Thursday, September 6, 2012

(Naples, Caffe Florian) Maestro, Some Music If You Please

Venice is pretty cool on it's own.  It's tiny and quaint and watery and stripey. 

Gina, Scarlett and hundreds of others
Add the fact that there is a gigantic banner of Scarlett Johansson posing in a thigh-slit strapless ballgown astride a ladder holding a bottle of Moet & Chandon in Piazza San Marco, and that doesn't suck either.  

Combine those elements with a sophisticated restaurant Caffe Florian which serves some of the best cuisine in Venice (of which there really isn't a ton, unless you loooove cuttlefish), albeit a tad pricey.

While the nearly 300-year-old restaurant has an indoor and outdoor section, you would be best served to sit outdoors, weather permitting, and enjoy the cool shade while listening the sounds of the live orchestra.  
Our Florian waiters

Starting at about 11:00 a.m. and ending sometime after dark, this restaurant will charge about €6.00 per person supplement to listen to the music.  If that is too steep for your liking, standing on the outskirts of the tables is perfectly acceptable.

We came here two or three days in a row, for breakfast and lunch.  The white jacket-clad waiters whirl around the tables and diners, presenting your meals in grand fashion.  

Each is presented on a silver tray with a delicate carafe of water, intricate Florian logos are emblazoned on napkins, tea cups, tray liner, and even the sugar packets.  It's a bid like stepping into the past... think something like Midnight in Paris, uh, in Venice.

We tried the cheese quiche ("Sfogliata Formaggi") and ham sandwich, which were both perfectly prepared and presented.  Of course, we also had cappuccinos which were tasty and expertly frothed. I think we ordered somewhere between four and six of them, one right after the next.
Cheesy quiche
Cheesy sandwich
The following day, we returned for the music, the shade, the cappuccinos, and the quiche.  This time I ordered the "Colazione" which is an embarassingly large breakfast presentation for €30.00.  The price includes coffee, juice, a giant basket of pastries ("brioche e cornetto"), and then a two-foot tall three-tiered display that includes platters of fruit, cheeses, and meats.  It is delicious, but you need two people or more to polish it off.

We didn't come here for dinner, but we probably should have.  Piazza San Marco is beautiful at night, but more truthfully, we should have eaten here because it is really hard to find super delicious food in Venice.  Surrounded by water, it stands to reason that nearly everything in Venice is fish-based, add to the fact that the bread is flavorless (although this is trend in most of the country), and while the pastas are okay here, the pizza in Venice is rather terrible.  

Regardless of whether you choose to dine morning, noon or night, Caffe Florian is a must while in Venice.

Caffe Florian | Piazza San Marco, 56 30124 Venice, Italy |

Monday, September 3, 2012

(Naples, Pizzeria di Matteo) To get real Neapolitan pizza, you must go to Naples

The pizza from Pizzeria Di Matteo was the most expensive and inexpensive pizza we've ever eaten in our lives.  That statement requires a bit of explanation, I suppose.

Of course, there is no pizza like the pizza in Naples.  However, that's where Napolese fame sort of ends.  While it's commonly known that the Amalfi coast is gorgeous, and Capri is just a hop-skip-jump away, the tour books admit that Naples is gritty and rough, and can best be seen in about one day.  In other words, if you are staying in Rome, there is no reason to leave -- save for the pizza.

So that is what we did. 

We set out on a fast train from the train station (Roma Termini) to Naples.  Once we got there, we quickly learned that no one spoke English, and while I could say a fistful of Italian words, unfortunately I couldn't understand the Italian responses.

Duomo Napoli (Naples Cathedral)
After a tense discussion with the driver, he finally took us to the cathedral ("Duomo di Napoli") instead of the two hour tour of churches that my bad Italian seemed to initially indicate.

Locked arm in arm while staring at a glowing iPhone map, we carefully walked down a dirty, dark alleyway towards what I hoped was a real restaurant.  I looked at people in the eye, held my bag tightly, and cataloged the street names as we walked.  That's when I had a pleasant revelation. 

The world famous Via Dei Tribunali 
I remembered that while visiting Gina's cousin in Seattle about five years ago, she raved about a Napoletano-styled pizzeria in downtown Seattle -- complete with some unpronounceable Italian name -- and purported to be "just like the real thing."  The Seattle eatery was called Via Tribunali, which as it just so happens, is the same name of the street in Naples where we were walking and where Pizzeria di Matteo is located.  

Makes sense.

Antica Pizzeria E Friggitoria di Matteo
When we first arrived at the pizzeria, it was closed.  

Son of a....! 

