Sunday, 20 December 2015

My Top 10 Restaurants in Wellington

Intros shmintros. It's all in the title so let's get to the list already!
1. Scopa (Italian) - Cuba Street
My darling Scopa is the restaurant that I want to eat at every single weekend. Their pizzas are spectacular and affordable. Their pastas are homogenous and well-seasoned. Their tiramisus are the best in Wellington. (Just try to prove me wrong! I've tried them all!) The waiters are refreshingly casual, but attentive, always keeping your water glass topped up. If you fancy a late dinner on a weeknight, it's Scopa that will still be open. And did I mention that Prosecco is on the menu? 
It's a popular place, and they don't take reservations. Arrive early or after nine for the best chances at a table, and be prepared to have a drink at the bar while a table frees up. 
2. El Matador (Argentinian) - Cuba Street
This Argentinian steak joint and tapas bar is the bees knees. There are so many quality choices on offer that anyone will be satisfied. Don't miss the roasted provolone cheese tapa, and couple it with the ciabatta and chimichurri. It's a match made in gastronomic heaven! Oh, but you also need the patatas bravas, which are better than any I have had in Spain. And sangria. And why not combine steak with tapas and order the grilled flank steak tapa? Basically it's all awesome!
I recommend ordering five tapas for two people. As they're open all afternoon, why not visit around 3-4pm for a late lunch? You'll pretty much have the place to yourself! 
3. La Boca Loca (Mexican) - Miramar
Tacos galore! As well as enchiladas and an array of other well prepared Mexican fare. I strongly recommend the multicheese dip with chips to start, followed by pulled pork tacos with a side of refried beans (not for vegetarians as I believe they use the traditional ingredient of lard). When accompanied by a margarita or shot of mezcal, you can have a grand ol fiesta! The bright decor really livens the place up as well. 
DO NOT pass up the cheese dip, I'm serious. But if you're not a cheese fan, the salsa is also excellent. My advice for dessert would be to skip the tequila chocolate cake (a bit dense) and opt instead for a spiced hot chocolate. ¡Qué rico!
4. Cicio Cacio Osteria (Italian) - Newtown
Quite a meat-centric osteria, their grilled carne selections are superb. And yet their gnocchi is as soft and delicate as a tiny cloud covered in butter sauce on your tongue. Whether you're in a carnivorous or carby mood, you won't be disappointed. And as soon as you enter (through a mildly dodgy alley/tunnel behind the Moon Bar), the dim lighting and rustic decor transport you to the Old Country. The tiramisu here is also excellent, but the wine-by-the-glass portions are a little on the skimpy side. 
5. Pizzeria Napoli (Italian) - Courtenay Place
In a long, thin room on Courtenay Place, Napoli makes some of the best pizza in town. Eat in to enjoy the murals that make it feel as though you are seated at an outdoor table in Naples itself, or if you're in a pinch for time you can takeaway. I usually prefer to stick with more simple pizzas such as the margherita, but there are an abundance of other options as well. If you fancy a night of it, start with the bruschetta and arancini balls and don't miss the tiramisu for dessert (second only to Scopa)! 
6. Nicolini's (Italian) - Courtenay Place
Three Italian restaurants in a row? Hell yes! Nicolini's is best for the to-die-for bruschetta and large portions of delicious pasta. My top pick is the Amatriciana, which combines bacon pieces with a spicy tomato sauce and it's difficult to pass up. I always try to fit all of it in my belly because it tastes so good, which is impossible and I inevitably end up asking for a doggy bag. Prepare ahead of time by having as small a lunch as you can manage and not scheduling anything afterwards, especially dancing. You'll probably want to have a lie down. 
7. Curry Heaven (Indian) - Newtown
What can I say about Curry Heaven? Well, do you like curry? Then you will love it here! It's very affordable, especially the lunch specials, and the owner is super friendly. If you're a petite individual such as myself, I suggest splitting the curry in half and saving one portion as leftovers. There's a lot of food, and it becomes a bit ridiculous if you also get a naan. I've never eaten in the restaurant itself, preferring to get takeaways, but the interior is cozy and you can people-watch the pedestrians of Riddiford Street out the big window. 
Yes, it is better than Planet Spice a few doors down, trust me. 
8. Viva Mexico (Mexican) - Left Bank Arcade off Cuba Street
Moar tacos! Maybe I just have a thing for Mexican food, but Viva Mexico is highly regarded among locals. It's affordable and packed full of flavour. It's tucked away on Left Bank Arcade, so if you find yourself wandering down Cuba Street why not pop in? The colourful decor will be sure to make you smile, and once you taste the food you'll be grinning. 
9. The Thistle Inn (Gastro Pub) - Thorndon
Typical pub grub? Far from it! The Thistle is one of Wellington's oldest public houses, having opened in 1840, and serve up amazing meals. My favourite will always be the lamb rump with kumara mash. If you can, visit during Wellington On A Plate, as they ofter excellent priced set menus!
It's also a lovely spot for an after work drink. You can feel the history!
10. Mari Luca Ristoro (Italian) - Thorndon
Are you seeing a pattern? Yes, I love Italian food, and yes, five out of my top ten restaurants are Italian eateries. Deal widdit! This little family-run ristoro has an intimate setting so it can be excellent for a date night or family occasion. In the colder months they stoke the wood fire! 

