Best Bites

This month’s Best Bites: Catching up on Chicago

I’ve spent the last month catching up on Chicago dining and drinking destinations! These were the standouts for brunch, dinner, and beverages.


3 Arts Club Café

Burrata, 3 Arts Club Café

Burrata with slow-roasted tomatoes, garlic bread, and basil

I have to begin with what must be the most breathtaking dining setting I’ve seen in Chicago lately (and from the looks of Instagram, I’m not alone in this assessment). The glitzy Gold Coast café has sweeping windows, brick arches, skylights above towering trees, glittering chandeliers, and a centerpiece fountain that we were more than happy to be seated right alongside. This plate of burrata, tomatoes, and garlic toast was just as elegant as the atmosphere.

Catalpa Kitchen

Old Fashioned flapjacks, Catalpa Kitchen

Old Fashioned flapjacks with orange caramel, bourbon cherries, and angostura whip

Brunch at this newcomer to Logan Boulevard had a decidedly cozier vibe, and these creatively boozy pancakes fit right in. Orange caramel, angostura whipped cream, and bourbon-soaked cherries atop a pile of flapjacks added up to a version of an Old Fashioned almost as good as the cocktail itself.


Sunday brunch, Latinicity

Sunday brunch with tacos, oysters, empanadas, waffle bacon burgers, caramelized plantains, and more

Latinicity opened on the third floor of the Block 37 complex late last year, and its Sunday brunch is an especially good value: $25 gets you unlimited food from eight different stations, plus two brunch beverages from the bar. Our group divided and conquered, each visiting a different counter and bringing back as many offerings as we could, and our strategy produced a delicious variety of results. A few standouts: oysters on the half shell, tacos al pastor, smoked fish dip, and savory lomo saltado with fried rice.



Cannelloni saltimbocca, Monteverde

Cannelloni saltimbocca with prosciutto, lamb, sage, balsamic, soffritto, and romanesco

I’ll admit that I made this March reservation at Monteverde while I was still in Dublin, because I was that excited to try Sarah Grueneberg’s much-anticipated pasta dishes. The cannelloni was exactly the caliber I was expecting: the hardy rolls of pasta stood up to the proscuitto and lamb, enhanced by sage, balsamic, and crunchy romanesco – everyone’s favorite veggie fractal. I was also impressed by the sunchoke crostini, complete with creamy ricotta and lots of black truffle. We also happened to be dining there the same night as Chicago’s mayor (and heard even he had to make a reservation).

Artichoke & sunchoke crostini, Monteverde

Artichoke & sunchoke crostini with fontina, ricotta, and Savini black truffle

Band of Bohemia

Coffee-roasted carrots, Band of Bohemia

Coffee-roasted carrot with coconut milk, chai, sesame seed, licorice, and oxalis

A self-described “culinary brewpub,” Band of Bohemia brews food-friendly beers exclusively to pair with its dishes. Our group’s meal here was meant to make up for missing Chicago Restaurant Week, and it was a more than sufficient substitute. These coffee-roasted, coconut-scented heirloom carrots packed explosive flavor, with lots of contrast from chai, licorice, and sesame. The steak and the foie gras were also major hits at our table. Beer-wise, I was particularly a fan of the beet-thyme and apple-tarragon brews.

Band of Bohemia beer trio

Three house-brewed beers: roasted beet thyme, orange chicory rye, and grilled apple tarragon


Potatoes a la plancha, Salero

Confit potatoes a la plancha with mushroom demi-glace, wild mushrooms, sunny egg, and Queso Tetilla

A few friends graciously threw me a welcome back celebration at this Spanish eatery in the West Loop. Of all the dishes we sampled, these grilled potatoes with heaps of wild mushrooms, toasted grains, and a sunny-side egg were the most savory and satisfying. The baked alaska with “Welcome Home” in script on the plate was also a lovely touch.


