Archive for October, 2011

October 11, 2011

Lucky In Lucca

by Anna
Piazza dell’Anfiteatro

We were lucky to be in the beautiful town of Lucca for four days, but even luckier to be spending them with Jay and Linda!! We were overwhelmed with happiness to see Johnny’s parents when we met up with them outside of our beautiful little apartment in Lucca last week. The apartment was situated between a music school and an amazing garden full of cats, so we were constantly entertained by sounds of violins, pianos, flutes and harps streaming through our windows, and watching the 15 or so cats and kittens frolic in the garden below. We also had an unbelievable view of the Torre Guinigi which is easy to spot because of its tree-topped tower.

We had a private concert from the music school across the street every day
The garden out our apartment window We had a perfect view of Torre Guinigi
Ciao! Our neighbors were cats…around 15 of them!

I had a friend in college who was from Lucca, and he told me that it was the most beautiful town in Italy. I always thought he was exaggerating and had some serious local pride, but after spending time in his hometown, I actually think he might have been right. Lucca is a seriously picturesque spot that has a way of just making you feel good while you are inside its lofty walls.

Facade of Duomo di San Martino Duomo di San Martino
Basilica of San Frediano

We spent our days wandering the pretty streets of Lucca, ducking in and out of stores, enotecas and gelaterias, and discovering new piazzas and churches around every corner, each more beautiful than the last. We also took advantage of the 4km wall surrounding the city. In perfect condition, the wall is like a floating park with tree-lined bike and walking paths, parks, cafes, picnic areas and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. The entire wall is also flanked by expanses of green rolling grass areas, complete with moats and bridges…basically a dog’s paradise.

Lucca’s tree-lined city walls
Our daily stroll along the walls Looking down at the open market from the walls
More good times on the walls
Lunchtime at Ristorante Antico Sigillo The lovely streets of Lucca
A view from the top of Torre Guinigi
Delicious dinner at Osteria Baralla
Salute! Cin Cin!

After indulging in some delicious local cuisine and cruising the walls and colorful streets for a couple of days, we decided to kick it up a notch and take a bike tour through Tuscany Ride a Bike outside of town for a wine tasting and lunch at an organic farm. We met our fellow bikers from Kauai, Toronto, Houston, Louisiana and Michigan, and our Italian guide, Andrea, at around 9:30am and headed out towards the countryside. We were immediately in awe of the beautiful scenery around us as we pedaled on bike paths along a river, over bridges, past farms, wineries and small villages, finally reaching our winery, Terre del Sillabo, after a couple of hours. We were greeted by the friendly owner and plates of her fresh-baked, still warm focaccia bread and were led to the back patio surrounded by vineyards for our wine tasting.

Riding along the river The intrepid bikers
We make it to the promise land
Terre del Sillabo Winery
Enjoying the vines And the winery
Yum Who needs Gatorade when you have wine?
Life is good

After three very large glasses of wine and a couple bottles to go, we hopped back on our bikes and headed for our farm, Agriturismo al Podele di Rosa. We were again warmly welcomed by the owner who showed us into his 300-year old farmhouse which was set with a family style table covered in plates of home-made local dishes made from home-grown ingredients. We spent another hour or so here, savoring every bite and every sip of wine and getting to know our fellow bikers. Needless to say, everyone was pedaling a bit slower on the way back from lunch, but luckily Andrea saved the shortest part of the ride for the way home, so we were back on Lucca’s green manicured walls before we knew it. A gelato cone on the walk back to our apartment created the perfect ending to an amazing day.

Our lunch spread at Agriturismo al Podele di Rosa
Food is a serious subject Bike parking only at the farm
The Tour de Lucca ends on the city walls

We were sad to say goodbye to lovely Lucca, but excited to head to our next destination, Cinque Terre!

October 4, 2011

Lucca Who We Have Here

by Johnny
Reunited and it feels so good!
October 3, 2011

Bella Tuscany

by Johnny

With a few days to spare after Brian and Marisa left and before we meet my parents in Lucca, Anna and I rented an apartment in San Gimignano.  A little over an hour bus ride from Florence, San Gimignano has been called Medieval Manhattan because of its tall towers located throughout the town.  The towers were built as symbols of power and wealth of the city’s medieval families, and 14 of the original 72 are still standing today.  Enough with the history lesson…San Gimignano is the Tuscany you see in paintings, postcards and your dreams.  It’s a picturesque little town full of piazzas made for long lunches and bottles of the local Vernaccia wine perched high up on a hill with views of vineyards for miles.  And in the morning before the tour buses come and in the afternoon when they leave, San Gimignano is heaven on earth.

