Family, Home and Wine

Yesterday I sort of detailed the first two days of our SoCal trip to see my brother Steve, my sis-in-law Jamie and their awesome family. Here’s the balance of the week. As I am writing this I am sitting at the gate for our flight home to Everett at John Wayne International. I won’t post it until tomorrow because I have never done two posts in one day and I don’t want to start now 😜.

Day 3–Family Day

Jamie has a BIG family. Beside their daughter and son, her Mom Pat lives with them. And then she has two brothers and a sister and all are married and have lots of grown kids. We have traveled with her sister and her family and will again in 2022. I have booked travel for her brother and his wife and they were supposed to join us on our river cruise that was cancelled last year. Saturday Jamie invited all these folks to dinner. Mind you, her brother who lives in Fresno and his family didn’t come down but her sister and her family from Huntington Beach and her brother and his wife from Poway were there as well as another of the cousins and our niece Cassie’s boyfriend Omar.

Food was outstanding as Steve grilled chicken and steaks and Jamie did her usual awesome job of making every side known to man. Her mom Pat (who I mentioned yesterday) put together one of her world famous cheese platters and others brought dessert and lots of wine. We all ate and drank and had an awesome time. I can say that I truly enjoyed myself, even helping Jamie’s sis-in-law Jill wash dishes. I think everyone had an absolutely wonderful time—I know we did!

Day 4–The ’55 to Laguna and back

Sunday was listed as a day of lounging around the house on our itinerary but since one of the places I really wanted to go was Crazy Shirts in downtown Laguna Beach (just up the coast) Steve rolled out their 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner and we set off on a drive from San Juan Capistrano, through Dana Point, Laguna Beach and almost up to Newport Beach. It was a great drive, the sun was shining and when you are in a car like this you get a lot of looks from those on the sidewalks. I do have to say though that sitting in the back of a 1955 convertible at highway speeds is an experience in wind velocity I am not quick to repeat 😀.

Day 5–Home and Wine

My sister-in-law Jamie was our travel agent/tour guide on this cruise 😀. She had texted us about a week before we were to come down with a complete itinerary with all kinds of things for us to do and see. Today was road trip day. First we were heading to my brother’s and my hometown, Palm Springs. We had two goals: to see the house we grew up in (which has been REALLY changed by the present owner since we sold it to them after our Dad passed a few years ago) and to have lunch at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, The Blue Coyote.

The house looked fine but quite a bit different. Lots of new growth around the front yard. We had a kind of funny experience with the house. When we got to the house we parked in front to take a look and the current owner drove out of the garage and as he drove by us he gave us a real good and long look. Like this bunch of almost senior citizens was going to burglarize his house. After he left we drove up to the other end of the block and turned around to back past the house again.

In the meantime he had driven up the street but came back and drove into the driveway of the people across the street to tell the neighbor to keep an eye on us (criminals that we are 😜). We (Steve and I) got out of the car and went back to talk to him and the neighbor who is someone who has lived in the house since 1961 and had been our neighbor since then. He told the current owner he had nothing to fear as we had grown up in the house and had a valid reason for stopping. We hoped he would then invite us in but he had an appointment and hurried off after he knew his house was safe.

Then it was off to lunch at Blue Coyote where the food was great, the service superb and the margaritas…AWESOME! We have been there more than 10 times over the years and I think this was the best yet but that just might be the margaritas talking. A very nice couple from University Place (about half way between our place and our grandkids in Olympia, WA) took our photo for us.

After lunch and a quick turn around the town we were off to our final destination for the day—South Coast Winery in Temecula. It was much more than we expected. A really nice place where Jamie had arranged a really nice one-bedroom villa for both of us set amongst the grape vines. The place was very reminiscent of Tuscany and we arrived just in time to catch the last wine tasting of the day. We did five different wines including a port and to be honest, I wouldn’t buy any of them again. Pretty run of the mill. Nothing even close to what we had in Walla Walla when we went with our neighbors Jayesh and Lisa two summers ago. When we did that trip we ended up joining three wine clubs but I don’t think I would join one at South Coast.

