I Ate…What?!

One of my last nights in Roma was spent with good friends — and good food!

The meal started off with some warm bread & fresh parmesan reggiano, which, in my opinion, has the perfect hint of saltiness. Yum!

My friend’s generous step-dad was treating us all to the meal and encouraged us to order appetizers, a first course, a second course, dessert, the works. Alright…if you’re gonna twist my arm ūüėČ

Suppli for all!

For those of you who haven’t yet been introduced to the much-loved Italian appetizer, suppli are rice balls that are generally mixed with tomato sauce and wrapped around a piece of mozzarella, then coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Y’all know I’m usually not one for fried foods, but there are exceptions. When in Rome, right? ūüėČ

Before we knew it, the first course was arriving at our table. I chose to order the Bucatini all’amatriciana, one of Italian’s most-loved dishes. This particular recipe was certified by the Amatriciana counsel for being so darn tasty! ūüôā

Whoever is on that council was right — this was¬†unbelievably¬†delicious.

You know those meals where you try to put your fork down because you’re getting full but then your dish just keeps tempting you from smack-dab in front of your face? Yup, this was one of ’em.

It was so cool to see the waiters mixing up the dishes right before our eyes — in huge pans right in¬†the middle of the dining room!

My friend Erin was the last of us to receive her bucatini, so the lucky girl got to eat out of the cooking pan itself:

Because I wanted to try something completely out of my element, for the next course I ordered oxtails with raisins, pine nuts, and…chocolate?

So the menu said. What I ordered and what was placed in front of me was definitely NOT the same thing. Does that look like raisins, pine nuts, and chocolate to you?

Blechhhh!!! Sorry for my minor freak-out. I just “googled” oxtails now and realized that they are in fact the tail of cattle. Ok, before you judge me on that last sentence (which makes me sound incredibly smart, I know), hear me out. Sometimes things are called things they’re actually not, right? Right?

Anyways, these things were incredibly hard to navigate. There was basically no meat and I found that, instead of eating, I spent the majority of the time trying to cut meat off the bone. During which I had numerous knife-slips. Whoops. Who knew eating could be actual work?

The meal ended with a delicious berry tart:

Don’t you just love fresh berries? Yay x 1,000,000 to summer temps & fresh produce ūüôā

“The Flats” Travel around Roma

Unbeknownst to me, I discovered a few weeks ago that I had actually received mail in my school mailbox! And how cool is this: it was Flat Layne and her good friends, Flat Lisa & Mike.

They wanted to see as much of Roma as they could, but because it can be a little difficult for them to flag down the 990 bus down to the Vatican, I gladly helped ’em out and served as their cab driver for the day.

First stop? 

My campus of course! We call it JFORCE — also known as the John Felice Rome Center.
They loved sticking their noses in the blooming flowers and even got some sun while laying in the courtyard. But enough moseying around…the tour di Roma must go on.

Our next stop was the Vatican, and we got some exercise in along the way because we walked. It was a beautiful day out and why wait 15-20 minutes for a bus when we could enjoy Roma in all of its sunshine-filled glory?

They got up close & personal with the late Pope John Paul II. Well, a poster of him at least:

Speaking of Pope JP2, isn’t this a pretty awkward title for a book paying tribute to his life?

As Andrew¬†so wisely suggested, couldn’t they have titled it: The man who loved mankind?

After walking around St. Peter’s Square, the trio started complaining that they were starved. I took them to grab a panini at my favorite little spot mere steps away from Old Bridge & DueCento Gradi. I’ve already shared my affinity for square foccacia bread, but I’ll share it again: there’s just something so wonderful about it! Thin & crispy with just a twinge of pillowy softness in the middle and a hint of buttery goodness? To die for.

Prosciutto, mozzarella, & arugula.

Judging by the way they attacked that sandwich, I’d say they shared my sentiments.

We then walked across the bridge and through the streets of the city until we arrived in Piazza Navona:

They are huge Bernini fans. Can’t you see the excitement on Mike’s face?

Gelato was on their mind, and since Frigidarium was right around the corner, I treated them to a cone of their choice.

Layne doesn’t like ice cream (true story), but she sneaked a few¬†many bites of my gelato:

I got a small cone with the classic Frigidarium flavor (chock-full of cookie chunks!) and After Dark, also known as mint, my absolute fave!

Here’s to my last gelato in, well…who knows how long!

Next up: a quick walk to the Colosseum.

We admired it at a distance because it was jam-packed:

Does this building ever not look stunning?

After we had got our gladiator-on, we walked to the Trevi Fountain,

and then on over to the Spanish Steps, which were simply gorgeous dotted with purple flowers:

Lisa & Mike chose to have a little afternoon date here:

While Layne rode it solo:

Before we left the area, I had to pet the horses, because I’m a five-year-old I love horses.

The heat, tourist-laden streets, and exhaustion of finals week were beginning to take a toll on us, so we decided to head back to campus and relax before a final group dinner.

A bunch of us decided to keep it simple (and tasty) and dine at Il Chiodo Fisso, our favorite go-to spot located a mere 10-minute walk from our school.

Layne wasted no time sneaking sips of Ali’s beer:

Could that possibly explain why she fell off the chair a few times? ūüėČ

After Julie raved about the Chiodo pizza she had ordered the last time we dined there, I decided to try it myself:

The Chiodo is a pizza bianca, which means that, rather than featuring rosso or tomato sauce, it has no sauce at all. Sounds plain, but trust me — it was delicious to be able to actually taste the buttery-ness (yes, that’s a word) and saltiness of the crust. Along with slices of prosciutto, parmesan cheese, arugula, and tomato? Pure perfection, people!

