Tara! How was your trip to Italy?!

I’m sure I’m going to be asked this a lot! So, how was my trip? Simply put… indescribable. It’s going to take a long explanation to describe exactly how my trip was. So, I am making the most out of my 9 ½ hour flight and going to attempt to put it in words.

First off, how did this trip get planned only a couple months ago? Well, I am an “expert” on an app I discovered last year while I was in New York for a food trip with my mom. It’s an app called “ChefsFeed”, and if you are traveling or looking for great restaurants that are recommended by chefs, look no further. It’s definitely more popular in bigger cities. So since I am an expert on the app, I can post dishes I’ve had, or recommend restaurants. I can also receive or apply for opportunities, que Italy. I saw they had posted a new “Expert Opportunity” for a chefs only culinary tour through Sardinia. It was going to be a small group tour, traveling all around the island with founder of a Sardinian import company, Jonathan. It instantly sparked interest and I clicked to apply for/register interest. Soon after I received an email saying there was one spot left. Not letting fear hinder me and do it’s nasty work, I jump both feet in and said yes! After I got the final details, within 48 hours I had everything booked. When I was researching my flight, I saw I was going to have a layover in Rome. ROME. I couldn’t let this opportunity for more adventure slip away. So, I added 5 more days onto my trip and went with it.

Now, I would be lying if a week before my trip I got nervous. I mean… I’ve never been out of the country, let alone do something as crazy as this by myself. I mean, come on, a 31 year old single woman who speaks very minimal Italian, traveling overseas, meeting up with 8 other people who she doesn’t know, then going to Rome by herself. Call me crazy, it’s ok! I took a huge risk in so many ways. Was that risk worth it? There’s not a word big enough to say absolutely YES.

Let’s start in Sardinia.

After a crazy airport experience in JFK in New York (which I legitimately thought I was going to miss my flight), I arrived in Sardinia. Jonathan picked me up at the airport, and I was the first of the chefs to arrive. I immediately fell in love with Sardinia, and Jonathan was fantastic. I felt very much at peace with my decision. After checking into the hotel, we met up with half of the chefs, and went out for a traditional, Sardinian lunch in Cagliari. We headed to the beach for some fresh sea urchin pasta. Our lunch was full of fresh sea urchins, octopus, mussels, pasta, and wine. I found out an interesting fact, being an island, you would expect that it would be a seafood prominent place. That is surprisingly not the case. It is an island full of shepherds. So, the middle of the week was full of pig, sheep, lamb, and goat. Lunch was fantastic, and I immediately got a feel for the culture of the island and the other chefs. The Sardinians believe in using very minimal spices, and even limit the ingredients in the dish, as to keep the flavors pure and natural. Another thing they love? Bottarga! If you don’t know what that is, Bottarga is the Italian name for a delicacy of salted, cured fish roe, typically grey mullet. For this trip, I promised myself I would try to taste everything. So...I tried it for the first time at lunch. Oh boy. Truth time… it took every ounce of my being not to gag and spit it out. Mamma mia.

We spent the first night in Cagliari. We were guided around the city, and took in the beauty and learned about the history. Since we were still on the coast, for dinner, this was one of the two seafood prominent dinners we had. We dined and enjoyed a sea urchin “bruschetta”, which the exact dish I couldn’t tell you the name, but it was delicious. The sea urchin was on a crispy pork cheek, and it was served on a garlic crostini. Dessert here was my favorite overall. We enjoyed a tiramisu, but the ladyfingers is what made this unique. They were larger, and outside of the dessert they were the size of your palm. Besides the size, what made these unique and delicious was their flavor. They had a slight spice to them. We had in total maybe 7 courses, spanning about 3 hours. This is the way of the Sardinians, enjoying each other’s company over course after course of food and wine. Lunch was typically eaten around 2, and dinner was enjoyed around 8:30. In the morning we got up and headed to the local market. It reminded me of West Side Market in Cleveland, but on a larger and even fresher scale. Fish were still flopping about, squid and eels were squirming. The smell, as to be expected, wasn’t too pleasant, but the hustling and bustling of the market was alive. You heard the purveyors, mostly older Italian men, yelling about, and the women (mostly) doing the shopping. The market was filled with a variety of products, ranging from pigs hanging above the stands, horse meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and almost any type of seafood you can think of. From the market we moved onto on of my favorite stops for gelato! We got to try them all, about 20 I believe, and they were amazing (except the caper one...yes, I said caper). We got to learn about the process, and you can definitely expect to see gelato on our menu from now on. We enjoyed and incredible lunch in town, which sourced their daily menu from the market downtown.

