About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Taking in 9 Unusual Wine Experiences Throughout North America

August 29, 2014 by  

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Do you love wine but are tired of traditional wine tastings? Bored of dry crackers, stiff stools at wine bars and snobbish sommeliers? Spice up the way you experience wine with the world’s top unusual experiences centered around fermented grapes. Chose from unusual pairing classes, fun-filled festivals, active sport-themed wine experiences and hands-on opportunities to be a winemaker for a day — even getting to harvest and blend your own wines. After these adventurous, offbeat and interactive experiences, you will never see wine the same again.

Domestic:

Bacara Wine Room...if you want to pursue their selection after your hands-on harvest adventure.  Photo courtesy of Bacara.

Bacara Wine Room…if you want to pursue their selection after your hands-on harvest adventure. Photo courtesy of Bacara.

1) Hands-On Harvest (Santa Barbara, California)

Be a winemaker for a day with Bacara Crush, a hands-on California harvest experience where you work alongside winery staff, walking the vines, sorting grapes and assisting with punch downs. During this interactive tour, you’ll learn about wine making in an interactive and memorable manner — with plenty of tastings throughout. After a picnic in the vines, you’ll get a signed certificate listing the wine you helped produce.

Getting Ready for Battle at St. Augustine Wine Festival

Getting Ready for Battle at St. Augustine Wine Festival. Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Wine Festival.

2) Get Squirted With Wine (St. Augustine, Florida)

Celebrate the annual St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival in one of the nation’s oldest cities on Florida’s Historic Coast. From September 10-13, attend the festival’s lavish wine-pairing Spanish dinners and tastings that culminate in the Grand Tasting with 120 wines to chose from. If you like what you try, you can learn the secrets of Spanish wine-making and cooking with classes from Spanish chefs and winemakers. The festival will end with the outrageous Batalla de Vinos, where 2000 participants will wear white and squirt each other with red wine.

Sunset - Frozen Tundra Wine Fest - Parallel 44 Winery

Sunset – Frozen Tundra Wine Fest in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Parallel 44 Winery.

3) Drink Wine At An Ice Bar In The Frozen Tundra Of The Midwest (Kewaunee, Wisconsin)

If you prefer wine festivals at sub-zero temperatures, try touring the snow-covered Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery. The winery shares the same latitude as the vineyards of Bordeaux and Tuscany, but the vines must withstand freezing temperatures. The husband and wife team have learned to create hardy grapes and you can visit the vineyard to taste their award-winning wines all year round. If you want to relate better to the frozen grapes, come to their annual winter wine fest, where you drink wine at an ice bar, listen to live music and sample vinos and gourmet foods in a heated tent. It’s the only festival of its kind in the Midwest.

Bodovino: Wine on Tap in Boise, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Josh Wolfe.

Bodovino: Wine on Tap in Boise, Illinois

4) Take A Self-Guided Tour Of The World’s Wines With Wine On Tap (Boise, Idaho)

You will never have to worry about opening wine bottles at Bodovino in downtown Boise. This shop has the United States’ largest selection of wine on tap, with over 144 wines to chose from. Visitors can sample 1 oz, 3 oz and 5 oz pours and can bring home their favorites, as all bottles are available for purchase. Bodovino uses special dispensers that keep the wine fresh and ensure it’s served at the perfect temperature for an optimal tasting experience. It’s the perfect place to gather friends and create your own wine tasting.

chilies

Chilies. Photo courtesy of Nattu.

5) Wine And Chile Tasting (Las Cruces, New Mexico)

Spice up your life with a wine-and-chili tasting in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley, the heart of uber-popular Hatch green chile country. Join local cookbook author, Kelley Coffeen, for a wine-and-chili pairing class. You’ll try three red and three white wines with six different flavors of chili (red, green, chipotle, habanero, crushed red pepper and jalapeno) served as sauces and salsas on baguette slices. These classes are often hosted at the local La Postra restaurant (www.laposta-de-mesilla.com) in a historic village; however, private tastings are also available. The Las Cruces location is the perfect place for such an experience because it houses the Chile Pepper Institute, the world’s only international organization dedicated to researching chili peppers. Come during Labor Day weekend to celebrate the green chili harvest at the Hatch Chile Festival, just 40 minutes away.

Art And Wine Pairings at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art

Art And Wine Pairings at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art

6) Art And Wine Pairing (Las Vegas, Nevada)

Add a visual dimension to the joy of tasting wine with the Bellagio’s “Art & Wine: A Perfect Pairing.” Bellagio’s top wine and art experts team up the second Wednesday of every month for an entertaining and sophisticated evening of art and wine. The Bellagio’s Fine Art Manager chooses selections from the casino’s art gallery, which the Master Sommelier pairs with bottles from the cellar, based on colors, aromas, flavors or any sort of inspiration. After simultaneously experiencing the Bellagio’s incredible selection of wine and art, you will leave with a new perspective on both.

Oktoberfest at Lynfried Winery.

Oktoberfest at Lynfred Winery. Photo courtesy of Lynfred.

7) Grape Stomping Or Candy-Wine Pairing (Roselle, Illinois)

When most people think of Oktoberfest, beer is the beverage that comes to mind; however, Lynfred aims to change that. This two-day celebration at an Illinois vineyard, just outside of Chicago, began over two decades ago and continues to be unforgettable. The Annual Oktoberfest & Pig Roast celebration will be held October 4 & 5, 2014. You’ll spend two days joining German sing-a-longs and competing in grape spitting, grape stomping and cork tossing contests. After you work up an appetite savor roasted pig served with warm German potato salad, grilled bratwurst, chili and roasted sweet corn. For dessert, try a taffy apple, apple strudel or German chocolate cake, all paired beautifully with Lynfred wine. If you’re in town earlier in October, take advantage of the vineyard’s candy pairing class. Halloween will never be the same until you’ve tasted Snickers with a Vin de City Red, Twix with Syrah, Candy Corn and Ice Wine, and Strawberry and Grape Nerds and Framboise Port.

