Archive for July, 2010

What’s not to love about Florence?  It’s a charming city and probably my favorite of Italian cities.

I could spend weeks, even months at a time in Florence.  If you have a couple of days, here are some fun things to include during your stay in Florence.

1)  Start the day with pastries and coffee.  The Florentines make pan de ramerino, a soft breakfast role with raisins, olive oil and a hint of rosemary.  It was originally an Easter tradition, but now many bakeries make the rolls throughout the year.  (This was Natalie’s and my favorite pastry).

Our apartment was close to the Accademia, so we enjoyed delicious pastries from Robigilo (on via del Servi).  I think they have the best pastries in Florence.

There is something about European coffee.  I rarely drink coffee at home, but when traveling in Europe, I drink it every morning.  When ordering coffee in Italy, I order a Cafe Latte.  If you order a “latte”, you end up with a glass of hot milk.

2)  If you’re up early, head over to the Mercato Centrale (near San Lorenzo).  This 2-story open air market was once the main shopping center of Florence before supermarkets sprang up.  Now, it’s a food market for locals, restaurants and tourists.  It’s a great place to stock up on fresh fruit and cheese or buy gifts for friends and family back home (e.g., olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spice mixes, etc.)

It’s also a great place to see all kinds of meat and fish — many that you’ve probably never seen before.  Our kids were “grossed out” by the tripe (stomach lining).

3)  Climb to the top of the Duomo — the view is worth it!   You climb 463 steps.  At times, it can get a bit claustrophobic.  But, you get to view the interior ceiling frescoes up close and the view from outside is breathtaking!

The only times I would pass on the climb are during summer (long lines and heat) or if you have knee problems.  Needless to say, I didn’t climb to the top this time (for all three reasons).

4)  People watch at Piazza della Signoria. This always seems to be a “happening” spot.  There are street performers, artists and interesting people among the open-air sculptures and works of art.  The Fountain of Neptune, a copy of Michelangelo’s David, the Ratto delle Sabine are among the most famous sculptures.

5)  Stop for Gelato (at least once a day)! Our two favorite Gelato shops in Florence are close to the Accademia Gallery (The David).  The best time to see “David” is in the afternoon — when the lines are shorter.  So, you can get gelato before or after you visit the Accademia (or both).

The best gelato is made from fresh ingredients — so flavors available will be those in season.  The two gelato shops below were our favorites of our entire trip!

Le Parigine – the best gelato, stored in covered silver bins  (between the duomo & Accademia on via dei servi 41R)

Gelateria Carabe – great granitas that taste exactly like the fruit and gelato (1 block from the Accademia on via Ricasoli 60/r)

6) Watch the sunset from Michelangelo Piazza. If you’re up for the walk (and want to burn off the gelato calories), it’s a nice hike up to the piazza. You can also take the local city bus to the piazza. The view of Florence and the Arno river is amazing – any time of day.

7)  Enjoy a delicious Florentine dinner.  There are so many incredible choices in Florence, but we always manage to get at least one dinner in at Tira Baralla. It’s off the beaten path (on via della scalla 28) between the train station and Santa Maria Novella church.  In fact, it’s next door to the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella. It’s just a small restaurant with great pizza, pasta and gnocchi.  And, it’s very reasonable.

8)  Squeeze in time for shopping! Surprisingly, I didn’t do much shopping this trip.  Usually, there are some key things I shop for while in Florence (or the Tuscany region).

  • Florentine papers — beautiful wrapping papers (sold by the sheet), note cards, gift tags
  • SHOES — some of my most favorite shoes ever have been purchased in Florence
  • Aged balsamic vinegar — found at the wineries in Chianti and the Tuscany region
  • Ceramics — in some of the small towns around Florence
  • Cooking herbs and spices — bruschetta mix, capresse mix, herbed salt, beef or fish herb mixes

There is a wonderful Florentine mosaic workshop that we stumbled upon called Le Pietre nell’Arte.  The work is beautiful.  We couldn’t afford anything in the store, but it was worth the stop to see the detailed mosaics using traditional Renaissance techniques.  We visited the store on Via Ricasoli.  There is a second store on the piazza Duomo.


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One of Jeff’s favorite foods is pizza.  You’d think he would have had enough pizza in Italy to last a while, but that is not so.  We fixed pizza on the grill tonight.  Jeff was very happy!

I had some figs and prosciutto that I bought earlier this week.  And, I had left over sweet Italian chicken sausage that had been sauteed with onions.   We experimented a bit, and ended up loving two of the four types of pizza.

