Category Archives: Italy

Lake Como: Our Cotton Anniversary

We returned to Italy after a brief foray into France, and it was everything we remembered it to be and more. In fact, over dinner one evening, I remarked that Italy might be the single most “lived up to its hype, and then some” country we’ve visited.

The drive from France was stunning. We took a different route than the one we’d driven in (along the coast), which led us through the mountains and some ski areas. The landscape was beautiful, including a few pretty turquoise lakes.

After deciding to spend our anniversary in Italy’s lake region, we chose to stay at the famed Lake Como, having heard it’s the most beautiful. And we settled on Bellagio as our town of choice since it is said to have the most spectacular views of said outstanding lake. It didn’t disappoint. Bellagio, “the pearl of the lake,” is set at the tip of the peninsula separating the two legs that make up part of the lake’s (upside down) “Y” shape. The resulting panorama includes the surrounding mountains and water with nearly 360° views.

We rented a flat a bit of a walk from town, but we were compensated with an incredibly spacious abode and a superb view. I mean, look at this:

We went out for dinner upon arrival, and the food was just as good as we remembered; the wine as cheap as we’d remembered. We’d heard rumors that Bellagio could be pricey and stuffy, but we found great value and exceptional service! So good that we actually tried to go back to the same restaurant the next night for our anniversary (but sadly all of the outdoor tables had been booked).

Though technically the day before our anniversary, we celebrated our nearly two years of wedded bliss on the 21st. We had perfect weather and so we walked into town, meandering along the steep side streets from the lakeside up the hill. We enjoyed lunch with a view on the tip of Punta Spartivento, where you get epic 180+° views of the lake.

Back at our flat we shared some pre-dinner drinks and watched our wedding video. Alan swears I’m the only person who actually watches her wedding video, but someone back me up here! Watching your own wedding video is like watching the best movie ever. And who doesn’t enjoy reliving the best day of their lives? (Side Note: I’m also weirdly fascinated by the yearly anniversary gifts thing, hence the title of this post. Does anyone actually give gifts like this? Both of our anniversary gifts to each other have been, well, traveling the world for a year, so we’re not exactly following tradition.) We finished the evening with the primo table at a lakefront hotel for our final taste of Italian food (for now at least). Goodbye Italy, we’ve adored you, and we will be back!

And just because it’s our anniversary and I wasn’t blogging when we got married, here are just a few of my favorite snaps from our big day.

Wedding photos by Kim Fox Photography.

Practical Info

Coming from a wedding in Cassis and about to meet Jack in Munich for Oktoberfest, we wanted a peaceful and romantic setting to celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary. Lake Como certainly fit the bill, and Bellagio was wonderful. There are multiple lakes in this region, with Lake Como being the most famous. And Lake Como itself is very large with a great many lakeside communities. Bellagio is renowned for its elegance and wealthy residents, and we were concerned it might feel too snooty and restaurants would be way overpriced. In fact, it is adorable and quite approachable, and while the restaurants are pricier than certain other areas of Italy, we were pleasantly surprised by the value. It is very touristy, but the town manages to absorb the crowds better than e.g. Vernazza. I can see why Steve named his flagship Vegas casino after this place.

Transportation: We drove from Cassis, France, taking the inland route through Parc National des Ecrins, Briancon, Turin, Milan, etc. Much of the drive was through superb scenery, passing impressive sheer rock faces guarding over alpine villages. Italy further proved itself the country with far more tunnels than any I’ve visited. In Bellagio we walked everywhere; it is compact. There are water taxis and ferries for visiting other lake communities.

We departed on an Air Dolomiti flight out of Bergamo Orio al Serio (one of Milan’s airports, which took 1.5 hours to reach by car from Bellagio) direct to Munich for Oktoberfest!! There are some nice mountain views from the plane, I think sitting on the left (facing the front) is preferable.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Via Aureggio, which is south of town on a hill with lovely views. We liked our spot, but it is ~15 minutes walking to town. There are a couple closer places for food. Many times in Europe we have opted for more space and less money, with the trade-off being a 10-20 minute walk from town. There are several options closer to the heart of Bellagio.

Food and Drinks: The food in Italy continued to impress us, and the regional variations are noteworthy. Good luck finding carbonara or cacio e pepe here. There is a lot of lake fish on most menus, at times sautéed or fried with butter and sage. There is generally more butter and cream, and there are also some richer cheese sauces for pasta, and dishes that reflect the proximity to Switzerland/Germany/Austria…such as melted cheese with smoked beef. House wine is less likely to be Sangiovese. We saw plenty of Tuscan wine, but also more from Piedmont, Lombardy, etc.

Dinner at Bilacus was great. The bresaola comes from the north part of the lake and was so red and fresh. That plus pasta, a mixed fish plate and a half liter of a solid cabernet blend house wine cost €48. Lunch at La Punta was most enjoyable, with an expansive view of the lake and tasty pasta. A mixed salad, two pastas and two glasses of wine cost €55. Dinner at Hotel Metropole was quite good, with a nice lakeside location (albeit some ferry traffic nearby).

Activities: We just walked around and enjoyed the scenery. Some take boat trips either to visit other lake towns or just for the views. I think there are some walks and hikes in the area. We considered visiting the Villa Melzi Gardens (costs €6.50), but alas…

September 20-22, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a pretty snazzy handful of hamlets. These five towns are built (rather impressively) into the cliff sides of the Italian Riviera. Wine, beaches, ancient Italian villages, what’s not to love? It’s romantic (hence the visiting of Cinque Terre after Kenny’s departure), beautiful and relaxing.

