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Abruzzo 2.0 – 2nd Yr Italian Cooking School(+ Rome, Cinque Terre, Florence)

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Oct 3rd, 2013, 07:31 AM
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Abruzzo 2.0 – 2nd Yr Italian Cooking School(+ Rome, Cinque Terre, Florence)

I’m so happy to be writing this report because I can’t wait to share this amazing vacation with all of you! I warn in advance for the length. If you don’t like detailed reports, I suggest stopping here!

Some of you may have read my report from last year: Top Chef Abruzzo! - A Week in an Italian Cooking School (+ Rome) (now also called Abruzzo 1.0):

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...chool-rome.cfm

Well, that was the spectacular trip that I found on Groupon, and, according to Groupon, one of the most popular trips they’ve ever offered. Of course I was excited to return this year, but at the same time, part of me was nervous that another trip to the same place might not live up to my expectations, that I might end up being disappointed and might not be able to recreate the same joy or excitement as I had last year. “You can’t go back” as the saying goes. I’m so happy to say that not only was I worrying over nothing, but going back was 100 times even more amazing, something I could have never imagined after the perfection of last year.

Many of us on this cooking adventure last year had mentioned that we would love to return someday but would like a new itinerary. Last December, I received a message from Massimo, owner of Palazzo Tour d’Eau, asking for suggestions for a special trip designed for repeat guests. I am no expert on the Abruzzo region of Italy, but was certainly up to the challenge. I researched and gave him some suggestions for both cooking and excursions. He actually incorporated many of my ideas and Abruzzo 2.0 was born! In the end, a group of 11 signed up for this special week in September 2013 and off we all went for a second-round dream vacation.

Enough gushing…judge for yourselves!

We live in central PA, but when I found an airfare out of JFK for $800 instead of approximately $1300 from closer airports, I quickly snatched 2 seats for my husband and me. The only question was that they were on Air Berlin, an airline I had never heard of. I read what little info there was on Fodors (somewhat negative), but price won out.

AIR BERLIN – THE CONS: yes, as I had read, we were squeezed in like sardines on the overseas flight. It didn’t help that I have long legs and was crammed in one of the middle seats with little access to the armrests. It also felt like there was about ¼ inch of padding on the seat, a generous estimate.
AIR BERLIN – THE PROS: there were many actually! The individual TV screens were touchscreen. I’m sure many people have experienced these before, but I had not, and I am easily amused! I was even more amused when free wine was offered during the flight. I do remember (unfortunately) when alcohol was always free on overseas flights, but have not seen that in years. At lights out, bottles of water were given out. No more runs down the aisle to request yet another minuscule cup of water to stay hydrated. The little touches were something I appreciated. Everyone in the cattle section also received one of those little pouches with eye mask, socks, toothbrush, etc. Wow, in economy! Again, easily amused! And finally, when we disembarked, good sized chocolate hearts were given out. Wine and chocolate – almost made me forget the part of my anatomy which was aching! Would I fly them again? Absolutely!

We changed planes in Berlin ad arrived in Roma on time after 2 very smooth flights.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 09:06 AM
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We had planned on walking to the train station to catch the Leonardo Express when I spotted a sign in the terminal that read 'Bus 2 mn'. The sign for the train was suspicious in that it had no time noted, although I had read that the walk would take 10 – 15 minutes. I had been wary of trying the bus because it was the one mode of transportation that I had not read much about, but the 2 minutes was beckoning, so we decided to give it a try.

The T.A.M. bus kiosk was easy to find in the International Arrivals terminal and bonus – only 5 Euros to Rome. At the end of the terminal is what they call a bus station, in effect a few numbered parking spots for busses. We waited on the short line at Lane 2, loaded our bags in the lower compartments and boarded a beautiful, comfy coach. You don’t need to buy tickets in advance and the busses leave every half hour. As easy as the Leonardo Express train without the walk or price. The ride took about 45 minutes and we were dropped off just at the side of Termini. (Return trip is 4 Euros, you buy the tickets from an agent at the bus stop. Couldn’t be easier – we ended up using the bus 4 times this trip.) We also liked passing the old walls and gates of Rome as we entered the city.

Once we arrived, the bus stop was only 2 blocks from our hotel, Hotel Morgana. We checked in and loved it immediately. I had found an online special of 30% off including free WiFi, free breakfast and free upgrade to the next room level. We actually got upgraded to a small suite which was an added bonus. This hotel had the skinniest elevator I ever saw, but it did fit both of us with our 2 suitcases.

I had few preplanned ideas for Rome this time – we just wanted to walk, visit one specific church, sit in cafes, eat gelato and relax, although when we stumbled upon the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore near Termini, it looked impressive enough to go in. The interior was massive with gorgeous floors and ceiling, mosaics, frescos, marble columns and archways. My favorite section was within a small curved stairwell up front. At the base of the stairs is a marble statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling in front of a display of Jesus’ first wooden crib. The detail of the lace cuffs on the statue was so delicate and the expression of his face so serene. The crib is encased in glass and surrounded by gold so I didn’t at first realize its significance. An unexpected stop in our wanderings.

