Vesuvio: mysterious Napolitano sandwich of my memory

Our trip from Rome to Naples was a whirlwind of “omg we’re going to miss the train!” You see, one of Rome’s subway lines sometimes continues onto Tiburtina, but sometimes also takes a different route, so it’s probably helpful to speak Italian and read the signs very carefully. After taking the wrong subway, waiting what seemed like forever for the train back the other way and finally getting to Tiburtina station, we boarded our Italo Treno high speed ride to Naples. It was a beautiful ride, and ended with us in Naples at probably 10:30 am or so. We found our hotel, but it was of course, too early to check in, so we dropped off our bags and figured we’d run our “things to get done upon arrival” errands for an hour or so.

We headed back to the train station and purchased our tickets to Bari, which would be our gateway to Greece, and then decided we needed lunch. We knew we wanted pizza for dinner, but not wanting to venture too far from the hotel before we could check in, and not wanting to spend much, we decided to stop at this little cafe at the outer edge of Piazza Garibaldi.

Stromboli

This stromboli only cost a Euro or so, and it was delicious.

The cafe had the most beautiful display of sammiches in the window, and the sandwiches had cool names like Vesuvio and Stromboli (anything named after a volcano is good by me.) I chose the stromboli, but the Vesuvio has haunted me ever since. All of the recipes I’ve looked at online for a Vesuvio look completely unrelated to this sandwich I didn’t order in Napoli on that warm morning. I don’t know how I’m ever going to figure out how to make the sandwich I didn’t order that day, and who knows how long it will be before I can get back to Naples and find that Cafe (if it’s even still there) and order my damn sandwich? I guess I can concentrate on other things.

Prosciutto Sandwich in Naples

This prosciutto and tomato sandwich was also quite delicious.

Mrs. Primate ordered this other sandwich that was really great, too. Does anyone make a better sandwich than the Italians? I don’t think so. There’s something about having the perfect bread, the perfect balance of bread to filling, and the perfect amount of sauce that they know how to do that results in a tidy, easy to eat, still flavorful sandwich. PLUS they seem to have a plethora of sandwiches named after volcanoes, allowing for extra cool points.

I guess what it boils down to is this: If you know how to make a Vesuvio, leave me a link in the comments? 😉

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Sounds of Spain – Microguagua

Madrid, Spain

Spain is a huge country with a ton of things to talk about. I could probably wax poetic for hours about jamón, days about pintxos, and weeks about architecture. The fact that I can speak enough Spanish to ask basic questions and get directions makes it an easy place to travel, and something about the way the people (who are in a terrible, terrible economy) manage to remain generally jovial towards tourists really hit me where it counts. I hope things will improve for them soon.

Barcelona, Spain

That said, Catalonia might as well be a different country. A country that I might prefer to visit. It seems like their economy is a bit better than the rest of Spain, and their culture hangs so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. It’s a great place to visit. The architecture of Gaudí certainly contributes to the general vibe of awesomeness.

One thing I appreciate about Spain compared to anywhere else I’ve been in the world is the quality of the street performers, and one group caught my attention way more than any other: Microguagua (MEE-kro-hwa-hwa). They”re kind of a ska/reggae band with a horn section and a dude with a double bass. They have more personality in their pinkies than most music groups have in their whole bodies, and they know how to work a crowd. Also: they are available on iTunes. My recommendation for a great Spanish night at home is thus:

  1. Put this album on.
  2. Pop open a bottle of cava, or make some sangria or tinto verano
  3. Make some simple tapas
  4. Relax.
  5. Repeat.

Now, Microguagua isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of Spanish music, but it is for me because of the sentimental memories and such. I’m always on the look out for good music to help set the mood for a meal (especially if I’m going to the trouble of making tapas or whatever.) What music reminds you of Spain? Tell me in the comments below.

Ruins

Athens, Greece

I love ruins. The older they are, the better. I love walking among fallen columns, crumbling facades, and on broken streets. I like to imagine what life might have been like in these places when they were still populated, you know, before everything was ruined. Ruins, along with old churches, stunning beaches, and of course the food, are my favorite thing about traveling through Europe. They’re everywhere. They haven’t been destroyed in the name of progress, and sometimes progress gets destroyed in the name of archaeology. What a great set of priorities!

Pompeii

Now, why do I like the crumbling old ruins so much? I think it has to do with the same reasons I’m a sucker for reality TV. I have an active imagination and love wondering what other peoples’ lives are like. I like to see “how the other half lives.”