Submarine Wine Bar at Sottomarino, San Francisco.

Submarine Wine Bar at Sottomarino, San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Sottomarino.

8) Wine Tasting In A Submarine (San Francisco, California)

Have you ever sipped wine in a submarine? Visit San Francisco’s Treasure Island — an old World War II naval base — for an unforgettable tasting experience at Sottomarino Winery. Parts of the former “Damage Control Wet Trainer” vessel have kept intact for an authentic atmosphere. The winery specializes in Italian varietals, which you can taste at the downstairs bar or go up to the deck for views of the Bay.

Trinitas Wine Cellar... It could be filled with you and your co-workers making cocktails or learning the different parts of your tastebuds.  Photo courtesy of Estancia La Jolla.

Trinitas Wine Cellar… It could be filled with you and your co-workers making cocktails or learning the different parts of your tastebuds. Photo courtesy of Estancia La Jolla.

9)  Mapping The Tastebuds On Of Your Tongue… With Your Co-Workers (La Jolla, California)

Have you ever worked for a company that required employee retreats?  You know the ones that should get you having fun and getting to know your co-workers but in reality, involve longer hours, more sitting and no plausible escape?  Bring your business meeting (or bachelor party, or any small group for that matter) to Estancia La Jolla Resort in San Diego, California for a bonding experience you will never forget.  Instead of a coffee break with stale scones or an ice cream social awkward enough to make you cringe at middle school memories, Estancia La Jolla can arrange a private class to loosen everyone up during break time.

You could start with the informative Wine 101 or increase your employees’ perceptiveness with a Blind Tasting class.  Another class will allow you to sample different foods and lit up different tastebuds on your tongue then challenge you to identify which activations happen with different wines.  If you are willing to move beyond wine, get your employees’ creative juices flowing with a Mixology or Make Your Own Cocktail class.

 

Preparing For Your Trip To Vietnam, From Culture to Food & Adventure

August 29, 2014 by  

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Vietnam market

Locals at a Vietnam market. Photo courtesy of Lucas Jans.

Looking to travel to Vietnam? Vietnam expert and travel blogger of Discount Travel Blogger, Lyndsay Cabildo, shares her knowledge of the country, based on an 18-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia in 2008 that led to her falling in love with Vietnam — especially how affordable it was — and living there for nine months. In 2011, she returned to the destination to backpack solo and teach English for three months. Cabildo shares advice and recommendations below on how to travel beyond the guidebook through this fascinating country.

1. For those wanting to have a Vietnam experience not typically found in guidebooks, a recommendation is Son Doong Cave, touted as the largest cave in the world. It might be a little expensive, but it’s truly an amazing cave. For a beach bum like me, Nha Trang was my favorite beach in Vietnam back in 2008; however, it has become crowded over time. Yet, there is Phu Quoc Island, a small island off the coast from Southern Vietnam, which might be a little pricey than the usual budget backpacker but it is beautiful and cleaner than most beaches they have along the backpacker trail. For those on a budget, there are cheaper areas, but these will not be as  clean and modern as the touristy Vung Tau in the south east coastal area.

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Vietnam, you should head up north, to Cat Ba Island, Sapa Bay and nearby provinces where tribes are still living in tact and practicing their beliefs. Cat Ba Island became popular when they made it a National Park, but it’s great as they regulate crowds by only giving visitors six days maximum length of stay. The combination of beautiful scenery and its authentic tribal character make it a must-have experience.

bahn xeo

Bahn xeo. Photo courtesy of stu_spivack.

3. No trip to Vietnam would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, it’s important to remember that each region has its own distinct taste according to its geographical location and survival needs of locals in the area. Vietnam is globally known for its Banh Mi and Pho, yet every regions boasts their specialties. With many of these foreigners may question their integrity due to its cooking method or ingredients.That being said, it’s important to understand the Third World is always focused on survival, and unless one has lived how these peoples’ lives they shouldn’t judge from the other side of the world or  through their cameras.

That being said, there are a number of dishes accommodating to majority of plates, for example, Banh Xeo, crispy Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with shrimp, pork and beans. For more information, check out Mui Ne’s Specialty – Banh Xeo.

4. For those wanting to partake in some adventure, Vietnam offers a nationwide motorbike tour and in some cases inter-country ones which are really hard to find in other Southeast Asian countries. Another idea is to try the traditional junk boats on Cat Ba Island offering snorkeling, island hopping and sometimes diving (these typically include local Vietnamese food and accommodation).

5. For backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to Vietnam, you’ll love this country; however, because locals know it’s cheap for you they tend to mark up prices to still be reasonable you but more ‘comfortable’ for them, if you know what I mean. The trick is to find out where the locals go and look at the price tags. Or if they don’t have  them — most local markets don’t have price stickers — learning basic local phrases can help you understand bargaining in local numbers. If you know the basic language, you’re less likely to get ripped off.

6. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, remember the Vietnamese doesn’t appear to be overly friendly, but it doesn’t mean they are not. Due to their strong language intonations, they may even sometimes sound angry even if they’re happy. Also, if you are a visitor of any country, do not get offended easily if you have not researched the local culture and don’t understand it. Many times locals are just simply trying to make a living or just simply existing.

sapa

Sapa, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Nathan O’Nions.

7. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in Vietnam, the beach areas have tons of restaurants and even resorts that offer use of swimming pool, pool table, wifi and sun beds if you get a drink or food from them. Drinks are typically reasonably priced for what you are getting.

For budget travelers, you can always grab your drinks from the convenience stores, market or, if you wish to help locals, you can buy it from sellers that walk around by the beach. WARNING: Some beach sellers may get annoying and sit beside you, waiting for you to finish your drink and hopefully buy another.

