Le Cinque Terre — A Slightly Different Ending part 3

by Admin 09-Nov 2010

As we approach Monterosso, I’m more than happy or at least my feet are to see the entrance to this village is not up a steep cliff like the last. The town is divided into two sections. The medieval hamlet on one side and what is called New Town on the other. A pedestrian tunnel connects the two as well as Monterosso’s Fegina beach which is the largest stretch of sandy beach in the Cinque Terre and one of the biggest tourist draws in the summer/fall months. Walking along the promenade circling the harbor we head into the older part of town for lunch. Piazza Garibaldi, the main square of the village is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants, all jam packed with tourists. An array of festive pastel colored houses with little, rod iron balconies and matching shutter and window boxes seem to tower wistfully above the raucous square. 

Wandering up a narrow lane leading out from the square we find a smaller piazza several blocks away and a restaurant called Il Pozzo. With its charming patio filled with flowers and wooden tables covered with different colored checkered table cloths, Il Pozzo turns out to be an ideal spot to sip a glass of sciachetrà, a sweet white wine this region is known for and to people watch. The food is good, although I notice the specialty is pretty much the same specialty of every Cinque Terre restaurant we pass. I try it anyway and have no complaints. It’s called Spaghetti Al Vulo (Spaghetti with Clams). The wait staff is friendly and of course speaks English.

After lunch we skirt by the crowds wedged into each shop and head for the beach and another gelato. Large and sandy, Fegina beach is dotted with umbrellas and lounge chairs for rent by the hour. The water is almost as warm as the sun. A small warning, be careful you don’t doze off and miss the boat, the train station is quite a hike.

Vernazza — Photo courtesy of our friends Paulo & Giovanni at Maranatha.it

According to the ferry guide, Vernazza, our last stop, is the most characteristic and charming Cinque Terre village. The lively harbor where we dock is the size of a postage stamp, the piazza is lined with restaurants and shops. The now familiar crayon colored houses rise above the square. Crowds of tourists swarm the streets, ebbing in and out of the same trinket stores as in the earlier towns. The village is very pretty, the explosion of color between the houses and the flowers can’t help but to make you smile and take lots of pictures. But from what I see these villages are fairly interchangeable and at least at this time of year they are overrun with mostly American tourists. After a last sip of sciachetrà we brave the crowds, pick up our share of take home trinkets, board the ferry and head off into a magnificent sunset on the way back to Rapallo.

The Ligurian Sea — Photo courtesy of our friends Paulo & Giovanni at Maranatha.it

When I first mentioned my intention to spend a day in the Cinque Terre I was immediately barraged by friends, fellow travelers and well wishers with advice on how one day in the Cinque Terre would never be enough. We should plan at least two full days, three even better. As picturesque as the Cinque Terre villages indeed are, they are far too commercial for my liking. Mobbed with tourists, the largest contingent being from the United States, I can vividly recall hearing far more English than Italian as we shuffled in herds oohing, sometimes in unison, at whatever pretty sight drew the eye of a lucky individual at the outer edges of the throng. 

I’m glad I saw the Cinque Terre and happier that we spent the majority of our time exploring the rest of the Ligurian coast. In retrospect, with so many tourists concentrated in the Cinque Terre, the rest of Liguria seemed far less crowded. Spending just one day in the Cinque Terre turned out to be the right amount of time for me.

Bobbie Lerman, Parker Villas Senior Travel Advisor

The Other Tuscany — Montalcino, Pienza & Montepulciano part 4

by Mario 27-Oct 2010

So far we have briefly explored Asciano, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and Bounconvento. Our final leg takes us towards a fabulous finish where each stop tops the last.