We stayed in the town of Vernazza. This is touted as the poster child of Cinque Terre, and for good reason. It’s a tiny town with a main strip that’s barely more than one block. The main piazza is on the harbor and surrounded by restaurants with al fresco dining seats where you can watch the swimmers float about in the clear cerulean sea and the boats come in. The one downside to Vernazza: due to its tiny size, it cannot accommodate the number of tourists it receives during the day (at least during the peak month of September) and as such, it becomes overrun. Each time a train or a boat taxi arrives, there is a literal outpouring of people, and if you are trying to walk against the flow, it’s a mob scene. That said, I think it makes it an even better option for your home base while visiting Cinque Terre. That way you can escape the tourists (somewhat, there will still be loads everywhere) by visiting the other towns during the day, and returning to your more peaceful version of Vernazza for the mornings and evenings.

We spent our nights savoring some Italian food and wine, including a bottle of a beautiful Super Tuscan we’d bought in Tuscany, and even a bit of the Cinque Terre wines. Picnicking with some takeout pizza and pasta to enjoy with our wine was a fantastic way to watch the sunset. And we dined at a restaurant with an epic location up on the cliff one night. Had we had the place to ourselves, I might’ve thought I was on the Bachelorette.

I do have to state, however, that (quite disappointingly) the food is markedly less amazing here than in other parts of Italy we visited. With that said, we didn’t do tons of research or go to the most highly recommended restaurants. But on the other hand, you don’t really have to do that elsewhere in Italy to get amazing eats. It wasn’t bad, but don’t expect homemade fresh pasta to be de rigeur.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about Cinque Terre is the fact that the towns are all connected via hiking trails. Often visitors walk from one end to the other, opting to take a boat taxi or train at the end to cut some of the walk off. We were staying at the second or fourth town, depending on which direction you’re starting from. Since we’d heard lovely things about the two towns on either side of us (which are also the two longest distances between towns), we walked back and forth to each on either of our days in town.

Our first day we walked to Monterosso. We started a bit early to avoid the worst of the heat and crowds. It was pretty cool that the trail was literally outside the door of our hotel (they run through alleyways in the town and then become more rugged as you walk through undeveloped land). The views were spectacular, and it’s pretty incredible to be walking through vines of grapes and looking out at the vast ocean and steep landscape dotted with these colorful towns. Plus, it was really good to get some exercise in after all the consumption.

On arrival, we sucked it up and paid the exorbitant price for a pair of loungers and an umbrella, because this was our first time soaking up the sun in one of those picturesque umbrella-dotted Italian oases.

I was also kind of digging these pedal boats with water slides! Must try these somewhere. Monterosso itself was a bit bigger town, though it seemed to absorb the crowds a little better because of this. The beach is larger here, and you can rent the loungers, which isn’t an option over in Vernazza.

On the walk back we happened to arrive during what appeared to be an in-water concert. As in, the band was standing knee-deep in the water, and several tipsy beach goers were dancing alongside them. We watched from above and then hurried down to enjoy the last of the entertainment seaside.

Here’s a quick video, too:

On our last day we walked the opposite direction, to the town of Corniglia, which is set up on the hill and thus doesn’t offer direct beach access. It’s definitely less crowded than Vernazza and Monterosso, but I would probably not recommend this as a place for visitors to stay unless you really want to escape the tourists (at the expense of having direct water access).

Practical Info

Cinque Terre is a gorgeous section of the Italian Riviera, with five towns built on or into the mountains meeting the Ligurian Sea. The water is beautiful and clear, and the cliffs are steeply terraced. From south to north, the five towns are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. I think the two on the end are the largest, Corniglia may be the least visited, and Vernazza is the cover girl. Corniglia sits atop a cliff with no direct access to the sea. Vernazza has a natural harbor and tiny town beach.

We stayed in Vernazza and one day hiked to Monterosso and another day hiked to Corniglia. The whole area seems at once authentic and overrun with tourists. Folks have inhabited some of these towns since medieval times, and you will see no chain hotels and hardly a hotel or corporate sign anywhere. But it is firmly on travelers’ radar (especially Americans), and at its worst (like a Saturday afternoon in September) can feel uncomfortably crowded.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Bologna. Most of the drive was on highways, with the last several miles past La Spezia on extremely hilly, narrow and windy roads. There is official parking about 1km above town for €12/day, so I dropped off Jenni and the bags at the post office/Il Pirata restaurant, drove back up and then walked about 10 minutes down. There is a shuttle bus that I think costs €2. I’m not sure about the other towns, but in general the main town areas have no cars or only locals’ cars.

I believe most visitors arrive by train. Each of the five towns has its own station, and some trains stop only in certain towns. To get here, you would probably have to connect via Genoa/Sestri Levante (from the north/west) or La Spezia (from the south/east). The towns themselves are very small and walking is your only option, though some are quite vertical.

You have three main options for getting between the towns. Trains, boats and hiking. Many opt to hike one way and take a train or boat back. We did return hikes both times.

We departed by rental car for Cassis (via Monaco). One of the small roads was still closed from the 2011 flood, but the scenery made the detour more pleasant. Man, are tolls expensive in these parts. The highway from near Levanto to the French border cost >€26!

Accommodation: We stayed at Vernazza Rooms, right in the middle of town. The first two nights we had Roma 4, then we moved to Roma 1 (higher floor, has a terrace, WiFi doesn’t work as well up there). It is fairly basic, but the staff is helpful and it is convenient. You can hear the train often, but it’s not too bad with the windows closed.

There are not that many hotels in Cinque Terre, so a lot of the inventory is more like rooms in a house or quasi-B&B. Overall, we were surprised by how poor the options seemed. We considered staying at La Torretta in Manarola but didn’t want to spend the money. We walked past Hotel Porto Roca, which is on a cliff overlooking Monterosso and has a pool.

