la mia bella vita

my beautiful life by Katie

Early Rise

Another early morning for me as I started my voyage to my next destination.  It was a beautiful morning in Montepulciano today, there were clouds looming over the city, and the sun was just starting to peak through with bright oranges and reds.  After a night of rain, the air was cool and crisp; a beautiful send off for me after a wonderful couple of weeks.

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After saying my goodbyes to Montepulciano, Fiorella and her little doggie Gnaufie, I was on the bus heading to the train station.  I grabbed a quick cappuccino at the bar, and now here I am, heading to Bologna.  I almost can’t imagine that food could be any better than what I have been eating thus far, but so many people gush over Bologna, so I am eagerly awaiting my arrival, perfectly timed for a spot of lunch.  (Or maybe I should say purposely timed).

Even with a transfer, it felt like I arrived in Bologna in no time.  I grabbed a cab, and started my drive towards Antica Residenza d’Azeglio.  At first view of the city, I was a little caught off guard by what Bologna looked like.  I had only ever seen pictures of Bologna that show the arched walkaways, and possibly the more glamorous bits.  So, I was a bit surprised to find a city looking a little tired.

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But luckily, my bed and breakfast was located in the centro storico, which was more of what I was expecting.  Agostino quickly helped me with getting my luggage set up in my beautiful room.  Decorated with attention to detail and thought, I was very impressed by my room.

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Even the room size was quite generous for European standards.  And a wonderful surprise awaited me as well, my own private terrace!  I imagine that in the warmer months it would be really nice to sit and enjoy your breakfast on the terrace, or even an aperitivo.

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After getting settled in, I got myself ready to head out and tour around.  My first directional was Piazza Maggiore, the main square.

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I walked around and took pictures, and just enjoyed the sunshine.  Such a wonderful change after so much rain in Tuscany.

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Just minutes from Piazza Maggiore is the Quadrilatero district; tiny streets lined with restaurants, fruit and vegetable vendors, bakeries, meat shops, pasta shops, wine stores, candy shops…truly something for everyone – and also the perfect place to stop for some lunch.  I actually had no place in mind, so I decided to wander and try to find where the locals were eating.

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I’m not sure if I was completely successful in finding a local spot, but I was definitely successful in finding delicious food.

I present you with my first course, sausage pizza.  Pillowy soft focaccia-like dough, bright sauce, gooey cheese and spicy sausage…hot, fresh and sooo yummy.  Where did I find this gem?  I have not the slightest.  I took the pizza to go and completely forgot to pay attention to where I got it from.  But I figure it’s a sign of living in the moment, right?

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Second course, I found myself in a sort of Italian food court if you will…but think like high-end fancy food court, not your typical mall Taco Bell stop.  Locals and tourists alike were grabbing quick bites, and I had my heart set on trying the local bread, crescente bolognese.

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Three warm little breads stuffed with prosciutto, mortadella and salame.  I don’t even know what to compare these to…not an english muffin, not a tortilla…truly its own special little round bread pocket yumminess.

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And for the main attraction, pasta.  If there is one reason you go to Bologna, it is because of the homemade stuffed pastas.  I found a place to eat, because when I was walking by, I could literally smell the sauce from someone’s pasta, and I was sold.

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Teeny tiny meat stuffed tortellini in a parmigiano cream sauce.  Mhhhhh.  I actually anticipated the sauce essentially tasting like a cream sauce, but it literally tasted like melted parmigiano reggiano.  The sauce was the perfect partner for these tiny little pockets of meaty goodness.  This plate required me to leave no one behind.  Clean plate club?  Member!  All washed down with a refreshingly dry and light glass of the local Lambrusco.

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Literally feeling like I could eat no more, I decided to walk it off for awhile.  But before I could make it very far, I came across a gelato shop that happen to catch my eye.  I watched as the woman served up someone’s cone, and it looked sooooo creamy, I just couldn’t resist.

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I went with Pistachio and Monte Bianco.  The Pistachio was the perfect mix of salty and sweet, but the Monte Bianco was the real star.  I am actually not sure what it was exactly, but it was without a doubt the best gelato that I have ever had.  So creamy, so light, so perfect in every way.  I will definitely be going back for more.

So finally, some time for walking.  I wandered around the city center stopping in different churches and shops, catching photos of the beautiful local architecture.

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In general I have found Bologna to be very nice.  I am not sure what I was expecting, but it is different than what I was thinking it would be (much much larger than I anticipated).  I think that I was picturing a city with similar charm to Florence or Venice maybe, but in its own way Bologna charms you (probably with the food).

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After a few hours I decided to call it an early night, as I knew that I was going to have another early morning.  So I wandered back home, still very full from my lunches, but with a very nice first day in Bologna.  Today left me feeling a bit curious and intrigued with Bologna.  All of the food wowed me, but the city left me longing for something a bit more Tuscan perhaps.  I guess that I will see what tomorrow brings.