Our favorite pizza was balsamic fig, prosciutto, goat cheese and arugula.  It had very well balanced flavors.  We followed our basic pizza recipe (See Pizza on the Grill post, dated June 17, 2010).

I sliced 4 or 5 figs in 1/4 inch slices.  I tossed them in a small bowl with 1 Tbs. of Vanilla Fig Balsamic Vinegar.  When the pizza was grilled on one side and ready to top, I spread a light layer of goat cheese on the crust.  I added slices of thin prosciutto and marinated figs.  When the pizza was ready to serve, I tossed arugula leaves with some Vanilla Fig Balsamic Vinegar and topped the pizza.  Delicious!!!

We also created a similar pizza with Gorgonzola cheese (balsamic fig, prosciutto, gorgonzola and arugula).  We thought the Gorgonzola cheese was too strong for the other flavors.

Our second favorite pizza was Sweet Italian Sausage, Grilled Onions, Feta and Bell Pepper.  As I mentioned, I had some left over Italian sweet chicken sausage (from Trader Joe’s) that I had sauteed with sweet onions in olive oil – earlier in the week.  When the pizza was ready to top, I sprinkled crumbled Feta Cheese, warmed sausage and onions and raw orange bell pepper.  What a great combination!!!

We also tried a Sausage, Grilled Onions, Bell Pepper and Mozarella Cheese pizza.  We both thought the pizza was too bland.

It was nice to have different pizzas to choose from — and I used up left overs and found a way to serve the figs.

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The Fleur-de-lis

One of my all-time favorite symbols is the fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys for plural). Touring through Italy and France, the fleur-de-lys is prevalent in the art, the architecture, coat of arms, even product packaging and more. 

The English translation of fleur-de-lis is “flower of the lily.”

The Fleur-de-lis has appeared on countless European coats of arms and flags over the century.  It is particularly associated with the French monarchy.   It remains an enduring symbol of France although the fleur-de-lis has never been officially adopted by any of the French republics.

The fleur-de-lis is the emblem of Florence. The symbol can be found all through out the city.  It even appears on storm drains and utility covers in the street.

While on vacation, I snapped quite a few pictures of fleur-de-lys. It became the running joke with my family, especially when I was snapping photos of storm drains in Florence to capture the symbol.

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Stuck in Customs

On Saturday, Jeff and I were painting our daughter’s bedroom a lovely shade of purple.  We were listening to Leo Leporte, the Tech Guy, on the radio while painting.  (I promise to post before and after pictures in August of Natalie’s bedroom makeover.)

Leo was interviewing a guy named Trey Ratcliff who has the #1 travel photography blog.  Trey uses a unique photography process called HDR (High Dynamic Range).  He travels all over the world, taking incredible photos.

We were so intrigued by the interview, that Jeff ran downstairs and pulled up Trey’s blog www.stuckincustoms.com on our Mac.  I thought Jeff was just trying to get out of painting, but he came back upstairs and had me look at Trey’s pictures.  They are AMAZING!  And, interestingly he had posted a number of photos from Italy.

HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a post-processing of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed.  I really don’t have a clue on how this is done, as I am still trying to figure out iPhoto (and forget trying to use PhotoShop)!

But, for any of you that appreciate photography, Trey’s website is something you surely need to take time to review.  His work is absolutely amazing.  He was the first to hang an HDR photo in the Smithsonian.  And, he has work in the Getty.  I’m a fan.


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When in Rome … there are so many things to see and do.  The Colosseum, the Roman ruins at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon (and Raphael’s tomb), the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, Trastevere, Piazza del Popolo, Via Condotti (high-end shopping) and Piazza Navona — just to name a few.   It depends on how much time you have and what you enjoy doing.

Here are some of my favorite things to do when in Rome…

  • The Borghese Gallery is a villa that houses the art collection of Cardinal Scipione.  The cardinal was very passionate in his acquisition of art — and the Borghese now houses works by Raphael, Rubens, Bernini, Carvaggio and many other artists.  This is my favorite art collection in all of Italy.
    • Reservations are mandatory as they only allow 360 persons to enter the museum, every 2 hours.  You can get admission information and make reservations online at http://www.galleriaborghese.it/info-in.htm.
    • Be sure to arrive 30 minutes before your assigned entry time to pick up your tickets.  I highly recommend the audio guides.
    • My family really loved the Bernini sculptures — most especially the sculpture of Apollo & Daphne (pictured to the right).

