Viewing entries tagged Italy travel
Antico Arco is situated in what tourists would consider an inconvenient part of Rome – high on the Janiculum hill, the second tallest in Rome (once the cult center of the god Janus).
A taxi would be the logical mode of transport, but we took a half-hour walk along the sloped Vatican walls, glowing gold from lamps, which led us straight to Antico Arco – or ancient arch. The restaurant is next to Arco di San Pancrazio, built in early, medieval Rome.
Domenico Calio greeted us, part of the triumviral ownership that includes Patrizia Mattei and her husband Maurizio Minore. Throughout the evening, Domenico presented a preternatural bright demeanor – the sort that has you convinced you’ve known (and liked him) him for years.
Framed view of the kitchen
The modern ambiance, a 2009 invention, features a pearlescent finish that coats brick walls and the ceiling. The reflective surfaces cast ample gold and silver glows from light fixtures. A large, rectangular window at the restaurant’s far end showcased the kitchen staff, hard at work.
Framed views of the kitchen, de rigueur among today’s serious restaurant contenders, always, I feel, tinge a meal with a certain plotted decadence.
There the staff labors: slaving, assembling, barely dispatching the bustle out the banging doors while I sit, savoring pigeon breast in a crust of pistachio crumbs stuffed with ripe figs –– that I’ve been watching them toil over, through that window, in front of me.
It all seems, well, so damn Roman.
The meal, the bread, the chef
That pigeon breast - it was delicate, and finely paired with a plum sauce. It wasn’t the evening’s best-loved choice, however. Nor was it my dining companion’s, who ordered it. It was, however, well assembled, and an adventurous pick.
I chose the sautéed sea scallops with roasted red peppers. Well-executed scallops always wither my knees. I’ve long had a fantasy of devouring them like popcorn, at a movie.
Two large, plump specimens were arranged amid pools of orange sauce. To overwork an overworked phrase: they melted in my mouth. Like organic butter. I’m glad I was seated.
I forgot the bag of bread. It’s actually a paper sack of homemade bread and sticks that launches the meal. The standout: the onion bread, so luscious I had to ask the waiter to remove it to salvage my appetite.
The chef, Fundim Gjepali who hails from Albania, delivered an inter-course pasta dish thick with Mornay sauce and garnished with roasted zucchini flowers. The indeterminate cheese was sharp to the point of danger, but I loved it. My dining companion felt it too pungent. I enjoyed the daring piquancy.
The chef, Fundim Gjepali
We moved on to the beef tenderloin, almonds, smoked potato, and rosemary ––strewn with acid double cream piped into a ribbon. Beautiful. Also: veal tenderloin glazed with strawberry tree honey and eggplant caponata. The veal was also very good, but I preferred the beef. The cake of caramelized onion that it arrived with excellent.
The presentation of the tenero alle mandorle was superb: almond soft biscuit, raspberry sorbet and green tea mousse all artfully placed as if Piet Mondrian had been hired to do it. The biscuit was densely rich and thick with flavor.
Tenero alle mandorle
The pasticciotto salentino (warm pastry, custard and berries) seemed routine, the taste and texture too suburban for all that preceded it. We finished with coffee and liquors, and then a glance through that large rectangular window that framed the hard-working kitchen staff. I told Domenico they deserved a raise.
Piazzale Aurelio 7, Rome
The east Roman neighborhood of Pigneto is scrawled with graffiti, street posters, and pasted with the occasional highbrow mural. A requisite line of youth smoke cigarettes too consciously along its pedestrian-only strip.
Roberto Rossellini filmed here (Citta Aperta, 1945), and the recent influx of young professionals, bars and cafes has lent the neighborhood an aura of urban cool. Tourists have not yet discovered Pigneto, which may change when Rome’s C Line, and its Pigneto stop, is completed around 2020.
The gritty street scene (some have compared Pigneto to Brooklyn’s Bushwick), washes away upon stepping into Primo. Launched in 2006, the restaurant turns it back on the exhaustive grunge outside its doors, favoring relaxed, comfortable dining.
Still, Primo feels fresh: low pool table lights illuminate a lengthy wood table, spotlights dangle, and exposed heating ducts hover above white walls trimmed in dark oak. A wall of wine with 250 varieties lies flush with the kitchen entry.
