Beach bummin’ in Sperlonga

Dive into crystal clear waters off a rented pedal-boat

Summer is less than a week away and the weather knows it: humid days, 20-minute rainstorms in the afternoons, and muggy nights. I’ve been working on my tan by spending a whopping 15 minutes a day on my terrace (16+ will result in a weeks-long burn, no joke) and trying to cut back on gelato so I can be bikini ready …but gelato is sometimes my only relief on those hot days, so the bikini can wait.

But the beach can’t wait! As the temperatures rises, so does my excitement to head off to one of my favorite beaches in Italy: Sperlonga. Located about a 2-hour drive south of Rome, this is the ideal place for a summer day-trip. The water is warm and crystal-clear; the sand is kept clean; it’s far enough away to not get the city crowd, but close enough to see in a day. If you don’t have a car, you can also get there by train (leaves once an hour from Roma-Termini station), and take a bus from the Sperlonga station to the beach.

The beaches are lined with modern establishments, but do venture up to the town …literally, up. The medieval village is topped by a central piazza with small cafès spilling out into the sunlight. The hike up is worth the view up and down the coast.

For meals, there are a variety of restaurants and snack bars on the road that runs along the beach, or you can trek up to the town for more. Some beachfront hotels offer finer dinning. For budget travelers, find an “alimentari” or deli on one of the backstreets and get a sandwich to go. Best summer meal while you’re on the shore: fried calamari.

For longer stays, check out the beachfront Hotel Aurora and get lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf. For a cheaper but still pleasent stay, try the Casa Mimosa B&B just a few minutes drive from the beach.

Culinary secrets from a Roman grandma

A few weeks ago I had the honor of meeting Chinese-American chef and writer, Jen Lin-Liu, who was in Rome doing research for her upcoming book. In a nutshell, Jen was following the Silk Road to places like Iran, Turkey and Italy and learning about the local cuisine in each place. Her book will come out in 2012, so keep your eyes peeled!

Of course, one of the best ways to learn about the local food is get right into a local family’s kitchen – which is exactly what she did. One evening, I accompanied Jen to help translate while she watched a Roman grandmother prepare a typical meal for her family.

Watching a woman single-handedly throw together a delicious meal is nothing new to me, but it never ceases to amaze me either. With a two-year-old grandson underfoot, she bustled around the kitchen, popping out to the garden for fresh herbs and multi-tasking with admirable ease. While Jen and I stole tastes of her ingredients and raved about every flavor that crossed our taste buds, the nonna would smiled politely and continue to prepare the feast that she claimed was no major task. Of course, this is coming from a woman who has cooked two meals a day, seven days a week, for the past 40 years.

The menu for the evening consisted of pasta carbonara, saltimbocca and a stuffed, savory pastry. It was the latter dish that got my mouth watering, and I took mental notes while she made it so I could repeat it at home:

Ingredients:

-Pre-packaged*, puff pastry sheet (round) – known in Italian as “pasta sfoglia”

Veggies...cooked and ready

-A small head of escarole (a green endive) cleaned, dried and chopped

-Pitted olives, whatever kind you like

-Scamorza cheese (NOT the smoked kind)

-Pine nuts

-One egg yolk

-Olive oil

-Peperoncino

-Garlic

-Salt

All ingredients...ready to fold

Directions:

Preheat oven at 200°C (about 390°F). Start by sautéing the escarole with the oil, peperoncino, garlic and a pinch of salt. Throw these ingredients in a pan for about 10 minutes, covered, on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally (see my veggie post for more details). Once that’s been cooked, put aside. Lay out the pastry on cookie sheet with parchment paper. Leaving about an inch or so of space around the edges, spread on the cooked escarole and top with slices of the scamorza, a small handful of olives, and sprinkle on the pine nuts. To close, fold over two sides (like how you’d fold a letter) and pinch/fold the ends closed. Brush the top with egg yolk, then put in the oven for 20 minutes, or until beginning to brown and pastry has puffed. To serve, slice in individual pieces and enjoy!

*Although many Italians pride themselves in making everything from scratch, this women bashfully admitted that when it comes to puff pastry sheets, they are just plain easier to buy than make.

Let cool and enjoy!

Folded and oven-ready

Who are you looking at?

