Friday, March 14, 2014

When in Wien

 A picture journey through my quick 36 hours in Vienna. 

Some highlights:
  • A 9 hour bus ride, stuck up right, with constant neck issues.
  • Massive group travel, ~ 150 Johns Hopkins SAIS students
    • Aka, met a billion new people, I was the strange "Non SAIS-er"of the group, and I remember maybe names of five of the 70 people I met.
  • Stephensplatz
  • Kick-a$$ skating rink/track outside the city hall
    • a small typical 'german' or 'austrian' market stand village with delicious treats
  • gorgeous architecture, filled with museums, too much to see!
  • Karlskirch - Rickety scaffolding brought us directly into the cupola, including a noisy stand up/temporary elevator in the middle of the church
  • The Belvedere - The Kiss, Gustav Klimt
  • Chocolate Cake/Sacher Torte
  • Wieners
  • Apple Strudel
  • Pretzels
  • Kunst Haus - Wien
And oh yea!! THE VIENNESE IAEA STAFF ASSOCIATION BALL! This was the basis of the trip, and was quite a blast.  The event started 5pm Saturday, after an overnight busride of 9 hours arriving at 7am saturday and then a full day of sightseeing, 30 minute nap included. Aka. being a champion.  5pm cocktail hour at the city hall and an address by the staff of the mayor of Vienna.  I spilled an entire glass of red wine down my beautfilly dressed self. #win. Everyone wore beautiful gowns and suits.  The ball itself was held in the Hofburg Palace... kind of epic.  There as an opening ceremony at 8:30 that included a few speeches then various ethnic groups came and preformed traditional dances. Then we danced! And explored... the 15 + rooms of the palace all catered to a different kind of music and dance.  Just after midnight the real waltz occurred in the main ballroom and, yes, I did attempt to waltz... it was a large struggle.  We stayed at the ball till 3am, stopped for food on the way home (we barely ate all day!), then slept for a few lovely hours before waking up at a normal hour to make the most of our few hours as tourists in the gorgeous city of Vienna!  Fabulous weekend. Went by super quick.  Despite the time crunch, I felt like I saw a good amount of the city, saw a number of its most famous pieces of art and ate some of the traditional food.  No complaints! And boy, I was BEAT.  Arrived back home at 5am monday morning with minimal sleep and 9 hours of class ahead of me... Was not an easy day! Vienna is definitely on the "to return to" list!


Agretti della Bacchanalia
Last Spring, my Aunt Toni, my friend Julia and I sat down in a small restaurant in Isola del Liri, Frosinone, Lazio to enjoy a nice meal.  Little did we know the Bacchanalia would give us a mediocre meal, alongside with the discovery of a vegetable we would learn to crave forever.

Interested as always in ordering a contorno of some type of veggie to go along with our meat and pasta filled day, we asked our waiter what kind of seasonal vegetables he had to offer.  Naturally, his response included the usual grilled veggies and mixed salad, but then he threw a curve ball at us.  When we expected either spinach or cicoria (Dandelion greens), he said the restaurant did not have any, but then he mentioned a springtime green, Agretti, that confused us and intrigued us.  We clearly had never heard of it before, so we asked for an explanation of what the green was, and all we really understood was that it was kind of like spinach, but not really, it was delicious, and would come dressed in oil, garlic and lemon. Okay, si, prendiamo gli agretti!

Fabulous choice might I say...

Agretti; otherwise known as Salsola Soda, Barba di Frati or Lischi are only cultivated in the Mediterranean basin in springtime. They grow into small shrubs with fleshy green 'leaves' and reddish roots. It's taste is hard to describe, but it seems closest to the taste of spinach in terms of it's sharp mineral taste, but agretti are sweeter and have a much stronger taste. Agretti are rich in water and help our bodies to remain hydrated while purifying the body and stimulating digestion at the same time.  Agretti are rich in vitamins A and B, potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron, making their properties very close to that of spinach.

