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

A Seagull’s View of Venice – Photo by Jed

A seagull's perspective of the high waters in Venice.

A seagull’s perspective of the high waters in Venice.

Just a little over a month ago we were in Venice during two days of very challenging rain, wind and high waters. While the weather didn’t make getting around the city easy, the conditions provided me a different perspective on the city. Not only in Venice, but in other cities in Italy, I’ve been asking myself, “How does a bird experience its surroundings?” So, I played around with this. In this image, taken in Piazza San Marco, I risked dropping my camera into the flood waters. And, given that this is Venice and the city has a reputation for not having the most sanitary water accumulating in public places, I also risked taking an onerous biological sample back with me to Rome. Thankfully my grip on the camera was solid.

Here you see the result of my “playing around”. I love how the seagull is the focal point, in a way that doesn’t dominate the photo. The Doge’s Palace and its reflection provide the framework. I plan to explore the birds eye view in future photography pursuits. So, as always, stay tuned!

A surprisingly inspiring bus ride on a rainy morning in Rome.

A rainy early morning on the 3B in Testaccio, Rome.

A rainy morning on the 3B in Testaccio, Rome.

Thursday morning, March 4, 2014. Beauty can show up in the most unexpected ways when you open your eyes and step aside from your normal perspectives.

I woke up this morning…reluctantly. Outside was cold, steady rain. I’m a sunshine man. I live to see the sun, and I usually pout internally when the sun is in hiding, and when I have to face inconvenient weather elements. Still, I roused myself, took a shower, had a strong coffee, bundled up and headed out to catch my bus to my intensive Italian language class. I couldn’t shrug off the class, because I paid handsomely for the course (worth every euro), and I didn’t want to lose my bearings in the middle of a very important segment on pronoun placements when using imperative verb forms.

My normal commuting strategy for less-than-ideal weather is to pop in my ear buds, navigate my Iphone to YouTube or ITunes, and shut out the world until I arrive at my destination. But, today, I was more keenly aware of this inclination and made a different choice. I purposely packed away my ear buds and made a conscious decision to pay attention to the world around me. I put my Iphone in readiness as a camera.

I looked everywhere, observing how the citizens of Rome were dealing with the weather. I first scanned the landscape inside the bus, and then my gaze move outside. And, I discovered that the rainy window on my left was presenting me with a different perspective on the world. So, as we approached the subsequent bus stops, I started clicking ways. Here you see the results – a pretty significant departure from my usual photographic style. With only slight color enhancements, these images are basically un-retouched. I love how they capture the mood and essence of the morning and the weather, and how they feel more like paintings than photographs.

I’m experimenting and playing. I can hear the voice of my Momma Liz urging me to play, to color outside of the lines of normal convention…and to not be afraid to fail. Thanks Mom, you still reside within me and inspire me.

While this post is primarily about art and creativity, today’s experience is helping me to relax the tenacious grip I have on the steering wheel of life. I’m learning to let go of a mountain of conditioning and preconceived notions of how life is supposed to show up, and to quit trying to control everything. Life has a funny way of taking you to places and experiences that can be pretty damn amazing if you just get out of the way.

 

A quick and simple shot through the rainy window on my daily bus ride.

A quick and simple shot through the rainy window on my daily bus ride.

Art and magic is everywhere. A rainy buswindow adds a beautiful filter for the world outside.

Art and magic is everywhere. A rainy bus window provides a beautiful filter for the world outside.

High Waters in Venice – An Even More Surreal Experience Than Usual

Life marches on even during higher than normal flooding in Venice.

Life marches on even during higher than normal flooding in Venice.

Trash cans overflowing with the carcasses of maimed and massacred umbrellas.
Vendors making a killing on selling yet more umbrellas because the lifespan of said umbrellas have been abbreviated by powerful gusts of icy, rainy wind. (What a great business model).
Vendors also making a killing on:
A. Makeshift boot-like coverings (usually bright orange or sky blue).
B. Over-the-calf rubber boots as a sure-fire solution after above-mentioned makeshift boots have become torn or eroded because of the high salt content of the water. (Again, what a great business model).
Sirens going off twice a day (much like the bomb raid sirens in London during WWII) warning of rising waters. (Don’t ignore these warnings or your window of opportunity to respond and plan accordingly).
Raised platforms elevating locals and tourists above the murky and smelly high waters.
“Dams” constructed at the doors of most establishments.

These are just a few of the memories etched into my brain after our 2 1/2 day “jaunt” during the period of high waters in Venice.

I’ve been to Venice so many times I actually can find my way around the city without a map. I don’t say this to brag, just to say I’m not a complete novice when it comes to the city. I’ve visited Venice during different times of the year – and I thought I’d “seen it all”, until this most recent 2 1/2 day trip. I’ve dealt with periods of high waters, not letting such conditions impede my explorations of the many nooks and crannies of the city – especially the more off-the-beaten-path gems of Venice. But, this trip presented new challenges and new extremes.

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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.

Stepping into an Italian Pedestrian Crossing? Proceed with Caution.

If you’re considering stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing. Be afraid. Be very afraid…especially if you are in Rome.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing...you might be courting disaster.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing…you might be courting disaster.

Back in the States I could step into a cross walk with reasonable assurance that oncoming traffic would stop. Sure, I still had to be alert to the signs of hurried drivers who were loath to stop and wait for me to cross, but I found that to be pretty infrequent.

It’s not a great situation pretty much all over Italy, and Rome is the poster child for poor behavior and an overwhelming lack of adherence to the rights of pedestrians.

Beppe Severgnini, in a recent article (Google-translated into English with this link) in the Corriere la sera, quotes some pretty damn scary statistics:

“It is a disease that does not want to heal. In Rome: only 30% of motorists respect the pedestrian traffic lights and only 15% will stop in front of the strips”

I urge you to read this article and to prepare yourself for this unfortunate fact of life. Hopefully it will change, but I’m not willing to risk it. If you decide to assert your right of way in the pedestrian cross walk, you are inviting a game of chicken. Don’t do it unless you see clear signs of a driver slowing down and stopping.

The only places I see drivers in Rome “behaving” is when a police officer is in close proximity to the cross walks. And then, it is only done begrudgingly. Maybe it’s just overly developed paranoia on my part, but when I’m making a crossing, many of the looks I see through appear steely….only made more menacing when the driver is wearing sunglasses.

Beppe Severgnini has become my go-to expert on life and attitudes in Italy. Being a native Italian, he has the credentials to make some pretty astute observations about situations such as these. Read more about him here, and I suggest you consider reading his books and following his articles. He will be a great source of perspective as you build a life in Italy.

Disclaimer: These are my opinions and they, in no way, should be a substitute for your own research and experience.

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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