Trattoria Mario - Florence, Italy

Via Rosina, 2/R
Florence, Italy
Tel. 055.218550
(Closed Sundays and holidays, and the whole month of August 2009)
Open for lunch only, cash only

Behind Mercato Centrale, there's a very small restaurant, but you can't miss it with all the magazine and newspaper food reviews plastered on the door and window of this trattoria. This place is known for its homestyle Tuscan cooking, especially the Florentine steak. Come early or be prepared to wait.

Ordering may be a bit hectic if you don't know what to order. There is one big menu inside on the wall, and one menu outside, so take a look at this first.

The restaurant is very crowded and the seating is communal. We sat at a table for 4 with another couple from South America. Then, in the middle of our meal, they finished, and a couple from New York replaced them and sat with us. It was an interesting and fun time to share our travel stories and food experience with each other.
Italian bread is no good unless you like the taste of dry cardboard. They bake the bread without salt so it's tasteless. I also rarely saw restaurants serve bread with olive oil and basalmic vinegar. Is this an American thing?
Bistecca alla Fiorentina is served rare with a nice lemon slice. They slice up the raw meat in the kitchen and bring it out to the customer to inspect and approve before grilling it. The hearty steak had an excellent salt-crusted exterior and a warm, juicy rare interior. This dish is good for two and comes with a side. I squeezed the lemon atop the meat and I savored every bite of the steak.
We ordered a side of french fries, but the last batch had just been ordered by the South American couple who sat at our table. (But they were very kind enough to share their fries with us when it came out). We ordered the fresh tomatoes instead that was nicely drizzled with salt and olive oil. Great balance to the hearty Florentine steak.
To refresh our palettes, we had the melon. (For some reason, my husband was craving melon and ordered it, sometimes with prosciutto, almost at every meal).
This restaurant was recommended by a friend who travels to Italy every year and what a great recommendation it was! The Florentine steak here was excellent and I would definitely come back here again. (FYI-There is a bathroom towards the back outside, but it is a hole in the ground. I panicked a bit because I thought the running water was going to flood).


Il Pizzaiuolo - Florence, Italy

Via de'Macci 113/R
Firenze, Italy
(cash only, reservations required, closed Sundays and August. )

Many had recommended to us that Il Pizzaiuolo serves the best and most genuine Neapolitan pizza in town. It's located near the Santa Croce church and a 10 minute walk to the Duomo. The pizzeria is a small place, yet is informal and unpretentious. Having no reservations, we arrived 15 minutes before opening and found a waitress guarding the door so that the waiting patrons won't come in before the opening at 7:30pm. Luckily, we were led right in at 7:40pm. And the place quickly got crowded by locals, students and tourists.

The wood burning oven.
Pizza Margherita (6 ) - fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil
The thin-crust pizza had a light, nicely charred edge and a good balance of tomato sauce and mozzarella. I wish they could have added a few more basil leaves though. Italians usually eat their pizzas with a fork and knife, so I tried following suit, but found it more satisfying just picking it up and taking a huge bit.. of course modestly.
Pasta con funghi porcini (9 ) - Ever since I ate the Sophia Loren pizza at Osteria La Buca in Los Angeles, I fell in love with porcini mushrooms. There's something about its rich and meaty flavor that is so distinct from the other mushrooms. At Il Pizzaiuolo, the mushrooms were much bigger, meatier, and more on the soft side - almost slimy I would say, but the flavors were intense and incredible. The portion here was very generous, lots of mushrooms and lots of pasta.
This pizzeria is quite popular with tourists and locals, so come early if you don't have reservations. There is a cover charge (coperte), as with most restaurants, for 2 per person.


Trattoria Ca D'Oro - Venice, Italy

Calle del Pistor, Cannareggio, Venice
(across Strada Nova from the Ca' d'Oro stop)
(Closed on Thursdays, no lunch on Sundays).

We heard this trattoria was popular for its meatballs. Ca D'Oro is not on the main road, but tucked in a corner alley in the Cannareggio area. We kept on walking back and forth, and it took us almost an hour finding this hidden place. If you're near the McDonald's, you're quite close. And as for most restaurants in Italy, Ca D'Oro doesn't open until 7:30pm.

We ordered a carafe of the house wine (which was the same price as the water - agua naturale) and 3 meatballs (polpette) at 1.50 each. The meatballs had a bit of a spicy kick to it and was very moist. You can get these tasty meatballs at the counter too along with the other local appetizers with a glass of wine and mingle with other people.
Then, we ordered an excellent spaghetti with prawns and basil. Simple yet so tasty.
As we headed out, there were a dozen of people at the bar, either enjoying the cichèti (small plates) or waiting for a table while drinking wine. There is also a cover charge of 2 € per person. Make reservations and bring cash.