Why I love Agretti,

Agretti della Nonna
 So, my obsession as you know originated last spring in Isola del Liri, but my obsession grew when I realized my Nonna had never even heard of this magically delicious vegetable.  So, that very same weekend she looked for them in the supermarket, and she too was amazed.  She cooked us up a lovely batch, (cooked like beans) with lemon, oil and garlic, we ate the entire bowl under the sun on the patio at Via Muto, and my Nonna was purely shocked at their deliciousness and ease of preparation. She was so impressed that we had discovered it, and that we showed her the green as well.

I had never cooked them for myself because I discovered them too late in the spring last year and I left for Boston pretty soon after the discovery.  But, just two weeks ago the little bushy, cartoon hair-like green vegetables had infiltrated all of the markets of Bologna and boy was I excited!  The possibilities with Agretti are endless. You can eat them raw in a salad, you can boil them, sautee them or steam them. My recent use of them has been boiled, at the same time as my pasta, in the same pot and I end up with a nice salty dish of pasta and agretti (the agretti are naturally rather salty).  Another option is to actually substitute pasta with the agretti, they could pose as a healthy pasta for they have a similar shape and adding sauce and other goodies to them would just increase their potential.  Or -- just eat them as my Nonna served them, simple and delicious, dressed with lemon, oil and garlic.

Agretti della Liuccia! Gramigna con Agretti
My favorite thing about the agretti though is that they are actually ridiculously cheap. I paid just 1 euro 20 for two large bushels that lasted me through 4 or 5 different meals.  I couldn't believe they could be so cheap when they seem like such an exotic, rare and precious vegetable, but I wasn't complaining! 

As you can see, possibilities are endless.  Now, we only need to get the exported to the states so America can see the beauty behind this delicious green.

Main point is: find agretti and try them please!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eating through Mantova

Back in Bologna for nearly three days, in the midst of preparing for my final exam, and the offer arrives to take a day trip somewhere. Naturally, I put the studying on hold, gave a big F you to the continuous rain, and headed off with an american friend Samantha to explore the city of Mantova.  With six months left in Bologna, there's already no time to second guess 'living'. I am doing it.  I'm no longer counting calories or nickels and dimes (well for the most part), and I have proclaimed that this semester is for graduating on time but also for living it up, enjoying life and doing as many new things as possible and seeing all the sights I have not yet seen.  Samantha, also unsure of how long Italy will remain her home is experiencing similar urges, so I was thankful when I received her message asking if I would be interested in a day trip, because I had already been planning to escape saturday or sunday to explore some town in Emilia Romagna, so I jumped at the chance to go to Mantova on friday with a companion. Score!

Ready to take on whatever weather the day brought us, we were off to Bologna Centrale by 7:45am and attrezzate.  We were already excited because it had been non stop raining since I arrived Tuesday, and it seemed like the sky just wanted to be very grey and stay that way without spitting at us.  It was a good start to the day!  On the train to Mantova, we used our 3G to wikipedia the town to determine what would be the main sites to see, the cultural highlights and of course, the culinary musts.  As you would expect, we spent most of our gigs browsing the various regional delicacies that Mantova would offer us, from the wikipedia page, we had a lot of ground to cover in terms of consuming calories in just six hours.

We arrived at the train station fortunate to see it had not begun to rain.  We got on our bearings and headed toward the center to find the Tourist office to get a map and advice on the city.  Walking into the center of town we were obviously quickly sidetracked as we walked past the "Casa del Pane", situated on a perfect corner and immediately calling our name. In fact, we soon realized that "Casa del Pane" was reviewed as the best bakery in Mantova by a reviewer on TripAdvisor, it was like it was meant to be that we took that road toward the center, and there was no way we could say no to the various pastries staring at us from their shelves, labelled with the various typical names that we had just learned about on Wikipedia.  The only question for us was, which treats to get?  We entered the bakery, and were quickly greeted by the nice men running the shop, they chatted with us, while we told them we wanted to try the typical mantovana dolce, they suggested some sort of rum cake which we quietly nixed, and we asked about the Sbrisolona Torta which we had read about on wikipedia.  The men agreed it was a very typical pastry of the area, so we grabbed a slice of that, and our eyes had also been caught on a frittella di mele con marscarpone e gocce di cioccolato, even if it wasn't a regional pastry, we couldn't resist... a fried apple flavored sugar coated dough ball filled with delicious marscarpone and chocolate chips. Yes, please.  We left the "Casa del Pane" enthused, pronta to eat our frittelle which they had heated up for us, and we decided to save the sbrisolona cake - which literally means "to crumble".

