Category Archives: On the Road

On the Road: Rome & Naples II — The Coliseum & Forum and Porta Portese Market

Since this day’s highlight was an afternoon visit to the Coliseum and Forum and a guided introduction to Ancient Rome, I thought I would start off with a little background information.

A Brief History of Ancient Civilization

As far as ancient civilizations go, Rome is a relative newcomer.

Our universe emerged from its Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. From there it took about 10 billion years for our Earth to cool and form. Primitive primates emerged from the primordial ooze about 55 million years ago with our distant ancestors walking around Africa on two legs about 5.8 million years ago.

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Anatomically modern homo sapiens – that’s us – actually emerged about 200,000 years ago. Complex human activity began only about 50,000 years ago. Civilization really started heating up about 12,000 years ago with the practice of sedentary agriculture.  The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, with the ability to make more complex tools, about 5,500 years ago. The first significant gathering of humans were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. On the other side of the world, Asian civilizations began to emerge but they are a story for another trip. It’s Rome that we are interested in.

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Which actually brings us to Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Egypt began to emerge as one of the great early civilizations around 3000 BC. Ramesses II — aka Ramesses the Great, lived from 1303 to 1213 BC — a pretty ripe old age in a time when thirty-something was like today’s one hundred-something. This was also the time of the Biblical Moses and the Exodus. King Solomon’s First Temple in Jerusalem dates to 957 BC.

In here came Greek civilization — an important influence on Rome. Greek civilization traces its roots to the 8th Century BC, reaching its territorial pinnacle with Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC. A year later founded the eponymous Alexandria  – a city that reached a population of 500,000 within 100 years, second in size in the Western world only to Rome. Alexander the Great also installed a new line of Greek-descended Egyptian rulers — the Ptolemies. Cleopatra – Queen of the Nile and Egypt’s final pharaoh, was the end of this line.

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For nearly 500 years Rome had been governed as a Republic with shared institutional powers and checks and balances. In 48 BC, the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar, intent on annexing Egypt to the vast Roman empire, met Cleopatra in Alexandria. There she convinced him to take a much friendlier approach. Julius Caesar lingered with Cleopatra in Egypt through 46 BC. On his triumphant return to Rome, with Cleopatra in tow, he was declared dictator of the Roman Republic by the Roman Senate. The Senate took that as an honorific title but became concerned that Julius had other ideas. On the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Brutus as in “Et tu, Brute?” Cleopatra joined with Roman Mark Anthony to fight Egypt’s final battle against Rome’s Octavius in 30 BC. The victorious Octavius returned to Rome assuming the title of Caesar Augustus — the first and considered perhaps the greatest of Rome’s autocratic rulers who would lead Rome through a period of great growth and prosperity and ultimate ruin. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had less glorious ends.

Which brings us to the Forum.

The Coliseum & Forum

Our guide met us at our hotel at 2PM. A brief cab ride took us to the Coliseum. Despite Rome’s size, historic Rome and the Vatican are all within a fairly narrow area of just a few square miles.

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The Coliseum is massive. The three story structure was started in 70 AD and completed eight years later — nearly 2,000 years ago and as Rome approached the height of its power. The Romans were first and foremost master builders. While they used carved tufa, travertine and marble, they never became the great carvers that the Greeks were. In fact, much of Rome’s carved stones were carved by Greek slaves. What made the Romans great builders was their development in the use of concrete. While the Coliseum was clad in marble, the underlying structure was concrete and that is mostly what you see today. Most of the marble was re-purposed through the ages.

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Photos cannot adequately convey the scale of the structure. Elliptical in plan, the Coliseum is about 600 feet long by 500 feet wide and fifteen stories high — nearly two football fields in length and nearly as wide. With 80 entrances to the seats, you are still able to make-out the section designations carved above the entrances. The upper exterior arches housed more than 160 larger than life marble statutes. Below grade was a complex of paths and chambers that enabled the channeling of various and sundry gladiators and beasts on to the floor of the Coliseum for the spectacle which typically ended in multiple deaths of said gladiators and beasts. Because Rome had more than a million citizens and the Coliseum could seat “only” 55,000, spectacles lasted for days, weeks and months in order to accommodate the demand for seats.

Of note, the Coliseum was not the location of the great chariot races of Ben Hur fame as it was not large enough for that. Those races typically took place at the nearby Circus Maximus. Circus Maximus was about 2,000 feet long, 400 feet wide and could seat 150,000! Rome’s Nascar.

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A short walk from the Coliseum brought us to the Forum. The Forum was the civic, social, spiritual and commercial heart of ancient Rome. It was as if in Philadelphia one site housed City Hall, Rittenhouse Square, the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul and the Reading Terminal Market. Though it was eventually superseded by grander forums, this is where it all began. To stand there is a transcendent experience, in part, because you have a sense that you know the characters who walked here so many years ago. While literature and Hollywood have certainly glamorized and distorted our vision of Rome and Romans, it has enabled a certain familiarity.

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The overall scale is stunning when you consider when this was built.

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The elaborate triumphant Arch of Septimius Severus is made entirely of carved travertine and marble and is six stories high. Through this arch marched Rome’s legions upon return from battles near and far. The city of Rome was built and sustained by conquest and its harvest of slaves and the bounty of its colonies. Estimates are that between 25 and 40% of Rome’s population were slaves. At one point Rome considered dressing slaves – who performed all manner of tasks — in a uniform, as slaves dressed no differently from non-slaves of the lower class. But it was decided that if slaves realized their numerical advantage they would rise up and revolt against their masters. Rome’s citizens were divided between the plebians — the lower caste and the patricians, the upper class. In early Rome the patricians — descendents of 100 “fathers” of Rome appointed by Romulus — had all of the power. As time passed and Rome democratized, the power of the plebians increased and diluted the power of the patricians.

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In the distance is a three story shopping mall. That’s right, a multi-level shopping mall predating our modern shopping malls by nearly 2,000 years. As Rome grew in size, this forum was replaced or augmented by a near-by larger forum not preserved. In the end what is remarkable about walking in the forum are the ghosts. You get a palpable sense of people walking here two millennium ago — of what took place here — the daily life of Rome, haggling over the price of wheat, the courtroom drama, hanging out on a cool spring day, acts of kindness and barbarism, of triumph and tragedy.

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Departing the forum, we headed up the back side of the Monument of Victorio Emanuelle (see photo above) with a bit of the forum in the mid-ground. Beyond you get a sense of the color and scale of Rome. In the foreground are the iconographic Pines of Rome — a tree that you see throughout the city. Respighi’s symphonic poem depicts the so-called umbrella pines in different locations in Rome at four different times of the day.

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The gargantuan modern monument to Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel, sits at the nexus of Capitoline Hill — one of Rome’s seven — and the large Piazza Venezia. The monument is 443 feet wide and about half again as high. Dubbed “the Wedding Cake” because of its stark white marble and elaborate decoration, its official name is Altar of the Fatherland. Until 1861 when the King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was named King of Italy, Italy consisted of a series of small and independent and often quarreling city-states. The monument was designed in 1885 with construction beginning in 1911 and completed in 1925. The white marble of ancient Rome was mined in quarries primarily from Luni — what is today Carrara, in Tuscany. Ancient Roman marble had a creamy warm tone. The colder, bright white marble of Victor Emanuelle was mined in Brescia.

Sunday Morning — Porta Portese Outdoor Flea Market

On a two-week trip you get two Sundays. And since the following Sunday we planned to be in Naples and since Rome’s largest outdoor flea market is a Sunday-only event, I needed to drag my jet-lagged body out of a very comfortable hotel bed and make my way to the 7AM to 2 PM Porta Portese Market. Like a kid in a candy store  – outdoor markets are my candy — and I did not want to miss the chance to visit this largest of Rome’s outdoor markets.

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From our hotel, I worked my way through historic Rome’s ancient streets and across the Tiber River.

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The Tiber is a modest river — murky and of indeterminate color. Rome itself is strategically located about twenty miles from its port city of Ostia and connected by the Tiber. Ostia is Latin for mouth and it was located at the mouth of  the river.

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The Tiber is named for the ancient king Tiberinus Silvius. According to myth, this king urinated in what was then called the Albula River and, in his honor, the river was renamed. This may be more than you want to know. The key is that the Tiber provided convenient access to the sea but also enabled Rome an in-land domain protected from ill-spirited seafaring enemies looking for settlements to sack.

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It is also of note that the seven hills of Rome provided not just nice views for Rome’s first residents, but the strategic high ground and protection from threats — be they human or the flooding Tiber.

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The market is located at the southern end of the Trastevere neighborhood. As with any city, Rome is a collection of neighborhoods. Unlike nearly every city, Rome’s neighborhoods date back more than 2000 years!

Trastevere is located on the west side of the Tiber River and roughly translates as “across the river.”  As such, the neighborhood stands outside the original area of Rome enclosed by the Servian Wall. The Servian Wall was built in the 4th Century BC to prevent a repeat of the sacking of Rome by the Gauls some years earlier.  That wall  served Rome well including frustrating  Hannibal, his elephants and his Carthaginian army around 210 AD. Nearly 700 years after construction of the Servian Wall,  a much larger wall — the Aurelian Wall was completed in  275 AD to encircle a much larger Rome and prevent new threats from the Germanic tribes. A gate in a section of the Aurelian Wall  — Porta Portese — pictured above, provides the entrance to the market. The wall ultimately proved no match for the Visigoths, who in 410AD, succeeded in sacking Rome and ushering in the long so-called Dark Ages. Some of the Servian Wall and much of the Aurelian Wall exists in today’s Rome.

