Thursday, July 17, 2014

Trattoria Cea in Venice: Go Where the Locals Go

We spot Trattoria Cea beneath a vine-covered trellis in a small piazza near the Grand Canal. In the front window, perched against wine bottles, a hand-printed menu offers a variety of Venetian specialties.

We eagerly enter. The dining room is small but inviting with only a few tables brightly covered in buttery yellow tablecloths. A lone Corinthian column stands in the center of the room, supporting the low ceiling while two enormous wine jugs filled with the local Bardolino sit on the front counter. We begin with a carafe of this luscious red—light in bouquet and slightly fruity—a favorite in this region.

Our waiter approaches with a sheet of green paper he just ripped from a roll hidden in the corner, and covers our table with it. It's just past 7, and we're his first customers for the evening, but it isn't long before the locals arrive for dinner.

We start with fusilli al tonno e piselli, pasta in a luscious cream sauce accented with flakes of freshly-grilled tuna, and Veneto's beloved sweet peas. Other stand-out choices include risotto di funghi e di pesce, a soothing trio of rice, porcini mushrooms and fish all simmered in tomato sauce. Try the homemade gnocchi with crab, or go truly native and opt for the spaghetti al nero, a classic Venetian dish made with the ink of squid!

As we eat, six men dressed in blue uniforms walk in and yell "ciao" to the signora busy cooking in the kitchen. We quickly realize that they operate the vaporetti, the canals' water buses. Three liters of wine are brought to their table, as the men roll up their sleeves in preparation for their pasta.

For our secondi, or main entrée, I select another regional favorite—sarde in saor, fresh sardines from the Adriatic, lightly fried then marinated in a tart bath of red-wine vinegar, and served with pine nuts and herbs. My husband tries the costicine al vino bianco, small veal chops simmered in white wine with a smack of garlic—a simple but delicious choice. There's a selection of fresh fish as well as frittura di pesce—a platter of light and crunchy calamari, clams, and scallops—plus a wonderful oven-roasted pork.

Dessert and two cups of Italian coffee follow. Zabaione con le fragole, a creamy custard with fresh strawberries is a sweet accompaniment to the strong, espresso.

It's after 9 pm now. We finish at the same time as the vaporetti drivers and walk behind them as they slowly traverse the hushed, dark alleyways, softly singing operettas. It will become a memory as sweet as the meal we just enjoyed.

map to Trattoria Cea, Venice Italy
A map to Trattoria Cea, Venice

Trattoria Cea
Campiello del Pestrin
Calle Varisco, 5422
Telephone: 5237450
Closed Saturday dinner and all day Sunday

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Finding Your Way in Venice Italy is Tricky (But Not Impossible)

Unlike other Italian cities, Venice is not laid out in a typical grid system where you arrive at your chosen street and then follow the numbered buildings until you reach your destination. Instead the city is designed around a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that twist and turn and often suddenly terminate at a dead-end.

So how do you navigate the streets and alleyways of Venice?

  • First, understand the topography. Venice consists of more than 100 small islands separated by approximately 170 canals. There are six neighborhoods or districts (sestieri): Dorsodoro, Santa Croce, Cannaregio, San Paolo, San Marco, and Castello. Your destination will be in one of those neighborhoods. Knowing in which district your destination is located is good but it's only half the story.

  • Next, the Grand Canal divides the city in half. There are four bridges that connect the two together (and sometimes it can be a challenge to find one to cross over to the other side). If you don't mind spending a bit of cash, you can take one of the many water taxis (a gondola in which you stand up for the short ride) to get to the other side. For a few Euro, you can simply cut across where you want to rather than meander among the convoluted alleys trying to find one of the four bridges.

  • Having the address, "2343 Castello," only tells you the district and the building number, which by the way, are assigned randomly, 1 to 6,000. Numbers on buildings do not go in order, many are not numbered at all. Written addresses list the district followed by the building number. Street names follow in parenthesis.

