Friday, October 31, 2014

Rome’s Best Foodie Spots

I’m just returning from 5 glorious days in Rome.  While I’ve visited the city >20 times, I’ve always stayed in a hotel, eaten out all of my meals, and used free time for seeing the major sights.  This time I wanted my stay to be completely different.

My main objective for this visit was to see Roma via the culinary eyes of someone who lives there.  First thing was to pass up a hotel and opt for a more authentic experience of becoming a Roman.   I was fortunate to snag a marvelous apartment on one of my favorite squares in all of Italy, Piazza Margana.  This charming little piazza, right in the center of Rome, is devoid of has to wander down alley-ways to reach it.  I did not know until I arrived at the apartment that it was owned by the CEO of Benetton.  Its walls were filled with gorgeous works of art, a fortune of silver tea and coffee service was displayed on the antique marble-stopped table, and hand-cut crystal wine glasses beckoned us. 
   Piazza Margana apartment rental

The next days I spent seeking out gastronomic spots…from outdoor markets, to upscale food and wine emporiums…all with the intent of gathering ingredients for our dinners.  Here are my don’t miss places, listed in no particular order:
  • Campo Fiori outdoor market offered a huge array of fresh porcini muchrooms (which I used to make an exquisite pasta with a drizzling of truffle oil).  Nearly every stall at the market also offered dried porcini mushrooms in a wide assortment of quantity, as well as quality.  I snagged several pounds to bring home in my suitcase.  Vendors here sold pasta in every size, shape and color (including the green, white & red of the Italian flag.)  One of Rome’s better bakers is also located here at number 22 on the square.  
                                            Edible art at the outdoor market

  • Sant’ Eustachio coffee house.  You don’t have to rent an apartment to zero in on this place.  Long a favorite stop of mine for a “pick me up,” this place is not only a charmer, but it offers the best coffee in the city.  First, they roast their beans in a wood-burning oven.  Those in-the-know, however, say that it’s the water from an underground spring nearby that makes Sant’ Eustachio numero uno.  All I know, it that it’s simply the best.  (BTW---for a real splurge, try their granita d’café…an icy slush topped with decadent whipped crème).  The shop is located next to the church of Sant’ Eustachio, 2 minutes walk from the Pantheon, 5 minutes walk from Piazza Navona.  This was the best 1.5 Euro I spent this trip in Italy.  Pay inside at the cashier, and belly your way up to the bar.  Or, sit outside for 5 Euro…but all the action with locals is definitely inside.
  • Tre Scalini’s Tartufo.  Speaking of Piazza Navona, that brings me to the next don’t miss.  If you’ve been to Rome, chances are that you’ve had a “Tartufo” at Tre Scalani on the Navonna square.  While Tre Scalini is a restaurant, I usually opt to go into their take-out bar and grab a Tartufo, a fabulous rich concoction that I call “death by chocolate.”  Can’t think of a better way to kick the bucket.  This over-the-top, dense chocolate ice-cream dessert, is a mere 5 Euros in the bar, 10 Euros at the restaurant’s sidewalk café.  It’s still as good (if not better than) the first one I had in 1976.

                               Tartufo---this "truffle" is made from intense chocolate ice cream 
                                                 and covered with bittersweet chocolate
  • Eataly.  This upscale, gourmet food emporium opened in Rome a couple of years ago.  Eataly started in Torino and there are now Eatalys in every major city in Italy, New York (opened by Mario Batali and Joe Bastanovich), along with places like Tokyo.  Eataly rocks.  I spent over 1.5 hours in the place and could have spent more.  It’s located in Rome’s former downtown airline bus terminal and offers 4 floors of gourmet bliss.  My favorite sections are its immense book area which seemingly has every Italian cookbook ever published…most in English, but some strictly in Italian.  This section also boasts a full array of Italian foodie magazines (their versions of Gourmet, Bon Appetite, Food & Wine).  Their pizza section offers without a doubt, the best pizza I’ve ever eaten…and that’s saying something.  Both the Torino and Rome Eataly knocked it out of the park with their tasty pizzas---the perfect amount of crunch and killer flavors from the wood used in their ovens.  Another fave section is their houseware area…I bought several Christmas gifts here, including some for myself!  This place dazzles.         

4 floors of nirvana for food & wine lovers

  • Vinando Wine Bar.  Last, and in no way least, this one was one of my favorite meals over the last few years in Italy.  I had eaten dinner here 5 or 6 years ago…I still remember the stunning lamb dish had that had been prepared in white wine.  While it wasn’t on the menu this time around, the dish I ordered was equally fab.  A ubiquitous fry of calamari and shrimps was nothing short of sublime.  My girlfriend ordered the grilled lamb and it was top notch in every way.  While service is lacking, the table out on the square, along with the food quality and superb wine list, made up for it.  An added bonus was that our quite handsome apartment was in the former palace above--- 2 flights up…and we heard not even a whisper of the wine bar even though the floor to ceiling windows remained open while we were there. Magic at its best.  Definitely reserve & if the weather is nice, book an outdoor table.

