Postcard from Caserta, Italy: When keeping up with the neighbors means Versailles

Reggia di Caserta

Foolish me. I thought the Royal Palace we visited earlier in Naples was lavish enough to suit the needs of the royal court, but Charles III (his later Spanish title) (1716-1788) had yet more grandiose ideas. He desired a new site for his capital, one farther removed from the coast to prevent invasions by sea and, most importantly, one with a palace to rival Versailles.

In 1752, Charles commissioned architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) for the massive project, Reggia di Caserta, on land to the east of Naples. The result: 1,200 rooms on five floors making the palace 118 feet tall. Almost 500,000 square feet occupying 11 acres. The architect was able to employ the finest materials – travertine from Bellona; bricks from Capua; gray marble from Mondragone; white marble from Carrara. Immense single blocks of lava stone from Trapani were used for each step of the grand stairway that divides into two parallel flights of stairs of 116 steps guarded by two white marble lions.

But Charles as King of Naples never got to reside in his dream palace because he had to move on to a bigger role as King of Spain. So the incredible digs were left for his son, Ferdinand (1751-1825), and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), to finish. If sibling rivalry existed, Maria Carolina should have been more than pleased with the palace. Her sister, Maria Antoinette (1755-1793), spent much of her time at Versailles with her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793).

Maria Carolina was a proponent of enlightened absolutism until she became alarmed by the revolutionary ideas spreading through France. She began work in earnest to transform Naples into a police state. The abrupt end to her sister’s life intensified and helped justify those efforts. Needless to say, this did not enhance her popularity, but no matter. The monarchs soon had to flee as Napoleon conquered their kingdom; although Ferdinand would return later with assistance from Austria.

Enough politics.

In addition to keeping Vanvitelli occupied until the end of his life with finishing out the royal palace, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina enlisted him to design a Royal Park worthy of such a palace. The queen’s English garden covers 30 acres. The king’s mile-long fish pond provided a stage for him to float elaborate mock naval battles for the entertainment of his guests. A grand cascade of water was installed on the summit of a hill opposite the palace. Oh, and a 24-mile aqueduct, a hydraulic architectural feat, was built to keep the water flowing.

UNESCO/NHK Video

Walking a couple of miles exploring all the secret gardens filled with sculpture and fountains had been our plan when we hopped aboard for the short train ride from Naples. But, alas, the beauty of the palace and grounds of Caserta had attracted the attention of another. A film production company.

Not only were crew members scurrying around installing special lighting, rearranging furniture and adding props (see the sculpture of the man brandishing his sword astride a bear with a double-headed eagle crest on the door behind him) inside the palace, but they were filming a scene on the grounds. Meaning we were not invited. The scene we saw filmed involved a huge cast gathered to greet the important occupants of an arriving coach (no photos allowed). There are several photos above of cast members scurrying through a courtyard of the palace to prepare for their next scenes.

The film? The crest indicates a period piece focusing on Russian royalty. But the production is hardly the first to take advantage of the sumptuous palace. Think Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Palace. Angels and Demons directed by Ron Howard in 2009 and Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise in 2006. And then Richard Dreyfus portrayed architect Vanvitelli himself in Caserta Palace Dream.

 Caserta Palace Dream, 2014

In 2017, Stephen Spielberg found the grand stairway ideal for a parade of cardinals for his film, still in production, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

And one need not starve. We dropped in Osteria da Miducci and ordered eggplant and pasta before the table of locals next to us began receiving their heaping platters of seafood. Our freshly made pasta was perfect, but envy surfaced. Not sure I could have cleaned it down to the bones the way the presiding gentleman with the Godfather voice did, but I would have ordered his whole fried fish, which arrived plated perched upright on its fins as though it swam there voluntarily, for the snapshot alone.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Currently suffering from case of miss-you-Fricska blues

Somehow, the Mister found Fricska Gastropub our first week in Budapest, shortly after we began to establish rules for choosing lunch spots, such as no red-checked tablecloths, no life-size figures out front with cut-outs to stick your head through for silly selfies and no tour groups in evidence. Our recommendation for Budapest: Skip the tourist traps and seek this place out.

