Portland Maine’s Rising Tide

Bon Appetit Magazine recently named our little town of Portland, Maine, “Restaurant City of the Year 2018.” Suddenly, we’re a world-class destination for all things yummy and wondrous – a somewhat frenzied big deal.

Here is my humble townie perspective:

Breakfast

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Portland has it all. Enjoy an early morning jolt at Speckled Axe, where they’ll serve your pour-over with Fruity Pebbles milk. Bam-Bam.Here in Restaurant City, Washington Avenue is rapidly becoming Restaurant Row. I grab my epicurious pal, Theater Boy, and head for distinguished newcomer Forage and their already legendary wood-fired Montreal bagels. My salt bagel with caper-dill cream cheese is a savory, chewy masterpiece. Theater Boy’s everything bagel with silky cream cheese is abundantly seeded and scrumptious.We head for Munjoy Hill newcomer, Belleville pattisserie, to celebrate friendship and good fortune with an almond croissant – if we arrive early enough to snag one. The flaky, buttery beauties get glowing raves from Bon Appetit and devoted local fans like us. Say hi to Ten Ten Pié, a sweet little spot that straddles breakfast and all-day with creamy fruit tarts, Wiener-brød, twice-baked Matcha almond pastries, and savory hand-pies filled with butternut squash, cranberry and chèvre. Don’t miss their breakfast of champions, Khachapuri egg and cheese tart with Zaatar. Grab takeout hand-pies of kale, feta, and caramelized leeks to serve as warm hors d’oeuvres and you will wow your guests.

Lunch

After several breakfasts, we contemplate lunch. West End newcomer Lazzari’s beehive-shaped pizza oven reminds us of an Italian forno, hot enough to sear and sizzle, yet cool to the touch. Lazzari’s wood-fired Panyol oven flaunts her voluptuous copper curves.Try the white clam pizza brightened with squeeze of lemon; we love the Naples-thin crust. Lazzari’s masterstroke is dense meatballs served with house-made ricotta. Sip Chianti while Thomas tends bar and you’ll meet some of the jazziest folks in town.Wash Ave newcomer Bob’s Clam Hut is a small bright space with modern mojo. The Hut offers clams two ways: “Bob’s” and “Lillian’s.” We devour baskets of both, but long for a bit more briny tang. Ocean breezes, crashing waves or maybe just a pinch of sea salt.

Libations

Maine Craft Distilling on Wash Ave has an expansive bar stocked with herbaceous botanical spirits. The Shop, Raw Bar & Shellfish Market in front features a gorgeous bounty of Maine oysters. Booze and bivalves are always a winning combination.

A hit of sangria with fresh salsa and chips can be perfect light recharge. Theater Boy and I hone our sipping and dipping skills at Terlingua on Wash Ave, whose house-smoked barbecue arrives daily at 5:00 p.m. and is sold out by 10:00. Townies arrive early.Portland’s 16 craft breweries include Wash Ave favorite, Oxbow Brewing. Cleverly tucked into Oxbow’s beer garden, DuckfatFriteShack serves Belgian frites, yes, cooked in duckfat. Seven dipping sauces include smoked mayo and Thai Chili. We devour their robust smoked-brisket chili with Vermont cheddar, duckfat frites and cilantro. Duckfat fare pairs perfectly with Oxbow’s bright and hoppy Farmhouse brews – proximity works.

Dinner

Upscale Wash Ave standout is Bon Appetit’s top-ten fave, Drifters Wife. Simplicity and creativity reign in this astonishing farm-to-table restaurant that locals remember as the skinny wine shop next door. Drifter’s Wife has definitely found its groove and gravitas.I’m mildly astonished that there are no “Happy Hour” wines here. Owners Peter and Orenda Hale are eager to explain how this makes abundant sense with natural, organic wines. I appreciate the unstudied, cool vibe here. It feels hip and earnest, like the Hales.I sip a glass of crisp La Boutanche and chat with a bearded hipster at the bar. The former Nissen bakery space is relaxed and surprisingly elegant. Lucky me, I’m dining with local oenophile Chris Ziagos, who settles on a progression of white, rosé and red Knauss wines cleverly paired with choices from the petite, accessible and charming menu.

