Unlike the old guards like Anthony Bourdain, today’s TV food personalities are in the dangerous habit of hugging every chef they meet. It seems a bit more natural to chief hugger Phil Rosenthal than Stanley Tucci who occasionally forces it uncomfortably. But whether the hug recipients like it or not, its really the ultimate sign of respect and validation for their hard work. Since we are mostly a polite species, words can only do so much. But for me, in order to waltz into a kitchen to hug the chef, at the very least I need to get a little intimate with his/her meat. I dont care how that sounds.
So perhaps for the 5th time in my life I hugged a chef. It happened in Matera, during Covid times no less. Judging by the firmness of the youngest of the two brothers who run the excellent Soul Kitchen, the feeling I assume was mutual. It was the type of hug you only see in funerals. The equivalent of roughly 500 Google reviews, or 700 Trip Advisor. By the end of the evening, I was at the home of a newly discovered and favorite cousin where we can argue about politics, and Eurovision songs. You just cant talk about Bruno or bread. Matera vs Altamura can be a touchy subject.
Some meals are like movies. They start a bit shaky, and can turn into epics. A table mix-up with another group resulted in some uncomfortable moments but all ended well. I’m always careful abroad with jokes that may not translate well, but I let one get away this time. Other personalities would have kicked us out, but not this loveable teddy bear. I haven’t met the older brother, but I can only imagine that he possesses the same passion as the younger Mimmo. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, and definitely taste it in his creations.
Mimmo, with high end stints in Miami and other cities, pays homage to Matera specialties like the appropriately named Crapiata (rustic local bean soup) but at the same time can elevate with flair. Most in the know, come here to experience the outstanding Podolica (the southern answer to Chianina and Fassone) Ribeye. This expertly cooked cut ranks up there with anything we had in Tuscany.
And then you have the Risotto with Porcini, a trip spoiler in a way. Just about every mushroomless Risotto whether its red wine or cheese based, tastes inferior after this. Another standout was a Panna Cotta with Crusco peppers and orange infused olive oil. When you finish one of those meals with a dessert like this, its like culinary extasy. Hence what followed. We had other dishes but these were the memorable ones.
In one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the gastronomy scene is still in its infancy. In my brief time in Matera I didnt get a chance to try much, but you get the sense that its already an especially competitive environment. Soul Kitchen is full of just that and is as solid as its its rock cave home.
That’s the amount of time I recommend spending in Florence if the purpose of the trip is to leave your kid there to study. Because not many humans can stomach more than 48 warnings and suggestions on how to secure your personal belongings. Thats roughly 48 dad warnings, followed by half a dozen mom snap-backs at dad. Even monks, and pickpockets at some point go “Alora, enough already. As long as she doesnt have Cappuccino after 10 she’ll be fine”. But I digress. A little early this time.
If you’ve been to Florence before, and you dream about seeing naked David again, prepare for a shock if you are returning anytime soon. Post Covid revenge travel is real, as everyone’s mom, neighbor, and accountant is talking about travelling to Italy these days. We arrived to Florence from “Florence of the south”, Lecce. As popular as Lecce was, Florence made Lecce feel like a remote sleepy hill village. Even the taxis had trouble navigating the crowds. I imagine Rome and Venice are not much different these days.
But Florence is still Florence, and there’s only one Florence. Even the Florence of the south is nothing like Florence of the north. Art, monuments, amazing food, and history on display particularly at the time of our visit. When you see a makeshift stadium built in front of Santa Croce, it can be one of two things. Either a Taylor Swift request was lost in translation, or its Calcio Storico time. Luckily for us it was the latter and we managed to score tickets to one of the semifinals. If you are not familiar with Calcio Storico, Ask Jeeves can probably explain better than Football, Wrestling, Rugby, Kick Boxing, and Couch Potato (When one sits on an an opponent back for 20 minutes for some reason) combined into one. Its one of those events that would never be allowed in the US.
When you revisit such cities, you often revisit a favorite place. To me that place in Florence is Da Ruggero, a quintessential trattoria passed from generation to generation, firmly outside of the tourist route. Traditional Tuscan food doesnt get much better than this. The Tuscan Crostini has quite a bit more oomph than the typical version you find all over the region. Some consider the Pappa al Pomodoro the best in town. Loved introducing my kid to it in between warnings. Salumi, outrageous as always. And the pastas, seemingly so little effort, and yet so much flavor. My happy place in Florence.
Since our accommodations this time were at the roomy and peaceful Residenza Marchesi Pontenani near Gladiator arena (Santa Croce), it was hard to avoid the craziness surrounding All’Antico Vinaio these days. On my last visit, roughly 8 years ago, All’Antico Vinaio was just another good sandwich shop. Today its the L’As du Fallafel of Florence and then some. They practically took over an entire block with multiple lines, police directing traffic, teens posing with the overstuffed sandwiches for selfies, and countless picnicking on the curb. I wasnt even tempted to try it. Ok, maybe a little. But I had other plans…
When in Bistecca city, you just have to have the, you guessed it, Gelato. Its not just a matter of which Gelato, but how many times a day. My old rule of picking anything that begins with “Car” is in serious jeopardy now that Carapina is no more. Though Carabè is still going strong. But on this trip, I settled on another old fave, Gelateria dei Neri where I ate three times in two days. EWZ historians tell me its a new EWZ record. The only unforced error was that only one of the tries was the sick Ricotta and Fig combo.