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Rain in Tuscany

No better place to wait out the rain than in Tuscany.  At first I felt a little sad to hear that the majority of my time in Tuscany was anticipated to have rain.  But then it hit me…cold, chilly, rainy weather…no better way to enjoy a rainy day then to be sitting inside a cozy osteria, enjoying a glass of Vino Nobile, and tucking into a plate of pasta or a steak, or basically anything Tuscan.  Yes, that is my idea of a perfect rainy day.

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watching the rain pour down outside my window

So with all of the rain that did come, I just made a point to get nice and cozy in the local osterias, trattorias and cafés.

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study break

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aperitivo

Feeling like I should make use of an empty Saturday, I decided to make another quick getaway to Florence.  Florence in the rain?  Well, wandering the streets of Florence in the rain might not be as enjoyable as sitting in a cozy osteria, but…but…it is Florence after all.  And without a doubt I made the most of my rainy day.  How?  With good food of course.  I have found that there are essentially 2 reasons to come to Tuscany, to eat and to drink.

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A rainy day in Florence, however, did provide me with a delightfully quiet Saturday in the city, which normally would have been flooded with tourists.

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I essentially planned to make all of my same stops as my quick layover, but with a few added destinations, the main attraction being Trattoria Mario.  I missed them last August because they were on vacation, and felt a little heartbroken, so I have been quite ready for this meal.  Trattoria Mario is the kind of place that you go to, and immediately try to plan out your next visit.

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Like any amazing trattoria or osteria in Italy, it has homey food, cheap amazing wine, and everything is prepared with love and pride that you taste and feel in every bite.

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Rigatoni with Tuscan ragu as my savory warm up to the main event….peposo al mano…..beef braised in red wine.  I swear that if I could recreate this recipe, my husband would literally request it every single day.  The beef is melt in your mouth, coated in the most richly reduced red wine and peppercorn sauce.  It is one of those dishes that you take a bite and just go…“mhhhhhh.”  (But on the flip-side, I think that I have been feeling that for just about everything that I have eaten these past few weeks.)

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Aside from enjoying the food and wine in Tuscany, I have been trying to think what travel advice I wanted to share.  And finally it hit me, wander.  Tuscany is all about relaxation and enjoying the moment.  So, wander.  Wander the streets and relish in all of the beautiful architecture and craftsmanship.  Wander and listen to the birds or to the locals gossiping.  Wander and find a tiny shop serving up mortadella panini.  Wander and just follow what you feel inspired by…whether it be food, art, wine, architecture, nature or just relaxation, you will without a doubt find it in Tuscany.

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nougatine gelato…my new favorite

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But alas my time in Tuscany had come to an end, and so it was time for one last day, and one last lunch.  And of course, I chose my favorite, Osteria Aquachetta.  Aside from loving the food, the owners remembered me from my last visit, and had been so happy to see me return, which both surprised me and tickled me.  However, Chiara did remind me that I had eaten there almost everyday on my last trip, so how could she forget me?

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pears baked in pecorino

On this last day in Montepulciano, it was raining (again), but it was the perfect backdrop for a long relaxed meal, and steak.  Yes, most definitely a bistecca for my final meal.  I started with a (small) portion of the most melt in your mouth lasagna al forno.  Between layers of homemade pasta, either ragu or besciamella.  Each bite better than the last.

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And then of course, the steak.  So juicy, so tender, so flavorful, and so carefully prepared.  Each bite more and more savory.  If they let me sit all day, I might be able to finish it.

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Sides?  Of course.  Pan-fried potatoes and artichokes, and the melanzane parmigiana.  (Which, by the way, was the best I have ever had.)  I even brought home the leftovers to Fiorella who was equally impressed.

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Dessert?  When in Rome!  Torta cioccolato.  Dense chocolatey gooey goodness served with a coconut whipped cream.  I could only stomach a bite or two, but it was the perfect end to a perfect meal.

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Funny enough the couple next to me commented that I didn’t eat very much.  I literally laughed out loud.  I don’t think that they must have noticed all of my courses.

With absolutely no room left for food (probably for the next few days), they offered me coffee or grappa, but no, no room left for anything.

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After saying my goodbyes and sharing my gratitude for once again feeding me so well throughout my time in Montepulciano, I bundled up and headed out for a final stroll in the rain.  Would I have preferred sunshine?  Sure.  But I can’t imagine a better send off.

A Tuscan Walk

Last year when I was in Montepulciano, I only visited the other local towns serviced by a bus (Siena and Pienza), since I did not have a car.  Since the same is true this year, I decided to do a bit of wandering on foot for a different perspective and new experience.

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I had heard of a couple cute towns, nearish-by, and so I asked one of my teachers if you could walk to them.  Monticchiello, which was on the top of my list, was one of the towns that my teacher said was no problem to walk to.  So I asked for a map (since I am actually quite horrible with directions) and she said there was no map (not surprising but also made me a bit nervous), but she also assured me that it is really easy to get there.  She told me to leave Montepulciano and walk towards the San Bagio Hotel, take a left onto a strada bianca (unpaved road), and then whenever there is a fork in the road, to always take the right.  Follow these directions, and I should be able to get there in about 1 1/2 hours.

