Restaurant Review: Red Lentil

When my aunt and uncle left to go home to Atlanta, they took my brother with them so he could have a vacation down there. My anti-fish/anti-”health food” brother. What’s the big deal, you ask? My parents and I can go out to fun, interesting restaurants the doorways of which my brother couldn’t be paid to darken. Naturally, the first on the my must-go-to list was a relatively new vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Watertown, near Cambridge, Mass: The Red Lentil.
My mom and I met my dad there, who arrived before us and much to our relief and delight (we were starving), had already ordered the eggplant caponata appetizer and was sipping on a ginger brew – like ginger ale, only with much fresher ginger and very refreshing. I’d never tasted anything quite like it; I stole several sips! 
[Word to future diners - no wine list!]
First of all, I really liked the feel of this place. It wasn’t too loud, despite the fact that every table in the small dining area was packed. The walls were a funky lime green that gave it a hip – not 1970s nightmare – aura. The clientele were, well, as expected in Cambridge – in every size, shape & color! For any non Mass readers, Cambridge is where Harvard is located. ‘Nuf said.
So, about that appetizer…
One of the best things about this place hands down is their presentation. Every single dish we saw was beautifully and artfully placed on the plate. You eat first with your nose & eyes before your mouth, and it was lovely that the chefs take this into consideration.
As for taste? Well, I really enjoyed this. The sundried tomato spread was tangy (although a tad pasty, like it had been spread on too soon) and the crusty slice of bread was wonderful. The eggplant was mixed with tomatoes, capers and olives and went perfectly with the sundried tomato spread. My parents felt it was good but still missing something; I agreed, it wasn’t the most amazing thing to pass my lips, but it was tasty and made my empty tummy happy.
After LOTS of deliberation (so much looked good!), my mom chose an appetizer & salad:


Beet-potato latkes

Arugula salad w. beets & golden beets, walnuts, and herbed goat cheese.
The latkes were very interesting, and enjoyable, but perhaps not to die for. It was also a lot of food! It was a little too big; by the time you get to the middle, we found our tastebuds a bit bored. The salad was great, very fresh, and a delicious combo of flavors. And the goat cheese was de-LISH!
My dad got the special:
Tamale filled with tropical fruits, black beans, and spiced soy chorizo
Again, a bit underwhelming. And again, we couldn’t put our finger on why! Tasty but nothing particularly *wow*.
I ordered the Macrobiotic Platter – a choice of tofu, tempeh, or seitan with pinto beans, fresh veggies (broc, squash, zucchini, sweet potato) and a brown rice-sea vegetable mixture.
I really enjoyed this. The tempeh was perfectly cooked and had that great grainy texture I adore so much, even if it was a tad on the salty side for my taste. The pinto beans were, well, pinto beans, but what I was really impressed with was the sea vegetables! They had the coolest flavor – I’ve had & love seaweed salad at sushi places, but never had this particular kind of sea veggie before. It tasted like, um, the sea? I know, specific; I suppose it was salty with a pleasant bitterness not completely unlike kale, but with a hint of vinegar in there. (Is that better? ;) It was nothing life-changing, but I did very much like my entree.
We were debating dessert…and then the table next to us ordered. And then my dad reminded me of the “always judge a restaurant by its dessert” rule set forth by my beloved Italian cooking professor. And it was done.

All the desserts at The Red Lentil are vegan, gluten-free, and made in house. Gotta love that! We obviously went with chocolate – if nothing else, for comparison’s sake!


This was…a disappointment. The cake was super dry – I think the chef needs to meet Dreena’s blog! The ganache was lovely, and as for those peanut-butter-looking bits in there, I have no idea what they were, perhaps pieces of cake that got tiedyed? It was good, but not great. Of course, they could just hire me as their pastry chef and all their problems would be solved. Sounds like a plan to me.


And, another mark against them – my mother went to the bathroom before we left and, well, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Dirty bathrooms in a restaurant? Come on, guys, that’s TOO easy to fix!

Overall though, it was a fun dinner. It was new and different, and I am so excited that vegetarian/vegan cuisine is gaining in popularity. I wish one would open up close to me! The biggest issue (food-wise) here is that the dishes themselves won’t make you say “whoa.” A lot of it would be very simple to make at home. I would, however, recommend it to everyone from strict vegan to the veg-curious. My parents & I truly enjoyed The Red Lentil, and I am more than happy to support veg-conscious places like this.
 Rock on, Red Lentil. Rock on.

