Weird Italian food you’re going to love

Chianti-osteria Nerbone 2

Nowhere else in Europe you will find the same variety  of regional recipes you can find in Italy. With a bit of curiosity and, sometimes, courage, you’ll discover much more than just pasta!

Italian incredibly high number of recipes derives from its being separated for centuries into many independent “states”, each one with its peculiar traditions, and from the variety of its territory (and what it could offer to be cooked). There’s also another aspect to consider: Italy was a rather poor country. The need to feed an increasing population with the available resources, united to the unbeatable Italian creativity, has given birth to some real weird, hence delicious, dishes.

In this post I’m presenting a selection of my favorite “weird Italian dishes you are going to love”. Buon appetito!

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Venice Carnival, and five other top Italian Carnival destinations

Discover Italian Top carnival events, beyond worldwide known Carnevale di Venezia.

February in Italy means that just about every city on the Peninsula is invaded with masks, confetti, colors and lights that make for a very exciting and unique atmosphere: it’s Carnival!

In 2015, carnival will take place between January 31st and February 17th (celebrations dates may vary depending on the location): what are you waiting for?

Continue reading “Venice Carnival, and five other top Italian Carnival destinations”

Climbing up St Peter’s Basilica’s dome: best way to do it

St Peters dome from the basilica

Climbing to the top of St Peter’s dome is one of the highlights of a trip to Rome. Here is how to climb the dome and how to skip the queue.

Not that many visitors know that it is possible to climb up to the top of St Peter’s dome (the “cupola”). Actually getting on top of St Peter’s dome is one of Rome must do, and a great opportunity to enjoy a fantastic and dizzying city panorama all around Rome and to admire a top down view of St Peter’s basilica nave.

When to visit St Peter’s dome

Best thing for you would be to visit the dome first thing in the morning, when it opens, at 8:00 AM. Not much queue  at that time, you may have the dome almost for yourself.

In that case, you may first climb up the dome and then visit St Peter’s basilica (when you get down from the dome you will end up in the nave).

A good alternative is to climb on top of St Peter’s dome before it closes: you will then admire Rome in its unique sunset golden light. In Wintertime, you will see Rome’s lights and, at Christmas, the huge Christmas tree in St Peter’s square.

Similarly, first go up to the dome, then visit the Basilica, which closes later than the dome.

In summertime, better to avoid climbing on top of St Peters dome in the hottest hours of the day: the stairs and the viewpoint can get very hot and uncomfortable at that time.

How to climb up St Peter’s dome

In order to climb up St Peter’s dome, you need to go throw St Peter cathedral security check.

At the entrance to the basilica, after the security check, look right. There is a sign that directs you to the far right of the portico (past the Holy Door) and to the kiosk for the elevator.

This is where you purchase the tickets to St Peter’s dome. Note that the Basilica entrance is on the right side of the colonnade.

In high season, queues could be very long and spoil part of your day.

 I would recommend to purchase a St Peter Basilica skip the line ticket and save your valuable time (follow the link for a value for money option, including audioguide).

You can take the elevator to the roof level (saving 320 steps). However, if you want to get to the top of the dome you must take the stairs for the last portion. This makes 551 steps in total.

The entrance cost is Cost 10 Euros for elevator, 8 Euros for stairs.

After the brief elevator ride (or the first 320 steps) stop before your climb to the dome. Here you can enjoy a great view from the gallery inside the dome looking down into the basilica .

Take a few moments to absorb the astonishing beauty of the cupola from within – and looking down – the main altar.

Continue reading “Climbing up St Peter’s Basilica’s dome: best way to do it”

Tuscany Castle hotels: how to spend the night in a true medieval castle

You may don’t know it, but it’s pretty easy to stay in a Tuscany castle hotel, and the good knew is that prices are very reasonable. Here is my selection of Tuscany castles where you can sleep and treat yourself like a king!

 

Have you ever dreamed to spend a night or two in a real castle? High rise crenelated walls, majestic dungeons, the echos of ferocious battles that took place centuries ago…

Well, let the dream come true! Tuscany offers an incredible variety of castles, and many of them have been turned into country houses and luxury resorts.

