Monthly Archives: September 2015

Tuscan Cooking Class

We went to cooking school tonight at in Tavola to make a four-course Italian meal under the guidance of our most entertaining chef, Alessandro.

cooking-Deb and Paul

We learned that only Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan are authentic Italian dishes.  Every other kind of Parmesan dish, including Chicken Parmesan, is an American invention.  Round zucchinis only grow in Tuscany.


Alessandro taught us  some great cooking techniques, including how the Italians make their chicken so tender and juicy.

cooking Paul and David

Our four-couse meal consisted of Zucchine alla Parmeigiana (zucchini Parmesan), In Tavola Cannelloni with Salsa di Besciamella (crepes stuffed with ricotta, spinach, chicken and veal with Bechamel Sauce), Chicken and Mushroom with Marsala, and Torta al Cioccolato ( chocolate flourless cake).

cooking-canneloni cooking-zucchini parm


We enjoyed the lovely meal we had prepared in a room that was built one hundred years after the birth of Christ.

cooking group


Knowing we would be eating big at our class, we started the day with a seven-mile hike in the Firenze countryside.  I loved seeing things I would never find on a hike at home, like unique fence posts, ripening olives, and Italian cypress trees loaded with cones.,

cooking growing fence posts cooking- olives cooking It cypress


The David With David

Firenze’s must-see sight is the David, Michelangelo’s glorious, 17-foot-tall statue at the Accademia.  So, taking our friend David to see the statue David was a perfect way to start our day.

David-DavidWe enjoyed a wonderful lunch at All’ antico Vinaio.   Our charming waiter recommended the grilled vegetable, meat and cheese board which was beautiful as well as delicious.


The amazing meat and cheeses on the board are the same ones used in the restaurant’s sandwich shop across the street.  The sandwich shop is  Trip Advisor’s #1 rated sandwich shop in all of Europe.  A National Geographic crew set up next to us in the restaurant to film a segment about the sandwich shop.

David-Deb and Paul

David-lunch 2 David-lunch 3

In the afternoon we went to the Uffizi, home of the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the world.  Julia had a moment with one of the living statues before we entered the museum.


Standing outside on the terrace level of the Uffizi, we had a beautiful view of the top of Palazzo Vecchio, the old town hall of Firenze.

David-palazzo veccio


Castles and Chianti

Touring the Tuscan countryside, wine and olive oil tasting, an authentic Tuscan lunch in a small village, and a day with a charming Italian sommelier created a perfect day in Italy.  Castello di Gabbiano, a winery housed in a castle was the first stop on our “Castle and Chianti” wine tour from Italy and Wine .  We had taken a Brunello wine tour from this company five years ago and knew we wanted to do another wine tour with them on this trip.


The sommelier showed us around the lovely estate and described their wine-making process.  We tasted Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Chianti Classico Reserva and learned the governmental regulations for each.  We also tasted ten-year-old balsamic vinegar.

castles-winery 1castles Deb and Paul

After our first tasting, we went to lunch in a tiny Tuscan village.  Tuscans place great importance on eating seasonal, locally-grown food.  Many restaurants put asterisks next to dishes that may contain frozen ingredients when fresh are not in season.  We ate black cabbage pasta (because it is black cabbage season) and white bean and bread soup.

castles-lunch soup castles-lunch black cabbage

My favorite stop of the day was at San Michele a Torri, an organic farm and winery where we tasted the three different classifications of Chianti, a Super Tuscan, VinSanto (a sweet dessert wine), olive oil and dried meats, all made on the farm.  Out of hundreds of olive oils produced in Tuscany, theirs is one of only twenty-two to get the highest rating.

castle-olive oil

In addition to providing great Italian wine instruction, our sommelier/tour guide Hillary gave us wonderful insight into Italian culture, such as:  Italians love Americans and still greatly appreciate what the USA did for them in World War II.  Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the Italian Parliament in 2000 as a “Day of Memory” of the Italian persecution of the Jews.  There are forty-one American universities and a large American population in Firenze.  Italian men spend more time on their appearance than Italian women.  Firenze is a culture of craftspeople, making many beautiful products by hand.

