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Report 1786: Italy in Eight Days

By Engred from Oregon, Fall 2009

Trip Description: Engred, her husband and in-laws spend just over a week in Florence, Tuscany and Rome, September 2009.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Florence, Rome, Tuscany

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Day Tours; Foodie Trip; Wine Trip; Independent Travel; Adult Children w/ Parents

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Page 1 of 3: Florence (with stops in Pisa and Lucca)

September 10, 2009 – Off to Italy!

My husband, J, and I took our first trip to Italy with my in-laws, J & M. We arrived in Pisa at 11:20am via British Airways. Pisa has a small airport, so we deplaned on the tarmac and walked to the terminal. Since we were flying within the EU, no need to go through customs (very handy), so we simply had our passports stamped. At the airport we were met by our guide Guido Gambone, the nicest young gentleman who was an outstanding guide! He made our entire trip an absolute delight! There was discussion as to whether or not we should go into Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, which J won so thankfully off we went for a picture with the landmark! There were lots of Nigerians hawking faux watches and handbags. J took a quick picture (I forgot my camera) and then we went back to the van for the drive to Lucca, a small city still enclosed by its ancient wall.

Once in Lucca town center, Guido parked the van in a garage to secure the luggage. We had a wonderful lunch at Buca di S.Antonio on Via della Cervia, an 18th century osteria, such a wonderful little restaurant with fantastic service, even at lunch. Thankfully Guido translated the menu for us, as I had no idea what dishes were listed other than spaghetti and fettuccini! I had prosciutto and melon followed by gnocchi in butter sauce. It was my first taste of true Italian pasta – and it was so much better than I ever imagined. Such a charming place to start our Italian eating adventures!

Then we were off to meet Annie, a Dutch woman living in Lucca, who was our tour guide for the next hour. The tour was a lovely walk around the town, which is very picturesque and where Puccini wrote several of his most famous operas. Guido insisted that we stop at Caniparoli Cioccolateria on Via S. Paolino, to try their chocolate sauce which he said was his favorite chocolate sauce when he was a child. Of course we obliged, tasted the sauce and promptly bought four jars – it was really that good! At the conclusion of the tour, we piled back in the van, drove through one of only six exits through the wall, and were off to Florence!

My, oh my, the Italians are crazy drivers! Especially when in the city, the lane markers are really “suggestions” as often a three-lane street will be four-lanes of cars/scooters/bicycles. Even when driving in the country, certain drivers tend to “take their half out of the middle.” Very glad I was in the front seat to see all the action up close – as it was always an exciting adventure and not necessarily enjoyed by the other passengers!

Ah Florence! What a special city! We checked into the Hotel Helvetia & Bristol on Via dei Pescioni. The hotel was in a wonderful location among fantastic shops! Great old-style room, with a gorgeous bronze chandelier. We unpacked and then Giorgia (Guido’s sister who lives in Florence), M and I walked to an Angela Caputi store near the hotel on Borgo SS. Apostoli for a quick shopping trip. Giorgia then insisted that we stop at Procacci on Via Tornabuoni for a glass of wine and a truffle panino (the store’s specialty – so yummy). The boys met us on the way to dinner and we walked to Buca Lapi on Via del Trebbio for our first dinner in Italy!! We had our first taste of Crostini Neri – the first of many chicken liver crostini to come – and fantastic “cured meats.” J was thrilled because he had amazing cannelloni. It was a wonderful dinner in a charming small restaurant. On the way back from dinner, we passed by a small wooden door in a wall with “Vino” carved underneath of it. Guido told us that it was a 15th century wine merchant for the Antinori family!

September 11, 2009 – Lovely Florentine Artisans

We started our first full day in Florence with the breakfast buffet at the hotel – fantastic ham! Guido and Giorgia arrived and we walked past the Duomo for our 9:00 appointment at Opificio Pietre Dure, the Museum of Precious Stones on Viale F. Strozzi. Amazing works of art made with precious stones. Then we walked to the Angela Caputi showroom and workroom on Via S.Spirito, watching the hand assembly of the jewelry and, of course, making a couple of purchases! The showroom is located on a wonderful small street with great little shops, where I could do some serious damage! Leaving Angela Caputi, we walked to Stefano Bemer on Borgo San Frediano, a small store specializing in custom-made shoes. The young Japanese woman working at the store walked us down the street to Stefano’s workshop, located on Via di Camaldoli, where we met Stefano. He graciously showed us around his workroom, explaining his shoe-making process. He also showed us a batch of leather from the 1700’s that was recently recovered from a shipwreck. Incredible! It was very special to meet a craftsman who is so passionate about his art and so dedicated to its preservation.