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Perfect, easy enough . . . or so I thought.  I arrived at the San Bagio Hotel, and on my left was a paved road, and the right was unpaved.  Huh.  So, I went in and asked at the hotel.  They told me to take the left, the paved road; and the woman also assured me that there were many signs on the way, and that it would be very clear to me where to go.

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Okay, sounds good, so again I was off.  Paved or unpaved, the start of my walk was promising for the beauty that was in store ahead of me.  When I reached the first fork in the road, there was no sign for Monticchiello, and the right looked like a driveway to someone’s home, so I felt a bit confused.  Luckily a car was pulling up, and the couple inside was able to assist and assure me, that yes, take the right.  Always take the right.

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From that moment forward I took every right in the fork.  Surrounded by nothing but the Tuscan countryside, I kept feeling like Maria in Sound of Music, singing to myself, “climb every mountain….”

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strada bianca

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I mean seriously, even looking through these pictures, I am a little like, is this place real?  Yes it is, I promise you.

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ciao montepulciano!

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About an hour and a half in, I started to wonder, where am I going?  I couldn’t see any town anywhere nearby.  Then the winds picked up and the clouds started rolling in, looking quite threatening.

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Luckily a cyclist was heading my direction, which I still feel a little bad having him stop to help me mid-hill, but also grateful that he assured me that I was heading in the right direction.  He also happened to mention that I would need to go up and down many more hills before I got close.  And then he repeated maybe 5 times in a row, “you’re going on foot?  On foot?  On foot?….”  And then he pointed at the sky, in case I hadn’t noticed.  As I walked away I kind of chuckled to myself, thinking, no not on foot, I just parked my car over the next hill and decided to walk and look for someone just for the fun of it!

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Hearing that I had many more hills to climb, and with the skies still looking threatening, I really tried to pick up my pace (a.k.a. I started running down some of the hills – gotta love that Tuscan cardio).  Even rushing a bit to make it to my destination before the rain, I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around how constantly beautiful and changing the landscape is.  It is moments like that, in the quietness of a Tuscan road, slightly running, you feel an inner peace and gratitude simply for living.

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the first and only sign of my entire walk

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Within about 30 minutes, I saw what looked like an abandoned castle of sorts, and I almost started to lose hope that I might ever reach Monticchiello.  But once I made it up that last hill, there was a tiny sign in front of the castle wall which thankfully read, Monticchiello.

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I think that I literally exclaimed out loud something to the affect of “Yes!  I made it!”  The fact that I didn’t get lost, get rained on, or give up was a huge success.

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Montechiello is a very cute and very small town, it maybe took me about 7 minutes to walk around the entire town.

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But 7 minutes was perfect with me, because my legs were feeling kind of sluggish, and so I decided to stop and have a spot of lunch.  And lucky for me, the main restaurant in Monticchiello has quite the reputation in Tuscany, Osteria La Porta.

I walked in, very excited to sit (and eat), and asked in Italian if I could have some lunch or if they hadn’t started service yet.  The woman (who I believe to be the owner), responded in English that they had no availability.  I said, kind of jokingly, too bad because I just walked all the way from Montepulciano (sad truth).  She looked a little annoyed at me, and offered that I could sit and have one hour, and if the reservation for the table showed up early, I would have to leave immediately.  I was a bit surprised by her response, as Italians are well known for letting people linger and relax for as long as they want, but I figured I would go with it and not let her personality disrupt my experience.

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I sat down, in an empty restaurant, and ordered right away.  Regardless of my first moments, I felt so excited….but unfortunately my excitement was left disappointed.

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Although all of the food looks delicious….my fonduta was cold, my pasta nowhere near as good as others I have eaten (especially Fiorella’s), and my artichoke sformato…no seasoning whatsoever.  A total bummer.  Oh well, I still enjoyed my glass of wine and a chance to sit for a bit.  And interestingly enough, the restaurant never filled up.

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The day I happened to be there was Liberation Day for Italy, a national holiday.  As I sat, I watched as Italians that came in with or without a reservation were welcomed in, and foreigners turned away.  Interesting.  I tried to take a positive approach to this.  I can understand that the owners might want to be celebrating such a day with their friends and local people, but, in my book, no reason to be rude.

The woman who let me in kind of watched me during my lunch, and I think started to realize that I could understand anything that was going on, as I speak Italian.  When she brought the check, she apologized to me and paid for my wine.  Again, interesting.

I appreciated that she realized that maybe she hadn’t been so kind, and as the restaurant still had many open tables, there was no reason for the way she treated me.

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views from Monticchiello

In the end, it didn’t matter to me here nor there, but it did remind me of a valuable piece of advice my Mom gave me many years ago.  Always, always, always treat everyone with the same kindness and respect that you desire, regardless of how they treat you; because you never know if some one else is struggling with something or might remember how you treated them poorly.  Advice that I have always kept close.

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With my lunch and experience done (in an hour mind you), I made one last pass around town.  The clouds had really rolled in and so I decided to catch a taxi back to Montepulciano.

