la mia bella vita

my beautiful life by Katie

Here Comes the Bride

So I actually woke up surprisingly early this morning after yesterday’s feast, made myself a cup of tea, and just sat outside enjoying the sunshine.  When my father-in-law got up, he was energized and ready to pack in some morning activities before we went to the wedding.

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I was really enjoying the quietness of the farm, so I decided to hang behind while he and Zio Mario went off exploring.  My father-in-law was laughing at me and my love for the farm life…he jokingly said, “what are you going to do, watch the corn grow?”  Yes, actually, yes I will.  And in fact the corn has grown a lot since we arrived :)

While they went out in search of something (probably a little bread or pastry), I decided to take a quick shower so that my hair could air-dry.  Pino had told me to lock the front door if I was going to shower, so I literally used the key to lock myself in, then took my shower.  When I got out, I made another cup of tea and went to go unlock the door and sit outside.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the door to unlock.  Seriously.  I tried for maybe 15-20 minutes with no success (this also brought back memories of when I locked myself in a bathroom at my parents house as a child, but that’s a story for a different day).  I was feeling really frustrated…all I wanted to do was sit outside and enjoy the sun.

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Finally I figured it out.  No, I didn’t unlock the door, I opened the kitchen window, climbed on the table, and hopped through.  Well, at least I was outside, right?  Luckily when Pino and Zio Mario got home, they were able to get the door unlocked on their first try.

After a good chuckle, we got ourselves ready for the wedding, and found that we had just enough time to kill that we could sneak in a quick gelato lunch.

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gelati from earlier in the week

The gelato here is so good; it is so creamy, and so flavorful.  And don’t even get me started on the brioche. I had never before had brioche con gelato, and when Irene heard this, she was like, “we must go immediately and get you one.  Everyone who visits Sicily must eat brioche con gelato.”  So, brioche con gelato it is.  A freshly baked brioche roll, cut open, stuffed with gelato and topped with fresh cream.  A gelato sandwich, can it really get any better than this?

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Stuffed with gelato, we went to the relatives’ house and took pictures of everyone dolled up for the wedding, then drove into Palermo for the wedding.

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Mario and Zio Mario

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Mario and Loredana

The church was beautiful – the star painted ceiling, the ornate gold accents, the white flowers, everything was just right.

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We all took our seats to only immediately and repeatedly get up to greet different cousins.  When you have family in a small town in Italy, it almost seems as if everyone is related to you somehow.

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Just before the ceremony started, the choir sang a few songs.  I was both surprised and excited by their song selection.  Serena, the bride, had chosen all upbeat and happy songs for them to sing.  I felt like I was in Sister Act; it set such a great tone for the wedding.

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The ceremony was so much fun and so beautiful.  Serena made the most beautiful bride, and Lorenzo, her doting groom.  They are so sweet and gentle with each other.

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the proud parents

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After the ceremony, we all set up outside the church for the traditional rice throwing.  I have seen this in movies and pictures, but have never gotten to experience it firsthand, so I was really excited!  We all picked up little papers filled with rice dyed in their wedding colors, and rose petals.

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And when they exited the church, it was the most beautiful explosion of rice and rose petals!

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After pulling rice out of each others hair, we piled back into our cars and drove out into the countryside where the reception was held.  A beautiful villa lined with Italian pines awaited us.  It was lit up, decorated to the nines and filled to the brim with food just waiting for us to begin the aperitivo hour (more like hours).

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starting to present the appetizers

We were offered different champagne cocktails and then encouraged to dig in.  There were three 15 foot long tables filled, and I mean filled with food.  And no repetition.  There must have been 100 different things to eat.  Is it possible to eat everything, I asked Irene?  “Yes Kate, it is always possible.”

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So as to not offend anyone, I made sure to eat everything.  Just kidding, I just tried bites of everything because, when your choice is either pane e panelle or a meatball, how do you choose?  You choose both, thats how.

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round 1 of 20

Fried foods, raw foods, cheeses, breads – I can barely even remember everything that they offered.  It was unbelievable to just look at, and each bite was truly as good as the last.

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wheel of cheese?  yes please!

Already stuffed, it was time to head into the dining room.  The amazingly attentive staff escorted us each to our tables and helped us with our chairs.  Serena and Lorenzo arrived and burst into the hall beaming with that newlywed glow.  They have such a sweet energy together.  They both have such playful and joyful personalities, it has been so much fun to be a part of their special day.

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Mario reciting a special poem that he wrote for the lovebirds

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With the arrival of Serena and Lorenzo, it was again, time to eat.