  • It's also helpful to know the various street types (map abbreviations are noted in parenthesis):
    old building in Venice Italy
    • canale: canal
    • calle (c or cl): street
    • sottoportego: an alley that goes underneath a building
    • rio: narrow canal
    • rio terra: canal that has been filled in
    • campo/campiello (cpo): small piazza or square
    • ramo: connect two streets or canals
    • fondamenta (f): a street that runs along side a canal
    • corte (cte): courtyard 
    • salizzada (sal): main boulevard

  • A map is helpful in that it will lead you to the general area of your intended target but it won't get you right to the front door. For that, you'll need patience, luck, and a sympathetic local to point the way.

  • Look for the bright yellow signs with black arrows posted all around the city to help you find your way. Venice is a tourist mecca so therefore the signage will point you to all the major sites.

  • Fortunately, Venice is a pretty small city. So even if you do lose your way, after a few minutes of meandering you will eventually get back on track. Besides, getting lost in Venice is half the fun--that's where you'll come across the true city and her people.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Five Best Trattoria in Florence: Food, Price, Atmosphere

When you're traveling through Italy, it's all about the food. Good Italian food prepared with fresh ingredients. Below is a list of the best trattorie in the city of Florence based on a combination of food, price and atmosphere. 

Trattoria Toscana Gozzi Sergio
Piazza San Lorenzo, 8r
Telephone: +39 055 281 941
Lunch only; closed Sunday and part of August

Known simply as “da Sergio,” this authentic trattoria smack in the middle of the madness of Piazza San Lorenzo began life as a wine and olive oil shop nearly a century ago by the Gozzi family. Take a seat and you’ll instantly forget about the souvenir vendors just steps outside the door. The handwritten menu is thorough but rarely deviates from Tuscan specialties and peasant standards. Start with ribollita (a mere €5), the ubiquitous Florentine bread and bean soup or the passato di fagioli (just €4.5), a delicious pairing of beans and pasta. For your secondi, bistecca alla fiorentina (about €38 a kilo—and more than enough for two or three to share) is the item to order here—big and juicy—or lombatina di vitella or veal chop at just €12.

Trattoria da Mario
Via Rosina, 2r
Telephone: +39 055 218 550
Lunch only; closed Sunday and holidays
Cash only

Just off the Piazza Mercato Centrale, da Mario established itself as a wine bar more than 60 years ago and slowly morphed into a trattoria. The dining room is strictly utilitarian—a few small wooden tables dressed up in blue-checkered linen line white tiled walls, all in full view of a glassed-in kitchen. The menu changes daily (look for a handwritten list at the door and posted on the glass partition by the cash register) and includes traditional Tuscan food lovingly created from old family recipes. They don’t take reservations and are only open for lunch—so plan accordingly—but you will not be disappointed.

Trattoria Sostanza
Via della Porcellana, 25r
Telephone: +39 055 212 691
Closed Saturday and Sunday in the off-season, and most of August
Cash only 

Trattoria Sostanza, a simple storefront eatery just a few blocks northeast of Piazza Ognissanti, has been around for more than a century and still seems untouched by time. The long, narrow dining room is surprisingly bright thanks to the gleaming white tile walls. A large collection of old photos follows Sostanza’s history—it was once called, Il Troia, or “The Trough,” a name that many locals still use today. The atmosphere, like the food, is casual. No frills just simple Tuscan dishes at a fair price. Although their bistecca is memorable, skip the beef, and try their signature dish, petto di pollo al burro (butter chicken), two plump chicken breasts sautéed in butter, and served in a dinged-up metal casserole that has seen better days. (But oh, the stories that little casserole could tell.) Top off the experience with fresh, wild strawberries anointed in wine. Reservations essential.

