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Thursday, July 3

Northern Italy

Here’s to writing about some trips that hold a special place in our hearts because of the circumstances or timing. This was our first “real” trip after moving to Germany and it was special. God, you’re thinking, what is wrong with her for waiting 2+ years to write this? I am laughing at myself for putting it off for so long! But here it is. We decided to rent a car, first time, and drive to Northern parts of Italy and do a multi-city tour. The goal for the Italian adventure was food!

We drove directly to Milan and spent couple days there. It is large with various neighborhoods. The Duomo is opulent in all its glory, inside and out. Like the church men and women were dressed to the 9s for a day at the office or out for lunch. The designer brand clothes, shoes and bags attributes to Milan’s love of high fashion. This is causes for many street vendors selling knock off bags and sun glasses. Although I was impressed with their love of fashion it felt too concocted. Milan felt industrial and gritty from congestion, loud music blaring from apartments and graffiti. We were shocked to see so many Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans flocking to and living in Milan. The physical infrastructure for public transportation is dated but efficient.

We learned of the aperitivo culture in Milan prior to the trip and made plans to try it one evening. The concept is easy, buy a glass of wine, negroni, campari or mixed drink at a bar and in return the restaurant offers food. We stopped in at Napolitano for negroni and left full from delicious pizza. Many bars/restaurants offer this during happy hour to attract customers. The next night we had drinks at a local bar that had a lengthier spread with pasta salad, sardines, antipasti and other goods.

But we were saving room for heartier food. Trattoria Abele la Temperanza Restaurant also known as Da Abele is in a hard to find part of Milan but once inside is a welcome surprise. It offers three types of Milanese style risotto daily. We opted for two of the three options. The flavor was wholesome with fresh herbs and cheese; the one distinction we noted was Milanese Risotto is creamier, runnier than its dense counterpart. Be sure to arrive after 8 because they don’t permit diners inside until 8pm and after 9pm on a weekend it gets really busy so time it wisely. This risotto was one of the better ones we had in our time here.

Driving from Milan to the next stop we spotted a gigantic Barilla factory. We laughed that’s where the magic is “made” for all of us that use barilla pasta in a pinch. (Having lived in Nürnberg, I have bought egg pasta from my chicken/egg vendor; because supporting local rules! That and I trust their pasta is produced on a smaller scale than Barilla. Unfortunately I am not sure if I’ll have this luxury much longer.)

We checked into our bed & breakfast at Hotel Locanda del Mulino in Maranello after our stay in Milan. We planned to spend few days here and take day trips to Modena, Bologna & Parma. Mulino is like an agriturismo with relaxing style, spacious interiors and fresh breakfast for the guests. It used to be a farmhouse/flour mill and the design reflects that. The breakfast room is upstairs along with many rooms. There is a large dining room for the restaurant that serves dinner only. It is by far one of our favorite places we’ve stayed in.

The host recommended Ristorante Da Anna in Maranello for lunch, short drive from Mulino. It felt like walking into an aunt’s home that wants to treat you to all the food they’ve made. They offer a set lunch menu that includes primi, secundi & dessert. Few memorable dishes were the tortellini and gnocco with salume. Tortellini is filled with cheese and served in a broth. The gnocco is fried dough eaten with cured meats and cheese; the cured meats were of variety and tasty. This was the first time we’d tried this thing called gnocco with salume and we were converts. It was terrific and we looked for it on future menus. With a half carafe of local wine and this lunch was hard to beat on taste and price. Service and food were both wonderful at Da Anna.

That afternoon we toured a Lambrusco winery near Mulino. It was a learning experience because we’d never heard of or tried Lambrusco until then and were surprised. The wine is made from grape of the same name; fruity, light, bubbly red wine that’s easy to drink on cool, sunny days. We hadn’t heard of a red bubbly wine until this tour. It doesn’t have much body and can easily be drunk with a pasta meal; our experience was having it with cheese, cured meats and breads. (I hear Lambrusco is making a comeback in US.)