I had other plans for dinner that evening. But when we checked out the place that shall remain nameless earlier, we got a slight bad vibe. Plan B however turned out to be a smashing success. Nugolo is a little far from traditional Tuscan. In fact its closer to what one can find in Paris. But I was intrigued by it after seeing its name pop on the excellent Girl in Florence. And FOMO completed when Nugolo was featured on Stanley Tucci’s new show on CNN before it even opened.
At Nugolo the decor is smart, colorful, playful, and really so is the food to match. The rabbit ragu for instance comes hiding beneath the Risotto for a lasting, milky spoonful. Another clever combination was the slow cooked egg (64 degrees) inside a kataifi nest, with green peas and potato foam, and pancetta. Fresh pasta in a form of “Bottoni” are just that, buttons, stuffed with red potatoes and ‘nduja, and topped with broth of mussels and wild rocket (Arugula) sauce. The Beef tartare was probably the lone forgettable dish. Monkfish, taccole beans, pine nut cream and crusco peppers was superb. So was the Veal’s cheek with potato gratin, Borettane onions and cashews. Every fatty and tender meat cut should come with Borettane onions. A simple but very solid Tarte Tarine capped a memorable meal.
You will see Mercato Centrale recommended in every guide book and Florence FB group, rightfully so. But it took me all those years to realize that Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, the locals choice is the real deal. They are only a 20 minute walk apart. We tried mainly some fruits, bread, cheese and salami, and one particular salami stood out. Good, spicy salami is my weakness. At a vendor right off the middle western entrance, the Salame Spagnolo had that “come to papa” color, and the flavor had just the right balance.
In Florence, being the outdoor museum that it is, I opted not to brave the crowds at museums and churches this time. But it would feel like an incomplete trip without another visit to Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. The atmosphere surrounding it, views off and of it, the cemetery, simply mesmerizing. Still feels like a secret considering the lack of crowds. You can find them all in Piazzale Michelangelo down the road. A more pleasant visit to the area would involve taking a taxi or bus to Miniato, walk down to the Piazzale, and down through the gardens toward the river for numerous selfie opps.
Even with only 48 hours, I could not leave Bistecca city without having the Bistecca. To me its like going to Mexico City and not having a taco. But with some of the old faves like Sostanza closed on Sundays, picking the right place was a challenge. I’m a serial researcher when it comes to food, but picking a good Bistecca in Florence is almost like throwing darts at a map. It dominates almost every review page to the point that none of the restaurants in Florence can afford to offer a bad cut, or not have it available. I cant think of any other city in the world with a similar situation. Segovia and its famous suckling pig comes close, but not quite.
I ended up picking Parione, and as expected turned out to be just what the gastro doc ordered. Its touristy alright, but you get a sense that just enough locals frequent it. The eggs with truffles didnt quite do it for me. The Picci did. The Bistecca while bluer than I remember did not taste like it needed to be cooked more. Supremely flavorful, buttery, slightly funky with just the right seasoning. If you havent perfected the Bistecca art at this point, you would have been in serious trouble. The one mystery here however was the total lack of seasoning on the beans. Did the old Pisa salt tax ban tradition extend to beans as well?
One block away from Milu, in Madison Square Park, you will find the original Shake Shack. Twenty years ago, Shake Shack transitioned from a hot dog cart to a kiosk selling burgers and shakes. And before you knew it, FOMO and long lines started to disrupt the local squirrel population. Today Shake Shack has 360 locations worldwide, including one 5 minutes away from my house. The chicken sandwich ranks up there, and the Smoke Shack, featuring the signature quality beef with applewood-smoked bacon, cherry peppers, and Shack Sauce is perhaps the finest fast food burger we have today.
But while Shake Shack revolutionized America’s burger culture, the original shack neighbor Milu may be in the early innings of reinventing American fast food as we know it. Its a tough task considering our obsession with the familiar. But if anyone can do it, its probably fine dining veterans and students of taste, Milu’s co-founders. The trio has an extensive combined resume, including stints at another famous neighbor, Eleven Madison Park.
We essentially have an Eleven Madison Park and Shake Sack love child. I dont have the slightest idea if the co-founders have any ambitions beyond this, although by all indication ambition isnt exactly lacking here. To open a Chinese fast food operation that is far from traditional Chinese food, and far from traditional fast food in an ultra competitive environment requires some major chutzpah. Even if they dont open another location, I’m rooting for these guys as there’s nothing quite like Milu out there.
Thats not to say you should expect big flavors that are in line with finer dining, and you can cancel your ressies at nearby Upland. Thats to say for $10-15 you can get a well crafted bowl of expertly cooked protein, rice and greens, usually Watercrest salad, or cucumber salad. Some may balk at the amount of protein, and abundance of veggies, but thats part of the idea. Make it tasty, cheap, and healthy(er). Another big benefit is the space. Fast food often involves rubbing elbows, noise, long lines, and pretending that you are comfortable eating in the park while telling every other stranger that the Hoisin sauce was on your shirt before. At Milu its as comfortable as it gets. Although at peak lunch time you may experience a full house, and a line.
After trying about half of the bowls, I settled on the Chili Crisp Chicken. Its not terribly spicy, and it helps to be familiar with Sichuan sodium levels. The Sichuan Cauliflower with the Seaweed salad is outstanding as well, and so is the Brisket. They used to offer a Sichuan fried chicken on Saturdays that was plenty hot, and ultra, dentist approved crispy, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case. You also have access to free water, a big indication that they value comfort/needs over $$$.
