Category: travel

Chicago – a study in high class/low brow eating.

Chicago is home to many famous food institutions. Whenever I travel, I like to check out the famous foods of the area. In this case, it was a study in extreme low/high brow eating. One night we ate at the famous molecular gastronomy temple, Alinea, and then stuffed ourselves silly on Garrett’s popcorn, deep dish pizza and chicago dogs the next. 

Here is a run-down of the triumphs and disappointments in Chicago low-brow dining. 

Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza 

Chicago Style Deep Dish pizza was a must-eat while we were in the windy city. I have high pizza standards. In Italy, my first calzone made me cry. I am passionate about pizza. I was coming to this pizza experience not expecting it to mimic my Italian pizza experience, but to come close in terms of food revelations. We chose to go with the original deep dish pizza location, Pizzeria Uno, where a chef in 1943 first served this mammoth creation. 

We ordered  the ‘numero uno’ pizza with the works. We waited in anticipation for 45 minutes while the pizza cooked. It arrived and I was hopeful. The crust looked flaky and buttery, as it should be. The toppings were deep, real deep. This was certainly not an italian pizza. We bit into the pizza, hoping for an explosion of pizza fireworks, and….nothing. This pizza might have made me cry for the wrong reasons. The crust was dry and flavourless, the sauce was nothing special, the cheese wasn’t gooey enough. A pizza that should have been messy and molten was dry and boring. 

Garrett Popcorn

I had read of Garrett Popcorn in my multiple guidebooks but was skeptical. In Canada, we have Kernels popcorn chain in just about every mall and while I have been known to enjoy the double butter flavour at Kernels, I would not rave about it. I would and will rave about Garrett Popcorn. In the span of three days we visited Garrett’s twice. On the first visit we tried the caramel crisp, on the second, we had the much lauded “Chicago Mix”. The mix is both the caramel crisp and cheese corn flavour. The mix is heaven in a popcorn. The sweet and crunchy caramel coated popcorn combined with salty, soft and cheesy popcorn was the perfect snack for a savoury-sweet lover such as myself. My only regret is that I didn’t bring more home with me. 

The Chicago Dog

I was at the airport on my way home and had not yet had a Chicago Dog, I looked up and saw a sign with the most dapper well-dressed hot dogs I had ever seen. Surely this was a good sign, the perfect chance to have a Chicago Dog before making my way back to Toronto. The Chicago Dog is an all-beef hotdog on a poppy-seed bun, dragged “through the garden”with yellow mustard, green relish, onion, tomato slices, a pickle spear, hot peppers and celery salt. This dog did not disappoint. My husband, who does not like too many condiments even thought it was delicious. I say drag all my future hot dogs through the garden. 

I’ll meet you on the corner of Prada and Louis Vuitton

I went to Milano today with my friend John. We were super tourists. We attempted to see everything possible. I was told Milan was an expensive city, but it turns out getting to Milan is the expensive part. I used the lone taxi in this vicinity to get to the train station (20 Euros), I bought a return ticket to Milano (10 Euros), the train was late, so I missed my connecting train in Piacenza (10 Euros for the express), and I lost my return ticket throughout the day (7 Euros) and took a taxi back to Bilegno (20 Euros). A whopping 67 Euros to go to Milan. Worth every penny.

Milano is gorgeous. Bustling and a bit grimey with amazing architecture, just what I like in a city. Arriving at Milano Centrale station I knew I would enjoy my day, it looked like a museum, with dozens of people peddling strange wind up toy horses and bicycles outside. We actually saw a woman buy one. I wonder who was at the receiving end of that gem? We hoped on the subway to make our way to the Duomo. Walking up to street level from the subway, you are immediately overcome with the Duomo. I have never seen such a grand building in my life, I would be surprised if I ever do. Pigeons, peddlers, tourists and milanese are everywhere in the piazza. Slightly overwhelmed, we go in the Duomo. A truly incredible feat of mankind produced this magnificent structure.
We walk across town to find The Last Supper. Turns out, it is closed on Mondays and reservations are required. Alas, we carry on to see the not-so-famous canals of Milano, which the trusty guide book promised would be as good as Venice’s. The canals were used to transport marble to build the Duomo. Facinating, we had to see them. The trusty guide book is clearly meant for summer travel because when we got to the canals, they are not the placid marble highways I was expecting, but lacking water and full of wine bottles and garbage. Alas, we carry on to see the Castello Sforzesco, a 1368 fortress that once housed Da Vinci’s workshop and has 10 museums in it. All 10 museums are closed on Mondays.
We realize we hadn’t climbed to the top of the Duomo. In the last 30 minutes we were in Milano, we participated in our own version of the Amazing Race. We ran up 30 steep, narrow staircases to get to the top, took pictures like maniac tourists, ran back down the staircase, ran to the subway, got on and travelled 4 stops while being seraneded by a violinist who only added to the intensity we were feeling, ran to the train station, bought tickets, and ran to the train with 5 minutes to spare. I would never make it on the amazing race.
Did we eat any good food in Milano? I would love to say we did, but after horrendous stories of being ripped off trying to eat Risotto Milanese, we opted for a trusty, cheap McBacon and a grande coffee. I was so happy with my very large coffee, I took a photo of it in front of the Duomo.

Where in the world is Leslie?

The Region – Emilia Romagna

Italy’s wealthiest wheat and dairy producing region (or so says my travel book). On the Po River, it is known for its culinary traditions, having in its borders…Parma (of the famed parmigiano and prosciutto), Bologna (of the famed Bolognese and Mortadella) and Modena (of the famed balsamic vinegar).

