Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 11: On Roman Holiday

Perfect End to a Perfect Vacation:
I woke up early, antsy that this was our last day in Italy. We met Guise and headed towards our main site of the day, The Vatican. Before entering Vatican City, Guise thought it would be nice to take us by her favorite outdoor market, since we had spent so much talking about our love of food and cooking. 

The market was pretty packed with vendors and customers alike. I was most surprised at the vast amount of different types of products different stands offered. There was the typical fruits and veggies, which were so perfect looking and delicate that I would almost be sad to have to cook with them, and then there was everything from spices and oils to flowers and hand sown cloth. 

There was even a stand entirely dedicated to red peppers! Also shown above was a craft pasta vendor (top left) and a stand with tons of crisp green vegetables. Seen below are stands filled with spice blends, oils and vinegars, and homemade sauces and jams.

The flowers were just beautiful, especially the peonies pictured below, one of my favorites!

Toe-may-toe/Toe-mah-toe... either way these look great!

Perfect for fried zucchini blossoms!
We even had the chance to slip into a artisan meat shop, where Guise had us try some of the local hams of the region.

After we had fed our eyes full and teased our grumbling stomachs, we made our way to the gates of Vatican City. We first started in the Cortile del Belvedere, a small courtyard area surrounded by the vastness of the vatican buildings and filled with various sculptures gifted to the Pope. 

Heading into Vatican
Museum, with St. Peters
in the background

The golden orb above is a sculpture done by the artist Arnaldo Pomodoro entitled, "Sphere Within A Sphere" and the giant pine cone was cast by Publius Cincius in the 1st or 2nd century and moved to the Vatican somewhere around the 8th, giving the upper terrace its name Cortile della Pigna, pigna meaning pine cone. 

Once inside the cavernous museum, it was like an onslaught of artwork. Statue after statue, painting after painting, tapestry after tapestry; the unbelievable collection seemed to go on forever. Even the walls and ceilings would be considered part of the lot. 

Pictured above is just a mere sampling of some of the incredible stone works kept inside the museum. 

We started moving throughout the Vatican rooms and experienced even more visual pleasure. Any piece of visible wall or ceiling was an opportunity to showcase talent and was fully taken advantage of. Especially impressive were the wall-scapes painted by Raphael. The particular fresco seen above is one of Raphael's most notable, entitled "The School of Athens".

As a special treat, Guise, took us down into the Borgia apartments, where Pope Alexander VI lived during his papal reign. I am a huge fan of the HBO series "The Borgias", that examines the life of one of the most infamous and controversial Popes in Catholic history.

Known for his keeping of mistresses, children born out of wedlock, fraudulent practices for securing his power, and even potential murderous plots, Rodrigo Borgia was one of the most scandalous and most interestingly fun Popes to study. Above are some shots inside the rooms where he lived during his Papacy. The top right picture shows the signifier of the House of Borgia, the bull, which is found throughout his apartment rooms and on his papal crest. 

Following our visit to the Borgia apartments, we made our way into beautiful St. Peter's Basilica. We saw Michelangelo's incredible "Pieta" sculpture, depicting Mary mourning Jesus' crucifixion, and the bronze statue of St. Peter, where we rubbed his feet for good fortune.

Once outside, we caught a glimpse of the Swiss Guards hard at work protecting the Pope and Vatican City as they've done for nearly five centuries. We also took a quick sip from the papal fountains, whose waters have been blessed, to purify our bodies.

We spent a little time reminiscing with Guise over the days we had spent with her touring Rome and got a little sad over having to leave such an enchanting place behind. 

We grabbed a quick lunch of a spinach and salami panini with a salad that resembled an American tossed "Cobb". It was fast, light, and just enough to keep our energy up as we tooled around the streets of Rome not wanting to leave. After making a few last minute purchases, we reluctantly sent ourselves back to our hotel to decompress with a glass of wine. 

At the suggestion of the tour company we found Guise through, we decided to dine at a restaurant called Alfredo's, where as you might have guessed, the famed dish fettucini Alfredo was said to have been first created and served. Regardless of how history did or didn't play out, I could tell on our arrival that Alfredo was definitely the "king" of fettucini. 

