Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 141

The weekly list of awesome:

  1. Nailed it: Serena Williams’s Version of “7/11″ Is a Grand Slam. And isn’t Serena’s Vogue cover fantastic as well?
  2. James Corden is adorable: Mariah Carey Carpool Karaoke.
  3. I found this interview highly entertaining, though I’m sure she would scoff at my own sartorial choices: “Yoga Pants Are Ruining Women” and Other Style Advice from Fran Lebowitz.
  4. Tappin’ my feet: This Mash-Up of Famous Dance Scenes Is Your New Favorite Video.
  5. I can’t: 18 Puppies Looking at Their Futures.
  6. The fact that a Golden Girls crochet pattern exists makes me want to learn to crochet: 20 Amigurumi Crochet Patterns You’ll Want.
  7. Cool idea: This App Makes Your Phone Buzz When You Approach Places Where Women Made History.
  8. That moment when you’re watching the Broad City season finale and get excited because Abbi and Ilana are eating at Kenka and you’ve eaten there too: Pay Homage to Abbi and Ilana with Salon’s Comprehensive Broad City Walking Tour.
  9. Love her: Judy Greer’s Advice for Women in Their 20s.
  10. Take me back: 20 Reasons You Should Drop Everything and Go to Switzerland.

(Image via)

Verona: From Piazza to Piazza to Piazza

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Here is a short list of what I knew about the city of Verona before arriving:

  1. It’s near Venice.
  2. It’s home to lots of Roman ruins.
  3. It contains the tourist trap balcony purporting to be Juliet’s.
  4. It was the setting for one of my favorite cheesy rom-coms, Letters to Juliet.

If I’m being honest here, #4 was the reason that got me most excited to visit, and that’s probably a thin reason for planning to stay a few days in a place.

Almost as soon as I arrived, however, I realized one important truth: I loved Verona, actually. And it had nothing to do with any of the aforementioned things. Nope, it was something even simpler than that: Verona is beautiful. Like, really, really stunning. Like, pinch-me-I’m-in-Italy-is-this-a-fairytale levels of gorgeousness.

One of the reasons Verona is so damn lovely is that it happens to be an eminently walkable collection of piazzas, each one home to colorful buildings and a flurry of activity. And so, in Verona, “piazza hopping” – wandering from one piazza to another – became a simple pleasure of mine, an activity to savor.

My hotel was near Piazza Bra, and so that was the piazza I happened upon first. Piazza Bra lies in the shadow of the Verona Arena – more on that later – and is lined with brightly-hued buildings and cafés with outdoor seating. The piazza is also home to a small park, the perfect spot for a mid-afternoon (or mid-morning; let’s be real) gelato break.

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Of all Verona’s piazzas, my favorite had to be Piazza delle Erbe. Its buildings have a shabby, well-worn quality that reminded me of Rome – they’re not sleek and shiny facades, but that’s exactly why I loved them. Piazza delle Erbe also hosts a market whose stalls are lined with an eclectic mix of foods, drinks, and knick knacks. Need a miniature bust of Pope Francis? I know where you can find one…

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And finally, tucked away just off Piazza delle Erbe, I found Piazza dei Signori: quiet, unassuming, and lovely. In the shadow of Torre dei Lamberti and with a statue of Dante in the middle of the square, this peaceful spot was great for people watching. It seemed that every time I stopped by, the square was dominated by soccer players: groups of small children, with the occasional parent or grandparent joining in.

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Of all the new-to-me spots I visited in Italy this time around, Verona holds a special place in my heart, and just may be my new favorite Italian discovery. Verona is not particularly flashy, but it was just right for what I most wanted to do: stroll around and soak up that fact that I was in bella Italia.

Varenna: A Tiny Town to Remember

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I have always been a hoarder of memories: writing in journals, crafting scrapbooks, compiling photo books, and maintaining (more or less) this very blog. I’m not sure where this obsessive drive comes from, exactly, but if I were to psychoanalyze myself – a dicey proposition – I might guess that it boils down to a fear of forgetting, a need to create some record of the fact that I was here (cue Queen Bey).

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What, then, don’t I want to forget about Varenna, that colorful little enclave on the shores of Lake Como? Well, for starters, the things I’ve already written about: the serene boat ride around the lake and the sublime food at Il Caminetto. But there are other moments, too.

I wouldn’t want to forget Varenna’s waterside promenade, a path I trod many times during my two days in town. The path itself – flower-lined, well-maintained – was lovely, but lovelier still were the views of crystal clear Lake Como, its skies blue and its waters dotted with sailboats.

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I wouldn’t want to forget the tiny, narrow, and, above all, steep streets of town. I got my cardio in while in Varenna, but it was worth it: colorful buildings, cute little balconies, friendly piazzas, and flowers dangling everywhere.

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I wouldn’t want to forget the kindest B&B owner in the world, who enthusiastically offered recommendations about all his favorite restaurants in Varenna, or the gorgeous view from said B&B, looking up into the mountains, dotted with skinny, tall pine trees, just beyond Varenna.