In hindsight they were probably getting the ovens up to temperature.  I want to say they didn't open until noon or 1pm, but the timestamp on my receipt says 2:55pm, and I'm afraid I'm not much help there.

We fell back on our other two Italian passtimes:  Touring Italian churches and drinking Italian beer. 

We toured two churches:  The Duomo Cathedral, which is lovely if slightly forsaken (p.s. it has decent public restrooms), and the San Lorenzo Maggiore, which is one block from the pizzeria.  

With time still to kill, we found ourselves at the outdoor Wine Cafe at the Piazzette Divino Amore about two blocks away, which is the perfect place to pass the time.

Just as Pizzeria di Matteo was opening, it began to rain.  We put our name on the list, and waited outside with the others.  

At first glance, the place looks like a walk-up restaurant without seating, as the kitchen is practically outside.  But trust me, if you walk inside the kitchen, they will put your name on the list for one of the tables located on one of the three floors above.

Very large plates featuring very large pizzas
After a short, wet wait in the cobblestone street, they called our name and took us up to the top floor.  We ordered the Quattro Formagi (four cheese) pizza and the Salciccia (sausage) pizzas.  

The pizza is incredible, and not just because each is the size of your grandmother's Thanksgiving Turkey platter.  The dough was perfectly baked, charred on the bottom, but the crust is still steamy and warm.  The ingredients are fresh and plentiful.  If I had the room in my gullet, I would have tried the Margherita pizza and the Arancini (fried rice and cheese balls).  Next time, for sure.  

While waiting for our meals, what I can only describe as a gypsy tambourine player came into each room to entertain us.  Odd, but also somewhat charming.

I assure you I can finish.
The tour books will tell you that the residents of Naples are fans of one of two pizza places:  Either Pizzeria di Matteo or Pizzeria da Michele.  

We probably would have taken a latter train to stay in Naples for dinner and investigate if we were "Matteos" or "Micheles", but it was raining meatballs and we booked it back to Rome.

As for the cost, here is the explanation.  After tallying two round-trip train tickets from Rome to Naples, cab fare to the restaurant, beers while waiting for Di Matteo to open, and umbrellas when it started raining, we surmised that our daytrip to Naples cost about €350.00. The pizza, however, was a steal at about €5.00 each.

Couple of tips:  Come hungry as you cannot leave any pizza on your plate.  It is cash only.  Pay the cashier instead of at your table.  "Service" is included.  Do not miss this place if you like pizza.

Antica Pizzeria E Friggitoria di Matteo | Via dei Tribunali, 94  80138 Naples, Italy | +081 455262

(Naples, Wine Cafe) What To Do When You Get Scared in Naples

Any given dark, narrow street in Naples
When you are waiting for the world's best pizza place to open and you wander down a dark, narrow street in Naples, you start to get scared.

When you get scared, you start to pretend like you "belong there" and try to blend in.

When you start to blend in, the vacationing Italians will approach you and try to speak to you in Italian whilst pointing at a map.

When they speak Italian and start pointing inquisitively, you don't understand and start to get scared again.

When you start to get scared again, you back away from them into the traffic and almost get run over by a woman and a toddler on a moped. 

When a moped-driving toddler whose mom is riding bitch almost mows you down, you scream and run down Via San Gregorio Armeno past the nativy scenes and leave Gina behind.

When Gina finally catches up to you, she finds you sobbing in a corner of the Piazzetta Divino Amore.

When you stop sobbing in the corner of this miniature piazza, you start to look around.

Safe haven that is Wine Cafe & Piazetta Divino Amore
As you look around, you see that there is a fruit stand, a caffe, a wine bar, and a souvenir store, and that all are located directly across from the Police Commission.  Hooray!  You relax, as it is probably one of the safest places to be in Naples, and it is then that you decide to have something to drink.

Introducing Wine Cafe, an adorable family-run (aren't they all?) wine bar/beer joint/liquor store that features a small indoor bar and a large outside patio surrounded by hedges.

The sweetest, 20-something girl will greet you and bring out some of the coldest, most refreshing beer you've ever tasted, along with a heaping pile of salty potato chips.  If beer isn't your thing, there are plenty of wines to sample along with a full bar.  There is no food, but with the chips in hand, you won't even mind.

Inside, there are bottles of wine and limoncello for sale, in case you decide you want some souvenirs.  For something more authentic, you can venture next door to the souvenir shop where they sell wooden bell wind chimes, small nativies, painted tambourines, and cords of bark, presumably for pizza ovens, for €4.00.