Food and Drinks: The specialties of the area are seafood (including anchovies), pesto and white wine. In general, we found the food here to be less good and more expensive than Rome, Tuscany or Bologna. There are several proper restaurants plus pizzerias/focaccerias, etc. Twice we got take out from Pizzeria Baia Saracena. The pasta was so-so but the pizza was good. Our one proper meal was dinner at Ristorante Belforte, which has a terrific setting perched above Vernazza’s square and harbor. The squid ink tagliolini was great, the rest of it was good. Portions are ample and the service was better than average. Gambero Rosso is well-reviewed.

Activities: There are very few sights here like museums or fountains. The main activities are relaxing, town-hopping, hiking and some water-based options. There are trails going higher up the mountains, but most tourists stick to the red and white marked trail that hugs the cliffside and connects all the five towns. We did the section from Vernazza to Monterosso one day and from Vernazza to Corniglia the next. I think these are the two longest stretches, and each took 60-90 minutes (one-way) and induced substantial sweating. One downer is that you have to pay to use the trails. It costs €7.50/person/day. There are options that encompass train and/or boat passes, too. I was a little put off by having to spend €30 to hike a few hours on two days.

We did not do much else except some swimming. The water is cool but comfortable and refreshing. Monterosso has the biggest beach, including a pay section where it costs €25/day for side-by-side loungers with an umbrella plus access to changing rooms and toilets.

September 13-16, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)

Good Eating in the E-R

One of the aspects of Italian food that I hadn’t really appreciated before coming to Italy is that the cuisine is very local. Such that the restaurants in each city have super similar menus, which vary slightly from the menus in the next area (which are also super similar to each other). For example, everywhere in Montepulciano there were truffles, bistecca fiorentina and pici (the local pasta shape). Everywhere in Rome there was pasta carbonara and cacio e pepe. And everywhere in Bologna there is tortellini and Bolognese (ragu).

We came to Bologna largely for the food. Emilia-Romagna, Bologna’s home region, is widely respected for its cuisine. A number of quintessential Italian staples hail from this region, and we took a wonderful tour to learn more about how they are made (and of course to taste them!).

Our tour took us first to Modena, where we visited a family of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese makers (Nuova Martignana). The process is remarkably more involved than I’d realized. I also didn’t appreciate that Parmigiano-Reggiano is a controlled name, much in the way Champagne is a regulated term. So that “parmesan” cheese you’re used to eating, likely ain’t no Parmigiano-Reggiano, folks.

This cheese making process has been refined for 800 years, when it was first invented by Benedictine monks. It takes a whopping 1200 liters of milk to produce two wheels. Granted, these are some big cheese wheels, but that’s a lot of dairy. We got to see a lot of the steps in action. Most impressive, we watched them lift a really heavy (100kg!) hunk of cheese curd out of a giant copper vat of whey. We also marveled the “Hollywood movie set” of beautiful cheese in their aging room. I doubt I will ever see this much Parmigiano-Reggiano in one place again. Not so long ago, all these cheese wheels had to be flipped by hand weekly. Now there is a machine for that. It was tempting to stock up because the 30 month old cheese costs only €15/kg onsite, but there are too many meat and cheese shops everywhere.

Next stop was a 4th generation family run maker of balsamico tradizionale (named Boni). All of their balsamic vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 years (they have a family cask that is 144 years old). The process was somewhat confusing, since they use a multiple barrel system that involves transferring some of the aged grape juice from the larger barrels into the smaller ones each year. I was pretty surprised to learn that they use a white grape to make the stuff, and the color comes solely from the wood barrels. The variety of woods used was also surprising, i.e. different barrels are made of cherry, oak, chestnut, apple, etc. I was more impressed that it tasted so good atop ricotta cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gelato (separately, but all together probably works too!). Apparently, whenever a child is born in this region, the family starts a balsamic barrel so it’s ready at his/her wedding. The balsamico tradizionale is very expensive and intensely flavored, so this is the kind of stuff where you use a few drops, and it is very different from the balsamic vinegar you typically find in the States.

In between the food stops, our guide surprised us with a quick photo op outside the Ferrari factory where all the men drooled over the Renzo Piano-designed wind tunnel and the dozens of roaring cars being test driven around us. From there we went on to more food, and ate a full multi course lunch at La Ca Bianca. I kind of lost count, but I think we tried four different pastas. And then they came out with Acqua di Cedro (like limoncello) and a mascarpone and “chocolate sausage” for dessert. (Anyone who has been doubting how much we ate in Italy, take note.)

Our last stop had us landing at what appeared on the outside to be an apartment building. Upon entering, however, we discovered that it’s much more of a serial killer’s fantasy, which in a way, is what it is. A serial killer of pigs, who uses only the rear legs. Row after row after row of metal shelves held leg after leg after leg of prosciutto in various stages of the aging process. We had our final tasting of the day (with more Lambrusco…I neglected to mention above that Lambrusco, another Emilia-Romagna staple, accompanied each and every eating stop on this tour!) and promptly fell into a food coma/Lambrusco induced sleep on the drive home.

I was so disgusted with myself by the end of this day that I skipped dinner at the nice restaurant we had made a reservation for, because I knew that if I didn’t there was a serious chance I could eat enough to require medical attention. Alan and Kenny, however, ventured out. They passed through Piazza Verdi, which is filled with local university students drinking and mingling. In general, it was impressive how many people were hanging out and partying the whole walk to Piazza Maggiore. A never-ending stream of porticoed, cobblestone streets with abundant cafes and bars.