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I wouldn’t want to forget the feeling of utter relaxation that overcame me while sipping an aperol spritz as I sat overlooking the water. After months of bar prep, sitting by the sea in sleepy Varenna was exactly what I needed. Drinking cocktails in Italy, at sunset, when you have literally no other responsibilities and no place else to be? The best.

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And I definitely wouldn’t want to forget the sunsets in Varenna – oh, the sunsets. The stunning colors of the sky and the rich hues of the harbor at dusk were nothing short of magical. When something looks like a painting but is actually 100% real life, that’s when you know you have hit the jackpot.

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Most of all, I wouldn’t want to forget one of my very favorite travel feelings: what it is like to arrive in a place with almost zero expectations – outside a vain hope of glimpsing George and Amal – and be completely delighted with what I find. Varenna is not the most exciting, action-packed destination, but if you’re looking to unwind? It’s damn near perfect.

Among the Orchids at NYBG

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As soon as I heard about The Orchid Show at New York Botanical Garden, I knew I had to go. Photographs from the exhibit looked exquisite: chandeliers of orchids, in a variety of vibrant colors, dangling from the ceilings. Having never met a flower I didn’t want to photograph (exhibit A), it was clear this was a must-visit.

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I made my way up to the Bronx on a MetroNorth train from Grand Central (the train stops right at the garden, making it a pretty convenient option). It rained all day on Saturday, but being tucked away with the orchids inside the Haupt Conservatory, I didn’t much mind. Plus, anything that dissuades crowds from showing up somewhere is a winner in my book.

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Once inside the conservatory, the magic began. The exhibit is huge, winding its way through the entirety of the conservatory. I tend to think of orchids as purple or pink, but there were more varieties here on display here than I could have imagined. Signs throughout the exhibit were incredibly informative but, to be honest, I didn’t spend much time poring over them: I was more content to wander and soak all the beauty in.

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As is evident from this post, I took a tremendous amount of photos at the exhibit; in fact, the pictures posted here are only a fraction of what is on my camera roll. This was truly one of the most impressive flower displays I have ever seen.

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The Orchid Show runs through April 19 at NYBG. I highly recommend making a trip before the exhibit closes!

Philadelphia: A Snowy Stroll Through Elfreth’s Alley

Timing is, apparently, not my strong suit. I had wanted to visit Philadelphia for what seemed like forever (forever being the time since I learned it was only about a one hour train ride from Manhattan), yet I wound up going on what turned out to be one of the coldest weekends in memory. Bitter wind, freezing temperatures, and snow all made appearances, turning the weekend into a constant battle: the part of me that wanted to visit every spot on my list versus the part of me that wanted to curl up in a coffee shop and hibernate. The latter often won, but I did still manage to visit several awesome places in the Philadelphia tundra.

Perhaps my favorite Philadelphia discovery was, predictably, Elfreth’s Alley. Known as America’s oldest residential street – it dates back to 1702 – Elfreth’s Alley presents a full-on charm offensive: brick buildings with colorful doors and shutters, cobblestone streets, and vintage letterboxes.

I think I wound up photographing every single house. Some might call that going overboard, but I couldn’t help it: not only is Elfreth’s Alley America’s oldest street, it just might also be its cutest as well, even in the freezing cold.

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Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 140

The weekly-ish roundup of awesome internet finds:

  1. Hah: The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator.
  2. When I first saw this story, I thought it was a joke, but I’m so happy it actually happened: Derek Zoolander Just Walked the Valentino Show at Paris Fashion Week.
  3. Those Hammer pants though: Watch a Young Ryan Gosling’s Mesmerizing Dance.
  4. If you haven’t binge-watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt yet, then, well, I don’t know what to do with you. It’s awesome. Exhibit A: The 20 Funniest Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Pop Culture References. Exhibit B: Life in Your 20s as Told by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt GIFs. Exhibit C: The catchiest theme song known to man (“they’re alive, dammit!”).
  5. New stuff is always opening in New York, but this has GOT to be the best development I’ve heard about in ages: Anthony Bourdain’s Food Hall Should Open This Year.
  6. Interesting stuff: The Uncensored, Epic, Never-Told Story Behind Mad Men.
  7. Adorable: People in Australia Have Started Taking Selfies with Quokkas, and the Results Are Brilliant.
  8. This made me giggle: How German Sounds Compared to Other Languages.
  9. I had never heard of this game before, but it’s very interesting: How Doctor Who’s David Tennant Distorted Time for the BBC’s Radio Audience (and if you want to listen to his full spiel, it’s here) (if you could happily listen to David Tennant talk all day, raise your hand) (raises hand).
  10. “The LOL is redundant when you have the haha”: Mean Tweets – President Obama Edition.

