Saturday, December 7, 2013

Day 12: Driving to Bologna early morning, Autogrill, and a surprisingly good lunch at Ristorante Colombina

Day 12: Driving to Bologna early morning, Autogrill and a surprisingly good lunch at Ristorante Colombina

The food products people can get in Autogrill in Italy. Wow...

Restaurants visited:

Ristorante Colombina, Bologna: 5 star. Surprisingly delicious food and great wine. Friendly service.

Early morning drive to Bologna and my first visit to Autogrill

I wanted to check out Bologna's farmers market and it's only on Saturday morning, so I got up really early, had a quick breakfast with Caterina at 9 Muse B&B, and I was on my way. I was the only person that morning, but Caterina still prepared many different cakes/cookies and different types of drink for my breakfast. The one in the photo, she told me it is called "grandma's cake" in Italy. What a luxurious morning. Thanks, Caterina! Before I left the place, I snapped a shot of all the recognitions that she has gotten. When I come back again to this area to dine at Dal Pescatore, I will definitely stay here again.

The drive from 9 Muse B&B to Bologna is about 2.5 hours. I decided to stop by an Autogrill and check out what it is all about. Remember that I mentioned about the toll check-in/check-out ticket system in Italy? Apparently, people still speed, but they stop by Autogrill to take a break. With that additional time, speeding tickets are no longer a concern!

There are so many food products in Autogrill stores that I really felt that I was in a mini supermarket. They also designed the store layout in a way that I had to walk pass the entire mini market before I could exit. Talking about store design that push for impulse buying!

They even have shower facility in Autogrill! I mean, I didn't use it... but... Wow.

Arriving in Bologna and a great lunch at Ristorante Colombina

Up until this point, I have been somewhat frustrated by my inability to speak/read Italian, but when I arrived in Bologna, this inability of mine pushed my frustration to a new height...

Most towns and cities in Italy have a special traffic limit zone in the city center that people cannot enter by car without a permit. The sign is a white circle with a thick red outline around it. There are usually cameras installed nearby and if I enter these zones, I will get a ticket. The problem is, this white circle with red outline sign is used in two situations. One is to indicate the border of this traffic limit zone, meaning that I cannot enter, and the other is to inform me of the existence of this zone in the city ahead, meaning that I can still enter here. The only difference between these two are explained on a white metal board below the white circle sign, and it is in Italian. Not only I didn't understand Italian, I was also driving and we all know how well we read when we are in motion.

This resulted in me avoiding moving ahead every time I saw this sign, regardless whether I could enter or not. Google navigation doesn't take this into consideration. So as I kept making turns to avoid these signs, Google navigation kept re-routing. This morning, I ended up circling around Bologna 4 times while trying to figure out what I should do. I ended up parking my car at the far end up north and walked to the city center. Thankfully, Bologna isn't a huge city and it was just about 20 minutes before I walked to the city center. However, by the time I got there, the market has already closed.

Oh well... I guess this means that I will have to come back again! Might not be a bad thing after all.

Confusion leads to stress, and stress leads to hunger. And this hunger lead me to Ristorante Colombina in the city center of Bologna. I was using TripAdvisor iPhone app and it showed "Ristorante Colombina" as one of the top choices nearby. I read the reviews and it seemed like a great choice where many local Italians also frequent. I arrived at 12:30pm when the restaurant opened and I was the first. Warm and friendly greeting from the staff made me feel comfortable right away.

For Appetizer, I got their potatoes and mortadella soufflé with parmesan cheese sauce. It was really delicious! So fluffy and light, yet full of flavor. Absolutely divine. Must order if you come here.

For the main course, I ordered the specialty dish in Bologna, Tortellini in chicken broth. It was perfectly cooked. The pasta skin stayed al dante for a long time. The chicken broth was flavorful and the meaty stuffing in the tortellini was just delicious. Perfect for a cold day like this.