Anything you would add or remove from the list? Let me know your opinion in the comments!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Florence, day one: Coffeegrams and Stone Madames

Florence, Italy (Firenze, Italia)
In total we spent five full days in Florence, knowing that fewer days would not allow us to take in the sheer number of museums we wanted to peruse, towers we wanted to climb and gelatos we wanted to taste. 
On the first day, we eased into big city life and drank far too many cappuccinos. We spent the day getting our bearings so we could properly dive in on day two. As we were camping, we had to resort to charging our electrical devices while standing in the toilet block, which is never fun and even less glamorous. To skirt around this issue, we took to snacking in trendy cafés that provided wall sockets and wifi gratis (Firenze has a great café scene though sometimes when you try to return to a likeable café, you have no idea where it disappeared to among the narrow streets). We got a lot of reading done with all that extra caffeine - I reread the Goldfinch which reminded me of our impromptu trip to Den Haag to see the little painting in the flesh. We had travelled many kilometres since then, and reflecting on our journey was a joyous pastime. 
Speaking of the internet, many wifi spots require you to enter an email address when signing in. Quickly discovering that they never send you verification emails, we started to input hansgruber@grube.com, drawing inspiration from the fictional German villain from the first Die Hard movie. What I find hilarious is that if you google Hans Gruber, this comes up:

Now a Vienna-born conductor who was naturalised as a Canadian citizen in 1944 at the age of 19 will forever be associated with a pistol-toting Alan Rickman in the midst of the Nakatomi Heist. 
Taking a good gander at the Piazza della Signoria, complete with a copy of the famous David among other sculptures and fountains, we entered the Loggia dei Lanzi. An odd covered and slightly raised building, but almost entirely open to the square via large archways, the loggia served as a kind of royal patio for the Cosimo family to enjoy festivities on the piazza while being suitably above it all. It's now open to people from all walks of life as an open air sculpture gallery, and contains some masterpieces of Renaissance art. Amazingly it's free! But guards do only let a certain numbers of visitors in at a time. Above is the striking 'Rape of Polyxena'. Polyxena was the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy, and she was sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles in order to incite favourable winds so the invading Greeks would finally be able to return to their homeland. It's an important point to note that Polyxena died a virgin - our English "rape" comes from the Latin "raptio" which meant more generally 'abduction'. 
A statue that really caught my eye was the 'Rape of the Sabine Women'. Interestingly, it was carved by a Flemish sculptor by the name of Jean de Boulogne, but he was known to the Italians as Giambologna. It depicts the well-known legend of the abduction of women by the first inhabitants of Rome. Being at the time a male-only settlement, they decided they needed wives and figured the easiest way to acquire them would be to carry some off from a neighbouring area and then plead with them to marry. What's so beautiful and masterful about this work is that you can see the woman's flesh dimple under her captor's fingertips, and the fact that it was carved to be admired from any angle. 
We attempted to take a leisurely stroll around the Boboli Gardens to find that it was closed for the day. Instead, we chose the more strenuous walk up a stepped hill to the Piazza Michelangelo for panoramic views of the city. With the sun just starting to set, it was a gorgeous vantage point. What you don't see from the photo is the teeming mass of visitors struggling to wade to the front in order to capture such a sight, and the James Blunt wannabe busker playing a grating song behind us. Worth it!
On our way back onto the duomo side of the river, we were treated to an excellent view of the Ponte Vecchio, with the sunset behind and an attractive reflection on the languid water. 
While waiting for our chosen restaurant to open for the evening, we wandered aimlessly and sat for a spell in a random piazza (they are innumerable in Florence) next to a hotdog-taco-sandwich stand. 
It was in the pizzeria segment of a popular osteria that our tastebuds were blasted into the stratosphere. Osteria del Caffé Italiano only serve three types of pizza: margherita (tomato sauce with mozzarella and oregano), Napoli (tomato sauce with mozzarella, anchovies and capers), and marinara (tomato sauce with garlic and oregano). As we loathe anchovies, we ordered one each of the other two options. 
Boy oh boy and gee willikers! The rustic pizzas, with toppings tossed on via grandiose Italian gesticulations, were amazing. I especially loved the marinara, as this simple type of pizza isn't widely found and it was executed perfectly. We hadn't even finished the meal before deciding that we would be back. As amateur foodies (or maybe it would be more accurate to refer to us as "food enthusiasts"), we prefer not to revisit eateries and instead make new discoveries. But this pizza! It was so good! You have no idea. Insatiable, we followed our meal with gelato from Marco Ottaviano and bussed back to our campground with basketball-sized foodbabies. 

Today's post was almost called: Coffee-Ki-Yay Motherfucker!

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Inside Scoop: Gelaterias of Florence

Florence, Italy (Firenze, Italia)
With our success of testing out as many gelaterias as we safely could in Rome, we figured why not repeat the experiment in Florence? We love gelato, gelaterias love us because money, it's a win-win situation (except where our wallets and waistlines are concerned, in which case it's lose-lose, but we're young and it's worth it). Never mind Michalangelo, these are the true Florentine artisans!
Our first stop was Marco Ottaviano (Il Gelato Gourmet). We chose it simply because as we were walking past we saw that the counter contained shiny metal canisters - almost always a sign of a great gelateria. Every flavour was delightful. The standout was a limited edition flavour - strawberry and Prosecco sorbetto. All I can say is wow. Followed by wow. Paired with the 'crema del duca', which was a delicate cream flavour with a lemon kick, it was mindblowing. We also tried more traditional flavours such as pistachio and coffee, and knew that we would be back again before our time in Florence was up. 
At one point the owner appeared from the back room and chatted with us. When I asked about why metal canisters are important for gelato, he told us that gelato does not react well to exposure to air and sunlight (likening it to wine), so is best kept covered. Sadly, gelato is now mostly sold by how it looks, with elaborate displays to attract patrons. 
This is what he was talking about. All over Florence, you'd see sorbet piled high and topped with fruit, sauces, and sometimes even props like cocktail umbrellas. You don't want that! Flavour should trump appearances every time. A good bet is to choose a gelateria with metal canisters, as they rely on reputation through the flavour of their gelato, and not on bright colours to dazzle passersby. 
During a lull in the conversation with the owner, we asked for more gelato. Yes, seconds! It was that good. With our best interests at heart, he said "Ok! But not too much, yes? Small cup?" Even with this thoughtful moderation, Yannick still felt slightly sick afterwards. 
In the following days, we returned to taste that heavenly combination again. What I wouldn't do for some of that strawberry Prosecco sorbetto right now. 
Just down the road was another excellent metal-canistered gelateria - Rivareno. The expensive pine nut flavour had not been created that day, as there are fewer customers on rainy days. That doesn't stop us - why would we sacrifice sweet sweet ice cream due to a little precipitation?! But it was great to know that all the flavours are made fresh each morning. My favourites were the passionfruit sorbet and fig and ricotta gelato. 
We also made a return trip to Rivareno, and each flavour we sampled was delicious. Bravissimo!
Carapina, a gelateria near the river, turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The gelato was nice, but nothing special - however I'm sure they are much better than those tourist trap monstrosities! The plum sorbet was my favourite, and that is a difficult flavour to pull off as often it is too mild. Needless to say, with the likes of the first two gelaterias we visited, there was no need for a second visit to Carapina. 
Another riverside vendor, we dropped by La Carraia and feasted upon many wonderful flavours, despite the fact that there were no metal canisters. The memorable scoops were chocolate mousse and crema la Carraia (which was splendidly orangey). 
Our time in Florence also resulted in a trip to Grom, as they had new monthly flavours we hadn't tried before. It will always be a staple on our trips to Italy, though now I am becoming a connoisseur of the metal canistered gelato. 