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First course?  Fried shrimp, smoked salmon, octopus salad, and a shaved fennel salad.  Wow.  Strong start.  I was immediately starting to regret my 100 appetizers.

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As soon as we finished our first course, the band started playing and everyone hopped out of their seats and we danced for a good 3o minutes.

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I asked Irene, do we dance between every course?  “Of course Kate, that’s how we keep eating.”  Oh, okay, I get it now.  Eat, dance, eat, dance.  I got it.

Second course?  A creamy mixed seafood risotto.  Followed by more dancing, which by the way, the band was amazing!

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Third course?  Homemade pasta with langostino.  Homemade pasta!?!  At a wedding!?!  Someone was really busy in that kitchen!  This was also my favorite course, and definitely a dish that I am going to try and make at home.  Fresh pasta delicately tossed with a shrimp infused red sauce and topped with sweet juicy langostino, che buona!

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Fourth course? Salmon stuffed with crab and spinach, swordfish, fried calamari and a stuffed lobster tail.  And then, of course, more dancing.

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Finally done with the feasting, or at least until dessert, the next few hours were filled with more dancing, speeches and then the most amazing surprise. A sand artist.

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The artist came with a table of sand that was under-lit and projected onto a screen for us all to watch.  What was going to happen?  I had never seen anything like this.

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What unfolded was such a beautiful work of art.  Using only her hands and the sand, the artist told the love story of Serena and Lorenzo, literally drawing pictures of their life together with sand.

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And if that is not amazing enough, what I was so impressed by is that she never wiped the board clean; she would literally turn the butterfly into Serena’s face, or a horse into the Eiffel Tower; all set to beautiful music, this was truly an experience.  Everyone was blown away.

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After the sand art, we all put our dancing shoes back on for the few last songs before the doors opened and revealed the dessert room.  What had once been 100 appetizers, was now 100 desserts…cakes, cookies, gelato, tartes, candies, fresh almond brittle…you name it, they had it.  I mustered the strength to try a few things, but after all of the eating that had already happened, there was barely any room left.

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After we finished dessert, it was well after 1 in the morning, and it was time to start saying our goodbyes.  And about an hour later we left.  Haha.  Seriously, Italians take their goodbyes very seriously.

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The drive home was filled with laughter and smiles as we all exchanged happy stories from the day.  To watch such a special couple marry was truly a gift for us all.  Congratulazione Serena e Lorenzo! Una grande bacione per voi!

Touring Termini

The past few days have been a whirlwind of eating, visiting with relatives, eating, cooking, and eating some more.  It’s been pretty great.

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the coastline of Termini Imerese

My father-in-law and his brother arrived from the States, so it was time for me to say my goodbyes to some of the cousins, and move out to the Pantarella (the name for the family farmhouse).

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artichoke fields nearby the Pantarella

Prior to my first stay at the Pantarella, I had been given the impression to not expect very much at all.  I went in thinking that there was barely going to be running water and that I would have to take the family donkey into the village to get groceries (I’m only joking though, they haven’t had a donkey for years).

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Well, that is definitely not the case at all.  The Pantarella is a beautiful home that just happens to be located on a farm.  For the relatives, it feels rustic, but to me it is heaven.  Surrounded by mountains, fields of artichokes, fruit trees, and as much peace and quiet as you can handle, it is perfection.

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Although we weren’t staying with the relatives anymore, they all still went out of their way to make sure that we were taken care of.  They had fully stocked the house, and not just with the essentials, but also with their homemade olive oil, red sauce, jams and wine.

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And on top of that, they barely let us do a single thing.  They are all so generous in all that they do, and you just feel this completely overwhelming sense of love and care when you are around them.

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On Friday morning we all headed over to the Mercato to pick up a few things to make for lunch.  Let me first start by saying that it is very typical in Sicily and Italy that your lunch meal is the biggest meal of the day.  So that being said, we went to the market ready to load up.

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We wandered the stalls in search of the freshest seasonal ingredients, which turned out to be everything.  I love how abundant all of the markets are in Italy; the colors of all of the produce and the energy of the people leaves me feeling very inspired.

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We were so inspired, in fact, that we probably overbought.  But we figured that with enough tummies to fill, it would all work itself out.

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But before we could get home to start cooking, we had to make two more stops, a quick snack break and the grocery store for some wine.