Would you like some wood?
As you sit and enjoy your beverage, you will notice three things:

First, there is graffiti everywhere in Naples.  I recommend spending a few minutes trying to determine which are the bad words, and later try to use them, especially when Italian tourists shove maps in your face.

Via San Gregario Armeno
Second, no one owns a clothes dryer here.  Instead, they hang their laundry outside of the window, and this is very common in all parts of Italy.  Here, somehow it will seem sadder.  Partly because of the fashion, and partly because it is raining today and has been for the past couple of days.  I mean, can you say <insert Italian graffiti word here>?! 

Lastly, and this is best to contemplate about after more than one drink, this WINE BAR is located directly across from the POLICE.  I mean, come on.  What kind of a liquor business owner sets up shop next to the po-po?  Or do you think the family was there first, and was like, "Maria, I heard the worst <insert Italian graffiti word> news today!  You won't believe who is moving into the neighborhood"?  Or is it possible that the rent is just cheaper here?  Do the cops come for a cold one after their shifts or, since this is Italy, during?  I'm just saying.

Okay now, you are ready to venture back out into the wild streets of Naples.  This time, you can meander back up the Via San Gregario Armeno and stop and look at the intricate nativy scenes without fear.  Now you know where the police station is, and where Wine Cafe is, too.

Wine Cafe | Salonone Anna 56, Piazetta Divino Amore, Naples | +06085741210

(Rome, Tazza D'Oro) Drinking Italian Coffee in 60 Seconds or Less

In the time it takes for you or me to read this sentence, two Italian men have already ordered, paid for, sugared, and consumed their espressos at a coffee bar in Rome.

Coffee drinking in Italy is widespread, however it is very different from the American experience.   Here Illy and Tazzo d'Oro rule the roast, so to speak.  While strong and rich, the coffee here is almost strictly espresso, and is practically dispensed by the tablespoon and served in tiny ceramic cups.  

It is delicious, just different. 

Drinking espresso or capuccino in Italy is not a marathon experience like in the States, it is more of a mad dash to "il finito."  

Want to fit in?  Here are the steps to drinking coffee at a coffee bar in Italy:

1. Go to the cashier and pay for your cappuccinos (morning only, afternoon is unthinkable) or espressos (anytime).
2. Take your receipt over to the coffee bar and wait for a spot to open up.  Don't worry, it won't be long, especially if you line up behind some Italians who have just received their drinks.
3. Hand your receipt to the barista.  Or if you are brave, you can say whatever you just ordered in Italian (be sure to say "per favore", though) and set the receipt in front of you on the counter. 
4. The barista will make a vertical tear just at the end of your receipt so he knows you've been taken care of.  Stand there for 30 seconds while they make your coffee. 
5. Once your coffees have been set in front of you, sweeten and sip.  You have 30 seconds... and, go.
6. Thank the barista ("grazie") and leave.  No tip necessary.
7. Repeat 14 more times that day, just like the Italians do.

While Starbucks uses Italian words like "grande"or "venti" in their stores, the Italians use words like "dirty water" to describe American coffee.  I recommend steering clear of any requests for such while in Italy.  In fact, the only Starbucks you will find in Rome is the one located in Rome, Georgia, back in the states. 

What can I say? When in Rome, right? 

Tazza d'Oro Original Coffee Bar | Via degli Orfani, 84, Rome |

Saturday, September 1, 2012

(Rome, Ristorante Da Pancrazio) "Crazybread" Near Campo de Fiori

After walking miles on cobblestone streets from Campo de Fiori to the Julius Caesar statue, Gina insisted on backtracking to where we started.  "I want to eat at the little restaurant near the tunnel," she said, "you know, the restaurant with the white umbrellas.

Uh, sure. That Italian restaurant. 

Pedestrian tunnel somewhere near Piazza del Biscione
Of course, I didn't know what the heck she was talking about, but thank heavens for iPhone and Google Maps.  After retracking our steps toward Piazza Campo de Fiori, there is indeed an adorable restaurant located next to Campo and a pedestrian tunnel, and it is well worth the search once you find it. 

Positioned on a quiet plaza, the restaurant features both indoor and outdoor seating and has been here since 1922.  The tables are covered with buttercup yellow linens, and white patio umbrellas speckle the terrace. Inside there is brick and stone, uplighted by gas lamps and decorated with antique maps and paintings.  The whole restaurant has a cheery yet old-world feel.

While I haven't been able to find a reliable translation for "Da Pancrazio", my cruel "I-tanglish" mind (mix of Italian and English) tried to work it out.  If "pan" means bread,  uh, maybe "crazio" means crazy?  (Let me know if you find out, otherwise I keep thinking about it as "crazybread.")