But their rooms and the restaurant where we had both dinner and breakfast were excellent. After a quick dinner we both retired to our respective rooms, watched a movie and basically passed out after this VERY busy day.

I was up early the next day for my usual pre-dawn photowalk and WOW, was I rewarded. Not only did I get some really nice sunrise pics from the vineyard, just as I was about to head back to the room to shower and change for breakfast I saw ten hot air balloons launch from near downtown so I had to wait to see what they would do. What they did was to come right at us. Within 20 minutes I was literally surrounded by hot air balloons as you will see in my photos below.

After this excellent photo experience we were off to breakfast where they had some of the best chilaquiles I have had since New Mexico. Truly delicious. One of my favorite breakfasts. After breakfast it was back in the truck for a quick tour of downtown Temecula. It’s a historic city from the 1800s and we spent about an hour walking around. Saw a pretty awesome old Chevy too.

From there we headed south and then west so we could stop in northern San Diego County to see the blooming ranunculus. Now I had never seen ranunculus before but these (from somewhat far away) were nice. Nothing like the tulips in Skagit County (north of Seattle) but still nice. Then it was home to S&Js place so we could fly home on Wednesday (yesterday).

Since we had a 6:25 pm flight we got to spend the day with S&J before we headed north to the airport and a late lunch/early dinner or as we like to call it, dunch. And because we had LOVED the food at Houston’s on the day we flew in, we decided to stop there again. I mean it was THAT GOOD! And guess what we ordered? The exact same thing—artichoke appetizer and fried chicken sandwich. And they were still as great as I mentioned in my last post except that this time I remembered to take a photo so you could see them. The artichokes are grilled on a wood fire. When mine came to the table part of the stem was still burning. They are amazing. And what makes the fried chicken sandwich so good is the slaw that sits on top of the chicken—amazing.

After lunch S&J dropped us off, we waited the prescribed two hours, boarded and took off right on time, landed almost 20 minutes early, found a Lyft in less than five minutes and were home and turning off the lights by 10:15! Whew, I got tired just thinking about that.

To sum it all up, we had an AWESOME time. It felt so amazing to be traveling again. My sister-in-law Jamie is a fantastic SoCal trip planner and we ate and drank a lot more than we should. Oh, and we would do it all over again in a minute.

My ideal travel companions are my family.

Pharrell Williams

OMG! We are traveling!

It’s true! We are traveling. In fact as I write this we are headed for home later today after a six day visit with my brother Steve and his wonderful wife Jamie (S&J). We have been wined, dined, toured and traveled all over Southern California.

Day 1—Flying South

Let’s start with the flight south from Paine Field in Everett. Never had a flight that went so well. Just a dream. We did have a little bit of a hard time getting a ride to the airport. We tried Lyft first and no dice at 5:45 am. There was a guy at Bellevue who we thought was coming but then he found something closer. Finally we got a superb Uber driver who got us there in no time. And he drove a car with a stick shift. Shocking!

Once at the airport it was about seven minutes from the time we got out of the car until we were sitting at the gate. That’s the wonder of Paine Field. You can see the inside of the lounge between the two gates in the pic above. Boarding was beyond easy and the flight itself was about one third full.

We had paid a little extra for Alaska Air’s premium economy seats and on the Embracer jet we flew on, they were amazing. I am six feet, two and a half inches and I could fully stretch out my legs or cross them without a problem. So much so that I sent photos to my brother and other tall friends to say, “check this out!” See what I mean?

We flew into John Wayne International Airport in Orange County and Steve and Jamie picked us up. Another smallish airport (lots bigger than Everett but MUCH smaller than LAX). We were off the plane and out the door and in their truck within 15 minutes of landing. See what I mean about a great flying experience. We will find out if this continues this evening when we fly home.

After we were picked up we were headed out to lunch. Jamie had made reservations at a restaurant near the airport thinking it would take us a while for us to get our bag and find them but we were out so quickly,  we ended up sitting in the parking lot of the restaurant until they opened. We didn’t mind the early lunch since we had been up since 4:30 am and had coffee and some yogurt at 6:00 am at the airport. There is currently no food service on the plane if you are in economy.

