Out and About: Milano, Italy

It so happens that when I was living in Milano, from birth until I was about 15, I wasn’t really fond of the city. Call me crazy, but I did not see anything special about a polluted, traffic-infested and constantly foggy city. Granted, I actually lived about 30 minutes outside the metropolis, in a small, rural town called S. Agata Martesana. From my bedroom window, I could see the green fields and cows strolling in the nearby farm—that kind of rural. My favorite thing, however, happened in the summer. Because of the heat and no air conditioning, my bedroom window was always propped open and I used to love going to bed and listen to the symphony of a myriad of happy frogs singing in the nearby creek. S. Agata was a magical place until I became a teenager and longed for new friends and a bigger and more serviced town.

I used to commute to downtown Milano every morning to go to school, I would take the metro, the green line or linea verde, get off at the Lambrate stop and hop on a bus that would take me straight to my liceo. It was about an hour commute, but I cherished that time as simply mine. Now, well, it’s a different story.

No matter how many times I see it, the Duomo manages to take my breath away every. single. time. The Galleria, below, is just as beautiful…and I have to say that I love seeing it crowded, with people from all walks of life.

Our trip to Milano was accentuated by some deserved family and friend-time. I got to spend some quality time with my great friend Eliana who got married (and I served as one of the bridesmaids). What’s better than seeing your best friend’s happiest day and be part of it? Not much.

Here is the beautiful bride with her sassy grandma.

Eliana and I know each other since early childhood. We used to be next door neighbors, go to school together, come home from school and instantly go out to play together. In a few words, she is a special friend…one who will always be on your side and make you smile.

The wedding was set in the gorgeous hills of Italy’s Reggio Emilia region (in Moglia to be exact)—the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, Lambrusco wine and the decadent tortelli di zucca, pumpkin ravioli. The menu was punctuated by regional dishes—risotto with saffron with Porcini mushrooms, straccetti with over-roasted potatoes, just to name a few. De.li.ci.ous.

Not far from Moglia is the land of Ferrari, you know, the super slick red cars that single-handedly represent Italian design? Yeah, those. So, we hopped on my uncle’s car and drove to Maranello. Imagine: Ferrari rumbling through the streets at every turn, the Ferrari Museum offering the history of this famed brand and we got lucky to score the last two tickets for an exclusive tour of the Fiorano’s Formula One racing track.

Back to food. The last thing I thought would happen actually did. I learned something new about my city, something I may have to experience every year. I left Milano when I was 15 and I never really spent much time on my trips back. This could sound like an excuse, but imagine my surprise, and embarrassment, when I was told by Francesco’s dad about il Panificio Luini…a Milanese institution. Nestled in one of Milano’s many narrow streets, Luini, I discovered, makes the best panzerotti in the world.

Panzerotti are fried nuggets of dough filled with prosciutto and mozzarella. Hungry yet?

Are you hungry now?

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Out and About: Copenhagen, Denmark

One of Francesco’s conferences brought us to Copenhagen, Denmark. I have been there once before, when I was young…with my parents and brother in our beloved motor home…ah, the memories! We landed early on a Friday morning and it only took us 20 minutes to get to our hotel. At 8:30am, jetlegged, tired, hungry and grumpy, we were told that our room would be ready at 2pm. So, we began walking. We walked up and down the Nyhavn Canal, to and from the famous Little Mermaid Statue, Amelienborg Slot, the Royal Residence, and just wondered through Copenhagen’s splendid little alleys, streets and gardens.

Of course, our guide became our best friends…we took it everywhere, read it while waiting for lunch or dinner.

It seemed fitting that our first dinner would be on the Canal, at Nyhavn 17 Cafe’ – the setting was pure entertainment: We sat on the outdoor patio, smack in the center of the bustling pedestrian street. It wasn’t warm by any means, but the Danish are so genius…for every table, they had a fleece blanket and better yet, a Carlsberg fleece blanket.

I made a promise to myself that I would try seafood dishes and I did. My first Copenhagen entree was fish cakes with boiled potatoes and asparagus. Delicious. Much better than crab cakes. Slam dunk on the first night. Booya!

Francesco, who doesn’t even want to consider seafood, went with a chicken sandwich with bacon and potatoes. Oh, and fries of course! Eating on the canal was the perfect people watching exercise. People from all over the world, walking, drinking beer, laughing. I could finally feel the European air filling up my lungs and for a moment I imagined myself living there.

Of course, when in Denmark eat what the Danish do best…Danishes! I found one of the most renowned, and best, bakeries in Denmark and I did a little damage…2 danishes, 1 chocolate croissant at Lagkagehuset. I mean, look at these beauties!