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Sicily is famous for panelle, and for pane e panelle.  Panelle are little crepe-like patties made from chickpea flour.  You make a super thick batter, chill it, then cut slices and deep fry them.  You can either eat them alone, delicious, or you can have pane e panelle, which is a panelle sandwich.  However you eat them, these babies are addictive.  So we figured that it would be a good idea to grab a couple of sandwiches to share, just to make sure no one went hungry ;)

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After our sandwiches, we headed over to the grocery store, and boy was this a fun stop.  We all cracked up as my father-in-law went to town in the wine department, loading up our cart.  Irene kept exclaiming, “Pino, basta!”  (Enough!)  It was hilarious!  I think that we left the store with almost 20 bottles?  I can’t totally remember the exact count, but lets say this, it was enough to really get the party started.

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Irene posing with our goodies

When we got home, we opened some wine and quickly got to work on different tasks.  Loredana expertly cleaned all of the fish, Dario and Zio Mario manned the grill, Irene got the table set…and me?  Well, I took on the roll of master taster and wine pourer.  I nibbled on the different courses as they were finished being prepared, and made sure that no ones glasses ran empty.

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On the menu?  Grilled sardines, grilled octopus, grilled stuffed swordfish skewers (to die for!  I need to try and recreate these!), grilled langostino, spaghetti with clams, fennel and tomato salad, several different cheeses and enough bread to sink a ship.  We were really in for a treat.

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This was the lunch to end all lunches.  We ate about 100 lbs of fish, went through 10 or more (its hard to remember now, maybe it was 15) bottles of wine, ate practically all of the food, and laughed ourselves silly until almost six o’clock, at which point Loredana popped up and announced that she wanted to start cleaning up so that we could get ready for dinner.

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Dinner?  We all laughed hysterically.  There was definitely no room.  So instead we all decided to sit a bit more (code word for open a bottle of Prosecco) before heading out for a passagieta (walk).

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Today was such a beautiful day.  We all got the chance to escape from reality and just enjoy each others company until the sun set.  And just in case you’re wondering, yes, I could really get used to this farm life.

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~ ~ ~

Thank you to TEP Wireless for sponsoring this post.  If you haven’t heard of TEP before, they are an amazing company that rents wireless hot spots for your worldwide travels.  I had mine shipped to Italy for me, and I will drop it off at London Heathrow on my way home.  I knew that I wouldn’t have reception on the farm, so this little baby has been a lifesaver.  I have been able to stay connected with friends and family anywhere that I have gone, and it’s even small enough to fit in a clutch.  If you have any future travel plans, make sure to check them out!

Southbound

Another bright and early start for me here in Bologna.  Although as I write that, I am thinking to myself that almost every morning has had a bright and early start, right!?!  Well, today was a particularly bright and early start, early enough to catch my 6 a.m. flight to Sicily.  And I couldn’t be more excited.  I am looking forward to leaving all of the gloom and rain behind me, and heading to warm, dry weather, and family!  Yep, my husband still has relatives just outside of Palermo, and I am headed down to spend the week with them.  The love and affection of a Sicilian family is like none other, and I am so ready for it!  (I am also really excited to see them because the last time I visited them, I spoke not one word of Italian, and now I can speak entirely in Italian!)

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It was such a great feeling to arrive in Palermo and have family waiting for me.  As much as I love traveling on my own, nothing takes the place of family.  And of course they let me carry absolutely none of my bags, and showered me with hugs and kisses immediately, a great start.

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We drove just outside of Palermo, where I would be staying with one of my husband’s cousins for a few days, before some more Stateside family arrived.  After getting settled in, I helped Serena and Irene do the finishing touches on a surprise birthday cake…meticulously decorated with tiny little chocolate chips.

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After seriously testing my skills for how carefully I could place chocolate chips onto a cake without smudging it at all, Irene and I headed out for some fresh air.  We walked the town and she pointed out the main stops to me and the best places to grab a gelato or coffee.  Then we made a quick pit-stop to order some fresh cheese for later in the week, and picked up some fresh bread for lunch.

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And after that?  Well, you can imagine that we worked up quite an appetite, so it was lunch time of course.  And boy did they put on a spread.  Pasta al forno, swordfish with pistachios, bread, salad, cheeses, meats, desserts, and homemade wine.  There was no shortage of delicousness going on here.  (I just kept thinking to myself, how the heck am I supposed to fit in my dress for the wedding after all of this!?!)

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see those big boys in the back?  my new fav – essentially a doughnut stuffed with fresh cannoli cream…I think that they might become a problem…

After a delicious feast, they all encouraged me to take a nap since I was up so early.  And although I am not a nap person, I was perfectly happy to take them up on the offer, as I knew that our day was not going to end early.

