Monday, 16 February 2015

Rome Restaurant Review: Dar Poeta

Food and drink are two of my biggest passions in life, and one of the primary reasons I chose to study in Italy. In this world of molecular gastronomy, fusion, and food trends I find myself continuing to relate to something more simple: seasonal, wholesome, uncomplicated foods that taste great and are good for you. It resonates with me on a much deeper level. Italy appears to agree with me, as one of their cardinal rules, apparently, is to never put more than three ingredients on a pizza and everything is fresh and menus arranged according to seasonality (and local sourcing, in most cases.) 

Speaking of pizza, I'm here to point you towards what is arguably the best pizza to be found in Rome. Remember, though, that the caveat to all of this is that NAPLES has the best pizza. Rome only really discovered pizza in 1911 at the World Fair when Italians learned what other Italians were eating around the country. Suffice to say, I do prefer the pies in Naples. However, when one has a craving in Rome, the place to turn is DAR POETA in Trastevere.

About a 30 minute walk from St. John's University campus, Dar Poeta is located down a seemingly seedy narrow side street at Vicolo del Bologna 45/46--you'd walk right past it unless you were looking for it.

 Lotsa graffiti. (Pepe stops hustling for NOTHING!)

It's a small restaurant of two levels, with the larger groups being seated in the basement. They saw our loud group coming and immediately escorted us down the narrow winding stairs. Red and white checkered plastic tablecloths cover the tables (with red paper being thrown on top once you arrive) and the walls are simply decorated with quotes in Italian which I cannot read, but assume are about pizza.

The restaurant's menu is almost only pizza, though I spied maybe two or three calzones on offer and a large selection of bruschetta (of which the blue cheese and honey was my favourite) as well. Beer and wine is available, though skip the red--the white is fine. Then it's on to pizza!

The first time we went I ordered the Bufalata pizza with light red sauce, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil.

I found it highly enjoyable with the oozy fresh cheese and easily polished off the entire thing.

 Pepe smiles for nothing, not even delectable pizza. The rest of us were just impatiently waiting to get the picture taken so we could dive in.

Which we did, promptly. (Scraps is going to kill me.)

My second time around, though, I opted for their namesake pizza (the Dar Poeta, obviously) that comes with thinly sliced zucchini, garlic, spicy salsiccia (sausage) and hot peppers. The sausage is OUTRAGEOUSLY good, and while zucchini on a pizza sounds was really, really good.

This time, my new Irish friends and I opted to finish our meal with the dessert calzone--a MASSIVE beast stuffed with melty Nutella and sweet cream and topped with powdered sugar and cocoa powder. It was UNBELIEVABLY delicious and decadent--plan to share it with at least two other people. (Our group of six split it amongst ourselves!)

The cheapest pizza starts at 6.50 Euro, though the majority are 9 Euro, and while the restaurant is just about always at capacity the wait is short and I don't think reservations are needed. (I've been reliably informed that this is NOT the case during high season or summer, though.) The staff is young and friendly, and always willing to offer suggestions on where to go out afterwards. It's become a huge favourite among the gang, and probably at the top of the list where I would take visitors to Rome. Highly recommended!

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Day 23: A Cooking Class in Rome

Last week on Day 23, we had the opportunity to participate in a cooking class here in Rome in the kitchens of a company creatively titled Cooking Classes in Rome. Head chef Andrea Consoli and his right hand man Mitkos spent an enlightening and busy four hours with us, walking us through the full menu for the evening:

Chef Andrea runs the school as a "0 KM" restaurant, wherein all of the ingredients are sourced from a zero kilometer distance, a/k/a all locally produced and purchased. He also heavily focuses on seasonality for the freshest taste and most beautiful colour. Behold:

An Italian produce seasonality chart hanging in proud view in the kitchen

Our group of 25 from the school split up into two groups; half in the kitchen working on prep--like chopping tomatoes and basil and setting aside to marinate for the bruschetta (pronounced broos-KET-ta, as Chef Andrea energetically exclaimed):

I was thrilled to learn that the recipe I made up for tomato basil bruschetta years ago is *exactly* the way it's done in Italy. My recipe has been posted on my other blog, the foodie playground Lekker & Liquor.

