Relaxing Times at Salento in Houston

The weather in Houston today was picture perfect - temperatures in the upper 60s, beeeautiful clear skies and our Gulf Coast humidity was nowhere to be found. What a great day to head to Rice Village. We wandered around from store to store with the baby and took some time to chill out for a relaxing lunch at Salento. What a great little place - cozy and quaint with a focus on "gathering" (as their web site explains) rather than just eating before hitting the road.

Salento offers a small selection of sandwiches, salads and sweets and excels with a nice mix of wines, teas and coffees. But the clincher is that Salento is a great place to just hang out. In fact, they want you to linger... regular events such as live music and weekly Wednesday night tango nights make it easy to do so.

While our baby boy wasn't very cooperative today, we still found the time to enjoy some excellent (and generously sized) sandwiches, salad and a Quilmes beer. You know... given the tango nights and the Quilmes, I can't help but wonder if the place is Argentine-run. Anyway, I can't recommend the place enough. A local crowd (architectural historian Stephen Fox was enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon) frequents the place and it's not unusual to see the same faces sitting hour after hour. It just has a great vibe and the people are nice - you can't ask for more.


More Travel Tips with Kids

Now, did I post these or not? I know I included some links about traveling with a baby but just received some new ones via Baby Center. Here are some great articles if you're planning to go a travelin' with a baby.

Seven Secrets to Successful Travel with a Young Child

Traveling with a Newborn to 8-Month Old

Tips for Helping Your Child Adjust to Travel

Baby Center also has a message board where readers share tips and ideas on traveling with children. Could be some good tips there, too.


La Trattoria - Real Italian Cuisine

I'm always on the lookout for real Italian restaurants in Houston. At times, the search can be quite daunting - many of the most popular Italian restaurants in town are chains, sadly unauthentic or run by individuals who really don't have a clue.

La Trattoria at 6504 Westheimer, however, would not fall into any of those categories. Carlo Molinari opened La Trattoria in the 1980s. His restaurant focuses on mostly northern Italian cuisine with other Italian classics thrown in for good measure. His wine list is about as extensive as you'll see with typical Italians wines like Chianti and Barolo as well as other great varieties like Valpollicella and Nero D'Avola.

What's great about La Trattoria is that Carlo does not compromise when it comes to his food. Clients looking to add chicken to their pasta will find that La Trattoria will not oblige. Rightfully so as chicken and pasta do not add up in Italy. Some people find Carlo's inflexibility off-putting but I find it refreshing as not often does one find an Italian restaurant that refuses to bend to American ideas of Italian cuisine.


Excess is Alive and Well in Manhattan

Let's talk decadence, excess and, well... downright stupidity. If you're that guy in New York City who would be willing to plunk down $1,500.00 for a cocktail or $1,000.00 for a pizza, then there's a new prix fixe "deal" waiting for you at Masa. Then again, if you are that guy, then stop by Serendipity 3 to watch $1,000.00 evaporate while you eat a sundae.

For our money, we'll grab a cocktail at Bemelmans Bar, the legendary watering hole in the Carlyle Hotel or The Monkey Bar, a famed spot not only frequented by us but also by my dad in the 1950s.


Shots fired at Santa

While I would love to visit Rio De Janeiro, I always wonder about safety in the city. Certain stories make you think - maybe it's not so safe when Santa can't even catch a break.


A colonial day trip from BsAs

Yes, it's true... I have Buenos Aires on the brain. I can't help it - I'm really very excited to be going back next year. There's just something about BsAs that has me ensnared. Yes, despite being robbed at gunpoint and nearly tied up two years ago, Buenos Aires has me in its spell. It's that reason that I've been thinking about possible day trips that we can take the next time we've there.

Last year, we went to Bariloche for three nights - it was a great, albeit rainy, trip. I've been meaning to post about that trip and eventually will. The previous year, we went to the Estancia Santa Susana. Little did we realize when we went there that it was owned by my friend's family. Small small world.

Next year, I'm really leaning towards taking the Buquebus (the ferry) across the Rio Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. While I'd like to check out Montevideo, I've heard the day trip to Colonia is worthwhile. The Buenos Aires Argenita Guide Blog has a great entry on visiting Colonia - worth checking out the next time you head to BsAs. The historic quarter has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much more detail on Colonia can be found in the UNESCO nomination.