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The walk was much longer than I expected. I just didn’t look so far on the map!

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And what I found when I got to the market was not what I expected.

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There was almost no food at the market and food is my holy grail. The market was a nearly endless line of stalls on both sides of a wide aisle. The stalls’ wares consisted mostly of clothing — from inner ware to outer ware — and accessories for bargain-hunting Romans. Lots of shoes. My guess is that 95% of what was sold in the market was made in China.

What was most interesting at the market were the faces of Rome — not the stuff, but the people wandering through the stuff. Overwhelmingly Romans have shades of dark hair and generous facial features. The vendors themselves tend toward darker skinned with the darkest skinned Africans improvising little retail islands of cardboard specializing in counterfeit premium products.

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With spring in the air, the seed stand was doing a brisk business.

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The ceramic fruits and vegetables were non-seeded varieties.

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Thinking that I might find a pot of gold — as in some fresh produce — at the market’s end, I kept drudging along to no avail. Just more of the same. When you finely reach the end of the market there is no way out so all you can do is turn around and retrace your weary steps out. I was disappointed but not entirely sorry for my effort. Had I lingered in bed I would have been certain that skipping the Porta Portese Sunday market would have been a fatal lapse in tourist judgment. But knowing this, my counsel to you would be to roll over and sleep in.

Graffiti Along The Tiber

When I travel I am always on the lookout for interesting street art — aka graffiti. Unlike many other European cities, central Rome is largely devoid of graffiti.

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However, along the wide walking path adjacent to the Tiber — a path that sits well below the street level, the retaining wall is lined with graffiti.

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The path itself is generous for the occasional walker, jogger and bikers early Sunday afternoon as I returned from the Porta Portese market.

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A large wall makes for a generous artist’s canvas.

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Some images of faded mirth.

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While others vivid menace…perhaps a Visigoth?

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… or exuberance.

Sunday Dinner at Fortunato

At the end of our first full day in Rome my wife Christina and I were tired. Very tired. (Having been wise enough to skip Porta Portese, Christina was perhaps a touch less tired.) We asked our hotel for a restaurant recommendation not too far a walk. They they suggested Fortunato. There is a maxim that one should be suspicious of restaurants that have a wall of framed photos of famous people who have dined there and so the photos of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton should have been a tip that Fortunato was one of those places. One wonders the numbers of times unsuspecting visitors to Philadelphia were directed to Bookbinders?

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Other than the aforementioned photos, Fortunato’s decor was perfectly warm and charming though its service was less so.

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Dinner was very traditional — all fine and good, and uninspiring — not so good.  Our dinner included Fried Anchovies, Gnocchi with Ragu, Spaghetti Carbonara (above), Meatballs with Artichokes, and Tongue with Green Sauce. Despite our determination to drink local wines, we had to settle for a Gavi di Gavi from the Piedmont and and Montepulicano from Tuscany.

While dinner was nothing special, as our first full day in Rome ended I began to have an idea of the feast that awaited us in the days ahead.

Next up: The Church of Rome and the Vatican Museum. A wonderful dinner at Fiametta.

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On the Road: Rome & Naples I.

SP Flying over ShanghaiPreface

I am a serial blogger. By that, I mean, that on occasion I find something about which I have the combination of a passion to share and time in my life to write. Dining at home. Farm stands. Lisbon. And so I write. And write.  I am sort of an all-in kinda’ guy. It’s hard for me to do blog-light. As sometimes happens with passion, you get burned out by it. That leads to long periods of no blogging. Plus blogging is a curious activity. No one has asked me to blog. I push the “Publish” button on my computer and off it goes — exactly to where it’s hard to know. So here we are, you and I, at the beginning of a blogging journey about Rome and Naples. I enjoyed the journey immensely and I hope you do too. If you know others who might want to tag along, please invite them. Grazie.

Buongiorno Roma

I have traveled a lot. Not everywhere, but I have seen some things. I was not prepared for Rome. In March, Christina and I spent eight days in Rome, punctuated by a six day visit to Naples. Periodically over the next weeks I will share daily images and impressions with you.

Our first night in Rome, we dined at Grano — a small restaurant about a fifteen minute walk from our hotel in central Rome. IMG_5610

The dinner itself was the first in a parade of soul-satisfying meals in Rome and Naples. What struck me this night was Grano’s floor. Once the floor was freshly painted pristine white to match the walls of this warmly contemporary restaurant. Fresh white tablecloths cover painted white tables and painted white chairs hold rustic cane seats. But what gave Grano its particular patina — its sense of time and place, was the etched path of honey-brown wood beneath the white paint — a path worn into the floor by Grano’s waiters ferrying bread baskets and wine glasses and countless plates laden with lovely food — waiters with pasts and triumphs and disappointments, with loving mothers and fathers, or not, and wives and children and children who had children. And in the kitchen cooks doing what they love to do, or what they have to do to pay the bills. If you look for it, it’s all there in that floor. Grano, today, is the sum of all that went before and so is Rome.

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In Rome’s case, it is a present that reflects the wear of nearly 2800 years. According to legend, Rome’s founding involves infant twins named Romulus and Remus abandoned by the Tiber River, a nurturing she-wolf, and fratricide. Rome was founded in 753 BC by the avenging twin — Romulus. That’s 2,766 years ago or about 140 generations of Romans! During the height of the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century AD, Rome’s population surpassed one million. It would not be until the later part of the 18th Century that a Western city would again reach one million — London. By the mid-6th Century Rome’s population had dropped to as low as 30,000 as the Empire that sustained Rome collapsed. Today Rome’s population is 2.8 million making it the fourth largest city in the European Union after London (8 million), Berlin (3.5 million) and Madrid (3.3 million). Paris is fifth at 2.3 million.

Day 1: Rome – Arrival, Sant’ Eustachio, Campo di Fiero, Hotel Raphael, Grano Restaurante

It is a continued source of amazement that you can get on a plane in Philadelphia or wherever your home may be, and before too many hours, step into a different world. My only previous visit to Rome was forty-five years ago. I was on a summer’s long world-expanding seven week trip around Europe between my junior and senior years at Penn. Overall, the trip would alter the course of my life. But my recollections of Rome were a larcenous cab driver, an over-priced hotel and an overwhelming city. We left for points north as quickly as we arrived. The bitter aftertaste of that brief stop cast a shadow on a return to Rome. But Christina had fond memories of a long student stay in Rome and numerous professional visits in her capacity as Managing Director of Baryshnikov Productions. In addition, she had recently kindled an interest in her Italian ancestry and wanted to visit Nusco, the mountain-top birthplace of her maternal grandmother. Nusco is in the province of Campania and about two hours from Naples.

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This time Rome was different.

The overnight flight landed us in Rome Saturday morning. We had arranged to be picked up at the airport for no more than the 48 Euro cab fare from the airport to our hotel near the Piazza Navona. (Note: The current exchange rate is 1.28 Euros to the dollar. So, something that cost 10 Euros — aka E10,00 costs $12.80. The E48,00 cab fare is about $61. A E100 dinner costs $128.)

I do not speak Italian. Nor does Christina (though she has an excellent accent with the words she knows). So I seized the opportunity to listen to our driver’s halting English about her life in Rome during the 25 minute or so ride from the airport to the area of Rome known as Centro Storico — the city’s historic center. She was in her fifties and unusual as a women to be a driver. Her husband died some years ago and left her with two growing children and without pension or financial support. He had worked hard but not for the government or company with a retirement program. Her working daughter is thirty and lives with her boyfriend. Her son lives with his mother and goes to university in economics. He is anxious to leave Italy for the United States where he and his mother believe that people advance based on their merit rather than in Italy where they believe advancement is based on who you know in the domains of government or the Catholic church. It is a somewhat ironic notion given that on a list of the 134 major countries in the world, Italy ranks 32nd in equitable wealth distribution compared to the US rank of #93. Statistics on wealth distribution are not necessarily a reflection of social mobility. In Italy, the United States continues to be perceived as the land of opportunity as it has been for generations of Italians including Christina’s maternal grandparents who came to the United States in the early 1900’s.

We arrived in Rome at an interesting time. Italy today faces great social and political turmoil. A recent national election proved indecisive with three political factions splitting the vote. The leading vote getter was the incumbent party associated with recent attempts to accommodate to the fiscal demands of the EU. This party was followed by the party of the scandalized and discredited Silvio Berlusconi of bunga-bunga fame. Berlisconi is a media mogul and among Italy’s richest citizens who has thrice served as Prime Minister. An insurgent “none-of-the-above” party, lead by a comedian who had been convicted of manslaughter and is adept in the use of social media, received 25% of the vote. No party received enough votes to form a government in Italy’s parliamentary system. So, despite the need for leadership and decisive action, the country is at a political standstill. In addition, our arrival in Rome coincided with the conclave to elect a new Pope under a vast cloud of intrigue, corruption and the stench of conspiracy and pedophilia.  It’s a mess!

