Buon Appetito – Restaurant Hunting in Rome

When living in a big city such as Rome, the opportunities to experience new things are nearly endless. Fascinating works of architecture greet you around every corner, and getting to spend time experiencing another culture is incredible. For me, however, it’s the food in Rome that is at the top of my list. Unfortunately with so many great restaurants, it can be nearly impossible to know exactly where to eat when visiting Rome. Here are a few tips that can help you narrow down the list, and guide you towards some of the better places to eat in Rome.

Il Gabriello

Avoid central tourist locations: It goes without saying that Rome has many incredible places for sightseeing. Unfortunately dining at a hot-spots such as Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, or Piazza del Popolo means that you will be paying twice the price (sometimes more) per meal. Many of these restaurants are also geared towards tourism, not food quality. I would highly recommend searching for restaurants that are just off of prime locations, smaller side streets and piazzas often have restaurants that are not geared for tourism. This also allows you to stay close to busy locations without having to deal with long waits or crowds.

If they have to ask: Many establishments will employ individuals to stand outside and lure unsuspecting people to come and dine there. If you find yourself in this situation while looking for a place to eat, just say no and keep going. More times than not these places are pricey and will not offer you as enjoyable of a dining experience. If they have to ask you to come inside to eat there, it’s probably not worth it.

You pay for patios: I love eating outside as much as the next person, and Rome patios are some of the most scenic places to eat. Just be aware that places with patios will often have higher prices per dish, and the price increase often times doesn’t mean better food. Always check the menu before deciding to eat somewhere to see if the price increase is going to be worth sitting outside.

Look for stickers: If you are unsure about whether or not you want to eat at a particular restaurant, check the front door for stickers. Many restaurants will place stickers for awards or reviews they have received over the years. You can make a better decision based off of the number of stickers a place has received. If you have access to Wi-Fi, you can oftentimes look up and read about a restaurant before deciding to eat there. Trip advisor stickers are usually a pretty safe bet when looking for places to eat.

Finally, here are a few restaurants that I would recommend to anybody looking to enjoy a great meal while in Rome!

Al Duello’s modest interior

Il Gabriello: Located on Via Vitorria 51 this restaurant is only a few streets from the Spanish steps. Il Gabriello’s carefully designed basement dining area creates the perfect atmosphere for a romantic dining experience. This is not the most inexpensive restaurant, but the quality of food and atmosphere more than surpass the cost per dish.

Filet from Casa Coppella

Casa Coppelle: Located not far from the Pantheon, Casa Coppelle is certain to make for the perfect Roman dining experience. Between their wild berry risotto or their savory fillets, you will be certain to leave with a very full stomach. Casa Coppelle has won numerous awards and recommendations throughout the years, and is a must for anyone wanting to try some of the best Rome has to offer. The staff is friendly and will work to seat you even without a reservation, but making a reservation in advance is recommended. Casa Coppelle’s prices are higher than most, but they are equal to the quality and portion size of the meals they serve. Located in Piazza delle Coppelle, 49.

Al Duello’s Tiramisu

Al Duello: This is the best of the best! Located in a humble alleyway northwest of Piazza Navona Al Duello is a truly a hidden treasure within Rome. Don’t expect to run into many English speaking individuals here, this place is all Italian. Be sure to try their Roman style artichokes and eggplant starter dishes, you won’t be disappointed! The staff here is incredibly friendly and will not leave you feeling unwelcome. The chef here is passionate about his cooking, and it shows through with every dish. With Al Duello’s reasonable prices you should try and order a full course meal if you think you’re able, just be sure to save room for their one of a kind Tiramisu. Located on Vicolo della Vaccarella, 11.

Enjoy!

For the love of il Campo

Today I get to tell you about one of my favorite food experiences in Rome: the market at Campo dei Fiori!  Named for the field of flowers that was originally here, this piazza has an open air market from Monday to Saturday.  Going to the market from Via Arenula (the way we always go coming from studio), you go down this little street lined with shops and arrive at a piazza.  Bypassing the people hawking sunglasses and iPhone cases, you are greeted with the sight of dozens of tents shading tables full of fresh produce and Italian delicacies.