On occasion you do get a taste of Milu’s growing pains. Last time, my Mandarin Duck’s crispy skin was far from it, and while the meat was tender alright, there wasnt much of it underneath the skin. The terrific marinated cucumbers, and duck fat rice however helped curb the disappointment. Even at well oiled machine Shake Shack, you can get a bad burger sometimes.
But there’s more. Milu also offer products that will upgrade your pantry in a meaningful way. Chili oils, Soy, Hoisin, their own seasoning, and dumpling sauces. I probably purchased around half of them and pour their seasoning on just about everything I cook. Although they make their own Chili Crisp, perhaps the most notable (and expensive) item they sell is the Fly By Jing Chili Crisp. The added Umami with this Chili Crisp will transform your eggs and pastas into something as complex as figuring out Bronski Beat lyrics. I’m still trying after all those years.
Much of this is a copy and paste (including her wonderful emojis) of what Mrs Z posted on her Facebook travel group. This trip was done in mid August in almost perfect weather. Watch road conditions if you attempt this at other times. 10 days is the minimum to do this. If you only have 9 days, skip Snæfellsnes, but thats not to say its skippable.
Day 1– Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik
Blue Lagoon. Allow a couple of hours.
Explore Reykjavik. Main streets, Sun Voyager, Harpa Concert Hall, hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Lunch at Cafe Loki – Try to sit upstairs, traditional plate (no fermented shark for us. Stinky food not my jam, and I havent found a single soul that liked it), Lamb Shank soup, smoked trout, Rye Bread Ice cream (yes!!!)
Dinner at Skal! – Inside Iceland’s first Food hall – sunchokes, skirt steak, arctic char. Excellent!
Stay at Reykjavik Residence Apartment. Recommend!
Day 2 – Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Geirabakarí Kaffihús – Good midway point stop. Bakery was the location of “Papa Johns” in ”The secret life of Walter Mitty”.
Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge – This was a fail for us. We walked inside the Gorge until reaching a dead end too soon (large boulder), need waterproof shoes
Búðakirkja – Black Church – The Motif #1 of Iceland. The most photographed structure. Dark skies actually help in this case
Bjarnarfoss waterfall – Cool, relatively unknown waterfall. Short hike to the bridge
Ytri Tunga – Beach where you may find seals, and whale skeleton
Buffet Dinner and stay at Langaholt Guesthouse. Fine stay, nice setting. There’s not much else in the area
Day 3 – Drive to Husavik
Grábrók crater – The largest of three volcanic craters, mostly covered in moss. It stands 170 m/550 feet tall. The last eruption was around 3400 years ago. Can be windy 👍. Beautiful views from the top. Bathroom at the restaurant in the gas station just prior. You just need to buy something. And by something, I mean more chips
Kolugljúfur Canyon – Another cool stop on the way. As nice as the waterfall is, the canyon is the highlight. Walk down under the bridge, but can be slippery 👍👍. Unpaved road to get to the site
Sjávarborg Restaurant – Backtracking 10 km or so, but worth it. Seafood soup, fish of the day ❤️❤️
Glaumbær Farm & Museum (cool cafe inside that looks like a tea parlor ) 👍
Akureyri – Second largest city, cute downtown, good hot dog, ice cream stop. Park by the church
Goðafoss – Goðafoss got its name when Christianity was declared the official religion of Iceland, so the locals threw Norse pagan gods statues into the waterfall. Park and do the east side, by N1 gas station ❤️❤️
Dinner at Naustið – Mussels, fish and chips, Arctic char. Good, but second night better
Stay at Fosshotel Húsavík (2 nights)
Day 4 – Myvatn
Dettifoss – Take the paved 862 to the west lot, largest and strongest waterfall in Europe, Another 15 minutes walk against the flow to Selfoss – allow 1-1&1/2 hours total here
Hverir – Very cool Geothermal area. Nice setting. 👍
Grjótagjá – Quick cave stop. This is where Jon Snow and Ygritte had their romantic rendezvous 🤔
Lunch at Vogafjós Farm Resort – Good Burger! 👍
Hverfjall – 20 min steep hike to crater of a 2500 y/o volcano
Lava field Dimmuborgir – Volcanic rock formations – if time allows
Skútaís – Farm Ice Cream 👍
Skútustaðagígar – a park of pseudo craters, much more appreciated with a drone, but pleasant walk. If time and black midge flies allow. Myvatn afterall is named after the midge flies
Geosea in Húsavík – Geothermal Sea Baths – Try to go at sunset if its a nice day
Dinner at Naustið – Second meal. Fish of the day, fish soup. This is the strength of this place. Reserve in advance.
Day 5 – Northeast
Beitarhúsið – Nice middle of nowhere pit stop for coffee, lunch or whatever. Try the love balls
Stuðlagil Canyon – One of the highlights of the entire trip. Park at the second lot, a mile or so after crossing the bridge, very bumpy ride especially the last mile. Parkplatz Klaustrusel – Stuðlagil on Google. 3&1/2 mile round trip hike. Allow 2-3 hours.
Seydisfjordur – Beautiful drive down to this Picturesque town. Check out the blue church, Fish n chips lunch at Fancy Sheep food truck. 👍
Gufu waterfall on the way back. Short stop
Litlanesfoss, Hengifoss – Steep hike, about 2 hours total (3.6 mile round trip). Unique fall, but not a must. Litlanesfoss halfway just as impressive. Looking back we probably should have relaxed at the hotel spa, or a town pool.