We dawdle over a bright corn and watermelon salad. We share a second salad of cucumber and feta, pistachios and mint. We marvel at Drifter’s thick sourdough with Maine seaweed butter. We split a juicy pork loin topped with slaw and two tiny silver fishies. We vanquish the menu’s seasonal bounty and alas, leave no room for dessert. Next time! Do not miss these talented upstarts and their exquisitely fresh ideas.

Homie Go-Tos

Munjoy Hill is convenient to recent and not-so-recent epicurean marvels. Our neighborhood go-to is Lolita, a rustic and convivial bistro where I am happily addicted to torchio pasta. Guy’s charcuterie plates are loaded with authentic Mediterranean flair. The wine list is smart and worldly. Don’t miss Tapas Monday – I’ll see you there.

Theater Boy and I share an unabashed enthusiasm for Lolita’s Negroni, made with local Hardshore Gin, distilled and bottled on (you guessed it) Wash Ave.

Wash Ave also boasts Izakaya Minato, where JFC/Japanese Fried Chicken rules. Shichimi Tuna with creamy ponzu is unctuous heaven. Don’t miss the hot wriggling bacon (I swear) atop the cabbage pancake. Savor Minato’s Green Tea Negroni and bliss out.

Late Night

Feeling tired, crabby and in need of an messy recharge, we head for the picnic tables at Salvage BBQ. Old friends Corey and Kristen meet us while visiting from Brooklyn NY. We devour several trays of ribs, mac ‘n’ cheese and pickles. Suck down a billion beers.

Corey is a cartoonist. Kristen designs cool socks. They love dogs and and are endlessly hip. They explain why smoked meat is a thing. We beg them to return to Portland, pretty please. They say they’ll consider it. Our Secret Weapon: The current issue of Bon Appetit!

Rising Tide

The August issue of Bon Appetit has created monster queues in our little corner of paradise. Restaurant chefs and staff are stressed. Parking is impossible — and it was always pretty bad. Ordinary townie pleasures suddenly feel slightly out of reach.

Me, I’m optimistically hoping for that rising tide that lifts all boats. Come see what all the fuss is about here in Portland, Maine. We’re a lot more than lobsters and lighthouses.

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Posted in Bon Appetit, East Coast Travel, Farm-to-Table, Food and Wine, Maine, Maine Travel, New England Travel, Staycation | 1 Comment

Montreal: Off the Beaten Track

Oh Canada

It is July 1, Canada Day, and we’re basking in the grace and civility of this world-class city despite the surprising heatwave — it’s 95 degrees and climbing.

We walk the riverbank in Montreal’s Old Port stalking a cool river breeze and a whiff of the multifarious food trucks just getting started in the shimmering heat. Way too hot for poutine, we amble to patisserie Christian Faure for his legendary, mind-blowing croissants. Hubby wants to enroll in Faure’s pastry school. He is is quite serious.

As he earnestly contemplates becoming a baker, I fantasize about relocating. I look at Montreal the way a roosting bird eyes a vacant nest. This city has me at bonjour.

Biggest and Best

Jethro Tull

We’re here for five blissed-out days and nights of the the 11-day Montreal Jazz Festival whose all-star lineup includes Ry Cooder, Ani DiFranco, George Thorogood, Jethro Tull, and hundreds more with 500 concerts on 13 venues and seven outdoor stages.

Soaring and Swinging

We join the sell-out crowd for jazz trumpeter Chris Botti whose take on When I Fall In Love is all heartache and longing. With a sound is as big as British Columbia and as luminous as the northern lights, he is flawless. The ovation soars three balconies. Have a listen to his version of Hallelujah, honoring Montreal’s own Leonard Cohen – exquisite.

Chris Botti

We’re lucky enough to score tickets for world-class Montreal pianist Francois Bourassa and his amazing quartet – André Leroux, Guy Boisvert and Greg Ritchie. They energize old favorites and perform pieces from Bourassa’s current album, “Number 9.” Word on the street: c’est magnifique!