Dinner on our first evening was at the hotel Locanda del Mulino. We ordered a salume platter, salad, pasta, cacciatore with rabbit and Tiramisu. The meal is cooked with love and rustic due to its country setting. In my notes I’ve written salad with greens with balsamic was amazing so I suggest ordering the salad with dressing. One would be hard pressed to find a restaurant like this in one of the nearby cities. The price is hard to beat so if given the opportunity to go back to Mulino for dinner, I’d do it in a heartbeat. (I just learned it’s a Michelin Star restaurant, deservingly).

Modena is the smallest of all three towns in the area with a main square and church. It was a brief visit to the town because of two planned things. A Balsamic tour with a local producer. After arriving we were introduced to the owners’ college aged daughter for the tour. The neat part of this tour was it was at someone’s home. The family produces balsamic vinegar and ages it in their home attic. She explains to us in great detail the production and the various aging periods to make it aceto balsamic vinegar. The family produces less than 100,000 bottles which is small by mass production standards. The longer the vinegar ages the more in depth its flavor. Traditional Balsamic vinegar produced in Modena gets the seal of approval from the food police and is assigned DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or protected designation of origin. In another words, only vinegar produced in this region can be called Aceto Balsamic of Modena.) The DOP seal permits the producers to sell in a special bottle, for distinction. She explained the other balsamic vinegars on store shelves are cheap and do not have the distinctive taste profile. We enjoyed one particular vinegar and bought a bottle, at a hefty price because of small production. These are used sparingly in dressings. The woman suggested we try a drop or two with vanilla ice cream. Yum!

Knowing that Ferrari test drive site was near us in Emilia Romagna, we visited for the husband. I can’t attest for the experience because I did not go with him but he said it was thrilling. A co-driver is assigned to each car and the husband said his co-pilot encouraged him to drive faster, faster, as fast as he could. Sweet. For those that love driving, fast, this is a must. And for the rest of us, it’s a good way to catch the sun in a parking lot. Like the balsamic, this is a pricey car ride.

In between the tour and test driving we went to Hosteria Giusti for lunch. The meal consisted of pizza, gnocchi with 4 cheese and gnocco with salumi. The gnocco was freshly fried and served with cured meat, decent, and the pizza was superb however the 4 cheese gnocchi was below average because it didn’t taste homemade. Rated highly on my list to try, after a lunch there I’d say the food was fine. If you find yourself in the area, it’s a good place for a meal, otherwise try somewhere else.

I’d scheduled a Parmigiano tour the next morning in the outskirts of Parma. The tour started promptly at 10 with details of cheese making in the region. The tour walks through each stage of Parmigiano making process and finishes with a tasting of 12 & 24 months aged cheeses. There are few local organizations that plan, schedule and offer tours and we highly recommend taking these tours, if time permits. The best part is they are free. (We bought couple cheeses because they were addictive!) The cheese also has DOP distinction.

The city of Parma has some sights including the Cathedral & Baptistery. If in the area visit these sights but know that the Cathedral is ordinary. Ducal Park with Palace of the same name is nearby for visit. For an enjoyable stroll in the afternoon this is the place to visit. We did not visit the Palace but I imagine with few hours it’s a valuable tour. We stopped in at Trattoria del Tribunale in the city. The lunch menu was straightforward; veal and gnocchi with pesto and eggplant to share. The veal was moist and good-quality and the gnocchi with pesto was excellent.

Our final stop was Bologna. It is a university town and has a small city feel compared to others we visited. The city hall sits in a large square with many street performers and gelato vendors. Speaking of Gelato we enjoyed a scoop at each instance possible. Bologna’s charm is the university, oldest in Europe and for that there are students everywhere.

We ate at Osteria Dell’Orsa. We noticed all the servers spoke fluent English and quickly realized the students must visit for meals. We ordered a Panini and Rigatoni with Pomodoro and Ragu. The food was delightful.

For a food lover’s dream Emilia Romagna region is the place to visit. It is rustic, offers charm of the Italian countryside with small towns, produces and exports some of the best prosciutto, balsamic, and cheese. Looking back on the decision, we think it was a good idea to stay in one place, Locanda del Mulino, and take trips to various towns nearby. We’ve taken trips where we traveled to each city and although fine this is much better. We were doing the right thing, on our first trip, and didn’t even know it. Aaah hindsight!