Sant’ Eustachio – Rome’s Classic Espresso Bar

As it was too early to check into our hotel, we set-out to wander through the remarkable back streets of central Rome.

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In Italy, espresso is the beverage of choice. Espresso bars line the streets and neighborhoods of Rome. Our circuitous walk lead us to the legendary espresso bar, Sant’ Eustachio where a secret technique yields an espresso head worthy of an extra thick milkshake. Sant’ Estachio is named for the church that sits across the small piazza from the bar. Sant’ Estachio, the church, dates to the 8th century and was restored in the 12th century. As we continued to stroll our new Rome neighborhood, we bumped into a couple who live in an apartment eight floors above ours in Philadelphia and are spending three months in Rome. Go figure.

Campo di’ Fiori Market, Punterelle and Forno Campo di’ Fiori

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My pre-Rome reading consisted primarily of Robert Hughes’ epic art history aptly named Rome. A modest amount of food-focused research placed the Campo di’ Fiori outdoor market within the general neighborhood of our hotel. One would think that a food-famous city like Rome is crawling with sprawling outdoor markets but such is not the case. As Campo di’ Fiori is located in a touristy area, the market is a modest mix of food stalls and tourist-focused merchandise set in the middle of a small piazza surrounded by shops, restaurants and palazzi.

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Tucked in amongst stacks of fresh produce from near and far was a plastic-lined crate of unfamiliar squiggly greens labeled punterelle. Through the wonders of my iPhone I quickly determined that punterelle is a variety of chicory behind whose tight head of feathery greens lay stalks. These stalks, when shredded with an ingenious tool produces a green that, as I was soon to learn, yields a salad of almost indescribable pleasure when paired with anchovies, red wine vinegar and olive oil.

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Camp di’ Fiero translates as Field of Flowers and in the northeast corner a series of picturesque flower stalls are located. But the real treasure of Campo di’ Fiero lies just beyond the flower stalls.

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When I grew up, our kitchen was adorned by murals my mother had a muralist copy from James Beard’s Fireside Cookbook.  One of those murals was captioned, “‘Tis not the food but ’tis the appetite that makes eating a delight.” Granted a long plane flight that offered tired airplane food left us with an appetite’s edge, but we maintained our sufficient culinary integrity to discriminate terrific street food. A long line snaking from a modest storefront lead us to Forno Campo di Fiori. Forno means oven and out of the oven with fifteen vertical racks — pictured in the background — a continuous flow of sizzling, thin-crusted rectangular pizzas slid onto a wooden counter to be sliced, folded over and delivered into the hungry waiting hands of expectant diners.

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I selected the mushroom pizza above and Christina a prosciutto and mozzarella. The pizzas cost E5,00 each. While the appetite may have added to the pleasure of devouring, fond memory of these pizzas linger today.

Hotel Raphael

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The Piazza Navona is one of the world’s friendliest great public spaces and the center of the first of two neighborhoods in which we stayed in Rome. More on Piazza Navona in a later post.

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By mid-afternoon, with a mix of tired and elation, we were ready for our hotel and our hotel was now ready for us. On a narrow street tucked directly behind the northwest corner of Piazza Navona is the vine-covered facade of a lovely, small and elegant hotel — Hotel Raphael. (Spoiler alert: This is quite a pricey hotel.) As we were there in the tail end of winter, the vine-covered facade was barren of leaves. You can click on the link above to get a photo gallery of the hotel including stunning photos of its green-wrapped facade.

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We are greeted by a neatly tailored and professionally reserved staff who, when engaged were friendly and easy to smile. With fifty rooms and suites, the hotel combines the patina of age with a modern but still warm and comfortable interior. There are traditional rooms and a series of rooms and suites designed by renowned architect Richard Meier. Two now weary travelers settled into our a lovely room with blond woods, sleek cream-colored waxed walls, high-style bathroom and all the standard comforts of a luxury hotel. (Life is good.)

We asked the desk clerk who showed us to our room whether he was from Rome. He told us that he was from Tuscany. He worked in Rome half the year, but that it was too expensive — OK for tourists but very difficult financially for Romans. He returned to Tuscany the other half of the year where life was easier.

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A lovely buffet breakfast served in the Hotel Raphael’s elegant dining room is included in the room price.

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The hotel fronted on a charming mini-piazza and if you have a room facing on to the piazza you get a nice view through the vines. Our room faced the aging building across the alley where a neighboring pigeon lived.

Hotel Raphael, Largo Febo, 2

Dinner at Grano

Selecting restaurants in Rome is a challenge. While it is true that it may be hard to get a bad meal in Rome, there is no shortage of ordinary restaurants. And with so many really good restaurants lurking amongst the ordinary, it’s a shame to waste a meal on ordinary. The challenge comes from the vast quantity of restaurants and how little unanimity there is on restaurants that are special. My selection approach was to catalogue restaurants from review sources with the goal of finding those that appeared on more than one list. My list did not include the crowd-sourced Trip Advisor that is ubiquitous on the internet and suffers from common denominator. Rather I consulted sources ranging from the New York Times to food blogs about Rome to articles in food-oriented publications. It was rare that I found a restaurant appearing on more than one list. At a point we connected with a foodie-friend who lives in Rome and he helped with additional names and editorial guidance. Left with more restaurants than meals, we did our best to make selections with nearly all being really good, some being excellent and a few just ordinary. If you follow along in the blog I will help you compile a list. I am sure there are many other restaurants that could appear on such a list.

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Our hotel was about a fifteen minute walk in the rain from Grano  — one small piazza behind the piazza on which sits one of the seminal buildings in the history of the world architecture  – the Pantheon. We will return to the Pantheon in a future post. Grano translates in English as wheat.

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It is paradox that a tourist regards a good restaurant find as one that has few, if any, tourists. A fair assumption is that locals know best where to eat so a restaurant loaded with locals is an affirmation of your choice.  So when you go to a restaurant you play a little mind game of “identify the tourists.” If you identify many you think that maybe you made a bad choice. Romans generally look different from tourists and if you are unsure, check out the shoes where differences are most readily revealed. On the other hand, despite a quest for tourist-free restaurants,  it helps that someone working in the restaurant speaks some menu English. So your ideal goal is a largely tourist-free restaurant that has someone who can speak to you about food in your native language. A menu in English makes ordering easier but is also a troubling sign as it suggests an overly tourist-friendly place. Oh, it’s such a delicate balance.

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Grano’s three small warmly modern rooms provided seating for about fifty guests.

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Saturday night at 9PM it was full. Quirky contemporary art adorned white-painted walls. It’s approach to food echoed its decor — clean, simple, uncomplicated – no contrivances or fussiness.

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Our English-able waiter brought us a basket of assorted house-made rolls — always a good sign when a restaurant makes its own rolls. Restaurants charge for bread and bring it to your table without asking. Here bread was E1,50. Bottled water is also offered for a small price with a choice of with or without gas — called frizzante which is a fun word to say. Most restaurants filter and carbonate their own water. Non-bottled water is perfectly safe to drink. Grano offered an English menu. We were, after all, in the middle of one of the most tourist-dense areas in the entire world!

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Rome’s province of Lazio is not known for its wine and little of it is found exported to the United States. Yet, as it’s said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Throughout our trip we drank mostly local wines — from Lazio and then from the province of Campania of which Naples is capital. The wines were uniformly enjoyable and in several instances — especially in Campania, we discovered wines that we will seek out at home. As we considered our menus, we enjoyed a Franciacorta Rose, a dry rose with a slight sparkle from Lombardy. Our dinner wine was a Cesanese, from Lazio – a very old red grape that may have been used in ancient Roman wine making.

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For starters: Three fish tartares – tuna, grouper, something else — coarsely chopped fish, not much else with a little olive oil. The clean taste of the fresh fish shinned through.

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Anchovies “in carozza” was alternating layers of mozzarella and anchovies in a light batter fried with leek sauce. Nothing special — too much breading obscured the cheese and anchovy.

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Paccheri de gragnano with codfish was big, fat, perfectly chewy pasta tubes with tomato, cod and an occasional raisin.

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Squid poached and breaded with aromatic herbs & marinated tomatoes.

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A seared sea bass with “rice” potatoes . The potato actually had the appearance of rice with the texture of potato. Thin slices of green olives finished the simple and straightforward dish. For dessert we enjoyed Zeppole, a warm, just-fried donut with vanilla ice cream and a touch of vanilla custard on bottom and a small serving of house-made pistachio gelato.

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After dessert we enjoyed a Hauner Malvasia della Lipari, a light sweet wine from Sicily. Finally, we sipped espresso that arrived with chocolate-covered orange peel. Dinner at Grano came to E145 — about $185 for  perfect first evening in Rome. A service charge is not added as it is said that service is included in the price of the food. In general, we added a 10% tip.

Grano, Piazza Rondanini, 53

Tired, thrilled with our first day, we headed back to our hotel in a light rain. Our plan for tomorrow was to meet a guide at our hotel at 2PM who would introduce us to ancient Rome at the Colosseum and Forum.

Buona notte.

