Travelogue: Perugia’s World of Chocolate

th_peruroma 018After being warmly greeted into Umbria during our day-time detour to Lake Trasimeno, we arrived into Perugia late in the evening when most of the residents of the historic core had already retired for the night. There was no traffic,no people walking around like we had seen in Florence and Venice. The streets were quiet and the roads, much more difficult to maneuver. We had rented a very small compact car,  and yet one wrong turn got us stuck between two buildings with no way out. How do these Perugians get around in cars? And more importantly, how the hell did that truck in front of squeeze its way through??

Only a local can truly answer these questions–and if anything, “years of practice” would have to suffice. Amid our frustrated cursing, we were subjected to the kindness of a stranger. An old man just happened to walk by and despite the language barrier, was able to help us out. We eventually checked into our hotel and called it a night. Walking to the hotel, we noticed that the shops were closed and many of the roads were blocked off. It turned out,we had not only chosen the wrong time to get into historic Perugia, but also the wrong day. EuroChocolate, one of the largest chocolate festivals in Europe would be taking place that weekend.

EuroChocolate! I had completely forgotten about this. In my quest to hunt down the season’s first white truffles,I had neglected the very thing that has put Perugia on an international map: chocolate! I’m sure you’ve perused the candy aisle of your major grocery store and have seen Perugina Baci’s. Similar to the golden-wrapped Ferrero Rochers, these little guys are hazelnut praline kisses adorned in silver and blue tin foil. Perugina, established in 1907 is one of the most recognizable Italian brands in the world, and is the major sponsor of EuroChocolate; bringing hundreds of vendors into the region once a year.

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To compensate for not being able to attend EuroChocolate this year, we decided to shoot for the next best thing.Thanks to a few recommendations,we made our way to Cioccolateria Augusta. Established in 2000,this small
chocolate shoppe is the ultimate spot for chocolate gelato and truffles.After having worked for Perugina for 25 years, Giordano surely knows a thing or two about high-quality chocolate. Located off the main stretch of retail
shops, nearly directly behind Perugina’s factory and shop, Augusta is a must try. We indulged in the best chocolate-flavored gelatos of our trip and took home some hot cocoa mix at reasonable prices.

For a sweet pick-me up in the afternoon or in lieu of a morning cappuccino,  dive into a thick European-style hot chocolate at Sandri. This pasticceria has been serving Perugia continuously since 1860…1860!! We started our mornings at this historic spot on the chic Corso Vannucci and walked right up to the counter. Their hot chocolate is dense so don’t forget to ask for some pana (whipped cream). You order first, indulge at the counter, then pay the nice lady at the antique cash register. Inexpensive, but no less luxurious.

Lastly, if you *must* visit Perugina, you may do so just a few steps away from Sandri. Load up on some gifts for friends and if you’re in the mood, tour their factory. For me though, a stroll through town with gelato from Augusta or a coffee break at Sandri was all I needed.

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Filed under Chocolate, Comfort Food, Desserts, Italian, Italy, Travel

Travelogue: An Umbrian Detour to Lake Trasimeno

th_UmbriaWednesdayCanon 009We had every intention of waking up early and soaking in a little bit more of Florence before driving into the next part of our vacation in Umbria. But you know how it goes…you eat a heavy meal, get drunk off of too many glasses of red wine, grappa, and some sort of military spirit you’ve never even heard of…and then all of a sudden, your 7am wake up call became more like 10am and your plans of making it into Orvieto for lunch on your way to Assisi disappear out of thin air.

Not to be the sort that gets down on a shift in the plan, we leisurely ate our breakfast, took one more look at the river, and even did some light shopping by the Ponte Vecchio before hopping in the car to leave Tuscany. The game plan had turned into an “eat lunch wherever we see something good,” sort of thing and we decided that our ambitious Umbrian day-trip would have to do without one piece of the puzzle. As we drove on the autostrada blasting an Italian Top 40s cover of the international Korean hit “Gangnam Style,” we noticed a beautiful body of water in the distance.

It was Lake Trasimeno and we had entered Umbria. I had read about Lake Trasimeno while doing research for our trip, so I was familiar with the ancient town of Castiglione del Lago close by. As we hesitated and drove past it, we instead pulled off to get a view of the water and instead stumbled upon Passignano sul Trasimeno;  a dainty lakeside town that was quiet but had an assortment of restaurants and small hotels. The vibe here was casual– almost like a lazy beach town. And so we parked the car, surveyed our dining options, and popped into this cute little place called Ristorante Luciano.