Cantina 1910

Bears Club cocktail, Cantina 1910

Bears Club cocktail with Milagro Reposado tequila, Punt e Mes, maple, and cherrywood

I’d heard great things about the drinks at Andersonville’s new upscale Mexican cantina. This was quite possibly the smokiest cocktail I’ve ever had, and I was completely captivated by the cherry and maple notes in every sip. It’s now only available as a large-format shareable drink, so I’d recommend getting a few others on board if you visit.

Mezcaleria Las Flores

Unknown Death cocktail, Mezcaleria Las Flores

Unknown Death cocktail with mezcal, amaro, ancho reyes, crème de noyaux, lemon juice, and simple syrup

This cocktail was in the same smoky family, but served across town at Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square. This new flower-shop-turned-mezcal-bar has gotten a lot of attention for its concept, and I’m glad to see such an oft-overlooked spirit getting some time on the spotlight. This cocktail was balanced and citrusy, with punchy amaro and a colorful sprinkle of hibiscus on top. Bonus: we were also able to order snacks from adjacent Johnny’s Grill – just ask for a menu.


Chocolate cake shake, Portillo's

Chocolate cake shake

I had to include this beloved Chicago treat, because having one my first week back at work made me truly feel like I was home again. Portillo’s chocolate cake shakes are basically an institution, and are as simple as they sound – chocolate cake whirred into a milkshake, with chunks of icing and cake crumbs hiding at the bottom of the cup. It’s decadent and a little absurd, but it’s also pure Chicago.

The details: Monteverde, 1020 W. Madison St.; Band of Bohemia, 4710 N. Ravenswood Ave.; Salero, 621 W. Randolph St.; 3 Arts Club Café at Restoration Hardware, 1300 N. Dearborn Pkwy.; Catalpa Kitchen, 2800 W. Logan Blvd.; Latinicity at Block 37, 108 N. State St.; Cantina 1910, 5025 N. Clark St.; Mezcaleria des Flores, 3149 W. Logan Blvd.; Portillo’s, 100 W. Ontario; all Chicago.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Five-course tasting menu at Forest Avenue

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Agnolotti, Forest Avenue

Agnolotti of Comté, Jerusalem artichoke, truffle & whey butter & pickled cabbage

I knew that my last weekend in Dublin had to include a special meal, and after a little research, Forest Avenue fit all the criteria: seasonal and locally sourced Irish cuisine, tasting menu format, reasonable price. But this restaurant was even more of a gem than I ever expected. I stayed impressed through the entire dinner, including an especially dreamy pasta course with buttery, truffle-scented agnolotti and Jeusalem artichoke.

Bacon tart and aubergine-green olive snacks, Forest Avenue

Aubergine and green olive on a cracker and mini bacon tart, two of several snacks

Parsnip soup, Forest Avenue

Parsnip soup with mushroom and crisps, the last of the snacks

Several snacks and soup served as bonus courses to begin the meal. Each bite packed flavor, whether it was salty olive on a cracker, smoky bacon in a tart, or earthy mushrooms punctuating a delightfully foamy parsnip soup. Next came the salad course, where roasted beets were transformed by blood orange, creamy curd, and dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend. The early courses paired especially well with our bottle of Austrian white wine, a unique straw-colored blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Gruner Veltliner from 2014.

Beet salad, Forest Avenue

Salad of beets with blood orange, curd, dukkah, and radish

Duck, Forest Avenue

Duck, swede, onion, chanterelle, and romaine lettuce

I chose duck as my main, which brought me full circle from the excellent duck I’d had at The Pig’s Ear during my very first weekend in Dublin. The nicely charred onion, wilted greens, and rich jus kept the focus firmly on the meat itself. In fact, that kind of focus and purity of flavor was really a theme in all of the dishes.

Dessert also included a couple of bonus courses, but the main event was a pleasantly tropical combination of coconut panna cotta and passion fruit sorbet with pineapple and spiced bread crumble on top. Even with its several playful components, the dessert still felt focused and clean. And Forest Avenue’s whole aesthetic adhered to those same values, from the earth-toned art and antler wall hangings down to the beautiful ceramic servingware. All that combined with attentive service and a soulful soundtrack made this the restaurant I’d now most highly recommend in Dublin.

