There’s a place back in Toronto called Porchetta and Co. that serves what was, up until now, the best porchetta that I’ve ever had. I had kind of assumed that it was porchetta perfection; I honestly didn’t think it could be topped.
It has been topped. Sorry, Porchetta and Co.: your porchetta sandwich is officially garbage.
I wasn’t even planning to eat at Baccanale; I was actually on my way to another restaurant, but then — wait, what’s this? Oh, that looks good.
Andrew Zimmern signs off every episode of Bizarre Foods with “if it looks good, eat it.”
I try to live my life by those words.
So yes, I ate the porchetta sandwich, and its deliciousness shot through me like a lightning bolt.
The porchetta was everything. Every element of it was almost upsettingly good. It was porky, salty, herby, fatty, crispy, tender goodness.
Here’s another picture, closer to the middle of the sandwich that gives you a better idea of what the porchetta distribution looked like. The pork was an amazingly well-balanced mix of thinly-sliced lean pieces and thickly-cut fatty pieces. It was tender and amazing, with just enough fat to keep things interesting, but not enough to overwhelm.
And the crackling. Oh, the crackling. There was enough of it that every bite had some, and it was so intensely flavoured and perfectly crispy — but not overly crunchy — that it defied logic and reason.
The flavour almost bordered on too intense — too herby and salty — but it never was. It was perfect.
I mean, the whole damn thing was perfect. I’m being ridiculously effusive here, but how could I not? It was all so good.
The bread was pretty great too: hot and crispy on the outside (they put it in a panini press to order) and fluffy on the inside, with just enough heft to hold up to all that amazing pork.
The only downside? I used to love Porchetta and Co., but it’s ruined now. Absolutely ruined.
If you go anywhere that’s even vaguely touristy, you’ll find a military vehicle parked nearby and a couple of soldiers (sometimes more) standing guard, prominently holding very imposing-looking assault rifles. You’ll also find these guys at various subway stations.
The entire stretch of road next to the Colosseum is completely closed off to cars (other than police cars), with roadblocks on either side manned by gun-toting soldiers. It’s a scene you’d expect to see somewhere like Iraq or Syria, not in the middle of Europe. It’s a little bizarre.
Also: you don’t want to photograph these guys. I sort of figured as much as much, but this was confirmed when I saw a kid (he couldn’t have been much older than ten) snap a picture of one of the soldiers. The guy literally stopped the kid and his mother and made them delete the photo while he watched.
Rome is generally not the cheapest city ever, but there are bargains to be had. Example: a great little pasta joint called Pastificio. It’s been around since 1918 (it’s always a good sign when a restaurant has that kind of longevity); it doubles as a shop where you can buy pasta to bring home and cook yourself, and starting at 1:00 P.M., as a purveyor of delightfully cheap (and delicious) meals.
They have two types of pasta available each day; the day I went, it was carbonara (which is essentially bacon and eggs in pasta form) and arrabiata (which is pasta with a spicy tomato sauce).
It’s only four Euros per serving (!), so if you’re indecisive like me, you can just get both. I don’t necessarily recommend this, however — it’s actually a fairly sizable portion, so you’ll end up with way more than what a reasonable person should eat for lunch (especially when your “breakfast” was gelato).
But then again, they were both super delicious, so I kinda do recommend getting both? I don’t know, you do you. I’m the guy who followed up eating an entire pizza with a second, deep-fried pizza, so that’s where my head’s at.
And man, that fresh pasta (fettuccine in this case) — it was something special. Perfectly al dente, with a satisfying springy texture, it was pretty much pasta perfection.
Both sauces were pretty great, though if I had to choose I’d give the edge to the carbonara. It was addictively rich, with an unctuous creaminess from the perfectly cooked eggs, and satisfying pops of saltiness from the still-crispy pancetta.
The arrabiata was less of a crowd-pleaser (the people around me were mostly ordering the carbonara), but with its vibrant and surprisingly fiery sauce, I enjoyed it almost as much.
And four Euros! It was so delicious and so cheap that I was kind of tempted to go back for a third helping, but apparently even my gluttony has its limits.
For the unaware, Cinecitta is the legendary Italian studio where directors like Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone made a bunch of their films, not to mention big Hollywood productions like Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, and Gangs of New York.
For 20 Euros, you can check out some nicely-assembled exhibits, and you can take part in a guided tour around the studio. It isn’t exactly cheap, but if you can’t forget about the budget every now and then for something like this, what’s the point?