Later, we moved more into the island, and stayed for three nights at a Shepard’s farm. On the way there we stopped at the oldest winery in Sardinia, Contini Wines. Here we were introduced to vernaccia wine, which they love to pair with bottarga. It reminded me of a cross between a sherry and marsala. A rich, golden color, slightly syrupy, and a unique flavor that wasn’t sweet. From here we heated to an organic dairy farm and winery. We met Michele, and was welcomed to his home. We quickly found out he’s the type of guy who has his hands in everything, and does it all. Meat, cheese, wine, you name it and he does it. He didn’t speak any English, but Jonathan was our translator. I only needed to know four words to communicate with him… si, no, grazie, and caffe. In English, yes, no, thank you, and most importantly, espresso!! Haha! In between learning cheese making, pasta making, and other foods, he and his staff always prepared a delightful meal.

In the multiple pasta lessons we received, they were authentic, informative, and I will be applying them at SHY. This might have been my favorite parts of Sardinia. We didn’t experience something that I won’t remember, or that I won’t be able to put them into practice. I will be able to come home with the knowledge of how to make these pastas, and be able to share that with the other chefs at SHY. Granted, the particular taste we won’t be able to replicate, because of the different brands and ingredients, but we will be able to make them with our own spin. We can take the Sardinian ways and process, then put our “American” touch to it, with some seasonings and ingredients. Don’t worry, I won’t be making what us chefs nicknamed the “maggot cheese”. Yes… you read that right, and the name is self explanatory. This, by the way, was the craziest thing I tried. I followed it up with the traditional aqua vino, which is similar to moonshine. It took me a while to get that pungent flavor out of my mouth!

While staying at the farm, we also got to visit a Sardinian rice company. They walked us through the rice process, and showed us the fields they were leveling to get ready to plant the rice. I was excited to see the different types of rice they offer, and even more excited to find out that I can get this imported for SHY. From here we visited another farm, that grows artichokes and tomatoes. We got to observe that process and I fell in love with their spicy tomato sauce. They set up a table for us with their different products, along with some pane fressa, which is like a super thin flatbread (which was served at every meal… and is super tasty). We all stood around the table and tried everything. That, was a fun afternoon. As the day continued, we had dinner at Somu. Every meal (besides breakfast) always started with an aperitif. We enjoyed some bubbles on their patio, then we went inside to enjoy dinner. Some of us headed to their kitchen, to watch their chefs preparing our dinner. This was the smallest coursed meal we had, with only 5 courses. All the other meals was course after course, and the “hunger” feeling was nowhere to be found! This meal took the prize for the favorite fish I had. The chef prepared a tempora battered skate. It was simple, yet bursting with flavor. It had a tomato dust to it, with a drizzle of honey. Dinner started at 8, and concluded with a delicious cup of espresso at 11. That was about the norm for us.