castles-Deb Hillary and David

The Day Before Castles and Chianti

We  had no specific plans the day before our wine tour.  Wanting to share some of our favorite places with our friends, we started the day with a seven-mile hike up to Piazalle Michelangelo for a beautiful view of the city.  We could see pink shirts everywhere as thousands of runners participating in Corri La Vita to raise money for breast cancer research ran along the river and over the bridge.  After lunch at Trattoria Marione, we came outside to find many families waiting to get in for Sunday lunch.

castles-day before

We had another great dinner at Oesteria de Pazzi, where David and Julie got to meet Paulo, the charming, singing owner.




Carro Matto

Wine from the Chianti Rufina area arrived in Firenze today just as it has since the 14th century.  Friends David and Julie arrived yesterday, and we all went to Piazza del Signorina to watch the procession.  Paul and David almost missed the procession because they made a little detour to the wine shop on the way to the piazza.

carro matto Paul and David

First the wine was blessed in Piazza del Duomo, and then the procession made its way down the middle of one of the busiest shopping streets in Firenze to Piazza del Signorina.

carro matto 8

Dressed in 14th century costumes, drummers, horn players, flag throwers and gentle folk carrying big flasks of wine marched to the steady beat of the drums.

carro matto

The highlight of the procession was the arrival of the Carro Matto ( “crazy cart”) pulled by two white oxen.  The traditional Chianti bottles and straw baskets have always been made in Firenze, and the Carro Matto  festival celebrates the wine-making tradition and re-enacts how the wine was brought into the city.  The basket covering the bottle provides thermal insulation for the wine and protects the bottles from breaking.  The bottles are strung together in a pyramid shape for transport.

carro matto 3

carro matto ox

I loved the character and dedication in the cart driver’s face.

carro matto 2

After the procession reached the piazza, speeches were given (unfortunately we couldn’t understand what they were saying) wine was presented to the dignitaries, and flag throwers demonstrated their amazing skills. Then the procession regrouped and made a stately exit from the piazza.

carro matto 4 carro matto 6

carro matto 7

It was so amazing to watch an event that has been going on for over five hundred years.  And it was extra special to have our good friends here to share this wonderful event with us.

David and Julie

After dinner we strolled the piazzas and talked with a young chalk artist.  She started her work this morning and will complete it by 10:00 tomorrow night.  The finished work will include pictures of the Mona Lisa, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Charlie Chaplan.  It will be washed off the pavement tomorrow night.

carro matto chalk artist

Our Favorite Hike

Ever since we discovered “Firenze, The Walking City” published hiking routes, we have taken some great walks.  Yesterday we hiked our longest, about nine miles, and favorite route of all.  The path wound up hills and through beautiful villas and small communities.

hike-Deb back  hike-path

Luckily, we took our umbrellas because about half way through our hike it started to drizzle.

hike-Deb front

At first the rain seemed cozy and made the hillsides look different from our previous walks.


It started raining harder, but we felt like adventurers and kept on going.  We had to keep going because there was no place to stop.  As we got close to home, it started to pour and we heard thunder and saw lightening,  We were soaked by the time we got home, but we felt great.

After drying out, we went to Mangia, our favorite pizzeria, for lunch and chatted with the wine manager.  He comes from a long line of wine makers and gave us quite an overview of Italian wine.

hike-lunch wine-maggias

Before going home, we went to Galleria del Chianti, Paul’s favorite enoteca (wine shop), to get some wine that we wanted to try.  The owner is always helps us make good selections.



We went to lovely and serene Lucca today.  About an eighty-minute train ride from Firenze, Lucca is completely encircled by a wall built in 1504.  Originally built to protect the city, it is now used as walkway and park.

Lucca wall top Lucca-wall

From the train station just outside the city walls, we climbed some steps up the inside of the wall and emerged on the wide pathway on top of the wall.