I joined the group in the other room that was getting ready to make cavatelli pasta from scratch! Learning how to make homemade pasta in Italy was high up on my Rome Bucket List and I was thrilled to pieces to be able to learn the skill hands-on at an Italian chef's elbow. We made semolina flour pasta, which is just SO much easier than I thought! Egg pasta is typically my preference, but now that I know how to make semolina pasta from scratch and how easy it is, what excuse will I have not to?

It's literally just flour and water...

 ...kneaded until it's as soft as a baby's bottom (actual Chef Andrea terminology).

Kansas shows off his boss kneading skills as Garcia laughs in the background.

Then it comes time to break off small handfuls of the dough and roll them into long thin "snakes", which are then sliced off into small squares/rectangles and rubbed along a wooden cavatelli board to create the classic shape. The actual process of creating the shapes took some practice, but after about 10 botched attempts I got the hang of it and it felt natural and easy.

Snake production in full throttle. Photo by Graciamaria Irish.

Cavatelli rolling

And then it's off to the drying rack for these little suckers.

Time came for us to switch with the group in the kitchen, and off we went to toast bread for bruschetta...

Jordy modelling 24/7 and Richie focusing INTENTLY on rubbing the toasted bread just so with raw garlic.

Next up: meatballs! Chef Andrea set out a mixture of 1/3 beef, 1/3 pork and 1/3 veal that we dressed up with eggs, chopped parsley, torn bread soaked in milk and a smattering of cheese before it was time to BLEND, BLEND, BLEND. Let me tell you, **BEST** forearm workout you could wish for--with our classmates encouraging us on by singing "Eye of the Tiger", Jazzy J and I turned it into a bowl of smooth, tender deliciousness.

After that all you gotta do is roll it into balls ("No cracks! No lines allowed! Otherwise they fall apart! FIRM FIRM FIRM!" trumpets Chef Andrea) and dip into fine bread crumbs before they're popped into a pan of piping hot oil.

There is no explaining Kansas.

To wrap things up, it's time to assemble the bruschetta; half tomato-basil, and the other half rocket (a/k/a roquette or arugula) dressed with lemon juice and topped with stracchino cheese. Apparently I have Italian instincts, then, because for breakfast the past few weeks I've been eating fresh baguette schmeared with stracchino topped with rocket and sprinkled lightly with olive oil, lemon juice and S & P. Whaddaya know?

For those who are curious, stracchino cheese comes across a bit like a cream cheese: it comes from cows and has a soft spreadable texture and mild flavour. Chef Andrea explained that the name comes from the word "stracch" meaning "tired", because the best stracchino comes from TIRED COWS who've spent the day trekking up and down the Alps to get the best pasture. 

I love Italians.

Time to be seated and enjoy the final product of our labours!

First course: bruschetta appetizers

Second course: Cavatelli Arrabbiata. ("Arrabiata" literally means "angry" in Italian, named so for the spiciness of the chili peppers in the sauce.)

Third course: meatballs served in a white wine sauce with rosemary roasted potatoes alongside. Bar none, the best roasted potatoes I've had in my LIFE!

Oh, and last but not least...dessert. Did I fail to mention? Tiramisu, my FAVOURITE:

Chef Andrea noted that true Italian tiramisu does not use any alcohol, unlike its American counterparts. He says that alcohol is only necessary as a preservative when the cake has not been made fresh within the last 24-48 hours. Ta dah! 

All of these recipes will be re-printed on my Lekker & Liquor foodie blog with Chef Andrea's permission, so do take a look over there in the coming days if you want to re-create these classic Roman dishes for yourself.


Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.  

How to Travel to Naples from Rome

Ciao tutti!

This post is intended to be more of an informational/technical guide for study abroad students (and other basic travellers) who want to visit Naples from Rome. In case you've landed on this page from another land, you should note that I've already detailed my weekend trip there with three separate, photo-laden entries: Naples, Ercolano/Herculaneum, and Pompeii. Feel free to take a look over there if you want to read more about my actual experience; otherwise, here we go!

