Observations on Coffee in Italy

(yes, i know this is a little late)

As an owner of an espresso machine and red-blooded Seattlite, I was very interested to see how the Italians drink their coffee. Over the course of our stay, we had the opportunity to try many cups of coffee at a variety of establishments. Here are a few things we observed…

Espresso = 0,85 – This is the standard price for the most common coffee drink we saw in Italy, a single shot of espresso served at a stand-up bar counter in a small ceramic cup with a matching saucer and demitasse spoon. The price is nearly 100% consistent across the board, though the premium to sit down while drinking your coffee varies and can double the cost of the drink. Adding a shot of Sambuca (as we saw somebody do) increases the price as well.

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Multitasking baristas – It’s common to see a barista making 3-4 shots of espresso at a time, simultaneously attending to a bunch of customers. Since classic manual machines (portafilters, tampers, …) are the norm and typically deliver two shots simultaneously to two separate cups, their job is a little easier than it sounds. At the autogrille (tollway restaurant, picture below), the coffees were coming out 4×4 and I had one in front of me before even ordering it!

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Efficient milk re-use – Unlike in America, it’s common for coffee shops to steam a bunch of milk ahead of time, then use the pre-steamed milk for macchiatos and cappuccinos as they’re ordered. This makes it possible to serve a milk-based drink nearly as quickly as it does to serve a straight espresso. There’s no waiting in line for your morning drink – it’s set down in front of you nearly immediately after you order it! Milk drinks are rarely ordered after lunch.

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“Bar” – Italians typically enjoy their espresso at a “bar”. These “bars” are not fancy lounges, dance clubs, or pubs. The typical “bar” is a place where people go for drinks and snacks, which almost always serves both coffee and beer.

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American drinks – Cafe Lattes are in fact sold in Italy, though they do not seem to be ordered very often (unlike their cousin, the Cappuccino). All drinks are small (no larger than 6 oz or so), and there is no such thing as a 2% triple-shot venti caramel frappacino. As far as we could tell, drip coffee doesn’t exist here either, though Cafe Americanos (espresso + water) are available. Other than Granita (a thick and potent cross between espresso and italian ice), we didn’t see any iced coffee drinks either.

Nescafe – No matter what anybody says, this is not espresso. It’s a disgrace to coffee in general. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s even legal here. I was only served this once.

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24 Hours in Milan

See our gallery of photos tagged with “milan”.

After Florence, Abby and I did a brief one-night stop in Milan. We had heard great things about the city from Abby’s cousin Allison (reigning “What is it??” champion) who studied there last fall and decided to check it out on our own. Upon arrival we called around and found a room at the best hotel in Milan:

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OK… we didn’t actually stay at a “5 star L” hotel in Montenapoleone, and no that’s not our Ferrari, but we did stay at a two star hotel named “The Best” near the train station which worked out quite well.

After checking in, we set out for some crazy sightseeing. We took the metro into the center of town and saw Milan’s Duomo (an enormous white Gothic church), both inside and out. We climbed 170 steep steps to the top of the building where we had even better views of the flying buttresses as well as sweeping views of the city.

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Afterward, we walked across the square to the famous shopping mall where we saw stores full of items we couldn’t afford and then spun around three times on the mosaic bull on the ground for good luck. Note the position of Abby’s foot. It’s customary to spin around on the bull’s manhood, and there is even a handy indentation on the floor there to make it easier to do.

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We then took a train out to a student-filled canal-lined neighborhood in search of Appertivo, one of the best things we discovered about Northern Italy. Appertivo is a happy hour deal where bars put out large spreads of pasta, meats, cheeses, fruit, rice, etc. and include the buffet spread in the cost of a drink. For example, you’d pay 6 euro for a cocktail and unlimited trips for food. Definitely a great deal for students, cheapskates, and budget-councious travelers.

By 10:00 we were exhausted and headed back to The Best Hotel in Milan for a good night’s sleep.

Florence

See our gallery of photos tagged with “florence”.

After three great days of driving around the Tuscan hill towns, we returned our Fiat to Siena and took the next bus up to Florence. As we’ve started doing more often now, we arrived without having any accommodations lined up. Instead – we found a neighborhood in our guidebook that looked appealing (in this case “Oltrarno”), and then walked over there and checked out the places recommended in our guidebook. The hostel (the cheapest option) looked uninviting, so we went with a nearby budget hotel run by the church instead. It was great – our room had a large window overlooking a courtyard, and even a small loft. Not bad for a two star hotel!

We enjoyed the neighborhood a lot as well. Oltrarno is situated on the south side of the river that runs through Florence, across from the north side which contains most of the sights (and tourists). What the neighborhood lacks in sights, it makes up for in local restaurants and bars. It even has a morning market in its main square. Definitely a good place to stay!

As far as sightseeing, we did the usual Florence stuff. We checked out the Duomo (an enormous church with an impressive white façade), as well as the Uffizi gallery, a large Renaissance art museum. We also spent a lot of time simply wandering around town, people watching, and looking into the windows of fancy stores. With only a day and a half in town, it was an admittedly brief visit, but still a great time.

