Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Carnivale a Venezia, Part II

Venice during Carnavale is one colorful spectacle.

I tried to capture the scene as best as I could with my tiny compact.  Well, it was definitely teeny tiny compared to the paparazzi type equipment around.  At times, I had to elbow my way in just to get a shot.  It sure left me feeling small and inadequate.

See what I mean? But it wasn't all that bad.  We wandered around soaking in the atmosphere.  Venice is always special with its canals and its ancient palazzi or palaces.

Even the masked revelers needed to stop for a break.

And so did we.  We ended up stopping at a random restaurant and having a bad meal.  We definitely need some recommendations for the next visit!

Soon it was time to head back towards the train station to catch our train back to Milan. Surprisingly, there were just as many people arriving at sundown as there were leaving. I suppose they were there for the parties that would go on long into the night. It had been a long day and we were happy to go home.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Carnival in Venice

Neither of us have ever been to Venice during Carnavale, and we figured it was something to see at least once in a lifetime.

We decided to make it a day trip from Milan on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday.  We caught the 8.30am train from Milano Centrale station and settled in for the 2.5 hour trip.  The train was full that morning, with many of the passengers heading to Venezia.

When we arrived around 11am, Carnavale was already on in full force.  I was worried that the tourists would outnumber the masks and costumes, but fortunately my fears were put to rest.  There was plenty of colorful costumes to look at.  I got to take alot of pictures and the crowds were actually not too bad.

Here are some of the better ones.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Agriturismo dei Baff, Valtellina

The next day we were supposed to go for a walk in the snow up in the mountains.  To, you know, try and walk off the dinner we had the night before.  Unfortunately, the weather dawned foggy and rainy, so we met up with the group and did what anyone else would do in our position...

Go eat some more! 

Or more specifically, what anyone in Valtellina would do... go eat pizzoccheri!  Mara suggested the Agriturismo dei Baff in Ardenno, which is conveniently located on the way back for our friends who would later be returning to Milan. 

The agriturismo is a real working farm where they raise their own animals.  When we arrived, I spotted their horses in a pen went over to visit.  There was a colt and his mother, both a pretty light brown and white color.  Look at the sweet brown eyes and long eyelashes.  Too bad I didn't have any carrots or apples to offer them.


This is a family run enterprise and we were greeted by one of the owners as we entered.  He had a moustache, which made sense, since baffo or moustache is 'baff' in the local dialect.  We were seated in the main dining room in a lovingly restored former mill.  His son, a good-humored and amicable young man, took our orders.  To start, we had an impressive platter of their own (from right to left) bresaola, prosciutto, salami and lardo.  


Bresaola is air-dried salted beef that orignates from Valtellina. It is lean and is usually considered the healthy choice.  I usually recognize it by its darker red color.  

Prosciutto, a dry-cured ham we all know.  There are two types, either prosciutto cotto, cooked, or prosciutto crudo, raw  but because it is salt-cured, it is ready to eat.  Outside of Italy, prosciutto usually refers to prosciutto crudo.  I prefer prosciutto crudo that is less salty and more sweet.  

Salami is air-dried cured sausage, also known as pepperoni in America.  Do not make the mistake of ordering pepperoni pizza in Italy or you will end up with bell peppers or spicy peppers on your pizza.

Lardo is cured pig fat or lard.  Usually white (it's all fat), soft and almost melts in your mouth. 

On the side we were served a dish of pickled onions (yum) and a selection of ricotta and goat cheese accompanied by jam.


Next came taroz, another typical Valtellinese dish.  Although I've heard of it, it was actually the first time I tried it.  It is essentially potatoes with green beans, onion and cheese, all mashed together with a generous amount of butter.  I love all things potatoes and so needless to say I'm now a fan of taroz.


We were washing down all the heavy mountain food of Valtellina with the agriturismo's own red wine. 


Let me introduce you to the sciatt, pronounced 'shaat', another local specialty.  They are pieces of Casera, a regional cheese, encased in a buckwheat flour batter and deep fried.  In the Valtellina dialect sciatt means 'toad', recalling its irregular shape.  They are usually served with a green salad, probably to offset the health implications of the deep frying.  Be sure to eat them while their still warm so that the cheese filling remains nice and gooey. 