Francois Bourassa Quartet

Boz Scaggs returns to the festival with his legendary hits. Smooth and soulful he croons, “Lowdown” precisely as it was recorded in 1976, not a note out of place. He then delivers a clone of “Jojo.” Hey, wait a minute. I love you, Boz, but this feels like karaoke.

Outdoors and Free

Multiple outdoor venues feature concerts all afternoon and evening, and morning music for kids.  We shimmy to the Royale Pickles klezmer-funk at Le Casino. We groove to Justin Saladino‘s deep blues at Scene Hyundai. We stroll to Scene TD for Elise LeGrow‘s sexy, soulful version of “Rescue Me” – she just gets better and better.

Elise LeGrow

After Dark

Standouts include Scene TD and Spanish Harlem Orchestra‘s Nuyorican salsa. At Place Heineken we groove to folk-bluegrass of the Wood Shredders. Dwane Dixon rocks Scene Hyundai with an impassioned homage to Gregg Allman with Whipping Post. Check out his trademark drumwork with the neck of his guitar and left foot – intrepid.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Late Night

Take advantage of the late-night scene along Rue St. Catherine where bars and bistros are packed with fashion-forward hipsters. If this is your demographic and you drink like a pirate, the gritty St. Catherine scene is a must.

Sleep

Dormez bien at the Hotel Faubourg, a comfortable, centrally located hotel just steps from the Place des Arts and minutes from Old Montreal. Faubourg features family-friendly suites with minimally equipped kitchens. The generous free breakfast makes up for it. Arrive early unless you relish family-friendly chaos with your toast and maple butter.

La Chaleur

As temperatures soar, festival-goers of all ages chill in fountains, flooded pedestrian areas, and surprisingly effective mist machines. La chaleur wins a battle or two, but it does not win the war.

Gin Is In

We’re delighted to discover Hendrik’s Gin is a festival sponsor. Reveling in the herbaceous, restorative qualities of an outstanding botanical spirit helps us power through the heat. With thinly sliced English cucumber, the festival gin and tonic is truly a rescue remedy.

We elevate our gin preoccupation to a formal tasting. Cirka and Bishop & Bagg gins are herbaceous and clean. Local St-Laurent, crafted with seaweed from the St. Lawrence, is distilled in small batches. Le Midway introduces us to a game-changer from the Gaspé: Radoune, crafted with wild mushrooms and local juniper dried in sea salt. Mad-earthy.My advice: If you want to taste the juniper, go native, with just a hint of tonic. Watering possibilities include yummy Fentimans crafted with lemongrass and quinine bark.

Sip, Savor and Explore: Onsite

Bars and bistros provide respite from heat and blistering sun. Between musical magic, we sip, savor and explore Montreal’s world-class gustatory offerings, onsite and off, while enjoying a restorative hit of AC.

Onsite stalwart Cafe Nouveau Monde creates pizza with crème fraîche, caramelized onions, bacon and arugula. Beef carpaccio with mayonnaise (beware the Montreal obsession with mayo) and parmesan is cool and wonderful, as is Québecois mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic – savory, simple late-night fare.We meet friends at Blumenthal, a classic brasserie at the high end of onsite dining. Yummy kale César avec lardons et crevettes Nordiques sounds ooh-la-la in French, but hey, kale salad with bacon and fried shrimp is damn good in any language. Say “Oui!” to marinated olives and spiced nuts, admire the wine list, and never skip dessert.

Brasserie T!’s wall of windows is an excellent vantage point for people-and-festival watching. Sea snails are delicious under a generous cap of melted cheese. Chef Sterling’s duck rillette is fresh, delicious, locally sourced. His liver paté is earthy and rich. Montreal bistros still serve a little pot of butter with sliced baguette. I hope they never stop.