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A Tale of Three Cities

It has been quite a while since my last post. To some degree I got a bit burned out on blogging and other priorities surfaced in my life — like having a less food-centered life. With regard to the latter, I have been reasonably successful having maintained a weight loss of sixty pounds for about a year. I had lost more than sixty pounds and simple math will quickly reveal that I have put some back on. In the spirit of the glass half full (or half empty in this case) I am trying to stay focused on how much I successfully have kept off rather than the “paltry amount” that I regained. I wake up each morning with the intention of continuing to lose and getting to the gym more often. Some days are more successful than others. I am committed to lose more weight and get healthier. But first…

Christina and I leave tomorrow for a two-week trip that will take us to three great cities — Berlin, Prague and Amsterdam. We did go to Paris for five days in the Fall (I know I have a very nice life. I feel very lucky). But somehow the arc of that trip did not lend itself to blogging. I am thinking that I will blog — perhaps some during the trip — and also upon return as I did with our trip to Lisbon last summer.

In the meantime, by way of an appetizer, I want to share a few images from an event Frog Commissary catered this past Saturday. (Yes, I do still do work.)

This is tiny Banh Mi. A Banh Mi is a “Vietnamese baguette.” For this miniature version, Frog Commissary’s bakery made tiny rolls about 2/12″ long. We cut a wedge out of the top of the roll. Next we squirted some Cilantro Aioli. Then came alternating layers of marinated and grilled skinless chicken thighs (See At Home by Steve Poses Thai Thighs on Page 190.) and Pickled Carrot and Daikon (Page 219) and a garnish of a cilantro leaf.

This is my translation of my mother’s recipe for sweet and sour stuffed cabbage (See Page 234) into Sweet and Sour Meatballs. It’s sort of stuffed cabbage without the cabbage. The container was 3 ounces and it held three half-ounce meatballs plus sauce. (We shared leftovers at home the next day — Mother’s Day — with Christina’s mother.)

There were twenty seven separate menu items, each served in or on a tiny container. Here are golden beet stars and red beet hearts dressed with a ginger vinaigrette, topped with Shellbark Hollow Sharp Chevre (available at the Fair Food Farm Stand at Reading Terminal and the Head House Square Farmer’s Market that opened two Sunday’s ago), crystalized wasabi and a leaf of microgreens. Crystalized wasabi is made with wasabi powder, sugar and water. As the paste dries you break it into small “crystals.” It adds a wonderful accent to beets.

The party included a Tri-color Caviar Station with black Hackelback, green wasabi and red tobiko and a Korean Barbecue Beef Taco. This is the taco.(See At Home Page 94 for a recipe similar to the party’s.) I braised boneless beef short ribs at 200 degrees for eighteen hours. This beef was shredded and a reduction of the braising liquid was added back. The tortillas came from Tortilleria San Romano in the Italian Market. We used a circle cutter to reduce their size to four inches. (Tortillaria San Roman, 915 South 9th Street at Carpenter. They sell corn tortillas by the kilo — about 50 per kilo for $2 —  and they are the best. If you go and buy them, please encourage them to raise the price as I think they are worth far more than they are charging.)

To assemble:
1. Warm corn tortillas on flat griddle to soften and make more pliable. Place two side-by-side in small wooden “boat.”
2. Place a scant ounce of shredded beef on each taco.
3. Add green papaya slaw
4. Add kim chee mayonnaise
5. Add toasted sesame seeds
6. Add a few leaves of ciliantro
7. Garnish wtih lime wedge.

There was some “controversy” that we did not offer forks for the taco at this fancy soiree. But these delectable tacos are meant to be consumed as a piece so you get all of these amazing flavors tumbling in your mouth and not picked at with a fork.

The party was all quite mad and wonderful. We are working on lots more photos from the event to post on Frog Commissary’s website. I will let you know when they appear.

Next stop Berlin. More to follow.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve

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Five Days in Lisbon: Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Day Five

This is the fifth in a series of five posts.
Day One
Day  Two
Day Three
Day Four

Overview: This is the last post about our five days in Lisbon. Unlike the other posts, this will not focus on an area to walk and where to dine. Most of our walking was backtracking over familiar areas. Instead, this post will focus on Lisbon’s wall tiles and graffiti — not many words, mostly photos.

Day Five’s dining highlight was our return to 100 Maneiras, a wonderful restaurant we visited on Day One. There is not much new to say about 100 Maneiras except that of the restaurants we visited, it is the one that I would most strongly recommend to you.

Lisbon’s Wall Tiles and Graffiti
Traveling with camera in hand helps me to look at things more closely. Traveling includes so much visual data that it’s easy to lose the trees through the forest. It’s nice to come back with photo memories, and I have been making a printed book for recent travels using Apple’s iPhoto. But it is the act of seeing in the moment that is most important.

I had imaged a Lisbon of Old World charm based loosely on recollection of a visit some forty-three years ago. My impression was that Lisbon’s building facades were covered with ceramic wall tiles. I found Old World charm and  tiles. But what quickly caught my wandering eye was the graffiti that covered far more of Lisbon’s building’s surfaces than tiles. In the end, the graffiti was more compelling than the tiles.

First, the tiles.

Lisbon is justly famous for its long history and use of ceramic tiles. Ceramic tiles date from the mid-15th Century. Lisbon even boasts a National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo), located in a former convent.  Tile is generally used to cover the lower portion of a building’s wall and add wonderful visual detail to facades.

On occasion you will see large tile murals such as the one pictured above that we came across on our walk up the hill from Baixa to Alfama.

Designs range from old and traditional…

…to more contemporary designs.

Almost without exception tiles are all the same size — squares of about four inches per side.

There are a variety of color palettes.

Most tiles have geometric patterns.

It was only rarely that I found tiles that were more illustrative.

These tiles capture Lisbon’s connection to fish…

…echoed in the fish image of the festival seen on shop windows throughout Lisbon.

Occasionally tiles are infiltrated with ironic humor.

Leo & Pipo have found their way to Lisbon. According to the website The Rathaus, “Since 2008 Parisian duo Leo & Pipo have been wheat pasting nameless characters from bygone eras all over their home town. District by district, rue by rue, Leo & Pipo inject a sense of charm, humor and some historical remembrance to dreary concrete facades; hopefully transporting the viewer to another Paris through a visual time machine.”

Artfully superimposed stickers on traditional tile promote an avant garde art festival.

It was shocking how prevalent graffiti is in Lisbon. (My friend Pascal tells me it is common in cities throughout Europe.) While not every surface is covered with graffiti, you can find graffiti nearly everywhere you look. There do seem to be some unwritten rules about what surfaces are fair game for graffiti, but large, flat, blank walls are prime candidates.

When we visited Lisbon in early June, national elections had just taken place. Portugal is going through very difficult financial times. As a result, there was occasional overtly political graffiti.

More often however, as with graffiti everywhere, graffiti is form of frustrated self-expression…a need to be known..and an expression of institutional alienation.

“i am an artist even though i’m a woman.”

MUSEUMS ARE DEAD. LONG LIVE THE STREETS. In fact we visited only one museum in Lisbon. Most of our time was spent on the streets.

Images of graffiti:

I recommend Lisbon as a place to visit — without reservation — graffiti and all.

Each of our five days in Lisbon was a “bon jour.”

Dining Postscript

There is no single formula for what makes a great dining experience. Great restaurants come in many different forms. But for me, here are some of the key ingredients:

A great restaurant should be specific to a moment in time and place reflected both in its food…appropriate to the season, locale, culture…and design, that is there should be some ineffable sense that this restaurant could only exist right here.

A great restaurant should be warm and welcoming and genuinely express their appreciation that of all the places you could have chosen to dine, you chose them.

The food should be visually appealing without being precious and the flavors clear — whether simple and straightforward or layered and complex. Complexity should not exist for its own sake.

Service should be well-paced and non-intrusive…neither too fast or too slow…not too friendly or too aloof.

For me, a little sense of humor also helps as dining is just not that serious. At 100 Maneiras the meal begins with the dehydrated cod “Clothesline.” Tonight, the Roasted Red Snapper on Curried Shrimp Risotto with Kaffir Lime Foam arrived in a sardine can.

We returned to 100 Maneiras on Saturday night. As 100 Maneiras offers a single 10-course menu each evening, we had asked on our first night whether the menu would change by our last night. When we arrived we discovered that while they had not managed to change to a new menu, they still would create for us our very own menu with only modest repetition from our previous visit.

Part of the energy of 100 Maneiras is a result of each course being turned out to the entire dining room at once from the bar. Clearly the bar was not placed there with this purpose in mind. More likely the bar was there for a previous restaurant occupying the space and 100 Maneiras re-purposed. In designing restaurants, I usually find that constraints of spaces often forced me to find solutions that in the end made the space more interesting that if anything had been possible. I think that works in life as well.

Our second dinner at 100 Maneiras inevitably lacked that joy of discovery of our first Lisbon dinner. We had the misfortune of arriving as a party of twenty revelers were at the tail end of a birthday celebration. The group’s presence overwhelmed the space and interrupted that natural rhythm of service and cordiality. (Many years ago, Philadelphia food critic Jim Quinn wrote a book about restaurants titled Never Eat Out on Saturday Night.) So while our experience did not equal that of our first dinner, we still had a marvelous eating experience…our second best of our trip. In addition to “The Clothesline” and the sardine can pictured above, highlights included Potato Foam with Fois Gras Cake drizzled with Chocolate, Marinated Sardines on Basil Toast, Duck Confit Rolls with Salted Mushrooms & Sweet Chili, a Basil & Mint Sorbet in Champagne, Pork Cheeks with Celery Root & Spinach, a Strawberry Salad with Basil and a faux Strawberry “Cheesecake.” Our wine highlight was a Late Harvest Viognier from Vale D’Algares.

