Bologna: Where the GELATO is a literal life-changing experience…

 

I’ve done it again and taken a loooong hiatus from here. With the start of a new teaching year (and embarking upon an online master’s program), somehow I woke up this week and realized that next week is Halloween…and just how did that happen???? This summer was spent with visits ‘home’ to America, then returning ‘home’ to Istanbul– but not without adventures in between.  This is the 1st of a few posts thinking back to summer trips…

After returning home from America, my roommate and I had planned a trip to Tbilisi (one of my fav places, read about it here if you want:Georgia On My Mind…) but through some kind of cosmic mishap or divine intervention, our flight was cancelled and with the refund we were offered a ‘same price’ flight to Italy.  SOLD!

 

Before moving to Istanbul, my life’s dream was actually to live in Italy and I went so far as to even get a degree in Italian language alongside my other degrees.  Obviously that dream evolved and led me to where I am now, but it’s never ended my love affair with Italy and all of my adventures that took place there in my twenties when I briefly lived there.  Through most of those adventures, my best friend was also there, and we spent days traipsing through the Italian countryside eating gelato after gelato.  I remember back then my best friend saying she wanted to have a gelaterria.  As we would taste each swirled scoop, she would compare this one to that one and this flavor to the next.  At the time it seemed like a sort or game or untouchable dream as we ate and ate.

As much time as I spent in Italy years ago, I had never been to Bologna…a completely magical city.  It’s quiet.  Everyone rides bikes.  It has porticos and nearly every street is red or terra-cotta orange.  It’s so picturesque you want to swoon.   It’s also known throughout Italy as ‘La Grassa”, which translates literally to the ‘The Fat One’ because of THE FOOD!!

If you want to eat the best pasta and gelato of your entire life, GO THERE.  GO NOW.  JUST GET ON A PLANE.  ARRIVE.  EAT.  BE FULFILLED FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Upon arrival in Bologna we found a cute local cafe by our apartment.  We were the only non-Italians in there and it was filled with little old men and over-sized bowls of pasta.  You always know a place is good if it’s filled with old people and the decor isn’t fussy. Trattoria Amedeo in Porta Saragozza is a fantastic little restaurant, serving old school favorites and not needing to modernize them.  Why change a good thing?

 

As pictured above, I ordered the Linguine Al Ragu (the closest thing you get to what we call ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ in the states, only… that doesn’t actually exist in Italy).  It’s probably the most traditional dish of Bologna and is perfectly buttery al dente linguine covered in a thick meat sauce.  Everything is perfectly seasoned and melts in your mouth.  My friend ordered to ravioli con burro e salvia (butter and sage). So simple, just 3 ingredients: cheese, butter, and sage-yet completely complex in flavor.  We ate here at least 2 more times and every time it was a sure bet for just good perfectly made pasta.

 

We also began the ‘Gelato Journey’.  We started out at Cremeria Santo Stefano, then, no exaggeration, after finishing the gelato we walked over to Sorbetto Castiglione and for round 2.  Both gelaterias produced the creamiest gelato and the most intense flavors I’d ever eaten.  It was hard to choose between the two and we decided we would have to keep comparing a few  more times.  My favorite flavor at Santo Stefano was the pistachhio salata (salted pistachio) and at Castiglione I loved the ‘dulce emma’ which had ricotta with fig jam and candied almonds.

 

I think back to those 1st few days in Bologna and it was just magical.  After stuffing ourselves with good food we would walk around and explore the tiny alleyways, then head to Piazza Maggiore for an aperitivo (aperol spritz thank you!) on the square, looking out at the rows of chairs lined up for the open air cinema that played every night.

 

We took several side trips: one returning to where I had lived and studied abroad, one to visit great friends who will always remain like family outside of Florence, and then several to the surrounding towns outside of Bologna.

 

The most surprising side trip was our trip to Dozza– a walled Medieval hilltop town which in recent years local artists have begun painting murals all over the walls and is famed for having one of the best regional restaurants as well as a regional food and wine enoteca.

