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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rome Hotel: Ponte Sisto

Via dei Pettinari 64
+39 06 6863 1166

This time in Rome, we stayed at Hotel Ponte Sisto off of Campo de Fiore in our favorite part of the city. Location is most important to me when choosing a hotel. I'd rather pay a bit more to be walking distance to where I want to go, than have to take a bus to a train then walk a mile to get there! For $285/night we had the junior suite; a room with two twin beds and a room with a single bed. Simple, bare, and exactly what we needed. The price of the room included free wifi in the lobby and complimentary breakfast. I was able to have my morning cappucino and cornetto in the room, a beautiful thing.

I woke up each morning to the sound of mopeds and church bells, just as I do at home in my recurrent Roman dreams. It was absolute heaven to wake up to those sounds. I think I would even find the sound of an Italian ambulance to be a pleasant wake-up call as long as I’m in my favorite city. 
The view of Via dei Pettinari out my window
The room was spacious and comfortable, as well as the bathroom. The staff was English-speaking very helpful. There was a beautiful courtyard I would've enjoyed more if it were a bit warmer out. My only complaint was the room key. We had a hard time getting into the room because the key just wouldn’t work. If I jiggled it just right, we would eventually get in. But let me point out, it was in fact the key, and not the fact that I had been seeing double since my 3rd round of post-dinner-drinks. Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking to it...
The hotel courtyard

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Faces of Rome



 
As I sit outside at my favorite bar, La Botticella, I see this woman walk up to a table next door to give a free dance. She's a familiar face I often see in Rome, and I love when she pops up.

As I’ve made very clear, I am partial to Rome. I’m not sure if it’s the summer of study abroad in 2006 that should take all the credit for my infatuation, or whether it’s the consistency of exceptional experiences I have without fail each visit. I know I’ll see the same faces roaming the streets, and taste familiar flavors from specific places that cannot be replicated. 

There are certain faces I see regularly. The young, blonde, seemingly-homeless woman that I see every time without fail reminds me of an undercover Lady Gaga. She could be an artist, she could be a hippie, but I'll never know. But I can count on seeing her again. 
Over the years, we always spot our girl. Clockwise from bottom left: June 2009, July 2011, September 2011, February 2012.

I frequent the same leather handbag shop T-Nobile and I appreciate the owner throwing in a scarf for free with our purchase because he knows we will come back for more. Our favorite bartender, Giovanni of La Botticella, makes the best Strawberry Caprioskas, strong yet sweet. Without fail, I always end up meeting new and interesting people at La Botticella. A group of drunk study abroad students, a flight crew kicking back on their layover, a family on vacation (coincidentally) from my own neighborhood thousands of miles away! Franco, from Camponeschi in Piazza Farnese, always welcomes us with open arms and brings over endless bruschette to go with our fresh fruit bellinis. 
 
Strawberry Caprioskas at La Botticella
Franco at Camponeschi bringing us cocktails

I can count on Rome to provide familiarity to me. The face of the Pantheon lit up by the sunset during an early evening aperitivo in the Piazza della Rotonda is beautifully eerie and breathtaking. Whether it's the familiar faces, or familiar surroundings that keep me coming back, I know that Rome will always feel like home.
A sunset aperitivo in front of the Pantheon

Monday, February 27, 2012

Romebound


 Rome, for me.....
Zucchini flowers
When I was 17, I went to Italy for the first time on a group tour all throughout the country, visiting several cities from Venice to Pompeii. But of all the Italian cities, I feel a magnetic pull between myself and Rome.
Like most European cities, it’s full of history. But when in Rome, there’s really no need to go inside a stuffy cold museum and shuffle around from artifact to artifact. The history is outside, you tour on foot, and it’s free of charge. The works of Bernini are sculpted on bridges, atop fountains, in churches. In a day of walking, it is possible to view the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Colosseum, the Vatican, and a lot more. All of which are free of charge with the exception of the extra tours inside the Vatican museum (to view Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel…or as the soliciting tour guide told us, the Sixteen Chapel) and the tour inside the Coliseum. 
Pantheon at sunset
My suggestion to you? Buy yourself a guidebook, or hell, print out some Wikipedia fact sheets and go be your own tour guide. Or do what I do and linger creepily close to English speaking tour guides who shout all the important facts to their students that don’t care. Don’t have a plan, lose the schedule and relax. Stroll the streets and get lost a little. That is how I have found some of the best places to eat, drink, and people-watch in my favorite city.
Cappucino in Trastevere
  
Flying... 