The restaurant we went to was new to us but they had tried to take us there a few years ago and we had to leave because we didn’t know you needed reservations for lunch. We weren’t that worried about going there because it was “just a restaurant.” But then I started my pandemic walking and listening to Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast and he went on and on about the chicken sandwich at a small chain of places called Houston’s and that was the same place we hadn’t gotten into. So this time we really wanted to try it.

We were so glad we did. If you ever find yourself in a city with a Houstons, go there. Order two things—the fried chicken sandwich and the artichokes if they are available. Later that day I said it had almost a perfect lunch because not only had I eaten the best chicken sandwich I had ever consumed, I had also eaten the most amazing artichokes I had ever scarfed down as well. How much did we like it? So much that we are going back for a late lunch/early dinner today before we fly home. What am I going to order? The artichokes and the chicken sandwich. 😀 Maybe I will remember to take pics this time.

After lunch it was back to their house to rest a little, have a little dinner and just get a chance to catch up with them and our niece Cassie and Jamie’s mom Pat (who we love—my brother has the best mother-in-law ever!). It was a great start to what would be a great trip.

Day 2—Doheny Beach and San Juan Capistrano

On Friday we pretty much stuck around the town where they live, San Juan Capistrano (SJC). You may have heard of the town—it’s where the swallows return every year in March. I started the day with a really long (for me–8.9 miles) pre-dawn walk that took me down to the world-famous Doheny Beach (The Beach Boys sang about surfing there). Got some great pics as I hope you will agree.

After a quick breakfast we were off to downtown SJC to tour Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of the 21 California missions that stretch from San Diego to San Francisco. It’s a beautiful historic building with gorgeous gardens so it was great for photos as well.

After the Mission tour we met up with some cruising friends, Eileen and Bob, who live in nearby Cypress. They had journeyed about 30 minutes south to visit with us and it was great to see them and compare travel plans, past travel (we sailed with them to New England in 2018) and just generally catch up. It was a great meal except for the service. Suffice it to say that after complaints to the management while we were there and a blistering letter to the owners by Kathleen after we got back to S&J’s, the manager fired our server. That’s how bad it was. It’s a story best told in person so ask us the next time you see us. The restaurant is called Mayfield (so if you come to SJC, give it a pass). Food was fine but to me that’s almost a negative.

After lunch it was more rest, relaxation, catching up and food back at S&J’s. One thing about going there is you get fed very well. The next day would prove that true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Come back tomorrow to find out more. My fingers are tired now 😀.

We live life in restaurants, it’s the center of social life, where we celebrate with family and friends, make new friends, travel without traveling, and of course, eat.

Philip Rosenthal

Two Italian Lunches

This episode of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences will conclude the lunch portion of our show 😀. I am going all the way back to our very first international trip in 2002 for these two but they must be special if they stand out almost 20 years later.

Lunch in Venice—Eating with locals

It was November and we were ready to head to Italy, the home of half my ancestors. We had stops planned in Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily. What the Italians call the “Golden Triangle” (plus Sicily where my family is from). Our first stop was Venice and it is there we learned a valuable lesson about eating in a foreign country—find where the locals eat AND then eat there.

We had spent the morning taking the vaporetto (if you haven’t been to Venice, that’s kind of a water bus) to the separate islands of Murano (where they make some really cool glass) and Burano (where they have some amazing and brightly colored houses I wanted to take capture photographically). Between walking around on both islands and the vaporetto ride to each of them, we didn’t get back to the main part of Venice until it was well into the middle of the afternoon and by then we were STARVING! Italians don’t do big breakfasts. Our typical breakfast in Italy was a croissant and coffee, maybe with some cheese or Nutella and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. No eggs and bacon there. So when I say we were starving and it was 2:30 pm and we were STARVING.

Now the trouble was finding a restaurant that was open and that we would be able to get a decent meal in. Luckily for us, the vaporetto from the islands docks on the far side of Venice so you don’t get off (or at least you didn’t then) right into the touristy spots. If it had, we might never have had this experience.

