Sunday, April 04, 2010

Quattro Stagioni


Staying at the right hotel is the dividing line between a successful business trip and a memorable experience. When traveling in Europe my temporary residence is often a four-star or, occasionally, a five-star business hotel as close as possible to the venue where my meetings are to take place. I usually follow the advice of my hosts and when they offer to handle the reservation themselves I normally agree. These hotels are quite comfortable and provide efficient around the clock services. They and most of their clientele are sadly soulless though. I'm not always fortunate to run into a Fenella after all. Sigh!!!

On my third trip to the Netherlands over the last year I have learned my lesson well enough not to put my fate in the hands of efficient secretaries. Despite the inconvenience of changing accommodations for one night only I find myself opting for this choice more and more. The hell with the business suit and tie, the hygienic room in the middle of nowhere and the bar full of boring stiffs who talk only about work even when drunk. On my last night in a new city I'm moving my ass out of there in search of a cozy little place either in the heart of things or away from the screeching silence of the business environment.

March has been one of those months for me where I lived off my suitcase. Well, it's no longer a suitcase in the real sense of the word as I have become very apt at traveling light. I can handle any four or five-day trip now with a single carry-on and instead of waiting for my luggage to arrive on a maddeningly slow carousel I can have a head start on my first beer.


I spent a wonderful evening in the buzz of Amsterdam and a relaxing walk through her back alleys followed by a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast at the Avenue Hotel on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal Straat in the center of the city. After a brief interim in Tartous I found myself in Venice with one last free afternoon and a rainy sky. I had worked out of the port of Venice for two days and I really looked forward my alone time in a small suburb of Mestre called Zelarino. This is not the first time I stay at the Antico Moro, a three-star hotel built on the original structure of an 18th century palace owned by the Foscari Family and it hopefully won't be the last. I really relish the privacy and the placidity it offers after a couple of days of hard work. I waited the rain out in my pleasant room and listened to it tap-dancing on the shingles of the vaulted ceiling. Then I went out into the night and walked along the deserted main street to the sounds of bells from the chiesa di Santa Maria Immacolata. An hour of brisk walking changed my mind about not having dinner but all I could find were small ice cream parlors and the ubiquitous Italian cafes. I sought advice from the night clerk and he was rather surprised that I was asking for a good place to eat.


“This way prego.” I followed him to the back of the small lobby where he opened a door and I found myself stepping into the fantastic Sotto il Sogno, Pizzeria e Ristorante. The waitress asked: “Would you like meateh, fisheh or Pizza?” Since I was only familiar with the last one that's what I chose. Now don't get me wrong, I like a good pizza. I always thought that I offended my Italian colleagues and friends when I told them that the best pizza I've had was in Chicago. Accordingly I stopped saying that completely. They are sensitive those Italians you know and they take everything personally. I also never gave justice to Italian beer simply because, apparently, I was always taken to the wrong places.


I sat alone at my table facing the wood fired oven and watched the tall and skinny chef handling the dough. I always assumed a good cook must be fat, or has a full waste line at least. Very wrong assumption, I'm glad to admit. And, not only did this place look terrific but lo and behold they had a beer menu. I ordered an amber Rurale Birra. The waitress warned me: “But it is biggeh!”. I simply smiled at her and said: “Certo ... So” (Sure... I know).

It didn't turn out to be that big after all, a mere 750 cc any healthy boy like me should easily gulp down with a pizza. And, Ahhh, that brings us to the real stuff. I ate the best Quattro Stagioni, well really the best pizza ever, anywhere, anytime.


As I went outside for one last walk late at night, the buzz of Zelarino was no less magnificent than that of Amsterdam, a fitting end to a long stretch away from home. Did I mention that the beer was goooooood? Well it was and I can't wait for my next visit. When the petite waitress tells me that “it is biggeh the beer” I will answer, again with a grin on my face: “quindi si prega di fare loro due ” (Then please make them two).

24 comments:

Isobel said...

FANTASTICO!! :) I always really enjoy your posts on travel, being an armchair traveler for now. I'm dying to go to Italy and now I've added Amsterdam to my list. It's quite early in the morning as I write this comment but I could go for one of those pizzas right now...maybe I'll skip the beer until later! lol! Thanks, Abufares, for giving us a snapshot into your world of business travel - you actually make it look fun!

BIL said...