We explored the lovely little streets, and Paul was delighted to find a small shop dedicated to Italian craft beer.

Lucca-street Lucca-Paul beer

In addition to being a beautiful Italian hill town, Lucca is known for being Europe’s leadng producer of toilet paper and the home of Giacomo Puccini, great opera composer.  A statue of Puccini sits right in the middle of Piazza Citadella.  His house, now a museum, is just up the street behind the statue.


We ate lunch in a charming little restaurant next to Puccini’s house, overlooking the little piazza.

Lucca lunch 1 Lucca-Deb lunch

De’Cotelli, one of Rick Steves’ favorite gelateria, is in Lucca, so, of course we had to try it.  I tried amaretto and caramel, and it was the best gelato I have had.



A Great Meal at Trattoria Sostanza

We enjoyed one of our best dinners yet in Firenze last night.  Trattoria Sostanza is a tiny restaurant with a big reputation.  Everyone we talked to at the restaurant were there because someone had recommended it to them.

sostanza-entry 1

Part of the charm of dining here is feeling like you are at a dinner party in someone’s home.  We were seated with two other couples, one from New York City and one from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Connections we make with people from different places often amaze me.  The young man from New York City had relatives living in Bemidji, our Minnesota home of thirty years, and the couple from Brazil had made many trips to Florida and loved it.  We spent the evening sharing dishes and travel stories with each other.


After researching what we should order, we decided on the butter chicken.  Every review we read, said to order the butter chicken.  It came in a sizzling pot of chicken and butter and was amazing, unlike anything I have ever eaten.


Every dish was delicious.  Dessert, a type of meringue cake with cream, chocolate and fresh raspberries was a perfect ending to our delightful evening.


Cooking Class-Pizza and Gelato

As we began our morning stroll to check out some recommended restaurants, we ran into Guido, who had rented an apartment to our friend when he was here visiting.  We had brought five Brooks Brothers shirts from the US for Guido because they are much more expensive in Italy. Guido shared some great insider information about the soccer game we had attended earlier.  While chatting with Guido, we saw the elderly and very Italian Mr. Lombardi, the apartment caretaker, come outside.  He speaks no English, but I was able to speak a tiny bit of Italian with him, and he started smiling and shaking my hand.  This little encounter made us feel part of the neighborhood.

We stopped at the Expo 2015 booth in Piazza Republica  to thank the young women who had helped us with our tickets and using the Milano Metro.  It was fun to share our Expo impressions with them.

Pizza class-expo

As we were looking at the menu outside Sostanza, one of the restaurants on our list, we chatted with a couple from the US whose son had recommended the restaurant to them.  While we were talking with them, a young man stopped by because he had seen a YouTube video about the restaurant twelve years ago.  As we were all waiting for the restaurant to open and comparing restaurant notes, two young Asian men stopped and asked us if it was a famous restaurant because so many people were standing outside of it.  Luckily, we were able to make a reservation for tomorrow night.

With our appetites whetted, we checked out Il Guscio, an off-the-beaten path restaurant on our list.  It looked great and we were hungry, so we stayed for lunch.  A delightful young man, the son of the owners, helped us with our menu and wine choices.  The food, wine, service and karma made it a totally perfect lunch.

Pizza class-lunch

Tonight we went to a pizza and gelato cooking class.  We connected with two couples who live in the same California county as our daughter.  What are the odds of that happening?  Paul makes great homemade pizza, but he has trouble getting it off the paddle and onto the stone, so we thought we might get some good tips.  Since we have eaten gelato almost every day we have been here, it was fun to learn more about how it is made and what to look for in the best gelato.

pizza class-Deb

pizza class-Paul

My main pizza-making take-aways were be gentle with the dough and jiggle to get the pizza on and off the paddle.  The best part was enjoying our great pizzas.

pizza class-Deb and Paul


Expo 2015-Milano

Two high-speed trains, four metros, and a lot of steps took us to Expo 2015, “Feeding the Earth, Energy for Life”, in Milano (Milan) and back.  Never having been to Milano or a Universal Exhibition (world’s fair), we were excited for this adventure.   A Universal Exhibition occurs every five years in a different country.  Thanks to previous world fairs, we have the Eiffel Tower, St. Louis Arch, and Seattle Space Needle.  Italy’s Expo 2015 hosted145 countries on the 490-acre site.  An Expo representative in Firenze told us the best pavilions to visit and which metros to take from Milano to the expo site.