Our one free day in town we set off on foot to explore the city. Our neighborhood was a cool one, just a block away from Via dei Falegnami, where there were lots of lovely restaurants with outdoor seating and Bolognese dishes. We tried the Bolognese sauce at two, and they were not disappointing in the slightest. Though I should note there is much less tomato in the sauce than most of the Bolognese you are served in the States; here it’s almost pure meat. And it’s often served over a meat stuffed tortellini. I have to note that here (as well as in Rome, and I would presume Florence) there are often men walking around to al fresco diners trying to sell their wares by flashing green lasers on your table and showing you kitschy items like toilet shaped lighters. It was such a peculiar sight to us since the wares they peddled and the potential customers they targeted seemed so incongruous. Case in point: the guy that came by multiple times trying to sell a singing, dancing stuffed animal to a group of six women aged 50+. I have to wonder how many sales they successfully make.

Right by Trattoria dal Biassanot there is a very random and very cool “peep hole” with views to a hidden canal. Neato.

Just across the street from all this wonderful pasta is the Piazza VIII Agosto, which turned into a market for the days we were there. We did a little shopping and I caved and bought a pair of Italian shoes. Oh, and after a wine-y lunch the three of us bought matching sunnies from a street vendor. Tripletsies!

The main square, Piazza Maggiore, and the surrounding area was also lots of fun to walk around.

This city has a very young, liberal and “Occupy” vibe. There is a ton of graffiti, and even more college-aged people.

Though for some reason, all of the younger boys here look like Justin Bieber.

The boys climbed up the taller and straighter standing of the Two Towers of Bologna for some sweet views of the red rooftops, and we all shared a ridiculously good slice of pizza just outside.

I tried, I really tried to do my body some good and eat a salad one night, but you guys, this was what I got when I ordered the insalate:

To be fair, there was a sprig of parsley, so I did eat some greens while in Italy.

Practical Info

Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region many assert has Italy’s best cuisine. And certainly its finest motor-works. Among other things, this area is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale di Modena, Bolognese sauce (ragu), Lambrusco, Ducati, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani (maker of the $1.3MM Huayra) and Ferrari.

The city also holds Europe’s oldest university and is famous for its extensive porticoes. While Bologna can’t match Rome, Florence or Venice for big-name attractions, this also means that it’s far less touristy. The vibe is part professorial, part art student, part Occupy Wall Street and all epicurean delight. I have never seen more cured meat and cheese shops.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Florence, and getting out of there was a nightmare. Once here, we parked in the underground lot at Piazza VIII Agosto (€20/day) and didn’t touch our car until we departed for Cinque Terre. We walked around the city, and our day tour included transportation.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb apartment on Via Galliera near Piazza VIII Agosto. You might want to be closer to Piazza Maggiore, but if you don’t mind walking then our area is more than sufficient. There are more than enough bars and restaurants nearby, and every Friday and Saturday Piazza VIII Agosto is filled with a market.

Food and Drinks: The main reason we came to Bologna, and we were not disappointed. In addition to items mentioned above, Bologna is known for its stuffed pasta (mainly tortellini or tortelloni, sometimes in broth). Via Pescherie Vecchie and surrounding streets have a particularly high concentration of meat, cheese and wine shops.

We liked Trattoria dal Biassanot a lot, especially since it has an option to create your own plate with three different types of pasta. Lunch at Caffe/Trattoria del Rosso was very good. Pizzeria Due Torri has excellent slices. Dinner at Twinside was good though the pasta was maybe not as good as others. Its burger was delicious.

Kenny and I had a more high-end meal at Trattoria Battibecco, which was excellent. I had never heard of canocchie (the same as mantis shrimp?), but they sure imparted a rich shellfish flavor to the broth coating our rigatoni. It was nice to take a break from wine and enjoy a Laphroaig 15 year and Mortlach 10 year, both cask strength and from Wilson & Morgan (independent bottlers based in Italy). The meal was quite reasonable at €102, including fancy whisky, a foie gras starter, that canocchie pasta and some monkfish in bread crumbs with bacon.

Afterwards we bought a bottle of wine (only €12) at some bar on Vicolo Ranocchi and enjoyed it at a table outside. This little alley and many others hold plenty of revelers. There were also some places with outdoor live music in this central area.

A crepe filled with mascarpone, nutella and strawberries was about as good as street sweets get. Find it at Bombocrep. We tried to go to Ristorante Donatello for dinner but it was full; it looked like the place to be.

Activities: The highlight was definitely our all day Amazing Italy food tour (€120 each, covered above). In the city, we walked around and enjoyed the architecture, never-ending food shops, Via Zamboni (where the college kids hang), Piazza Maggiore, etc. Kenny and I climbed the 498 steps of the Tower of Asinelli (€3 each) for great views. The Portico of San Luca, leading up to the Madonna of San Luca Sanctuary, is reportedly one of the longest arcades in the world.

September 10-13, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)


Ah, Tuscany. The place romantic dreams are made of. Sweet visions of holding hands and sipping Sangiovese. Or, more accurately for us, devouring pasta and gnawing on bistecca fiorentina bones.

Tuscany is full of picturesque hill towns to savor. On our drive from Rome we stopped in Orvieto (which is actually in Umbria), a quaint one for sure. Meandering around these quiet streets you would never expect to turn the corner and discover the incredibly intricate and beautiful Duomo that’s tucked into the town’s piazza. The colors on this façade are just stunning. Not to mention the optical illusion created by its construction, making it appear even larger than it is. I was very impressed with this church, more so even than St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. To be fair, it’s much less crowded (practically empty even), and they were playing the most beautiful music while we were inside, which made it easier for me to experience the grandiose feelings that such buildings can elicit.

On the way out of Tuscany headed for Bologna, we took the scenic route, which allowed us to see a few more of these adorable old towns. We poked around Castellina and Greve, where we were able to sample lots of Chiantis. Not bad, but our verdict is that the Montepulciano terroir wins.