I must say it sounds as if you really had a nice time on your trip. Yes, Italy does bring back many memories of my travels to that wonderful country. The food, the people, and the country side and wonderful old cities … did I mention the food <:-) You are right in that one should never cast a doubt about the origin of the best pizza on earth with a Italian, that can only cause a lengthy discussion which most definitely you will lose! But then again, what the heck ……... It still sounds as if you had a pleasant experience. Look forward to hearing about your next travel experience. Please say “Hi” to the family and wish you all a pleasant “Frohe Ostern”. Best wishes BIL

Karin said...

YUMMERS!! Ahhh ... quattro stagioni, four seasons ... the best pizza of all as it has a little bit of everything!

I copy Isobel ... it is 8am right now but that wouldn't prevent me from devouring a slice with the greatest appetite ever ... and the second a few hours later for lunch from another section of the "four seasons", I suppose with a glass of vino rosso!

Can you imagine I have been to Italy many times, either for skiing (Bolzano and vincinity) or SCUBA diving (island of Elba) but have never made it to Venice or further south to Rome?? One of my major lapses I have to work on one day! I would love to visit as well Pompeii and Ercolano (Herculaneum) ... I love history/archaeology and learn how the people there lived!

GREAT POST Abufares ... really makes me want to have a vacation over there!!
:-)

Omar said...

Wow Abufares, would you believe that we went to the same restaurant in Mestre! I can never forget that place, and I'm glad I finally have its name. My friend and I went through loads of receipts trying to find any information about it. We too found it by accident, but as soon as we walked in the amazing hostess treated us, two sweaty backpackers, like 5 star clients. That's why we went there again on the next afternoon and went full out despite our limited budget. I hope she gave you the fresh oregano, and spicy olive oil to eat with your pizza :)

Gabriela said...

It makes me so glad, that amidst the whole annoyance of a business trip, you've managed to find such a lovely place.
I guess the good disposition you had at the time, albeit being tired, made it possible for you.
Happy Easter!
Saludos desde Lima.

Anonymous said...

Italy is always best when you get out of the tourist trap places. Last time I was there visiting my Sister in law, she took us to a lot of the small local restaurants around Dozza. The food was wonderful. The service was wonderful, and even the wine tasted better than anywhere else! We enjoyed every minute of our stay.

Your pictures are always a treat. Your words always evoke sentiments, responses and, this time, also a big smile : )

w.b. yeats

abufares said...

@Isobel
Business travel is 90% hair pulling agony and 10% serene loneliness as far as I'm concerned. Several colleagues have already told me how dreadful it is to finish work and not find an immediate flight back. Some of them have repeatedly expressed their bewilderment at my own preferences.
In my travel I've rarely been disappointed and to walk alone in a new city is such a memorable experience.
The pizza was great. The beer was awesome. I hope you get to travel all over so that we can hear/read about it from you. Airplanes and trains take us conveniently from an origin to a destination. Your writing move us on a flight of fancy more beautiful at times than the real world it describes :-)

abufares said...

@BIL
I've been to Italy so many times but the furthest south I got was Rome. What I like about Europe is the tremendous variety of lifestyles from city to city even in the same country.
Good food is such a pleasure in life and when combined with other enjoyable activities make up for a very happy human being. I kind of felt guilty not to have discovered good beer in Italy before. They make such a big fuss about their wine and food (both of which I find good but in no way the best) and they forgot to promote some very good low production beer.
I had the pleasure of sampling a bottle of 11% alcohol Italian Benedictine beer as well and it really ranked very high among the best I've had.

abufares said...

@Karin
The pizza was really good. I was very full when I finished it otherwise I would've ordered a second one. I did not even leave a crumb of crust in my plate. What I liked most about it is that the ingredients were not mixed together. So each slice tasted unique and it was like I had 6 different pizzas. Let me know when you're coming on your vacation... may be we can meet :-)

abufares said...

@Omar
Oh what a lovely coincidence!
They are very friendly indeed in Mestre and I dare say much more than their Venetian neighbors.
Well I don't think it's an inherent fault but is rather caused by the thousands upon thousands of tourists they have to deal with. If I lived there I would be grumpy myself I guess. To wake up and find different (often crazy) people everyday. What a nightmare!
When I eat in Italy, I always ask for a bottle of hot olive oil and I pour it generously over whatever I order. Well come to think about it this is what I do at home as well :-)

abufares said...

@Gabriela
Happy Easter my dear Gabriela.
Time is mellowing me down. I really have a good disposition mostly. You can say that I'm like wine, getting better with age, lolll.
You know what I really think. Once we stop taking everything seriously we are apt to have the best of times.
Salam min Tartous :-)

abufares said...