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What is it?? Round III – Official Results

Thanks to all who participated in this round of “What is it??”. We had a lot of good guesses, though none of them were perfect. We’re naming two winners for this round, who each honed in on two different aspects of this unique contraption:

Allison – she was the first to recognize the contraption as some sort of Karaoke device (and even we had to zoom in on the photo to appreciate her reference to garlic)

Dan’s Mom – she was the first to call it out as a dental chair.

Yes, this device was a combination dental chair / internet / karaoke machine in the basement of the wine bar. The owners were extremely proud. We thought they were nuts, but really want to go back anyway.

I should mention that we’ve posted both of the last two posts from the only free wi-fi we were able to find in Nice: an ultra-hip club / lounge / bar with loud techno music, an array of flat panel TVs, and spinning purple lights. The weird thing is… we’re the only patrons. This is a sign of our dedication to you, our loyal readers.

Hill Towns of Tuscany

See our gallery of photos tagged with “tuscany”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and decided that I must visit Tuscany one day. But I have clear memories of reading that book during my first or second year in DC and dreaming of sitting at a table in the hills of Tuscany with fresh tomatoes, olives and wine. Now, almost ten years later, I am lucky enough to find myself exploring the hill towns with Dan in our little rented Fiat. Although we didn’t make it to Cortona, the town that Frances Mayes made her home, we covered a lot of ground and got a great taste of the good life in Tuscany.

We picked up the rental car in Siena on Wednesday, along with a detailed road map, and we headed for the hills. The road map did not end up being necessary, however, thanks to Dan’s trusty Nokia N810, which he enabled with a one-week free trial of GPS-based navigational software right before we left Siena. The GPS proved to be hugely helpful in finding our way between the many small towns and helping to determine driving time, etc. We’d definitely recommend it. Our car was great also. It was a Fiat that handled really well and was shockingly fuel efficient. It took diesel gas and we only used three-quarters of a tank throughout three full days of driving.

Our first stop was San Gimignano, which is a very picturesque town that is dominated by its many medieval towers. It was fairly crowded here with other sightseers, but we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch in the main square, as well as some fabulous gelato from a place that won the 2006 World Gelato Championship (or something like that). On our way out of town, we drove up a gravel road that provided us with postcard-perfect views of San Gimignano — one of the many examples of why it is great to have your own wheels in this region. Next we headed for Volterra, which shares a name with one of our favorite restaurants in Seattle that was also the scene of our third date. Volterra would be our home for our first night in Tuscany and we quickly fell in love with its beautiful views and authentic charm. As with all of these towns, you drive uphill to get there and are rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. One of the highlights of our stay in Volterra was a pre-dinner visit to a wine bar called La Vena di Vino, where we shared a wine tasting sampler that included Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and a Super Tuscan. They were all great wines, but the experience was made more memorable by our very charismatic hosts Bruno and Lucio. They were extremely friendly and welcoming and Lucio — apparently famous in Volterra for his karaoke singing — treated us to an a capella rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ (This wine bar is also the proud home of the karaoke dentist chair featured in Round III of What Is It??)

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After one night in Volterra, we made our way to the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. This town was not featured in any of our guidebooks, but it was close in proximity to a restaurant that we were targeting for Friday night, so we decided to visit for lunch and see if there were any rooms available. This place definitely felt a bit off of the beaten track, in a very welcome way. We had to use our limited Italian vocabulary to communicate and the population featured more locals than tourists. We ate some lunch in the main square and then walked down to a bed & breakfast that we had passed earlier. At Il Pozzo della Citerna, we met Rosa, a delightful elderly woman who spoke not a word of English. Although we couldn’t communicate with each other, she helped us call her daughter, who said that all of their rooms were full but she could help us find a room elsewhere if we would just call back a bit later in the afternoon. That was our first introduction to Sara, who would end up being a huge help to us and an inspirational example of the “kindness of strangers.”

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Following our visit to Castelnuovo, we drove south through a region called Crete-Senesi. This is a very hilly area that provides some striking views of Tuscany — the kind that look like what you see on postcards or calendars with a line of pointy cypress trees heading uphill to a lone farmhouse. This was a very beautiful area. Our destination that afternoon was Montalcino, where we would spend our second night in Tuscany. This is yet another lovely hill town that is surrounded by vineyards, with all of the stores offering its famous Brunello di Montalcino wines. We quickly found a place to stay in the main town that was situated above a bakery that smelled absolutely amazing. One thing that we loved about Montalcino was how authentic it felt and how easy it was for us to feel a part of the community. We went out for a walk in the evening and were impressed by how many locals were out strolling together. And they all said Buena Sera to us as we crossed paths. This is one thing that I love about Italy. You see these groups of older women or men walking together arm-in-arm or sitting on benches together in the evenings just chatting. We both love the feeling of community that this provides and wish that we had a bit more of this back in the States. Anyway, we had a simple (but delicious as always in Italy) pasta dinner, sat out in the main square to read the paper, and then went to bed pretty early.

