Day 9: Naples, Italy

Day 9 – Naples, Italy

Our last port of call was Naples, one of the oldest cities in the world, and Italy’s third largest city. Common day trips from Naples include Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri. Since we knew we wanted to visit Pompeii as well as the Amalfi Coast, a private tour seemed like the best way to go. I met two couples on CruiseCritic’s Roll Call for our cruise and we booked a private tour with Umberto at ItalyDrivers. He picked us up, drove us to Pompeii for a tour with a separate tour guide, and then drove us down to the Amalfi Coast for lunch in Positano and free time in Sorrento.

Our first stop was a morning tour at Pompeii. We actually arrived before it opened, so our tour was one of the first ones in. Our tour guide, Teresa, was amazing – she was informative, funny, and super nice. It was so surreal being in Pompeii, especially as Teresa gave us so much more context and information about the place.

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We then drove up the winding roads to the Amalfi Coast – these are definitely roads that a huge tour bus could not make it up!

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Lunch was at La Tagliata, at my request. La Tagliata stands on the top of the hill in Positano, overlooking the gorgeous coast. The restaurant is family owned and run. There is no menu – you eat that they cook that day. First to arrive at the table was a bunch of appetizers – family style. Then our waiters delivered an assortment of pastas, also family style. And finally, we received dessert and a shot of lemoncello. For 25€ we left absolutely stuffed! The food was so delicious!

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After our delicious meal, we drove back down the mountain to Sorrento for some light shopping. And of course, despite the fact that we were absolutely full, we had to have one last gelato! Raki had a delightfully tart lemoncello gelato that paired really well with the mango. It was definitely one of the best lemon gelato’s that I’ve had this trip!

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Umberto brought us safety back to the ship – with time to spare. We were so tired from the day that we just crashed in our room, despite the fact that we had 1-2 hours left.

Ah Amalfi Coast, why are you do beautiful?

Day 4 – Florence, Italy

Day 4: Florence

Our first port of our Western Mediterranean cruise took us to the Italian city of Florence, or rather to the port of Livorno. There is plenty to do in Livorno, but we had our hearts set on Florence. So I booked a Joe Banana Limo round trip transfer (Pro-Tip: Share your excursion on CruiseCritics Roll Call in order to fill up your tour!) and took the 1.5 hour ride to Florence for the day.

Our driver suggested a pit stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, just east of the center of Florence. It offers a stunning panoramic view of the city – and has a replica of the David. I am so glad that our driver made the stop because it was beautiful. Early morning overlooking the city of Florence was absolutely stunning!

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After getting off the van, the first stop we made was for coffee! Gilli, opened by the Gilli family in 1733, is one of the oldest coffee bars in Florence. Located in the Piazza della Repubblica, it is a great café to stop in for a quick drink or for a sit-down meal. Be sure to pay the cashier and then bring your receipt to the coffee counter to order. We started and began our day at Gilli – coffee to go in the morning and a sit-down coffee at the end of the day.

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Our first stop was the famous San Lorenzo Markets, which hosts both indoor and outdoor markets selling local art, leather goods, clothing, and other souvenirs. There are a lot of unique gift items to be brought at the San Lorenzo Market – and even if you’re just shopping for yourself. I picked up some handmade notebooks with Florence paper and some leather bracelets for myself.

Lunch was at the Mercato Centrale – the indoor food market section of the San Lorenzo Markets. The Central Market has two parts. The first floor sells fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meats, cheeses, fish, and condiments. A lot of locals do their grocery shopping on the first floor and you can too! A lot of the vendors will vacuum-seal cured meats and cheeses for you if you tell them you’re traveling internationally. The second floor hosts a food court with lots of different vendors. I had a prosciutto and buratta plate while my mom had Florence’s famous beef tripe sandwich. My sister had a pasta dish and we rounded it all up with some pastries – all from different vendors!

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After lunch and a very successful shopping trip, we made our way back to the center of town and visited Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower. The Basilica houses the Duomo di Firenze, a magnificent Renaissance dome that’s a symbol of Florence.

We also made a quick stop at the Piazza Della Signoria to take a look at another David replica. While they are replicas, they are no less impressive in their size and stature!

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Then we began the journey down to see the famous Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous bridge over Arno. It is the only Florentine bridge to survive World War II.

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And last but not least, what’s a day in an Italian city without some gelato! We had ours at Venchi, one of Florence’s oldest chocolatiers, established in 1878. The gelato in Italy is just so cheap and delicious!

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Stay tuned for our next stop – Cannes, France!

Day 1-3: Rome, Italy

I’d like to think of myself as a seasoned cruiser – my very first cruise was at the ripe age of 4. That’s right, I was 4! Granted, I don’t remember much of it. I vaguely remember joining the kids club and the huge swimming pools. In the past 10 years, my family and I have been on 6 other cruises on a variety of cruise lines – Canada with Carnival, the Caribbean with Princess, and the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Hawaii with Norwegian. After exploring most of the options available to us with a US sailing departure point, we wanted to branch out for our next cruise.

