Posted by: Madeline's Plate | June 15, 2012

Eating Italian in… Prague?

Extensive wine selection at Vino di Vino

One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying out the local cuisine. Visits to New York include hot bagels and every single time I’m in Louisiana I have crawfish, fried catfish and gumbo. When family comes to Austin, I take them to restaurants like Fonda San Miguel and Takoba for the tasty cochinita pibil and tortas that are hard to find on the East Coast.

But this time, on my fifth visit to Prague, I rebelled. Don’t misunderstand me – Czech cuisine has its highlights. I’m a big fan of a frosty bottle of Pilsner Urquell and many a good morning has begun with the moist brown bread  that seems to be available in every bakery.

That said, woman cannot survive on sausages and dumplings alone. As an Oscar Wilde character said of German, “It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.” This exactly sums up my feelings towards Czech food.

So we bypassed the typical Czech cuisine, scouting out the most highly praised Italian restaurants in the city. Prague sees swarms of Italian tourists every year and a few have stayed in the city, providing pizza and pasta that I can’t find in Texas.

We went to Vino di Vino for a bite before seeing a show at the Smetana Theatre. The upper floor is sunny and cheery with wood tables but we sat in the more elegant space below, surrounded by endless shelves filled with Italian wines. I found one of my favorite Abruzzese whites (Villa Gemma) and we had a bottle while nibbling on mozzarella salads and chitarra with clams and asparagus. I have a weakness for the rectangular edges of chitarra pasta (which are named for how the noodles are formed on a stringed machine that looks like a guitar).

For an early birthday dinner, we headed to La Finestra in Cucina. Waiters who speak an excellent if archaic English bring the fish and meat cuts (uncooked) to your table so that you can look over the options before committing. If you’ve never had a 6’5″ Slavic man expounding on cuts of raw “flesh” while referring to you as “my dear Madame” let me assure you, it’s a unique experience. My father and I split a massive St. Peter’s fish roasted whole and fettucine tossed with buttery tomatoes, clams and shrimp. One dessert, espresso and amaro later, I was one happy Italophile. A word of caution – make sure to bring your kronen because while La Finestra is delicious, it isn’t cheap.

 

 

So if you find yourself in Prague and dreading another meal of vepřo-knedlo-zelo (pork, dumplings and sauerkraut), let me offer up these two options for a bit of variety.

Both Vino di Vino and La Finestra in Cucina are in the city center in Prague 1 – Staré Město

Vino di Vino: Štupartská 769/18, Tel. +420.222.311.791, Email: info@vinodivinopraha.cz

La Finestra in Cucina: Platnéřská 90/13, Tel. +420.222.325.325., Email: info@lafinestra.cz

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | June 14, 2012

A Long Weekend in Ireland

I just may have the slightest bit of a fixation with Ireland. Maybe because I have roots, both protestant and Catholic, in the country. Maybe it was all those Nanci Griffith songs about Grafton Street that my mother used to play. Maybe that class on Yeats I took sophomore year. But despite my enthusiasm (of which there was a lot), I had never been to the country itself.

That changed this year, on my birthday. I was taken to a lovely celebratory dinner at Rustic Stone and over the course of a long weekend discovered Baby Guiness and the wonder that is Irish brown bread.

Most of the time was spent in Dublin, with one day trip to see the Cliffs of Moher in County Galway. After living for 18 months in Texas, my mind was blown by a country so small that we could drive from one coast to the other (and back) in a single day. Well played, Ireland. Well played indeed.

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Posted by: Madeline's Plate | March 26, 2012

The Whip In: Still Awesome, No Longer a Secret

A hole in the wall has only a tenuous hold on its status.  This is usually good for the business but harder for us existing customers to swallow.

Friends, I am sad to say that day has come for the Whip In. When did the moment occur? When it was featured in the Chronicle? When Gastronomica profiled its blend of convenience store, craft beers and Indian snacks as a classic example of “Austin-Americana”?

No one can pinpoint the exact moment when Whip In crossed the threshold of popularity. For me, the moment of transformation came when I entered last week and found shelves that used to hold groceries cleared away to make room for more tables. It was a Thursday at 6:30 pm and the place was packed. The clientele was young and friendly, the beer list as diverse as ever and a band that seemed to have lost its way from the nearby high school was enthusiastically playing in the corner.

The Whip-In is still a great place to catch up with a friend over a Texan amber and a plate of naan goat sliders. It still sits defiant on the side of I-35, a lone refuge from the big box stores and fast food chains that line the frontage road. But it is no longer a hole in the wall.

I went with a fellow writer and food enthusiast, a native Austinite who wears his homegrown status as a badge of honor. He shook his head mournfully and complained about everyone discovering his find. But his smile came back when he tasted the Obsidian Stout.