In this post I’d like to share with you my favorite Castle accommodations in Tuscany. Treat yourself as a knight, for a night!

Living in a Castle Map

 Tuscany castle hotel #1: Castello di Spedaletto

Castello La Grancia 1

The beautiful Castello di Spedaletto was built in the XII century along the old Via Francigena (the path pilgrims followed to walk their way down to Rome). It is a perfect example of a middle age castle  in a beautiful setting in the Val D’Orcia, close to Pienza, Bagno Vignoni and San Quirico D’Orcia (read my post Pienza, Sant’Antimo, Bagno Vignoni: delightful Val d’Orcia to know what to do, eat and see)

It features a large yard, an “ecologic” swimming pool and a very relaxed atmosphere. Relatively cheap (it is an “Agriturismo”), Castello di Spedaletto is perfect for visiting the Val D’Orcia, especially if you are traveling with kids.

Tip: when reserving, ask for the rooms inside the castle, more scenic compared to the ones built in the old fortified wall.

Check current rates and availability here.

Castello la Grancia 2

Tuscany castle hotel #2: Castel Pietraio

Castel Pietraio dall'alto

Here we move to Siena Countryside. Castel Pietraio is a gorgeous castle from the XI° century. It is located in Strove, a very small hamlet close to Monteriggioni, and to the beautiful church of Badia Isola. Lovely vineyards and sunflowers fields surrounds it. It’s a 4 star small hotel, still belonging to the original noble family (Barone Neri del Nero).

Castel Pietraio is also a farm with an excellent vocation to quality wine-growing: you will be able to taste Chianti Superiore (of course!), Chardonnay, Merlot and Vin Santo.

A personal anecdote: this is the hotel I choose for me and my wife when we got married!

Castel Pietraio_3

 Check current rates and availability here.

Tuscany castle hotel #3: Castello di Meleto

Castello di Meleto

Massive, awe-inspiring, castello di Meleto stands in the beautifull Chiantishire valley, close to Gaiole in Chianti. Its striking location and its vaulted halls are often used to host weddings parties, but you don’t necessarily need to get married to sleep in one of the beautifully decorated rooms!

For longer stays, you can also choose to rent a self catering apartment in the nearby dependence.

Castello di Meleto produces an excellent Chianti, that you can taste in the modern wine shop after visiting the old cellars.

HAve a look at my post Fascinating Chianti wine tasting tour to learn what to visit (and drink!) in the Chianti area.

Castello di Meleto 2

Check current rates and availability here.

Tuscany castle hotel #4: Badia a Coltibuono

Badia di Coltibuoni 1

This is a fortified abbey, built in 1049 and transformed in a countryside villa in the XIXth century. It features a Romanesque church, beautiful cloisters, a gorgeous walled garden and huge cellars, as old as the abbey itself!

Regarding your stay, you can choose between the 8 rooms and the 5 apartments. Badia a Coltibuono offers also wine tasting, cooking courses and local delicacies tastings.

Hint: the abbey is 650 meters above sea level, which makes it a perfect place during summer. Winters and springs, on the other hand, can be really chilly.

Badia di Coltibuoni 2

 Check current rates and availability here.

Tuscany castle hotel #5: Monteriggioni

Monteriggioni

Strictly speaking, Monteriggioni is not exactly a castle, but a medieval walled hamlet located on a natural hill. Sienese built it in  1214-1219 as a front line in their wars against Florence. Said so, Monteriggioni is one of the most evocative medieval villages in Italy.

Located 14 km from Siena. Monteriggioni has became famous for its fourteen towers’ walls which are among the best preserved all over Italy. Believe me, it’s one of the most scenic places in Tuscany, not to miss even if you decide to sleep elsewhere (which would be a pity, indeed!).

Two possibility of lodging here: the Romantic Hotel Monteriggioni or the value for money Bed & Breakfast In piazza

Monteriggioni - borgo

Enjoy your night at the castle!


