man and I wandered Roma’s ancient, cobblestone streets from our apartment near the Spanish Steps, near where we stayed on our honeymoon for a month-long exploration through a number of Italy’s fabled regions.

Returning to Rome meant, naturally, we ate well. Ridiculously well. So I must share with you my favorites this trip.

The otherworldly Pantheon at night

The otherworldly Pantheon at night

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A Glass Hostaria stunner: foie gras ball oozing passion fruit puree inside like an egg yolk, dusted in white chocolate crumble with brioche

Restaurants

GLASS HOSTARIA

Dark beer and dark chocolate-filled little button ravioli little button dusted with cacao y pepe (chocolate and pepper) in a sauce of special reserve Pecorino Romano

Dark beer and dark chocolate-filled little button ravioli dusted with cacao y pepe (chocolate and pepper) in a sauce of special reserve Pecorino Romano cheese

From brilliant and gracious Chef Cristina Bowerman, Michelin-starred Glass Hostaria is one of the more forward thinking and truly unique meals I’ve had anywhere in Italy – or Europe, for that matter. As an Italian native, she spent well over a decade living in the US (including Austin). Besides speaking English perfectly, she clearly possesses a global sense of scope – and fun – in her imaginative dishes (tasting menus run 70 Euros for 4 courses, 90 Euros for 8 smaller courses).

In the heart of the ever-enchanting Trastevere neighborhood, the two-floored, openspace is modern and innovative (pictured above) – the second floor view is best.

One course after another is striking and delicious. Just look at some of the ingredient combinations pictured (dark chocolate and beer filled ravioli dusted in pepper and cacao in a decadent Pecorino sauce, or spaghetti with lime curd, cilantro and Oestra caviar!) These combinations even world travelers who frequent Michelin-starred restaurants have not seen before. It’s hard to only share a few of Bowerman’s wonders, but they are described with photos here.

Bluefin tuna sashimi wrapped in veal tongue pastrami, peach kimchi sauce, algae, lotus salad

Bluefin tuna sashimi is wrapped in veal tongue pastrami (Bowerman studied pastrami in NYC), dotted with peach kimchi sauce, alga and, lotus salad

Wow: a Rome fountain

Wow: a 17th century Roman fountain, Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, said to be the inspiration for the Trevi fountain

Purple potato (Italy-grown) cooked in clay, sea urchin egg sauce, sea beans (Buddha’s fingers)

At Glass Hostaria: a local purple potato cooked in clay, decadent in sea urchin egg sauce with Buddha’s fingers (sea beans)

Perfection: urchin from the spiny shell and oysters at Il San Lorenzo

Perfection: urchin from the spiny shell and oysters at Il San Lorenzo

IL SAN LORENZO

Plump & sweet: local red shrimp

Plump & sweet: local red shrimp

Seafood: I’ve been a fanatic about it my whole life and have eaten some of the best in the world from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. But at sleek, intimate Il San Lorenzo, I had one of my favorite seafood dinners ever. A huge reason for this was the incredible service, humor and wine recommends from the sommelier who attended to us. Sipping wines from Alto Adige (a gorgeous 2010 Borgo del Tiglio Malvasia) or an elegant, tropical 2012 Poppoff Sauvignon Blanc from German producers in Northern Italy, to the complex 2009 Lagrein Reserve, was a pleasure.

Sea urchin spaghetti

Sea urchin spaghetti

But so was eating sea urchin straight from its spiny shell. Raw red shrimp carpaccio splayed artfully across the plate and drizzled in olive oil and orange zest. From Chef Enrico Pierri, who focuses on locally caught seafood, we dined on cod, tuna and amberjack tartare. There were rare Belon oysters, thank you very much. And tortelli filled with spider crab. And sea urchin spaghetti. I could go on. But I’d rather just return again to this slice of Roman seafood heaven.

That only-in-Rome evening glow

That only-in-Rome evening glow

COSO

View from upstairs table at Coso over cobblestone streets

View from upstairs table at Coso over cobblestone streets

Coso is bustling and filled with boisterous locals filling up on hearty plates of spaghetti alla carbonara, saltimbocca alla Romana (veal topped with ham and sage, grilled in Marsala wine) and bucatini all’amatriciana. Start with cornmeal fried layers of aubergine (eggplant), Parmesan and basil and savor the affordable wines. Upstairs is particularly fun as you dine on grey and cream-checkered tablecloths. Besides its convenient location between the Spanish Steps and Piazza Colonna, most dishes run under 12 Euro and are big enough to share. This was a great locals’ recommendation.

