Friday, January 27, 2012

Venice, Italy - Made in China

Venice is not the easiest place to post about.  Visiting in January, we had beautiful, sunny weather, no crowds, and no unpleasant smell.  Our first, superficial impression was of a unique and special place, unlike any we had ever visited before.  The sparkle of the sun on the canals, zipping around between beautiful facades in the water taxis, walking through the maze of tiny streets lined by bakeries, shops, and cafes - all of this combined to make our first couple of hours in Venice magical.

Enchanted at first, we started realizing that there were two Venices - the Italian Venice and the Chinese Venice.  Some of the shops in Venice are expensive, and some are very cheap - in fact, the cheap shops offer "Made in Italy" clothes and trinkets at the lowest prices that we saw anywhere on our trip from Rome to Venice.  The cheap shops were always staffed by Chinese workers.  When we asked questions, we were always dealing with a Chinese manager.  Thus, I call these "Chinese shops".  Always on the lookout for a bargain, we went in many of these Chinese shops.  The clothing for sale was poorly made, in many cases already picked and torn, and when I tried on an XL jacket, it barely fit...and I'm a medium - obviously, it was made for a market where people are much smaller (gee, can you guess where that would be)!  Even though the hangars said "Made in Italy" and the signs in the store said "Made in Italy", something was very wrong!

By contrast, the "Italian shops" were on par with what we had seen elsewhere in the country.  Quality goods on sale between 30% and 70% off were still more expensive compared to what we can buy in the USA, where prices are more like a third world country.  These shops were staffed by Italians, and the clothing and leather goods were of good quality.

By the time we got to Murano, the island specializing in glass-blowing, we weren't at all surprised by the signs in many of the store windows - "Please don't buy counterfeit Chinese glass.  Italian-made glass is more expensive, but we need your support."

The event that tore it for me was when I made the mistake of ordering a drink in a Chinese-run cafe.  Our son needed to use the restroom, and there aren't many of those in Italy.  So, you go into a cafe, order a drink, and everyone uses the toilet.  He was desperate, so we went into the first clean cafe we walked past with people in it.  It was staffed by Chinese, and the people in it were not eating, they were obviously part of the owner's family.  Our son scooted to the bathroom.  I scooted to the bar and ordered "la birra rossa" - a "red beer".  I was served a Leffe Brune, a nice brown abbey beer from Belgium.  Now, I am American, and my taste buds are not as highly refined as a European, but I know vinegar when I drink it.  This Leffe tasted like vinegar.  I let my wife sip it.  Her highly refined taste buds caused her to gag and spit, ejecting a wad of foam back into the glass.  I pushed the "beer" back across the counter to the Chinese girl behind the bar and said, "aceto, bad".  She said, "no, good".  I said "no, aceto - vinegar, bad".  She called the manager, who pulled himself a small taste, and said in perfect English, "This beer is fine.  This is the way it is supposed to taste."  At this point, our son was out of the bathroom, so I said, "No, that beer is vinegar.  No thanks."  We left.  However, this clinched our opinion of Chinese-run stores in Venice.  They are simply crooks, trying to sell garbage products to tourists, whether it is clothing, or glass, or beer.  I don't have anything personal against Chinese merchants, but I do take it personally when someone tries to sell me vinegar and calls it beer, or tries to sell me a cheap knock-off and call it an Italian coat.

Needless to say, my opinion of Venice was "soured".

Unfortunately, the "tourist district" of Venice seems to be owned and operated by greedy and dishonest Chinese merchants.   So, if you must go to Venice, make it a short trip, and don't eat or buy products in stores with Chinese cashiers or any Chinese presence.  Don't shop in the tourist district - get out of it as soon as possible.  Eat and shop on the periphery of the island in shops owned and staffed by Italians.  Read the signs in the windows of stores, and support the Italian businesses if you can afford to.  We recommend two glass shops in Murano - Pescepesce, and Fiorefiore - a pair of shops run by Italian brothers on Fondamenta Vetrai  (# 111 and #114).  The brothers were nice and polite to shoppers, which sets them apart.  We ate our meals mainly in Mestre, where we were staying, which was populated by lots of very friendly girls from eastern Europe.  When in Venice, we subsisted on snacks from cafes and ostaria, and we only went in places that were filled with Italians.

Now, on to our three days in Venice.  We arrived and wandered around on the first day.  After a couple of hours, my wife gave up looking at the map and embraced being lost.  I had, of course, embraced it immediately since I spend most of my time in cities lost.

We found the Rialto bridge in time for the sunset.

We enjoyed the Venice tradition of cichetti, stopping in the hostarias/wine bars for a small snack and a glass at the time we Yanks refer to as "happy hour".  This picture is from the Ostaria dai Zemi.

And most importantly, I discovered the best dessert of our entire trip at the Hostaria Dante.  This "tiramisu Beatrice" is a traditional tiramisu executed with crunchy biscuits much like Felice in Rome, but then topped with a delicious strawberry topping.  Ottimo! 