Quick Sbrisolona History: The Torta Sbrisolona di Mantova is the most well renown dessert of Mantova and the most diffused outside of the province. It used to be called the "tart of three cups" because it was made from a cup of cornmeal, a cup of flour and a cup of sugar. Often the tart also has almonds in it. The dessert derives it's current name from the verb sbriciolarsi, which means to crumbled and it is also advised to be eaten by breaking off pieces with your hands, never to be cut with a knife.

la frittella
Frittelle in mano, only for a split second anyways, we headed toward the center feeling in heaven as we bit into our little fried dough balls of deliciousness. And we immediately regret not buying more. We stopped into the Basilica of Saint Andrea before reaching the tourist office. We admired the intricate detail of the enormous church, spent our time walking around every corner of the church, then continued on.  In the tourist office we were given a map, Samantha asked nicely for some suggestions for the city and the other obvious question, where to eat! On our agenda we had a couple of more churches to see, the Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo Te, the lake, Virgil and more to eat, so off wandering we went.

Before we stopped for lunch, we wandered through the Palazzo Ducale and the attached castle that unfortunately was closed. We spent a good amount of time in the Cathedral or Duomo of the city where we admired a painting of Saint Agatha, and learned about her sainthood and why she is the patron saint of breast cancer (Thank you 3G yet again). We saw the house of Rigoletto, strolled through the park dedicated to Virgil (It was sadly very vandalized), and then strolled along the lake around the peninsula that is the city of Mantova and headed back toward the center with hungry stomachs.

Risotto alla Pilotta
We had two restaurant recommendations from the woman in the tourist office, so the plan was to check them out and find the better of the two.  On our way to restaurant number one we walked past another bakery whose window was taunting me with another Mantovan specialty, la torta di tagliatelle, naturally I couldn't just ignore the window, so I bought myself another little snack for the train ride home :) Afterwards, the first restaurant (Taverna Cinquecento) we walked to seemed actually quite nice and decently priced, 10-12 euro primi, but we noticed they did not have much of the local cuisine as options on the menu, so we went off hunting for the second restaurant which ended up being a hit! Trattoria Al Portichetto was exactly what we were looking for and we were so thankful that the tourist office had recommended it. Not only did it normally have really cheap primi and secondi 6-10 euro, but during lunch time they had a lunch menu including a primi, acqua and caffe for 7 euro. Score! Samantha went for the Capunsei, which are "gnocchi di pane" or gnocchi made from usually stale bread and dressed with butter and sage or in brodo (chicken broth), and were typically made during and after World War II by the poor, but then became popular in restaurants.  I, on the other hand, had Risotto alla Pilotta, which is the most famous risotto of Mantova, named after the people who worked in the "pila" of rice, the dish contains plain risotto with grana and pesto di maiale (pork).  All in all, no complaints for our 7 euro fabulous lunch and with our bellies satisfied we were off to explore the parts of the city we hadn't walked to before and also make it to the Palazzo Te.

Palazzo Te
Needless to say, we had a pretty successful day trip to Mantova.  It never ended up raining, and we nearly checked off every food on the wikipedia culinary list specific to Mantova.  We saw gorgeous churches, and the intricate details of each room in the Palazzo Te, and we had the Sbrisolona to cheer us up on the utterly cold, long and late train ride home to Bologna :) As for my Torta di Tagliatelle, I resisted eating it that same night and enjoyed it the following morning with a nice cappuccino in the comfort of my home.  The Torta di Tagliatelle was appunto interesting, it had a very eggy base to the dough, and the tagliatelle on top with almonds mixed with some sweet/herb taste attributed to Sassolino liquore (Anice flavor) made it a kind of dessert I had never tasted before.  It was certainly something to try! By the end of the day we were frozen and mad at trenitalia for constantly running late, but at least our tummies were lined with the delicious treats of Mantova!