Sapphire blue water, cute old white stone streets, a public beach, and easy access to other places (if you ever want to leave), Polignano a Mare has it all. The city is walled and the old part is pedestrianized. The only wheeled vehicles inside are pedicabs transporting customers and their luggage to the many hotels and B&Bs.
The old city has many shops but doesn’t feel excessively touristy (even though it is), and once in a while you can glimpse real people living their lives here.
Since visiting, I have been raving about this town. It just seems too perfect. Even in 95/34 degree heat.
We went just for a the day but I could see staying here for an entire vacation.
Outside the old city, there are also lots of streets and neighborhoods to explore, or stay in, but we only explored the old town. We parked in the piazza just outside the old walls, helped by old gentlemen sitting in the square (they helped explain the parking sign — lunch is free parking), and when we returned at the end of the day, the same gentlemen were doing their “passaggiata” (daily walk to be seen, see, and catch up with neighbors) in the square.
We ate breakfast at a cafe, Caffe Dei Serafini, with a jawdropping view. Utterly amazing. The restaurant is in a cave wall of the city on the cliff and has only one table for two/three out on their tiny balcony… but if you are lucky, you can get that table, or, at least, use it for photo ops.
While I thought Lecce was more intellectual, and Otranto had a smaller vibe, I think that Polignano a Mare has a good combination for an overall Apulian vacation. And it has those blue waters.
I’m told that Sicily and Sardegna have blue waters as well, but for now, these have been the most jewel like yet.
My photos were taken with my iPhone and I did not use a filter. The water really is that color. Better than on postcards.
The focaccia of Puglia is famous and there is so much olive oil in it that it seems like a fried pizza even though it’s not deep fried. Also, it’s a bread, not a pizza.
A panzerotti looks like a calzone but it’s not one. The reason is that a panzerotti is fried, not baked. Panzerotti are specialities of the central and southern parts of Italy, especially Puglia/Apulia.
Panzarotti are also called calzoni fritti, fritte, and frittelle.
They are much like pizza and pizza is popular in Italy. While American pepperoni pizza is rare to find (not impossible, you just have to call it “con salame picante” to get something resembling it), I was delighted to find that spicy salami was one of the flavors on offer. If you ask for a “pepperoni” pizza, they will think you want a bell pepper pizza.
The tourists are back. Well, primarily, the German and American tourists. The kind that wear shorts. The Romans are so happy to see them. The waiters are perky and filled with enthusiasm after 18 months of no tourism. The Italian government opened up to American tourists back in May and the start was a bit slow (although I saw some within days of the “re-opening” of Italy). But, now, it’s almost July and kapow! They are back! Not like before 2020, but much more than I’ve seen here in the last six months.
It’s been both enjoyable and sad to have Rome to myself without tourists. I think I prefer it with tourists. Even if I don’t really want to go downtown anymore… until winter.
While I know that most tourists come to Rome in July and August, it’s much better in February. The weather is better and the skies are blue. Currently they are gray and overcast from humidity.
This article is dedicated to a friend of mine who suggested I do a list of best tiramisu places (plus, it was recently the golden anniversary of tiramisu). There are over 12,000 restaurants in Rome, and I’d wager that most serve tiramisu, so I can’t tell you which is the best. Of the ones I’ve had over the past few months, these are some that I would recommend.
Before I moved to Rome, I didn’t like tiramisu. I realize it’s because in my experience, usually the tiramisu was a large cold clumpy mass, possibly made with alcohol. I don’t like the taste of alcohol interfering with my sweet dessert. I prefer my tiramisu to be creamy (more on creamy at the bottom) more like a trifle or Eton Mess.
Mimi e Coco (Via del Governo Vecchio 72, on one of the most picturesque streets in the center of Rome) serves a super creamy tiramisu in a glass, more like a trifle.
Tre Caffe (Via dei Due Macelli 107, near the Vatican) serves a tiny tiramisu that satisfies.
Fisherman Burger (Via Ravenna 34) lets you eat it as you wish, serving the three parts separately.
Di Qua (Via delle Corrozze 85B, near the Spanish Steps) have a creamy tiramisu that I even ate although I had no more appetite.
Matricianella (Via del Leone 4) also serves a creamy tiramisu.
Two Sizes (Via del Governo Vecchio 88, across from Coco e Mimi) serves tiramisu in two sizes, to go. You can take them as gifts or home to enjoy on your own.
