Last summer while staying in a rather remote area of Tuscany near the town of Vinci (of “Leonardo da” fame), I drove over the mountains in the direction of Prato and Florence and stopped for dinner at a restaurant called Antica Torre. I was one of only a few customers that weeknight, but I was blown away by not just the quality of the food, but the amazingly beautiful preparations that made each dish seem like a work of art.
Almost halfway between the famous Italian cities of Pisa and Genoa on Italy’s western coast you will find the Cinque Terre or “the Five Lands,” a collection of five small villages, some almost 1,000 years old, separated from one another and from the rest of Italy by a series of steep and rugged mountains. The only ways to get there or to go from one town to the next are to hike over the mountains, take a local train, or drive over dizzyingly curvy roads. The area is not that easy to get to, but once you’re there and have left the confines of the train or your rental car, you’ll be glad you made the journey.
One of the joys of travel is meeting strangers who become new friends, and on my most recent trip to Rome, I met a man named Scott, a humanities professor from a university in the American Midwest who was living in Rome for several weeks while working on a book. After some conversation it was apparent that we were kindred spirits and I invited him to join me at my favorite restauant in Rome for lunch. Thankfully he liked my restaurant choice, and as we were parting ways for the afternoon he said that the following day he planned to go to a small restaurant called Sora Margherita he’d been to a couple of years prior. He asked if I wanted to join him and I accepted, though I was a little unnerved when he mentioned something about a waitress who’d simply seemed to despise the friend he’d dined with there the first time.
Back in my apartment I google-searched the restaurant and because I have come to rely heavily on TripAdvisor reviews, I was a bit uneasy when I noted that many of the reviews there were negative. It seemed, however, that most of the bad comments concerned the service, not the food, and many reviews mentioned a surly, rude waitress who “abused” the customers. Some said that she would “force” people to finish the food on their plates, which sounded rather scary. I wondered whether this was the same person who had “despised” Scott’s poor friend.
With a little hesitation, I headed out into the blazing Roman sun the following day and headed for Rome’s “Jewish Ghetto” neighborhood. a part of the city that I was not terribly familiar with, in search of Sora Margherita. I met Scott out front as planned and we headed inside with a little trepidation. The restaurant is a long, naoow space with maybe 15 tables. We were seated quickly, and before I even got my bearings I noticed a waitress eyeing us suspiciously, and thought, “Uh-oh”, as she swaggered over to our table. In Italian she asked us what we wanted, and having not even seen a menu we were hesitant to reply. Before we could get a sentence out, she told us just to “trust her” and she would bring us what she thought we should eat. She had a look about her that told me not to argue, and for some reason seemed to like us, so we agreed to go with the flow and allow her to choose our dishes.
I was really glad that I’d been forewarned by the TripAdvisor reviews, because otherwise I would have been even more taken by surprise than I was. Our waitress came to the table bearing a dish of marinated vegetable and before I could even react, she spooned up a healthy portion from the plate and shoved it into my mouth, a strange and triumphant look on her face as she stared at the camera that Scott had whipped out to capture the moment. I was laughing hard, but also trying not to choke to death on my food as she proceeded to break off some bread and shove a slice of that into my mouth as well. Honestly, all I could think of was that I was in some lost episode of I Love Lucy, and had to fight the urge to call Ethel for help! She did also attempt to force-feed Scott, but the look he gave her back was enough for her to back off and focus her attentions solely on me.
Thoroughout our meal we chatted with her a bit more and learned that her name was Tiziana. She really was good humored, but with just enough of an edge to let me know that I did not want to get on her bad side, and I imagine that many of the poor TripAdvisor reviewers that spoke about her rudeness and abuse had not taken her behavior with as much of a sense of fun as I did.
Aside from these antics, I thought the food was quite good. The marinated vegetables were delcious and she brought us out a couple of different pasta dishes that were quite tasty. There were a couple of other dishes that were not so memoriable, but my favorite part of the meal was dessert. (Ok, that is not uncommon for me!) It was a warm ricotta cake with black cherries and was molta, molta buona!
All in all, I would not by any means say that this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Rome, but it was an entertaining and decent lunch and is a memory I will carry for quite some time. And I think by the time we left I had definitely made a new friend in Tiziana, who gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek that seemed to suggest that she does have a tender side despite all evidence to the contrary! Grazie, Tiziana! Until the next time… arrivederci!
A 30 minute drive west of Milano, near the town of Arluno, lies a tiny, gastronomic oasis of green and tranquility just waiting from those adventurous enough to leve the city, get off the autostrada and find it.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Rome, and I have at least a half dozen restaurants there that I adore. But things happen: you can’t get a reservation, the place you love is closed, or in my case recently, I was staying in a part of the city that was far from my usual haunts. So I decided it was time to venture out and try a new place. With a little help from tripadvisor.com, I found a restaurant that got rave reviews, sounded really interesting and when I searched the map I discovered that it was literally a block from the apartment where I was staying. It was a chilly, rainy night, so a well-recommended restaurant just a stone’s throw from my place sounded like the perfect solution to my “Where do I eat tonight?” quandary. Off I went to a place called, Le Felizianerie.