                           Vinando is off the beaten track but in the epicenter of Rome

Not on my don’t miss list is a place I visited, one of the supposed “shrines” of Roman Deli’s, Volpetti.  Located in the Testaccio section of southern Rome, it had long been on my list, but because of its distance from the center I had never made it.  This year it was at the top of my list for visiting.  I was disappointed.  While the staff were super helpful, the place was small and prices felt astronomic.  On the morning of my visit, it was filled with Americans…all paying 3-4 times the price for dried porcini mushrooms of the same quality that I had purchased the same day at the Campo Fiori market.  Also, Eataly’s deli had a much larger selection of everything and it looked far fresher and more inviting than Volpetti.  Maybe I just hit it on an off day?  I don’t think so.

Living like a Roman definitely had its benefits.  If you need information on how to rent an apartment in Rome, please contact me at

Friday, October 17, 2014

Charleston: A Food Lover’s Paradise

Charleston is not only the cradle of South Carolina’s farm-to-table renaissance, but it has become the epicenter for sophisticated Southern cuisine.  Low-country cooking has now been elevated to an art form…succulent local shrimps are being served with the city’s artisan-milled grits; swanky cocktails are being made with Charleston’s hand-crafted Jack Rudy tonic.  It’s difficult to walk down the street without passing a restaurant of a James Beard Award-nominated chef.  The city’s food scene pulse is palpable.

Antebellum cooking has morphed into something that is exhilarating and exciting. This innovative culinary landscape has created a tsunami of new foodie shops.  A former furniture factory has been turned into a ground-breaking grocery store where Southern staples such as jars of homemade pickles or pimento cheese sauce appear along with freshly made Moroccan tagines and Italian salsa verde.  A few blocks away, a cutting-edge diner/foodie store offers an eclectic menu with dishes from Korea and Mexico, to Taiwan and also the South.  Its shelves are stocked with local roasted coffee, straight-from-the-farm eggs, and the area’s maple syrup.  Locavore at its best.

The Southern cuisine revival has also created a synergism for ethnic restaurants with an out-of-the box syntheses of the South with far away places.  One of the stars was opened by a chef who was raised in the South, but born in Israel to a mother from Shreveport, Louisiana and a father from Iraq.  His cooking, an interesting blend of his Iraqi-Israeli heritage through a South Carolina prism, includes items such as a Peach Salad, along with a Lamb Pita served on local artisanal bread.   There’s even a South-Asian fusion where Southerners are served “Asian soul food”…fried chicken is on the menu but its “black bean fried chicken over rice and spicy papaya salad.” 

In addition to its electrifying food-centric offerings, there are several other compelling reasons to visit Charleston.  Travel + Leisure just voted Charleston as the #1 city in the U.S.   While its “acclaimed cuisine” was cited in this significant award, so were its “charming boutique hotels, coastal setting, friendliness, garden ambiance and historic vibe.”   Wine-Knows will be taking its first-ever group to Charleston next March…perfectly timed for the city’s best weather and for its annual Home and Garden Show.   At the moment there are two spots remaining.  For more details, check out the trip at  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Paris by Foot...and by Mouth

One of the most requested items I am asked for by clients who hire me to develop a private wine and food trip for them, is a foodie tour of Paris.  While each one is customized a little differently depending on the client, below is a walking tour that encompasses many of the city’s culinary and oenophile shrines….all in one small district in the very center of Paris.  It can easily be done in a few hours, and is convenient to combining with sightseeing at the Louvre, Tullerie Gardens and the Champs Elysee.

The Madeleine district is a gourmand’s paradise and includes some of Paris’ most famous and most expensive food stores.   All of the shops are clustered around the square of the Madeleine church.  There’s something for every food lover all the way from savory to sweet, from moderate to tres expensive, from simple to lavish, and from tea to wine.  If you have time for only one foodie experience in Paris, look no further.

I suggest starting the tour in the morning and beginning with breakfast at one of my favorite gastronomic spots in Paris, Laduree.  Here are step by step instructions:

  • Take the Metro to Place Concorde and exit at the Rue Royale.  Walk up the right side of the Rue Royale to Laduree (16 rue Rue Royale).  This place is a gem from another century. Sit downstairs, even if you have to wait for a table.  Don’t leave without purchasing a snack for later----their world-famous macarons come in every shade (and flavor) of the rainbow (note:  these are not American coconut confections, but an entirely different melt-in-your-mouth delight).
Laduree oozes old-world charm & features gorgeous pastries.
  • Continue up Rue Royale to #6 Place Madeleine where you’ll find one of France’s legendary mustard producer.  Maille makes several mustards that are not exported including one with truffles.  There are over 30 flavors that change with the seasons, however, don’t miss cherry or a chive/fennel.   Tastings are available.