8. If you want to party like a local, there are a ton of options for night life in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City the well known Pham Ngu Lao Street is their equivalent to Khaosan Road in Bangkok. For a fancier night out and dress code kind of clubbing, head out to the District 1 area which takes about 45 minutes from Pham Ngu Lao Street depending on the traffic, which gets worse during happy hour time.

9. For those wanting to take a day or weekend trip while in Vietnam, it’s easy to do it all and still stay on a budget because of their Open Bus Tour system. With this you can buy one nationwide ticket from north to south or vice versa, allowing you to hop on and off at every tourist region at your own pace. Just remember to drop by the local tourist or tour company office a day before your desired date of getting on the ‘sleeper bus’ to head to your next region. All these go for about $60 (may be cheaper or more expensive depending on the company). I recommend The Sinh Tourist — formerly Sinh Cafe, but there are currently million of Sinh Cafe agencies that scam people using the same name. Please remember the name: The Sinh Tourist Office located at Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City.

10. For solo travelers heading to Vietnam, remember to always stay ahead of your game. I know it’s fun just to go with the flow; however, you can still stay smart and research. Read more and talk to other travelers, read review and learn from others’ good and bad experiences with tour companies, hotels and restaurants. You can always go with the flow and have fun if your well-equipped with the necessary knowledge.

By that, I mean you’ll avoid the bus company or bus time that drops you off at the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night to catch the connecting bus ride in the next five hours. What happens if you’re a female traveling solo and you have no other fellow backpackers traveling with you? Lucky if there are other travelers going where you’re going, at least you have company. Knowledge is safety.

Contributed by freelancer, Lyndsay Cabildo.

 

 

New York’s Brooklyn for a Sweet Combination of Liquor & Chocolate

August 28, 2014 by  

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cacao prieto

Chocolate and liquor are probably not the first things that come to mind when you think of healthy food and drink. Additionally, they’re not typically two items you imagine pairing together; however, at Brooklyn’s Cacao Prieto, single origin Dominican cacao and antioxidant-rich spirits are served side-by-side and sometimes intermixed.

“Cacao Prieto is a crucial meeting place of ideas, of traditions, of dreams and technology,” explains Mike Dirksen, Director of Sales. “It is a place where the creation of delicious chocolate and liquor resonates with an idealistic sense of purpose stating that making one thing the right way might just makes the world a better place.”

As the name states, cacao — the main ingredient of chocolate — is a major focus of Cacao Prieto. Their chocolate is 72% Dark, which is surprisingly not bitter due to their Vortex Winnower, a machine developed by Aerospace Engineer owner Daniel Prieto Preston to better separate sweet nibs from bitter shells. Additionally, because the beans aren’t fumigated the chocolate is one of the only 100% Pesticide-free chocolate bars on the market. Their liquor is also innovative, especially as they’re kept at 80 proof (40% alcohol) — twice as high as the average liqueur. This makes for an excellent liquor for cocktail-making as it doesn’t dilute the drink.

One of Cacao Prieto’s most innovative drink offerings is their Widow Jane Single Expression Heirloom Bourbon Whiskies. First of all, they source their water from the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, New York, which has an exceptionally high concentration of beneficial minerals. Furthermore, while the main ingredient in bourbon is typically corn, most distilleries use a genetically-modified “yellow” corn. Cacao Prieto, on the other hand, researched a variety of different corns, focusing on pure ancient grains.

Says Dirksen, “We invested in our own fields, treating them like Vineyards, growing and harvesting the different varietals apart so we could then ferment and distill them individually, creating three completely new, unique, and delicious bourbons; The Wapsie Valley, The Bloody Butcher, and the Bloody Butcher “High Rye”, as well as some others we’ve not yet released.”

While you may have heard dark chocolate has certain health benefits — like being good for your heart, improving cognitive function and being full of free radical-fight antioxidants — these advantages are also present in Cacao Prieto’s liquors. This is because their distilling process is unique in that it incorporates the antioxidants from their raw organic cacao. Sample their Don Rafael Cacao Rum made with delicious flavors of pure chocolate and coffee, or their Don Estaban Cacao Liqueur featuring tastes of dark chocolate, toffee, vanilla bean, toasted marshmallow and pepper.

And for those interested in sustainability, Prieto Preston continues his out-of-the-box thinking as he is currently designing a brand new carbon neutral — and possibly even carbon negative — production facility.

This post originally appeared on Drive the District

 

The Mafia’s Control Of The Italian Food System

August 28, 2014 by  

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cannoli

 

‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’, the iconic quote from The Godfather reflecting the relationship between food and the Mafia that is a continuing reality in Italy. This blog explores the Mafia’s control of the food system in southern Italy, along with the rise of the anti-mafia land movement, providing a fascinating example of how food can be a key instrument for positive change.

The Mafia’s Control Of The Italian Food System

Food is a basic human need, a fact that the Southern Italian Mafia have not failed to capitalise upon. Investing money into food and farming is generally considered a ‘safe investment’, and has resulted in the four Mafia networks in Italy making approximately $14 billion a year from agriculture, along with up to 15% of farming in Italy being linked to organised crime. The Mafia use pizzo, or protection money, to bring territories and businesses under their financial control. Industries include the building trade, refuse collection, and the food industry. Once you buy into the system, the store owner, their products, and their customers are controlled by the Mafia. Ultimately, food is a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.

Through bypassing environmental and legal controls, Mafia-controlled food is also cheaper. Various stories have emerged about backstreet bakeries and unlicensed food factories. Stores have been selling cheap fruit and vegetables laden with pesticides and even E.coli. Bakeries have been using expired flour, and pizza ovens have been fuelled by planks from exhumed coffins. Alongside the obvious health costs, the environmental costs are severe, with the term ‘ecomafia’ coined to describe the Mafia’s degradation of both urban and rural environments.

cheese

Italian cheeses. Photo courtesy of Graeme Maclean.

