Eating and drinking our way through Italy

Taste of Tuscany — October 2012

I just returned from a food-and-wine-focused group “escape” to Italy, and I can’t wait to share my feedback and photos from this amazing experience. We were a small group (fourteen people in total), escorted by my favorite chef (Kait Roberts, owner of Easy Entertaining, Inc.), and we had a wonderful time eating and drinking our way through Tuscany!

My husband and I flew over a couple of days early to spend some time in Rome before meeting up with the rest of the group in Florence. We arrived at the Rome airport at about 9 am on a Friday morning, and were met by a driver from Rome Cabs, who successfully navigated the rush hour traffic and delivered us safely to our hotel – the BorromeoDespite the early hour, the room was ready and we were able to check in right away (a great surprise!)  The room was quite small, but the hotel is a clean, safe, three-star property in a great location on via Cavour, within easy walking distance of the train station and the Colosseum, and it served us well as a place to sleep for two nights, which is all that we wanted.

standing in front of a domed church in Italy

After a shower and a brief nap, we took a cab over to the Vatican to grab some lunch before our afternoon tour. We enjoyed our first taste of Roman thin-crust pizza (pizza Margarita for me, and a pizza rustica — white pizza with prosciutto — for him) and their house red wine. Ahh, Italy 🙂

Our four-hour guided tour that afternoon (by Dark Rome) included skip-the-line access to the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s Rooms. It was great to have the guide providing history and context for everything we were seeing, but the sheer volume of art surrounding us was a bit overwhelming (especially when working on two hours of sleep!) In retrospect, while I’m really glad we got the chance to see it, I don’t think it was the best idea to tackle the Vatican on our arrival day!

inside the Vatican in Italya marble statue of Mary and Jesus in Italy

After the tour, we cabbed back to the hotel (TIP: be sure to ask the price before you get into the taxi; we found that quotes varied greatly, and we haggled to get the best one) and asked the front desk to recommend a nearby restaurant for an early dinner. At their suggestion, we walked a few blocks up the street to Trattoria Nuova Stella for a dish of pasta, a bottle of wine, and some tiramisu.  It was fine, and exactly what we needed at that moment (quick, close by, and plenty of available tables), but nothing to rave about.

Saturday morning, after a nice restorative sleep, we were up and out bright and early for our morning walking tour of Ancient Rome (with Dark Rome, once again). We grabbed a cappuccino and cornetto along the way, and met our guide just outside the Colosseum. This fascinating four-hour tour included the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill, and I would recommend it to everyone. They provided so much background and history that it really made these ancient sites come alive in our imagination!

the inside of the Colosseum in Rome

After the tour, we grabbed our map of Rome and set out to see the rest of the city on foot. Of course, we first had to find a trattoria with a little outdoor terrace (In Roma restaurant, on the Piazza de Consolazione) so we could sit down and enjoy some bruschetta, gnocchi, red wine, and my new favorite pasta dish – “cacio e pepe” (pecorino and pepper). So simple, but so delicious!

Suitably fortified, we wandered all over the city, to the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Quirinale, the Medici Villa and its beautiful gardens overlooking the city, the Piazza Barberini and the Triton Fountain, and more. It was a lot of walking in one afternoon, but Rome was worth it.

a busy street in Italythe trevi fountain in Rome

That evening we met up with friends for dinner (they had arrived that day) at Da Giovanni, which had been recommended by Chef Kait (from her student days in Rome).  What a find! It was an out-of-the-way little place filled with locals, and it felt like we were eating in my husband’s grandmother’s kitchen. We feasted on homemade pasta, grilled meats, local cheeses, and house wine, and the whole tab (for six people) came to about 140 Euros. On the leisurely stroll back to the hotel, we somehow found room to stop for gelato 🙂

Sunday morning we enjoyed breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop terrace and then checked out and walked to the Termini train station (about 4-5 blocks away). We already had our tickets, so it was a fairly simple matter of figuring out which track we needed and, before we knew it, we were on our way to Florence. After a 90-minute (scenic) ride, we arrived at Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station. From there it was an easy walk to our hotel – the Hotel de la Ville.

the famous Duomo in Florence

The entire group stayed at this hotel, a lovely four-star property on a quiet pedestrian-only street (the Piazza degli Antinori) just three blocks from the Duomo. We loved the large lobby bar (presided over by the friendliest bartender I’ve ever met), the daily breakfast (my morning cappuccino sported a different decoration every day!), and the gorgeous two-floor suite that they upgraded us to. Less wonderful was the ongoing problem with air conditioning (some rooms had none; some had too much), and the sometimes “chilly” front desk staff. All in all, though, it was a great home base for exploring the city.

standing by the window in the Italian Hotelthe front of the Hotel De La Ville in Italy

Sunday evening the whole group met up for the first time for happy hour in the lobby bar and a welcome dinner right there at the hotel. It was the perfect way to break the ice, and it set the right tone for the rest of the week.