This is one of the times I SO wished Italy “did” take-away boxes. I wanted to wrap this pizza in my arms and take it home with me. I loved it. That. Much.

Night, night Roma.

Or shall I say, ciao…’til we meet again!

And I Ask You: When dining out, are you super-adventurous with what you order (aka oxtail), or do you generally stick to the classics?

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My Dirty Little Secret

I promise to keep this post short & sweet.

After all, there’s not a single picture of food included…just lots of pictures of some good ‘ol fun!

Last week included a trek up to the top of the cupola at St. Peter’s:

I have a confession to make. Since tourism has been picking up more and more with each new week¬†of¬†religious holidays and¬†higher temps, the line to get through security in St. Peter’s Square was literally out of the country. No, really! (Did you know the Vatican is its own country?) Lines were winding out and about the square…craziness, mass chaos, call it what ya will…

Before I disclose to you my dirty little secret, I was by myself and — hmm — not really feeling the waiting 2+ hours in line thing. About 3/10 through the line I spotted a huge French tour group. Opportunity! ūüôā

As the tour guide was haussin’ her French to the group, I sneaked right in front of them. They didn’t even blink an eye.

Now, I’m not proud of this dirty little secret of mine. I pride myself on being honest, and if everyone did what I did and budged in line, well, I’d be in Italy (joke, of course…but I’ve said this before: Italians do not believe in lines, more like animalistic¬†mobs).

I made it through security without a pat-down (success!) and my legs and I were on our way to climb 537 steps, the Vatican’s own stair-stepper of sorts.

The journey included an unusual view from inside the top of¬†St. Peter’s Basilica,¬†slanted ceilings and stairs so teeny and narrow there was a rope,¬†and about-to-faint tourists, but¬†I finally reached the top. Whew!

When I reached ground level again, I stopped to tie my moccasin (why does everyone find that so funny?) and my legs were trembling! Proof that I got in a semi-decent workout, don’t you think? ūüôā

The Vatican was in frenzied preparation for the beatification of Pope John Paul II…

Hello, JP II!

I was thanking the Big Guy (God, not the Pope!) he waited to let the skies open up until after I had seen some pretty stunning views from the top!

The rest of the week was filled with…

  • My last visit to the children I’ve tutored all semester:

Can we just take a moment to talk about how absolutely adorable they are?

  • Our school’s end-of-year banquet, started off with some prosecco to celebrate!

(Yes, that is our school caf’s fruit-cup I’m drinking out of…Room 332 keeps it classy like that)

I had never opened a bottle of prosecco before, and, well…the cork is somewhere out there.

The evening was so much fun — a nice dinner at a restaurant downtown, complete with a dance floor and stage, but first…pictures in the courtyard!

Now, on to the dance!

(Can you see why Jana won “best smile” for our end-of-year superlatives? Gorgeous!)

Before the night was over, I had danced my booty off, sang at the top of my lungs to fantastic American rap songs (don’t tell my voice teacher; with a performance 3 days later, she’d kill me!), and received an academic award?

Nerdiness at its finest.

And I Ask You: Be honest with me…have you ever budged in line? Do you do it often? Never? Are you in the Italian state-of-mind and don’t even believe in lines?

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Move over, honey-baked ham.

Jesus is Risen! He has risen indeed!

Living in Roma means I’m fortunate enough to stumble upon the Vatican pretty darn often. Tough life, right? ūüôā

In the last couple of weeks, tourism has been picking up and hit its climax on Easter morning — welcome to Roma, tourist season. I can’t say I’ve missed you…. Jacked-up prices, even more unreliable & crowded buses, and throngs of people flooding around the city? No thank you!

However, I do love tourists for the mere fact that I am such a tourist myself, even though one would think that, after living here for nearly 4 months, I would start to fit in.

Case in point:

I do this because I love you. I really do.

Anyways, it was exciting watching the Vatican get all prepped up for Easter. This was one of the Pope’s big days, after all! (He had to have been in bed by 7 pm the night before. That, or up until 3 practicing his Easter Greeting in some-twenty different languages…)

Mid January, it looked like this:


Then progressed to look like this on Palm Sunday:


By Easter Sunday, the crowds had come out in droves!

Don’t let the first picture fool you — the threat of rain turned out to be nothing to worry about. Five minutes into the mass, the clouds parted and the sun came out.

Our tickets told us to arrive by 8:15 am, but since the mass didn’t start until 10:30, we sat patiently in our seats took pictures. And lots of ’em!

Waiting in line...which Italians actually don't believe in.

The Pope’s bedroom window is the 2nd from the right, top floor.

Penthouse sweet, natch ūüėȬ†

The 2 hours passed quickly, and before I knew it, the Pope-mobile was arriving:

Though our seats were fairly close and I could see the Pope if I craned my next just so and squinted my eyes, I took the liberty to look at the big jumbo-tron on numerous occasions.

Rumor had it the mass would be 4+ hours long, but it, too, flew by. Our worship book/order of service was over 60 pages long, but 2 1/2 hours later, we were leaving our seats and trying to make it out of St. Peter’s Square before all of the other tourists…

While there was only one reading in English (the rest of the mass was conducted in Latin and a mix of other languages), I tried to look at the Italian printed side-by-side and actually managed to interpret some of it. At the close of the service the the Pope wished the people of over 20 countries a Happy Easter in their native languages. We were so confused (and shocked!) at the end when we hadn’t heard “Happy Easter” to the Americans. We were going to stand up, yell, cheer, high-five, etc. We missed it! I guess he said it right at the beginning, and his English isn’t the greatest (but can you really blame the guy?).

He gave his Easter message from up here on the balcony.