After much research, we decided on the Norwegian Epic’s 7 day Western Mediterranean cruise. The Epic is unique because it picks up/drops off passengers in three ports – Barcelona, Spain; Civitavecchia, Rome; and Marseille, France. This means, if you’re embarking in Rome (like we did), other passengers that are already on the ship will have a port day – and vice versa for those embarking in Barcelona and Marseille.

In total, the Norwegian Epic stopped in 6 cities and 3 countries:

  • Civitavecchia, Rome in Italy
  • Livorno, Italy (within driving distance to Pisa and Florence)
  • Naples, Italy
  • Marseille, France
  • Cannes, France
  • Barcelona, Spain

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Since only my mom had been to Italy before, we definitely wanted some time to explore Rome. Since our embarkation day was a Wednesday, we flew in Monday morning for some solo-Rome time. What did we do? Keep reading to find out!

Day 1: Monday

On our very first day in Rome, we arrived in the early afternoon (via Munich, Germany) and checked into our hotel, the Rome Times Hotel. We picked this hotel because it was very centrally located – walking distance from the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Campo di Fiori area. We stayed in a mini-suite and the room was definitely large enough for three people. It was always clean and front-desk service was on point. I would definitely stay with the Rome Times again!

Our first stop after dropping off our luggage at the hotel was the Trevi Fountain. Everything you’ve read about it is true – there are a lot of tourists and it is difficult taking a picture. But, I would say it’s definitely worth it to stop by and admire the beauty of the fountain. Of course, remember to throw a coin in to ensure that you return to Rome someday!

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After some shopping along Via del Corso, we made our way back to the fountain area and had a late lunch at L’Antico Forno di Fontana Trevi. You can order at the bar and have your coffee standing or to-go, or you can sit down and have a nice coffee break and people watch. We opted for the latter and had a delightful iced caffe latte, which I’ve been told is not authentic at all! But thanks to L’Antico for catering to our tourist coffee tastes!

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Day 2: Tuesday

Our day started off bright and early at the Vatican for a guided tour. I highly suggest booking a tour for the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. It really helped to have a guide explain the significance of the artwork or as we made our way through the museums and the chapel.

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After the Vatican, we made our way over to the Pantheon, which is an ancient Roman temple that is now a church. Despite the fact that it was built over two thousand years ago, the Pantheon houses the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Lunch was at the famous Armando Pantheon, which was completely booked by the time we arrived at opening time. They didn’t have any room for walk-ins at all! Be sure to go online to their website to make a reservation if you want to eat here! We were able to have beautiful buffalo mozzarella, cured meats, and amazing pasta dishes. Prices were very fair and the food was so delicious!

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Post-lunch gelato was from Cremeria Monteforte, which was one of the best gelato’s that we had during our trip. Their vanilla cherry is to die for!

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After dropping off our spoils of the day, we headed over to the Colosseum for a late afternoon stroll. Crowds are definitely thinner in the late afternoon hours – we were on line (with pre-purchased tickets) and inside within 20 minutes! Be sure to stop by the Roman Forum on your way out, as it’s included in the price of the Colosseum ticket. It was a bit surreal to be standing in the Colosseum, knowing that thousands of years ago, gladiators fought for their lives in the stadium.

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After our stroll through the Roman Forum, we made our way over to dinner at Taverna di Quaranta, just a 15 minute walk away from the Colosseum. They offer delicious homemade pastas with very affordable house wines. The bruschetta is to die for! The oxtail pasta was very flavorful and tender, while the spicy ragu is quite delicious as well.

Day 3: Wednesday

Today was the day we would check-out and head over to Civitavecchia to board our cruise ship. Before we headed for the port, however, I wanted to check out the Campo de’ Fiori Market area, which is a great spot to purchase some pasta, spices, and olive oil to take home. It also has a lot of fresh produce for sale.

Located just off the market is Forno Campo de’ Fiori, open bright and early, and known for their delicious Roman style pizzas. Their pizza is very thin and eaten in a folded rectangle. They also have a lot of freshly baked cookies on sale as well. No eating room inside, so take your pizzas for the go! I highly recommend their focaccia sandwiches.

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And that concludes our time in Rome – we had very little time, but I think we saw and ate a lot during our visit. I really, really loved Rome and hope (plan) to be back soon. There is so much more that I wish that I could’ve seen – like Trastevere, for example. Until next time, Rome!

Be sure to stay tuned for more highlights from my European adventure – many ports and many destinations to go!