Le Bistro de Breteuil - Paris

3, place de Breteuil (Invalides area)
01 45 67 07 27

On our first night in Paris, our cousins took us to this charming brasserie with seating in the outdoor terrace, overlooking the square and surrounded by many upscale residences and storefronts. On this Sunday evening, most of the places were closed except for the restaurant that breathed life in this area.

Willy Dorr is the man behind this bistro, along with 6 other bistrots in Paris, and all of them serves a "tout compris" (everything included) menu, which is nice knowing that you'll be ordering and how much exactly you'll be spending.

For 38 €, the meal starts with a refreshing house aperitif of Kir Royale, a starter (entree), main course (plat), dessert, a bottle of wine for two, and coffee. According to the website, the summer menu was elaborated by Jean-Jacques Jouteux (Michelin and Gault-Millau Gastronomic Guides).

Tuna tartar
The tuna tartar was served atop fresh bean sprouts, chives, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. The tuna was really fresh and the crunchy bean sprouts gave the dish some texture and a nice refreshing taste. It felt a bit too Asian though because I'm not used to bean sprouts with other types of cuisines.
Potato Gratin in Foie Gras sauce
The potato gratin was baked with Gruyere cheese, one of my favorites and the rich sauce had some pieces of foie gras in it. Very delicious. Roast Rack of Lamb in Thyme Juice and Potato Gratin
This rack of lamb was cooked to perfection and the thyme essence was just right and not overpowering. Sole Meunière and Buttered Potato Purée
The sole was browned in butter sauce with lemon juice. The fish was nice and the flavoring of the sauce was mild.
The crêpes were brought out with the flames still burning atop them. (See below for the bluish/purple flames) They were flambeed with Grand Marnier, which was so strong that I could not get past even 2 bites and had to give it away to my friend.
Vanilla Crème Brûlée
The crème brûlée was very soft and creamy. My cousin says crème brûlée with fruits on top is an American thing.
The atmosphere was relaxing and elegant. The service was great with gracious and attentive servers. Afterwards, you can also take a nice romantic stroll towards the lighted Eiffel Tower.


La Table de Joël Robuchon - Paris, France

La Table de Joël Robuchon
16 Ave Bugeaud 75116, 16th Arrondissement
Paris, France
Phone: 01 56 28 16 16

I don't think there is any better deal for lunch at a 2-starred Michelin restaurant in Paris. Joël Robuchon's seasonal cuisine is only 55 per person, which includes an amuse bouche, your choice of a hors d'oeuvre, fish or meat, fromage, dessert, wine for 2, a bottle of Evian water, and coffee. (You can even ask for 2 types of wine)

As I walked into this fine dining restaurant, I felt an air of sophistication and snobbery. I never did feel comfortable during my time here. And the service was very slow. Nonetheless, the food was overall excellent and worthy of a visit.

(I have to first disclose that I don't remember the menu much. It was probably the many glasses of wine that clouded my memory. And on the way out, we forgot to grab a menu. But I did the best I could to reconstruct the dishes for this post. Enjoy!)

This refreshing amuse bouche was like a tomato-flavored panna cotta with cuts of fennel stalks.

For the appetizer, I had an elegant eggplant dish with asparagus, cucumbers, celery, radish, bell peppers. It was simple, not as flavorful, but fresh tasting and true to the season. The other hors d'oeuvre plate was tomatoes and bell peppers stuffed with some chorizo and meatballs, drizzled with olive oil, tomato based jus and some greens.
For our entree, we both ordered the braised lamb in a tomato broth with onions and peas. We were both a bit disappointed in this entree. There was nothing spectacular or had any 'wow' factor. We felt like it was something we could prepare at home.
Known for its pomme puree, this was the smoothest and creamiest you will have ever tasted. It's probably made of mostly butter and some potatoes, but the taste was incredible. Maybe not good for your cholesterol, but definitely great for your taste buds.
At the end of the meal, we each had a plate of Brie of Meaux, light vinaigrette salad, and slices of nut and raisin bread. Our stomachs were so full, but we still managed to enjoy some of the fromage.
Then, they served us the dessert. Here is the decadent strawberries with basil ice cream and a marshmallow stick.
We also had berry sorbet with a sponge-like cake.
As we sipped our espresso, the server brought out these delectable bonbons - dark chocolate dusted with gold and salted caramels. Knowing our stomachs can no longer hold any ounce of food, we asked the kind waitress if we can have a small box or bag. Instead she brought out 2 exquisite-looking bags with ribbons filled with extra chocolates and caramels in them already. What a nice touch!
Though the service was slow and inattentive, I enjoyed the food overall, minus the braised lamb, because for 55 , we enjoyed the freshest and seasonal ingredients in elegantly prepared dishes that were well complemented with the wine.