The next day we headed up a mountain, and took a short hike to one of the tallest points of Sardinia. While we were on the mountain, we got to see their wild horses, and go on a brisk hike. During this I found out there’s about 95 different herbs on the island. We also came across wild garlic and asparagus. On the way back down, we were invited to lunch with the mayor. This reminded me of how a stereotypical lunch with a bunch of older Italian men would be! Course after course, from meat and cheese, to goat, pasta, and brains. Yes, brains. We were all stuffed when we left. Came to find out later they were a little offended by how little we ate. What?! This made us laugh, given all the courses we had, including that most of us had two plates of pasta. From here we went on to meet a 95 year old wonderful lady, who taught us how to make their original pasta, the lorigitas. This is definitely a time consuming pasta to make, but it is beautiful.

We then made our way into town and stopped at two unexpected places, a butcher shop and a pastry shop. The pastry’s were wonderful, and the butcher, wow. For not speaking English, his passion and pure excitement that we were there shined. He showed us the meat coolers and the animals. I bought some meat from him, not knowing I couldn’t bring it home with me. So, fingers crossed that it is still in my suitcase when I get home. (Update - everything made it back! YES!)

Once we got back to Michele’s, the suckling pig from the fire was ready! We got to observe them digging it out of the fire, all while a local new company was there live-streaming the process on Facebook. Once we got to dig in to the pork, wow. The flavors, the crispy skin, was delicious.

The next day, after more pasta and pastry making, we headed into the heart of Sardinia, into the blue zone. We checked into the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever been to, in the heart of the mountains. We stayed two nights here, and I didn’t want to leave. The hotel is owned by an artist, and you can absolutely tell. All the little details shine. The setting was alongside the mountain, and the hotel had different paths and walkways, and was unique, quiet, and wonderful. Dinner here the first night was probably my favorite overall. We enjoyed several courses, which my favorite was this warm sphere of cheese and sauce. I have no idea what the name is, but the flavors reminded me of a pasta-less lasagna. Amazing. I will definitely be working and testing this to recreate it for SHY. The rest of our time was full of adventure. We visited another vineyard, went on a hike into Grotta Sa Ohe, which is a cave that water had passed through the mountains , and climbed up a mountain. Whew.

The next day we headed back into the city of Cagliari and started getting ready for our big event. Our group and the top chefs in Sardinia collaborated together for a courses dinner for 140 people. We spent most of the day in the kitchen cooking and prepping for the meal. I got into a zone and felt right at home in their kitchen. It was such a great event. Everyone was so grateful to have us there, and I was equally as grateful to be there.

After the dinner was done, it was bittersweet saying goodbye to all the fantastic people I had met. For those of you that know me, you know I’m the opposite of my mother, in that I do not cry, lol!! When I was walking back to my room. I immediately got choked up. This was such an adventure, and my heart was overwhelmed. I am already planning when I want to revisit Sardinia. I can’t say enough about it. Stay tuned, we will be planning a SHY Cellars trip!!

When in Rome

It was hard saying goodbye to all the great chefs and people I met in Sardinia, but now I was getting super excited for the next part of my journey… Rome. In four days, I walked over 45 miles and ate at over 17 different places, and that doesn’t include the cafe stops!

To say that I got more menu inspiration for SHY is an understatement. It was so great.

While I was there I brought books, notepads, and audiobooks that I thought I would have read and filled up notes with. Surprisingly that wasn’t the case. I was so busy seeing all of what Rome has to offer, making sure I visited all the main attractions and the hidden gems, that when I went out to eat I was just there. Sitting down, in the moment, being present. Trying to break the habit of looking at my phone was refreshing. Enjoying my time was delightful. Getting a chance to pay attention to flavors, presentation, and especially the atmosphere. It was a different experience sitting in a restaurant, where the conversations I heard were mostly in another language. Italian was the most prominent, but behind it was French. It was almost refreshing to hear English. It was also humorous in a way, because since I wasn’t engaging with anyone, on a couple occasions I had people come up and start speaking to me in Italian. So, I looked the part… check. It’s funny to think about it looking back.

If you want to see where all I went, go to instagram and find me… @shycellarsqueen. You can always yell at me in the kitchen, too! I would love to share more details with you!