Montalcino — From Buonconvento a 30 minute panoramic drive leads up to the fortified medieval hill town of Montalcino. This famous wine capital is a fair sized town of about 6,000 souls perched on a vine laden hill. Exquisitely wine, dine and view the panorama from a table at Poggio Antico. If pressed for time you may purchase wines, oil and Grappa from the restaurant's little shop. As with most wine purveyors shipping your finds back home can usually be arranged. A far less expensive option is Osteria Porta al Cassero, a few steps from the town's imposing fortress. The peasant cooking is magnificent, the pasta is homemade and its plain Jane ambiance is sought out by both residents and visitors alike. This casual trattoria on Via della Libertà opens for lunch and dinner and closes on Wednesdays.

While Piedmont's Barolo may be known as the king of wines and the wine of kings, Montalcino's Brunello is often referred to as Italy's best vintage. Produced in relatively limited quantities from San Giovese varietals, Brunello has an intense ruby red color and aroma. It is at once warm, dry, robust and harmonious with a persistently lingering flavor. if your taste buds overrule your pocket book, seek the added refinements of a Riserva. Inversely, the much younger, less expensive Rosso di Montalcino employs the same grapes as the more costly aged Brunello's — aged one year as opposed to a minimum of four.

Wine buffs will want to sip and shop their way through both Enoteca la Fortezza and the historic Caffè Fiaschetteria Italiana for a complete wine roundup. With time on your side, a visit to Montalcino's Glass Museum will reveal far more than ancient flûtes, goblets and bottles. A collection of Venetian blown glass and works by Picasso, Dalì and Jean Cocteau are well worth a stop.

Strong Detour Suggestion - If by some reason you either missed the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or went gaga over its austere beauty, then take a wander six miles south from Montalcino on SP55 to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo — Italy's most tranquil and picturesque abbey.

Pienza — A half hour drive east of Montalcino's vineyards leads to the small, enchanting Tuscan town of Pienza. For anyone with mobility issues, Pienza is an ideal place to get out and roam about as this hill town is as flat as a pancake. Pienza is the birthplace of Pope Pius ll who transformed the village into a planned Renaissance city. If Siena is Florence without the traffic jams then Pienza is Siena without the crowds. While Pienza has only a couple of thousand inhabitants it offers a number of architectural similarities to its far larger cousins such as Palazzo Piccolomeni which uncannily resembles Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. While the draw of Pienza is clearly the architecture a gelato break at Dolce Sosta is mandatory. If you have time, take a quick stroll about the grounds of Il Chiostro di Pienza hotel, if only for the views.

Another reason to visit Pienza is to pick up some exquisite cheese. You will find caseifici (cheese makers) everywhere along the routes heading in or out of town. Tuscan Pecorino now better known as Pecorino di Pienza typically comes in 8 to 10" wide wheels — perfect dimensions for stuffing them in suitcases. The incomparable taste of a Tuscan Pecorino may be due to a couple of factors: a) the amazing properties of the le Crete area and its peculiar effect on local sheep and b) the age-old traditions of Sardinian shepards that helped transform this part of Tuscany. Whatever the reason, there's a Pecorino suited to your taste buds. Pecorino can be sweet and semi soft, stronger and semi aged or extra aged and unforgettably piquant. It may be cast plain or infused with truffles or black peppercorn. It's flavors may be enhanced by aging wheels in ash, wine must or walnut leaves. Eat it fresh. Drizzle it with honey or marmalade or grate the very aged ones over a favorite dish. Our favorite cheesemaker is Caseificio Cugusi. The holy grail of Tuscan cheese is Pienza and you will find this caseificio roughly half way from Pienza on the way towards Montepulciano.

Montepulciano — Of all the towns along the route, Montepulciano offers me the most perfectly balanced Tuscan experience. The town is gorgeous to look at both from inside and seen from afar. The shops, cafes, piazze and sights that line its steep lanes are intriguing and not overly commercial. Some of my fascination with Montepulciano comes from its size. Being as large as all the previous towns combined, Montepulciano simply offers visitors more attractions. While large, with nearly 15,000 inhabitants, it feels remarkably small and personal. The sensation I get is one that's unhurried, friendly and brimming with low keyed enthusiasm — my favorite kind of place. Another worthy attraction is the wine. Unlike Brunello and Barolo, Montepulciano's vintages do not scream: "I am the best", they are just simply good — very good indeed. Again, in my mind, its all about that quiet confidence I sense all around that seems to whisper: come, try me and you will not be disappointed. Even San Biagio, its most beautiful church, sits quietly by itself at the foot of the town awaiting your visit.