Trattoria I’Raddi
Via Ardiglione, 47r
Telephone: +39 055 211 072
Closed Sunday

Located at the end of a dead-end street, I’Raddi is a little hard to find but worth the effort (look for the little hand painted sign on at the top of Via Ardiglione pointing the way). The eatery is small and unassuming but modern in its clean design, a reflection of its three young owners, one of whom is creative Chef Alfonso di Noia. His menu changes every two months, tracking the seasons of fresh produce that make an appearance at the local farmers’ market. Look for the hand-written piatti del giorno posted outside daily to check out their specials. Budget-minded travelers should head to I’Raddi at lunchtime Monday through Friday where they can score a serving of homemade pasta for less than €3! Delicious desserts beautifully presented. Call to make a reservation otherwise you’ll need to share a communal table. But, hey, that’s part of the fun at I’Raddi.

These trattorie and many more are all included in the book, Chow Italy: Eat Well, Spend Less (Florence 2014).  

Chow Italy: Florence 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

How to Make the Best Homemade Pizza

It's Lent. It's Friday night. It's dinner time. In my house, that can mean only one thing - pizza! Making pizza is a fun family activity, especially on a Friday evening when everyone has the time to gather together in the kitchen and take on a job -  rolling out the dough, cutting the vegetables, and making the sauce. But many home chefs just can't get the knack of making a thin, crispy crust in their own ovens and just give up. But I can and I can teach you! We've been making homemade pizza for years so we've gotten pretty good at it.

Below are my secrets to achieving a thin, crunchy pizza crust.

  • You must use a pizza stone (Here's the one I use.)  Why? A preheated pizza stone retains an enormous amount of heat and transfers that heat to the pizza, cooking it quickly, nearly blistering its crust. 

  • Never roll out the dough on a cold pizza stone and then place it in the oven. The stone needs to be hot before you slide the pizza on top of it. Therefore, place the pizza stone on your lower oven rack and turn the oven up to at least 450 degrees (475 or 500 is even better) and let the stone get good and hot. (It should preheat at least 15 minutes to absorb enough heat.)

  • Next, let your pizza dough come to room temperature by leaving it on your counter for about 15 minutes. (I use Trader Joe's Fresh Pizza Dough; $1.29) Dust your kitchen counter with cornmeal or even semolina flour. Divide your dough in half and roll one half out on to your prepared counter, letting it "stick" to the counter. Roll it out to about a 10-inch disk. Now let it rest in its "stuck" position for a few minutes.

  • Once the dough has relaxed (it won't bounce back), use a pastry knife and an extra set of hands and carefully "unstick" the edges of the dough. Then gently lift the disk off the counter and onto a pizza paddle dusted with about a tablespoon of cornmeal. Arrange the dough on the paddle making sure edges don't overlap. (You will need those extra set of hands to help you.) Give the paddle a slight shake, too, making sure the dough isn't sticking to the paddle.

preparing the pizza dough

  • Now you are ready to spoon on your sauce (not too much or it will get soggy). Next comes the mozzarella cheese and finally your toppings of choice.

  • Open up the oven door and carefully shake the pizza on to the stone. (Use a few short shakes to loosen it from the paddle and then once the tip of the dough hits the stone, give it a good long shake to get it completely off the paddle. Close the oven door and set the timer for about 7 minutes. (You may like yours more and less well done so check after 5 minutes but you can keep it in as long as 8 minutes.)

homemade pizza with vegetable toppings

Buon appetito!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Traveling to Florence? Win a Copy of Chow Italy: Florence 2014

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Chow Italy by Christina Baglivi Tinglof

Chow Italy

by Christina Baglivi Tinglof

Giveaway ends April 02, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Best Fixed-Priced Menus in Florence

When we travel through Italy, we tend to steer clear of fixed-priced menus. Why? Because they're usually a disappointment. Sure, the food is well priced but the quality is often compromised because of it. €3 for a bowl of pasta is a great deal but if it was made hours previously and then microwaved before heading out of the kitchen, it hardly seems worth it. Furthermore, the choices are often limited to basic (read: boring) Italian fare like spaghetti pomodoro or roasted chicken.

