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It has been a while. Last time I was here, I was lamenting about leaving Rome and never seeing the Pantheon again and missing out on all that delicious pizza. Well, it’s about 4 months later and nothing has changed. Except that I just moved to New York City!!! I’m here to get my Masters degree so that I can get a job so that I can be a real person so that I can fund my pizza/pasta/cannoli addiction.

Speaking of cannoli…

What better place to bridge the gap between Rome and NYC than Little Italy? Now really just a few blocks on Mulberry St., Little Italy is packed with restaurants, bakeries, gelaterias, and knockoff handbag stores. All of this is located dangerously close to where I live, perfect for when I get hit with a big wave of Romesickness. I haven’t really started to try out the restaurants yet, but dessert is really more important anyways, right?

I first came to Ferrara years ago with my family, and we haven’t stopped talking about it since. My mom remembers the soft pignoli cookies, my dad remembers the long line, and I remember the cannoli. A crispy, flaky outer shell that is just dying to crumble itself all over your clothing, filled with a sweet ricotta filling studded with mini chocolate chips. Yes, please.

Lest you think Ferrara’s is a one-trick pony, the display case is filled with all kinds of treats. A girl can get overwhelmed when confronted with these kinds of choices! Who can possibly choose??

Not me. Luckily, almost every dessert is available in a mini size, allowing for the creation of a small sampler box, in the event you should find yourself as flustered and torn as I was. The sales ladies are very nice, and extremely patient when you are trying to decided between a regular or chocolate-dipped mini cannolo (get both, obviously). In addition to those, I ordered a mini Napoleon (redundant?), a strawberry tart, and a mini eclair.

I came home, took one bite of each, stuck the box in the fridge, and repeated the sequence each day until they were all gone.

The cannoli were excellent, and I think I’m partial to the chocolate-dipped one because…well…it was dipped in chocolate. The eclair and strawberry tart were both filled with delicious pastry cream, and I would order either again.

For me though, the most delicious was the Napoleon. The flaky layers of pastry are such a perfect contrast to the creamy filling, and the sweet glaze on top complements the whole thing perfectly, and I’d like another, please.

If you’re ever in Little Italy, be sure to stop by and try something! If you do it now, you’ll sweat off any consumed calories just by walking 3-4 blocks. Fa caldo, friends.

Ferrara Bakery and Café
195 Grand St.
New York, NY 10013
(212) 226-6150

I can’t believe I have only a week left in Rome. After that, I’m off to Sicily with my family for a few days, then back to Rome for a couple days to finish packing and then…home. But Rome is home too, and the thought of leaving makes me way too sad, so let’s stop talking about it.

The real issue is that I have only a week left to figure out how to bring the Pantheon home with me. I figure I can disassemble it, pack it, and reassemble it in my backyard (Mom, would that be cool?). Because although I can (barely) live without the pizza and the pasta and the pidgeons, I’m not sure how to go back to living in a place where I cannot see the Pantheon at least once a week.

Rome is not exactly short on beautiful monuments and sights. In fact, one of the things I love most about this city is that all of its beauty and history is laid out in the city itself, no museums required. But out of everything, all the fountains and piazzas and churches, my favorite sight by far is this one.

The name “Pantheon” comes from the Greeks, and means “to every god”. The building was commissioned in the year 126 A.D. by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to the ancient Roman gods. The writing on the front, M-AGRIPPA-L-F-COS-TERTIUM-FECIT, translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built it.”

What we actually see today is not Agrippa’s Pantheon, but Hadrian’s. Hadrian rebuilt the structure on the site of Agrippa’s original temple, but retained Agrippa’s original inscription on the front.

Since the Renaissance, the Pantheon has been used as a tomb, housing renowned individuals such as the painter Raphael. The building is still used as a church, however, and masses are still held inside.

Its dome still holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and if you are lucky enough to be there on a rainy day, you can go inside and watch the rain fall through the oculus – it’s magical.