Such a great experience (I’m not sure I’ll ever have the opportunity to do that again), but I definitely missed a service in English at my Grandparents’ church, where my family goes every year. Something about tradition…and being able to understand the message gets me I guess ūüôā

Service concluded, we high-tailed it out of there to escape the endless crowds and grab some sandwiches before walking back to campus (roughly 2 miles).

I was craving a warm panini on square foccacia bread (don’t ask me why — it’s just the better bread, alright?!).

Craving satisfied.

A tasty panini with salty slices of thin prosciutto, mozzarella, and sprigs of arugula. And the most delicious, buttery square foccacia bread ever. It’s no warm vegetable medley, au gratin potatoes, or Grandma’s fresh-baked mini-rolls & pies, but it’ll have to do…

The rest of our Easter Sunday was, in my opinion, exactly the way it should be: laying out on blankets in the courtyard, talking, playing what would you bring to a desert island games, joking around…plain relaxation. After a very early morning, it was a perfect way to spend our afternoon.

Regardless of how happy we are to be studying together in Rome, nothing causes us to miss our families more than a Sunday holiday apart. For many of us, Sundays and holidays are both times we spend with our families, surrounded by the ones we love.

Well, this semester…my friends have become my family.

We all prettied ourselves up and put those homesick-blues aside. A Sunday night dinner with friends was what we all needed most. We chose to venture to Il Chiodo Fisso, a delicious restaurant a 10-15 minute walk from campus.

I’ve been twice before (once with my dad & Julie, the other with Julie & her family), but for some reason, it’s never shown up on ciaotochow before. I knew I had to order the carbonara again because, the first time I had it, I was in utter amazement at how unbelievably delicious it was: al dente spaghetti served as the basis for salty bits of pancetta and egg. A true Roman specialty!

The trick is to turn the heat on low as you add the egg and cheese into the mix, and stir it continually (this way, the egg will scramble as soon as it meets the hot spaghetti but will be incorporated throughout the pasta, not just on top!).

I adore twirling my spaghetti on a fork (but ssh! sometimes I cut my pasta, a definite “NO” in Italy…):

So good! Move over, honey-baked ham. There’s a new sheriff in town! It’s such a rich, heavy dish — comfort food at its finest, that’s for sure. That being said, I wasn’t too upset when they gave me a significantly smaller portion than last time (when I couldn’t even come close to finishing it)…

…more room for Easter candy when I got home ūüėČ (Thanks, Mom & Dad Easter Bunny!)


With 11 of us seated side-by-side at a long rectangular table in front of an open window, in a way, it felt like I was with family.

After all, there was lots of laughter, toasts that were both humorous and sentimental, and good food & wine.

I’ll cheers to that!

I hope your Easter — whether with family or friends who are like family — was just as special.

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Ding, ding: Watch Out – Bike Coming Through!

It’s not hard to believe that the weather in Roma was beautiful on Friday. This city has been blessed with incredible spring weather, but how ironic is it that it’s currently chilly and damp outside?

Regardless, Kenz¬†& I took Friday’s gorgeous temps as an indicator that the big guy in the sky wanted us to spend the day roamin’ around Rome (you’ve never heard that one before, have ya?).

First stop? Il Vaticano!

Take 1.

Hmm…let’s try that again (minus our stares of amazement at a rad girl in a hot pink hoodie getting her hair done).

Take 2. Ahh, much better.

We were planning on climbing the cupola of St. Peter’s, but with the numerous celebrations and events of Holy Week, we quickly found out it was closed for the day.

But…since we¬†had already made it out alive from the massive, animalistic hodge podge of a security¬†line, we decided to walk through St. Peter’s and the grottoes. Though we had done both before, you learn something new every time…and the monstrosity of St. Peter’s never ceases to amaze me.

Fortunately for us, our hunger pangs hit right when we were walking past DueCento Gradi Bread & Condiments. Not a bad coincidence, in my book.

Remember my meal there after the Papal Audience? (Click here for a refresher.) Tbm (tomato/basil/mozzarella, otherwise known as caprese). Layne would be so proud ūüôā (or jealous!)

It was Kenz’s first time at this heaven-sent sandwich shop.

Doesn’t she look happy?

This time around, I went with the Barberini: cooked ham, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a smear of artichoke sauce.

The ingredients and type & taste of the bread actually reminded me a lot of an American sub. Nothing like a little taste of home ūüôā

The rest of the afternoon was spent dropping our jaws at the sight of a Segway tour:

Listening for audible English, so we could pop in and ask those folks for a photo, per favore!

And of course, an hour-long bike ride through Villa Borghese, Roma’s Central Park, in a way (i.e. my favorite place in the city).

We had tried to rent out bikes one time before (when I had that nagging heel injury and was limited to the type of exercise I could do). However, who would have thought you’d need either your driver’s license or your original passport? Heck no am I giving some park employee my passport! No offense to him, really; I wouldn’t trust anyone with that precious document at this point in the semester.

Driver’s licenses in tow, within minutes we were the proud owners of this bad boy:

How. Cool. Is. This.

Sure, we could have rented out mountain bikes for 3 hours for roughly the same price. But, honestly – a mere glimpse of this fine contraption won over our hearts.

The hour went by so quickly. Our (or maybe just my) strained hamstrings and sore butts told us the park employee hooked us up with the most difficult bike carriage of the lot.

No prob for us, though. We wanted a workout…and (numerous) hills later, we got one! (Sidenote: We also LOVED cruising down the downhills and dinging our bell…ding, ding: watch out – bike coming through!)