With appetizer and main course being so good, I had to try their dessert. I went with "Panna cotta al forgo bel caramel": Baked cream (without gelatin) with caramel sauce. I had high expectation, so I was a little disappointed with this dish. Without gelatin, I find it too firm and too dense. I like the panna cotta of Ristorante Consorzio better back in Turin.

Overall, I really like this restaurant and the price was really good compared to other restaurants that I've been to so far. The service was great and they speak English pretty well. I would definitely come back again next time I'm in Bologna. All in all, an unexpected great meal!

A quick walk-about around the food market area and checked-in at

Since I woke up really early this morning and drove a long distance, and then got really stressed out over the traffic limit zone situation, I decided to check out just the food market area really quick and drive to my Air-BnB vacation rental to check in and rest.

I've heard many times that Bologna is the most liberal and progressive city in Italy. I witnessed it in person when I walked back to the parking lot when a group of people marched down the street protesting and there were many policemen everywhere.

The Air-BnB place is about 10 minutes outside of Bologna. The owner, Paolo was at home when I arrived and he gave me a quick tour of the house. The place is clean, modern and very comfortable. I unloaded my luggage to this place where I'll call home for the next 5 days. After a quick shower, I went to bed early. I'll head back into Bologna again tomorrow and tour the city a bit more.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Day 11: Moving on to a dinner in Dal Pescatore

Day 11: Moving on to a dinner in Dal Pescatore

Restaurants/Cafe visited

  1. Vino Cafe, Alba (5 star. Great cappuccino, delicious pear pastry.)
  2. Dal Pescatore (5 star. Traditional luxury Italian fine dining. Great service and really good food.)

Morning cappuccino, leaving Alba and a short visit to Asti.

Laura mentioned Vino Cafe yesterday, so I stopped by for my morning cafe there. The Cappuccino was great. and the pear pastry that I had there was really delicious! The service wasn't as warm as other places but I will go back just for that pear pastry. Thanks for the recommendation, Laura!

As I dropped the keys in the key box for Laura and drove out of the garage, I was feeling really sad. After the rainbow yesterday evening, everything seemed so real, so familiar, yet so far away. It was a very surreal experience driving away. It felt like I was leaving home. However, if there is one thing that I learned from this trip, it is to focus on the presence. From when I was planning and to overcome this separation anxiety, the best way to go through this is to focus on the presence. Many times in life, we hold on to something too tightly and for too long, and we end up not having enough room in our heart for what comes up next. Alba was great. Everything in the past 10 days has been better than anything that I could have imagined for this trip. And now, what will come next? Thinking that, I felt much better as I drove away from the city of white truffle and headed east.

Asti is one of the main city in Piedmonte. It is larger than Alba and on the way to my next destination, so I made a short stop there. After I parked my car outside of the city traffic limit zone, I saw Eataly right in front of me. I didn't know there were that many Eataly stores in Italy. Sort of like Whole Foods Market back home.

As I walked towards the center of the city, I came upon this street market where people were selling food items. There were some roasted vegetables and some artisan products like honey, jams, cheese, etc. I had a great time chatting with people and sampling their food there. Even took a photo with the owner of a breadstick baker! :)

I didn't stay too long as I still had to drive for a while to get to 9 Muse B&B to check in, and then go to Dal Pescatore for my 7:30pm reservation. I didn't get to visit the famous Asti market on this trip. I will have to return for it next time.

As I left Asti, the landscape shifted from rolling hills to flat plains, where the flat farm land extends to the distant mountains. Everything opened up and it put this fertile land on display in a big way. That's when I knew that I have left the province of Piedmonte, and now entered the province of Lombardy.

9 Muse B&B and a great dinner at Dal Pescatore

Dal Pescatore has 3 Michelin stars. I found out about this restaurant in a documentary, Three Stars , that talked about what's behind the scene in Michelin starred restaurants. It was a great movie. Check it out if you haven't seen it. Dal Pescatore makes traditional Italian food in a fine dining settings. The restaurant is run by the Santini family. The grandma, Bruna, the mother, Nadia, and the son, Giovanni work in the kitchen, while the father, Antonio, the younger son, Alberto, and Giovanni's wife, Valentina work as the face of the restaurant in the front receiving guests.

