Wednesday, July 18, 2018

24th day of Sumer Vacation: in which we voyage to Isola Bella

Isola Bella is one of the three habitable islands in Lake Maggiore. (The other two are Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Madre) It's home to astonishingly beautiful gardens and a castle stuffed with artwork. The grounds are home to several white peacocks and peahens, which make the most astoundingly awful screeching noises.

Isola Bella was the center of command for the region for many years. Napolean and Josephine stayed 2 nights on the island. The Strasa Conference of 1935 was held there, in one of the final attempts to curb the ambitions of Hitler's Germany.

The ferry ride is only about 10 minutes each way, with great views for all of it. The castle itself is gorgeous. The grotto in the lowest level is crazy-cool, although I don't know what those rooms actually got used for. Also, the view into the lower gardens from the grotto rooms was just gorgeous:

There are several nice-looking cafes and restaurants outside the grounds, but we hadn't budgeted time to eat there. Next time, I would build in an extra hour and have a drink and a snack at one of the restaurants by the docks. As it was, we just had lunch at the (not very impressive) cafe within the garden. The high point of lunch was definitely my MIL's flower salad:

The gardens are extensive. Not as many flowers as I'd thought, but lots of amazing statuary.

On the way back from the ferry, we had gelato at a great place - Langola del Gelato -  I had "perla nera" which translates to Black Pearl but is actually chocolate with rum and chunks of dark chocolate. Nice music outside; too. I didn't take photos of the musicians but I should have - they really looked like The Civil Wars although their singing wasn't quite as good. They were incredibly good for street musicians and we threw a few Euros into their guitar case on our way out.

Monday, July 16, 2018

41st day of Summer Vacation: the movies you watch on airplanes

On the way over: Charlie Wilson's War (coincidentally, I was also in the middle of reading the book) a lot of fun and very good performances by Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

On the way back: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Holy shit this was good and I completely see why it got all that love at the Oscars last year. Later, I read that Frances McDormand is actually 60 in real life, and had suggested playing Amanda's grandmother rather than mother, but they felt that it needed to be a mother-daughter relationship and just had her play a woman in her 40's. Given that the character, Mildred, has led a tough life, I thought that the aging worked fine.

The Post: also very good. Holy shit, Meryl Streep is just in a league of her own. Also, very interesting story and description of the time (1970).

Justice League: possibly the worst movie I've seen this year. No, seriously. Makes "The Covenant" look like high art; at least it had a coherent plot and a comprehensible villain.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

23rd day of Summer Vacation: in which we explore Stresa

We're safely esconsed in our lovely apartment in Stresa. It's got a tiny elevator for luggage but is clearly meant to be a walk-up. Our place has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a tiny kitchen, and a large living-dining room. The deck is small but can hold a couple of chaise lounges and a 4-person table. Also a drying rack, because although we have a laundry machine, there's no dryer!

We were all pretty jet-lagged by the time we drove into Stresa on Thursday. We unpacked a bit and walked downtown to find dinner; we just walked until we found someplace quiet. The woman spoke good English, and the menu had an English section... we were too tired to wrestle with translating Italian! It's called La Botte Trattoria and comes highly recommended by several guidebooks.

I had wide noodles with saffron cream sauce and mushrooms. Also baby artichokes cooked in butter and garlic. It was really good!
FIL: eggplant ravioli with a concentrated sundried tomato garnish (really good)
DH: Gorgonzola risotto with pear puree (he didn't love it)
Elder: Milanese chops (thin veal, breaded and fried) and french fries (very good)
MIL: Cod in tomato and polenta. I thought the cod was overcooked but the polenta and sauce made a great combo
Younger: spaghetti carbonara (very good, no visible bacon)

Then we went down the street for gelato. (Gelateria - good prices, good gelato, although not the best we had in that city.)

The tourist area in Stresa has about a dozen gelato places and two dozen restaurants, all within about 5 blocks of each other. I got postcards and Bergamot soap.

My FIL and I went to the Friday market in Stresa. (Open 6-2, I believe) It has lots of clothes, leather items, and tourist gear. There's a smaller food area, where I mostly failed to get any good pictures. Sorry! You'll have to envision vans with umbrella awnings that pop out of the top to make the stall.

The sausage and cheese vendors give you free samples, but they're also very pushy! Very few people spoke very much English - they kept trying Spanish, German, and French on us. I got a blue shawl, and we got sausage, cheese, and cookies. Also pre-cooked chicken and pork ribs, very good. Then we found a tiny little bakery, run by Americans, and got a huge round loaf of whole-wheat bread that was extremely good.

Now off to see the Isola Bella, a tiny island in the middle of Lago Maggiore.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

21st day of Summer Vacation: in which we travel to Italy

We are in Italy!

We flew Hartord to Philadelphia, then to Heathrow London, then to Milano Linate.