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What to eat in Tuscany: best typical Florence food you must try

A complete food guide to the best Florence typical food you have to try when in Florence. Eat like a local and enjoy these great typical Tuscan dishes.

What should you eat when in Florence and in Tuscany? No, Pasta and Spaghetti is not the right answer! Of course you can find them in most touristic restaurant, nothing to worry about. However, Florence typical food is peculiar and so delicious that you absolutely need to try it.

Florence typical food: Menu

Actually, the best way to discover and taste local Florence food is to spend some time in the amazing food hall at Mercato Centrale, close to San Lorenzo. There you will find a huge amount of stalls displaying all the Tuscany local food you may dream of. Just choose what you want, point your finger, get your tray and enjoy! (read my post: Florence in a day for more directions) .

Florence typical food: mercato centrale food hall

Ready to start? So here is my Florence typical food guide!

Antipasti (starters):

Crostini con fegatini

Florence typical food: crostini con fegatini

You will hardly find a Tuscan menu that doesn’t offer Crostinis with salumi and a flask of red wine! The word crostini literally refers to the bread, similar to a baguette where the patè is spread. You will be offered many different type of crostini in Tuscany’s restaurants, but the real stuff is made of chicken livers. Other popular options are Bruschetta, crostini with minced tomatoes and olive oil and crostini with truffle oil.

Finocchiona

Florence typical food: Tuscany cured meat

The “typical” antipasto generally includes all sorts of salami, ham and cheese. While this may not differ that much from the salami you normally find in other Tuscany areas, there’s one which is typicall of Tuscany and that you shouldn’t miss: the Finocchiona.

Finocchiona is a variation on salami made of finely ground pork and fat, laced with fennel, and aged for a while. The unusual ingredient in finocchiona is fennel seeds, which give the salami an intriguing sweet, anise-like flavor. They are also behind the name, as finocchio means “fennel” in Italian. After the ground pork is stuffed into salami casings, the finocchiona is cured so that it becomes firm and dry.

Primi piatti (first courses)

Ribollita

Florence typical food: Ribollita

The Ribollita is the most famous Tuscan soup. It is a typical “poor” dish from the Florence and Arezzo cooking traditions, meant to reuse the left over bread and the most commonly available vegetables. The name, which means “reboiled”, derives from the former habit of preparing  the soup in large quantities, usually on Friday. The soup was cooked a second time (and therefore “reboiled”) in the following days, before being served. Actually, the ribollita gets tastier each time it is reboiled.

While many different vegetable can be used, a true ribollita always includes black cabbage (“cavolo nero”), Borlotti beans and dry bread. Once it is served, you should add one or two spoons of “exravergine” olive oil and freshly ground pepper.

Pappa al pomodoro

Florence typical food: Pappa al pomodoro

Half-soup and half-sauce, pappa al pomodoro is little more than ripe tomatoes, olive oil, and day-old bread. It’s a delicious summer dish, served in the majority of Tuscany restaurants.

Pici

Florence typical food: Pici

Pici is are thick, hand-rolled kind of pasta, like a fat spaghetti. The dough is typically made from flour and water only. It originates in the province of Siena in Tuscany; in the Montalcino area it is also referred to as pinci.

Pici are served with a variety of toppings, such as ragù (often from game, such as duck, hare or wild boar – “pici al ragù di anatra-lepre-cinghiale”), spicy garlic tomato sauce (“Pici all’aglione”) or porcini mushrooms (“Pici alla boscaiola”).

Pappardelle ala lepre

Florence typical food: Pappardelle alla lepre

Pappardelle are large, very broad flat pasta, similar to wide fettuccine. The name derives from the verb “pappare”, to gobble up. The fresh types are two to three centimetres (1 inch) wide. Like Pici they can be served with a variety of toppings, even though most popular Pappardelle dishes are “Pappardelle alla lepre” (hare minced meat sauce) or “Pappardelle al cinghiale” (Pappardelle with wild boar topping).

Secondi piatti (second courses: fish / meat dishes)

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Florence typical food: Bistecca alla fiorentina

The most famous tuscan meat dish is actually… a T-Bone steak!