Osteria Acquacheta, tucked away in a small neighborhood near the center, is one of my favorite steakhouses anywhere. The Fiorentina steaks are carved in front of your eyes and grilled to perfection. From mouthwatering pasta to simple veggies everything is beyond delicious and quite reasonably priced. For something truly out of this world, try the Pecorino baked with pears.

Heading home from Montepulciano a 30 minute drive will have you back at the junction of the A1 and the Siena/Bettole highway whisking you back to your point of origin. Happy touring.

Coming up next: A veteran Parker staffer experiences the Cinque Terre for the first time.

Restaurant Review — Vegetarian Paradise in Milan

by Mario 15-Jun 2010

One of my favorite restaurants in Milan I discovered thanks to an Alitalia flight crew. Consider this: Italians know how to eat; Alitalia crews travel all over the planet seeking the best for less; befriend these crews on your next outing and one may share a jealously guarded restaurant recommendation for your next destination.

La Vecchia Latteria is a tiny, vegetarian only, lunchtime gem hidden right before your very eyes. It sits on Via dell'Unione, 6 — literally steps from Milan's famous Duomo. Mom cooks, debonair dad serves and entertains and their daughter, a freshly minted psychologist, conducts evening relationship building sessions over mom's scrumptious parmigianas, souffles and croquettes. There are even vegan choices on the menu. What's more, the prices are ridiculously low — especially for being in the heart of Milan.

Tiny means tiny. Not only is the place small, the tables and seats are tinier still and packed together. I guess vegetarians don't take up much room. The portions on the other hand are generous and incredibly delicious. Truly, I had no idea the place was "vegetarian only" until I got into a conversation with Giorgio Notari, the owner, about his volunteering to keep the restaurant open a few nights a month to kick start his daughter's practice. I was finding it hard to marry a dish of linguine with olives and capers to a dose of group therapy. In Italy one can always expect the unexpected.

Everything is fresh, nothing is frozen, dessert is magnificent and the menu changes daily. La Vecchia Latteria is closed on Sundays and only open until 5 pm the rest of the week — unless of course, there happens to be a group session on how to control binge eating. Good luck.

The closest I could come to a Web site was their menu in Italian.

To my Alitalia friends, I apologize for passing on one of your secret haunts. After all, a man has got to eat and Giorgio and his wife Teresa deserve all the praise they can get.

Gluten Free Dining in Italy

by Mario 09-Feb 2010

Il Pallaio in Florence offers simple Gluten Free Italian meals and pizzas 

Not a week goes by that a Parker Villas guest seeks our assistance with specific dietary requirements while vacationing in Italy. This week's focus is on enjoying Italy on a Gluten Free diet. The first and easiest thing to do is copy and paste the following message on a card and show it to the waiter if you are not sure what they serve:

Gentile Ristoratore,
Sono affetto da CELIACHIA (intolleranza al glutine). Devo fare una dieta assolutamente priva di glutine. Qualsiasi cibo contenente farina di grano, orzo segale e avena puo causarmi gravi malori. Se non e sicuro, la prego di dirmelo. Posso mangiare cibi contenenti di carne, pesce, granturco, riso, patate, verdura, frutta, uova, formaggio e latte purche non siano preparate con aggiunta di farina, pane grattugiato, o salsa legata con farina o pastella fatta con farina.
Grazie
 

The above message reads: Dear Restaurateur, I am affected by Celiac disease (gluten intolerance). My diet must be completely free of gluten. Any food containing wheat flour, barley rye and oats can cause me serious illness. If you are not sure, please tell me. I can eat foods containing meat, fish, corn, rice, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, eggs, cheese and milk as long as they are not prepared with the addition of flour, breadcrumbs or sauce linked to flour or batter made with flour. Thank you

