Italy Here! Festival in Sofia

The third week of June, from the 17th to the 23rd was the annual Qui Italia/Италия Тук festival in Sofia, which is organized by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Sofia.  A collection of Italian cultural, musical, artistic and gastronomical elements are gathered and celebrated for a week in Borissova Gradina Park.


It was tricky for me to make it to Sofia for the festival, but I did carve out a bit of time to check out what interested me most…. the gastronomical offerings.

Casa Sicilia Bulgaria, offered wine tasting and also some pastries and treats for sampling.  They do not however have a shop.
Many of the food tents had gelato, which is a perfect summer treat.
Here are some other photos from around the festival.  My coverage next year will be much more thorough!
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Mongolian Khorkhog

The International Women’s Club (IWC) had dedicated the month of June to Mongolia, which was organized by members of the IWC and Mrs. Marta Lhasuren, wife of the Ambassador.  We were treated to some fantastic cultural events highlighting national costumes, a film screening of “The Weeping Camel” and a hot pot or Khorkhog cooking demonstration, which I had the privilege to attend.

The ladies!

Being that the weather is supposed to be summer, the event was held in the garden, which had a full size yurt.  The interior was gorgeous, with bright colors and energetic patterns.

Details of the yurt’s door… love the pattern.

Because I was coming to Sofia from Kyustendil, I arrived late because didn’t make the 8:30am bus, so I got on the 9:15 and managed to make it to the embassy by 11:30, but I missed the actual demonstration of putting the Khorkhog together.  Thankfully Yuko was snapping away and was able to provide me with my missing images.
Khorkhog is a fascinating dish that is only prepared by men, so we were told.  It is not available in many restaurants and is reserved for special occasions and special guests.  To prepare the dish, you need to place 20 stones in a hot fire for 2 hours.  
Putting the stones in the jug.
Once the stones are hot, you layer the rocks and meat, which is cut in to pieces.  The traditional meat for this meal is lamb, but you could use goat.  To the meat and stones you add spices, wine and other aromatics to infuse the meat.
Adding the meat.
In order to contain the steam, they put a blanket on top of the pot and a log to keep the heat inside.  The steam that is created from the stone is what cooks the meat.  It takes about an hour to an hour and a half to cook the meat.
When the meat is finished, it is removed from the pot and served and can eat with you hands if you so desire.
Done!
Removing the stones and meat.
The stones from the pot turn black from meat’s fat and are still quite hot after being removed.
I was instructed to take the picture quickly… ouch!
Our lunch was set up under a tent on the lawn and served with salad and roasted vegetables. 
We enjoyed wine, friends and conversation. Our gracious host gave a lovely toast telling us how much she enjoyed sharing Mongolian culture with the lovely IWC ladies and would be happy to host another month in the future, which I am sure everyone looks forward to with pleasure.
Thank you again IWC and Mrs. Lhasuren, we look forward to next year and discovering more of Mongolia’s cultural treasures. 

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Le Fontane: Italian Food Shop

Le Fontane is not situated near some of the more popular shopping areas, but on a residential street on the other side of blvd Slivnitza.  The shop is not flash; hospital white wall,  a glass cold display case, a bunch of refrigerators, freezers and some other storage areas.  In the back of the shop you can see the entrance to the pasta making and food prep area, but you won’t find any frills.

Marc Antonio Parisi is the chef/owner/restauranteur behind Le Fontane and Ristorante Gioia has been in Bulgaria about 20 years.  He makes his own pasta, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, and traditional Italian desserts, which are all sold at Le Fontane, in addition to tasty cured meats, marinated artichokes, sea food items and more.  They don’t have a set inventory, some things change, put the staples are constant. The pastas vary in price.  Regular pastas are about 10 leva a kilo, while the filled pastas such as ravioli and tortollini are about 15 leva a kilo.

Assorted pasta
Imported Italian cheeses
Marinated Artichokes, sun dried tomatoes, baby squids and octopi
Lonza, pancetta steccata, salami etc…
Mortadella

They also sell some of the fantastic desserts, such as tiramisu and tiramiju for about 20 leva a kilo.  This place is worth a visit, especially if you preparing an italian feast for foodie friends and dried pasta and bags of mozzarella just won’t cut it.

Le Fontane: Italian Specialties 34 -36 “Vranya” Street (btw “Svishtov” St. & “Opalchenska” St.) Tel: +359 2 931 1965 Hours: Mon- Sat 9:00 – 20:00, closed on Sunday.