Wandering around looking for someplace to eat we passed a bunch of places that had already closed. There were also small stand up bars where we could have gotten a small sandwich but we were looking for more than that. Luckily we almost got lost going down a small street (you can easily get lost in Venice) and saw a restaurant that looked open. When we looked inside the place was good sized but it was empty except for…about 20 gondoliers having lunch. We looked at each other and decided if this was where the gondoliers ate their lunch, it must be wonderful. And it was. We had not yet had an Italian specialty—spaghetti carbonara. If you have never had it think really great spaghetti with bacon, eggs and cheese. I have had it since then a few times but nothing can compare with that day. Of course looking back on the experience I often wonder if the carbonara was that good or if we were that hungry or if it was the entire experience of eating it in Venice in a restaurant with twenty very noisy gondoliers.

Lunch in Sicily—meeting Vito

About a week later we were exploring Sicily’s mountain towns looking for the final resting place of my great-grandfather in Corleone. Yes, my grandfather’s family comes from a town with the same name as The Godfather’s family. It was a Monday. If you have not been to Italy, finding almost anything open on a Monday is very difficult. This is especially true of restaurants.

We had risen early in our hotel in Monreale (just above Palermo) and headed into the Sicilian hills—a phenomenal drive as you pass walls and hill towns as old as the Roman Empire or the Moorish invasion. We found Corleone and headed to the cemetery where we not only found my great-grandfather’s grave but a man who claimed he could be my cousin who worked at the cemetery. By this time it was again about 2:00 and we wanted to find a place to eat lunch. Nothing was open in Corleone so we started heading back to the coast.

We passed through two or three small villages with nothing open. We were getting really hungry at that point. Plus, we really wanted to find someplace where someone spoke at least a little English so we could kind of know what we were ordering. All of a sudden we turned the corner into the tiny village of Masseri d’Amari and saw a big sign that said “Trattoria—Open!” By that time we didn’t care if they spoke English or not, we just wanted food.

When we got inside there was a HUGE seafood buffet all along one wall, a fairly empty dining room and two servers. One approached us and we asked if he spoke English. He didn’t and neither did the other. Since the buffet was all seafood we needed to know which dishes had no shellfish as Kathleen is allergic. We were about to abandon the place when in walked a huge man wearing all black with gold chains around his neck hanging down into a shirt that was unbuttoned fairly far down and showing a LOT of chest hair. Think Tony Soprano with a bunch of dark, black hair on his head. He saw us and walked over and said, “Hello, I am Vito. Can I help you out at all? I am visiting from New Jersey.” Seriously? We were in a tiny hill town in Sicily and we meet a Tony Soprano type guy with the name of Vito?

He was incredibly nice, told us what had and didn’t have shellfish in it and we grabbed a couple of plates from the buffet. After we had sat down at our table, Vito came over and asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to be able to talk to someone who spoke English and might know something about the part of Sicily we were in. As it turns out Vito knew a lot about that part of Sicily. He had grown up there. In fact, his family owned the restaurant we were in as well as most of the other businesses in town. We also found out that he spent about half the year in Sicily working on the family business and half the year in New Jersey. We asked him what he did in New Jersey and he REALLY said, “I work in waste management.” Unbelievable and kind of hilarious all the same time.

We had had a lovely lunch with Vito (who didn’t eat but just joined us to talk and order us the largest bottle of coke we had ever seen). When we were done we were both pretty full but Vito said, “You must have a cannoli. They are the best you will ever eat. The milk we made the cheese from was in the goat this morning.” We couldn’t pass that up so we said, “maybe just one.” Vito ordered and in about five minutes the server came out with two of the largest cannolis we still ever seen. They must have been at least six inches long and about an inch around and they were delicious!