The Rise And Success Of The Anti-Mafia Land Movement

Resistance to the Mafia is long-standing, with the Day of Memory and Commitment held annually on the first day of spring, remembering the 842 victims of Mafia organised crime since 1983. In 1996, Law no. 109/96 came into force, allowing for third parties to formally acquire land confiscated from the Mafia by the Italian state. The land had to be used for social development goals, reducing public debt, or to pursue emergency environmental action. This legal progress, combined with political will, gave a novel opportunity for the anti-mafia land movement to emerge.

Aiming to restructure southern Italy’s food system, local cooperatives organically cultivate food and drink on confiscated land, alongside educating both producers and consumers on anti-mafia philosophies and the land movement’s mission. The hope is to create an environmentally sustainable, legal and ‘pure’ food economy and culture.

olives

Photo courtesy of CeresB.

Olives

One key example is Libera Terra, which translates to ‘Free Land’. Founded in 1995, the organisation was one of the key sponsors of Law no. 109/96. Since the law passed, over 4,500 properties in Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campania have been handed over to cooperatives, creating an ‘opportunity for people to create a future free of violence and corruption’. Organic methods are used to cultivate produce that is intrinsically linked to the local ecology and culture, including olive oil, red wines, lemons, durum wheat, pasta and honey. Sold in cooperative shops, each product is stamped with the Libera Terra slogan ‘La Terra Libere Dalle Mafie’, some even bearing the name of a mafia victim, helping to conjure moral reflection and create a compelling story behind the food.

Another is the Casa dei Giovani community run by priest Padre Lo Bue, farming on land confiscated from Matteo Messina Denaro, one of the Mafia’s most violent and wanted killers. This specialist organisation sells only high quality olive oil, and helps to rehabilitate drug addicts via employment. The dual aim of reviving the environment and the community is also seen in the Lavoro e Non Solo. This cooperative employs people with mental distress, helping increase levels of social engagement with nature amongst marginalised members of Palermo’s community.

Targeting the power of the consumer, Palermo’s Committee Addiopizzo encourages what they call ‘critical consumption’ via the slogan ‘a whole population who pays pizzo is a population without dignity’. Founded in 2004 by five grad students, their progress is inspiring; in just three years from 2004 to 2007, over 9,000 consumers and 210 traders chose to buy at ‘pizzo-free’ shops. Great examples include the launch of Punto Pizzofree in 2008, a pizzo-free supermarket in Palermo, along with the restaurant Ancient Focacceria San Francisco which promotes the slogan ‘Free the Future’. Branching out from local consumer society, Committee Addiopizzo recently established Addiopizzo Travel, raising awareness amongst tourists to Sicily, of the anti-mafia land movement through tours of farms, fields and pizzo-free shops.

pasta

Pasta. Photo courtesy of Benjie Ordonez.

Rebuilding Italy’s Food System: Hope For The Future

As with any growing movement, there are still obstacles to overcome. Agricultural workers play an integral role, however many continue not to identify themselves with the anti-mafia movement’s principles, simply wanting ‘the pocket’ (the contracted pay). Challenging the urban consumers’ desire for cheap food is also a barrier. Theodoros Rakopoulos, also contributed to Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy on anti-mafia activism in Sicily, quotes an activist Luca, who bluntly concludes that ‘Income, culture, social status are in such a condition that the only thing, when it comes to food, that matters to people is the price.’

However, these obstacles should not detract from the successes, nor potential for the future. As captured by the bold slogans adopted by the anti-mafia land movement, food is not simply a commodity, but intimately connected to taste, morals and ethics, culture and the environment.

The movement continues to merge organic production, ethical consumerism and civic engagement together, challenging the Mafia’s monopolisation of the food economy and culture of southern Italy. What is striking is how strongly intertwined the anti-mafia land movement is with the Slow Food movement’s philosophy of opposing the ‘standardisation of taste and culture’ and promoting ‘good, clean and fair’ food. Now an internationally recognised movement represented in over 160 countries, it is important to remember that the Slow Food movement emerged from a demonstration outside a McDonald’s in Italy in 1986. Slow Food’s humbling and inspiring example of positive change gives even more hope to the future of the anti-mafia land movement’s mission and progress.

This article originally appeared on Sustainable Food Trust. It was written by Rebecca Roberts.  Top photo credit: Cannolis. Photo courtesy of jeffreyw.

 

All Things Pizza Even With Food Allergies & Sensitivities

August 27, 2014 by  

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cannoli

When my doctor told me in 2007 that I was lactose intolerant and that I needed to remove dairy from my diet, I took his advice into consideration for all of an hour before going out and getting myself a Big Mac and strawberry milkshake.

You know when someone tells you that you can’t have something, and then all you can do is think about that one thing? I thought that was all this was; simply an act of rebellion because my doctor didn’t think I should eat dairy. But having had some time to ponder my situation, it went way beyond that.

I grew up in a family dominated by Italian-American-ness:

  • A large extended family that I saw on a regular basis (for birthdays, holidays, or just because my grandmother made a shit-ton of lasagna)
  • Loud conversations full of gesticulations
  • And pizza. Lots of pizza.

But it wasn’t just pizza. There were the cannoli. And the manicotti. And the creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. And the cheeseburgers. And the hot fudge sundaes. And the nachos. And the glass of milk with dinner. My doctor was telling me that about 90% of my diet was making me sick. I couldn’t believe it.

Fast forward a few years and I had changed my eating habits enough to where my lactose intolerance was manageable. I had cut dairy out of my life to where it only took up about 50% of everything I ate. Still not good according to my doctor, but an improvement. I also always kept a pack of Lactaid on me so that if I wanted to indulge in some dairy eating goodness, I wouldn’t be sick immediately afterwards. With my love-hate relationship with dairy now in check, I could pursue a normal life again, which included the obsession with and pursuit of a very specific New England pizza.

pizza

Delicious pizza. Photo courtesy of Rool Paap.