But let’s be real. It rains all the time in Rome, so getting to see the Pantheon in the rain is awesome, but not at all impossible. You know what hasn’t happened in Rome in the past 26 years? A significant snowfall. Not just a little flurry that is over in 30 seconds, but big fat snowflakes that blanket the cobblestones and cause the Romans to behave as though the Apocalypse is imminent.

That happened last Friday. I woke up to the aforementioned big, fat snowflakes, grabbed my friends, and ran to the Piazza della Rotunda to check out the Pantheon in all its snow-covered finery. Amazing.

One of the reasons I love this building so much is because it is simultaneously imposing and unassuming. Unlike the Colosseum, or St. Peter’s, there is no grand thoroughfare leading up to it, announcing its presence. It is more than happy to be tucked into its little neighborhood, thus allowing people to simply stumble upon it and stare in awe. Words just don’t do it justice.

As if this place wasn’t magical enough, the other night I was waiting to meet some friends in the piazza, and saw a lone cellist sitting in the only pool of light between the columns, filling the whole place with music. I’m. Not. Leaving.

This past weekend, my friend Allyson and I decided to head up to Venice, to escape the chaos of Rome, to celebrate her birthday, and also to finally make use of the scarves and gloves that have not yet been necessary in the capitol city. In Rome right now, the weather and the calendar are not presenting a united front. The calendar is telling me that it’s almost mid-January, but the weather is saying “Early September! Back to school! Buy new notebooks!” Not cool. Literally.

Venice, on the other hand, was beautiful. It was around 40 degrees, but sunny, and really, there is nothing more magical than Venice in winter. Just ask Joseph Brodsky. The cool weather, coupled with the fact that we went after the holiday tourism season was over, allowed us to experience a (relatively) uncongested Venice.

Half the fun of visiting Venice is just walking around, seeing all the little canals and bridges, and just letting yourself get lost in the city (you are going to get lost, no matter how hard you try, so don’t fight it!). Because we had such limited time there, this is exactly what we did on Saturday. We were staying in a small bed-and-breakfast in the Cannaregio district, and after checking in and dropping our stuff off, we ventured out with nothing but the vague goal of making our way towards San Marco (the big church and square).

Navigation is a little bit interesting in Venice. In most cities, including Rome, you can look out for street names and, with a good sense of direction and a decent map, you’ll end up where you need to be. In Venice, the most helpful navigational tools are actually the big landmarks themselves, such as the Rialto bridge, or Piazza San Marco. All over the city, there are little signs that say “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” or “Per ____ (insert landmark here)”, with, if you’re lucky, one single arrow pointing in the correct direction. It’s not unheard of to see a sign saying “Per San Marco” with a double-headed arrow that forces you to wonder why they bothered to put a sign up in the first place. You use the landmark signs to get to the correct general area, and then you just wander till you find what you are looking for.

We eventually made our way to the stunning Ponte di Rialto, the oldest of the four bridges that span Venice’s Grand Canal (the big thoroughfare, or “main street”). Rialto is always packed with tourists, and on either side of the bridge, as well as along the entire length of the bridge itself, are numerous souvenir and jewelry shops. Near the bridge is the Rialto market, where vendors sell fresh seafood, herbs, fruits and vegetables in the morning.

From here we decided to take a gondola ride. The price for these rides can get up to 100€, even for just two people. Luckily, because this was off-season, we managed to haggle down to 60€ – still ridiculous in my opinion, but we couldn’t just go to Venice and not ride in a gondola.

The ride lasted about half an hour, and to me the most impressive part was how those gondoliers manage to stay so well-balanced while rowing the boat. We saw Marco Polo’s house, as well as Casanova’s palace, and ended the ride right back at Rialto.

We resumed our stroll to San Marco, this time also keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat some dinner. By this time, the sun had set and both the Basilica San Marco and the piazza were beautifully lit.