Dinner and stay at Gistihusid in Egilsstaðir
Day 6 – East
Drive toward Höfn on road 1 (against Google advice). Numerous short stops on the way:
Diamond Beach – Park at the west side. Waves can sneak up.💎💎💎
Múlagljúfur Canyon – Better light in the morning but tomorrow is busy, turn at 63.9886667, -16.3971589, 1.5km rough road to the parking lot, 30-45 minute walk to the viewpoint. We tried but elected to skip due to weather, but this seems like a relatively undiscovered gem
Dinner and stay at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon – go to sauna and hot tub. Get the steak tartare, huge dishes
Day 7 – Glacier lagoon, drive to Vik
Jökulsárlón Zodiak tour 9:30. Arrive by 9 👍
Fjallsárlón Glacier Parking – Walk to observation area to see glacier up close
Hofskirkja church – turf covered roof and unique cemetery. The last turf church built and one a few remaining
Svartifoss – “the black waterfall”, the basalt columns inspired the design of Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík. parking 700 ISK, 90 min round trip.
Lunch at Kjarr Restaurant – cute location w waterfall view on some days, nice pastas especially the seafood
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – Allow an hour. Walk till the metal deck 👍👍
Dinner at Black Crust Pizzeria – liked the pizza but not the smell of clothes after.
Reynisfjara Beach – black sand and puffins in season
Stay at Hotel Vik
Day 8 – South
Explore Vik’s other side:
Reynisfjara beach – Columns and black sand beach and caves. Be careful of sneaker waves
Dyrhólaey – lighthouse and dramatic black beach views
Skógafoss – Try to come before 10 to beat the tour groups, go up the stairs and hike waterfall alley for at least one mile or at least until Fremri-Fellsfoss. Allow 2 hours. Best hike of the trip
Lunch at Mia’s Country Van – Fish & Chips
Kvernufoss – park at Skogar museum, 10 minute walk to the falls, waterproof clothes if you opt to go behind the fall. Rainbow if sunny
Seljalandsfoss – go behind the waterfall, will get wet, slippery – wear waterproof gear
Gljufrabui – 5 minute walk from Seljalandsfoss (go left), hop on wet stones to go through canyon in water to get to waterfall
Secret Lagoon 👍
Dinner at Messinn Selfossi – Very popular with locals, but disappointing overall. I think we just ordered the wrong dishes for us (wolffish lacking in texture). Reserve if you go.
Stay at Hótel Kvika (2 nights) – Budget hotel but comfortable
Day 9 – Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar Hiking Tour with Arctic Adventured – Pickup at 8:15 from Selfoss N1 Gas Station 👍👍👍 ( take sandwiches and snacks with you ). Long day, a lot of driving but highly recommend
How do you lose ownership of your namesake restaurant. It happened to Alon Shaya in New Orleans. Shaya, the restaurant was considered by some, the best new restaurant in America in 2015, and Shaya the chef joined the A list of the American culinary world as a result. I still needed some convincing because the last thing I wanted to eat in NOLA was Israeli food. The second last thing happened to be pizza, which meant skipping Shaya’s other place, Domenica after many visits to NOLA. Both, as part of the Besh Restaurant Group at that time, seemed like slam dunks, but for New Yorkers its like eating Indian food in Bologna.
Everything was going smoothly for Alon Shaya, arguably the most successful Israeli chef in the USA today. The Michael Solomonov of the south if you will. Then the Me Too movement happened which shook the food industry. 25 women filed complaints against partner John Besh, and Shaya tried hard to disassociate himself from the group. Shaya wasn’t successful at keeping his namesake, but was able to replace it with two Israeli standouts, Saba (grandpa) in New Orleans, and Safta (grandma) in Denver.
At both Safta and Saba, women play a key role. Shaya gives homage to Israeli grandparents that brought influences from Middle East, Europe and North Africa. EatWithSaba and EatWithSafta are the social media handles and websites (hence the title), even though you are surrounded by the usual under 30 crowd, and there’s no gefilte fish in sight. Shaya is back on track. Right? Well, there are some groups out there pushing to rename “father”, “mother” into something more inclusive. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Talking about inclusive, coincidentally there’s a growing movement in Denver called “Judaism Your Way” which is pretty much what the name suggests. A do whatever the f#%k you want Jewish community that is reimagined, inclusive, and beyond reformed really. Instead of Bar or Bat Mitsvah, they offer a gender inclusive Be Mitzvah. You want to end your Yom Kippur fast at noon, no worries, we even offer water if needed at the services. Heck bring a Porchetta sandwich if you absolutely need. But since “exclusive” is not part of their dictionary, this is not the type that would cancel grandma.
“Here’s an idea, Ziggy. Maybe stick to food?”. Ok Ok! Safta’s strength is well documented, and in fact written all over the entrance in huge letters. “Pita + Hummus”. The pita and hummus is straight out of the Michael Solomonov (Zahav/Dizengoff) Israeli food for dummies playbook. Or is it the other way around. The pita here is a little crispier (perhaps reheated) but just as good as what you get in Philly. The hummus with lamb ragu was like a Hava Nagila in your mouth – the wedding version. Though much of the flavor came from the well crafted ragu.
