Coffee harborside at a tiny bistro table on the sidewalk right in front of our hotel, I Tre Merli, and just a few feet from the water’s edge. Movements only from that cheeky seagull eyeing me and my breakfast onion focaccia, and from the small dogs trotting beside their owners. There were the harbor pilots sipping espresso in their flip flops and board shorts and reading the morning’s paper, the day-trippers consulting the water-taxi schedule to San Frutuosso and glancing at the dock, where no water-taxi is anchored (the sea’s probably too rough and the taxi won’t run today).
Coffee was brought out in a white carafe with a side pitcher of frothy milk. I could sit for hours here, absent-mindedly pouring more coffee and milk into my cup and gazing out and across the harbor of Camogli, watching the cliffside town slowly, ever so slowly wake up. J and I were easing into our day, too. Making the most of our mornings meant sitting at this very table for as long as it took, and then wandering back upstairs to our room to gather water bottles, sunblock and head out for a day of hiking over the hills and coastline stretching south of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante of Italy’s Ligurian coast.
I was wistfully reminded of northern Italy’s aperitivo one night in DC’s Maxwell Park. It was early evening on a Saturday and every bar seat was comfortably filled by people like me and J who were there for a pre-dinner drink. But as I glanced around, I noticed amongst the wine and water glasses that there wasn’t a small plate or bowl of snacks in front of anyone. In contrast, my pre-dinner experience in northern Italy was “aperitivo,” a civilized few hours around sunset enjoyed with a selection of meats and cheeses, crusty bread, olives or other bites, served alongside your cocktail or wine.
Aperitivo purportedly got its start in the capital of Italy’s Piedmont’s region, Turin, where Antonio Benedetto Carpano concocted vermouth. (And where J and I had two lovely pizzas sitting outdoors at a café, excited but fighting off the beginnings of jet lag – having just landed from the U.S. – and before catching our train to coastal Liguria.)
And there we were the next day, at an open-air seaside bar in Camogli, on the Ligurian coast, where aperitivo included an eclectic mix of potato chips, bite size sandwiches, pickled vegetables, and hummus. All of this came unbidden with a glass of sparkling wine and the server insisting, yes, snacks come with your drinks, and yes, they are included in the very reasonable price. How have I not known about this sensible tradition? Google translates “aperitivo” to “appetizer.” Which doesn’t do it justice. Italy’s aperitivo was a revelation; a truly smart way to enjoy your early evening.
On an early summer evening we made dinner for friends, who brought dessert. They were flying in a few days to visit some of the very same parts of northern Italy J and I did a few years ago. Just hearing “Piemonte,” “Alba,” “Barolo,” “Liguria,” filled my heart. I started talking in that enthusiastic tone of someone who has just gotten back from a trip and still feels close enough to touch it. That experience was essentially the force behind this blog.
She’s Italian and grew up in Turin (widely-claimed home of aperitivo); keeps a place on the Ligurian coast in Sanremo (or San Remo). Fly into Nice and it’s a short drive across the French-Italian border, on the Riviera di Ponente, Coast of the Sunset. (I stayed on the other side of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante, Coast of the Sunrise.) We had homemade tiramisu for dessert and homemade limoncello for our digestivo. A drink of grain alcohol, lemon rinds, and sugar, it burned the back of my throat. The limoncello was poured mercifully into tiny shot glasses. The rest is now hanging out in our freezer. I admit to being a little afraid to bring it out.
So, I’m going back to Italy with maybe a few new posts and have split my very first post – written just over a year ago – into two. I’m finally heeding (somewhat) my teenage niece’s comment that my blog posts can be too long.
I was drawn back to Washington DC’s Union Market by St. Anselm and its meat-focused menu and friends’ good reviews. That area has changed. It was dark and raining, but driving down 4thSt NE I was startled to see the old row of low-slung industrial buildings all of a sudden disappear, into a gaping I’m-going-to-be-a-high-rise-apartment-building hole, with the restaurant Masseria– its left side shorn off – the humble last stop at the edge of a cliff.
It was enough change to make J and I show up the next day to get our bearings in dry daylight. Wholesale produce markets and meat markets proclaiming fresh goat are disappearing. Near a halal butcher and restaurant supply store is a Politics & Prose bookstore.
A. Litteri Italian market is still there. Next to the wholesale Washington DC souvenir mart. A. Litteri is where I know we can get trophie pasta…better to reminisce with a lot of basil pesto, potatoes, and green beans, about our trip to Liguria, on Italy’s northern Mediterranean coast. And, to check out the selection of Piedmont and Ligurian wines. We left with a Pigato (a Ligurian white) and will be back, hopefully, for a Rossese (a Ligurian red).
