Italy à la Houston

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Traveling to Europe is expensive, and not everyone has the ability, time or money to make the trip. But, good news. You don't have to! You can actually stay right in Houston and visit a multitude of shops, restaurants and parks just as you would in a European country.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about several restaurants and places in Houston where you could spend the day in France. Now, we are exploring Houston's eateries and shops where you can spend the day in Italy. Buon viaggio and buon appetito!

If one thing is for sure, day plans are made around food and meals in Italy. In fact, no matter what city you are in, you can find something to eat at any hour of the day -- Florence even has a secret bakery that serves a selection of baked goods at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Set the mood for the day and walk along the Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive sidewalks overlooking the Buffalo Bayou. It's not exactly like the Arno River in Florence, and the bridges that cross the bayou are not as beautiful as the Ponte Vecchio, but it's a peaceful way to begin your morning before heading to breakfast.

Now, you won't find any lumberjack breakfasts in Italy; the first meal of the day is eaten quickly and is typically small, consisting of a pastry, hard-boiled egg with cheese and bread, or slices of melon and prosciutto, and a cup of coffee. Just about any coffee shop in Houston will supply you with a quick pastry and espresso, but Rice Village's Fellini Caffe is a little piece of Italy right here in Houston. In fact, the owners intended for it to be just like the sidewalk cafes you can find throughout the country. All of the coffee drinks are brewed from Lavazza coffee beans, popular among many Italians. Step right up to the espresso bar for an quick espresso, or sit outside and enjoy a caffe latte or cappuccino with a complimentary biscotti, or purchase one of the many pastries.

It's easy to over schedule yourself in America and give yourself way too many tasks to complete in one day, often leaving you stressed. Italians don't spend their days rushing from one meeting or appointment to the other. It's a much simpler and casual lifestyle than the one Americans lead.

While living in Italy during a summer study abroad program, I found an excellent way to spend the morning was at the farmers market -- and it was one of the only ways I could get food to make in my apartment. If you're traveling through Italy in Houston on a Saturday, traipse on over to the Eastside Saturday Farmers Market and don't forget to bring your own shopping bags. Normally, Italian farmers markets are set up with farmers selling produce outside, and butchers selling beef, poultry and seafood, bakers selling pastries and breads, and shop owners selling seasonings, pastas, and prepared foods inside. At the Eastside Farmers Market, you can collect fruits and vegetables from local farmers such as Animal Farm, Atkinson Farm, Sustainable Harvesters and Knopp Branch Farm. Purchase a few cuts of meat from Georgia's Grassfed Beef or Harrison Hog Farms, then stock up on bread from Artisana Breads and Angela's Oven.

If you can walk to your home from the market, by all means, do so. Even better if you can hop on a scooter and drive back.

After you unload your groceries, you've probably worked up an appetite. And that's good timing, because lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Some of the best trattorias I found in Italy were tucked in the tiny side streets away from any tourist attractions. The peacefulness of the quiet environment made the meal that much better.

If you're spending your day in Italy on a weekday and have some time to kill, head to Patrenella's for a comforting and filling lunch complete with an antipasti of fried Mozzarella or eggplant involtini, followed by a primi of papardelle veal bolognese, linguine and clams, or a spicy pomodor and mushroom spaghetti with shrimp. Then, feast on veal in olive sauce or light seared scallops served with basil risotto for the secondi.

On the weekend, head to Paulie's for a hearty pasta dish. Try Kaitlin Steinberg's No. 40 favorite dish, canestri alla funghi. It's a giant plate filled with homemade canestri and bucatini pasta tossed in a garlic cream sauce with crimini and shiitake mushrooms.

For a lighter meal, stroll around the Rice Village Shopping Center and stop by D'Amico's Italian Market Cafe to enjoy the popular wild mushroom and walnut tortellini, or nosh on a classic Italian panini, such as the Siciliano panini with prosciutto, Mozzarella and tomato; vegetarians can enjoy the Milano panini with grilled eggplant, sauteed mushrooms, bell peppers, tomato and provolone. Or how about a margherita pizza? Even better, walk up to the pizza window at Coppa Osteria in Rice Village and enjoy your pie on-the-go.

There are also other traditional Italian restaurants such as Ciao Bello, Papa Mio Italian Cafe, Trevisio, Nino's, Prego and La Griglia serving up classic dishes for every course.

If you're searching for something sweet, make a trip to Drew's Pastry Place on Louetta Road near Vintage Park where you can satisfy that sweet tooth with scrumptious and sweet pignoli and rainbow cookies. Enjoy a cannoli or one of his cannoli cupcakes while you're there, too.

Or, perhaps you want something cool to eat. Just as you can find a coffee shop on every street corner in Italy, you can also find a shop selling gelato (sometimes inside the coffee shops). Gelato is a light, sweet and refreshing treat during the afternoon or even late at night; not to mention the flavors in the display case are beautiful. Check out Cafe Dolce Gelato in the Galleria area, SweetCup Gelato on Montrose or Paciugo Italian Gelato Caffe on Buffalo Speedway.

For dinner head to Giacomo's Cibo e Vino for light aperitivos or a plate of pasta, and don't forget about your dolce and vino. Pair a bottle of Chianti Classico, Prosecco or Pecorino (all from Italy) with crostini topped with Tuscan liver pate, mushroom olive pesto or the classic tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil. You can't go wrong with a pasta dish, such as the tortellini al sugo rosa (stuffed pasta with a tomato cream sauce). Delight yourself with an affogato or chocolate hazelnut mousse. Or better yet, order a glass of vin santo with cantuccini (essentially a biscotti) imported from Italy; you'll love the sweet amber-colored dessert wine produced from dried grapes.

Stay late at Giacomo's and share a bottle of wine with friends and family, or head back to Rice Village for an evening stroll and make a pit-stop at Coppa Osteria for zeppole (fried donuts), cannoli, panna cotta or classic tiramisu, and pair each with the suggested wine or spirit for the perfect nightcap.

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