Shot to hell! … my diet that is. I’m terrified to see what the scale says when I get back home. But I don’t regret one morsel of food, not one tidbit of tastiness that has been put into my mouth.
Andy and I travel well. Wherever we go we like to experience what the natives experience, especially when it comes to food. To us it explains a lot about their culture. Now, the food on the ship is fine, but I’m tired of it. It’s American food; after all, it’s an American cruise line.
So when in Rome (here on out called Roma—I was corrected by our tour guide Mauro), or Barcelona, or Cannes, or Florence (Firenza), or Venice (Venezia), we like to eat their food rather than going back to the ship. Ship food is already paid for, but the McPhees want the real deal. And real deal it was!
Let’s go back to the beginning of the trip, where it all began, in Barcelona. My list of “must haves” included sangria, tapas, and paella. So when Aurelia (Jane’s friend who lives in Barcelona and who took us out to dinner) asked what kind of food we wanted, that’s what I told her. She took us to a fantastic little place that was a bit of a walk from the hotel. We sat in front of the windows so we could look out at the busy street to watch the sights, and she did the ordering of the tapas, which was our first course. After a couple of minutes, a fabulous white sangria arrived loaded with citrus fruit—delish! (I have to remember to email Aurelia, who is going to send me a sangria recipe made with gin!).
Then out came the plates with an enormous variety of foods on them. The first thing we tried was a chewy bread, like a 4-inch slice of a baguette that was split down the middle, and had been grilled, and then their custom is to take a juicy, super-ripe tomato and rub it all over the top of it. I think there is garlic on it as well, and can I tell you how yummy it is? Something so simple, and yet hugely tasty.
Another tapas plate was their croquettes, of which we had two kinds: ham and cod. I was afraid to try the cod, but my motto for this trip is “say yes to everything.” So I did, and they were fantastico! They were two bites in length, and were either deep-fat fried or baked, but they were crunchy and yummy…and I hate to admit it, but I think the cod ones were better than the ham!
The salad was a completely different experience than what I am used to. Sure it had raw vegetables, but it was on one dinner plate (for all 8 of us), and there was a serving spoonful of lettuce, a serving spoonful of chopped tomatoes, a serving spoonful of eggplant. Imagine one of our baby carrots julienned—only one! And that too was on the plate. No dressing, because the chopped tomatoes had something on it to make it seem like it’s own dressing. We picked a few things here and there to try and that was it. Perfect!
There were a couple of other things, but I want to get to the paella. I had the mixed paella, meaning it had seafood and chicken in it. There were big chunks of chicken, whole shrimp—not those tiny ones either! And yes, calamari too. The rice was a beautiful saffron yellow and it had peas and a couple of tomatoes in it. I have never seen such wonderfully ripe, RED tomatoes as I have seen in Spain and Italy. At this point I never want to eat a store-bought tomato again!
Moving on to dessert -- and this is only day 1 (Oh my gawd!) -- it was translated as crème brulee -- a personal favorite! But when it came out I had to do a double-take because it looked like a fried egg. Upon closer inspection, it was a dollop of custard that looked like an egg white and the crunchy melted sugar was smack dab in the middle, looking like the yolk. It came with a biscotti that had another dollop of custard on top of it. I think I may have licked the plate clean, it was so good!
In Cannes our one and only meal was at an outdoor café very close to where they have the Cannes Film Festival. The special that day was steak tartar with salad and real French french fries and a glass of white wine. The tartar looked like a raw hamburger patty mixed with herbs and seasonings, about a half pound I’d say, and utterly delicious. Their fries were a different shape than ours; they looked more like canoes with a hollowed out top. Fantastique!
Next stop Florence. Our driver in Florence was Vinnie and he said we needed to eat the lasagna at the restaurant he dropped us off at, so we did! It looked just like what we have, but the noodles melted in your mouth and the meat sauce was extraordinary. I couldn’t finish my plate. I wanted to, but just couldn’t.
I asked our driver in Roma what his favorite dish was and he quickly replied the rigatoni amidriciano. I decided that’s what I would have as well. He did not steer me wrong (pun intended), it was amazing! The pasta was chewier than how I make mine. Perhaps I’ve been overcooking it? The sauce was made of tomatoes and chunks of bacon—not a carbonera sauce, because there was no cream. Mauro said it was his favorite dish and I understand completely. I believe I almost finished that plate!
Probably my absolute most favorite meal on the entire trip occurred at the base of Mount Vesuvius at a vineyard. This time our driver was Giovanni, and he acted as translator as the winemaker took us for a walk into his vineyard and explained the grapes, the soil (volcanic ash), how they make it, etc. It’s a family-owned operation, he taking over after his father retired.
Put yourself in my place; on a stone deck underneath the lacey shade of an olive tree. Our table is made of a slab of lava rock, decorated with beautiful ceramic designs. The sun is hot, but with the gentle breeze, it’s perfection. The winemaker is telling us about the various wines as we taste them. He isn’t pushy or making us feel compelled to buy anything. He’s just describing and explaining, (and I was understanding quite a bit of what he was saying in Italian!) and then he went to another side of the deck and left us alone to eat his wife’s cooking.
We start off with our appetizer, which for me was so delicious that it alone could have been my lunch. It was a plate of cheese (“What kind of cheese is this? It’s spectacular!” “Provalone.”), and tomato bruschetta that you put on top of freshly baked bread. And wine. Ahhh…
That would’ve been perfection, but no, there’s more. Then she (his wife) brings out the pasta pommadoro. Just plain pasta with tomato sauce, and it is the greatest stuff I’ve ever eaten. The sauce was made with chunks of fresh tomatoes glistening in a thin bright sauce. The pasta, we noticed, was much thicker than what we get at home, so I asked what kind it was, and remarked how good it tasted. Again, I now know what “al dente” truly means! Not how it’s cooked in America!
I kept remarking how much we loved the food, and asked the wife how she cooked various things. After a couple of minutes the winemaker came over and gave me a bag of the pasta to take home, because they don’t sell it in the United States. “Here, a gift.” I think he was pleased that I was trying to speak a little bit of Italian. I was trying not to sound like an ass, but you gotta try it, right? I think it paid off.
And then the dessert: Easter pie! A delicious torte crust filled with a rice and egg and cream filling, but it was solid like a cake. So good! And then all we wanted to do was take a nap. But instead we headed to Pompei—good thing; we needed to walk off that lunch!
I have only one more word to say about food: GELATI!
Oh. My. Gawd! In the four days that I have spent in Italy I have had and adored hazelnut, rice, pistachio, panna cotta, fig and walnut, and a chocolate something-or-other gelati. I hope Clare McCann is proud of me! She told me it was required eating—up to 5 per day. My favorite was what her friend suggested: risi (rice, think like the greatest rice pudding, but ice cream!) from Vivoli in Florence. The next favorite was the fig and walnut—I know, it sounds sorta gross but it was delicious! Andy stuck with stracciatella (chocolate chip), but he savored every bit!
And this is why I fear the scale. Shot to hell, but what a way to go!