So, go to the Whip In. You don’t want to be the last one in Austin to enjoy it.

The Whip In is open every day 10 am – midnight. Located at 1950 I-35 South, between the Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street exits. 512.442.5337 http://www.whipin.com

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | March 23, 2012

Surviving SXSW

 

Every year Austin is overrun for one week in March. If you live and work downtown, as I do, it’s impossible to escape.

The first half of the week isn’t so bad. SXSW begins with an interactive portion devoted to online start-ups and innovations. These attendees are mostly male, hip geeks (yes, that’s no longer an oxymoron). They’re too stylish to be mistaken for the typical Austinite and are often found in black rimmed glasses.

Mid-week the music festival begins and a demographic shift occurs. The entrepreneurs board their planes back to New York and the Bay Area. In their place arrive droves of hipsters with tight-fitting pants and anachronistic facial hair. Close on the hispters’ heels are lovers of debauchery in every form, united by a desire to enjoy the hundreds of shows, parties and free drinks.

My SXSW stamina is absurdly low for someone in their mid-20’s. I am unwilling to wait in line for 3 hours to drink a free lukewarm PBR and hear an up-and-coming band from Columbus, OH. Call me crazy.

However if you can’t beat them (and you really can’t), join them. I went to an awesome GrubWithUs dinner for Y Combinator alums, hit up some tech parties with a friend from art.sy, and enjoyed a few live bands from one of my native cities. My favorite restaurant in Austin was open for lunch, another lagniappe.

 

Do you recognize the title? It comes from one of the best American comedies in existence: Groundhog Day.

February is the month that winter begins to seem endless, when I crave sunshine and sandals. Even in Austin where “winter” this year has been only a formality, I felt in need of a party to lift the February blahs.

When my roommate and I discovered our shared love of watching Bill Murray relive the same day again and again, we knew it was the perfect excuse for a party. Key ingredients to our soiree:

Winter Cake – Devil’s Food Cake with Meringue Icing

Spring Cake – Lemon Sponge Cake with Crystallized Ginger and Rose Whipped Cream

Groundhog Cake – Jam Spice Cake with Caramel Cream Cheese Icing

Playlist – Standard party mix…with “I Got You, Babe” playing every fourth song.

Entertainment – Groundhog Day playing in the background. Be warned that even with closed captioning and no sound, your guests will begin to migrate to the television. The movie is that funny.

Constructing a groundhog cake was easier than I anticipated – one 8″ round cake was cut into two half moons and spackled together with frosting. Then a second round was used to make smaller half moons that were added on to the sides. A bit of angling with a sharp knife and the whistlepig was born. Be aware that it takes *a lot* of icing to create a groundhog, I made about 2.5 batches in total. For the ears, nose and paws, marzipan dipped in chocolate is pleasing to both the eyes and tongue.

 

One last thing… don’t forget to propose a toast to World Peace.

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | December 21, 2011

A Glimpse of a Roman Family

On the front page of the WSJ.com today is a feature on “Life in the Euro Zone.” Six interviews with six European families, each talking about their current standard of life.

They don’t name the city the Italian family lives in but it was easy to recognize. Their apartment is on Via Beatrice Cenci, a small side street in the Jewish Ghetto near my favorite spot for fried artichokes.

The family has passed on the job of doorman from generation to generation…a mixed inheritance that comes with a free place to live (in a neighborhood that despite its name is quite chic)  and a life sentence of being a doorman. The 26-year-old son now wants to buck tradition, unfortunately he can’t find work. It was a familiar story to anyone who’s lived in Italy in the past five years.

At the end of each family’s vignette, the feature shows a menu of what they had for dinner. For the Roman family it consisted of:

White wine and water

Pasta with a sauce of tomato and fish

Salami, mortadella and prosciutto

Casciotta and mozzarella

Bread

The story focuses on employment, not food, but the pictures of each family show them gathered around the dining table. Food is still one of the easiest ways to understand another culture and the Italian menu they show is typical.  I studied Emilian cuisine and it’s true that Italy’s food cultures remain more regional than those of the U.S.

However, this menu shows how many Italian families are eating what could be called a national Italian cuisine: the mortadella comes from Bologna, the casciotta cheese from Le Marche and the mozzarella likely from Campania.

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | October 10, 2010

NYT: 36 Hours in Rome

In today’s travel section of the New York Times is their recommendation for how to spend 36 hours in Rome. Reading this from my new home in central Texas I was struck with homesickness. But they make some good recommendations: my favorite cemetery is on there, as is one of my favorite gelaterias (Gelateria dei Gracchi, down the street from my last apartment in Piazza del Risorgimento). A trip to Rome is in the works for late winter/early spring. Until then I’ll be writing about the world and food of Austin: a strangely compelling combination of breakfast tacos, slow-smoked brisket and vegan cupcakes.

