Thursday, June 30, 2011

Coming Back Around

The Buddhists claim that life is cyclical, and my life for sure does not move in a straight line. After three months in Rome, I have found myself back in the Baltimore-D.C. area for an undetermined period of time. So, in the meanwhile, I thought, why not pick up where I left off on my D.C. list?

Giant Anteater!

I have been wanting to visit the Giant Anteater at the Zoo since he was a baby on his mother's back. I missed those first months of his life, but at least I got to see him (Pablo) in person and not just through the National Zoo's e-newsletter updates. This awkward but adorable creature is a joy to see up close!

Pablo is one sociable anteater!

Brookside Gardens

This botanical garden in Wheaton, Maryland is only a short drive away and, like many sights in D.C., these gardens are free and are lovely for a mid-summer amble.

These geese are likely used to being fed by humans
so they were coming for me!

Hollywood East Cafe

While out in Wheaton, I went for dim sum with a friend. Though Hollywood East was not on my original list, I am adding it because this place is definitely worth the drive. The shrimp and chive dumplings were amazing, as were the baked custard dumplings for dessert. Double yum.


Hot custard!
You can't always plan or dictate where you will be in life, so why not make the most of where you are by eating dumplings and visiting with friends... or anteaters.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Top 10 Reasons I should be sent back to Italy

10. Enthusiasm: For living like a tourist, what better city is there than Rome? There is so much I have yet to do!

Throwing a coin in the Fontana di Trevi for at least the 20th time
9. Language: I am one of the 1% of the world that speaks Italian. According to Eurobarometer and Wikipedia, there are 65 million Italian speakers in the EU, in addition to 20 million in the rest of the world who speak Italian as a second language. Divided by the current World Bank global population figure,  (6,775,235,700) this means I am within the 1% of that can communicate (albeit with flaws) with the people of Italy in their own language.

8. Oenophile: I help the wine industry.

7. Filling Out its Churches: Despite 87% of Italians designating Catholicism as their religion, only 36% consider themselves practicing and only 30% regularly attend mass. With Rome's 300+ churches, attendance can look pretty scarce. I help the churches boost their numbers.

6. Soft spot for animals: I give love to Rome's many wayward cats.

5. Off the Road: I don't drive in Rome so I help keep the carbon emissions down. (With the added bonus that I haven't killed any pedestrians this way either.)

A car parked literally in the middle of a four way intersection.

4. Marketing: I am happily marketing Italy's various agricultural products without compensation.

3. Loyalty: I have lived in Italy, on and off, for a total of almost five years. This is despite the fact that I have had:

  • food poisoning here more times than in any other city, 
  • water dumped on my head from the bucket of an unconcerned lady on a balcony over a busy shopping street, 
  • a psycho landlady that would take over the apartment on weekends, complete with husband, kids, friends and a dog,
  • a 500+ euro surgery bill because of my cat's urinary system not dealing well with the amount of calcium in the water,
  • an allergy to tiger mosquito bites that show up on every part of my body, every day and that have on separate occasions made my arm, lip and eye swell up Quasimodo-style,  
  • the stomach flu twice, 
  • and now recently a reaction to mysterious bug bites that I attribute to romping around a sunflower field in Tuscany. 
BUT I keep coming back. I am loyal.

2. Fending off delusions: When I am not in Italy, I pretend I am anyway.

1. Love: I have friends and family all over the world and Italy is no different. But I have amazing set of friends, not to mention one of the boy-variety, here. So I believe that should count for something.

That's my case. Thank you for your attention God, Saint Peter, fate, karma or whatever department is in charge of these things.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rome's Alternate Ego

I felt like doing something different today, and it doesn't get much more different from Rome than to go to EUR. EUR stands for Esposizione Universale Roma and it was meant to be the site of Benito Mussolini's 1942 World's Fair, celebrating 20 years of Fascism. Yet, because of World War II, the fair never happened. 

Rome is to EUR as Curvy is to Straight, Chaos is to Order, Irreverent is to Regulated. 