Coconut panna cotta, Forest Avenue

Coconut panna cotta, pineapple, spiced bread & passion fruit sorbet

While I’m sad that my time in Dublin had to come to an end, I’ve already started catching up on all the food and drink Chicago introduced while I was gone. Stay tuned!

The details: Forest Avenue, 8 Sussex Terrace, Dublin 4, Ireland.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Duck liver creme, pan-fried hake & more, The Vintage Kitchen

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Wicklow duck liver creme, lime jelly, pistachio, toast, and raisin, apple, and star anise jam, The Vintage Kitchen

Wicklow duck liver creme, lime jelly, pistachio, toast, and raisin, apple, and star anise jam

As I write this, I’m spending my very last morning in Dublin, so it feels right to look back on what was probably my most fun dining experience. I booked a table at The Vintage Kitchen a few weeks in advance (it’s a small restaurant with only two evening seatings), and made it a girls’ night. And thanks to the BYOB policy, I was able to bring along the last bottle of wine that I had brought back from Tuscany. The silky-smooth red paired well with all three of my courses.

The star of the meal for me was the starter of duck liver creme, an unctuous spread topped with a thin layer of lime jelly and lots of crushed pistachio. Spread onto crustless toast points together with an apple-raisin jam, it basically made the perfect sweet-and-savory bite. And thankfully, there was enough of the creme and jam to form a whole lot of those bites, especially after a few more slices of toast magically appeared without asking.

Pan-fried hake, The Vintage Kitchen

Pan-fried Atlantic hake with white beans, Roaring Bay rope mussels, cajun and tomato bisque, and lump fish caviar

I went for the pan-fried hake as my main. I’ve ordered hake a few times before in Dublin, but never have I seen it presented with such height and pizazz. The bed of mussels bathed in white bean-tomato sauce and the seashell full of lump caviar were excellent accompaniments. And again, the portion was incredibly generous for a modestly priced prix-fixe menu.

The half-baked chocolate cake for dessert lived up to its name. The inside oozed with liquid, melting into what felt almost like cake batter ice cream. It was a rich ending to a genuinely fun meal. The vinyl records and pop-art decor keep the tiny restaurant’s setting feeling at once cozy and fashionable, so it was an ideal venue for laughing and reflecting on the past several months.

Half-baked chocolate cake, The Vintage Kitchen

Half-baked chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream

The details: The Vintage Kitchen, 7 Poolbeg St., Dublin 2, Ireland.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Three days in Berlin

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Goat cheese pizza, LuLa am Markt

Goat cheese pizza with red grapes and balsamic-honey sauce and ginger lemonade at LuLa am Markt

You might be expecting my post about Berlin to be all schnitzel and bratwurst, but it was actually a rather culinarily diverse trip. Things started off strong with a wood-fired pizza at LuLa in Friedenau (no relation to the beloved Lula Café in Chicago, but the vibe was in fact quite similar). The somewhat eclectic combination of goat cheese, red grapes, balsamic vinegar, and honey turned out to be a total hit, especially paired with mint-garnished ginger lemonade.

On the other side of the global spectrum, we dined at an Egyptian restaurant one evening, settling into plush floor-level couches and diving into colorful shared plates. My favorite dish was this tagine, a clay pot brimming with warm-spiced tomato sauce, potatoes, meatballs, and a soft-boiled egg.

Tagine "Marrakech", Baraka

Tagine “Marrakech” with meatballs, egg, and tomato sauce at Baraka

Macarons, Du Bonheur

Caramel, pistachio, and plum macarons at Du Bonheur

Berlin also had a few sweet surprises in store, most notably the best macarons I’ve had in years. The beautiful plum, pistachio, and caramel varieties all packed enormous flavor and really left me thinking I was in France instead of Germany. I also found Berlin’s coffee to be excellent across the board, all the way down to this cappuccino at a darling café right next to one of the S-Bahn stops.