The true bistecca alla fiorentina (“Florentine-Style Steak”, normally called just “Fiorentina”, is huge (hardly less than one Kg, cooked on charcoal fire and traditionally served on a wooden cutting board. Though Fiorentina, is featured on the menus of almost all the restaurants in Florence, finding a good one isn’t at all easy. But when you do it’s heaven on earth, delightfully rich, flavorful rare meat so tender it can be cut with a spoon. Much of the secret is the breed of cattle, Chianina beef…

Cinghiale in umido

Florence typical food: Cinghiale in umido

This winter dish requires marinating the wild boar meat in red wine, vinegar, chopped vegetables, garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries and chili flakes for at least one night, and then cook it in a clay pot for at leat 2-3 hours. The result is a melt-in-your-mouth tender, deliciously tasty meat dish, often served with Polenta (cornmeal boiled into a porridge and eaten directly or baked, fried or grilled)

Lampredotto

Florence typical food: Lampredotto (Greve in Chianti - osteria Nerbone)

Lampredotto is a very famous dish from Florence, that you may find in restaurants or as street food (“panino col lampredotto”). Lampredotto is the fourth stomach of a cow, boiled in water with tomatoes, onion, celery and parsley. A typical Florentine peasant dish, the most popular way to serve it is in a bread roll, with parsley sauce and optional chili oil. ‘Snap up’ a hot cow stomach sandwich at one of the many street and market stalls in Florence that serve it. The most famous one is just in front of the famous “porcellino” statue.

Caciucco alla livornese

Florence typical food: Caciucco alla livornese

This is not a typical Florence food, but it’s worth mentioning because you may find it in your menu, and it’s delicious! Cacciucco (also called Caciucco alla Livornese – Livorno-style cacciuco) is a popular traditional Livorno seafood dish, fairly common also in Pisa, Lucca and in all the Tuscan coast.

It’s a delicious soup of assorted sea fish, shellfish and molluscs, poured over the toasted bread, which history stretches back at least five hundred years. The origin of dish name also proclaims the fact that cacciucco is rooted in a mixture of culinary cultures of many nations. It bears resemblance to the Turkish word ‘küçük’, which means ‘tiny pieces’ – small fish and molluscs were used to prepare the dish.

Dolci (Desserts)

Cantucci col vin santo

Florence typical food: Cantucci col vin santo

Originating in the city of Prato (close to Florence), Cantucci are presently the most famous cookies in Tuscany. You will probably be offered Cantucci col vin santo after all your meals!

Cantucci are oblong-shaped almond biscuits, made dry and crunchy through cutting the loaf of dough while still hot and fresh from baking in the oven. Traditionally, you are supposed to dip them into a glass of vin santo (Tuscany sweet dessert wine) before savor them.

Panforte

Florence typical food: Panforte

Panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavor. It’s the traditional Siena cakes, and its origins may date back to 13th century.

The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar is dissolved in honey and various nuts, fruits and spices are mixed together with flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan. The finished cake is dusted with icing sugar. The result is heavenly delicious! You may taste Panforte as a dessert in restaurants or purchase a slice in a “pasticcieria”. A tasty and spicy variety of Panforte is “Panpepato”.

Buon appetito!

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Garda lake’s natural SPA

Relax in natural hot water pools, surrounded by centenary trees and beautiful lawns, less than 20 minutes drive from Peschiera and Sirmione, and for a very reasonable price? Yes you can, in the Parco termale del Garda (“Garda Thermal Park”)!

Terme del Garda

The Garda Thermal Park is not a traditional health spa at all (if this is what you are looking for, you have many options in the Garda Lake area:  http://www.lakegarda.com/wellness-spa-beauty-farm.php).

On the contrary, it’s much closer to a mountain lake surrounded by lush woods, but with hot water!

Continue reading “Garda lake’s natural SPA”

Secret treasures of Milan renaissance

A walking itinerary to discover Milan hidden renaissance jewels, beyond the Duomo and the Last Supper

 

Milan is universally recognized as the economic capital of Italy, but it is also a city of art. Historical buildings, villas, monuments, modern-architectural buildings, churches and abbeys all offer a variety of styles and striking details that are well worth getting to know.

