All Trains Lead to Rome

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Molti planes, trains, and automobiles later, we at last arrived at our final stop on our Italian tour, the grand city of Rome. It was Elliott’s first visit and Carinn’s third, but it is always breathtaking nonetheless. From the Forum and Colosseum to the Sistine Chapel and Pantheon, this city is filled with one ancient marvel after another.

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Michelangelo’s “Selfie”

Coming from a city that was built over the last 200 years, we were overwhelmed with the seamless juxtaposition between 3000 years of history and the modern world of Segway tours, selfie sticks, and wi-fi (though our connection at our Airbnb was still stuck in the dark ages).

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We loved the location of our Airbnb right in the center of Trastevere. The winding streets and endless selection of restaurants made for a tough decision each night. If it had wi-fi or cacio e pepe (a delicious local spaghetti made with pecorino cheese and black pepper), we were in. Though we didn’t have one bad meal during our stay in Trastevere, our favorite was Antica Pesa, an upscale restaurant with an impressive roster of celebrity visitors. Their wine “list” was a book the size of the Oxford English Dictionary and their menu featured items like cod foam and steak tartare with black truffle tapioca balls. If you’re lucky enough to dine alone like the American woman at the table next to us, you may even get a few sit-down visits from the owner who will indulge in several glasses of wine and makes effortless conversation look like an art form.

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Considering the meager amount of pasta and pizza we usually allow ourselves at home, this trip was quite the indulgence. Despite our daily orders of insalata mista, we were craving our standard dose of broccoli, kale, and other dark, leafy greens. With a kitchen of our own and a surprisingly affordable farmer’s market in Campo di Fiori, we set out to recreate one of our favorite salads.

The K+4P=D Salad

1 head of lacinato or dinosaur kale, torn into pieces
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 pear, cubed
3-4 thin slices pancetta, fried until crispy
Fresh pecorino cheese, shaved

Dressing:
4 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. mustard powder
A pinch of Calabrian chili flake
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Dress the kale at least 30 minutes before serving and gently massage into the leaves. When ready to serve, toss in the remaining ingredients and add in any additional olive oil, vinegar and salt as needed (the kale will soak up a surprising amount of the dressing).

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Besides a delicious (and perhaps the best) gelato during our stay in Positano , we didn’t really dig into this frozen treat until we arrived in Rome. Enter Fior di Luna, a small ‘artiginale’ gelateria located conveniently a few blocks away from our Airbnb. Elliott had read some favorable reviews online so we decided to give it a try. We kid you not, we “tried” this place three times. From the creamy “Fred” pictured above to a pear sorbetto that was almost better than the real thing, this spot delivered, and delivered and delivered.

Elliott hard at work on the blog.

Elliott hard at work on the blog.

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Carinn hard at work with her book.

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When The Amalfi Coast Gives You Lemons, Make Limoncello!

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Thanks to Rick Steves and Elliott’s Grandfather, we’d long heard about the wonders of the Amalfi Coast. Though we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to recreate Papa’s tour decades ago, we were hoping for a romantic drive with views of the sea and sun-dappled lemon orchards. Unfortunately, the long-predicted rain storms finally caught up with us and our one full day in Positano was dark and rainy and we even experienced a couple of thunder storms.

As the rain pelted the hillside of postcard-perfect Positano, disappointment was dripping from the eyes of our fellow hotel guests. We were trapped, with barely-usable wi-fi and ‘nothing’ to do. For months Elliott had been planning to walk the Path of the Gods, a 5 mile stretch perched high above the cliffs with spectacular (so we’ve heard) views of the Mediterranean and beyond. While we can usually brave the mild Seattle rain for hiking and running, this thunderstorm was getting us nowhere fast.

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After a serendipitous restaurant recommendation from our concierge, we headed to Il Ritrovo, a ristorante in the neighboring town of Montepertuso in the hills above Positano. We saw in the menu that they offered cooking classes and like lightning, we signed up for one the following afternoon. When life gives you lemons, make limoncello!

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Our 5 hour cooking class started at 3pm and ran all the way into dinnertime, the perfect antidote to our rainy predicament. Along with two honeymooners from Canada and two girlfriends on a workcation (they call their far-flung adventures together ‘mini-moons’), we learned how to make stuffed zucchini flowers, fresh ravioli with four kinds of cheese, fish with white wine, and steak with balsamic vinegar (though the class thought that ‘scalloped meat’ was really scallops). For dessert we made delicate almond cookies that could be topped with candied cherries, chocolate or white sugar sprinkles. Delicious!

