On my ever growing list of favorite cities, Napoli is always near the top. Being that this city is one of the oldest continually inhabited in the world, it is no surprise the wealth of history and tradition held here. Energy levels run high, no doubt fueled by the delightfully intense espresso being brewed at every turn. With it's frenetic, scooter riding population flying around, it can feel a bit overwhelming upon entering the maze of cobbled streets in the old quarter. Never fear, though, as Napoli is a traveler's dream and a budget oriented, food traveler's fantasy. Certainly, from a culinary standpoint, there is more to offer in beautiful Napoli than pizza. After a few weeks on the road and funding dwindling, you'd be hard pressed to find me eating anything but perfect, simple, tasty and cheap pizza napoletana. If you don't like pizza, what's wrong with you? Just kidding. But seriously, go to Napoli and eat a thousand pizzas, OK?
Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) is an accredidation and the presence of the above sign will indicate pizzas are prepared using only natural, unprocessed ingredients and baked in a wood-fired oven. However, this is a certification you pay for and many pizzerias without this plaque still follow the same standards and use the approved ingredients: '00' flour, san marzano tomatoes (only to be crushed by hand), bufala or fior di latte mozzarella from Campania, natural yeast, sea salt and fresh basil. The dough may not be mechanically manipulated in any way (no rolling pins!) and the pizzas themselves should bake in the wood oven for 90 seconds. Vera sign or not, this will be the best margherita pizza of your life!
Of the many, many pizzerias in town, and after much exhaustive research (you're welcome!) I still am partial to Pizzeria Di Matteo. Turning out delicious pizzas since 1936, this pizzeria made the most memorable pizza of my last trip to Napoli. On this trip, too, it was love at first bite! Especially if your first bite is of one of the insanely delicious arancino they sell out front on the street. So great, in fact, I had to devote my entire next post to fried friggitoria goodies. For now, we are talking pizza, and what could be better than that? Nothing really except maybe Falanghina and pizza together.
Our tour of Emilia-Romagna ended in the elegant and very pretty city of Ferrara. Without much of an agenda, we took it upon ourselves to wander about and let the city open itself up to us. After many days of travel and so much stimulation (and food!) it can be nice to walk aimlessly and just take it in. Ferrara was just the spot to do this and we delighted in the sights and sounds of the ancient city center (a UNESCO world heritage site, no less) with well dressed bicycle riders and buzzing cafes at every corner and even this elaborate umbrella installation, though you get the feeling it must rarely rain here.
Entering the town through the impressive Este Castle is a nice way to arrive, passing over the moat and marveling at the grandness of it all. One of Italy's most famous and influental filmmakers, Michelangelo Antonioni of L'Avventura and The Passenger fame, among others, called Ferarra home and was buried here upon his death.
Ferarra is surrounded by nearly six miles of walls built between the 15th and 16th century. Some of the best preserved Renaissance walls in Italy, you could easily while away the afternoon strolling along. Or, do as the locals do and ride your way around and through town. Several spots in town rent bikes by the hour or day.
When you are lucky enough to be on a long trip full of (hopefully) delicious food, it's easy to feel a sort of decision making fatigue. Feeling weary about our next choice after the wonderful, pasta-filled dinners in Spello, we decided to take a step off the beaten path and go in a new direction. Dangerous as this may be for those predisposed to culinary disappointment, L'Acciuga stood out among the many, many typical trattoria's in town by focusing not on the usual but on fresh Adriatic seafood. With a name like L'Acciuga (anchovy) you'll have a pretty good idea of what's in store. We ate here on a busy Friday night with every seat in the house taken. It's a fun restaurant with a submarine inspired dining room complete with portholes and aquariums. This place is fish only, which works for us. Have I mentioned I am a fan of seafood? It's true!
We started the night off right with this moderately priced DOCG Albana di Romagna. Made with the Albana grape from Emilia-Romagna, this is not an overly popular wine but it should be (keep your eyes peeled!). Crisp, tart and mineral, this reminded me of the Greco we enjoyed in Spello. At 12€ this proved to be a wise choice and perfectly complemented each of our dishes. The limited menu this evening offered only five items of which we ordered all but one.
This tartar was an elegant start to a light fish dinner. Perfectly diced bits of buttery amberjack (aka yellowtail) was bound with a bit of olive oil and little else. Contrasting the sweet, raw fish was a little mâché and frisée salad dressed in a bright olive oil and lemon dressing. The spicy Dijon emulsion really brought this dish to life and we were reminded of another time we were surprised and delighted at the raw fish/mustard combo. There could not have been a better dish to enjoy with our wine (or so we thought!).
