Travel Tips for Italy

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Many years ago, Italy was one of my first international trips.  I remember being so surprised at some of the situations and customs I encountered.  It’s a beautiful country with rich culture, friendly people, and delicious food, but I wished I’d known about some of their local customs so that I could be more prepared for certain situations.

So now that I’ve been a couple of times, I thought I’d write a post about some travel tips for anyone (especially Americans) who are planning their first trip to Italy.  Some of these are not glamorous, but trust me- you’ll thank me later.

  1. Ladies- throw a small package of tissues in your purse. Most public restrooms will not have toilet paper in them, so these will be very handy when you’re away from your hotel/apartment.
  2. Speaking of public restrooms, you may be charged to use them.  It’s worth keeping some change in your pocket since it’s common for a restroom attendant to charge a small fee (usually under 1 Euro). This is not like upscale American places where the attendant receives a tip.  In Italy, the fee is mandatory.
  3. On the topic of tipping, it’s much less common in Italy.  At home (in America) I usually tip around 20% but in Italy that is unheard of.  If you have exemplary service, you can leave some change on the table for the server but it is not culturally mandated.
  4. Ladies may want to bring a cross-body purse.  Pick-pocketing is prevalent in many European cities. It happened to me in Barcelona.  Bringing a cross-body bag that closes securely minimizes your risk.
  5. Pack a water bottle.  Many Italian cities have public fountains with good quality water. Unlike our fountains at home, these have a tap so you really need a container to enjoy the water properly. Traveling can be very dehydrating and your body will thank you for having water on hand.

I hope these tips help you enjoy your upcoming vacation.  If you have any other great tips, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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Take a Lucca ‘Round…

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I spent my last two days in Lucca just enjoying the city.  I slept late, strolled the city, did some shopping.  It was absolutely lovely.  At the end of my last day, I put together a little video what I’d seen and done.  If you’re interested, you can watch it here.

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Cinque Terre

img_1883On our second day in Italy, we rose with the sun and headed to the train station. Three trains (and about two hours) later, we arrived in Cinque Terre. These five cities have become famous around the world for their stunningly beautiful buildings perched on Italy’s steep and rocky Northwestern coastline.

We started in the most Northern city, Monterosso al Mare. From there, we hiked rigorous and sometimes treacherous path to Vernazza. The trail starts from the Old Town, at the Southern side of the city. We started by climbing hundreds of steep, rocky stairs and continued to wind our way up and down the trail.  Fortunately our efforts were rewarded with breathtaking views (and a gelato at the end). While I do recommend this hike, it’s best for people with some level of physical fitness.  If you go, be sure to wear proper shoes (not sandals), and bring water. Much of the trail is narrow with a steep drop-off on one side, so it’s definitely not suited for young children. These narrow passages made it difficult to cross paths with people traveling in the opposite direction, but most people were kind and would step to the side when possible to allow each other to pass. It takes most people about two hours to make it from one city to the next.

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Looking back at Monterosso al Mare

For those not wanting to arrive sweaty and breathless in Vernazza, there are two other options: the train or a ferry. I hear the ferry offers its own lovely views, but here is what  you’re greeted with from the hike:

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We found lunch in Vernazza at a little place near the square. I enjoyed ravioli with shrimp scampi sauce, but my Dad’s potato pasta with basil sauce really stole the show.

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After lunch, I went to fetch some gelato while my parents and brother hiked another hour to the next town, Corniglia. They told me that this section of trail was a little shorter and less difficult, but I opted to take the train instead.

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Arriving in the Corniglia train station, there’s a steep climb of 300+ steps to the town itself. Alternately, there’s a shuttle that will take you up and back. The shuttle is a very popular option and people are not shy about swarming its doors.  In the same vein, the driver isn’t shy about shutting the doors on people when the bus has reached capacity. To increase your chances of boarding, wait on the far side of the road from the train station just about 10 feet up the hill (maybe 100 feet from the bus shelter). Corniglia itself is very charming. It has a more medieval feel than some of it’s other painted sisters.

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We wound through some of the passageways, coincidentally reunited with the rest of my family, and all took the train to Manarola.  The hiking trail does continue farther South to the other cities, but it’s currently closed down.

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Manarola is one of the more quiet cities, existing mainly of just one thoroughfare.  We walked down to the water where there is a swimming hole.  From there, we got to see them lift one of the boats out of the water. It was quite amazing to see the fisherman tie his boat to the pulley, which then lifted the boat about three stories up and into storage. It was lovely, but if you find yourself pressed for time, it’s probably the one I would skip. I didn’t feel like there was much to see or do there that set it apart from the other cities we visited that day.