The second thing to do is to visit Italy's comprehensive guide to gluten free restaurants nationwide. The site is in Italian but here are the essentials:

1. Click the region you will be visiting on the left hand side of the home page. (for Rome click Lazio, for Florence click Tuscany)

2. The next page is sorted by provinces within that region. Scroll down to the cities of your choice. Next to city names are code letters: H for hotel, R for restaurant, P for pizzeria, Tr for trattoria. Next to the code is the name of the establishment. Click on each establishment name for addresses, web sites and even maps in some cases.

Buon appetito!

Padova: The miracle of the Bassett Hounds — Part 2

by Mario 11-Jan 2010

The meal was indescribably delicious, the service was impeccable, the wines were sublimely matched. The soft elegant setting adorned with fresh flowers and classical music was one where we could have stayed forever. Stefania, the attractive and attentive owner of Ristorante Belle Parti was floored when I told her how we found her. “Do you know who the woman with the basset hounds is?” “Not a clue” I replied. Rabarama is Italy’s most famous living artist. Her sculptures and paintings sell for as much as $400,000. It was she who sent you here”. I promised Stefania that I would tell all our friends and readers how I came to experience some of the best Italian food ever in one of my favorite cities to boot. 

Later that evening when we joined the rest of our gang, I shared the day’s events with my friend Stephanie Oswald, CNN Travel reporter and the editor of Travel Girl Magazine. The next day Steph led her own small group to Saint Anthony’s and for lunch at Belle Parti. It turned out to be the highlight of everyone's Italy trip. It would be wonderfully self serving if I could tell you that Parker Villas has villas and apartments in Padova. Not yet. You will have to get there without my direct intercession for now. However, if you stop by Saint Anthony’s, something wonderful may happen to you as well.

Padova: The miracle of the Bassett Hounds — Part 1

by Mario 10-Jan 2010

Every time I set foot in Padova - Padua in English - something truly wonderful happens, and it always begins with a visit to Saint Anthony's Basilica. St. Anthony is a miracle maker and champion of lost causes. I can attest to the former and often think I’m the latter. Throughout the years I've visited the basilica with family, devout Jews, protestants, agnostics and the occasional atheist. The result is always the same. Everyone is somehow transformed. There is a palpable force there that transcends religion and touches everyone.

After guiding my companions through the rite of touching Anthony’s “warm” marble tomb, obtaining a blessing from a friar in a tiny alcove halfway up the right hand side (a friar is always there) and depositing a petitioner’s candle in the altar bin for use during services, we stepped out into the pleasant November sun and strolled a few blocks into the pedestrian heart of this ancient university town. Shops, cafes, artisan studios, lots of Italians and countless students populate narrow lanes that open into gorgeous piazzas. By 1 pm, we were famished and craving a special kind of lunch, one where service, food and ambiance ruled, and then it happened...

The day before, I had spotted two stout basset hounds while sipping thick, creamy delicious hot chocolate at Caffe Pedrocchi and now, they were shuffling by once again. I beckoned my companions to wait and ran after these somewhat obvious denizens of Padova and their master. My question was simple: “Hello. I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m an American here with friends. I noticed your hounds yesterday and figured you might be a local. I was hoping you could suggest a restaurant filled with wonderful food and ambiance?” At the other end of the leash, beneath a wide brimmed hat stood a classic Italian beauty draped in a plaid mantle and partially hidden behind sunglasses larger than espresso saucers. She regarded me for a second and in a soft, velvet tone asked: “Do you really seek excellent food and a perfect atmosphere?” “Yes” I pleaded. She gave me explicit instructions on fulfilling our quest. Her final words were: “You will know you are there by the young blond woman that greets you, I’m sure it will be to your liking.”

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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....

 

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