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A little depressing, as the drive took no more than 10 minutes, but enlightening as well.  I talked to the driver about my walk out.  He was like . . . “you walked???  Did you run into any wild boars????  They can be very dangerous”  Thankfully no, but probably better I knew that after than before or I might not have boar the idea to walk there in the first place.

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views from atop Montepulciano, finally back home

Life in Tuscany

Where do I even begin?  Life in Tuscany is life itself; the beautiful green rolling hills, the wines, the foods, the people, the fresh air.  Tuscany is truly heaven on Earth.  And I feel so blessed to be able to venture back to Tuscany in search of una bella vita.

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Some of you might remember that I went to Tuscany last August (1, 2, 3), but what you don’t know is that I actually came to do some Italian language courses (in addition to eating of course).  I have been studying Italian for almost 2 years now, and the timing felt right to come back to Tuscany; study a little, drink a little, and eat a lot.

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So I have been doing just that.  I have set up shop in beautiful Montepulciano, where my mornings are filled with school (and amazing coffee), my afternoons are filled with long lunches, wine tastings, a bit of studying and walks around town or the countryside, and my evenings are filled with the many amazing courses that Fiorella (my “house mom”) so graciously cooks for me.  Hours of eating and talking in Italian about my day, and before I know it, it’s time for bed, and then the pleasure of starting my day all over again.  Could life get any better?!?

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this beauty is for sale, and she is quite tempting

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gnocchi bolognese

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post dinner treat – cantucinni and vin santo

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asparagus risotto

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strawberries and fresh cream

For those of you who haven’t been, Tuscany is simply breathtaking.  Besides all of the rolling hills and vineyards, the other thing that always blows me away is the crisp freshness of the air.  The air is so fresh that you literally want to just drink it in.  And especially right now as it happens to be perfumed by the Spring blossoms.

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The people in Montepulciano are kind, warm and welcoming.  And they all seem to get such gratification from making sure that you are enjoying every moment.  No better place to call “home” for any bit of time.

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my typical breakfast

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lunch in the garden at la grotta

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fresh peas

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homemade pici

But come prepared (which I hadn’t on my last trip), and remember that you are visiting a hillside, mountain-top town.  Sneakers are definitely a must for making your way through the countryside here.  Although I must admit, many of my teachers bravely conquer the streets in heels, but not for me.  Because as I quickly learned, in Tuscany there are 2 directions, hiking or going down.

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market delights

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But all of the hiking and walking is well worth it.  Because just as at the end of every rainbow is a pot of gold, at the top of every hill in Montepulciano is a cantina with amazing Vino Nobile, a shop with fresh cheese, or a vista with a welcoming view.

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wine tasting at crociani

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if dustin hoffman approves, then I am all in!

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pecorino cheese

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What else can I say with pictures like these?  These pictures are truly worth a thousand words.  Can’t you smell the spring blossoms…can’t you just breathe in the fresh crisp morning air…and don’t you feel the sun beaming down on your face?  Close your eyes and just for a moment enjoy this piece of Montepulciano heaven.

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*My apologies for the sideways pictures – I have been working through some technical difficulties, and unfortunately haven’t been able to resolve them just yet; but I wanted to get this post out so that you can see what I’ve been up to!  Hopefully I can get the problem corrected a.s.a.p.  But until then, just pretend that you are doing some neck stretches while looking at my pics :)

Layover in Florence

Heading from Cinque Terre towards Tuscany, I knew that I would need to change trains in Florence, so I planned for a mini layover to quench my love and passion for Florence.  Why do I love Florence so much, you might wonder?  Well, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but all I know is that the moment I walk out of the train station, my face instantly beams a huge smile and I feel completely relaxed and elated all at once.

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the beautiful wildflowers on my train ride

After my super early train into Florence, I hopped off and ran my bags to the left luggage.  I had just over 3 hours to soak in all of Florence that I could manage, and my eagerness to get started was boiling over.  Luckily for me, since I have been to Florence before, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  My plan was to basically stuff in as much food and shopping as possible, while still getting that dreamy and relaxing “I’m strolling in Florence” feeling.

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Florence is such a great walking city and very easy to navigate.  Even if you only have a few hours, it is completely worth making the stop.  My first heading was easy, Cafe Gilli for the most extraordinary iced cappuccino and occhio di bue (little jam cookies).  I have never had an iced cappuccino anywhere other than Cafe Gilli, and I will probably keep it that way.  It is such perfection that I dare not try it anywhere else.  Fresh brewed espresso, shaken (not stirred), poured over sweetened milk and ice……refreshing, sweet, mocha goodness.

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And of course the cookies too, lets not forget their amazing pastries.  However, I am a bit of a sucker for these cookies.

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After a coffee recharge, I started the process of wandering and strolling in the direction of my most favorite little candy store, Migone, where we always bring home amazing little gelées from.

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Gelées in hand, I skipped (haha, not really, only in my Florence fantasy) along the streets, window shopping, taking pictures along the way.

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Luckily I wandered myself in the proper direction for a quick lunch at All’Antico Vinaio, a simply to die for sandwich shop.  Florence, although famous for many things food, has grown quite a following for these panino.  I had one last time I was in town, and it is truly worth all of the hype.