Tucked into a basement, Fricksa is intimate in size and huge on service, yet far from stuffy. The kitchen takes whatever is fresh in the market to create its own style of nouvelle Hungarian cuisine. Rich sauces and flavorful soups might reflect classic French techniques. Freshly made pasta would make an Italian chef proud.

We never knew what the choices on the prix-fixe lunch menu would be, but we quickly trusted the kitchen so much we tried dishes I would never have considered ordering elsewhere. Three courses ran slightly over $9 and never left us thinking of eating anything at night.

First-course offerings might include a soup, a salad, duck liver cream or a fish rollade. The seafood soups were amazingly flavorful, and a wild garlic soup featured some of that sexy garlic that only used to be found in the Soviet ‘Stans (reference to a much earlier post). Main courses led us to enjoy salmon, cod and bream. We dined on chicken, chicken livers, rabbit and veal, often accompanied by sophisticated vegetable purees and potages. My favorite, possibly, was tender rare lamb atop a pea risotto; the Mister’s was the best venison he ever has tasted. The tortellini and shrimp were wonderful, and the gnocchi with four cheeses decidedly decadent. Desserts might be parsnip cream with apples and strawberries, cinnamon crème brulee, an apricot mousse or a dark chocolate ganache playfully paired with peanuts and blueberry jam.

We often returned hoping for a repeat of our most recent lunch there, but everyday was different. We never left disappointed.

And one of our favorite features making us feel at home? Often the music track playing at Fricksa was all blues.

Definitely still experiencing a severe case of the miss-you-Fricksa blues.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Volunteering to eat at E’Cucina Leopardi everyday

At home or traveling, we tend to latch onto certain places and return to them over and over again. E’ Cucina Leopardi was our go-to place in Bologna. Our lunches there were so good, when we dined elsewhere we often wondered what the chef had dreamed up for lunch at Leopardi. And, whenever we got our checks after lunch elsewhere, we wondered why we had not eaten at Leopardi yet again.

A little off the touristy beaten path, Leopardi had a waiting line most days. Not because there are only a few tables; it is a large, cheerful, funky place with an open kitchen. Locals love it.

Okay, part of its appeal is the 10-Euro three-course lunch, with three courses meaning appetizer, first course, dessert, wine, espresso, no tax and no tip expected. Yes, there are several more expensive options and dinner is more, but we never ventured past the all-inclusive one-price-fits-us.

We’re not sure how Chef Cesare Marretti makes his magic work at this price point, but the dishes are amazingly good. A major part of it must be the limited lunch menu allowing bulk purchases of fresh seasonal ingredients. But, when it comes to flavors, there are no shortcuts taken.

While waitstaff is friendly, bear in mind there are only a few servers handling many more tables than a waiter in the United States could imagine. They have no time to linger with extensive translations and lists of ingredients. For a tourist not speaking Italian, this can make ordering challenging. There are no written menus. No choices are needed for the appetizer, but the main course requires selecting something vegetarian, maybe a meat-sauced pasta or something from the sea. We rarely understood completely what we were ordering, but we were never disappointed when the mystery was revealed on a plate in front of us.

My favorite appetizer was a light carrot flan. One day, the kitchen was cracking open major wheels of aged parmesan and placing massive chunks of it on the first-course salad. Pastas were always perfect, but the kitchen truly shines in producing intensely flavored fish stews. Liberal use of wine and olive oil obviously plays a role, as seen in the video below. Regulars clearly favored the recurring offering of a small molten chocolate cake (somehow ending up camera-shy), but, as strawberries were in season, they also figured prominently in dessert offerings.

Surprisingly, given the crowds, customers are not rushed. Often they sit and chat long after their desserts and coffee are finished.

We almost felt as though we had stumbled upon some haute-cuisine government-subsidized food program. Not only were we contentedly wining and dining for under $11, we often emerged so stuffed we did not want even a salad for dinner at home that night. We found ourselves wondering, how can we afford not to live in Bologna?

Can’t imagine if Leopardi had not been part of our month in Bologna and am very happy we did not pick the month of August to stay there: Leopardi is closed for vacation until September 4.