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Ristorante la Scuderia is worth the hassle of figuring out how to get to Dozza (regional train to Imola, then taxi for 25 minutes).  This restaurant is kind of like a little piece of paradise.  Of course, in typical fashion, we proceeded to order everything on the menu without realizing that there was a certain way in which we were supposed to order our courses –thoroughly confusing the waiter in the process.  When the cheese plate filled with homemade fig preserves came out before the pasta and the waiter presented it to us with a terrified look written all over his face, we understood our mistake.  However, he was so kind about it  so we went with the flow and began our meal of: a regional cheese and jam plate, fried zucchini sticks, fried polenta sticks with creamy cheese, and ravioli with butter and sage.  All paired with a robust Sangiovese red wine… of course.  It.  WAS.  AMAZING.

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img_3804After eating, we went to have a look at the Enoteca, which is located in the old dungeon of the Dozza Castle.  To our delight, we found that the Enoteca was basically a gigantic wine cellar…with wine on tap to taste!  YES.  On. Tap.  You give the nice man a form of identity which he keeps at the register, then he hands you a credit card.  You take this credit card over to the wine taps and press ‘fill’.  For each wine you taste, the card is charged and then when you pay at the end you get your ID back.  It’s quite possibly my new favorite place/activity on Earth.

We enjoyed this experience so much that it resulted in us buying 5 bottles of wine…not bothering to think about how in the world we would get the said wine home.  The cliffs notes version of that end of the story is that we finally got that wine nearly 2 months later and nothing had broken –miraculously!

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Our fav’s were all red and all Sangiovese or Sangiovese blends: Impetuoso, Crepe, and the best wine I’ve ever had-Olmatello Reserve

We also headed to Modena for a quick day trip to check out the city and see if we could find Bloom Gelateria which is becoming very trendy for its vegan and non-dairy flavors.  I have to say, in the years it’s been since I studied and lived in Italy, the amount of vegetarian and vegan options has dramatically increased.

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Bloom Gelateria in Moda:  Pictured here, vegan cherry sorbet, vegan almond and mango

The vegan flavors at Bloom really shocked me.  They were creamy, rich, dense, and didn’t taste at all different from normal gelato…and in fact were much better than some ‘normal’ gelato I’ve had in other parts of Italy.

 

Back in Bologna, we had a final gelato from Santo Stefano. On that last night, I had a combo of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and something called ‘cafe bianco’ (white coffee).  To this day, I’ can’t tell you what was in the white coffee flavor, but it was awesome.  It was like a mellowed out milky coffee ice cream.  It was sweet and rich and creamy and it was the perfect way to end this spur of the moment Italian trip… or… at least I thought it was the ending…

That whole week we were in Italy, something was happening to my friend.  She was still tasting and comparing gelato and dreaming up new flavor profiles, only this time she kept saying “I WANT to do this.”  So, here we are, it’s almost November, and you may have already guessed it, but YES— at this very moment my friend is on a plane returning from a month long study at Bologna’s finest Gelato Training School: Carpigiani.  This is how dreams come true... take an idea and keep going, because they ARE reachable!

 

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2 weekends ago, I found myself back in Bologna to visit my friend while she’s on her new incredible journey.  The weekend was spent with many trips back to Santo Stefano and even another trek out to Dozza for La Scuderia and the Wine Cellar Paradise.  This time at La Scuderia, fried porcini (again paired with Sangiovese table wine) were the star.  Of course we had to have the ravioli con burro e salvia again as well as the buccotini with pork cheek and carmelized onions.

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Granita Goodness!

The ‘return’ trip back to Bologna also featured a new gelato experience: granitas from Galliera 49.  As soon as I arrived in Bologna, my friend was like ‘Good!  You’re here!  You have to eat this granita I discovered while walking.’  Never one to turn down a food opportunity, of course I obliged and soon we found ourselves with a full cup of granita (italian ice).  Mine: mandolra and cioccolato con arancia (almond and chocolate orange).  Imagine marzipan melted down to a marshmallow fluff consistency and Christmas orange chocolate smushed together in a cup.  That’s what I ate.

On the last day there we walked all over Bologna exploring the antiques market set up in Piazza Santo Stefano and of course eating a final gelato at Cremeria Santo Stefano.  After all my years of gelato eating and all the gelaterias I’ve been to, this one really is the ABSOLUTE BEST.  The ‘gusto del mese’ (flavor of the month) was lemon-saffron-almond.  I ordered it wanting to try something different.  What I got wasn’t different at all but the most mouth watering nostalgic experience.  It tasted exactly like a southern iced lemon cookie.  It took me back to years growing up in the hot summers of the south and eating the lemon cookies.  I actually kinda got emotional while eating this flavor, totally lost in memories.  That’s the beauty of food…when it’s done right, it transports you through time and you are able to connect to past experiences.