One of the things that surprised me the most about Rome, and probably all over Italy, is how good the fruit is, especially that at the market (fondly called just “Campo” by many of the students).  It is all super fresh and grown regionally, or at least on the same continent.  Among the best things you can get at the market, and in Italy in general really, are blood oranges.  They are absolutely phenomenal!  These little oranges look completely normal, but when you peel them, they are bright red inside, thus their name in Italian: rosso arancia.  I’ve never had a bad one, but the less delicious ones still taste like a really good American orange.  And along the lines of blood oranges, everyone should try spremuta at least once; it’s freshly squeezed orange juice, made with blood oranges when they are in season (which has been our entire time over here so far).

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Emanuele

My favorite part of the market, though, is the people.  Walking through to get our fresh fruit and veggies with the “real” locals, many of us have found favorite food stands and shopkeepers who we are getting to know.  About halfway down the left side when coming from Arenula, my best friend at the market, Emanuele, sells dried fruits and nuts, most of which are rare in America, such as kumquats and little sweet tomatoes that I eat like candy.  Nearly all of the nuts are regionally grown and around a third of the fruit is from Italy.  Every time I go there, we talk exclusively in Italian, even though he speaks English rather well, forcing me to learn the language, which is fantastic and is usually really fun.  Working with Emanuele is Johnny (pretty sure that’s not his real name…) who offers candy and cookies, which are also super yummy (if you get the chance to go there, grab some biscotti al limone – I’m munching on them as I write this).

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Daniele

Next to Emanuele and Johnny is a family run produce stand.  At this small cluster of tables, Lilo and Daniele have some of the freshest fruit in the market, especially their many varieties of pears.  Talking to Daniele (in Italian, of course), who has worked here for 18 years, I learned that they get all of their fruits and vegetables every morning at the mercato generale, a giant farmers market where farmers from the surrounding areas bring the freshest and ripest of their crops to sell in the city.

Another really great thing about the market (I’m not sure if I could tell you a bad thing) is the prices.  Only slightly higher than the grocery stores in Rome and in America, the food at Campo dei Fiori is very reasonably priced.  Unlike American farmers’ markets, the one’s I’ve been to anyway, the prices are about double a normal grocery store and taste marginally better.  In Rome, compared to what is available at the supermercato, the produce at the market is infinitely fresher and tastier.

Now that I’ve waxed on about my love for the market, I’m getting hungry for oranges.  Vado al Campo, Ciao!

Something’s Missing…

I’ve reveled in the glories of creamy, heartrending gelato. I’ve sampled some amazing traditional Roman pastas. I’ve eaten my lifetime’s worth of margarita pizza, as well as dozens of other styles and flavors I never expected—including the unintentional anchovy. I’ve tasted and tested with the rest of them, and written about the best of them, and I think I’ve earned a moment’s reflection on the things we grand old Americans do have going for us.

American style cheese. Creamy, gooey, melty cheddar cheese that makes your tastebuds sing, and everything great that is made with it. I’ve had dreams about a bottomless bowl of Velveeta mac. The Italians have entire shops devoted to the ageless art of cheese-making, but you can’t beat an extra-large bag of shredded Colby Jack or Fiesta Four Cheese Blend. You also can’t make a great home-style casserole without it.

Sour cream. My roommate has suffered endlessly for this cause, bemoaning the unlucky realization that 95% of her everyday dinner recipes involve the stuff. They really just don’t make it here, for whatever reason; when we break down and have a taco night, the missing requisite topping causes a few moments of silent sadness every single time.

Peanut butter. I still haven’t figured out what Italians do for lunch (you really can’t have Pizza by the Slice every. single. day…can you?), but without peanut butter, how does one make a pb&j sandwich, that staple of childhood and poor college kid life? The fallback would normally be a ham and cheese sandwich, but the lunch meats here are corporate mercenary expensive, and the status of cheese as a delicacy prevents bulk purchasing anyway.