Disclaimer: I'm not being paid or compensated in any way by anyone for this blog post. If you found it helpful, feel free to donate to my GoFundMe page to help fund more travels around Italy so I can write more informative posts. :) 

The most cost-effective and convenient way to travel to Naples from Rome is by train, from Termini station. Termini train station is one of two available in Rome (the other is Tiburtina) and is easily accessible via the Metro. (The Rome metro has only two lines, Linea A and Linea B; Termini is on Linea A.) Metro tickets are 1.50 Euro from anywhere to anywhere, per single trip.

Our group booked our one-way departing train tickets through Trenitalia's English website for 19 Euro each a few days prior. These were the cheapest available for the time we wanted to go: 6:26 AM on a Saturday. It's perfectly possible to just show up to the station and buy your tickets from the kiosks there shortly before departure, and by doing so you may be able to get an even cheaper fare. However, we wanted the guarantee. (Most of us didn't book return tickets for the exact opposite reason--we wanted to leave the trip open ended in case we wanted to stay another night. Those who booked their return in advance paid 26 Euro; those who bought at kiosks in the Napoli Centrale station for a return train at the same time paid 11 Euro.) You can pay online on Trenitalia using a credit card.

Note: make sure to check the "strike schedules" for Trenitalia before you book--transit employees in Italy strike regularly, and you don't want to find yourself stranded. We used this site.

Try to arrive to Termini about 20 minutes before you train departs. When you're standing in the station staring up open-mouthed at the departure board trying to figure out which platform your train is leaving from, DO NOT TRY AND DIVINE THIS INFORMATION BY USING THE FINAL DESTINATION. That means don't look for trains based on "Napoli Centrale", even though that's what it might say on your ticket. Chances are, your train has another final destination. Look for the departure TIME and the TRAIN NUMBER, and go to that platform. Also listen for the departure announcements on the overhead speakers, which come in both Italian and English. Our ride on an Intercity train took about 2.5 hours with some pretty views along the way (once the sun came up).

Our accommodation of choice was the most highly-rated hostel in the city, called Hostel of the Sun. You can book directly on their website, or use Hostel World to read reviews and book through them. If you book directly through their website they'll charge you a 1 Euro reservation fee, and you pay the rest when you check out after your stay. The cheapest rooms came in at only 16 Euro per night (for an 8 bed mixed dorm), plus free breakfast and WiFi. It was a STEAL, and the staff was super friendly and helpful, assisting us with all kinds of insider information and tips for planning our sightseeing. I'd absolutely stay here again. In your booking confirmation e-mail they'll give very helpful directions on how to get to their building from the Napoli Centrale train station. This involves exiting Napoli Centrale and walking across the street to the Metro, where you will buy a metro ticket for 1 Euro from a ticket agent and travel one stop (getting off at Universita), walking a few more blocks to the hostel.

Once you're checked in, if your room isn't yet available (check in is at noon, check out at 10:30 AM)  the staff will allow you to leave your belongings in a storage closet just off the kitchen while you go exploring. Lockers with locks on them are only available in the rooms themselves, so I'd recommend you take your valuables with you or better yet, don't bring them to Naples at all. Since we were a large group, most of us locked up our individual bags with combination locks on the zippers and then used a bike lock to string all 9 bags together. There was no reason to expect that anything would go missing in the hostel; this is just good standard behaviour.

During our stay in Naples we ate at three different restaurants, only two of which I will recommend. The first is the famous L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele--yes, the same one in Eat, Pray, Love.

The second place that I'd recommend, even more so than Da Michele, is a nice place right next to the Universita metro stop called Il Pomodorino. Best pizza on the PLANET. For a more in-depth review of our experiences stuffing our faces at both restaurants, check out my Naples post.

 Pizza at Il Pomodorino

Since you're doing your research for this trip, you might have also found out that Napoli is known for coffee just as much as it is pizza. We stumbled onto Caffe Ciorfito where I enjoyed the best cappuccino I've had in my entire life--and believe me, I've drunk a LOT of coffee.

If coffee is not your thing but you still need to satisfy a sweet tooth, grab a "baba" (pronounced bah-BAH) from any coffee shop or bakery. It's basically a white cake (close to Angel Food cake) soaked in rum. It's delicious. 