Piazza della Cisterna at night
Piazza della Cisterna Piazza del Duomo
Bell tower in Piazza del Duomo
Typical view in San Gimignano
Cooking in our apartment…chicken with lemon and capers We made the meat sauce from our cooking class
View from the wine bar DiVinorum

One day when we weren’t tasting Vernaccia wine or popping in and out of San Gimignano’s numerous hand-painted ceramics shops, we went for a bike ride to the tiny town of San Lucia just a few kilometers away.  The owner of our apartment, Claudio, gave us the key to his garage so we could use his mountain bikes at any time.  Bonus!  After a couple hours of navigating the hilly region around San Gimignano, our legs and buns were spent, but we were rewarded with some great views.

View back towards San Gimignano
The leaves are starting to change colors
Doing some laundry out in the olive grove Resting those legs

We also took a day trip to Siena, a place Anna and I had always wanted to see.  We hung out for a while in Siena’s main piazza, Piazza del Campo, which many believe is one of Italy’s best piazzas.  It seems like the entire town of Siena takes their lunch break on the sloping piazza, catching up on some sun and gossip.  Then we headed over to Siena’s impressive cathedral.  Being on a budget, we’re pretty picky about what sights we pay to see, but immediately upon entering the cathedral we knew it was money well spent.  The black and white walls and columns, the midnight blue dome and the “most beautiful floor in the world” make it a truly unique sight.  Afterwards, we climbed to the Panorama del Facciatone, which is at the top of what was supposed to be the new cathedral in Siena before the plague wiped out most of the town’s population.

Piazza del Campo Piazza del Campo
Typical street view in Siena
Siena’s cathedral and Duomo
Staring up at Siena’s Duomo Inside the cathedral
Beetlejuice!  Beetlejuice!  Beetlejuice!
View from Panorama del Facciatone Rooftops of Siena
On top of Panorama del Facciatone

On our last night, we treated ourselves to dinner at Le Vecchie Mura, which has to have one of the best views in all of Tuscany. Combine the views with the best gnocchi of all time, and you have a winning combination. As it got dark and we were ready to pay the bill, we saw the longest, brightest shooting star we’ve ever seen. Naturally, I took this as a sign to get a triple scoop gelato cone. A great way to say “ciao” to San Gimignano.

Dinner at Le Vecchie Mura
View from dinner Enjoying the view
Goodnight, San Gimignano
October 2, 2011

Top Chef Florence

by Johnny

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting Johnny’s homemade pizza or Brian’s homemade meatballs, you’re probably thinking to yourselves, “Why in the world would you guys take a cooking class? You should be teaching one.” We know. But we figured it couldn’t hurt to pick up a few pointers from some real Italian chefs. Plus, we were promised free wine and cool aprons.

We met our instructors and the rest of our group (which consisted of some Canadians, a couple newlyweds from England and the Netherlands and a group of about eight Australian women) at 10:00am and headed to Florence’s Mercato Centrale to pick out our ingredients. One thing I love about Europe is going to a different shop and/or market for each specific ingredient. You get your eggs from the egg guy, your bread from the bread guy, your veggies from the veggie guy…and on and on. Today was no different. As a bonus, we got to taste about five different balsamic vinegars. That will wake up your palate.

I think we can find some stuff to cook with here
Balsamic tasting Brian was entrusted with carrying the eggs…a serious job
Ready for action

Armed with our ingredients, we headed over to our workshop. On today’s menu was bruschetta, homemade pappardelle with meat sauce and tiramisu. Because it needs a couple hours to chill in the fridge, we started with the tiramisu. It’s actually way easier to make than any of us thought. The hardest part is the very beginning, where we had to separate the egg yolks and egg whites. After that we added some sugar to the yolks, whisked, added some mascarpone cheese and then whisked some more until smooth. Then we whisked the egg whites until they were fluffy and folded them back into the mixture with the yolks. Then we just layered this mixture with some cocoa powder and ladyfingers soaked in coffee. Piece of cake, errr tiramisu.