Walking around EUR with sidewalks that are used for walking and not for motorini, parking, dog poop, restaurant terraces and everything else Roman sidewalks are used for, it really feels as if you have left the capital if not Italy itself. The nice green parks, the clean streets and almost graffiti-free buildings, EUR would  feel like a nice escape, except for the feeling that someone could be standing over your shoulder or bugging your cellphone to ensure that this was your reaction. You can tell that EUR is forced-upon order and not the normal way of things. Oppression; that is a good word for EUR. 

I am not an expert on fascism, but EUR is its embodiment. I am sure that an authority on the Fascist-era can point to a million different symbols, urban planning theories and building inscriptions that exemplify Mussolini's view of society. However, even if you have no knowledge of this type of political philosophy, you can get a strong sense of what EUR, the fascist Rome, was meant to portray:

Colosseo Quadrato, i.e. Square Colosseum

I think this is supposed to be Hercules,
but perhaps in a battle where he does not win against the lion...

Fascist-style Obelisk
I can only assume this is Mussolini himself...

Below is one of the only example of graffiti I saw in EUR, and in a prominent location, just down the street from the Palazzo della Civilta del lavoro (the real name of the Square Colosseum). I got the impression that this piece of graffiti could have resulted in capital punishment had Mussolini been around...

Graffiti in EUR? Perhaps like vandalizing in Singapore

Even the massive Basilica of San Pietro e Paolo that sits mightily on the horizon of Rome is pretty eerie. It was closed when I went to visit, unlike most of the churches in Rome, and from its pristine, organized and angular exterior, it gave off the same austere, seriousness as the rest of EUR. The reliefs of the two saints' gruesome martyrdom, Paul's beheading and Peter's upside-down crucifixion, weren't exactly a welcome mat either.  
Basilica di San Pietro e Paolo

Peter being crucified upside down

Paul being decapitated

Yes, EUR is something different. Perhaps like going to Ikea after spending all day at a flea market, it can be a welcome change. And it is definitely worth putting on the hat of a historian and exploring this "city within a city." As for me, after half a day, I was happy to head back into the chaos.  

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I Piaceri d'Italia: Pasta


The history of pasta is long and well-documented among various blogs and web sites so I will let you check those out for the nitty gritty. But I will say that the Arabs, my ancestors, likely introduced it to Sicily where it quickly became a staple food and spread in-land and consequently worldwide. Thanks great, great, great (etc) grandparents!

Pasta e Ceci
(Upper left)
Pasta AND chic peas! Two of my favorite things. How can you go wrong? This soup-like pasta dish is especially good in winter, and usually only found on menus in that season. However, no matter the season, it is always yummy. Casetta di Trastevere's version is featured above and was mighty good. My favorite is still Al Fontanone's version. I don't know why, but maybe it is because it feels like the Italian couple that works at the restaurant are also still the cooks, and perhaps the recipe was handed down from generations before. This is total speculation. They could have also gotten the recipe off a soup can. Want a recipe? This site is in italian but has pictures for every step, so it might not be so daunting.

Fettuccine ai Funghi Porcini
(Upper Right)
Another ubiquitous dish in the vegetarian-friendly category, fettuccine ai funghi porcini is a dish that melts in your mouth when made well. The rich flavorful taste of the mushrooms and the smoothness of the pasta is a perfect combination. Pecorino, a properly Roman restaurant, in Testaccio has a superb version. You may also recognize this dish from my Abruzzo getaway. Yes, it is the Italian solution to a vegetarian clientele. A great blog I have come across, Profumo di Sicilia, has a nice recipe for this dish, as well as lovely recipes for other traditional Italian dishes. Wish I could cook that well!

Cacio e Pepe con Cicoria
(Bottom left)
As simple as it gets, cacio e pepe can still be a hard dish to nail. Like pizza margherita, its simplicity doesn't allow much room for mistake. There aren't many flavors to mask the taste; so fresh, quality ingredients are all you've got. This Cacio e Pepe was AMAZING from a little restaurant, Osteria Pistoia, in Monteverde Nuovo, far from the centro, but worth the trip! Try making it yourself.