Framed photos of Chef Alfredo mixing fresh pasta for celebrities, social elite, and politicos adorned every wall like awards in a trophy case. In our little corner table alone we spotted Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, John F. Kennedy, and Burt Reynolds all enjoying heaping plate-fulls of Alfredo's freshest fettucini. Eager to dig right in, we got to ordering. 

Alfredo's famous fettucini
Creamy Pene alla Vodka with crispy ham

Luckily, real Italian fettucini Alfredo is a far cry from the Americanized cream sauce found on menus at Olive Garden and on shelves at your local grocer. Don't get me wrong, even I can put aside my inner food snob and thoroughly enjoy salad, soup, and bread sticks, but once you have the real deal, its extremely hard to ever go back. The authentic dish is actually quite simple; fresh grated parmesan cheese and room temperature butter rigorously mixed into piping hot fettucini. The combination is simple but genius because as the cheese and butter melt into the hot pasta it becomes luscious and creamy, which is probably how the sauce transformed into a cream base upon it's arrival in America.

I had ordered the pene pasta with vodka sauce and ham, which somehow managed to trump the decadent and cheesy fettucini my mom chose. The sauce was like velvet draping the perfectly cooked pene spears and the crispy ham added a dense meaty flavor that was rich and crave inducing. After consuming alarming amounts of pasta we almost forgot about our main courses, which we were glad to set aside while we made room in our full stomachs.

Prawns in a spicy tomato broth

Buttery sole in a light lemon sauce

My mom indulged in a delicate lemony white fish while I devoured tomato soaked shellfish till we both couldn't possibly stand to look at another piece of food. As we rested our digestive systems, a sweet old Italian "mariachi" serenaded us with classics like "Volare" and "That's Amore". I also caught a great shot of a server mixing fresh fettucini table-side for a group of eager eaters seen below.

And when we didn't think we could possibly ingest anything else, we couldn't pass up a chance at our last taste of lemoncello, imported from Positano of course.

Buzzed from our incredible meal and lemoncello dessert, we savored our last uninterrupted moments in Rome walking the streets and enjoying people watching from a small after-dinner cafe. Once we were all packed and snuggled back in our hotel bed, I fought sleep, holding onto the dream that was this culinary and historic adventure. It will be something that I day-dream about on lonely afternoons in the office and reference in conversations over good (but not quite as good) Italian dinners with friends. And with out a doubt, will carry with me the memory for the rest of my life. 


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Day 10: When In Rome!

Sight Seeing & A Traditional Roman Lunch:
We woke up early excited to start a packed day of exploring Rome. As opposed to our rustic breakfasts in Positano, our hotel here provided a much wider spread of morning delights. From eggs, sausage, and other traditional American fare, to cold cut meats, cheeses, and pastries for the more European cravings. I had noticed the day before that this hotel seemed to cater to a much more international customer base, having seen a group of flight attendants and what looked like a group attending some sort of convention. It was clear that the Bernini Bristol wanted to make any guest, no matter their country of origin, feel at home. We settled on some eggs, knowing the protein would help us get through the busy morning. This was certainly a nice touch, but I also couldn't help but appreciate our early meals on the terrace at Hotel California, watching the sunrise with a cup of yogurt and a warm cappuccino.

We met Guise ("Juicy"), our guide for the city, at the Pantheon, a temple built for all the Gods of ancient Rome. Though we had been by it the previous day, there was a service being held and we weren't able to go in. The original temple was said to have been built in 27 BC, but the current structure was rebuilt in 126 AD during the reign of Emporer Hadrian. Later, the building was converted into a Christian Church as Paganism was rapidly looked down on.

Probably the most incredible view of the Pantheon is from the inside looking straight up through the dome. Also inside, are the tombs of Raphael, famed Italian painter and architect of the Renaissance, Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of united Italy, Umberto I, Vittorio's son and second king of Italy, and Umberto's wife, Margherita, for which a certain preparation of pizza got it's name.

Following our visit to the Pantheon, we walked the forum, which was the city center of ancient Rome. Though much of the structures are gone, there is just enough left to get a feel for how life was like for the Romans. 

We then visited the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held. Today only the field remains, but there was once a large stadium built around it that was the largest in all of the Roman empire. 

Race anyone?

