In Rome With Miss Expatria – Monday Morning Coffee Stories

Gentlest reader Jeremy’s first trip to Europe was to visit me in Rome in the spring of 2004. He is now spoiled for life, as you will read below. Jeremy is a union man, a grip in the film industry, a musician, an artist and, at 2.30 in the morning in a dive bar in Brooklyn, the devil.

Read his observations, and a LOT of food descriptions, below. I know it’s only Monday morning, but you might want to start to think about lunch – and dinner.

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C wakes me up and we make our grocery list and head down to the supermarket. We pick up a ton of stuff. The cheese aisle in the supermarket makes me want to pass out, as does the wine aisle. Yeah, there’s a wine aisle – just like there ought to be. We buy six bottles of vino rosso and lots of other goodies.

After the supermarket we have a leisurely breakfast of: fresh pecorino romano and gorgonzola cheeses, hard salami, fresh bread and red wine. It’s 1pm. That rocks.

I then venture a bit further into Rome than the day before and just wander for hours. It’s totally cool. I see the Pantheon. Holy crap. How the hell did they build that thing? Unreal. I take a lot more photographs, have a beer at a pub and have the most delicious cappuccino flavored gelato I’ve ever tasted. I also learn the difference between how to say “good evening,” and “have a good evening.” I feel smart.

Had one of the best cappuccinos of my entire life at the TRAIN STATION of all places! I could’ve had a gallon of them.

Then, it’s off to Giovanni’s for dinner and an Italian TV show called Music Farm.

Music Farm is hilarious. It’s like Survivor crossed with American Idol starring a panel of Italian pop music has-beens. They all perform super melodramatic songs – poorly. The host takes comments from the guest panel – which includes people who have already been kicked off the show as well as other contestants parents, girlfriends, dogs, etc. It’s amazingly bad, and funny. The gay mafia assembled at Giovanni’s all sing along, yell insults at the TV, give singers the finger, classic. Afterwards we finish off all of the wine and then watch our favorite parts of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You heard me.

Notes on Italian Music:

Ana Oxa – Vincenzo loves her. No one else does.

Loredana Berte – Everyone likes her because she’s a total bitch with balls of steel who dresses like Mohammad Ali.

Giorgia – Christine loves her. We all hate her – especially me and Vincenzo.

Scisma – We all think they are cool as can be.

Any male vocalist – We all pretty much hate all of them.

Everyone sleeps in on Saturday. While C gets ready I go next door and have some coffees and catch up the journal. I return to Marco cooking up ingredients for one (!) of tonight’s pasta dishes, which smells so good I think I might pass out.

After MUCH procrastination C and I go to what she describes as the “Dinkins-era NYC grocery.” She seems to be dead-on. Our shopping list: five bottles of wine, two bottles of milk. Yeah.

O.K., dinner:

Gio brings some appetizers – cheese in a spicy jelly sauce, an egg fritatta cut into small pieces, baby octopus marinated in whiskey, onion and garlic. Yeah, you read that right.

Vin brings marinated mushrooms that his mother grows, picks, prepares and preserves at her country house in southern Italy. They are unbelievable. Vin smiles and giggles, happy that we all like them so much.

Then it’s time to eat what Marco has been preparing all day. Two pasta dishes: The first is a baked macaroni with mozzarella, gorgonzola and parmesan cheese! The second is penne in a béchamel cream sauce with baby zucchini, mushrooms, etc. Both are unreal and sinful.

Then, out come the pastries that C and I bought that afternoon. The one I choose is called a chocolate ‘bomb’ which is so rich and delicious that I almost pass out. Note: chocolate + red wine = perfect combo.

After all of the pastries have been devoured Viola brings out a gigantic cold pastry dessert that she made for us. It’s a chocolate and ricotta mixture surrounded by lady fingers soaked in Amaretto. Are you kidding me? Though we can barely sit up straight, let alone form sentences, from being so full – we dig in. Viola is disappointed in it. We are NOT.

