WHEN WE decided to take a trip to Italy and Turkey, we knew food would be
an important part of the journey. We didn't expect it to be the most
important part. Sure, the Coliseum and the Forum in Rome were cool; the
Grand Canal in Venice was nifty; all the art in Florence is important and
the Blue Mosque and Topkapi in Istanbul were amazing.
But honestly, the real reason we walked all over Italy and Turkey was just
to build up an appetite. The food ... ah, the food. It was glorious.
Eating is taken very seriously in Europe. It isn't rushed and the locals
don't believe in fast food. In fact, a whole movement, called SlowFood,
was started in Italy.
You still see McDonald's and Starbucks everywhere, but, in general, dining
is held in high regard and eating is an event. Many businesses still shut
their doors for a couple of hours in the middle of the day for lunch. How
civilized! None of this grabbing something on the run or eating at your
We found, however, if you don't want to break the bank, it's wise to eat
away from the tourist locations in Italy. We made a mistake at the Trevi
Fountain in Rome. After fighting our way through the throngs of people to
catch a glimpse of the fountain, we insanely decided to have a quick lunch
at a little cafe near. The toast I was presented turned out to be two
dried out pieces of white bread separated the thinnest piece of ham I have
ever seen and the other sandwich wasn't much better. We forced these down
with 10-oz. bottles of water and the bill came to 21 Euros (about $27).
Bad food at high prices. This, however, was the exception. We learned fast
and found many family tratorias and enotecas with wonderful, reasonably
priced food. Our favorite in Rome was the Trattoria Rossini, near the
Borghese Gardens. The best focacia rustica ever. The bread was crispy and
her on the outside and wonderfully soft and chewy on the inside. Olive oil
was drizzled over the bread to create a terrific taste sensation. We
enjoyed this with a salad and pasta and locally produced wines that
rivaled many of the more expensive labels.
Salads in Italy are always served naked, no dressing. They bring extra
virgin olive oil and vinegar - sometimes balsamic, sometimes wine,
sometimes both - then you're on your own to toss and season as you like.
When we were in the Veneto, we stayed in an old mansion called the Villa
Stucky - 18 elegant rooms that included breakfast each day. It was
situated in the small town of Mogliano a 10- minute train ride from Venice
Santa Lucia station.
After a day of sightseeing in Venice and on the island of Murano, we were
tired and hungry. We hopped back on the train to our villa in Mogliano. Of
the several restaurants in town, the one recommended most often was Ai
Portici. We had a risotto that was unlike any we'd ever had: cheesy and
rich with ba white asparagus and small bites of wild strawberries that
were tossed in at the very last minute. After three lovely days in Venice,
we hopped on a train and headed for Florence. We stayed at a little B & B
called La Stanza di Santa Croce, located near the Piazza Santa Croce. It
was a terrific location within walking distance of the Ponte Vecchio, the
Duomo and the Arno River, which bisects the city.
We found many enotecas (wine bars) that served wonderful food in a more
casual setting. I tried a Mexican restaurant while in Florence. Well, it
didn't really qualify as a restaurant - there were only two tables. I
received an interesting Italian take on a cheese quesadilla and guacamole.
We decided to stick to Italian food after that.
Italy is becoming more and more cosmopolitan and diverse. Many people are
immigrating from north Africa and the Asian population is growing as well.
One of the places we tried in Florence had a Japanese chef. We had a salad
of fresh uncooked ba artichokes with olive oil, lemon and Parmigiano
shavings. It was very good. We kept going back to an enoteca called
Boccadama. As it turns out, their interesting menu was designed our food
coach and B & B owner, Mariangla Catalani. After trying several of their
salads and entrees, our favorite turned out to be a fruit and cheese
board. Along with the apples and dried apricots, they served a half pear
with the center hollowed out and filled with honey for dunking the
When we flew off to Turkey, we weren't sure how it could compare with
Italy. We were in for a surprise. It's impossible to choose which country,
Italy or Turkey, has better food. The use of fresh, local produce is
stressed in both countries and the menus change according to the season.
Neither country imports fruits and vegetables. When you bite into a
strawberry, for example, you are almost guaranteed it was grown within a
few miles of the market.
The markets are another thing both countries have in abundance. Beautiful
open-air places with the fruits and vegetables presented as art. Just
walking through is enough to make you hungry.
We visited a very large market in Bodrum, Turkey. As in Italy, the array
of fresh fruits and vegetables was mind boggling. We found sea asparagus,
a vegetable that is almost impossible to find in Southern California. It
turns out this salty succulent, which grows in sandy marshes, is really
popular in Turkey. And they prepare it the same way we do: After blanching
it to remove some of the salt, it is sauteed in olive oil, then topped
with toasted almonds, sliced red onion and orange sections.
At the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, we picked up dried fruits and nuts and
spices of every kind. I bought a box of at least 10 different kinds of
Turkish Delight for a friend of mine who, strangely, finds it delicious.
In Turkish restaurants, a big part of the menu is devoted to Meze. Like
antipasto or Spanish tapas, it is usually eaten before the main course,
but not necessarily. Sometimes it is the only thing. You'll find
everything from purslane or cucumbers and mint in yogurt to squid stuffed
with rice and vegetables.
They also like to stuff tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant with chopped
vegetables and bread crumbs or rice. As in Greece, grape leaves are
stuffed with rice, ground lamb, currents, pine nuts, mint and seasonings.
Various pastas are combined with chopped zucchini, eggplant, onions and
tomatoes for a saucy concoction. All of these come in fairly small bowls
to be shared.
There can easily be as many as 10 different meze on the table. I wasn't
surprised when most of the time I was too full to eat the main course. It
was all so gloriously wonderful!
One day in Istanbul we ended up at a very large restaurant that served
excellent meze. It was so good, I probably should have skipped the main
event. The meza was a volcano of jasmine rice, topped with lightly cooked
zucchini, eggplant, onions, tomatoes and garlic, with small bites of the
most tender lamb. Between the rice and the veggies they had managed to
sneak a layer of a creamy cheese that just melted into the vegetables and
rice. Another outstanding dish.
Our trip lasted three weeks, and we could easily have spent twice that
time and still not have savored all the tastes of these two great
countries. Another trip could be spent tasting nothing but cheeses and
olives. Oh, and maybe the breads.
Cheese, olives and bread - that's really all you need. And maybe a little