My 21st birthday in Italy

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.

Salute! ...To good company and good times 😀

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 🙂

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Daily Failtales: Week 5

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…

Ho biscotti per tu!

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!

No biggie, just whipping up some fruta del mar

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.

Obviously not nearly as good as the family's, but it was still molta deliziosa! Next time, I will splurge on all the necessary seafood ingredients, buy one more lemon, put a little less onion/celery in the ratio, and let it marinade longer!

Venice (Part II): Venetian cuisine

Venice, Italy

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Venetian cuisine

Credit: amoitaly.com

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.

The sweets of Venice are some of the most delicious treats I've ever tasted. At our Carnevale dinner, we were served this assortment of traditional Venetian desserts--tiramisu, crapfen (fried dough ball with cream filling) and galani (flakey, crispy fried dough flats). When our group was walking to an art museum deeper in the city of Venice the next day, we passed this idyllic little sweets shop tucked away on a narrow pathway. The aroma of butter, chocolate, sugar and fried dough pervaded through the little street as we passed through. Chelsea and I were so determined to relocate this shop once we had free roaming time, that we ventured back into that maze of little streets to hunt it down. The quest was a success! I had the galani, which absolutely melted in my mouth. Molto delizioso!

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"FORMAGGIO!"

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For my first meal in Venice, I played it safe by sharing a quattro-formaggio pizza with friends. (With a 5am wake-up and day of traveling, some comfort food was very much desired). As I learned in my Food of Italy class, Asiago is a main cheese in Venice, and there was delicious Gorgonzola cheese on the pizza as well.

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Our traditional Venetian Carnevale dinner consisted of four courses--an antipasto, a risotto, a stuffed chicken dish, and the dessert plate described in the first photo. The appetizer was a delicious warm artichoke and cheese dish, and the stuffed chicken course was like a blend of sausage and chicken. My favorite piatta (besides the dessert) was the risotto, shown here. This creamy rice dish was prepared in a special Carnevale way, with pumpkin and squash.

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.

Valentine’s Day at the Florence Chocolate Festival

Note:  Pictures and stories from my Venice trip and the Carnivale are coming soon!–I’ve been very busy catching up with classes and errands after last week’s illness and this weekend’s travels, so sorry for the delay! In the meantime, let’s talk chocolate.

Aaaaah, Valentine’s Day in the enchanting city of Florence… Young Italian lovebirds are flocking the streets, and those damn flower guys are chasing potential clientele at every major corner.

Whether you have a lover or not, the Chocolate Festival is where everyone’s Valentine’s Day is sure to be sweet. The annual Artisan Chocolate Fair of Florence will last a few more days since it began last week, summoning people in good spirit to stop by the popular Piazza della Republica anytime between 10am to 10pm to try some delightful chocolate treats. A myriad of mouth-watering chocolate types fill the booths, along with different shapes–from shoes to animals to oldschool espresso makers. Some of them are expensive, but I’ve had college-budget success simply asking for X Euro of whatever chocolate chunk I’d like. E’ delizioso!

Apparently I must try the hot chocolate too–which is much more like melted chocolate in a cup than the typical Swiss Miss hot chocolate you’d probably have in mind. I am sure I’ll be returning tomorrow 🙂

Happy Valentine’s Day to all my family and friends at home! Love you!

Italian cuisine [in casa]

Allora, as I shared in my last post, I’m house-bound for a few days until I get well. But even within il casa, there is plenty of culture to talk about….like the differences between my cooking/eating habits here in Italy versus back at home in the US:

1. Oldschool coffee-making

This interesting little contraption brews a mighty strong coffee in a magical way. It’s a small, three-part metal device. Water is poured into the bottom, coffee is scooped into the filter that is placed on top of the water, and then the pitcher-like layer is screwed on top, empty. I turn on the gas valve and light up the stove (yes, that’s oldschool as well), and after several minutes of heat, coffee magically starts emerging in the top. I still haven’t mastered the proper quantities to make a perfect cup of coffee, but at least I learned how to actually make it!

2. Low-quantity/high-frequency grocery shopping

In the United States, I tend to grocery shop once per week or so, buying items in bulk and stocking up to last a whole week or more. Here, it’s totally different. My housemates and I find ourselves going grocery shopping about every other day. We have a small fridge that isn’t as cold as in the US, we usually are paying in cash, and there are so many grocery stores just a quick walking distance away. There is also a great selection of fresh food, which is best to use right away.

3. Fresh, flavorful ingredients & Less processed foods

We succeeded in making the perfect sick meal 🙂

I am thoroughly enjoying the quality of most ingredients here. My meals feel more nutritious and wholesome, revolving around fresh vegetables, olive oil, fresh herbs, and delicious cheeses. This is my preference at home too, but it’s too-often dominated by the readily-available quick-and-easy processed fixes.

This afternoon, some of my housemates and I made a delicious chicken noodle soup from scratch. While it wasn’t difficult at all, it’s something I’ve never done at college in New York because there is always a colossal collection of canned Progresso soup in the closet, which would only take a few minutes to make. I’m not only learning to cook more home-cooked meals, but learning to appreciate them more, too!

4. Fancy cooking fancy

...The first pasta dish I made here. May the last one be 10x more delizioso!

Taking the time and creativity to prepare a delicious dish has been an enjoyable requirement here. Maybe it’s the availability of great ingredients; maybe it’s the pleasure of having more free time in my day; maybe it’s the inspiration of the cultural love for food here. Whatever the reason may be, I find myself constantly attempting to level-up my cooking skills and invent interesting variations for meals.

6. Vino, vino e vino

There are bounteous places that sell cheap bottles of delicious wine. I’ve found some excellent red wines for only 2 to 5 Euro per bottle. My housemates and I are enjoying trying different Chiantis (a key wine of Florence) and various Tuscan region wines with our dinners. Sometimes I’ll even make a meal out of wine, cheese, antipasti and bread. Mi piace molto 🙂

Credit: Heather Ayvazian