Trip Report: Food Lovers in Italy

Old May 31st, 2009, 11:52 AM
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Trip Report: Food Lovers in Italy

This is a long, long overdue trip report of our marvelous trip to Italy. We went in October 2008 and spent 20 days roaming through the cities and the country side, eating all the while. We owe much to all of the comments and help that we received on this forum, especially to Stu Dudley (whose southern Tuscany tour we followed closely) and ekscrunchy (whose food-based trip report helped define many of our restaurant choices).

The major reason that this trip report is so late is because we have been slowly working on building a travel website to document our travels (and our upcoming round-the-world trip). You can read the trip report with pictures on our website: www.theroadforks.com. I am writing the trip report based on my detailed notes and our pictures so I hope to get new posts written every two to three days regarding the trip and will post them first to our website and then to this forum.

So, without further adieu:

Pisa: Day 1
When the Sun Goes Down
http://www.theroadforks.com/trips/italy2007/day1pisa

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Pisa gets a bad rap. It is decried as a dump, filled with graffiti, and an over-hyped tourist destination. And, to an extent, that is true. The main reason to come to Pisa is to see the Leaning Tower but the Leaning Tower is just another campanile, a bell tower, attached to a cathedral. The bell towers associated with the Catedral de San Marco in Venice or with the Duomo are more magnificent and offer better views.

But, then, at dusk, the city changes. The tourists and the Leaning Tower vanish into the dark. Light-filled coffee shops are populated with gorgeous men and women speaking a musical, lilting language, drinking and eating sumptuous food. We attempt to blend in and then . . . then . . . a cup filled with molten brown lava is placed before us. We take one sip and transform into Augustus Gloops, sucking down frothy smooth chocolate that must have been churned by a waterfall. The beautiful people stare at us but that's okay. We have sublime chocolate in our hands and it is quickly going into our bellies.

Sleep
We stayed at the Hotel Terminus for 90E. The room was clean, basic, and located within a few minutes walk to the train station. The only negative to this hotel is that it is about a 20 minute walk from the Leaning Tower and major tourist sites.

Eat
* Trattoria La Michele: We had lunch at this small trattoria within a block of the Hotel Terminus. We shared a caprese salad but the tomatoes were not fully ripe. I had the tagliatelle con funghi which was made with dried mushrooms rather than fresh mushrooms. Because of the use of dried mushrooms, it had a strong mushroom flavor that overpowered the pasta. Patrick's fettucini bolognese lacked spices. Overall, a mediocre choice.
* La Sfizia: I could have skipped the Leaning Tower and just spent the afternoon guzzling down chocolate here.
* Osteria dei Cavalieri: Located in the Piazza dei Cavalieri, it deserves all the accolades it receives. The zucchini souffle, translucent zucchini slices wrapping a creamy baked custard of zucchini and cheese, was one of the best things I ate during our entire trip. Patrick's starter consisted of thinly sliced prosciutto layered over fluffy fried dough. We both had a luscious butternut squash soup. Unfortunately, the main courses were not as inspiring. Though the grilled scamorza tasted like a mix of two of my favorite cheeses, mozzarella and halloumi, the grilled vegetables were bland and unseasoned. Patrick's sliced beef tenderloin was mostly tough and lacked the delicate touch seen in the remainder of the meal. We were too jet lagged by the end of the meal to have dessert but enjoyed a small cheese plate and saw several people ordering a pretty pear and cinnamon pie. Reservations recommended.
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Old May 31st, 2009, 01:32 PM
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Waiting for Piedmont!
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Old May 31st, 2009, 01:39 PM
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Love your style---give us more.
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Old Jun 1st, 2009, 06:02 AM
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Sampaguita: Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the Piedmont. We really wanted to go to the truffle festival in Alba while we were there but decided that since it was our first time to Italy, that we should hit the prime tourist attractions (Florence, Tuscany, Rome, and Venice). But, on our return trip, the Piedmont is going to be at the top of our list!