  • Take a Tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican is huge and there is much to see.  You can do it on your own (or use the audio guides).  But, I recommend a personal tour guide — at least for your first couple of visits.   You can book a private tour through your hotel or you can make reservations directly through the Vatican (http://www.vatican.va).  Either method allows you to bypass the long lines and you’ll get an incredible history lesson!
    • Be sure to visit the Sistine Chapel, the works by Raphael and Michelangelo and the Basilica.
    • For those 18 years and older, Vatican Scavi tours are available to explore the underground excavations of the Vatican.  Only 150 visitors are allowed daily and you must make reservations months in advance.

  • Stroll the Trastevere neighborhood in the evening. Trastevere is known as the “Italian quarter”.  The neighborhood streets are narrow and mostly car-free.  There are numerous restaurants, gelato shops, bakeries and boutiques — most of which tend be less “touristy” than other areas of Rome.  At night, the place is hopping with locals — especially on the weekends and during the summer.   This visit, we stayed in an apartment in Trastevere.  We ate all of our breakfasts and all but one dinner in Trastevere.  I personally think Trastevere has the best food in Rome.  One of our favorite restaurants is Osteria Pizzeria Margharita on Vicolo del Cinque.

  • Day trips from Rome. If you have the time, there are many incredible places outside of Rome that are easy to get to by train or car for the day.  Here are some of my favorites:
    • Pompei is a full-day, but it is so worth the trip.  It’s best to take the fast train (Euro Star) to Naples then transfer to the Circumvesuviana train to Pompei Scavi.  It’s easy to spend 3 to 5 hours at Pompei, as the excavation site is quite large and extremely interesting.  It’s a good idea to bring snacks with you into the site, as there are very few food and drink options once you enter onto the grounds.
    • Orvieto is a beautiful hill town that is one hour outside of Rome by train.  At the center of town is their beautiful duomo.  From the Piazza del Duomo, there are narrow, windy streets that take you throughout the town.  The views from the edge of the hill town are breathtaking.  Il Giglio D’Oro serves a great traditional Umbrian lunch (great pasta).   We took a tour of the Orvieto Underground that was fascinating.  There are over 1200 underground caves that were dug by the Etrusans under the city.  The villagers used the caves for storage (wine and olive oil), pidgeon raising, making olive oil, and other uses.
      • Tivoli is an hour outside of Rome by car.  We’ve rented a car and also hired a driver for the day.  The Villa d’Este has some of the most incredible gardens and fountains.  It’s quite the place for taking photographs!
      • If you are planning a trip to Rome anytime soon, send me an email.  I have a more detailed list of tips for touring Rome.

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    We just returned from vacationing in Italy (and Paris). This was our first trip to Europe with the kids. And, it was the first time either Jeff or I had been to Europe in the summer.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll blog in more detail about Italy and Paris. We came back with lots of tips for traveling in summer.

    But back to what I LOVE about Italy …

    • The Food! Thin, crispy pizza right out of the pizza oven.  Fresh fruit and vegetables … that are picked from the vine when they are ripe.  Gelato … in every flavor you can imagine.  And the wine is great!  In fact, you can get a glass of red wine for less than a Coca Cola Light!

    • The architecture is truly amazing.  There are so many details … things you miss if you don’t look closely.

      • The Countryside is beautiful. We took trains and rented cars and toured through the Umbria and Tuscany region of Italy.  You see many hill towns, fields of sunflowers, beautiful villas and so much more!

    • The art is truly incredible.  Italy has art by so many of the great art and architectural masters.

    And, the shopping! But I’ll devote a blog post to shopping alone…


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    My sister and I are always on the quest to find the best chocolate chip cookie recipe.  Of course, our families LOVE to taste test the cookie trials.

    This recipe is my personal favorite (and probably my kids’ favorite).  My husband still loves the TollHouse recipe (what’s wrong with him?)

    I will provide a caveat … these cookies are best when eaten within two days of being made.  Now that is never a problem at my house!  But due to the Rice Krispies, the cookies only stay crispy for a couple of days (although you can freeze them).

    And, if you have raw cookie dough lovers … this is the BEST!

    Aunt Betty’s Crunchy Cookies

    1  1/2 cups Flour

    1/4 tsp. Salt

    1/2 tsp. Baking Soda

    1/2 cup Butter, room temperature

    1 cup Sugar

    1 Egg

    1 tsp. Vanilla

    1  1/2 cups Rice Krispies

    1 cup Chocolate Chips

    1/3 cup Walnuts, chopped

    1.  Beat together butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, until light and fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla and beat until smooth with hand mixer.

    2.  Add dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda), mixing on low speed.

    3.  Add Rice Krispies, chocolate chips and walnuts, stirring with a wooden spoon.

    4.  Drop by teaspoon full onto a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake for 12 minutes at 350 degrees.  Remove immediately from cookie sheets and cool on wire racks.

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