@w.b. yeats
I'm so happy I made you smile :-)
I have to confess though that I didn't take the first 2 photos (the Antico Moro Hotel and the Sotto il Sogno, Pizzeria e Ristorante). These came from their respective websites.
I was clear of mind, however, to take a picture of my beer as soon as I tasted and like it then of my pizza after I cut my first slice. The moment the beer cascaded in my mouth I knew I have to write about the evening.
You're absolutley right, the further away from the tourist crowd you get the nicer "any" country actually is.
Look at Syria. Everybody goes to Damascus and Aleppo but very few to Tartous... HAhAhaAHA (hysterical laugh)

Joseph said...

Alf sa7a whanna, Abufares, & 7amdella 3al salameh. Nothing is quite like an authentic hideaway restaurant. I have only been to Italy once. Rome, a quick 24 Hours stay that involved plenty of alcohol. But, for some reason or another, I only remember the Spanish steps!
What I do remember very well though, are the back streets of old town Nice (France) where, like over sized murals, hidden in the most inner alleys, are some of the most uncomplicated weave of buildings and down to earth little French & Italian restaurants that serve some of the best pizza’s, sea food and buffalo mozzarella among others...

Gabriela said...

I guess not taking ourselves too seriously is the secret of happiness.
I loved this Vivaldi-like post!

Sean said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with the Italians: Hands down, the best pizza I've ever had was in Naples. It's hard to eat badly in Napoli, but if you ever make it to the south, the pizzas at Di Matteo on Via dei Tribunali are absolutely to die for.

Having said that, one of the best nargilehs I've ever had in my life was in Las Vegas, so make of that what you will.

I'm glad I'm one of the few! We're planning to spend a few weeks in Syria at some stage in the next year or so, self-driving - we want to see much more of the coastal mountains, and get out to the Euphrates. We'll be sure to drop by Tartous again when we do...

abufares said...

@Joseph
The adventure in traveling is in finding these little pleasures in Nice, in Treviso, in Beirut or in Tartous. One has to set himself adrift with the natural rhythm of the people who dwell these and other cities around the world.
I have rarely been disappointed in my travel because if I have the time this is how I go about it. Alone, on foot and in harmony with the human current I follow my instinct.

abufares said...

@Gabriela
It is half the secret. The other half is finding your other half ;-)

Wow! Even my attempt at being funny is a joke, lolll.

abufares said...

@Sean
We've all heard about the pizza of Napoli. I have tried it in a dozen places but never in its native land. I will take your word for it because I'm gastronomically biased toward the South (always).
When in Syria, ring me old buddy. I would love that we get together again.

Anonymous said...

Sean is right, the best pizza is from Naples. It is not because i come from there, but because it is the truth.
My suggestion: try the Margherita one when you will be there: tomato (Sammarzano quality), Mozzarella cheese and basilic. That's all. Pizza was created as a simply food and its ingredients must be few and of high quality.
Antonio

ayman said...

Sorry to disagree with all of you Europhiles but the US has the best pizzas, period. This guy called Lombardi started a Pizza place in 1890s in N.Y. At that time Italian Pizzas were sandwichet jibneh mukamarah (melted cheese) with oil and garlic only. Marinara red sauce was added later (a breakfast sauce fisherman ate). New York style pizzas are still the gold standard and extra toppings are blasphemy. In DC we have a small pizza and clam bar called Palisades Pizza and the crust alone is to die for.

abufares said...

@Antonio
There are as many theories about the origin of pizza as there are varieties. I'm not a huge pizza fan. I like it but when I certainly stronger craving for a "good" hamburger than I have for any pizza whatever it may be.

abufares said...

@Ayman
Your story is the one I heard many years ago that indeed pizza started by Italian immigrants to the US. I think it's highly subjective, the choice of toppings. I don't really appreciate a spartan pizza. Our Safayeh in that case are much tastier.
Thank you for dropping by.

Karin said...

So ... it was not a quattro but SEI stagioni pizza!!
You bet I will let you know in time ... for the meantime there are complications over complications .... I"ll drop you an e-mail to explain!

BTW ... I am awaiting a new post from "superkid"! ;-)

ayman said...

Abufares, it's always a pleasure to read your blog. Have you ever visted my uncle Basil's blog; www.middleastforum.com.

I posted something on Syrian Americans and got some interesting comments. The one that shocked me was; Bill Gates is Syrian!