Restaurant Week: Ai Fiori

Anyone familiar with my blog probably knows how much I love the Altamarea Group and their restaurants – whether it is the Michelin-starred Marea or the affordable Osteria Morini (I still miss The Butterfly and Costata!). I finally crossed Ristorante Morini off my To-Do List this Restaurant Week, but I always make room for a RW lunch at Ai Fiori, one of my all-time favorite restaurants.

This year, I went with my cousin and her boyfriend (Who I’ve turned into Ai Fiori lovers!) and my mom. Compared to the very first time I had a RW lunch at Ai Fiori, its popularity has grown immensely! We arrived on time, but had to wait a few minutes for our table. We all opted to do their Restaurant Week menu, which doesn’t really change – a fact I am forever grateful for because I love their RW menu so much! We all opted to go with the same exact choices – despite the fact that the menu has 3 appetizer, 3 entrée, and 2 dessert options. I suppose this makes it extremely easy for our waiters!

For our appetizers, we opted for the Zuppa di Zucca, or chilled zucchini soup with Calabrian chili, lemon, and basil seeds. I’m always a fan of their chilled zucchini soup – it’s perfect for a hot summer day since it’s so light and refreshing!

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For our entrees, we all chose the Pollo Arrosto, or pan-roasted chicken with summer beans, Vidalia onions, and guanciale. Ai Fiori’s roasted chicken is, by far, one of my favorites. It’s tender, moist, and perfectly seasoned. I wish the portion sizes are a little bit bigger because it’s so tasty that I want more!

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For our dessert, we went with the Torta di Olio, or olive oil cake with Chantilly and mixed berries. I am a huge fan of olive oil cakes – when done right – and Ai Fiori definitely does it right! The cake is super soft and has just the smallest hint of fragrance from the olive oil. I really liked the use of tart berries and raspberry sorbet to bring out the natural flavors of the cake.

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Service was attentive enough – I can understand that they’re not super busy during the RW lunch rush. I never felt neglected by any accounts. I cannot wait until next season to have this delicious meal again!

Restaurant Week: Ristorante Morini

Ristorante Morini has been on my Restaurant Week list for a while – but like all other Altamarea restaurants, they only offer lunch so I would definitely need to wait for a summer Friday to go. Located in the Upper East Side just steps away from Central Park, Ristorante Morini is quiet, unassuming, but a true gem in the Altamarea Group. We arrived a bit early for our reservation but they sat us anyways. We opted to sit on the upper level, which was brightly lit with natural light and perfect for some food picture-taking!

Their Restaurant Week menu offers 3 options for both appetizers and entrees and 2 options for dessert. There is also a nice selection of wine pairings by the glass available for a $10 supplement. I’m never disappointed with any of the wine pairing options for an Altamarea restaurant so I opted for a glass of their Rosé, which was very refreshing on the hot, muggy day – a perfect Rosé for the summer!

For our appetizers, we both opted for the Quaglia, or grilled quail with creamy farro and radish and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.  I quite enjoyed my appetizer – the quail was tender and juicy. The farro was creamy and soaked up the flavors of the balsamic vinegar and quail very well.

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For my entrée, I opted to go for the Pork Lion, which features slow-roasted pork loin with a summer peach marmalade and pancetta. I am a sucker for anything with summer peaches so I was instantly drawn in, despite my original plan to try the pasta since I love Altamarea pasta dishes. The pork lion was cooked thoroughly but not tough at all. The peach marmalade and pancetta paired really well together since it was sweet and salty at the same time with each bite.

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My mom ordered the Orata, or grilled sea beam with stewed leeks, gem lettuce, and bagna cauda. I think I might have liked her dish better than mine! The sea beam was very well cooked – almost melt-in-your-mouth tender. I particularly liked the bagna cauda, which is similar to a creamy cheese sauce or fondue, since it gave the fish a more “wet” mouth feel.

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For dessert, we both decided on the Tiramisu, which was presented in a slice of layers of lady fingers soaked in amaretto and espresso and topped with marscapone mousse. The tiramisu was phenomenal – slightly sweet but mostly bitter and fragrant from the espresso. I wish there was more!

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Service was attentive without being intrusive. Our courses arrived in a timely manner and were very well paced. I will definitely be back outside of Restaurant Week to try out their pasta dishes and other desserts!

Smorgasburg

In the years past, I’ve always made my annual Smorgasburg visit in early May – to beat the heat and the crowds. This year, since I was waiting for my cousin and his niece, we didn’t end up going until mid-June. If you’re going anytime during the summer months of late-June, July, or August, be sure to wear a lot of sunscreen and go early! In the earlier months of April and May, it doesn’t begin to get crowded until closer to 1:30/2:00. But in the summer, you definitely need to go at 11:00am to beat the crowds and the lines!

