Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Survey says

It was a surprisingly busy Monday, but after greeting a table in Thai, explaining the insalata ricca in Spanish, exchanging numbers with a Russian gal living in Florence and laughing with some fantastic Australians in literally less then 20 minutes, I decided to make a list of every table I interacted with today...
Russia, Thailand, Australia, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Ticino (Switzerland), China, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Chile, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia...and on our staff we have a Tunisian girl, a Croatian girl and a Romanian waiter.
The UN has nothing on us.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A New Season and Old Questions

I haven't been posting much because I've been running around like a crazy person getting the Cantina open for the season.  We opened Thursday, but it's always a bit hectic.  Since the flood a few years ago filled our cute little windowless stone restaurant with about 6 feet of water, we have taken to dismantling every single thing (even the oven in the kitchen) and putting them in a garage up the mountain in the event that, God forbid, it should happen again.  Though the streets and canals have been cleared, and grates built to help water flow in the case of heavy rain, our water came from the stairs behind the Cantina that lead up to apartments on the mountain above.  These stairs are exactly as they were the day of the flood - which means that if it rains that much again, our Cantina will be again full of floating furniture.  Better to leave it empty, no?

So, the night before we opened, we finished setting things up at about 10 pm, and in no mood to even think about cooking dinner, we grabbed a pizza to take home at the place down the hill from our house.  There was a table of sweet American girls who, as we were waiting for our pizza, started asking our friend (the owner who also waits tables) about the bill.  His face showed a bit of panic as he started explaining the mysterious coperto in his not-so-great English, and he threw me a "save me" sort of look, so for the 5 millionth time in my life here, I explained one of the most frequently asked questions about dining out in Italy.  I remembered with a flash this blog entry that has been buzzing around my head for a few years.

Then, we opened the Cantina on Thursday, and the very first table I waited on paid the check and asked, with a conspiratorial whisper, from "Canadian to American", to explain, really, what the deal was with tipping in Italy, and I was reminded again about the second most common question asked while dining out.

So, from one former American bartender and waitress who is now doing the same job in Italy, here's the deal.

The coperto is an old Italian charge you see on almost every bill dining out in Italy (expect at bars, which will usually charge different prices for sit-down service as opposed to standing up and eating and drinking at the bar).  Coperto is most usually translated as "cover charge", but I find it better to explain it as "overhead".  It's not just paying for the seat or table at the restaurant, it goes towards the napkins, table linens, ketchup packets, olive oil (Italians do not eat bread with olive oil and vinegar before their meal.  This is a totally foreigner thing to do, and olive oil costs quite a bit of money, if you think of how many bottles you go through a day because people like to sop it up in their bread), and so forth.  I know that in our restaurant, we have a 1 euro coperto that we use to cover all of these things, like dry goods, napkins, and so forth.  It might seem a little odd, but many small businesses in Italy are very much struggling to keep themselves afloat with sometimes 47% taxes, and even a euro added a head covers the cost of doing business.  The coperto also varies depending on where you go.  Places with nice table linens and fancy napkins might charge you as much as 3,50-4 euro a head for the coperto.  Less formal places usually charge less, from 1-2,50 euro.  Legally, you will find it written on the menu.

The coperto is also sometimes referred to as pane e coperto, which is that famous "charge for bread" you hear about.  This is where it gets tricky.  In the region of Lazio (Rome is located in Lazio, to give you an idea), the coperto is illegal.  You cannot put it on a check.  What they do instead is charge for bread in many cases, which is why you hear stories of travelers waving bread away to avoid an extra 2 euro or so a person on the check.  Here in Liguria, as well as in most of the rest of Italy, bread is included in the coperto.  So, when you wave away the bread basket here and wink at your friend because you just avoided paying a euro each, all you really did was miss out on yummy fresh bread baked by Manu's uncle down the street.  You pay the coperto anyway, whether you eat the bread or not.

The coperto is not a tip.  It does not go to the waiter.  It goes directly back to the restaurant.  Which is fine because (are you ready for this?)...
you do not need to tip in Italy.
Take a deep, American/Canadian/Australian deep breath with me, and let go of your tipping guilt.  You don't need to do it.  Really.