Here are some photos from out trip. Enjoy!

Guards at the Royal Residence.

Us at Tivoli.

Our lunch at Cafe Ultimo in the Tivoli gardens.

Copenhagen’s architecture was impressive. Amidst medieval alleys with classically built buildings, there are these ultramodern structures that highlight this city’s impeccable aesthetic. Case in point, the fantastic Opera House and Royal Theater.

This is the Opera House, whose biggest auditorium was apparently built in the shape of a heart to signify the love of music. Genius.

And this is the Royal Theater with adjoining sandy park (built for the Copenhagen Design Week).

Out and About: My parents’ orto in Los Angeles

It’s been quite a while since my last post. My apologies. I have done some traveling, some eating, cooking. It’s been an interesting summer, but I am back and ready to roll.

Our first stop was Los Angeles. My cousin Federica, her daughter Gaia and husband Alessandro traveled from Italy for their first U.S. vacation. I hadn’t seen them since our wedding in May 2010 and since Federica and I are really close (she is the older sister I never had), it just felt right to hop on a plane and spend some time together…plus, the last time I was home was Christmas. Either way, it was a win-win.

One of the things I love coming home to is a plentiful garden, l’orto. My grandma Pierina and grandpa Piero used to tend to what I used to call “a little forest:” carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage, you name it, they were growing it. My parents are keeping up this family tradition.

After only a few minutes in the garden, we had at least 20 big carrots, a couple of bunches of green onions and tons of lettuce. It never really hit me until I found myself without an orto, but getting my hands (and knees) dirty is divine: the cold and wet soil underneath my fingernails, the occasional snail slowly making its way through the arugola patch. It’s an almost invisible microcosm, a grounded cycle of life.

These tomatoes were juicy and so much tastier than the ones I usually buy at the local grocery store. These fantastic fresh veggies didn’t go to waste, they went right into our bellies! My mom and dad made a simple, yet sensational, veggie soup, much like a Minestrone.

Our tomato bounty. Can you imagine a fresh Caprese salad with these and Mozzarella di Bufala? That’s right. I dream of it at times.

Aside from the orto, the garden sports an impressive spread of citrus trees: two orange trees, one lemon and a grapefruit, too. Every summer morning, my brother and I used to make homemade orange juice. Of course we complained and our—well, at least my less-than-optimal arm strength, would only produce a couple of drops. Nonetheless, we never got sick – no fever, sore throats, no flu. This summer, we all pitched in and collected pounds over pounds of oranges, and even little Gaia got into the game.

A homemade garden is a healthy, communal and revolutionary notion. It brought my family together, enhanced my desire to learn how to cook and made for a better life, plain and simple.

Of course, a Los Angeles vacation could not be complete without its stunning sunsets. Cooking with family is good for the soul. Do it and do it often.

Out and About: Ambrosia Bakery and Blue Ridge Pig BBQ

What began as a leisure hiking and blackberry picking weekend morning trip turned out to be an unexpected, wild adventure. Sunday morning, 8am, Bradley, Wesley and I left Charlottesville for Crabtree Falls for an easy hike to awake the dormant soul. Crabtree Falls are arguably the most scenic falls in Virginia, at least that’s what I have head, because I wimped out and waited for my partners in crime at the bottom of the hill. I am scared of heights and I got to the point where my knees started shaking, my heartbeat accelerated, sweat dripping from my forehead…in short, I was a mess.

In my defense, did you read the sign????? Twenty three people have died hiking to the falls. In my mind, there was danger at every turn. I gladly settled on terra ferma, camera in hand and all of a sudden very happy to be alive. I am exaggerating, of course. (Maybe just a little). On a positive note, during my time perusing the earth for some photo-worthy creature, I met a chatterbox of a park ranger, who informed me that millipedes had recently been spotted around those woods. Not bears, not jaguars, not mountain lions. Millipedes. I could hardly contain my excitement. (I did not find a single millipede, to my disappointment).

My brave buddies, who reached the falls and graciously vowed not to make fun of me for bowing out and run to the bottom.

Before the pseudo-hike, we trekked down Route 151 and found the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Ambrosia Bakery & Deli. What a surprise! We caffeinated our bodies with coffee and tea and went straight to the bakery counter adorned with blueberry tarts, spinach and feta croissants, apple turnovers and many other incredible desserts.

As soon as my eyes found big, round cookies, I was lost. The best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had: hearty, crunchy and at the same time soft and sweet. Did you know that chocolate chip cookies were actually discovered by accident? Who knew! Apparently, Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner and founder of Toll House Cookies, was baking her favorite butter and chocolate cookies when she substituted a chocolate she cut up into cubes, to her usual dark baker’s chocolate.