The Grated Cheese Pizza

After leaving Connecticut at the age of 18, I quickly discovered that Wethersfield, CT was in possession of the greatest pizza known to man. I never would have realized how great it was until I ventured outside of the state, though. At first I just thought it was the mid-Atlantic states that had so-so pizza. Then I was disappointed that Boston couldn’t live up to my standards of a decent pizza. Seattle was even worse. Up and down and all around the U.S., I tried the chain pizzas, the local pizzas, the frozen pizzas — and sometimes even resorted to nuking up some pizza bagel bites. I even had the chance to go to Italy where I ate lots of pizza that I’d disappointingly rate as “good, but not great.” I’ve yet to meet a pizza that comes close to the Grated Cheese Pizza’s level of excellence.

Needless to say, when the suggestion of a weekend trip down to Connecticut arose in 2009, I jumped at the opportunity. I missed that pizza and I needed my fix. I also needed to prove to someone other than myself that Vito’s Pizzaria had the very best pizza this world has to offer. And so, the New England pizza road trip began.

road trip

The open road. Photo courtesy of Kristin Wall.

A Pizza-Focused Road Trip

Saturday, 9:00 a.m.: Nina, my best friend and the person I wanted to convince, and I left Boston and headed down I-95, through Rhode Island, and arrived at our first destination: Foxwoods Resort Casino. I spent a lot of time in the Connecticut casinos as a kid. Our evenings always began with a big meal at the buffet where I’d go up and juggle heaping plates of pasta, egg rolls, steak, dinner rolls and hot fudge sundaes gowned in rainbow sprinkles.

It’s funny what time does to us, distorting our memories as well as our ability to metabolize food. When Nina and I arrived at the casino, we made a beeline for the buffet, having skipped breakfast in preparation of it. I could barely get past one plate of food. I guess when you’re approaching 30, it’s no longer realistic to believe you can eat five or six dishes at a buffet anymore.

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: Still full from our trip to the buffet, we took some time to settle into our hotel room in Hartford. Nina took the bed on the left and I took the one on the right. A bag of double chocolate Milano® cookies sat between us on the nightstand.

We took turns showering, and as I emerged feeling clean, awakened, and finally hungry, I suggested we head out on the town to see what our options were. Nibbling a Milano cookie, I handed the bag to Nina, asking, “What are you in the mood for?”

She laughed. When we drove into downtown Hartford it was pitch black. We assumed our GPS had directed us to the wrong place since Hartford was supposedly a city, right? Where were all the people and the loud bars and the well-lit city streets?

“Why don’t we just walk around? We’ll find something.”

We walked for all of five minutes before we decided to eat and drink at an Irish bar across from our hotel. We were nervous being in a city with barely a trace of life on the streets, so we took the first thing we could find. The food was okay; nothing to write home about. But the drinks were good.

Saturday, 11:00 p.m.: We stumbled back into our hotel room and I stopped moving when I caught a glimpse of my bed.

“Someone’s been here,” I said.

Nina was coming through the doorway as I said this. She stopped too, holding the door open. “How do you know?”

“The Milanos.” I pointed to the bag of Milano cookies that sat on the bed.

“Oh my god, you’re ridiculous,” she laughed as she closed the door behind her and went into the bathroom.

“No, I’m serious! Remember when we left we were eating the Milanos? Then we put them on the nightstand and headed out. Someone’s been in here.” I paused, thinking of all the possibilities that horror movies taught me. “It. . .it could be a ghost! There’s a ghost, Nina!”

“What? Why would a ghost want our Milanos? There’s no such thing. . .” Nina said, but I swear I heard a hesitation in her voice.

“Yep, it’s a ghost. I just know it. The Milanos were right there.”

Okay, so I was a little more than drunk at that point. All I had eaten that day was one plate of (filling) food at the casino and a mound of nachos for dinner. I entered the bathroom after Nina had finished up and jumped in the shower. Then it hit me. I was looking at US Weekly right before we left. I wanted to put it back on the nightstand, so I lifted up the Milanos, put the magazine down, and then. . .put the Milanos on the bed after I sneaked one more into my mouth before we ran out to get grub (and apparently too much to drink.)

I stumbled out into the room—definitely not embarrassed at all—and explained to Nina that there was no ghost. Then I went to bed.

fresh vegetables

Photo courtesy of Vito’s Pizzeria

Vito’s Pizzaria

Sunday, 11:00 a.m.: After checkout, we headed straight over to Wethersfield and parked outside Vito’s Pizzaria.

“Hi there, ladies.  What can I get for ya?”  Our server, a middle-aged woman who didn’t look Italian at all, came up to the table before we’d even had a chance to open our menus.  She took our drink order and quickly departed.

“Hmmmm. . .  I don’t know what I want,” Nina said as she looked through the menu.

“Nope.  Close your menu.”

“Huh?  I’m not r—”

“We’re getting the Grated Cheese Pizza.  It’s gonna change your life.”

Nina looked down at the menu that was still open in her hands.  A perplexed look washed over her face, “but it’s not on here.”

“What?  Of course it is.”  I opened the menu I had tossed aside and glanced at the pizza section.  I read through each of the titles and descriptions numerous times, but there was nothing to indicate that the Grated Cheese Pizza existed.

“I don’t understand. . .  I was just here. . .”

“When?”

“Uhhh. . . I moved to Boston in. . . Oh crap.” I looked up from the menu with the sting of fear in the corner of my eyes. “2006.”

I was officially in panic mode.

“What if they don’t make it anymore?  I mean, that would only be three years ago. . .  That can’t be. Maybe it’s just called something else now.”  I frantically scoured the menu, this time under all categories—salads, soups, pasta.  Still nothing.

“It’s okay, Suzanne.  We can just get something else.”

This was the only reason we came down to Connecticut. The Grated Cheese Pizza. Nina couldn’t just brush it away as if anything else on their menu could easily replace it. Plus, I had already taken extra Lactaid for this. I was ready.