Sip, Savor and Explore: Street Fare

Even if you never leave the Place des Arts, you will not go hungry – there are plenty of informal onsite options for the discriminating omnivore. Here we meet fellow Mainers at Charlie’s Shack selling divine fried fish baskets and lobster rolls.

Bienvenue et merci to Charlie for bringing the lobster-love to Montreal!

Don’t miss the spectacularly messy and delicious tacos at Maria Bonita. Keep your onsite food-truck options open with Porc du Québec; Neos Souvlakeri; Smoking BBQ; Mikado; Mandy’s Salads; Queues de Castor; Jura Espace Café; Terrasse Fromage; and Da Lillo. Plus lovely mango flowers on a stick, ice cream, and hotdogs for kids of all ages.

Onsite Bar Scene

Montrealers are enthusiastic and unapologetic drinkers. You will quickly find yourself in the groove. Don’t miss the “cinq à sept” happy hour tradition.

Sip and savor the distinguished wine selection from Bar Univins. At Porto Cabral, discover a range of ports, summer cocktails with port, and a surprising port sangria.

Club Jazz Casino de Montreal is a relaxed venue with endless music and sipping options. Catch a cool breeze at Belon Oyster and savor a few chilled, briny bivalves. Bonne bouffe et bonne ambiance!

Or relax at informal, late-afternoon concerts at Place Heineken. Enjoy a cold beer and a snack from an adjacent bistro or food truck. We spend a lot of time in this convivial spot.

Offsite: La Nouvelle

This year’s offsite dining revelation is FoodLab Culinaire, Montreal’s creative newcomer on Rue St. Laurent. Look for its tall, glass facade with pulsing multicolor LED lights.We join locals and students on the breezy roof deck. Foodlab’s menu is creative and accessible. This is no laboratory – it’s simple farm-to-table food, beautifully prepared.

Foodlab’s signature Elder [gin] Fizz is our favorite. Artfully composed of local St-Laurent gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon and rosemary, it’s a fizzy, aromatic masterpiece.

Offsite: Trendy Food Tourism

This year we indulge in Spade & Palacio‘s Beyond the Market tour, starting at Los Planes Salvadoran restaurant in the Plateau. We dive into chef Gladys’ famous papusas topped with cortido, fermented cabbage slaw. The dish is beautiful, savory and unexpected.An excursion to the nearby bounty of Jean Talon Market is a must. Seasonal berries, delicious gelato, and a green market stroll. One can’t do Montreal without Jean Talon. It’s worth playing hooky from the festival for all of this gorgeous, dewy bounty.

Spade & Palacio guide, Tom, conducts an ash-coated cheese tasting at Tomme du Maréchal, passes a a charcuterie tray in a back alley, conducts a gelato licking and spice-sniffing challenge. His OTBT market tour is gritty and fun, spontaneous and delicious.

Porchetta

We end our the tour with a beer at Harricana; iced coffee at Dispatch on Rue Zotique; and picnic in Parc Little Italie from newcomer Dinette Triple Crown – a trendy and tasty end to a sunny summer afternoon – a great, offbeat tour – highly recommended.

Essayé et Vrai

Every trip to Montreal includes a last stop at venerable Schwartz’s for a meat-centric Bacchanal of smoked meat, mustard Hebraique, rye bread and a pickles: The Ultimate.

In closing…

Walk through the up-and-coming Mile Ex neighborhood to uncover Montreal’s hidden gardens and alleyways. Here, residents create lovely green spaces, financed by the City of Montreal. The remarkable results are a verdant surprise, inspired and inspiring.

Montreal is urbanism at its thoughtful and creative best.

Check out the public pianos throughout the city.  At Place Heineken, a hipster in a flowered shirt rocks John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” with a spontaneous and passionate performance. He receives an equally spontaneous ovation.

The venez jouer pianos underscore the city’s public commitment to musical expression.  It is somebody’s actual job to cover the pianos at night.

We don’t leave the Plateau without paying our respects to our two favorite murals – heroes Jackie Robinson and Leonard Cohen. These are among hundreds of murals commissioned throughout the city.