Chef Marco Gallotta’s menu is a twist on traditional Italian. An amuse-bouche of crusted anchovy with dill was good, if not a bit ordinary. But the octopus salad truly launched the evening. Strewn with thin strips of celery and peppered with orange and grapefruit, the salad was an optimal, crispy-chewy starter.
Primo's octopus salad
The spelt cous cous with vegetables, burrata cheese and salmon eggs was a knockout. It had taken a bit to find Primo (a 20-minute, mostly uphill walk from the San Giovanni Metro stop). After the cous cous, I knew I would have walked double that.
A potato purée laced with Parmesan that hid pooled egg yolks was bland – a bit of a curiosity, given its effort and feeble flavor. Condé Nast Traveller may have given Primo the top spot in its “10 Great Restaurants in Rome” list. That ranking, however, was not based on this recipe.
Pasta with peas, ham, Parmesan
Primo-made pasta stuffed with peas, ham and Parmesan was delectable – a contender with the cous cous. Next: fried squid curled over an artichoke salad and assorted greens. It was well assembled, and considered. The savory taste was beautiful.
Dessert: a traditional cannolo Siciliano turned on end. Beyond the skewed presentation, it was rich and refreshing –– and equal to a vanilla parfait paired with caramelized strawberry and balsam sauce.
Staff member Eliza, R. Daniel Foster and chef Marco Gallotta
What I did not sample and wish I had: sliced breast of guinea fowl with roasted peppers and potatoes; pappardelle with mussels, bean and goat cheese; and sliced amberjack, roast potato crust and smoked eggplant purée.
There’s always the next trip to Rome, hopefully before that C Line is finished.
+39 06 7013827
Via del Pigneto 46, Pigneto, Rome
Eliza and chef Marco Gallotta
I had never dined in Sant’Ambrogio, one of Florence’s oldest burroughs. And after seven hours roaming the Uffizi Gallery, I was hungry and eager to take a walk.
Maps can be largely useless in Italy – so I took the 15 minute stroll to the Santa Croce basilica and pointed myself north to where, 35 years ago, Cibrèo opened.
The restaurant is actually one of four enterprises, including a café, trattoria and theater, the Teatro del Sale, which I first spotted on via dei Macci. Finding the main restaurant was then easy – it’s on the opposite corner. The café is across the street, and the trattoria is further up via dei Macci.
The Kingdom of Picchi
Welcome to the Florentine empire of Fabio Picchi. In 1979, the now snowy-bearded chef was an eager 24-year-old, schooled in his Italian mother’s kitchen.
Picchi lucked out on some initial branding brilliance when he launched Cibréo. The young chef had a single wood stove on which to cook – difficult to keep a continual pot of pasta boiling. So Picchi simply left the Italian staple off the menu. In short time, Cibrèo became known as the only Italian Florentine restaurant that did not serve pasta (or maybe it was in all of Italy). Business boomed.
But it boomed for other good reasons – including Picchi’s Tuscan heirloom dishes – rustic, but drawn with complex taste.
Along with no pasta, there are no menus at Cibrèo. A server pulls up a chair to detail the night’s offerings – really, a discussion ensues about diners’ preferences, what might pair well, what’s recommended, and so forth.
Cibrèo manager Cristina and Fabrizio Rangone, Manager of Teatro del Sale
While decidedly presentational, the effect is also intimate. I observed other diner reactions to the menu recitation. Faces opened with surprise. There were a few giggles. But mostly there was delight at this chummy yet business-like encounter, as if exquisite jewelry was being bartered, and well, you just better pay attention.
The kitchen’s open double doors completed the low-key theatrical effect. I spent a portion of my meal stealing glances at the efficient cast of cooks, sommelier, and waiters.
A pungent start
The meal launched with a yogurt, garlic, olive oil, lemon and turmeric cup. The turmeric prevailed, infussing it with a musty, pungent punch. I was intrigued.
Eight or more plates materialized: tomato aspic, ricotta flan, tripe, chicken liver pate, pickled red peppers, fava beans, pecorino, an almond cream mousse and others. It was a lively assortment, and with so many, it was fun to sample the well-executed flavors.
The ricotta: “off the charts,” proclaimed my dining companion. Airily velvet, and mildly sweet. Cibrèo sources ingrediants locally; cheeses originate from local Tuscan farms.