That just about concluded our lunch experience except that when it was time to pay, there was no check. Now getting a check in Italy is pretty hard most of the time. The restaurants really don’t want you to leave. Seriously. It can often take 15 to 20 minutes after dessert is over to get the bill. But this time, there was no bill. I finally (after waiting a little while) asked Vito (since his family owned the place) if he could ask for it for us as we had to get on our way. He just reached down below the table and motioned with his hand so I could see it while saying, “Do you have 10 Euro? Just give it to me.” Far be it from me to turn down an amazing price on lunch or to not do exactly what this man told us to do 😀. And even after that, Vito insisted on walking us to our car and on the way introducing us to his brother who owned the local car dealership. It was a crazy day and we felt like we had found the true Sicily starting with Corleone and ending with Vito from New Jersey.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  —Milton Friedman

Rick Steves guides us to lunch

Been severely tardy getting a post out lately but blame my daughter. For now I only have a finite amount of time for writing and for my birthday in December, my daughter gave me a one year subscription to StoryWorth. It is a very cool website that sends me a question to write about every week for one year. These are questions about me. For instance, since the first of the year I have written about what vacations were like when I was a kid, what my grandparents were like, something in my life that really surprised me, etc. At the end of the year they will print a book of everything I have written for my grandkids to know more about their grandpa. Kind of a history of me and my family. So each week I have been writing about my favorite topic, me 😜 and neglecting this blog.

Which brings us to another episode of Jim & Kathleen’s favorite food experiences. This time it comes with a big endorsement of the Seattle Area’s greatest travel expert, Rick Steves. If you love travel like we do, you have undoubtedly heard of Rick. When we decide to go someplace in Europe, we read Rick’s book about the city or country first. When we first started going to Europe we carried the books with us. Now we get them on Kindle so we have them on our phones. You can even download guided tours to use on your phones as well.

Lunch in Versailles

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just follow Rick’s advice 100% of the time. For instance, we don’t always agree with Rick on lodging. Rick will stay in hotels with shared bathrooms—we won’t. We are just too old for that 😜. But when it comes to sightseeing, Rick gets it. If you ever decide to tour the great art museums of Europe, you would be crazy to do it without a copy of Rick’s book, “Mona Winks.” We have used it in the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Ufzizi and others. He even puts a note in the book that you should tear out the chapter and carry it with you into a particular museum because the book is too big and heavy to lug around. And then when you get home, you send him the chapters you tore out and he sends you a new book. Pretty cool!

Rick also “gets” food. At least the kind of food we like. Food that is all about the region we are visiting. In that respect Rick is responsible for two of our very memorable food experiences, both at lunchtime, one in France and one in Italy.

Let’s start with France because that food experience happened first. We were on our second trip to Europe, on a two week ground trip that started with six nights in London, three nights in Scotland and five nights in Paris. While we were in Paris we did all the touristy things, the Louvre, Montmartre, Notre Dame and other Parisian must-see spots. One thing we wanted to do was take the train to Versailles to tour the palace and the grounds.

 

The palace is amazing. (That’s Kathleen at right, inside the Hall of Mirrors.) But when we went to see the grounds, it was FREEZING! It was a really cold day in November and we saw a little of the gardens before we decided we had to find some place warm to get lunch. We went into the village of Versailles and looked around and we were about to succumb to one of the touristy spots selling the touristy kind of  “French food” you would expect to find in a tourist village. But these places looked cheesy and they had people standing at their doors trying to get people to come in and eat. Not an optimum experience.

We suddenly realized that the Rick Steve’s guide we had with us not only had a section about the palace and gardens (that we had used to tour those places) but recommendations for where to eat. We knew that Rick would never steer us wrong on food so we looked up the downtown village of Versailles and he gave a strong recommendation to a tiny place (whose name I can’t remember—this was in 2003) on the main square of the town. The biggest endorsement was…this is where the locals eat. So off we went and had a culinary and cultural adventure.

When we walked in the door, the smells were amazing but the place was JAMMED! In fact there were only two chairs left open—right in the middle of a long communal table. Each side of the table must have seated 20 people and the two chairs were across from one another just about in the middle of the table. We looked at each other and thought, “What the heck!.” We were cold and starving and this place was warm and the food smelled amazing. I don’t remember exactly what we had but I do remember it was awesome. And the people on either side of us were very friendly. It was a wonderful lunch.