~Namaste~

She’s Baaaccck…

Didja miss me??!! 
So, instead of attempting to put the past 6 days into words, I will do it with pictures. They’re worth a thousand, right?
Stop #1: Ursinus College, Collegeville PA
P.F. Chang’s – loved how they served the wine flight!
The Collegeville Diner
Campus
Stop #2: Haverford College, Haverford PA
Love it.
Stop #3: Lancaster Art Hotel, Lancaster PA
The restaurant used all local, organic food! I was a happy foodie :)
Amouse bouche: Gazpacho
lettuce+cauliflower+zucchini+beans+snap peas+ fennel+goat cheese = YUM.
One of the best pizzas…ever.
Chocolate cake w. raw almond butter filling. I all but licked the plate.
!!!
Stop #4: Goucher College, Towson MD
[Pit stop in Pittsburgh!]
Baskin-Robbins kiddie cone soft-serve :)
This salad had some of the tastiest roasted tofu EVER. I want to know what they did to it!
Stop #6: Oberlin College, Oberlin OH
Solar energy panels power their entire environmental studies building – too cool, right?!
Dinner at the Black River Cafe:
Homemade raspberry-lavender sorbet. Amazing doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Our last stop was to Hyde Park, NY to check out the Culinary Institute of America for me. They didn’t allow pictures inside the school and I was so focused on the tour, I didn’t take pics of the campus – but it was gorgeous. To sum up, I was in love with it. And if it hadn’t been sealed earlier, when we passed by one of the baking classes that focuses on gluten-free/vegan-friendly baking, one of the students brought out biscotti they had just made for our tour to try. I am a little superstitious about talking about the possibility of my going there, just because, um, let’s just say I had a truly awful, scarring experience with the undergrad college application process and now I’m totally scared of jinxing this next upcoming process. Stupid maybe, but…I can’t help it.
We ate lunch in the school’s student-staffed cafe. Mom got a pesto-white bean soup:
It wasn’t, perhaps, amazing, but it was most definitely delicious and worth the price. I had a chopped veggie salad:
Now this reached amazing-status. Radish, beets, green beans, carrot, zucchini, fennel, potatoes in a champagne vinaigrette. So simple but so good. And I had a roll because I was not about to leave without trying the bread:
Oh, this is up there on my favorite-breads list. Yes, I have one – it also includes the rolls at Legal Seafoods, the bread from our local Italian specialty food store, and the Tuscan bread at Sergio’s. This was a perfect little piece of carb heaven. Crispy-crunchy on the outside, doughy and fluffy on the inside. If I learn how to recreate these, my life could be complete.
The drive home was brutal beyond belief – what should have been a 2 1/2 hour zip turned into a traffic-laden 5 1/2 hour nightmare. Despite a downright blissful yoga class this morning, I’m still exhausted. BUT, it was a very successful and pretty fun trip. My brother has a better idea of what he wants in a school, and I had some seriously delicious eats.
I think I’m going to sleep for a veeerrrrrry long time tomorrow. I can’t wait!
~Namaste~

