Meandering in Lucca: Italy update #5

It’s Monday and we aim to find one of the three tourist info offices in Lucca. We started at “our” bar but today was its closing day so we moved on. Every business chooses a closing day in Italy so you have to check before you plan to go. In Lucca, at least a third of the shops and restaurants seemed to be closed on Monday. Many of the big churches were closed too.  I guess the priests are worn out from Sunday! From the signs we’ve seen, it looks like Wednesday is a popular closing day too.

It was almost was 11 and we’d skipped breakfast so found a bar down the street for cappuccino and a couple of small sandwiches that cost just a Euro each. Perfect snack to hold us until lunch around 2 and very tasty. We found tourist office #1 but it was closed for winter, so we continued on to #2. Unfortunately it was closed too, but had a sign directing us to the open office.

Paolo's pizza craving answered!

Paolo’s pizza craving answered!

Our philosophy about Italy is to enjoy every minute. We don’t mind the wrong turns, afternoon shop closings or closed tourist offices because we love just being there. So we kept strolling, enjoying the sun, people, cats and dogs. Although every dog had on a designer coat, we left ours behind choosing vests, sweaters, cameras and my scarf of course instead.  Women in Italy wear scarves all the time and I brought a bunch so that I could blend in. We got lucky at the third tourist info office receiving advice on the museums and monuments in Lucca and the best way to get to Florence. Turns out both bus and train will deposit us at the same convenient spot in Firenze but the bus is faster, about 45 minutes, because it is direct.

Mission accomplished we headed down the main east-west street across town in search of pizza and a bean store I had read about months before. Paolo has been pizza-less for 48 hours and beans are my weakness. There’s a store somewhere in town that has all the wonderful varieties of dried Italian ones that are hard to come by back home. I brought an extra suitcase and it will be filled with food when we leave. I think I get my beanaholic condition from my Dad who loves them too. Friend Barbara Swell, , tells me the Sorana bean smells like bacon when it cooks. Is that dreamy or what? I must find them! The bean store eludes us so far but we won’t give up.

Many of the pizzerias seem to be closed so we duck into a trattoria called GiGi on the Piazza Carmine that was on my list. Two bites into our salads we’d forgotten all about pizza. For the main course, I had a thin veal cutlet lightly breaded and sautéed, covered with a fresh tomato sauce with capers. Paolo had rigatoni with a ground veal/beef ragu, probably veal and beef. He started out with water but switched to vino rosso once he tasted the melt in your mouth ragu. From now on you can assume that we have wine with meals. That will save lots of typing. GiGi is cozy and welcoming and good. We lingered and enjoyed every bite. IMG_1295The bench just outside Trattoria GiGi in Lucca.

A quick stop at the all day market and we were back home resting our tootsies after four hours of walking on cobblestones. We toyed with the idea of using the washing machine down the hall, but since that required standing up, it never happened.

About 8 p.m. we returned to Drogheria (see update #2) to resolve Paolo’s pizza craving. I had it too by then. We started with prosecco and paper thin slices of bresaola with arugula and Parmesan shards then moved on to pizza.  Copy this into your browser for more info on the antipasti.
Pizza fix satisfied, the day can end.

Sunday lunch in Lucca: Italy update #4

Nothing like a lazy Sunday in Lucca. It was 50 degrees with only occasional light rain; not bad strolling weather at all. We decided on a walk and Sunday lunch to watch the Italian families gather.

Lucca is full of twists, turns, piazzas and alleys and many are not on the free tourist maps. We are using the iPhone and a map I ordered from Brian Lindquist in Connecticut. He loves Lucca and decided he’d had enough of the inaccuracy and the frustration of not knowing the history of each wonderful building. The map shows every twist and turn as well as every piazza, church (41), former church (37), museum (6) and palazzo (87) with notes about each on the back. We would literally be lost without it!  We will visit the tourist office tomorrow to find out visiting hours and availability. Open hours are complicated here, especially in winter. Although we enjoy our peregrinations, it’s nice to have a few targets.