We were already stuffed at this point but the main dish finally arrives.  Pizzoccheri, the pasta dish that all Italians associate with Valtellina.  The pasta is made with buckwheat flour and is a brownish gray color with black specks.  It is cooked with a green, either cabbage or chard, and chunks of potato, and then mixed together garlic, local Bitto cheese and a very large amount of butter.  This is definitely heart-stopping comfort food.


I've eaten enough sciatt and pizzoccheri to be able to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre and I would say both dishes were fairly average here.  It may just have been an off day that day as according to Mara, a local whose family has frequented the place for years, it is usually better. 

Here is the happy and satiated group.  We were stuffed.  I think most of us declined dessert.

After coffee, thanks to Mara, the owner led us down some steep steps to visit the old cantina or wine cellar.  It's no longer used to store wine but was cool to see anyway. 


Then he took us to see where they store and age their cheese.  He is a cheese connoisseur and was very proud of their collection of cheese.  The aging process also known as ripening transforms the texture of the cheese and intensify its flavor.


In another cellar, they store their cured meats made in-house.  Here D tries to smuggle some in his coat pocket. 


To end our tour, the owner presented us with a platter of different cheese so we could taste the cheese we had just seen.  We could hardly eat anymore, but we couldn't refuse this opportunity to taste some exquisite selection of cheese.  It was really generous of him.


It was already late afternoon by the time we left.  Not before saying goodbye to the farm's new puppy dog.  This little guy was so lucky with all the attention he was getting from everyone throughout the day.


If you're ever in the Valtellina area and would like a taste of some of the regional specialties, this is a good place to experience both good food and the genuine hospitality of the Cerasa family.   In addition to the dishes I mentioned above, they also serve costine al lavecc or pork chops cooked in stone pot that many other tables were ordering.


Ardenno (Sondrio)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ristorante Fracia, Valtellina

Back in January our friend Daniele organized a gathering in Valtellina for the Italians who traveled with us to Malaysia for our wedding in November.  It was a chance for the group from Milan to meet up with the group from Valtellina after the trip.

Dinner was organized at Ristorante Fracia, about 10km or 6 miles after Sondrio.  The restaurant is housed in a converted farmhouse on a mountain slope surrounded by wineyards.  In the summer, there is outdoor sitting with a view of the valley below.  Inside the ambiance was warm and inviting.


For starters most of us had the salumi misti or selection of cold cuts.  If I remember correctly, S had something with la lingua or tongue (beef, I think).  It wasn't bad.

Instead of a first dish I had a second dish, filleto di manzo or beef filet that was good. 


S had the guanciale di vitello con purea di patata or cheek of veal with mashed potatoes.


M ordered the risotto with foie gras which she said was great.


Although I enjoyed my meal, I thought the real star was dessert.  There was a selection that included creme brulee, panna cotta, gelato, etc, and a pallina di cioccolato or a chocolate ball.  The waiter described a truffle filling encased in a chocolate shell and well, it just sounded intriguing.  Many of us just couldn't resist ordering it.  The pallina arrived resting on a cachi or persimmon sauce.


It looked like a Kinder Surprise for adults.  But wait, that wasn't all.  The waiter then came round with a sauce or gravy boat filled with warm chocolate sauce.  As soon as he spooned the warm sauce over, the ball would immediately start melting revealing the dark chocolate truffle filling. 


It was a luscious chocolate dessert.  Needless to say, I licked my bowl clean. 

Ristorante Fracia
Teglio (Sondrio)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sicilian Sweets and Where to Buy Them in Catania

Ahhh... i dolci siciliani... the Sicilian sure love their sweets!

The pasticcerie are everywhere and even small bars will have a selection of cakes and pastries to soothe your sweet tooth.  Many of the desserts are filled with ricotta, or made with almond paste. 


And then there's the selection of chocolate covered nuts, chocolate truffles, and chocolate covered candied fruit.


Since it was citrus season, we had the mandarini sorbetto at two different places and found them really refreshing and delicious.


