Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Visit to Eataly/New York

On our way to Italy for our recent tour, Nancy and I stopped for a few days in New York to see Rob, Janet and Cece. I had read earlier this year about the opening of the latest Eataly store in the Flatiron District (23rd and Fifth), and in fact Rob had managed to visit and get his photo taken with Mario Batali, part of the group behind the US venture (I am surprised the crowd of rabid New York foodies did not descend upon Mario like a school of piranha).

When I first heard the name “Eataly” it sounded so tacky that I assumed it must be an American creation. However, in fact the first Eataly was opened in Torino in 2007 by a fellow named Oscar Farinetti who had previously owned one of the largest electronics retailers in Italy (which I guess means if you can sell tape recorders you can sell artisanal cheese and salumi). Although I do not know the details, the Slow Food organization reportedly serves as a “strategic consutant” to the company.

Additional stores in Italy followed that first store in Torino, and, in fact, while on our tour we drove past a new one in Monticello d’Alba in Piemonte that was scheduled to open the following week.

So one morning while we were in New York I hopped a subway and headed downtown to see the new store. The following layout shows the broad range of products offered.

The store is quite impressive although a bit overwhelming (especially given the crowds). As can be seen from the layout, it is in an “L” shape with entrances on both 23rd and 5th. The individual product areas are somewhat compartmentalized and there is really no where in the store where you can get a real overview of the entire space. A nice touch is that most of the signs are in both English and Italian, and they spend a good deal of effort to identify the producers of the products and the regions from which they come. It would take quite some time to carefully explore everything they have to offer, but would be fun to do so. Here is a video I came across that gives a pretty good sense of the place.

After wandering around a bit I grabbed a seat at the bar in the Manzo [i.e. beef] Ristorante and ordered a carne cruda made with “Piemontese beef.” This is apparently beef from a breed called the Razza Piemontese which originally came from the Piemonte region. Given that raw meat cannot be imported from Italy, the beef is currently being raised for Eataly/New York by Brewer Ranch in Miles City, Montana.

According to the Eataly materials,
“In addition to its unparalleled taste, Piemontese beef is beloved by Italy, America and Eataly for being lower in saturated fat and higher in poly-unsaturated fat (the good fat). It’s the avocado of beef!”

The beef was excellent, although I can do without phrases like “the avocado of beef.”

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Friday, October 29, 2010

2010 Viaggio in Italia - Post #2 - A Few Visual Highlights

What a trip it was. As indicted in my first post about the trip, we traveled through four Italian regions - Lombardia, Piemonte, Valle d’Aosta, and Liguria - and I took well over a thousand pictures. In this post I have tried to cull those photos down to a group of my favorites that reflect some of the more iconic and memorable things we experienced, for the most part in chronological order (other than food which deserves a post of its own and will come next).

1. Duomo - Milano

Milan’s Duomo is simply spectacular. For many years it was cloaked by scaffolding as construction and renovation continued, but it now stands free in all its frosted, multi-spired glory with the broad Piazza del Duomo spread out in front of it.

As indicated by the above pictures we had the chance to see the Duomo both during the day (in particular the weather on the day we flew into Milano was beautiful) and at night. I cannot tell which view I like better, but tend to the night shot. We also had a chance to go up to the roof to get a view of the Piazza as well as a close-up of the golden Madonnina perched on the tallest spire, higher than which no building in Milan could traditionally be built.

Also, here is a video I took in the Piazza in front of the Duomo which provides a sense of the activity level (note the NBA promotional event going on at the end of the piazza).My only regret was that I failed to get Nancy striking a Tilda Swintonesque pose from “Io sono l’amore” while we were on the roof.

2. Hotel Manzoni - Heart of the Fashion District - Milano

Ah, the joy of finding a perfect hotel. Nancy and I spent three nights in Milano prior to joining our tour and since we were unfamiliar with the city I asked Gabriele, a friend who lives there, where he would suggest we stay. He suggested the Hotel Manzoni on Via Santo Spirito, a small and very quiet street right in the heart of Milano’s so-called “Quadrilatero della moda,” the fashion area north of the Duomo bordered by four streets, the most famous being Via Montenapoleone.

The Hotel Manzoni turned out to be just right for us -- a relatively small, tastefully decorated and very comfortable spot (among other amenities, I loved the shower there!).

From the hotel’s door it was just a few steps in any direction to the myriad fashion stores which are such an important part of Milano’s identity. It was fun to wander around the streets at any time of the day (in our case it was just looking), although the store windows were particularly beautiful at night with their brilliantly lit displays.

3. Teatro alla Scala - Milano

When we decided to spend a few nights in Milano we checked the schedule at La Scala and found that Rossini’s “L’occasione fa il ladro” would be performed the Friday night we were there. We were able to get tickets (surprisingly easy thru La Scala's website), packed our best duds and had a memorable evening.

4. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - Milano

The Galleria is a long cross-shaped covered shopping arcade built in the 1870’s that connects the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala. As Ale pointed out to us, it is the location of the Town House hotel on the upper stories of one of the buildings, one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.

On the floor of the Galleria are mosaics, including four depicting symbols of large Italian cities. Among those is Torino, whose symbol is the bull. Perhaps reflecting the rivalry between Milano and Torino, a popular custom - which we saw repeated endlessly as we walked through the Galleria - is to place one’s heel on the nether regions of Torino’s bull and spin around, which over time has a rather erosive effect.

5. Streetcars - Milano

Having seen in San Francisco a few of Milano’s signature orange streetcars that San Francisco purchased from Milano a few years back, it was good to see that Milano kept a few. Although they are phasing in modern streetcars in Milano, the Milanese apparently prefer the traditional models with their shortcomings but infinitely more character. The photo on the left above is from Milano in front of the statue of Garibaldi near the Castello Sforzesco, and the one on the right is from the Embarcadero in SF approaching the Ferry Building.

6. Milano is #1

As we wandered back to the Hotel Manzoni from dinner one night, Nancy and I happened upon the above demonstrative sculpture rising from a pedestal in the Piazza degli Affari in front of the Milano Stock Exchange - apparently a recently-installed work somewhat mysteriously entitled “L.O.V.E.” by the Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan. Of course, the fact that all of the fingers of the hand except the central one have been broken off by the artist gives rise to some uncertainty as to the intent of the emotion being expressed. And people complain about the Oldenburg/ van Bruggen “Cupid’s Span” bow-and-arrow work along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Speaking of OVB's work, we saw their two-piece “Ago, Filo e Nodo (Needle, Thread and Knot)” work in front of Milano’s Cadrona station celebrating Milano’s fashion tradition - yet another Milano/SF connection.

7. Il Cavaliere - Everywhere

It is impossible to be in Italy for long without encountering some evidence of Silvio Berlusconi, and his name came up many times during our tour. On our visit to Milano’s Castello Sforzesco, we learned that Il Cavaliere would be appearing at a rally - the Festa della Liberta - there later in the day (needless to say, a good deal of police presence in and around the Castello as we toured the grounds). However, our schedule did not permit us to linger so we unfortunately had to pass up any autograph opportunities and head north to Lago di Como.

8. Lago di Como - Lombardia

The weather at Lago di Como during our two-night stay was a bit overcast and foggy with a few sprinkles and we were not able to fully appreciate the dramatic natural setting of the lake. However, Varenna (pictured above), the little town in which we stayed halfway up the east shore of the lake, was charming (we almost could have dipped our feet in the lake from our hotel balcony), and we enjoyed riding the ferries and our visits to Bellagio and, in particular, Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo. We also had the opportunity to attend a falconry demonstration at the Castello di Vezio on the mountain above Varenna.

9. Oropa and the Black Madonna - Piemonte

From Lago di Como we headed back south towards Milano, then turned west into Piemonte and up to the town of Biella, a traditional textile center in the foothills of the Alps. Our goal was the Sacro Monte di Oropa, a large Catholic devotional complex in the mountains above Biella, and the site of one of the most famous of the Black Madonnas which are found around the world. We were also looking forward to meeting at Oropa Mario and Chiara Rappa Verona, the parents of Betta Rappa Verona, one of Ale’s colleagues at M&G Expeditions. It was to be an especially happy meeting since Betta had just learned the day before that she had received a US visa that she had been working hard to obtain.

It was foggy on the steep drive from Biella up to Oropa and the mountains around us were only suggestions through breaks in the cloud cover. Mario and Chiara met us at the parking lot and were tremendously enthusiastic about showing us around the complex. They had made arrangements for us to have a tour with special access, so we immediately visited the chapel housing the Black Madonna, then passed through the halls in which there are hung the “ex voti” -- pictures and other materials brought by pilgrims to express thanks (“Grazia Ricevuta”) for some blessing received from the Madonna. We finished our tour with a visit to the Santuario’s impressive library and the Museo dei Tesori. A wonderful visit to a spectacular site, but the memory that will linger will be of Mario and Chiara's kindness to us.

Following our visit to Oropa, Mario kindly emailed us some additional photos he had taken over the years (in far better weather conditions). A selection of those follows.

10. Who Doesn’t Like to Stay at a Castle? - Piemonte

The Castello di Pavone in Pavone Canavese (not far from Ivrea) in northwest Piedmont was by far the most interesting hotel in which we stayed on our tour. It served as our base for two nights while we explored Valle d’Aosta.

11. Monte Bianco - Valle d’Aosta

One of the elements of the tour that had caught my attention when I first learned of it was the fact that we would spend a couple of days in Valle d’Aosta, the smallest and least densely populated of Italy’s regions tucked up in the northwest corner of the country and bordering both Switzerland and France. In the past it had been somewhat isolated, although with the opening of the Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc depending on which side of the border you are on) tunnel connecting Valle d’Aosta with France, traffic through the valley has increased dramatically.