(Image via)

Varenna: Culinary Secrets at Il Caminetto

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Hidden in the hills above Varenna lies a cozy culinary gem: Ristorante Il Caminetto. And the best thing about this foodie paradise? You can learn its secrets.

Il Caminetto offers cooking classes, and after hearing from multiple sources that they were top-notch, I signed up. On the day of class, I made my way to Varenna’s Piazza San Giorgio, where Rosella and Moreno, the husband and wife team behind Il Caminetto, pick all their students up. After piling into our chariot (er, van), we made the drive: up, up, and up a series of tiny, winding roads with lots of switchbacks. It was one part treacherous and approximately one million parts gorgeous – though, of course, a drive I would never dare make on my own.

The restaurant is situated in the quaint, quintessentially Italian village of Perledo. While there wasn’t much time to explore beyond the sleepy street Il Caminetto called home, I liked what I saw: flower-covered balconies, ivy-covered walls, and a cute little nonna who chatted with us in Italian from her balcony.

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Once inside the restaurant, we were seated around long tables, facing toward a table at the front of the room topped with a gigantic cutting board; from this spot, Moreno would conduct his masterclass. Listening to him speak was not only informative but also supremely entertaining, as he had an excellent sense of humor, much of it cooking-related. “I have a lot of knives,” Moreno told us, “I’ve been a cook for 39 years, and after all this time, knives are like shoes for girls.”

Over the course of the morning, Moreno walked us through making three dishes: tortelloni with tomato sauce, risotto with porcini mushrooms, and veal. We started with the tortelloni and, of course, the noodles were made from scratch. We watched as Moreno employed the classic Italian method: dumping out a pile of flour and creating a crater in the middle, filling it with eggs, whipping them with his fingers, and then kneading the dough by hand.

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While the dough rested, we started on the veal loin. Moreno salted it, placed chunks of lard atop it (to keep the moisture in), topped it with Parma ham, and then tied it up with twine. He placed the veal atop vegetables and drizzled it with EVOO from the Lake Como region. It was a beautiful piece of meat. And, I mean, anything wrapped in prosciutto is basically a guaranteed winner, right?

Next, we tackled the filling for our tortelloni. Moreno scraped garlic on the inside of a bowl, then stirred in fresh ricotta; the moisture from the ricotta absorbs the garlic flavor. Then he added herbs: lemon verbena (the leaf pictured below), marjoram, chives, basil, lemon mint, sea salt, and black pepper. Moreno emphasized that he chops all his herbs by hand – if you use a food processor, you lose the freshness of the herbs. He finished by adding an “Italian pinch” – also known as an enormous handful – of parmigiano to the mixture.

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With our filling ready, we set to making the tomato sauce for our tortelloni. To the pan, Moreno added crushed garlic, EVOO, Sicilian cherry tomatoes, and tomato passata (purée). After beginning to stir, he added pepper (make sure to hold the grinder diagonally, not straight up, so that steam from the sauce doesn’t get into the grinder), a bit of sugar, and basil.

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Once the sauce was simmering, it was time to assemble the tortelloni. Moreno tested the dough to make sure it was ready: if you push into it and it does not spring back, then you know your dough is workable. Moreno flattened the dough with his hands at first, then with a rolling pin, working it until the dough was insanely thin. He used parchment paper to pipe the filling into the tortelloni and, while folding them up, made sure to squeeze out any extra air.

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Our final step was to make the risotto. Moreno told us that we should only use vegetable or beef broth; chicken-flavored broth would be too overpowering for the porcini mushroom flavor you want to come through. He began cooking the rice, then added wine, broth, and mushrooms, and then cooked it all for 18-19 minutes. Then, he added BUTTER. And I place the word in all caps to indicate both the sheer amount that was added and how overwhelmingly delicious the butter made the dish. Oh lord, was it delicious. I love butter.

As a reward for our labor, we received a feast. We started with a red wine from north of Como; like all Italian reds, it was eminently drinkable and, happily, did not give me a headache, despite the generous quantities consumed. We also each received snack boards: cheese, salami, and some to-die-for prosciutto (and, spoiler alert, to-die-for prosciutto became one of the recurring themes of my month in Italy).

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As for the meal itself? What can I say except: it was perfection. The tortelloni was delicious, and I even adored the chunks of tomatoes (I’m not a tomato fan, but I make an except for super fresh Sicilian cherry tomatoes, apparently). The veal was flavorful, tender, and all-in-all incredible (in my iPhone notes for the day, I literally wrote, GAHHHH). And the risotto was rich, gooey nirvana. Ah, butter.

We finished our meal with limoncello – but of course – and then Moreno handed out certificates to each of us, which I found an adorable parting touch.

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The day ended with a drive back down the twisty roads toward Varenna, each of us full to bursting from one of the best meals I have ever eaten, which is not a proclamation I make lightly in Italy! If you ever find yourself in Varenna, I highly recommend signing up for a lesson at Il Caminetto – it is an experience you won’t soon forget.