Trastevere’s Antica Caciara delivers heavenly, fresh ricotta…and more.

Ricotta di Pecora - fresh sheep's milk ricotta

Ricotta di Pecora – fresh sheep’s milk ricotta

I’m going to gush. Fair warning.

Trastevere’s Antica Caciara is paradise on earth when it comes to gourmet cheese and cured meats. “Caciara” is an Italian word meaning “confusion, bedlam, hubbub, muddle; mess, disorder.” The experience inside this shop is full of energy – energy from customers queueing up to make sure they don’t miss out on the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta prominently displayed in one of the front windows. And, you’d better grab some when you see they have it, because it will definitely make you want to slap someone out of enthusiasm once you taste it. I can’t believe it’s less than five euro a kilo. No wonder it flies out the door.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

But, there’s more, loads more – a vast assortment of artisanal cheeses, and every variety of cured meat you could hope for. At one entrance you practically have to shoulder your way past a huge display of guanciale, which is made from pork cheek or jowl, and is an essential ingredient (a preferred cut over traditional pancetta) in Bucatini all’Amatriciana. In case you don’t know, Bucatini all’Amatriciana is one of Rome’s hallmark dishes, originating just outside of the city in the town Amatice in the Sabine Hills.

When I go to Antica Caciara, which is often, I load up on ricotta, a special spicy salame, and a salame with fennel. The people who run the shop couldn’t be more gentile. They recognize me now, and they always greet me warmly. What a great business to be delivering a big slice of culinary paradise to eager customers. If you’re in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, be sure to check it out, especially if you want to fill your bag for a gourmet picnic, and then head up the hill to see Bramante’s Tempietto, and one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Rome.

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

Baccala - Another staple in la cucina Romana

Baccala – Another staple in la cucina Romana

My Latest Italian Food Find – Agriturismo di Ivan

My new front runner of culinary delights is "Gnocchi di polenta", a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

My new front runner of Italian culinary delights is “Gnocchi di polenta”, a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

Thursday, February 5.

Today we visited friends in Udine, a two-hour train ride northeast of Venice. We left behind powerful, gusty winds, rain mixed with snow, and rising waters. I was happy to be inside the warm train, speeding out-of-town until the waters receded. Little did I know that our journey north would lead to the best dish I’ve had yet here in Italy.

Our friends took us to Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, deep in the countryside. This restaurant was heavily populated with locals and workmen. I felt as though I was slipping into a place largely unfrequented by tourists. In fact I felt as though I stood out quite blatantly.

Everything was rustic, and cozy. A mature fire was close by, and low, warm lighting made this a place where I wanted to linger well after the meal.

The menu was simple and incredibly inexpensive. I spied several items of interest. Our friends pointed out a specialty of the house, a gnocchi of polenta with smoked ricotta and speck (a type of ham) and insisted we try it. I shelved my usual low carb restrictions and jumped onboard. This turned out to be one of the wisest culinary decisions I’ve ever made.

I guess I was expecting typical gnocchi shapes, just made with corn flour. Instead, these gnocchi looked like little polenta “cubes” doused with shavings of the smoked ricotta and chunks of speck. I took my first bites and became speechless. I was so engrossed in this new culinary experience that my chatty left brain shut down. I just ate…and ate. I’ll be thinking about this dish for a long time, and a trip back to this area, just to partake of this polenta gnocchi, will be well worth it.

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

This in no way should indicate that Agriturismo di Ivan is a one-trick pony. The cheeses and prepared meats will knock your socks off. The table wines are tasty, and the other pasta dishes, secondi and contorni (particularly the spinach in butter) are delicious.

We’re back on the train to Venice and to yet another fine dining experience at a favorite restaurant there – Osteria Anice Stellato.