This is a rather small, lively restaurant located less than a couple blocks from the Vatican Walls on Via Candia. As I arrived, several English-speaking folks were leaving and when I asked how they’d enjoyed their meal, they exuberantly described everything they’d tried and said that this had been their third visit in a week. That boded well. Inside, the décor was colorful and bright, and I was quickly greeted and seated at a perfect table by the window.
I’d read that the restaurant specialized in Italian with a bit of Asian fusion, and had trouble imagining just what that would look like. But one of the first things that caught my eye on the menu was the Salmon Teriyaki appetizer. I ordered it and it was both a visual work of art as well as one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tried. Beautiful chunks of teriyaki salmon were “decorated” with fresh ginger, lemon, olives, Asian cabbage, crispy oven-dried seaweed, and dabs of citrus mayo for dipping. It was refreshing, generously portioned and an almost startling mix of textures and flavors. A+!
One of my favorite pasta preparations is a typically Roman dish called all’amatraciana, a slightly spicy and hearty sauce made from guanciale (a sort of bacon made from pork cheek), tomatoes, onion and pecorino cheese. I usually see it served with bucatini pasta, a very thick spaghetti noodle that I would never order on a first date or if wearing any clothes I treasure, as it is almost impossible to twirl the broad noodles around one’s fork without splattering sauce in all directions! Well, Le Felizianerie featured an amatraciana dish served with paccheri, a large tube-shaped pasta that captures sauces much more effectively. I ordered that, and I have to say that this was hands down the most delicious version of this dish that I’ve had anywhere in Italy. Another A+.
I also had a refreshing glass of the house prosecco and though I was curious about dessert, I simply did not have room for it. But I’m not lamenting that decision, as I know that I’ll come back here on my next trip to Rome with a bigger appetite and ready to sample more from the menu of this great new find! Check them out! Buon Appetito!
Tuscany is undoubtedly one of the most popular and well-loved regions of Italy, but it also has a reputation for being expensive and a bit pretentious. However, if you have a car and want a fantastic taste of Tuscan cuisine at an unbelievably reasonable price, with friendly and attentive service, I have just the place for you. Set your GPS for the rather obscure town of Chiusi and a restaurant called Tuscany Divine.
Every visit to Italy that I make requires careful planning to be sure I’m able to dine at all of my tried and true favorite restaurants. Still, I always enjoy finding a new place to add to my list and on a recent trip to Tuscany I had one of the best dining experiences ever at a restaurant called Pane, Vino & Zucchero, which means Bread, Wine and Sugar. That sounded like a winning combination to me, and I am so glad I discovered this place!
Gelato. This has to be one of the most beautiful words in the beautiful Italian language. It was love at first taste when I sampled my first spoonful of the Italian version of ice cream almost 20 years ago, and during my time in Italy it’s not uncommon for me to have a “3 gelato day”, with a scoop or two in the late morning, again as a late afternoon pick me up, and finally as a late night, after dinner treat. Most people I know who have been to Italy cite gelato as one of their favorite things, though I have occasionally encountered the odd, misguided person who shrugs and dismisses it with, “It’s just ice cream.” No, poor misguided one, it is not “just” ice cream.
Osteria La Zucca, Venezia
I discovered this charming osteria at least 15 years ago and it has become my “go to place” whenever I’m in Venice. At the time my Italian was non-existent and I remember the owner going through virtually every item on the menu with me to explain the dishes. I was so impressed that he would take the time and have the patience to do that!
Trattoria Monti, Rome
I discovered this small, Roman trattoria, run by the Camerucci family, back in 2002 after reading positive reviews online. The food and the service were equally wonderful, and so on another trip over 6 months later, I returned. To my amazement, Enrico and Daniele, the brothers who serve as hosts and waiters welcomed me warmly and remembered me so clearly that I had to wonder whether they’d had any customers since my last visit! Fourteen years and countless visits later, the boys refer to me as their “red headed fratello” (brother), and the chef, Signora Camerucci leaves her station in the kitchen to greet me enthusiastically. Rounding out the staff are the cheerful team of Barbara and Zeljan, both of whom seem like members of an extended family. I have introduced many of my Italian and American friends to Monti and have “ordered” dozens of people who’ve asked me for a good restaurant recommendation in Rome not to miss this place! Make a reservation so you won’t be disappointed, and tell them that Matteo from San Francisco says, “Ciao!”