I won’t lie. The reason why this place won over the others was that the building itself was just so endearing. The decor was vintage-looking and there was a charm about it that drew us in. Luckily, they were still seating late lunch (around 2pm) and were able to accommodate us. Making the most of this impromptu lake trip, we ordered a bottle of sparkling white wine and sat next to a big open window over-looking the water. Continue reading

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Travelogue: Exploring Florence’s Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo

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One of my favorite pass times is visiting local markets when I travel. It’s something my mother and I did growing up– searching for local food at farmers markets and bargaining at eclectic flea markets. Growing up in California with a mom like mine meant that I appreciated waking up at the earliest hours of my Sunday morning if it meant getting the first crack at the season’s bounties. So when planning our trip to Italy, I knew that heading into markets as often as possible would be a must. Not only do you get a sense of the local culture at these markets, but you get to taste your way through their specialties and dive into every day life.

The Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo is one of these must-visit markets. It’s history dates back to the 1870s during the brief time when Florence was named the capital of what was then the Kingdom of Italy. Many of the vendors within the Mercato Centrale have had long-time ties to the market including one of my personal favorites, Nerbone. I am filled with sheer delight as I make my way through the labyrinth of produce vendors, butchers, and specialty stalls selling fine quality olive oils, wine, and truffles. Our visit in October meant that the season for white truffles had arrived and so I spent an obligatory few moments lingering near the luxurious tuber.

While the market attracts many tourists day in and day out, this is still very much a locals market. Lines form at the top of lunch hour at some of the more popular food stalls dishing out traditional tripe dishes and other offally good treats that may take the unaccustomed foreigner by surprise. and there are even a few purveyors who will have trouble understanding English. For the most part, enjoying this market comes with relative ease. Most stalls have someone who can understand some English and if you’ve got a simple phrase book handy, you can easily shop to your heart’s content. Take some time to peruse the cheap goods lined up in the outdoor market, too. While it may not look like much, you can find some pretty great Italian leather goods here and bargaining them down 10-25% isn’t considered rude– it’s part of the game.

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Travelogue: Firenze in Photos {Florence, Italy}

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Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance and its balance of old and new can attract any culture-hound. Whereas Venice captivated us with its magic, Florence won our hearts by hitting close to home. Among the stunning old churches and cobblestone streets, there was an air of urban familiarity that lingered; shiny new stores and chic designers in harmony alongside family-owned trattorie.

Staying in a grand old world (but renovated) hotel overlooking the Arno River, we were able to experience a touch of Florentine glamour. A short walk took us to Santa Croce, the Duomo, and the famous Piazza della Signora. A few minutes in one direction landed us back by the river and onto the Ponte Vecchio where we admired vintage jewelry and fine Italian gold. Since shopping for precious gems wasn’t much our taste, we made our way over to San Lorenzo where we bargained hard for Italian leather goods like boots and belts; even a pair of black rubber rain boots when the rain really started to come down; my feet soaking in my black ballet flats.

The historic core was incredibly easy to navigate on foot sans a map and filled with a sense of adventure. Wander around, be mindful of where you’ve been, and it’s impossible to get lost. Just don’t forget to stop every few feet for some gelato– in Florence, gelato is just another form of art. Transcribed from notes on the backside of an Italian take-out menu, October 2012. 

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Reflections: Looking back on 2012

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View of the Shanghai Pudong Skyline from the Bund riverfront, 2012.

What a year 2012 has been! According to my end of the year review on WordPress, this past year was the busiest year of this blog — and rightfully so! It was an exciting year full of changes and transitions which for this blog meant more cooking at home (as my stress-reliever) and the opportunity to travel. Looking back on the past 12 months sort of makes my head spin and I cannot help but feel rather blessed.

