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Friday, May 8, 2009

Arrivederci, Italy

My time in Italy has now come to an end. Thanks for reading this blog, and you can continue to follow my frequent writings at Movies with Abe and TV with Abe. While I'm on my flight home, reminisce with me below as I take one last walk through NYU's campus, Villa La Pietra.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Favorites of Florence: Places in Italy

My time in Florence is quickly coming to an end, with only one day in this city left. For my last week, I’d like to focus on some of the best things Italy has to offer. Today let’s take a look at my five favorite places in Italy, in descending order.

This city in Tuscany is a remarkably peaceful and quiet town with barely any visible life to it, at least on the Sunday I visited. It is famous for the staggering number of churches and its city walls, and I just found it completely enjoyable. I had a very positive experience at the restaurant and the gelateria I went to. It’s like a calmer version of Florence, with the same kind of pacing but nothing that really needs to be done. I’m not sure how long I’d love to be there, but my day-long visit was quite appropriate.

This town was my favorite part of the coast of the same name. Sorrento, Positano, and Pompeii were all cool, but Amalfi was really fun. The small town center has so much robust life to it, and all the shops and restaurants open out into the street. It’s a perfect vacation spot that doesn’t feel too trite or touristy. The food, gelato, and souvenirs it offers are supplemented by an incredible view of the water and the coast.

This legendary city is bustling with energy, and its vastness makes me feel like I could go back a number of times and find more to discover each time. It’s an ideal Italian city because it doubles as a living museum of ancient empires, with its countless monuments and historical context, and a current functioning (slightly) metropolitan city. The sights are all worth it, and when I return, I’d like to go when the weather’s warm, and I can just walk through the streets and experience the memento parts while inhabiting the living ones.

Venice is a truly unique city for the obvious reason that it’s a city built on water. The lack of cars and traffic is a really special phenomenon, and I loved it. The city’s waterways are dazzling and a city built on walking is completely incredible. The water buses are quite cool, and provide a nice, quicker alternative to weaving your way through the winding roads connected by bridges. The museums and Murano glass don’t hurt its impressiveness either.

Cinque Terre
This is actually five places, and I only made it to three, but I was stunned and overwhelmed already by the first glimpse I saw of the first town. If Lucca seems relaxing, the Cinque Terre (five lands) are at least a hundred times more so. The coastal view rivals and probably beats the Amalfi Coast, and the atmosphere is just completely serene. The sciachetra raisin wine is delicious. I’m not sure if anything gets done there, but it’s quite possibly the most relaxing place on earth.

I’m leaving Florence tomorrow, but there’s still an extremely exciting post coming up! Check back for the final post of this blog! You won’t want to miss it!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Favorites of Florence: Restaurants

My time in Florence is quickly coming to an end, with a mere two days in this city left. For my last week, I’d like to focus on some of the best things Italy has to offer. Today let’s take a look at the best restaurants I’ve been to in Florence.

Honorable Mention:

La Giostra
This one is a runner-up only because I tried it for the first time so late (three nights ago), and while my first experience was wondrous, I can’t officially endorse this restaurant since I’ve only been once. The food was delicious, but a big part of it is the experience. Moments after Zandi, Blair, and I sat down, they poured us each a glass of champagne and had water on the table before we even opened our menus. This very fancy, classy place brought us a plate of free appetizers, including bruschetta, eggplant, and a number of additional delicacies. For my main course, I ordered the highly buzzed-about pear ravioli, which also contains pecorino cheese and nuts. The aura of the restaurant is terrific, and the food is just as good. It’s a bit expensive, sure, but if I was here a few more days, I’d definitely check it out again.