To get to Mount Vesuvius (and Herculaneum, called "Ercolano" in Italian, and Pompeii itself) you have to take a specific train called the Circumvesuviana that leaves from the main Napoli Centrale train station. Follow the signs in the train station to the ticket office, and make sure you speak to an actual ticket agent to confirm you're buying the right tickets. Typically it's cheaper to buy just a one way ticket and buy your return later. I believe we paid 2.50 Euro to get to Ercolano, which is the same stop you get off at for Mt. Vesuvius. Keep a sharp eye on your pockets and purses on the train--there are pickpockets watching.

So, you want to hike up Mount Vesuvius? Good luck. The summit is only open when the weather is fine, which it was not for our visit. It costs 8 Euro to get in and hike the 30 minutes to the crater. Regrettably, as I mentioned it wasn't open and so we couldn't have the full experience. However, we had elected to hire a taxi company just outside the Ercolano train station (as you exit the station, turn left and you'll see the office at the end of the courtyard; otherwise there are usually drivers standing around right outside the exit waiting to entice visitors) to drive us up the mountain as far as we could go, for 10 Euro a head roundtrip. It was a 20 minute winding drive and interesting with some nice views, but I definitely wouldn't do it again for the price. How to avoid that disappointment? ASK THE TAXI DRIVER IF THE SUMMIT IS OPEN BEFORE YOU COMMIT. If it's open, they'll say so, because then they're basically ensured your business. If it's not open, they will waffle about not knowing, not being sure, not being able to guarantee, etc, etc. Don't fall for it (like I did). You can see photos of the view from the top in my Ercolano post and save yourself the 10 Euro.

Did you know that most museums and archeological sites in Italy are free to enter on the first Sunday of every month? Yup! So if you can arrange your visit around then, great. Otherwise, it's a 20 Euro combination ticket to get into both Ercolano AND Pompeii, along with a few other smaller sites I believe. (If I'm remembering correctly it's 11 or 12 Euro to enter just the one or the other separately.) Tickets are available for purchase at the entrance. You can walk to the entrance gate of Ercolano from the train station, though we struck a deal with our erstwhile Vesuvius cab driver to take us directly there from Vesuvius and then onwards to Pompeii for an extra 5 Euro a head because were were running out of daylight. I would suggest that you spring for the audio guide to Ercolano; we didn't, and wished we had. Make sure to take advantage of the fact that you can explore inside the buildings themselves; you'll see the most beautiful frescoes and mosaics that way. (Photos to entice you found here!)

Pompeii and Ercolano are not right next to each other; you'll have to either take a cab or hop back onto the Circumvesuviana to get there. Make sure to grab a map at the ticket office because the place is huge, and download the free 19 minute Rick Steves Audio Europe tour on your phone before you go to save on an audio guide. Photos and more information about our experience exploring Pompeii found here.

And that about wraps it up, ragazzi! If you have any questions, leave it in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. Ciao!

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Day 19: Part 3: Pompeii

Continued from Part 2, found here.

So where we last left off, we had just finished exploring the majority of Ercolano (Herculaneum), though not as much as I think some of us would have wishes. As we were leaving, we noticed an entire lower level (complete with what appeared to be human bones of some kind--casts of those petrified by lava??) that we had completely missed. If I ever get a chance to go back, I'll be making a beeline for that. BUT! Due to time, it was off to Pompeii we rushed, in the taxi cab that had driven us to the top of Mount Vesuvius and whose shrewd driver had noticed our concern for time and struck a deal with us.

He dropped us off right in front of the entrance and we climbed the long winding path to the entrance. Once glance at Richie's map of the place told me it was MUCH bigger than Ercolano, but after a few minutes of making our way around I realised that Ercolano was definitely my favourite by far and away, for two reasons: 1) the individual ruins of Pompeii are largely roped off/gated from visitors, which allows you to peek in but not explore in the interactive manner we so enjoyed in Ercolano; and 2) there is precious little of the artwork/mosaics/frescos/columns/marblework left to marvel at.