But sometimes you're in the mood for spaghetti pomodoro, right?

Furthermore, traveling is expensive! It's costly to cough up €75 for dinner every single night. So when we've felt the pinch, we've broken our own rule. Yes, we've tried a few select fixed-priced menus, and to our surprise, we've liked them! A lot, in fact. Our secret? We quickly learned that the trick to a cheap, yummy meal was to stay away from the tourist centers and venture to family-friendly neighborhoods that cater to the locals. Here's a list of our favorites.

Near San Lorenzo

Palle d'Oro
Via Sant’Antonino, 43r
Telephone: +39 055 288 383
Closed Sunday
Palle d’Oro opened its doors more than four generations ago as a wine bar. Although you can still order a sandwich and glass of wine at the front counter, head to the dining room in the back. It’s a small and simple room with tile floor, neatly dressed tables, and wood-beam ceiling. Their fixed-price menu is limited (think spicy spaghetti carrettiera and roasted chicken) but the €13 at lunch, €25 at dinner which includes a pasta, entrée and side dish is hard to beat.

Near the Duomo

Trattoria del Pennello
Via Dante Alighieri, 4r
Telephone: +39 055 294 848
Closed Sunday night and Monday, three weeks in August and Christmas week
One of the oldest restaurants in the city, Trattoria del Pennello has a colorful past. “The Brush,” is a nod to 15th century Renaissance painter, Mariotto Albertinelli, who owned an osteria in this very spot. Trattoria del Pennello’s two narrow dining rooms are bright and cheery with white-washed walls accented with modern art. Large picture windows let in an abundance of light. There’s a lovely outdoor back patio, too. Three fixed-price menus ranging in price from €20 to €25 all offer a tasty selection of classic Florentine fare like spaghetti carrettiera, “the cart driver’s pasta,” a perennial favorite with sautéed tomatoes and chili pepper. Entrées like baccalà alla livornese (the classic salt cod simmered in tomato sauce) and tagliata di manzo (sliced sirloin steak dressed with parmesan cheese, arugula and a dash of balsamic) are equally satisfying.

Near Santa Croce

Trattoria Anita 
Via del Parlascio, 2r
Telephone: +39 055 218 698
Closed Sunday and two weeks in August 
This corner trattoria hidden along the backstreets just west of the Piazza della Signora has been in the same family for more than three generations (three affable brothers are at the helm these days). The dining room has a rustic feel with its lemon-yellow walls, brick archways and wrought-iron chandeliers. Shelves filled with bottles of wine for sale abound but the house wine is decent and reasonably priced. It’s a popular spot at lunchtime, and for good reason. The fixed-priced lunch menu, two courses plus a side dish for about €8, is why they come. It’s simple peasant food—think penne pomodoro and roasted chicken—but it’s fresh, flavorful and plentiful (for €12 you can get bistecca as an entrée choice). 

Near Santa Maria Novella

Trattoria Il Contadino 
Via Palazzuolo, 69/71r
Telephone: +39 055 238 2673
Closed Saturday and Sunday
For more than 30 years, this unassuming spot located halfway between the Arno and the Central Station has prided itself on serving simple, tradition dishes at very reasonable prices. For €11 at lunch and €12.5 at dinner, you'll get pasta, an entrée and side dish. (Add just €1 more for a decent quarter-carafe of house wine to wash it all down.) The menu changes daily but depending on the time of year you could find yourself enjoying fresh pappardelle with mushrooms or tagliatelle topped with wild boar sauce. For an entrée, try the deliciously tender spezzatino (beef or veal stew), chicken cacciatora in a savory white wine sauce and salty black olives, or even roasted rabbit. The dining room is casual but comfortable with basic wooden tables topped with paper place mats. Like the food, it is nothing fancy. Come early, as they do not take reservations.