Cookies. Normal cookies. Chocolate chip…sugar…oatmeal raisin…white chocolate chip macademia…and Lord forbid, peanut butter cookies. They have sweet “biscuits” mass-produced here that can be bought from the supermarkets, but trust me, it’s not the same. No Nutter Butters, no Chips Ahoy, and an Oreo would go for your first-born child at a private auction. I’m pretty handy in the kitchen, so it wouldn’t be so hard to make my own at home, right? Well, that brings up the notoriously missing—

Baking powder and baking soda. People don’t bake at home here; the baking aisle is sadly emaciated. It took me a long time to figure out that one special kind of flour from the supermarket has baking powder pre-mixed in, but of course it’s impossible to figure out how much you’ve got in there. I’ve finally managed to throw together some almost-normal biscuits and gravy. Two days ago I tested out a cookie recipe, and after three test batches I got something that was vaguely shortbread-consistency and sweet enough to be called dessert. It took three eggs and 250 grams of butter, and they never did quite turn brown, but hey, they were tasty.

There are a handful of other little food items I’ve found myself missing at one point or another on this trip. It is an interesting realization that culture extends so deeply, and can be missed on such a basic and intrinsic level as the supermarket snack selection. We are so blessed to be living and studying in such a mecca of architectural history; and, regardless of its shortcomings, it is also a blessing to be from such a great country as that big, sprawling bit of land across the pond. There’s nothing quite like four months in a foreign country to make you realize how lucky you are for what you’ve got waiting for you back home.

Pizza beyond Measure (and by beyond, I mean without)

Italy at Home

What’s more Italian than making pizza in Rome?  Actually, making pizza in Naples probably is, but seeing as we aren’t living in Naples… Anyway, this weekend I decided to make pizza.  I make them all the time at home and I practically have the recipe memorized.  So I go downstairs to the grocery story (which is terribly convenient) to get all the necessary ingredients for the crust: flour, sugar, olive oil, yeast.  All that is pretty much the same as it is in America except for the yeast.  It comes in little bricks about the consistency of margarine – kind of gross.

So I try and find a recipe for pizza dough that uses this weird type of yeast.  I end up using the recipe from the website listed on the side of the yeast.  Which is in Italian, of course.  I could wade my way through that fine if I knew approximately how much 700 grams of flour was.  So I start cross-referencing it with about 3 other recipes to come up with something I can work with.  So after getting to the point where I know approximately how much of everything I need in cups and teaspoons, I hit another, slightly bigger issue: our apartment has no measuring cups.  In fact, nothing in our kitchen has numbers on it.  Think about it – that’s a big deal if you cook and like to be precise, like me.

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Ready to go! Notice my bowl and measuring cups in the background.

So I grab a mug and a glass cup and start guesstimating.  Oh by the way, I was mixing this in a square bowl… definitely odd.  After mixing it up and letting it rise, I start spinning it, or trying to – it’s a tad too dense.  I blame it on the yeast.  I spread it out on the pan (rather in the baking dish), top it with sauce, and head for the cheese.  In Italy, authentic buffalo mozzarella doesn’t come shredded in a Ziploc bag.  It’s a semi-solid mass packaged in water.  So tearing off chunks of cheese and putting them on top of the sauce, it’s ready to bake.

And the oven… I can figure out Celsius to degrees Fahrenheit just fine, but that doesn’t help me much when the oven doesn’t have numbers – just off and an icon of a flame.  Told you numbers were a big deal.  Anyway, turning the oven all the way up (the recipe, or one of them at least, said 250 C) I put the pan in and waited.  I didn’t even bother with a time (on my phone) since who knows how hot the oven was.  After 30 minutes of peeking constantly, I took it from the hot-ish oven, whether it was baked all the way through or not.  I was famished.  I cut it with a knife (you’d think pizza cutters would be common here – I haven’t seen one yet), threw it on a plate, and nommed.  And you know what, that pizza was pretty good.  Image

The chunks of cheese got all gooey and the crust puffed up nice and thick, I blame that on the yeast too.  It was delicious; I just wish it didn’t take so much effort and brain power.  All right, rant’s over.

Cooking here usually isn’t this difficult and our kitchen is really kind of charming in an outdated sort of way.  I just miss my kitchen at home with its giant double oven, burners that self-ignite, integrated thermometers, timers all over, at least 3 sets of measuring cups, half a dozen round mixing bowls, yeast that comes in little packets, and a microwave (geez, I miss that thing).  Ok, now it’s really over.  At least I can say I made pizza in Italy.  Once.