And so ended our final meal and last stop on a wonderful trip to a great city. We walked well. We ate well.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your At Home Coach

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Five Days in Lisbon: Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Day Four

This is the fourth in a series of five posts about visiting Lisbon in early June.

Links to previous days:
Day One
Day  Two
Day Three

Overview: Train from Cais do Sodre station to seaside resort town of Cascais, bus to historic mountaintop town of Sintra, train back to Lisbon’s main train station. Lunch in Cascais at Jardim dos Frangos and dinner back in Lisbon at Sea Me.

Day Four: Walk

No, we’re not in Lisbon anymore. By Day Four — Friday — we were ready for a little outing. Two places nearby Lisbon and worth visiting are the seaside resort of Cascais and the mountaintop town of Sintra. Both are easily accessible from Lisbon in a single day.

The first order of business was to seek out Lisbon’s principal food market, Mercado da Ribeira. Lisbon is not filled with picturesque outdoor food markets. There are many neighborhood hole-in-the-wall shops stocked with vegetable basics, as well as more substantial produce stores and small supermarkets on main streets. Lisbon may well have larger supermarkets, but none that we came across. The main produce market, pictured above, is located across a wide avenue that runs adjacent to the river and across from the transportation hub of Cais do Sodre. While the Festival of St. Anthony that began in earnest on Thursday night contributed to the vibrancy of after dark street life, the national holiday that occurred on Friday resulted in a closed market. Since visiting food markets is one of my favorite activities, the inability to get inside Mercado da Ribeira was a disappointment.

Travel from Lisbon to Cascais is quick and simple. You get a comfortable commuter  train from Cais do Sodre. Trains run frequently and the ride is about forty minutes. From Cascais to Sintra was about an hour bus ride. We returned to Lisbon on the train in less that an hour.

Though only thirty kilometers from Lisbon, Cascais has the distinctive feel of the beach.

Across the street from the train station is the start of a series of compact pedestrian avenues that wind through touristy shops.

Lisbon has a unique quality of Lisbon-ness. You get a sense that this could only be Lisbon. Cascais, on the other hand, feels like it could be almost anywhere — a beach community with charming shops aimed at tourists.

Perfectly pleasant. Not much more.

Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, wide sandy beaches abound.

Cascais was once a little fishing village. Today, fishing boats share the harbor with pleasure craft.

On the point across the harbor is a fortress whose origins date to the Middle Ages.

The fortress was built as a strategic outpost to defend Lisbon.

After spending a few hours wandering through Cascais and having a pleasant lunch, we went to the bus station at the base of the small indoor shopping mall on the opposite side of the train station. Buses leave frequently and the ride to Sintra is just under an hour.

The bus makes frequent stops as it winds its way first along the coast and then up into the mountains north of Cascais. Along the way we passed an outdoor produce market along the side of the road. You are taking what is essentially a commuter bus and part of the interest of the ride, in addition to the scenic beauty, is stopping in the small towns that dot the road as folks get on and off the bus.

Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site by virtue of its 19th Century Romantic architecture.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived and yours truly was pretty beat. The prior three days of enthusiastic walking up and down and up the hills of Lisbon and our late night fado adventure had taken a toll. So by the time we arrived in Sintra, the idea of walking up what looked like a pretty steep hill to some of Sintra’s vintage sites was more than I was willing to do. The rest of our little group did not protest. So instead of roaming Sintra, we found a stylish restaurant and enjoyed a cool beverage and sweet cake. A short walk to the train station and the forty minute trip back to Lisbon with no regrets. It was good to get out of Lisbon for the day, the seaside was pleasant, and the bus ride to Sintra scenic. As to Sintra itself? Perhaps more of it on another trip.

Unlike the scenic bus ride from Cascais to Sintra, the train from Sintra to Lisbon went through the gritty exurbs and suburbs of metropolitan Lisbon. It is true that my enthusiasm for this day was not what is was for Days One through Three. But the decision to take a day trip, the experience taking the train and bus, spending time at a seaside town and at least getting a brief glimpse of Sintra were all positive. Overall, it was a good day. If we were to do this again we would get an earlier start to the day as we ran out of steam in Sintra.

While our trip started at the Cais do Sodre train station, it ended at Rossio station at the edge of Baixa. From there we walked up the hill into Bairro Alto some R & R before dinner.

Day Four Eat

Overview: At outdoor lunch at Jardin dos Frangos in Cascais and dinner in Lisbon at Sea Me.

Jardin dos Frangos — literal translation: Garden of Chicken — is located on the edge of  “downtown Cascais,” the central tourist area.

Jardin dos Frangos’s specialty is Chicken Piri Piri. Chicken Piri Piri has African roots and comes to Portugal via Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony. Classically in making Chicken Piri Piri the chicken is marinated in a mix of herbs and crushed hot chiles and then grilled. At Jardin dos Frangos, the chicken is simply grilled au natural and the Piri Piri comes via a bottle of chile-infused oil.

Among the other items we sampled were the salt cod fritters and grilled octopus. Seated outdoors under clear blue skies and with pleasant wine and beer to accompany our meal, it added up to a totally pleasant lunch.  Lunch was $30 per person — with the works.

Here is a video of Jardim dos Frangos I found on U-Tube.

Jardim dos Frangos
Grande Guerra , 178, Cascais

Dinner at Sea Me

After after a very long day, we wanted an informal and relatively uncomplicated dinner. Staying close to home also was a dining criteria. We settled on Sea Me, a short walk from our apartment. Officially, Sea Me is at the edge of Bairro Alto, though it identifies itself as being located in the more chic Chaido neighborhood. Sea Me is a strange name for a restaurant in Lisbon that bills itself as a Peixaria Moderna — or modern seafood restaurant.

On this Friday evening of a holiday weekend, we stepped into a stylish and bustling dining room. In the rear is a sushi bar and fresh fish on ice reminiscent of Mercado do Peixe — the very traditional seafood restaurant where we had lunch on Day Two. There is also an open kitchen.

True to its billing, Sea Me’s elements and setting combine to be the very model of a modern seafood restaurant. As with all of the restaurants we visited, a menu in English is available. Star billing went to the sushi items. We began with Tuna Tataki (lightly seared) with Wasabi Ice Cream and Three Generations of Salmon Rolls — salmon eggs, raw salmon and roasted salmon. The wasabi ice cream was savory and packed a pleasant kick. Maybe the highlight of the dinner. The Three Generations of Salmon was unremarkable. If you end up using these posts as a guide, order the former and skip the latter.

As Noah is now working the tempura station at Morimoto, we wanted to try Sea Me’s tempura. Fine. Not remarkable. We also shared two Panko-crusted Deep-fried Rolls. The roll on the left is Acapulco Tuna with Peppermint & Pineapple and the one on the right will remain unidentified. In general, my preference is for more traditional, less showy sushi.

Next came a platter of Assorted Sashimi and a platter of Half-cured Codfish with House Seasonings. Both were fine if unremarkable.

We didn’t stick just to items from the sushi bar. Here are Seared Scallops with Mango & “Fleur de Sel.” Scallops and fruit are not my favorite combination, but since I was in charge of ordering for the table, I have no one to blame for this selection other than myself.

A sucker for sausage in any form, I found the Grilled Seafood Sausage to be excellent.

My guess is that you could deep-fry an old sock and I would like it. That is not to suggest that Sea Me’s Ninja Seafood Fritters has any relationship to an old sock; only that they were deep-fried and therefore, my standard of excellence was not that high. They came with a sweet-sour ponzu sauce.

We shared two desserts including a Portuguese Creme Brulle — hard to tell what made it Portuguese — and Three Ice Creams: Pumpkin, Ferre Roche (chocolate) and Sweet Rice. The playful presentation included a sprig of rosemary, a thin cookies and a fresh gooseberry.

Portuguese wines included a 2010 Alvarinho from Muros de Melagaco; a 2009 Quinta de Bacalha, a white blend of semillion, alvarinho and sauvignon blanc; and a 1998 Madeira from H.M. Borges.

Dinner at Sea Me with beer, wine and gratuity was $75US per person. So what did I think? Service was perfunctory, the food mostly very good though not extraordinary. I liked the menu variety with its mix of sushi-inspired dishes and modern seafood dishes though it added up to nothing that you would not experience in Asian-Japanese fusion restaurants across the planet. There was nothing especially Portuguese in its approach. There were restaurants that we didn’t try that I would go to before I went back to Sea Me. But that is not to say that Sea Me was disappointing. Given that I don’t know how good other interesting Lisbon restaurants are, I have no problem recommending Sea Me. While it was not trying to be 100 Maneiras or Alma, with their carefully orchestrated tasting menus, I found those restaurants distinctive and memorable in a way that Sea Me was not.  Here is a link to a NY Times article that covers several of the restaurants we visited and several that we did not. Lisbon’s Culinary Golden Age?