You can even add “+ Falafel” to the wall. Golden crispy exterior, and creamier than your usual green interior. The Salatim (small, mezze like salads) is another thing from the Solomonov playbook, and every single one we tried was spot on. The Lutenitsa especially stood out, but I wouldnt skip the smoky Baba and the peppery Muhammara. You can have a satisfying meal with simply the dishes I mentioned so far.
Sometimes, when everything goes well in a highly acclaimed place, your get on a food high. Thats when any faults that follow become unnoticed, forgivable, or become apparent later. While the lamb shank’s flavor was spot on, the meat was a bit dry. For $44 thats a no-no. The duck confit tagine was fine, but again, on the dry side, and wont win any Tagine competitions. Harissa chicken was probably the best main, though not particularly exciting to New Yorkers, including in the looks dep’t. If you order more than one main, might as well add the Persian rice that can compliment just about all.
Desserts did not produce anything noteworthy. Although the lone dessert we didnt try, the Knafeh, may very well be the one to get. We just eat plenty of Knafeh back at home. The space is attractive, comfortable, and the drinks were well balanced. Safta is a solid B. And while the execution of the mains can use some work, I can see myself becoming a regular if I lived in Denver
In Baseball, you bring the all dependable closer to finish the game. It doesnt have to be necessarily the best player, but one with just the right skill set for the job. Similarly, in travel, you often find just the right place to add to the itinerary, that seals the deal. It doesnt have to be the highlight, but one that checks the rest of the boxes. Salento is the Mariano Rivera of the travel closers. The plush white towns of Valle d’Itria, and the atmospheric Matera will make you want more. While the spectacular Salento coastline, and Florence of the south, Lecce, will finish the job.
There’s only one little problem with Salento. Its not exactly know for its food. The Florence of the south thing, has nothing to do Bisteccas. But the heel of the boot is not exactly lacking in quality ingredients. You got some of the finest tomatoes in the world, fantastic seafood, top tier olive oil, and splendid local Cheese you’ll find everywhere. But for some reason, its not known for a wealth of great dining destination, at least compared to the rest of the country. Maybe its a misnomer, or entirely wrong conclusion on my part. Either way, have no worries folks. Uncle Z is here to help. Here are five places that may perk your interest.
Trattoria La Puritate (Gallipoli) – Trattoria la pure joy. As beautiful as Gallipoli is, to me this is one of the reasons to visit. The famous Gallipoli shrimp baked in salt, and plated table side was unlike any shrimp dish I ever tasted. Stellar pastas like Linguine with shrimp, with fish and turmeric, or with Bonito. You cant go wrong with either of the three, or a fresher than fresh simply grilled Amberjack. Puritate is a bit old school, but comfortable and inviting. One of the most memorable meals of the entire trip.
SoFish (Otranto) – I’ve already written about this gem in the Otranto post. As the name implies SoFish is a hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. Note “Quick” in Italy is roughly an hour. It appears that this is a relatively new fast spreading concept, started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare. Although more of a restaurant this is a sound alternative to your usual bready quickies.
The menu features a nice selection of seafood sandwiches, salads and excellent craft beer (Reminder: Italian craft beer is most underrated in the world). While everything we tried was good, the lobster roll is worth a dedicated blog post. Its one of the most outrageous Lobster Rolls I ever had. Pricy (for Puglia) but once you get it you see why. More like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top.
400 Gradi (Lecce) – Highly acclaimed Neapolitan, and arguably the finest pizza in Puglia. According to this well regarded list, one of the best in the world. Delicious, perfectly chewy crust, with top notch, zero km ingredients. And I suppose I reached the pivotal point in my life where I had to try pizza shaped like a star and the one here, with Ricotta filled sun rays didn’t disappoint. Its a bit outside the closest old city gate, and quite popular with the locals. So come as soon as they open or be prepared to wait.
Ristorante Blu Notte (Lecce) – If I have to pick one must on this list, this is the one. In fact I started writing a dedicated post on this one, before I quickly realized I dont have enough pictures and material for a full story. Its a relatively unknown place that I havent seen mentioned anywhere. We come from NYC where much of the seafood is imported, and so we go abroad with a certain appetite, sometimes even in areas not known for seafood (eg Bologna). Blu Notte satisfied the urge and then some.
But the best part is that we stumbled upon it by pure luck after two other places I marked were closed during lunch, and the skies were getting angrier. We watched the old streets of Lecce practically get flooded within minutes. The house antipasti alone here is worth the “price of admission”. A dozen or so land, sea, and street food delights. But the pastas weren’t too shabby either, especially the outstanding Seppia with shrimp. Fantastic homemade desserts and really a flawless meal from start to finish.
Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone (Galatina) – In Lecce and much of Salento you’ll see these pastries called Pasticciotto everywhere. You’ll find them in every bakery, B&B, and featured in every food tour. Eat them at your own risk, since once you’ll try them at this Pasticceria where they were invented, every other Pasticciotto will taste pedestrian. Tour buses including week long food tours make the pilgrimage to this place. Smart to build an impressive 15th century Basilica nearby, with some of the most stunning frescoes you’ll find anywhere.
When you stroll the winding streets of Polignano a Mare in Puglia, one of the first things you’ll notice is that everyone is humming the same song. Everyone except the locals that is. They still wont forget that Volare singer Domenico Modungo who left Polignano a Mare as a child never mentioned the city much as an adult. Maybe the reason the residents turned his statue around to face them, instead of the sea, was to throw produce at him on occasion. They probably do it with Calabrian tomatoes as they are very proud of their own. My youngest will be the first to tell you that we couldn’t get enough of Puglia tomatoes.