After having this, I was very happy with our decision to stay in Mestre and take the bus into Venice daily, not to mention the fact that Mestre was just oozing with the gritty but real European culture found near train stations, rather than the counterfeit Chinese garbage of Venice.

We took the water taxi to the islands of Murano and Burano one day.  Murano offered some unusual glass displays in the plazas, and Burano was a nice town to walk through as a break from the retail streets of Venice and Murano. 

On our final day in Italy, we were pretty much over the city of Venice, but I am never one to waste a day on holiday.  So, we went on an Irish Pub Crawl.

We ran out of Irish pubs fairly quickly, but by then it was cichetti time, and I found an Italian cafe that served Leffe Brune as it was supposed to be - not a hint of vinegar.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


So, I've got a US Verizon Droid3 phone, hooked up to an Italian wireless service from Vodaphone NL (headquartered in the Netherlands, I presume), watching a live American NFL football game for free via streaming video while eating Italian pizza and drinking Chimay ale from Belgium.  I am globalized!

Our Italy Ditty

We spend a lot of time traveling, so when a song gets stuck in our head, we use the time to create new lyrics...yesterday was one of those days.  An hour on the train with the Kink's classic "Lola" stuck in my head, and here's the ditty my son and I created, much to the wife/mother's chagrin:

I grew some sideburns while in Italy, now my wife can't stand the sight of me,
I'm European, so so European.
I bought a shiny jacket and some pointy shoes, sip my cappucino and I'm ready to cruise,
I'm European, so so European.
I eat a big lunch and sleep all afternoon, and I stop work for the summer 'round the month of June.
I'm European, so so European.
I speak three languages but you're not from my town, so I'm looking at you like you're Bozo the clown.
I'm European, so so European.

I couldn't speak Italian just three weeks ago,
But now it's ciao, arrivaderci, and buongiorno!
I make homemade pasta and drink red wine,
Give me a gelato and life's mighty fine!
I'm thinkin' 'bout surgery for a bigger nose,
Buying a man-purse, and designer clothes!
I'm European, so so European.
So so European.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ravenna - Should we have stayed here instead of Bologna?

Ravenna offers a ton of history stretching from the height of the Roman empire to the Byzantine empire to its downfall at the hands of the Ostrogoths and then into the Medieval Age and 1,000 years of European conflict.  It still retains a small-town feel and a great range of services for visitors, the best shopping in terms of price-to-quality we have found in Italy, and a collection of mosaics that equal the frescoes we saw in Rome.

Ravenna is like a great gift wrapped in newspaper.  The mosaics are simply mind-boggling.  How such beauty could have been created a thousand years ago, in an environment of seemingly constant war and conflict, is beyond me.  Here is an example.

In this small, nondescript, 5th century building...

...the ceiling is decorated with this mosaic, created with small bits of marble and stone.

In this 5th century mausoleum...

...the ceiling is a field of stars that has inspired songwriters (Cole Porter)...

The windows are wafer-thin marble, and every surface has an amazing mosaic embedded.  This shows a martyr who was so filled with faith that he was grilled alive and told his torturers to "turn me over, this side is done".

In this small town, there are eight UNESCO-designated historical sights.  In some, you can't take pictures at all, and bear in mind that all of the pictures here were taken without the benefit of a flash, which is forbidden, on a very foggy day with low ambient light.

We also had delicious pastries for breakfast in Ravenna,

...and a great meal with the best service we've had in Italy short of Felice in Rome, and the BEST LOOKING AND TASTING cafe in Italy at Fricando, via Maggiore, 7 48121 Ravenna.

After a 80-minute train ride back, we finished the day with another excellent meal at La Praia, this time enjoying the risotto frutti di mare in squid ink.

...followed by yet another pastry filled with mascarpone cheese.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bologna - Late Night Munchies courtesy of La Praia Ristorante-Pizzeria

La Praia is turning out to be a diamond in the rough.  Since the pasta was so good, and the seafood looked exceptional, we decided to stage a late-night munchies raid to see how the pizza was.  It did not disappoint.  With the need for some vegetables in our diet, we went with the Maiori - mozzarella, delicious sausage, and leafy veg (broccoli on the menu, but more like kale or mustard greens in translation) and the 4 Stazione (forgive my spelling) - four different toppings split into quarters - sausage, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and ham.

Washed down with a fine Sri Lankan stout - the Lion!

Mucho gusto!

Al Sangiovese - the best Bolognese Ragù yet!

After a late start to the day, we wandered down to Al Sangiovese for an early lunch.  It turned out to be our best meal in Bologna yet.  My wife started with the Bavarese di formaggio caprino con crema di funghi porcini e porri, a fresh goat cheese in a delicious porcini mushroom sauce.  The cheese was cold, the sauce was warm, and the combination of temperature and taste created an explosion of flavor in your mouth!

Our son went straight for the yardstick by which he measures Bologna's restaurants - the Tagliatelle al ragù - also known as the traditional Bolognese meat sauce.  It was a good choice, this was the best ragù out of the three he has had so far.