The Carousel in Piazza Napoleone in Lucca. No takers on this winter day.

The Carousel in Piazza Napoleone in Lucca. No takers on this winter day.

Our destination for lunch was Vecchia Trattoria Buralli. We only took a few wrong turns (not the  maps fault) and enjoyed palazzo gazing and window shopping along the way, snapping pictures here and there as we walked.  The Trattoria had lots of old charm and quickly filled. Family Sunday lunch is a big deal in Italy. The birth rate is down, so little ones are treasured even more than usual and family is of supreme importance.

We noticed one table at lunch where the only child, a four year old boy dressed in clothes that were absolutely designer, was kissed by every adult each time they left or returned to the table. He seemed to love it and leaned toward Mama frequently to kiss her or stroke her hair. He asked for fried potatoes as soon as he sat down and they were promptly placed in front of the little king. He was included in the conversation and chatted amiably throughout the meal.

The menu is handwritten and photocopied at Burallis and lists five, three course Sunday dinners.  I chose penne with local pork sausage and walnuts followed by leg of ham (something like pork roast) with roast potatoes and veggies. Paul’s selection featured tagliatelle with boar sauce and a mixed plate of fried rabbit, zucchini and artichoke hearts. It came piled high and we noticed the dish was popular. I guess no one fries at home anymore. The result was a room was full of dressed up Italians, and two casually dressed Americans,  gnawing on tiny little rabbit legs.

Every dish was good and portions were generous, but we agreed that my pasta dish was a cut above. The sausage and nuts were an excellent combination. Paul thought it was too early for wine at 1:30 (I didn’t), but as soon as he had a bite of that boar sauce, he ordered red. I don’t think Sunday lunch in Italy is allowed to be wine-free anyway! We are amazed by the quality and value of house wines in Italy and almost always chose them.

The third course was dessert and we were already full, but curiosity and the disappointed look on the waitress’ face led us to forge ahead. She really wanted us to try the fried cake, so we had one of those and one mixed fruit. The cake was good, a bit like French toast but cakier and covered with a loose vanilla custard with swirls of dark chocolate. The fruit was cooked in a pan until caramelized and comprised blood orange slices with peel, grapefruit sections, bananas and pears with a sprinkle of powdered sugar for garnish.  I really liked the fruit, Paulo chose the cake and we did as much damage as possible to both. We finished with cappuccino as it is the custom to have coffee after, rather than with, dessert.

We were stunned by the willpower of a family of three tourists (possibly Belgian) a few tables away.  They had the bad tourist map in hand – a dead give away! We thought the first huge platter of lettuces and raw veggies that arrived was their salad, but then they ordered another. Mom dressed it with salt, oil and vinegar and they dove in again with bread and water on the side. Then they each had a plate of fried cake and that was it. It was great fun watching them communicate by hand signal with the confused young waitress.  Clearly she had not seen many customers who skipped the pasta and main courses!

Lucca's walking trail on top of the old wall, lined by trees.

Lucca’s walking trail on top of the old wall, lined by trees.

We rolled out into the street around 3:00 and found our way to the 30-foot thick wall and ramparts that surround Lucca. The city is rarely attacked these days so the wall is a park with a paved walking/biking trail on top. It’s a 2.5 mile oval that encloses the old city and the views to the inside and outside are lovely. We needed that walk to prepare for the naps we would take as the rain started falling again. And in honor of our fellow tourists, we will have only salad, bread and wine tonight. No dessert needed.

Arrivederci Roma, Ciao Lucca! Italy update #3

Friday was a travel day and the sun came out for the drive. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a great hotel like the Raphael, but we picked up our cute little Fiat 500 at the Rome airport and headed north. Avoiding the autostrada, we took E80 and A12 along the Tyrrhenian and then Ligurian coast from Rome to Pisa, then inland to Lucca.