Yes, there are the well known clichés: il Duomo, La Scala, La Galleria,  Santa Maria delle Grazie (feturing Leonardo’s last supper…), Sant’Ambrogio, the Castello Sforzesco. But the truth is that there’s much more than that. Milan can reveal fabulous treasures from its twenty centuries history,  if only you take your time to look for them carefully, since most of them are very well hidden. In this post I would like to walk you through fantastic renaissance churches, some of which date back from the end of the Roman empire: after all, Milan was the town where Constantine issued the edict legalizing Christian worship in 313.

Continue reading “Secret treasures of Milan renaissance”

Garda lake: biking tour on the Mincio river

This is a fantastic off the beaten path itinerary in the Garda lake area, that will make you discover by bike delightful hamlets, ancient water mills and peaceful river banks. It’s a perfect family tour, my 9 years old boy was delighted to have accomplished such an “adventure” and spent hours staring at (and playing with..) the many water mills in Borghetto sul Mincio. Continue reading “Garda lake: biking tour on the Mincio river”

Great Chianti itinerary: wineyards, castles and wine tasting

Perfect one or two day Chianti itinerary, from Florence to Siena, to discover the best of this unique region, including a map.

For anyone but the true “wine aficionados”, Chianti is synonymous of Tuscany wine. There’s a reason for that: Chianti is by far the most produced and sold Tuscan Wine, and is produced in an area much wider than the so called “Chianti region”. It is also one of the first Italian Wines to be branded and marketed in a distinctive way.

Chianti itinerary - wine barrels

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Best Milan aperitivo – top 2018 places to enjoy posh cocktails and buffet

Anguria assassina

Where to go to taste the iconic Milan aperitivo and the many appetizers and buffet included in the price. 

Milan has a long lasting rivalry with Rome, and has often been nominated (likely by Milanesi themselves)  the True  Capital: the business capital, the moral capital, and so on and so forth.

We may endlessly argue about which town of the two could aspire to the title, but one thing cannot be denied: Milan is the capital of Aperitivo.

In no other city of Italy, not even in Venice (read my post on Cicchetti – , or in Bologna, post to come), aperitivo is such a widespread social habit and nowhere else it reaches the same level of locations, glamour and food.

Yes, food. In most Italian cities, the typical aperitivo consists of a drink accompanied by modest snacks such as potato chips and olives (if you are lucky enough not to receive only the drink…). In Milan,  you can expect to be offered an endless variety of dishes such as pasta, risotto, salads, ham, cheeses, meat balls, sausages, bits of pizzas and even exotic food such as sushi or curry, often served as an “all you  can eat” buffet.

For this reason, for many busy Milanese, as well as for the smart travelers,  the aperitivo becomes a clever alternative to dinner at the price of a cocktail (from 5 to 15 Euro).

Top locations are usually poshy and trendy and, during the good season, they may give you the opportunity of discovering and enjoying carefully hidden gardens and courtyards.

There are literally hundreds of nice places to have aperitivo, and new ones pop up every day. I’m going to share with you my favorites, leaving to you the pleasure of working out your own selection.

Cheers!

Continue reading “Best Milan aperitivo – top 2018 places to enjoy posh cocktails and buffet”

Venice off the beaten path – discover Cannaregio

Venice Tourist cliché

districts of Venice - Cannaregio.
districts of Venice – Cannaregio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ok, that’s the classical tourist cliché: crowds jostling on the Rialto bridge, expensive Gondola tours, bored “Gondolieri” singing O Sole Mio (which, by the way, is a Napolitan song, not a Venetian song…).

Yes, you will have it all! And, believe it or not, you will love it…

But there’s a Venice outside the classical Station-Rialto-San Marco itinearary, which is worthwhile to discover. And, by the way, you may discover that escaping from the crowd (and live for an hour or so like a true “Veneziano”) can save you quite a significant amount of money. Continue reading “Venice off the beaten path – discover Cannaregio”