The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Trip to Cinque Terre

A pictorial trip through enchanted Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre - BeerBack in May, I shared a sliver of my family’s adventure to Italy from earlier this year. I focused on Barolo and my visit to one of the legendary estates in the region, Poderi Aldo Conterno. Today I offer you a glimpse into the more relaxing aspects of visiting Italy, its gorgeous coastline. Welcome to Cinque Terre.

Tucked away in Liguria on the Italian Riviera and just northwest of the city of La Spezia lies Cinque Terre (the Five Lands), so named because of the five villages that comprise the region, all of which is located inside a national park. This location can make Cinque Terre very difficult to access. We didn’t do our homework, so we entered the park from the north and found that the main road has been closed for four years due to landslides. While we did find an alternate road, it was essentially a goat trail that wound its way along the rugged and terraced landscape, slowly descending to the sea—there was a lot of breath holding and white knuckles for sure. The easier route is to enter via car from the south through La Spezia, but it’s even easier is to park in La Spezia and pay just a few Euro to take the subway/train, which makes stops in each of these unique villages. Once you have reached the villages, you also have the option of hiking between them or taking a boat that leaves every 30 minutes or so.

I struggle to find the words to properly describe the beauty I encountered in my two days along the Ligurian sea. I think what I found most remarkable is that the region feels trapped in time. Sure, there is a lot of tourism to the villages, but because of the limitations provided by the geography, there is little that people can do to modernize. There will never be a brand new Hyatt or a luxury residential building. The buildings of Cinque Terre will forever be made of stone and stucco. The Internet is still spotty even at the most luxurious of accommodations, and that’s almost a blessing because if only for a couple days you have to remove yourself from the “real” world and allow yourself to soak everything in. Below is a taste of what I experienced.

Cinque Terre - OverlookOverlook – Entering Cinque Terre national park we witnessed a few brave souls paragliding along to coast.

Cinque Terre - WalkingWalking – The streets all but one of these villages are steep, so be in good physical condition or bring an inhaler.

Cinque Terre - RiomaggioreRiomaggiore – One the boat that hops from village to village, a view of Riomaggiore where I stayed.

Cinque Terre - ShrimpShrimp – Of course being on the coast you have to sample the local cuisine.

Cinque Terre - Vernazza OverlookVernazza Overlook – The view is always worth the climb.

Cinque Terre - Vernazza HillsideVernazza Hillside – Here’s is a peek at those terraced hillsides where intrepid farmers grow vines, olives and other foodstuffs.

Cinque Terre - PickerPicker – Here is my brother on an olive/grape picker. This cart rides a rail up the hillside allowing the farmers to collect their bounty.

Cinque Terre - BeachBeach – Last but not least, you can never forget the beach. Here is a view of the sand in North Monterosso.

Planning Your Trip to Italy, with Wine, Fine Dining, and Truffle Museums

A few IWM posts to help you make the most of your summer travel plans

IMG_1617Summertime approaches, and with the nearly even currency conversion rate, now is the time to visit Italy. I’ve only been twice, but Italy is never far from my mind. I spend a lot of time there in my imagination, if not in my body, and I live vicariously from other people’s visits. For these reasons, I wanted to compile my travel posts in one easy to read compendium. If you’re going–and you should–I want you to enjoy yourself, and I want to add a touch of esoteric travel to your schedule.

First, this post by my colleague Garret Kowalsky, who is in Italy right now, will help give you some solid basic advice. Garrett touches on points like check your schedules for Italian holidays, and he notes that it’s easier to visit estates in Toscana than in Piemonte. He is right on both counts.

My post on how to visit winemakers gets linked a lot by winemakers. While advice like make appointments, plan carefully and get an Italian cellphone may feel intuitive, my winemaker friends they’re shocked by how often simple visits go awry. All I can say is that going to wineries in Italy is nothing like going to wineries in Sonoma or Napa, where wine tourism is an accepted practice, and, indeed, it’s viewed as just another service that wineries offer. This is not the case in Italy, and this post gives you some essential information that will keep everyone from crying.

IMG_2282This past fall, I saw the film “The Trip to Italy,” and its paean to Italian food got me thinking about my favorite restaurants, mostly all in Tuscany (one is in Liguria), where I spent the most time. I made a brief list of my favorite dining experiences, with links to helpful webpages. All I can say is that if you have the opportunity to eat at any of these spots, you will be so happy. So, so happy.

Italians have a deep-seated sense of whimsy, and the things they do for fun are not necessarily the things we do for fun. You will not find amusement parks in Italy. You will, however, find three truffle museums and many sculpture parks. Going to Italy and not taking advantage of some of the more intensely Italian amusements is like going to Wisconsin and not eating bratwurst, going to Vermont and not enjoying maple syrup, or visiting New York City and not riding the subway. It’s counter-intuitive and silly. Here is my take on one Tuscan truffle museum, and here is a description of visiting a sculpture park, with links to a few others.