ANTICO ARCO

Sidewalk seating view at Antico Arco

Sidewalk seating view at Antico Arco

Antico Arco is not so much about mind-blowing food as it is an idyllic hilltop setting, on Gianicolo hill, near Trastevere.

It makes a lovely lunch spot at one of three small outside tables on a warm day with Vespas speeding by over the hill. I filled up on buffalo mozzarella ($13.50) in a crispy pastry wrapping, accented by salted tuna roe and tomato confit, and raw amberjack tartare ($17) brightened by ginger, lime and fresh artichokes. The house chitarra pasta ($14), laden with Pecorino cheese, black pepper and zucchini blossoms, sounded amazing but was salty and surprisingly bland – I sadly grew weary of the dish a few bites in.

Hilltop over Rome

Hilltop over Rome

Drink

THE JERRY THOMAS PROJECT, Rome

We're in Europe, folks: cocktails & cigarettes

We’re in Europe, folks: cocktails & cigarettes

Those of us that have been following this renaissance the past decade plus long ago wearied of passwords and attitude-laden bars. In cities like my own, a well made cocktail with classic ethos is the norm, not the exception, so you expect it without pretension, though I am a big proponent of having elegant places to drink, even ones with reservations.

Inside Jerry Thomas Project

Inside Jerry Thomas Project

Thankfully, I wasn’t pressed to give a password at the unmarked door near Chiesa Nuova at The Jerry Thomas Project, Rome’s first modern-day speakeasy. Nor was there attitude. Bustling but intimate inside, I cozied up on couches set to jazz, the feel very New York or SF gathering for beat poets and writers circa 1950′s (despite the 1920′s speakeasy theme). After visiting Rome multiple times, it’s refreshing to see the cocktail renaissance finally hit my beloved city.

Sipping a whiskey cocktail next to shelf artifacts

Sipping a whiskey cocktail next to shelf artifacts

I even drank mezcal in Rome! (You know it’s universal when…) I enjoyed the Mex Man (15 Euro), a blend of Illegal Mezcal Anejo, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, agave syrup, house coffee-cacao bitters and a smoked cherry. They also have an absinthe fountain and do a nice twist on a classic Daiquiri, the Kaffir Daiquiri (10 Euro), mixing Havana Club 3 year rum, lime and kaffir lime-infused simple syrup.

There’s a few more cocktail bars that have popped up even since my fall visit, per The Spirits Business. I will check some of these out next time.

OPEN BALADIN ROMA

Open Baladin is craft beer/beer geek heaven. Engaged and passionate service made us feel welcome to linger, sample beers, get locals tips for food and hear about an incredible beer festival happening that very weekend we were there: EurHop! Beer Festival.

The back wall of Open Baladin

The back wall of Open Baladin

Baladin was started by a food/drink writer, so I already have a soft spot. And I’ve been drinking beers from Baladin’s breweries from San Francisco’s Healthy Spirits for a few years now.

Here at their Rome bar, they have over 40 Italian beers on draft and another 100 by the bottle. Since the Renaissance Man and I love Italian beers and the mark-up can often be so high at home, it was a delight to order them cheaply here and to sample even more. On draft, we loved bright, floral Borgo Duchessa, made with farro grain; the dry, bitter, tropical notes of Extraomnes ZEST; and I especially was drawn to the nutty, sweet, layered tones of Birrifico Ducato L’Ultima Luna, cask-aged with amarone wine.

Fantastic Roman pizza

Fantastic Roman pizza from Roscioli with a bottle of crisp, dry, Sicilian lemon soda, Lurisia La Nostra Gazzosa

Bakeries/Pizza

ROSCIOLI

Tazza d'Oro espresso granita

Tazza d’Oro espresso granita

Roscioli is classic Rome and a place I could return to again and again just for a slice of their daily Roman-style pizza… ah, that rosemary, onion and cheese white pizza with perfect crust. Perfection.

It’s also a fantastic take-out source (there are a few standup tables inside and one outside if you eat in) for baked goods, breads, cheeses, meats and wines.

BOCCIONE – Il Forno del Ghetto, Via del Portico d’Ottavia 1, phone: +39 066878637

There’s no sign and it’s closet-sized but as soon as you enter the heart of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and see the gesticulating Jewish Roman women pushing their way around each other for baked goods, you’ll know you’ve found Boccione  also known as the ‘The Kosher bakery.” Be prepared to push and demand your way in. There’s no descriptions or signs for food so unless you speak Italian, be prepared to pick something and point.

