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.


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? 😉



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!


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.”


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.

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.

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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. 😉

The trip from Naples, Italy to Athens, Greece

The trip from Naples to Athens was an all-day, all-night affair that featured no less than two trains, one ginormous ferry, and a bus, but it was one of the most memorable events of our honeymoon.

You see, when I planned the trip I knew that the Greek portion was going to be the most complex because ferries run certain routes on certain days. Initially I planned for us to get from Naples to Bari, Italy and take a ferry on Sunday, but alas, there wouldn’t have been enough time to make the transfer and I read on the interweb that the Italian Train system runs on something that once was a schedule but is now more of a general guideline. For whatever reason I couldn’t seem to find any information on the internet about buses from Naples to Bari, so I settled on the train option when I planned to spend an extra day in Naples and forego a night in Bari.

So here’s how it went. We got up bright and early, had breakfast, and checked out of Hotel Zara, making it to the train station with plenty of time to spare and boarding the unairconditioned commuter train from Napoli Centrale to Caserta. About halfway through the trip a family of gypsies hopped on the train and pulled out some birds and magic wands and all sorts of hoopla and made a ton of noise, annoying the older gentleman across from us. I seriously thought his eyes would roll all the way out of his head and onto the floor.

Eventually someone asked us if we were heading into the mountains (or some such thing in Italian) and he translated. OH. You speak English. I see. So he asked where we were headed and told us we could have taken a bus from Naples to Bari in 2 hours, and that the trains were terrible. THIS STUFF SHOULD BE ON THE INTERNET. Anyhow, we transferred in Caserta and started rolling towards Bari on what should have been a 4 hour train ride a group of partied-out and very loud locals on their way back from some sort of event in Rome. Then the train stopped. And didn’t start again. We sat at a station somewhere in central Italy for an hour. Then two. Finally we got moving again after everyone was moved to the back of the train, and a couple hours later we arrived in Bari.

Following our usual arrival procedure, we found the tourist information booth and learned the ferry port was about a 20 minute walk from the station. We walked, had a slice of pizza, walked some more, and finally walked right through the security gate of the ferry port. I saw the smokestack of the SUPERFAST ferry in the distance and we walked. And walked. And walked. Finally the ticketing booth came into view, so I checked us in, got our tickets, and we walked to the ship. It was all very industrial, until we walked up to the back of the ship and took the escalator up to the passenger deck.

Port of Bari

Port of Bari

Carolyn on deck

Carolyn on deck!

Superfast Ferries

The interior of our Superfast Ferry. Nice digs.

HOLY COW. It was like a cruise ship. There were men in tuxedo vests serving wine, a nice place to set down our bags, air conditioning, nice seats, and a wine list! It was clear at this point that we had found a good way to spend an evening. We watched the trucks load, stood out on the deck a bit before we departed, and then settled down in the lounge with a glass of wine. When the restaurant opened we lined up and had a meal and a bottle of wine next to the bow side windows, and had a great view as we sailed into the sunset (romantic, non?)

Sailing into the sunset. Arrividerci, Italy!  Hello, Greece!

Sailing into the sunset. Arrividerci, Italy! Hello, Greece!

Romantic Desserts

Romantic desserts are a must when sailing through the Mediterranean!

Then it happened. Italy was in the rear-view mirror and we were suddenly in Greece. The group sitting next to us had three or four Greek Orthodox ministers in its midst, and they started singing. SINGING I TELL YOU. They sang for hours, and as they did so we kept ordering bottles of wine. DON’T JUDGE US. The ship had miniature bottles of wine. We would have been in trouble if they were full-size. At any rate, the singing progressed to dancing. Greeks dancing and singing. We loved it. It was almost like being at one of the family gatherings in My Big Fat Greek Wedding except without the helpful subtitles. After a bit we headed back to our seats, laid down, and got some rest.

Good morning, Greece!

Good morning, Greece!

Odysseus was here

Odysseus was here! Okay, that’s totally unverifiable, but I’d like to think so.

First Greek Selfie

Our first Greek Selfie

Greek Blue

The water in and around Greece is perfectly blue.

Hello Greece

Hello, Greece.

Port of Patras

Port of Patras, our first steps into Greece.

Greece, Port of Patras

My lovely wife posing in front of the entire nation of Greece. 🙂

The next morning we awoke when the ship pulled into the first port, dropping off most of the trucks. We had some coffee and breakfast, and then headed outside to have a look. The water was beautifully blue and clear. Carolyn left the deck for a minute to run inside and I saw a blue marlin swimming alongside the ship. She doesn’t believe any of it, but it’s true. When she came back, as the islands of Greece started to come into view, the church group showed up and started singing again. It was really, really idyllic.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis

The Parthenon lit up at night. A good way to end our first day in Greece.

The Parthenon lit up at night. A good way to end our first day in Greece.

Once we arrived we caught a bus from Patrassos to Athens, then braved the Athenian metro system until we found our hotel. This is when I realized that stupid pledge I made to a stupid fraternity in college paid off. I could read the Greek alphabet. Heh. Slowly. Anyway, we arrived in Athens, had dinner with a view of the Parthenon, and soaked up some Greek hospitality, which, I assure you, is far more amazing than you would ever expect.

Sorrento, Italy

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Have you ever spent three weeks walking around foreign cities, eating a lot, drinking lots of wine, and seeing a ton of museums? Have you ever followed that by spending a day walking around the biggest, most expansive archaeological excavation that could ever blow your mind? Have you ever felt tired of being in the sun, but not in a bathing suit? We have.

After our day in Pompeii, we wanted to hit a beach. We didn’t want to pay a ton of money for a ferry over to Capri, though. We also didn’t want to hang out in Naples, where there’s not really much in the way of beaches (but there are rocks you could sit on…), and we didn’t really know where to go. I had read somewhere on the internet that Sorrento was nice, so we headed over to the Tourism Information booth at the train station where they suggested a day trip to Sorrento, bought tickets on the Circumvesuviana line, and and climbed aboard the train for about an hour and a half or so.

When we arrived in Sorrento the contrast between it and Naples couldn’t have been any greater. Sorrento was BEAUTIFUL, but felt a bit like a theme park. Thousands of large cruise ship patrons filled the streets. English was widely spoken. There was less graffiti, and shops were selling all sorts of knick knacks and post cards. It looked, economically, like the downturn hadn’t hit nearly as hard here as it had in some other places (Marseilles, Rome, Naples, Madrid) and that they had somewhat of an economic-buffer built out of cruise ships and buffets.

We made our way down to the beach, which involved taking some stairs down about 100′ of cliffside to the waterfront. It was beautiful. The water was blue and clear. Nobody was around any of the pay-for-beach areas, and the weather while not-ideal, didn’t look bad. We paid 8 euro each to get beach chairs and laid out, and then something stunning happened. The clouds parted, and the sky turned blue. The wind stopped blowing so hard, and the air warmed up. It turned into a perfect day to laze around the seaside. The water was breathtakingly cold. We did nothing but read, talk, people watch, and nap. It was just what we needed. The day ended with a glass of wine, lasagna, and a cannoli, then the ride back to Naples to pack up for the next day’s trip to Greece.