The impressive, publicly funded Mural Project demonstrates Montreal’s deep and passionate commitment to the arts – indigenous, local, national and international.

leonard-cohen-pilgrimage-part-2.jpg

Top: Jackie Robinson behind Schwartz’s; and Leonard Cohen behind Moishe’s

One last bit of Cansplaining…

I applaud our Canadian neighbors for their multiculturalism and dedication to social justice. I respect them for their attention to climate change, and revere their abiding commitment to the arts. I admire their gift for festivals and celebration. Kudos to the esteemed guardian of Canada’s progressive destiny, Justin Trudeau, who personifies the triumph of integrity over cynicism in these challenging times.

trudeaucur

Au revoir to my favorite North American city.  Thank you for another wondrous adventure. Civility is not dead – it is alive and well in Canada. •

 

 

Posted in Art and Culture, East Coast Travel, Farm-to-Table, Festivals, Food and Wine, International, Jazz Festival, Montreal, Music, Off-the-beaten-track, Travel | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Saveur et Savoir: Montreal Jazz 2018

Our stylish neighbors to the north give a spectacular party every year, and we are all invited. The last weekend in June and first week of July always brings us to the Montreal Jazz Festival. We love skipping the promiscuous display of red, white and blue at home and are ecstatic to be going rogue.

Queen's best friend

Get Festive

In the upscale province of Justin Trudeau, musical surprises abound. With over 500 concerts over 10 days, the festival is a world of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, world music, and electronica. On June 28, Seal, the man with the velvet voice, will start the festival on a soulful note. And yes, that’s George Thorogood and the Destroyers headlining July 1 with a roaring Rock Party that promises to be a festive smash.

Peace and Love

Imagine thousands of peaceful music fans in the heart of downtown Montreal on the Place des Festivals, closed to traffic. From intimate venues to enormous open-air events, the festival brings an unforgettable array of musical joie de vivre!

Along with finally learning the words to O Canada, I look forward to the following artists among the astonishing performers for 2018:

Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and the Flecktones; Betty Bonifassi with Ex Machina in a theatrical odyssey inspired by African-American slave songs from the ’30s; trumpet virtuoso Chris Botti; Dee Dee Bridgewater, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and Tony-winning actress; François Bourassa, amazing jazz pianist from Quebec; Geoffroy, compelling new Montreal talent; straight-up jazz from the UK’s GoGo Penguin trio; Herbie Hancock, pianist, bandleader and composer who played with the Miles Davis Quintet—jazz royalty; the versatile Holly Cole whose repertoire includes jazz, show tunes, rock, and country; the amazing Leslie Odom Jr., fresh from his Tony Award winning performance in Hamilton, who will likely bring the house down. Have you heard his take on Autumn Leaves? Germany’s Max Richter whose haunting minimalist jazz compositions keep me awake at night; one of music’s premier talents, Ry Cooder, who began in the blues and just keeps moving forward; and Snarky Puppy, a Brooklyn-based fusion jam band combining jazz, rock and funk. And this just in: Ani Di Franco on July 4th!

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Free For All

There are also hundreds of free concerts. In 2017, personal highlights included Montreal’s own Betty Bonifassi singing the blues with guts and grace. Pokey LaFarge, riled up and better than ever, with Riot In The Streets and Something In The Water. And around midnight, Guy Belanger’s harmonica wails across the Place des Festivals, drawing me through the sea of people like a magnet — so accessible, and so free.

Sleep 

We dormez bien in the heart of Montreal at the Trylon Apartments on Rue Sainte-Famille. Our studio apartment on the 22nd floor has sweeping views of the city, and is a cozy place to call home after a day of world-class music and bright sun. We sit on the deck and count the stars. If it’s a particularly late night, we watch the sun come up over North America’s most stylish and convivial city.

Sustenance

Townie breakfast favorites include quirky La Crepe 2 Go on rue Bleury, a small space with big flavors. Our nearby boulangerie on Sherbrooke has beautiful breads, bagels, and croissants. Try a baguette, sliced — a Montreal courtesy.