On our final full day of driving, we headed for Pienza in the morning. This town is famous for its Pecorino cheese (which is one of Dan’s favorites) and all of the shops are chock full of wheels of different types of Pecorino. We bought “a taste” of Pecorino from one of the shops, which was quite delicious, before hopping back in the car to drive south to Civita di Bagnoregio. This is the place that Rick Steves calls “the ultimate” Tuscan hill town. Although it was a bit of a drive, we are so glad that we made the trek. Civita and Bagnoregio are two different towns that were historically connected by a land bridge. Now it is a man-made bridge that you use to traverse between the two towns. Civita is tiny and quite literally perched on top of a hill. Bagnoregio is larger and provides breath-taking views over to Civita. We did make the climb up into Civita, but both agreed that the highlight of the visit was viewing the town from Bagnoregio.

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We spent our final night back in Castelnuovo, where we had arranged to meet Sara at 5pm in front of her b&b. Now back to the inspirational “kindness of strangers” experience … It turns out that Sara had arranged for us to rent a room from her friend down the street who does not speak any English. So Sara instructs us to bring our car up to the corner, where she will be waiting on her bike, and then she will guide us over to her friend’s place. We can’t believe how nice she is to do this, but Sara does proceed to absolutely fly on her bike the one kilometer down the road to her friend’s place. Here we meet Amelia who does in fact have a very lovely room for us at a very lovely price. So this is where we stayed for our last night in Tuscany: a beautiful, quiet bedroom with doors that opened into a grove of olive trees. Seriously. With a free parking place that only required us to carry our packs about fifty feet. After thanking Sara profusely, she explained that she was happy to help because she would only hope that someone would do the same for her if she were in a place where she didn’t speak the language and was trying to get situated. We made sure to share our contact information so that we can return the favor if she ever finds herself in the U.S.

The town of Castelnuovo was only about 8km from the restaurant that our friends Ben & Elisa had visited a few years ago and for which they had given glowing recommendations. So after several nights of picnic lunches and cheap pasta dinners, this would be our splurge dinner in Italy. 30 Bottega is just off of a very small, quiet road that would have been very hard to find without the GPS. We arrived around 8pm for what proved to be a wonderful and highly memorable meal. We were seated in a covered room that opened onto a garden patio. Our meals were divine and I could write a full post just about what we ate. Since this is already getting really long, I’ll cover the highlights: figs stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in pancetta, a big ravioli with an egg inside that broke only when you cut into the ravioli, delicious veal for me and three-hour-roasted duck for Dan. It was fantastic. And to complete the experience, right before we started our dessert, a rocking hailstorm came out of nowhere and produced these enormous pieces of hail that were ricocheting off of the metal tables on the veranda and into our covered room. We and all of the other diners had to huddle our tables together and the staff set up umbrellas facing outside to deflect all of the hail. It was quite the sight, but actually kind of fun. After finishing our dessert and waiting for the heavy rain to pass, we drove home with full bellies and quickly fell fast asleep.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=59809

What is it?? Round III

We found this contraption in the cellar of a wine bar in Volterra, one of the beautiful hill towns in Tuscany. The owner was quite proud of it. What is it??

Following a day or two of guessing, this item will be further explained in our next posting on the hill towns of Tuscany.

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Best of luck!

Seeing Siena

See our gallery of photos tagged with “siena”.

On Monday morning, we headed to Termini station without any plan of how we were going to get to Siena. The ticket office had a long line, so we bought our tickets from a vending machine that sold a train + bus combo ticket, with a “short transfer time”. By buying these, we realized that we’d need to figure out how to get from the train station to the bus stop in only 10 minutes, in the town of Chiusi, which neither of us had ever heard of before. No problem though — we’re experts, right? Before we knew it, our train was was 30 minutes delayed and it seemed certain we’d miss the connection. Would we be stranded in Chiusi? Not sure how it all worked out, but they actually held the bus, and we got to Siena by early afternoon without any trouble. Phew. As a bonus, the bus ride gave us our first views of the sweeping landscapes of Tuscany.

Siena is a beautiful small city. The old town consists of winding red brick streets (actually “burnt sienna“, for anyone who grew up with Crayola). In the center are two big attractions, one of the nicest town squares we’ve seen (perfect for hanging out and relaxing), and the Duomo, a cathedral with a grand white marble façade. However, as wonderful as the sights were, Abby and I were most excited about the food, which was excellent.

On the first night, we had dinner at a wine bar called Enoteca I Terzi on a side street a few blocks off the main square. The food was incredible — by far the best meal we’ve had all trip. It started with an antipasti plate consisting of two types of cured ham, hard cheese, a spinach tart, a cheese souffle, sausage stuffed zucchini, and a fresh fig. Delizioso! We followed it with two plates of pasta: gnocchi in cream sauce with sauteed red peppers, and flat noodles with porcini mushrooms, and then finally a stewed beef secondo (main dish). The wine by the glass was amazing as well.

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