Why Colonia? Apparently the historic quarter of the town is well-preseved with many 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings. Cobblestone streets and a colonial feel make the town a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of BA. The town was actually a Portuguese settlement but traded hands between the Spanish and the Portuguese until the birth of modern-day Uruguay. The day trip is only 50 minutes each way with a high speed ferry and is easily made with small children.


Starbucks Spreads Its Wings

Full Discolure... we're in a sitting in a Starbucks right now. We spend a lot of time at Starbucks... too much. We'll admit it. Yes, probably daily visits... and part of it is just the experience of going there, hanging out, bringing the laptop or a book or a magazine and just chillin' out with our little baby. It's an American take on cafe' society, I suppose. Cities like Houston don't really have hordes of cafes where one can sip an espresso and watch the world go by. So, for us in the States, Starbucks will do quite nicely.

But... what do you do when you encounter a Starbucks overseas? I think it's a bit of a quandary. I can unequivocally say that I wouldn't dare set foot in a Starbucks in Italy. No way - it would be like eating McDonald's in Italy. Just so wrong. Now, Canada? I felt no qualms about it - we did it quite a bit while in Ottawa. Then there's places like London...

According to my boss, there are more Starbucks in London than there are in New York City. I think he's telling the truth - from what we saw during our New Year's Eve trip to London, Starbucks was everywhere. There were two within close walking distance in Marylebone. You would usually find a competing Costa Coffee across the street. Well, I guess we just didn't have a big problem with it in London, as you can see from my wife's cup. We grabbed some before taking a train to Hampton Court.

Some people see this as a blight to foreign countries. I don't know... much of me tends to agree. I can't imagine getting a Starbucks in Buenos Aires - yes, it has arrived in Argentina. It just doesn't seem right in BsAs. Same goes for Italy, as mentioned. Now, what about China? Starbucks is starting to expand like crazy in China. Singapore is full of Starbucks stores. Apparently the locals don't mind. The Starbucks in Al Khobar, according to my business associates, is full of young Saudis enjoying a taste of western culture.

At the end of the day, the way I tend to look at it is this - the more "english" the country, the less I mind Starbucks. The more traditional European (i.e. France, Italy, Spain) the country, the less I like the idea (but don't tell anyone we had Starbucks in Madrid - I'm somewhat ashamed but dang it helped with jetlag). I guess it's personal choice. For me, it's remains a quandary. Just know this - Starbucks + Italy + me will never happen.


Food... Looks good to me!

I've got this thing for taking pictures of food when we travel... heck, even at home (depending on what I just cooked). I figure... what a better way to keep track of the cuisine of different destinations and to refresh my taste buds' memory. Here are a few shots from various trips we've taken...

Paella in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria
Delicious shrimp spaghetti in Sperlonga, Italy

A tasty pizza in Montreal, Quebec

An Indian spread at La Porte des Indes on New Year's Eve in London
A traditional asado at La Estancia in Buenos Aires
Delicious grilled seafood in Tamarindo, Costa Rica
A beautiful spread of cheese and cured meats in Buenos Aires
Squid ink linguini in Venice, Italy
Tasty lomo in Buenos Aires
A huge platter of bresaola, rucula and parmigiano in Gorga, Italy


Exploring Via Nomentana

One of my Italian aunts lives in an area of Rome just off of the Via Nomentana. It's an interesting area - a typical residential area, not like what most tourists see in the center of Rome - and it offers a little bit of everything for someone who has visited Rome before. Now, if you're going to Rome for the first time, I wouldn't bother with this area. However, if you've been a couple of times, hop on the #60 bus from Piazza Venezia to Via Nomentana for a different take on Rome.

So, what is there to see?

First off, there's Villa Torlonia. Now, the last time I visited the park around the villa, it was in sad shape. You could tell that the park was being spruced up but the main villa, designed by Valadier in the early 19th century, was falling apart. It was used by Mussolini during WWII and later occupied by the Allied command until 1947. An ambitious project restored the main villa and now both all the buildings and the charming park can be visited. Not to be missed is the odd little Casina delle Civette.