Thanks Bob!
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Old Jun 3rd, 2009, 04:09 PM
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Okay, on to day 2:

Florence: Day 2
Overstuffed
http://www.theroadforks.com/trips/it...7/day2florence

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Of all the cities in Italy, I had been most excited about visiting Florence. I fancied that when I walked the streets of Florence, I would be inspired, as the masters had been, to infuse my soul into creative works. I thought that Florence would be a city stuffed with art, beauty, and intellectual curiosities.

Instead, the city simply felt stuffed. Overstuffed, in fact. Everywhere we turned, we were overwhelmed by faces, bodies, and bags. The gray clouds loomed over us and the chirping of cameras followed us as we walked from the Duomo to San Lorenzo market. The solemnity of the San Lorenzo cathedral with its giant windows and high ceiling painted in gold and white was marred by the whispering women in the pews. Later, we jostled elbows against strangers as we stood in the market and passed a bag of roasted chestnuts, sold from a roadside vendor, between us. It felt appropriate, somehow, to be eating warm, buttery chestnut flesh on a day filled with people and clouds and cold.

And, then, we found a place to escape the crowds. We went to the Galleria dell' Accademia to see the David, expecting more of the same, and instead found that people just weren't that interested. Don't get me wrong --- there were a lot of people there and the line into the Accademia stretched almost one block. But, after bypassing the line with our pre-booked reservations, we walked past the Slaves, the haunting unfinished pieces by Michaelangelo, and met a mass of humanity. However, the crowds quickly melted. Most people stayed to look at David for five minutes or less and then moved on. We stayed for thirty minutes or more, enjoying the masterpiece from every angle, amazed by how the statue seems life-like from a distance but disproportionately scaled up close. I found a prime seat for a little while and chuckled over the statue's well-defined posterior. Patrick thought I was being silly. I was.

Sleep

We stayed at the lovely Relais Il Campanile for 100 E/night while in Florence. The hotel is on the block facing the Duomo and one block away from the Accademia. Our bedroom was large and comfortable with a king sized bed, small refrigerator, and two-person table. The breakfast included orange juice, pre-packaged croissants or muffins, and some crackers. The hostess, Sara, was incredibly helpful and gave us a number of restaurant and touring suggestions. When I booked our room via the Internet, she offered to make reservations for us at the Accademia and the Uffizi for free! Of course, we happily accepted her offer and, after seeing the lines at both museums, I am so happy we did. (For that reason alone, I would strongly consider staying there.) Our only complaint about the room was that the bathroom was a little small. Highly recommended.

Eat

* We had lunch at Buco en Giovanni, a small pizzeria right near the Duomo, and recommended by our hotel. We shared a mediocre margherita pizza. It sustained us but wasn't anything special.
* That night, we ate at Trattoria Za-Za. I hate to give a bad review because everyone --- from Fodor's message boards, Frommers' guidebook, to Sara at our hotel --- seems to love this place. Maybe we just ordered the wrong things or went on a bad night. Both of us felt that the decor was a bit tacky and aimed at tourists. My minestrone soup was bland. The eggplant parmigiana oozed so much oil that I started picking out the eggplant pieces and wiping them on my napkin. Patrick's spinach and cheese ravioli with creamy truffle sauce was the highlight of the meal with the rich truffle flecks speckling the pasta and the sauce. His carpaccio style beef with arugula and parmesan was good, cut to the right thickness and cooked properly, but overwhelmed by a honey mustard sauce that he scraped off. We finished the meal well, though, with a creamy tiramisu filled with a yolky custard and strong coffee liqueur. We toasted to our trip with Patrick's first grappa and my first limoncello. Now, that limoncello was good. It was the perfect mix of tart, sour, and sweet. In fact, it was the best limoncello I had throughout our entire stay in Italy. So, we would go back to Za-Za for a few dishes and lots of limoncello. Mmmm . . . limoncello.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2009, 07:43 PM
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akila- while we loved Florence, people and all (they were no distraction to us, as we were concentrating on the art/architecture/history)... we, too, found the Trattoria ZaZa overrated.

Our best meal of our entire trip happened to be in Florence. If you return, please do try Semidivino, Via S. Gallo 22/R. The beef carpaccio was amazing. The little pasta pockets stuffed with pears/gongonzola, topped with pinenuts and a light balsamic cream sauce... to die for!!!