Lunch in the Ghetto

Headline: Showcasing the historic Jewish Ghetto

It’s 12:15 and you’ve just finished your Italian class, all fired up and confident with the new words you learned, ready to try out your knowledge on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Jewish Ghetto. Coincidentally, you’re also starving (it’s a recurring theme, at least in my experience). What better way to practice the language than to do so in the service of your stomach? Here’s where I come in. Most of the best lunch places in the ghetto are tiny, nondescript, and barely have a sign over the door. It’s a maze for those hungry and unfamiliar with the choices, but with this blog as a guide, you’ll never be lost for good flavor in the ghetto again.

Nameless?

If you’re in the death grip of starvation and can’t imagine walking more than a few steps beyond the classroom door, fear not—I have no idea what this place is called, but a few classmates have sworn by it. In their experience, the best way to order is to walk in, sit down, and ask for the waiter’s food suggestion. These two had a pasta they claim was indescribable (partly because they don’t have the proper Italian words, partly because it was just that good!), and they remember seeing deep-fried artichoke on the menu, which is next on my must-try list.

Inside

Don’t let the underwhelming appearance scare you — this cafeteria is a very popular local gathering place.

Just a few steps further, you stumble across the height of local pizza flavor. Pizza Franco e Cristina is fantastic not just known for its large collection of tipi di pizze, but also because it was a noisy, bustling, crazy microcosm of all things Italian: the heightened emotion, scrambling for position at the counter, violent gestural discussions, huge plates of fresh pasta and vegetables, and general overall confusion. I had a blast nibbling on my panino con l’uovo e formaggio in the corner, just watching the exchange.

Come lunchtime, this place is packed out into the street.

There are tons of outdoor places to sit and people-watch.

If you’re in a grab-a-bite-and-run sort of mood, there are handfuls of bars scattered throughout the ghetto with all manner of panini: my egg and cheese sandwich came on a really fantastic crusty but light-as-air homemade bread, and there’s the famous tomato and mozzarella combination (you really can’t get away from it, it’s everywhere). My favorite panini shop is in Campo dei Fiori, a five-minutes’ walk from the ghetto. They have really great prices, large portions, and a great selection. Try the panino con porchetta—it’s a home-roasted pig cooked skin-on to seal in all the juices and flavor, injected with some creamy combination of rosemary and oregano. Throw it on a bit of pizza bianca bread, and there’s a meal to remember.

Fonzio’s. Specialty Kosher, atypically Italian, but their fries are fantastic, and they even have ketchup!

There will come a time in every student’s life when he’s just plain had enough of Italian food. Well, look again. Fanzio’s, the Kosher grill right off the Piazza delle Cinque Scole, has a large assortment of burgers (sans cheese) and –please quote me on this—the best onion rings I’ve ever tasted. Il 420 (that’s il centoventi if you’re practicing) is their basic fare, but even it comes with a twist. Thin-sliced cucumbers and a sort of salsa topping add flavor and style. Step it up with a “fresh burger,” topped with guacamole and aioli, or a fried sort of veggie burger. It’s not quite what you’re used to, but it definitely scratches the itch.

Delectable salmon, cream cheese, and who knows what else. Strongly reccommended–numero cinque on the lunch menu.

Finally, I can’t leave without sharing the most recent delicacy we stumbled upon in the Jewish ghetto. The Ristorante Kuriya is the perfect treat after a long Italian binge diet of pizza and pasta. The normal menu is a bit pricy, but the lunch menu has large multi-course meals for a fantastic price. The sushi was a little bit of heaven, the rice perfectly sticky, and forks did not come standard with the table. My piatte of choice came with a salad with house ginger dressing, a bowl of miso soup, a salmon roll, and a bowl of fruit to finish. A great meal for a great deal!

Flavors of Florence (or Tastes of Tuscany)

Headline: Florence

Ahh, Tuscany!  The region everyone instantly thinks of when they hear the phrase “Italian cuisine.”  If you’re like me, you only think of it because everyone says the food there is delicious, not because you know what Tuscan food actually entails.  Well, last week we took a jaunt to Florence for four days, so we were able to check it out and see what the hype is.

