Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ciao Porky! Part I: ROMA

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Our first full day in Italy we were free to explore Rome. After dropping my bags, stretching my body out and taking a long and excellent shower, I headed back down to the lobby of our hotel to link up with someone or some people to go explore the city. A group of sales reps from our distributor were heading out to explore the city, so I tagged along with them. They seemed like a good group to hang with for the day and they generously let me, a total stranger who could have been SUPER annoying, into their fold quite nicely. The first order of business was a round of Aperol Spritz. If you’re not familiar with this drink you should get to know it. Aperol is a bitter, bright orange aperitif which, in this particular cocktail, is poured over ice and topped with Prosecco and a splash of soda water. It’s fluorescent-colored, refreshing, relatively low alcohol and shamelessly Italian. I liked them before my trip, now I’m almost annoyingly obsessed. A Spritz is also one of the only ways, we found, that you could actually get an Italian bartender to give you a normal sized portion of ice. A few themes became apparent over the course of our journey: salami is inescapable, coffees are tiny and Italians hate ice. Getting ice cubes was almost as much of a challenge as getting solid wifi. Being that I was on a trip, I cared slightly more about the ice than the wifi.

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All over the cities in Italy there are tiny shops, a bit like convenience stores, with lottery tickets, cigarettes and semi-grumpy looking proprietors, much like any corner store you might tuck into anywhere here. The difference is they also have a full bar stocked, an impressive cappuccino machine and usually a bakery case with some swoon-worthy cannoli and cakes on display. These are the spots where most people pop in to have their coffee in the morning. They drink it at the bar, standing up, out of actual glassware; I’m not even sure getting a café to go is an option. It’s the sort of thing that is not rushed. This respect for food, drinks and meal times and tendency not to rush was something I saw quite a bit throughout the trip. And this propensity to give meals and the sharing of meals the time and respect they deserve was admittedly my favorite thing about Italian culture. At these bars, they also give you snacks whenever you order a round of drinks. I don’t know if this is a sort of legal thing, or simply an extension of the cultural more that food is meant to share; but you know I was into it, because nothing pairs better with drinks than snacks.

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We wandered through the city, exploring various piazzas and squares, tucking into a basilica here and a church there. The most humble looking church door, or crumbling brick structure would hide behind it seriously stunning architecture, sculpture and art. They know how to do churches there, and I’m just talking the everyday walk around churches, I didn’t even get to the Vatican. The other thing that I found so cool about Rome (and this is going to sound incredibly pedestrian and semi idiotic) but it’s SO ANCIENT. Like worn, weathered, hella ancient columns every which way you look. You wander around one corner and there’s a cordoned off section of ruins with stray cats poking around; you grab a gelato and turn 180 degrees and all of the sudden you’re in the hulking shadow of the parliament building; or craning your neck at the expansive beauty of the Pantheon. The depth and breadth of the city’s historical place is absolutely everywhere you look.

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For dinner that night I met up with another faction of our group, including Dan (the one friend I knew prior to the trip). About 10 people including us headed to Trattoria Gigetto in the section of the city that was formerly the Jewish Ghetto. As we gathered around the table for dinner the energy in the air was electric. It was Saturday night and we were in Rome, at the start of a whirlwind week of wine, food and fun. Everyone breathlessly shared their Roman experiences of the day and practiced enthusiastically shouting “Buena Sera!”

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As we pulled our chairs in and the last two people arrived at dinner, two ice buckets filled with about 8 bottles of Frascati (the local white) were placed at either end of the table and a hulking platter of fried artichokes, squash blossoms and salt cod was plunked down next to me. As I looked over the heads of the people across from me, I saw weathered columns and the remnants of an old brick aqueduct. My chair wobbled on the cobblestone sidewalk and an old man with a guitar played Volare (I couldn’t even make this up). It was so f*cking Roman I almost just about died. Dan and I toasted to our good friend Tim, my boss and the reason I was able to come on the trip. The week was just getting started and everybody was ready to roll.

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We had three hours the next morning before our bus departed for the first winery visit; so I linked back up with my buddies from the day before. We swapped stories about the prior evening’s dinner experiences as we walked the 30 minutes through the city to the Colosseum. Like all great monuments, the Colosseum is, um, pretty awesome. Now I use the word awesome a lot. I think it’s because I’m a bit of a valley girl in my speech patterns. But I do love that the wonders of the world, like the Grand Canyon and here, in front of me, the Colosseum are places where the only possible descriptor is “awesome”, because they truly are. We came upon it walking up a hill on a narrow side street and then there it was hulking at the end of the road: massive and strong. Despite the fact that part of it is crumbled it is by no means a crumbling structure. It dominates its surroundings, colossal as it is, and grounds everything in sight. Banking its right side were a few gentle hills and more relics and ruins. We drank in the view for a bit and then hopped the metro back up to our hotel. The crowds were too thick and our time too short to take the tour inside. Back up by the hotel the bus was waiting and we hit the road for a five hour drive all the way down to Puglia.

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So that was Rome, experienced in a flash of about 36 hours: fueled by espresso, Aperol, adrenaline and the infectious energy of new people embarking on a shared experience. I have to say, it was an excellent start.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

molto bene

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It's been several days since I landed back at home and I feel like I am just now shaking the crust off. Eight places in eight days and a constant stream of gorgeous vistas, warm hospitality, glass after glass of wine, and plate after plate of cured meats. My salami tolerance is through the roof right now.

