That time we went to Italy…

I survived a week without Tommy while he was in Singapore. And I survived #ToddlerGoodwin’s first trip to the ER. (Thanks to our friend Lilly who helped me get caught up on sleep and my mother-in-law who came to help out!) #ToddlerGoodwin had the flu, but once we got rid of his fever, he bounced back really quickly!

Once things were back to normal and we were all sleeping again, I was so ready to meet Tommy in Paris so that we could fly to Italy together.

My in-laws were going to watch #ToddlerGoodwin while we were gone, and I suggested that they head back to their house with him in the morning the day I was supposed to leave. I figured that way, goodbye would be a little bit easier. Instead of me being the one that was leaving, #ToddlerGoodwin was the one that was hitting the road, which he doesn’t mind. (Saying goodbye to mama? That’s another story!) So, after breakfast, we got him all packed up, his grandparents got him situated in their car, and I tried not to cry too hard as I watched them drive off with my baby!

I had things to do, though. I had some errands to run, the cleaners were coming to run through the house, I wanted to do a pedicure, I wasn’t sure when I’d last showered, and I still had packing to do. I managed to cross everything off of my to-do list and before I knew it, I was in an Uber heading to IAD.

The flight to Paris was long and uneventful. I was lucky to be on an aisle and the middle seat was empty so I ended up curling up on both seats, putting on some relaxing music, and managing to sleep a little bit.

I was so worried that I would be cutting it close during the layover at CDG. I managed to follow the signs and not get lost, but security and customs was long! I hurried as fast as I could to the gate, and met Tommy along the way. I cried… We’d only been apart five days, but it was a LONG five days, and I was eager to get the trip started! Thank goodness the flight from Paris to Florence was short!

We split our trip up into a day in Florence, three days in Siena, and then another day back in Florence. (I know, I know… Only five days. What can I say? It was our first time away from #ToddlerGoodwin!) When we arrived in Florence, we took a cab to our hotel, the San Firenze Spa and Suites. We had a great room overlooking the square. We checked in, dropped off our stuff, and then walked around a little to get our bearings. We had a leisurely lunch on the street outside of Palazzo Pitti. We saw the David. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio. We had sangria at a little cafe across the square from our hotel.And then it was time for our dinner crawl.

In planning our trip, Tommy had discovered the blog A Curious Appetite. Coral arranges progressive dinner crawls through the best spots in Florence – the perfect way to try several different restaurants, with a fellow foodie who was happy to share her enthusiasm and excitement for the local cuisine. Our plan was to meet Adrienne, an associate of Coral’s, at Tamero, for aperitivo.

We crossed the river at the Ponte Vecchio and strolled to Piazza Santo Spirito, a more residential (much less touristy!) neighborhood where we met Adrienne and another American couple who would be joining us for the dinner crawl.

Adrienne explained that most people kicked off their meals with an aperitif and light snacks to kind of wake up their appetite before their actual meal. She told us that Tamero was a favorite among locals. Our table ordered spritzes and prosecco and shared a huge platter of salumi, cheeses, breads, and spreads.

While on our trip, we were offered peanuts, potato chips, and olives with our drinks at other places. We also learned that some places in Florence make aperitivo into a buffet-style affair, where you can sample pastas, salads, and other snacks. While it may sound a lot like happy hour in the U.S., aperitivo can last several hours in Florence, with some people simply preferring to nibble on snacks and enjoy a few drinks in a social setting rather than going out to dinner or preparing the meal at home.

When we first sat down outside of Tamero, Piazza Santo Spirito seemed a little quiet, with people walking their dogs and only the occasional Vespa zipping by. However, as we sat getting to know each other and enjoying our drinks and snacks, the square came alive with people and music. The tables around us filled up and people seemed to be everywhere. The square had a great vibe and it seemed a shame to get up and leave, but we had three more courses to go!

We walked past the Basilico Santo Spirito on our way toward our next restaurant, and Adrienne told us about Brunelleschi’s work on the church that houses a crucifix by Michaelangelo. The outside of the church is very deceiving; although the exterior is very plain, the church is home to several frescoes and an ornate marble baldachin over the altar.

As we approached our next restaurant, Il Magazzino, Adrienne told us that we had arrived in Piazza della Passera. Adrienne explained that passera was Italian slang for a woman’s genitals, and that this particular square had earned the colorful name because it was rumored to have once been the home of a brothel. There it was on a plaque, for all to read. And then, later, on the label of the bottle of the house wine that we shared!

As we sat down at Il Magazzino, Adrienne sent the menus away and ordered three pasta dishes for us to share. One was a spaghetti with some sort of roe sauce – not bad, sort of salty, like caviar. The other was a carbonara with thick, flat, hand-torn noodles. The third pasta dish was  ravioli di lampredotto, a big meat-stuffed ravioli for each person.

