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: Into the land of the kebab…

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Gaziantep Backstreets

How do you write about one of the best if not THE BEST food experiences of a cuisine? It could easily be argued that every experience I write about here I call ‘one of the best’.  While that may be true–as I do love food– the dishes from Gaziantep really stand out to me as some of the most exceptional representations of Turkish cuisine.  This is what immediately comes to mind when I think of Turkish food….my favorite style as it strangely makes me feel at home.  It’s heavy comfort food: kebabs, meat, spices, lots of bread, and sugary sweets.  It’s wildly different from what I grew up eating in the states and yet oddly familiar. Gaziantep food reminds me of being at a big family dinner: eating food that you kind of want to hug.

Located in Southeastern Turkey, Gaziantep is famously home to some of the most beloved Turkish dishes.  When people say they are going to Gaziantep, the assumption among everyone is that they are going there for one thing: TO EAT. I know people who have flown down in the morning, eaten at just one restaurant, and flown back in the evening. Yes…it’s that important of a culinary destination.  Gaziantep is famous for being the birthplace of the kebab (in general) and also very controversially of baklava for sweets. The food is known for being heavy, spicy, and not fit for vegetarians.

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Hot Peppers!!
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Wandering the neighborhoods…

My latest trip to Antep was for exactly the sole purpose of eating.  I had been a few years back, making this trip my 4th of 5th (I honestly lost count) and when the opportunity arose for a food trip with friends, I jumped on it…imagine that.  This trip, while only 2 days, was filled with so many food memories that it’s impossible to make just one post.

I’ve decided to split it up into main course and dessert: my tragic escapade in baklava hunting will come later in a follow-up post.

We began our trip at my favorite coffee place, conveniently next door to our hotel this time around.  Kır Kahvesi pictured above isn’t as old or as famous as Tahmis Kahvesi (which is in all the guidebooks being as it’s dated from 1638), but it’s dearer to my heart. I genuinely feel that the coffee is better but also, the decor is just for lack of a better word, quaint.  There are red and blue stained glass windows and the whole experience makes you feel like you are sitting inside a candy house. I could spend hours in there drinking coffee after coffee…but alas, I was with other travelers so we moved along to the bazaar.

Wandering the Bazaar of Gaziantep is a feast for the eyes in itself.  Many of the products from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar are actually made by craftsmen in Gaziantep, so while there you get the opportunity to see the artists at work.  Antep is also where most of Turkey’s spices are produced: pul biber, isot, dried eggplant and peppers to be used for dolma, tomato paste and red pepper paste in giant vats that you buy by the kilo.

kutnu1.jpgTraditional textiles called ‘kutnu’ are also made in Gaziantep.  Half cotton and half silk, woven on a loom…these fabrics are soft and have a shiny glittering sheen to them because of how the silk is spun. In the past I’ve bought everything in sight– fabric that I have been told were actually tablecloths that I bought and used as scarves and shawls.

Gaz5Through the maze of the bazaar you may turn the corner and find yourself in the Tütün Hanı.  On Saturday nights the middle courtyard is filled with locals coming to smoke nargile and listen to live music.  Before the music kicks off, in the daytime the shops around the central courtyard are open and there are beautiful antique textiles and kilims.  It takes a bit of searching through piles of forgotten and dusty fabrics but can be really worth it in the end.

After exploring the bazaar (with a short visit to gorge ourselves on Katmer… a pistachio cream pillow from heaven which I’ll go further into detail with in my follow-up post about dessert), we stumbled across a Chickpea Wrap Street Vendor. I’ve never seen this before in any of my prior travels and it was amazing. We found the street vendor as all street vendors are usually found: by noticing a giant circle of people and going over to investigate. In the center of this circle was a man serving up spiced chickpeas with parsley, onions, peppers and tomatoes on fluffy pita bread.  It was delicious… savory, smoky, very spicy, but also fresh because the chickpea and parsley was very “salad-esque”. We knew we would hit the kebabs hard at dinner, so this was the perfect mid-day snack… and still very filling.  

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Ali Nazik in the center being devoured…

Gaz13We walked around more, observing neighborhood football games and getting lost in the stone alleyways before heading on to DINNER which in Gazinatep MUST be had at İmam Çağdaş…the most famous restaurant.  It’s always packed full but you can always get a table. However, if you want the full meal complete with dessert, don’t go too late as they do actually sell out of baklava (foreshadowing of my baklava tale of woes).  We ordered 2 Ali Nazik Kebabs, a mixed kebab, a few lahmacun , and finished with baklava of course. I had forgotten how in Gaziantep, when you order kebab they also bring out hot peppers, onions, parsley, and sometimes radishes and spiced potatoes to garnish your kebab.  They also never leave you without fluffy pita-like bread.