Many pastry shops and gelato shops will sell tiramisu and every (almost) restaurant will serve it. However, cheesecake and brownies are beginning to make their inroads.
A interesting note about saying something is “creamy” — I told an Italian that I liked the creaminess of something and she said, “no, not cream, panna.” The word, “crema” in Italian refers to pastry cream/custard. For whipped cream, one uses “panna” in Italian. There is a lot of whipped cream in Italian food. It’s offered at almost every gelateria to top off your gelato, they have desserts that are stuffed with whipped cream, and even a breakfast bun stuffed with whipped cream. Panna is manna to me. I like it creamy.
As for the best tiramisu… it’s probably the one you are currently eating.
Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?
In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.
A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.
Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.
Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.
Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.
Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).
And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.
None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.
Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.
Tomatoes are juicy and red, Olive oil is gold and green, Mozzarella is creamy and white, And Johnny Madge is keen.
I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!
Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.
If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).
As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.
He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.
You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.
After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.
Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.
Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.
The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.
From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?
Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.
To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.
The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.
The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.
If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.
I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.
We will buy very pretty things A-walking through the suburbs. Violets are blue, roses are red, Violets are blue, I love my loves.
I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.
If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.
Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.
Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.
If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.
I know that it is the general convention that dishes, food, is best tasted at the source. I think that does some disservice to the diaspora and fusion food that has evolved over the millennia. That said, here is a list of food that I often crave. Actually, for many of the dishes, I prefer in their newer form. But, then again… some I prefer at the source.
Ceviche — I like the classic old fashioned version. The Peruvians love fusion. They are a fusion and so is their food. So now one can find “warm ceviche” and ceviche not made with fish.
Danish hotdog — I prefer them in Denmark. The actual hotdog is special, the ketchup is different, the dog is served with crunchy fried onions… New York pizza — also, one of those things. Some say that the New York pizza is like a Neopolitan pizza from Naples, Italy. We shall see… Hamburger — Some of the best I’ve had are in the United States. American beef and lack of gristle in the mix. Banh mi — I’ve had good ones outside of Vietnam. Pho — Also, good in the certain parts of the United States. Very bland in other places. Korean BBQ — If one sticks to the pork belly, then it’s fairly easy to get good Korean barbecue in many countries. I think that many people think that bulgogi should be made with a high grade of beef and grilled at the table. Traditionally, bulgogi was created to use bad cuts of meat that required marinating. Usually the slices are so thin that grilling at the table dries them out. Some places use good cuts of steak and then one can dip them in sesame seed oil and salt. This is a delicious way to eat barbecue. Chicken wings — Oddly, some of the best barbecue wings I’ve had were in a pizzeria in New Mexico. Dim sum — can be good in many places outside China.
Laksa — so far the best I’ve had, and even some of the mediocre, was in Singapore and Malaysia. What can I say?
Most of all, the food of other lands transports you to them.
Today is Boxing Day which is St. Stephen’s Day here in Italy. As we are on day three of red zone lockdown, I have time to reflect.
Moving to a new country has both its delights and irritations. Then, there are the things that I just hadn’t contemplated or expected.
Eating cookies for breakfast: that takes getting used to. They also eat croissants (un cornetto is a croissant) and pizza for breakfast. The breakfast pizza is a sandwich made with pizza bread which is like focaccia (the pizza can be many things here and is in many ways simply “bread”). Another thing is that mayonnaise for your sandwich for breakfast is okay, but most sandwiches are quite sparsely filled and have very little “lettuce, tomato,…” but instead the extremely popular bologna, mortadella, provides enough fat (there is a required amount of fat squares that must be visible) to butter the sandwich. Another thing is that you can get meatballs, ham with fresh mozzarella, sautéed broccoli greens, and almost anything in a sandwich. It just won’t be very tall.
Trash on the street: the trash dumpsters are communal and this means that there are trash dumpsters on every street. It’s all out there for everyone to see. Not hidden away in the bowels of the buildings or back alley.
Tupperware/food containers: I had not expected this to be so hard to find. I suppose it’s because Italians eat fresh food every day. Or at least they don’t cook up a storm on a Sunday and then neatly stack containers of food in the freezer. It’s not that Italians don’t have left overs. They do. They are extremely frugal. But, they just store it in some other way. I’m not sure what. On the other hand, I can easily find a pasta making board at the kitchen store.
