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Category Archives: Restaurants

Venetian Wanderlust

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For those of you who think that Venice is expensive, I want you to know that I agree to disagree with you. Today, and it is Sunday when everything (including the Tabacchi) is closed, I managed to find a place slinging glasses of wine for €0.66 a glass (not a typo) and another place where dinner cost €6.00 including a pint of beer. No, I am not a unicorn or some other mythical creature; I just did a little due diligence and stumbled upon two gold mines in Canareggio.

And with the money I saved, I bought a fierce new top for St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. Yep…you heard me correctly. There’s been a minor modification in my routing and I will be drinking green beer and getting my craic on in the land of my ancestors this year.

Second Impressions…

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I visited Venice for the first time in January 2008. It was misty, cold, and quite dreary, but you could imagine what the city would look like bathed in a sunny glow. That vision became a reality today as my train crossed over the bridge. As the sun filtered through the many canals and Murano glass shops, I hurried to my hotel to get ready for my cooking lesson: a second visit to Ristorante Avogaria.

Venice is an intricate maze of narrow streets and bridges, and I’m convinced that even the locals tote around a map to confirm their way back home at night. I inquired with my hotel about how to get to Dorsoduro (where the restaurant is), but in true Kyle fashion, I bucked their advice and decided to blaze my own trail. I know what you’re all thinking…I walked so far in the wrong direction that I ended up in Mestre. Wrong! I actually arrived at the restaurant an hour early, took stock of the gorgeous place where I had dinner over two years ago now, and was whisked back to the kitchen to begin cooking.

On the menu today was Ravioloni di Pasta Fresca Caripieni di Burratta e Branzino con Sughetto di Crostacei and Pennette Limon con Pecorino Romano e Lievito Biologico. In case you don’t have your Italian dictionary handy, those dishes are large raviolis stuffed with sea bass and burratta cheese with langoustines in a cream sauce, and baby penne with a pecorino romano lemon sauce with yeast. For a blip in time, I had a flashback of yesterday when Francesco said we would be making homemade pasta for the ravioloni. My arms began to throb, and my back began to ache, but in the end, it was fine because this pasta recipe was a fast-forward version of yesterday’s activities, and he handled all of it. The recipe differed slightly in that we used both semolina and 00 flour, and mainly the yolks of the eggs to make the pasta a sunny yellow color. It was quick, easy, and while it chilled in the fridge before we slid it through the pasta machine, we got to work on the rest of our lunch.

We beheaded and filleted the sea bass (okay, he did), and sautéed it in some olive oil before shredding it up delicately (and checking for eye bones) to add to the burratta for the stuffing. We also cleaned the langoustines, zested and juiced a lemon, sampled some amazing pecorino romano cheese, and discussed our Salice Salentino Rosso wine. It’s a blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia grapes, and has notes of plum and blackberry with a bit of spiciness. It was great with the cheese.

Francesco moved about the smallish kitchen while I feverishly scribbled down notes, and took pictures. The lemon pasta tasted like a savory version of Lemonheads (sidebar: I love Lemonheads) and elicited a silent reaction from me…because I was so busy shoving my face full of the lemony masterpiece. And the ravioloni were a close second. The sea bass flavor was subtle, the burratta silky, and after we plucked them off their ravioloni rafts, the langoustines tasted like lobster.

Perhaps you’re wondering how I scored the opportunity for a backstage pass at Avogaria. I wish I had some dramatic answer, like I purchased a scratch card on Ryanair and won the afternoon with the chef, but the truth of the matter is quite simple: I just asked. Francesco remembered me from two years ago when I dined in their restaurant, so when I told him about Culinary Hopscotch and told him I would love for the Venice edition to include Avogaria, he graciously offered to have me as their guest. My second impression of the restaurant was better than the first. It’s off the well-worn tourist path, and the food that comes out of Francesco’s kitchen paints the perfect picture of Venice. It’s light, it’s tempting, and like the jagged streets of this picture-perfect city, there is a surprise at every turn.