Happily we had perrfect weather on both days we were in the valley and were able to see quite a bit, including Roman ruins and castles that are sprinkled throughout the valley (the walls of the Roman theater in Aosta and Castello Fénis are shown below). On our first day there we ended up driving all the way to the western end of the valley near the French border so we could have the beautiful view of Monte Bianco pictured above. We also drove as far as Brusson in the Val d'Ayas, one of the subvalleys running north towards Switzerland off the main Valle d’Aosta, and a prime ski area during the winter. We had a good time, but I had to keep reminding myself that we were still in Italy.

12. Alba and the Langhe - Piemonte

Another area I was eager to see on our tour was the Langhe, the hilly area of Piemonte south of the town of Alba (the above shot was taken from Castiglione Tinella) which is the center of many Italian culinary traditions and, of course, two of its finest wines - Barolo and Barbaresco. We spent two nights in Alba and attended its annual white truffle festival which was lots of fun. Many truffles and other famous Piemontese food stuffs - chocolate, hazelnuts and cheeses - were available for sampling or purchase (all of which will be addressed in my next post on the things we ate).

13. Genova - Liguria

After our stay in the Langhe we headed east, past the outskirts of Alessandria before turning south and passing through Gavi and over the Ligurian Apennines on our way to Genova where we would spend the next two nights. I had been to Genova in the 1960’s when it was a much more industrial city. Today much of the heavy industry has closed down and the city is a good deal more pleasant. Sadly they have an elevated highway along the water in the port area which is an eyesore, although Ale said there are plans to replace it with an underground roadway.

I really enjoyed Genova. Our hotel, the Bristol Palace, was right downtown only a block from the center of the city - the beautiful Piazza de Ferrari - and gave us convenient access to the port area and the narrow alleys (“caruggi”) that run though that part of the city. Ale lives in Genova and one evening we took the public elevator up from the Piazza del Portello to the Spianata di Castelletto (Belvedere Montaldo) where her apartment is located to have drinks with Ale and her husband, Rick, and watch the sun set over the harbor (photo above). That night was also the night of a soccer match in Genova between Italy and Serbia and the Serbian fans were out in force as you can see from this video (the match was called after seven minutes due to fan violence).

14. Il Mare - Portofino - Liguria

The second to the last day of the tour may have been the most visually spectacular. Although the weather reports had been uncertain, the day was clear with little wind. We headed east down the coast from Genova, got off the autostrada at Rapallo, and then drove along the seashore to Santa Margherita. There we got off the bus and onto a boat which took us first to Portofino, and then around the Portofino headland and north along the coast to San Fruttuoso which is only accessible from the sea. Ale says Portofino is absolutely jammed during the summer, but the crowds the day were were there were not bad at all. Here is a video I took in Portofino from the small piazza in front of the Church of San Giorgio of the sea on one side of the point and the port on the other.

Next up: Post #3 -- the best things I ate.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

2010 Viaggio in Italia - Post #1 - Overview

It has been some time since my last post. The reason for that is that Nancy and I just returned at the end of last week from a trip to Northwest Italy. We spent the first few days on our own in Milano, then joined a tour sponsored by San Francisco’s Museo ItaloAmericano that spent the next 12 days meandering about 1,350 miles by bus through the Italian regions of Lombardia, Valle d’Aosta, Piemonte and Liguria.

The Museo tour was organized and led by Alessandra Gardino Ranghiasci Montgomery (“Ale”) of
Montgomery & Gardino Expeditions who also led the Museo’s tour of Siclia that Nancy and I joined a couple of years ago.

Most of our group of 18 were from the Bay Area, although we also had participants from Seattle and Houston.

Our driver for the tour was Boris Kovačič from Koper on the coast of Slovenia. Boris was a magician with the bus on the narrow roads we encountered and somehow managed to make it through the entire trip with his mirrors intact.

Below is a map which shows in red the area we covered as well as a topographical map of the same area. The numbers on the first map show the places where we stayed:

1. Milan

2. Varenna

3. Pavone Canavese

4. Torino

5. Alba

6. Genova

7. Milano Malpensa

We encountered a good deal of varied terrain - everything from Lago di Como, to the plains and rice fields of the Po valley, to the rolling hills of the Langhe wine region, to the Alps and the Ligurian coastline.

Of course, apart from the tour, the real highlight of our trip was our chance on October 8 to leave the tour for a day to fly down from Torino to Rome and from there drive up to Tivoli in the hills east of Rome where we served as the official “testimoni” (witnesses) for the marriage of our son, Alex, to Cassandre Rose Cowman at the beautiful marriage chamber at the Tivoli municipio. Following the ceremony, we strolled down to the nearby Villa d’Este for some additional photos before we said goodbye to Alex and Cass and retraced our steps to Torino.

More posts related to our trip will be following in the next few weeks.

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