Ham (proscuitto cotto): It’s so good here. And I’m not even talking about proscuitto and porchetta, and all those other lovely pork products. I just mean simple pink ham to go on my bread.
The freshness: fresh fruit is sold ripe here so it also goes bad a bit faster than in the U.S. Fruit is not stored in the fridge so it dries out or begins to molder. The clementines are lovely this time of year in Rome but I didn’t expect them to start going mushy on day five. One day I ate eight clementines to eat them all before they went bad. I could freeze the pulp but fresh juice is not as common here as in Peru. In Peru, one always new it was morning because of the sound of blenders whizzing all over Lima. In Peru, the method is to blitz the fruit and then sieve it. Here in Italy, the fruit, usually oranges, are pressed. The greens are really green and Italians love greens.
Preserved Fish: jarred tuna is in almost anything here — and on pizza. Anchovy: yes, on everything. Not gelato. But, the anchovy is good. Since Italian food is not that spicy, anchovy is the strong flavor. And it’s not that strong.
Prices: pizza is affordable ($4 for a personal pizza, no tipping so reasonable for lunch). Eating out/taking out is affordable (my pasta and a drink on Piazza Navona was 13 Euro). Christmas cards and stationery are pricey (4.5 Euro for a card). Taxis are not cheap as they run the meter from when they choose to take your ride, not when you get in the car. This makes it about 5 Euro per kilometer. But so worth it on these hard and ankle-mangling cobblestones. While the price of items in stores is higher than in the U.S., it is possible to shop at the many Chinese-run stores and buy the “made in China” straight from China. I went to one such store, loaded up my arms, and was shocked that it cost a total of 13 Euro. In contrast, my hot water kettle (it is fancy) cost 48 Euro.
English: I knew that most people would speak some English. They do. If not, they will probably find someone. But, it is possible to live in Rome without speaking Italian. Not as much fun, but possible.
Friendliness: I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. I never thought of Italians as friendly. Maybe it’s just in Rome? Maybe it’s because the shop owners and restaurant owners are so happy to see a customer after almost a year of COVID? Maybe it’s that unicorn called “customer service?” Maybe because I try to speak Italian? Or because I say “buongiorno” to everyone, even random people on the street… Whatever the reason, most people I interact with are friendly.
In Lima, I had the luxury of ocean views. I now live inland, with no ocean views. But, I may have a remedy. I’ve been looking on Instagram, of course, and I’ve seen some azure seas that beckon like jewels glittering from the Internet. Most of the tropical views that I see on Instagram from Italy are from the South, on Sicily, or Amalfi, or Puglia… Or, I could use a photo from my archives. This photo of our “taxi” seaplane from the Maldives is still one of my favorite photos.
My plan was to paint directly on the wall… but, then I thought, why invent the wheel? I looked online and found sticky decals that already have pre-printed tropical views. There are even decals of views of forests, or even outer space.
Other than for view, I also want to be able to give directions to the bathroom by saying, “To the left of the Maldives” or some fun phrase like that. I may have to play the sounds of waves, a fan, some sand, and it will be a complete view to a tropical location. Or a kitty litter box. Oh COVID, we are all cats now.
Colazione (breakfast): Breakfast is a cup of coffee with milk like a cappuccino. Maybe a croissant or a sandwich (triangular white sandwiches like the triples in Peru). Italians don’t really eat much for breakfast. They consider the milk in the coffee to be the “food.” But, later in the morning, they will have more coffee. Coffee is a small cup of coffee like an espresso. No coffee in Italy is ever the size of American coffees. Italians will have many coffees throughout the day, although milk in coffee is only for breakfast (so before 11 a.m.).
Around 10 or 11 a.m., Italians might have a small snack with their next coffee.
Pranzo (lunch): Lunch is generally eaten from noon to 2 p.m. but on a Sunday, lunch can be later.
Merenda (tea): At around 3 p.m., Italians (and certainly children) will have a snack. One could have a gelato… or some crackers and cheese.
Aperitivo (happy hour): after work, Italians may have a tapas/mezze style spread. Many judge the bar based on the selection of free nibbles. During the current COVID restrictions (restaurants close for in restaurant dining at 6 p.m.), many people are having aperitivo at 3 p.m. Why not?
Cena “che-na” (dinner): Dinner is generally at 8:30 p.m. or later. One had a snack earlier, thankfully.