Ristorante Avogaria 

Next Stop: Ljubljana

Deep-Fried Pizza. Gnocchi. Saltimbocca. Tiramisu.

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We woke up on Monday with God crying all over Rome. Was he trying to rain on our parade, or force us inside for one helluva day? Well, I don’t know. But the fact is, when in Rome, a cooking class at Le Fate is a must on your agenda.

Chef Andrea Consoli led our class of eight people in one of the tiniest restaurant kitchens I have ever seen. To him, it was heaven, and it was obvious how much he loves his job as a chef and teacher as he whisked around the itty bitty space teaching us the recipes for the aforementioned dishes. We would be his pupils and guests in the restaurant for a solid five hours.

One of the most amazing things I learned had nothing to do with the recipes, per se. It was how to choke-down a four-course meal. As we sat down for course #1, Chef came out with a bottle of Frescadi Spumanti, and filled our glasses before we woofed down our pizzas. The reason for this bubbly choice is to open up your stomach at the beginning of a big meal. He hit the nail right on the head when he said, “Sometimes, as a chef, you go through the process of cooking a huge meal, and after, you’re not even hungry. It‘s definitely from tasting as you go, but even the smells can trick your brain into thinking you‘re full.” That happens to me ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t believe I finally had an answer to a question that’s been bothering me for years.

The Spumanti trick worked. Sitting down a relatively full individual, after bottoms-upping my bubbly, I was primed and ready for the impending courses, which were fab-u-lous. We learned to make two kinds of tomato sauces– one canned and the other from fresh tomatoes. And I hearby declare the following: I will never put garlic into my fresh sauces again, and will always use a mirepoix in my canned ones instead of a pinch of sugar. I will only cook with the best tomatoes that I can find, and if I have to, I will import them from Italy for the Selenium content that is rumored to help you live a long life. I will also never purchase gnocchi again, but will make it by hand on Tuesdays and serve it on Thursdays. Lastly, I will suck up my distaste for coffee and make The Senator Tiramisu whenever he wants it because even I can admit when I’m wrong…this was good. 

Le Fate Restaurant (it means “the fairies”) was certainly off the beaten path in Trastevere, but everyone in the class agreed that it was worth the hike. Even the two most junior members of our class…an eight- and twelve-year-old. They were engaged the whole way through like the rest of us. Chef Andreas was passionate about his craft in a way that was refreshing, and in this “Zero Kilometer” restaurant (that means that everything in the restaurant…wine, produce, meat…comes from the Lazio region of Italy), you could tell that when you’re there for dinner or a cooking class, you’re family.

Le Fate Restaurant

Dining Like a Diva on Peasant’s Pennies

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Ally and I had somewhat of a breakthrough in Florence. On two occasions, we were suckered (by ourselves) into having drinks at establishments that were painfully touristy. And we all know that touristy equals expensive. 

On Piazza della Signoria, overlooking the Uffizi Gallery, we each spent €9 on glasses of wine at an outdoor café. At Harry’s Bar (same as the Venice original), wine was €7 a glass. We were glamorous as glamorous could be for the twenty minutes we sat in each place, however, the ding in the pocketbook did nothing to quench our thirst.
BUT, in each case, a welcome surprise arrived on the waiter’s tray with our vino: sandwiches and snacks reminiscent of High Tea at The Ritz in London. We thought it was an anomaly the first time, and then it happened again at Harry’s.
And that’s when it donned on us…
For €7-10, you could have a drink and eat pretty well on what they provided. Did we have it all wrong- searching the city for the most cost-effective bowl of pasta when diva dining was under our noses the entire time? We had mini sandwiches, olives, skewers of prosciutto and mozzarella in an orange, and more. And what’s better? We didn’t ask for any of it.
The point is, don’t count this out as a method of enjoying an evening at a ritzier place than you might normally stumble into. Sure, you should probably dress up a little (baseball hats need not apply), and you would certainly have to be amenable to eating what they brought you. But if you can acquiesce a bit, you too can be a part of the 21st century libation lallygag. It’s like a pub crawl…with food…and so much more fabulous.

What’s the Difference Between Tapas and Pintxos?