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Linguine al Ragu con vino… da certo!

For dinner we needed to eat quickly so I could catch my flight so we went to a place on Via Pratello.  Pasta Fresca di Valeria Naldi serves up traditional pasta and is beloved by locals.  You go in and choose from the menu of the day then stand in line and wait for yours to be cooked upon order.  Once you get your little package, all the cafes and bars don’t mind if you sit down and order wine or snacks and eat your pasta there.  The street was packed full of people at cafes and I realized that everyone was eating pasta from Valeria Naldi.  Era perfetto.  I went for the classic linguine al ragu as it was the best way to say ‘bye to Bologna.  A glass of wine, fresh home made pasta, and in the company of my best friend after a weekend of gelato sampling and hearing all about what she’d learned at school= a moment to cherish forever.

Cheers Bologna, fino alla prossima volta.

 

 

 

Gaziantep Baklava : Tale of joy and sorrows…

This post is the follow-up to my previous one about my trek to Gaziantep, a city in Southeastern Turkey famed for Turkish cuisine.  That post focuses on savory meals like kebabs—- so if you haven’t checked that one you can read it here: Gaziantep: Into the land of the kebab

There are two major desserts in Gaziantep: Katmer and Baklava.

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Katmer

Katmer is made by taking a piece of hand rolled and stretched yufka (the Turkish version of phyllo dough, made with olive oil instead of butter) and filling it with a thick layer of ground pistachios and kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) then baked in the oven until everything gets a bit melty inside and the outside is flaky and golden brown.  The best Katmer Salon is Zekeriya Usta. The Katmer are as big as a large pizza…huge, enough for 4 people. That’s why…even though we were in fact 4 people…we always ordered 2 of them. Of course.

Katmer3Katmer4They are I think my favorite Turkish dessert…well…actually that’s a hard call, but they are up there on my list. They are sweet but not too sweet. They taste really nutty from the pistachios and are a bit salty… but the cream balances them out to be more mellow.  Think of like a flaky croissant type dough exterior with nuts and cream inside all gooey and drippy.  Mind you, when i say ‘cream’ this is not to be confused with pastry cream or sweet cream that has sugar added to it.  This is just fresh thick curdled cream…milky and rich. Over the course of our 2 day trip we ate 7 katmers. Yes. We did.  This is true.  I am not ashamed.

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Simit Katmer

Also on this trip, for the first time ever we sought out the Simit Katmer…a rolled version of katmer, found at the famed Akşam Simit Katmer Salon.  This is made from nearly the exact same ingredients but instead of laying the yufka down into a flat square, it’s rolled up into a ring, imitating the Turkish bread ring called ‘Simit’.  The rolled style gives it more crunch on the outside with more squishy softness inside…like how with a cinnamon roll the inside is soft and gooey (and usually the best part, who cares about the outside right???). My friends still preferred the original katmer best but I dunno…I was having a hard time (and still am) making a choice. They are both so good…and while similar are so different in texture.

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Baklava at Imam Çağdaş….looooook at the pistachios……..

Aside from it’s call to fame for spicy kebabs Gaziantep is also, according to lore, the ‘birthplace’ of baklava.  Now this is quite a controversial statement as baklava is fought over between many cultures and cuisines.  Not being one to want to enter into food politics, especially something that has been argued for hundreds of years, here is what I do know: In Turkey, it’s known that the style and traditional way of making baklava came from Gaziantep.  Regardless of where the tradition began, the level of deliciousness of Gaziantep baklava cannot be negated. Baklava can be found all over Turkey and there are many famous shops in Istanbul claiming to have ‘Gaziantep Baklava’. Really it is always good and I can’t say that I’ve ever had ‘bad’ baklava.  Can you go wrong with dough, nuts and sugar? But there are different levels of just how good the baklava can be. In Istanbul, the best baklava place is hands down Karaköy Güllüoğlü, who state they use the ‘traditional Gaziantep recipe and art of baklava making’. Therefore, when you are actually in Gaziantep, the quality and level of baklava is so good it’s mind-blowing.  

