Thursday, November 13, 2008

Italy Part 1: Emilia-Romagna Adventure

The day we found out that CF would be taking this year long assignment I saw Mr. PZ on GoogleTalk. "Hey, when are you guys going to Italy?" I knew they had been thinking about going. So that was how I told the Z's the big news about our big Z, Zürich. And basically right from the start it was decided that we would all spend some time in Italy together. They picked set their itinerary, and we decided we'd like to see Siena and since they were going to Florence/Firenze for mostly weekend days we decided to revisit one of our favorite cities. Somewhere along the way we realized if CF took one more vacation day off from work we could spend two straight weekends on this trip so he and I decided to see some of the region known as Emilia-Romagna. Returning to Italy was one of the best parts of moving here, the anticipation was killing me as the date grew nearer.

We booked our train tickets to stop in Parma. We figured we'd spend a few hours in the city of ham and cheese before moving on to Bologna, where we had a room booked for three nights. The difference between Switzerland and Italy was clear to me the moment we got off the train. Italy is much more chaotic and rough. It took me by surprise, I think I had started to lump all of Europe into one too closely related image. Living here really makes you recognize the variations, and appreciate what makes each place unique. My first mistake made itself known very quickly, it turns out the reason I could not find info on the lockers at the Parma train station is that there are no lockers at the Parma train station! We went through a range of gut reactions and considered just getting on the next train headed for Bologna. We decided to feel out the situation a bit better and resolved to haul our suitcases around with us for as long as we could bear, and figured we'd just move on a little earlier than planned. I double checked with a hotel right near the train station that we couldn't pay to leave our luggage. "No, because of September Eleven." Interesting. We saw signs directing people to the Tourism Office, some place we rarely ever go, and I decided to ask them if they knew where we might find a locker. "You can leave your bags here." they said, "They're not locked up but we do not charge you, just leave identification while you're gone." Since even after just 20 minutes of dragging our luggage around had put us in a bit of a bad mood we decided to take our chances on this. We kept the laptop and camera equipment, the most anyone was going to get by stealing from us was our cheap American clothing and maybe a Tiffany's necklace.

We were so proud of making the best of our situation in Parma, so it was all the more of a blow to the ego when it turned out that all the restaurants and cafes were closing down between lunch and dinner just as we were finally free to sit down and eat. Very disappointing to see this happening just as we were about to get a meal in the foodie capitol of this foodie nation. We wandered around and saw a good portion of this small city. I suppose we were easing into Italy slowly and gradually this way. The streets seemed so empty! It was sort of odd. Eventually we found a cafe that was staying open between meals so we went inside. We actually had a really nice meal of ravioli and two different salads. And for dessert we went to a gelato place we noticed while wandering, and even on this chilly day in Parma we decided it was time to dive back into one of our favorite Italian habits! Their gelato was absolutely amazing, I had salted caramel and CF had pistachio. Delicious. I'd say our stop in Parma was justified in one small cup of frozen milk! We collected our bags, thanked them profusely for watching them for us, and made our way back to the train station and bought tickets for our short ride to Bologna. As we walked to the station we noticed the shops that were closed before were reopening and the streets had about 5 times as many people in them. Our poor trip to Parma was unfortunately timed right during a very serious siesta.

Our train was delayed, another reminder that we were no longer in Switzerland. But we got to have a nice conversation with a lady waiting with her friend for the same train. CF gave them his space on the bench we were waiting on and she told him that he was a sweetheart. She ended up telling us all about her trip to the US. She had been to so many places I have never been! New Orleans, Boston, the Grand Canyon. I think coming back after a year will make us pay more attention to not taking these places for granted. Our train finally came and everyone hurried on board. It wasn't long before we arrived in Bologna.

We were arriving a little bit earlier than expected so we took care of that by starting off in the wrong direction for a minute or two, but we corrected quickly. After a 15 minute walk we found the door to Múa Bed and Breakfast and got checked in. Our evening was a bit rough, one of our usual "first night in a new city" types of experiences. I wanted to go to a certain restaurant just around the corner from us but we went in right as they opened at 8pm and were told we could not dine without a reservation. So we went down a few doors to the wine bar I noticed on our way to the B&B but CF said he didn't feel like munching on happy hour snacks in a crowded bar. By that point we were so cranky that we just decided to call it a night and start fresh the next day. Going to bed early during one of our adventures seemed quite appealing anyway.