Ravenna is an easy city to love. This was my first time in Emilia-Romagna and our furthest point North on this trip. Being so close to the Adriatic Sea, you are bound to find some amazing seafood, not to mention the tasty local wine. This graceful town will make you feel like life is easy, spent eating gelato, gazing at beautiful mosaics, sipping fine Sangiovese and snacking at cafes. This isn't entirely accurate, I am sure, but it is fun to stroll or ride about, carefree and content, and imagine what it might be lIke to stay here forever! After spending time in peaceful Umbria, this will feel super metropolitan. This is an ancient city, though, accepted it into the Roman Republic in 89 BC. Set foot in any of the eight UNESCO heritage sites and you are going to feel the age.
About 10€ will grant you admission to most of these sights. As difficult as it is to imagine making even the tiniest of mosaics in this manner, let alone cover the walls of several buildings, prepare to be amazed when you gaze up at these incomprehensible works of Byzantine art. Made with millions of tiny tiles, or tesserae, it is pretty remarkable to witness their intricacy in person. It is hard to describe and even harder to capture on film. The amount of time and number of people needed to complete these stunning works would be unthinkable today and it is amazing these have been so well preserved.
We spent several days in this beautiful city and on our first day purchased the combined ticket (valid one week) to five sights. If you have the time to try for a quiet portion of the day, you will be rewarded with solitude. If, for example, there is a large group of screaming school kids ahead of you, you might want to keep strolling and return at a more mellow hour.
Every once in a while you might be lucky enough to have a meal which displays such skill and value, you decide to eat at said spot for multiple meals. I like to think I have a pretty good gauge for this repeat meal decision making, though it can still be a struggle. There are so many places/specialties/styles of food to try! So, the choice is yours. For me, when I have a great and affordable meal, particularly when the service is gracious and kind and the food outstanding, I am apt to make another reservation. This decision will undoubtedly become easier if you have had a less than delicious meal elsewhere in town.
La Cantina di Spello is a prime example repeat dining as it's best and most necessary. Though I wanted to eat here from the get go, we arrived in town the only night closed, Monday. Sadly, this led to a disappointing (and therefore expensive) dinner across the street from here. We lucked out the following night when, without a reservation, we were able to score a seat at the communal table in the entryway. Never mind the adjacent dining room with it's stunning stonework and candles twinkling, you are going to eat beautifully sitting right here. The group of charming men eating next to you will make it known this is the best table in the house. They'd know, too, as this is where these gents eat each night (table 14). When they share their limoncello with you after dinner, you'll be inclined to agree. Enough of this, let's talk food and vino, we enjoyed plenty of both! As much as I'd like you all to think this is one dinner (and to be able to afford such a dinner) this is a combined review of two dinners.
The wine list here features the specialties of the area and is fantastic and well priced. This list compelled us to move past our usual house wine/vini sfusi tendencies. Our first bottle was made from the crisp Grechetto bianco grape. At 11€, this organic bottle was a steal and would be higher in the US, to be sure. This wine was a great match for our starters and really brought out new notes in both the food and wine. That's what it's all about, right?
Man oh man, I love me a night out in Pigneto. As if I don't get enough 'outside the city time' in Monteverde! Pigneto holds a special place in my heart, partly due to (wisely) celebrating my 30th birthday here, chugging vino rosso and stuffing myself full of the most divine porchetta to ever have been roasted. Also not to be forgotten, an incredible show by the incredible brothers Pontiak at the excellent venue, Circolo degli Artisti. This industrial working class neighborhood certainly shares similarities to Monteverde. Pier Paolo Pasollini filmed here, too, calling the outskirts, "la corona di spine che cinge la città di Dio" (the crown of thorns which surrounds the city of God). Indeed, Pigneto stands in stark contrast from the grandeur of Rome central. Still, Pigneto has endured much and the strength of it's inhabitants and strong cultural history are to be admired. Now justly starting to receive the attention it deserves, Pigneto is the kind of place you feel lucky to explore. You'll also be glad you are hungry (and thirsty!).
Like Monteverde, Pigneto is outside of the city walls and is easily accessible via public transit. Although it is possible, If not recommended to walk, an option which became known to me on the aforementioned birthday night when there was not a bus in sight! So, take a bus, OK. Or, it seems that very soon the metro will connect out here which will be great for commuting but is bound to change the vibe.