We walked around a little bit before I settled on what I wanted to try. My first order of business was Big Mozz Sticks for their fresh, made-to-order mozzarella sticks (4 long sticks for $8.00). Last year at Smorgasburg, Big Mozz was serving these delicious freshly made mozzarella bombs with pesto on the inside. Their new product this year did not disappoint at all. The mozzarella was gooey and cheesy and the mozz sticks just felt fresh and light – nothing like pizzerias at all.

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My second order of business was to finally try the chicken wings at Dan & John’s Wings, which has been a Smorgasburg regular for years now. I ordered their boneless wings (5 pieces for $8.00) with mild sauce since I’m not a huge spice person. The wings were crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside – a perfect combination.

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To combat the growing heat, I had one of my two usual drink vendors – Brooklyn Soda Works (my other being Kelvin Slush). I’ve had their blueberry soda before so this time I opted to try the Cherry Vanilla ($5.00), which was delightful. It kind of tasted like if you mashed a Cherry Coke and a Vanilla Coke together, which is awesome because they’re my two favorite flavors of soda.

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After we finished chowing down on the savory goodies, we moved onto the dessert portion of our trip. First up, gai dan jai, or egg waffles. Gai dan jai is a childhood staple for many Chinese kids, myself included. Back when I was younger, they used to be everywhere in Chinatown. Now there’s probably one stand on Canal Street and my favorite little old man cart on Grand Street (he’s only there on odd days now). So when the egg waffle cone craze started, I was super excited! I’ve had Eggloo, so I knew I had to try Wowfulls. We had their Wowfulls Creation ($9.00), which features Matcha Green Tea Gai Dan Jai with white chocolate chips inside and your choice of vanilla ice cream or their crazy ice cream. It’s all topped with mocha, green tea Pocky, and a drizzle of your choice. We opted for the fruity pebbles dust. The end result is this crispy egg waffle with delicious ice cream in the middle. The mochi was soft and the waffle was perfectly made.

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I also made a pit stop at Baonanas before we left. Baonanas sells “light and fluffy puddings”, according to their banner. I do have to agree – the puddings are, indeed, very light a fluffy. I opted for the double scoop ($7.00), because it allowed me to pick two flavors. They let you try one and I opted to try their Lychee Rose flavor. It was pretty good – but I also wanted to try their banana, which is their signature and most popular. I felt that both were tasty – but the Lychee Rose was definitely lighter and less sweet.

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All in all, I think it was a very successful Smorgasburg visit. We’ll be back in September to give some of the other places a try – I especially want to try the new kids on the block – Jianbing Co. for their Shanghai-inspired street food.

 

Rafele

For those of you who regularly embark on my eating adventures with me, you’ll notice that I posted about Rafele as a good option for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s too late for Christmas Eve dinner now, but it’s never too late to pay this restaurant a visit! A quick OpenTable reservation, which I highly recommend, and you could be on your way to some delicious Naples-inspired cuisine.

Since we were four people, we opted to order three appetizers to share. But before the appetizers arrived, we were served a delicious eggplant antipasti with an assortment of bread. The eggplant dip was sweet and sour at the same time, which really helped open up our appetites.

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Our first appetizer to arrive was the Gnocco Frito ($16.00), which features 24-month aged Black Label Prosciutto with Fried Dough. The prosciutto was delicious – soft, just a tad salty, and practically melted in our mouths. The fried dough tasted a bit like zeppoles without the powdered sugar. It was a very nice mix of warmth with the chilled prosciutto.

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Our second appetizer was the Crostini with Duck Liver Pate ($13.00), which is served with duck liver pate, whipped ricotta cheese, and crostini drizzled with olive oil. The pate was rich and creamy and paired well with the light flavor of the whipped ricotta. The warm crostini was a perfect base for the smooth pate.

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Our last appetizer was the Polpettine ($13.00), or Pan-seared Veal and Beef Meatballs in a light tomato sauce. The meatballs were tender and juicy – but a bit on the salty side. I think an order to split is the perfect portion size because if I had to eat the entire dish, I’d definitely be too full.

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For my entrée, I ordered the Gnocchi Pignatiello ($16.00), which is their house-made gnocchi with melted taleggio cheese and basil in a tomato sauce. I’ve never had a cheesy, baked gnocchi before so this was a new experience. I found that I quite liked it – each bite if gnocchi was cheesy and pillowy – like eating a cloud.

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My mother had the Zuppa di Pesce ($27.00), which features market seafood with tomatoes, garlic, and pepperoncino baked inside a bread dome. It comes incompletely intact and your waiter cuts the bread dome open for you. The stew comes with all sorts of goodies: large shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, and fish. It’s a very light, yet hearty meal – especially if you dip in some of their delicious pizza bread!

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We didn’t order any dessert since we brought our own cake, but I would’ve loved to try out their signature cheesecake. Service was attentive without being overbearing. They brought over the cake at the end of dinner without having to be prompted, which was very nice. If you’re ever in the West Village and craving Italian food, give Rafele a try!