Festival Fare

If you don’t want to stray from the Place des Festivals, there are a range of epicurean choices, high and low. We always enjoy Nyk’s, a charming and informal city classic with garage-style windows open to the street. We share a few messy skewers à la crevette with local brews — small or large, red or blonde. No serious decisions, here.

An upscale new addition to the Place des Festivals is city stalwart, Blumenthal. With plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, confident and creative cooking, plus crazy-good poutine and tartare de saumon, we do not have to be coaxed.

Lac Brome duck salad with fresh farm egg is locally sourced, unctuous and beautiful. We continue with pieuvre grillée, grilled octopus, with lentils and curry butter. Gorgeous! Each dish, down to the smallest garden pea, knocks our socks off.

We prolong the magic with a bright passion-fruit tart — two forks, please. The Lady Liberty torch of browned meringue adds irresistible 4th of July irony. The brasserie menu is French, accessible and delicieux — highly recommended. Reserve a table at Blumenthal and arrive hungry.

Art for Art’s Sake

We always amble down Sherbrooke to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The sprawling space, designed by Montreal’s own Moshe Safdie, is expansive and filled with light. This is Safdie at his most suave — another soaring space designed by one of the world’s most inspired and inspiring architects.

At this summer’s compelling exhibition, Mnemosyne, the present meets the past through art — old and new — a smart choice for our seemingly rudderless era.  Put on your free headset and go with the flow as Mnemosyne creates a dialogue between the antique and the avant garde through diverse artists, like …

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (above); Salvador Dalí; Sigmund Holbein; Claude Monet; Pieter van Roestraten; Jacques Sablet the Younger; Jean-Joseph Taillasson … and more.

The exhibition extends a colorful invitation to build bridges between contemporary art and art of the past. Curator Geneviève Goyer-Ouimette says, “It provides viewers of all ages a place of gathering, discussion, reflection and bursts of laughter!” Don’t miss it.

Street Food

As always, art makes us hungry. We cruise rue Crescent, one of Montreal’s great dining districts, for a meal at L’Academie which we remember from its early heyday as an informal BYO culinary school. We share a plate of moules frites in creamy leek and wine sauce. Yummy. Best of all, it’s still BYO. Bring your Musée de Beaux Arts ticket for 15% off!

Griffintown

Don’t miss our favorite Montreal neighborhood, Griffintown. Historically a working-class stronghold, this rapidly gentrifying hunk of Montreal still feels accessible, within reach.

We sun ourselves in sling chairs along the Lachine Canal as local families chatter in French. We doze, dreaming of Canadian citizenship. Look out, Justin Trudeau.

We visit Atwater Market for fresh veggies, local duck terrine, smoked meat, stinky cheese, ice wine, and local flowers. Atwater is bright, convivial and fresh as morning.

The convivial Burgundy Lion Pub has cold Sarah Cole cider and Burgundy Lion ale. Try the signature cod cakes with lemon aoli. Sit outside or in — the Lion rocks a pub lunch.

Finding Leonard

Last but not least, we pay our respects to Montreal’s favorite son, Leonard Cohen — beloved songwriter, world-weary poet and reluctant performer. We have our city map and Cohen’s biography to help us find the ultimate tribute to the late great one. We ask around. Locals insist that we look behind Moishes in the Plateau, Cohen’s old hangout.

Voila! This craggy and moving portrait towers over the grubby parking lot. There are dumpsters and graffiti, too, but I don’t think Leonard would mind.

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

Don’t miss the 39th edition of the Festival International de Jazz Montreal. Pay your respects to Leonard while enjoying a world-class array of magical jazz in all its forms. You will find the hospitality of our partying neighbors to the north unparalleled.

A bientot!

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Como Cool

We’re in the heart of downtown Como on via Dante, across from the imposing peaks that characterize the lake. We watch the changing light from our expansive, columned deck.Our apartment is a comfy version of Italian modern — upscale, sleek and bright. This is good in case we’re stuck inside for a couple of rainy weeks. Like right now.