We were happy to see a Ploussard (sometimes Poulsard) (from the Jura region of France) at St. Anselm. A light and bright red we’d first tried over Thanksgiving turkey; a nice alternative to a Pinot Noir. Contemplating the images of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy over the kitchen doorway and the Shriners’ fez hats above the bar, we also tried a Graciano from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and a Mondeuse, from the Savoie in France along with some smoky grilled oysters.
Underneath my hanger steak, my dinner plate presented the image of Dwight D. Eisenhower. J’s was a stag – really not as exciting as cutting meat on the etched face of Eisenhower. Our server was so engaging we were compelled to have a piece of rainbow sprinkled ice cream cake. I left happily with a doggie bag of the last of the four buttermilk biscuits, shimmering in delicate laminated layers, pale orange pimento cheese spread on the side.
Hockey and Modern Asian cuisine? ALL CAPS and Wasabi Guacamole? It doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but…
My pre-Washington Capitals dinner and drinks spot is the bar at SEI. Hands down. It’s open, with a lot of counter space, and there’s a small lounge area with low tables set-off in the back. Happy hour runs until 8 pm – every evening. It’s not wall-to-wall people, so you have space to linger and eat and hear your friends talk. I haven’t had a bad happy hour red by-the-glass (recently a merlot), and my sinuses are consistently cleared by the wasabi I apply liberally to my spicy shrimp or tuna sushi rolls. And then there’s the signature Wasabi Guacamole. Four of us scooped up two orders with crispy wonton chips. Then J and I usually take a break from sushi for two Kobe beef sliders on a plate. We don’t waver from these favorite happy hour menu choices and they never disappoint.
Post-hockey? Rarely. But when it’s happened, it’s been to Flight. Flight’s the warm blonde downstairs wine bar on “the other side” of Capital One Arena. By the end of a 7:00 pm game, closing time is coming, and so are the happy hour prices on wines opened, but bottles not emptied. When we arrived after one hockey night, stool space was available at the curved center bar, and we were immediately engaged by a bartender who was – well, engaging – and knew her wines. A perfect way to cap off a Capitals win.
There are cupcakes galore at Bakeshop. I just ate a surprisingly good “Nerds” cupcake (Nerds are those little tangy candies); and the red velvet with cream cheese frosting is my favorite. But what’s elusive is the Friday night Brookie cookie. A Brookie is a brownie that’s a cookie…the chocolatey inside is meltingly soft, the outside a paper thin crust.
On our way home from dinner at nearby Green Pig Bistro or Screwtopwine bar, J and I have made a habit of stopping by Bakeshop for a Brookie. And lately, the day’s stock hasn’t lasted until closing time on a Friday. So when I dropped by on a Saturday afternoon, I had to snag two – because they were there. Which explains why, after work, on February 14, I found myself in a cramped Valentine’s Day baked goods line, backed up against the front door, all for just one Brookie cookie to gift for J.
Winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is low key. Its wide-open beaches and fewer people. It means oysters are in season and we can still get fresh shrimp. Last year, J and I experimented with poached oysters dotted with caviar and wisps of pickled cucumber. It was decadent and delicious. This year, to save J’s hands and manage to eat before midnight AND be able to enjoy more oysters with family, we stuck to roasting them on the grill to dip in cocktail sauce, a gingery cilantro sauce, and melted butter. Sauces that also shared nicely with a large bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp.
And then there was that blind baguette taste-off, which completed the night’s vibrant meal. (Some of the family had pre-determined favorites, but it was a tie – really – because each chewy baguette had its own strength – from a hint of butter in one to a perfectly browned crust in the other. See the culpable bakeries below.)
Sharing table space with the shrimp and oysters were bottles (carted down I-95 in the car with Russ & Daughters‘ smoked salmon, pickled lox, and a chocolate babka for good measure), of sparkling smoky na Punta extra brut and an exceptionally dry Argyle Extended Tirage Brut sipped from unassuming (maybe mismatched and unbreakable?) house wine glasses. We could bring them down to the beach for a sunset in soft shades of pink, behind the oyster shell-decorated “tree” that shows up every year at Christmas. Or during a pitch-black night, to see the moon, like J, with his camera, tripod, and headlamp.
Besides the beach at sunset, get to these places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, SC, to make the most out of Winter –
Bluffton Oyster Company, for bushels of local oysters. Be sure to call and place an order ahead of time during the holidays.
New York City Pizza, where the take-out veggie pizza is piled high with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, and they’re open late-ish if you hit traffic and arrive on the island after dark.
Fish Camp on Broad Creek, to sit at the heated outside bar twinkling in strings of soft white lights, eating ahi tuna nachos and calamari with crunchy/spicy fried pickles, a Westover One-Claw and a glass of malbec, listening to the guy in the corner playing guitar.