 Guise then decided it was time to venture outside of the city walls and head to the catacombs. We ended up at the Catacombe San Callisto, one of many different underground burial systems in ancient Rome. This particular group of underground mazes was built sometime after 150 AD and were typically used for the burying of Christians. We weren't able to snap pictures once inside, but if you can just imagine a bunch of cold, dark, small caves that are connected by teeny corridors, then you can pretty much know what we were dealing with. Though it was extremely intriguing to see some early examples of Christianity in practice, I prefer the sunshine and fresh Italian air.

At the exit of the catacombs

We spent a little more time in the area and Guise took us to a section of the Appian Way that lies just outside the walls of ancient Rome. The road was once one of the most important and strategic roads leading into the city and is by far one of the oldest still in existence. We walked along the worn out stone street and took a little peek at some of the most beautiful, prestigious, and expensive for that matter, villas that even some of America's Hollywood royalty frequented (think Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra!).

Pictured above is a photo of me, Guise, and my mother and also a snapshot of the wall that surrounds ancient Rome.

Once back inside the city, we decided to go ahead and explore the Colosseum. The massive amphitheater was completed in about 80 AD and was capable of seating over 50,000 spectators. Used mostly for gladiator matches, the structure could house a variety of exotic animals to be used in the fights and also had the ability to shelter onlookers from rain and weather with a retractable awning.

Sadly the retractable awning was no longer there to protect us from a light Italian shower that had rolled in. But, having seen a week's worth of sites in one morning, we had worked up a big appetite and Guise knew a great place we could duck into quickly. We barely made it into the quaint restaurant unscathed by the oncoming shower, but we were quickly seated and Guise got right to ordering.

We first received a plate of little paninis and sandwiches filled with an array of different meats, cheeses, and lettuces. We gobbled on these for a short while before deciding on our main dishes.

Guise ordered a hearty eggplant parmesan that was baked to perfection with cheese so gooey and delicious it was more of a sauce than a topping. My mom settled on a light shrimp salad with fresh avocado, tomatoes slices, and tart grapefruit wedges. I ordered a dish which consisted of several different cold cuts of salami, crisp peppery arugula, marinated sun-dried tomatoes, all topped off with a hunk of fresh creamy mozzarella.

We talked and ate for what seemed like hours and after we had all stuffed ourselves to oblivion, sampling each other's food, Guise decided we couldn't possibly leave without trying dessert. So, we finished off the afternoon with a decadent chocolate "molten" cake topped with vanilla gelato and sprinkled with coco powder.

After being rolled home like Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (you know the one that blows up into a huge blueberry?), we rested up a little before venturing back out into the city for dinner.

In an attempt to redeem ourselves from lunch, we did a little walking around the well known Spanish Steps, an elegant and wide stairway linking two piazzas. Finished around 1725, the Spanish Steps are now home to locals relaxing, tourists snapping photos, Italian elite making their way into exclusive designer shops, and the panhandlers selling knock-offs and annoying trinkets.

We obviously fell
into the 2nd category

Once we had walked up a decent appetite, we headed over to a trattoria our hotel had recommended to us. At lunch, Guise had told us that we absolutely had to order pasta prepared alla Amatriciana, which was a tomato based sauce with crispy ham and spicy red peppers. The dish is unique to the area around Rome, where they happen to have several pig farms. Once seated, we noticed the vast number of artifacts that covered the walls in the restaurant. Everything from ancient Roman pottery to weathered family photographs, this trattoria was definitely a visual experience.

We started with a grilled artichoke marinated in olive oil that was as tender as it was rich. We then had the aforementioned Pasta alla Amatriciana and a heaping plate of Spaghetti Carbonara, another dish traditionally found in Rome. The Amatriciana dish had a the perfect balance of spicy, from the red pepper, and salty sweet from the crispy slices of ham. Acting almost as a foil for the previous plate, the Carbonara was peppery and creamy with huge chunks of tender ham.

We couldn't even manage dessert and instead made our way over to the Piazza Navona to enjoy an after-dinner drink and the young atmosphere.

The glistening fountains, bustling locals and tourists, and the soft moon glow was the perfect way to end the day. We sipped on champagne and chambord till we got sleepy and called it one heck of a good night!