Friday, 11 December 2015

San Gimignano: Deli Bertelli and the Vernacular Vernaccia

San Gimignano, Italy (San Gimignano, Italia)
On our way to Florence from Monteriggioni (home to our memories of pretending to be Ezio), we stopped for a wander in San Gimignano. 
Having heard that the town's silhouette looked like a medieval version of Manhattan, we had to take a look for ourselves. 
Lo and behold! Right in the middle of rolling Tuscan hills covered in neat rows of grape vines, we spotted it. 
The reason behind the sheer number of towers is simple: the nobility in the town wanted to one-up everyone else and built taller and taller towers in an attempt to do so. At one point the number of towers reached its highest at 72! Today only fifteen remain. 
A museum showcasing a model of the town as it would have looked in 1300 was free to enter, and I nerdishly counted all the towers. There were around 40, showing that between then and when the Black Death struck in 1343, 32 towers had been constructed! After the plague, half of the population had been wiped out and the town suffered. A ban was put in place restricting tower heights to no taller than that of the duomo, meaning that family rivalries had come to an end. 
Upon leaving the museum, we followed a sign for what we assumed would be archaeological ruins of a fountain (we surmised this by the word "fonti" and a symbol of knocked down columns). We never did find the fountain, as the path led quickly down a steeply descending track out of town, but we did see an animated man talking on his mobile with a mysterious observer. 
Heading back up, we found a popular lookout point which was crowded with tourists but did provide a beautiful view over the surrounding hills. 
Continuing our wanderings, we passed innumerable wine shops and delis. This seemed to be the Tuscan way. We ate at Del Bertelli, a quaint little panini shop which was run by a guy who sounded like Don Corleone, but was one hundred times nicer to strangers than the fictional don. He let us taste two types of salami before adding our preferred one to the sandwich, and filled our wine glasses (in actuality they were plastic cups) to the brim as his bottle was nearly finished and he figured he might as well empty it. You could tell he had been making excellent sandwiches for much of his life. Indeed, the Bertelli family has lived in San Gimignano since 1779! The wine served is vernaccia, a white wine from the town's surrounding hills. So far we had really only sampled red wines as Tuscany is mainly known for, so it was a nice change. 
Trekking up to the Rocca, which was like an old fortress, we saw yet more excellent views over the town and area. Everything was picture perfect and very Tuscan. 
We were more level with the towers from the vantage point of the Rocca!
For a cheeky lunchtime dessert, we stood in the long line forming outside the simply named Gelateria di Piazza on the main square. Saffron is also a specialty of the region, so we tried that gelato along with vernaccia sorbet and several others. Boy oh boy was it delicious! We refrained from going back for seconds, as we had heard tale of a gelateria in San Donato in Poggio, a nearby village. Tiny San Donato in Poggio turned out to be quite sleepy, and nothing seemed to be open including the gelateria! We made do with the Venchi chocolate that was half melted in the car, and drove onwards to our Florence camping. 