It was a pleasant drive through the Maremma region of Tuscany, spaghetti western (you know those old westerns made in Italy) territory with snow covered mountains in the distance. Paul prefers to drive and liked the peppy little car. His stick shift technique came back to him right away. Lunch was a quick and delicious pizza at a truckstop. Why don’t truckstops in the U.S. have great food like this?

Lucca, in northern Tuscany, would be our home for the next 12 days.  We found our way into the walled city at rush hour with the help of the iPhone map and went straight to the parking lot our landlady had recommended.  Only registered locals can drive in from the city’s outskirts so we left the car and rolled our bags through the cobbled streets to meet Mrs. Sonia, our landlord.

Cobblestone streets and my favorite red boots.

Cobblestone streets and my favorite red boots.

She showed us three ways to get in to the building at 7 Via del Suffragi and gave us seven keys; one for the big front door of the building, one for the little front door, one for the back door around the block, one for the miniature elevator, one for our apartment door and two for the bicycles. She also took Paul outside to show him the fuse box because the power will go if you plug in too many things in Italy. Since I use a hair dryer, we are especially at risk!

Mrs. Sonia also shared locations for the best bakeries for bread, sweets and focaccia (yes, three different ones), the best pizzerias, a restaurant for dinner just 57 steps from our building and the location of the only market in town open 8-8. This was important since almost everything in Italy closes from 1:30-4:30.

After the orientation, we set out to find the bar that will be “ours” for the next 11 days. In case you haven’t visited Italy, a bar is open at 7 a.m. for coffee, pastries and a splash of grappa to “correct” the coffee if needed. You can stop there at 10:30 for a small cheese sandwich and even at 1:00 for a light lunch with or without wine, a mid-afternoon coffee later and then wine or fruit juice and a snack on your way home at six. You can see that it is essential to find a home bar quickly. Ours is old with cases of pastries and sandwiches, a deluxe coffee machine, a ciocciolato calda machine (hot chocolate) and rich wood shelves filled with wine and local chocolates with hazelnuts. Very cozy on rainy afternoons.

We also found a small market for bread, butter, cheese and wine and a butcher with prepared foods and local sausages within a few blocks. We put in a some supplies and then had dinner at Ristorante All’ Olivo (57 steps away). Really nice restaurant with food that was on the fancy side. It was only 7:30 so we were the second couple there. The house wine was excellent and the food delicious but we were a bit tired and would have fared as well with peasant food. We finished with vin santo and biscotti for dipping and slept like the dead.

Our apartment is newly built into the attic of an ancient building. Winters are usually cold and sunny in Lucca — except for this year. Everyone we meet is sorry for us but we are having a darn good time. The sidewalks are wide so there is no fighting for umbrella space. The apartment is charming and fitted out well so we are quite comfortable. It’s # 359405 at if you’d like to see it. Saturday morning we awoke to rain on the skylight and a 9 a.m. visit from our exuberant building super who came to make an adjustment to the terrace door. I stayed in bed and he and Paul communicated with hand signals and loud talking and got the job done. Then Paolo (he’s already becoming Italian) was off to our bar for cappuccino (uncorrected) and a croissant while I stayed home with my hot tea.

We finally emerged looking for lunch and the monthly outdoor antiques market.  We found lunch at the Antica Drogheria. It began as a drugstore in 1895 and is now a restaurant featuring traditional and local foods. Paul had his third pizza Margharita in as many days and I had a big bowl of farro in brodo (broth). Farro is a local grain that I love. It came in a puréed bean and vegetable broth with fruity olive oil on top and crispy crackers made from pizza dough. Manna from heaven. Drogheria will see us again!

Farro and beans in broth with fruity Luccan olive oil on top.

Farro and beans in broth with fruity Luccan olive oil on top. Nothing like it on a cold rainy day!

Our little folding umbrellas deserve medals of honor on this trip! We re-bundled ourselves and walked across town to the antique market. It is open air and spills from a large piazza onto side streets. The hearty vendors braved the 45 degree rainy afternoon but not many customers did. We didn’t last long and were soon headed to our bar for restorative cappuccini. Refreshed, we did a bit of shopping and headed home. We took the grand staircase to the fourth floor because groceries and two adults can’t fit into our building’s tiny elevator. In Italy, you don’t complain about the size of the elevator. You are just thankful to have one at all!