After our gelato, we made it to the Chiesa de S. Ignazio di Loyola near Piazzo Navona, the one planned stop. It contains huge twisted green marble columns and marble walls and supports of gorgeous stripes and swirls of most any color – reds, pinks, greens, blues, oranges. Striking! I’ve never seen so many marble patterns like that in a church. What I had gone to see though was the “fake dome”. I had read that the original plan was supposed to have a dome, but the money ran out. Instead, the ceiling was painted to look like a dome. Now, I had read that it was to the side of the alter, so I walked under another dome, which sort of stood out in that its interior was black instead of the light colors of the rest of the church, and approached the alter. I couldn’t find the fake dome. Finally I turned around and realized that the oddly colored dome was the fake one and I had missed it! It was painted so realistically that I had thought it was just a poor choice of color rather than an excellent faux painting. We looked at it from different angles and were amazed.

We stopped for drinks and people-watching at a café facing the Pantheon, (it was funny watching a line of gladiators arriving after a hard day at the Colosseum, especially one whose skirt was caught in his shorts and who was talking on his cell phone) walked through Piazza Navona where a toga party was just breaking up, through the Campo di Fiori and on to Trastevere where we had dinner at Popi Popi.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 09:06 AM
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YAY! I haven't even started reading yet and I'm looking forward to more! OK, now that I've bookmarked this, I'm going to start reading! ;-)
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 09:15 AM
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Carunchio is next!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 09:21 AM
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kwren...

Your first day sounds great and I was not aware about the buses from FCO to termini, this is very good to know and a great price!

What was the restaurant Popi Popi like in Trastevere? I'm not familiar with it and always looking for interesting restaurants near the centro storico in Roma.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 09:47 AM
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We were actually in Trastevere to find a different restaurant, La Gensola, but it turned out to be more of a big deal than we wanted for a jetlagged night before a week of solid eating, so we went to Popi Popi because we knew it was a low-keyed outdoor restaurant which last year had the best pasta dish I had ever tasted. (This item wasn't on the menu but we enjoyed it just the same). It was a fun place, but not gourmet food. Depends on what you are looking for. I'd love to try that other restaurant though - a few people on Fodors really recommended it highly. It's a bit hard to find - just around a corner from the square of its address. The back of it is mostly windows facing the square, it has a different name on that side and you have to go around to the other side to reach the door. Let me know if you go to either.

Do you leave Saturday or are you going to spend a few days in Rome first?
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 11:41 AM
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kwren....

I've been to La Gensola, twice! Had good experiences both times. I'll keep Popi Popi on my list in case we are in the area!

We don't leave until a week from tomorrow. We arrive at FCO on Saturday, Oct. 12th & will stay at the Hilton at FCO (arrive at 4pm) that night. The next day we'll meet the group at FCO and go to Carunchio. At the end of the culinary vacation we'll spend a full week in Rome.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 12:22 PM
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We considered the Hilton too but then decided to go into Rome since we arrived earlier. Sounds like a good idea with a later arrival
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 12:27 PM
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Marking my spot, I'll chime in if you don't mind.

LCI - I did another walking tour with Elizabeth Minchilli this trip and she asked if we knew each other.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 12:33 PM
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hi johnny!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 12:37 PM
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HI!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 12:41 PM
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Hotel Morgana has a huge breakfast buffet. The meats, cheeses, eggs, breads and cakes didn't surprise us, but the beautifully garnished salads and tomatoes did. Now on to the exciting part (as if being in Rome wasn't exciting enough!) Next, the bus ride to the airport (take the bus!) and then the excitement of meeting up with 4 friends from last year, 2 with significant others who hadn't been with us last year but who we grandfathered in, and 3 from another group last year. Total 11. We all met up in front of the eatery Vacanze Romane and pulled tables together to catch up. More excitement when Ivan the bus driver from last year arrived with his ‘Cooking Vacations Abruzzo’ sign. He led us to the bus like a line of happy ducklings and off we went.

To anyone taking this vacation, when you are waiting at the eatery, leave something indicating you are going to Palazzo Tour d’Eau out, look around for English speaking people, and you’ll probably get to know a lot of your group before Ivan even arrives.

We had the same 4 hour ride as last year, the same stop at the rest stop about an hour out of Rome. How do you know you are in Italy? When each tiny rest stop table is completely covered with more than a dozen empty cappuccino cups instead of burger papers! They love their coffee! The ride continued but lacked the frantic, excited picture taking of last year. It was just good to sit and talk. It was especially fun to finally see Carunchio looming ahead, just like coming home!

CARUNCHIO!

As soon as we pulled up to the palazzo, Massimo was there to greet us. It was smiles all around and we were once again ushered into the courtyard for drinks and snacks. This year we had a couple of different mini pizzas and fresh fig and gorgonzola wrapped in prosciutto and all stuffed in a light pastry ball. I dislike Fig Newtons so initially this didn’t quite appeal to me, but I of course tried it. OMG! It was out of the world! Fresh figs are so different than that cookie! Anyone going, try everything!