Restaurant Review: Gran Gusto

What to do when you’ve just returned from a semester in Florence and are itching to go right back?
Go to one of the best Italian restaurants nearby.
Enter: Gran Gusto.
Located in Cambridge, Mass., Gran Gusto is owned and run by native Napolitani. Chef Giuseppe Castellano was generous enough to bring a taste of his home country to my home state, and boy am I grateful. Everything is homemade – from the focaccia slices brought in classy metal conical baskets, to the pasta and pizza, to the classic Italian dessert offerings. Oh, I was home!
After reading the menu and listening to our waiter (who spoke to me in Italian – I wanted to hug him!) list the specials with a certain flair that can only be described as veramente italiano, my parents each started out with a salad – and I stole plenty from each of their plates.
This is baby spinach, fresh asparages, roasted red peppers and a slice of what I am mostly sure was an aged pecorino (but might have been a good parmegiano reggiano…my tastebuds’ memory is failing me). It was all dressed up in a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and drizzled with a touch of balsamic. It was just lovely. The freshness and different flavors of the veggies, the sharp pungent taste of the cheese, and the sweetness of the balsamic was Italian simplicity at its finest. 
I should also mention the wine – my parents ordered a really nice red from Montalcino and gave me sips. YUM! Oh, I miss a glass of wine with dinner. It really makes the whole thing more satisfying.
For our entree, my parents and I ordered the same thing – boring, yes, but it sounded SO good!
Fresh fettuccine with morel mushrooms (some of the best funghi in the world), spinach, and baby squid called calamarelle. I heard squid and I was there! None of us were sorry, either. The pasta was perfectly al dente. The sweetness of the squid melded beautifully with the earthy mushrooms flavor, and I was just so happy. There’s just something about a wonderful plate of fresh pasta that gets me grinning every time.
No picture, but my brother ordered a pizza with ham, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and the mandatory fresh tomato sauce and bufalo mozzarella. Though I’m quite sure no slice will ever top the pies we made in cooking class, this was as authentic as it gets. My dad said it really took him back to his childhood, when he could wander down to a pizza place that used the fresh tomato sauce and mozz. The boys at the table were quite satisfied :)
When dessert time rolled around, the words of my beloved cooking professor resonated in my head: “The true way to judge a restaurant is by its dessert list. The way the chef chooses to finish the meal is very important.”
Couldn’t agree more.
My brother went with the tiramisu – one of our mutual favorite desserts. The thing I love about tiramisu is that it’s always a little different every time I taste it. This was no exception. Though I still prefer our rendition, this was good with a thicker than usual layer of cocoa, giving it a really nice deep cocoa-y flavor. 
My parents, hankering for something lighter and fruity, went with the delizia limone:
A wonderfully light lemon sponge cake with a chilled lemon cream in the middle and a couple big fat slices of strawberries hiding!
I ended up helping them out a lot with this – I love that it was chilled! It turned the tart lemon, sweet cream and airy cake into a light lemony cloud of dessert perfection. And the strawberry slices in the middle were like finding buried treasure!
If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Cambridge and have a hankering for bell’ Italia, or even just want to brush up on your Italian language skills, take a trip to Gran Gusto. It certainly helped this homesick Florence-sick chick!
~Namaste~

The Case of “The Lasts”

Ugh, I hate this part. You know, the one where everything you do is “the last.” Last load of laundry in our crazy machine [it secretly wishes it were a rocket ship - you should hear it on spin cycle). Last shopping trip in the market. Last time I have to climb the never-ending stairs to Italian class...ok, maybe I don't hate every part. Those stairs at 8 in the morning were not exactly a treat.
After I got my grade on my Italian final - all good :) - I came home for some overnight oats!
Before you go to bed, put oats in a bowl and pour an equal amount of liquid (I'm a fan of almond milk) over them, and maybe add a dash of cinnamon. Let them sleep in the refigerator and when you are both awake, the oats will have absorbed the liquid and be soft - voila, no-cook oatmeal!