And we feel we can opine sufficiently on the quality of Montepulciano wines because the idyllic town we decided to settle down in for our five nights of Tuscan relaxation was none other than Montepulciano. It’s a looker, this one, sitting up atop a big ole’ hill. And it sure tastes good. We had many lovely meals here, tons of impressive house Montepulciano Rossos and Vino Nobiles, and loads of those (cheap!) Tuscan truffles. Our villa was situated on its own separate, smaller hill, just at the base of the town hill. This afforded us some pretty nice views of the San Biagio church and that beautiful Tuscan landscape.

We celebrated Alan’s birthday while in Montepulciano, and we spoiled him a bit. Kenny and I walked down to the local supermarket in the morning to pick up preparations for a special breakfast. The birthday boy was craving an American style brunch, so Kenny cooked him up a good ole’ egg, bacon and potato special, with a bit of an Italian twist. We used fresh buffalo mozzarella and some crazy pancetta. And we whipped up our take on a Tuscan mimosa: blood orange and prosecco, with a little umbrella on the side. Because nothing makes a party like drink umbrellas. We feasted on the spread outside, under the Tuscan sun. A great start to the day.

We explored the town more fully all afternoon. It’s situated atop a rather steep hill, and full of the classic Italian narrow roads and alleyways. We perused the tempting selections of Italian leather shoes and handbags, snacked on some café and dolcetti on Caffé Poliziano’s terrace (phenomenal views), and stopped in a few wine shops and cellars for some tastings of Montepulciano’s legendary Sangiovese wines.

In the evening of A’s day, we celebrated with some of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition Scotch whisky we’d bought him as an early birthday gift in Scotland, and I surprised him with a water dropper so he can appropriately open up the aromas and flavors. (It sounds like a weird and lame gift, but trust me, this made him very happy. If only you could see how excited he’s gotten about Scotch since our visit to Scotland!) We also surprised him with a smoky whisky cake I purchased on the sly in Scotland, which we filled with candles to serenade him with the birthday song.

Then we went up to dinner for the grand finale: bistecca fiorentina at Montepulciano’s most famous restaurant, Osteria Acquacheta. What an experience. It’s certainly not white tablecloths and snooty waiters. It’s family style seating, where Giulio, the chef and head of the house chops the steaks within view, comes over to show it to you before cooking, and then brings it back in all its sizzling beauty. (Bonus, they put it back on the grill for a few minutes mid-meal as it was starting to turn cold!) In true Italian family style, you are given only one glass, which you use for both water and wine. And our steak, oh, our steak. We were given a hunk of meat that weighed in at just under 2kg. For those of you not familiar with the metric system, that’s about 4.25 POUNDS of beef! Most impressive, though, is that I only ate one bite (was much too rare for me, plus I was all about the pasta we ordered on the “side”) and the two boys devoured all. of. it. Along with the meat, we had pici (a local pasta) al ragu, divine. So good I ordered my own serving after eating half of the first one. Perhaps the most shocking part of this meal, the whole thing cost €109 (for that hunka hunka steak, 2 pastas, liver pate, a truffle covered melty cheese, salad, 2 desserts, 1.5 liters of wine, 2 grappas (and when Alan spilled his, Giulio poured another gratis for Alan, Kenny and the guy sitting next to us). A steal for sure. And you can’t buy the good company. Check out this awesome Italian woman sitting next to Kenny who really enjoyed gnawing her bones as well. Awesome way to celebrate my husband and travel buddy extraordinaire.

While I savored some alone time at the villa the next day, Alan and Kenny paid a visit to the nearby town of Pienza. It happened to be the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration largely centered around pecorino cheese. There were award ceremonies and flag waiving parades, but naturally their focus was eye-boning the meats and cheeses and sampling a large selection. Lucky for me, they came home with a fantastic assortment (sopressata, lonza and coppa, and pecorino con tartufo, sheep’s milk blue, and two other award winning pecorinos) for our lunch the next day.

These fantastic meats and cheeses were thoroughly enjoyed, over many occasions. I also have to mention that the tomatoes here are positively delectable!

We didn’t just enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor, however. We tried our own hand at making some of this fine food. Our cooking class was a smashing success, if I do say so myself. We made a pecorino soufflé, followed by hand-rolled pici pasta with a pomodoro sauce for primi piatti, a pancetta wrapped herbed pork tenderloin for secondi piatti, and a pear and apricot tart for dessert. We’re still talking about how good our pici was!

Montepulciano had a couple cute animals, too. One night when we were up in town, we checked out the little church on the main piazza. I’m thinking I acquired some good karma, because I helped the church keeper lead a cat out of the church once he saw me sitting on the floor and petting it. Then I sat outside of the church with my cat.

Also, we stumbled upon these adorable little puppies in the park on the way up! OK, sorry I’ll stop talking about the animals and get back to the food and wine.

This being Tuscany, we of course did some proper wine tasting. We tasted at a few rooms in the town of Montepulciano and we also went out to two vineyards for wine tours and tasting. Dei was probably the fanciest wine cellar I’ve ever seen. The entire place is made of travertine marble. So all the aging casks are lined up in a beautifully done room of marble, the hallways are made of marble, the rooms housing the big vats and the bottling and labeling machine, all marble. I can’t help but wonder if the cost of all that marble is factored into the price you pay for the wines, but they do make a few nice ones. We really enjoyed the ‘08 Bossona Nobile Riserva and the Sancta Catharina ’09 Super Tuscan, and decided to buy a bottle of the latter. I’m maybe a broken recording of my dad, but really feeling the blends lately. Later in the day we checked out Avignonesi. While their more traditional Montepulcianos and Super Tuscan were lovely (and we got to sample a freshly fallen from the vine Sangiovese grape that was quite tasty), we were really wowed by their Vin Santo. This sweeter dessert wine made from dried grapes is done in a super special way here at Avignonesi. I won’t get into the details, but it’s aged extra long, and they call it liquid gold for good reason. We ponied up extra to taste the vin santo, and it was (per my tasting notes) “AMAZE BALLS.” Tastes kind of like maple syrup and burnt caramel, and it is so thick! We were given permission to stick our fingers in the glass and lick them to get the rest of that amazing pseudo-liquid. And so we did.