Jeremy Party Happiness, the following evening:

Vincenzo lives right on what (1000’s of years ago) was the Roman Aqueduct in an apartment that C refers to as a “total pile.” We arrive to kisses all around. I am immediately handed a glass of wine and we go sit on the terrace. The table is all set up and looks great. We then sit down for appetizers: rolled crepes with spinach inside and cheese on top. Also, marinated green tomatoes that V’s mom jarred ! Amazing – tangy goodness with breadsticks on the side. We also drink wine that his mom MADE!

Then, Vin (who wears his apron all night) brings out the first course: pasta (that he made from scratch) with meat sauce. Earlier he had shown me a table covered in home-made pasta that he had prepared that day just for the party. The pasta totally kills, and Vin jokes that he is serving “American portions” in my honor.

We sit and catch our breath for a few minutes and then V brings out plates of roasted veggies surrounded by little meatballs made from his mom’s recipe. Not surprisingly, they are as delish as everything else. 3/4 of the way through the meat course I need to rest. I then rally, and finish them off. I comment that I am hallucinating from eating so much.

After what seems like a very short break, V brings out a dessert cake that you can smell from like six feet away! We groan, but dig in. It’s a moist white custard-filled cake with chocolate on top and it RULES. Afterwards I feel that I may expire, but don’t seem to care.

Just when you think it’s over, V (still donning his apron) brings out a plate of hunks of dark chocolate and a bottle of after dinner liquor. Giovanni pours out cups for all of us and without asking or thinking, C and I dig in. The stuff is so strong that it about stops both of our hearts! We both cough and laugh, and everyone begins razzing us for being wimps. We then pour both of cups into Gio’s glass and he gulps it down for the rest of the night. That guy is tough.

Next night: I head down to Marco’s shop and meet C. We go to the seafood place near her old neighborhood in a place that everyone refers to as “piazza del dogshit.” It’s full of gigantic old mansions that are amazing and beautiful. The restaurant is really cool and packed with nicely dressed older folks. And us.

We start with spaghetti with cockles in olive oil – EXCELLENT! We are drinking white wine tonight because you’re not allowed to drink red with seafood. No cheese either! The food rules are pretty serious, and you could seriously offend someone by doing the wrong thing. C orders me the mixed seafood plate for secondi, she has calamari and prawns.

My plate consists of: calamari, prawns, 2 small grey fish, 1 small, flat white fish and 1 small red fish – all with heads still attached. We don’t what they are, but they are all delicious, as are the prawns. Salty, buttery and totally great.

The best of the night however are the calamari! Soooooo fresh, and cooked absolutely perfectly. EASILY the best I’ve EVER EVER had. We agree, they are unbelievable. We joke about ordering another plate of them. Then, we order another plate of them. Oh yeah.

Venice:

For the first hour or so of the day it rains off and on. Each time it starts, we duck in somewhere. We go to this little wine bar that C knows and have Prosecco – a dry, sparkling white wine that is absolutely delicious! I had never had it or heard of it, but I really like it. All white wine should be like this. The rain persists and we hang out under and overpass and watch the little old men with their umbrellas. We then decide to give up and go to lunch early to stay out of the rain. Hopefully it will pass by the afternoon.

So, we go to Cucina Casalinga and take a table under the awning so we can still be outside. We have a fish appetizer that’s a lot like sardines and is crispy and delish. C has pasta in a black ink and cuddle fish sauce which is totally rich and amazing. I get the seafood platter which consists of fried prawns and calamari. The calamari is great, but the prawns are absolutely ridiculous. We pass out numerous times while sharing these delicacies. They are so good in fact that, once again, we order up another plate of them along with another carafe of vino rosso.

So, lunch lasts for well over 2 hours – such luxury, this is how it should be. Plus, our evil plan has worked perfectly, and the sun is now shining brightly. We still plenty of time so we decide to wander more. More photos, more photos. Venice is so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it’s real.

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The Cost of Things in (My) Europe

This article proposes the unthinkable – skipping a trip to Venice because of the decline of the U.S. dollar.

My advice, in a word? DON’T. Venice is just too amazing to pass up.

But, this article got me thinking about the cost of being in Europe, whether on vacation or living here. As I mentioned in a previous post, it now costs roughly double for me to live here as it did when I first moved here five years ago.