My Top Five Restaurants in Florence (in descending order)

Trattoria da Benvenuto
This place was recommended to me by my parents, who ate here over twenty years ago when they visited Florence. It has a very nice interior, and the tables are rather fancy, even though prices are really very inexpensive. This is one of the only restaurants where I actually order a secondo (second course, usually meat or fish) instead of a primo (first course, usually pasta). I went here first for Lara, and then returned this week with Drew and Nicole. The first time, it was great; the second time, it was absolutely incredible. The veal cutlet is simply delicious, and I’ve heard reports that the pasta with rabbit sauce is also quite good. You wouldn’t necessarily come across this place in the more touristy areas, so if you’re in Florence, head towards the Palazzo Vecchio, turn on Via dei Neri, and make sure to stop at this one.

Amor del Vino
This one was an especially pleasant surprise because it’s located in an entirely touristy area, right outside the Mercato Centrale, where most of the restaurants are overpriced and not so terrific. Amor del Vino, located right across the piazza from the overrated Zaza’s, has not one but two wonderful options for seating, outside in the tent area or inside in the nice little dining room. I’ve tried both areas, and they’re equally great. The food options are hardly expensive, and there’s no cover charge. Regarding foods, I can highly recommend the penne al salmone, tagliatelle ai funghi porcini, and the ravioli rose, though I’m sure everything’s really good.

Acqua al Due
This is the first place that was recommended to me upon arriving in Florence, though it can’t necessarily be called Italian. There’s another restaurant in San Diego, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t fully worth the experience. It’s the only place where I’ve ordered both a primo and a secondo, and both were amazing. This is one of the few places in Italy you can find penne alla vodka (actually maccheroni, but no matter), and Drew is particularly fond of a dish heavy with egg. The two main courses that have catapulted this place to fame are the bistecca al mirtillo (blueberry steak) and the bistecca al balsamico (balsamic steak). Everyone has their own particular preference, but I still love the blueberry. You’ll end up spending a bit of money, but you get a lot of food. If you’d prefer to try a lot of things, they have pasta, steak, and dessert samplers that I’ve heard are legendary. Make a reservation, tourists like this one!

Caffe Italiano
I realize the name isn’t terribly original or specific, but that doesn’t mean anything. Dan cites this as the best pizza in all of Tuscany. The restaurant is pretty small, and you may have to wait a while for a table for two. It’s well worth it, though. There are only three options on the menu – margherita, marinara, and napoletana. The chef there sits down and makes all the pizzas by hand, and then throws them in the oven. Usually, you can watch him make it, and it’s really cool. Most importantly, the pizza is truly spectacular. You can find this one on Via della Condotta, right past Via Della Vigna Vecchia, where Acqua al Due is located.

La Ghiotta
I discovered this one by chance with Blair one night as we were strolling along looking for a nice place to eat. I’ve been back at least ten times, and I’m going there tonight, in fact. In addition to good, friendly service, something unusual in Italy, they have dishes with any kind of pasta and any kind of sauce for a mere €5 or €6. Pizzas are 4 or 5 euro, and they also have great vegetables, according to Blair. There’s no cover charge, and you can even get a quarter liter of wine for €1,50. The low price doesn’t mean anything less in terms of quality of food; it’s still possibly the best penne ai funghi porcini I’ve found. This one’s on Villa Pietra Piana right near the dead-end of Via degli Alfani. You don’t even need a reservation most of the time.

Two more posts left – I’ll definitely have to take a look at my favorite places in Italy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I Climbed the Duomo!

After being in Florence for nearly four months, I finally climbed the Duomo! This magnificent structure with a dazzling interior has an incredible winding staircase to the top, with about 460 steps on the way. Tragically, I forgot my camera, but thankfully, new friend Seta Bairimian was kind enough to let me use hers, and therefore I have a number of exciting photos to share with you! First of all, climb with me up the stairs, passing slight previews of the view along the way, and looking up at the dome and down at the cathedral itself.

We’ve reached the top! Look at the fantastic view! We even tried to find the NYU campus, which is hidden somewhere in those green patches in the distance. Otherwise, the city looks pretty wonderful from this height! See for yourself!