(There are different ways of preparing them; some people add more stuff to it the night before. That's why they're so fun - lots of different ways to experiment!)
Before...
After: all mixed up with some vanilla yogurt.
This was exceptionally good today - it tasted like snickerdoodle cookie dough! The perfect way to prepare for my cooking practical, the second half of my final for that class where we actually have to cook for and be judged by our professor.
We set his table up all pretty:
We were split up into teams to tackle 3 courses of 4 dishes.
Course 1: BREAD
Not just bread - stuffed focaccia and pizza.
This was the focaccia we made a couple weeks ago for our "green class." It's amazing, and this time it was even better. The spinach is sauteed in a little olive oil and garlic to add flavor and it worked - the spinach-garlic combo sang through the bread. The mozzarella (use fresh buffala mozzarella - it's a little fattier but you can use less to get a powerful punch of flavor) was perfectly stretchy, and the dough was juuuust dense enough to hold up it's filling but fluffy enough to be like eating yummy, doughy, pillows. 
Another team made pizza margherita - tomatoes, mozzarella, basil. This was very probably the.best.pizza. I've ever had. The flavors was perfectly balanced and so fresh. The crust was the right thickness - not cracker like but not like you were getting more crust than ingredients in your mouth at once either. The sauteed the tomatoes in garlic and olive before topping the dough to bake - this is essential for non-soggy pizza, because if you just throw the raw ingredients on the top, the water (that makes up most of the veggie) will release and make your pizza WAY to heavy to eat. The cheese was golden but not gummy or too crispy and with the basil was SO good. Yup, will be making this when I come home.
Next course: Pear-filled ravioli in a walnut-herb sauce with pecorino.
PEAR!
This was very tasty. The pasta was a little undercooked, but I actually like overly-al dente pasta (yes, I'm odd). I wish the pear had been blended with the pecorino and then filled, the ravioli with just chopped pear felt a little sparse to me. But the walnut sauce was SO good - walnuts, parsley, and basil. You couldn't really taste the walnuts, at least not unless you looked for it, but that is actually kind of the goal. Like pesto - it's not ALL about the pine nuts that you add to it, but if you took them out you would know. It really did work well the sweetness of the pears. As my professor commented - "amazing".
Dessert: MY TEAM!
[Thanks again blogger for the sideways picture. It's not funny anymore.] 
Crema di amaretti – I also made it here.
Gosh, I love pretty food.
The filling is very similar to tiramisu – we used the double boiler method to kill any salmonella ickiness in the eggs as we beat the. Here’s what we did: Separate the whites from the yolks of your eggs (it’s one egg for every 2 people you are serving). Get your double -boiler going; when the water is simmering (NOT full-on boiling!), use a hand-mixer (or one of those fancy-schmancy Kitchen Aid mixers that I can only dream about owning) beat the yolks with cane sugar (tablespoons=number of eggs used) until it’s nice and creamy. Set it aside to cool. Get your water a-simmerin’ again, and repeat the process with egg whites (no sugar) until they form stiff peaks. Not sure what that means? I didn’t either. Get them to the point where if you turn the bowl upside down, the egg whites don’t move (and please use a second bowl underneath when testing this…). Let those cool as well. Fold in marscapone cheese with yolk-sugar mixture gently. Then add the egg whites. 
This is where I added a couple teaspoons of cinnamon. I remember thinking it would be good the first time we made it, and I wanted to do it for the final. My teacher loved it! Yay! Nothing like feeling innovative in the kitchen to make me smile:)
Now, look at the consistency you have. You want something tiramisu-filling-like, very light and creamy. We made the call to add a liiiiittle bit of whipping cream (whipped with a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt to get it fluffy!), and that really made a huge difference. We used about 125 grams of cream, and we were making for 14 people – so you really don’t need much.
To plate, dip two amaretti cookies (they’re like little almond biscuits, I will have to consciously search for them in the States when I come home – I’ll keep you updated!) in strong coffee mixed with just a few drops of milk and sugar. Sprinkle the top with coffee (instant here is fine), chocolate chips and cocoa powder. Voila! better-than-tiramisu goodness.
Our professor’s comment? “Delizioso!”
He gave me a big hug when I left and that was when this whole “I’m actually leaving” business hit me. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! DON’T MAKE ME GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ahem.
SO, after class I wandered over to the Ponte Vecchio to do some window shopping. I have been searching for a necklace with the Florentine fleur-de-lis crest, and I knew if I would find it anywhere, that’s where it would be. The Ponte Vecchio is known for its jewlery, specifically marble and gold. Honestly, I really can’t stand gold, but I was still hopeful. It was looking pretty dim at first; all I could find were charms the size of my pinky fingernail at the low, low price of 122 euro – which is, what, maybe 150 dollars? Ugh. I was feeling like giving up, when I crossed to the other side and found it.
Yay! 6 euro, and I already have a chain :) Ain’t it perty?
For the first time this week, the sun was out! I have been planning on returning to Piazzale Michelangiolo to get some better pictures because a) the day we went it was cloudy, b) I have a new camera!!, and c) the combination of my carberrific lunch + the joy of finding my jewelry left me with some newfound energy to burn!
The walk there is lovely.
[Ponte Vecchio]
Remember the funky trees?
It’s quite a hike to get there…
And just when you think it’s over…
But it’s worth it.
Even though I’ve only been here for 4 teeny months, I still call it ‘mine.’ Not that it only belongs to me; more in the way that it has made such an impact on me. It’s home.
Dinner tonight was long-anticipated. We planned to go to Cibreino – “the poor man’s Cibreo.” Cibreo is one of the most important (and most expensive) restaurants in Florence. The chef is world-reknowned for his take on Italian food. Simply put, it’s a big deal.
Cibreino is a little trattoria around the corner from Cibreo that offers a limited menu for a MUCH smaller price. Same kitchen – fewer options.
I was excited.
We got there at 7, when it opens, and all breathed sighs of relief when there was a table for 4 ready and waiting. The trattoria is a very small room with only 8 or so tables, so we were a little worried. It was also mostly tourists – and we were treated as such, which was a little annoying but to be expected considering the fame of this place.
After much debate and some help from our very entertaining waiter, I ordered:
It was a veggie-fish soup. Very well spiced and I loved the fish that was in it – no idea what it was called, a kind of white fish that looked a little bit like tuna (different taste though). It was a little brothy for me, but it was so well-seasoned that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it. They also brought us a “surprise” bowl of the minestra di pane - bread soup – that is very similar to ribollita. That was awesome – tasted just like Thanksgiving stuffing! Ah, the wonders of sage.
At the end of our class today, my cooking professor was talking about going to restaurants. He said the best way to judge a restaurant is by its appetizers and dessert – how they start and end a meal. He emphasized the great importance of dessert and ending a meal on a sweet note, because there’s always room for sweet! (You understand now why I enjoyed this class so much?) I was feeling inspired and so Alaina and I split the flourless chocolate cake.
Best. Decision. Ever.
This was one of the best chocolate cakes EVER. Very thin but SO dense and moist. I could have eaten an entire cake’s worth of it. But, aside from the phenomenal flavor, I also appreciated the portion size – it was a perfect dessert. Wonderful taste but not overwhelmingly huge so as to make you waddle out of the restaurant. Well done, Cibreino. Well done.
What fabulous plans do we have on our last day in Firenze? Pack, pack, pack – print boarding passes – and then pack some more. Ah, the glamour of life abroad.
And I loved every second.
~Namaste~