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Ristorante Gioia: Amazing Italian Food

During the course of our dinner conversation at Gioia, we debated about whether or not I should write a review.  Being that writing about food and restaurants is my thing… Why would I miss an opportunity to share my experiences?  Well, I am aware that my readership is modest and what I write might not have people flocking to my suggested destination, but there must be some reason that one of the best (if not the best) Italian restaurant in Sofia, which has been around for about 10 years, has managed to stay so low profile.  There is a certain allure to knowing about this place, so why would I want to shatter that mystique? As a food lover, a find this good is worth sharing.
If you are judging by the facade alone, the place doesn’t really stand out.  It is situated on a small quiet street could easily be a mistake for a run of the mill “bulgarized” Italian restaurant.  The interior reminds me of a nonna’s dining room, complete with pink walls, maroon curtains and assorted knickknacks and tchotchkes lining shelves and a curio cabinet tucked in the corner.
I was early for my impromptu dinner, so I took a moment to absorb my surroundings and chat with some British tourist, who happened to stumble upon Gioia on route to their hotel the night before. The only reason I remember the encounter was the fact they said some rude things to me and my friends about the outcome of the Group C final matches, so… Ha!!! Who is laughing now? 

Now that I am done being petty.  I had done a little foodie recon earlier in the day and visited Le Fontane, the shop where the chef/restauranteur prepares the majority of the food, which is served in the restaurant: pasta, marinated artichokes, mozzarella, ricotta, tiramisu etc…  That little excursion helped me to anticipate what I was going to order for dinner.

Once everyone arrived, tomato bruschetta was placed on the table, the real stuff, not the soggy toast with tomatoes we were served at The Olive Garden. We started with antipasti, so we could sample a variety of cured meats, mozzarella and marinated artichokes. Everything was delicious.  It was so refreshing to be able to enjoy homemade mozzarella, not some plastic tasting cheese from a bag that is available in almost any grocery store.  The artichokes were an amazing treat that I rarely get to enjoy in Bulgaria.
When it came time to ordering our meal, we had to go with the pasta, which ranged in price from 14 – 45 leva. Between us we ordered three different pasta dishes and shared, but unfortunately, I forgot to take a beauty shot of our dishes… everything was that good.
Tortellini with Prosciutto and Cream
Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Ragu Sauce
Gnocchi with Four Cheese Sauce

The prices were high, but the quality corresponded to the prices and the portions were large.  Each pasta dish ranged from 300-400g, which is close to a pound of food per person.  The idea of dessert had loomed in our minds and our waiter was persuasive with his animated descriptions.  But we wanted to try a little bit of everything.  Even though it wasn’t on the menu, we had a sample of the cannoli and tiramiju, which was like tiramisu, but a ricotta ice cream version.  Then to top it off a plate of fried dough swimming in rum.
Cannoli & Tiramiju
You can see the pool of rum!
The tiramiju was heavenly bordering on orgasmic.  Maybe it was the 3 bottles of wine we finished during the meal, but the creamy goodness was melting on my tongue.  The rum dough balls were good, but it seemed merely a vessel for sponging up rum, which I have no problem with. The cannolis were good, but I like New York Style ones better, but these could grow on me… easily.  

The meal did not end there… finally a large bottle of frosty limoncello was placed on the table to finish off the meal.  
I know some of you are reading this review and wondering where are my “nit-picky” criticisms… well, we talked about what we didn’t like about the place: 1.) After tasting the prosecco, Jason’s glass wasn’t topped off. 2.) They were out of the meat filled Ravioli’s that Bill originally wanted 3.) One of the bottles of red we ordered was corked, but it happens and they took it back and 4.) The menu is only in Italian and Bulgaria, but the wait staff speaks English.  Overall, when you see “Tony Soprano” types huddled in a corner jabbering away in Italian, you know’ve you found something special.  I can’t wait to go back, but I am going to skip lunch and maybe breakfast too!


Ristorante Gioia: 60 Tzar Samuil Street (Stamboliski Blvd. & Todor Aleksandrov Blvd.) Tel: +359 2 986 0854


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Healthy Living Shop: Lozenetz

I first became aware of the Здравословен Живот or Healthy Living shop while driving around on Bogatitza Street trying to avoid the Chern Vrach traffic.  I made a mental note of its location, which is easy to remember because it is situated behind Skank South Park Bar and Dinner.  While I forgot about this place for a while, I was reminded to check them out when I saw their booth set up at Sofia’s Green Days.

I had a bit of a funny incident while trying to find parking for this place, which is a big problem.  The parking situation is awful.  I managed to find a spot which was tight and on a hill so, it needed my insane parallel parking skills, but I happened to be multitasking talking on the phone and I forgot to keep my car in gear and put on the parking break… oops!  So as I am leaving the car, hanging up my phone, I see my car starting to roll down the hill… headed for a large, expensive, black SUV (a.k.a Mutri mobile), so I open the car, jump in and yank the hand break as hard as I could… narrowly avoiding and sticky situation.  I felt like I was in a movie and I was pumped with adrenaline.  Anyway… back to the shop!

The entrance to the shop is situated a little below street level, but there are plenty of signs.