Villa Dante is part of an ancient urban cluster of buildings in hues of salmon, apricot and saffron. The colors are warm but evening damp drapes the hills in a foggy stole of clouds.

We make sprawling, messy dinners followed by grappa, oranges and TV. I adore chef Alessandro Borghese, insouciant host of Cuochi d’Italia and 4 Ristoranti. Yum.We’re a block or two from the Duomo and close to the indoor public market, a bustling 1930s masterpiece of stucco and glass brick. I like the brutalist lettering, MERCATO.It is early spring, la primavera. Hopeful pansies and primrose bloom in the market, but it isn’t very warm despite their colorful efforts.I sit across from the Metropole Suisse in Piazza Cavour while hubby gets his yayas out striding around the lake. It is finally sunny, and we are almost done ruining our health with big meals, too much coffee, animal fat in all its forms and Vogue vacation smokes.

I write this hunched over a coffee next to an outdoor heater in full-on sun, an artificial arrangement that imitates the brilliance of summer — almost.

The Duomo is of course the major attraction — all roads lead to the cathedral. Since we’re here for several weeks, we admire her gorgeous proportions from several vantage points.

Look up: The Duomo is as imposing as ever.

From the side: Her curves are robust and massive as Anna Magnani.

Straight on: Lovely Mary is flanked by Como’s patron saints. I don’t see my favorites, Saint Liberata or Saint Faustina, but I know they’re here somewhere.

Best of all: The view from Loft Bar on the top floor of Coin department store. Sip champagne, admire the towers and terra cotta rooftops, and enjoy a bird’s eye view.

Como’s most famous citizen besides George Clooney was Alessandro Volta, electricity pioneer, whose Tempio museum and Scientia statues are ancient breaths of fresh air.

Modern pioneers work here, too. We admire the art of Fabrizio Musa and stalk him a little. His black & white “Novocomum,” above, is a striking graphic illusion.

Sightseeing makes me hungry. Two thumbs up for the Siciliano pizza from Locanda Barbarossa. Try the Diavolo with salad on top — red, white and green as the Italian flag!

And always save room for dessert — it’s not too sweet and it’s never too much.

For a last look, we drive the stunning 30 minutes to our customary retreat in Argegno. We bask in blue lakeside beauty until the weary sun slinks behind the hills.  It’s over.

Arrivederci, ciao, a presto!

 

 

 

Posted in Food and Wine, Italian Travel, Lake Como, Off-the-beaten-track | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Election Day

Interesting to be here during a national election, as Italian populists and far-right reveal their mutual discontent with taxes, unemployment and immigration. David has been wearing his “Bernie” shirt which yesterday inspired a €3 discount on a liter of Artumes.

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Mediterranean Mother Lode

In Sicily I often wonder, “Where are the women?” Sometimes it seems they’re behind closed doors, as men stroll the streets in affectionate pairs and groups. At last, we find the mother lode of Sicilian women in Catania at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

There are women sitting.

Women standing.

Women floating.And women using cellphones.Women with big warm color and big eyes.

Chilling portraits of women without eyes.

There are allegorical women, blindfolded.

And relaxing images that are smooth and serene.This woman’s eyes are closed in rapture.And this poor woman’s eyes are closed in pain.My favorite is this painting of St. Agatha, the beautiful Patron Saint of Catania. This haunting image of Agatha with bleeding breasts explains a lot about Sicilian pastry.In Catania and throughout Sicily, delicious “cassatina” are made in the shape of a woman’s breast to honor Saint Agatha. They are not subtle but they are delicious.“Offend not the country of Agatha, for she is the avenger of any injustice.”Spectacular women!

When you are in Catania, do not miss the MuseoArteContemporaneaSicilia!

 

 

 

 

 

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Sicilian Chocolate: Savory and Supreme

Chocolate is a sublime experience. My brother-in-law Stevie has eaten chocolate all over the globe, and he will tell you, there is nothing like a superb piece of chocolate.

Here in Sicily, morning cappuccino is always served with little bite of chocolate nearby. In Avola, we are served these lovely valentines of chocolate with our caffé — ooh.