As we finished our pasta, Adrienne asked each of us in turn which one we liked the most, and I had to admit that I really enjoyed the ravioli de lampredotto. It turns out that lampredotto is also known as tripe, which is why Adrienne wouldn’t let us sneak a peek at the menus. She wanted us to be adventurous and try a typical Florentine dish without having any preconceived tastes or preferences. Good call! Had she told me ahead of time, I’m 99.9% positive that the thought of consuming cow stomach would have had me gagging at the mere thought of it. But it was very well-seasoned and tasted surprisingly like any other ground beef that you’d find in a pasta dish. And I would probably order it again.

One thing we learned about pasta in Florence… All of the sauces we had with any of our pasta dishes (whether on the dinner crawl or out on our own) were light, even the meaty sauces. None of the dishes we had were coated down with heavy, thick, red tomato sauce. (The kind that I’m totally guilty of making at home.) Instead, everything was very light and tasted bright and fresh.

For our secondo, we moved to another restaurant for La Bistecca, Florentine steak. In reading about and researching different restaurants in preparation for our trip to Florence, I’d read about the Bistecca alla Fiorentina a couple times and was a little nervous when I found out it was on the menu for our dinner crawl.

La Bistecca is a very thick, marbled, T-bone steak that is served rare. All I could picture was a hunk of cold,red meat on a plate with big globs of fat running through it and I was totally wrong. Yes, the meat was served rare, but it was sliced thin. We had La Bistecca two ways – one plain, and the other with shaved cheese and grilled tomatoes on top. Our steaks were served with spinach and white beans and the five of us shared a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. The steaks were so good, I even had second helpings, much to my husband’s surprise.

As our group polished off both steaks, I watched Adrienne attempt to peel the label off of the wine bottle we shared. She told me that she liked to keep labels as mementos. I laughed and told her my usual memento from dinner with friends was to take the cork from the wine bottle we shared. As we left the restaurant to venture off for dessert, Adrienne handed me the cork.

Our dessert, or dolce, was, of course, gelato. We went to the crowded Gelateria dei Neri, where Adrienne invited us each to choose two flavors for dessert. I got ciocolatto amaro e pistachio (super dark, almost black, chocolate and pistachio.) It was to die for – creamy, bittersweet  chocolate and salty pistachio!

Adrienne gave us some pointers for picking out good gelato. First, she told us that good gelato would be flat in the containers, and not piled high in huge, tall mounds. The big mountains of gelato in some shops are impressive-looking, but for the gelato to stay that way, they are either frozen solid or chemicals are added to keep them from melting. The other thing Adrienne noted, pointing out my pistachio, was that true gelato should be made with real, fresh ingredients, and should be natural in color. My pistachio gelato was very pale and creamy, with just a tinge of green – a far cry from some of the bright and artificially colored gelatos we noticed in different shops later on during our trip.

I vowed to have gelato every night in Italy, but said I wouldn’t repeat any flavors. I couldn’t help it. On our last night in Florence, we returned to Gelateria dei Neri so I could have another helping of chocolate and pistachio. Strolling through the streets with what I thought was the best gelato in Florence was the perfect way to end our last evening in Italy.

The next day, we got up early. We went to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore to climb the tower. Holy cow. I didn’t think I was in bad shape, but that’s quite a climb! Totally worth it, though, because from the top, you can see all of Florence. The stone stairways are steep and close; we had to stop our climb several times and press ourselves up against the walls to let descending visitors get by.

When we made it back to the ground, we went to Cafe Gilli to grab a quick breakfast. Then we headed back to the hotel to check out. Tommy had to go pick up the rental car for our drive to Siena. Driving on the highways to Siena – not bad. Driving in downtown Florence? Nearly impossible! With all of the tall stone buildings and one way streets, the GPS didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to be doing. We eventually managed to make it out and on our way to Siena without hitting any pedestrians or damaging the car.

On our way to Siena, we stopped at the Antinori Winery. We went on the tour and did a tasting, as well as had lunch outside at their restaurant.Then we went to Casalvento. These two wineries couldn’t have been more different. Antinori was a massive facility and the tour and tasting was, while enjoyable, also a little on the impersonal side. At Casalvento, a much smaller winery, we loved the wines that we tasted and enjoyed talking to Julia. She closed and locked the door and took us on a tour of the the tank rooms, the bottling and labeling rooms, and showed us all of the wine storage. We bought a case of wine and olive oil and had it shipped home.