After wandering around the piazza, stopping to do a little shopping, and gazing into Florian’s cafe and wishing we were fancy enough to eat there, we made our way to Ristorante Marciana, a restaurant just outside the piazza that had looked promising.

My biggest regret of this little whirlwind trip is that we failed to really experience true Venetian dining – we didn’t go to a cicchetti bar, or even have seafood, because by the time dinner rolled around we were both so hungry that all we wanted was pasta. We did have a delicious dinner of ravioloni in cheese sauce (for me) and carbonara for the birthday girl, but next time I go to Venice I will definitely try to eat like a Venetian.

We ate until we could not possibly accomodate any more food in our stomachs, and then we asked to see the dessert menu. One delicious tiramisu later, we waddled out of the restaurant and wandered around some more, eventually making our way back to our B&B.

The next morning, we woke up, grabbed some croissants from the breakfast area, and made our way back to the Piazza San Marco, this time trying not to get lost because we needed to make our 9:50am SECRET PASSAGEWAY TOUR of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace).

The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Venetian government back in the days when this town was a prosperous and important part of trade routes between Asia and Europe. The city was ruled by the Doge, an elected noble, and his council of advisors. In addition to the Doge and his cronies, there was also the eternally feared “Council of Ten”, a body that acted in secret to exact justice upon lawbreakers. As part of our secret tour, we got to see the rooms where the Council of Ten would convene, as well as the places they would interrogate and torture suspected criminals. We also got to see the Piombi, or prison cells located immediately below the attic of the palace. The Piombi take their name from the lead that lined the ceiling of the cells. It was from one of these cells that Giacomo Casanova famously escaped in 1755.

After we finished our tour of the main palace, we crossed the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) to see the rest of the prison cells. The bridge was given the name “Bridge of Sighs” by Lord Byron, because prisoners being lead across the bridge would look out and see their last view of Venice, and sigh. The bridge itself was actually designed by the nephew of the man who designed the Rialto bridge. And, of course, the local legend says that lovers who kiss while riding a gondola under the bridge will be granted eternal love.

We finished our tour of the Palazzo, grabbed a quick lunch, and headed back to our hotel to check out. It was sad to say goodbye to Venice, but so nice to have gotten to spend time there at all. Venice feels like a complete escape from the real world, and it is such a big contrast to Rome. For one thing, there are no cars, so it feels like you are walking in a bygone era. As a result, the city is also very peaceful and quiet, and the whole place feels like it can’t possibly be real – sort of like a Disneyland for adults. I would really encourage anyone who gets the chance to go and visit, and I myself can’t wait to go back!

Go visit quickly! Before it sinks!

Happy New Year! 4 days late I know, but the year is still new, so humor me. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I visited Barcelona, Granada and Madrid in a whirlwind 5 days, seeing lots of beautiful sights and eating lots of delicious food.

Casa Batlló (Barcelona) - built by Antoni Gaudí, one of the most interesting aspects of this structure is the lack of straight lines - the facade (as well as many of the walls) is curved, and decorated with mosaics. The chimney at the top is fashioned to look like a dragon

Parc Güell (Barcelona) - a park on the El Carmel hill, also designed by Gaudí. The park contains the house where Gaudí lived, which is now the Casa Museu Gaudí (Gaudí Museum).

Gourmet Seafood Paella at Can Majo. Paella is a rice-based dish that is commonly considered the national dish of Spain. In addition to rice, it consists of a variety of proteins including (but not limited to) chicken, rabbit, duck, shrimp, clams, crab and other types of seafood.

After a day in Barcelona, we headed to Granada, a city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the south of Spain

Granada's most famous monument is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress situated on top of a hill, overlooking the city. The Alhambra was built in the 14th century for the Moorish rulers of the Nasrid Dynasty. The palace is full of beautiful and perfectly-preserved Islamic architecture.

Cueva Venta El Gallo, a restaurant in the Sacromonte quarter of Granada, where we had a delicious dinner and saw a wonderful flamenco dance show. The Sacromonte quarter is home to a large gitano (gypsy) population.