The quality of prepared foods in Italy is excellent. We’d brought home ravioli filled with fresh ricotta and spinach, English peas with proscuitto and homemade tomato sauce. When dinner time rolled around we started with local olives and dried sausage. For the main course, I had my ravioli with the buttery, winey peas for sauce and Paolo had his with the tomato sauce. A lovely meal rounded out with a $7 bottle of good red wine. This is the life!


Vermeer & Texas Salad: Italy update #2

Comfort food after a day of sightseeing in Rome.

Comfort food after a day of sightseeing in Rome.

Day one ended with dinner at Da Francesco and that was a good move!  I had read about it on one my favorite blogs, 101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson. Just a few blocks from Hotel Raphael where we are staying in Rome, Da Francesco serves Roman style pizza, very thin from a super hot oven with the crust slightly blistered black. We loved the wiry pizza maker who kneaded the dough athletically before tossing it and we were the only Americans there. Paul relished every bite of his pizza Margharita!

I had tonno vitello. This translates to Tuna with Veal. Sounds strange, but it’s delicious. Years ago we visited Ascona, in Switzerland’s Italian region with my brother, two young nephews and sister-in-law Karen whose mother is from there. One of my best memories is being served tuna vitello the evening we arrived exhausted from plane, train and auto travel. Karen’s dear Italian friend, Sylvia, said tonno vitello was just the thing after a long journey. We were nervous about the tuna/veal combo, but our fears were unfounded. Italian tuna in oil is really tasty. For this dish, it’s whipped to a velvety mousse, spread on thin slices of roasted veal breast and sprinkled with capers.  It is indeed perfect. So that’s what I had last night. I also had grappa afterwards for digestive purposes and slept like a baby.

This morning we fortified ourselves with cappuccinos from the amazing Hotel Raphael breakfast and thrust ourselves out into the rain again. We walked to the Piazza Popolo, Spanish steps (check out Guy Clark’s Dubliner Blues for my favorite song reference to the Spanish Steps) and Trevi Fountain, visiting several churches along the way. Paul was especially taken with the scale and beauty of Trevi. And yes, coins were tossed to ensure return visits!  The rainy walk was worth it though the narrow sidewalks of old Rome seem especially narrow when everyone is carrying umbrellas. It’s interesting to guess who will give way and who will pretend you don’t exist as umbrellas vie for space.

Our next destination was Museo de Quirinale  to see a Vermeer exhibit at 2:00 p.m.  We arrived in the area at 1:00 to find ourselves in a government compound with no restaurants so suffered through lunch at the nearest tourist bar. The TEXAS SALAD was edible but the rest was awful. ‘Nuff said.

After all that walking, we decided to take an elevator at the museum. We waited and waited. Finally the door opened and out marched 20+ preschoolers who were packed in like the proverbial sardines. Even the slightly grumpy man waiting next to us had to smile!

We enjoyed the Vermeer exhibit and happened on an official ceremony featuring a marching band and other precision military units parading in the drizzle.  We never figured out the purpose but it was fun to watch! Last stop was a revisit at the Pantheon for Paul to apply some history he had read the night before.

Finally made it to a bar near the hotel around five to rest our tired feet and have a refreshing glass of Prosecco and tiny cocktail sandwiches to hold us until our late dinner. It’s much more fun to eat late with the Italians than alone at seven!  In the cozy bar, the zipper on my coat refused to separate at the bottom. I finally dropped the coat to the floor and stepped out of it much to the amusement of two Italian crones at the bar.

We dined at Da Francesco again because it was  so good, so comfortable and so near the hotel after a long day afoot. Good house red, Roman style artichokes, perfect pizza and roast chicken with rosemary roasted potatoes and sautéed spinach. Simple and perfect for our last night in Rome.