                               The Maille shop features several mustards that are not exported.
  • Proceed to Fauchon at 24-26 Place Madeleine.  One of the world’s most impressive gourmet emporiums, Fauchon is in a category all by itself.  To visit Paris without visiting Fauchon would be a sacrilege.  This is the gold standard for perfectly ripened cheese, exquisite foie gras, and to-die-for pastries.   This is the place in Paris to put together a once-in-a-lifetime picnic.   Beaucoup Euros.

                                               Fauchon:  the epicenter of Paris' gourmet scene
  • Next, head to Fauchon’s gift shop at 30 Place Madeleine, just a few steps away.  There is guaranteed to be something for any serious epicurean here to bring home.  Some of my favorite items are their huge selection of sea salt, Champagne stoppers to keep the bubbles, tea, and cocktail napkins.   All are light weight gifts, and are packaged beautifully.

                                                  Fauchon's gift shop is next door
  • The Masion de Truffe (truffle) is next at #19 Place Madeleine.  In business since 1932, this one is a Paris classic.  Go in as the smells are as awesome as a Chanel perfume.  All kinds of food items are available that have been infused with this magnificent item...I especially like to get a slice of their truffled foie gras.

                                                   The smell alone is worth the journey
  • Then, just a few feet away you’ll find Caviar Kaspia at  #17 Place Madeleine.  You will need to ring the buzzer to be let in.  If you’re in the mood for a wild splurge, head upstairs to their restaurant where you can do some serious indulging (and imbibing---they have a superb selection of champagnes by the glass).  Be sure to ask for a table with a view of the Madeleine church.

                                 Maison Kaspia offers a beautiful setting for a romantic lunch
  • Now, for your last culinary treat:  chocolate.  Pop into #3 Place Madeleine, Patrick Roger’s, one of the best chocolatiers in France.  Monsieur Roger’s is somewhat like visiting the Louvre of chocolates---it’s not unusual to see several feet high artistic sculptures made out of chocolate. If you’re a caramel-lover, you’ll also fall head-over-heels for his dreamy caramels.
The Madeleine Church is reflected in Roger's store window 
displaying his gigantic chocolate sculpture
  • You will now have journeyed around the entire Place Madeleine.  For your last stop, take a left on the street that begins in front of the Madeleine church, Boulevard Madeleine, and go to #3 Boulevard Madeleine.  Here you will find Paris’ most impressive wine shop, Lavinia.  By now you should be thirsty and Lavinia has a fabulous degustation.

Bon appetite!   

Friday, October 3, 2014

Italy’s Premier Bubbly

I remember the exact moment when my love affair with Ca Del Bosco began----which is saying something as it was 20 years ago.  I was at a two star Michelin restaurant on the Amalfi Coast and my dining companion and I were served a flute of sparkling wine while we were contemplating the menu.  The bubbly was divine.  When the waiter returned to take our order I learned that the wine was Italian, made by Ca Del Bosco.  I was so impressed that I ordered a bottle of Ca Del Bosco’s still Chardonnay, and fell in love all over again.

From this night forward, I have been a raving fan of Ca Del Bosco.  I’ve taken two groups to visit the winery, located between Milan and Venice in a wine district called Franciacorta.  I’ve ordered too-many-cases-to-count over the years…thankfully, Ca Del Bosco is readily available in the U.S.   Furthermore, the story of how the winery came about is a charming one.

Maurizio Zanella was a precocious Italian teenager during the 1970’s.  Once he graduated from high school, his well-connected family sent their son to Champagne to work in the vineyards…they were hoping that changing his environment and friends might set him on a better path.  It worked.  Maurizio developed a love for wine-making, straightened out, and returned to Italy with a fervor for replicating Champagne in northern Italy.  Coincidentally, the Zanella family just happened to own a farm in the woods where grapes were being grown nearby.  As they say, the rest is history.

The young Zanella took over the farm and its small house, planted vines and began his quest to produce the best bubbly in Italy.  He has achieved that and more.  Ca Del Bosco (which translates to “house in the woods”), is one of the most successful wine-making estates in Italy.   Moreover, Zanella has now become President of the vintners association.

My final connection with Ca Del Bosco came in Sicily in 2008 when I brought a Wine-Knows group to the private villa of Count Marzotto for three days.  Count Marzotto (who owns a group of mover and shaker companies such as Missoni and Valentino, along with several wineries on the mainland), flew down in his private jet to meet the group.  I was stunned when he served Ca Del Bosco as a sparkling aperitivo.    When I spoke with the Count, I learned that he had just bought a large share in Ca del Bosco, however, Maurizio Zanella remains the winery’s CEO.

If you haven’t tried Ca Del Bosco, you should.  Look for it online or in a high-end wine store.  While the winery makes several sparklers, my favorites are the Annamaria Clementi Cuvée and the Dosage Zero.   That being said, their non-bubbly Chardonnay is also lovely.   And, if you're one of the fortunate persons coming on the sold out trip to Sicily this October, you'll be staying for 3 nights on Count Marzotto's estate.