Nel blu dipinto di blu. I wish there was a way to embed videos here. Wait… Googling… looks like not only there is, but I’ve done it before.
Volare means to fly. And Polignano a Mare, with its limestone cliffs, and majestic balcony views will make you wish you could. You can see what inspired Modungo within minutes of your arrival. Just 30 minutes from Bari, and a short drive from Monopoli, another stunner, Polignano is one of Puglia’s biggest gems. Its not exactly a secret in Europe these days. But in the US, pretty much anything outside the Rome-Florence-Venice express is fairly unknown. Polignano a Mare is exhibit 1-A why it makes sense to veer off the route, or come back to see the rest.
You can start your flying lessons by diving from those cliffs as many do. Polignano after all is home to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. For American readers, this World Series involves athletes and teams from all over the world. A curious concept. The beaches here are rocky, but the water is crazy inviting. We opted for a swim in one of the many caves off a boat.
I’m not necessarily advocating to stay here for a few days. I havent done it so I dont know what its like. But Polignano is as touristy as they come, for good reason. Exploring it on one day, and from the water on another, would compliment your Puglia adventure nicely. Doing both on the same day is a tough task, especially if you want to include a nice seafood fest at the excellent Antiche Mura. Or if you are strictly after a setting like no other with no budget in mind, you got the famed Grotta Palazzese and its cave restaurant.
You will also want to spend some time in San Vito, where most of the boats take off. Easy to get there with a car or a short Tuk Tuk taxi from Polignano. The San Vito Monastery, beach and picturesque port will make you stick around a bit, while waiting for a Dorino boat. Seeing the cliffs, the mesmerizing caves, and swimming within one is an experience you wont quickly forget. The slightly X rated Dorino stories can only add to the experience. This is a great way to see Poligano a Mare from the water
You can easily get lost in the old town, but keep going until you reach yet another terrace. You will take the same pictures again and again, and be thankful for all those photography classes you took. I didnt as you can see. Your best bet is to stop reading immediately, and look at Google. In my defense, I didnt know I will resume blogging when we visited Puglia. In my defense when I used to blog, shaky hands, excessive drinking.
After lunch at Antiche Mura, you may want to visit Super Mago del Gelo Mario Campanella, or Super Mario in short. Skip the hyped ice cream in favor of the specialty coffee with lemon and Amaro. Turns out we’ve been drinking coffee wrong for centuries.
Another tip: Combine Monopoli and the boat tour from San Vito on one day, and spend a day in Polignano on another, for a more leisurely visit to the coast. Or consider staying in Monopoli for a few days, especially if you are not driving. Not only more subdued, but positioned well for day trips, and beaches.
In closing I should mention that my thoughts are with the residents of Fort Myers and area. Although we lived through Sandy, and even lived in South Florida briefly, I cant even begin to imagine what they are going through. Its really tough to watch, and scary that Ian is regaining strength and about to strike again. In the small chance you are reading this from Ian’s path, I hope you stay safe.
Notice the all important extra letter. This is not a political post. Quite the opposite actually. Its a celebration of our great uniter, American cuisine. Whatever that means. Since USA is relatively young compared to the rest of the world, its a bit complicated to define, even though you have enough examples of it (burgers, pastrami, bagels…). The label is often used more as a default when you cant call it anything else, except Italian in some cases. But we often categorize restaurants simply based on the origin of the owner/chef, as is the case with Upland.
Upland menu is as American or Italian as it gets in NYC, but it bills itself as Californian. Chef Justin Smillie who since left to Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, named it after his hometown in California. Maybe its my software engineering background, as I like things to be orderly for search purposes among other reasons in this case, but is it really necessary to break down the American tag into states? I can only imagine the poor Google or Yelp engineers trying to figure out the impact of adding a new category or subcategory. Upland is the only restaurant in NYC currently labeled as such. Does the signature burger, a creative riff on In-N-Out has something to do with it? Is it the grilled peaches?
Perhaps its the seasonality. Though we do have a label for upmarket seasonal American: “New American”. An Italian visiting NYC for the first time, will feel more at home at the pizza and pasta dominated Upland than a Californian. Sometimes restaurateurs try to be cute, and differentiate themselves in a crowded field, but more often than not, its best to keep it simple. Be bold, but be proud. Its American. This is not a rant by the way, but an observation. Its a celebration, remember?
Upland is a bright star in the Philly based Starr group’s huge portfolio that includes names like Buddakan, Pastis, and of course, the shiniest of the stars, Jackass Burrito. Upland got everything going for it. A prime Flatiron location. A deep American and Italian greatest hits menu. A striking, high ceiling, trendy looking space. And unlike many of its peers, it survived the pandemic. Its the type of place you can bring a date, new coworker, or host a 70th birthday celebration. On a recent visit, we witnessed suits, and gym attire.
Whether you come for Brunch, lunch or dinner you will face a very full menu. Though for some reason the much hyped Burger is not available for dinner. The Pizza is exactly what you’d expect from a place like this, except in the case of Breakfast pizza at least you get double the listed ingredients. In addition to bacon, cheddar, egg you get Broccoli, Sausage, Onions and more. It worked just fine for us, but could be misleading for others.