Piazza del Biscione and Ristorant Da Pancrazio
After a bottle of still water ("acqua minerale sin gas"), two beers ("due birre"), and two glasses of white wine ("vino blanco"), and my dogs weren't barking quite as loudly, and it was time to eat.  The food is pretty incredible.  

The prosciutto and melon were fresh and tasty, as were the pastas.  The Carbonara (a Roman staple) was a solid performer:  Fettucine combined with egg, cheese, pancetta, and black pepper.  The Amatriciana was outstanding:  Bucatini (holey spaghetti) with bacon and cheesy tomato sauce.  I made a terrible mistake by ordering the Panzanella (bread salad) as a starter, however.  I am not a fan of anchovies, and this had anchovy paste on every bite of bread salad, so be forewarned.  (The bread is crazy afterall!)

Alas, there was no room for dessert, however there is always room for espresso ("due caffe, per favore").  Don't forget it is unfashionable drink capuccinos after breakfast, and so caffe (aka espresso) is the norm.  Here they serve some of Rome's best coffee - Tazza d'Oro -- which as luck would have it, has a coffee bar about three blocks away.

The service at Da Pancrazio was impeccable, and as with most Roman restaurants, the waiters favorite pasttime is people-watching.  Which, seated at a table here under a sunny umbrella with Peroni in one hand and a forkful of pasta in the other, I think it will soon be your favorite pasttime, too.  At least for the better part of an afternoon.

On a sidenote, it's ironic that we would visit the Julius Caesar statue on the same day. 

Da Pancrazio is located on the ruins of the Theater of Pompey, which happens to be where he was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.  Just some food for thought, so to speak.

So now you've got "Caesar" and you've got "Crazy Bread", but I promise, it's won't taste anything like "Little Caesar's Crazy Bread".  It's just easier to remember the name of this restaurant, as opposed to the "cute Roman restaurant with yellow tablecloths and white umbrellas."  (Not an overtly successful word association, I'll admit, more like word assassination. Ugh, I did it again. Sorry.) 

Ristorante Da Pancrazio | Piazza del Biscione, 92/94, Roma |

Friday, August 17, 2012

(The World) You Must Be Forking Kidding Me, Newsweek's Top 100 Restaurants 2012 List

I am crazy about restaurants.  I spend much of my surplus income on fine dining. Over the years I've had the good luck to have been able to try some of the world's finer establishments such as Daniel and The French Laundry and LÁtelier de Joel Robuchon and Masa's and Michael Mina, among others.  I have collected books and signatures from Thomas Keller, Jose Garces, and Marcus Samuelsson, and Anthony Bourdain among others.  I have read biographical accounts in books and magazines about what it was like to open Per Se, or cook with Julia Child, or lose your ability to taste while running Alinea, or the trials of attending Cordon Bleu in Paris.  Needless to say, it's passion and I don't intend on slowing down any time soon.

So, when a paper copy of Newsweek's Top 101 Restaurants landed in my mailbox a few weeks before my planned trip to Italy, I was delighted.  (

I flipped through the pages of the magazine before bed that night, and began to suspect something was off.  As I perused the restaurants that were being recommended by some of the world's top chefs, I was quite honestly surprised by the list, specifically, at the restaurants which were selected, some of the chef's that were selected, and their quotes. 

Highly suspect, I began to consider that not many of these restaurants, nor the chefs recommending them, overlapped with other top lists that had come out in recent months (such as Frommers, Gayot, and James Beard 2012 top lists, to name a few).  As for the chef's quotes, they sounded hollow and uninspiring.

How could something like this happen?  My guess is that one of two things occured.  Either there was too tight of deadline to instigate any real attempt at vetting these submissions, or the chefs were trying to be diplomatic for fear of offending any of their colleaugues, and steered away from their local scene and instead promoted small, family-owned restaurants that were far, far away from their circle of friends.

As for Italy, I was able to try two of the six.  This is because apparently no one remembered any restaurants in Rome or Naples remarkable enough to mention, an oversight I plan to remedy with More Than a Mouthful.  The Newsweek spots were a mixed bag:  Trattoria Sostanza was incredible, and Caffe Duomo was riduculous.  (I will write about both of these separately, stay tuned!)

On the whole, Newsweek got it really wrong, and I'm not the only one who feels this way.  (

You are welcome to judge for yourself.  As for me, I'm sending letters off to the editor and a few chefs to express my dismay. 

On the bright side, I am firm believer that there are "tons of dish oversea."