I woke up early the next morning after turning in for the night so early. We were the first ones in our small, 5 room B&B out to breakfast. The woman putting out the food was not the woman who checked us in the evening earlier. We helped ourselves to some great food while she made us our first Italian cappuccini. The best part of breakfast that day, and every morning in Bologna, was the prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In Emilia-Romagna is should come as absolutely no surprise. Turns out our breakfast hostess was Danish, but some reason her accent sounded just like Catherine Zeta-Jones to me.

We spent a lazy Sunday wandering this new city, we knew very well that many places would be closed. However, we encounter plenty of good stuff. We stopped in at a coffee shop and enjoyed 1euro espresso, which after paying 4 or 5chf for crappy coffee in Zürich seemed like an amazing deal. They also had some very tasty cookies and some delicious looking gelato. Had the temperature been as scorching at 11am as it was during our first trip to Italy (in '05) we would have been ready, but we practiced a little restraint just this once. After wandering a bit more, through a park with rather strange statues and past a Spainish funeral procession, I noticed a good number of people going into an osteria. So we decided to grab some lunch. We were led downstairs and seated at a table for four. They were offering a few daily specials and then a wide variety of crostini and panini. We ordered a mixed crostini, a pasta dish and a meat dish. A full Italian meal split between the two of us. There was an interesting beer on the menu but he said it was finito. So CF order our first half liter of red wine. Ah, we're getting back into the swing of things now! I was a little embarrassed when it appeared that we were the first table in the room to get wine. But once our platter of yummy crostini showed up and the wine made them all the more enjoyable I didn't mind so much. The tables filled up, another couple was seated with us. The room was buzzing now! This was a great pick for lunch. By the time our pasta came I noticed most of the room was now drinking wine. We had to wait a bit for our meat dish, I think we got lost in the shuffle, but we made the most of it by ordering just a bit more wine.

After lunch we wandered in the direction of an award winning gelateria. Their dark chocolate gelato would make you weep! We were kind of frozen in our footsteps it was so good. We just stood outside and ate our dessert. CF went back in to use the restroom while I started to read some Bologna tips and recommendations contained in their news clippings posted outside their shop, "Could you grab me a business card while you're back inside?" I asked. I guess I sort of noticed when an alarm started going off, but I was lost in a fog of chocolate heaven. CF came back out of the door and walked right past me. I acted mildly offended, "Reaaaaally?" "Yes, really." He said. He sounded upset. Turns out he thought I was asking if he had set off that alarm I heard. And yes, he reaaaally had! He thought the toilet flushed when you pulled the cord. It turned out to be one of those emergency pulls that we had seen in every bathroom in Italy last time, but didn't think they really worked. Well, this one sure did. Hilariously, he had still grabbed me the business card even as he hung his head in shame and exited and quickly as possible.

We decided to head back for a bit of a siesta (and to shake off any lingering embarrassment). While we were relaxing in the room I heard music being played nearby and I leaned out the window to try to figure out where it was coming from. It turned out to be from the very small gang of musicians playing at the end of the alley where Múa is located. Somehow they spotted me almost right away and pretty soon they came down the alley, playing their 3 or 4 instruments and smiling up at me. CF threw down a coin and decided to take their picture. But right then they were stopped by our downstairs neighbors, it seems there was a baby napping and the music was much too loud. The buskers argued with the weary parents, while CF and I grinned down from above very amused at the scene playing out below.

We went back to a wine bar that we had gone past earlier in the day and enjoyed the happy hour culture. Basically as long as you're buying drinks you get to munch. This place had great jazz music playing and a huge wine list. For once we were just ordering the house red and the focus really was more on individual glasses of wine. I got to try a number of things I'd been curious about, like lambrusco (a fizzy red) and vin santo (somewhere between a dessert wine and port). They were cooking up little pizza bites and crostini to put out with potato chips and olives. We ordered a little extra antipasti plate and basically made a meal out of what we enjoyed there. Afterwards we went to another popular gelato place and had more amazing gelato. The girl behind the counted looked completely burnt out from a night serving rowdy University students. I selected a flavor that was a blend of white chocolate and cherries, I didn't know what flavor to combine with it (any other cream flavor would clash, but I wasn't sure it was quite right to put a fruit sorbet with it) so I asked for her recommendation. CF said that was the only time she smiled the whole time we were in there, and she picked out berry to put with my pick. Yum! Bologna is definitely a good time.