We make a monthly wage here in Italy, which is unheard of in the US service industry.  In my 11 years bartending and waiting tables in the US, I received a paycheck as a tax formality every week, made out to the sum of "0 dollars and 0 cents".  Seriously.
For those in the service industry in Italy, in most cases, your meals are included and depending on where you work, you can make a pretty darn good living waiting tables, especially since the economy here is the pits.  Some waiters in fancy places can make up to 2-2,500 euro a month.  Not a bad deal.

In many cities, though, you might see a service charge (servizio) or tip added on to the check, anywhere from 10-15%, which is legal as long as it is stated on the menu, and you have to pay it.  However, I have only had this happen when dining out with American friends visiting, where we are happily chatting away in English.  Going out with Italians, I have seen service charges written on the menu, but when the check is presented, that charge has always been waived.

I've also heard waiters tell tables "Service is not included" as they drop off the check, and had it happen as well when out with groups of non-Italian speaking people.  You do not have to leave anything if you do not want to.  This is, again, people getting used to tourists tipping and overtipping, and shame on those waiters I've seen standing there as a couple pays the check, scrambling for extra euro to leave the waiting man a tip.  You don't need to pay anything if it's not written on the menu (and then will be included in your check).  When going out to eat, we will usually leave a small tip if it was a nice meal - for example, if the service was good and we had a nice, long dinner, we would leave something like a 5 euro tip on a 150 euro meal.  Nothing even close to the 15-20 percent tip expected in the United States.

So, I hope this helps make a foreign thing a little less foreign for those of you gearing up to visit Italy this summer :)

Monday, March 10, 2014

You can take the girl out of the city...

This week I was fortunate enough to go to both Rome and Florence for various reasons (the Pope and a food festival, TASTE, to be precise).  One would have made me more than thrilled, but two cities?  In one week?  Don't misunderstand me, I love Monterosso.  I love the Cinque Terre.  It's a dream that I take a picture out of my front door every single day, even though it's always the same view.  The city, however, is where I thrive.  I'm a fast walker, I'm excellent with a public transit map, and I have a very short attention span.  I need a little "city" every so often to recharge my batteries for another few months in my little seaside hamlet.
Good morning, Pope Francis

Since getting back yesterday from Florence, I've spent a great deal of time comparing it with Rome.  They are both so ridiculously beautiful and so full of history you think they would just explode, but they are two completely different places with two completely different personalities.  I've loved them both for quite a while, but it's hard to pick a favorite.
The duomo, the duomo…Florence
View from our room at Granduomo apartments

Rome to me is a black and white film.  It's a woman tucking a mass of curly, inky hair into a glossy helmet before hopping effortlessly on her Vespa in stiletto heels and speeding away, cutting off a taxi at the light.  It's a young guy in a slim legged black suit on his cellphone smoking a cigarette under an intricate doorframe, dodging a puddle of an unknown liquid on the cobblestone street.  It's the taxi driver that yells back at the pedestrian using the most colorful curses you can imagine.  Rome, for me, is getting lost at twilight and winding your way through narrow streets until you reach a clearing and lose your breath at the sight of the Trevi Fountain or Piazza Navona, tucked into this little nook but looming over everything.  Rome is a spitfire.
Piazza Navona, Roma

It drips cool.  It's artichokes and cacio e pepe and red wine and the shadows the Pantheon makes over a piazza full of people with their jaw dropped, mixed with the smell of strong coffee from Tazza D'oro on the corner.  Rome is knowing you are getting off the subway at a stop called Colosseo, and it will be right there in all it's glory, waiting for you just like the last time.  It's crowded, it's a little dirty, it's a bit of a mess, but it is, at the end of the day, Rome.  And if you are here, who cares?