A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

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Christmas Lunch at Marco G in Trastevere

My first Christmas in Rome was celebrated with a wonderful Christmas lunch at Marco G in Trastevere. Simone’s parents have been here visiting and we had been searching these last few weeks for a welcoming place whose menu would include some tasty traditional dishes. After reading many reviews on Trip Advisor, we took it for a test drive a few days before. We left this first “test” evening with a hearty thumbs up and a reservation secured for Christmas Day.

A delicious Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina, is just one of an impressive list of 168 wines.

A delicious Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina, is just one of an impressive list of 168 wines.

Located at Via Garibaldi, 56 in the immensely popular Trastevere area, the restaurant has a quaint exterior (with tables outside for warmer weather) and is adjacent to a couple of eclectic looking restaurants. We were welcomed with big smiles and we were quickly seated. We began with a Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina – a delicious wine, full of character, yet very reasonably priced. This was just one of an impressive list of 168 wines that Marco has been steadily building based on research and feedback from customers.

While enjoying our wine, we perused the menu. We chose from the antipasti, which included a couple of seafood choices, a trio of bufala, cured meats, etc. I had the “carpaccio di salome con riduzione d’arancia”, thinly sliced salmone in a reduction of orange, and served atop a bed of shredded radicchio and lettuce.

Carpaccio di salome con riduzione d'arancia - my antipasto.

“Carpaccio di salome con riduzione d’arancia”- served atop a bed of shredded radicchio and lettucse was my antipasto.

As for their pasta dishes, Rome should be proud, with an amatriciana that you’re sure to remember for a long time. Simone wisely chose that, and I was fortunate to snatch a small spoonful of the sauce.

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Baylon Cafe – A Favorite Hangout in Trastevere

My favorite Caesar salad, with a orange mayonnaise dressing. Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta for Simone.

My favorite Caesar salad, with a orange mayonnaise dressing. Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta for Simone.

Baylon Cafe, at Via di San Francesco a Ripa 151 in Trastevere, has quickly become one of our favorite hangouts in Rome. Just a short walk up from the Number 8 tram stop on the Viale di Trastevere, you’ll find a welcoming cafe that has a wonderfully eclectic menu, great wines, and a very friendly and attentive staff. Lots of locals and tourists come here to have a coffee, a glass of wine, a light bite or something more substantial. The menu offers something for everyone, whether you’re vegan or vegetarian, or an omnivore like me. And, it’s pretty creative. My new favorite is the Chicken Caesar Salad (with an orange mayonnaise dressing). A close second is the Moroccan Eggs. Check out Baylon’s menu to get a sense for the artistry and variety of their culinary creations.

Both the decor and the music are eclectic. Old doors, saw-horses, and a mix of chairs create the tables and seating. I’m not sure how to characterize the music, but it has a definite jazzy, western influence.

It’s easy to find a place inside to park yourself with your laptop while using the wireless network. What a great place to have a glass of wine and get some work done, or catch up on emails. It’s reasonably priced. For me, it satisfies on all levels. It’s rated 4 out of 5 stars on Tripadvisor.com, with the only standout criticism I see being “slow service”. This hasn’t been our experience. Just the opposite. And, if you do have to wait just a bit, because this is a popular place, remember you are in Italy, and part of the journey is learning to not be in such a rush!

Baylon Cafe is Funky, Friendly, and Delicious

Baylon Cafe is Funky, Friendly, and Delicious

Outside Baylon

Artful tables and seating is made from old doors, saw-horses, and an eclectic mix of chairs.

Inside Baylon

 

Truffles in Umbria

White truffles on display in Città di Castello during the annual tartufo festival.

White truffles on display in Città di Castello during the annual tartufo festival.

I live for eating truffles (tartufi)….

I am one of those people who have both a love, and a response to truffles that verges on something sensual. My head swims and my salivary glands come to full attention in anticipation of savoring this one-of-a-kind flavor.  The truffle usually divides people into camps of ardent lovers, and camps of those who have a gagging response to anything related to tartufi. If you are the former the truffles in Umbria will take you to paradise.

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