Leaving Granada, we headed up to Madrid for our last few days!

I didn't get too many pictures in Madrid, but this is the Museo del Prado, the most famous Spanish art museum. If you are traveling to Madrid and want to visit the Prado, be sure to check and see when/if free entrance is available (in our case, tickets were free between 6 and 8pm, but I don't know if this changes seasonally!)

I flew from the land of Prado back to the land of Prada on New Year’s Eve, just in time to bid farewell to 2011 and usher in 2012 with my friend Allyson at a small party hosted by Maureen Fant, a cookbook author and writer who lives here in Rome.

The food was as expected: amazing and plentiful. We started with a variety of antipasti, including tuna spread, olives, cheese, crudite, bread, crackers, tzatziki, and paté. From there, we moved on to the main course, which consisted of two delicious baked pasta dishes, one of which was a lasagna that was out of this world (but I failed to get a name or a recipe!). In addition, we had lentils, a traditional Italian New Year’s dish. The lentils (which look like tiny little coins) symbolize wealth and prosperity in the New Year. I ate a whole bunch, so I think I’m pretty much set.

After dinner, we headed up to the rooftop terrace. Maureen lives very close to il Colosseo, which is where the city-sponsored fireworks are held. In addition to the city’s fireworks, however, were about a dozen other private fireworks shows all over town, resulting in a beautiful, deafening, and extremely well-lit midnight!

Because of how close we were to the Colosseum, it was difficult to get a picture with both it and the fireworks in the frame - this was the best I could do!

The area between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia is Rome's Times Square on New Year's, completely packed with people and covered in discarded champagne bottles and broken glass. This is a shot of the LEAST crowded side of the Colosseum. It was a looong walk home.

Here we are, 2012. May your year and stomachs be filled with delicious food! Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas from Rome! Last night, on the way to midnight mass at the Vatican, I snapped a bunch of pictures of Rome in all its Christmas finery. Enjoy, and have a wonderful holiday!

Nativity and tree on Piazza Venezia (in front of Il Vittoriano)

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Italian flag lights on the via del Corso

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View of Piazza Venezia from via del Corso

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Lights on via dei Due Macelli (leading up to Piazza Spagna)

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Under normal circumstances, the only time the Spanish Steps are this empty is at around 4am. Normally this place is packed with people, both locals and tourists, and is one of the most popular (and, as a result, most inconvenient) meeting places in Rome.

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Beautiful lights on Via dei Condotti, perhaps the most expensive street in Rome. The street, which connects to via del Corso on one end, and the Piazza Spagna on the other end, is named for the conduits that once carried water to the Baths of Agrippa. Modern Italians with addresses on this street include Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Ferragamo, Armani, Fendi and Dolce & Gabanna. I’m pretty sure I get a little poorer just window shopping on this street.

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The via del Corso ends in the Piazza del Popolo

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Christmas tree above Piazza del Popolo

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Here we are! Christmas tree in Piazza San Pietro

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Nativity scene at St. Peter’s (sans Baby Jesus, because it was not yet midnight). I had to do some impressive elbowing and some moderate foot-stomping to make my way to the front to get this picture. Do as the Romans do, right?

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We did not have enough Papal pull to attend the actual mass inside the basilica, so we stood in the square with the masses and watched the whole thing on one of several screens stationed throughout the square. Please notice Santa Claus fleeing the scene!

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St Peter’s nativity scene post-midnight, now with Baby Jesus. It’s officially Christmas!

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View of Castel St. Angelo on my way home – not Christmassy, but still kind of spectacular

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Last, but not least, the tree in the Campo di Fiori

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Buon Natale!

p.s. Tomorrow I am leaving for Spain at the ungodly hour of 6:45 am, and I won’t be back until New Year’s, so my next post won’t be until 2012! Happy holidays!