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Instead of ordering from the menu, I like to make what I would name, “Un Po Strano,” a little strange.  It is a bit strange, because to Italians, the combination seems rather odd, but to me it is perfection.  Porchetta, housemade pecorino cream, mushroom spread, spicy eggplant and fresh basil, all stuffed into a still warm piece of focaccia.  Top it off with a glass of the house wine, and for under $10, you’ve got yourself 2 killer lunches.  2??  Yes, 2!  These panini are enormous – perfect for sharing with some one else or yourself the next day.

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Post sandwich, I squeezed in some more shopping and wandering, and made it to another favorite of mine, Signum.  The most beautiful paper store selling the traditional Fiorentina papers.  If you know me, you know that I am a paper kinda gal, so rest assured, I stocked up.

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Continuing on, I crossed the Ponte Vecchio and window shopped, walked along the Arno and somehow found myself at a gelato shop (no coincidence here).  As you might have guessed, I picked up my favorites, lemon and raspberry, and brought my gelati to sit on a bridge and watch the river and street traffic.

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Getting close to my time for departure, I started heading back towards the train station, making sure to stop and rub Il Porcellino and drop a coin in his mouth (for assurance that you will someday return to Florence).  I even had time to quickly stop in the 2 (yay!) Zara stores.  (Firenze was where my Zara love began).

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Then back to the train station – I picked up my luggage, hopped on the train, e allora . . . here I am.  Sitting, relaxing on the train.  Smiling because I had a few beautiful hours in Florence, and smiling because I have the Tuscan countryside ready to welcome me.  Italy, I don’t think that you could be any more enticing even if you tried.  You’ve got me…gancio, linea e affondatare.

Riding the Rails in 5Terre

I’ve got to be honest, I woke up this morning and my legs are still burning from all of the hiking yesterday.  I’m feeling really grateful that today I will see the rest of Cinque Terre by train (even if I wanted to hike I couldn’t, the last 2 trails have been closed for about 4 years now).  In addition to the last two towns of Cinque Terre, I happened to notice nearby Levanto on the map, and thought that maybe I should check that out as well.

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my walk to the train station

So I made Levanto my first heading this morning.  Wanda left me an adorable little bag with my breakfast to enjoy in my room or on the go.  I quickly drank the freshly squeezed orange juice and ate some of the most beautifully red colored melon, and brought the croissant along with me for the train.

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local fruit vendor

I caught the train to Levanto and was there within minutes.  I got out, and kind of thought, “huh.”  There was not a colorful town waiting for me like I was anticipating, and it looked like it was a bit of a walk to the town center, so I quickly made the decision to skip Levanto, jump back on the train, and head to Riomaggiore.

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view from the train

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Riomaggiore felt a bit smaller than the other towns, but it was very cute.  It definitely had that postcard picture look from the coastline.

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It made for an easy quick stop (you could do the whole town in an hour or less), or if you wanted, you could probably skip it all together and be none the wiser.

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When I arrived in Manarola, I was again greeted by a cheery colorful town.  Honestly, the colorful homes set against the sea never gets old, they are all so beautiful.  Everything feels so peaceful and yet lively and interesting all at the same time, it’s really a very enjoyable place to visit.

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In Manarola, there are a couple of different coastal walkways that you can take out to get a good view of the town, which was very nice.  I walked them all, and found that they did each offer a slightly different vantage point.  (However now looking through my pictures, the differences seem only slight.  But regardless, it was very enjoyable to walk them all.)

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The main street is lined with a lot cute little stores and restaurants…which brings me to my next adventure.  I had a restaurant in mind for lunch today, Trattoria dal Billy.  I didn’t notice it during my original wander around town, so I stopped and asked someone where it was.  In Italian, the man laughed and said, “lady, you need to climb up the mountain.”

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I kind of chuckled to myself and started upwards (as I knew he probably was not kidding).  While it wasn’t all the way up the mountain, it was quite a ways.  And if you didn’t know that you were looking for this restaurant, you definitely wouldn’t go this far up in the town just for the fun of it.  Regardless of the journey, it was worth every step, and in fact, turned out to be my best meal yet in Italy.

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I showed up just before service started and they kindly welcomed me in, offering me the pick of the tables.  I chose the only table outside; just one little table on a little terrace overlooking the town and sea (which also happen to have a pirate flag… maybe Billy is a pirate?).

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I ordered the local white wine and mixed seafood appetizer to start.  I don’t have any clue what my expectation was, but it was blown out of the water when my 12 course antipasto showed up.  Each bite more delicious than the last – from a squid ink crepe, to panelle, crudo, clams, arancini…each bite was perfectly prepared, executed and seasoned.

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one of my favs – grilled octopus over lemon whipped potatoes

For my main course, I asked the waitress what her favorite was, and without hesitation, she answered the squid ink pasta with mixed seafood.  Equally without hesitation, I decided to go with that.

