Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Fantastico Coffee Bar in Venice

Francesco and Issaco serve up the best service in Venice. 

There’s only one negative about staying at the 5 star Hotel Danieli in Venice---their breakfast is $70 US per person.  During the week of Carnivale I was on a mission to find the best place for morning coffee.  What I found was much more than that.

I was attending Carnivale with two dear American friends.  They insisted on taking me to a place they had discovered their first morning in Venice, Café Brasilia.  I recognized it immediately from two years ago when my husband and I had rented an apartment nearby.  Just a minute’s walk from La Fenice opera house, this charming spot offers the best bang for the Euro in Venice for breakfast, as well as light lunches and snacks throughout the day, and drinks in the evening.

The café is so named because they are one of the few places in the city offering Brazilian roasted coffee.  (Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee accounting for about one-third of our total production.)  But, everything else, is strictly Venetian, from the special pastries made only during Carnivale, to the glorious array of sandwiches (my fave was the panini with mozzarella, prosciutto & arugula).  There are also wonderful fruit salads and a great assortment of fresh fruit smoothies.

There is seating inside for about a dozen, however, handsome outside tables accommodate another dozen.  There’s a bar with space for another 10 or 12---as with all cafes in Italy, sit at a table and the price is more.  Cappucinos at Café Brasilia’s bar are an astounding value at $2 US--- cafes without half the atmosphere and service are double to triple that in the city.

Café Brasilia is one of those super simpatico places that all of us yearn to find in Europe.  It’s been owned by the same family for years and you’ll feel like your part of it by the end of your first cappuccino.  Ask for Francesco, Pio, or Issaco and take a copy of the BLOG with you.

Directions:  stand facing La Fenice, then take the street to your right (Verona) 100 yards.  Café Brasilia will be on your left.   Address:  San Marco 3658, Calle dei Assassini.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Venice’s Best Happy Hour

I’ve been to Venice probably 20 times but I’m always looking for new experiences.  I think this trip I found nirvana for cocktails and nibbles.   I found the place through a Venetian friend’s recommendation…. thankfully, it hasn’t made its way into any guidebooks. 

What’s so special about Taverna Campiello Remer?  Everything.   The location is on a tiny piazza facing the Grand Canal with not one tourist in site.  While only a 5 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge, it might as well be on another continent.  Walking through the front door, you’ll immediate know you’ve found something special…a candlelit architectural Renaissance gem with arches, bricked walls and huge wooden-beamed ceilings.

My Venetian friend recommended Remer for their magnifico buffet of appetizers.  Very unusual for Venice, this huge spread offered a variety of bruschettas, pasta, cheese, roasted vegetables and a delizioso seafood risotto.  Buy a reasonably-priced glass of wine or aperitif ($4-7US) drink and this buffet is yours for another $7.  My two friends and I had planned to go out to dinner, but couldn’t manage another bite after the fabulous spread of goodies.

Most places for happy hour in Venice are stand-up only spots.  Remer had seating for at least 50, with even a few tables outside overlooking the Grand Canal.  The Venetian man sitting next to us told us that the establishment also offers a great dinner and lunch, however, he pointed out that the meals are on the pricey side.

Remer serves its happy hour buffet extravaganza from 5:30-7:30 every evening but Wednesday and Sunday when they are closed.  Turn in the alley way just beside the famous restaurant  Fiaschetteria Toscana (Salizada S.Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5719).  Follow the tiny passage all the way back to the Grand Canal.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Magical Dining in Venice

Lucky me that I’m currently in Venice for the week of Carnivale.  Some of you Italian foodies may recognize the name Fred Plotkin, author of one of my favorite books, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler.   I had long been a raving fan of his before our paths happen to cross 10 years ago in a bakery on the Italian Riviera.  When he learned I was heading to Venice, he shared one of his new favorite restaurants:  “No one knows about La Zucca and it’s hard to find.”  Sounded like my kind of place.  I’ve been dining at this gem of a place ever since.

La Zucca is now on every gourmand’s radar.  In Fred’s latest edition of his Bible on where to eat in Italy he writes, “This restaurant is no longer a secret and has become immensely popular.”  Indeed, it’s the kind of place one wants to keep private, but on the other hand, the food is so magnifico that it begs to be shared with other food lovers---especially in Venice where moderate-priced restaurants of its caliber are sorely lacking.

Months ago before I started getting my masquerade ball costumes made, I made sure the concierge of our Venetian hotel called to snag us a reservation at La Zucca (note: the restaurant only accepts phone reservations---neither faxes nor emails).   Originally opened as a vegetarian restaurant, (La Zucca means pumpkin) it has expanded its menu to include items such as rabbit and lamb.  My favorite dish out of them all is their pumpkin flan---it’s easy to understand why this magical plate is their signature dish. 

Fred Plotkin was right in that La Zucca is difficult to find, so be prepared for an adventure.  It’s located about 50 yards from the church of San Giacomo dell’ Orio (which sits on one of the most beautiful residential squares in all of Venice—come here if you want to see what it’s like to be a true Venetian).  Ask for directions from one of the locals in the square.