My best advice for visiting Italy, especially Rome, but, really, all of it is pretty simple: Get lost. Get lost in Rome. Ask when your town’s market day is, and visit it. Wander lonely as a cloud. Drink it all in, and let me know what you enjoy because, until I get to go back, I’m living through you.

Touring Liguria and Falling in Love with San Rocco di Camogli

An IWM staffer’s trip to the renowned Italian Riviera

image_3My wife and I just returned from our first trip to Italy, and we were overwhelmed with just how beautiful and magical this country is. Having been lucky to learn about Italian culture and wine from my time at IWM, I have been ecstatically awaiting a visit to Liguria for over four years. I had heard all these stories about how delicious the seafood is, how elegant and wholesome the people are, how impossibly beautiful the scenery is. As you can tell in these pictures, Liguria over-delivered and the four days we spent in this region was a was a very special time in our Italian road trip.

image_5Let’s start with the charming little town of San Rocco di Camogli. We were blown away by how perfectly intact all the traditions and the buildings were. This gorgeous little village is perched on top of Monte di Portofino overlooking the Ligurian Sea and the fishing village of Camogli. Sergio Esposito kindly pointed us in the right direction and recommended we stay at a quaint, family-run bed and breakfast called La Rosa Bianca di Portofino. You park your car and walk about 15 minutes through a 2-meter-wide paved trail, 200 meters above the Mediterranean, through a national park to get to La Rosa. Technically, it is a 15-minute hike, but it always took longer with stops at the bakery, an aperitivo, and several pauses for a gaze into the blue. Along the way you pass a beautiful little church, a mouth-watering bakery with superb goods, charming houses with incredible views, and a handful of warm, polite locals. It was surreal to wake up in a place like this.

image_4We were very blessed with weather and we had two entire beach days. We hiked down the mountain about 40 minutes to a place called Punta Chiappa, where we caught a ferry to a medieval abbey built by the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. We had a lovely beach day, inclusive of a platter of tasty fried seafood served with local Vermentino. The last thing I thought I was going to do was swim in Northern Italy in October; I am so glad I brought my swim trunks. It was a little chilly, but the water was crystal clear blue that I’d never even imagined.

The over-stimulation of the senses, the culture, and the whole of the Italian Rivera’s physical presence make this region an unforgettable place. It is very simple to fall in love with this part of the world. I am very much looking forward to the next trip!

Home is Where the Taco Truck Is, Or Distance Makes the Stomach Grow Fonder

A meditation on food, memory and home

Heads-on shrimp and blue-check tablecloth

Among the many pieces of digital detritus I came across today was this posting from the US Air Force, which is looking for a taco truck. The taco truck, called a “Mexican Food Mobile Snack Food Truck” in military parlance, is specifically needed for the Air Force base in Aviano, Italy.

Having lived in Italy, I get it. Make no mistake: regardless of where you are, Italian food is astounding. It’s amazing, and it’s universal. Even Italian potatoes taste better, more intense, more potato-like, than their American counterparts. The bread is breadier. The zucchini will make converts out of the least loving of zucchini, and I count myself one of both the latter and the former. The little cups of espresso you drink in the grimy counter cafes that line the Aurelia will make you weep with their Platonic ideal of espresso. The tiny fresh strawberries, fragoline di bosco, burst on your tongue like perfect berry pyrotechnics.

The gnocchi you buy at the corner shop float celestial in your mouth. The cheeses you buy, the meats from the salumeria, the focaccia from the focacceria, the hazelnuts enrobed in chocolate in the bar that you get everywhere—all of it is astounding, food revelations, quotidian epiphanies. And I haven’t even gotten to the heads-on shrimp laved in red sauce and served on a bed of spaghetti at the nearby blue-checked tablecloth restaurant. I don’t even need to mention La Pineta and its Michelin starred meals of such succulent dishes from the sea. Italy is filled to the epiglottis with astounding food.

Italy has its share of strange junk food

And yet, sometimes you just want a freaking cheeseburger. A street pretzel. A bowl of matzo ball soup. A taco. Something that reminds you of where you’re from, the food that you grew up with, the food you eat when you’re tired or blue or simply meditative. This, I suspect, is where the Air Force taco truck comes in. The men and women in uniform want a taste of San Diego, Austin, Portland, even Brooklyn, and few dishes have come to embody the American experience quite as boldly as the taco. They’re cheap, they’re delicious, and they’re pretty reliable, regardless of where you are.