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One word.  Unbelievable.  Everything about this dish was just right.  So right in fact, that I was desperately trying to figure out what they put in it, so that I can try to recreate it at home.  In large part, I am sure that all of the flavors I am tasting are particular to the fresh seafood and produce that they use.  Have you ever heard some one say that something “tastes like the sea?”  Well, I completely get that now.  Yes!  It did taste like the sea!  Fresh seafood piled high on top of the amazingly delicate homemade squid ink pasta, all lightly dressed in some sort of secret sauce (of which I am still dreaming about and trying to figure out).  Perfection.

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I wasn’t planning on dessert, but since I had yet to try the local Passito, Schiachetrà, and everything had been so amazing, I decided to order the Passito with cantuccini cookies (like baby biscotti that you dunk into the wine).  I had only a taste, as I was quite full at this point, but the Schiachetrà was sweet, but oh so smooth.

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A relaxing meal in a beautiful setting, life simply cannot get any better than this.

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When you are this far up the mountain, it is really quite quiet and peaceful.  Overlooking the vineyards, lemon groves and the sea, the colorful town…you feel like you have found your own hidden piece of Italian Riviera paradise.  The cost?  Just climb the mountain lady.

Hiking Cinque Terre

Whew!  Finally sitting.  I am happily writing this back at La Tortuga, enjoying my glass of wine and spuntini (snacks).  To be honest, my whole body is kind of aching.  But why am I feeling this way?  Let me start from the beginning.

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After an unfortunately rough night of sleep (I woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep until almost 6), I convinced myself to get up and start my day.  Luckily my mid-night rise provided me with some much needed suitcase organization and writing time, so I didn’t have much to do before I packed up to check out and move to my new home.  Conveniently just across the street from Pietre di Mare, I met Wanda in front of B&B Solemare, where she kindly stowed my luggage for me until my room would be ready.

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Then I was off.  I walked back to the train station to purchase a hiking ticket for the day, and then headed towards the trail-head.  Luckily for me, Monterosso al Mare is the first of the 5 towns in Cinque Terre, and therefore, technically the start of the trail (you can hike from any city in any direction, I just like the idea of starting from the very beginning).

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My first hike was from Monterosso, to probably the most photographically famous town in Cinque Terre, Vernazza.

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The hike was tough.  I am not going to sugar coat this, I was huffing and puffing for all 2 hours of it.  I actually saw several couples with either a baby or toddler harnessed into a backpack, and was thinking to myself, “how are you not dying right now?”  But even though it was tough, it was also so beautiful and completely rewarding.

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The hike took me through vineyards and lemon groves, past little streams and wildflowers.  It was truly breathtaking.

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When Vernazza finally came into sight, I felt so happy and excited to start the downward portion of the hike.  And also taken back a bit, Vernazza is as beautiful in person, if not more, than it is in the pictures.

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I had timed my hike to arrive for lunch, and I was big time ready to sit down.  After a bit of walking around Vernazza, and getting a lay for the town, I decided against a sit down restaurant for lunch, and opted to create my own picnic.

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cute man playing the saxophone as I entered Vernazza

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I picked up some cheese, nespole, prosciutto and mortadella from one market, a piece of farinata (sort of a chickpea crepe) from a bakery and brought it all to a little wine shop, where I ordered a glass of the local wine to enjoy with my food.  It was perfection.  Just the bit of respite that I needed from the sun and mountains.

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After lunch I wandered back to the port area of town, where I was surprised to find a lot of people swimming.  But they ended up inspiring me, and I decided to enjoy the water a bit too.  So I slipped my shoes off, rolled up my pants and soaked my feet in the cold Mediterranean waters.

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After some nice quiet time, I got myself ready and headed back to the trail to start my way towards Corniglia.  Although this was not as tough of a hike, my body was sore and tired both from traveling to Italy and my earlier hike, so I was a bit slow on this one.

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This hike was as beautiful as the first, but instead of vineyards and lemon trees, I walked through olive groves.  It was such a special experience, and such an amazing way to explore Cinque Terre, I feel so lucky to have gotten to do this.

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Once I reached Corniglia, I was welcomed by maybe 5 or 6 gelato shops.  The gelato God’s were like, “Katie, you’re hot, you’re tired, eat gelato…”  And I was like, “okay, I don’t need any convincing!”  I got limone and the local honey and walnut, which was so good.  Not too sweet, just creamy and savory.

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I walked around the town, which honestly doesn’t take very long, but is just as cute as the other towns.  Colorful homes and shops, friendly people and beautiful vistas at every turn.

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After my walk, I felt ready to head back to Monterosso, so I caught the local train back, and headed directly to meet Wanda and check into my room.  Wanda was so kind to make sure to tell me about all of the amenities (breakfast and a beautiful terrace) and answer any questions that I had about the town.

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After getting settled and changed, I headed out to my favorite spot once again.

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So, here I am, sitting and listening to the waves crash up against the rocks, and enjoying the sun on my face.  It is so beautiful and so serene, what a blessing it is to be here in beautiful Monterosso al Mare.  What’s next for tonight?  Only the tides can tell…

Ciao Italy

Sooo…my next adventure has begun!  Those of you who follow me on Instagram have been hearing me drop hints about jetting back to Italy, and now I’m here!   And where in Italy, you might be wondering?  Well, currently I am on a train on my way from Milan to Cinque Terre, and it is already so beautiful.  My voyage has been very long to get to this point, but the views are already paying off.