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | August 16, 2010

Madeline’s Picks: Protestant Cemetery

Tucked away in the southern part of Rome is one of my favorite under-appreciated spots. In the happening neighborhood of Testaccio, just a few minutes’ walk from the Piramide station is the Protestant Cemetery, home of Keats and Shelley’s graves.

Officially it is called the Cimitero Acattolico (the non-Catholic cemetery), hence why even professed athiests can be found in its walls. The conditions to be buried are three:

  1. You are not Catholic
  2. You belong to one of the 14 countries (which includes the U.S. and does not include Italy) that manages the cemetery
  3. You are residing in Italy at the time of your death

Of course. this being Italy, personal connections trump all – if you have a family member buried in the cemetery, you can snag a spot even if you are a Catholic Italian.

Because of the neighboring cat sanctuary, feline custodians lounge and saunter between the the tombstones. There is a landscaped area with benches perfect for picnicking (perhaps with cheeses or take-out from nearby Volpetti). In addition to Keats and Shelley, Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci is buried here. Located to the right of the entrance, Gramsci’s grave typically has the most interesting mementoes with everything from bus tickets to communist manifestoes left in tribute.

If you’re in the neighborhood, the Cemetery is a shady oasis from the chaos of Rome sight-seeing.

The Protestant Cemetery is open Monday – Saturday, 9 AM – 5 PM, Sunday 9 AM – 1PM. Last entrance 30 minutes before closing. Suggested donation: 2 euros. Via Caio Cestio 6. Accessible from Piramide metro stop (line B) or buses 3, 75, 23, 60, 95, 280, 30 and 175. Tel. +39.06.574.1900. http://www.cemeteryrome.it

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | July 28, 2010

Madeline’s Picks: Brixen

Madeline's Picks: Brixen

This small town is nestled in the Dolomites between Austria and Italy. The Italians call it Bressanone and the Austrians call it Brixen. By any name it’s charming. The main tourist season is during the winter, when people flock to the slopes, but my favorite time to visit is spring. This is the region that most of Italy’s apples hail from and if you come in early May you’ll see fields and fields of soft pink apple blossoms. I’ve already written about how much I love this region, but it merited one more picture.

*NOTE*: Why I have been so AWOL? Because I’ve (temporarily? permanently? who knows…) returned to the U.S. and been mourning Italy. Besides searching for work on three continents, I’ve been completing some translation jobs and devoting myself to preparing for numerous standardized tests. Just came across the photos of my last months in Italy – the months where I was enjoying life far, far too much to post regularly. This is the first of several photos of my favorite places.

Posted by: Madeline's Plate | June 19, 2010

Paris

Breakfast of champions: black fig roll from Le Grenier à Pain, goat milk yogurt with raspberries, hard-boiled egg.

One of the widely accepted Wonderful Things About Europe is that so many countries are compressed into such a small space. In late May I took a 2-hour flight from Bologna and found myself surrounded by chic people speaking an incomprehensible chic language, all in the same time zone.

Paris was my first big city – before New York, before Rome, even before Boston. I first visited in the midst of what my family now calls “The Lost Years” (due to the fact that all photographic evidence of the period has been destroyed). At age 11, painfully awkward and unattractive but blissfully unaware of the fact, Paris was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I returned when I was 15 and again at age 20. Every time Paris was its same expensively elegant self. But this would be my first trip to Paris after having fallen for Italy. By now Italy has become my point of reference for all things European and glamorous. I was curious how my first puppy love would look in the shadow of my first real relationship.

After living in Rome, Paris seems not only elegant, but also efficient. The metro runs on time. The buses appear when they say they will. The French still do that whole “strike” thing Europeans are so enamoured of, but at least the strikes are announced on the transportation system’s website rather than relying on word-of-mouth.

My hosts were French and for the entirety of our friendship had been faintly insulted by the fact that I had done a project on Italian cuisine. They gently probed: But perhaps I had Italian ancestry that drew me to the subject? Or I was one of those American women constantly on a diet? Or, they murmured, shaking their heads sadly, I had suffered an unhappy romance with a Frenchman and now avoided all things French? When forced to confront the fact that I had the audacity and bad taste to prefer Italian food, they reacted sensibly and immediately set about trying to change my mind. The result was that in 7 days I visited only one museum. Otherwise the trip was a buttery blur of pain aux raisins, baguettes, croque monseiur, macaroons, and boeuf bourguignon. Vive la France.

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