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Ali Nazik in all it’s glory… meat floating on top of the eggplant yogurt puree

The star of dinner was the Ali Nazik Kebab.  This kebab, the first time I ever tasted it years ago on my first trip, brought me to actual tears. It’s made of spicy ground lamb with lots of garlic and grilled on skewers. They then place the meat into a bed of smoked eggplant that has been mashed and pureed with yogurt, more garlic, and lemon.  It’s dusted with a heavy sprinkling of hot red pepper (turkish pul biber) and olive oil. It’s amazing. It’s rich and velvety. It’s spicy and smoky. It’s buttery. It’s salty. It’s comforting.  It tastes nothing like Thanksgiving cornbread dressing but it totally reminds of that exact feeling.  Although the flavors are entirely different, it’s that kind of dish that transports you back through time to a moment of eating a special meal…It’s my all time favorite kebab…EVER.

Here’s the thing: they make this in other Turkish cities. I have ordered it from various restaurants ‘claiming’ to be from Gaziantep... places that I trust. But this dish is not the same. It is only this mouth-wateringly-good when it’s made in Gaziantep.  I don’t know why… I can’t understand it.  The ingredients are the same.  It’s just not the same.  But isn’t that the way you feel about Thanksgiving dinner?  If your grandmother doesn’t make the meal, it doesn’t taste like anything does it?  Sometimes you have to go to the source.  This one dish alone sets İmam Çağdaş at such a high-caliber as it is culinary genius.  I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere else.  And yet, it tastes of home.  One is not enough to share–you will want your own.

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Çiğer on the grill…

We left the restaurant full and practically ready to burst.  The next day we wandered the back streets and the bazaar again, had more katmer (in the next post) and for lunch I ran into a shop for a Çiğer kebab.  I love çiğer.  Love love love love.  It’s liver and onions: only they grill the liver so that the outside gets charred and crunchy.  Then they add lemon juice and hot red pepper and place it on fluffy bread and add parsley and onions on top. It’s your grandma’s liver and onions, another comfort food, only amped up about 50% to something char-grilled and spicy.  It still has that metallic tang to it as with all liver dishes, but the lemon juice and parsley help to mask it a bit.  I dunno…to be perfectly honest, I could eat normal liver and onions all the time and I’ve always loved it.  Just this version is EXTRA YUMMY.  It’s different from the fried liver that I’ve written about before and it’s very spicy…lots of red pepper dry rubbed before grilling. 

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Beyran… ‘meat soup’ to cure anything

For dinner, we found a kebab place recommended by a friend.  It was really good and I’m ashamed that I can’t find the name of it anywhere.  But really: ALL KEBAB PLACES IN GAZIANTEP ARE DELICIOUS as here is where the kebab really began, thus existing as a true art form. We started the meal with a bowl of Beyran Çorba, which is a spicy lamb soup only made in Gaziantep except for a few places in Istanbul (but you have to seek it out).  It was very tasty with lots of garlic.  I firmly believe the broth alone of this soup will cure the flu…like being a kid and needing chicken noodle.  Again: comforting. 

We also got a mixed kebab. For the kebab they filled the table with all sorts of spreads and vegetables: cucumber yogurt dip, pickled cabbage, radishes with spices and lemon, spicy roasted potatoes, çiğ köfte (a spiced bulgur ‘meatball’ that was once made with raw meat but now not anymore), sliced white raw onions, hot peppers and roka (wild peppery arugula).  All of those are meant for garnishing the kebab, depending on if you want to make small wraps using the veggies and meat or just if you want to snack on the veggies to balance out the heat of the kebab (because it’s quite spicy).  Kebab places in Istanbul don’t seem to bring out the extra garnishing free of cost and plentiful.  It’s really a Gaziantep treat.

 

We finished dinner and went for a walk to go and buy our final baklava before heading to the airport.  It was a short trip, with some of the best food dishes I’ve had in years.  It was also just nice to be in this part of Turkey…a quieter city still full of history and with tradition.  A place where you don’t feel hassled to bargain for prices as you see the craftsmen busily at work, a place where you can literally taste the artistry of food and a place that connects you to memories through food.