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Currywurst, Arkonaplatz

Currywurst from a stall at the Arkonaplatz flea market

Of course, I had to try a little bit of traditional fare, and currywurst seemed like the right place to start (the memory of one at Dublin’s Oktoberfest was still fresh in my mind). This sliced sausage doused with smoky ketchup and curry powder served as a nice hearty snack while I strolled around the Arkonaplatz flea market.

And there was beer, too; don’t worry. I was excited to go local at what seemed to be Berlin’s premier craft brewery, Eschenbräu. I sampled both the Dunkler Bock and the Pils (dark and light, respectively), and found them to be more complex and nuanced than I expected. I hope the craft beer scene continues to grow in that city!

Dunkler Bock, Eschenbräu

Dunkler Bock and Pils beers, both brewed at Eschenbräu

It was fun to try a traditional brunch buffet as well. Schwarze Pumpe’s version included a smattering of meats, cheeses, eggs, breads, and spreads, plus the ever-present yogurt, fruit, and muesli cereal. Small tastes of many things is exactly how I like to eat anyway, so it worked out well.

Brunch buffet, Schwarze Pumpe

Brunch buffet with bread, cheeses, eggs, muesli, yogurt & more at Schwarze Pumpe

The details: LuLa am Markt, Lauterstr. 14; Schwartze Pumpe, Choriner Str. 76; Trödelmarkt Arkonaplatz, Arkonaplatz; Du Bonheur, Brunnenstraße 39 ; Baraka, Lausitzer Platz 6; Hausbrauerei Eschenbräu, Triftstraße 67; S-Café, Bahnhofstraße 4c; all Berlin, Germany.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Butternut squash, quinoa, and sweet potato cakes, Avoca

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Butternut squash, quinoa, and sweet potato cakes, Avoca

Butternut squash, quinoa, and sweet potato cakes with heritage carrot, avocado, and fennel salad, and beetroot tzatziki

The Avoca brand is beloved for both its fashionable shopping and its excellent gourmet food. I’ve visited three locations across Ireland, and each visit tends to include a little of both. The café on Suffolk Street in the Dublin city center has an especially lovely view, located several floors above street level. There are bright patterns and colors everywhere, and I was delighted to see that extend to the food itself. Every component of this vegetarian entree was vibrant, all the way to the garlicky beet sauce and similarly hued pomegranate seeds that bejeweled the nutty salad. The cakes had just the right texture, nicely paired with bites of avocado and carrot. It was the kind of satisfying, nutrient-rich lunch that puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day.

The details: Avoca, 11–13 Suffolk St., Dublin 2, Ireland.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Pheasant, game pasty, and chocolate fondant, Delahunt

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Pheasant breast, Delahunt

Pheasant breast with white pudding, roast parsnip, sprout tops, and pickled cranberry

Delahunt has only been open about a year, occupying an historic building on Camden Street. The interior was a pleasant mix of old and new: white marble-topped tables, modern lighting, and a classically ornate wooden bar. The menu was seasonal and focused, so my dining companion and I decided to try all three courses. I went with pheasant as my main, as I rarely see it offered. The meat was beautifully cooked, and paired nicely with mildly sweet parsnip and tart pickled cranberry. I also could easily have eaten another round or two of the house-made white pudding.

Dessert was the kind of chocolate-and-caramel concoction that I find irresistible (and admittedly have a hard time sharing). The salty ice cream and sauce mingled with the warm center of the chocolate fondant in the best of ways, interspersed with bites of the generous praline garnish. In a city of excellent cakes, this one was very much a standout.

Chocolate fondant, Delahunt

Warm chocolate fondant with salt caramel ice cream and praline

My starter kept with the same theme as my main: game meat, but this time encased in a flaky crust and boosted by umami-rich chanterelle mushrooms and a chestnut sauce. It also went especially well with our wine selection of Monte Tondo soave, a clean and gently fruity Italian white. The whole meal felt cozy and wintry, making Delahunt a most pleasant January destination.