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This is my first time visiting this part of Italy, and I am really looking forward to soaking up every bit of it.  So I’m thinking that today’s plan will be pretty low key, since I am feeling pretty jet-lagged.  I’m thinking, check into my hotel for the night, go for a passeggiata (Italian word for a stroll, which typically takes place after dinner, but I most likely will be too tired at that point), peek around the town I am staying in (Monterosso al Mare), get my ticket to hike tomorrow, grab an amazing bowl of pasta or fresh seafood somewhere and then home for much needed sleep.

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first view coming out of the train station

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It’s always a bit tough making the time zone adjustment, but also so worth it.  After checking into my adorable room at Pietre di Mare for the night, with the very kind Moreno making sure that everything was to my liking, I decided to freshen up a bit and go for a stroll as planned.

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Once I got outside, I actually got a bit of a pep in my step.  I walked around  Monterosso, which is a very adorable little seaside town.  It actually reminds me a lot of the feeling that I got in Capri and Positano, just without all of the craziness of the tourists.

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On my walk I happened to notice a bunch of old local men feasting on gelati…and it really seemed like perfect timing as I was getting a bit hungry.  There’s always something about getting that first gelato in Italy…it really sets the pace for the trip.  I opted for my faves, fragola (strawberry) and limone (lemon).  While both were delish, the lemon blew me out of the water with its creaminess!  Che buona!

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Continuing on with my stroll, I decided to pass by a dinner option for tonight and look at the menu.  However, just before the main restaurant, they have a sort of bar set-up hanging off the side of the cliff, with just a drink menu, La Tortuga.  With the sun shining, and the smell of the sea, I could not pass up an opportunity to stop and enjoy the view.

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The waiter brought me a glass of the local wine and a bowl of strawberries.  I thought, how cute is that?!?

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Then a few minutes later, some local caperberries and spinach and pesto frittata bites…and I was like, seriously?!?  This is awesome!

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my view

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Then a few more minutes pass, and the pièce de résistance…a bowl of fried dough!  I have just found my aperitivo heaven.  All for 5 euros!  As I was leaving I noticed that each table received different tastes, some were even getting fried seafood!  (You know where I’ll be tomorrow!)

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Since the drink and snacks were such a hit, I stopped by the restaurant, L’Ancora della Tortuga and made a reservation for tonight.  After a quick change at home (brrr…it’s cold at night here), I headed out for dinner.  I have a mental list going of things that I need to try that are specialties of the region, so I made a point to order accordingly tonight.

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my table

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I started with the mixed anchovies.  Now, normally, I would like never, ever, order this, but…when in Monterosso!  The plate came with local anchovies marinated in local lemon juice, anchovies that are salted and put on toast with butter, and anchovies that are stuffed with spinach and breadcrumbs.  I can’t really believe that I am saying this, but I love anchovies!  These babies were not super salty or briny, they were mild and flaky and tender and juicy.  Yum!  The simple lemon ones were actually my favorites.

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For dinner, a half portion (yes, this is a half portion) of the Trofie di Monterosso.  A handmade local pasta with swordfish, tomatoes, olives and herbs in a light sauce.  This was totally different – I am used to the more traditional pesto, but this was briny and earthy and delicious.  Definitely tasted fresh from the sea.

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dinner views

Overall, I had a great dinner, but on my walk home I reflected to myself that I was really blown away by La Tortuga, and had a very nice time at the restaurant.  That being said, my suggestion would be to go to La Tortuga for drinks and snacks, and then go and get another gelato :)  Either way, although quite jet-lagged, I am feeling so relaxed and blessed to be in this beautiful place.

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goodnight Monterosso

Travel Essentials Update

Home from our week in Florida with my fam, it’s safe to say that I gave my new travel purchases a nice test-drive before I get ready to pack my bags for Italy.  Although most of them were a success, I am so glad that I was able to try these out for a short period of time, as some of them weren’t as great as I had hoped for.

SP Packing Essentials

Old Navy Faux Leather Zip Tote ($39) – The jury is still out on this one.  I completely love it, but…it will be my only carry-on for Italy, and I’m a little concerned that it might not be able to fit everything that I need on the plane.  My husband has very cleverly suggested that I pack it up this week to test it out for space, so I’m going to give it a whirl and see if she’ll make the cut or not.

Kamor Laptop Sleeve ($12) –Love it!  Perfect little home for my laptop.  I love that there is just enough space that I can easily slide my laptop in and out of the sleeve without having to peel it off, and the zipper is really heavy duty too!

Phillips Headphones ($16) Also love these guys, definitely a home-run!

Purse Organizer ($6) I can’t quite decide on this one.  Although it definitely keeps my purse significantly more organized, it also requires a little more energy to do so.  I’m finding out that I like being the “throw it in my purse” kind of gal, and so this “gotta put it back in its spot” organizer might not be the right fit for me.  (This is a little funny to me, because I actually love being super organized.)