A few more posts left, you won't want to miss them!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Favorites of Florence: Gelaterias

My time in Florence is quickly coming to an end, with a mere four days in this city left. For my last week, I’d like to focus on some of the best things Italy has to offer. Today let’s take a look at where you can find the best gelato in Florence!

I’m a man of consistency, and therefore once I find somewhere I really like, I’m bound to return. I stray away from the not-so-great chain Very Goo (there may or may not be a “d” on the end, but it’s been spray-painted over on every sign I’ve seen), and I only went to Grom once, and it was so-so, plus they have it in New York. Nonetheless, I have managed to find some great spots. In fact, two of my most recent finds have been so completely reliable and excellent that I’ve been back to each sometimes two or three days in a row in the past few weeks. There are tons of great gelato places in Florence, but here are the five that I’ve returned to deliberately on multiple occasions, in descending order.

Gelateria dei Neri
Roommate and peer advisor Dan Cavagnaro actually took me and my other roommate, David Zandi, to this place after our trip to one of my favorite restaurants in Florence (you’ll find out about that in a couple of days). It’s a really nice-looking place, and I like the very friendly manner in which the employees greet and serve customers. The tiramisu gelato there looks incredible, and the chocolate flavors, especially the chocolate mousse, are very tasty. They even put a little waffle crisp in the cup. This was one of my first gelato experiences in Florence, and I’ve since found some places with a more diverse collection of flavors, but I’ll still remember this one as my introduction to gelato in Italy, and a place that I got lost trying to find and coming back from at least four times.

This is listed in guidebooks as the best gelateria in Florence, if not Italy. It’s actually located about ten blocks down the street from me, and the first time I went was actually a Borgo Pinti (my residence) official event. The sole attendees were me and Zandi, and so we accompanied Dan, residence hall manager Daniele, and housing administrator Antonello for our free trip to gelato. Since there were so few of us, they allowed me to get a super-sized 5 euro cup with several flavors, including cinnamon (which I don’t think they have anymore) and banana. It wasn’t quite the splendid insane goodness it was made out to be, but it was still a cool experience. If ever you’re going – make sure you go early, since it’s been closed nine out of ten times I’ve tried to go.

Le Parigine
This gelataria, located on Via dei Servi, is an interesting case for several reasons. First off, it’s the only one I’ve been to where you actually can’t see the gelato because it’s contained under the surface of the table. It’s also currently the only gelato place in Florence that reliably has cinnamon gelato, and it’s really good. The big attraction, which I tried but didn’t quite get the full experience of, is some sort of hot chocolate with gelato mixed in. I tried ordering it once, but I think they misunderstood and just gave me hot chocolate minus the ice cream. Regardless, the excitement of the cinnamon is pretty much worth the trip, and it’s located only seconds away from the Duomo, therefore easily accessible wherever you’re headed.

Festival del Gelato
There’s no place I’ve been to quite as “decked out” as Festival del Gelato, located right next to Piazza della Reppublica.. As you can see from the above photo, its sign is quite colorful and the lights inside are pretty bright. It’s always really crowded, and I actually have one friend who left once without getting anything because no one catered to her because the place was so abuzz with customers. I’ve always had positive experiences there, and another friend has successfully tried several flavors, a practice prohibited at many gelaterias. The flavors this place has, however, are the real delight. Green apple, rose, peach, kiwi, and my favorite macedonia are the real highlights. If ever you go there, sample something, and then get one flavor you know you’ll like and another you just want to try. It’s well worth it.

Corona’s Café
The name makes it sound sort of shady or sleazy, but it’s absolutely not. It’s an open area that looks right out towards Piazza della Reppublica, and it’s actually just around the corner from Festival del Gelato. Those with more sensitive wallets fear because the cheapest size costs a hefty €2,80 but it’s an enormous amount of gelato for your money. I’ve been there literally three or four out of the past five days, because it’s just so delicious. Try the blueberry if you want, because it looks delicious, but I’d recommend instead the mousse di yogurt con arancia e pesca (yogurt mousse with orange and peach). Strange, I know, but interesting and tasty. I’ve fallen for the dark chocolate-banana combo, and ordered that every time I’ve been there this week. This is the place to have banana gelato.