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For our last day in Positano, the skies opened up for the shots we’d been waiting for and we set off on our seemingly easy (and economical) bus transfer to the hill-town of Ravello. Since the storm had cancelled all ferry boats, we instead had to bum-rush several already full buses along with every other tourist heading out of town. The line of vintage Alfa Romeos pictured below seemed to taunt us with their freedom!

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After several failed attempts and all taxis full, we headed to our next best option: Le Sirenuse, a five star hotel just down the hill. We explained our predicament and within five minutes, we had a Mercedes and a handsome Italian in an Armani suit to drive us to Ravello in style. What could have been a very long, frustrating day, turned into one of our most enjoyable drives along the Coast.

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Once we arrived in Ravello, we were treated to one breathtaking view after another. Though this view is from Villa Rufolo, our balcony view at our small (and cheap!) hotel, Auditorium Rooms, was just as stunning. After dinner, we stumbled upon this pick-up soccer game taking place at a local school (the players seemed totally oblivious to the incredible sunset taking place behind them), which has to be on one of the most picturesque fields in the world.

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On our last day in Amalfi, we headed to the train station in Salerno for our final trip up to Rome. We knew we were in trouble when our driver was late and saw the look on his face when he learned our train left at 12:30. Though Salerno is only about 10 miles away from Ravello, the windy, cliff-side roads and oversize tour buses make for very slow progress. Our driver was determined to get us there on time, so we ‘enjoyed’ our own Italian version of ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.’ Little did we know that we’d still have time for two espressos and a chat, for our train was late by 30 minutes!

Captivated by Capri

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Many years ago, Carinn visited Capri with a few girlfriends during a torrential downpour. They managed to make it to a pizzeria for dinner but were otherwise trapped in their hotel for the weekend. Carinn couldn’t remember much about the island but knew that she had to give it another chance. In her memory, Capri was a speck of an island with a couple of restaurants and some fancy hotels next to the port.

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In reality, the island has two totally separate towns, several ports and an intricate system of roads and narrow pathways that link everything together. In our two days on the island, we managed to cover the majority of the island by foot, boat and occasionally by bus. We also had some of the best weather of our entire trip and spent most of our time soaking in the spectacular views from various vantage points. In fact, most of the restaurants are perched right in the side of the steep hillside, with their dining rooms looking out on expansive vistas. We had fantastic seafood everywhere we ate, but a couple of our favorites were La Panorama and Ristorante Verginiello. The hand-made tube-shaped pasta with tomatoes and white-fish (we never were able to surmise what kind of fish it was, other than “it swims deep” and was “si, delicioso!”) pictured below was the manifestation of everything Elliott had been dreaming about Italian food before our trip – simple, fresh and incredibly tasty.

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If you go, we strongly recommend that you explore the ‘roads’ surrounding the main town of Capri – Via Del Pizzolungo and Via Tiberius were two of the most romantic paths we’ve ever walked, and besides a few narrow delivery trucks, they are essentially car-free.

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When we asked our friendly hotel concierge about walking to Anacapri, she encouraged us to take a bus to the top and walk down the 750 steps that connect the two towns, because going up would be far too strenuous; she obviously hadn’t met Elliott before. The challenge thus presented, we set out after breakfast in our running gear and climbed the well-maintained staircase and even opted out of the chairlift to the very top of Monte Solare, peaking at 589 meters (~1800 feet) above the sea. At the top, we got three “mamma mias!” from some Italian locals when they learned we had walked “a piedi” from the Marina.

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In the afternoon, we headed back to the port for a private boat tour around the island with an entertaining local named Paolo. As we lounged in the open-water gondola, we explored the various grottos, churches, ruins and sculptures, much of which are only accessible by boat. We did drive by the famous “Grotto Azzurro,” however it was closed due to a swell hitting that side of the island.

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When Elliott asked if it was okay to swim in “The Fisherman’s Grotto,” Paolo flashed a mischievous grin and said “This is Italy, you can swim anywhere!” We jumped into the stereotypically blue mediterranean water and had a lovely swim through the cave to our own private beach.