Game pasty, Delahunt

Game pasty with Jerusalem artichoke, chestnut, and pickled chanterelles

The details: Delahunt, 39 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2, Ireland.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Beef brisket sandwich, Green Bench Café

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Brisket sandwich, Green Bench Cafe

Sandwich with spicy slow-cooked beef brisket, avocado, tomato relish, coleslaw, and mixed baby leaves

I’ve been hearing rave reviews of Green Bench sandwiches for weeks now – the queue outside at lunchtime is supposedly one of the longest in the city. This week, I was fortunate enough to be included in a group order picked up by someone else, so my extraordinary lunch came queue-free. A generous pile of shredded beef brisket anchored the sandwich, with just a touch of heat in its marinade, and the coleslaw was a crunchy foil to the tender meat. Avocado and tomato relish are already two staples in my Irish diet, so they were welcome additions. I was prepared for the sandwich to be rather messy, but the well-toasted bread somehow held up to the all the fillings.

The details: Green Bench Café, 18 Montague St., Dublin 2, Ireland.

Best Bites

2015 in Review: 12 More Best Bites

This year, I’ve chosen one best bite (or sip) per month that I didn’t have the chance to blog about in 2015. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, and 2014.


Beet and goat cheese toast, The Allis

Beet and goat cheese toast at The Allis, Soho House

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This was a punchy (and classy) pre-dinner snack on a chilly January night.

The details: The Allis at Soho House, 113–125 North Green St., Chicago.


Bolognese tots, Rocking Horse

Bolognese tots at Rocking Horse

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: These meaty, Italian-leaning tater tots sated our hunger on an impromptu Milwaukee Avenue bar crawl (sadly, Rocking Horse has since removed most of their tots options from the menu, including this one, but I trust the remaining varieties are still delicious).

The details: Rocking Horse, 2535 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.


Bloody mary and bacon sweet corn waffle, Bub City

DIY bloody Mary (with High Life pony) and bacon sweet corn waffle at Bub City

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: Bub City’s bloody Mary bar is over-the-top (mini grilled cheese with an American flag as a garnish!), but the outcome was undeniably excellent, especially paired with a sweet-and-savory waffle.

The details: Bub City, 435 N. Clark St., Chicago.


Oatmeal shake, Irazu

Oatmeal shake at Irazu

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This cinnamon-heavy Costa Rican shake is one of my go-to treats, especially in warm weather.

The details: Irazu, 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.


Pasta YiaYia, Lula Cafe

Pasta YiaYia with bucatini, cinnamon, feta, garlic, and brown butter at Lula Café

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: For some reason, I’d never ordered this Lula menu staple until this year, and now it’s tough to order anything else during evening hours – the combination of feta, cinnamon, brown butter,and garlic is the purest form of pasta magic. View all my previous Lula posts.

The details: Lula Café, 2537 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago.


Fried egg toast, Same Day Cafe

Fried egg toast with house bacon, arugula, pickled cabbage, and sunny side egg at Same Day Café

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This café was a welcome addition to Logan Square this year, serving vibrant egg toast that tasted as good as it looked.

The details: Same Day Café, 2651 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago.


Painted Lady, Big Shoulders Coffee

Painted Lady with iced coffee, simple syrup, mint, and ginger lemonade at Big Shoulders Coffee

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: I have been frequenting Big Shoulders on my commute for a long time (for their Monday coffee discount and marshmallow lattes especially), but this was the most creative iced coffee drink I had all summer – who would have thought coffee and lemonade could work together?

The details: Big Shoulders Coffee, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago.


Avec burger, Avec

Avec burger with chorizo and beef patty, bacon, date mostarda, and piquillo pepper aioli at Avec

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This decadent burger was a spin on Avec’s iconic stuffed dates, and the new format proved just as successful. Avec, 615 W. Randolph Ave., Chicago.


Pumpkin mojito, The Marker hotel rooftop

Pumpkin mojito with Havana 3-year rum, mint, lime Juice, ginger syrup
soda water, and pumpkin puree – plus a city view

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This was a surprisingly brilliant autumnal combination: a mojito made with pumpkin purée (don’t knock it until you try it!), sipped on a rooftop with sweeping views of Dublin.