We stayed at the Aia Mattonata Relais, a quaint B&B outside of the walled city of Siena. We had breakfast there every morning before setting off on our day’s adventure. Mario, the owner, was happy to give us suggestions for where to have dinner in the city that night. He also scheduled a Tuscan cooking class for us.

We drove from Siena to Volterra for the city’s A.D. 1398 renaissance festival. Live music, lots of food, flowing wine, a parade, flag throwing… It was absolutely fascinating to see the young people so involved in their city’s history and culture.

From Volterra, we drove to Montepulciano. The views from high up on the city’s walls were breathtaking. We strolled along eating popsicles and popped into the Contucci wine cellars, where we chatted briefly with Adamo, the winemaker. We watched musicians from one of the contradas practicing for Il Bravio delle Botti, which was happening at the end of the month. In the bravio, the 8 contrade (neighborhoods/districts) race to push giant wine barrels up the steep hills into the city center. Much like Siena’s palio (which had happened the week before we arrived!) the race used to be done on horseback, but because Montepulciano is so well known for wine, the competition switched to wine barrels.

Back in Siena, we returned to Piazza Del Campo for dinner. Seated at our table, we heard lots of loud singing coming from one of the entrances to the square. We watched a parade of contradaioli come marching out, wearing scarves, carrying flags, singing and sucking on pacifiers. It was an interesting sight to behold, and we learned from Mario back at Aia Mattonata that the pacifiers represent a new winner of the palio.

The following day was our cooking class. We enjoyed a light breakfast on the terrace of the B&B and sat in the chairs planning our route back to Florence the following day. Around 10:30, Mario drove us to his friend Massimo’s house, for our lesson. Mario gave us aprons,  dish towels, and paper for us to take notes, and we followed him into his impressive kitchen. A menu hung on the wall, scribbled in Massimo’s hand:

Antipasto – pureed zucchini with prawns and mullet
Primo – ravioli with spinach and ricotto in tomato sauce
Secondo – osso bucco with green beans
Dolce – tiramisu

I wasn’t sure about mullet; in Florida, a lot of times that’s smoked or used for bait. I was definitely intimidated by the thought of making our own ravioli. I’d never had veal in my life. And… tiramisu. THAT I’ve had.

Massimo popped open a bottle of prosecco to kick things off and we started with the tiramisu, so that could set. Then we worked on the veal, and bounced around preparing the other dishes. Every time a dish was finished, we toasted each other. It was finally time to eat around 1 o’clock. Everything was delicious, and we didn’t leave a single scrap or crumb on our plates. Even though I’d been timid about some of the ingredients and preparations, it was all delicious. Mario came to collect us, but enjoyed a glass of vin santo and talked politics and football with Tommy and Massimo. When it was time to go, I was sad to leave. It was so kind of Massimo to welcome us into his home and his kitchen. I think it was the best part of the trip.

The next day, we said goodbye to Mario and headed back to Florence. Tommy had made arrangements for us to visit Monte Maggio, a winery in Radda in Chianti. We giggled over the directions we’d received about driving “3 kilometers through the forest” on an unpaved road to get there. Our GPS was a little lost in Italy and we’d already made a few wrong turns here and there, so what was 3 km in the woods?

It was crazy, that’s what! The dirt road was deeply jutted and tall grass and trees closed in on either side. There was only room for one car, so we had no idea what was going to happen if someone was coming down while we were going up – or vice versa! Swarms of bees and insects flew along both sides of the car, covering the mirrors and clinging to the windows. There were a few times where it sounded like the bottom of the car had scraped off. I couldn’t believe our rental car was a BMW and this was how it was getting treated!

But the experience was amazing… We walked through the property, gaping at the view, admiring the gardens, and walking through the vines. We talked about the soil and organic methods of tending to the grapes. And of course, we tasted. More wine and olive oil came home with us!

In Florence, we returned to San Firenze Suites & Spa. (We even got the same room!) We wanted to spend our last night having aperitivo and/or dinner on a rooftop somewhere with a wonderful view of the city. We had to try a few different places before we found a place that fit the bill. We had bellinis at La Scaletta and then wound up at Hotel Laurus al Duomo for dinner.

STAY: San Firenze Suites & Spa
EAT: Aperitivo at Tamero
DO: Climb the Cathedral, see David (book tickets in advance)

STAY: Aia Mattonata Relais
EAT: Antica Osteria Da Divo
DO: Learn about the Palio, hang out in Piazza del Campo

Side Trips: Radda in Chianti, Montepulciano, Volterra

I could keep writing about our trip to Italy and we were only there for five days. In fact, I wrote about our adventures in Italy for Chocolate & Chaos, too. You can read my more detailed posts here!

Are you a travel blogger? Leave your website below in the comments so we can stop by and visit!






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