They say your 21st birthday won’t feel special in Italy, where you can already legally drink. But my wonderful friends and family made this one hell of a birthday! 😀
First, I was given the greatest gift of all, which was for my family to come visit for the extended Easter/birthday weekend. (My birthday actually fell ON Easter this year). We were disappointed that it rained their whole stay, but it was still something very special to spend time together here in Italy. We even went to Siena to visit a winery, which I can blog about in a later post.
On my “Birthday Eve,” as Chelsea calls it, my family took Heather, Chelsea and me to local restaurant called Osteria dei Centopoveri, where Chelsea’s uncle and cousin work. (If you’re ever in Florence, I HIGHLY recommend this restaurant. It’s off-the-beaten-track but has some of the best food I’ve tasted in Florence along with fair prices and a cozy family-run atmosphere). We did the Italian-style dinner — several courses and lots of wine! My primi piatti of a homemade gnocci dish with lobster is possibly the best thing I’ve ever consumed.
After a couple hours of eating this extravagant and madly-delicious meal, the lights shut off and “Zio Claudio” and his staff surprised me with a birthday cake celebration. I was so touched by their kindness. With a smile gleaming on my face, it suddenly really did feel like my birthday. I was already so stuffed, but I managed to have a couple bites because it was SO GOOD.
Then, Claudio and his staff kept the celebration going with champagne! This restaurant and Chelsea’s family really live up to the heartwarming-and-generous-Italians stereotype. Then, Zio Claudio brought us shots of a strong Italian liquor that I can’t remember the name of. All I can tell you is that it BURNED, and somehow induced a hot flash. It definitely fit the occasion, though.
After dinner, the birthday surprises and spontaneous celebrations continued at our favorite local bar, Joshua Tree Pub…which truly is my “home away from home” in Florence. I intended to just stop by for a couple drinks with my family, but around midnight my friends started piling in until we accumulated a pretty big group in the back. Then, at midnight, the music lowered and the bouncer/bartender who we’re good friends with, Paolo, came in with a little cake that had a lit candle stuck in it, and the bar was singing me happy birthday. (Paolo is the cutest thing ever). I couldn’t believe it, and couldn’t have possibly asked for a better birthday celebration! The cake was followed by shots on the house, cheers and hugs from the other bartenders, and then an extremely fun night of good friends, good drinks and good times at one of my favorite places in Florence.
Whoever said that your 21st birthday won’t feel special in Europe was wrong…I can’t thank my family, friends from home and friends in Italy enough for making this one of the most special and memorable birthdays I’ll ever have 🙂
Why did I eat that?
Today, I went to the annual gastronomy fair in Florence–a trade show of culinary delicacies that infuse the science, art and consumption of food and drinks. (I might go into detail about this in a near-future blog post). Anyway, the place was swarmed by food snobs and buyers in the food industry, but visitors could pay a 15 Euro entrance fee to also access all these fancy samplings of products. So, I skipped breakfast/lunch and made it my mission to make the most out of my ticket. I figured, why not try everything?
WRONG THINKING. Sure, some of the unfamiliar tasted fantastic! But when handed a fishy product on a toothpick, my instinct was “Do not eat this.” I ate it anyway. And then I suffered.
As soon as I put that fish in my mouth, I looked at Heather with this forewarning look of DON’T DO IT. I couldn’t bite into it again, and I could not tolerate the accumulation of horrible fishy taste sitting in my mouth. As I slid towards the wall and frantically searched my purse for a tissue, I noticed bystanders notice me holding back gags. I managed to somewhat subtly spit out the fish into a tissue and toss it away, but THE TASTE WAS STILL SO POTENT. AND SO HORRENDOUS. I couldn’t even tolerate to swallow the tainted saliva in my mouth. I looked at Heather very seriously and said, “We need vino.” So we quickly sought the nearest wine stand. Of course the vendor took her jolly time opening the wine and schmoozing with the wine snobs in front of us. I was dying.
My stomach has felt weird for the rest of the day. Non mi piace. 😦
LESSON LEARNED: Trying new things is part of traveling, but sometimes it’s ok to trust your instincts about not trying food that you suspect you may have a PHYSICAL AVERSION to.
A seriously NOT OK miscommunication
I really enjoy mingling with locals and attempting to converse with them in Italienguish. It generates the most fun, interesting and cultural experiences, but it also lends itself to some of the most mortifying mistakes.
Last night, Heather and I were playing poker at our regular hangout, and had a couple different groups of Italians join us at different points. After a while of playing and talking with one of these groups, one of the guys pointed to my ring and asked if I am married. He then jokingly asked if I am hoping to get married while I am in Italy. (Well, I thought he was joking). So I jokingly replied, with exaggerated facial gestures soaking in sarcasm, “è possibile!” and laughed…except he didn’t catch on that I was joking.