Monday morning we were the first to breakfast once again, this time because we had to get to class. I had signed us up for a one-day course in pasta making at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese... Old School, baby! CF realized the code he thought he had assigned for our in-room safe was not working, and our train tickets from Florence to Zürich, as well as our passports, were inside. So along with a quick breakfast we got some assistance from the lady with the CZJ accent, she had the master key and we decided to leave the safe open for the rest of our stay. "It's too bad," I teased our breakfast hostess, "I thought we were just going to have to stay for good." She laughed.

We hurried off to class and found a very mixed group of people waiting in front of the school. It was in a mainly residential neighborhood, in a modest but charming little building. Everyone else was chatting in Italian, and I started to wonder if just because they said the class could be offered in English meant that they'd do it even if most of the students were Italian. From across the street we heard cries of "bongiorno!" and the fearless threesome that runs la Veccia Scuola made their grand entrance into our day. They were obviously forces to be reckoned with, beaming huge smiles and carrying armloads of cooking ingredients. This was going to be fun! We all filed inside and the youngest of the three teachers, Stefania, said hello to people and I let her know who I was. "Ah, it is you!" Turns out CF and I were her only students for the day. Her uncle was teaching the longer term but amateur course while her mother taught the regular professional students. We all worked in basically the same space, though the future professional chefs spent most of their time in the actual kitchen while we rolled out
sfoglia (pasta dough) in the prep room.

We measured out flour by weight and made it into a little bowl on our table, we cracked eggs straight into it and that was it, time to mix these two ingredients together. She showed us how to do it, first with a fork while it was sticky and then with our hands as it came together. I gently kneaded, hoping I was doing it right. But it was CF who made her gasp, "Oh NO!" He was smooshing it flat with every push of his palm. Doesn't know his own strength. Part of the appeal of fresh pasta is the little bubbles of air that remain in the dough and make it springy when you eat it. She gave each of our rounds of dough funny little taps trying to show us how mine "sang," as it was full of little holes. CF's? Not so much. We mixed filling that would later go into tortelloni while the dough rested and then it was time to role. She showed us how to get nice round flat sheets of sfoglia just waiting to be cut into any type of pasta. And for the most part we did pretty good at replicating her work. We made one sheet into bow-ties and another was folded over itself several times and then cut into tagliatelle. I liked unrolling the ribbons of pasta as CF did the slicing. Another sheet was cut into squares like the bow-ties started and then we used little gnocchi harps to roll the squares into penne like tubes. All the while the classroom buzzed with the sounds and smells of the kitchen. Stefania and her uncle would goof around while the students were focusing on a task. He'd pick her up and she'd yell for help. Every so often he'd bump into us on purpose and I would giggle. "Oh, sorry!" he'd throw up his hands and say, I couldn't quite tell how his English compared to his niece's.

The most fun we had all day was making the tortelloni and tortellini. We cut squares and piped ricotta and parsley filling into the centers. Apparently I was too modest with the filling, CF did a bit better filling them right. Pasta expands when it cooks at ultimately you want the tortelloni to be half pasta and half filling. At one point the uncle grabbed the pastry bag and went back over a few that I had done. He overloaded one and then playful scolded CF, "Is too much for tortelloni!" Without blinking CF pointed an accusing finger at me and the master pasta maker through his head laughing. He patted CF on the back. I think these two are rather like-minded. Just for the record, I had trouble folding these more filled squares!

The cooking class ended with most all of the students standing around one table filling tiny squares of thinly rolled sfoglia (Stefania rolled this one, we as beginners probably couldn't get it thin enough) and folding them into tortellini. The filling for these was a mix of pork and aged parmigiano. We had been on our feet for the couple of hours since breakfast and CF thought it smelled delicious, along with the scents of the food cooking in the kitchen. "Oh, it smells SO good." He whispered to me. The other students were whispering too, I tried to follow what they were asking Stefania but I just don't know enough Italian. I'm fairly sure I picked up that they wanted to know if we (CF and I) were only here for one day and were we already cooking students. CF said later that he got the overall feeling that they were generally impressed with us showing up and working so hard while we were on "vacation." The Italians don't realize the thrill of this for us!