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Later on, Elliott mentioned that he had gone salmon fishing the week before our trip with Carinn’s brother. Paolo’s eyes lit up with excitement and he exclaimed “You want catch fish?” He reached into a hidden compartment beneath the deck and pulled out a weathered 3/4” piece of plywood with fishing line wrapped around it and tossed a 50 year-old lure into the sea behind the boat. Though the 3’ swells made Carinn a bit nervous, Paolo managed to help us reel in two tunas, catch a call on his cellphone (because it was his girlfriend after all) and steer the boat with his knees as if it were a glassy still day on the sea.

All in all, our trip to Capri was one of our highlights so far!

In the Shadow of Vesuvius

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Long before our trip to Italy, we’d heard that you had to watch out for Naples. Since we had a train transfer there on our way south – with our luggage – we were a little nervous to say the least. Though we barely left the train station to get on the local Circumvesuviana train, we found it to be like most other large cities in Italy. In fact, nearly every genuinely nice person we’ve met since Florence was originaly from Naples. The train was crowded, with standing room only, but its mostly filled with tourists and even includes some lively, if slightly out-of-tune accordion and saxophone players.

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Our second stop on our Italian tour was in a hilltop villa, high above the city of Sorrento, a dramatic port city built into the cliffs above the Bay of Napoli. Our hotel, Villa Monica B&B, is run by a charming Italian couple. Though our hotel was outside of town, we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the region from our balcony and a free shuttle up and down the precariously steep (and narrow!) roads above Sorrento. When Elliott asked if it was an easy walk from town to get back to the hotel, Pasquale, the proprietor, joked “you can walk if you like, but please, pay me now.” After our first trip up the mountain we could see why – in many places there was barely room for a single car to get through, yet the motorini and tiny cars somehow zipped right past each other.

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Foodwise, we had a bit of trouble finding restaurants in Sorrento that weren’t built for tourists. After a quick search online and talking to a few locals, we found L’Antica Trattoria, an upscale spot in the center of the historical center with handmade pasta and fresh seafood.

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Prior to arriving in Sorrento, we realized that Pompeii was only a few stops away on the train, so we decided to take a day trip to check it out. We’d seen pictures of the plaster-encased victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption 2,000 years ago, but we were totally unprepared for the scope of the city and the incredible preservation of the mosaics, frescos and architecture from that period. The events that unfolded on August 24th, 79 AD essentially froze a bustling Roman city in time until the ruins were discovered some 1,500 years later. One of our favorite parts of the city were the 6” grooves worn into the streets by wagon wheels and the scandalous bathhouse frescos.

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In order to fuel our 7 mile daily treks, we need several espresso shots throughout the day. You never know where you’ll find the best ones. So far, Elliott’s favorite spot was at the train station outside of Pompeii.

Jetlagged in Firenze

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Ciao tutti! After months of anticipation, we’ve finally made it to Italy. Our first stop was Florence, a bustling city in the heart of Tuscany. Hours after arriving we took the recommendation of our hostess Chiara (and our enthusiastic neighbor on our flight from Paris) and headed to Cibreo Trattoria. Chef Fabio Picchi has several restaurants under the same name, but the trattoria is known for serving simpler (and more affordable) food than the ristorante. The 45 minute wait was rough in our jet-lagged state but proved to be well worth it once the food hit our table.

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For our “Primi Piatti” we had porcini soup and a flawlessly executed parmesan polenta – the soup was rich and earthy and the polenta offered a simple trio of flavors of corn, butter and parmesan.

For our main course we ordered parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) and polpette di pollo, vitello e ricotta (chicken, veal and ricotta meatballs). While eggplant parmesan is as common as spaghetti in the states, we’ve found it a bit difficult to find veggies on restaurant menus and wanted something lighter than veal tripe or a stuffed chicken neck with the head still attached. As with everything we ate, it was delicious.

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Since we’re usually early risers (ha ha) we decided to take advantage of the early morning light and go for a sunrise run.

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These beauties came from a bakery near San Lorenzo. The pistachio cream filled croissant was delicious but definitely not something you can do everyday. We’re not sure how the Italians do it, but we’ll enjoy them while we’re here.

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The Mercato Centrale is a great place to buy fresh seafood, meat, cheese and locally made products. Recently, they renovated the upstairs to create a place for locals to hang out, watch a soccer game and grab a quick bite. It’s reminiscent of the Ferry Building in San Francisco and has some of the best pizza we’ve had so far on our trip.