Stelle e Lune Pasta per i Bambini
(Bottom Right)
Like bambini (children), I am easaily amused by the different shapes of pasta and marvel when I find new ones in the grocery store. This stars and moons pasta was the most interesting I have found in an Italian grocery store. I am leaving the x-rated type sold for bachelorette parties out of this category. Though if you are looking for that type of pasta, it has definitely become more prominent, showing up in all kinds of tourist and even specialty food shops around Rome. Locally well-known specialty store, Castroni, even has pasta in the shape of David's most well known part! Well, to each his/her own.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Piaceri d'Italia: Gelato!

I am bringing out the big guns with this one. Gelato. Arguably the best of the small pleasures of Rome. Put it in the Colosseum with its two noble competitors, coffee and wine, and I am not sure which would win. Or which I would route for, for that matter. But Gelato is world-reknowned as one of Italy's great offerings.

How could a dessert that traces its origins back to volcanic ice smothered in honey not have evolved into a spectacular treat? And you no longer have to traipse up Etna or Vesuvius to get your fix. Gelaterie are as widespread in Rome as pigeons in Venice's San Marco's square.

Dispelling Gelato Myths
It is good for you! Ok, well maybe that is going a bit far, but it is better for you than ice cream. Gelato typically has more sugar than ice cream but less butterfat (4-5% vs. 13-15% for ice cream). The sugar content however is what keeps gelato from melding into the solid brick of frost-bitten congealment that most ice cream containers become in our freezers.

During the churning and freezing process, ice cream has up to 50% air added to it, while gelato only has up to 25-30% air added, resulting in a denser product with a richer flavor. While ice cream, because of its high fat content can be stored for months, gelato will only keep its texture and flavor for a few days. So quality gelato needs to be made regularly and in small batches. On average gelato has fewer calories than American ice cream. Add that in Rome you normally walk to get to the gelaterie as opposed to drive and you have all the reason you need to savor the thick, velvety, soothing mouthfuls of this wonderous dessert.

The overly adventurous of you out there who might like to attempt creating gelato artiginale, this is a fabulous site that can help not only with your cooking but with your Italian.

Some of Rome's great gelaterie:

Miami - Monteverde - Piazza Francesco Cucchi 8 
(Picture: upper left)
Tucked away in the residential area of Monteverde, it is worth the trek for the pistacchio-flavored gelato, one of my favorites. I will also admit that famous/infamous Giolitti also has an amazing pistacchio, but I can't be bothered to fight the tour groups for this treat... for their granite di frutta, however, that is a different matter.

Ping Pong - Marconi - Piazza della Radio 5
(Picture: lower right)
Also a neighborhood favorite, this gelateria is strategically well-placed to end (or begin) a day of shopping on Via Marconi, behind Stazione Trastevere. I tend to find some more exotic, kid-friendly flavors here like Smarties, bubble gum, and other brightly colored treats.

Della Palma- Pantheon- Via della Maddalena 19/23
(Picture: Upper right)
I wish I could say that the crowds and commercialism of this particular gelateria, if not its drastically reduced portions, have turned me away from this particular spot. However, I cannot. In my many, many, many explorations of gelato around the city, I have yet to find a place that does cioccolato fondente (molten, dark chocolate) better. Alas, as this is my absolute favorite flavor, I stay loyal to Della Palma despite the ridiculous lines, chaotic masses and touristy location. My admiration also extends to their offering of flavors, close to 100, and to their fruit flavors, such as mora (featured above) that couldn't taste any more like the fruit than if it were a bowl of mashed blackberries, in this case.

Your Favorite?
I will likely add to this list, as my hunt for gelato is ceaseless. However, this is a good start. Should you have an opinion on gelato (and come on, we all do), please let me know!


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