Looking forward to the rest of your report, as I'm planning a return trip to Italy next spring!

Paula
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Old Jun 4th, 2009, 04:31 AM
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Paula - I am glad to hear that we weren't the only ones who didn't get great food at ZaZa! That pasta at Semidivino sounds wonderful. Patrick and I are planning on returning to Italy next summer for one month as part of our year-long world trip so we will have to keep Semidivino in mind.
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Old Jun 4th, 2009, 04:48 AM
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Wonderful! Keep it coming please! As mentioned in other posts, DH and I love Pisa and have made it a base for travel to CT, San Gim, Siena.
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Old Jun 4th, 2009, 02:13 PM
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Thanks TDudette!
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Old Jun 4th, 2009, 03:01 PM
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I also did not care for ZaZa or Buco en Giovanni - felt both were mediocre and catered to tourists.

It's a shame that Florence has become so overcrowded. For almost 30 years it was my very favorite city in Italy - but my visits in 2007 and 2008 were sad and disappointing. Florence now has so much graffiti and the streets are simply mobbed - even in late October when we were there the last two times.

BTW, every hotel I have ever stayed in (15 visits to Florence) has taken care of making museum reservations without charge so that is not a unique service.

Looking forward to more of your report...
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Old Jun 5th, 2009, 10:31 AM
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I've had a couple of great meals at ZaZa, and a few not so great. I think the quality has gone down as their popularity has gone up over the years, especially since they expanded out into the ... parking lot. At least their prices have remained reasonable.

Looking forward to the rest of your report, akila.
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Old Jun 6th, 2009, 02:07 PM
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kfusto and Holly, We have heard from others too that Florence is much more crowded than it used to be and, as a result, some of the previously great restaurants are now fairly mediocre.
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Old Jun 6th, 2009, 02:12 PM
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Here is day 3:

Florence: Day 3
The Duomo
http://www.theroadforks.com/trips/it...7/day3florence

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I have lived in the South nearly my entire life so I know about big churches. In Seattle, you can stand at a Starbucks and see two others; in my hometown in Alabama, I could stand at a church and see two larger churches. When we lived in Atlanta, we knew people who went to church in a converted Harris-Teeter. But, Italy takes the prize for really big cathedrals. The Duomo dominates the city of Florence. Every detail of the pink, green, and white facade is meticulously detailed and the interior dome designed by Brunelleschi is even more amazing. Of course, we both had cricks in our neck from staring at the ceiling for so long through our binoculars. If only they would let people lay on the floor with pillows to admire the ceiling.

Though, I actually preferred the smaller Baptistery. The exterior golden door by Ghiberti and the interior dome covered in gold are both masterpieces. Somehow, the fact that the exterior door was a copy of the original masterpiece did not bother us.

The climb to the top of Giotto's campanile was long and high. My calves screamed bloody murder and, several hours later, Patrick and I found ourselves in a pharmacy attempting to explain the chemical properties of "Icy Hot" to an Italian pharmacist. After we kept pointing to our legs and explained "hurt" and "pain" in Italian, the pharmacist gave us Momendol, an even better pain reliever than Icy Hot. But, the climb was worth it for the views of the Tuscan countryside and city landscape. Beautiful.

Eat

* Trattoria Le Mossacce - On Via del Proconsolo, this trattoria oozes Florentine charm with its rustic communal wooden tables and dried garlic strands hanging from the ceiling. Florentine business people and elderly men and women filled the restaurant. The portly gentleman sleeping in the corner against a wall, obviously sated from a good meal, only added to the decor. Patrick ordered the tortelloni, cooked perfectly al dente filled with a thick meaty mixture, with a simple bolognese sauce. My spinach and cheese ravioli in tomato sauce was also very tasty. Patrick's secondi of veal was a little tough but with an excellent gravy. I ordered a minestrone packed with vegetables and a contorni of spinach sauteed in lots of butter. Overall, a delicious meal at 25 Euros (and that included a liter of wine at 5 Euros).