Florence, on the other hand, always feels more refined, more posh, more orderly to me.  It's a 60 year old woman in a tan pantsuit with a colorful designer scarf tucked over her perfectly styled blonde hair.  It's the butcher hacking up a piece of meat in the window, it's the church bells on Sunday, it's the majesty of the Duomo, it's the antique market at Santo Spirito and the line around the block of people waiting, patiently, to see Davide.  It's the refinement of a city that's home cuisine is contrastingly the most simple and delicious things you can imagine.  
Sunday market in Santo Spirito, Florence

It's ribollita, it's a rare Fiorentina steak, it's tripe stands on the street and artigianale gelato.  It's the bread I hate made without salt.  It's perfect Italian.  It's a smoothly raised eyebrow instead of a long string of curses.  It's inky red wine poured smoothly into a glass, it's biscotti and sweet vin santo, it's the yellow lights that illuminate the Palazzo Vecchio, where the bonfire of the vanities lit up the same piazza centuries ago.  It's the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, the Japanese tourists snapping pictures and the old grandmothers walking by with their knee length skirts and sensible shoes, pausing to look at the display in the window of Ferragamo.  It's a museum next to another museum next to a church that is actually also a museum next to a statue.  It's so small that you can walk it in a day but never manage to fully read all of it's story.

It's impossible to pick a favorite.  These two breathtaking places have two different moods, two different characters, and so many different layers I still have to uncover.  The most beautiful thing is that you don't have to pick one, or to prefer one over the other, and that everyone meets Rome and Florence as different people, sees another side of them, has totally different experience.  
Roman Rooftops

You can take these two beautiful cities as they are, as you find them, and just enjoy the time you have in them.  Take a deep breath, a long look, and recharge your batteries.
Piazza della repubblica, Florence

And then go back home to the beach.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Winter Camogli

Life has started to trickle back to the Cinque Terre on warmer days.  It's like the visitors are little seeds in the sand that sprout up in a flash as soon as a warm ray of sun touches them.  Rainy days, however, are a horse of a different color (funny side note: in Italian, you say "un'altro paio di maniche", which literally means "another pair of sleeves".  I love idioms).  Villages are quiet, streets empty, the yellow glow of street lamps illuminates a grey sky that hits a grey sea and touches a beach of grey stones and sand.  

Occasionally, the sun perks through, the clouds spread apart, and you have muted shades of pastel to break up all that grey.
We went to Camogli on one of these rainy days, and we arrived right as a few stubborn rays of sun hit my favorite town on the Riviera.  The last time I visited the town was the day before the flood that destroyed Monterosso in 2011.  I was happy to come back, and even happier to see that the empty fishing village was just as charming painted in muted shades of winter.
Camogli lies 45 minutes to an hour by train from Monterosso, and is quite close to Genoa.  Many say its name derives from "Casa delle moglie" or the "house of the wives", as they dutifully waited here for their Genoese fishermen and boat capitan husbands to return home from the sea.
 Once renowned for its fleet of tall ships, Camogli is also called the city of "a thousand white sails", and though it's painted seafront houses no longer help the fishermen find their way home, the town is still full of boats and in the winter, empty of tourists.
We walked to the ornate gold church, the  old castle, the harbor, and sat on the beach by ourselves while we snacked on the local rum-cream stuffed beignet aptly called camogliesi.  
Portofino hides to the right, but to the left, sprawling in the distance, lies Genoa, La Superba.  

When you look long enough, a rainy day becomes another opportunity to see things with a new palate of colors, especially on a deserted beach in the shadow of so much history.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

beach music

A sunny Sunday in Monterosso...small waves rippling over smooth stones...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Another riviera

I've been gone for a while, but for a great reason.  Vacation!

It seems like not "working" for 4 months a year is fantastic.  I'm not complaining, but it's not as though we sit around all day napping and eating potato chips.  We have a bed and breakfast open all year, apartments we rent out, and two restaurants that require constant attention, even when closed.  I write, we organize the mountains of stuff that have accumulated between two restaurants and over 30 years running them.  I took a master's course in sustainable tourism.  I'm learning french (badly).

So, it was time for some well overdue beach fun.  Though I do work at the beach, it's much different then actually sitting on one all day with a fun coconut drink in hand, so we headed to another riviera - the mexican one.