Champagne & warm nuts, Tuna appetizer, Short rib entree
I’ll start from the beginning of this fabulous journey to Rome. Our early evening flight was very comfortable. We sipped champagne and ate like kings. The wine selection and in-flight food topped some of the best restaurants on the ground. 
To start, I had the seared tuna with Asian noodles and wasabi. For my entrée, I enjoyed the short ribs. On the return flight I had the filet of beef with gnocchi. I find both gnocchi and short ribs to be daring choices for an airline to serve at 35,000 feet. Both are incredibly difficult to cook just right, and if it isn’t perfect you will taste the flaws. Bold move, great success! 
Filet of beef with blue cheese sauce and gnocchi

 After all the cheese plates, wine, and desserts I reclined my flat bed to the 180 degrees it promised me, watched a movie, and fell asleep. Eyes open in Italy!
Chocolate cream puffs were heavenly

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Las Vegas: Favorite Bar Food


In the three days I was in Las Vegas, I managed to show my face at a shameful amount of restaurants and bars. I’d like to briefly profile three of the spots I frequent most, and let you in on why I always come back. 


Wolfgang Puck
702.891.3000
The Wolfgang Bellini

Pork belly BLT
Blue cheese truffle chips
Set in an open space inside MGM Grand with prime seating for people-watching, Wolfgang Puck offers a late-night menu with pizzas, salads, and their famous bacon cheeseburger. I like to start with an order of chips. They are the richest chips I’ve ever tasted, dripping in truffle and blue cheese. The tuna tartare with avocado was refreshing after that heavy appetizer.  What is food without alcohol, right? I paired the bellini with the pork belly BLT, a bubbles-and-meat combo I can never resist. The slab of pork belly was thick, smokey, and crispy on the outside. It’s never a done deal without a wood oven pizza. This time, it was the spicy sopressata pizza. Delicious!



Fiamma
Tweet! @FiammaLV
MGM Grand
702.891.7600

One of John's creations
Stuffed jalapenos
Tuscan Flatbread, Sliders, Kobe Meatballs
When I stay at MGM, I always stop at the bar in Fiamma for small bites and prosecco. My favorite bartender, John, greets us with a round of prosecco before we even sit down. He always treats us right.  The Tuscan Flatbread, Kobe Meatball, and Calamari are my favorite picks, and now the new sausage-stuffed japapenos wrapped in bacon just found a place in my heart. While John is very helpful with making personalized drinks to suit your taste, you cannot go wrong with Kerry’s Strawberry Balsamic signature cocktail.


Todd English 
Crystals at CityCenter
702.489.8080

Bellagio
702.693.8181
Wacky Wheat Beer Flight at the P.U.B.

Foot long hot dog
Appetizers at Olives
Todd English P.U.B. (Public Urban Bar) in the Crystals shopping center is the place to go for beer lovers, carnivores, and anyone looking to enjoy high-end pub food while watching the game. I’m often seen guzzling a flight of wheat beers, or if I’m feeling confident in my selection I will go for the ½ yard of brew. The beer goes best with the foot long hot dog or mini hush puppies. This time around, I got the dirty chips with fried chicken livers. By day, the P.U.B. is where I go to cure my hangover, and by night, it’s where I get it back. Olives in the Bellagio is another establishment Todd English has blessed us with. I tried it for the first time during this trip. We sat at the bar and ordered a round of appetizers. The Beef Carpaccio was thinly sliced with a bed of lettuce atop a square of polenta. We also ate a fig and prosciutto pizza, potato wedges, and a cheese plate. With pre-dinner-snack intentions, we always go overboard.
Cheese board at Olives

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vegas Wedding







1301 Las Vegas Boulevard South
702.382.5943
 
No, I didn't get married in Vegas. But I got to witness my parents vow-renewal at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.  


We pulled up to the chapel and took in our surroundings. On the outside, crunchy astro turf and a gazebo overlooking the highway. And on the inside, it was all about faux ivy and flower arrangements, low ceilings, and year-round tinsel. We loved it. A 70-year-old couple that met on match.com were on their way out as Mom and Dad went in. 

A toast to the next couple on deck
The gazebo of my wedding dreams

My parents were renewing their vows after 29 years of marriage. The ceremony was Vegas-chic (oxymoron perhaps?). Elvis performed beautifully and our pastor acknowledged the love she saw that they had for each other. I felt she was genuinely touched by their love and commitment......until I saw her head pop out of a drive-thru window to wed a man in his 40's to a woman in her 80's. Did I just witness a crime? I choose to believe that they too have a strong love for each other and the Little White Wedding Chapel provides only classy, sober, well-intended marriages of love! 
Drive-thru wedding, may I take your order?
Drive-thru wedding, there's an old lady slumped in the passenger seat somewhere :(


In the end, I caught the bouquet and we got back in our fancy white limo and proceeded to have a mid-day dim sum reception.