* Il Dante di Rosso - My zucchini risotto was incredibly bland and the grilled vegetables con scamorza had no seasonings, not even salt and pepper. Unlike the scamorza at Osteria dei Cavalieri, this cheese tasted like the cheese used by Papa John's to make pizza --- and that's not a good thing. Patrick's salami was good but his lasagna was boiling hot and contained too much cheese. We would not recommend this restaurant because the food was mediocre and expensive.
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Old Jun 9th, 2009, 05:26 PM
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Here is day 4 in Florence:

Florence: Day 4
Ready to Go
http://www.theroadforks.com/trips/it...7/day4florence

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I was ready to leave Florence by the morning of our third day. We felt claustrophobic, worn down by the crowds, the gray clouds, and the narrow streets. But, then, there were parts of Florence we loved. We were shocked and impressed by the stunning brutality of the statues in the Piazza della Signoria. It is a strange thing, though, to stand in the open-aired palazzo with the horrors of Giambalino's Rape of the Sabine Women and Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa serving as background and children running through the cobblestone piazza to the Fountain of Neptune in the middle.

The Uffizi amazed us but not for the art that we expected. While Botticelli's The Birth of Venus was beautiful, we were enraptured by the depth and detail of his La Primavera. There were few visitors who made it to Rembrandt's self-portraits but we were so happy that we did.

Otherwise, we kept getting thwarted. We tried to go to the Mercato Centrale and the Medici Chapels and both were closed. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio and Pitti Palace was closing. We both kept telling each other that we were glad to be leaving Florence and ready for Tuscany.

Eat

* Ristorante Pizzeria Il Bargello - We should have known better because this restaurant lines the tourist-laden Piazza della Signoria but, by the time we left the Uffizi, we were starving and willing to settle for anything. Given that our stomachs were caving in on themselves with hunger, I expected that any pizza would taste good. Nope, I was wrong. Both pizzas matched fairly evenly with the microwaved pizza we ate on our Delta flight from Atlanta to Pisa.

* Rivoire - I had such high hopes for this place. For me, good thick hot chocolate is only a few steps removed from a higher calling and purpose in life. I want my chocolate to taste like it was churned by a waterfall and flow through my throat in a rushing wave of creamy liquid. My spoon should stick almost upright into a proper cup of chocolate. The chocolate at Rivoire while good did not meet those very high expectations. It was a bit too milky and thin. But, if you can't make it to La Sfizia in Pisa, then this is a decent option.

* Cipolla Rossa - The restaurant was half-empty when we arrived so we weren't expecting greatness. But, the food was, by far, the best we had in Florence. We shared a bruschetta, toasted to a golden brown and topped with sweet chopped tomatoes. Patrick had a filet of beef topped with porcini slices, all of which was cooked perfectly. I had a vegetable risotto in a bowl made of a parmigiano crust. As I dipped my fork into the risotto, the parmigiano crust melted into the risotto and over my fork. We drank lots of wine and enjoyed a lovely meal.
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Old Jun 9th, 2009, 06:37 PM
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Have i told you lately that I love you?
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Old Jun 10th, 2009, 07:25 AM
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Now, that is a nice compliment!
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Old Jun 10th, 2009, 07:53 AM
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your post saved me during my 24 hour shift...
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Old Jun 21st, 2009, 03:33 PM
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Now on to the next day - Tuscany, how we love thee (and this is when the pictures start to get good):

http://www.theroadforks.com/trips/italy2007/day5tuscany

day 5: tuscany - moving forward

See

We left Florence in haste. We practically ran through the water pouring on our shoulders to the Avis rental agency on the outskirts of town. The Avis representatives seemed to know that we were in a hurry because we entered the agency and left with a car in no more than 15 minutes. And, then we were moving forward, away from the crowds, the rain, the gray of Florence. It turned out, though, that we were only going to move forward . . . and that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

The thing is that I don't know how to drive a stick shift. For years, we had a Mazda 360, a stick shift, which I refused to drive or ride in because the car literally rusted from the inside out; in the back seat; I could drop pennies through the holes in the carpet into the road below. But, in Italy, we couldn't swallow spending an extra $200 just so I could remedy my ignorance in the ways of manual transmission. I was a little worried about Patrick driving stick shift alone since we sold his Mazda five years before.