Sea Me Peixaria
Rua do Loreto, 21, Bairro Alto

www.peixariamoderna.com/

Coming on Day Five: Our Day Five walk was spent backtracking over some of the same neighborhoods covered on Days One through Four. There surely were other neighborhoods to visit, but we had seen enough. Instead of re-capping our Day Five walk, Day Five’s post will focus on Lisbon’s ceramic wall tiles and graffiti. It will be mostly images with not much narrative and I hope you enjoy the photos. On Day Five we had an ordinary lunch at an outdoor cafe on the wide plaza along the river in Baixa. For dinner, we returned to 100 Maneiras. I will briefly review dinner at 100 Maneiras but to do so at length would be repetitive.

Thank you for visiting,

Steve
Your At Home Coach

P.S. I was on the 10! Show last Thursday plugging Franklin Foodworks, our restaurant at The Franklin Institute and the current Mummies exhibit. Naturally enough given Mummies, I demonstrated a wrap. Here is the link.

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5 Days in Lisbon: Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Day Three

This is the third in a series of five posts.
Day One
Day  Two

Overview: On our third day we explored Chaido, a neighborhood that is adjacent to Bairro Alto. Lunch was at a traditional Portuguese restaurant two blocks from our apartment. An early dinner at the highly regarded Alma. A late night stroll through Alfama to discover fado.

We had perfect weather during our five-day June visit to Lisbon. Each day the skies were clear and blue with occasional wisps of clouds. Temperatures were warm and humidity low. Perfect walking weather. Day Three was the midway point in our five-day trip. By Day Three we were beginning to feel at home. We loved our street and our neighborhood. We were comfortable in our apartment.  The path to and from was now familiar. Day Three was our sweet spot. Day Four – the day before we have to leave — will likely be filled with anticipatory sadness of that accompanies endings.

By Day Three we were also clear that we enjoyed one an others traveling company. From an early age Noah and I had traveled extensively together from Bangkok to London, Jamaica and the Virgin Islands to Boston, LA and Seattle. And then there was Las Vegas — Noah’s favorite place  — where we visited many times including celebrating his twenty-first birthday. Christina traveled the world in her capacity as Managing Director of White Oak Dance Company. But our world travel together was limited. Because of my weight and the difficulty I had walking for hours on end, my mobility was more limited than either of us would have wished on our travels together. The loss of seventy pounds since Thanksgiving, coupled with five day-a-week travels to the gym has transformed my traveling life as it has so many other things. So the three of us were reasonably in sync with our walk, eat, sleep, repeat routine. Life is good.

Day Three Walk: Chaido

Our Day Three walk was mildly informed by some shopping goals. I say mildly because mostly what we wanted was a few destination to define our path rather than any compelling need for more stuff. Lisbon is more a walker’s paradise than a shopper’s paradise. Noah wanted a Portuguese cookbook — but not in Portuguese. I noted a shop that carried cutlery. Christina’s shopping interests included linens, china/silver and gloves. Using my iPad, I plotted a “shopping route” through Chaido and off we went.

Largo de Camoes (Camoes Square) is the transition point between our neighborhood of Bairro Alto and Chaido, the adjacent neighborhood.

Across Largo Square on Rua Garrett, a pedestrian only thoroughfare, are several cafes with outdoor seating. Rua Garrett is Chaido’s main street.

Among the cafes is A Brasileira, one of Lisbon’s oldest. This was were Christina and Noah had their late morning coffee. Rua Garrett crosses Rua do Alcecim, the street that leads down to the river to the Cais do Sodre transportation hub and the Ribeira Food Market that is across the street from Cais do Sodre.

Chaido is noted in guidebooks as Lisbon’s most chic neighborhood. “Most chic” is a relative term. One of the things I like most about Lisbon is its general lack of pretense. While there are places that would qualify as chic nearly anywhere such as Largo, last night’s restaurant, in general I would not characterize Lisbon, including Chaido, as chic.

Flower stalls do not line Lisbon’s sidewalks, but here is a lovely flower shop.

Ourivesaria Alianca is a fine jewelry shop on Rua Garrett that called out to Christina.

Many shop windows displayed the signature “sardine” of the Festival of Lisbon

Walking a new city is a process of exploration and discovery. What’s over this hill?

And what awaits around the corner?

Or up those stairs?

Chaido runs from high on a hill…

…down to the waterfront and Cais do Sodre, an important transportation hub. The hills add immeasurably to Lisbon’s interest.

This building is not typical. Most of the buildings are far simpler with mostly stucco facades painted in neutral colors.

Occasionally you see buildings painted with vivid colors.

When I began walking with my camera’s eye, I thought I would focus on Lisbon’s wall tiles. I did this, but I began to be visually intrigued by the ubiquitous graffiti. Day Five’s post will focus on Lisbon’s wall tiles and graffiti.

Our walk down through Chaida lead us down to the edge of Baixa.

Returning to Chaido on the way back to our apartment in Bairro Alto, we came upon this cafe dramatically positioned in a courtyard. You just can’t do it all, so after a brief peek, we headed home to rest for dinner. As for our shopping goals, not too successful, but that hardly mattered.

Day Two Eat: Lunch at 1 de Maio, a traditional neighborhood restaurant in Bairro Alto and dinner at Alma, a high style in the Santos neighborhood.

The rhythm of our days and evenings placed walking in the afternoon. Mornings were about sleeping…at least for some of us. It was rare we made it out of our apartment before late morning. Breakfast was mostly just coffee and maybe some fruit so we could have lunch early enough in the day to have a big block of time to walk and explore.

On our third day we wanted a light, local and inexpensive lunch. We settled on 1 de Maio, a few blocks from our apartment. Bairro Alto’s back streets are filled with small restaurants, bars and fado clubs.

1 de Maio offers simple, traditional Portuguese fare and was exactly what we had in mind.

Part of the joy of dining is sampling wines unlikely to be available in your own neighborhood restaurant. Here we enjoyed an inexpensive Portuguese red blend with the curious name of .com. The wine’s producer is Tiago Cabaco, from Estremoz, in the Alentejo region. Its principal grape is the local Touriga Nacional. Just right for lunch.

1 de Maio, Rua da Atalia, 8, Bairro Alto

Dinner at ALMA
Lisbon has no shortage of restaurant choices. We had narrowed our focus to non-traditional, high style restaurants offering modern interpretations of Portuguese food. That still left us with more options than our five-day schedule allowed and since we had decided to return to 100 Maneiras on our final evening, we were down to two dinners. As we had not made a decision before starting our day, it was not until we returned from our afternoon walk that we began to identify our dinner destination. We settled on Alma, on most lists of “Best Restaurants.” When we called for a reservation, we learned that the only time available was relatively early in the evening. After our fairly light lunch and long walk, early seemed OK. As it turned out, early also enabled us to have a post-dinner fado adventure.

Alma’s chef-owner is Henrique Sa Pessoa, one of a small band of young Lisbon chef’s who have updated Lisbon’s traditional restaurant scene. Trip Advisor ranks Alma #9 of 584 restaurants. (100 Maneiras is ranked #2.) It is one of a handful of restaurants that gets mentioned in multiple Lisbon guides and articles. We sat directly under the cloud in the photo — the cloud slowly rotates. Alma is sleek, but combined the best qualities of chic that we experienced the previous evening in Largo, with more of the intimacy of 100 Maneiras.

While 100 Maneiras served their excellent bread in a homey burlap satchel, Alma’s bread service was more elegant and elaborate and included salt-dusted flatbreads, herb-topped focaccia and a crusty white bread along with an excellent olive oil. Alma offers two prix fixe menus. One is a “traditional” menu by Almas standards — a sort of “best of” menu — and the other more avant-garde. Christina and I opted for the former and Noah the latter. At dinner’s end, we all agreed we preferred the more traditional Alma menu.

Everyone began with an amuse bouche of seared scallop, cauliflower puree and salmon roe. An amuse bouche — literally “amuses or entertains the mouth” – is a small sort of pre-dinner course, plated and more substantial than an hors d’oeuvre and less substantial than a “first course.” Our amuse-bouche set the tone for the artful and delicious meal that followed. It did occur to me that as lovely and delicious as this was, I think of cauliflower as a distinctively winter vegetable though here we were in early June. To me, serving food that is in sync with the season is fundamental to fine dining.

With our amuse bouche we greatly enjoyed a crisp Filipa Pato 3B Sparkling Rose. Filipa Pato is a premium Portuguese wine maker. The 3B stands for Barraida, the region the wine is produced that sits just south of the famous Douro region and the mix of Bical white grapes and Barga red grapes that make up the wine. It was an elegant start to an elegant meal.

I loved our first course. A small piece of pan-seared cod filet was nestled on a chickpeas puree, spinach and roasted tomato and surrounded by chickpeas with just the barest amount of broth at the bottom of the pool. Partly what made this dish so enjoyable was that the chickpeas puree, spinach and roasted tomato are hidden by the cod filet and you only discover them once you have started eating. Food can be fun when not everything is revealed from the beginning.

I know very little about Portuguese wine. I simply asked the wine waiter to pick local wines for us that were neither the least or most expensive and that worked with what we ordered. With this course we had a 2010Reisling from Qunita de Sant’Ana, Marfa. 