The Shakshuka-like “Eggs in Hell” had a nice flavor but missing something like sausages, or potatoes. The reason that shakshuka works on its own is that you usually get a nice fluffy pita and the eggs are more prevalent. While a dining companion was not looking I borrowed one of her breakfast sausages that made a big difference. Desperate times, desperate measures. This is the only miss from the two recent visits.
In some ways Upland reminds me of Via Carota. A jack of all trades, master of all. Solid pizzas, solid pastas, solid everything else. I couldnt fault anything with the Pappardelle with spicy sausages. And the Bucatini Cacio e Pepe were the best I’ve had in NYC since, well, Via Carota. Maybe even better since not quite as salty.
There are very few starters as satisfying as a nice Stracciatella with honey and grilled peaches. The combination here works so well, making the added Shishito peppers (both turned out spicy) unnecessary. The Duck Wings is a trend setter. I started seeing them more and more since Upland opened. The skin is crispy, well seasoned, while the dark flesh easily falls apart. You know its good as soon as you start operating.
But the best dish on the menu might be surprisingly the cod, and that may not have anything to do with the cod. The flaky fish, while mildly discolored, is expertly cooked. But the mixture of Fregula (Californian for Israeli Couscous), calamari and bits of chorizo really elevate the dish.
Extra brownie points for serving delicious fluffy bread with butter without charge. Refreshing to see these days. Solid drinks, nice atmosphere. In super competitive Flatiron, Upland is still a solid choice for American (with subtle Idaho hints). Its a Go!
Upland 345 Park Ave S (26th), Flatiron Recommended Dishes: Pappardelle, Bucatini Cacio e Pepe, Duck Wings, Stracciatella, Cod, Budino
Lets get the puns out of the way. The Trulli town of Alberobello is truly magnificent. The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of Puglia’s main selling points. After the initial shrug of “why Puglia, what’s there”, all you need to do is show pictures of some random Trulli, followed by pictures of Polignano a Mare, followed by a church in the shape of a Trullo, and before you know it, she’s shopping for yellow dresses.
Spending two nights in Trulli Disney in a Trullo was an unforgettable experience. The only thing we forgot was Mrs Z’s (and mine) favorite bra hanging behind the bathroom door. But the touristy nature of the town made it a bit more challenging to find good food. Unlike food heaven Ceglie Messapica, I did not get the sense that Alberobello is known for its cuisine, hence half of the places mentioned here are actually in the nearby town of Noci.
Al Boschetto in Noci – Fantastic find. We stopped here for lunch on the way from Matera as I was looking for a safe place to park with luggage. Unfortunately in Italy you have to think about that. A sprawling, old school, formal without the formal prices type. We were the only tourists in a packed house on a Monday afternoon, with clientele ranging from the business type and nonnas who lunch. They had an American celebrity spotting not too long ago and I swore not to tell. Frankly I forgot who it was anyway.
This is where we started questioning the amount of food we ordered the rest of the trip. One needs to come to Puglia just to experience the thrill of the house antipasti, an array of 6 to 20 small plates that most restaurants we visited offered. Here it was a brilliant combination of all sorts of salami (Martina Franca Capocollo of course), cheese, fried goodies, marinaded veggies and more. Extra brownie points for offering us to half the pastas when the waiter noticed we were making funny full noises, which we gladly accepted. Tagliatelle with seafood was the undisputed winner among the Primis. Highly recommend.
L’antica Locanda in Noci – This is a popular “Slow Food” legend that required me to reserve well ahead from home, via phone. Parking was a little challenging in Noci, especially with two cars in our case, but we managed. The town seemed quite busy with a picturesque square and a tourist free old town. You know there are no other tourists by the “are you lost?” stares.
While we were eating, heard some fireworks nearby, probably to commemorate Johnny Depp’s court win. Or maybe I just heard them in my head after tasting the pear, ricotta, rum dessert. A deadly combination and solid contender for best dish of the night. The Plin-like Raviolini was exceptional, as were the scrumptious meats. A very solid meal all around probably deserving its own dedicated post.
Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello – I suppose it should not surprise anyone that most places on this post arent in tourist central Monti area, the busiest of the two Unesco zones in Alberobello. Il Guercio is located in the newer part of the city. We noticed that after the day visitors are gone in Monti so is the electricity. The evenings are as dead as the current Nasdaq bounces (trying.. not… to… look). Il Guercio on the other hand, got fairly busy after 9 pm, so make reservations or come as soon as they open.
The specialty here is “Pinsa”, one of several Roman style pizzas. It’s a long oval shape, thicker but fairly airy dough. Its not terribly different than pizza to be called something else (same goes for New Haven Apizza) but I can see why they would. It features a quality crust and top notch ingredients including of course Martina Franca Capocollo. We had to order it because the stand alone Capocollo (Gabagool in “Brooklyn Italian”) we had every other day was not on pizza.
La Lira Focacceiria in Alberobello – People often ask on the boards what else is there to eat in Italy besides pasta and pizza. Well, lets see, there’s also Focaccia, Trapizzino, Puccia, Pinsa, Lasagne, Calzone.. La Lira specializes in Focaccia and Puccia, another form of a pizza sandwich, the Puglia answer to the Roman Trapizzino.
Out of the Puccia we tried in Puglia and Matera this was the best one. Though the stuffed focaccia sandwiches were even better. Another reason to come for this busy take-out is for the animated owner.. “Now wait outside until you hear Puccia!! Like this… PUCCIA!!!!”. No tables outside means “trully” take-out. Ok, I’m done.