Inter-cultural faux pas of the day: I think I offended my butcher by not accepting the lamb’s head he wanted to give me for free when I went to pick up my meat for Easter.

When it was my turn at the counter, he proudly presented me with the disembodied head (well, half a head, sliced vertically) and gave me a huge smile.

“I’ll put this in for free,” he said, searching my face for a sign of appreciation. Instead he found my mouth gaping in horror. Once I got over my initial reaction, I tried to compose myself.

“Oh thank you, but …um …I’m American and …uhhh …we usually don’t eat …those …parts.” The whole time my eyes are darting around the shop, trying to avoid eye-contact with the poor little half a lamb staring up at me. The woman next in line glared at me jealously.

“What about your husband? Won’t he like it?” the butcher asked, confused by my reaction.

In an attempt to not make my hubs sound like a total wuss, I replied, “Well he was brought up abroad, in cultures that don’t eat heads either.” Lame response, but I had to give some explanation for not accepting my butcher’s generosity.

This is one thing that took me a while to get used to in Italian culture and food: the head. Restaurants will serve you a whole fish, who then watches you from the plate as you eat him. Supermarkets sometimes only sell fresh shrimp whole, forcing you to tediously pluck the heads and legs off of each one if you want to make scampi. There are even cured meats that contain parts of pig head (ever heard of coppa? It’s good…)

But the lamb’s head at Easter dinner is especially coveted.

A couple years ago I was at my boyfriend’s (now ex) house for Easter. The whole family was there: parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. I was seated across the table from the old Sicilian grandmother, widowed years ago and who wore only black. She was deaf as a post, and wore those thick old-lady glasses that gave her googly eyes.

Seeing as how I was unable to communicate with her properly, I was engaged in conversation with my boyfriend’s sister sitting next to me. While chatting, I unintentionally served myself the lamb’s head, which I didn’t notice until I turned my attention to my plate and stuck my fork in its cheek. I was mortified. I didn’t want to make a scene or offend my hosts by putting it back, so I leaned over to my boyfriend and quietly asked him to remove the meat from my plate. He was equally disgusted, and therefore offered no help.

Suddenly, the old Sicilian grandma, who was so short she barely cleared the table, reached over and stuck her fork in the lamb’s eye. Without saying a word she took the head and plopped it on her own plate. With a satisfied smile, she continued to enjoy her Easter lunch.

Here’s the recipe for my super simple Easter lamb:

Ingredients:

Leg of lamb, butterflied

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Garlic

Rosemary

Thyme

Have your butcher butterfly the leg for you, so it’s just about cut up in pieces but still attached. The day before you plan on cooking it, smother it with olive oil, stick whole cloves of garlic in each slice, and sprinkle with pepper, thyme and rosemary. Cover and put it in the fridge overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven at 180°C (or 360°F). When oven is hot, put in the lamb, covered with aluminum foil. After 30 minutes, remove cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

Salt to taste and serve! You can squeeze a slice of lemon over it too …I forgot to get lemons when I made it though, and it was still awesome!

Tuscany’s outdoor thermal baths

(Post #3 in the series of Two Days in Tuscany. See Posts 1 and 2)

We woke up early the next morning and got right on the road to begin our search for some natural thermal baths (the reason why we came). From Siena, we took to E78 south until we hit the Terme di Petriolo.

This was the warmest natural spring I had been in to date. Located along the Merse river (pictured) the water flows down the rocks, pooling in individual-sized tubs before cascading into the larger area below. The small baths higher up are literally hotter than bathwater (I couldn’t even get in) while the large pool is at a comfortable temperature. Like in a spa, visitors sit on the rocks that separate the bath from the river and dip their feet between the hot and frigid waters — which is said to be good for circulation.

Like at all of these free, outdoor spas, be prepared to change in your car or out in the street …and bring sandals!

After about an hour at Petriolo, we piled back into the car to search for another spot I had read about: the Bagni di San Filippo. We continued heading south on the E78 before turning east towards Mount Amiata where I had read these baths were located. At this point our stomachs began to grumble, so we stopped at one of the many farms along the road for lunch.

Back on the road, we made our way to San Filippo which is located off the SP61 (the easier way to find it is by taking the SR2). He we had to park the car and follow an unmarked path through the woods along a small river to find it.