On the drive from Tuscany to Bologna we stopped in Florence. While most people would stay at least a few days, we had only a couple of hours in the city of Firenze. For this reason, we really only saw the tiniest bit of it, and what we did see was perhaps the most touristy bits. I’m generally not a fan of the most touristy bits of cities, and so it would be unfair for me to really pass judgment. With that said, we weren’t wowed with what we saw. It felt much more overridden with tourists than Rome did, but again, we also saw some much less touristy parts of Rome.

Anyhow, the Duomo is really pretty. I couldn’t go inside because my shorts were too skanky and my attempts to fashion a raincoat around my knees were futile, but from the pictures the boys took, I’m maintaining that it’s most impressive on the outside.

Mercato Centrale was a fun place to walk around. They have tons of vendors selling meat, cheeses, pasta, pizza, beer and wine, etc. Even an entire mozzarella section. The Italiano usual. Though it had a strong hipster vibe, oddly. I started thinking that it felt very Eataly-esque just as I noticed there actually is an Eataly inside.

We walked the main pedestrian way down through Piazza della Signoria (nice statues, fountains, souvenirs, tourists, yada yada yada) and onto Ponte Vecchio. This is basically a partly covered bridge lined with jewelry stores and absolutely laden with tourists trying to get their photographs. I had to make Alan and Kenny bend over the bridge to get a shot without any other people in it.

Also, driving in Firenze is heinous. I highly recommend not doing that. There is loads of traffic, the signs are weirdly confusing, and there are lots of restricted zones where you aren’t meant to drive unless you are a resident or something. I’m pretty sure they are monitored by camera and also that we will be seeing lots of unexpected charges when the rental car company catches wind of our transgressions. Whoopsie.

Practical Info

Tuscany is perhaps Italy’s most iconic region, with Florence the heavy-hitting Renaissance city and countless smaller cities and hill towns. It was difficult picking just one place to stay. We settled on Montepulciano based on some personal recs, ample wine and relative convenience to some other hill towns. We also considered places like Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Montalcino, etc. Not to mention various towns in Umbria.

In addition to picking a town/area, we struggled with whether we should stay at an agriturismo and, if not, should we stay in an old town area or just outside where we’d get more space and perhaps better views but sacrifice some walkability.

Transportation: We drove from Rome to Montepulciano, stopping in Orvieto for a few hours (where we drove up to the old town and parked right across from the funicular for a few Euros). It was easy getting out of Rome after picking up our rental car from Hertz on Via Sardegna. The A1 highway is fast, though tolls are pretty steep. I think we paid >€10 (which we later learned is small change for Italian tolls).

Our accommodation in Montepulciano was walking distance to the old town (see below), and it is easy to walk around the town if you don’t mind steep hills. There are probably some buses/shuttles between various hill towns in Tuscany, but having a car makes it much easier. It seems you can usually find a parking lot for ~€1.50/hr. Note that many towns do not allow cars within the historic center, so pay attention to signs.

We departed in our rental car headed for Bologna. We drove the scenic SR222 between Siena and Florence, taking in some of the classic Chianti views. In Florence, we parked underground at the main station. This is nice in the sense that you can walk from here to the major sights. The negative is that traffic was awful, and driving around here is confusing because there are lots of restricted roads. For this reason, most would suggest parking outside the city and taking public transport into the center. The drive from Florence to Bologna on the highway was quite scenic, if not the easiest driving. There are tons of large trucks, the road is pretty windy and hilly, and there are endless tunnels with fairly narrow lanes.

Accommodation: We stayed in the Sangallo 2BR apartment at Montorio, at the bottom of the hill on the western side of Montepulciano and very near the Madonna di San Biagio. Montorio represented a compromise in that we had a spacious apartment, some views, free parking, etc. but we could still walk to town. The catch being that the walk is 15 minutes up a steep hill. The WiFi was poor and the mosquitoes were a hindrance, but otherwise I’m a fan. Stefania is friendly and helpful, there is a free washing machine (and a dryer, which is a rarity, though it costs €2), the apartment is spacious and nicely decorated, and the location is convenient to many things.

Food and Drinks: Abundant consumption continued, as expected. My birthday dinner at Osteria dell’Acquacheta was quite an experience. This legendary steak spot does two family style seatings nightly, at 7:15 and then 9:15. We waited nearly an hour since we arrived early and were seated around 9:45, but I had the best seat in the house at the head of a table with a dead-on view of Giulio hacking away at the T-bone with his cleaver. He cut us a piece just under 2kg (it was 68 oz.!), brought it over raw for our approval, and our beef came back soon seared and rare. The steak was very good, perhaps great considering it was not drenched in butter and probably is grass-fed beef. We ate so much more than just steak, and the meal overall was extraordinarily good value. We had nearly 2kg of steak; a melted pecorino covered in shaved truffles; salad; liver pate; two pici with meat ragu; two desserts; water; two grappas; and 1.5 liters of red wine…for €109, all in. The steak alone, certainly with tax and tip, would have cost more in your typical nice US steakhouse. The pasta was amazing, they reheated the pieces of steak we hadn’t eaten late in the meal, and when I accidentally spilled my grappa Giulio poured another gratis for me, Kenny and our table-mate. At one point, Jenni told the girl across from her that she was so full she wanted to take her (own) pants off. Everyone leaves Acquacheta smiling.