Close-up of the main villa before the restoration

Date palms by the entrance from Via Nomentana

Further up Via Nomentana are two of the oldest churches in Rome, the mausoleum of Santa Costanza and Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura. The church was built in the 6th century over a series of 4th century catacombs. The churches are fascinating and are very peaceful. Most Roman tourists have no idea that these churches exist.

The basilica of Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura

Plaques commemorating answered prayers

All around the Via Nomentana are interesting neighborhoods. I wouldn't go further north the Nomentana - it gradually gets worse. However, closer to the center as well as heading towards Piazza Bologna one can come across a blend of art nouveau villas, modern buildings, art deco and fascist era rationalistic buildings, embassies and more. You'll see a mix like the mid-century modern Jordanian embassy to the fortress-like Russian embassy. As mentioned, you'll also see a more typical Roman residential area and can stop in local stores, restaurants, supermarkets and the like. My favorite area supermarket is located on Via XXI Aprile, right in front of Mario De Renzi's famed Casa Federici. It's a great way to see what locals buy - great cheeses, local wines, pastries, fresh produce and much more.

A modern apartment building off of Via XXI Aprile

Speaking of Casa Federici, the area has countless examples of rationalistic architecture - much of it in the form of residential mid-rises. A few civic buildings are evident, too. Ridolfi's post office building on Piazza Bologna is a particularly famous example of rationalist architecture. In fact, for the architecture buff, there's much to see - byzantine mosaics, art nouveau curiosities and art deco design.

L'Accademia Della Guardia Di Finanzia - Typical Fascist-Era Rationalist Architecture

The Mid-Century Modern Jordanian Embassy

From what I know, the area has never been run down. However, you do see some signs of improvements taking place here and there. Clearly, you have what took place at Villa Torlonia - a wonderful project given how long the property languished. Across the Nomentana from the villa, you have another park that has gone a wonderful transformation. We found it particularly nice on a hot September afternoon when the heat was just too oppressive.
Across from Villa Torlonia

Also, on streets like Via C. Corvisieri, streetside markets have been cleaned up and moved to other parts of town. Now, you can make the case that these markets added to the character of the neighborhood and to have them removed sanitizes the area. I tend to agree although the area looks much nicer in the afternoon. Once the market closed, the streets were strewn with trash and discarded produce (visit Campo Dei Fiori in the afternoon for a living example of this phenomenon).

Still, I love the area... so much to see and very walkable. If you have the time, the area is definitely worth the cost of a bus ticket.


Pizzeria Guerrin, La Giralda and it's Spanish Cousin

One can't help but find great Italian food and pizza in Buenos Aires. Given that something like 2/3 of Argentines can trace their lineage back to Italy, it's no surprise.

The very first meal we ever had in Buenos Aires came about two hours after landing at Ezeiza. We sat down after 10:00 PM at Pizzeria Guerrin at 1368 Corrientes, a fifteen minute walk from our hotel in the microcentro. What we found was a spacious pizzeria brimming with people, all enjoying their Argentine-style pizza with a bottle of Quilmes or Cristal. It's the kind of place that leaves a lasting impression of Buenos Aires and one that I would recommend as a "must" when visiting BsAs. Head to the top floor and the large dining room for the best spots. It's noisy and crowded but that's part of the experience. The menu is massive so you'll have plenty of traditional options like quattro stagioni or typical Argentine pizzas like fugazzetta.

Just down the road on Corrientes is another "must" - La Giralda. Named after the famed tower in Seville, La Giralda is known partially for its historic pedigree but mostly for its chocolate and churros. While not as breathtaking as the churros found at Madrid's famed San Ginés, the larger version (on the left) found at La Giralda are delicious and sought out by locals and tourists alike. Our waiter got a real kick out of hearing that we had visited La Giralda in Spain, gradually telling all his coworkers and the owner. Anyway, La Giralda is one of those classic places like Cafe Tortoni where visiting will not only provide great food but a glimpse of old world Buenos Aires.