This is Wesley’s breakfast, a sizable cinnamon twist with a sweet, creamy sauce. When served hot, the enticing aroma is very hard to resist.

And this is my breakfast of champions. There was really no escaping the chocolate chunks of all shapes and sizes.

Our hike, or I should say my freak out, run us very low in calories, hence our next stop. Right next to Ambrosia Bakery & Deli on Route 151 rests one of the best BBQ places in Central Virginia. I say that without a sheer of doubt, since the newspaper that employs me, said so. In July, C-VILLE Weekly hosted a BBQ contest complete with official judges, photos and prizes. It turns out, Blue Ridge Pig stands out above … almost all the rest. The judges found it just as appetizing as Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

One judge called Blue Ridge Pig “clearly superior.” Now, I haven’t yet tried Barbeque Exchange, but the competition gave me a neat idea. I want to chronicle, and eat my way through the BBQ pits of Central Virginia. Blue Ridge Pig was my first victim.

When I thought about a hole-in-a-wall, I had a faint idea of what that would actually look like. When I stepped into Blue Ridge Pig, I thought I entered a far away galaxy. Nothing I was looking at seemed familiar, but everything smelled divine. Sheets of paper and business cards covered the tiny restaurant wall to wall and pigs in all shapes and forms (stuffed animals, lamp stands) adorned the space. It was a magical place and the meat did not disappoint.

We ordered a beef BBQ sandwich on a kaiser roll, split it in three and dove in. The smokiness hits my palate first, then the vinegar-based sauce and, last, the cabbage. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was better, much better. The meat was perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy, it melted in my mouth. Even after a good 30 minutes, the smoky flavor still lingered in my mouth. Definitely a welcome companion.

And look at this turkey sandwich, one of Bradley’s favorites. A sweet and refreshing dill mayo rounded up the distinct flavor of turkey. All in all, this joint really deserves national headlines.

Next time, I take Francesco with me. They even have his favorite, beef brisket.

Out and About: Blackberry Harvest Festival in Nellysford

One of my favorite things about summer is the myriad of festivals around the Charlottesville area. On Saturday, we drove 4o short minutes from town to discover a little piece of heaven that is Hill Top Berry Farm. Nestled within luscious green hills, Hill Top is a small berry farm whose landscape is reminiscent of my beloved Tuscany.

Ok, maybe not Tuscany per se, but it was really a wonderful sight nonetheless. Right?

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the overwhelmingly hot and humid summer—and we are talking about a relentless heat wave of 100-degree days—dried out all the fruit trees. What I thought would be the best summer find (imagine the cobbler I could have baked!), turned out to be a sad reminder that the weather does control our food source.

But not all is lost. Apparently, we are supposed to get some much-needed rain in the coming weeks and I bet all the dried, sad little blackberries will be coming back to life.

The ripe and fatty ones we tried, however, were fabulous. So, until next time, happy picking!

Out and About: Vegan pizza from Whole Foods

I am not a big fan of pizza here in the United States. The dough is a bit chewy, the tomato sauce is practically raw sugar and the mozzarella cheese is tasteless. Yes, I am a bit harsh, but imagine my surprise when Francesco and I bit into a slice of vegan pizza at the local Whole Foods Market. The new store is something out of a movie: There is a bar where customers can drink a vast assortment of wines and beers, a homemade pasta section and a wood fire pizza oven that has apparently been crafted and shipped from Italy. Yay!

This was heaven in a slice: The crust was perfectly charred, the tomato sauce was juicy and flavorful and the addition of fresh tomatoes (San Marzano, I presume) was genius. I was so happy I almost cried. This will be my go-to place for pizza. Have you tried it yet?

Out and About: Peach picking at Chiles Peach Orchard

What a gorgeous day in Charlottesville: warm sun and gentle breeze. The perfect weather to go peach picking. After a fun morning at the City Market, my good friend Emily and I trekked to Crozet, Virginia to Chiles Peach Orchard. Picture the green hills of Central Virginia, sun bathed peach trees, families pic-nicking and acres of pretty green hills. Here are some pictures of our fun day. Enjoy!

Emily is an experienced peach picker!

Look at this peaceful landscape…who wouldn’t want to spend some time in the sun in this place?


I picked about 10 pounds of peaches. How many peach cobblers can I possibly make? Emily gave me a super tasty recipe for a spicy peach salsa. Stay tuned. We’ll blow your minds.

Chiles Peach Orchard is open from April through Thanksgiving and it might be the best kept secret in town – at least for me!

An enthusiastic and friendly picker!