I admit that as a New Yorker, I’ll likely earn the scorn of readers from the Southwest of these United States. They will stand up and fight for their regional taco, and undoubtedly, they are right. The vast majority of my taco experiences, outside of the taco nirvana of a truck parked alongside a San Diego beach, have been with Gothamite tacos, which I hear are “getting better.” But despite this lacuna of legitimate taco, when I lived in Italy, I had a yen for a taco. Tacos said home to me, in some odd cultural mash-up.

So I got food from the local Mexican restaurant in Camogli, the small town on the Italian Riviera that I lived in for a few months in the spring of 2011. And it was almost entirely unlike Mexican food. It was a game of gustatory telephone, where Mexican food had been spoken at the very far end of a long chain of humans, and with each iteration, it grew further away from itself. On top of that strange permutation was the fact that you can’t get the good kind of avocado in Italy. You get the big kind that’s pale green with the giant pit, the kind that tastes somehow more like soap than avocado. It didn’t help.

Minestrone and farinata in Chiavari

The first thing I ate when I returned from Italy the first time was a lobster roll. The second time, the first thing I ate was Pad Thai. You’d be hard pressed to find either in Italy. Both dishes whispered “New York” to me, which may or may not seem bizarre, and both were about the best lobster roll and Pad Thai I’d ever had in my entire life.

Having been away from Italy for altogether too long (just over a year—I plan on returning this fall), I get struck by strange Italian cravings. A cup of that molten, almost gelatinous hot chocolate. That farinata and bean soup I used to get at that restaurant in Chiavari. The strange, almost tasteless pillow that is true Tuscan bread paired with fennel cinghiale sausage. The pizza that you get in Rome, the kind that you point at and say, “Questa,” and then they cut and weigh your slices. And, of course, my much beloved heads-on shrimp. Mediterranean shrimp have no rivals.

I hope the Air Force gets their taco truck. It’s good to eat food that reminds you of home—and to realize that reminiscence is often touched with bitter-sweetness, and that home is something you carry with you.


Six Things to do Differently in Italy

Or how you can learn from one writer’s mistakes

I’m returning to Italy for about five weeks next Monday. The last time I went, which was also the first time, I had no idea what to expect and thus did a bunch of things absolutely wrong. This time, I’m going to profit from my mistakes, and being an altruistic kind of human, I hope that you will too.

Here are six things I’ll do differently this time:

Pack Very Light: There is no easy way to carry, wheel or otherwise convey luggage through Italy, especially once you’re going to rural places. Streets are tight and uneven; train steps are high and difficult; taxis are hard to flag. The only way to do it with grace is to adopt the European custom of wearing your clothes more than once, and taking refuge in an excellent attitude, rather than several pairs of boots.

Double-check the Train Schedule, Seat Assignments and Car Class: There are two Italian women I’ll never forget, though I’m sure they’ve forgotten me. One was a TrenItalian conduttore who had to tell me twice in two different train cars that I had a second-class ticket but was sitting in a first-class car; the other was a surprised little old lady who found me sitting in her seat because I bought a ticket for the wrong day. I maintained I was right and she was wrong. I wasn’t; she was; I am eternally shamed.

Don’t Fear the Farmacia: Being a New Yorker, I expect my health and beauty aid store to be self-serve, along the lines of Duane Reade. Not the case in Italy. However, there’s no reason to fear announcing my symptoms to the white-coated humans who staff my local Farmacia. Everyone does it, and since symptoms have Latin names, they’re pretty much cognates. That said, I’m completely buying a wealth of Claritin, Dramamine and Pepto to bring with me. Which I also didn’t do the first time.

Use Fed Ex for Shipping: When I left Italy last June, I shipped via Italian Air Mail all my winter clothes: two AllSaints knit garments, a winter coat, a pair of boots, a black cashmere sweater, a vintage leather jacket, and a vintage fox collar. The Italian Postal Service “lost” my box. This time, if I ship anything, I’m using a private carrier. I’m consoling myself that somewhere in Italy, a woman is enjoying my very good taste.

Turn Off the Roaming on the iPhone: Stupidly, I didn’t. I got a $1,880.68 phone bill (I bargained it down, but still). Never, ever, ever, again.

Risk the Tongue: I went to Italy not speaking a word of Italian. By the end of my four months there, I found capisco abbastanza bene ma non parlo bene. Which is to say that I could understand well enough, but I couldn’t speak well. Mostly that was because I would refuse to speak. I found my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth in fear. This time, I’m going to talk, even if I talk poorly. The only thing I can do is learn from my mistakes.

And One Thing I did Right: Get lost. There’s nothing like finding yourself in places you’ve never been with no idea how you got there and no clear idea how you’ll get back for making you feel like a new person. I may use a map to journey from town to city and back again, but I love wandering around a city without one. Every itinerary predestines your experience. I like my experiences without mediation, at least most of the time. Maps are for tourists. Why tour life when you can live it?

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