Nope. I didn’t just get back from Italy. [Dammit.] But my sister and her group of college friends did, and she’s in charge of this week’s guest post.
Italy was wonderful. We spent the first three days with two other couples hiking the Cinque Terre trails. Though they can be hiked in a day, it’s a great place to unwind from traveling, and more days means more time to eat seafood, drink the local white wine and fill up on pesto. We next sped through Pisa, picked up a car in Florence, and finally, met up with the rest of the group for a week in Chianti.
The farmhouse was rustic but perfect: the kitchen large enough to all cook together. We ate well out as well as in, going to the butcher and farmer’s markets for amazing meat and produce. We took side trips to neighboring San Gimignano, Montalcino, the Church at Saint Antimo, and Florence, but much got left undone, like hiking trails through the villages from Gaiole to Sienna, leaving some for the next trip back.
Vernazza is all that it’s billed to be, with its pastel buildings, clear water, blue and white fishing boats “parked” in the harbor, barrels of fishing nets alongside the narrow streets where cars aren’t allowed except the delivery trucks early in the mornings before most tourists have arisen. English was more prevalent than Italian, which was a little disconcerting, but that made it an easy entrance to the culture and language. Early on, we observed that the “thing to do” was to bring a bottle of wine to the harbor (perhaps even a picnic) so, like good tourists, we followed suit. The weather was perfect, giving us a beautiful show both evenings as well as a swim on the last.
The Millers and Lambertys had already checked into their modest but clean and perfectly located rooms (Francamaria Rooms, 70 & 80E). Our room was down the alley a bit, also clean, small and all we needed (BBGemmy, 70E). Breakfast was supposedly included, but we were up and out earlier than our hosts, so we were never able to take advantage.
Our first dinner was at Gianni Franzi, which seems to have a monopoly on the town square overlooking the water. Portions were tiny but the food was outstandingly fresh. Was it because we’d been on planes, trains and automobiles for 24+ hours, or that the food in Italy is simply better? It turned out to be the most expensive meal of the trip, partly because we were ripped off by three grappas for 18E and because the cover charge was 3E pp. Such was our introduction to the practice of the copertino.
- Salted anchovies
- Fresh anchovies
- Octopus and potatoes
- Pesto pasta (ugly quills)
- Fish ravioli with ink pasta
- Pesto ravioli
- House wines, white and red
We hiked from Vernazza to Corniglia (not the town to stay in; something like 400 steps from the train station to the village, cute but not as much personality as the others). We had a coffee and continued on to Manarola (Ed note: where K and I stayed in 2001) where we decided to have lunch. Starving, we almost made the “mistake” of eating on the waterfront. Instead we had a beer (always a good choice) with some nuts and crackers, to think about our options. With something in our tummies we were able to hike up the narrow streets looking for a place called Trattoria del Billy. With a name like that, we were unsure of what to expect. Though not cheap…or easy to find…it was worth the effort.
As they were telling us the catch of the day, we had to wait a few minutes. New, fresher fish was on its way up the hill from the harbor, and it remained to be seen what was included. “It will be here in a minute….”
We sat on the terrace overlooking water, hills and town, enjoyed our wine, and listened to…a train? No, rolling thunder. Fortunately, the enormous umbrellas protected us from the downpour as we enjoyed a delicious meal served by Billy himself…aged 60? …running up and down the two flights of stairs from the kitchen to the terrace. He served, sang, and told stories of being born and raised in the hills around us, and about the snails they would pick after rains such as this, to cook up and eat.
- Mussels in white wine
- Grilled eggplant and zucchini
- Black (squid ink) pasta with all kinds of shellfish as below
- Pasta of the sea
- Mixed grill of seafood including variety of whole fish and shellfish razor clams, mussels, vongole, etc.
On the short walk to Riomaggiore we shared a pint of limoncino…for dessert. At Riomaggiore we had a round of beers to celebrate a successful hike and looked for the ferry to return us to Vernazza, to get a waterfront perspective of the villages clinging to the cliffs. Though we saw it running along the coast it never came into our teeny, rocky cove, perhaps due to the wind, so we trained back to Vernazza, bought some wine and watched a spectacular sunset show: thunderheads mixed with orange sky and the setting sun’s rays.