Pompeii

Ruins certainly let your imagination run wild. Bathhouses, brothels, coliseums, temples, and even bakeries and bars can really let you wonder just what went on in this place before you managed to make it here. Sometimes you don’t really have to wonder, the writing (pictures) is/are still on the walls.

Ephesus, TurkeySometimes the ruin you’re looking at doesn’t seem like much at all, but you know that it’s all that remains of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This kind of thing can really boggle the mind.

At any rate, I love ruins, and “ruins” starts with “R,” so there it is.

 

Just two flavors: Cacio e Pepe – my favorite pasta from Rome

Last spring when we were in Rome, I was bent on finding a great serving of Cacio e Pepe, Rome’s famous pasta dish that uses simple flavors, black pepper and pecorino romano cheese. We did find a wonderful little place on a side street not far from the Trevi Fountain that was not only absolutely the best food we ate in the Eternal City, but also relatively inexpensive. Since then, we moved to New York, then back to Texas, and with our Texas-sized kitchen space I’ve tried to make Cacio e Pepe a few times, but last night I think I finally did it with a measurable level of success. Here’s what I did:

Charlie’s method of making Cacio e Pepe

You need this stuff:

  • long pasta like spaghetti (I saw a Barilla factory from the train in Campania, so I use theirs because I think it’s authentically produced in a factory near Bari)
  • Pecorino Romano cheese at least two cups worth, grated finely
  • At least a few teaspoons of coarsely ground black peppercorns (I use a mortar and pestle as opposed to a pepper grinder)
  • Good olive oil
  • Salt

Here’s how you do it:

Get a pot of heavily salted water boiling and cook your noodles until nearly al dente. If the package says 7 minutes, do 6. Before you drain them, pull off a couple of cups of the starchy pasta water, you need this for the sauce.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat and add a generous amount of olive oil. Once the oil is nice and hot, add your black pepper. It’s going to give off this crazy floral scent that only smells faintly of black pepper but mostly of delicous. Once the pepper is toasted a bit, ladle in about a cup of the pasta water, and put the pasta back in.

Start adding your cheese. Turn that pasta inside and out and stir vigorously, add more cheese, keep turning. You’re looking for an evenly textured pasta sauce made of the cheese and pasta water. If it clumps keep stirring. I use a pasta rake and a spatula. This is going to take a few minutes so keep working at it until it’s even. If it gets too dry, add more of the starchy water. When the sauce is smooth, dish it up and enjoy.

It’s a super simple pasta dish to make, it just requires a bit of work to make it happen. I know that when I took my first bite of my Cacio e Pepe last night that I could picture myself in that tiny little restaurant with a glass of wine and my beautiful bride sitting across from me thinking that we should go toss a Euro in the Trevi Fountain so that we would one day go back to Rome.

Greece: I want to go back

Santorini, Greece

I guess that pretty much sums it up. Ha. Greece is where I’d like to be right now. Preferably one of the islands. Sitting in a taverna on a cliff looking out over the blue, blue water. Sweating a little in the heat. Eating those tomato balls, or grilled sardines, or an gyro from a vendor who puts french fries in it. That sounds nice. Jumping in the cool waves when the sun gets overbearing, touring some ancient ruins when the idea of another day on the beach seems too exhausting. Yes please. That sounds like a place I’d like to be. Good thing I don’t have to imagine what it would be like. I’m pretty sure that if you look up the word bliss in the dictionary you can find a map of Santorini. We’ve gotta get back to Greece. I think it’d be fair to call it my favorite place in the world.

Florence, Firenze, Fantastic

Florence, Italy

Florence is a beautiful city

Okay, that might be the understatement of the year. Florence is amazing. It’s so amazing that if I had a daughter I might petition Mrs. Primate to make Florence her middle name. Maybe Florenzo for a boy? Erm, no. Anyway, yesterday’s post about espresso got me thinking about how freaking nice Florence was when we visited on our honeymoon. What’s not to like about the city that started the renaissance? It’s basically the epicenter of arts, humanities, and scientific discoveries that helped us get out of the dark ages and move into the modern era. The streets are narrow, the buildings old, and when it’s time for mass the church bells sound from all directions in a rather disorienting fashion. The streets bustle with people selling leather goods and touristic souvenirs, and oh yeah, there’s art everywhere. Important Art. Art by the ninja turtles.