(Aside: HOLY CRAP HAS IT BEEN FIVE YEARS? I love me.)

But, it all depends on where you are and what you’re doing there. For example, Cal’s daily vices – a pack of Gauloises and one extremely dry martini – now cost as much here in Montpel as they would in New York. But, going to the doctor and prescription drugs costs much, much less than in New York. So do most foods, with the notable exception of Old El Paso enchiladas, which are fancy exported items and therefore a rare treat.

When I’m in Rome, I can still get a pack of Fortunas, a bus ticket and a piece of pizza for under $8. And I drink house wines, so I rarely spend more than $4 a glass (or, from the supermarket, $4 a BOTTLE).

My point is, it can be expensive or cheap to be anywhere, at any time – it all depends on how you choose to spend your money.

Cal likes his daily martini because for years, he couldn’t find one in this town and used to have to go to the Hard Rock in Barcelona to get one. When we move to Italy, he’ll revel in a Peroni at the end of the day, which is distinctly cheaper. Our cigarettes will be cheaper. Our food, while not that bad here, will be MUCH cheaper. But, our rent will be higher.

The same thing can be said for vacations. If you don’t have a bunch of money to throw around on vacation in Venice, don’t! You can buy a 3-day boat pass for less than the cost of one gondola ride. You can feast on cicchetti for cheap or even free during cocktail hours. You can order a carafe of house wine instead of a fraction of the cost of a bottle from the menu. You can do any one of a thousand things that will still make your trip an adventure without feeling like you’ve skimped at all.

Island Fantasies – Or, Ideas for That Year-End Bonus

Cal and I work at opposite ends of the house, although if we sit just the right way and squint, we can see each other. Our cat, Ladybird “Squirt” Johnson, like a child of divorced parents, shuttles herself back and forth all day between the sofa next to Cal’s desk and the chair next to mine.

If something on the Internets catches our interest, we often yell to each other to come take a look. (And sometimes, we IM each other. While we’re in the same house. And able to see each other. Yes, yes we do.) Today, it was this story from Gawker, about a story in the Post, about a Russian man who decided he did not, sadly, want a $150 million apartment in New York.

My first comment was that if I had that much money to spend on somewhere to live, it sure as hell wouldn’t be in a building with other people around. I’d buy my own island, I said.

And then, lo and behold, not 14 minutes later, I received an email from gentlest reader and left-coast supermom, Sandra. As if she had heard my declaration. Or misheard it, rather – because what she sent to me made me absolutely drool:

If you and the gay mafia get bored one day, you could pose as rich investors and go tour some islands for sale, she said. (These are not for the faint of heart, I assure you.)

This one, quite frankly, looks just how an island should look – complete with crazy feudal castle from which to give proclamations, edicts, and the rare beheading.

This one has its own freaking vineyard – or, as my friend Sheila puts it, “fields of alcohol.” I believe there is nothing more to be said about this one, as private island + Venice + vineyard = yes, please!

This one costs less than what my aunt just paid to have a house built in New Jersey, about 16 feet away from another house.

This beauty costs slightly more than the average New York City apartment. And we all know how spacious they can be.

Now that you’re sufficiently absorbed in your own island fantasies, let’s take it up another notch – and look at ISLANDS FOR RENT.

This tasty morsel of earth and sky costs less to rent – per week – than dinner for two in New York.

This one costs less per week than an iPhone. And I bet your iPhone doesn’t have Happy Hour every evening from 5pm at the Wreck Bar, now, does it.

I could go on and on. My point, gentle readers, is that one needs to open one’s horizons – literally – and consider island life. Divest yourself of your McMansion or tiny studio apartment – and get yourself an island.

Discount Airlines in Europe

Does everyone know about wikitravel?

I’m sure everyone does, but I feel like it’s my own little secret. It’s basically wikipedia, but for traveling. I really love it and find it immensely useful, but the thing I don’t love is that there is not a specific section describing the gay community in its city descriptions. (Someone has to look out for my gay mafia. They didn’t elect me doyenne and head muse for nothing.)