A “light” dinner was at the unlikely named Blue Marlin. The food was reasonably priced and very, very good. Scott chose it because of all the Italian kids hanging out and eating. Some may argue, but I thought this was the best pizza of the trip. For 60 E, for six people, we had:
- 2 Margarita pizzas
- 2 prosciutto crudo
- 2 mussels a la marinara (not the freshest, but we were forewarned it was the bottom of the barrel)
- 3 salads
- 2 liters of vino rosso
The next day we headed to Pisa enroute to Florence. Checking our bags at the bagliagi deposito, we wandered the city, had some cappuccini, ate a few panini, took pictures at the leaning tower, duomo, baptistery…it was more beautiful than I remembered in spite of the overcast, drizzly day and our slightly hung over states from the six bottles of wine the night before. Hmm, and the two at lunch. And the limoncino, and the beer…. In addition to the tower, I highly recommend using the beautiful bathrooms at the train station. Seriously, pay the .60, it’s well worth it!
Amassing in Panzano and the Podere Felcetto
The Kulies will have to tell their own story, but suffice it to say they had an adventure finding our house, Podere Felcetto, in the wilds of Chianti (outside the village of Panzano). Jet lagged, they picked up their car, started driving…and driving…four hours on the Autostrada, 11 euros of tolls, their incomplete directions eventually got them “home”, bobble headed, but the first to arrive.
After stocking up on fresh mortadella and a couple salumi and bread in Pisa for the trip to Florence (Ed note: what is that, Cyn, like a whole hour and a half? Good thing you weren’t without some cured meats to sustain you!), we were back on the train. In Firenze we met the Fransons and separated into a bus group and a rental car group. By the time the drivers had rented the car, found the farmhouse, unloaded, picked up beer, wine and a few other staples at the local co-op, the bus-ers were having beers on the square. (Even after a two-hour wait no thanks to a bad schedule.)
Around this time, we got a call from the missing Heynes and Estrems. Their rental car had broken down an hour outside of Rome, just before Spoleto. They were stranded on the side of a busy highway for hours, trying to get help. Thanks to Mark’s gentle nature, Debbie’s refusal to accept anything less than a final destination of Panzano and Estrem’s support of each of those approaches, they were loaded on a flatbed truck, girls in the cab, boys in the car on the flatbed, wound back through the precarious roads to Rome, handed a different car, turned back around and headed north again.
We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do at this point, but we had 9 pm dinner reservations at the famous Butcher of Panzano’s (Dario Cecci) Solociccia restaurant for 30E pp. Since we had no food and it was too late to cancel, we stuck to the plan. And we’re glad we did; what a show! Well worth it: course after course of food, wine from their own vineyard, and good cheer continuously flowing.
First, we met Dario at his butcher shop, where he served us very good Chianti from his vineyard, lardo bruschetta, and fresh bread with olive oil with his special salt. We were then welcomed across the street into his new and modern restaurant. The 15 of us settled into our private room just off the kitchen and started with raw vegetables in baskets and cups of their own flavored salts, ground to a fine, fine grain.
Then the courses started flowing: smoothly, efficiently, and with perfect timing:
- Fagioli (best white bean ‘soup’ we had all week)
- Slices of bread with generous portions of Bolognese, dubbed by our table, (forgive the sacrilege) Sloppy Joes
- Raw beef meatballs (crudo) flavored with olive oil, salt and pepper
- Deep fried eggplant, zucchini, fennel, carrots (not the best)
- Braised beef and cabbage stew, slow, slow, slow cooked. Great flavor
- Olive oil cake! So good!
- A selection of four “military digestivi”, including grappa, amaretto, licorice and…hmm…oddly fuzzy at this point.
- Bottomless carafes of wine which we expected to pay for after the first few complimentary, but no, they were all included. (Ed note: In the future, when hit with a reservation from Minnesotans, they’ll know to tack on a surcharge.)
Though the food wasn’t all spectacular, it was good, plentiful, fun and well worth it. For the next people who go, it may be worth paying the 55E pp for the beef dinner across the street and up the stairs, on a deck facing the city parking lot.
Sunday in Panzano and Greve
The next morning was the Panzano Farmer’s Market: artichokes, a vast variety of fresh greens, fruits, fruits and more fruits…I could have spent hours at one stall alone. It was organized chaos: take a number and watch the show. We didn’t have a plan for the day but figured we could just ‘get shit’. We were going to buy prepared meats from the large food cart which had chickens of all sizes on the rotisserie, stuffed rolled porchetta, fried or roasted coniglio (rabbit) but Roberto of our farmhouse told us we shouldn’t buy the meat at the market. If we wanted chicken, we were to go to the butcher in the old center of town. And with chicken? No pasta! It MUST be roasted potatoes! Okay, okay!