We drove to Venice after few days. Venice is a city built on the waterways and canals. It has neighborhoods reachable by water ferries. The water ferries are their public transportation like the trains and buses. The main train (Mestre) station and the airport are on mainland Italy, 30- 40 minutes from the island. There is another station, Santa Lucia, in Venice city center. We drove to Mestre and parked our car for few days, bought tickets and boarded the train to Santa Lucia. Be sure to punch the tickets before boarding. Along with everyone else, our tickets were checked on board. A group of 4 Americans and we didn’t punch our tickets so the checker asked for bribe money. He insisted if we didn’t pay him then we would have to pay 100 euros per person at arrival. Baffled by this all of us accepted and chose to wait until we arrived for the consequences. When we departed the train, no one was checking and all of us walked through the gates without penalty.

We departed the station with a water ferry towards our hotel, Bed & Breakfast Al Tramonto Dorato, Castello 2143. It arrived at Arsenal Water stop, 100 meters away. The host was expecting us so when we rang the bell, he greeted us with our names. How nice! The interior style is eclectic with unusual pieces in the living room. Our room was decently furnished but the bed was uncomfortable, too hard for our taste. The best part of this bed & breakfast wasn’t the breakfast or the room but its location. Not only does it have view of the water, it is very convenient to the tourist sights and public transportation. Because of the location, we enjoyed a sunset on a bench near the b&b. (The drawback to the view of the water is it’s location. The day we checked out of the B&B, a large cruise ship parked nearby drawing cruise tourists. We were thankful to have left when they arrived.) Speaking of wine, there are many wine shops in Venice that sell on tap; if you have an empty 1.5 liter bottle bring it otherwise the wine shop will provide one, for a small price. The wine we bought for each night was 2 Euros for 1.5 liters. Cheap! Just ask the locals “Como Vino?” and they’ll point or take you to the wine shop that sells wine on tap.

We stumbled upon Cà D'Oro alla Vedova accidently in an alley; we were looking for another place and saw the sign on an awning. We ordered wine, meatballs, squid in black ink sauce over polenta, spaghetti with clams, garlic and parsley sauce. The meatballs were made with seafood and unforgettably delicious, the squid was perfectly cooked in the sauce and the spaghetti with clams was satisfying. The polenta could’ve been freshly made but overall everything was so good, no complaints. We ordered 1/2 liter of house wine, chardonnay, also good. Daily they offer 2-3 antipasti, 4 primi, 4-6 secundi and 1 dessert. We were overjoyed after lunch to have found this place, especially since the total bill for all was 32 Euros.

Our first full day in Venice had a rainy start and unfortunately it was a downpour. Everyone had the same idea as us to visit the Doge Palace. Everyone crowding in lines, trying to stay dry was hellish 45 minutes of waiting. However once inside it was worth the visit. The Correr Museum has vast pieces of art and is worthwhile for art lovers. When we’d finished the museum tours, it was the afternoon and we found ourselves basking in the Venetian sun. San Marco Square is ideal to get a gelato and people watch. There are many people that feed the pigeons too, but I won’t talk about that. Ok, I will. Don’t feed the pigeons people! The Basilica gets many visitors so they’ve created a queue for all tourists and it was irritating to see the church in a line but when in Venice…

Venice is the place to get lost in small alleys and roads; we I often found myself admiring the small shops and architecture in the hidden streets. The husband isn’t fond of getting lost, on purpose.

As we were walking to a dinner restaurant, we found a wine shop that sold wine on tap. We bought Pinot Nero & Prosecco for 6.20 Euros. That is the price of 3 liters of wine. Unbelievable. The wine shop owner recommended Vesuvio around the corner for dinner. The host offered us a menu to consider then suggested they had fresh fish and seafood for the day. Hungry and convinced, we sat down. He suggested bruschetta, sardine in saor, sardines that are topped with pickled onions, and ½ liter house wine to start. Then we opted for Branzino to share. The sardines were not fresh and the pickled onions didn’t help on taste. The bruschetta was average. And even though the fish was fresh, we were blown away by the price on the bill. The fish was 7 euros/100 grams. The 1/2 liter wine was 8.20 euros and they charged 10% service charge. It is tourist places like these that leave a bad taste in our mouth, pun intended. As many times as we had eaten out in Italy that week, we’d seldom seen a service charge or if there was a service charge, the food more than made up for the charge. Sadly dinner here was horrendous.