P.S. I have to thank Kenz for powering us through this workout. I may have slacked a little. (Hey, I was in the “steering & breaking” seat, people. I had HUGE responsibilities that, had I been too concerned with pedaling uphill, disasters could’ve definitely ensued!)

This view will never get old.

To repay Kenz for my, ahem, lack of leg muscles to power us through our bike ride, I introduced her to Frigidarium.

If any of you out there like gelato (Italy’s “ice cream,” though much creamier and lighter than the trusty, American stuff) and are planning on visiting Rome, gelato cannot get any better than this.

I first discovered this on Thursday night after our Church Crawl and dinner in the city (to commemorate Holy Week). Is it bad that I’m thankful I didn’t discover this earlier? Like my discovery of the life-changing chocolate cornettos (croissants) in the basement of my school, an earlier-in-the-semester discovery of Frigidarium could have been dangerous.

It’s also located steps from Piazza Navona, which I’ve told y’all before is my favorite of the piazzas in Roma. And I’m there all the time. How did I not know an amazing scoop (or 2!) of perfection was mere steps away from Four Rivers, Bernini’s masterpiece of a fountain?

I forgot to photograph my gelato cup on Thursday night, but I chose a scoop of Frigidarium (a deep yellow color with chunks of cookies swirled within) and a scoop of mint chocolate. While I truly love the taste and texture of gelato in comparison to ice cream, the one thing I miss is chunks of stuff in my ice cream: you know, the cookie dough chunks, rainbow sprinkles, fresh berries, and chocolate-covered pretzels that just make eating it that much more fun.

Maybe the reason I liked this particular gelateria so much is because of the ribbons of chocolate swirled throughout the mint flavor, and the cookie chunks present in the name-sake flavor.

Since I refrained from buying Frigidarium 2 days in a row, Kenz happily obliged when I asked her if I could snap a few photos of her gelato before (and as) she dug in:

She chose to get hers submerged in melted chocolate.

Her flavors of choice: Frigidarium (I told her I would leave if she didn’t choose it…kidding, of course!), Stracciatella/chocolate chip, and an intense chocolate flavor of a deep, rich brown color.

We’ve had a lot of gelato this semester, but please believe me when I tell you this stuff was. the. best.

Oh, and so was this:

My afternoon pick-me-up: Blood-orange Gatorade! Nevermind the 2,50 euro price. This could’ve been 10 and I still would’ve bought it ūüėČ

(How sweet are those Nikes in the bottom right-hand corner?)

And I Ask You: Are you a biker? If so, what’s your style: racer, casual, person who sits on the second seat of a tandum bicycle and “pretends” to pedal?

Every time I bike, I always ask myself why I don’t do it more often. My little heel injury made it unwise to run for a few days, so in the meantime, I completed my cardio on the stationary bike and actually really enjoyed it…and I could definitely feel it in my legs for the next couple of days (especially after turning up the resistance!). But stationary bikes and cardio workouts aside, my favorite type of biking is casual biking for pure pleasure — especially in the woods and trails of the state park near my house.

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See my nose? Well, it’s NOT growing!

I have the best roommate ever.

When I walked into the room the other day, I was overcome with the amazing scent of fresh lilacs…

I’m telling myself she picked fresh lilacs on the way home from the grocery store because she loves me a lot (her family owning a greenhouse and her obsession with flowers obviously have nothing to do with it…).

Anyways, thanks a bunch, Jules! ūüôā

Since we both realized our weekends in Roma are quickly coming to an end, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and got our tourist on — doing some things in the city we’ve always wanted to do but, well, never got around to…things on our “bucket list!”

A quick ride on the bus & metro took us to our first destination: Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the site of ancient Roman chariot races.

Situated between the Aventine and Palatine hills, the stadium was first built in the 6th century BC and could fit roughly 250,000 people, which was a good thing: these races were free to the entire Roman population, even the poor.

We enjoyed strolling around its perimeter. In fact, it semi-made me feel like I was back at a track meet (minus the brutal winds that always seemed to magically appear on meet days), but at 621 meters long and 118 meter wide, it may be just a teeny bit bigger than a 400 m track ūüėČ

Next up? I took the test to see if I’m a lil’ Pinnochio. You know…a liar! (Side note: Pinnochio is huge here, especially in Florence; this fictional character first appeared in Italian/Florentine author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinnochio.)

We headed to The Mouth of Truth, located in the portico of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church. La Bocca della Verita is a sculpture in the image of a man’s face, and legend has it that if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it’ll get bitten off. (Perhaps you’ve seen its appearance in Roman Holiday?)

I decided to tell la bocca della verita that I haven’t thrown up since kindergarten.

I am proud to tell you I still have my hand (both of them, actually). Muahahaha.

Our quest to peer through the keyhole was next on our list. The keyhole is this tiny little hole in a big green door that gives you the most amazing view of Roma, and specifically, St. Peter’s Basilica.

You’ll just have to trust me on this one, folks. In real life, the brightness at the end of the tunnel is the most famous “dome” in all of Rome.

Maybe this one’s a little clearer? (courtesy of everything-everywhere.com)

https://i1.wp.com/travelphotos.everything-everywhere.com/photos/534803854_s844H-1000x1000.jpg

The rest of the weekend was spent admiring my Dad’s favorite building in Roma, the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele (the first king of a unified Italy in 1861):

Of course we had to stop in and pay our tribute to Italian Unification. The museum was free, as a part of a week with a multitude of free admission into many different museums and historical sights (which isn’t many in Rome…right? haha).