The food that I had in the other Michelin 3-star restaurants in Italy have been somewhat disappointing. Will Dal Pescatore give me a different experience with their traditional Italian cooking?

On Dal Pescatore's website, they recommend visitors staying in 9 Muse B&B, so I emailed them to reserve a room. The owner, Caterina, is super friendly and knows Dal Pescatore really well. After I checked in, we sat in the dining room of the B&B and chatted a little bit. Caterina used to work as a journalist in Milan. She got tired of working in a big city so she came back home and turned the family house into a B&B. Today, she runs her own business of 9 Muse B&B that has 4 rooms. She told me that the business has been good since it started because there was no other B&B in the vicinity. She was being very humble. I am certain that her business is good mainly because she runs the B&B very well and people love to come and stay here.

When we talked about Dal Pescatore, she told me to order the pumpkin ravioli, which is not on their tasting menu, but apparently is one of their signature dishes. She also gave me some tips about the food in that area and in Bologna, which is my next destination. She also offered to drive me to and from Dal Pescatore for 30 Euro. Knowing that I will be drinking wine in Pescatore, I took the offer.

After about 10 minutes driving in the middle of nothing, we all of a sudden came upon a group of buildings, which she told me was the houses of the Santini family that runs Dal Pescatore. We then stopped in front of this gate that has a camera on it. It opened after about a minute or two, and we drove in. Caterina pointed to an area beyond a wall and told me that it is a helicopter pad. Apparently, some guests arrive in helicopters!

The decor of Dal Pescatore was luxurious, yet very homey and relaxed. I felt like I walked into the home of a good friend who is super rich. Very tastefully decorated. I was surprised to see the same pink dog statue in Dal Pescatore as the one that I saw in front of Le Calendre. Valentina, who was receiving me, told me that it is a piece of modern art that was given to them at a charity party that Le Calendre also participated.

After I was seated and I opened the menu, there was a photo of the family there with signature of each one of them in the menu. The menu was beautifully designed.

Following Caterina's suggestion, I went with their tasting menu plus the pumpkin ravioli.

Just like all the restaurants that I've been to in Italy, amuse bouche came, and it was simple prosciutto from Parma and parmigiano chips. That's when I knew that this meal was going to be fantastic. No manipulation or clever technics. Just simply the best quality ingredients from this region presented in its original, and the best, form for consumption. They were amazing. Simple, raw, and amazing.

And then, another amuse bouche! Pumpkin soup drizzled with Tuscan olive oil. Warm and creamy. It opened up my appetite for the tasting menu! Delicious!

First course, terrine of lobster with caviar, served with their own pickled ginger. Not sure how traditional this dish is. Really delicious. The only thing is that they used lobster claw meat together with other parts of lobster meat. Lobster claw meat has a more spongy texture and less favorable taste, in my opinion, and I wish that they didn't use it in this dish. Otherwise, it was really good.

Second course, pumpkin ravioli. Just like Caterlina said, they were pockets of heaven! The pasta was al dante, the filling was buttery, smooth, creamy and sweet. So delicious! This is a specialty of Giovanni. Thanks for the wonderful ravioli, Giovanni!

Third course, saffron risotto drizzled with balsamic vinegar, Dal Pescatore's specialty. They grow their own saffron in their garden. I asked Valentina what type of rice they used for this and she told me that they use Vialone Nano rice. The risotto was delicious! Cooked perfectly. Creamy and the rice was al dante. The red wine that I've been drinking was too light for the risotto. I told Valentina, and she brought me a bottle of Babera and I thought it worked better. Might be even better if it was a bit stronger but it was much better than the first wine for this course.