Today's post was almost called: Turret Tourettes - Rivalry in the Skylines

Friday, 4 December 2015

Top Five Languages I Want To Learn as a Traveller

As a travel-passionate person, I relish soaking up new cultures. Though I would love to be able to know all of the world's languages at the push of a button (wouldn't we all?), that magic does not exist. Alas, I am bound to reality and must focus on learning them without the help of a fairy godmother. So, with limited time and attention span, which five languages will I be focusing on?
1. Spanish
Having lived in Texas for a time as a small child, I picked up some basics of the language. However, it wasn't until my 2013 roadtrip in which I spent eight days in Spain that I took a strong liking to it. While not as traditionally 'romantic' sounding as French or Italian, I adore listening to the enthusiastic discussions of Spaniards, where its vibrancy is tinged with an air of comedy (I can't explain why it sounds comical to me exactly). 
Not only do I like the sound of it, but Spanish is a widespread language. As a traveller, it would be a dream to be able to speak with locals not only in Spain, but also in much of Central and South America. 
2. Croatian
Unlike with Spanish, I don't have an affinity towards listening to and enjoying the sound of Croatian. The main reason I want to learn the language is that I fell head over heels for the country (its warm beaches, its friendly inhabitants, and the delicious traditional foods) and feel like it would be a place I could happily retire. 
As a bonus, Croatian is strikingly similar to other languages of the former Yugoslavia, and speaking Croatian would mean being able to get by in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. So as with Spanish, it's a useful language to learn if you want to be able to use it in several countries. 
3. French
Perhaps predictable, but French is a language I want to learn simply because one day I would like to live in France. I'm always a bit put off by how tricky the pronunciation is. Consonants at the end of words are often lost into the void, meaning that if you're not paying close attention to the context, a word could easily be singular or plural (and that's one of the tamest examples). For all its silent-letter flaws, and probably thanks to them, French is a very beautiful language. French is also spoken in several African countries, part of Canada and various Caribbean and Pacific Islands, so that's also an added bonus as a traveller. 
4. Malay
I just love Malay. Many of the nouns bear a crazy similarity to English where the words are made more simple (and better). For example:
Boutique = Butik
Police = Polis
Immigration = Imigresen
Tea = Teh (Not necessarily better, but still awesome! Teh tarik is the shit.)
Not only am I inexplicably drawn to Malay, but the ties to English mean that it would potentially be easier to pick up than many other languages. And, of course, I greatly enjoy Malaysia and want to visit again and again. 

5. Esperanto 
One fascinating language is Esperanto. Devised in 1887 by a Polish physician, Esperanto was created to be an international means of communication (the word originates from Latin sperare "to hope"). He took bits and pieces from English and many of the main European languages and combined them into a new hybrid for what he hoped would be global usage. Now it is the most widely spoken made-up language, in part because it is much easier to learn than the ever more ubiquitous English, and may be taught to young children as a way to teach them language-learning skills. Interestingly, Esperanto doesn't use slang, as that goes against Doctor Esperanto's intention for the language to have worldwide usage. 
Honourable mention: Welsh
Have you been to Wales? If not, you may be completely oblivious to the fact that they even have their own language, let alone how utterly ridiculous it is. Unless I become cripplingly bored, and have used that boredom already to learn the languages above, I will not be picking up Welsh any time soon (so it doesn't really belong in this post, but it's so bizarre I had to include it!). To give you a little treat, here are some choice words and phrases for your perusal:
Welsh = Cymraeg
Please say that again = Dywedwch hynny unwaith eto, os gwelwch yn dda
Bon apetit! = Mwynhewch eich bwyd!

Which languages are at the top of your list? Let me know in the comments below!