Sous-vide cooking is all the rage in the exalted world of gastronomy. Sous-vide translates in French to “under vacuum.” The food to be cooked is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag. It is then submerged in a temperature controlled water bath at relatively low constant temperature for a long period. The goal is to evenly cook the food throughout while retaining all the food’s essential moisture and flavor. The pork loin was held at 154 degrees Farenheit for 24 hours. Before serving it was quickly finished in 400 degree oven to create a slight crust. The result was a tender piece of meat uniformly pink throughout but for its dark outer robe. Our pork loin, served on slate, was accompanied by sweet potato puree complete with dramatic sweep, bok choy, orange segments and roasted squash. All very good. Not great.

The wine was a red blend: 2007 Lima Mayer Red Blend from Alentejano  includes Syrah, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon

The highlight of Noah more avant-garde entrée was a stylish take on stuffed rigatoni, standing guard around a beef filet. There is an aspect of fine dining for me that is scouting for ideas. I loved how they served the rigatoni and made a mental note to try to use it or some upcoming Frog Commissary catered event.

Following our “entrée,” we were served a tangerine sorbet with fresh tangerine segments in bottom.

Our choice of dessert was a warm pear tart with goat cheese ice cream, raspberry, blueberry sliced in half, micro purple and green mint. The pear tart was perfectly executed, though seemed more appropriate for fall or winter. As an at-home ice cream maker, I was thrilled with the goat cheese ice cream.

But the detail I loved most was the severed blueberry that leaned against the raspberry. Yes, a bit precious, but it worked for me. I never thought to cut a blueberry in half to serve it. Something else to remember.

Dinner ended with chocolate truffles and a tiny chocolate cake. Overall it was a wonderful dinner. The second best we had during our Lisbon holiday. It was not quite up to the calvalcade of flavors we experienced at 100 Manieras, nor did it have the same warmth and slightly frantic enthusiasm. In fairness, that was not Alma’s goal. 100 Maneiras provides a 10 course tasting menu and several of the course had multiple tastes. Because it was all well-paced and the food at a uniform high level, the experience was not overwhelming. Alma provided refined dining in a comfortably elegant setting.

Alma
Calcada Marques de Abrantes, 92, Phone: 213 96 3527

What do Lisbon restaurants cost?
You can eat inexpensively in Lisbon. That was not our objective. Christina and Noah enjoy and appreciate great food.  Of course, so do I. It is a core pleasure of traveling. When we dine out we do not focus on price — except when it comes to wine. I suspect that expensive dining in Lisbon is less expensive than comparable restaurants in other European capitals or New York and comparable to Philadelphia. Certainly a part of the cost is the US Dollar to Euro exchange rate at about $1.40US to the Euro. Thanks to Christina’s careful record keeping, here are the per person prices of our Lisbon dinners. Remember, much of this is a result of prodigious amounts of food and wine and we tip well. You can dine at any of these places for less. And I would say that 100 Maneiras 10 course tasting menu (the only menu they offer) was a bargain at 35 Euros — about $50.

Per person with all amounts in US dollars. Day One: 100 Maneiras $142 Day Two: Mercado do Peixe $72 and Largo $78 Day Three: Alma $91 Day 4: SeMe $76 Day Five: 100 Maneiras $120

A Fado Adventure

Fado is to Lisbon’s music what sardines are to Lisbon’s food. Fado, which dates back to the early 1800’s, is a traditional form of music linked to the Portuguese word saudade which is a feeling of loss. Its lyrics and melodies are mournful. Throughout Bairro Alto and Alfama are fado clubs and bars. Some of the larger venues incorporate full restaurants and you can make an evening of fado and dinner. These tend to be more directed to tourists though may feature leading fado performers. We opted for something more authentic.

Because we had to make an early dinner reserevation, the night was still reasonably young when we departed Alma. And since fado does not really heat up until round 11 PM, the time was right. We had asked at 1 de Miao where to find fado, explaining that we did not want a large, touristy venue. He suggested a small fado bar in Bairro Alto named A Tasca do Chico. (I had previously reported that this advice came from 100 Maneiras, but looking at my notes suggests otherwise. You probably don’t care about this correction but I like to keep the record straight.) A tasca is an inexpensive bar. So we took a cab from the Santos neighborhood of Alma back to Bairro Alto to hunt for Tasca do Chico. When we found a nearly empty tasca, we discovered that they offer fado on Monday and Wednesday evenings. And since this was Thursday evening, no fado. They did suggest we visit their “sister” establishment in Alfama where there was Thursday night fado.

We took a cab to the lower reaches of Alfama. It turned out that the Feast of St. Anthony celebration began in earnest this evening — Thursday. As we drove along the river through Baixa and into Alfama, we passed expanses of amusement rides and the other trappings of celebration. The cab suggested we get out at a small square at the base of Alfama that included a series of food stands as driving up into Alfama is difficult.

This is the view as we walked past the square and began the trek up the narrow streets of Alfama in search of fado.

Wherever you turned, people were celebrating.

Naturally, grilled sardines featured prominently.

A ten minute walk brought us to Alfama’s Tasca do Chico. It was a small, dark, packed and friendly bar. We arrived around 10:30 PM. Apparently there are different levels of fado singers ranging from highly regarded and well-paid professionals who work in the large fado venues to less established professionals and serious amateurs. Fado bars like the one we were in had several of whom we assume were the less established professionals. It turned out they also provided a sort of “open mike” for amateurs.

Sharing tables is apparently a fado ethic. We found three seats at a table in the rear across from the service bar. Our table mates were a dad, mom and 13-year-old daughter — spending a night out with her parents because Friday was a national holiday. And thus began our fado adventure. Dad was especially friendly and though he spoke little to no English and we spoke little to no Portuguese (despite my Peace Corps training in Brazil some 43 years ago), he engaged us — and especially Christina in long and animated conversation. First, he loved fado. He grew up in Alfama and though he no longer lives here, he returns often…for fado. His wife was no less friendly, but was less willing to engage in the succession of words and hand signals that were the basis of his conversation with Christina. They invited us to share their food – delicious fresh cooked spicy sausage. We bought them drinks. We learned of his life, that his wife’s name was also Christina,and about his grown children. Our conversation took place between fado sets. Though the photo above is not great, perhaps you can make out the gentleman standing in the center. He was both the emcee and prime singer. For us, the most exciting part of the evening was when our table mate and new friend arose and took center stage and sang. You just never know what’s going to happen when you walk into a fado bar.

Tasca do Chico
Rua dos Remedios, 83, Alfama
Also, Rua do Diario de Notecias, 39, Bairro Alto

By day, our Bairro Alto neighborhood was sleepy. Night was quite another story. And especially Thursday night at the start of the Festival of St. Anthony. Upon returning home around 12:30AM, I stood on our small second floor balcony overlooking the narrow street and watched a continuous wave of mostly young people pour into Bairro Alto — attracted by the one another and the neighborhood’s bars, restaurants. On our block alone there were more than a thousand people. It was interesting to get up in the morning, return to the balcony to see the street littered with abundant debris from the night’s revelry and then the efficient crew of blue-clad street cleaners sweep and wash down the street. By mid-morning Rua do Norte was returned to its quiet and tidy self.

Coming on Day Four: A trip to Cascais and Sintra and dinner at Sea Me.

Thank you visiting,

Steve
Your At Home Coach

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5 Days in Lisbon: Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Day Two.

This is the second of five posts. View Day One.

Overview: After a good night’s sleep, lunch at Mercado do Peixe, a traditional Portuguese fish restaurant, a long walk through Baixa and Alfma and dinner at Largo, a modern Portuguese restaurant in Chaido.

We arrived in Lisbon Tuesday morning after our overnight flight from Philadelphia. Day 1 was active, but “close to home” and ended with a wonderful dinner a few blocks from our apartment. By 11PM — that’s 4AM Philadelphia time, we were ready for a good night’s sleep. Wednesday morning — Day 2 — greeted our rested trio with bright blue skies and mild temperatures. The earliest riser, I made myself coffee in the apartment. On a chair that straddled our living room and the narrow balcony that overlooked the street, I alternately read the New York Times on my iPad and watched the neighborhood wake from slumber.

Sleepy heads Noah and Christina held out for their late morning repast at a local bar. All coffee comes from the espresso machine and espresso is the default coffee. What Americans consider “regular coffee” is an Americano — a double espresso diluted with hot water. Here Noah goes for a straight double espresso.

Day 2 Walk: Baixa and Alfama

We set out on Day 2 to conquer the Citadel that overlooks Lisbon across the lower city from Bairro Alto — and stroll through Alfama, the neighborhood that sits stretched from the base of the citadel down to the waterfront. St. George’s Castle was the Moor’s fortress until conquered by the Second Crusade in 1147.

Despite a long gaze by Noah, Christina and myself, we were confounded by how this street performer — one of many — stayed suspended in the air. We began our post-lunch march through Baixa or the lower city — a flat area that sits between the hilltop neighborhoods of Bairro Alto and Alfama. Baixa is Lisbon’s commercial “downtown” shopping district and includes a mix of offices, shops, restaurants, some residential. It also is the principal transportation hub. Baixa is the area of the highest concentration of tourists.