Fourth course, guinea fowl and porcini mushroom ravioli with honey-caramelrized mango and black truffles. Again, perfectly cooked. Flavors was balanced and delicious. So far, everything has been solid tonight. Excellent traditional Italian cooking. Truffle flavor was a bit weak but that may have something to do with me just had a whole week of Alba white truffles. Ha.

Fifth course, roasted white fish with fried artichokes and endive, drizzled with Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. I thought this course was good, but a bit boring. Of everything that I had in Dal Pescatore, this was my least favorite dish.

Sixth course, Venison with blueberry sauce. The meat worked really well with the sauce. A bit tart and acidic, cutting through the richness of the meat. Really delicious. At this point, I was really full. Of all the tasting menu that I've had in Italy so far, I haven't been able to finish the last couple dishes. The portion of each dish has been definitely more than what I'm used to in the States.

Cheese course. Can you believe it? I was still eating! Ha. I was so full that I was about to explode at this point. The bread was great and cheese was delicious.

Dessert. Sorbet. 4 different kinds. At this point, I was so full and so drunk, I couldn't really remember what they taste like anymore. Ha.

Sweets. Pretty good selection of little snacks. I just wish that I could still eat them. I only had the cream puff and the raspberry mini tart.

Because of the wine situation, they comped me the pumpkin ravioli and the champaign. Classy. No wonder they have three Michelin stars! Awesome service. I ask Antonio if I could take a picture with him, and he said "Oh, do you also want to take a picture with my wife in the kitchen?" And Nadia came out of the kitchen to greet me. And she said "Oh, let's go to the kitchen and take pictures with grandma Bruna." Such hospitality! Sweet family. After I came out of the kitchen, Antonio said "Let's take a photo with Giovanni." It was awesome!

I had a great time at Dal Pescatore. Solid traditional Italian food that is delicious. Great service. Down-to-earth and sweet family running the business. I will definitely come back again! Thank you, Antonio, Nadia, grandma Bruna, Giovanni and Valentina for giving me such a wonderful dining experience at your restaurant!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Day 10: Laura and Mino's Risotto party and the magical calling of Piedmonte

Day 10: Laura and Mino's Risotto party and the magical calling of Piedmonte

Cafe visited: Il Salotto (4 star. Good coffee. Friendly service.)

Laura and Mino are the couple who owns the vacation rental in which I stayed in Alba. Before I left for Italy, I asked Laura via email for restaurants recommendation for risotto. I told her that I love risotto, and for this trip, not only I want to go to restaurants for good risotto, I also want to take cooking class and learn how to make it. Laura told me that she and her husband, Mino, love risotto and they make risotto regularly! She invited me to their home for lunch and they would show me how they make their risotto! The hostibility of Italy had already extended to me before my trip even started!

Morning coffee

Our lunch party was at 12:30pm, so I had some time for my morning coffee! Today, I went to Il Salotto. Their coffee was pretty good. However, here in Alba, I still like Fiori and Vergnano better.

Risotto lunch with Laura and Mino

Laura and Mino are retired and currently live in a nice home outside of Alba. They waited for me to start the cooking so that I could see how it was made. We were making two different kinds of risotto today. One was a simple cheese risotto, and the other one was a sausage and greens risotto. (I'm so sorry, Laura. I forgot the name of the cheese and the vegetables. It was so good that all I remember was eating the risotto!)

For the cheese risotto, we used leek and cheese, and for the sausage one, we used sausage that was previously sauted, the greens, and chopped onion.

Just like the risotto that Alessandra showed me yesterday, Laura and Mino put a bit of water into the onion when sweating them. We also used beef stock for both risotto. Laura used the back of the neck and the butt meat for the beef stock. We didn't add any wine into the risotto, though. And... Olive oil only. No butter at the begining.


While Alessandra cooks her risotto for 15 minutes and then rests it for 5 minutes, Laura cooks hers for 18 minutes, and rests it for 2 minutes. Both have a total of 20 minutes. When the cooking part was done, we covered the sausage risotto, and for the cheese risotto, we added the cheese and a bit of butter, mixed it up, and then covered it.