Pompeii, as noted in an earlier entry, is much larger than Ercolano--a true metropolis. It seemed fairly well organized, with large intersecting city streets, an amphitheater, and varying class levels of houses, slaves, and houses of worship.

Some of the gang outside the entrance (through that arch behind us.)

An example of how the majority of the ruins are gated off--and giving a shout out to my GoFundMe sponsors Caylee & the Brindley family!

Well preserved, but again, roped off to exploration. I would have liked to go meandering around here.

A panorama of the Forum of Pompeii--traditionally, forums were the "public square" lined with judicial buildings, law enforcement, offices, temples, and market stalls. Much like the Roman Forum here in Rome it's largely in ruins so you have to rely heavily on your imagination to see what would have been.

The first and really only interesting bit of tile work we found in Pompeii. (We've had a lot of rain recently, conveniently making the fountains much more realistic!)

Three of the bellas (from left to right, me, Marshmallow, and Scraps), standing atop what would have functioned as a crosswalk--since there was often waste mucking up the deep streets. The two grooves in the middle are so that the chariot wheels could get through.

It is SO much fun having willing models that will allow me to direct them into super rad pics like this one: Abbey Road, a la Pompeii. (From left to right: Marshmallow, Richie Rich, Scraps, and Jordy.)

Some of our tour was enriched by the free 19 minute Rick Steves audio tour of Pompeii, downloaded through his Audio Europe app the night before.

It was right around this time that the gray skies finally overcame us...and we got HAILED ON in Pompeii. Totally random and totally cool cold.

Inside that case is a plaster cast of a dog, caught in the lava flow. You can see the body painfully twisted into a yelping, escaping position. I found it quite strange that these famous plaster casts were stored in a seemingly haphazard way, under a corrugated overhang and behind a chain link fence just off to the side of the forum.

And here is the famous, classic cast that everyone recognizes from Pompeii--a man, crouched down and shielding his face from the oncoming volcanic ash. When the lava came down, it oozed over these dead bodies (who fell where they were at the primary pyroclastic blast) perfectly preserving them. In the intervening years before discovery, the bodies and bones disintegrated into nothing. When the archeologists found them, they poured plaster into the moulds left behind--and this is what they wound up with.

On our way out, heading back to Naples to catch the train home!

As many carbs as we eat on the daily, all the walking offsets at least some of it--nearly 10 miles in a day after all was said and done.

We hopped on the train back to Naples, and from there had a quick last dinner before departing for Napoli Centrale to head back to Rome. It was two incredibly long days, but so worth it. My final impression of Naples is that it really is a dirty, messy city. The locals there don't seem to care very much about their city. BUT, the food is absolutely out of this world, even better than what people said it would be. As for the "danger" aspect I was so frequently warned about, I didn't feel it. I didn't feel any more at-risk in Naples than I do in Rome, which isn't much. Perhaps this is because we travelled in a large group, or we were more prepared/safe--or maybe the city just isn't as dangerous as it used to be. There was *one* moment on the train from Naples to Ercolano where a man was standing entirely too close to us and giving off a decidedly predatory energy as he slowly scoped us all out, head to toe, one by one (clearly looking for loose purses, iPhones foolishly stashed in easy-to-pick back pockets, etc.). It made me nervous and several of the others picked up on it as well. Fortunately, Kansas is not easily intimidated by such things and levelled unwavering eye contact with the man consistently, making clear that his advances were NOT going unnoticed. He got off at the next stop.

Up Next: a condensed how-to guide for travelling to Naples from Rome, for future study abroad students. Until then, ciao.

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Day 19: Naples, Part 2: Ercolano

Continued from Part 1, found here.

Sunday morning found us all racked out in our respective bunk beds (I sleeping especially soundly on the top bunk, with Garcia as a quiet, immobile bunk buddy below me and a blessed lack of snorers in the room!), roused earlier than expected by the ever impatient and insomniac Jordy.