The details: The Marker Hotel Rooftop Bar and Terrace, Grand Canal Square, Dublin 2, Ireland.


Cuban espresso, The Dean

Cuban espresso with Havana 7-year rum, Guinness, espresso, PX sherry, caramel, vanilla, and bitters at The Dean lobby bar

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: Another great cocktail at a hotel bar – this time, one that combined Guinness (it’s Dublin, after all) with rum, sherry, and espresso to create a complex and memorable dessert drink.

The details: The Lobby at The Dean Hotel, 33 Harcourt St., Dublin 2, Ireland.


Tagliatelle, Canal Bank Cafe

Tagliatelle pasta with smoked chicken, butter beans, rocket, basil, fennel seed pistachio pesto cream sauce, parmesan, and brioche crumbs at Canal Bank Café

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: This tagliatelle pasta special at one of my go-to restaurants near the office brought together smoked chicken, pistachio, parmesan, and other spring-like flavors for a lovely result.

The details: Canal Bank Café, 146 Upper Leeson St., Dublin 4, Ireland.


Chocolate soufflé, Palo

Chocolate soufflé at Palo on the Disney Magic cruise ship

Why it’s another 2015 Best Bite: I had to include this outrageously good dessert from my December cruise on the Disney Magic. Pouring the two chocolate sauces over the top of the already silky soufflé was vacation dining at its finest.

The details: Palo on Disney Magic, Disney Cruise Line (cruise routes vary).

Thanks for reading in 2015, and looking forward to another delicious year!

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: A weekend in Galway

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Smoked salmon salad with baked beans at Ard Bia

Burren smoked salmon salad with organic quinoa, soft boiled market egg, and pistachio and sumac dressing, plus side of Turkish baked beans, at Ard Bia

I recently took the train to Galway for the weekend, excited to see what Ireland’s western coast was like. The standout meal for me was a late brunch at Ard Bia, housed in a cozy stone building just past the Spanish Arch. The salad combined loads of local smoked salmon, hearty quinoa, a soft-boiled egg (which kept it in the brunch zone), seeds, greens, and a nutty dressing into what was by far the best salad I’ve eaten this year. The locally sourced ingredients, eclectic flavor combinations, and laidback-yet-stylish vibe reminded me a lot of Lula Café in Chicago, which made me feel even more at home.

I kept with the same theme during dinner at Kirwan’s, a tucked-away seafood bar that had come highly recommended. The cold seafood platter packed major variety: smoked mackerel, head-on prawns, shrimp in Marie Rose sauce, and a salty oyster, all atop a thick blanket of smoked salmon. It was straightforward enough that I could truly appreciate the freshness and character of each component.

Cold seafood platter, Kirwan's

Seafood platter with smoked salmon, fresh prawn, smoked mackerel, rock oyster, and brandy-scented Marie Rose sauce at Kirwan’s

Cheese plate, Sheridans Cheesemongers

Plate of five cheeses, olives, crackers, and quince at Sheridans Cheesemongers

I was able to enjoy a sampler plate of five fine cheeses at Sheridans Cheesemongers, whose products I’d seen throughout Ireland. I also got into the holiday spirit at two locations of the Galway Christmas Market, one near the Spanish Arch and the other on Eyre Square. At one decked-out tent, I sipped my first mulled wine of the season; at the other, I went for a warm blend of Jägermeister, mulling spices, honey, and lemon. And of course, I tucked into a pint of Guinness, the only appropriate beverage for listening to some Irish trad music at Latin Quarter pub Tig Coili.

Mulled wine in a festive tent at the Galway Christmas Market

Mulled wine in a festive tent at the Galway Christmas Market

Guinness at Tig Coili

Pint of Guinness while listening to live trad music at Tig Coili

Because I was staying in Salthill, a coastal area just outside Galway City, I kept to that area for breakfast. One morning, that meant walking down the Salthill Promenade for the Fisherman’s mini version of an Irish fry-up breakfast, which included especially good black pudding and sunny views of Galway Bay. Another morning, I grabbed takeaway pastries from Gourmet Tart Co, who especially excelled at chocolate croissants and fruit-almond tarts.

