Tag Archives: foodie travel

I Won’t Say I Was “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Even Though I Was)

Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.

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My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:

– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.

– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.

– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.

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– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.

– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.

– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.

– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.

– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.

– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.

– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.

– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.

– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.

The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.

– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.

Meatless in Chicago

Can you travel to the land of deep-dish pizza and beef hot dogs buried under pounds of condiments, not eat meat yet still eat flavorful, inventive food? The answer is yes. Yes, you can.

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During my trip to Chicago earlier this month, I ventured out from the South Michigan Avenue/Grant Park neighborhood, took a cab ride north along Lake Michigan, and found The Chicago Diner, which this year celebrates 30 years of cooking non-meat cuisine. I have to thank tweeps on Twitter for suggesting this place, for I had never heard of it. Apparently, it’s been mentioned as a favorite among the founders of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

I visited the Halstead Street location, aka the Mother Ship, and found the place almost packed on a rainy Thursday night. Looking like any typical diner with red vinyl seating and quirky vintage-esque signage, you would expect chunky fellas with tattoos frying chicken steak behind the grill. Staff had tattoos, but most were svelte, wiry types busily arranging blackened tofu on a plate, stacking a vegan sandwich or hustling blanched greens to tables. I tried to imagine what this place might have looked like in 1983 when badmouthing meat was not only anti-Midwestern, but anti-American. In fact, even today, despite all the buzz about meat and its impact on health, red meat still accounts for 58 percent of meat consumption in the United States; 22 percent of meat Americans eat is processed meat, like bacon and hot dogs and other pink slime concoctions. As a vegetarian about eighty-five percent of the time (I think I eat less meat than what qualifies for Mark Bittman’s term: flexitarian), I find those figures galling.

Whomever frequented Chicago Diner 30 years ago, it was enough to keep business thriving and allow the owners to open a second location. Perhaps those having dinner that night are among the minority who believe that meat doesn’t have to be a dietary staple? Maybe the owners of Chicago Diner had tapped into a need that wasn’t being met in the Windy City? I could see why, because the food was excellent and worth a 20-minute, $20 taxi ride through traffic and rain. Chicago Diner focuses on simple and delicious, serving vegetarian and vegan options of American classics like the Reuben and a “BLT” Burger.

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My colleague and I both ordered blackened tofu with mashed sweet potatoes, beans, avocado and greens (pictured above), an entree that was as savory as it was filling. And not the gross kind of filling you feel after eating a hot dog, which I haven’t done since the Washington, D.C. Kite Festival in 2002 because it made me sick to my stomach.

So Chicago Diner was a hit, and I hope to return, but how to eat meatless at the Chicago airport where every 10 yards is some food stand selling burgers, hot dogs, and greasy pepperoni pizza (which is every American airport)? Enter Rick Bayless, who by no means is a vegetarian (the guy loves his lamb), but he’s one of Chicago’s most innovative chefs pushing boundaries in Mexican cuisine. Yes, his sandwiches at the chain Tortas Fronteras in Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare Airport cost more than a McDonald’s patty next door, but put your suitcase down and enjoy every bite because Bayless’s takeout food is scrumptious and worth a flight delay. Most of the sandwiches feature meat, but for $9 there’s the roasted cremini and shiitake mushroom sandwich with chipotle, garlic, goat cheese, black beans and arugula. I was eating alone when I tried this, and let’s just say I wasn’t dainty about tackling this sandwich. It was a tad messy, extremely delicious, and worth the cost of four McDonald’s pink slime burgers. I wish Tortas Fronteras offered gluten-free options since I had to pick the bread off my sandwich, but, hey, gluten-free appears to be trending lately, so I have hope.