It was very beautiful: The white mineral deposits clinging to the rock looked like a mountain of snow melting into the sky-blue pools below. Despite the posted signs that advised against climbing, a couple bathers were lounging in the one or two small pools located halfway up the light-flowing waterfall.

The pools below were lukewarm, but the frogs, tadpoles and snakes in the water made it uninviting. We decided to skip the dip and head back to Rome instead.

If you missed the earlier post about hot springs, check out Tuscany’s most famous outdoor thermal bath: Saturnia.

Sightseeing in Siena

So picking up from where we left off in my previous post

The Mister and I drove for about an hour through the scenic Chianti Classico region until we hit Siena. This medieval city is famous for the twice yearly Palio — a bareback horserace held in the main piazza. I, however, am more attracted to the relics on Saint Catherine. Keep reading for details.

Before heading into the city, we checked into the Castello di Monteliscai where we would be staying for the night. Located about a five-minute drive from Siena’s city walls, this was once a castle — now turned into rooms and apartments that can accommodate up to six people. The owners also run the nearby Agriturismo Malafrasca, a small B&B and farm that produces its own wine and olive oil.

After checking in we drove to Siena’s city walls, where we parked and then took about six escalators up to reach the hilltop city. It was getting late in the day, so we hustled over to the Basilica of San Domenico to get in before it closed. This church houses the head and one finger of Saint Catherine of Siena among other relics (her body is in Rome, and her foot is in Venice…poor Saint Catherine)!

We were promptly kicked out of the church as it was closing time, but spent the rest of the evening wandering around the city, passing by Saint Catherine’s house, the white-and-green striped duomo, and ending up in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. Here, we sat at one of the many cafès that run along the edge of the piazza and had a glass of Brunello — a red wine containing 100% Sangiovese grapes. This is one of my favorite Italian pastimes: sitting in a piazza with a glass of wine or aperitivo and people-watching.

View from our table in Piazza del Campo

In the US we call it cocktail hour, but it Italy it goes beyond that. Anywhere between 6pm and 9pm, Italians gather at outdoor cafès or down at their local bar for a pre-dinner drink and socializing. The drink can be a glass of wine, prosecco, Campari soda, Martini bianco, or even a stronger cocktail. In the past few years, the spritz has become popular outside of its original northern region: prosecco mixed with a bitter liqueur. Most places offer finger-food to accompany your beverage. But different from just a normal pre-meal thirst quencher, it’s an opportunity to see and be seen. Especially when sitting outdoors, nearly all parties are facing outwards as the children who play with a soccer ball in the piazza become to focus of everyone’s attention. It’s a time to be lazy, to wind down after a long day and plan your next move.

Our next moves were obvious: food and sleep. We had been on the road all day and were starting to get tired. Due to the fact that it’s such a major tourist attraction, finding a good meal in Siena can be difficult if you’re an outsider (well, eating badly in Italy is nearly impossible, but we prefer eateries that don’t cater to tourists). Luckily, the owners of our “castle” had given us a suggestion in the next town over. We, headed out to the Vecchia Osteria just north of the city on the SP408, where I had the best lamb of my life! Anyone visiting Siena with a car should definitely head out here for dinner.

Cruising through Chianti

The hubs and I finally got two consecutive days off so — as mentioned in my previous post — we took a trip to Tuscany.

Leaving from Rome at 7am, we took the A1 north towards Florence and got off at the exit Incisia. From there, we took a secondary road (SP16) to Greve in Chianti, right in the heart of the region famed for its lush rolling hills covered by Sangiovese vineyards.

It is here that Chianti Classico wine is produced. Different from the other types of Chianti, a bottle of Chianti Classico contains a minimum of 80% of the Sangiovese grape (for more info on Chianti Classico, including places to stay or wine-taste, click HERE).

After the long drive, we were ready to decompress. We headed up to Montefioralle, a small village with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Is was here that I had made an appointment to do some wine-tasting with a local winery, Azienda Agricola Montefioralle.

The owner, Fernando, met us at the main parking area (which accommodates about eight cars). We took a short stroll through the town until we reached his vineyard on the outskirts. The three of us sat out at a picnic table and began tasting a selection of about six of Montefioralle’s Chianti Classico from various years. Fernando had also prepared a small plate of fresh breads topped with local meats — too keep the wine from getting to our heads. There, with views of Montefioralle and rows of vineyards, Fernando told us everything there is to know about the growing, harvesting and ageing of his wine.