As mentioned, if you're in Madrid, you should definitely check out San Ginés. The famous chocolate and churros shop is located at Pasadizo de San Ginés 5, a side street off of Arenal, not far from Plaza Mayor. It's smack dab in the middle of everything but not always the easiest to find. Once you do make it, you'll find an international and local clientele scrambling for the few small tables to savor the deliciously rich chocolate with their thin churros. I don't think we've ever made it to Madrid without stopping by San Ginés. Here is my wife (below) enjoying a tasty late night meal with my cousins. These delectable delights make a great addition to a night of tapeando.


A Change of Plans

Well well... it looks like it's...

Goodbye to...

...and Hello to...

We made a change of plans. We decided to pass on the exorbitant Euro and head towards a friendly peso.

Here is an older but excellent article on the continued resurgence of Buenos Aires called Buenos Aires in Bloom, from Travel + Leisure.


More BA Hotel Options

Looking for more insight on various hip haunts in Buenos Aires? Here are a few articles to make the decision even harder...

Oh yeah... and how could I forget 248 Finisterra? Most of the reviews I've read are very favorable, despite a "good" review from the New York Times. The hotel is located in Las Canitas. While there's a lot to like about the hotel, I have to wonder if the lively nighttime scene is right for our little one.

I'm not making it easier on myself.


U-Turn to Buenos Aires?

Have I recently mentioned that the Dollar's fall versus the Euro has been giving us heartburn? Oh yeah... that was my last post. Well, it's been giving me so much heartburn that I'm seriously reconsiding our trip to Amsterdam and Rome. So much so that I'm almost certain we're going to make our way back to Buenos Aires.

The Dollar has hung tight against the Argentine Peso - pretty much remaining unchanged during all the recent currency fluctuations. While Argentine has become more expensive as of late, it is still a bargain compared to most European cities. Hotel rates have been on the rise but food, shopping and transportation are still very affordable.

On our last trip, we stayed at the amazing Bobo Hotel, consistently rated the #1 hotel in Buenos Aires on Trip Advisor (rated the "Best Hidden Gem" in South America). That's no surprise - the level of service, the location, the rooms and the entire experience make the Bobo one of my highest recommendations. BUT... while the Bobo is great for a couple, most (if not all) of their rooms tend to fall short for a couple with a child. That would be us. Their largest room, the Argentine Suite (left), unfortunately isn't available for a possible stay... nor are larger rooms like the Minimalist. That rules out the Bobo for any possible stays... for now, anyway.

So, now we're looking at other places. During our first trip to Argentina, we stayed at the NH Latino - a nice busines-class hotel but we would rather not stay in the Microcentro with our son. It's just not a good walking area with a child. So, we've started searching some other options. Unfortunately, Five Cool Rooms is not available - it's completely booked out. We had our eyes set on the separate apartment.

Now I'm shooting out e-mails to a few options to see what might be available and then ultimately decide where we want to stay. Some of the hotels we're considering are:

The Cocker - Located about three blocks south of Plaza Dorrego, this B&B is owned by a British couple. Reviews are terrific and even the largest room will run you only $85/night. The con? No elevator - could potentially be an issue. This one's tempting and it did just make Conde' Nast Hot List for 2007.

Costa Petit Hotel - Speaking of the hot list, this hotel made the list, as well. Something about this hotel seems really appealing and junior suites (the entire hotel has four rooms) are still an affordable $150 USD a night. Located on the edge of Palermo Viejo.

Home Hotel - Located in the Palermo "Hollywood" area of Palermo Viejo, this hotel offers a sleek and modern alternative. The largest suites are quite expensive, particularly the loft which rents for a lofty $300+ USD a night. The hotel has an on-site spa and a nice pool and garden area.

Hotel Design CE - This is a great looking hotel - rooms and suites with a very slick design-oriented theme. They look to have incredible views although I can't quite put my finger on the location... on the south edge of Recoleta? I can't tell... the location may not work for us.

Soho All-Design Suites - Great Palermo Viejo location and all suites. The smallest ones, the Superior Suites, are them most affordable at $150 USD/night yet are still a spacious 410 sq. ft. All have equipped kitchens, wi-fi and room rates include a breakfast buffet. Unfortunately, you can't check availability online without putting in your credit card information.