Whenever Anna and I make bruschetta at home, we chop up some tomatoes, mince some garlic and toss it all on some toasted bread.  Pretty standard.  We did it a little bit differently in our class, and it was actually easier than at home.  Once the bread was nice and grilled, we rubbed raw garlic on both sides.  The garlic disintegrates on the bread almost like butter would.  And instead of chopping the tomatoes, we just sliced them and placed them on top of the bread.  We topped it off with some salt, dried oregano, olive oil and creamy balsamic.  Simple and delicious.

Marisa and Johnny whisking away while Aussie women look on Brian and Anna chopping bread
Bruschetta looking good! Dusting our tiramisu

Next up…meat sauce!  We chopped a red onion, sliced some garlic and added it all to a hot pan with olive oil and some chili flakes.  After a couple minutes, we added the ground beef and ground pork sausages we got at the market.  When the meat browned, we added some red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes.  Next, we added some sea salt, tomatoes and basil and let it cook on the stove for about 45 minutes.  It was hard to concentrate on anything else with the smell wafting in from the kitchen.

Meat sauce ingredients
Cooking away Brian working his meat

I have a newfound respect for those little ladies you see in the back of shops and restaurants in Italy making homemade pasta.  The ingredients are simple (eggs and flour) but the work is backbreaking.  Even super buff dudes like Brian and me got a little winded during the pasta making process.  First, we very slowly combined the eggs and flour, whisking the entire time to thicken up the dough.  It’s a forearm exercise if there ever was one.  After maybe 30 or 40 minutes, we finally had a ball of dough ready for kneading.  Kneading is the process of strengthening the dough by further mixing the ingredients (so says Wikipedia), and it’s tough work as well.  After only about five minute of it, I seriously “kneaded” a nap.  Haha…get it?  It’s a play on words.  OK, back to the food.  Once we finally had our dough ready, we flattened it out with our rollers, folded it and sliced it to make our pappardelle.

Johnny breaking some eggs in our flour crater
Brian and our newlywed Danish friend mixing the dough
Our chefs Andrea and Giovanni show us how to knead
Marisa gives it a shot Johnny loses his wedding ring in the dough
Time to roll out our pasta
Marisa and Brian show everyone how it’s done

We had such a blast at our cooking class.  The chefs were awesome and our group was hilarious.  We’ll definitely be taking these recipes back home with us.  Of course the best part of the class…enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Pasta time
Some well-deserved wine after a hard day’s work
Marisa and Brian enjoying their pasta Tiramisu time

What an incredible three days in Florence with Marisa and Brian. All the city’s beautiful sights, our cooking class, our scooter ride in Chianti…it was all amazing. However Anna and I both agree that our favorite moments from our time in Florence were when we were just sitting in our apartment or at dinner having some wine and talking with our great friends.

October 2, 2011

Taking Firenze By Storm

by Anna
The fleur-de-lis is the ancient emblem of Florence

We couldn’t wait to get to Florence, not only because we were excited to go back to this beautiful city, but more importantly because we were meeting up with our friends, Brian and Marisa! My mom and Marisa’s mom have been best friends since before we were born so Marisa and I have grown up together, and her family is basically like my second family. Marisa and Brian were celebrating their one year wedding anniversary with a trip through Italy, and it worked out perfectly for us to rendezvous with them for a few days in Florence!

Piazza della Repubblica

Marisa and Johnny both studied abroad in Florence during college, so we luckily had built-in tour guides. We rented a funky little apartment a stone’s throw from Santa Croce and proceeded to take in as much of the city as we could in three days. Our first evening started off perfectly with a stroll down the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio and over to the Duomo, followed by some delicious Chianti in our apartment listening to Brian and Marisa’s insane travel day from LA to Venice, and topped off by dinner at Acqua al 2. Marisa remembered this restaurant from her time in Florence, and it lived up to her memories. While the girls shared the amazing pasta sampler, the boys each had an enormous steak smothered in what looked like thick chocolate sauce – don’t worry, it was actually balsamic. We ooohed and aaahhhed over each bite at dinner and decided that our inaugural Italian dinner together would not be complete without some gelato, which we found down the street from Santa Croce surrounded by overflowing bars and clubs. We didn’t end up at any of the bars or clubs because we were saving ourselves for our cooking class the next morning.