And when the resting was done, Whoa La! We had two different kinds of delicious risotto! The sausage was meaty and chuncky, and the vegetable was slightly bitter and crunchy. They two fromed great contrast both in flavor and texture, and with the creamy rice as the foundation. Yummy! And for the cheese risotto, it was super creamy and slightly pungent from the cheese. This cheese is a little bit stronger than the cheese that we used yesterday, and created a risotto with a different flavor profile. Both dishes' rice was cooked perfectly. Really delicious.


After the risotto, we had some cheese and jams. Laura and Mino also made dessert. Red wine poached pear! They were so delicious!

Then we had espresso! :-) Laura suggested me checking out the Slow Food university on my way back. Sounds like a great idea! We ended our wonderful lunch party after the coffee so that I could check out the university before it closed. It was such a wondering lunch! Thank you so much, Laura and Mino!

A visit to Slow Food University

The slow food university is very closed to Bra, where Slow Food's headquarter is. If you are not familiar with the Slow Food movement in Italy, there is a lot of information online about it that you can find. Basically, back in the 1980s, when McDonald's entered Italy and wanted to open a store in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome, a group of people gathered in front of it to protest and wanted to defend the traditional Italian food and slower pace of way of life. The movement has since spreaded out all over the world. There are Slow Food chapters in many different countries and there is bi-annual Slow Food conference in Bra.

The school's campus is not big but really cool to check out. There were classes on-going, so I didn't take lots of photos there.

There is a beautiful church just outside of the university. The interior of the church was even more stunning than the exterior:


I wonder what it is like to study here. If I learned cooking here, how would that change me? As I walked by the class room and looked inside, I saw a beautiful calligraphy of the words Slow Food in Chinese: 慢餐. That was awesome. I saw quite a few Asian students there, too.

A magical journey back to Alba

On my way back from Slow Food University to Alba, I started feeling anxious. This is my last night in Alba. Tomorrow, I will go on to Emilia-Romagna. I was feeling separation anxiety. Beautiful land, wonderful people, and amazing food. It was hard to get myself ready to say GoodBye.

It was raining when I was at Slow Food University but when I left, it had stopped. When I was driving on the highway, just as I was amazed by the landscape, the sun broke out of the clouds and casted right in front of me the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen. By the time I found a spot to park and came out to take a picture, part of the rainbow had already faded. :-(

I couldn't help myself and got really emotional as I continued driving back to Alba. I was feeling something that was really raw and powerful. "Is this a sign? Is this land calling for me? Is this where I find what I'm look for?" From the first moment I saw the hills of Piedmont, I could feel something inside me changing. As I started interacting with people here and built connections, I found myself falling in love with this place more than any other place I've been to. All the specialty food that Piedmonte has to offer are what I really love. Tuffle, chocolate, hazelnuts, risotto, and Piedmontese beef. And let's not forget the bright orange eggs, cheese and Tajarin. As much as I love San Francisco, I couldn't help but started thinking about moving to Piedmonte.

However, moving to a place is not just about taking what this land has to offer, but also what I have to offer her. What can I bring Piedmonte and the beautiful people here? That's when I stopped fantasizing myself moving here starting a new life. (Talking about midlife crisis, eh?)

My fascination and love for Piedmonte is now planted deeply within me. This seed has started to grow and will continue after I get back to the States. What will it grow into? Where will it take me? My life has been changed forever. I can feel my heart beating in a different rhythm. Now that I've seen what life can be for me, my perspective has changed. Maybe I will stay in the Bay Area; maybe I'll move to the east coast to be close to my sister's family; maybe I'll move to Piedmonte; maybe I'll be in other places and find a way to introduce people to the beauty of Piedmonte. I don't know.

I will follow my heart. It already knows where I need to go. For now, I am not ready to move here because I have nothing to offer. When I am ready one day, I will be back, and I know this rainbow will be here to welcome me.