They carry fresh produce, bread and other perishable items.
They also have a large selection of cosmetics and hygiene products as well as stuff for babies.
They carry Emile Henry cookware, which I am coveting.
And many varieties of flours, grains and legumes, plus other groceries such as Weet-bix and miso soup

You can find the Healthy Living shop in Lozenetz, Jilishtna Group “South Park” Bldg. 27 Kozyak Street (Behind South Park Bar and Dinner) Tel: +359 882 828 828.  They host events at the shop like wine tasting, so Become a fan on Facebook to keep up to date.

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The Ladies Market in the Spring

My first Photoshop collage… I am so freaking excited!

I don’t know what it is, but every time I decide to visit the Ladies Market it is raining.  Someone I know had mentioned to me that she found a great place for vanilla beans in Sofia, which I have been looking for, preferably cheap since, I need a lot of the for an upcoming post (…the suspense is killing you).  She had emailed me the address and wouldn’t you know it, I never bothered to write it down, so I decided to wander around and invited my friend Drini to join me.

I have a small camera, so when I know I am going wandering, I make sure to have my memory card empty and my battery full.  But even better for me was the fact that Drini, who is a fantastic artist and painter, (I encourage all of you to become fans of her work on Facebook) forgot her camera, so all the photos I will share with you about our little outing are courtesy of her.

While the goal of my trip was to find vanilla beans, I found a beautiful clay pot and some wonderful spices to help my Indian culinary journey to continue.  I want to share with you some images of our outing.

Clay pot, turmeric, dried chick peas, saffron, pistachios, nutmeg
Traditional Bulgarian ceramics
Gorgeous ceramic wares 
I am wearing the bright read jacket!
Dried herbs
Great shop! If it wasn’t raining so hard, I would have gotten the address.
Some of their bean/grainy bounty.

The area is wonderful for finding international ingredients from Asia and the Middle East, fresh seasonal produce, butcher shops and other household items.   For some useful address please check out my other posts on the Ladies Market, Liu’s Chinese Goods and Alex (Japanese/Asian ingredients)

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Asado Grill – CLOSED

As with most restaurants in Sofia, they rely heavily on word of mouth advertising.  So, when I heard that there was an Argentinean steak house in Lozenetz a tingle ran up and down my spine, while images of steak danced in my head, but then reality began to seep in… is there really an Argentinean chef in Sofia… the answer is no.
Before the dinner, I was looking on Asado’s website and I found something very interesting.  Under the restaurant tab they give a nod to the designer, but they make no mention about the chef or his background.  If you own a restaurant, I think it is more important to promote the food rather than the decor.  When I called to make a reservation I inquired about the chef’s credentials.  He is Bulgarian and has not worked outside of Bulgaria, but I didn’t want to go into the dinner with prejudice or snobbery about his resume.

I did a little research about the meaning of asado and it is a meal that serves a series of meats in a particular sequence and is native to certain South American countries, one of them being Argentina. The asado meats are grilled, usually over hot coals with no flame, so the meat doesn’t develop a smoky flavor and seasoned only with salt before and after cooking.  This is not what I was expecting from Asado Grill.
The place is a little tricky to find.  The entrance of the restaurant is set back and my taxi driver went past it on the first pass.  I was a little late because the hail storm that occurred 30 minutes prior made finding a taxi difficult.  By the time I arrived almost everyone was there. Bill and Kalina had already ordered chorizo and salads, which I got to sample. Not an expert on chorizo by any means, it was tasty.  Bill felt that it was a tad heavy on the black pepper.
Back in NY, I worked around the corner from a little place called Ruben’s Empanadas. I would go there for lunch and boy were they good.  So, I was a little disappointed with the ones that I ordered when they arrived.  They were rather dry and the filling wasn’t as savory as I would have liked.
Finally, my filet mignon, I think I got the end bit of the tenderloin because it was shaped oddly.  Most everyone ordered their steaks medium rare, but not all of them arrived that way.  Mine was rare, while Bill on my left had better luck and Teodora on my right her steak completely over cooked, so she sent it back.  I still enjoyed my steak.  It was tender and flavorful, but I would have preferred if it a bit pinker.
Overall the place was pretty good and reasonably price in my opinion.  I know of many other restaurants in Sofia that will charge you closer to 50 leva for such a steak, but the Asado price of 24.90 leva was not bad.  The wine list had a comprehensive selection of Argentinean wines and some Bulgarian ones as well.  We all shared Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec for 26.00 leva a bottle that I think everyone enjoyed. I would return to the Asado Grill the next time I am in the mood for steak.  Be sure to make a reservation because even on a Wednesday night the place was near if not completely full!
Thanks to everyone who came out last night. It was a great night of meat, food talk and more meat. 
For our June dinner, I am offering four healthy restaurant option: Kibea, Sun & MoonDream House or Kring.  If you are interested in coming please choose one of the four restaurants and let me know on Eating, Gardening & Living’s Facebook page or email me. The restaurant with the most votes or comments be selected.  If you aren’t already a fan become one and keep up to date with future events.
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