Why would we want old, mass-produced chicken when we could get young fresh locally grown ones from the market, we wondered? But going against our instincts, we took his advice and located the Macelleria de Checcucci. The chickens were really yellow, the skins were dry (I always have to wash and dry a chicken for 24 hours in the States before seasoning it to roast, but already dried out chicken?). They had the heads on, the feet on and were filled with pin feathers. But we finally decided, once again against our better judgment, hell with it, we’re in Italy, ‘when in Rome’…so we bought three chickens. (Or was it four?) They asked how we were going to cook them. Roast? No, a la griglia. Would we like them to spice them? Um…sure? They took them in back and we waited…then smelled something. Ah! That oh-so-familiar smell from my childhood days of singed pin feathers. Then they split them in half, sliced into the breast, smashed the halves to flatten slightly and filled the meat with their own herb-flavored salt. How glad we were we hadn’t walked out of there chickenless!
We then went to Greve for wine tasting on the square (also stipulated by our farmhouse “general”, Roberto), while some had beers and pizza in the square. We went to the fantastic, not to be missed, Antica Macelleria-Norcineria Falorni. Go there for the viewing and the wine tasting adjacent to the place, though the little macelleria down the street has better cured meats
Back home, outdoors on the beautiful terrace overlooking the vineyards and old building on the faraway hilltops, we had a family meeting over antipasti and vino and prosecco to discuss who wanted to see what on the trip. We made our choices, slimmed down the list and assigned days. Scott made-do with a small grill and no charcoal for the chickens, while we roasted the flavorful potatoes, fresh artichokes, and a mixed green salad with four kinds of lettuces. We dressed the salad as we would every night at the table with olive oil and flavored salt we’d purchased at Dario Cecci’s. Some added balsamico, others didn’t. A FINE, Sunday dinner on the terraces of Podere Felcetto, Panzano en Chianti!
Monday in Panzano, SanGimi & Radda
Monday started out warm and rainy, and by early afternoon it was blustery and COLD! Poor Pete was sick in bed, some went to San Gimi and others kept it local. We thought we’d check out a few local villages in Chianti, but only got to Radda in Chianti. We walked the cobblestone streets, appreciated the view, and when it started pour, found a warm and cozy restaurant in the old part of town. The smells coming out of La Peghera di Baccio increased the rumblings in our tummies. By this time it was 2 pm and they were slammed but happened to have enough space to seat us. The owner and other help were scurrying around, taking care of three large tables in two separate rooms, running up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the dining rooms. Service was uneven, the food took too long, they were apologetic, they forgot to bring my soup, (I didn’t need it) but what we did get was superb and we weren’t disappointed. It was rainy and cold outside, cozy and warm inside, with no agenda. Prices were typical (soups and salads 5 E, Antipasti and primi: 7-8 E, Secondi 12-16 E):
- Pulpi carpaccio with some sort potato tartin. Simple and delicious, in part, thanks to the amazing, local olive oil
- Pasta al funghi, mushrooms were not the most flavorful
- Zuppa di Fagioli, scrumptious!
- Lasagna, scrumptious!
- Ensalata Mista
After a couple beers at the local bar/restaurant and a visit to the Radda co-op to stock up on more groceries, we took the craggy hilltop, scenic route home…unintentionally: rocky dirt roads across the hilltops looping around past a cypress-lined driveway to an estate called Camprollo (some locals stopped on their way by as we were taking pictures and gave us the name as if it were to mean something to us?) down past Montefioralle into Greve. We got home about the same time as the San Gimi group, made fresh pasta…YUM!…which we served with shredded leftover chicken, stewed fresh tomatoes, sautéed onions, zucchini, garlic, basil, rucola and grated, aged pecorino. YUM! And, green salad. YUM!
Tuesday around the Podere Felcetto
Gary had kindly used one of his connections to set up a private wine-tasting and tour of the Albola estate, a popular imported Chianti wine. Before departing, ever mindful of our next meal, we quickly skewered lamb on rosemary branches and left them to marinate for the day with some olive oil and salt. The tour was informative and beautiful of a grand and ancient estate with gorgeous views of the surrounding Chianti countryside with a warm sun in spite of the cool air. The wine was extremely good, it was accompanied by platters of meats and cheese, olive oil and bread, and the tasting was a great thing to do early in the week so everyone could establish what characteristics we liked, and learn about what we’d be drinking all week long.