Florence, ItalyIt’s not the art or the food or the leather or the beauty of the city that’s on my mind today, though. It’s one of those things that you remember later that just seems magical in retrospect, that at the time just seemed pretty cool. The picture above is Piazza della Signoria, kinda the main drag of Florence. This piazza was once frequented by the Medici and their associates, and it’s bordered by the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Vecchio. Within the piazza are dozens of statues, a beautiful fountain, and plenty of places where you can buy a 12 euro scoop of gelato. We spent some time eating the very expensive frozen treat here during the day, but one night after dinner we stopped at a caffe on the plaza for a limoncello and dessert and were rewarded with a great display of performance art.

A projector was playing a film of dancers doing a contemporary dance performance among the statues and columns of the loggia that sits just outside Palazzo Vecchio. I think there were selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet mixed with some hip-hop beats and stuff, and our seat at the caffe had a perfect view of the show. It looped every 20 minutes or so, so we watched it a couple times as we downed our limoncelli. Isn’t limoncello wonderful?

Anyhow, after watching the dance performance superimposed on the beautiful renaissance art work, we called it a night, but that limoncello! Those dancers! Dat Piazza Doe! It’s not a memory that I thought would be a standout from our honeymoon, but here I am, nearly a year later, wishing I could be sipping Limoncello and eating some sort of chocolate thing in Piazza della Signoria with Carolyn, watching the same kind of video-art exhibit I usually walk right past in the Met or the MoMA. It’s amazing what a difference a beautiful setting can make.

 

Espresso: My first impression of Italy

Espresso. It’s one of those words that causes me fits because of its inevitable mispronunciation. I literally grind my teeth when someone says expresso. It’s been this way ever since I worked at the Cafe in a Border’s book store during my first year of college. Now, espresso is today’s topic not because I want to share a recipe, tell you how I’ve been trying to hack my Keurig to make a decent faux espresso shot so I can make a damn latte without buying another machine (though that IS the truth), or talk about coffee in general. The purpose of this post is to tell you why this picture makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

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Lawn work complete #coffee time.

A post shared by Charlie (@daddyprimate) on

You see, I got married just about a year ago, and we went to Europe for a long honeymoon. I think about that trip every day because everything was just so freaking perfect for those six weeks and we hadn’t yet been subjected to the difficulties of finding “real” jobs in the U.S. yet, or any of the other challenges that we’d have the opportunity to overcome during our first year of marriage. Yeah. I think about those six weeks a LOT. At any rate, this post risks becoming about now when it’s supposed to be about then.

It was sometime well after midnight when we made the crossing from France to Italy, and I can’t tell you exactly where it happened. So far as I know, we got on the bus at Marseilles and got off in Florence, with one rest stop in between where I managed to somehow recover my vestibular system enough to not puke the whole ride to Florence. The ride was filled with what seemed to be sheer drops to the waterfront below, stunning vistas (that were completely dark) and road signs that at some point switched from French to Italian. When we made the rest stop, I wasn’t really sure if we had crossed the border or not. Until I walked into the bus station to use the facilities.

When I walked in, the smell of espresso hit me like a cargo van at top speed. POW. Yeah, I was awake now! There was a line of tall, slim, dark haired men speaking rapid, loud Italian drinking espresso from demitasses at the cash register. There’s nothing like finding out that a place is essentially as it seems on TV first hand, ya know? It didn’t stop there, though, this truck stop was an amalgam of stereotypes that would have made any afraid-to-generalize American blush. There were bundles of pasta. Breadsticks. Limoncello. All set in gift boxes to bring back to your family or loved ones when you got off the bus. I thought, okay, I can handle Italy, and it sure isn’t Marseilles!

So what did I do? I didn’t get an espresso. I thought it would interfere with me being able to sleep on the bus. Not that sleeping on the bus was going to be anywhere in the vicinity of reality anyhow. I should have had one. Damn. Then again, it’s not like I lacked for espresso over the ten days we spent in Italy. I’m pretty sure my veins were running with it by the time we left.

Now, the other day I was in the grocery store and saw that can of grounds and thought, I may not have the time flexibility or money to take Carolyn back to Italy right now, but I could sure go for an espresso. For the record: putting the medium grind espresso beans in the my K-cup attachment and brewing it works pretty okay. It doesn’t give you a great crema, but it tastes fine. Pour some milk on it and you’d never know the difference if you look on the sunny side. 😉