Lines outside of B

Lines outside of Boccione

The ricotta and sour cherry pie (torta di ricotta e visciole) makes me sigh with happiness: fluffy ricotta in blackened, nearly caramelized crust (you’ll know it by the charred outer layer). I’ve also had it with ricotta and chocolate chips.

Cinnamon and almond biscotti and the fruitcake-like pizza ebraica draw crowds, but I go for the torta di ricotta, grab an espresso elsewhere and reflect on the intense cultural experience I’ve had. P.S. it’s cash only.

Expensive, nearly 20 Euro Americanos come with all kinds of snack and the spectacular sunset above in a quiet setting at Hotel Eden atop the Spanish Steps

Expensive, nearly 20 Euro Americanos come with all kinds of snack and the spectacular sunset above in a quiet setting at Hotel Eden bar behind the Spanish Steps

Gelato

Patio at Gelateria del Teatro

Patio at Gelateria del Teatro

GELATERIA del TEATRO

One cannot be in Italy without partaking of the incomparable joys of gelato. For me, morning, noon and night sounds about right and I partake as much as I can stand it. Il Gelato di San Crispino has grown into a mini-chain since I first fell in love with it over a decade ago, but I still enjoyed revisiting this gelato haven.

Every visit there’s a standout – or a few. This visit it was Gelateria del Teatro, near the Piazza Navona, that left the biggest impression. The side courtyard is certainly part of the charm (pictured right). But it’s all about the fantastic, unusual flavors and a storefront window where one can watch the ice cream being made daily in the laboratorio, the window lined with ingredients like Sicilian pistachios or lemons from Amalfi.

Standouts include their popular raspberry sage, pear caramel, Sicilian wine cream, and my favorite: cheese and cherry (like cream cheese with sour-sweet cherries).

Coffee

SANT’EUSTACHIO

Shakeratos at Sant'Eastachio

Shakeratos at Sant’Eastachio

Since 1938, Sant’Eustachio is quintessential Roma coffee and an ideal remembrance to bring back a bag or two of house-roasted beans… and they are just around the corner from the Pantheon.

Standing at the counter drinking an espresso, or better yet, a shakerato, espresso and simple syrup shaken on ice with their little red machine, is, for me, a necessary Rome experience.

TAZZA d’ORO

In the shadow of the Pantheon: Tazza

In the shadow of the Pantheon: Tazza

Thanks to my friend Steven Liles for turning me on to this gem, which, just like Sant’Eustachio, is mere steps from the Pantheon. In fact, Tazza d’Oro is within view of it.

Since 1946, owner Mario Fiocchetto has brought South American beans direct from growers to this charmingly dated, bustling shop.

Besides making beautiful espresso, cappuccino and all the necessary Italian iterations, they are famous for their espresso granita. Though there’s too much whipped cream piled on there for me (pictured above), the granita itself is perfection: robust, icy, sparkling, beautiful.

Scenes from Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori may be the most touristy market due to its location in Rome’s historic center, but it’s still an inspiring collection of the bounty that is Italy

Fresh chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts

Quintessential Rome: fresh artichokes

Quintessential Rome: fresh artichokes

Gorgeous: chilis on a bike

Gorgeous: chilies on a bike

This guy carves characters from carrots

This guy carves characters, animals and elaborate creations from carrots and cucumbers

Squash blossoms

Beautiful squash with blossoms

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Mar
01
2014

Imbiber

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Adventures in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Visiting a Grappa Legend & a Hidden Absinthe Bar

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

This October I spent a magical day in the birthplace of grappa, enchanting Bassano del Grappa, a Northern Italian town (in the Veneto region) on the river Brenta at the base of the Italian Alps.

Since 1779, one of the great families of grappa and Italian liqueurs, Nardini, has been crafting a wide range of spirits in a distillery on the outskirts of town, while their historic tasting room sits right on the corner of Bassano del Grappa’s historic bridge with scenic views of the river Brenta and the Italian Alps.

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

Funny enough, Antonio Guarda Nardini, one of the Nardini brothers and Managing Director of the company, was away when I was in Bassano, but we met up weeks later in San Francisco to talk (and taste) Nardini. He and the family continue to work tirelessly to export more Nardini products to the US and other countries.