Our apartment Santa Croce, in all its glory, at the end of our street
The Duomo
Ponte Vecchio Ponte Vecchio
Dinner at Acqua Al 2 “Chocolate” steak
Is that some gelato in your beard?

The cooking class was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that we decided to give it its own blog post … coming soon!

Top chefs Sherwood Top chefs Bailey

Following the five and a half hours that we spent cooking and indulging in delicious food and wine, we headed over to the Uffizi and wandered the statue-lined halls, admiring all the beautiful artwork. We decided that Bronzino’s naked double-sided dwarf, “Portrait of Dwarf Morgante” took the cake as the most unexpected and favorite painting of the day. We concluded our Uffizi tour with a wine and beer break at the Uffizi’s rooftop café. I would probably buy a Uffizi ticket just to come to this café with its amazing view and nice cool breeze.

At the Uffizi
Enjoying the Uffizi’s rooftop cafe And its great view…

After a little more wandering around Florence we headed to dinner at Osteria de’ Pazzi. Everything we ordered was delicious, and Brian and Marisa went above and beyond and treated us to our meal. Johnny and I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did (as most things in Italy tend to do) with two rounds of Limoncello, one of which was on the house since Brian had befriended our waiter over the course of our meal.

Dinner at Osteria De’ Pazzi Limoncello came out to play

After dinner we thought we’d join the party on the steps of Santa Croce. We had noticed the night before that it seemed to be the PTB (Place To Be), so we grabbed a bottle of Chianti and some to-go cups and posted up on the steps of this stunning church. Brian and Johnny were on a roll, and we ended up going through a couple bottles till 2am on the steps which were still as crowded and going strong when we finally dragged ourselves off to bed.

Santa Croce rising up over our heads
Chianti, to-go cups, some 13th century Franciscan church steps and good friends
Johnny really wanted to stay and join in on the drum circle that had started on the steps

Although Johnny and Brian were feeling a little less than stellar from their red wine consumption the night before, we rose bright and early the next morning to head to the Accademia Gallery to see our main man, David. He was just as good looking and impressive in sheer size and perfection as I remembered.

He needs no introduction

Once we had our fill, we left David and gathered our things for an excursion back to Greve in Chianti. Since Brian and Marisa didn’t have any of the Tuscany countryside on their itinerary, we all agreed that we should take advantage of our close proximity while in Florence. Johnny and I had had such an awesome time on our scooter ride the week before, that we decided to pay our friend at the scooter shop in Greve (only an hour bus ride from Florence) a return visit and rent scooters for the afternoon. We had such a blast riding all together through the gorgeous Tuscan countryside, stopping in Panzano, Radda and Castellina, and ending the tour with some wine and antipasti at our favorite wine bar in Greve, Bottega del Moro.

Biker dudes in Greve’s Piazza Matteotti
Brian & Marisa on the Chianti road Ready to ride
Chianti We couldn’t stay away from the Gallo Nero
Glorious

That night, back in Florence, we had another tasty meal at Osteria de’ Benci followed by some of the best gelato we’ve had so far at Vivoli.

Dinner at Osteria de’ Benci Brian’s wine-soaked pasta

Our final morning, making sure to take advantage of our last few hours in Florence, we set off to climb all 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. The huffing and puffing up the narrow spiral staircases was definitely worth it for the amazing views inside and out of the frescoes and panoramics of the city.

Climbing the Duomo
Up close and personal with the Duomo’s frescoes
We made it to the top! The shadow of the Duomo on the city below
Taking in the view

With our legs thoroughly warmed up and toned (read: shaking and burning), we set off across the Arno to climb more steps to take in another jaw dropping view from Piazza Michelangelo and the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte. Along the way Marisa and I did a little shopping at San Lorenzo Market and also hung a lock with all of our names onto another cluster of locks on the Ponte Vecchio. According to legend, if you and your loved one lock a padlock to the bridge, your love will last forever and you’ll one day return to Florence. I hope this is the case, because we had a wonderful, memorable few days with Brian and Marisa in Firenze, and feel so lucky to have had this experience with such dear friends!!

Locks of love
Marisa + Brian Anna + Johnny
San Miniato
Views from Piazza Michelangelo Looking back at the Duomo that we had just scaled