As an epicurious traveler, I’ve been drawn to Sicily for its romantic history, rumbly volcano, flinty wines and robust cuisine. Yet somehow, the wild isle’s chocolate has remained one of its best-kept secrets for me. Intrigued, I embark on my own chocolate tour — one deep, dark taste at a time.

I begin close to home here in Noto at Caffé Costanzo, a popular spot for coffee, cookies, pastry, or gelato, the best in town. My favorite Costanzo pairing is cioccolata and nocciolo or hazelnut. The flavors are soulmates and perfect for sharing — or not.

Don’t miss the powerful taste of Costanzo’s dark-chocolate arancia, dense and robust chocolate with bittersweet orange — wow!

A Bit of History

In the 1500s, Spanish rule introduced Sicilians to cacao and clever methods for rolling it smooth. The resulting xocoàtl paste was used to accent meats, grated over vegetables, or nibbled on its own as an aphrodisiac. Now, that I can understand.

Follow Your Nose

We follow the fragrance of chocolate to Modica, an hour’s drive through the Sicilian countryside. Here, generations still use rolling pins of lava stone — from Mt. Etna, of course — to refine and smooth the chocolate. The mix is chilled before adding sugar to keep the crystals from melting, producing chocolate with a signature crunch.

City of Chocolate

In Modica we find the Museum of Chocolate plus several charming chocolate cafés and boutiques. And as one of eight Sicilian Baroque towns in the beautiful Val di Noto, Modica has enough cathedrals, piazzas and cobblestone streets for non-chocoholics.

Baroque Cathedral of St. Peter in Modica with 12 apostles

Upon admission, the Museo offers each visitor a whole cocoa bean, dusty with cacao and maybe a little grubby. But surprise! the dry, deep proto-chocolate flavor is delicious.

While chewing your introductory bean, there are several sculptures in chocolate to see. Some are impressive; some are deconstructing — a risk with organics. There is a billboard-sized Marilyn Monroe, and a room-size chocolate relief map of Italy with helpful landmarks like the Coliseum and Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yes, much of it is pretty silly. But it’s fun and takes a mere 30 minutes for a reasonable fee of about €2.

Shop Chocolate

The first shop we visit is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Modica’s earliest chocolatier. When Europe began to favor milk chocolate in the 1800s, the Bonajuto family continued making its signature dark chocolate, and are still going strong.We amble down Corso Umberto to Antica Dolceria Rizza, open since in 1930s. Their chocolates are flavored with exotic essences like fiery peperoncino, below, or citrus. We buy some for friends at home. Me, I doubt they’ll last that long.The venerable Caffe del’ Arte is famous for hot chocolate and classic Sicilian pastries like our favorite the venerable cannolo — with local pistachios, of course.Modica is as serious as Uncle Stevie about its beloved chocolate. Heck, when this part of Sicily was destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, the chocolate industry survived — a genuine chocolate miracle.

Celebrate Chocolate!

An annual festival called ChocoModica celebrates my two Sicilian loves: chocolate and Baroque architecture. Both are entirely yummy.

Old Family Recipe

And hey, if you can’t make it all the way to Sicily to sample the chocolate, here is a special Sicilian Chocolate Cake recipe from my friend, Daniela. It is delizioso, generous and feeds a lot of people — just like Daniela herself!

Sicilian Chocolate Cake

Ingredienti:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1-1/4 cups flour
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 8 oz. yogurt plain or coconut
  • 6 T canola oil
  • 3 T cocoa powder
  • 1 t baking powder
  • pinch of salt

Mix sugar and eggs, then add all the other ingredients.  Put in 24 cm baking pan (Daniela uses a round fluted pan) for 45 minutes. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Like so many Sicilian desserts, it is not too sweet — it is just perfect!

Sei generoso, sei gentile e le tue torte sono superbe!

Grazie, Daniela! xo

 

Posted in Chocolate, Food and Wine, International, Italian Travel, Off-the-beaten-track, Sicily, Travel | Tagged , | 3 Comments