We had planned to hit another winery, Verazzano, which was highly recommended by the del Mastio’s (farmhouse owners). By the time we found it and got there, however, we realized it was a huge tour bus destination. Spoiled by Gary’s fine, private tour, we simply looked around then took off. A stop at the ‘leather factory outlet’ in Greve was also a bust, but it was a wonderful day nonetheless.
With head chef Debbie in the kitchen, Scott back at the grill, and a dozen willing assistants, we had grilled skewered lamb, grilled eggplant piled high with barely cooked sautéed zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, starting of course with a ubiquitous antipasti of cured meats, sheep cheeses of various ages, prosecco and wine. Another delicious meal.
Wednesday, from Panzano to Florence
We took the bus from Panzano to Florence (minus poor, sick Pete and Beth), splitting up after touring Santa Maria Novella by the station. Scott and I searched for and found the two food markets: Mercantale Centrale where we shared a bowl of pasta and meat sauce and the Market at San Ambrogio which was closed by the time we got there. We shared a tomato soup and bitter green salad at the café of El Cibreo, to check out if we should suggest coming back with the gang on Saturday. The answer? Yes. We loved the Piazza San Spirito outside the San Miniato but, unfortunately, Denise’s ‘free and fab’ church was closed for renovation. When it re-opens it should be even more fab…but maybe not free…. This side of the Arno seemed to be the place to be in the evening; especially on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, we never made it back…something for next time.
Back in Panzano, we went to the Enoteca Baldi for beer and wine…and eventually dinner. The pizza place we’d hoped for was closed on Wednesdays. On Monday it had appeared closed, when really, it just hadn’t opened yet. Enoteca Baldi was JUST what the doctor ordered. Delicious, aromatic, fresh, creative cooking, friendly and welcoming by the owner/chef. Some of our favorites:
- Bruschetta mista: chicken livers, tomatoes and olive spread
- Herby and fragrant white beans and sausage,
- Panini of tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, cheese
- Salad piled high in the same style as the Panini with melted cheese
Thursday in Panzano, Montalcino and Castellino
While some went to Castellino and others to Radda, Kim, Scott and I went to Montalcino and the Abbey of San Antimo, where we arrived in time for the 12:45 Sext service. Upon entering the old, Romanesque chapel, we could still smell the incense and candles from the 11:00 mass. After a 20 minute service of Gregorian chanting (them, not us) we wandered and appreciated the columns, almost pagan in their design, and the grounds. It’s a wonderful, self supporting abbey with vineyards, grazing cattle and its own town built up around the castle. If we weren’t starving (as always) (Ed note: What, no cured meat and fresh bread in your pockets? Shocking!) we could easily have spent more time checking out the monastery complex and little town. Bring a snack/picnic, come for the mass and tour the grounds and castle. Or, better yet, stay in the rooms, join the brothers for a meal, and visit Montalcino from there! (Ed note: This is one of my all-time favorite churches, and certainly the plainest. Its butter-soft walls seem to glow, the crucifix over the altar is rough-hewn and primal, and the carvings are, as Cyn said, practically pagan. This place is the epitome of calm.)
Our meal in Montalcino was one of our best in Italy. (Ed note: So jealous. Loved the town, but when we stayed overnight everything seemed closed.) Trattoria l’Angolo is a tiny, cozy, fragrant (aren’t they all?) place with mostly Italian speaking people. It used to be called Trattoria Sciame (Ed note: Monkey?! Really? Excellent.) The large group next to us had all ordered grilled steaks.
- Antipasti platter of bruschetta and prosciutto
- Scott splurged and ordered the special of the day, tagliatini with tartufo bianco, fresca, thinly sliced and generously scattered all over his plate along with a glass of Brunello.
Kim and I took it down a notch (not much) by splitting the
-Strozzapretti (“priest stranglers” pasta) with Brunello bolognese sauce (8E) and
- Mixed grill of meats charcoal grilled pork chop to die for, chicken, sausage, beef fat and gristle on a skewer that only I could appreciate (12E)
- House wines, 3E for ¼ liters, 7E for a glass of Brunello
- 2pp copertino for a total bill of 70 E
We walked around town, visiting the ramparts, climbing to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding Montalcino countryside (Kimmer, I owe you for that, BTW), tasted/bought Brunello and some vino rosso from the area, visited a couple churches and made it back to Podere Felcetto in time for happy hour before heading in for pizza (finally!) at Conca del Oro.