Lunch in Sienna

Six years later we were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and we had docked in Livorno which is the port for Florence. Since we had been to Florence before we decided to hire a guide and head to the hill town of Sienna. We consulted our buddy Mike, the god of shore excursions and he hooked us up with a driver and guide named Marco that he had used before and really liked. So we were really looking forward to an awesome day. We had prevailed upon some of our Cruise Critic roll call friends to join us as well.

We should have known that there would be a problem when Marco did not meet us but instead we were met by Francisco. Marco was supposed to be taking us himself as we had been told he spoke excellent English and lived in Sienna. Francisco, although a very nice man, barely spoke English and with me sitting with him in the front seat trying to translate, we headed off to Sienna.

We still had hopes that we would be met by Marco once we reached Sienna but that was not to be. After the two hour drive (during which Francisco got lost twice), upon entering Sienna, Francisco drove up a one way street in the wrong direction and when a car came down the other way, he had to back up almost all the way out of the city. He then hollered out the window, “Excuse me, how do I get to the Duomo?” But the real kicker came when we arrived in Sienna and Francisco told us he would meet us to take us back to the ship at 3:30, handed me a copy of Rick Steve’s Tuscany and said Ciao!

We were astounded. We had contracted for a guided tour of Sienna and we got a car and driver who barely spoke English and who got lost both coming and going. But we made the most of it. We grabbed the Rick Steve’s book and walked the city.

No one else in the group wanted Rick’s book so Kathleen and I took it and headed out to see Sienna.

All in all it was great day as the rain stopped and the city and its Duomo were a truly amazing sight. The Duomo has incredible etched and painted floors that are kept covered for most of the year. But at the end of August each year, they are uncovered for only two months. We arrived six days before they were to be recovered so we got to see what many never do in Sienna.

We had a great time following all Rick’s advice about what to see…but then lunch rolled around and we knew we would be OK because we had Rick along. Sure enough, we opened the guide and found a wonderful little restaurant below ground level that we never would have seen just walking around. Not only was it gorgeously decorated but the food was amazing. I think the best way to describe the experience is that it was unexpected on a lousy day. Again, I can’t remember what I had but I know one of the best things that happened on that entire trip was that lunch.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. —Orson Welles

Lunchtime…again. This time in Italy

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.

To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.

The amazing Marcello

We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.

He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello.  If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.

We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.

First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.

After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.

We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.

After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.

After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.

The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?

The happy group just before we dug in. 45 minutes later we waddled back to the van to visit Pompeii.

After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.

To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.

People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi

Let’s do lunch…in Barcelona

Here’s the second of my posts about our most memorable food experiences during our travel together. Since we started with breakfast last time, I thought we might try lunch this time. And if there is a memorable lunch, it’s the one we had at a marvelous restaurant in Barcelona, Spain—La Rita.

Part of the reason this experience was so good was the contrast to what had happened the day before, during our first full day in Barcelona. We had done a lot of touring and after we finished touring Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Kathleen decided it was time to eat. We had previously decided that lunch would be our big meal of each day as Barcelonians don’t eat dinner until well after 9:00 pm and that is just too late for us. It also seems that on every trip we have one really bad food experience and this lunch was to be that experience.

Poor planning on my part had put us in a part of the city that I had not done my research on any restaurants (which I usually do). So we wandered looking for something on a menu that not only looked good but that we could fathom what it was. As most of you know, I am a pretty adventurous eater but my lovely bride isn’t as much. Especially when it comes to fish that we don’t know (she has shellfish allergies).

After turning down a number of places due to their limited menu we finally found a small Italian place who had items on their menu (pastas, etc.) that we recognized. But after we were seated we found that those items weren’t available at lunch when only a fixed-price menu (two course for 8 euro) was served. We had a choice of four appetizers and four entrees. We both went with the simple side salad as our appetizer and I had the calamari as my entree while Kathleen chose what the menu called “beef higado.” The waiter mimed to us that this was a part of the cow that came from somewhere near the flank. We kind of assumed (you know the saying) that it would be flank steak or something close.