Aeris Neck Pillow ($25) Done and done.  This neck pillow not only works better than any I have used before, it can also supply you with hours of free in-flight entertainment.  It’s not just a neck pillow…

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…it’s a cup holder or even a telephone…can you hear me now?

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the one thing I always say, is never travel without your fascinator, it really helps you feel your best even at 10,000 & climbing (spoken in a british accent)

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…it’s a headband or even a ponytail holder

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you can use it as a partition for that annoying seatmate…or you can be that annoying seatmate (yes, that was me shaking my ice cup and yelling yahtzee!)

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there are even multiple sleep positions, I call these “face smash eyes open” and “face smash eyes closed mouth open” – really quite effective

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i’ve got mickey ears…and i’m just being weird

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i think that this flight has gone really well ;)

E-Bags Pack it Flat Toiletry Bag ($25) I want to love this, I really do, but I’m just not convinced.  It really had everything that I thought I needed and wanted in a toiletry bag, basically until I used it.  The major flaw for me here is that most of the zippers open vertically.  So when you have it hanging on a door, and you open the zipper to get something out, the entire contents of that pouch pour out.  Aside from that, we actually really did love it.  But, I’m afraid that it’s just not right.  I’ve been doing some searching for a replacement since I’ve been home, and I think that I am going to try out this one from the Container Store.

Resort Hanging Organizer

However, I know that this might not be right either.  There is no depth to the bag, so it limits the size of the items you pack, the hook is pretty tiny and only one direction (the E-Bags one rotated 360), and the pockets are not fully lined in case of a spill (just the front is plastic).  But, the hunt is not over, I am determined to find just the right thing.  And if nothing else turns up, then one of these little buddies is coming to Italy with me.  I’m starting to get the feeling like I need to design my own line of toiletry bags…

~

Do you have any favorite travel essentials or tips to stay organized?  I would love to know what helps keep you stress-free during travel!

The Best Fish Tacos.

Before the hubs and I moved to San Diego, I remember my Mom telling us about how much my Uncle Mike loved eating fish tacos while living there.  Yuck!  Fish tacos!?!  (that was seriously my reaction).  Even though I loved all things fish, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a fish taco.

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the famous fish taco

Fast forward a few years, and we found ourselves moving out to San Diego…funny how things work, right?  Well, it didn’t take us long before we decided to give the whole fish taco craze a try.  Our first fish taco was from Rubio’s (a pretty famous chain and honestly quite tasty), and we were both instantly hooked.  We had no clue what were missing.

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the trifecta: cheese ‘dilla, fish taco and taco gobernador

Over the years (5 now to be exact), we’ve tried various fish tacos at restaurants, chains, markets, food trucks; you name it, we’ve tried it (for research purposes of course).  In all that we have tried, none have come close to our complete obsession with Marisco’s, a food truck parked at 22nd and Imperial.

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the monstrous, share-worthy fish burrito (it has like 10 pieces of fish in it!)

The first time we went, we were actually running into the Neighborhood Market across the street to grab a few essentials.  On our way out I paused and suggested that maybe we should go try a taco across the street.  My husband was like “you would eat there?!?”  While it might not be the nicest looking food truck, or in the nicest neighborhood, I was like “yeah, I’ve kind of got a feeling about it.”

Let me mention that history has proven that when I get a “feeling” about something, it’s go time.  For example:

Me:“Hey honey, do you want to go to the mall?  I kind of wanted to go to Zara.” 

Hubby: “Sure, what for, is there something you wanted?” 

Me: “I’m not sure, I just have a feeling like I should go today.”  

Outcome?  The sweater that I was eyeing was randomly 50% off.  In the words of my husband, boom! (insert fist bumping)

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So you get the drift, when my husband heard I had a “feeling” he knew that I was onto something.  Although to tell the story historically accurate, he was still pretty hesitant.  SO much so, that I was the only one to order a taco.  Regardless, I was instantly excited; I only paid $1.35 for the taco, and they offered me a free soup while I waited.  Free soup?  Fresh fried fish?  Yes and yes.  Well, it’s safe to say that my husband did try my taco and we did order more.  And there began our great love and slight obsession with Marisco’s.

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my new fav, taco gobernador – sweet shrimp, oaxca cheese & crunchy veggies

Up until a few months ago, we still tried other places, but with continued un-success in finding a decent taco anywhere else, we have closed our search, and happily hop down to our favorite Marisco’s regularly.  And not just for fish tacos anymore (as you can tell by my pictures) – all of their food is ah-mazing!

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fish tostada ($2.85) – 2 fresh fried tostadas w/ homeamde fish ceviche

Don’t be thrown off when you go, they did recently change trucks.  Their food truck no longer says Marisco’s on it, but Jolla Shark.  We almost died when we first saw this change and thought our beloved Marisco’s had left us, but no, same people, same food, just a new truck.

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shiny new truck – love the cartoon shark on it!

If you go during the lunch rush, be prepared to wait; but wait and I promise you that you won’t regret it, you will enjoy the best fish taco in San Diego, fins down.

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