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I'm sorting through all my notes and photos trying to make some semblance of order to the story of my trip to Italy. It was a non-stop barrage of movement, food, wine and people. I documented it copiously and I'm still sorting out how to best give the details of the trip here without writing 95 pages and providing you with 517 photos of stainless steel tanks and oak barriques.

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It was a blast. It was a whirlwind. I'm happy to be home but sad it's over. Until I've worked out what to say and how to show it here, enjoy a couple stunning views and unashamed examples of 100% XXX NSFW food porn.

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Ciao, dudes. I'll be back with words and photos (probably more than you're even going to want).

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

it's happening

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I’m so into the new Justin Timberlake song that I should probably be arrested; or at the very least, taken into custody. Anyways, now that I got that out of the way I should tell you something: I’m going to Italy. Like, tomorrow. You can’t see this from where you’re sitting but I just did an embarrassing chair dance/ jazz shoulders move that I normally do right when the food comes whenever I’m out to eat. I do believe that to say I am pumped about this trip would be the understatement of my life to this point. I mean, it’s Italy. And I think, I thiiink they might have pretty good food there. So I hope the entire continent of Europe is ready for the aftershock of one jazz shoulder shake after another, because Porky Dickens is going continental.

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I’m headed out on an incredibly cool eight day educational wine tour with a distributor and importer we work with at the store. This is hands down the most radical “work” opportunity I have ever gotten. I mean when I was an office manager there was this one time the free gift with our Staples order was a pump top coffee pot and I got to keep it. That was pretty cool; but this is slightly better. When I decided to make the move to completely change directions in my career, I never even thought that I would get an opportunity like this. I didn’t even know they existed! I’m totally humbled by the chance and was sincerely so superstitious about it actually happening that I hesitated to even tell most people until I received an email with plane tickets attached. This is happening. Life is happening and I am super pumped about it (high kick!).

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So today, I’ll leave you with pizza. Of course pizza! Not just because I love pizza deeply, but also, because it's Italy. I know it's not like I haven't covered pizza ad naseum on here before. I've told you how I like to make it in summer, how sometimes I use a skillet or even fire one up with a salad on top. So I had to ask myself: is there such a thing as too much pizza? And you know, I’ve never been able to answer that question thus far in my life, so I’ll assume the answer is no. I also have happened to have made this or some form thereof at least three times in the past two weeks, so it’s fresh on the brain. This is our go-to weeknight pizza, with a chewy, puffy Sicilian style crust. The process is more about technique and temperature than anything else; this pizza is deceptively simple, yet ridiculously good. So enjoy it my friends, I’m gonna go gain some weight. Ciao!

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Store bought or homemade pizza dough
Crushed tomatoes (San Marzano or Pomi are good brands)
Shredded mozzarella cheese
Garlic powder
Olive oil

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The crucial steps to making this pizza delicious all revolve around two themes: temperature and technique. With temperature: take a “more is more” approach, cranking your oven as high as it will possibly go and letting your dough sit at room temperature until its almost so expanded and bubbly that you get worried about it. With technique (i.e. dough wrangling and topping) take a “less is more” approach, you don’t want the whole thing getting bogged down and soggy. The end result will be a puffy, bubbly, chewy, thick-crusted pizza that is light and airy and so easy to eat that two people will very handily crush it in one sitting.

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Heat your oven as high as it will go: 500 degrees if you can; 475 if not. If you have a pizza stone, you can feel free to use it here. I do not have one, so I really don’t have a lot of experience with them. While your oven heats, let the dough sit out at room temperature. Once the oven is fully preheated, then begin to prepare your pizza. To stretch the dough: lightly flour your countertop and hands and gently press the ball of dough out into a small circle. Then, take that circle in your hands, hold it vertically and just pass it from hand to hand, letting gravity and the weight of the dough stretch it out. If you’re good and meticulous, you may even end up with a circle, mine always looks a little ragged and oblong. You want the edges to be thicker than the middle and the dough in the middle should be thinned out to about ½ inch or less, but not so thin that there are holes in it. If you do get a hole simply pinch it shut with your fingers. You have to be patient while shaping your pizza: doing it this way the dough won’t tighten up and snap back, but will gently ease out into its shape. Whatever you do, don’t use a rolling pin.

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Grease a cookie sheet with about one tablespoon of olive oil and place the dough on top. Take two or three tablespoons of crushed tomatoes and spread onto the dough in a thin layer. A crucial trick that I read a few years back is to use just unseasoned, uncooked crushed tomatoes, not a cooked sauce. That’s what pizza parlors do and they’re the experts, right? Sprinkle a little bit of garlic powder, salt and pepper on top of the sauce and then top with shredded cheese. Don’t get nuts with the cheese. Remember: less is more. Pop the pizza in your oven and let bake for anywhere from 12 to 18 minutes. Check it periodically. If you had a wood-burning pizza oven, you would have pizza in less than five minutes, but since we’re all using conventional ovens, it takes a bit more time. Ideally your cheese should be melted and bubbling and the crust should be golden brown. Use tongs to peel one edge up and check to make sure the bottom is cooked and remove it when it looks ready. Scatter torn basil leaves on top and devour immediately, maybe with a salad if you're feeling virtuous and definitely with a cold beer.

Top with whatever else you would like, just don’t get crazy heavy-handed with the toppings. Some of my favorite go-tos: sautéed mushrooms and onions; sliced kalamata olives; sliced banana peppers; or, swap the sauce for basil pesto and top with blanched broccoli rabe if you want to get funky with it.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.