Since almost all of the information was in Italian, Julie and I had fun pretending like we knew what the museum posters and signs said. Since I’m in Italian 102 and basically fluent, I explained it pretty well:

And, since my sister is a science teacher and all, I know she’s into those mad-genius types. So naturally, I found her a few prospects…

Prospect #1

An Italian-esque Nigel Barker, perhaps? Okay…just use your imagination! (Or quick glance at the screen and look away, glance, look away. Glance, look away…)

Prospect #2:

You know, in case the Teddy Roosevelt look is more her thang ūüôā

Our day included so many beautiful flowers, which are blooming everywhere in this 70+ Roma spring weather. Julie’s camera being dead, she just had to stop and snap a few photos for her parents (“Oh! My dad will LOVE this! Look at these (names type of flower, as my jaw drops in utter disbelief that, once again, she knew the name of some random breed of flora).”)

We stopped midday for lunch. On the menu? Paninis!

Thin slices of Italian ham, creamy mozzarella cheese, and thick slices of tomato all tucked tightly inside grilled bread, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.

These never get old. Geez, I am so happy I’ll be able to try and recreate these with my new panini maker when I return home. Otherwise, it’d be a sad, panini-less life for this girl ūüė¶

Sunday night I went out to dinner with some friends from Loyola, who were visiting from London (where they spent the semester studying abroad).

After doing my best in the afternoon to show them around some of the “must-see” sights in Roma, we arrived in Piazza Navona around 8 p.m. to meet our mutual friend, who also studies in Roma with me. We chose a restaurant on a side-street off the Piazza (which, by the way, is my favorite in the city) and were thrilled to finally have the opportunity to be by ourselves, in a quiet/chill place where we could catch up on 4 months-worth of life.

After checking out the menu, I ordered pizza (nope!), pasta (nope!), a salad! While I’ve made many a salad at mensa (our school cafeteria), this was my first salad ordered out in the city, and it didn’t disappoint.

Hard-boiled eggs, tiny crumbles of bacon, season croutons, and a plethora of mushrooms rested atop a bed of fresh spinach. All this needed was a few drizzles of evoo, balsamic vinegar, and pepper (no added salt — I gave it up for Lent!).

I enjoyed this with 2 slices of fresh bread on the side, dunked in evoo and parmesan cheese.

The four of us chatted away for a while, and it was so nice to finally see some friends from back home. Plus, my three dining companions are all theater majors — you better believe this dinner convo was beyond entertaining ūüôā

Liza, me, and Ali

Don’t you love when you can pick up right where you left off with good friends, after not seeing them for months?

And I Ask You: Are you an avid museum-goer? If given a free day in a large city with both incredible art/history museums and outdoor flea markets/activities/sights and could only do one of the two, what would you choose?

While I’m growing to enjoy museums more and more (especially art museums), I’d have to choose the outside option, provided the weather is decent. When traveling and visiting a new place, I enjoy getting outside and interacting with the locals, taking in the sights, and experiencing things up close and personal…as opposed to in front of a piece of plexiglas in a museum. But don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Picasso and Van Gogh ūüôā


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Allora, Now We’re Cookin’

I have changed my name to Julia Child. Well, scratch that: I’ve changed it to Giada De Laurentiis. After the amazing 4.5+ hour cooking extravaganza my parents and I¬†were able to partake in on the Friday night of our visit to Florence, I feel like I can whip egg whites and sugar¬†into a mean meringue like no other. Slicing mushrooms? Psshhh…I do it in my sleep. Peeling tomatoes? Know it like the back of my hand.

But in all seriousness, we arrived at our meeting point around 5:15 pm (17:15 if you’re¬†speaking typical-Italian military time)¬†and from there walked with a representative of the cooking school across the River Arno until we reached our final destination: a very unsuspecting building with a modest sign,

When we first walked inside, we were greeted by 4 stainless steel workstations, all ingredients (more or less) measured out and divided into separate containers. 

There were 13 people total in our group, and 2 chefs. We were lucky enough to snag the group of 5 so we got Chef Silvio all to ourselves — lucky us!¬†The other 8 were divided into¬†two groups of 4 and had to share a chef who bobbled back and forth between them. I was delighted: after the great but not fully as hands-on cooking experience I had with my¬†classmates in Tivoli¬†(check out the link for yummy homemade pasta recipes!), I was so ready to get my hands dirty in the kitchen — and actually prepare all of the items we’d be dining on that evening.

Upon further inspection (c’mon, I’m an aspiring journalist…I have to be at least a little nosy), I spied with my little eyes…

Zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms,¬†fresh rosemary, garlic…

I don’t believe those six ingredients could combine to form anything but deliciousness. You?

(Don’t fresh tomatoes remind you of summer?)

Mmm…mushrooms and fresh rosemary. You really can’t beat the flavor combination of those two together.

Ohh…and I know what these are for:

The savoiardi (which resemble Italian ladyfingers but 2x as thick) were screaming out¬†tiramisu to me. And I was lovin’ what that meant.

Throughout the cooking course, we worked on 4 dishes:

  1. Vegetable Millefoglie (a layered appetizer starring eggplant, zucchini, potato, fontina cheese, grated parmesan, evoo, & oregano)

2.    Potato Gnocchi in a tomato & garlic sauce(with fresh basil)

3.¬†¬†¬†¬†Chicken Aretina* (chicken and white wine¬†marinate together while they cook; as soon as the wine is evaporated, the mushrooms, garlic, zucchini, rosemary, and¬†s&p jump in the pot and simmer…letting all those delicious flavors and textures mingle together into a dish that is truly beyond words)

4.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Tiramisu (Savoirardi cookies are quickly dipped in coffee (a few drops of alcohol into the coffee¬†is optional)¬†and¬†¬†topped with a¬†combination of mascarpone cheese and a sugar/egg yolk mixture that has been beaten into a meringue. Topped with cocoa powder, try convincing anyone — coffee lover or coffee hater — that this dish is anything less than perfection.)