Near the Pitti Palace

Trattoria Bordino 
Via Stracciatella, 9r
Telephone: +39 055 213 048
Closed Sunday
Just across the Ponte Vecchio in the city’s Oltrarno district, Trattoria Bordino’s rustic interior is moody and romantic, something straight out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the building dates back to the 1500s when it was a coach depot and gathering spot for the local knights and other Renaissance warriors. Little candle-lit niches hide among the exposed rock walls. Old farming implements festoon the doorways. The high vaulted ceilings make the otherwise tiny dining room appear much larger than it is. Come for lunch when €10 will get you bistecca alla fiorentina, roasted potatoes and a salad. (Or, for only €7 feast on roasted lamb, bollito di manzo, a straightforward beef stew, or grilled chicken.) Pleasant outdoor seating on a quiet side street.

Near Piazza Santo Spirito

Trattoria I’Raddi
Via Ardiglione, 47r
Telephone: +39 055 211 072
Closed Sunday
Located at the end of a dead-end street, I’Raddi is a little hard to find but worth the effort (look for the little hand painted sign on at the top of Via Ardiglione pointing the way). The eatery is small and unassuming but modern in its clean design, a reflection of its three young owners, one of whom is creative Chef Alfonso di Noia. His menu changes every two months, tracking the seasons of fresh produce that make an appearance at the local farmers’ market. Budget-minded travelers should head to I’Raddi at lunchtime Monday through Friday where they can score a serving of homemade pasta for less than €3! Delicious desserts beautifully presented. Call to make a reservation otherwise you’ll need to share a communal table. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tuscan-Style Vegetable Soup: Minestrone alla Genovese

On a cold winter's night, there's nothing more satisfying than a bowl of steaming hot minestrone soup and a loaf of crusty Italian bread to warm the soul and please the palate. Unfortunately, many vegetable soups are thin and tasteless. But Minestrone alla Genovese, an Italian vegetable soup with a healthy dollop of pesto swirled in before serving, is a hearty soup bursting with fresh flavors. You can use just about any vegetables in this recipe but I like to add onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, and green beans. You can add potatoes, too, but I'm not a big fan as they add a starchiness that I simply don't like.

I start my soup by sautéing a few puréed vegetables in olive oil. It deepens the flavor and thickens the broth. I then slowly add the vegetables throughout the cooking process starting with thicker ones first (carrots) and ending with the thinner ones (zucchini). I simmer the soup for approximately three hours. A long, slow cooking time really enhances the complexity, melding the flavors seamlessly. Finally, just before serving I mix in fresh basil pesto sauce. It's garlicky kick livens the dish up.

a bowl of vegetable soup with a slice of bread
Minestrone alla Genovese

Purée carrots, celery, onion and garlic in food processor.
Purée one medium carrot, a stick of celery, one small onion, and three cloves of garlic in food processor. Sauté the puréed vegetables in about three tablespoons of olive oil in tall stock pot over medium heat until fragrant and soft, about 10 minutes. Add chopped leeks and sauté for several minutes more until just soft. 

Add approximately 6 quarts of water and turn heat up to high. Once soup reaches a boil, return heat to a low simmer and begin adding your vegetables. Carrots, celery and green beans first as they're the thickest and take longer to cook.

After about an hour and a half, add the softer vegetables like zucchini plus a 16-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, including juice, and a 16-ounce can of white cannellini beans, rinsed and drained. Simmer for approximately one and half hours more. Add salt and pepper to taste.

A few minutes before serving, add cooked pasta to your soup (I boil about 3/4 cup of a short pasta like ditalini separately) and swirl in about 1/3 cup of fresh basil pesto. Serve with additional grated Parmesan cheese.

Minestrone alla Genovese
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks of celery, peeled and diced
1 small onion, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
12 oz. green beans, trimmed
1-16 oz. can chopped tomatoes
1-16 oz. can cannelllini beans, rinsed and drained 
2 zucchini, cut in half down the middle, and chopped
3/4 cup (dry) short pasta (ditalini or other)
1/3 cup fresh basil pesto
salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese

Buon appetito!