Massimo asked us if we had any room preferences and we claimed our room from last year, #3. Its view is of the street, and some mountains and wind turbines if you peek over the tile roofing across the street. There is not a lot of activity on the street, but just enough to keep it interesting. I especially liked watching Rosina, the little old lady across the street. She would clean the window of her door or sit and knit by the hour. Our room has one of the coveted turrets and this year a new bathroom. We went from the smallest shower in the palazzo to the largest. Other rooms have magnificent views but we felt at home in ours. There are some rooms on the first floor now. One has no window but it has a great arched brick ceiling. All the rooms are different and they are all lovely. Many have difficulty receiving WiFi signal, but it became routine to meet on the couch to check email and Facebook – a real bonding experience and one we write about now that we are back home!

After a chance to settle in, it was time to LET THE EATING BEGIN! Our first dinner was the delicious dinner close to what we had last year. First their specialty…a popover filled with cheese and truffles on a pool of saffron sauce (yum) followed by a pasta in cream sauce, then wild boar wrapped in a light pastry in a red wine sauce. Finally, we had a light semifreddo with a puff pastry and a strawberry sauce. All this with the housemade wine and all delicious!

A great start to our week here.
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 01:31 PM
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Hi Johnny!

Glad to "see" you here! Yes, I've had email correspondence with Elizabeth and hope to see her while we are in Rome in a couple weeks! We should plan an Italy adventure at the same time and finally meet up! I'm considering Torino in October 2014 for the Salone de Gusto! ;-)
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 02:28 PM
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nice start, kwren.

i can feel the lbs piling on just reading about your first meal!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 02:59 PM
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 03:09 PM
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Hello, just be careful in Rome, we just got back on the 28th. The taxi guys there do their utmost to rip you off. I argued with one and told him to call the police as the meter said 9 Euros and he wanted 25. Once I offered to have the police called he backed right down! We traveled almost 15 thousand miles in 3 weeks and this was the only real issue we had. Have fun!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 03:36 PM
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reading along... we have an air berlin flt next spring from rome to berlin. I will bring grease to fit into seat.

hope to see you next weekend?
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 07:29 PM
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Bob - I am still hoping for the weekend and am still waiting for the word from my mother. She seems to be dragging her feet though so I'm not sure. I hate to pressure her since she just helped us out for the 2 weeks we were gone, but I will try my best tomorrow!
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Oct 3rd, 2013, 07:36 PM
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TRUFFLES!

We started our day with an excursion to a church sanctuary and then truffle hunting! The church, Santa Maria de Canneto in the Molise region, was very simple with some pretty stained glass windows, but just next to it a dig was in progress. Large urns for wine and olive oil had been discovered, as had some intact tombs, mosaics, a wine press, mills and the remains of a villa. On the other side of the church was a massive open air sanctuary, under roof, and a row of outdoor confessionals.

Next was the truffle hunt. We met the truffle hunter, Donatello, and his two dogs, Largo and Sara, at the edge of the woods and then the dogs took off running through the trees. They would run and sniff around, then get very excited and start frantically digging. Donatello would make them stop and then use a special spade to gently dig up the dirt until a beautiful truffle was produced. The dogs waited patiently for their treat and then they were off again. In the end, we found large handfuls of truffles, which of course the hunter kept. These were black summer truffles and the amount we found in about ½ hour was worth about $700. It takes several years to train a dog to hunt truffles and it is a very competitive and therefore secretive business. Hunters might park a car elsewhere and walk ½ hour to the perfect area for hunting. They wouldn’t want a competitor to see where they would be hunting. Rival truffle hunters have been known to poison good truffle dogs to decrease the competition so now dogs wear muzzles to prevent them from picking up any poisoned snacks. These are special muzzles though with an opening on the top. Each time the dogs found a truffle, Donatello would introduce a treat through that opening above the nose.

For lunch, we visited the same butcher, Luciano, in Carunchio that we visited last year. Since we had 2 newbies with us, we were treated to the tour of this small facility again, from grinding and spicing to drying. We saw the process of making various sausages from start to finish and then gathered once again around the long table for lunch. We started with samples of many of the sausages produced there, some cheese, bread and wine (of course) and then moved on to the piece de resistance…spaghetti pomodoro with truffles. And the truffles just kept on coming. The spaghetti was served with them, Massimo brought a dish around and sprinkled more on liberally and finally, a whole truffle and slicer was produced for anyone who still wanted more. We were told that truffles may be freshly sliced in restaurants and for each slice, 10 Euros might be charged. With each slice, the server counts by 10’s: 10-20-30-40 until the patron says stop. Then that amount is added to the bill. Of course, since our trip was all-inclusive, we didn’t have to worry about this, which was a relief since those truffles were really flying! For dessert, a basket of fresh figs was passed around and we learned how to peel them. As I said, I am now a fan of this fruit, but moreso, a real truffle fan as well! We had the opportunity to purchase the special spices made there. I had bought the sweet last year and it was delicious. This year I treated myself to the spicy variety. Great day. Great lunch!
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Oct 4th, 2013, 12:17 AM
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