*My favorite of the dishes

——————————–

My dad was the star of our group. But note to self: Never follow my dad’s example and ask a chef¬†(even if semi-joking) if it’s customary to sip a glass of wine while you cook. He will go off on a tangent about the dangers of cooking while drinking alcohol and…yeah…non va bene.

You go, Dad! Whippin the merginue like its going out o style.

If no one messes with my dad’s concentration, no one will get hurt…

After the meringue was finished, we got to work preparing the tiramisu, which would be in individual servings — portioned out in our own little ramekins. (I have a fascination and love for all things mini/fun-sized.)

Once prepared, they were ready to get into il frigo (even if you don’t know a lick of Italian, I’m willing to bet you can figure that one out :))

We prepared the dessert first because it needed to chill for a couple of hours, but in my humble opinion, starting with dessert for any reason is just the way life should work, no? ūüėČ

Next up: let’s get to work on the rest of the meal:

(Making the gnocchi)

(Well, unfortunately for my dad, from this point on he will never be able to use the excuse that he can’t cook…)

Alright — this is where I understand that life is not fair. My mom and I (and the other two, sweet¬†women in our group)¬†are slaving away chopping, peeling, dicing, julienning…and my father is the member of our little team that gets to taste-test.

What is that?! My only guess is that there’s some kind of bromance going on…

I have to be grateful to Silvio, though: he taught me how to go from presenting a food as ho-hum to wham-bam!

Our appetizers came out of the oven looking mouthwateringly delicious:

I snapped about 10-15 photos of this dish as soon as it came out of the oven…and then as Silvio added sprinkles of one herb…and then another…and then drizzled some olive oil around the dish…

It went from this: (still gorgeous, right?)

To this:

Usher’s the only one who has words for this.

You know me and my affinity for all foods steaming hot —¬†I was worried that, since we’d be preparing all of the dishes, they’d be cold/lukewarm/room-temp/anything-less-than-temperature-perfection when we finally sat down to¬†eat them.

My mom’s response? “It’s a restaurant, Anna. I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

That old adage is so true: Mama always knows best.

While we were involved in each step of the preparation of the 4 courses, Silvio and the other chef finished them off in terms of putting them into the oven, simmering them on the stove, roasting, etc., etc. We got to prepare the dishes and be served (in an underground wine cellar, no less). Now that’s living the dream.

After making our appetizers look like stunning works of art, we grabbed our plates full of these gorgeous masterpieces and headed down to our dining spot for the night:

One of the bottles of wine sitting behind my dad and I was truly meant for him:

Did I mention my dad is obsessed with the word allora? (It translates into then.) Contrary to my continuous efforts to teach him the proper pronuncation and¬†moment at which to use it, he says allara, allura, basically everything BUT allora. Allora…

We sat down at a table with our cooking “team” — it’s only natural, after all…to sit down together and enjoy the meal you created with each other. We all agreed the vegetable millefoglie blew the ball outta the park. Not only was this easy-peasy to make (simply rotating the ingredients to layer on top of one another, adding a bit of s&p and evoo, and sticking a toothpick slanted through the finished product to ensure it stays put in the oven!), but it would work as both a wow-worthy¬†appetizer for a casual dinner party with friends and as a side-dish to an elegant holiday family feast. (Or, if you’re like me, you could make 3 or 4 of these for yourself and eat¬†those — and only those — for a fantastic, veggie-based¬†dinner!) My goal this summer is to teach¬†Andrew how to make these…and to get him to like¬†eggplant, if he doesn’t¬†already ¬†ūüôā

Plate clean. Please bring out course #2, Silvio!

Made by simply combining potatoes and all-purpose flour, the actual texture of the gnocchi was very soft and tender, not at all the¬†al dente of which the Italians over here have grown me so accustomed. However, when I mentioned this to Silvio, he grew angry. Gnocchi are supposed to be tender, not al dente. (Whoops. As far as I was concerned, our family was on strike 2. Don’t mention wine, don’t mention too-soft gnocchi. Mom, you better not blow it for us.)

All texture aside, the gnocchi paired wonderfully with the tomato & garlic sauce. Fresh tomatoes and many cloves of garlic blended together to create a sweet sauce with a punch¬†from my all-time¬†favorite herb (well, at least while I’m living in Italy): basil. Let’s just say this dish went over well at our table: we kept feeding my dad little serving after serving…he was the only man at the table so we made him eat up ūüėČ

Now for the cr√®me de la cr√®me: it’s¬†Chicken Aretina time!

Perhaps this dish was elevated in my mind because it contained mushrooms (and mushrooms & I are likethis), but this dish couldn’t be easier:

Chicken Aretina (Pollo all’Aretina)

  • 1/2 of a medium sized chicken
  • Flour, as needed
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 medium-sized zucchini, sliced
  • 1 cup of white mushrooms, finely sliced
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. Clean and wash the chicken. Cut into pieces and flour lightly.
  2. Cook the chicken in the butter until golden brown on all sides.
  3. Sprinkle on the wine and cook until evaporated.
  4. Add the mushrooms, garlic, zucchini, rosemary, s&p; reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered for 25 minutes.

The tender, falling-off-the-bone chicken, meaty-textured & woodsy mushrooms, and aromatic, pine-like taste of the rosemary just work together.

This guy was proud (of us). Can you tell?

By evidence of the following photograph, Silvio wasn’t the only one really enjoying this meal:

‘Twas delicious.

Last but certainly not least (such a great phrase) — tiramisu!