Currently, it’s the release of Nardini Bitter (24% ABV), a rosy-red, Campari-esque aperitivo that is more bitter but also sweeter than Campari, heavy on fresh orange notes, laced with bitter orange, sweet orange, Chinese rhubarb root, gentian, vanilla, even absinthe. The bitter lingers blessedly on the finish with hints of pepper. As one of the legendary spirits in the portfolio, it’s a treat to finally see it hit the US. Their Fernet-style product is awaiting US approval, while their 80 proof grappas (regular, a blend aged a minimum of three years – and riserva, a blend aged a minimum of five years) are also slated to hit the US in 2014.

The steps leading to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Steps to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Antonio came to US in December as part of promotional tour with FederalVini to promote grape-based products (wine, spirits, vinegar) exported from Italy. With his affable sense of humor, he says he’s, “… fed up with grappa being perceived as the leftovers.” I run into it often enough myself: the perception of grappa being rough-and-tumble, harsh, as it is made from grape pomace (skins, stems, seeds, pulp). I love earthy, funky, heavy-hitting grappas, having drunk some pretty rustic ones in the hills north of Lucca (in Tuscany) and other parts of Italy. But there’s a wide array of elegant grappa, Nardini included with the famed Poli just up the street, that is complex and fascinating as a category – recently the category of grappa officially became defined as only produced and bottled in Italy.

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture bar

Palazzo delle Misture bar

The great delight of my day in Bassano del Grappa was a bar I had stumbled upon online researching places to eat and drink in town weeks before: Palazzo delle Misture (which I named one of the best international bar experiences of 2013, a year in which I visited bars in 25 cities and 10 different countries). This treasure of a bar, run by passionate and informed brothers, Gianluca and Andrea Camazzola, is an unexpected oasis of absinthe and classic cocktail books in this dreamy, Italian village.

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Gianluca researches classic American cocktail recipes and the history of all things cocktail, clearly influencing his refined drinks in the intimate bar with upstairs lounge and classic absinthe service. I sampled a range of cocktails on my visit.

At Nardini's tasting room

At Nardini’s tasting room

One cocktail created by Andrea, Red Cross, is named in honor of Hemmingway, who served as an ambulance driver during WWI in Bassano del Grappa (a cocktail presented at 2013 Vin Italy, one of the largest wine events in the world). Red Cross is nearly equal parts of Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, fresh lemon, and a house red pepper syrup (pepperoncino rosso), complex yet refreshing topped with soda.

Their Nardini Manhattan wins for presentation. Mixing Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, red vermouth and Angostura bitters, they pour the cocktail into an empty mini bottle of Nardini’s riserva, cover their face with masks and spray the bottle with liquid nitrogen for a swift, frosty freeze. It’s dramatic… and well-mixed.

Palazzo delle Misture's absinthe cabinet upstairs

Palazzo delle Misture’s absinthe cabinet upstairs

On the gin side, they craft a variation on a Bronx cocktail from Hugo R. Ensslin’s self-published 1917 book Recipes for Mixed Drinks. They muddle orange and bitter peel in the gin with pineapple and Dolin dry vermouth, resulting in a dry, bright imbibement.

Named in honor of a battle fought on Mount Grappa in June 1918 where the Italian alpine and infantry soldiers defeated the Austro-Hungarian troops trying to invade Bassano, Blood’s Solstice shows off unaged Aquavite White Grappa, vivacious mixed with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, Nardini Bitter, honey, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco (a vibrant cherry liqueur from nearby Luxardo) and lime, garnished with a skewer of blueberries.

It’s rare to find craft cocktail bars in Italy in general (although that is changing), much less in a small town. Here is a bar that would stand out in a major city… and certainly does in this enchanting city. As the birthplace of grappa, the bar showcases it accordingly – alongside absinthe, whisk(e)y and other global spirits.

My favorite way to drink grappa is neat. As Antonio told me, “Grappa is an after dinner drink that should rinse your palate.” It cleanses, invigorates and delights simultaneously.

Palazzo delle Misture's

Palazzo delle Misture’s Blood Solstice

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Dec
01
2007

Wandering Traveler

LAKE COMO, ITALY

Lake Como is one of many idyllic regions of my dear Italy. Yes, it’s another lake in a region filled with lakes, but one with cliffs rising sharp, softly carpeted with green, out of shimmering blue, offering a majestic yet intimate connection of water and hillside.