I caught the bouquet, despite all the competition
 

702.693.8131 
 The reception took place at Noodles in the Bellagio Hotel & Casino. We began with a round of Mai Tai's that fell somewhere on the potency-spectrum above swigging rum from the bottle and below swigging gasoline from the pump. In other words: they were delicious! 


Edamame, spare ribs, dumplings
We proceeded to order several dishes including edamame, spare ribs, steamed pork buns, chicken skewers, etc. The edamame was, for lack of better culinary terms, "meh" but everything else was outstanding! My two favorites were the steamed pork buns and the pancake dough with curry sauce. I will start making this place a regular hangout for me whenever I come to Vegas. That's a guarantee.
Fried dough with curry sauce
Steamed pork buns

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Todd English P.U.B. Challenge

Crystals at CityCenter
702.489.8080

My buddy Joe did the 7-second beer challenge at Todd English P.U.B. at the Crystals shopping center in Las Vegas. If you can chug a beer in 7 seconds or less, your beer is free. A challenge that Joe was not afraid to take!



7-second success!

To compliment the beer, we ordered the Dirty Chips; blue cheese potato chips with fried chicken livers. We followed that with some sliders, chicken tacos, and a foot long hot dog. YUM!

Dirty Chips

 

Chicken tacos and foot long dog
As you can imagine, our night ended here. I'm kidding!



Saturday, February 11, 2012

Las Vegas: Dinner at Fleur


Fleur menu and martini flight

Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino
702.632.9400

Fleur by Hubert Keller serves modern French cuisine at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The extensive drink menu has some imaginative potions, and we got started with an espresso martini.
Liquid nitrogen espresso martini
We had the espresso martini prepared tableside with liquid nitrogen to make it frozen. In a metal bowl, our mixologist poured the martini components and liquid nitrogen, which created thick smoke that overflowed. The espresso martini-turned-ice cream was served in a glass with a spoon and had an overwhelming taste of alcohol (my favorite). The novelty of it gets an A+ but I wish it were served in a prettier fashion (I’m thinking a chocolate-rimmed martini glass, I’m all about presentation).
 
The final product
Meanwhile, during our tableside science experiment, I was sampling a martini flight of various creations that involved basil, moonshine, and absinthe.

We also ordered a round of drinks off the absinthe list. Yes, there’s a menu of absinthe varieties. This too, was prepared tableside by an absinthe-specialist who used some sort of utensil with sugar cubes to mix it the proper way.

…Is that a fairy I see?
The tableside absinthe cart
We ate an embarrassing amount of food as usual, all of which was served to us as small plates for sharing. I’d like to make a shout out to the burrata, croque monsieur, tuna tacos, etc. It all got a little fuzzy after this.
Tuna tacos
 


Burrata, hummus, salad

Risotto, flambe, lobster mac and cheese, parmesan paprika popcorn

If you are planning to “eat the house down” as I often say, order The Feast for $435. Basically, it’s one of everything on the menu and guarantees a food coma for all.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Grand Renovation at MGM Las Vegas


MGM Grand lobby, live tweet feed behind me, look for @JackOfAllTravei
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South
702.891.1111

Today I checked into the newly renovated executive queen suite at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

5th floor renovated hallway decor

 
Inside my executive queen suite
The room is almost 700 square feet and decorated in subtle shades of purple. At first glance I know I will be a happy camper. Personally, I didn't think the rooms at MGM needed renovating at all. But I like that MGM took initiative and got started with modernizing the rooms before they become outdated looking like some 1990's motel.


In my room

Somehow my room came with a $65 food and beverage credit thanks to a Facebook promotion. That credit was used immediately on an extensive lunch at MGM's Wolfgang Puck. The tuna tartare was delicious, and so were the blue cheese truffle chips. You can't go wrong with a Wolfgang burger, either. To conclude our meal, we ordered two slices of pie, which the staff personalized on a plate with a variety or sorbets and ice cream.

Dirty remote!
I have only two minor complaints so far. First, where is the iPod docking station?! I am spoiled now, and I totally expect to blast my playlist through mini speakers while charging my phone on the nightstand. However, I'll get over it! My other concern while staying in hotel rooms, is the cleanliness. This room is impeccably clean, except for the tv remote. Everyone knows how germy the remote can be, because it sometimes gets overlooked in the housekeeping process (or so I hear). Well, mine has a piece of some kind of crusty goop on it, and I'm a avoiding it like the plague! But like I said, those are minuscule problems and so far I am having quite a good time.

More to come on my Vegas experience. I can't promise my future reports will be from a sober Jack...
Truffle blue cheese chips and prosecco at Wolfgang Puck in MGM
Pie and sorbet
Vegas chow-down
Tuna tartare
Wolfgang burger