Does it suffice to say this bowl was licked clean? (Well, not actually licked. I couldn’t be that impolite in front of my teammates.)

If you’ve never made tiramisu, or want a quick, easy version…definitely give this one a try. It’d be fun to make for friends, with friends, for people who you want to be your friends…I think you get my point.

Tiramisu       (Makes 6 servings)

  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • Savoiardi cookies (if you can’t find these at your local grocery or Italian-specialty store, you can substitute in ladyfingers)
  • Coffee
  • Cocoa powder

Directions:

  1. Whip together some of the sugar and the egg yolks until well mixed.
  2. Beat egg whites and the remaining sugar with a mixer until firm and shiny.
  3. Add the mascarpone cheese to the sugar/egg yolk mixture.
  4. Once incorporated, gently fold your egg white mixture into the mascarpone base.
  5. Quickly (it’s important to do this quickly so the Savoiardi don’t get too soggy) dip the savoiardi cookies in the coffee to wet, being sure not to soak them. Layer the cookies and cream in small ramekins beginning with the cookie and finishing with the cream.
  6. Sprinkle the top with cocoa powder.
  7. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving.

Celebrating our successes, clearly.

We had so much fun — the tips and techniques we learned for the kitchen were invaluable, the camaraderie with our fellow cooks was both serious and light-hearted, the dishes exceeded my expectations, and Silvio was a true gem. Alas, if only the stars had been aligned for us (I kid): he mentioned to us that he had “a date with my future ex-girlfriend.” Classic, Silvio. Classic.

As the group was departing, I said goodbye. He replied, “I’ll wait for you Anna. Come back.”

“Sure,” I told him…

“If it’s free, that is.”

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Call me Lance…or Anna, whatever you prefer.

Two short days chock-full of tutoring Italian children, taking quizzes, and, let’s face it,¬†being pretending to be productive were all that separated me from another fun-filled weekend with the ‘rents. Florence, here we come!

I met my mom & dad at the¬†train station in Florence that’s central to the city, Santa Maria Novella, after an uncomfortable train¬†ride sitting beside a creepy Italian who texted out to me: “You are a very pretty girl.” Um…sorry to break it to you buddy, but you lost me with the cigarette stench that overcame the train cart the moment you stepped on.

  1. The Chow.

Before hitting “leather lane,” (the best place to get inexpensive leather handbags, belts, shoes, jewelry, but no, not whips, for you dirty-minded folks out there) we decided to stroll through an indoor food market and find something to eat. Most of the “stalls” in the market were butcher-stations, complete with large, hanging hogs and, well, other nasty things. But…we stumbed upon a stall specializing in bakery items that also featured some delicious looking paninis and slices of pizza. My mom and I each¬†selected a piece of the following:

Thin, crispy crust served as the base for warm, melting mozzarella balls; thick, juicy slices of tomato; wilted sprigs of arugula; and thin slices of fresh, flavorful prosciutto. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat Pizza Hut again…

Our dinner that night? Can you even believe we managed to find a bad restaurant in Italy? I think I deserve an award or something, because that’s gotta be pretty hard to do! In all honesty, the minute we first bit into the “fresh” bread we knew we had selected a not-so-great dining establishment for our evening meal. I have never, ever, in my 20-years-of-life ate bread that stale…and in Italy, no less! My mom took the bullet for the fam and went up to ask the waiter if we could have fresh bread, as opposed to the stale bread we had been served. The waiter came out with “fresh” bread, an uber-fake smile, and said this had just come out of the oven.

Yeah Right, signore. One bite and I knew he was channeling ‘ol Pinocchio…because he was a lyin’ man! I didn’t even take out my camera for this meal: while the spaghetti bolognese wasn’t inedible, I could have made it on my own. I don’t know about y’all, but when I go out to eat, I like to have something either a.) I’ve never tried before, b.) one of the restaurant’s specialities that I am literally head-over-heels in love with, or c.) that is something I couldn’t make at home.

Thursday morning¬†I stretched the ‘ol quads, did my regular 800 pull-ups (using the towel bar in the hotel¬†bathroom), and drank 3 glasses of pure protein powder (I kid): this was biking day!

My mom, dad, and I thought it’d be fun to do a bike tour through the Chianti classico region of Tuscany. Fortunately for us, our tour stopped midway through (after all of the uphills!) for lunch and a tour of¬†a local¬†vineyard and winery. I mean, we deserved something for all that effort, right? Right?!

My heart was a-poundin’ on that first uphill, which our hardcore (you should have seen the size of her thighs) instructor Barbara¬†so elegantly described as “a bitch.” But amazing fuel awaited me. You know what Lupe says, the show (must) go on.

The minute I sipped that first glass of Chianti classico wine, I knew all of those ginormous hills were worth it:

We were able to taste their least-expensive, table wine (of the three they make at that particular vineyard), as well as their highest quality, top-of-the-line wine. While I’ve really grown to appreciate wine while I’ve been in Italy, I can honestly say I was indifferent — both tasted great to me. (I guess that answers my friend Steph’s question…no, Steph, I haven’t turned into a wine-snob!)

The lunch’s appetizers were three small bruscetta of different varieties: one featured cannellini beans, another with a dollop of marinara sauce and meat (and a black olive that I so politely shared with my mother), the third polenta with lamb.

I had never tried polenta before (which translates into “cornmeal mush”), and while the taste and texture were something new and interesting,¬†my mom and I agreed we think we’d prefer it served warm instead of at room temperature.