One of my favorite things about Pigneto are the vini sfusi joints dotted about town. I have briefly mentioned this and I will be brief here, too. Vini sfusi, or vino sfuso spots are little storefronts which sell 'loose' or 'bulk' wine from stainless steel drums on draft. Dispense your selected wine into your plastic jug and pay for it by the liter, usually between 1.50 and 3€. In some of the smaller neighborhoods and outside the city center of Rome, you will see these spots on nearly every street. Buying an entire liter is the best deal by far and many places simply won't sell you a glass, preferring to sell by the liter. The nice thing about some of Pineto's vini sfusi spots is the possibility to order 'vini in mescita' (by the glass). Plus, most of the sfusi spots serving up individual glasses will also provide a few snacks and a nice glass will run only 1€. We looked into several of these hip spots for research purposes (you're welcome!) and each had there own merits.
Our first stop of the night was at the charming Vini e Oli (wine and oil!). This is a convivial and low key affair. Here we drank nice pours out of plastic cups on the sidewalk for about 1€. Panini and snacks are available, too.
Our big splurge in Monteverde was at the appropriately named L'Osteria di Monteverde. This was a wise choice and you are about to see why. The clear winner for our coveted finest dinner in Rome classification, this unassuming Osteria on a side street in Monteverde offered a nice mix of traditional and contemporary cuisine, a fitting approach in this part of town.
We ate here on May Day, which in Rome means favas, and not just any favas, but raw favas in their little husks. Snacking on these tender, small and flavorful beans alongside salty bites of Pecorino Romano is a nice way to be welcomed.
The menu here will tempt you in many ways. They have a lovely wine list with fair prices. We went with a half liter of the house white (pecorino) followed by a half liter of house red (nebbiolo). At 6€ each, this was plenty of wine for two lushes.
Visiting a city like Rome can and should be one of life's great pleasures. That being said, visiting Rome might also be one of life's more overwhelming achievements! One way I have found to minimize exhaustion and maximize the Roman experience is to stay slightly outside the city center. This may not be for everyone, but I would have it no other way. Getting outside of the historic center is such a great way to see daily life and find little pockets that just might offer the things which elude so many when visiting such a popular area. You wouldn't go to New York and only visit Times Square!
Monteverde is that place for me and has offered a much needed city respite on all of my visits. If you are familiar with the Pier Paolo Pasolini classic, Mamma Roma, you have likely caught a glimpse of Monteverde. Although Pasolini grew up in Bologna, Monteverde became, for some time, his adopted home. Certainly, he was rightly critical of the very things about this area which I enjoy: it's tall apartment buildings and urban grit nestled closely to the beautiful images which Rome typically conjures. For me, there is great beauty here, too, and I love being the only tourist around.
People here are friendly, welcoming and helpful and from here, the centro storico is 15 minutes away by public transit. Or, do what I do and walk it. Clocking in at just around an hour, I love starting my day this way. Walking to the top of Monteverde past all the butchers and cafes, wine shops and pizzerias, and then winding down to the river through the posh Trastevere isn't an inconvenience, for me it is a bonus.
It's a good thing you are walking, too, since Monteverde offers a ridiculous number of very fine eateries, fancy and casual. Eating out here as opposed to fighting for a table in the city will make you feel like you finally know what you are doing (for once!) and the chances of a disappointing meal decrease dramatically.
Having a chance to visit Italia is quite a joy indeed. The food! The art! The history! The people! Does such immense beauty exist elsewhere? Of course it does, but you'd never know it while here. And Roma. Ah, Roma, when I leave, my heart (feet) will ache for thee!
Roma always seems to be a logical starting point for me. A classic beauty, this is a do not miss city on my list. And still, with it's chaotic energy and millions of things to do, eat and see, it can seem a bit overwhelming to be sure. Luckily, it is totally chic to drink wine most the day long, so have a glass (or bottle!) and relax. You couldn't possible see and do all this magical city has to offer and I find the sooner I come to this realization the better.
This is not to say one should come to this city without some semblance of a plan. It will be very comforting knowing before you arrive a few things you'd certainly like to do and to have a general idea of the city's setup. The nice thing is, just walking from place to place can be it's own reward. The architecture, cobbled streets, fountains, hidden alleyways and open air restaurants could keep you gawking all day long.