I recently stayed in a most magnificent villa on the lake, on a cliff jutting out over the town of Mennagio, with views directly across to Bellagio and Varenna. In returning to Italy for a third time, the same and greatest joys remain at the forefront: perfect coffee (cappuccinos in the morning, espresso the rest of the day), blissful gelato, leisurely pace, attitude and charm, culture and art, and, obviously, divine food.

I share with you a few favorite finds from my week in Lake Como:

Villa Melzi

Villa Melzi

Silvio – After a walk through magically romantic Villa Melzi, then wandering along the riverside and up hills, we finally found Loppia di Bellagio Hotel, where family-run Silvio restaurant resides. They did not open till 7pm so as it was 6pm, they brought my party bottles of wine and Prosecco (Italian champagne) which we savored as the sun set over the stunning lake and hills. A pool filled with turtles enlivened the scene until we were escorted inside the glass-walled dining room looking out over the water. Silvio is known for fresh fish caught daily from the lake – you can even arrange to go out on a fishing boat to bring in the days’ catch. With warm service and an easy mix of locals and hotel lodgers dining, we began our feast. A house specialty is Agoni, lake sardines prepared in a style called “Missultini”, an ancient preparation only known by the most experienced fisherman. The sardines are salted, dried in the sun, then pressed between laurel leaves in cans; the whole process takes months. They’re served drizzled with olive oil and have a smoky accent to the briny saltiness. Primi (first course) was a divine Risotto with flaky, perfectly grilled Perch (again, caught fresh), covered in Parmesan, Sage and Butter. Magnifico! Secondo (second course) was Veal in a rustic brown sauce with succulent Parma Ham layered across the Veal. All in all, a meal to remember… and quite reasonably priced.

Silvio

Silvio

Barchetta – One of the best meals of my trip, Michelin-rated Barchetta is up one of many steep, charming steps of downtown Bellagio. To the right of the cozy bar on the ground floor is an intriguing wood door leading you up stairs to a second floor, open-air patio, ideal on a gorgeous day, such as the one we had. An interesting starter was the Gambieri (plump shrimps) in red bean puree with olives and asparagus. The ecstasy-inducing winner of the meal was a special of the day: flawless Gnocchi served with fresh lake-caught Pike, pushed over the edge with grilled onions, asparagus, sage, rosemary and juicy tomatoes, sautéed in olive oil and butter. Other highlights: Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce with grilled Porcini mushrooms, and a savory Pork sautéed in Armangnac, served over a Polenta cake in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce with a Parsnip Parmesan Spinach. Dessert was a rich Dark Chocolate Souffle covered in a divine banana butter cream, and warm Zabaglione (frothy egg whites mixed with alcohol). Following this seamless meal, I craved nothing but a long nap filled with dreams of Barchetta.

Villa d'Este

Villa d'Este

Villa d’Este – This breathtaking ancient villa sitting majestically on the Lake in the town of Cernobbio and is now a very expensive hotel. The grounds are open to anyone and well worth a sunset stroll, like The Renaissance Man and I shared on our anniversary. The restaurant is very costly and from reviews, does not seem worth the high premium. But for drinks lakeside, it’s quite a romantic rendezvous.

Gato Nero

Gato Nero

Il Gatto Nero, Via Monte Santo 69, Rovenna, 031-512042 – Il Gato Nero doesn’t have a website but their praises are sung in many a review, raved about by locals and travelers alike. With brilliant views of the lake and nighttime glittering lights, it’s like a magical tree house perched in the hills above Cernobbio. As twisty roads continuously changed names, The Renaissance Man and I had almost given up when we rounded a corner to see it perched on the edge of a cliff. No parking existed so we pulled up by the entrance where a man rushed out, ordered us to follow him (we assumed as he spoke Italian only), jumped in a car, led us further up the hill to a parking perch, then drove us back down to the restaurant. A unique start to an enchanting meal. Words inadequately describe the setting, warmed by heat lamps, candles and town lights shimmering below. I highly recommend the deck, though multi-floored dining rooms are likewise cozy and glowing. Service was spotty: a mix of attentive timeliness and sheer neglect. The food was tasty though not as idyllic as Barchetta or savory as Silvio. Butternut Squash and Hazlenut Risotto hit the spot, though I have had a more lush version of the same dish at San Francisco’s authentic Incanto. A puff pastry vegetable starter was probably the finest note of the whole meal as a grilled butterfish entrée was fresh but bland with no sauce and minimal vegetables. Even though we had better food on Lake Como, the setting alone was worth a visit. On a clear night, it’s nearly heavenly.

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