Rialto Bridge is the other sight that draws tourists. The bridge is one of the most photographed sight after the San Marco Square and church. In addition to the bridge there is a fish market nearby that attracts the locals and the tourist photographers interested in seeing fresh seafood on ice, like me! And like many tourists we attempted to find a Gondola ride because when in Venice… The prices were pretty excessive, 80 Euros for two and therefore we decided not to do it. This is a personal choice and we don’t regret our decision.

That evening was our last night in Venice so we enjoyed the scenery. After a disastrous dinner the previous night, we were determined to find a better place. We found one on a street, on one of the canals, full of bars and restaurants. Most importantly, it was far from the tourist sights meaning the place for locals. We were greeted by an older guy who spoke to us in Italian and quickly realized we weren’t locals. We started with ½ liter of house wine and salmon crostini and sardine in saor, gave it one more try. The crostini was great but the sardine in saor wasn’t our favorite because again the pickled onions overpowered the fish. Then gnocchi with crab & parsley and boiled shrimp for main. The gnocchi was the best gnocchi we’ve ever had in our lives because it was light and fluffy. It literally melted in our mouths. The shrimp was fresh and simply made. Overall this trumps our dining experience in Venice especially the friendly service. I am sad, however, I don’t have a name for this place to share. The only tip I can give is to go to an area filled with locals, away from the sights and when you find yourself surrounded by Italian speaking locals, you’ve found a good area or restaurant.

The next morning we visited Muraro for ½ day by taking a ferry from Venice. It is a scenic island on the water. It is the biggest off of Venice and known for glass making and blowing. We witnessed an artist in action at a studio. The prices on each piece are expensive as is the case for handmade products. For lunch we went to Ostaria on Campo san Bernado for fresh seafood. There were mussels & clams in tomato broth, calamari because I wanted it, badly, and Bolognese with pasta for the husband. Overall a fantastic meal in what seemed like a tourist-herded island. Venice is beautiful and deserves 3-4 days, a luxury we didn’t have however we will be back again!

Our final destination was Verona, a small town with Italian character. Verona is known for two things- owning the building that Juliet (from Romeo & Juliet) grew up in and an amphitheater. The Juliet home, be warned, gets many visitors and is overcrowded. It also doesn’t help that there’s a statue of Juliet in the courtyard and the tradition to rub/touch her breast (started by some crazy person) still exists so every few seconds a tourist touches gropes the statute’s breast, for good luck in love. Where do they come up with this stuff? Verona is small enough to spend an hour or two wandering the streets because we found some old restored buildings.

Dinner in Verona was an interesting experience. We started at Osteria Sottoriva for a primi of chicken wings, horse meatballs, and ½ liter of Prosecco. We also ordered filled pasta, I can’t decipher the name on my notes, so try it if seen on the menu. It was egg pasta filled with ricotta & mushrooms; the filling was flavorful but the pasta tasted like a thin omelet; we weren’t crazy for the pasta. We don’t know how horse meat is supposed to taste but this was an ordinary meatball but the food in general was good. The vibe at this restaurant is wine bar, cool (as in hip) and relaxed. There is outdoor seating on the sidewalk and high tops inside.

We proceeded to La Tigela to find it packed with high school students. Known for their gnocco and salumi, we were certain that is all we wanted for dinner. Sadly, we were turned away and had to keep looking for gnocco. We then stopped in 6 different restaurants to check for seating and were turned away from all. It was Saturday night at 8pm so I imagine the entire town was out with their friends and family for dinner. We finally found a place that had many open tables and decided to stay because we were starved. Our last meal in Verona Italy was at an Indian restaurant. As I felt that night, I am still appalled by this fact. Even though we were bummed of the outcome, we were happy to be at this place because the food was spicy and homey in some ways.

Driving from Verona to Nürnberg is only 5- 6 hours on a good day. The drive is filled with natural scenery and plush greenery along the Alps. The mountains have picturesque small towns with churches and some areas are covered with vineyards.

Writing about our trip almost 3 years later, I am brought back to the food and sights of Northern Italy. We will always remember the gnocco we tried for the first time and (the husband) often reminisce of eating fried dough with prosciutto as a snack. Or that Venice will remain one of our all time favorite cities.

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