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For our last full day in Florence, we opted to get out of the city and take a tour of the Chianti region. What started out as a really rainy, “what were we thinking?” ride in the car, turned into our favorite part of our trip so far. Our group was small (just us and one other couple) and our guide Simon was super friendly and knowledgeable. After a tour of a small, family-run vineyard (in Italy, family-run means it’s been in the same family for 200 years), we visited several small hill-top villages where you can literally walk the entire circumference in under 10 minutes.

For lunch we ate at Cantinetta Sassolini, where we learned that if you didn’t finish your plate, you’d get a talking-to from the chef. Though we were still full from a snack at the winery, it wasn’t hard to gobble down the succulent Chicken Diavolo. After lunch, the rain opened up to dramatic vistas of the Chianti countryside and a visit to a castle that was featured in the movie “Much Ado About Nothing.” If you’re ever in Florence and looking to experience rural Tuscany, be sure to check out “A Slow Day in Tuscany.”

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Tutto va bene for this photogenic fella…

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Oh and by the way…siamo fidanzato! 🙂

A Week in San Francisco: Food Nerds in Paradise

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When Elliott learned he had to be in San Francisco on business two weeks in a row, it seemed like the perfect excuse to tag along and make our requisite 9:45 reservation at Rich Table (we don’t have photos this time, but the hamachi appetizer was amazing!).

We started our week in a charming airbnb in the Castro and since it was a beautiful day, we trekked up through Haight-Ashbury to Golden Gate Park. San Francisco is a very walkable city which explains the surprisingly patient drivers at crosswalks and bakeries at every corner. On our first day in town, we happened to walk into Bi-Rite, an unassuming market that is a foodie’s treasure chest. We chatted with a friendly cheese gal and walked away with a small disk of Zingerman’s — some of the best goat cheese we’ve ever tried. Combined with salami, cara cara oranges, meyer lemon yogurt, and a frangipani croissant from Tartine Bakery, we could see this neighborhood was very dangerous for our waistlines, hills or not. Continue reading

Date Night in San Francisco at Rich Table

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It’s pretty incredible that you can get off work at 2pm in Seattle, head to the airport, and make a 9:30pm dinner reservation in San Francisco without breaking a sweat (not counting the A Terminal shuffle to catch the BART). We came to town for a wedding so we only had one night to eat out on our own and wanted to do something special. Elliott asked a friend and got a few recommendations from his twin brother, who we knew we could trust genetically. Continue reading

Bell’s Beach Mussels with Chorizo and Thyme

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs much as we love living in Seattle, it’s sometime nice (and necessary) to get out of the city and away from the constant assault of sirens, leaf blowers, and NOISE. We knew our time for warm, sunny days was slipping away, so we headed up to Whidbey Island for a relaxing weekend with some friends visiting from France. Elliott’s family has a great little cabin on Bell’s Beach where you can watch the tide come in and with little effort, wade out to as many mussels as you can eat.  After two mornings of waking up to complete silence, a lazy kayaking adventure,  and the feeling of warm sand between our toes, we were at last rejuvenated to return to our life of city living. Here’s a great recipe if you’re ever in need of a little escape from the city (or if you’ve just got a hankering for bivalves)! 🙂 Continue reading

Muffulettas, Mansions, and Swimming for Our Dinner

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For our second full day in New Orleans, we started off at the famous Central Grocery, the home of the original muffuletta sandwich. The line stretched to the door and moved at a clip reminiscent of Seinfeld’s soup nemesis. With the pressure on to make a quick decision, we went for the ‘whole muffuletta’, which turned out was more than enough for two meals. As we ate this tasty concoction of salami, ham, cheese, and olive tapenade on the banks of the Mississippi, we discovered this was one meal where napkins are a must. Continue reading

Beignets, Fake Skies, and “Getting Lucky” in the Big Easy

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When Elliott found out he was going to New Orleans for a work conference this year, it was a given that I would tag along. We knew we would be in for some good food, soulful music, and 80˚ weather, but we’ve been floored by culture shock since arriving. This town is a complete 180˚ from Seattle and one of the coolest American cities we’ve ever visited. Between the architecture, tropical heat, and odd critters cropping up on menus, it’s often easy to think you’re in a foreign country. Continue reading