The Tree of Life, the symbol for the Italian Pavilion, is a tall wooden structure surrounded by water jets in the middle of a lake.  Periodically, Italian music plays, the structure lights up, flowers bloom out of the stalk and water shoots up in time to the music.

P1000303 expo symbol

The good news is we experienced something unique to us, visited a new city, and had the satisfaction of figuring out a new metro system.  Although we didn’t see much of the city, we did see the beautiful Milano train station.

expo train station Milan

We also saw some interesting exhibits, all focused on sustainable energy and feeding the planet.  The Chinese pavilion was one of the largest and most impressive.


Beautiful displays of Chinese art and crafts lined the walkway into the exhibit. At the end we walked on a ramp around a huge light display that changed colors and showed images of flying birds and galloping horses as music played.

expo China


We were the only English-speaking visitors at the United Arab Emirates pavilion, so we had our own guide to introduce us to the displays.

expo UAE

The UAE pavilion used high-level technology to tell their story. Along the entry to the exhibit were touch screens using holograms in both Italian and English to present the ecological challenges the exhibit would address.


We saw a 180-degree movie that featured a young girl traveling back in time to learn the importance of water to her country.  At the climax of the movie, the wall opened and we were invited to walk into another room that had virtual images of the characters from the movie talking with us.  The UAE will host the 2020 World’s Fair in Dubai.

The Turkmenistan exhibit was one of the smaller pavilions, but we wanted to see it because a friend’s daughter was in the Peace Corps there.


The bad news is the expo was over-populated.  We stood in long lines everywhere; an hour to get into the Chinese exhibit and an hour and half to get into the UAE exhibit.  We felt like we were experiencing the challenges of expanding populations that the exhibits were addressing.


In spite of the challenges, it was a great day, and we are glad we went.  Walking home from the Firenze train station, we thought the local piazzas were not as congested as we had thought before our trip to Milano.  The next day we hiked in a beautiful, quiet area of Firenze and enjoyed a leisurely Sunday lunch at one of our favorite Tuscan restaurants.

deb hiking

In the evening we strolled the area around the Duomo and discovered a three-day French market inspired by Paris’ Universal Expositions of the 19th and 20th centuries.  It was a treat to be able to communicate with the French vendors.

belle epoque


Unexpected Delights

Today was going to be a nothing day-do some laundry, go for a little hike and get ready for our trip to Milan tomorrow.  But it turned out to be a great day.  One of the best parts of spending extended time in another country is the opportunity to have unplanned-for experiences.  Paul and I headed south of Firenze today to walk in a new part of the city and soon unexpectedly ourselves on a beautiful walking and biking path.


We walked by beautiful homes and a huge sports complex and ended up at Piazalle Michelangelo, the beautiful piazza that overlooks Firenze.   There was a market in the piazza, so we had a little treat before continuing our walk.  A wedding party made a stop at the market.  Brides show up in the most unexpected places in Italy.

delight-market bride

On the way home from our hike we stopped at our neighborhood market, Sant’Ambrogio for lasagna. Our friends’ cooking class chef had recommended it as the best lasagna in Firenze, and we were not disappointed.


Tonight we wanted to sit outside and have wine and a starter for dinner.  After exploring some different areas, we found a wonderful place that specializes in farm to table food and wine from Sicily.  We sat outside, on the street, and had a wonderful bottle of wine and a starter of meat, cheese, potatoes, artichokes and tomatoes from the southern Italy.

delight wine delight starter

And to cap off our unexpectedly delightful day, the owner of the gelato shop where we make our nightly stop proclaimed us “true Florentines” when we walked in tonight.