Ok, I get it now. You hear about Iceland for much of your adult life. You watch countless of pictures of waterfalls, sheep, sometimes together. You realize that its an easy hop and a skip away. But for some reason you keep postponing this giant national park in favor of places with better food and more culture. The reality is nothing you’ll see and hear will properly prepare you for the Iceland experience. When you come back, Iceland will feel like one of those vivid dreams you can only experience during a colonoscopy anesthesia.
You can pretty much forget everything your neighbors and cousins told you (like stay in Reykjavik and do day trips). This was a last minute trip to replace a badly damaged Yellowstone after severe floods. A 10 day, record breaking 7 hotel road trip around the Ring Road. If I would do this again, I would do it again, almost exactly the same. I will post a detailed itinerary, and more about the food when the time comes, but here are some of the things we learned. Some things were more expected than others.
10 days is ideal. Thats not to say you shouldnt do more, and you can do less. But 10 days for us city slickers felt like a good amount. Its also the minimum amount you need for the Ring Road which I wholeheartedly recommend over the more popular and accessible Golden Circle, Reykjavik and surroundings. People tend to allocate less for islands everywhere. Sicily is the best example, a two week destination but so many try to do it in five days. Dont make this mistake here.
Reykjavik is Skipavik. I always imagined the capital being remarkably foreign, meaning very different where one can enjoy the differences and experience local culture. Much of that went out the window by the time we found ourselves having dinner at a NYC style food hall. Its not so much that you cant experience some culture here, but considering everything else Iceland has to offer, one night in Reykjavik feels more than enough. We spent one day here, and we kept walking by the same streets, same cats and organized tours.
The Ring Road is strikingly beautiful. The Ring Road is the main road circling the island. I was expecting to find many of the attractions striking, but I really didnt expect the drive itself to be so mesmerizing. You will triple your old number of oohs and ahhs per hour record, especially in the north. There was one moment where we stopped at a random side of the road, all alone surrounded by greener than green mountains, waterfalls, and canyons. Narnia meets Jurassic Park. Do yourself a big favor, and do the Ring Road.
Forget the ATMs. After much deliberation we opted not to take out local money, and we didnt need any. We dont even know what the local currency looks like. Its liberating not to deal with this on vacation. We heard that the only time you might need some change is for remote bathrooms, but we didnt really encounter them. You can stop at any gas station, a shop/restaurant, or the occasional remote bush if needed.
Bring a debit card with a pin. On our first try, our pinless CC failed. Once we started using the debit card, we didnt encounter any issues. Fill as soon as you reach half a tank, as you may drive many miles without seeing a gas station.
Iceland Gas Stations are awesome. You can get fresh hot dogs, Skyr – the best Yogurt on the planet, borrow a device to check tire pressure, fill air and wash the car for free, and get any help you need from the super friendly workers. They will also change your baby and call your mom.
Food is actually surprisingly good. The rumors that Iceland cuisine is lacking is widely exaggerated. What it may lack in finesse they more than make up for it in great ingredients. Sure, some meals were better than others, but its hard to screw up fish, and lamb raised in this climate. Expect a lot of lamb, simple fresh fish, flaky fish and chips, fish soup galore with wonderful bread and room temp homemade butter (a luxury in NYC). Iceland is also known for Langoustines, but for the time being, they are importing them, as fishing is banned. I also love the little differences like paying for your meals at the cash register.
Double up on the snacks. Iceland will wear you down in a very good way. Its hard to calculate the time you’ll spend getting to the destinations, and the amount you’ll spend there. If the hike is more than an hour, take a bag with snacks and water. And if you’ll do the Ring Road you’ll be facing some long drives. The snacks will come in handy.
You dont really need to buy water. I had trouble understanding this concept but I get it now. Iceland has some of the best tap water in the world. You can fill your bottles not only from any sink, but from waterfalls and streams while hiking.
Less is more than you think. As with any destination, you will want to see and experience as much as possible. But Iceland is unique in the sense that as popular as it is, much of it is still relatively undiscovered. Most visitors concentrate on the the grandest, popular waterfalls, sometimes missing other gems in plain sight. The best example is Skógafoss. Most people spend less than an hour seeing this magnificence, not realizing that the hike that begins on top of it, is one of the most beautiful easily accessible hikes you will ever do. And there’s another incredibly unique waterfall nearby. You can easily spend a glorious half a day here. Less sites often means richer experiences, and its especially true here.
Book a few tours. As usual, the tours we booked were the highlights. At some point during this adventure you feel ready for someone else to take your hand and navigate. And you really dont realize how much fun it is to hike with a group until you do.
Supermarkets open at 10. This caught us by surprise early on. As a tourist you normally start your adventures early in Iceland, so plan accordingly.
No one in Iceland is actually from Iceland. Iceland hospitality industry is booming and needs a lot of help especially in the summer. Most of the people we met, from tour guides, waiters, to hotel managers, were from other Europeans countries. I think we only met around four people from Iceland.
Iceland is expensive. I saved the worst for last. I can book a beautiful chateaux in Loire Valley for less than a simple motel in Iceland. That’s not a joke. On average we paid roughly $400 a night. And in order to afford the car for 10 days (Blue Car Rental – best service, highly recommend) I had to tell the kids that they would need to rely on grandparents for continuing education. At the very least book well ahead of time. Not only you will have options, but you are not risking the entire east coast of Iceland to be sold out. A common phenomenon in the summer.