Forget “Bella Figura”… Mangia!
Posted on July 6, 2016
Fresh on the heels of a two-week European adventure I’m tired beyond belief. My body feels like a ton of bricks and my mind is in such a jet-lag induced fog that I cannot even add two plus two.
What was that? European adventure?!
So folks, it was pretty much a spur of the moment deal. If there isn’t a “rule” there ought to be. Let’s say rule # 43, just for fun: When a business trip takes a husband overseas then wife gets to travel along too.”
OK. So he’s had a number of overseas trips in these past four years that I’ve had to sit out for a variety of reasons but this time presented an opportunity to visit my Italian roots once again (the last time being 2008), something that was necessary for me to do in the recent aftermath of my mother’s passing. So invoking rule #43, a business conference in Vienna morphed into a side trip to the Czech Republic (only about four hours by car) and a six-day jaunt to northern Italy. My mission in Italy was to lay a few things to rest…or attempt to at the very least. I was marginally successful there. Suffice it to say that more time is needed. I did accomplish one goal however. I ate. A lot. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
I seriously kick myself for not writing much of anything during these past couple of weeks but honestly folks, I was too busy eating my way through three countries. Every morsel of food that I put into my mouth was fresh, wholesome, fabulously delicious food. Food sans preservatives that thrilled the taste buds in ways too numerous to count. In the days leading up to my trip I’ll admit that I swore up and down that I would be a “good” girl and fight to keep a semblance of una bella figura (a nice figure) for a gal pushing sixty. I knew I wouldn’t be doing my normal gym workouts for two weeks so managing my caloric intake would be important.
“I’m not going to pig out,” I said to Rocket-man as I threw stuff into my suitcase in giddy anticipation at the prospect of traveling overseas again. (Full disclosure: I will confess that I was, at times, a nervous ninny about travel given the rise in terrorist atrocities.)
As I prattled on whilst deciding on which shoes to pack I vowed to Rocket-man that I would absolutely restrain myself from overeating. Translation: a) I will not order dessert, and b) I will leave food on my plate.
Ah…you guessed it. That did not happen.
Forget the whole bella figura thing. Mangia was my mantra. Eat! (and drink). And I did both with joyful abandon. I enjoyed desserts (but managed to restrain myself in this department!) and I practically squeegee-cleaned my plate at every meal. Except for once that is. In that case, the schnitzel was positively ginormous. No doubt I’d still be sitting in that Viennese restaurant attempting to finish it. Still, I gave it my best effort; who knew when I’d be in Vienna again, if ever…right?
But here’s the thing: Freshly prepared, real food with good olive oil, fresh spices, and herbs straight from the garden is enormously satisfying in smaller portions and for the most part, smaller portions are the norm in Europe. With the exception of the schnitzel, everything I ate arrived on a smaller-than-U.S.-size plate. And European sweets? They are not loaded with sugar and sickeningly-sweet icings.
Though too much to cover now, here is a short account to make your mouths positively salivate:
In the Czech Republic I had the best pappardelle dish I had ever eaten during a roadside stop just off the highway en-route to Vienna. It was a curious place nearly smack dab in the middle of a field of lavender. Inside the modern decor was awash in white and varying hues of purple with dried lavender bouquets hanging everywhere. My pappardelle dish was laced with grilled vegetables and topped with delicately shaved Parmesan cheese. I didn’t leave so much as a parsley sprig on my plate.
During our five days In Vienna I dined on schnitzels (highly recommend schnitzel at Figlmueller’s) and an assortment of dumpling (Austrian noodle) dishes. Folks, I’m not even a dumpling person but as the saying goes… when in Vienna! Therefore, in my quest to try all things Viennese I gushed over one particular plate of spinach dumplings, using pretzel bread to soak up the last bit of sauce.
I ordered Sachertorte (A Viennese specialty) with the intent of sharing it and didn’t! I mean really, share this specialty chocolate cake….who does that?! Later in that week we enjoyed lunch, in a quaint courtyard restaurant off the beaten path. I groaned with pleasure over my plate of velvety smooth polenta topped with a lively peperonata sauce. If I could, I wouldn’t have left my chair that afternoon and I would have stayed on for dinner.
In northeast Italy–in my mother’s neck of the woods (and mine as well), I was transported to another universe with melt-in-your mouth Frico, a specialty dish of the Friuli-Veneto region. Originally considered a peasant dish when Friuli was a poor region, this fried (or baked) dish of potatoes, grated onions, and Montasio cheese comes together in a marriage made in heaven.