Mini fry breakfast, The Fisherman

Mini fry (full Irish breakfast) in the sunshine at Fisherman along the Salthill Promenade

Pastries at Gourmet Tart Co.

Chocolate croissants and other assorted pastries at Gourmet Tart Co. in Salthill

The details: Gourmet Tart Co., Salthill Upper; Galway Christmas Market, Spanish Arch; Ard Bia at Nimmos, Spanish Arch, Long Walk; Tig Cóilí, Mainguard Street; Sheridans Cheesemongers, Church Yard Street; The Seafood Bar @ Kirwan’s, Kirwan’s Lane; Fisherman, Salthill; all Galway, Ireland.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Exploring Florence, Tuscany & Venice

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Crostini with mozzarella, tomato, and olive tapenade, Il Santini

Crostini with mozzarella, tomato, and olive tapenade at Il Santini

After a weekend in Rome, it was off to Florence for a few days. My Airbnb host graciously offered a few restaurant recommendations, and I took her up on most of them. At the top of her list was Il Santo Bevitore, not too far from the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrano (“Artisan Quarter,” an area that was more local than touristy). I first popped into the cozy wine bar next door, not immediately realizing that it was actually Il Santo’s sister restaurant, Il Santini. I lingered over a glass of wine and a couple of snacks, including a lovely crostini with fresh tomatoes, pulled mozzarella, salty olive tapenade, and chiffonade of basil.

I took a long walk around the area before returning to the same corner for dinner at buzzing Il Santo’s bar. During the meal, I was able to sample all the flavors of autumn in Italy: a rustic pumpkin soup with coffee oil followed by chestnut tagliatelle with oxtail ragu. I enjoyed the creativity of both dishes, but it was the simple dessert of strawberries and mascarpone cream that stuck with me the most.

Chestnut tagliatelle, Il Santo Bevitore

Chestnut tagliatelle with oxtail and traditional dolceforte sauce at Il Santo Bevitore

Strawberries with mascarpone cream for dessert, Il Santo Bevitore

Strawberries with mascarpone cream for dessert at Il Santo Bevitore

My host had also recommended Perseus, calling it “the king of Florentine steak.” While I couldn’t order the famously enormous steak, suitable for 2–4 people, I did try a smaller portion of sliced steak with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction, and it was still very good. Perseus was also where I sated an avocado craving that had been slowly building during the trip. The avocado and shrimp worked well together as a salad, even though it didn’t feel especially Italian.

Avocado with shrimp, Perseus

Avocado and shrimp appetizer at Perseus

And of course there was gelato. Venchi is a well-known brand in Florence, and its dark chocolate gelato was certainly the most intense, rich variety I had all trip. This time, I was glad I stuck with a classic. However, I leaned a little more adventurous at Carapina, where I rewarded myself for climbing to the top of the Duomo at Santa Maria Del Fiore. The concord grape and strawberry had an unexpected seedy crunch, and the persimmon also had a thicker texture to match its unique flavor. My favorite was the creamy mint, a flavor I wish I’d noticed at more gelaterias.

Dark chocolate and dulce de leche gelato, Venchi

Dark chocolate and dulce de leche gelato at Venchi

Gelato, Carapina

Persimmon, mint, and concord-grape strawberry gelato at Carapina

Another main food and drink destination was the Mercato Centrale, a longstanding two-floor market. On the lower floor were the traditional vendors, slinging everything from pecorino to tripe to crunchy biscotti, the latter sold in an especially fantastic pistachio white chocolate variety. One afternoon, I bought a panino from the market and brought it back to my Airbnb to enjoy in the adorable backyard garden. The panino was named the Caprese VIP, because it contained truffle sauce in addition to the normal caprese ingredients. The pungent sauce really did transform the sandwich (and made me glad to be in Italy during truffle season).