 

Last, we took the train to the southernmost city of Riomaggiore. In my opinion, this city offered some of the most beautiful photo opportunities.

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Tired from a very long day, we found an outdoor bar perched high on the cliff and settled in to watch the sunset.

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As dark approached, we headed back to the train station to start our voyage home. It was a long, taxing, but enjoyable day.

If you’re planning a visit, I recommend staying in one of the cities overnight and spending at least a day and a half in the area so that you get to fully enjoy all that each town has to offer. I also highly recommend purchasing the unlimited train pass.  You only need to use it three times for it to pay for itself, and it also includes the shuttle in Corniglia and the hike between the first two cities.

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Vintage Vines: A Tuscan Dream Come True

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When I think of Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is wine. Therefore, it seemed fitting that we should start our trip to Tuscany with a vineyard tour and tasting.

After some research we decided to tour Carmignani, a nearby farm that has been worked by the same family since the 1300s.  Elena, who runs the place now, has been managing the farm for the last 25 years. She stands out among other local winemakers because she’s the only woman in a traditionally male-dominated field (no pun intended).

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Our driver picked us up from Lucca, where we’re staying, at 11:00 and we arrived promptly at 11:30. We all shook hands and headed out for a tour of the grounds.  Her farm is 14 hectares.  Ten are used to grow olive oil and the other four are for her stunningly beautiful grapes.

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She showed us her grapes first.  Since her family has been in the business so long, they prescribe to a traditional way of doing things.  For example, they grow both red and green grapes intermingled together.  They also do a lot of the labor by hand.  She told us that she doesn’t like to use machines to harvest the grapes or olives because they shake the plants in a way that is unhealthy, and also because they don’t discriminate between the “nice” grapes and the others that may be a little rotted out.

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She plucked various grapes from the vines and allowed us to taste them each. The smaller wine grapes were less sweet, but much juicier than the grapes I’m used to snacking on at home.

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After walking us through the vineyard, she took us to the olive trees.  She told us that Italians make four different kinds of olive oil – one is best with fish, one with vegetables, one with meat, et cetera.  In order to make an olive oil that tastes good with everything, they blend the four varieties together- however they never mix with olives from other regions.

It was very inspiring to hear Elena speak about her work, and to see her passion for wine.  In addition to being a winemaker, she’s also a sommelier.  At the end of the tour, she took us to a high point and proudly proclaimed, “this is my farm. Very nice, no?” It was impossible to disagree when the view was this one:

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Once we’d seen the grounds, she briefly showed us the wine production areas and then he ushered us into a small open building that served as her tasting room.

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We had the room to ourselves, and she brought out wine after wine with a food pairing for each one. True to form, I enjoyed all of them except the Chardonnay.

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Along with the wine, I had two favorite food pairings. The first was the bruschetta, which was made with some of the most flavorful, delicious tomatoes I’ve ever had. I haven’t retouched the photo above at all- they were that rich in color (and equally rich in flavor). My other favorite was a pork sausage and buffalo burrata crostini.  It’s nice to have something to nibble on when tasting wine – I think it really helps accentuate the flavor of the wine but also provides a little something in your stomach so your day doesn’t end early (and unfortunately!)

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It was a wonderful experience and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We purchased several bottles to enjoy for the remainder of our trip, and left glowing with delight.

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Trattoria Calabria

This past weekend I drove up to Utica, New York for a family reunion and I had the pleasure of dining at Trattoria Calabria.

IMG_1583 Now, Trattoria Calabria isn’t like other restaurants – and I don’t just say that because it has 5 star ratings on Yelp and Facebook and TripAdvisor. The food is great. But it’s a bit different because you can’t drop in for dinner on a whim, you can’t order up your favorite dish, and you absolutely cannot find your favorite vintage Chianti on their [non-existent] wine list.

If you want to eat at Trattoria Calabria, you have to call ahead and make a reservation. Danny, the proprietor (host/server/head chef/entertainer) will probably answer the phone. You will tell him how many people you’re bringing, and he will tell you what time dinner is being served that night. On the night of your reservation, you should arrive punctually with a bottle of wine under each arm.

On Friday, dinner was at 6 so we arrived just a few moments beforehand. My grandfather got there first and had already befriended some feisty octogenarians. It’s a very small restaurant with just a few tables, and it’s more reminiscent of visiting a friend than your average eatery. The atmosphere is friendly and the drinks flow freely, since it’s BYOB.

Like eating at Mom’s, there are no menus. Danny and his son cook one massive meal each night using the best ingredients they can find. Each course is a surprise, and none will disappoint.

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We started with a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a salad and some bread.