Anyway, they have travel topics as well as guides, and an excellent example of the former is called Discount Airlines in Europe. There are just SO MANY WAYS to get around Europe these days, and this page is a huge help in sorting all of your options.

Sometimes it can be impossible to divine which airline can serve you, and you don’t want to miss out on a spectacular flight deal (as in, FREE – you just pay the taxes) (yes, really) just because you didn’t know a certain airline flies to your desired location.

I have a secret for this. Ready?

For whichever city I am interested in, I go to that city’s airport’s website. (If it’s in a different language that you can’t figure out at all, pop the page into a translator.) Smaller airports can actually have the day’s flight schedule on their sites, and you can see which airlines use the airport – or even find the exact flight you’re looking for! Large airports usually have a page on their website that simply list all the airlines they host, with links to their pages.

When you’re looking for flights, start checking on RETURN flights first – on almost all of the discount airlines’ websites, when you type in your departure city, the drop down menu changes to show ONLY the cities that you can get to from there. Seeing a list of exactly how you can get to your destination might reveal an alternate city you hadn’t thought of before.

Hypothetical example #1: Let’s say I wanted a getaway weekend, but I had no idea where I wanted to go. The first thing I’d do is go to my local airport’s web page and check out where I can get to. Once I saw a flight I liked, I’d go to that airline’s website to book it.

Hypothetical example #2: Let’s say I wanted to go to Venice. (I always want to go to Venice, but let’s say I actually was planning a trip.) I’d go to Venice’s airport’s website and see what flights are on schedule there, and check if any of the cities are near me.

Hypothetical example #3: I could also go to a discount airline’s website and find their route map, then slide my mouse over Venice and see what cities are connected to it.

Phew. I hope that was not too confusing!

Where to Eat in Venice

Venice is my favorite place on earth. However, there are very limited food options around the places where you’re most likely to want to eat. The best thing by FAR is to go cicchetti hopping – cicchetti is Venice’s version of the Spanish tapas, and you will find the most amazing places here (if you listen to me!). Invest in a really detailed map that has all the street names. About 24 percent of them will be wrong, and I promise you, you will get lost; but it is the best time you will ever have.

— As for other actual meals in Venice, the Campo Santa Margherita area is a solid bet, or up near Ca’ D’Oro.

–Take the Grand Canal boat ride on the public boat – both at night and in the daytime – so so so worth it and not as terrifying, expensive or cheesy as the gondolas.

Harry’s Bar at Hotel Cipriani – If you are a Hemingway fan, you have to go there and have an overpriced Bellini – they were invented here and worth every centesimo. It’s on the water right between the S. Marco and S. Zaccharia stops on the ACTV boat. Sit or stand at the bar, don’t go to the tables. The tables are lame.

Vino Vino – San Marco 2007/A (between Teatro La Fenice and via XXII Marzo) 041 2417688 This place is an awesome, cheap wine bar and “tavola calda” (literally, hot table) with yummy prepared foods. Just pick your wine, point to what you want and they heat it up and bring it to you. Also, they are open continuously – so it’s a good place to go and snack if you are hungry at a weird time.

If you ask really nicely, they will also sell you a bottle of wine, open it for you, and give you two plastic cups to go. (Not that I have ever done that.)

Alla Vedova – Cannaregio, 3912-3952 at Ca’ D’Oro 041 5285324 This place is at the end of a tiny steet facing you as you walk down it. Such amazing tiny little yummy foods, tons of seafood, and they also have actual meals. Get there close to 6ish if you want to see a bunch of old men have their cocktails, or later for a more stylish crowd.

(Note: I know that link above is to Fodor’s, which automatically turns off many of Miss Expatria’s gentle readers. But I’ve noticed form my own experience that in general, people don’t really stray too far from Piazza San Marco, for whatever reason. Start walking away from that area and all of a sudden you’ll feel the difference; it’s bizarre. I ate at Alla Vedova with my friend Ben, and the place was packed – but the only non-Venetian voices I heard were ours and 2 tiny Japanese girls who were literally trembling with foodie excitement.)

–OK, this is an awesome place for early afternoon, like if you are going to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Now bear with me on this because in the traditional Venice style, I don’t know the name of it but I can tell you how to get there.