“How’re we doing here?  You ladies ready to order?”

“Ye—”

“Actually, I have a question,” I interrupted.  “Do you guys still have the Grated Cheese Pizza?”

“Hmmm. . .  Well, we can put some grated mozzarella on there, if you’d like.”  Normally, I’ve got a soft spot for waiters and waitresses. Having been one for a number of years I know how annoying it is when a customer isn’t content with the menu as it stands. But this was different.

“No. It was a pizza called “Grated Cheese Pizza.”  You guys had it on your menu just a few years ago.  It is the greatest pizza. Ever.”

“Yeah, she doesn’t stop talking about it,” Nina chimed in. I scowled at her as she laughed.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t think we have it anymore.”

“Okay, this is gonna sound like a weird question, but do you have anyone working in the kitchen who’s been here awhile?  Do you think you could go see if any of the chefs know this pizza?  Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but we drove all the way from Boston for it and I’ve been craving this pizza for years.”

“Uh, sure. . .  Do you just want me to ask them for grated cheese?”  She readied her pen over her notepad.

“No.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Okay, listen:  The pizza was called Grated. Cheese. Pizza.  Thin crust. Sauce that tastes like it’s got the most amazing mixture of herbs and flavors that I couldn’t even begin to guess. And then a grated layer of cheese that’s also mixed with herbs. If you describe that and they’ve heard of it, they’ll know how to make it.”

“Wow. You’ve sold me, hon.  Let me go see what I can find out.”

grated cheese

Grated cheese. Photo courtesy of cookbookman17.

From Down To Up

God, I felt so terrible doing that.  The part of me that waited tables felt terrible about it.  The part of me that grew up on this pizza and felt betrayed by Vito’s for removing it didn’t care.  After forcing Nina to suffer through five minutes of my anxious rantings about how great this pizza was, the waitress returned:

“You’re in luck!  One of the chefs knew exactly what I was talking about as soon as I said ‘grated cheese.’  He’s on it!”  She had a huge smile on her face that I worked to match with my own.  I just couldn’t believe I was going to get this pizza even though it no longer existed on the menu.  “What size would you like?”

I didn’t bother to look to Nina as I ordered.  “One large Grated Cheese Pizza for here and one medium to go.” If I was going to spend my weekend in Connecticut for this pizza, I was going to have my fill (and more) of it.

The pizza arrived twenty minutes later and my eyes teared up at the sight and smell of it.

“Wait! Don’t touch it!” I screamed as Nina leaned over to grab a slice. Nina and the waitress glared at me.

The Grated Cheese Pizza is perfect in every way with the exception of one flaw: it’s not suitable for eating when it’s fresh from the oven.  Even though there’s a thin layer of sauce, grated cheese and herbs brushed on top, that top layer is heavy enough to make the crust bend backwards, resulting in a landslide of sauce and cheese onto the table (or your plate).

The best way to eat Vito’s Grated Cheese Pizza is to bring it home and leave it in the cardboard box for a few hours.  Pick up a slice, using one hand to hold the end of the crust and the other hand to support the underside of the slice.  The pizza sauce and cheese will have solidified enough at that point to stay put.  And if you have the patience to wait even longer — or you’ve still got enough to eat the next day — the cheese will take on a slight crunch.  The best.

Five minutes passed and we carefully pulled two slices onto each of our plates. I savored every bite of those slices. With a crust so thin…the sharpness of the cheese hit first…then came the flavorful, herb-filled sauce. . It felt like Willy Wonka was inside my head, dictating the flow of flavor bursts to hit my palate. And I loved every second of it.

“You were right,” Nina said as she finished off her second slice.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love hearing those words—especially when it comes to food suggestions. I pride myself on having quality taste buds and so it’s always a real kick to have someone appreciate and validate my ideas of what makes for good food—or the best, in this case. At that particular moment in time though, my main focus was on eating as much of that tasty wonderfulness as I could before we had to get on the road again. I smiled back at Nina, nodded my head, and finished off four more slices.

The rest of the pizza was gone by 7 p.m. on Monday.

Contributed by freelancer Suzanne E. Scacca.

Top photo credit Cannoli. Photo courtesy of stu_spivack.

 

The All Things Culture Guide to Buenos Aires

August 25, 2014 by  

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empanadas

Empanadas. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Thompson.

Interested in visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina? I caught up with city expert and the blogger behind Indecisive Traveler, Rease Kirchner — who lived in Buenos Aires for two years — to get the scoop on the local culture, food, nightlife and lesser-known experiences — not to mention essential solo travel tips. Continue reading for everything you need to plan the ultimate trip itinerary to Buenos Aires.

1. For those wanting to experience local culture in Buenos Aires, you should have a two-hour lunch. Meet up with friends over medialunas (crescent-shaped croissants) and café con leche (coffee with milk). Have dinner at 11pm and go dancing until 5am. Ride the subte (subway/metro) from one side of the city to another. Have picadas (cured meats and cheeses) in the park. Go to an all you can eat parrilla and try meats you’ve never heard of then drink Malbec until your teeth turn purple. I don’t really think that there are specific places or activities that give you the “Buenos Aires experience.” To me, Buenos Aires is a feeling. I often compared Buenos Aires to a boyfriend that I loved deeply, but one that I had all out scream-fests with every so often. The city is amazing and frustrating all at once.

2. No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, they should have ice cream. Everyone always talks about Argentine steak, but no one ever talks about the incredible ice cream. The artisan ice cream in Argentina rivals the frozen treats of Italy and Spain. There are incredible heladerias (ice cream shops) on every block. The most popular flavor is dulce de leche, but I was also a huge fan of Banana Split – which includes a swirl of the dulce de leche that Argentina is famous for. You can even order ice cream to be delivered to your home. Amazing. I seriously could ramble on for days about Argentina’s delectable ice cream. Here’s a list of my favorite ice cream places in Buenos Aires. I challenge you to try them all!

alfajores

Alfajores, a traditional dulce de leche-filled Argentine snack. Photo courtesy of jamieanne.