Roughing It

Ah, the weekend. What everyone looks forward to. This weekend was especially exciting though – for our last excursion, API took us to Siena and Perugia for a weekend of thorough relaxation. I would have to say this mission was most certainly accomplished.
We boarded the bus on Saturday morning  [for once not at the butt crack of dawn!] and headed to Siena, an idyllic Tuscan town a bit south of Florence. It is world-renowned for its natural beauty; in fact, if you google Tuscan landscapes, there’s a pretty good chance that one of the first pictures to pop up will be in Siena. I gave Frida a firm talking to before we left – this was not the trip to be without a camera, and her best behavior was mandatory. She grudgingly complied.
Siena’s Duomo.
Fun fact: The word ‘duomo’ has nothing to do with domes! It was taken from the German word for house and in Italy a “Duomo” is the “house of God”, meaning it is the most important church in its city.
Siena and Florence were HUGE rivals, and Siena began constructing their Duomo with plans to make it greater than Brunelleschi’s creation for Florence. They didn’t succeed, but this is nevertheless an immensely impressive structure. Just look at the detail!
InTENSE.
Main piazza – can you see the seashell shape?
Siena is also known for its horse race, a tradition dating waaaaaay back that draws thousands upon thousands of people into this small city. Siena is divided into sections called contrade, and each contrada has its own symbol and horse. Most of the symbols represent strength, including a rhinoceros, a griffin, and the tower on top of the elephant that you see above^. A horse representing each contrada gathers in the main piazza and in 75 seconds, it’s over and done with. The prize is pretty much the ability to say “hey, we won!”, but the loyalty to one’s contrada is fierce and quite endearing. Being the good little tourists that we are, we each bought a banner with the symbol of a different contrada on each.
I got the porcupine. Duh.
After our walking tour we went on a lunch-hunt. After a failed search for a recommended restaurant, we settled for another one, which turned out to be slightly mediocre, but fit the bill.
I was feelin the veggies today, and definitely made the right choices!
Melanzane alla griglia fatte in casa – Grilled eggplant made in-house
This was quite amazing, I will say. Very garlickly and tender. Perfect for this veggie-loving soul.
And bruschetta:
Certainly not the best I’ve had, but when in Italy it’s hard to find “bad” bruschetta. Olive oil, bread, fresh basil + tomatoes. Simply amazing…or amazingly simple?
After doing some souvenir shopping, we made sure to get some of the Sienese specialty called panforte, a kind of sweet whose recipe dates back to the Middle Ages when it was eaten as a kind of “trail mix” for the Crusaders.
Panforte al cioccolato
It’s a very dense mix of dried fruit, nuts (mostly almonds and pistachios), honey, and various spices. It was heavy on the cinnamon and cocoa – which I loved, and also on the orange rind – which I was not so much a fan of.Overall though, the cakey texture mixed with the variety of other textures and the complex flavors made this a very enjoyable treat for my tastebuds – those Crusaders had good taste!
Now, prepare to be jealous. The main event of the day was a trip to a thermal spa, located in the Rapolano area just outside of Siena. This area is located above thermal waters that have been enriched by the minerals of the soil deep within the earth. The Etruscans discovered that the minerals in the water were amazingly beneficial for the body both inside and out, helping everything from smoothing skin to cleansing the internal organs. There are many spas in this area that have tapped into the thermal waters and constructed pools for people to sit in and soak up the minerals to receive their many health benefits. 
Oh man, this was incredible. The water was like a warm, comforting bath, and it was so relaxing to just sit and soak and chat for a couple hours. I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and all-around happy.
Rough weekend so far, no?
After our perfectly lovely afternoon at the spa, we went to our hotel – the Grand Hotel Boston! They must have known I was coming (well, me and the hundred other kids with API from Mass…). In case we hadn’t been pampered enough just yet, API had planned a four-course dinner for us at the hotel. It was nothing more than your average hotel food, but we were excited for a free meal and to be waited on regardless!
They even had menus on the table for us:
The obligatory bread and wine:
First antipasto: CHEESE!