Then we walked by the Church of Santo Spirito, a stunning very simple church designed originally by Brunelleschi (but completed by other artists after his death), on our way to lunch at Trattoria Angiolino on Via S. Spirito. We had fantastic prosciutto and melon, thus commencing my prosciutto addiction for the remainder of the trip. After lunch, we walked to Antico Setificio Fiorentio on Via Bartolini, which is a silk factory dating from 1786. We met Sabine, the proprietress who gave us a tour of the beautiful silk showroom, along with a peek into the factory. She provided a great explanation of the different types of silk and the history of the factory. They are still using many of the original machines from the 1800’s and fortunately have a young gentleman who is very adept at fixing them.

We took a couple of taxis back to the hotel for a rest, followed by a walk to the Uffizi Museum for a guided tour. We saw beautiful Botticelli paintings, had coffee on the rooftop terrace and then had a small guided tour across the Vasari Corridor, which is the Medici passageway to the Pitti Palace. Exiting the Pitti Palace we crossed the Piazza Pitti on our way to Guilio Giannini, to visit the wonderful man who creates hand-made marbled papers, a Florentine specialty. He graciously gave us a demonstration of how he creates the marbled paper – a true artist who loves his craft but concerned that the technique may not endure. He gave M and I a sample of his handiwork, which we carefully preserved for the long trip home. We made some wonderful gift purchases at his store after the demonstration.

After returning to the hotel for some relaxation, Guido drove us to dinner at Ristorante Da Padellina. The restaurant is located in Strada in Chianti, a small town approximately 20 minutes outside of Florence. Amazing dinner in the upstairs dining room, with Guido’s friend Daniele assisting our table (he is the son of the owner and big Chianti wine lover). One of the specialties of the house is Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is a huge hunk of beef ordered by the kilo and served very rare. We ordered one to split (thankfully) and it was fantastic!

September 12, 2009 – Museo and Sostanza!

The day started with another lovely breakfast buffet, and then we were off to a very special museum. We had a private tour of the Museo Privato Bellini in Palazzo Bellini on Lungarno Soderini. We then walked to the Salvatore Ferragamo museum (gorgeous restroom), a little slice of shoe heaven. Everyone graciously allowed me some time to marvel at the “works of art” (my opinion of his shoes) but then they dragged me out of the museum – otherwise I would have been there for another hour! On our way to lunch, we passed the Farmacia Munstermann where Giorgia stopped in a purchased throat pastilles for M to bring home for a gift.

The walk to lunch at Trattoria Sostanza worked up our appetite for what may have been the best meal of the trip!! Guido had reserved a wonderful table next to the kitchen, so I had an eagle-eye view of all the action and the massive stick of butter just waiting to be melted to create many of the amazing dishes. The kitchen was tiny and most of the dishes were cooked by Mario on a coal-fired stove. Amazing what he can cook on one burner over an open flame! J had a traditional Florentine soup, Pappa al Pomodoro – a tomato soup made with stale salt-free bread with a small garnish of basil olive oil – amazingly fresh. The dish that started my love affair with Mario’s food was Tortino di Carciofo, artichoke hearts surrounded by a nest of scrambled eggs. Guido insisted we order one to share for the table and I thought “ugh, eggs and artichoke hearts” but thankfully kept my thoughts to myself. Then it arrived and looked beautiful. One bite and I nearly fell off my chair. Who knew butter, artichoke hearts and eggs could be combined into such a heavenly dish! Seeing Mario make it was even better, watching him swirl the pan over the open flame to create the egg “nest” around the artichoke hearts. Just when we thought lunch could not get better, out came the butter poached chicken breasts!!! Luckily J and I split the dish as it was very rich, but absolutely amazing. When Mario showed us how it is made, it became clear that quality of the ingredients are key to the deceptively simple dish – well, that and the pound of butter the chicken was cooked in, astonishingly good!

Stuffed to the gills, we left Sostanza and made our way to the Galleria dell ‘Accademia to view The David. It is just stunning in person – Michelangelo was a genius! After a quick visit to the museum gift shop, we went around the corner to a charming gelato store, Carabe on on Via Ricasoli. Guido ordered us a favorite gelato dish: almond gelato (which was loaded with bits of almonds) covered with a shot of espresso and topped with whipped cream. In Italian it is called “granite di mandorla con poca granite di caffè e panna montata.” Just divine.

Luckily, we then took off on another walk to work off all of those calories! We stopped in Faliero Sarti, a store with a gorgeous selection of shawls and scarves. Happily leaving the store with a couple of bags we made our way to the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, which contains a gorgeous church. The piazza is newly refurbished, with lots of seating and the only patch of grass I saw in Florence! Close to the Piazza is the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella which is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. It is a wonderful ancient store with an amazing selection of lotions, potions and herbs – a must-see.

For dinner we walked to Camillo Trattoria, just on the other side of the Arno on Borgo S. Jacopo, very charming restaurant of many small rooms. Wanting to order “light”, M and I both ordered porcini omelets for dinner. Ha, ha! It appeared more like a frittata the size of a large dinner plate and was loaded with porcini. Honestly more porcini than egg. The beauty of being in Italy during porcini season – they were everywhere! After dinner, we made a quick stop at a gelato stand on our walk back to the hotel.

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