After the waiter had brought our salad I suddenly realized that where he had been pointing on his body to indicate the part of the cow the meat came from was a little higher than the flank. So I got out my iPhone and did a quick Google search that revealed (just as the entrees arrived) that higado is LIVER. Now Kathleen likes most beef but not liver and since she doesn’t eat calamari, swapping was out of the question. Besides the liver problem, my calamari was awful–over-breaded with no sauces or even lemon and served over a bunch of poorly cooked french fries. Needless to say we got the check and got the heck out of there with most of our lunch consisting of our appetizer salad and a fairly decent roll. (Looking back on it, this was OK as we got PLENTY to eat for the rest of the week.) So that was our not-awesome lunch experience that brought us to the next day.

Since we had such a bad experience the day before, I tried really hard to wind up in a part of Barcelona that had one of my well-researched restaurants nearby. It is important to note (that I kind of mentioned above) that even though we had experienced late dinners in Italy and France on prior European trips, Spanish restaurants serve dinner latest of all. Many don’t open until 9:00 pm for dinner. That means we would be eating at 10:00 and that’s something we just can’t do. So we had previously decided that we would eat our main meal at lunch and just snack for dinner. Today we promised ourselves we would lunch in one of the restaurants we had previously found online—La Rita. Now, websites promise a bunch but seldom deliver on it. La Rita and it’s sister restaurant (where we ate lunch the next day) came through for us big time.

We arrived as they opened at 1:00 pm (lunch time in Barcelona is 1:00 to 3:30). If we had been even 10 minutes later we would have had to wait at least 20-30 minutes. The place filled up in minutes and mostly with what looked like locals. Lunch exceeded our expectations on every level. The food was outstanding. The service cordial and quick. The menu (available in English) excellent. 

Kathleen started with an appetizer vegetable pie with mushroom sauce. I got to taste and it was wonderful. I had a “vegetable stack” of red peppers, mushrooms and eggplant that was topped with melted manchego cheese. Ooooh la la!

For our main course, Kathleen had the a lamb tangine with couscous, raisins and pine nuts. I went for one of the best pieces of duck I have ever had in my life with mango and raspberry. I wish I had kept taking photos of the food but I just got too busy eating to shoot pics.

For dessert Kathleen can’t remember what she had but I struck it rich with one of the most outstanding desserts of my lifetime, the Catalunyan national dessert. I am still not sure what it is called but it consists of a coffee/nougat ice cream, floating in a wonderful dark chocolate sauce covered with custard. I did some Googling and found that it might be Mato de Peralbes.

People, believe me when I tell you, you have never had anything like this. A few years later we went to a San Francisco restaurant that had a similar dessert called “Slap Your Mama.” It was so named because if you ate it for the first time you wanted to “Slap your mama” for not every having served it to you before. This was the same kind of experience. If I was from Barcelona and had never eaten this dessert, I would have slapped my mama.

Can you tell Kathleen enjoyed her lunch?

So from a lunch of some of the worst calamari and liver to this one at La Rita it made a huge difference in our feelings about Catalan cuisine. I truly believe that this lunch ranks in the top ten meals I have eaten in my lifetime. It was scrumptious. Or maybe it was the contrast to the day before.

And I should mention that the service and the ambience were outstanding. And here’s the good news, unlike our breakfast place (The Elbow Room in Vancouver, BC) that has since closed, you can still eat at La Rita. We plan on going there again the next time we are in Barcelona (in 2022).

I should add that La Rita is part of a restaurant group. A group is different than a chain—a chain is a bunch of identical restaurants but a group is owned by one set of owners but they are all different. The next day we ate at another of their restaurants, La Fonda. Food was on the same par but the experience was better at La Rita.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.—Orson Welles

Let’s start with a sarcastic breakfast in Vancouver


If you saw my post from a few days ago you will know that I am going to start writing about our best food experiences over the 23 years that Kathleen and I have been together. Most of them have taken place all around the world so they kind of relate to travel.

To start organizing my memories, I made a list of my favorite dinner, lunch and breakfast experiences. So let’s start at the beginning of the day with breakfast. I love eating breakfast in a restaurant but we seldom do. Even on trips we often have breakfast someplace normal. For instance we spent five days in Barcelona and I am ashamed to say that we ate breakfast every day at a Starbucks a block from our hotel. I know, it’s sad. But in Barcelona there is so much great lunch and dinner food that we needed to watch our caloric intake.