The Province & the Big City –
Piacenza – Population 95,132
The Province I live in, it takes me 1 hour by bus and a 45 minute walk to get here, to my only internet connection. It was one of the 1st Roman colonies and was the longtime headquarters for Julias Caesar. The city is quite pretty, with a moderate amount of shopping, that is only open arbitrarily. The region of Piacenza is known for its cured meats (coppa, salame, pancetta), pasta (anolini, pisarei e faso, gnocchi, panzerotti and tortelli con la coda) and its main courses of duck, guinea fowl, and cavallo (horse!). The province is known as the Province of Castles, but I have yet to see one.
The Commune (Municipality)
Borgonova Val Tidone – Population 7,483
The town closest to where I live. I can bike here in 15 minutes, or walk in 45minutes. There is one main street with a small piazza, Piazza Garibaldi, and a town hall. It is very small. The stores, also sporadically open, are few. Great gelato though, thank god for small miracles. The best thing about Borgonova is the bus stop that takes me to Piacenza for £3.50.
The Frazione – (Hamlet)
Bilegno – Population 70, with 15 children, and 1 Canadian
The village I live in. Or, the street. The centre of Bilegno is La Palta. They sell caffe, cigarettes and gelato in the coffee bar, and have an osteria for casual lunch in the basement during the week, while the ristorante is upstairs and caters to people from away more than Bilegno locals. Random dogs, cats and children run around. There is a church (under repair), as well. The towns around here are in the valley so the views of the hills (I would call them mountains…) are very pretty. We went to pick up cheese for the restaurant a few weeks ago up in the hills and I got very carsick, it was like driving to Whistler, but much much much worse and dare I say, more beautiful.

Life in Bilegno

I wake up in the morning to the sound of cows and my roomates alarm clock. I have two roomates, both Sarah. We live in a tiny apartment next door to the restaurant. One bedroom. Two Sarahs. One Leslie.

I get to work at 9am. I make mini panna cotta’s with an herb called melissa that looks frustratingly like mint when I have to pick it from the garden. I make almond tuilles and candied nocciola, grapefruit and ginger. Then, pronto caffe, time for espresso. I then help with the bread, or prep for lunch service. And…pronto pranzo. Lunchtime, we sit down and eat a proper meal, vegetables, pasta, meat, bread. I am always tired afterwards during lunch service. Lunch service is a mix of the fine-dining ristorante of La Palta, and the osteria they run downstairs for the locals. We clean up and have a break from 3:30pm – 6:30pm. In the evening we have another meal together and get ready for the dinner service, which is all fine-dining. I work on the appetizer station with the sous-chef and I am responsible for makin sure all those treats I made in the morning get out to every table – pre-dessert before the magnificent deserts reach their tables. We clean-up and finish between 11pm and 12:30am. This is my day. 6 times a week.

(photo from

Ca’ del bosco

Our last field trip was to Ca’ del Bosco, the most beautiful vineyard I have ever seen. The tour was incredible, it looked like a vineyard from a futuristic movie. We finished our tour with bread and sparkling wine in a grand cigar lounge of a room filled with leather couches and a wooden beamed ceiling. Magnifico! We all felt very posh and a bit umbraico by the time we left. Dancing in the courtyard ensued.

(this photo is from another vineyard, actually..)

*these are not my photos, my laptop broke – photos will be retrieved in december, alas.

Under the Tuscan Stars…

We woke at an ungodly hour to go to Tuscany. We visited Siena, a tuscan butcher, and a beautiful farm where we were treated to an italian barbeque with sausages and meat from the butcher we had visited. We sat at long tables and ate and ate and drank wine (frizzante, of course) and grappa and homemade limoncello. The best part of the night was the traditional Tuscan dancers and singers. Everyone sang and danced and drank. It was by far my favourite night in Italy. I will never forget it. Under the tuscan sky, dancing and laughing, eating and drinking. Just unbelievable.

Birthday in Italy

I celebrated my twenty-eighth birthday in Italy. I had a full day of school, it was meat-day. My breakfast was beef tenderloin with fois-gras. Not too shabby.

After class, my wonderful friends made a huge meal and a birthday cake with nutella gelato on top. We had some celebratory wine (1.50euro a bottle!)

I was truly touched.


Our first field trip day was to the town of Roncofreddo in the Romagna area of Emilia-Romagna. It was our first real look at the Italian landscape beyond Parma and it was breathtaking. The road up the mountain to Roncofreddo was terrifying, our large tour bus was not designed to drive these types of steep inclines with sharp turns and cliffs and occasional oncoming traffic on a truly one-way road. We went on a tour of the Frantoio Baldiserri olive oil mill, through the olive trees and into the mill itself. The owner, a sweet older Italian man named Renato, explained the process of pressing and refining the oil. I bought some olive oil from the mill, for only 9 euros, he pumped the oil from the vats and bottled it right in front of us! Amazing!
Renato had us for lunch in his cliffside home that had a terrace which overlooked the Romagnan valleys, with the independent state of San Marino in the far distance on a mountaintop. It was magical. Renato had lived in this house since the day he was born and treated us like family in his home. We ate a three-course meal of prosciutto, home-made sausage, piadina, and the freshest tastiest figs I have ever seen as an antipasta, a stracciatella soup, and local chicken. We relaxed on his terrace and headed on our way to his pecorino cheese making shop. The process of making this cheese is really interesting, I’ll write more about it another day.
We went to a farm next and fed adorable cows hay and ate grapes off the vine and figs off the tree. Idyllic.
On the way back, stuffed and tired, our teacher stopped the bus at a typical Piadina stand. Piadina are a typical snack in the Romagna region. A piadina is a flatbread made with flour, lard, salt and water and is filled somewhat like a pizza, I had one with pomodoro and mozzarella, others had spinach and potato, some had tuna in them…very yummy indeed.