The ricotta and other starters
A ricotta and potato flan with ragu, olive oil and Parmesan was both deep in texture and flavor. Cibrèo’s signature dish - passato di peperoni gialli (yellow bell-pepper soup) arrived drizzled in olive oil (as did most of the dishes). It had the right touch of zing and earthy zest.
Passato di peperoni gialli (yellow bell-pepper soup)
My companion chose the rabbit. I chose the veal stew. The rabbit was rolled with sausage and prosciutto, and paired with mashed potatoes. I found it delicate, and what I would describe as lightly saucy. It was well prepared, but I wouldn’t place it among my favorites. The veal stew was hemmed by bread sticks, like a pent up dam, and was delicious: hearty yet with intricate taste. A difficult combination that in this case, succeeded.
I found my side dish of asparagus spears to be overcooked – too limp for my taste. “Not snappy like they serve in America,” I casually mentioned to my dining partner.
“You’re not in America,” he replied.
Other reported favorites on the menu: roast pigeon stuffed with candied fruits, lamb's brain steamed in garlic and butter, and roasted duck stuffed with minced beef, raisins, and pine nuts.
Food with flair
As a chef, Fabio Picchi is both passionate and theatrical. He features a culinary discourse on the Cibréo website that lapses into poetic overtones: “. . . the embrace of our shepherds and their cheeses. . . the Florentine olive pressers . . . the truffle diggers from San Miniato and Piedmont . . . we are absolutely fond of our pantry, a philosophy that enlightens our steps.“
I would normally arch at least half an eyebrow at such culinary prose, but Picchi’s theatrics shine most where they truly count: in his food. And he loves to pair food with flair, most evident in his nearby cabaret theater, Teatro del Sale where his famous wife, Maria Cassi, sometimes headlines.
By the six (or was it seventh?) course, we entered that rare zone of gastro-torment triggered by a surfeit of exquisite food. Yes, we had paced ourselves, but still.
“I’m dying,” gasped my dining partner.
What a way to go.
I stepped outside to bathe in fresh air in an attempt to re-set my palate. While Cibrèo’s décor felt freshly simple (pale yellow walls framed with home-style art, single tapers at each white-dressed table, an oak side table for wines and traveling dishes) the air was a bit stuffy.
The dessert, the digestif, the decadence
Back at the table and nearly three hours into the evening, our server suggested a course of cheeses. Why not, we said. But we barely forked into the array.
We needed to gird ourselves for dessert since we both possess, not merely a single sweet tooth, but rather a whole set of them: thirty-two, sugar-hungry chompers.
Coffee came first, a welcome restorative.
We sampled six desserts, including a flourless chocolate cake, cream caramel, panna cotta splashed with berries and glaze, a raspberry tart and cheesecake scoured with bitter orange marmalade.
The panna cotta
The latter was the clear standout. The cake’s body was richly dense with local cheese. The bitter marmalade enlivened it, lent it even more layers beyond the obvious two.
Cheeseake with bitter organe marmalade
After a digestif, we said our goodbyes. We took the long way back to the hotel –– well aware that we shared what I rank as among the top five meals of my life.
Price: starters, 22 euros; main course, 40 euros; dessert 20 euros; and wine from 40 euros a bottle.
055 234 11 00
Via del Verrocchio, 8r, Florence
A walk through the Palace at Caserta near Naples is rare enough – most tourists ignore this gilded royal folly, even though it is the largest royal palace in the world. Rarer still is a tour through Caserta’s royal court theater.
The theater is closed to the public, so when a guide suggested he could finagle an entry, of course the answer was yes.
Palace at Caserta's Royal Theater
Caserta, built for the Bourbon kings of Naples, was launched in 1752 and finished in 1780. Architect Luigi Vanvitelli’s decidedly gilded goal was to outclass Versailles, and in many ways he did just that. Caserta’s two mile stretch of gardens and fountains are far grander and more ingeniously designed. And Caserta has nearly double the room real estate of Versailles, clocking in at a majestic 1,200 apartments.
But it was the royal court theater that most intrigued me. Inspired by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the smallish theater has five stories wreathed with private viewing boxes. The royal box is topped by an immense golden crown framed by blue plaster draperies emblazoned with golden stars. An angel grasping a trumpet and golden ring floats immediately below the crown.
