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.

 

 

 

Famagusta, Northern Cyprus Getaway…

Some days I find myself sitting and scouring the internet for flights to literally ANYWHERE.  I love Istanbul for so many reasons, but definitely its location to endless possibilities of weekend trips has its draws.  This is exactly how I came across tickets for Northern Cyprus… two tickets total for under $90—SOLD!

I have been wanting to check out Cyprus for a while but all I really knew beforehand was that it was a territory of Turkey and the island was divided into two parts.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough research before the flight and even afterwards I found myself desperately ‘googling‘ the history.  The short version (please research on your own as it’s quite extensive and I will NOT do it justice for details) is that over hundreds of years Cyprus was inhabited by many civilizations including the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, Venetians, The Ottoman Empire, and it was once even a British Colony.  After many years of conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being for the northern half of the island.

Northern Cyprus is famous for casinos and night life…but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of trip…I wanted something quiet, historical, preferably within reach of ancient ruins. A friend of a friend, who just happened to be a Cypriot herself, told us that what we were looking for could be found in Famagusta, or Gazimağusa in Turkish.

Always trust a local’s advice! Famagusta was exactly the kind of weekend trip destination that I had imagined…complete with ruins, golden sandy beaches, and Shakespeare.  According to lore, the setting of Othello is Famagusta’s castle, which you can still see today.  Othello’s actual plot and characters are supposedly based on real events from Famagusta when it was under Venetian rule.

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Picture taken from the left side of the road…

Of course, no paradise is easily found.  We arrived late from Istanbul and went directly to rent a car.  There was the minor detail that in Cyprus, leftover from the days of being a British Colony, the cars drive on the left side of the road!  So, after I looked at the guy who gave us our keys and asked “Is it difficult?” (to his complete horror) we were off… my roommate being the one to drive.  In this situation the best advice I can give is this: remember always to go LEFT and don’t have your navigator set to ‘walking route’ (oh yeah, we realized that a bit late).  The trip took about an hour and a half.  We parked at the hotel- jittery and stressed- and went right to sleep.

Waking up the next morning, it was like we had been transported in time.  I can’t describe how peaceful…only the sounds of the seagulls were audible.  We had breakfast at the hotel… cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam…very similar to a Turkish breakfast we would get in Istanbul, only with the addition of HELLIMHellim, or Haloumi, is salty cheese that is grilled so it’s crispy and also melty/gooey….yessssss.  Cyprus is known for their hellim and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.

After eating, we walked down to the main square and saw the 2 churches which were converted into mosques, the old port, Othello’s castle, and climbed up on the city walls. Bougainvillea was blooming everywhere-you could smell the sea and honeysuckle.  By Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque (what used to be St. Nicholas Cathedral) we came upon a woman making fresh squeezed orange pomegranate juice.  We each got a glass, sat down, took sips, and nearly cried!  I am not exaggerating, that was the best juice of my life.  It wasn’t tart or sour, not too sweet… full of flavor.  I later learned Cyprus is known for its citrus fruits.  We wandered around a bit and then got frappes at the famous pastry shop, Petek Pastanesi…our first of 2 memorable visits to this café.

After our walk, we decided to utilize the car, figuring it would be less nerve-wracking in the daylight.  We drove up to Dipkarpaz Beach (known as Golden Beach).  This beach is has crystal clear blue water and is very clean because it’s a national park reserve, therefore it’s protected.  It’s famous for loggerhead sea turtles and wild donkeys… neither of which we saw…but the drive and the beach were worth it regardless.  I’ve never been in water like that.  You could see all the way down to your toes…and there were about 6 people on the whole beach including us.  We had the whole place to ourselves.