In the spirit of food, I’ll probably have to look at my favorite restaurants in Italy next!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Favorites of Florence: Gelato Flavors

My time in Florence is quickly coming to an end, with a mere four days in this city left. For my last week, I’d like to focus on some of the best things Italy has to offer, beginning with my favorite gelato flavors.

Honorable mentions:

This very odd idea for a gelato flavor works one hundred times better than the similar Jelly Belly experiment. I’ve only found it at one place (in Sorrento), but it merits a mention because it was so much better than it could or should have been.

Cioccolato Fondente
Dark chocolate is a particularly tasty flavor, and in my opinion much better than similar tastes like traditional chocolate and stracciatella (chocolate chip). I definitely prefer the fruit flavors here, but if you’re going to go for something more like American ice cream, your best bet is dark chocolate.

This has been, for the entire semester, the best flavor for me to try at nearly every place I’ve been to. I don’t actually like coffee, and therefore tiramisu itself doesn’t quite appeal to me. Once I taste the coffee, I’m done. Up until then, however, it’s marvelously delicious. At one place, Gelateria dei Neri, the tiramisu looks particularly incredible, and that first sample is just as good.

My Top Five Gelato Flavors in Florence (in descending order)

Peach is a relatively new addition to my repertoire of frequently-consumed gelatos. Fruit flavors here in Florence are delicious, and really taste like the fruits themselves. While I might be up for eating a real strawberry, blueberry, or apricot, I don’t find the gelato to be as delectable. Peach, on the other hand, is a great balance between tartness and juiciness. Since discovering it, I’ve ordered it almost every time at gelateria Festival del Gelato.

Cinnamon is a bit of a strange flavor, but it’s absolutely worthwhile. It’s very strong but a good surprise, especially among the flurry of fruit flavors I usually consume. I’ve found it at two or three places, and each time, I’ve been slightly worried by the first stinging sensation on my tongue, but it’s ultimately pretty delicious, and goes well with my favorite flavor, which you’ll learn about below.

The Italian term for fruit salad is dominated, when I’ve had it at least, by watermelon and strawberry flavors. As I mentioned above, fruit-flavored gelatos are excellent, especially if you love the fruits themselves, and so what could be better then combining them all into one? It’s a bit alarming if you suddenly taste kiwi or green apple, but the refreshingly full taste is worth the risk.

One of my first days in Italy, I decided to try this odd cantaloupe flavor. Fortunately, it was one of the best decisions of my trip. Cantaloupe, when it’s really fresh and if you stay far enough away from the rind, can taste really juicy and good, and that’s what melon gelato is like. Sometimes it tastes a bit too sorbet-like, but generally it’s been the most reliable flavor I’ve found.

…and my number one gelato flavor…

I really do love bananas, and I had already sample banana ice cream back in the United States. Banana is a tricky flavor since it can be wonderfully delicious but also rather blah at times. I’ve heard a theory that banana gelato is only good if it’s white, and that yellow gelato is a sign of poor mixing and bitter taste. I haven’t found that to be true, since some white banana gelatos have been so-so and yellow banana gelato from the bowling alley I went to was fine. When I do find the good banana, it’s really, really, really good. There’s a place I’ve recently found, Corona’s Café, where the banana is incredible, and I think I may get it several more times before I go.