The upper one was tomino, a very soft creamy cheese that is exactly like brie in its consistency but has none of brie’s pungency. I enjoyed it, but it paled in comparison to this guy:
Maybe I was just starving, maybe I don’t eat fresh mozzarella plain often enough, but this tasted absolutely incredible. Soft, milky, with a rich mouth-feel but a light flavor. This was the most delicious bite of the entire meal.
Second antipasto: Fritture
This was an assortment of fried veggies and rice balls. I took a taste, but nothing more. When I was on my weight-loss diet, I completely cut out all things fried and ever since then, I can’t eat it without getting horribly sick. I can’t ever taste what has actually been fried, it all tastes like the same cheap, greasy lump to me. I also think I’ve developed a conditioned taste aversion – I immediately connect the taste of deep-fried food to the unbearable nausea that I’m always stuck with after, and I just can’t do it. Alas and alack, I simply cannot appreciate it. Perhaps some day…
First primi: Zuppa di verdure – Vegetable soup
Well, the name pretty much says it all. Soup of vegetables. It was a bit too salty, and not much more impressive than something that I can get out of a can. But, I’m always happy to have some fresh vegetables, and it was perfectly edible – just nothing more.
Second primi: Lasagna vegetariana
Apparently this hotel defines ‘vegetarian lasagna’ as regular ol’ lasagna without the ground meat; the only vegetables in here were the tomatoes in the sauce. It had a hint of what I thought was nutmeg, and I did appreciate that surprisingly little tough of sweetness. The crunchy outer noodles were also a nice contrast to the soft, melty middle. Not bad, just unremarkable. I probably ate about 3/4 of it.
Secondi: Roasted Chicken
This was actually pretty decent. Very simple salt+pepper+rosemary seasoning (although a little too heavy on the salt). Too much dark meat for my taste, and I will admit for the amount of work that goes into picking the meat of the bone, the acutal amount of edible chicken I was left with was not worth it. But, I enjoyed the few bites I had. Again, nothing special. It did get me excited for summer at home though – my dad makes a mean lemon-pepper bbq chicken!
Dessert
You know me; this was what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it followed suite with the previous courses in its overwhelming mediocrity. It was kind of like a tiramisu cake; something like angel food cake with a whipped topping drizzled with a coffee-chocolate sauce and a light chocolate cream layer. The cake was only slightly better than tasteless, and the filling was more like a pastry cream with a hint of cocoa than a chocolate filling which I found disappointing. The whipped topping was like Cool Whip in texture (thankfully without the artificial chemically taste) with a coffee-cocoa drizzle that was clearly trying to imitate tiramisu, My main complaint is WHY did they not just make tiramisu (very hard to screw up) instead of producing this subpar impostor? But, it was dessert, and I of course had no problem lapping it up within minutes.
Ok, I kind of bashed the dinner a little bit; but I promise, it was a truly wonderful evening! It was the perfect end to a long, luxurious day and the company of my sweet roommates made the dinner a success. We had laughter, wine, and plenty to talk about – luckily for me, they like talking about food, so we discussed the dinner as we ate!
Morning brings my favorite part of staying in hotels: the free breakfast. Most important meal of day, right?
Tea, yogurt, muesli, a roll [which went uneaten], and MELON! If you had only seen my face when I saw that platter piled with infinite melon…like a kid on Christmas morning. I am a full-on melon addict, and could (and when I’m at school, do) eat it every day and never get sick of it. I must have gone back 4 or five times, probably at least half a melon’s worth! It was exactly what I wanted after that heavy meal the night before. I’m so excited for summer fruits!!!
After breakfast we boarded the bus and zoomed off to…
PERUGIA!
We entered the city through what was the residential area of the city in the Middle Ages. It was a huge labyrinth of arches where people used to live under one big roof, and was really cool to see.
I was too amused with this scene: the escalator leading down into the medieval residences. I am endlessly fascinated by past-meets-present collisions! *NERDALERT*
Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, just under Tuscany, known as the “Green Heart of Italy.”
Give you one guess why:
Those Etruscans looooved their aqueducts!
There were these little yellow flowers sprouting up out of the most random spots! Frida thought it was poetic.
Ca-RAZY church!