Most of the food in Tuscany has its roots in peasant food from the middle ages along with some French influence from when a Medici married into French royalty.  That being said, most of the food is simple in terms of ingredients, but each dish is carefully prepared according to recipes that have been perfected over centuries.  One of the main things you’ll notice about Florentine cooking is its earthiness.  The main flavors of Tuscan dishes revolve around foods from the ground: mushrooms, herbs, root vegetables, and truffles; the main meats used here are wild animals, specifically boar, hare, and duck.  Accompanying these strong earthy flavors is the typical Tuscan bread, which has absolutely no flavor.  I made the mistake of having a piece of plain bread, expecting it to have the essences of oils and herbs, or at least salt, as in Rome.  Instead, I had something that tasted vaguely and faintly of flour… barely.  After a couple bites of nothingness, I drizzled the next piece with the olive oil on the table.  Then I understood why the bread was so incredibly plain: to showcase the flavor of what goes with it, namely the oil that was so incredibly full-flavored.  In fact, Tuscany is famous for its extra virgin olive oil, supposedly the best in Italy (and thus, the world).  Along with their olive oil, the region is also known for its cured meats (such as salami and prosciutto) and cheeses made from sheep’s milk.  Cannellini is a common side dish, obviously displaying Tuscan food’s origin from peasant fare.  These white beans typical of the region are either served fresh or from a bottle where they have been soaked with oil and spices.

And, of course, the world famous gastronomic attraction of Florence: Bistecca alla Fiorentina.  It is essentially a giant porterhouse but only from the Chianina breed of cattle that are raised only in the Val Chiana (a small valley in central Italy).  These steaks are 2-3 inches thick and served rare.  They are carefully prepared over a span of at least 5 days, which culminates with a quick grilling over a wood burning fire.  A warning for all of you who like your steaks well-done: these are meant to be eaten rare and will only be served that way. Although I didn’t have one while I was there, I hear from very reliable sources that they were extraordinary!  And here is the address of where they got their steaks from (and where I intend go when I return to Florence and don’t have to pay for it myself!):

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Via Santo Spirito, 16

50125 Firenze, Italia

Be sure to order from the specific Florentine menu rather than the general Italian one.

Recommendations:

-Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak)

-Gnocchi gratinata ai formaggi morbidi al profumo tartufo (gnocchi with truffle oil)

-Budino di panna con salsa alla pesca (cream pudding with peach sauce)

Buon Appetito!

Source: Italy: Dish by Dish by Monica Sartoni Cesari

It’s heaven. It’s childhood. It’s Rome. It’s…..Gelato

Roman Staples. Chocolate, mint, coffee—flavors you’ll find in any ice cream aisle in America. What you’ll have a harder time finding is clementine, pistachio, panna cotta, and hazelnut. Step out on the streets of Rome, though, and into one of the many gelaterias, where you’ll see these flavors and so many more. I went on a quest this week to discover the real Italian gelato, to find out what separates the good from the iconic. I suffered through the painful testing of two flavors a day (not counting the equally difficult tasting of four other classmates’ flavor selections), for your sake, dear readers. After days of the grueling struggle to determine which vibrant flavor combinations fit best, I came to the conclusion that really great gelato has two distinct characteristics: a rich, saturated flavor, and a creamy, immensely thick texture. Imagine your favorite ice cream; take out the chemicals, infuse it with a brilliant, natural, wholesome flavor that affects every taste bud, and then churn it until it’s almost thick enough to chew yet so creamy it slides across your tongue like butter…now that’s good gelato.

The harder part is finding that perfect cup. Not all gelati are created equal: even from batch to batch you’ll have flavor variations. Within a single gelato shop, you’ll get a scoop of the richest, creamiest ice cream and a scoop of something tasty but riddled with crunchy bits of ice. Sometimes the flavors with cacao will be gritty, and sometimes you’ll get a consistency something like brownie batter before it bakes (not so terrible, but it melts too quickly!). I tell you, it was a difficult job, but we finally decided on the best gelato shop within a ten-minute walk from the school—and believe me, there were plenty to choose from.