Despite our concerns, our little Fiat Panda, bright blue and full of character, seemed to fit us perfectly. After leaving Florence, Patrick zipped through hills and fields of Tuscany on the A1 as he reminisced about his old Mazda. He told me that driving a stick "just felt right." That is, until we passed the road to Pienza and needed to turn the car around and realized that he did not know how to put the car in reverse. We were outside a run-down restaurant, with no one in sight, and our only option was to move the car forward into the restaurant. I pulled out the manual for the car and realized that my minimal skills in Italian and Spanish would not help me decipher how to turn the car around. So, Patrick got out of the car, pushed it backward, and yelled instructions to me on how to move the stick shift.

We parked a good mile away from Pienza, knowing that even with Patrick's excellent parallel parking skills, we wouldn't be able to get into a spot near the city without going in reverse. I pulled the manual out of the glove box to take it into town with us but Patrick decided, at the last moment, to try fiddling with the stick shift again. And, then, ta da! It worked. The trick was to push down on the stick while pressing the clutch and then, and only then, pull it into reverse.

Everything about Pienza---from the cobblestones to the overhanging lemon and olive trees to the pots of flowers and bottles of wine sitting on windowsills---evoked love and beauty. We held hands like newlyweds and watched the couples walking under the vines of sweet white flowers. We drove to Montepulciano, certain that the city would not be as cute and charming as Pienza. And, it wasn't --- but, then again, it was. Montepulciano was larger, slanting on the hill, with stunning views from every direction, but it still had the character of a small village. We had been in the Val D'Orcia for mere hours and knew that we were going in the right direction.

Sleep

Montorio, set on the outskirts of Montepulciano, is one of the most beautiful hotels we have ever stayed in. The views of Montepulciano and the Sanctuary of San Biagio are unparalleled.

Our apartment, the S. Agnese Segni, was a little gem with a lovely kitchen and a large, comfortable bed. The terrace had stunning 360 degree views and we plucked rosemary from the bushes lining the property. Our sitting area with a television and small library kept us entertained on quiet evenings while we did the laundry in the laundry room. The only negative to this hotel was that the water temperature frequently fluctuated. Highly, highly recommended. A jewel in the Val d' Orcia.

Eat

We tried to have lunch at Latte de Luna in Pienza but it was fully booked. We then wandered to Buca del Fatte further in the city of Pienza. I started with a bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and slivered basil and Patrick had a good selection of cured meats. My gnocchi with pomodoro was okay but Patrick's pici with ragu was good and made with a thick homemade pasta. At the end of the meal, they brought out a huge cart of desserts and we shared a lovely amaretto cake. Inexpensive and reasonable food.

Our first priority in Tuscany was experiencing the wine. Montepulciano was empty in the evening and we wandered through the silent, dark city until we found Vineria Bistrot Spazio Arte at the edge of town. We shared the vineria with a few other locals speaking Italian in their lilting tones. We drank a Camigiano 2002 Brunello di Montalcino, a Podere Sanvinego 2003 Nobile Riserva, a La Ciarmama 2004 Nobile, a 2004 Chianti Classico, and a Valdipiatta 2003 Nobile. All of the wines were excellent, but we enjoyed it all too much of it to take notes. We shared a giant plate of cheese, cured meats, and salad. We laughed, talked, and shared wine and thoughts with the wonderful wait staff. Great find in Montepulciano.
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Old Jun 22nd, 2009, 03:56 AM
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Great report! I absolutely adored our stay in Pienza.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 06:10 AM
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Thanks marigross! Isn't Pienza wonderful? It was my favorite town in Tuscany and one of my two favorite places that we saw in Italy (the second being Rome). We were surprised that there weren't many tourists in Pienza because it is so picturesque. Maybe there were less tourists because it was late October? It was a bit chilly (in the high 50s every day) in the Val d'Orcia while we were there so maybe the weather detracted some of the visitors.
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