After feasting on another breakfast of Nutella with a side of toast, we hopped onto the Metro and then to the train that would take us up to Mount Vesuvius, I being the stubborn one wanting to hike to the top of it. (Having hiked an active volcano in Guatemala some years ago, I can attest that both the view and the thrill of volcanoes is decidedly addictive.) Upon arrival at the station we found the taxi cab company that was recommended to us, that for 10 Euro a head would take us up the mountain and back. We had been warned by previous groups that the final leg, the actual National Park, was intermittently closed due to the foul weather. The taxi driver said he could not guarantee if it would be open or not. I, being the ever-optimist, hoped and believed in the sunshine outside currently keeping the rainclouds at bay and that the summit would be open, allowing us to hike the final 30 minutes to the crater on top. The rest of my group, it would seem, KNEW that the summit would be closed, for if it had been open the taxi driver would have said so willingly.

I remained in stubborn ignorance of this fact, and the rest of the troupe claimed they'd want to take the ride up to the top regardless. After a 20-minute dizzying ride along tiny wet roads with stunning views of the city of Naples and the bay below us we arrived at the entrance to the summit--only to find it CLOSED, due to the freezing temperatures and whipping wind. :(

View down the side of the mountain from the entrance to the National Park. That gray stuff slithering down the hill is the old lava from the last blast; in the distance, the city of Naples around the bay.

Those mountains there mark the edges of the original crater.

All's well, though, I suppose, because the view really was incredible and we were able to see the actual original crater of the blast that downed Pompeii and Ercolano--a huge, vast oval in which the current crater and park now sits. One can still see the lava that flowed down the mountainside during the last eruption in 1944. At any rate, we took a few pictures and then enthusiastiaclly climbed back into the van with frozen fingers and numb lips. It wouldn't have been an enjoyable climb to the top, that's for sure.

Where I Stand: as close to "atop Mount Vesuvius" as we could get, amid reddish-orange volcanic gravel.

As the day wore on, being eaten up by travel time, we decided we would make a dash to BOTH the archeological sites we were interested in: Ercolano (Herculaneum, in English) in the town we were already in, and Pompeii, a quick ride away. Ercolano had come highly recommended to me by multiple sources, saying that while it was the smaller of the two, it was vastly more well-preserved and prettier.

They were right! Ercolano was a small beachside town for the wealthy, and was actually the first of the two towns destroyed. (We learned the majority of this in a BBC docudrama watched a few days prior in my room called simply Pompeii: The Last Day--you can find it on Netflix and YouTube.) By my rough estimate it's about one-fifth the size of Pompeii, but was sparsely populated by tourists even on a free day, and was deliciously unfettered by gates and ropes keeping us out of the ruins. Garcia, Marshmallow, Kansas, Richie and I found ourselves as little children being permitted to run wild in an amusement park. A historical amusement park, making us feel transported in time and bringing ancient history to life in a way I have never experienced.

As I mentioned, many of the houses and ruins are open for exploration, and the sight of one fresco on one of the walls ignited a "treasure hunt" feel amongst us as we competed to find the most beautiful, the most well preserved. When you step back and think about the fact that you're looking at a nearly 2,000 year-old mosaic, or fresco, just sitting there right in front of you--suddenly the rest of the scene comes to life. To say it was stunning is an understatement, and that 1.5 hours was the highlight of the Naples trip for me.

A panorama of the ruins of Ercolano. It begins at the wall on the far right, and extends down only a short way to the retaining wall on the bottom along the left.

Where I Stand: on 2,000 year old marble ruins, entrance to a doorway.

No big deal...just a 2,000 year old painting of a bird eating cherries on a wall...

Mosaic--not painted. Mosaic. Wee, tiny stones.

We were consistently surprised that we were allowed to walk on the original mosaic tile floors, where the ancients trod, just so lah-dee-dah!

This was one of the best preserved art pieces we found, absolutely beautiful. The two sides separated and shown in more detail below.

May we interest you in something from the snack bar? Yes, in fact--according to Rick Steves, these corner buildings, which we suspected had something to do with cooking based on the stovetop-like design with pots underneath to hold burning coals--were snack bars. Buon appetito indeed.

My highly active imagination nearly spied a gladiator rushing around the corner of that courtyard, to training.


Ancient Roman selfie before departing Ercolano for Pompeii!

Part 3, detailing Pompeii, coming soon!

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.