I opted for the macaroni with pesto, prosciutto, and a Sangiovese sauce...again a delicious pasta dish.

The food is so good here that we have taken to eating one three-course Italian meal a day - a primi (usually pasta), a secondi (usually meat), and a dolci (usually tiramisu for me at least).  By the time this is done, it's a 2+ hour experience, and you really need to walk several kilometers, which keeps us moving.

For seconds, our son the carnivore went with the lamb chops - a bit dry and he ended up swapping chops for portions of the other two dishes with a bit of masterful negotiation.

My choice, the scallopina alla suprema, was the best second.  The topping of asparagus and Parmesan was delicious, and the thin, fried scallopina was immediately divided up amongst all three of us!

My wife, who had an antipasti as a first, now went for a first as a second, and ordered the Strozzapreti del “Passatore”, a pasta with peas and prosciutto.

At this point, I was down for the count and ready to wobble out.  Not so for my intrepid dining companions, who had to push the envelope with dessert.  Our son chose the panna cota which was light and very tasty, and my wife the baked pears in hopes of gaining a little much-needed fiber.  Both were again fantastic.

Another full day of eating, done in one meal.  Who says the Italians can't be efficient?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bologna - Time to eat my weight in pasta!

To be honest, at this point, the last thing we want to see is another fountain, or statue, or church, or basilica, or religious-themed painting, or fresco, or tower, or medieval wall.  My wife even uttered the most unholy of blasphemies, something to the effect of "I don't want to see another plate of pasta!"  When I asked what it was she did want to see, the answer was a very zen "nothing, a lot of nothing". 

So, tomorrow we're going to go to the Best Deli in Bologna, and eat more pasta in another great restaurant.  If that doesn't do it, then I'll have to take her to Verona where she can look at the lakes and the mountains for a day, and of course, snap a few pictures of me rubbing Juliet's breasts "for luck" as tradition has it.

We arrived in Bologna yesterday, found our apartment here, had a bit of prosecco and an almond-ricotta torte left for us by the gem of a landlady, and then...well, by now you know what comes next...we headed out for pasta.

We went around the corner to La Praia.  It was full of locals, and we even saw children out after dark in a restaurant - something that was missing in Rome and Florence.  We sat, and greeted the adorable young server with a hearty "buongiorno!" when she walked up to the table.  Her reply was one word: "Oh!"  To which I replied, "yeah, we're not from around here" in perfect Southern American.  Unlike Rome and even more so Florence, where most restaurant staff speak enough English that we can get by when lost and confused by a menu full of dishes with names of four or more words, we haven't found that in Bologna.  The service is friendlier, better overall, and we get a lot more smiles. This doesn't change the fact that the servers jabber at us in Italian, and we jabber back in Italianglish, and we always get served a good meal even if we're not quite sure what it is.

First time in Bologna, my two traveling companions had to get the tagliatelle bolognese.

I went out on a limb and ordered tagliolini agrumi e gamberetti.  I forgot the Italian dictionary, so we were flying blind but I recognized "gamberetti" as probably being either shrimp or shrimp entrails, and there were a lot of people eating seafood around me.  I was right, and won the "best meal" award for the first of two days in a row.

This was the tastiest sauce we'd had yet on this trip, a creamy-white wine-lemony flavor that perfectly complimented the heaps of shrimp.

For dessert, it was a crema catalan, and my usual tiramisu, and a delicious nearly frozen lemoncello compliments of the house!

Looking around at the other meals being served, we realized too late that seafood is the specialty of the house.  If we break with tradition and go back a second time, I'm taking the Italian dictionary and ordering a big plate of shellfish!  The pizza also looked fantastic, and was half the price of pizza in Rome.

Back at the apartment and ready for bed, our son really appreciated the pink slippers left for him by the aforementioned wonderful landlady.

The next day, we were out and about to see more fountains and museums.  With my excessive libido, I particularly appreciated the Fontana di Nettuno.

Keeping in the nautical theme, our next stop was the Naval Museum.  Bologna features the world's first university, and one of the things they taught was the art of naval warfare.

This same museum housed a large area on animal and human anatomy, so we lured our son in with warships, and then tortured him with grotesquely detailed human anatomy.

Have you ever seen a better collection of dissected eyeballs?

After that, there was nothing else to do but have a large lunch.  Our choice, Trattoria da Romana, a great restaurant right across from the train station.  Here, I won my second award in a row for best selection.  I started with a ravioli in porcini mushroom sauce.

The wife had a healthy mushroom salad.

Our son was crushed when he was told that they were out of the caramelle gorgonzola e rucola (candy-shaped pasta stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and arugula).

But he recovered quickly when another plate of bolognese arrived.

My main course was an ossobuco...ottimo!

Our son, the carnivore, finally got to have a mixed grill...not a vegetable in sight!

The wife looked surprised when this plate was put in front of her - tortellini or tortelloni, I'm not sure which.  I didn't ask if that was what she ordered, since I had no shot at explaining it to the server, and we had enough meat for three so more pasta was just an afterthought.