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Moving on from Bordeaux to Toulouse in the evening meant I got to enjoy a late meal of tapas and sangria with my friend. We shared Iberian ham, Manchego cheese, these tiny, deep fried fish that were whole and still had eyes, slices of chorizo, and of course, a pitcher of sangria. The restaurant was down a very quiet street, but completely filled with locals…the crazy kind. In fact, when the music began to pump through the place around 11:30 or so, some of the younger people at the table behind us de-robed briefly to dance on the tables. See?

Toulouse was a fantastic little town, and an interesting departure from both Paris and Bordeaux. Yes, I was still technically in France, but their way of life is more akin to Spain. Life gets started later in the evening, and they share a lot in common with their neighbor to the south. The proximity might have something to do with it. We woke up on Saturday morning, jumped in the car, and drove from Toulouse to Barcelona in just under three hours. That’s where I’d learn the difference between tapas and pintxos.

Both styles of food share a convivial spirit, whereby they’re eaten in a social setting. The difference, I’d find out, is that whereas tapas are smaller portions of food that are meant to be shared, pintxos are literally finger foods from the Basque region of Spain. For pintxos, you stand at a tavern bar with a small glass of wine and grab what you’d like from the displays. “Pintxos” literally means “spike,” and each of the pieces of bread with toppings are stuck with a toothpick. It helps to hold the food together, and then the bartender counts them on your plate and charges you accordingly.

In the tavern where we ate, there were lots of pintxos options, and most had fish. Common toppings include hake, cod, anchovy, but I preferred a pintxos with smoked salmon and a dollop of sauerkraut, or something like it, on top. Other options were olives, stuffed peppers, croquettes, and tortilla de patatas. Don’t be fooled by the name though… “tortilla” in Barcelona is nothing like our tortillas at home. It’s actually an omelet. Pintxos are great if you’re hungry for something small (like we were before the FC Barcelona game last night), and also an interesting way for groups of friends or family to crawl around the town from one place to the next.

Today was a rather busy day, and we finished it off with churros con chocolata at home. Wowsers. After the major injection of sugar, we’re trying desperately to stay awake for the Superbowl tonight. It starts at midnight, and we’re going to a place called Obama Bar to watch it. How ironic is that?

Barcelona was really fabulous, and in the short time I was here, I did a lot. I attended the soccer game last night against Getafe, we hiked up to Park Güell today for a picnic of Iberian ham sandwiches and had views of the entire city, and then we rented bikes and cruised along the boardwalk and all around the city center. Tomorrow morning, we’ll make a quick stop at Boqueria Market, and then it’s off to the airport in Girona. Barcelona…you have been great to me, and I will undoubtedly be back for paella, soccer, mojitos, tequila shots with orange slices and “canarella” (inside joke), and of course, more of those fantastic pintxos and sangria.

Next Stop: Granada

Can You Meet Me Halfway?

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Part of traveling is meeting people, especially when you’re traveling alone like I am. I’ve had good fortune on this trip to Paris. I met up with a friend in St. Germain for a beer on Monday night, and we talked about his upcoming wedding(s) in Brazil and Loire, among other things. And then, I headed to Buddha Bar and onto Hotel de Crillon to meet up with the fabulous group in the photo.

I met Pranay and Shavanee (they’re just behind me in the photo) in my cooking class last Saturday, just before they got engaged at the Eiffel Tower! Johanna, the other woman in the photo, is friends of someone that Pranay works with in Santa Clara, and her beau is a French photographer. As such, Pranay had arranged to have them inconspicuously photograph the engagement, so they all met to exchange a CD with the pictures, and I joined them. I saw one of the photos on his iPhone; it made me cry. I had known these people for 48 hours, at best, and felt like we were old friends.

My point is: no matter where you are in the world, if you’re open-minded, you will find friends. In fact, just today, I got an email from one of the girls from The Bachelor. She’s in Paris today too, so as we criss-crossed paths in the Marais that I spoke about the other day, we settled on having dinner together tonight. When they say it’s a small world, they mean it. I wonder who I’ll run into next?