6275cfae-d785-48ba-ab79-635808e01d65On the drive back from the beach we pulled into the only real cafe we saw along the street.  The sign said literally ‘Sea Front Beach Restaurant” with a smaller name below in Greek. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anymore information than this…but it was PERFECTION!  We sat on the back terrace and asked if the fish was fresh (to which the look on the waiter’s face was answer enough for us to understand we were stupid to have asked) and we ordered fried calamari and a salad.  Apparently the calamari came with french fries and assorted meze and our whole table was filled before our eyes.  The calamari is UP THERE for one of the best I have ever eaten… it tasted exactly of the sea.  Salty…fresh…crunchy…not greasy.  The meze they brought out were pickled beets, hummus, tahini hummus (or so we thought), and olives. The fries were also incredible…hand cut, not greasy at all, and I suspect they were double fried.  And… if there was ever a doubt that the seafood was fresh, while we were eating we watched a man spear a stingray right in front of us and bring it up to the restaurant…yup, that happened.

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The tahini is located behind the olives…

We drove back to Famagusta and walked around some more before dinner. Dinner was good.  The food was delicious and actually there was so much food that we had to tell the waiter to please not continue bringing out food. But…the atmosphere wasn’t one I would repeat. There was a woman singing very loud karaoke music and halfway through dinner a belly dancer appeared and danced on every table.  However, just on the food alone, it was a good example of the style of food in this part of Cyprus.  The restaurants are ‘meze restaurants’ serving menus that change daily with different cold and hot mezes that come one after another in a never-ending food parade to your table.  Our favorite thing was again the tahini hummus which we had at the seafood beach place for lunch.  We asked about it and learned it wasn’t hummus.  It was just TAHINI.  It was literally tahini paste with lemon stirred in… so we ate 2 giant tubs of sesame paste… and it was absolutely amazing…fluffy, creamy, tart, a nuttiness and richness of flavor… and mildly shocking that such depth of flavor can come from 2 ingredients.

The next day we woke up, had breakfast, revisited our juice stand, and went for visit number 2 to Petek Pastanesi.  We were on a mission: ice cream.  We had been told that this place was famous for KESME MARAŞ DONDURMA.  This kind of ice cream is traditional Turkish ice cream that has mastic added to it so that it is CHEWEY and NOT REALLY MELTABLE.  Yes.  The ice cream doesn’t melt.  Also, the word ‘kesme’ means ‘cut’.  This ice cream is made in a block, where the waiters cut off a slice of it, and then you eat it using a knife and fork.  We ordered vanilla and pistachio.  As much as I love pistachio, I had a bit of food envy over my roommate’s vanilla.  Mine was delicious– saturated with pistachios, creamy and nutty– but my roommate’s was that kind of dreamy creamy ice cream texture.  It’s a nice way to eat ice cream as it’s not often you can sit and spend time to savor it before it melts, making this extra special.

Afterwards we packed up our stuff and drove to the Salamis Ruins.  Salamis dates back to the 11th Century and at one time was one of the most important ports of Cyprus.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see lots of ruins and this one is seriously IMPRESSIVE.  First of all, it’s enormous, with a massive amphitheatre that you can climb all over and get views of the sea from.  Second…there’s no one there!  At the most there were 10 people while we were there.  It was really something to just be wandering around left alone with stones thousands of years old.

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We left Salamis and headed back to the airport.  We passed some roadside cafés overlooking the beach along the way.  Unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of this place.  It had a similar menu to the other cafés and also served various meze…but this time we went for the stuffed grilled squid.  Wow.  It wasn’t rubbery, it was soft and melted in your mouth like seafood butter…the only seasonings it had were lemon and parsley.   It was stuffed with tomatoes and cheese…I wasn’t sure but I thought the cheese was hellim, just softly melted instead of grilled.  It was served yet again with french fries…to which I can’t complain about.  It was a perfect end to such a memorable trip.

Considering I really had no idea where I was going, Cyprus ended up being a place that I feel deserves much more exploration and is somewhere that I know I’ll make a habit of going back to.  After all, it takes me less time to fly to Cyprus than to take a taxi from my house to the airport!