3. For backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to Buenos Aires, a good idea is to buy lunch from panaderias (bakeries). Eating out in Buenos Aires can be very pricey, but pretty much all bakeries have a variety of empanadas, tarts, sandwiches and other tasty savory items prepped for purchase. You can just pop in, have them heat it up for you and then eat in a park. You’ll save a lot of money on the food itself, but you also will save on the annoying cubierto fee restaurants in Buenos Aires will charge you just for sitting down, not to mention the tip.

4. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, avoid offending locals in Argentina by not touching the bombilla! A bombilla is the metal straw used to drink mate, which is an herbal tea and favorite local drink. Mate is served in a gourd with a metal straw and passed between friends. It’s very rude to wipe off the bombilla or stir the mate. If you are worried about germs, it’s best to abstain from mate all together, because messing with the bombilla is bad manners.

5. To party like a local in Buenos Aires, the best spots are a secret. I’d love to tell you where my favorite club is, but I have sworn to my local friends that I wouldn’t! That being said – if you really want to party like a local, get away from Plaza Serrano and head to the less touristy areas like San Telmo. You’ll find plenty of clubs packed with locals well into the wee hours of the morning. Remember, in Buenos Aires going home before 4am is considered early.

malbec

Malbec, the wine of Argentina. Photo courtesy of Vina Caliterra.

6. To sip a glass of wine paired with a beautiful view in Buenos Aires, you can go everywhere. Seriously, Argentines are all about their wine. Every restaurant has some good local wines. But if you are looking for a really nice view, Puerto Madero overlooks the river, which shines beautifully at night. I also really enjoyed having drinks in Palermo Hollywood where the people watching is excellent.

7. A must-experience day trip from Buenos Aires is Mar de Plata. The beach is not the most beautiful and certainly not the most peaceful — nearly every inch of the sand is occupied by a sun bather — but the city itself is really fun. I went for the annual film festival so I got to see the city in a unique light.

8. For solo travelers heading to Buenos Aires, remember that pickpockets are really clever in Buenos Aires and the city can sometimes lull you into a sense of security. It’s important to maintain constant vigilance. My biggest travel tip for visitors is to never pull out a map on the streets.

If you are lost, either use a phone or a GuiaTe, which is a pocket guide of all the bus routes that you can buy at any newspaper kiosk in Buenos Aires. Thieves will sometimes watch for people who check maps or look lost and follow them until they can rob them. Also, always protect your belongings, especially if someone approaches you, even if it’s just for what seems like a friendly conversation. Thieves in Buenos Aires often work in teams, so while you are having what you believe to be a cordial conversation with one person, their accomplices might be rooting through your backpack.

I lived in Buenos Aires alone for two years and I was never robbed. While I have to give luck some credit for that, I never let my belongings out of my sight, even in nice restaurants. I also made sure to hop into a cab if I ended up in an area that gave me the creeps. More than once I had cabs take me to a safer bus stop so I could stay safe but not have to pay a fortune in cab fare.

Contributed by freelancer Rease Kirchner, a Spanish interpreter and preschool tutor.

Do you have any Buenos Aires travel tips or favorite experiences to add? Please share in the comments below.

 

Eating Your Way Through the Jungles of Guatemala

August 21, 2014 by  

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tikal

Tikal. Photo courtesy of mtsrs.

On a recent trip to Guatemala, I met a woman who left her urban life as a fitness guru in Guatemala City to tease out the secret ingredients of the jungle in order to nourish guests in a forest retreat. She went on a weekend holiday, fell in love with her surroundings, and crafted a new life running an eco-lodge where she feeds world travelers exotic food, and provides them with a haven of tranquility.

The Pull Of Petén

Lorena Castillo runs Ni’tun, an eco-lodge perched above the shores of Lago Petén Itza in Guatemala’s northern Department of Petén. In 1992, Castillo’s boyfriend planned a romantic weekend getaway visit to the area. Her beau was working in tourism at the time, while Lorena was multitasking as a fitness instructor, working in a law office, and administrating the family coffee farm. That was soon to change, as Lorena arrived in Petén and never left. Instead of spending a long weekend in the area, Castillo and her boyfriend ended up camping for three weeks. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she had to live in Petén — that something was pulling her to stay. She was head-over-heels in love with the area — the surrounding jungle teeming with life, a feeling of connection with the bathwater-warm lake, and the incredible, untouched Mayan sites.

howler monkey

Howler monkey. Photo courtesy of angela n.

Castillo had the uncomfortable job of calling her family and boss to let them know that she wouldn’t be returning to Guatemala City from her “long weekend.” Back in 1992, this meant finding a community phone booth, giving the phone number to a clerk and waiting until the call was connected. She was then summoned to step into a small plywood booth with a phone where she delivered her news. No one was pleased, she recalls, but she was determined to follow her instincts.

Castillo immediately started talking with different municipalities looking for land to lease. Despite her lack of faith that she would find a piece of property, the local mayor instructed the secretary of the municipality to show Castillo the last piece of land available. The mayor ultimately granted her the lease with the caveat that the construction of a lodge had to begin within three months. Although the birth of the lodge began with a land lease, Castillo wanted to purchase it, preserve all that was special about it, and share its special magic with travelers. She rented a house in Santa Elena and then began construction on the lodge, which was later discovered to be located on a post-classical period Mayan site. The name Ni ́tun already existed in the old maps of the area, and because there was also a Mayan site called Ni ́tun located in a nearby peninsula, the lodge was christened.

lago peten itza

Lago Peten Itza. Photo courtesy of Guillen Perez.