The Quest

     

Blue Ice caters more toward the tourist crowd, locating itself close to places like Campo de’ Fiore and the Pantheon. They had a great selection of flavors ranging from Nutella to green apple, and they tasted great, although I swear the mint chocolate chip was originally from a Breyers bucket. Some of the flavors were more of an ice-cream consistency, but they made up for it with the wide selection.

This place was a surprise! We happened to be walking by and peeked in the window. Flavors like chocolate with rum, crema siciliana which tasted like butter mead riddled with caramelized raisins, and a dozen other intricately complex choices made the selection very difficult. Delicious, although the flavors weren’t quite as saturated as some others I’ve tried.

    

This is my five-star, never-done-me-wrong selection for Best Gelateria (within ten minutes of school). Their biscotti and café blew my mind, the mint was made with honest-to-goodness mint leaves, and the lemoncello made me want to sit in the sun and visualize childhoods at the beach. It’s right at the heart of the Jewish ghetto, steps from our front door, the cheapest we’ve found, and worth so much more.

Feeling adventurous? Here are some great flavor combinations from the other students:

Klaas—lemon and hazelnut

Caty—hazelnut and café

Dustin—chocolate and clementine

Ana— Cappuccino and cioccolato

Amy—panna cotta and hazelnut

And if you do manage to get through the thousands of flavor combinations, check out the wide array of sorbet and mousse flavors!

Author’s note: Every third person who’s spent any time in Rome has a distinct favorite gelato shop. There were several suggestions given to us that we haven’t had a chance to test yet. So much gelato…so little time!

Fettuccine alla Papalina

Italy at Home

I got a book for Christmas: Italy: Dish by Dish.  It tells you all about the different types of deliciousness that each region of Italy serves and what you must absolutely try when you are there.  Since we’re in Rome, I thought our first attempt at real Italian cooking should be from Lazio (and, no, dumping a box of pasta into a pot of boiling water doesn’t constitute real Italian cooking).  Going through the book, I found tons of stuff that sounded wonderful and some that did not, for example, coratella, which is the entrails and trachea of a suckling lamb.  I decided some kind of pasta was fairly safe… I decided upon fettuccine alla papalina: skullcap fettuccine.  The story goes that in the 1930s, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) asked the chef at a restaurant in Trastevere (the neighborhood where we live) to create a dish that reflected typical Roman culinary traditions.  He used the base for spaghetti carbonara, refining it by replacing the bacon with prosciutto and spaghetti with fettuccine and adding cream, parmesan, and onions.

Last Tuesday, Kymber and I (and some lovely people who decided to help us out) cooked Fettuccine alla Papalina for 20 people.  Although it was kind of challenging in our tiny kitchen, we managed to pull it off with great success!  And here’s the recipe for all of you who would like to try your hand at real Italian cooking (and you can multiply easily it if you’re cooking for a crowd, like we were!)

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Cooking for a crowd… This is what pasta and beginnings of a sauce for 20 people looks like

Fettuccine alla Papalina

For 2 people

125 grams of egg fettuccine                                       30 grams of parmesan cheese
60 grams of ham                                                         2 eggs
40 grams of butter                                                       salt
1/4 onion                                                                     pepper
100 ml heavy cream

Directions:

Finely chop the onions and ham (keep separate).  In a pot (not a pan!) sauté the onions in butter, then add ham.  Whisk eggs and cheese together, add cream.  Cook fettuccine al dente and drain.  Pour fettuccine into pot with onion and ham, letting it cook for a few minutes.  Turn off heat; pour egg mixture over the pasta.  Mix well and quickly so that eggs set.  Top with freshly ground pepper and serve.

Source: http://www.lacuochinasopraffina.com/cosa-cucino/le-fettuccine-alla-papalina-ricetta-romana-originale/5904

Grilled Cheese: Italian Style

WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WANTED (and things you really didn’t)

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Photo Courtesy of Minh Tran

A few weekends ago, we had some sketching assignments, one of which was set atop the Palatine Hill.  Typical of our first two weeks of Rome, it was cold and windy and rainy.  After an hour or two, we were all ready to get out of the weather and get something delicious and warm in our bellies.  In particular, I was feeling ready to curl up in a blanket with a book and eat something warm and familiar.  Seeing as most of those options were impossible given the very obvious facts that I was in a restaurant and in a foreign country, I aimed for the last one: warm food.  Then by chance, I saw grilled cheese on the menu.  Perfect, I thought, among the collection of words that I vaguely recognized was an item that I am very familiar with: Grilled Cheese.  That wonderful toasty, buttery sandwich filled with gooey goodness.