While I wasn’t off experimenting with Avocado Key Lime Pie or making Stuffed Squash Blossoms, I was fortunate enough to head to the Caribbean for a brief getaway to Puerto Rico where we indulged in lechon and made memories on a boat trip to a bioluminescent bay. We visited the boy’s family for a wedding in Pittsburgh and experienced the old (Primanti Brothers) and the new (Meat & Potatoes) while soaking in the charm of the city. In the fall, we ventured to Europe– flying over snow-topped Swiss mountains on the way to Venice where I had some of the best seafood of my life on the island of Burano. There are so many memories from our time in Italy, I haven’t even finished blogging about it (so stay tuned)! Three weeks after we returned from two weeks in Italy, we were off to China for two weeks which included many of the country’s major cultural sites and a few days on a luxury cruise of the Yangtze River (the photo above was taken in Shanghai).

But it wasn’t just the trotting around the globe that made my 2012 so memorable. We didn’t have to stray more than 3 miles from our apartment to one of my favorite meals at Animal and a handful of hours took us north to beautiful Morro Bay. Whatever this new year brings, I am hoping for more of the same: adventure, growth, and memories that will last a life time. Happy New Year!

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Travelogue: A Day-Trip in Tuscany

tuscany

If there is one piece of advice that I can give you when touring Tuscany, it’s to rent a car (or at least a private driver to tote you from scenic town to scenic town). While it’s not my favorite wine producing region in Italy, Tuscany has a multitude of amazing things to offer the food & wine-centric traveler. A hub for centuries-old vineyards, olive oil producers, and some of the best food in the world, a day-trip through the Tuscan country-side makes for the best addition to your trips to Florence.

Using Florence as a home base, we recently rented a car to take us to our dinner reservations in Panzano. Since we weren’t looking to winery hop until reaching La Strada del Sagrantino in Umbria, we by-passed many beautiful wineries and made a bee-line to Greve in Chianti where we indulged in economical wine tasting at Le Cantine before heading to nearby Panzano for dinner.

Le Cantine, established in 1893, is a great alternative to those looking to get a taste of Tuscany without having to go through the process of drunkenly hopping from one wine producer to another. The process is simple. Buy a wine card that gets you a glass and mosey on over to one of their Enomatic tasting machines, individually priced and calibrated to provide you with a precise tasting pour. Harboring good relations with many of the region’s top producers, you won’t miss a beat here and will instead, have the benefit of finding the wine that best suits you while comfortably enjoying their beautiful tasting room. In addition to good wine at good prices, Le Cantine also offers light fare from Antica Macelleria Falorni, another premier butcher that has been serving the community since 1729 and is located less than a mile away. The meat board we got featured amazing salami and prosciutto of the highest quality and local bread.

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Dining: Perfect mid-day breaks at Procacci | Florence, Italy

th_TuscanyTuesdayCanon 034In an alternate universe, I am Florentine. I am the wife of a wealthy someone-or-other who doesn’t want me to break a nail working a “real job,” but instead indulges me in my passion to live by my pen; leaving me to myself most days while he does whatever it is he does to maintain our small fortune so that I can spend my days in cafes drinking wine, eating what I please, and getting “inspired.”

If this alternate universe were real, I’d practically live at Procacci. But since this isn’t my reality, it’s rare visits to this beautiful wine bar that will have to suffice. Procacci is located on a fancy stretch of fashion real estate– neighboring appointment-only designer boutiques and artisan retailers. It’s been around since 1885 and has a reputation a mile long with only two newer outlets in Vienna and Singapore. Despite the modern times, somehow, they manage to maintain a certain enchantment about them. Luxurious yet unpretentious. The kind of bar you want to imagine seeing Hemingway in.

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The interior is vintage-chic. Dark wood counters, ceilings high with shelves of fine wines and locally made products, small cafe tables lined up in a single row along a mirrored wall. Very Parisian…but you know, Italian. Their most popular product? Panino Tartufato, or truffled finger sandwiches. Imagine spending a leisurely afternoon here with a robust glass of Barolo and several platefuls of these dainty panini stuffed with truffle butter, smoked salmon, salumi, and the like. The prices are surprising; clocking in at under 2 euro each, you can fill up with an easy lunch or mid-day snack for under $20 euro for two people. Are these sandwiches all they’re cracked up to be? Absolutely. Order at the counter, pay when you’re done, and drift off into happy land as you day-dream your alternate reality. Procacci, via de Tornabuoni, 65R, Florence, Italy. 

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Filed under BLD, bread, Italian, Italy, local eateries, local food, Lunch, sandwiches, Travel, Vacation