He told us that his particular winery only produces about 3,000 bottles a year. 1,000 are consumed by his extended family, while the other 2,000 are sold directly to the consumer. That’s one of the many charming things about Italy: there are so many small, family-run wineries that many people are personally acquainted with their wine producer (the same goes for other kinds of farmers as well). Instead of buying from the big, commercial brands found in the supermarket, I know a number of households that prefer to purchase their favorite beverage directly from the small winery — surely produced with more love and care.

Along with the Chianti Classico, we also tried some Vin Santo: a sweet dessert wine made from raisins. If you order Vin Santo in a restaurant, it is often accompanied by homemade cookies meant for dipping into the wine …one of my favorite ways to end a good meal!

After we finished our tasting, he took us to the small cellar and then back to the town center where we said our good-byes. There was a small restaurant emitting enticing smells of grilled meat, so we popping in for a quick lunch.

Back on the road again: We followed the SR222 or Via Chiantigiana south. This road runs through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Tuscany, and takes you right into Siena.

Stay tuned for more on our evening in Siena…

Day-trip: Saturnia

I’m getting ready to take a two-day vacation to Tuscany as I’m in dire need of fresh air. I’ve already seen the main towns (i.e. Florence, Siena, Lucca, Pisa, San Gimignano) so am researching some of the more off-the-beaten-track spots. I’ve never been to the Chianti region, so am looking into places there (suggestions, dear readers?) but am also interested in checking out a couple of the natural hot springs.

Tuscany (like most of Italy) is home to many of these thermal baths. The ancient Etruscans believed that the different waters could cure different ailments. Today, you have to pay to access most of these baths, but there are a few that are still open to whoever — which I prefer. I don’t really see the point in paying 20euros to rent a used bathrobe and slippers, and sit in stinky water inside a building (the water stinks because of the sulfur). I prefer to do it for free surrounded by trees and under the sun…or stars!

I came across THIS WEBSITE which outlines where the free places are. The only one I’ve been to — and probably the most well-known — is Saturnia:

Located in southern Tuscany, this warm waterfall is a gem. With a surrounding of empty fields and rolling hills, you can relax in one of the many pools — the higher up you go and closer to the source, the warmer the water is. In fact, the water is so warm that my husband and I took a dip in February, at night! I would highly recommend it …but bear in mind that the run back to your car in a wet bathing suit is NOT pleasant.

Despite Italy’s expansive rail system, you’ll need a car to get here.

The one downfall of these free, open-air baths are that there is no privacy to change out of your wet clothes. When we went mid-week in February, we were the only people there so felt comfortable changing in the car …that is until a school bus full of children pulled up and the curious kids began to pass by the car, in single-file.

<– For those interested in archeology and/or the Etruscans, a few kilometers away is the necropolis of Puntone: a burial ground from the sixth to fifth centuries BC.

As for where to stay, we were very comfortable at the nearby Fornacina Country House. This is a typical agriturismo — the best places to stay in Italy! Down a long and bumpy road, the Fornacina only has six rooms, all of which are adorably decorated. We opted to eat dinner at the house, made with only fresh and organic ingredients, most of which are grown in their garden. Being the only guests staying there that evening, we got a private four-course meal served next to the fireplace. Very romantic!

I have also eaten in the town center. Finding a place to eat ended up being a silly experience: On another trip with my mother, I decided to ask the next person I passed on the street to suggest a place for lunch. The next person was the old man who pumps gas at the little station. Figuring he was a local, I asked him for a recommendation. He picked at oil-stained fingernails before turning his weather-beaten face to me and asked, “Are you looking for pasta, meat, or pizza?” He had a different recommendation for each. We were in the mood for meat, so he sent us to Da Mario on Via Mazzini, where our waiter grilled lamb on the open fire next to our table. Delicious!

So for me, the bar has already been set high for Tuscan vacations. Let’s hope I can find some other great places for my upcoming trip …I’ll report back!

Above: Me and the hubby relaxing at the Fornacina

Where are your favorite places in Tuscany? Leave a comment!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.