Cross the Accademia bridge (awesome bridge, wooden; on your way over, stop halfway, turn left, gasp, take a picture) and go to the RIGHT of the Accademia museum. Follow that street down to the end (it curves to the right and should become Calle de Nani). At this point, you should hit a canal. Make a left and that should be Fondamenta Nani. Stay on the near side of the canal and follow it down towards more open water in front of you. At some point on the other side of the canal you should see a single-family, wooden, dark brown home with a second story porch, with boats in the yard, it’s a boat builder’s house. If you can distract yourself from the utter beauty and Italian-ness of this guy and his house, next to you on your left should be a wine shop. The wines are on the left, the bar is on the right, with the food is behind glass in the front part of the bar.

This picture should be what you see as you’re walking down Fondamenta Nani – the boathouse would be out of frame on the right of this picture, and judging from this photo, the place I am talking about is about 100 yards behind you.

There are two kinds of things to eat here: Cicchetti at 1 Euro a piece, and hand-cut meat sandwiches on fresh bread. The old lady makes everything, the old man tends bar and their devastatingly handsome son is the sommelier – if you want to buy Italian wine this is the place to do it, he speaks lovely English and is very helpful and SO HANDSOME.

Anyway, I know these directions are sketchy but I assure you it is so worth the trip. This is one of my top five food experiences in all of Europe. When you find it, can you PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IT IS CALLED or get a business card or something???

Check back for the next post, when Miss Expatria teaches you how to sound like a native when attempting to speak Italian!

Where to Eat in Italy – Miss Expatria Reveals (Almost) All

Roughly twice a year, my mother asks me to forward an email I wrote containing highly guarded information to someone we know who is going to Rome or Venice and wants to know where to eat.

Tomorrow is Rome. The next day will be Venice. Florence I don’t love, and I’ve only been to a horrible dinner there and a really good chi-chi ridiculously expensive dinner I didn’t pay for, so I really can’t recommend anything in that city.

Today, however, we will talk about some general tips for the eater:

In general in Italy, there is a kind of eating schedule, which you should follow if you want to eat well. For breakfast, grab a pastry and a coffee standing up at a bar in the morning; lunch is between 1PM and 3PM; and DO NOT GO TO DINNER BEFORE 8PM. Seriously. You will have better food and better service if you go later, I beg you. And take your time eating, because the staff will sure as hell take their time waiting on you. You do not have to leave until you want to, and you MUST ask for the check because they will not give it to you. Also, do not get frustrated if the first three things you order are not available – Italians believe in serving what’s fresh and it is a good sign if the place has run out of a lot of stuff.

Your body might be a little whacked from jet lag, but you really shouldn’t deviate from this schedule if you can help it. If you’re hungry at odd times, have a gelato or something.

You should try spaghetti carbonara once while you are in Rome, preferably at Taverna Romana (see tomorrow’s post). Do not have it anywhere else in the world, or even in Italy, because they make it wrong.

If you are going to the Vatican and the Vatican museums in Rome, DO NOT PLAN ANYTHING ELSE FOR THE REST OF THE DAY but eating, drinking and sleeping. It’s overwhelming. Go to a bakery in late morning, get white pizza and carb up. Get there around noon (when all the lame tour groups leave and go to lunch), spend all afternoon in there, go get more pizza by the slice and take a nap, then eat a huge dinner. (Not that I have done that or anything.)

A note about water fountains: there are running spigots all over Rome, on corners, at curbs, and in piazzas. You can drink out of any of them. If you want to drink out of it and not fill up a water bottle, here is the trick to looking cool and not getting soaking wet: stick your finger in the spigot hole. it will force the water to come shooting up through another, tinier hole halfway up the pipe, and it acts exactly as a water fountain.

A note about being a germ freak about the water fountains: don’t be. Dogs drink from them, old ladies fill up pots from them, and people stick their heads under them on particularly hot days. It’s still fresh spring water. If you’re a germaphobe, just don’t use them – but don’t be that tourist who tsks when someone lets Fido get his drink on.

OK, enough for today. Check back in tomorrow, when we discuss ROMA!