But apparently “grilled cheese” in Italy means something very different than it does in America.  I was presented with a dish full of cheese that had simply been grilled.  Taken slightly aback by this new gastronomical development, I tore away a forkful.  And by “tore,” I mean awkwardly cut a little piece from the mass with my fork and brought it to my mouth, trying to break the string connecting the fork and the dish along the way.  Incidentally, that stretchy string of melted cheese grew to a foot and a half at one point.  That first bite was the absolute best cheese that I have ever had!  Warm and chewy with a slightly toasted top, it truly melted in my mouth.  After getting over the strangeness of eating an entire bowl of nothing but cheese, I devoured it.  It was still too foreign to just eat cheese, so I ordered a bowl of bread, not necessarily for taste, just to have something else.  At that point, I didn’t think that anything could taste better than that cheese, not that bread in Italy has the possibility of being anything less than delicious.  I was right, but the bread did make it easier to eat.  I ate that entire bowl of cheese; if you know me, that is quite an accomplishment… it was that fantastic.  So even though it sounds really strange and isn’t typical Italian fare, grilled cheese is now on the list of foods that everyone should try.  Seriously, go get some… and take me with you!

Pizza, Pizza, Pizza!!

ITALIAN STAPLES

Alright, so you’re (obviously) an American college kid, (obviously) out of your element, and (obviously) in a foreign country without a clue how to even ask for directions. Incidentally, you’re also starving. You stare around in agonized hunger, wondering how far away from your last known location you are and how much further you’ll have to walk to find a menu you can pronounce a few words of. Your belly makes awkward audible rumbles and you’re considering gnawing your left foot off since your feet are killing you anyway and then you see it! There in shining lights is the single word you could never have dared to ask for! Pizza. The only word in Italian that automatically triggers the pleasure center of the American college brain. The empty-fridge fallback, the midnight standard, the game-day staple, the cheap and delicious cure for day-before-payday, stay-at-home movie night blues. You walk inside, patting yourself on the back, stumble your way through an Italian greeting, and sit at a table. You find the pizza section of the menu, and your mouth falls open. Dozens of options! Most of them are so far from phonetically translatable Italian that you don’t even know where to start…

Don’t panic. Go with the margherita. It’s usually at the top of the list, and you’ll be able to translate at least two of the words in the description. These pizzas are simple, with some sort of amazing tomato sauce, some combination of chunks or slices of the best mozarella you’ve ever tasted, and a few leaves of fresh basil (and yeah, you’re supposed to eat the basil). I’ve had it at least four times in the two weeks I’ve been here, and each one is just a little different from the last, but I have not once been disappointed.

Well, now you’ve got your feet wet and can branch out a bit! Pizza bianca (white pizza) is a great snack: it’s just a half-inch thick bit of pizza crust—think pizza pie minus all the toppings. Sounds silly, but I swear they do something to the bread over here. It’ll be soft and a bit chewy, kind of buttery and really delicious. At some point I got brave and ordered something that had “foccaccia” and “salmone” in the same sentence: what came out was a big pizza crust drizzled with olive oil, and it had tender smoked salmon scattered artfully across the top. I’m not sure what I expected, but I loved it. If you’re out walking the streets (read: lost, again, and starving, again), just about every streetcorner has a pizza-by-the-slice shop with the most extraordinary concoctions: you’ll find sausage pizzas and plain pizzas with red sauce, but you’ll also find pizzas with broccoli florets, potato slices, grilled zucchini and eggplant, and any number of weird-looking toppings you can’t quite name (sorry guys, I haven’t found the pepperoni yet). As an added bonus, these places are usually pretty cheap, and you need basically no knowledge of the Italian language to order. The pies are all cooked up in long rectangles; just indicate with the spread of your hands how big of a hunk you want, they weigh it, heat it up, and give you a receipt with the price on it. You pay at the register and you’re free to eat on the run, as you attempt to relocate the nearest recognizable road.