Conca del Oro, according to some, is the best pizza in Italy (I maintain my vote for Blue Marlin’s pizza). We proceeded to eat our way through the menu of pizzas ranging from 8-16 E. The chef was “trained and certified in the methods of Italian pizza making”. Crusts were chewy, almost hard and….tough? (Ed note: Curious as to how you’d rate it against Apizza Scholls’ crust?) The best part, imo, were her home made desserts that she gave us compliments of the restaurant. They were so good, we ordered two more of each: a flourless chocolate torte and a custard in a cheesecakey, eggy crust to die for.
Friday at the Podere Felcetto in Panzano and Lucarelle
The last day was slated to ‘hang out’ in the area, and we tried out a restaurant recommended by a fellow tourist at the Butcher of Panzano: Osteria le Panzanelle in the nearby village of Lucarelle. Outstanding!
– Eggplant rolls with cheese, tomatoes and capers
- Crostini misti
- Sformatino di cavolfiore (warm cauliflower torte)
- Fagioli all olio
- Insalata mista
- Patate fritte
- Spaghetti with sausages and wild mushrooms was the best mushroom flavor I’d tasted to date. First time I wasn’t disappointed by the lack of wild mushroom taste
- Lasagne with a ragu and cheese so chewy and wonderful with a rich béchamel
- Roast Coniglio (rabbit) con olive, capers and anchovies, KILLER good!
- 3 liters house red
- Copertino 2E pp, 7 E pastas, 6 E wines / liter, 3-5 E sides
One of the wines we really liked at Enoteca Baldi was from La Massa, right down the road from our house. But because of the sudden cold snap, they were too busy harvesting to give us a tour. They don’t make a business of doing tours, but maybe next time?
We wandered around Panzano, bought a few more veggies for a last “light meal” in the farmhouse kitchen. Ha! Somehow, we found ourselves back up to Macelleria de Checcucci, purchasing three-3 inch thick bistecca to make Bistecca Fiorentino
- Antipasti misto and prosecco
- Leftover roasted potatoes and rosemary
- Huge salad with par boiled string beans
- Vino rosso
- Biscotti, vin santo, limoncino
Last Day, in Firenze
We said our goodbyes to the famiglia del Mastio and off we went on another adventure: three cars following each other, making moves through the autostrada, incomplete directions, and high hopes that we’d all end up at the hotel together to check in, drop off bags, return the cars to the airport and get back into Florence in time to catch lunch at the Mercato.
Miraculously, and with minimum fiasco, we did. We saw sunset atop the Piazzale Michelangelo, had wine and beer on the south side of the Arno, Teri and Kim went to the Uffizzi, Teri managed to keep from melting at the Hemingway Tea Room / bar (which she strongly recommends). We shopped at the artisan market set on the Piazza della Signoria Saturday afternoon (recommended) and, finally, ate at the Trattoria El Cibreo, which surpassed expectations. It was a five star meal for a three star price (284E for eleven people; unbelievable). We were served with cheer, humor, efficiency and aplomb. They included extra plates of menu items to ‘sample’, such as a fish soup, the likes of which I’ve never tasted – even the expensive soup de poisson in the south of France – and complimentary desserts in addition to the five we ordered. And no coperti!
- Insalata Trippa: vinegar and olive oil, cooked with onions, cold
- Crostini di Pate
- Gelatino di Pomodoro two more gratis!
- 2 Polenta alle erbe Verdi
- Minestrone di pane
- 2 Minestrone di pesci
- Fish stew, gratis!
- Zuppa di Funghi with the most mushroom flavor of the week!
- Cold veal loaf with pistachio
- Eggplant parmesan
- Rich wine sauce and squid w/pasta
- De-boned and stuffed chicken leg
- Cold chicken loaf
- Chocolate torte
- Bavarian crème coffee custard
- Bavarian crème vanilla custard
- Panna Cotta
- Chocolate pudding
- 2 additional desserts, gratis
- 4 liters of wine, 3 of water
Deemed by many their best meal ever. What an end to a wonderful trip to Italy. And Scott and I weigh in at less than when we left. I was going to say, perhaps it’s the fact that we were eating fresh and unprocessed foods…but can we really call all that salumi unprocessed?
Thanks, everyone for being such a fun, loving, (and fun-loving), game, go with the flow, ‘we’re in Italy!’ jump in with two feet, make the most of it, group of great friends. Thanks Denise, for your recs of Enoteca Baldi, El Cibreo, Piazza Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella, Abby de San Antimo, Marcellario in Greve, and all the others too!)
And thanks Cyndi, and for letting us live vicariously…and Beth for the extra photos!