Less of an event but other meals we enjoyed include Osteria del Conte, Osteria del Borgo and Pizzeria Linda. Many recommended La Grotta (by San Biagio church) for a nice meal.

Kenny and I spent an afternoon in Pienza that coincided with the annual Fiera del Cacio (cheese festival). I’m not sure if this is always the case (Pienza is famous for pecorino), but the tiny old town was loaded with stands selling and offering free tastes of cheeses and cured meats, plus porchetta everywhere. The soppressata here is loosely combined and so much better than at home. Coppa, lonza, truffle cheese…mmm.

Lunch in Orvieto at Trattoria La Grotta was quite good. Antica Macelleria Falorni is an impressive butcher/cured meat shop in Greve.

Activities: One day we hit a couple wineries. We visited Dei (~3km from Montepulciano, €10 tour and tasting), stopped for a quick look at Cortona (which seemed like quite a thriving hill town) and then visited Avignonesi (€15 tour and tasting, which included some pricy bottles, plus €10 extra to taste both Vin Santo varieties).

Our cooking class at Villa Poggiano (owned by the same family that owns Montorio and ~2km away) was a feast that included two bottles of wine, it was only the three of us, and it cost €90 each.

I won’t attempt to cover Florence in any detail here, except to mention that you can enter the Duomo for free but it costs to climb the dome itself, and you cannot enter if wearing short shorts or I think a tank-top. I believe you can reserve in advance to visit the Uffizi Gallery and avoid some of the wait.

September 5-10, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)

Roma, Eataliano

We’ve landed in Italy, folks. Brace yourselves, there’s about to be a lot of food on this here blog for the next several posts. Screw the Hunger Games, welcome to the Eating Games.

First of all, Italy is amaze-balls. The people are effusive and expressive and stylish and beautiful. The architecture is grand, ancient and impressive nearly everywhere. And, of course, the food is phenomenal. Also, we finally got some much-appreciated sun. So, basically, we’re in heaven.

While much of Rome is beautiful, it’s quite touristy in the places you’d expect. Our neighborhood, on the other hand, while still somewhat touristy, definitely had a lot of local flavor. We were often the only English-speaking patrons in local cafes and on the cobblestone streets, and we just adored it. I think it helped that we chose an Airbnb apartment off the main tourist attractions’ streets and tucked into the stylish alleyways near Piazza Navona. This didn’t mean we were far away from the good stuff, though. We were practically right above one of the great gelato spots: Gelato del Teatro. The fig, cheese and almond offering was the perfect treat to grab on the way in the door after a full meal of pasta.

Plus, Piazza Navona is definitely the best piazza. This can’t be beat.

As soon as we’d dropped our bags at our flat, we went out seeking our first tastes of that famous Italian food. We settled on a cozy restaurant a few blocks down the lane from our place. It was not a mistake. My cannelloni was divine, and the boys enjoyed their first tastes of the Roma carbonara (so different from – and better than – what you get in the States). This is also where we downed our first liter of Italian table wine (absurdly cheap, and oh so fine). Oh and fun fact: carbonara was invented as something to feed American soldiers during the war. The Italians thought, well, Americans like bacon and eggs, let’s put in on pasta!

We spent the better part of one day on a food tour in the Testaccio neighborhood, which was an epic feast, and super informative. Small world, our awesome guide, Tiana, grew up in the town next to me in Massachusetts! What made her even cooler, she knows her food, loves it and takes it seriously. And better yet, she taught us all about it. We started our day the way Italians do, taking our coffee and cornetto standing at the bar. Italians are not often in a rush, unless they are driving or eating breakfast. From there we moved onto a classic margherita pizza, pausing from the face-stuffing to take a photo with the master.

At a fantastic meat and cheese shop (called Volpetti) we gnawed on some pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a wild boar salami and Prosciutto di San Daniele. In the Testaccio Market we made our own pomodoro bruschetta and a caprese salad. Lunch at Flavio Al Velavevodetto was the highlight for me, because we got to nosh on loads of pasta and wine. Their caccio e pepe (a Roman classic) was lovely, as was the unique yolk-only carbonara (talk about tasting like bacon and eggs!), but the best was the amatriciana. Divine. In Roma, they generally use tonnarelli (not spaghetti) for the cacio e pepe and often guanciale in place of bacon. It was also pretty cool that this restaurant is built into Monte Testaccio, a large hill made entirely of shards of terra cotta from discarded olive oil containers.

Lest you were worried we didn’t eat enough sweets on this tour, our last stop was at a gelato spot where we learned how to distinguish authentic gelato from the fake stuff.

In between all the calories we took quick digestion breaks while exploring a few cultural attractions like the non-Catholic cemetery where Keats is buried, and a former slaughterhouse turned contemporary art museum slash art school slash rec space.

Fortified from all the pasta, we did some serious walking around Roma’s must-sees. First up was the Pantheon. Cool, no? And it’s absolutely free. Worth the entry price, for sure.

Next up were the Coliseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill. It’s amazing how the city has just been built up seamlessly around these ancient ruins. To be honest, I found these bits a little less exciting since I have a hard time getting into the history when I’m just looking at ruins, but the sheer number and size of the ancient and intricate churches, buildings and statues in this city (and country, really) is just mind boggling.

The gigantic Victor Emmanuel Monument is huge beyond comprehension. Our guidebook said the guy’s mustache is wider than I am tall!? Insanity.

The Trevi Fountain, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, was completely covered in scaffolding, and drained of water. Womp womp. So we walked to the Spanish Steps instead. And the fountain in that piazza was covered with plastic, as was the church at the top of the steps, including a big billboard advertisement in its stead. Total womp. So we took a picture that showed how we felt about it, and promptly left.