If ‘Perugia’ sounds familiar to you, it might be because it is the birthplace of the chocolate company Perugina. They produce Bacio (literally, ‘kiss’ – we have Hershey’s, Italy has Perugina!). A Bacio is a dark chocolate shell with a chocolate truffle filling dotted with chopped hazelnut and one whole hazelnut in the middle! Don’t worry, I have pictures coming tomorrow…patience, grasshopper.
This was our non-negotiable first stop.
Perugia is also home to one of the world’s most famous chocolate festivals! Every October, thousands of people flood the streets – they say you can smell chocolate everywhere! Fall Break trip to Italy, anyone?
LOOK at the Hedgehog cakes!!! Iwantonenow.
You may have noticed a key element missing from our trip so far…
GELATO! We quickly made up for its absence.
Raspberry + Bacio, because, well, when in Rome Perugia!
After a walking tour and an espresso in the sun, we were off to today’s main event: a wine tasting in Chianti!
Like I said…rough weekend.
It took place at Castillo di Verrazzano, as in the Verrazzano who discovered New York. I guess it’s not too surprising that his family has a castle, huh? We were welcomed by the owner, who was a very charming Italian man. He may have been a little too charming, because I couldn’t even dislike him despite the fact that I was absolutely green with jealousy over his “house”:
And I thought I had it rough.
He talked for a while about how wonderful it is to walk around a vineyard and take in every sight and smell it has to offer, because then when you taste its wine, you can appreciate it all the more. You can taste the cherries from the cherry tree, and the lemons growing on the lemon trees. Wine is not for “getting drunk”; as he said, a baby could get drunk! Wine is about respect. AMEN! To be honest, I only really like wine when I sip it slowly and only have a couple small glasses; I find I get bored with the flavor and forget to really ‘taste’ it if I just mindlessly pour and drink. And that takes all the fun away!
We proceeded with a tour of the castle & its cellars:

Their reserve bottles – check out that layer of dust!

We were all ushered in to a big room for the sit-down tasting. Just as I had hoped, the owner walked us through the first sip, explaining how to hold the glass, look at the color, check the alcohol content, and even how to smell it correctly! What I learned in Italy…
We started with a simple table wine, red of course:

Then proceeded to the Chianti Classico – this was my favorite:
What a fox, that Verrazzano.
Just like the other tastings, we were served lots of “snacks” with the wine that turned into a perfect dinner! Tuscan bread, olive oil, toasted garlic bread (my favorite), salami and prosciutto, pecorino (my love!), salad, white beans…the works. Oh, but I was happy.
We also got to taste one of the Reserve wines; I could definitely taste the difference in its age and quality, but to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. It was too strong for my underdeveloped palate ;) But it was such a fun experience!
We ended with the traditional cantucci (Tuscan biscotti) to dip in Vin Santo, the classic dessert wine.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. I liked this vin santo better than the last I had – less strong/bitter. I really like the two together! Really, I just love cantucci. A lot.
Before we left this beautiful trip behind and traveled back to the semi-reality of Florence, I took some pics of the castle’s “back yard”:
Now that’s rough.
~Namaste~

All in the Details

Have you ever woken up after a really good dream and felt sad because it was so real it almost could have happened? That’s what happened to me this morning. Don’t worry, I’m not all that sad – I love a good dream! I was listening to The Light in the Piazza soundtrack before I went to sleep…that’s probably the cause. It’s a beautiful Broadway show set in Florence (!), and I feel it would be wrong to not listen to every so often while I’m here. On the surface it looks an Italian boy-meets-American girl love story, but it goes much deeper than that. If you ever get the chance to see it, I recommend it; it’s a lovely story and music is perfect. And for the Glee fans, Matthew Morrison (Will Schuester) was the original Fabrizio on Broadway.