It is here, perhaps, that the term “royal folly” is most deserved – still the intimate space is a wonder of opulence.
The New York Times termed Caserta a “weirdly overlooked treasure” that attracts about 500,000 visitors a year while five million a year flock to Versailles. Aspects of the palace, grounds and five fountains are also thought to outshine Saint Petersburg’s Peterhof.
The palace is really more city than building with its distinct and orderly social structure. The imperial city includes a state library, theater, administrative center, hunting lodges, silk factory, light-infused octagonal vestibule, royal chapel, woodlands and of course – endless gardens with fabulous fountains.
Caserta was termed “the swan song” of Baroque architecture when it was nominated for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 (it deservedly won a ranking).
The Italian Air Force training school that for many decades occupied parts of the palace has recently vacated, opening up even more space for tourists.
You may recognize the grand sweeping staircase – it doubled for the Vatican in several films, including Mission: Impossible III as well as Angels & Demons. So overdone, the palace was also an optimal, otherworldly choice of the planet of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I and II.
The miles of gardens are so extensive as to render them nearly un-walkable. Best to rent one of the horse and buggies (50 Euro for up to five people), or even better – bikes (some motorized) that go for 4 Euro an hour.
Entrance to Caserta is 4.50 Euros. Tickets cab be bought online.
Meridiana Airlines offers non-stop service from New York’s JFK airport to either Naples or Palermo.
Palace at Caserta's throne room
One of Caserta's many rooms and hallways
Second tier of the grand staircase
The throne room's ceiling
Palace at Caserta
One of two marble lions guarding the staircase
Returning to a favorite city is almost as rewarding as first viewing it. A familiarity has set in – you know which street to turn right on, shop owners greet you by name and a sense of ownership pervades your walks.
That is precisely why when in Rome . . . I always stay at the family run Atlante Star. I wave hello to Roberta Mencucci who manages the establishment her father Benito began in the 1980s. If Benito’s around, he’ll likely press a large can of his specialty olive oil into my hands – from the country estate the Menucci’s operate, Parco dell’Airone, just outside of Rome.
Atlante Star Hotel, Rome
The 1920s, fully refurbished Atlante Star sits on prime real estate just outside Vatican City walls. A ten minute walk brings you to Piazza Navona, and just further beyond, the Parthenon, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps.
The Ottaviano subway stop is also ten minutes away, and the popular and low key Trastevere neighborhood is a 15 minute walk down the Tiber. (Tip: visit the Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, an early 1500s suburban villa and one of Rome’s undiscovered sites).
In short, Rome is at your feet.
Villa Farnesina, in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, a short walk from the Atlante Star
The Atlante Star offers 70 guest rooms and 13 suites, all with Jacuzzi tubs and green wooden shutters that open onto a vibrant street scene. Modern, interior casings allow the windows to shut tight to block any street noise. This is the Rome you may have remembered from 30 years ago – or the one you’re awaiting to newly discover. Rates range from 140 to 290 Euros per night.
The hotel’s tight hallways and bold wallpaper feel a bit retro, along with the room decorations that favor chandeliers with alternating striped, black and white shades. But everything is fashionable, not frayed. The hotel is always awash with orchids and other fresh flowers.
The views from the sixth floor restaurant, Les Etoiles, are among the best in Rome. You can nearly reach out and touch St. Peter’s Basilica – its dome fading from a gleaming gold and blue to burnished ochre as your dinner advances.
Best view in Rome: from Atlanta Star's Les Etoiles Restaurant
The building was originally designed for residential use. Benito began buying up individual apartments in the property in the 1960s. “It took him 20 years to secure the whole building,” said Roberta Mencucci, “but step by step he did it - and in 1985 launched the hotel.”
Roberta began working in the hotel as a young adult. “Really, I was born here,” she said. Roberta and her siblings Francesca and Federico consider the property their second home. The family also operates the four star Hotel Atlante Garden on the next block.
The Atlante Star offers a complimentary breakfast, as well as pick-up from the Fiumicino - Leonardo da Vinci airport.
Via Giovanni Vitelleschi 34, 00193 Rome
Tel: 0039 06 6873233
Fax: 0039 06 6872300
Atlante Star hotel room
Atlante Star hotel suite
Interior, Villa Farnesina
Interior, Villa Farnesina