Banoffee pie. One of the few culinary successes from our friends across the pond, banoffee pie is a British dessert composed of bananas and toffee atop a graham cracker crust. The name is a portmanteau: BANana + tOFFEE = banoffee. Unlike the accents of the people who created it, banoffee pie is not what I would call a “sexy” dessert. It lacks the sleekness of ganache, or the rustic beauty of a lattice crust, or the precision of perfectly piped frosting. The toffee might run. The bananas may slide all over the place. A perfectly intact slice of this pie may never make it onto a plate, but you’ll have to make your peace with that because this pie is, as the Brits would say, bloody brilliant. America, get on board.

Did I mention how easy this is to make? The toffee filling is made by letting an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk sit in boiling water for 2.5-3 hours. It’s important to make sure that the can is covered with water at all times, otherwise it can explode. This was a very stressful 2.5 hours for me, because the biggest pot I had was just deep enough to cover the can with water, so I kept going back and adding more water, all the while being fully prepared to dodge molten caramel in the event of an explosion. This stress can be avoided by using a deeper pot, like a pasta pot, and leaving several inches of water above the can.

Once the toffee is made and cooled, the only thing left to do is pour it over a pre-baked graham cracker crust, slice a few bananas over it, top it with whipped cream and sprinkle some chocolate chips/cocoa powder over the whole thing. Then let it chill in the fridge for at least a couple hours (or even overnight) in order to let everything set. Easy as pie!

Now for the stracciatella part. Traditional banoffee pie calls for chocolate of some form being sprinkled on top, but I don’t believe in putting things on the invitation that aren’t actually going to be at the party. I wasn’t about to just not put the chocolate on top though, so I decided to put it in the pie too! I poured the toffee filling onto the crust while it was still a little warm, and then poured some chocolate chips on top and swirled them around in the toffee. The remaining heat from the toffee partially melted the chips, and then I put the whole thing in the fridge to cool completely before adding the bananas and whipped cream. During the cooling process, the semi-melted chocolate chip swirls re-solidified, and the result was…crunchy chocolate swirls. Just like my favorite flavor of gelato!

You can also make a low-fat version of this by using fat-free sweetened condensed milk, but I’ve never tried making toffee with that. From what I’ve read, it works, but may not taste as rich as the full-fat stuff. Shocking.

Stracciatella Banoffee Pie recipe

For the crust:

  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (or digestive biscuit crumbs, which is actually what I used)
  • 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Combine the melted butter and vanilla extract. Toss mixture together with graham cracker crumbs until fully combined.

Press crumbs evenly into 9″ pie plate. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Cool to room temperature.

 

For the toffee filling:

  • 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

Remove labels from can and place in a deep pot (a pasta pot would work well) and cover completely with water (there should be at least a couple inches of water above the top of the can). Place pot on stove over low-medium heat, and boil for 3 hours. Check the pot every so often to make sure the water level is well above the top of the can. After 3 hours, carefully remove can from water and allow it to cool (this itself can take an hour or so). Once cooled, open can and stir to make sure the toffee is smooth.

 

Assembling the pie:

  • 1 pre-baked graham cracker crust
  • 14 oz. toffee filling
  • 2-3 bananas, sliced
  • handful of chocolate chips (plus more for sprinkling on top of whipped cream)
  • lightly sweetened whipped cream (the amount is up to you, depending on how thick a layer of whipped cream you want!)

Once the toffee is nearly cooled, pour over pre-baked crust. Sprinkle on a handful of chocolate chips, and swirl into the filling (be careful not to break the crust when doing this!). Place the crust+filling into the fridge for 15-20 minutes to allow the toffee to finish cooling completely.

Remove pie from fridge and add sliced bananas on top of toffee filling. You can try to incorporate them into the filling a little if you want, or just leave them laying on top. Then top with whipped cream, sprinkle with a few chocolate chips, and put back in the fridge for an hour, or until ready to serve! The longer this pie chills, the better it sets, and the easier it will be to slice!

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