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Then he brought us a heaping bowl of mussels. Given the family atmosphere, I wasn’t shy about soaking up the broth with fluffy pieces of bread.

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Our next course was sausage and cabbage. This is not something I would normally eat at home, so I was surprised to love it.  I even took second-helpings, which I later regretted.  Stomach space was already at a premium half-way through the meal.

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As we were finishing the sausage, Danny brought out one of their signature dishes: the eggplant.  We got a platter with 5 neat little stacks of eggplant parmesan one for each person at the table.

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The last course from the kitchen was pasta with meatballs.  If anyone wasn’t full yet, this heaping portion of shells simmered in a homemade sauce definitely took care of that.  Like its predecessors, it was delicious, but I could only stomach a few bites because I was so full.

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Just when I thought I could throw in the towel, the table next to us produced a rum cake from a local bakery. Giovanni at the next table (now “Uncle Giovanni” to me) was turning 90. We all sang to him and he blew out his candles, then he shared his cake with everyone in the restaurant.

It was certainly a night to remember. My brother and I have insisted that this restaurant become a staple on every Utica trip, and my parents seem happy to oblige.

Perhaps the best part? It’s only $25 a head, which is a steal considering both the quality and the quantity of the food.  If you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth a visit.  You’ll find them at 706 Culver Ave, Utica, NY and remember to call ahead at (315) 724-0019.

 

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Rooftop Dinner Party, Southern Style

It has been a painfully rainy Spring here in the DC area.  Almost every day I’ve woken up longing for the temperate, sunny weather I enjoyed in San Diego.  When we did finally get a momentary break from the drizzle, it was cause for celebration.  IMG_1038

Kelly and Hala showed up at my door, champagne in hand, and I whipped up some of my favorite Southern dishes: fried chicken, mac n cheese, biscuits, and fried okra. I’d never made fried okra before, so that recipe needs some work.  But the mac n cheese and fried chicken were top notch.

Here’s how I prepared the chicken:

I gathered bone-in thighs and drumsticks, buttermilk, hot sauce, salt and pepper, paprika, and flour.IMG_1028

Add about 1/2 cup of hot sauce to the buttermilk, then add about 1/4 tsp. pepper, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp. paprika to the flour.  You’ll want to set up a nice little workstation since the whole thing gets a bit messy.

IMG_1030Dip each piece of chicken in the buttermilk mixture, then coat thoroughly in the flour mixture.  Then place the chicken on a baking sheet where it can sit for a while.

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After about 30 minutes, the chicken will start to look less powdery – that’s what you want.  Start heating up a big pot of oil (I used peanut).  Once its very hot, you can start dropping in the chicken a few pieces at a time.  Cook it at least 10 minutes, until it’s crispy and golden brown.

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Half way there!

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Then set it on a plate (covered in paper towels) while you finish the batch.

 

 

The last step is to enjoy with friends.  White wine and rooftop views suggested.

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The Virginia Vineyards

IMG_0863Since moving to the area, I’ve been wanting to visit the local vineyards.  There are several in Virginia, about an hour outside of DC.  The wine is notoriously unspectacular, but the scenic views compensate and it’s a great excuse to get out of the city for a day.

Yesterday, the opportunity finally presented itself.  Both the weather and the company couldn’t have been better.  Three cars of us struck out around 10:30 and arrived at Cobbler Mountain Cellars just in time for an 11:45 tasting.

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We started in front, where we sampled about five wines and befriended Maggie, this glorious hound, who was a wonderful hostess and kept us company throughout our visit.

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Then we moved to the back of the building where we sampled seven or eight of the ciders they make.  I’m generally ambivalent to ciders, but some of theirs were surprisingly good.  We started with one they named after Jefferson – made with nothing but apples.  It was crisp and light and almost too drinkable.

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The last three they gave us were my favorites – a ginger peach cider that was crisp and refreshing, and smelled so good I wanted to shower in it.  A honey cider made with local clover honey – it had the perfect balance of sweetness without being too syrupy.  And last, the cinnamon brew which can be served hot or cold, and tasted like apple pie in a glass.

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Once we’d finished our tasting, we purchased a few bottles of our favorites and retreated to the lawn for a potluck picnic lunch.  We loaded up our plates and ate and drank and laughed in the sunshine; it was my personal Nirvana.

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After a while, we packed up our things and headed down the road to Philip Carter, another winery, where we enjoyed another tasting.

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The rose there was delicious, so we grabbed a couple of bottles and took them outside to enjoy in the sunshine, while a handsome gent crooned country classics in the corner.

FullSizeRenderEventually, we succumbed to the wine and the sunshine (and adult responsibilities).  Tired, but happy, we climbed back into our cars and caravanned into the city and the real world.

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