We spent 3 weeks traveling around Isla Mujeres, Akumal, Tulum, Playa Del Carmen, Vallodolid and Cozumel.  After many margaritas, 45 avocados, 5 spanish verbs learned, approximately 30 bowls of pico de gallo, 2 bottles of citronella spray and 4 bottles of SPF 30 (reef safe!), we returned home happy and relaxed.  I conquered my fear of everything by literally just jumping in feet first and snorkling on a reef with starfish and sea turtles.  Dolphins joined our little boat as we were heading to the Sian Ka'an biosphere.  It doesn't get much better then that.

Mexico is really great.  One of my best friends is Mexican and I've always felt a warm, fuzzy feeling towards the country.  The people are easy to laugh and smile, and believe it or not, better then Italians at sitting silently for long periods of time in places like the piazza or a shady bench.  I love the food, I love the colors, I love the music, the fun painted skulls, and the beautiful, dark eyed kids with honey skin and silky black hair who whisper a shy hola.  I even love how they put their punctuation at the front of the sentence so you can figure out the point of the whole thing at the get-go.  I love how the language flows alongside Italian, I love scooping up rice in tortillas, I love carnitas and pacifico and clearly run-on sentences, but I think you've gotten the idea.

Here are some of my favorite pictures from one of my favorite countries...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Creamy, delicious, silky smooth...fat?

Lardo, in all of it's fatty glory
Let's talk lardo.

There are few things in this world more decadent then eating thinly sliced, white ribbons of cured fatback on a piece of warm bread.  The fat melts slowly over the bread, turning into glossy, opaque slivers of deliciousness that have notes of rosemary, herbs and sometimes cinnamon.  A foodie dream or a cardiologist nightmare?  You can argue both sides, but a recent trip to the ancient mountain village of Colonnata, the home of the most famous lardo in Italy, lardo di Colonnata, meant that lardo would be consumed in large amounts.

Lardo is one of the most unique Tuscan salumi that I've encountered.  A few years ago when studying abroad here, I remember looking at the slices of lardo atop the salt less bread typical here in Tuscany with a raised eyebrow.  Already counting the kilos I had been packing on studying food in Tuscany, I was more then a little dubious, but the food student in me couldn't resist the IGP protected product with a history that goes back for centuries.

After my first bite, I was hooked.  It quite literally melts in your mouth, covering your tongue with smooth fat and spices.  Lardo is made of cured pork fatback, using salt, herbs, including rosemary, and spices, like cinnamon.   In little Colonnata, the winding streets that run alongside the sharp white marble mountains of Carrara are filled with one larderia, where you cure and sell the famous star of Colonnata, after another.

one larderia of many

Where the magic happens

We sat down to a lunch of mixed antipasti, which obviously included lardo, and then a grilled steak covered in the silky white slices of fat melting over the meat.  It was decadent and delicious, and I couldn't help but think about all of the people in the world on a diet after the New Year.

Ready to bring home!
Fortunately, Colonnata has a lovely little piazza and some tiny alleys to wander down as you attempt to burn off all of the lardo consumed.  Making left turns and right turns absentmindedly, we ran into an older gentleman in front of his larderia who offered to bring us into his little production facility and show us how it is done.  Being next to mountains made of marble, it isn't surprising that the village seems to be made of the stone, and that lardo di Colonnata needs to be preserved in huge, white marble vats, that keep it's moisture and humidity at a specific level that give it it's unique taste and texture.  He explained to us that spices ranging from coriander to cloves are used, and that the lardo has to have a certain percentage of cholesterol not higher then that of other white meats.  I'm dubious on this last totally unsupported fact, but it did make me feel a little better after lunch.  And looking at all these happy elderly people in the center of the lardo universe made me feel even better as no one around me seemed to be keeling over due to eating too much lardo.

Everything is made of marble!
Aside from cured pork fat consumption, Colonnata is a really charming small village.  Much like arriving in the Cinque Terre, the road driving up the mountain is a bit of an adventure as you wind up and down a one lane road littered with marble dust and large chunks acting like road barriers on the side.  In the spring and summer, tours can be arraigned to visit the marble caves that have been supplying the precious material to the world from ancient Roman times.  Nestled in the Apuan Alps, looking down over the marble sea of mountains, it definitely worth a trip - but come with an empty stomach.