Each piece is stuffed bursting open with pistachios, turning the little dough packages green in color.  In Istanbul, to get the quality with that amount of pure pistachios and as large of a piece of baklava, you would pay maybe 3 times as much as what you pay in Gaziantep. There are of course famed places and people who will argue with you into the hours of the night about which Gaziantep Baklava Bakery is ‘The Best in Gaziantep’. There are people who only buy from their particular stores and won’t step foot into any other. Baklava in Gaziantep is so famous and beloved that in the more popular shops, entire walls of baklava will actually sell out completely each night, packed in vacuum sealed boxes and taken by the kilo home to eat or put onto buses or in suitcases on planes, bound for future gifts to people who live outside the city.

Bak6As you read this, are you starting to slowly comprehend now what I was alluding to in my previous post about the ‘Baklava tale of woes’ ?  I am trying to hint subtly at the fact that baklava stores DO sell out of baklava. And that’s what makes my trip a tragic comedy.  You see, if you haven’t guessed it, the stores (yes plural, stores) DID sell out. But even more tragic: it was my fault.

Locals may argue over which Baklava Salon is THE BEST, but a usual favorite is Koçak.  I also, having been to Gaziantep several times, firmly believe that Koçak is in fact THE BEST. So, fast forward to the Sunday evening the night of our flight.  We had already (thankfully) had a feast of baklava at Imam Çağdaş the night before.  Imam Çağdaş really doesn’t do anything wrong, and their baklava is amazing.  It’s a close second to Koçak…only Koçak is just a tiny bit better. So anyways, it’s Sunday, we have a few hours before we need to head to the airport, and all of us in our travel group have dreams of bringing baklava home with us.  For some of us it was for work, some for ourselves, and for one person for her boyfriend’s grandmother who requested it.

We arrived at the nearest Koçak…a small store only showing a few of the baklava styles. I didn’t see my favorite style on display and when we inquired we were told they only had the ‘traditional’ left.  There’s nothing wrong with the traditional, in fact, with nothing to compare it to, you would think it’s so good it’s a crime. But I HAD TASTED others before and I wanted the other style. Plus, I don’t know what came over me. I just didn’t believe that this famous store, with so many locations, didn’t have their other styles.

The waiter promised us that even at their other stores they also didn’t have anything but the traditional, that they were all sold out.  I didn’t believe him. I could not be told. So…with a stubbornness I had not realized I possessed, after we all ate one piece of traditional baklava, the square one with pistachios, I made us all get up and walk over to the other Koçak.  

As we neared the building, we saw tour buses lining the sidewalk. We then saw people with open suitcases in the parking lot stuffing gigantic boxes of baklava into these suitcases. Then a man from the Koçak store came out and very pleasantly smiled and said ‘I’m so sorry. All the baklava is gone. It’s all finished.”

Yes.  The whole store.  

We had no baklava for work.  Worse, we had no baklava for the friend’s boyfriend’s grandma.

So, we walked back to the store we had just left, determined to get boxes of the traditional I had turned my nose up at.  And what did we find? As we walked up the steps, the very waiter who had told me to buy the baklava from there looked at us with deepy pity as he said ‘It’s all gone.  The people after you bought the last of it.’

It was cruel twist of fate.

SO, we jumped in a taxi and had the driver speed us to Imam Çağdaş to buy their baklava…as I said, it’s a close second.  Only…as we entered the store…the wall filled with thousands of squares of baklava normally… was… EMPTY.

They too were sold out.  

At this point, I felt like the worst person on Earth.  My friends found all of this hilarious and were laughing and becoming hysterical.  They are truly good human beings. I will never forget their kindness because, truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been laughing if the tables were turned.  We eventutally did find some baklava to take to the boyfriend’s grandmother…but it was still an eye opening moment.  It was a valuable lesson in life about myself and about food.  Who knew the whole town sold out of baklava after 7 p.m. ?  Who knew that busloads of people would buy busloads of this delicacy?  Can I blame them?  Absolutely not.  I would have done the same if my luggage weren’t only 8 kilograms because we bought the cheap flights.

But here’s the biggest lesson I learned, a metaphor applicable to life in general: when you see baklava, get it and eat it while you can, enjoy it in the moment and don’t waste time walking to the other stores (or just believe the waiter when he’s trying to caution you that they are selling out).

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The one piece of ‘traditional’ baklava from Koçak