Up next…we’ll see. Gelaterias, perhaps? Stay with me in the final week of this blog!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Amalfi Coast

For my final weekend trip in Italy, I signed up for a EuroAdventures excursion to the Amalfi Coast. EuroAdventures runs organized trips for college students to places like the French Riviera and Greece which includes transportation and lodging. Laura had been interested in the location and picked this specific trip because someone else recommended the itinerary over the same outing run by Florence for Fun. Laura, Alana, and I headed to Santa Maria Novella, the train station in Florence, at around 6pm on Thursday evening to board the bus for the long journey. My first surprise was by the bus when I ran into former Holliston High School classmate Catherine Shaw, who is studying in Florence this semester as well and had signed up for the same trip. Quite the coincidence! Later on in the trip, I also ran into and recognized the roommate of another former Holliston High School classmate, Cortney Nadolney, who I had met when I had dinner at her apartment a month or so ago. Returning to this trip, we left Santa Maria Novella at about 6:15pm, and because we made only one stop along the Autostrada, we arrived in Sorrento, near Naples, at around 1:15am. Our highway bus traveling and stopping at the Autogrill on the side of the road was very odd and unlike Italy so far, reminiscent of being back at home and driving long stretches of highway (though never quite this long). The American movies, which went from horrible to decent (starting with the unbelievably dismal "Grandma's Boy" and ending with "The Bourne Ultimatum), also reminded me that we were traveling with Americans. Once we arrived at our destination, we checked into our bungalows, which were basically cabins. We had two additional roommates, Stephanie and Lisa, who were both quite nice. Since the hour was very late, we went right to sleep to prepare for our next day.

EuroAdventures doesn’t actually plan much for its participants beyond a suggested itinerary for the weekend. We opted not to go to Capri and see the Blue Grotto, but instead to try to fit in two places on Friday since we weren’t going to be traveling on Shabbat. Laura, Alana, and I left in the morning to walk to the train station, and boarded a bus to the town of Amalfi. We planned to take the bus all the way to Amalfi, and stop at Positano on the way back, since it was halfway in between Amalfi and Sorrento. The bus was a unique and devastatingly nauseating experience. It’s basically like winding up and down a mountain for an hour and a half, and the roads are ridiculously thin. The bus honks like crazy as it comes around a corner, and at least twice we could almost touch people on another bus because both buses tried to occupy the road at the same time. At one point, we even stopped for about fifteen to twenty minutes since the road up ahead was closed. I never found out why it was closed, but I heard some people say that it’s closed regularly for fifteen minutes at a time so that falling rocks can be cleared away. It was a needed stop, however, because we were all ready to throw up. Once we got moving again, we only had about twenty minutes left on our trip. We were dazzled by the view once we got to Amalfi (just wait until you scroll down to see the pictures), and were relieved to find out that a ferry boat services operates in between Amalfi and Positano and that we wouldn’t have to brave the entire hour and a half rollercoaster ride back. Amalfi was a really cute and charming town, and very picturesque. We walked through the streets on this really nice day (heavy rain had of course been predicted), and stopped into a number of delightful souvenir shops. One shop owner was thrilled to hear me speak to him in Italian despite my being a tourist, and engaged me in conversation for a moment. We sat down to a great lunch of pasta with fresh salmon and traversed the town for about an hour or so. We arrived back to the port early, so we sat for a while and took some great pictures. Below you’ll find snapshots of the odd bus intermission, the town of Amalfi, the super-cool convertible tour bus, the view from the port, and photos from the ferry ride over to Positano.

The ferry ride to Positano was about half the length of the bus ride would have been from Amalfi, which was great, and also lacked the motion sickness. Our first sight upon coming into Positano was of the beach on this wonderfully sunny day. After getting a coffee and a pastry for Alana, we laid down on the beach for a bit, which was absolutely great. We weren’t in Positano for terribly long because the buses only ran ever hour or so, but we did see a lot of Positano on our walk to the bus stop, which everyone seemed to tell us was in different directions. We stopped for some gelato and to purchase some much-needed water bottles, and waited at the bus stop overlooking the coast. I took a lot of pictures, and I hope you’ll agree that these are some incredible views.