With only 35 seats, an advance reservation is imperative.  If you’re in Venice in the summer months, request one of their few highly coveted outside seats along the tiny canal.  And, don’t leave Venice without tasting their pumpkin flan.  Buon appetito!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Naples---the Birthplace of Pizza

Say Naples and lovers of Italy often develop contorted faces or horror.  I hear things like “It’s the arm pit of Italy,” “I have a friend who was robbed in Naples,” or “Isn’t it mostly Mafia?”   Yes, Napoli (as it’s called in Italy) like any major port city can be dicey.  But, there are many charms the city has to offer.  For example, all of the magnificent riches from Pompeii are now in the city’s Archaeological Museum---a must see for any traveler to the area.  Naples is also the birthplace of pizza and that’s why I have returned this visit.  I arrived today from Capri on a mission to find the perfect slice over the next two days.  That may be very difficult for there is >1,000 pizza makers in Naples.

Pizza was originally the street food of the poor, however, when Queen Margherita visited the area a clever pizza maker decided to make a new pizza in her honor.  Margherita pizza is now a standard on just about every pizza menu on the globe.  Bill Clinton, another foodie, came to Naples when he was President.  One of the pizza shops that he frequented has now changed its name to “Presidente” and proudly displays a photo of the Clintons.

I am told by professionals that one of the secrets of a perfect pizza is the oven.  Not only must it be wood-fired (which adds complex flavors), but a faultless pizza must also be cooked at temperatures as high as 700-800 degrees.  At this heat pizzas only need to bake one minute.  In Napoli, less is more with toppings.  You’ll never see a combo.  Simplicity reigns supreme and most shops feature only one or two toppings…usually as separate pizzas and not together.  San Marzano tomatoes, discussed a few days ago, are the basis for the sauce, however, many pizzas do not have a sauce.

A jug of wine and thou…and a slice of pizza from Napoli.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Ferrari & Maserati of Tomatoes

From my apartment on the island of Capri I have a panorama of the Bay of Naples with the majestic Mt Vesuvius looming in the background.  Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. spewing volcanic ash throughout the area.  This volcanic debris now creates superlative soil for growing what may be the world’s best tomato, the highly prized San Marzano.  Protected by stringent Italian laws, this special varietal can only be grown in this unique volcanic earth near Mt Vesuvius.   Knock-offs are not allowed and carry a stiff penalty (including prison and a lofty fine) for those attempting to masquerade other tomatoes for the beloved San Marzano.

Although used raw, San Marazanos are often canned as used as the basis for Italy’s most flavorful sauces.   I have heard many prominent chefs around the globe say that unless it’s the height of the tomato season, that they would rather use a canned San Marzano than a fresh tomato not in its prime.  Last night for dinner I had a spaghetti with clams at a tiny place within walking distance of Capri’s  main square.  In the pasta was small dices of tomato.  If this were August I would swear it had just been plucked from the garden as it was flavor-chocked, sweet and succulent.  As it’s early February, I know it’s a canned San Marzano.

In San Diego where I live fresh San Marzano’s are popping up in many of the Farmers Markets during the summer.  Naturally, without the volcanic soil and micro-climate of the Amalfi Coast, California renditions are only a mere imitation of the original.  The good news is that canned San Marzano’s are widely available in high-end US grocery stores, and can easily be purchased on the Internet.  Be mindful, however, that there are Chinese knockoffs.  Be sure you buy only those from Italy called San Marzano DOP (which authenticates their origin from Mt Vesuvius soils).

You say tomato…and I say San Marzano.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons Make Limoncello

I landed today in Naples, Italy for a winter escape to the nearby Amalfi Coast.  Italy is the world’s largest producers of lemons and the glorious Amalfi Coast is home to Italy’s most famous lemons, the Limone di Sorrento.  Protected by stringent laws, this varietal can only be grown along this stretch of Mediterranean coastline, including the neighboring island of Capri.  These grapefruit sized lemons, the Mazzerati of citrus in Italy, are used to make Italy’s most prized lemon liqueur, limoncello.

Limoncello is a neon-yellow infusion of high octane vodka and the cherished Sorrento lemons.  It’s served super-chilled in tiny shot-like-glasses after dinner---as it is thought to help with digestion.  Italian families for centuries have been making limoncello from recipes that have been passed down through generations.  Interestingly, it was not produced commercially until after World War II.

Recently imported to the US, limoncello has become fashionable in America.  At a party this summer I was presented with a wonderful concoction of limoncello mixed with tonic water.  At another gathering, limoncello was served as an accompaniment to a gorgeous citrus sorbet.
Limoncello is easy to make.  The following recipe was given to me several years ago by a Tuscan friend from her family’s annals:

·        14 lemons
·        1 litre (1000 cc or 4 cups) of 190 proof Everclear alcohol (can be purchased in Liquor stores).  High proof, good quality Vodka can be substituted.
·        4 ½ cups sugar
·        5 cups water

Wash a large glass jar with lid (1-gallon size is best) with hot, soapy water. Rinse well and dry.  Scrub the lemons.  Peel the outer layer of the lemons being careful to avoid the white part inside (bitter).  Put the skins in a jar with the alcohol and place it in a dark area for 15-20 days.  Then, prepare a syrup of a sugar and water (boil together for about 10 minutes and then allow to cool).  Remove the lemon peels from the alcohol, add syrup and refrigerate.