Ciao Italia: Italy post #1

A number of people have asked to see the email updates I sent home from Italy in January. I’m going to post them here so that you can read them at your leisure. Here we go.

#1  We are here and all is well.  We were lucky to have usair points that allowed us to have those seats that turn into beds. That was all very nice with decent food and wine, plenty of room and we did sleep! As we started the descent into Rome, Paul realized that one of his shoes was gone. Quite a mystery until we discovered that the hiking boot had been swept up by the seat as it morphed from bed to chair and was stuck inside! We didn’t want to break the fancy seat so solicited help from the crew. After everyone had deplaned the co-pilot gave it a couple of violent yanks and out it came. Boot and chair survived and it certainly was an interesting start to the trip!

The Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona under stormy skies.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona under stormy skies.


We cabbed into town in the rain and were deposited at our lovely hotel. It was too early for check in so they they gave us cappuccino and tiny cookies to boost our energy level and sent us out into the weather. The sun came out and we had a great sightseeing walk and an excellent lunch of Roman style artichokes, lasagna and gnocchi with Gorgonzola and spinach sauce. All this to the strains of the restaurant owner’s favorite music which included Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin and Joy to the World by an American choir. 

Piazza Navona is our neighborhood and we saw the Pantheon, several churches and the senate where very well-dressed men were dashing in and out looking important. The guards there were dressed in traditional garb including hats two feet wide. As we were sticking our heads inside to see those guards it began to hail and the rain came back. That said, it is not unbearably cold and it’s wonderful to be here with only a few other tourists even if we have to use our umbrellas! Jet lag finally took over and we napped away the late afternoon so that we could eat at 8:30 p.m., like the Italians.


Hooray, it’s a Blog!

I’m up and running.  Getting a blog on line takes some technology skills and I’m more the intuitive, wing it type so it’s been a little bit of a struggle.  But it’s done and soon you’ll find recipes, thoughts on local food, cooking, chickens and anything else on my plate that’s worth sharing, so come back to visit often. And don’t forget to suscribe to Dana’s Plate.

While I’ve been trying to master the world of blogs, the chickens have been busy. We have three girls, Ruby, Mattie and Baby. For all my city friends, you don’t have to have a rooster to have eggs, just to have fertilized eggs that can become chicks.  That’s where Big Bird, our fourth “hen” comes in.  We never intended to have a rooster, just a few free range hens to supply us with fresh eggs and look pretty in the garden. When Big Bird got bigger and bossier and sprouted beautiful tail feathers and a lovely comb, we still thought he was a hen. We wanted him to be a hen. Then all this wannabe crowing started and we had to admit we had a rooster on our hands.  By the time we were out of the denial phase, we were too attached to the handsome devil to give him away.

Well one thing led to another and now we have three chicks.  Baby, our youngest hen,  disappeared before we left for two weeks in Italy. Our beloved chicken sitters, my sister and sister-in-law, saw her a couple of times when she showed up to eat. We’d been home just a few days when she arrived squawking and leading a tiny parade of three chicks.

She’s a great mom and we haven’t had to do a thing. You only need lights and special food and all that gear if you don’t have a mother hen. The chicks are almost three weeks old now and really starting to look like miniature chickens. They can even fly a little bit.  I hate to get smarmy, but they are too cute for words. It’s impossible to look at them without smiling.

Heres one of our chicks peeking out from under mom's wing.

Heres one of our chicks peeking out from under mom’s wing.

And then there are the eggs. Our girls are good layers and only Baby has gone broody and decided to hide her eggs and hatch them. Mattie and Ruby laid every day until November when the days got short. Since then they’ve laid on alternate days so we’ve still had a nice egg supply. Baby was too young to lay last summer and only laid a couple of small eggs before she decided to become a mom.

Chickens live by the sun and the days are getting longer so Ruby and Mattie are back to daily provisioning as of yesterday!  Even though it’s cold and gray out, daily gifts make me think of spring. I’m already looking up egg recipes.