I don’t know if it’s always this quiet. Or if it was just a Saturday morning mid-August in downtown Tacoma. Quiet streets make good streets for running, though, and I ran Pacific Avenue to the Pacific Brewing and Malting Co., ducking down smaller roads trying to glimpse any water along the way. But this part of Tacoma is blocks of businesses and highways across from container ports and waterways. As the helpful hotel concierge said when I asked about a waterfront running path, you’ll just keep running into obstacles if you try to get close to water. Back up Pacific Avenue I ran to the Chihuly Bridge of Glass and perfectly-situated Anthem Coffee & Tea for my planned post-run latté.
Multi-colored glass flowed in the ceiling above the pedestrian bridge, and glass artworks lined the two sides of the Bridge of Glass. It was overcast, and while the shapes and colors were beautiful, I imagine they would have been spectacular under a bright sun. Crossing the bridge, I connected to the Museum of Glass, distinguished by the angled cone structure shooting upward marking its glass blowing “hot shop.” At the bottom of the museum’s spiraling stairs, I ran a short path along the Foss Waterway, passing new condos (or apartments) on one side and the waterway and marina on the other, the pretty cabled East 21stStreet Bridge spanning the waterway ahead of me as I ran back.
Sitting at one of the scattered outdoor patio tables on the backside of Anthem, I drank my latté in peace, facing the glass bridge and soft red brick of the Beaux-Arts domed US District Courthouse next door. Leaving, I could hear music and voices marking the finish line of The Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon, just past an entrance to the University of Washington Tacoma and a dotting of storefronts and restaurants, joyfully breaking the otherwise quiet of that morning.
You don’t have to go far outside the DC area for an un-urban experience. But you will not escape the traffic trying to get there. So brace yourself until you’re past Fredericksburg and can break free of I-95. J and I, and our senior-dog-resigned-to-her-fate, spent a summer weekend in Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s an area dotted with tiny towns; of low-lying farms and fields of corn and soybeans where the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay. J and I were there to kayak and eat what we could manage of Rappahannock oysters. We stayed in a small house in Irvington down the street from the Steamboat Era Museum and the grassy commons set up for the Irvington Crab Festival, at the town’s main commercial intersection. There was a Methodist church on one corner, Baptist on the other.
We passed by both on our unhurried morning walks to The Local, the local coffee shop, where we sat on the street-front patio behind the white picket fence and watched grandparents and grandkids leisurely cycle by on pastel bikes. A few doors down we ate dinner at The Dredge (named for the fishing dredge used to harvest oysters), which was nicely full of year-long residents and regular summer visitors. Lily Pulitzer was on full display. And then sipped port at the softly lit The Vine (wine shop and wine bar) comfortably situated next to the Baptist church.
Down the road in Weems we stopped by one of the best-preserved colonial era churches, set off in a tree-shaded grassy enclave. An Anglican parish church built in the 1730s and funded by wealthy landowner Robert “King” Carter, we read the inscriptions on the tombs outside Historic Christ Church of King Carter himself and his first and second wives. Both wives died in their 30s…after birthing a combined 15 children (Carter died in his 60s).
Although surrounded by water on the map, we had to deliberately seek it out. From Weems we followed a quiet road ending miles away at the beach and marina of Windmill Point, jutting out where the Rappahannock River falls into the Chesapeake Bay.
We rented kayaks and paddled out on a quiet creek at Menokin, the house and plantation of Francis Lightfoot Lee, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house, now in ruins, is coming back under a preservation plan that will re-build the lost remains of the outer structure in glass. It’s set off in a field and had terraced gardens in the back that in its day preserved a view of the creek beyond.
Driving back to Irvington, we stopped for sandwiches at the civil war finds cum all-day-breakfast diner at the alliterative Callao Coffee Café in Callao, with signs for casino parking in back (although we didn’t see a casino). We browsed what was for sale while waiting for our paninis. Continuing east before turning south I found homemade ice cream (peanut butter Oreo) at T & Js Dairy Barn in Burgess.
Eventually we found a deck with water views by heading straight down historic Urbanna‘s Virginia Street and taking a gravel road to the seafood market and dockside restaurant of Urbanna Seafood and Raw Bar. At stools lining the small covered outdoor bar we looked out at Robinson Creek while diners ordered baskets of oysters and crabs and calamari at multi-colored benches and picnic tables on the shaded deck. Passing through White Stone on our way back from Urbanna (over the Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock) we stopped for dinner at the lovely unassuming Adrift, which shares the block with the town post office. Sitting at the small bar we hung out eating oysters delicately fried and flavorful over a spinach salad, and baked and ramp-buttered in a hot dish with toast.
Our last chance at oysters was back over the Norris Bridge and an immediate left (at Hummel Field airfield) to the shore of the Rappahannock for brunch at Merroir, the birthplace of the Rappahannock Oyster Company. We arrived not long after opening time, which got us an umbrella shaded table on the dog friendly patio of softly crushed bleached-white oyster shells. BBQ bourbon chipotle grilled oysters, accompanied by a jumbo lump crab cake and a glass of rosé, enhanced a sprawling river view. It felt quiet and there was a slight breeze. And we lingered.
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.
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.