Another reason we don’t have an amazing record with breakfast while on the road is that it is often hard to find a great breakfast place. If you Google “best breakfast in XXXXXX city” you really don’t get great places. I have actually seen Denny’s and IHOP show up as the best restaurant in random US cities. Now I have nothing against you grabbing a Moon over Mihami or a Rooti Tootie Fresh and Fruity, but that’s not for us.

To give you an idea of what I mean, my favorite thing to eat for breakfast is a dish called “Tom’s Favorite Breakfast” served at Lola, a Tom Douglas restaurant in downtown Seattle. The dish changes seasonally but always has octopus in it. So as you can see, I have strange taste when it comes to breakfast.

But this series is less about food than it is about eating experiences. And we have a doozy of a food and travel experience to start with. Sadly, this takes place in a restaurant that is no longer open, Vancouver BC’s Elbow Room. There is talk that it may be revived in another location someday but for now, it is closed.

Kathleen and I first discovered The Elbow Room on our second or third trip to Vancouver sometime in the late 90s. The restaurant first opened in 1983. I had read someplace that if you were looking for an unusual place to have breakfast in Vancouver  you had to try The Elbow Room. We went and we loved it. Not because of the food (which was PLENTIFUL and also delicious) but because of the experience.

The Elbow Room was a one-of-a-kind place because just going in the front door, you needed a very thick skin. Let me give you an example. On our first visit, we walked in and the server we encountered pointed at a table. Didn’t seat us, just pointed. A few minutes later he came by with water and asked if we had seen the specials on the chalkboard before we came in. We said we hadn’t and his response was, “Then go back out and read them!” Then he walked away without saying anything else. At this point (because we had heard about the place in advance) we knew we were in for a bumpy but fun ride.

Sure enough when he finally returned to the table, he brought us coffee and took our order. And along the way we had overheard him insulting or being snarky to pretty much everyone else in the place. He was the king of snark. It was truly fun to watch people who came in after us and had no clue what the place was about get insulted and mocked. Some were aghast and others got it in a few minutes.

When our waiter came back with our food we asked for more coffee. He pointed at the pot across the room (almost behind the counter) and said, “Get it yourself!” We had a good laugh over that one…after I got us more coffee. BTW: Not that it matters but every waiter working there has been flamboyantly gay except the one time when we were “served” by one of the owners (he’s the fellow on the left in the linked video below) who was just cantankerous even though he called himself a flaming queen.

The photo at the top of this article (taken during our best experience there ) is proof. The restaurant itself was a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community and even had a musical written about it. I have searched the web to find a copy of the “rules” of The Elbow Room which were printed on the back of the menu. They all pretty much came down to this: if you are thin-skinned and can’t take a joke, you are in the wrong place. You can kind of read them in this shot of their big blackboard. *8 always cracks me up.

If you would like to see what The Elbow Room was all about, Kathleen found this really cool short video. Warning, it has some salty language…but that’s The Elbow Room. You can click here to watch the short film from the National Screen Institute of Canada.

Besides the fun, the food was superb and this was our first of many visits to The Elbow Room. But the best experience didn’t come until June 2017. Our good friends Paul and Gail, from Leeds, England had flown in so that they, us and 14 other Martini Mates could take an Alaskan cruise together. P & G had flown in early and we had picked them up at YVR (airport designation for Vancouver) and went to tour Vancouver for a couple of days before doing the same in Seattle. On our second morning there we told them we had to have breakfast at The Elbow Room. Being the fun friends that they are, they loved it. Even when our waiter (you can see him in the photo above with Paul and I) started referring to Paul (who some may think of as vertically challenged) as Papa Smurf.

I cannot remember a single breakfast when the company has been so good, the service so snarky, funny and truly unique and the food so delicious. It’s one of those times I will remember. Especially since The Elbow Room is now gone. We will miss it.

There are different kinds of humor, some is sarcastic, some introspective. Introspective fit my personality better.—Rita Rudner

Rita would not have done well at The Elbow Room.