“Mangia!” urged my cousin, as the dish was set before me on the table. No urging necessary, by the way. Frico is the ultimate comfort food, far more comforting than mac and cheese in my humble opinion. Add a bottle of red-wine to the table and it’s easy to say “God, take me now.”
In Udine, my mother’s home town and the place of my childhood memories, I refused to miss lasagna (which did not disappoint) nor polpette (Italian meatballs). A gnocchi dish with sage and butter nearly made me faint with pleasure. My order of pizza Quattro Stagioni (four seasons) brought a tear of joy to my eyes…it was that good. Only Italians know how to do pizza! Fabulously thin crust, very little sauce and even less cheese and a plethora of wholesome toppings to choose from. I didn’t feel one bit guilty for eating the entire pizza set before me.
There were more fabulous meals to be enjoyed while in Udine, particularly at my cousin Rinella’s home. We dined on bruschetta and insalata caprese, followed by an absolutely perfect frittata (I’ll admit to having seconds!). At a family reunion picnic just outside of Udine there were mountains of home-made bread to sample, a divinely delicious radicchio tart as well as grilled meats prepared by grill-master Marco (owner of Martha, the chicken-killer dog. Story to follow at some point!). He masterfully prepared sausage, ribs, and thickly sliced pancetta. This meal was topped off with gelato for dessert along with glasses of ice-cold limoncello to go around, and fruit marinated in grappa. Fabulous food…wonderful friends and family…. How could life get any better than this?!
After Udine, we made our way to elegantly decaying Venice. I’ve been to Venice at least five times–perhaps more, during my toddler years–and it is still as magical as ever. At lunch, I ordered a signaature Venetian seafood pasta dish, Bigoli in Salsa, at my mother’s favorite restaurant, Trattoria Alla Madonna ( It’s off the beaten tourist path).
Bigoli is a long, thick tube type of pasta. Traditionally, it used to be made of buckwheat flour but now it’s more likely to be made with whole-wheat flour. The Salsa consisted of a pureed blend of onions and a salt-cured fish, anchovies. As I had done numerous times in the preceding days, I groaned with pure pleasure, savoring every bite. I didn’t leave a drop of sauce on my plate.
On our last night in Venice I was conflicted over what to order. There were so many wonderful choices to be had. This is not the end! It will not be my last meal in Bella Italia. Again, I ordered pizza…this time with prosciutto, peperoncini, and arugula. It was huge and at first I thought I couldn’t possibly finish it given that I’d eaten pasta for lunch. But it was my last night in a magical city–until the next time— and I was determined not to disappoint the plate!
I ate with gusto as gondolas slowly inched past our table and the water lapped at the sides of the bridges and walls. I ate to lively music, laughter, and people chatter, with wine glasses clinking at table after table to animated cheers of salute and buon appetito…with the sun settling down low into the eastern sky and a million twinkling lights reflecting in the water.
In less than eight hours my heart would be sad to leave the land of my roots. I’d miss Venice, where my mother lived as a child to escape the threat of bombs in World War II. I carried little flashbacks throughout that last day in Venice: Venice…where over thirty years ago I pushed my son’s stroller in St. Marco’s square among a sea of pigeons. Venice, where I walked for hours one late July day in sweltering heat while pregnant with my daughter. Venice, where my ex and I had a day of sightseeing and then found ourselves (by choice) at Harry’s Bar, Hemingway’s hangout. We had no idea that we’d be way under-dressed. Blanching over the menu prices for lunch we still ordered. We had to…it was Harry’s Bar! Ah…Bella Venezia: It’s is where I ran my one and only international marathon and it’s the birthplace of my favorite composer, Antonio Vivaldi. Despite the throng of tourists, Venice never disappoints. I feel blessed to have another beautiful memory of my days there to take home with me; memories that are sure to make me smile during inevitably blue times.
So….back in middle-earth land now, another universe (or so it seems) away, I recall a magical moment in Piazzo San Marco, under the night sky. There is a slight breeze, welcoming after a hot and humid day and a lot of walking. I’ve got a glass of white wine in hand and it is wonderfully refreshing. The sound of live music from a quartet just a few feet from our table makes the moment almost impossibly romantic.
I will be back.
P.S. For inquiring minds, I did hop on the bathroom scales the day after my return. I didn’t gain a pound! Seriously. That’s a testament to eating real food….and lots of walking.