After coming out of my dream haze, I noticed that the weather was not exactly behaving as necessary for us to walk to the Galleria dell’Accademia. It was in fact, pouring. What is it about gloomy weather that makes a person feel so tired? The roomies and I bummed around for several hours, waiting very patiently for the rain to cease at least long enough for us to run into the museum. I made, among other things, some oats of course:

I thought instead of boring you with yet another picture of banana oats in a bowl, I would take a picture of the oat-tastic magic while it’s happening!
The rain finally petered out and we were off to get us some culturin’! The Galleria dell’Accademia is actually a block away and across a piazza from our apartment, so it was an easy walk. Getting into the museum was made even easier by this baby:
This card gives you free access to all the state museums of Florence. API, my study abroad program, gave us all one. You can buy them, and I highly recommend it if you’re in Florence for any extended period of time – free access to all the big museums in the city that was home to the Renaissance is, um, kind of one of the coolest things ever.
I must say, I love going to museums. It’s so peaceful and you can just wander around and think about anything that pops into your head. The Accademia was especially cool because, unlike every museum in the States I’ve been to, you can get mere inches away from the works and see everything. My favorite thing about admiring art is being able to see the tiny details the artist added. It really helps me respect their talent even more. Art is so like writing; it’s really about creating a character and telling a story. You get a broad idea of the scene from the picture from afar, but it’s the little details that tell you what’s really going on. The subtle shadow from a flower on the floor tells you what time of day it is; the miniscule embroidery on the hem of a dress tells you how wealthy this person is. Just like writing – it’s all in the details. It’s really…inspirational.
Alright alright, I know what you want to hear about. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Accademia is home to Michelangelo’s David, the real reason we ventured out in the rain on a Friday afternoon. The first room of the museum is filled with paintings by various Italian painters, I believe around 17th or 18th century (don’t hold me to that, I saw a lot of dates and paintings today). You walk into the next room, turn the corner into a hallway lined with some unfinished sculptures Michelangelo was commissioned for, and then…you look up. There he is.
I was quite relieved that the museum forbade cameras, because no camera could possibly capture accurately this incredible feat. I must have stared at him at every angle for who knows how long. Again, the detail held me speechless. You can see every crease in each toe, every vein in his harm, every wrinkle in his knuckles. It is…whoa. The expression on his face changes depending on the angle; at one he is in some kind of pain, at another he seems to be completely at peace. I already want to go back, just to stare.
The only thing I can compare it to is the Taj Mahal; it’s so huge and breathtakingly beautiful, there are no words to explain. Even pictures worth thousands of words could not wholly convey structures like this. Just go and see it. Just go.
We walked through the rest of the museum – it’s not a particularly large, so it didn’t take too long. I think we were all so struck by The David, it was difficult to take much more in. But museums are just a nice way to spend an afternoon. Very zen.
After a quick grocery stop, we went home and bummed around some more. I made my new favorite snack – grilled pecorino cheese and tomato:
I think the one on the left loves me! See the heart?
Happy food makes me happy too :)
 before heading back out in search of a vegetarian restaurant recommended to us that was on our street. We found it…closed. So, back we went to try the restaurant a few doors down from our building. It was very cute, very Italian (although it was clearly a tad on the touristy side). After great deliberation, I let my curiosity get the best of me and ordered risotto alle fragole - strawberry risotto!
It was in fact, completely delicious. I’m not sure what cheese they used, taleggio maybe? Very creamy but not overwhelmingly so. I liked it MOLTO!
We split dessert because there was chocolate cake, and that is a force against which we are powerless:
It ended up being infused with rum, a popular thing in Italian desserts I’ve found. Not the best I’ve had, but  after the one from the chocolate festival, well let’s face it – that will be tough to top. Nevertheless, we had no problem polishing the plate off. 
We came back and watched Juno because I *gasp* had yet to see it. It was super cute, but it’s one of those movies I know I am going to have to sleep on to really absorb it. I did like it very much :)
And now I am sitting here, listening to Bing Crosby and sipping peppermint tea. Tomorrow we are going to San Gimignano to, among other things, find the world champion of gelaterias! Don’t you worry – pictures will most certainly be taken.
Buona notte!
~Namaste~