I did not know the translation for “I am joking/kidding/playing,” but Heather tried to see if in English he’d understand “She’s just playing.” He and his friends understood “playing” not in the context of the tone of our conversation, but in the context of the subject of our conversation: they understood it as I am playing around with men in Italia.
That one took a moment to clear up. Good thing they weren’t creepy.
LESSON LEARNED: Either don’t be sarcastic while speaking Italian, or learn how to say “I am joking.” Better yet, if someone asks if you’re married, just say SI! 😀
I’m not crying…
I went for a glorious 7-mile run yesterday…but ran into an issue. The cool air was making me sniffle, and the pollen was making my eyes tear. These were especially affecting me during a part of my run when I was charging up a steep hill–“charging” as in using every ounce of might in me to slowly ascend up the hill like Wile E. Coyote failing at acceleration. As the tourists and Italians atop the hill looked down on me, I realized that I did not only look like I was struggling to run up the hill, but the sniffles and teary eyes additionally made it appear that I was crying. They were probably like, “Poor, fat American girl…too out of shape to run up the hill without crying.” 😦
LESSON LEARNED: Well, not much I can do about this one…
Maybe Monday’s cooking class inspired me to try baking Italian cookies on my own. Perhaps I’ve passed by too many bakeries pervading the smell of fresh pastries. Or maybe my mind feels like embracing International Women’s Day (“Festa della donna” in Italia) tomorrow. Whatever the cause may be, I am going through a baking frenzy.
I’ve been having the itch to bake ever since my Monday cooking class, when we made cantucci di prato (what we generally view as “biscotti” in America–and something my family often makes) from scratch. Then yesterday, Anna, the sweet elderly lady who lives in the apartment below us, came upstairs to bring us a jar of homemade meat sauce and a package of pasta. (Is she the cutest thing ever or what?!) Our “grazie” and smiles could barely do the “thank you” justice, though, because she doesn’t speak any English and we are still just learning Italian. That’s when I decided I have a good reason to bake!
So I gathered a few basic ingredients to make a simple almond butter cookie, because it’d be quick, easy and simple. Then I felt like getting fancy by adding in variations–chocolate in the center for some, a coating of beaten egg with sugar and vanilla extract for some, a topping of sugar for others, and I left a good amount plain. Overall, I was dissatisfied because they tasted too sweet and buttery in my opinion (probably because we don’t have measuring cups, so I was just eyeing everything). Luckily my housemates really liked them, so at least they’re being happily scarfed down 😀
But today, the baking frenzy only intensified. I decided to go all-out and recreate that biscotti we made in class. So I ventured out to gather everything I needed–from almonds to an orange to yeast. I had a blast jamming out to tunes in my apron as I handmade the dough on our kitchen table and infused my own variations to the recipe we learned in class based on my judgment–more orange grind, almond extract, more vanilla extract, and a couple other variations. They came out pretty damn good! (Still not as delicious as yours, Aunt Marianne). I decided to be fancy and top some with melted chocolate, too. I can’t wait for it to harden so I can go deliver a plate to Anna!
This one is for you, Nana and Grandpa.
I was randomly REALLY craving some fruta del mar, and didn’t think I could hold out until our heavenly Christmas Eve feast. Suddenly, I was overcome with an intense surge of motivation and ambition [that I really should be applying to my schoolwork instead of cooking/blogging right now but oh well] as an epiphany dawned upon me: I’ve watched and helped you make it enough (and certainly have eaten it enough) that I could absolutely just make it on my own! So, I did. And it was an excellent decision.
- Part I: St. Mark’s Square & Basilica
- Part II: Venetian cuisine
- Part III: Murano glass-making
- Part IV: Burano, “The Island of Painted Houses”
- Part V: Carnival Weekend
The city of Venice’s cuisine is best known for its seafood, since it sits right on the water and is populated by so many sailors. On our second day in Venice, Chelsea and I came across a little hole-in-the-wall seafood place. It didn’t seem too impressive at first glance–just a counter with mysterious seafood dishes to choose from. But we spotted a door deeper in, which led to a small, delightful caffe area with seating. It had brick walls, a cozy atmosphere, a friendly chef, and a blackboard listing some very college budget-friendly prices for these special Venetian dishes. We tried the fish lasagna and the scampi with saur. The fish lasagna was a warm dish prepared very similarly to classic lasagna (with tomato sauce, cheese and all), but it incorporated seafood. It didn’t taste fishy, though–certainly like seafood, but not overwhelmingly fishy at all. It may sound gross, but it was incredibly delicious. The scampi and saur is a shrimp and onion dish with vinegar that dates way back in the history of Venetian cuisine. As I learned in my cooking class, this dish was historically important because it provided excellent nourishment for sailors, and didn’t spoil too quickly. While I didn’t particularly favor the taste, it was interesting to try–especially after reading about it for class.
Check back for Venice: Parts III, IV and V about 3) Murano glass-making, 4) Burano (“The Island of Painted Houses”) and 5) the Carnevale.