Picnic at Versailles

Highly recommended by a friend, we booked a bike tour from Paris to Versailles with Fat Tire Bike Tour. Before reaching the grounds of Versailles, our tour guide took us to the open market to grab some picnic goodies. We love going to the farmer's market (whether it be in San Francisco, Pasadena, Irvine, Italy...) for all the fresh fruits and organic produce, so coming to the open market in Versailles was a real treat. They gave us only 40 minutes to shop - not enough!

Freshly squeezed orange juice

An impressive display of shrimp and prawns
Fresh, organic produce
A wide variety of paté and terrine
Fresh cherries, strawberries, peaches
We walked a bit away from the central market to a recommended bakery and bought a warm baguette to eat with the cheeses.
Fromage - we bought some Brie and Camembert
Laying out our food here. We also bought a rotisserie chicken too. I recommend bringing your own picnic supplies (I didn't see it being sold anywhere) and buy a nice bottle of wine at the market. Don't forget the corkscrew and the wine glasses.

Rillette d'Oie (goose paté) - This was one of my favorites. Rillettes are cooked in fat and this is why it's so delicious! It's far from the healthy side, but I could not hold back in eating this savory and creamy rillette that had shreds of the seasoned meat immersed in the fat.

Terrine de foie canard - A bit coarser and had less fat than the rillete. I didn't like it as much as the rillette but it did have a bold taste to it.
Our tour guide led us around the grounds of the Versailles, passing through Marie Antoinette's hamlet, the Petit and Grand Trianons, before settling down at the Grand Canal, Here, we enjoyed our scrumptious meal while gazing towards the beautiful chateau. It was a great experience to see the grounds and pastures of Versailles on bike and picnicking alongside the canal. It was such an intimate and peaceful feeling to absorb the lifestyle of those who lived here and the enchanting history of this place.


Café du Marché - Paris

38 rue Cler, 7th Arrondissement
Paris, France
(Corner of rue Cler and rue du Champ de Mars)

Rue Cler is a food lover's destination. A neighborhood street with open markets, each one having their own specialty - meats, cheese, fish, fruits, vegetables, baguettes, flowers, etc. Just walking down this streets gives a small village-like feeling. It was certainly a change from the being at the tourist-packed monuments.

We had a late dinner at Café du Marché, a corner restaurant with plenty of outside seating for eating and people watching. As usual, we were seated very close to other patrons, which was fine except for woman next to me who smoked a few too many cigarettes throughout the meal.

We first ordered the house wine and a prosciutto salad with a generous slab of paté.
Glancing at the plat du jour written on a chalkboard, we ordered the boeuf tartare and confit de canard, both served with a light salad and seasoned scalloped potatoes.

Since I never tasted boeuf tartare, I was not sure what to expect. And just looking at the raw ground beef was intimidating. When I built up my courage to try it, I found the flavor to be mild, and the texture was very soft and kind of just melted in my mouth. I was hoping there would be a tad bit more flavor or seasoning to it though.

Confit de canard - this dish is usually prepared by salting the leg of the duck and then poaching it in its own fat. I thought this dish was average and undersalted, nothing spectacular.
Maybe experiencing these 2 traditional French dishes shows how we, living in America, are used to the full robust flavorings as opposed to foods from other parts of the world that are more mild.
But nevertheless, I've read several favorable reviews and may come back one day, especially during the morning or afternoon, and watch the outdoor action of locals shopping for their fresh daily produce.


Berthillon - Paris

31 Rue St.-Louis-en-l'Ile
Paris, France
(Closed Mondays and Tuesdays)

Before heading to the Notre Dame, we stopped by Berthillon Ice Cream to see what the fuss was all about. By the water's edge on Ill Saint-Louis, you'll find a happening cafe and a very long line for the famous ice cream. Some say it's the best ice cream in Paris and some even say it's th best in the world. Not sure I would go that far, but the ice cream was pretty good and I could taste the real flavorings. I also like how Berthillon uses natural ingredients and natural flavorings - and no preservatives or artificial sweeteners. (Awesome!) Known for its luxury ice cream, it also comes with its luxury prices. For 3 euros, we got 2 humble scoops. Please see below. Before we got any taste, this was our double scoop of Berthillon ice cream. The fraise des bois (strawberry of the woods) is on top, and somewhere below is the chocolate noir (dark chocolate).
The ice cream itself was not as creamy as I was expecting it to be. I think we got the sorbet instead of the glace. And the chocolate noir was très noir - very dark. I never imagined dark chocolate flavored ice cream could be so dark. Dark chocolate is my favorite, but I think it was a good choice to have the strawberry ice cream to balance this dark, bold flavor.

The ice cream was good, but not memorable. I don't think it's a must-have or that you have to go out of your way to try the ice cream. At least not worth the long wait, the tiny scoops, and the 3 euros.