Next up was a dish I’ve also never tried before, but have heard it’s a fairly common Italian dish.¬†Made up of tomatoes and day-old bread, this¬†hearty “stoup” is served at room temperature and¬†looks very¬†similar to Mario Batali’s¬†Tomato Bread Soup: Pappa al Pomodoro¬†

I know, I know…it may look like mush, but I truly enjoyed this dish. The innovative¬†texture¬†combination¬†of the tomatoes and the soggy bread was anything but disgusting (though I have a feeling it’s hard to convince you otherwise when you’re just looking at the photograph!).

Now for the main course: a piping hot bowl of medium-shell pasta al dente with generous bits of hearty meat tucked in and between the noodles, all bathed in a zesty tomato sauce:

As soon as the waiter brought out the steaming plate, I topped it with…DUH,

CHEESE.

(My mother made fun of me for taking this photo. My response? Food bloggers know no limits. That, or they have just accepted their position in society as a total weirdo and have received enough strange glances at the mere task of taking millions of close-up photos of their food that¬†they simply don’t care anymore.)

No dessert, but let me tell you — I was actually quite relieved. One more bite and I’m not sure I’d be able to get on that bike seat ūüôā

For dinner that evening (after we worked off much of that midday feast on our descent home), we took the recommendation of one of our fellow bikers. He and his family had been in Florence for only a number of days, and had been to this restaurant 4 times!

Thank you, Jim/John/Joe(?) The restaurant truly lived up to all of our expectations (because when someone tells you they’ve eaten at a restaurant 4 times in 3-something days and they’re in a foreign country known the world over for its exceptional cuisine, one can’t help but think this place better be gosh darn good).

We settled in for a nice evening out with a just-as-nice bottle of wine (we had to select a bottle of Chianti Classico after our full-day excursion into the region and tour of a c.c. vineyard!).

Cheers!

(Don’t you love my mom’s new glasses? Tr√®s chic!)

After¬†spotting the endless variety of delectable-sounding pizzas on La Bussola‘s menu,¬†I ordered one with mushrooms & good ‘ol prosciutto:

Yes, it’s completely normal to order an entire pizza for yourself while in Italy.

This clearly needs no words.

Another day, another pizza.

Friday’s pizza was enjoyed in Siena (a stunning medieval town situated atop hills nearby Florence) at an inexpensive restaurant recommended as wallet-friendly but delicious in my mom’s 900-page Italy guidebook.

This time I went sans-meat and chanelled my inner-vegetarian. One order for a veggie pizza flooding over with grilled eggplant, char-grilled zucchini, roasted peppers of both the yellow and red variety, and oodles and oodles of onion slices. YES.

¬†Oh vey. This girl’s on pizza overload.

It’s obviously not a secret this place is really that good: by the time we were leaving the restaurant, locals and tourists alike were¬†flooding in! (One positive of sticking with American eating times…no wait for a table ūüôā )

Before returning to Roma, I told my parents my Italian Professor Jim (originally from Milwaukee — woot woot!)¬†told me that we had to try ricciarelli, a Siena specialty since the 15th century. Made from combining fresh almonds, sugar, and honey, these famous almond biscuits are generously sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and shaped like the almond eyes of the Madonna of Renaissance painters.

I didn’t enjoy it one bit ūüėČ

I didn’t expect them to be so moist and chewy…argghhhhh I should have bought 20 of them to take back with me. (I spotted them at the grocery store the other day, but for some reason I doubt they’d taste as fresh.)

(P.S. You should have seen my navy blue capris after this experience. White and blue go together, no?)

Before my parents left to head back to the tropical paradise that is Wisconsin, I took them to Giolitti (my mom had never been and my dad, well, he really likes gelato…can you blame him?).

All parties involved declared the hot-spot well worth the jungle atmosphere and Ryan Air-esque mob crowding around the counter yelling out flavors like barbarians.

Our last night’s dinner together (and our only in Roma) was the perfect way to end our time together. A relaxed atmosphere, the flickering flame of¬†a candle, a bottle of wine, great conversation, and…

…LASAGNA!

Okay, it’s not the lasagna’s fault that it’s not the most photogenic meal¬†in the food world. (Remember my¬†piece in Milan?)

This lasagna far exceeded the slice in Milan taste-wise: scorching hot and full of juicy tomato sauce, this (large) boy had layer upon layer of soft noodles that teamed up with big chunks of tender beef and melting, cascading cheese.

It’s never a bad way to end with a classic, stick-to-your-ribs comfort dish…

2. Florence…through the photos.¬†¬†

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been to Florence once before, when we traveled with our vacation buddies (shout-out to the Hansons and Cheneys!) to Rome, Florence, Venice, and Paris 3 summers ago. Since we chose to do the whole museum thang then, this time around, my parents and I decided we’d explore the surrounding area more¬†—¬†Tuscany/wine country (not for any particular reason…haha), Siena — but also make time to do some shopping in Firenze/Florence. Leather is to Florence like Beer is to Wisconsin.

Our activities ranged from a full-day bike tour in the Chianti Classico region (my bike Ziggy Stardust and I got along wheel good) to a 5-hour cooking class extravaganza where we learned how to make a 4-course meal and then dined on our hard work in a lovely wine cellar. Oh, did I mentioned we got our shop on?

Simply a stunning city…

(Found a pair of kicks for my brother…not coincidentally these are both the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen and over 400 euro)

Yay for restaurants understanding living gluten free is often NOT a choice!

 

ūüôā

I have mixed feelings about this...

 

A pink label and a rooster is the sign of a true chianti classico...

 

Dedicated to my Aunt Marlene -- check out her cookie recipe on my chow page!

 

(He loves this building.)

And I Ask You: Do you ever get sick of pizza? Do you even like pizza? If so, crust & topping preferences? ūüôā

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