An array of biscotti from Cantucci at Mercato Centrale

An array of biscotti from Cantucci at Mercato Centrale

Caprese VIP panino, Mercato Centrale

Caprese VIP panino with mozzarella, tomato, and truffle sauce from Clara at Mercato Centrale, enjoyed in the garden at my AirBnb

On the upper floor of the Mercato Centrale was a newly renovated gourmet food hall with at least a dozen chef-branded stations – plus an Eataly pop-up shop and a cooking demonstration area. After surveying my options, I decided on the pizzeria, where I could see bubbling pies cooked to order in a stone oven. The pizza Napoli had punchy anchovies and capers in addition to the cheese and sauce, and the dough had just enough salt and char, so I can officially say it was the best pizza I had in Italy. I was intrigued by the contrast between the Mercato Centrale’s two floors, though, and wonder how the vendors downstairs perceive and interact with this new area that’s clearly designed to appeal to foodies from all over the world. Isn’t Italy food-focused by default? The whole setup of the upper floor is beautifully executed, but wouldn’t the original vendors be a more authentic culinary experience? A bit of a digression, but worth thinking about.

Pizza Napoli from Pizzeria Sud on the upper floor of Mercato Centrale

Beer and pizza Napoli with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, capers, dried oregano, and Spanish anchovies from Pizzeria Sud on the upper floor of Mercato Centrale

I wanted to see Tuscany, too, so I took a half-day tour to Siena that included tastings at two wineries. The first, Lornano, is known for its chianti classico, and I discovered that I happen to really like chianti classico. It was a privilege to tour the property and learn about the winemaking process in such a famous region. After a couple of touristy hours in the city of Siena, our final stop was Tenuta Torciano, which was both a winery and a wine school. We were educated on the proper way to hold the glass (by the base), smell, and taste as we tried more wines and paired them with a full dinner. Our host and sommelier poured white truffle extra virgin olive oil (again, it was truffle season) onto each slice of lasagna, a move that seemed lavish and excessive at first, but actually turned out to be perfect usage of that oil. At dessert, I learned about the tradition of dipping biscotti into vin sante (sweet wine) – a brilliant and authentically Italian combination.

Chianti classico tasting at Fattoria Lornano

Chianti classico tasting at Fattoria Lornano

Lasagna with truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil at Tenuta Torciano

Lasagna drizzled with truffle-infused extra virgin olive oil during wine tasting dinner at Tenuta Torciano

My last stop was Venice, where I had less than a full day to explore (and I’ll admit that I was mostly gawking at how the streets really were made of water). Caffe Florian claims to be the longest continuously operating coffee shop in the world at 290 years old, so it seemed worth a visit. While I don’t think that distinction merits the exorbitant prices they charged, I still loved sitting along the edge of bustling Piazza San Marco and listening to live classical music. The coffee I chose was a blend of espresso, chocolate, cream, and a few kinds of liqueur that lent pleasant licorice-y notes to the drink. The colorful trio of seafood toasts were a nice savory complement, especially the tuna. Next time, I’ll have to explore Venice a little longer!

Coffee and trio of toasts, Caffe Florian

Trio of Venetian toasts (tuna, salmon, and salt cod) and Caffé Anniversario Florian (to celebrate 290 years), with espresso, Aurum liqueur, Anisette Varnelli, chocolate, and cream

The details: Il Santo Bevitore and Il Santino, Via di Santo Spirito, 64/66 and 60, Florence; Venchi, Via dei Calzaiuoli, 65, Florence; Carapina, Via Lambertesca, 18, Florence; Clara, Cantucci, and Pizzeria Sud, all in Mercato Centrale, Via dell’Ariento, Florence; Fattoria Lornano, Loc. Lornano, 11, Monteriggioni, Siena; Tenuta Torciano, Via Crocetta, 18, Ulignano, Siena; Perseus, Viale Don Minzoni, 10, Florence; Caffe Florian, Piazza San Marco, 57, Venice.