The central avenue — Rua Augusta — is for pedestrians only and leads down to the river. It is paved with patterned black and white stones that often give a distinctive feel to Lisbon’s walkways.

As in cities around the world, streets are shared with pigeons.

The terminus of Rua da Prata is punctuated by massive arches that lead to a wide plaza and the river beyond. A left turn headed us up a long hill toward Alfama.

As we climbed ever higher glimpses of the the wide river on which Lisbon sits peak between buildings.

We wound our way up narrow and winding streets. Here we came across a small neighborhood plaza where we rested with cold beverages at a neighborhood watering hole..

Looking down from the massive walls of the Castle of St. George to Baixa, where we began our walk, we had a sense of how high we traveled and could imagine the sense of domination felt by 12th Century rulers of Lisbon in the Middle Ages.

Admission to The Castle is 5 Euro (about $7 US). The above photo taken within The Castle…priceless. There is a white tablecloth restaurant housed within the walls of the castle that would make for a nice lunch — though better would be to have lunch at one of the restaurants that dot the streets of Alfama.

At the foot of The Castle sits the core of Alfama — Lisbon’s oldest and most picturesque neighborhood. It was historically home to fisherman and the poor. In 1755, Lisbon experienced one of the most destructive earthquakes in world history. The quake was followed by a tsunami and fire claiming the lives of nearly 900,000 people. Much of Alfama was spared. As a result, Alfama retains its character of compact winding streets punctuated by small public squares.

What is most wonderful about neighborhoods like Bairro Alto and Alfama is that they are extraordinarily lively by virtue of the people who live there and not the people who visit there. Unlike lots of tourist-centric areas where it feels like a show is being created for tourists, here you feel that you a bearing witness to the day-to-day life of people who live here. And they are perfectly happy to share.

Our visit to Lisbon coincided with the annual July festival of St. Anthony. This festival sits in the middle of a two month-long Festas de Lisboa. For that festival, the sardine was embraced as its symbol.

Throughout the city were a series of sardine-inspired images created by local artists.

A small convenience market is nestled beneath apartments.

The Alfama neighborhood is the heart of the St. Anthony’s festival that begins in earnest on Thursday evening and runs through the weekend.

Lisbon wears its patina of age with grace. It was the general lack of glitz that I enjoyed most about Lisbon.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My eye found this all quite beautiful.

After nearly four hours of walking from Baixa, up a long hill to The Castle and up and down the hilltop of Alfama, we opted for public transport home. The No. 28 tram — shared by residents and tourists — connects Alfama on the north, down the hill through the edge of Baixa and back up the hill to Chaido and Bairro Alto and neighborhoods beyond. Note the “sardines” on the front of the tram.

We got off in Bairro Alto and walked a few short block to our Lisbon home. Above is the balcony of our second floor apartment. Time to rest before dinner.

A note about our apartment rental
As mentioned in Day 1’s post, I identified the apartment and rented it entirely over the internet including paying a small deposit. The few questions that I had were promptly answered via email. Upon our arrival at the airport in Lisbon we called a number and spoke to the person who would later meet us at the address, provide access to the apartment as well as a brief orientation to the neighborhood and Lisbon. The balance of our rent was due and payable in cash. A security deposit was accepted on a credit card. This person was also our contact should we have any questions or problems. While linens were included, we called our contact to inquire how to secure more towels without a response. We didn’t try very hard as it was not an urgent problem, but it was of some concern that we did not get a response. There was adequate kitchen paraphernalia and we could have cooked, but we choose not to. Overall, we loved our apartment. While an apartment does not come with the same level of daily making the bed and bed-turn down that a hotel would offer — no mints on the pillow, its benefits including cost far outweighed the sybaritic pleasures of a hotel.

Day 2 Eat: Mercado do Peixe and Largo
Our daily plan was a light breakfast, a modest lunch and then dinner as the evening’s entertainment. But my life’s motto is: Have a plan and be flexible. Since we wanted to “save” our dinners for modern Portuguese restaurants, in order to accommodate a recommended traditional restaurant we “upgraded” Day 2’s lunch plan. Our lunch turned out to be the culinary highlight of our day.

Mercado do Peixe
We had asked our friendly waitress at 100 Maneiras for her suggestions as to where to dine and where to listen to Fado, the traditional Portuguese songs of melancholy. (More about Fado in Day 4’s post.)  One of the places she suggested was Mercado do Peixe for traditionally prepared seafood. Mercado do Peixe translates as Market of Fish.

Our expectation was an informal place set in a fish market. After a long cab ride (about $15 US) we were surprised to find a somewhat formal though unpretentious restaurant. The restaurant is located adjacent to a forest area call Monsanto, located on the outskirts of central Lisbon. A comfortable dining room was half filled with customers who appeared to be local business folks — mostly male. The windows that line the dining room look out on to the parking lot. So, the view outdoors isn’t so great.

The view was all about the fish. While it was not the informal fish market with stalls, fresh fish and seafood on ice were the centerpiece. Lunch began with a casual walk-by of the day’s catch.

There is a hierarchy of waiters. The guys in blue take the orders and the guys in white bring the food. The guys in blue speak English.

A large tank hold live spiny lobsters was not just for show.

We quickly abandoned our light lunch plan and since we had totally skipped breakfast, this beginning was a sort of breakfast for us. We started with a local cured ham. Noah went for a local beer and Christina went of the wine. I was holding off on my “alcohol calories” until dinner…but for a glass of port at the end of lunch.

The ham sat in the traditional stand and sliced paper-thin by hand.

We also went for the Amanteigado, a local semi-soft raw sheep’s milk cheese. To eat the Amanteigado, you pry off the top “crust” and dig in. It is accompanied by excellent rolls.

This is not fancy food. There is nothing stacked high on slate or on gigantic plates with lots of white space. Mercado do Piexe simply offers fresh seafood. Nearly everything is grilled over charcoal — a touch of olive oil, salt and peppers and an optional squeeze of lemon.

To get started we shared a plate of small local butter-poached u-peel shrimp. Then we got down to serious eating with langoustine.

Onward to platter after platter — grilled sardines, squid, octopus and a local cousin to red snapper pictured above. Yes, of course we would like a mixed salad with tomatoes and onion. Christina and Noah often feign displeasure at the quantity of food I order for us…and then dig in leaving nary a morsel.

The real show is the central grill with all male cooks. Off to the side is the “prep kitchen” — apparently a women’s place.

Portugal is famous for its pastries and the main streets are lined with pastry shops. We ended our meal at Mercado do Peixe with a Pastel de Nata, a traditional Portuguese pastry that is offered in pastry shops and coffee bars throughout Lisbon. The Pastel de Nata is a small baked tart made with a flaky dough resembling puff pastry and filled with an egg custard. It traces its origins to the late 18th Century and Catholic nuns in Belem, a Lisbon neighborhood .

Mercado do Peixe
Estrada Prado Teixeira, 78

21.361.60.70

We are what you might call “food troopers.” Despite a prodigious lunch, after our long walk and rest, we were ready for dinner! But where to eat? Included on our list of internet and guidebook generated restaurant possibilities was Largo. It is located in Chaido. Chaido is a neighborhood that shares the hill occupied by Bairro Alto and about a five-minute walk from our apartment. Its proximity moved it to the top of our list as our daily quota of walking was nearly full.  Chaido is considered Lisbon’s most chic neighborhood. We can handle a little chic. We called to see if we could get a table in 15 minutes and were told yes so off we went.

Largo occupies a former cloister. By any standard, it’s chic in that sort of international language of chic-dom. The space is architecturally dramatic — more so than any of the other restaurants we visited. Largo’s food was fine. The experience not unpleasant. But it is interesting to contrast our experience in this chic Chaido boite with the prior night’s experience at 100 Maneiras.

The two spaces could not have been more different. 100 Maneiras is pictured above. The modesty of 100 Maneiras contributed to its warmth and intimacy. By contrast, instead of warmth, Largo provided a cool elegance. At 100 Maneiras, the diner is central and the setting a pleasant backdrop. At Largo, the setting is central. My first restaurant job was in 1971 for Peter von Starck at La Panetiere, an elegant French restaurant here in Philadelphia. It was forty years ago and I was the busboy. Peter loved his restaurant most before the guests arrived. He loved the large crystal chandelier that dominated the center of his dining room. He loved that the walls were painted with subtle variations of greys and taupes. He loved the abundant flowers (Peter taught me to arrange the flowers) and the sparkling silverware and glassware (both of which I polished) and the fine china. Customers…not so much. The heart and soul of the restaurant business is hospitality by which I mean creating a sense of welcome and warmth. Yes, in fine dining style counts…artful design to compliment artful food. But in the careful balancing act of fashioning a restaurant, the sizzle can overwhelm the steak. For me, such was the case with Largo.

Sitting at my desk in Philadelphia some weeks after visiting Lisbon it is of note that I seem to not have any photographs of Largo including the food. The image of the restaurant I took from their website.

Largo
Rua Serpa Pinto 10, Chaido
21.347.7225

Coming on Day 3: Walk: Chaido. Eat: Lunch at 1 de Maio, a modest traditional Portuguese restaurant in Bairro Alto and dinner at Alma, an excellent modern Portuguese restaurant. Fado in Alfama.

Thank you for visiting,

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach (and occasional travel advisor)

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