Postcard from Rome, Italy: Finally, a food break for you

This blog has been dragging you through museum after museum and church after church in Rome, even through my museum meltdown, without one food break. Time to forget art and culture and be honest about why we really travel to Italy. To eat.

This first food post represents an unusual grouping of what ended up being our favorite spots. Even though we traipsed miles across Rome every day, three of these were within three blocks of our apartment.

Let’s get right to a full confession. Our absolute favorite restaurant in Rome is a vegetarian one, Arancia Blu. That luscious stuffed red onion above, roasted until sweet and tender and resting in a pool of red pepper sauce, is among the offerings that seduced us back for repeat visits. Whether a warm bean salad, a crispy radicchio lasagna, chickpea with walnut ravioli, pumpkin ravioli, creamy risotto topped with fried artichoke or pistachio sorbet with caramelized pear – we loved everything we tried. The inside of Arancia Blu is like sitting in a friend’s personal library; outside tables are perched on a side street with little traffic.

We stumbled almost directly off the plane to set our forks twirling in our first plate of that Roman classic pasta dish, cacio e pepe. The rich sauce is the result of few ingredients – aged Pecorino Romano cheese, water from the pasta and a proper dose of freshly ground black pepper. We lucked out because our neighborhood Caffe Vergnano 1882 on Piazzale Flaminio turned out some of the best we tried.

Yes, you can find Caffe Vergnano affiliated coffee spots numerous places, but this location has a chef hidden inside. There is no printed menu, only a blackboard outside listing a couple of pastas and no prices. Reasonable enough in pricing to attract locals, the contemporary spot generally is bustling, which offers a chance to peer at the regulars’ tables and realize there are more dishes than the server recites. Spying is how we discovered one of the best vegetable platters in Rome for us to share with our pasta dishes. More roasted fennel, please.

And, when we were not too overstuffed from lunch, we would swing by Mondo Arancina Flaminio for Sicilian-style arancini to-go. The freshly made balls of rice were filled with things like spinach, prosciutto and cheese, mozzarella and peas or eggplant ragout before frying. Okay, another confession. We were always overstuffed but would grab some for the approaching wine hour anyway.

The final place in this post was way off the beaten tourist track; TripAdvisor only has seven reviews in English posted. We only made the trek once to La Gallina Capricciosa, but the meal was memorable. We barely snagged two seats in the packed family-run, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The Mister’s Spanish worked fine here, as we were probably the only customers without Peruvian blood running in our veins. We way over-ordered, and the waiter was nice enough to eliminate one of our dishes. We started with fried yucca and an inexpensive, extremely generous serving of fresh ceviche in leche de tigre with the traditional corn and sweet potato on the side. We scarcely made a dent in our shared order of seafood rice.

I promise, more Italian dishes later.

Postcard from Mexico City: Trolling for seafood in Roma Norte

We kept trying to find just the right seafood fit for our tastes while we were in Mexico City. The ceviche de atun with ginger at the reasonably priced Marlindo was among our favorite dishes, and the shrimp atop a tostada were beautiful. But Marlindo definitely is an ultra-casual neighborhood spot without much atmosphere, better for grabbing a quick bite than for lingering over a bottle of wine.

El Parnita is amazingly popular and bustling, but the dishes failed to excite us. On the other hand, we found ourselves the only ones in the dining room for lunch at Lucas Local. But the softshell crab sandwich at Lucas Local was phenomenal, and the pulpo and dried shrimp ceviche was refreshingly good and imaginatively presented in a coconut shell. Softshell crab is never easy enough for this Chesapeake Bay girl to find; wishing I had returned for seconds.

Our final week, we finally hit our favorite spot, Campo Baja. Casual, bustling rooftop with an open-kitchen concept, and it was not even a full block away from our apartment. The approach to each dish was distinctively different, making wandering through numerous shared plates feel as though we were venturing into new territory.

If you are visiting the neighborhood, hope our photos help you find the right spot to suit your seafood mood.

Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away

Have tried to whittle this down to three recommendations for eating out in Guanajuato but failed to do so. These four were our favorites during our month-long stay, and, hopefully, the photos will convince you to roam a few blocks off the main squares to find them.

A bowl of warm vegetables with salsa to smear atop fresh bread is an unusual amuse bouche that gets meals off on the right foot at Mestizo. The seafood ceviche there is the best we have tasted anywhere, and we had difficulties weaning ourselves away from it to try other starters. Just before we left Guanajuato we broke rank and ordered the tuna carpaccio, and it was equally as good. The Mister grew particularly attached to the chicken in achiote oil, while I enjoyed the shrimp pasta as much as any pasta we had in Bologna. The Mister’s found his filete de res served as rare as ordered and extremely tender. Fish, chicken and meat entrees are offered on a bed of small roasted potatoes or perfectly prepared vegetables. Free from dictatorial reach of the Chiles en Nogada Council of Puebla, the chef shunned the batter. Sorry, Puebla, but this fresh-tasting and not-over-sauced chile rises above its heavy fried cousins to the southeast.

Even if you try nothing else, the corn and jalapeno fritters with queso fresco at Los Campos Cantina y Restaurante are a must-have. If you are not sharing them with anyone else, they make a meal unto themselves. Two kinds of guacamole tempt you as starters as well, one topped with roasted tomatoes and splashed with mezcal and the other featuring roasted corn and chapulines (read more about grasshoppers in dishes here). An unusual dish to fall in love with – a huge bowl of lentils. This was so good I tried to somewhat duplicate at home this week. Studded with bits of serrano ham, the lentils were flavored with smoky paprika and topped with a poached egg, saffrony roasted tomatoes add fried onions. Quesadillas were made with homemade corn tortillas rosily colored from beets in the masa, and the serving of burritos was so ample some had to be taken home in a doggie bag. Roasted pork was served room temperature over cauliflower puree with a morita chile salsa. And the black bean burger provided for a nice break one day.

A deep bowl of rich bouillabaisse an order repeated at El Midi Bistro. The goat cheese en croute is a wonderful starter in this touch of France in Guanajuato. The layers of roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in the vegetable tian make a great dish to share. Both the smoked salmon tagliatelle and pasta marinara are flavorful, and a salad topped with shrimp definitely can serve a full meal. Although we failed to try any of the breakfast pastries for which the French bistro is known, the apple tart certainly serves as an enticing advertisement for them.

A Mediterranean restaurant, A Punto, is spread out on the first floor of the same building housing El Midi. For a luscious start, treat yourself to roasted figs stuffed with blue cheese and topped with glazed serrano ham all nestled in preserves. The roasted eggplant “salad” arrives layered with sliced tomatoes and generous amounts of goat cheese. Avocado soup is refreshing without reliance on the heavy-handed use of cream. Both the riso marinara and the shrimp pasta with a pistachio pesto please, and the chicken is well paired with a port wine sauce and wild mushrooms. A white chocolate mousse is among the artfully presented desserts.

If any of these dishes appear extravagant, they are not. The Mister noted upon returning to el norte that the most expensive meal of the trip was consumed in the Houston airport. Sadly, it consisted of two not-very-good chicken sandwiches, one glass of house red and one PBR. Welcome home.