We woke early our last day to beat the crowds on our visit to Vatican City. Highly recommend this move, as the herd and queue were insane when we left. It’s a really, really big church. Again, not a big religion or history buff, so I’m not the best critic here, but…I was kind of more impressed with a few other churches we saw in Italy, especially one we’ll cover later in Tuscany.

That said, we walked up to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was definitely worth it for the views of the city. The stairwell is extremely narrow in parts, though, and claustrophobia inducing.

A few other areas we perused were Campo de Fiori (a bit touristy, but fun to visit, just avoid most restaurants on the piazza), and Trastevere (Piazza di Santa Maria is beautiful, and its church is lovely) . The riverfront area on the walk to Trastevere was pretty cool as well. While it was in sleep mode when we walked by during the day, it looks set up for some cool restaurants and hang-out areas.

My favorite part of Roma was just meandering down the narrow roads enclosed by multi-story buildings. While there are no modern skyscrapers in the city (nothing may be built taller than St. Peter’s Basilica), most buildings are about five or six stories high, and they are old, old buildings with small windows, all connected to each other, so you feel kind of like a mouse walking through a giant maze, unable to see what is around the next corner until you discover another ancient church or spill out onto a dazzling piazza.

Also, these continuously running water fountains all over town are pretty cool.

And the food and drink places on all these adorable streets and alleyways are to die for. One random find that I have to give a shout out to is Giulio Passami L’Olio, where we stopped for a few pre-dinner drinks during their aperitivo. While we didn’t sample the foods, they looked and smelled amazing, and we enjoyed a phenomenal wine recommended by the waiter.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have to give a bad shout out to Roscioli. It gets rave reviews, but it was the most offensive service I can ever remember having. I don’t know what was up with our waiter, but he was awful. The pasta was great, but surprisingly the burrata was underwhelming, and the wine he recommended was the complete opposite (oaky, buttery) of what we had asked for. (They have gigantic wine lists at these spots, so big they fit in books, so we put ourselves in the hands of our not-so-trusty waiter to help steer us towards a new Italian find.) Also, it’s pricey, and there are TONS of amazing Italian eats for much less money than they charge here. So, skip it. Anyhow, that’s my rant. I rarely go out of my way to talk about places I view negatively, but I was so offended by this experience, and our snooty, rude, and wine-clueless waiter, that I have to warn you guys. That is all, the rest of Roma was fantastico!

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from Amsterdam, which was much less smooth (it was fine, just long lines for everything) than our first easyJet experience. From Rome’s airport (FCO) we took a taxi to our apartment. There is a flat rate of €48. I think this covers up to four people and luggage, but confirm and also be sure your taxi isn’t licensed elsewhere and not bound by the fixed fare. I think there is a bus into the city for ~€5 and an express train for ~€14.

We walked much of the city and also used taxis, which are not that expensive. For example, the fare between Piazza Navona and Piazza Testacci is €9-10. We departed for Tuscany with a rental car picked up from Hertz on Via Sardegna.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb place on Via dei Coronari, a little northwest of Piazza Navona and a fairly easy walk to Campo de’ Fiori and to the Vatican. This is a great area full of piazzas and narrow cobblestones streets with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars. It is far from the subway, but we loved the location. Other popular areas to look include the Piazza Venezia/Forum/Colosseum area and the Spanish Steps. A friend of mine prefers to stay in Trastevere.

Food and Drinks: This was our first stop in Italy, and we were fired up for pasta et al. The cuisine differs by region in Italy. I think everywhere we visit will have ample pasta and gelato, though. Among other things, Rome is known for its cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and its carbonara pastas. These typically cost €7-10. It is a good idea to book a table at popular restaurants, even if only doing so in the afternoon for dinner that evening. The rumors of inexpensive and pretty good table wine seem to be true. We found bottle-size equivalents for €5-10 at many places.

Some places we particularly enjoyed include Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Ristorante Tre Archi da Loreto; Gelateria del Teatro; Cul de Sac. We had a pre-dinner bottle of wine at Giulio Passami L’Olio and loved the vibe and non-sweet Malvasia Bianca.

We were especially disappointed with Roscioli. Kenny said he could only think of one place where the hype to reality ratio was worse (The Hump in Santa Monica). The food was good but overpriced, and we did not like our waiter at all.

Other places we considered or couldn’t get into include Armando Al Pantheon, Pizzeria Da Baffetto, Pizzeria Ai Marmi, Forno Campo de’ Fiori, Il Gabriello, Cesare al Casaletto…

Here is a list of stops we made on our Eating Italy tour: Barberini; Volpetti Piu; Volpetti; Testaccio Market (Enzo e Lina stall, among others); Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Trapizzino; Giolitti.

I am obsessed with hydration, and therefore I am a huge fan of Rome’s abundant public water fountains. These are usually low to the ground and continuously stream water. They also have a neat feature where you can plug the spout with a digit and then water shoots out of a hole, facilitating drinking straight from the tap.

Activities: As with most places, we did not cram in as many museums and historically significant sights as possible. One could spend a whole lot of time on these in Rome. Consider research on buying tickets in advance and/or reserving time slots, as this may be required and/or save you a multi-hour line.

We did visit the Pantheon (free); the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (€12 ticket gives access to all); Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (basilica is free, the dome costs €5 to walk the whole way up or €7 to take the elevator part of the way, the museum is separate and we skipped it). Trevi Fountain was fully shut down and covered by construction, as was the fountain in Piazza di Spagna and the church at the top of the steps. 😦

Our little walking with lots of eating tour (Eating Italy: Taste of Testaccio Food Tour, which costs €75/person and takes four hours) was very enjoyable. As was just strolling around the city’s many narrow lanes and piazzas.

September 2-5, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)