The highlight was probably getting to see the set of the short-lived HBO show Rome (that’s a great show, by the by. It was, sadly, ahead of its time — it feels like a precursor to Game of Thrones in a lot of ways).
They have a few other sets that you can see, including, randomly, a bit of the submarine set from U-571.
It was actually a pretty interesting tour; even aside from what we saw, just being in the same space that saw the production of so many great movies is kind of electric.
Cannolis aren’t exactly a Roman thing, but there was no possible way I was going to leave Italy without eating at least one. A quick “best cannoli in Rome” search led to a very conclusive answer: everyone seems to be in agreement that a Sicilian bakery called Ciuri Ciuri has the tastiest cannoli in the city.
The first thing you notice is that the cannolis in their display case are just empty shells that they fill to order, because of course. Of course. I’ve never seen a bakery back home do it this way, and I have no idea why. It’s clearly the right answer; there’s nothing sadder than biting into a mushy cannoli.
(An aside: bakeries in Italy really make me feel like a weirdo for not being a coffee drinker. Every time I order a pastry, I get asked if I want a coffee too. When I inevitably say no, the server always gets a mildly confused/shocked look on his face, like a child who’s just been told there’s no Santa.)
Anyway, the cannoli was pretty amazing; it had a nice crispy shell (of course), and the creamy ricotta filling had just the right amount of sweetness. Also, there wasn’t any orange zest in there, which is correct. Orange in cannoli is for jerks. If you prefer cannolis with an orange flavour, then I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re a jerk.
Sorry, but someone eventually had to tell you.
There isn’t anything too interesting/unique at McDonald’s in Italy, though they do have something called “Le Ricche” fries, which is basically just a plate of fries with cheese sauce on them. You can choose between regular cheddar, and hot cheese. I went with the latter, though I have to admit that there’s something vaguely unappetizing about the phrase “hot cheese.”
Yeah, it turns out the whole thing was vaguely unappetizing. Actually, no: not vaguely.
I should note that I’m not a snob about cheese sauce — I actually really like the neon orange sauce they serve at the movies. But this stuff? It was vile. It didn’t help that it was cold and congealed; it was unpleasantly thick and gluey, with a salty, acrid flavour that I guess was supposed to be spiciness? It tasted like they melted down a mostly empty bottle of cayenne pepper and then poured the plasticky goo over stale fries. It was horrible.
Since there wasn’t anything else particularly interesting on the menu, I went with the one of their burgers — the 1955 burger, which was clearly the better of the two in that it wasn’t completely awful. It had bacon and caramelized onion and a bunch of other stuff, and it wasn’t too bad, but there was so much ketchup that I couldn’t taste anything else.
I’m not gonna lie: between Spain and this, my enthusiasm to try McDonald’s at every country I visit has been significantly dampened. Get it together, McDonald’s, jeez.
So I just arrived in Rome — I spent the day walking around the city, and holy crap. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a city (and not just on this trip, in my whole life) that has so many breathtaking buildings and monuments pretty much everywhere you go.
I mean, you’ve got absolutely iconic buildings like the Parthenon…
…and the Colosseum.
Not to mention less iconic, but no less beautiful buildings like this one…
…or this one…
…or this one.
It’s pretty nuts.
I actually didn’t even realize that there was a second city that was wiped out by the Vesuvius eruption that you could visit — Herculaneum, which is decidedly smaller than Pompeii, but definitely worth a visit.
It’s actually better preserved than that city, so it’s intriguing to explore; you get a slightly better sense of what the city was like pre-volcano-apocalypse.
Bonus: it’s about a billion times less crowded than Pompeii.
Also, if you want to see the grimmest thing imaginable, there are several little caves that have the preserved remains of some of the people who tried (and failed, obviously) to protect themselves from the volcano’s wrath.
I mentioned, in an earlier post, that I had some gelato from a place called Fantasia Gelati and that it might have been the best gelato I’ve ever had. I’ve been there a couple more times since then and I feel much more confident making that pronouncement.
I had dark chocolate on one visit, and hazelnut on another. Both flavours were fantastic — in particular, the chocolate was so intensely chocolaty that it practically made my knees buckle — but it’s the creaminess of the gelato that really strikes me as something special. It’s so creamy and smooth that it almost feels like a magic trick. Like… how is anything this creamy? I sort of figured the gelato would be better here, but that still kind of surprised me.