Finally we all sat down to a huge meal together that we had made together. The pasta that we and the amateur students had made was the heart of the meal. The tagliatelle was served with a beefy ragú, the tortellini were in a broth so we ate them from a bowl with a soup spoon and the tortelloni were smothered in a fresh tomato sauce (the other pasta was dried so we could take it with us). The professional students had made the sauces as well as the braised beef and grilled vegetables that rounded out the meal. There was wine, there was water, there was bread that was barely touched because look at what we had to eat! Other members of Stefania's family had shown up to eat as well. It got to the point where we couldn't tell who was family, who was student, who was employee. This family style meal was just that, we were all family working together for the day and eating together was the perfect way to end this experience. Stefania's mother, who we had barely seen all day as she was ruling over the kitchen, sat across from me and teased CF that he "doesn't eat so much" after he filled his plate for the second or third time.

I left promising Stefania advice for her upcoming trip to Napa (which as I write this I realize has already happened, I hope she had an amazing time). We paid our bill once the class was over and felt that every euro cent was well spent. This class blew any class we've ever taken in the States out of the water. This is the kind of small business that you can't help but want to support. I wish nothing but the absolutely best for this amazing family.

After class we walked to the train station and bought train tickets for the next morning and then went and had a little down time after a long day of cooking. We finally met Uberto, our fabulous host, in person. I had spoken to him on the phone two weeks earlier and had managed to tell him that I spoke very little Italian but could understand a little more which he liked so he'd talk to me in Italian and then I'd respond in English. It worked well until the day's German lesson somehow slipped onto my tongue and a "Ja." came out of my mouth instead of yes or si. My poor scrambled brain!

After a rest we decided that we should take the opportunity to go see the indoor market that had been closed by the time we arrived on Saturday and was closed all day Sunday. Good thing we weren't hungry because the food there was incredible. It seemed like anything you could possibly think of to eat was in there, even imported produce for ethnic cooking. The large warehouse liking building was filled with food stalls, and along the sides were little shops where things like bread, salumi and fresh pasta were sold. It drives me a bit crazy to see stuff like this and not get to buy anything, but we were so glad to just know it's out there in the universe.

We wandered around and enjoyed the lovely evening. Eventually CF needed a restroom and I suggested stopping at a tiny little bar we happened to walk past. We ended up staying for well over an hour. They had the best happy hour spread we had seen, a huge quarter wheel of gorgonzola, little sandwiches, pizza, olives, crackers, and much, much more. They were playing even better music than the night before and the vibe there was so much fun. People were stopping in for a quick drink, a family was gathered around the high table next to ours, the father dancing a little to the music, one of the bartenders kept slipping away to flirt with a girl or two, while the older gentleman behind the counter just kept making drinks and snacks while looking impossibly cool. I could have stayed in that setting all night and been very happy. But all good things come to an end and happy hour must lead into dinner time. I tore myself away and when we left I noticed it was almost 8 and they'd want to be closing.

We wandered around looking for a place for dinner but nothing was going to compare to happy hour. How awesome is it that a tiny little no name bar can basically put Bologna way up high on my list of great cities? I'm sure Bologna was full of tourists, but they were Italian tourists, even the touristy restaurants are going to have good food. The city isn't perfectly clean, it beautiful portico covered walkways are covered in graffiti actually, but I felt safe everywhere we walked. I really got to feel la dolce vita here in this city just big enough to be exciting but small enough so that you could connect with the life in the people around you.

For the third morning in a row we were first to breakfast. This time because we a train to catch. We paid for our room and thanked Uberto's wife and our breakfast hostess (her face had even started resemble Catherine Zeta-Jones to me) for a wonderful stay. "I'm sorry about the tickets." Faux-CZJ teased me back for the joke I made the day before, "We should have kept you here forever." I quite agree.


Zurich Mama Geek said...

That sounds like my kind of vacation (the eating part). Did you guys use a pasta machine to roll the pasta, or did you roll it out with a rolling pin? I'm still second guessing donating my little-used pasta machine in the great purge in preparation for moving here.

I look forward to reading about the rest of your adventures.

MW said...

Everything was done by hand, mixing and rolling, with a giant rolling pin! Very cool. It took a lot of space though, I'm pretty sure we don't have enough space on the counters in our Zurich apartment. Hmmm... maybe on the dining table.

Sara said...

Seriously, you need to STOP going to super-cool places and writing all about them. Just when I think I've decided where we want to go in Europe, you go and write about something else! First Lucerne, now Bologna. Can I just take a year off and move there? I'm so jealous! (But please, don't stop writing. I was kidding about that part)