Sicily is also famous for its granita, a semi-frozen dessert of sugar, water and flavoring.  The almond and pistacchio granita are my favorite.  To me, a good almond/pistacchio granita is where you can taste real crushed nuts in the granita.  No fake flavors for me!  I can never decide which to have so I usually ask for half and half of each flavor.  If only I had more time there, I'd surely have one of these every day.


On my last evening, I bought a selection of Sicilian cookies and pastries to share with colleagues at work.


And who can forget the famous Sicilian cannoli?  The ones that S picked up from the pasticceria I Dolci di Nonna Vicenza or Grandma Vicenza's Sweets in Catania were fantastic.  They have several locations but the branch at the airport in Catania is really convenient for travellers looking to bring home a local treat.  There was a line while waiting for them to bring in another fresh delivery of cannoli at 7pm - that's how fresh they are.  They pack it up for you to bring on the plane and some people were buying huge trays to take with them.

One might think, 'Pastries from the airport?  They can't be any good!'.   


But we, with the help of my colleagues, did a taste test with the pasta di mandorle, the ubiquitous Sicilian treat made of almond paste, bought from a few different bakeries.  The ones from Nonna Vicenza, bought from the airport, won hands down.  So do your friends and family a favor and bring home some of these treats the next time you're in Catania.

Catania Airport, past security, across from Gate 9

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

La Cambusa Del Capitano, Acitrezza, Sicily

This was the restaurant we ended up eating at our first night in Catania.  It was one that S had been to before, dieci anni fa (ten years ago) and it had been decent.

Only perhaps his tastes have changed since, or that the kitchen had deteriorated...

Anyway, in case you think that we always eat well whenever we go out, or that all restaurants here serve good food...

This is an example of when that is certainly not the case.

Our order of la pepate di cozze or mussels with pepper was a dissapointment.  The mussels were fresh but the broth or lack of was not that great.

We also ordered a serving of involtini di pesce spada or swordfish rolls, a Sicilian specialty.  The rolls were tiny, and came swimming in a dish of oil.  It certainly did not taste fresh, or barely even like fish for that matter.

We both ordered pasta.  I had a seafood spaghetti, and the pasta turned out to be non cotto or undercooked.  If there's one thing that makes a pasta dish inedible, it's the raw taste of undercooked pasta.  This was the first time this has ever happened to me, and as much as I tried I could not eat it.

S's pasta nero di seppia or pasta with squid ink was also slightly undercooked.

We certainly didn't stick around for dessert.  The last straw was the bill which was definitely not cheap even by Milan standards.  I had such high hopes for a good Sicilian seafood meal.  We should've been tipped off by the fact that the restaurant was practically empty on a Saturday night.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Noto, Sicily

After our late lunch, we decided to visit the town of Noto, which was also recommended by the restaurant owners.  But first we made a stop at a pasticceria in another small town in the middle of nowhere to pick up some chocolates that we had tasted at the restaurant.  That's how crazy we are when it comes to food but that's another story.

The roads through the country side were small and winding.  By the time we arrived in Noto it was dark.  But we were able to see the Baroque-style buildings all lit up. 

The old Noto was destroyed in a violent earthquake in 1693, and was then completely rebuilt from scratch in an almost entirely Baroque style.  We walked down the main street, Corso Vittoria Emanuele, from where we could see many of the crumbling Baroque palaces, churches and houses. 

The restoration of the Duomo was recently completed and stands grandly on top of staircase.  All the buildings were really grand and impressive.


At the time we were there, we were the only tourists around, probably because it was getting late and it was low season.  I didn't see anyone else with a camera.  The locals were definitely looking at us strange.

S recalled his last visit here with a colleague from Milan who was also there for work.  They decided to pay Noto a visit one evening after work.  Imagine the scene: two young clean cut men who were clearly from the North, strolling the streets of Noto.  They had fit the perfect image of two new carabinieri (a special branch of the armed forces with police functions) in town and the locals were all looking at them with suspicion and distrust.  This time around, we were feeling rather conspicuous, but probably nothing like S' last visit.
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