We got back to Sorrento at around 6:30pm, and I was excited to find a carton of ACE (the fantastic orange-carrot-lemon drink) at the small market on the way back to our bungalow. We had a relaxed evening with a meal of turkey, turkey-pastrami, pickles, and other side dishes and found ourselves all exhausted from all the sun and the walking. The cabin was a decent place to stay, but it was absolutely freezing every morning. We got up late and grabbed our towels, bathing suits, and suntan lotion and walked down to the town. We found a small but nice beach and laid down on our towels in the sun for a serene fifteen minutes, at which point the Navy came and made us leave, directing us to the free beach. We followed some Italian kids to the very unclean, tiny free beach with not a hint of sun. We set out for greener pastures and found ourselves at the port, where we had a light lunch. We sat for a long time, relocating to a different section of the port no less than three times as huge, threatening boats coming from Naples threatened to take us out as they docked. It was a very relaxing afternoon, and the weather was really perfect. We returned to the free beach, and I made an ill-advised foray into the water for about thirty seconds, during which time I froze completely. I did manage to air dry quickly so that I wouldn’t need to get my towel wet or dirty. We hadn’t brought quite enough water with is, so we went back to our room. Laura and I sat outside on our porch and played several very intense games of Bananagrams. In the early evening, our roommates returned and told us of their adventures in Positano and Amalfi and demonstrated the excessive amounts of sun they got. Laura, Alana, and I “hit the town” for dinner and found some very nice outdoor seating a restaurant near the center called Sodil Dominova. I had a nice ravioli caprese dish, and we enjoyed some music and watched one table get very into the atmosphere, with one couple even getting up and dancing for a moment. We strolled back towards the center, and found a gelateria where Alana purchased her first gelato in Italy and I found a unique flavor which was much better than I could ever have expected: popcorn. It was weird, especially with a few popped kernels inside, but I actually thought it tasted good. We walked back up to our bungalow, and made plans with Lisa and Stephanie for the next day. We got up in the morning and they brought us to a very pleasant café where we all got coffee or hot chocolate, and then we went to the train station for that day’s excursion. But first, some photos of where we stayed, Sorrento at night, and the bar, ending with our row of beverages.

Sunday was reserved for the ancient city of Pompeii, which was preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and excavated in recent years. We took a train, not a bus, which was a relief, to Pompeii, and realized we were among a huge number of tourists. The great thing about the specific date of this trip was that it fell on the last Sunday of the month, where museums are free. Instead of the 11 euro entrance free, we went for a tour guide for 10 euro. Michele had a lot to say, and told us a lot about the ruins. We walked for about two hours, stopping often to hear stories about how civilization used to work and what all these remnants used to be. We saw the roads, and even went into a home. Michele ended the tour by showing us where hot wine and other beverages used to be made, and directed us to a former brothel on the way out. It wasn’t terribly exciting, and we waited in line behind people to see some grand sight that turned out just to be an unimpressive toilet seat. I hit my head while leaning it to see it, and worried that the ceiling might do permanent damage. Luckily, it wasn’t a problem. Exiting the ancient city, we found ourselves near a pizzeria where the manager offered to waive the cover and service charge. The pizza was great, and I ran into fellow Florentine study abroad student Cory Weiss. We shopped for a bit in the surrounding area before heading back to catch the return train to Sorrento. I took hundreds of pictures from Pompeii, and I whittled the number down to about fifty below.

We made it back to our bungalow for the last time and, after a long wait, boarded the bus. We left on time but hit a lot of traffic on the way back, making the journey, interrupted again by only one stop, take a little over eight hours. It was great to see this area of Italy that’s a bit farther away, and it was definitely an incredibly beautiful place. For my final week and a half in Italy, I’ll be exploring some restaurants and locations in Florence before returning to the United States this coming Friday. I’ll post some final thoughts in the coming week!