The Lodge

Twenty-two years later, Ni ́tun looks as though it is part of the jungle. Arriving there and meeting Castillo is like suddenly finding a familiar friend. She gives off a welcoming, no-pressure vibe. The atmosphere she has cultivated at Ni ́tun reflects this and envelops travelers during their stay. It’s no wonder she came and never left – the moment I arrived, I think my heart rate literally slowed down. It’s an easy place to just be.

It may be easy to relax at Ni ́tun, but given Castillo’s excellent cooking skills and the delicious ingredients available in the region, it can’t hurt to move a bit during a visit. A side trip to view nearby Maya ruins not only allows travelers to burn a few calories while following ancient footsteps to summit a pyramid, but also to take in the amazing flora and fauna found in the jungle. It’s easy to imagine the first explorers running screaming from the forest upon hearing the creepy calls of howler monkeys, or when they stumbled upon a jaguar for the first time.

Ni ́tun Lodge. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Harshman.

Ni ́tun Lodge. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Harshman.

Other diversions include tree canopy tours, horseback riding in a local reserve, swimming in the lake, and hikes through the jungle. All are worthwhile, but the true magic of the place is the ability to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Lorena treasures cooking with local ingredients, many of which can be found on the grounds of Ni ́tun. The Tziquinché mushroom is endemic to the region and grows in the bark of the Jiote or Chacaj tree (known as the “tourist tree”, because it is red and peeling all the time). It is a delicacy found only in Belize, Yucatan and Petén. The mushroom is rare, and only makes its seasonal appearance with the first rains in June. It is a very dry and meaty, though it looks and feels more like a very dark brown flower. The flavor is smoky and spicy, and Castillo knows just how to harness its best qualities in her cooking.

fettucini

Fettucini. Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan.

Tziquinché Pasta With Garlic & Chiles

The first recipe that she ever created with Tziquinché was a pasta dish with garlic, chile and cream. I’d suggest you picture yourself barefoot, sitting at Ni ́tun’s rough-hewn table with a glass of wine, enjoying conversation and listening to the music of the jungle as you eat this fantastic dish. Loreana is a casual cook who is not big on measuring ingredients, but she kindly shared the following approximation of her recipe. It’s delicious. I only wish we had Tziquinché here in the United States.

After collecting* or buying the mushrooms, clean them from the thick parts that were attached to the Chacaj tree. Put some pasta, ideally fettuccini, to cook in a pot with water and salt. In the meantime, toss some crushed garlic in a clay pan or pot with olive oil over medium heat. (It is better to use ceramic or clay and not metal for this recipe). Add the Tziquinché and cook well, mixing constantly with a wooden spatula. Once it is nearly cooked through, add salt and pepper and a good quantity of whole cream. Mix well and cook for several minutes more until the cream and the mushrooms look a bit brownish.

Add fresh habanero chile to taste – with or without seeds, depending on how hot you like it. Add a bit of paprika for color. Finally add a small amount of chopped fresh parsley. Mix the pasta with the sauce and serve hot.

Guatemala Cooking

Lorena cooking up a delicious meal. Photo courtesy of Lyndsay Harshman.

Castillo is adamant that no cheese be added, as it dilutes the beauty of the mushrooms.

You may substitute the Tziquinché with a mix of dried shiitakes and cremini or portobello mushrooms to give it a meaty flavor similar to the Tziquinché. For meat lovers, I would add a bit of excellent quality ground meat (a mixture of beef and pork).

*Only forage for mushrooms if you have extensive experience in identifying them. Many mushrooms are poisonous. It is safer to purchase your mushrooms from a reputable grower or grocer than collecting them yourself.

If you want to try the real deal, you’ll need to visit Ni ́tun. It’s an easy one-hour flight from Guatemala City to Petén, then a quick transfer to the village of Flores for a short and relaxing trip across the lake to the lodge. You’ll discover the magic that brought Lorena to this special place, and she’ll be sure to keep you well-fed using the secret bounty of the Guatemalan jungle.

Contributed by author Gretchen Healey gave up a window office in the IT industry to embrace travel as a profession.

The Awe-Inspiring Kiyomizu-dera Temple In Kyoto Japan

August 16, 2014 by  

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Japan‘s Eastern Mountain Area was established during the eighth century. Made of wood, the structure has burned down numerous times, although the building we see today — created without nails and featuring a thatched roof — was created in 1633.

The story goes that a priest named Enchin saw a vision that instructed him to “look for the clear water origin of the upper reaches of the Yodo River. This is how he found this place — sitting over a waterfall at the base of Mount Otawa — we now call Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, or Clear Water Temple.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Surrounded by forest you can take a nature stroll, drink from three crystal cascades for prosperity, enjoy aerial views of Kyoto city, or make a wish for good fortune by ringing a series of bells and calling for the gods. There are also 16 structural attractions to see on the grounds, some of which include the Hondo (Main Hall), Nio-mon (Gate of the Deva Kings), Uma Todome (Horse Stable), Shoro (Bell Tower) and Sanju-no-to (Three-storied Pagoda), to name a few.

My personal favorite Kiyomizu-dera Temple activity was finding out I was destined for true love. The task involved walking between two boulders — spaced about 43 feet apart — making it from one to the other successfully with your eyes closed. This can be tricky not only due to the loss of sight, but also because of how crowded the temple gets. Luckily when I did it everyone was too busy staring and laughing at me to get in my way and I made it to the other side. Looks like I’m ready for love.

Bonus: Follow the exit signs toward Sanen-zaka and Ninen-zaka Paths, where the houses and structures retain the same architecture since the Edo Period (1600-1867) . It’s also possible to walk to Kodaiji Temple and continue on to Gion, famous for its old world charm and talented maiko and geiko.

Have you visited Kiyomizu-dera Temple? What was the highlight for you? Please share in the comments below.

My trip to Japan’s Kansai Region was sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. All opinions are 100% my own.

The post Finding True Love At Kiyomizu-dera Temple In Kyoto, Japan appeared first on Jessie on a Journey.

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