I HATE Heathrow while it's under construction. We spent almost an hour total on busses, just trying to get from one terminal to another. The whole place felt like a nightmare, involving long lines for the bathrooms, no obvious place to buy breakfast, and no public water fountains. I'm pretty sure that the tap water is potable but I wasn't going to take chances... the last straw was when they forced us to check the violin, which may have permanently damaged it. (UPDATE: hooray for carbon fiber violins! It survived.)

On a lighter note, I read two entire novels (Proxima by Stephen Baxter and White Nights by Ann Cleeves) and watched Charlie Wilson's War, which I enjoyed mightily.

We then drove to Stresa, Italy. It's a vacation town on the shores of Lago Maggiore. The drive down is terrifyingly steep, but the views are amazing.

And that's it for today! Tomorrow, I think we're going to visit one of the islands.

Friday, June 22, 2018

17th day of Summer Vacation: in which we make questionable decisions on Netflix

Still feeling under the weather. Broiling hot day outside. Other than giving the dog the walks he requests, it's been a good day for exploring the movie offerings on Netflix.

Mistakes were made.

The Covenant (2006) is a poorly reviewed movie that I ended up watching because it features early Sebastian Stan and Taylor Kitsch. The special effects are terrible. So is most of the acting. Also, the plot.

Moon (2009) is a low-budget, well-reviewed science fiction movie about a guy working alone on the far side of the moon. Stars Sam Rockwell, who does a remarkably good Everyman. I guessed at least one of the plot twists early on, but it's still a fantastic movie for the money.

Midnight in Paris (2012) is a well-reviewed film THAT WAS DIRECTED BY WOODY ALLEN, I am so sorry, my liberal credentials are all shot to hell for at least this one evening. I literally did not remember. I was in the mood for something light and lovely and, while Owen Wilson doesn't really tick that box for me, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard certainly do. The soundtrack is bonkers-ass good.

I have a long list of movies I'd like to check out on Netflix this summer, so expect at least a couple of follow-up posts.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

16th day of Summer Vacation: in which we do Desperation Cooking

It's been a nutty few days around here. Several of my favorite people are moving away and I've been running around trying to have a last conversation with each of them before they depart. I'm pretty sure that I'll see all of them again, possibly even in the near future, but my brain doesn't accept that as a fact and I'm getting rather verklempt, just thinking about going to work and not having them there every day.

I also seem to be coming down with something: I'm sniffling, exhausted, and my entire body aches.

So, when it came time to get dinner on the table tonight, I was not feeling my finest. I found a big container of fried rice. I also found a small container of sausage-and-diced-mozzerella that had been intended to go into stuffed mushrooms, but I ran out of mushrooms long before I ran out of filling for them. So yes, I threw the two containers together in a serving bowl, microwaved it for 2 minutes, and put it out. And it was delicious.

We also had carrot sticks and some left-over tossed salad to round out our meal.

Monday, June 18, 2018

13th day of Summer Vacation: in which we review Han Asian Cuisine (aka The Hot Pot Restaurant)

The misleadingly named Han Asian Cuisine (in West Hartford) is actually a Chinese restaurant specializing in Hot Pot. What is hot pot, you may ask? It's a traditional form of cuisine, where in one or more pots of boiling hot broth are set on the table, along with platters of raw ingredients, and each person may cook whatever they like and then fish it out to eat.

All the tables have heaters for your individual pot of broth. They have 9 different kinds of broth; I'm a wimp so I stick with the Mushroom or Chinese Herbal, neither of which is spicy. They have a huge bar of dipping sauces, which you can mix yourself or ask one of the staff to help you. I generally go for House Sauce #1, to which I add fermented dried vegetables and Salty Leek Sauce (no, I am not making up that name). It's intensely salty, aromatic, flavorful. I use it sparingly on my food and drink several glasses of water. Other options include peanut sauce, Hoisin sauce, spicy broad bean sauce, fermented bean curd, and many others.

There's a giant a la carte menu, running to several pages and around a hundred options. For first-timers, I recommend going at lunch and getting the lunch special. For $12, you get your choice of broth, a serving of noodles, a serving of protein (basic options only: beef, lamb, pork, shrimp, chicken, or fish), and a generous platter of mixed vegetables and mushrooms. The platter includes Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, 4 types of mushrooms, sweet potato, potato, lotus root, two fried cubes of tofu, and some other goodies. I think it varies slightly by availability.

There's a similar dinner option, rather more expensive and with about twice as much food. We've found that one dinner option will provide enough vegetables for 2-4 people, so our family of four will generally order one dinner option and a lot of a la carte noodles and protein options to round out everyone's meal, plus 3 more pots of broth.

There's options to get 2 broths in one bowl (with a solid divider), but I haven't explored this. I really should. I could get one half of something safe and one half of something spicy.

There's a full page of appetizers, but I haven't tried any of them except the dumplings, which were quite good. I think there might be desserts, but we never end the meal at any condition except for groaningly full.

It's almost impossible to explain Hot Pot to anybody who didn't grow up in a Chinese family, so I recommend just going. The staff is very helpful and the $12 lunch will set you up nicely.