Monday morning we met in the lobby for a half-day guided walking tour of Florence. Our guide, “Yadri”, was an art historian with a real passion for the social and cultural history of the city, and she gave us a fantastic overview as we explored the Medici Chapels, the Duomo and its Baptistry, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza d. Signoria, and the Ponte Vecchio. After the tour our afternoon was free, so several of us enjoyed some paninis and a little bit of shopping.

We met up again at the hotel that evening for a highlight of the trip – our authentic Tuscan dinner at Ristorante del Fagioli, another one of Chef Kait’s local favorites. They welcomed us with open arms into this cute little local “find”, and Kait ordered for the whole table. The rest of that evening is a blur… the dishes just kept coming! Antipasto, bruschetta, bottles of homemade wine, several kinds of fresh pasta, porcini mushrooms, potatoes, and the star of the night – the Bistecca Fiorentina (the beef is hanging in the open kitchen and they hack off the desired amount to bring out for your approval before putting it on the grill!)  The whole thing was unbelievably inexpensive, and we left stuffed and happy.

a crowd looking at the David in Florence

Tuesday morning was drizzly, but we grabbed our umbrellas and met up with our guide for a half-day tour of Florence’s most famous museums – the Accademia and the Uffizi Gallery. This was my first visit to the Accademia, and I was not prepared for the impact of Michelangelo’s “David”. No matter how many times you’ve seen it in pictures, experiencing the real thing in person is just breathtaking!

two cups of coffee with cute decorations in Tuscany

After our morning in the museums, we had some more free time to explore Florence on our own. Several of us stopped into Trattoria Anita (yet another Chef Kait recommendation) for a “workman’s lunch” with the locals. We were clearly the only English-speakers there, and they did seat us in a separate room, but it was more than worth it for the decadent “pasta quattro formaggio”.

Later that afternoon we all boarded a mini-bus for our first excursion — a winetasting in Greve in Chianti. We drove through the beautiful countryside to Castello Vicchiomaggio, where we enjoyed  breathtaking views over the Tuscan hills and a tour of their winemaking facilities. We also tasted their Chianti Classico and some delicious super-Tuscans.  Needless to say, after such a busy day, we had a quiet ride back to Florence and an early dinner and bedtime.

walking through the narrow Italian streetsa wine cellar in Italy

Wednesday morning we re-grouped in the lobby for an informal walk around the city with Chef Kait. She introduced us to her favorite coffee shop, her favorite vendors in the San Lorenzo market, her favorite shoe store, jewelry store, etc. It was great to have these personal connections, and I know that many in the group took advantage of them (I saw lots of new leather jackets and silk scarves by the end of the week!) Then we picked up paninis to go and hopped back on the mini-bus for a daytrip to Lucca.

a fruit market stall in the Italian streetsa view of Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Along the way, we visited a beautiful little agriturismo called Fattoria di Fubbiano. It was up a treacherous winding road in the hills outside Lucca, but it was more than worth the scary drive! The scenery was gorgeous, and we were treated to a crash course in both wine-making and olive oil pressing, and then enjoyed an over-the-top tasting experience in an ancient wine cellar, with locally made cheese and honey, their own olive oil, red and white wines, Tuscan salami, bread, and more.  The white wine was so good that we purchased several bottles to enjoy during our cooking class the following night.

a view of the lush green Tuscany hills dining at a long table under stone arches in Florence

After the wine tasting we stopped in Lucca for a short visit. Some of the group headed into the center of town with Kait for coffee, shopping and sightseeing, while the rest of us took a relaxing stroll along the top of the ancient city walls.  Back in Florence that evening, some of us had dinner at an outdoor trattoria on one of the main piazzas, and another visit to what was quickly becoming “our” gelato shop – Grom, on the via del Campanile.

Thursday was our last day in Florence, and we made the most of it! We met Chef Kait bright and early for a visit to the Mercato Centrale to shop for ingredients for our cooking class. Everyone marveled over the huge market filled with specialized vendors selling only the freshest local produce, meat, cheese, and other products. It took hours for us to see, taste, and decide on everything, and we loved it! We spent the rest of the day shopping and exploring on our own, and then met up at the hotel for a short bus ride to Syracuse University’s villa on the outskirts of Florence, where we had rented the kitchen and courtyard for the evening for our cooking class.

shopping for fresh foods at the market in Italydeciding which salami to get in a market in Florence

Chef Kait assigned the “boys” to assemble the antipasto while she toasted some bruschetta and demonstrated her talent at making homemade pasta (it looked so EASY when she did it!) She taught us two quick pan sauces (one with dried and fresh porcinis and cream, and one with tomatoes and garlic) and fielded a wide range of questions from novice and experienced cooks, and then we dug in. The wine flowed freely, and it was as if the fourteen of us had known each other forever.

learning how to make pasta at an Italian cooking class

Friday morning came all too soon, and we packed up and checked out of the hotel. The lucky ones were continuing on to Venice, Rome, or another Italian city, but Everett and I were headed home to the kids.   One quick connection in Frankfurt, and then we found ourselves back at Logan Airport with nothing left to do but daydream about our next trip to Italy.

If you want to see more. The photos from Rome and Florence are available on my Facebook page. And a short video of our market visit and cooking class can be found here. We’re already working on another trip for 2013, so let me know if you’re interested!

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