Feeling refreshed from my rest, I got up, and it was actually time to get going right away.  Today is the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner for the wedding.  Although, different than in the States.  In the U.S., the rehearsal and dinner are a very big and often formal event.  But here, it is a casual evening for just the closest members of the family.

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We drove into Palermo, and got to the church just in time for it all to get started.  We sat in the back of the church, and I giggled as I watched the priest talk with the bride and groom and crack some jokes about marriage to help them feel relaxed about their big day.  It was very cute and personal.

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beautiful church ceiling

After settling the business for the evening, we drove (in secret), towards a restaurant to grab some pizza.  We were in secret, because today is also a special birthday for Pierina, so we are doing a double dinner celebration – rehearsal dinner and surprise birthday party.  Remember the cake I told you about earlier?  It’s almost time for its big reveal.

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We all ended up getting to the restaurant around the same time, but Pierina was still surprised, and so delighted.  We piled ourselves in, ordered loads of pizzas and wine, and just chatted and laughed for hours.  Finally around 11 p.m., it was time for us to say our long goodbyes, share multiple hugs, and then catch a little shut eye before our next round of excitement.

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look at Tanfredi’s face, he is so excited about the cake!

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It was a long but beautiful first day in Sicily.  My head is swirling with the excitement of speaking Italian, the joy of catching up with family, and the overwhelming love that they all have shared with me.  Buona notte!

Tortellini

It’s crazy to think that today is my last day in Bologna, and in fact that I am already 3 weeks into my Italian adventure – my time has flown by!  Although I am eagerly awaiting the last portion of my trip, today is going to be a really fun day.  I’ve arranged to take a cooking class, and guess what’s on the menu?  Yup, tortellini.  The infamously tiny and savory homemade meat-stuffed tortellini served in broth; probably one of the most famous dishes from Bologna.

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These tiny little babies don’t come easy though, and that is probably why they are so sought after and worshiped.  I have hours of cooking ahead of me, but spending time in the kitchen is so enjoyable for me, it will make for a great last day.

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I met with my cooking teacher, Maribel, and the other student bright and early (and rainy) in the Quadrilateral District.  Maribel patiently took us through all of the stalls, talking to us about the different seasonal produce, into different shops, showing us different specialty candies and baked goods, and even into the meat shop, picking up all of the ingredients for our cooking along the way.

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We took a cab back to Maribel’s beautiful apartment, where she had everything set up for us, ready to get started right away.  We suited up with our aprons, made cups of tea to warm up, and dove right in.

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love this tea cup

First things first, starting the broth.  Yes, even the broth is homemade.  As Maribel explained, everything about these tortellini is about flavor, including the broth, which you literally cook the tortellini in.  So it is imperative that everything be just right.

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A big pot of water, different vegetables, cuts of meat and seasonings all get friendly, and were set over the fire to cook away for the next couple of hours.

With the broth settled, it was time to roll up our sleeves and start the real work, making the pasta.  Maribel set us each up with our own work station and talked us through the whole process, carefully guiding us to pasta perfection.

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First up was simply making the dough.  The very simple mixture of flour and one egg (one brilliantly orange egg), and that’s it.  We incorporated the egg, mixed it, and then kneaded the dough for a bit before it was time to cover it and let it rest.

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With a little bit of time to kill (while the dough rested), and of course being in the home of an Italian chef, what better thing is there to do than eat?  Maribel had planned to make us a little snack – piadina in fact (sigh).  I already knew that I was in for a treat.  Maribel carefully toasted the piadina with 2 different fillings: prosciutto and arugula, and squacquerone (a local squeaky cheese) and arugula. ( I am still dreaming about this cheese – does anyone know where I can get this in the States?)

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Additionally she brought out a plate of mortadella and prosciutto for us to snack on.  I could really get used to all of these “snacks.”  But let me not forget to mention the one snack that terrified me a little – tasting the raw filling for the tortellini.  Maribel was insistent that we taste everything that we cook with so that we know that everything is seasoned just right.  This includes the filling, which was in fact raw pork.  But Maribel kindly coaxed me to try it, convincing me that it was only “a little raw.” A little raw or a lot, I was actually surprised by how delicious it was.

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After the dough had a good rest, it was time roll it out.  Although I make homemade pasta regularly, this was my first time rolling out the dough fully by hand.  I was a little intimidated, but with Maribel’s guidance and specialty wooden boards and rolling pins, it actually turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be.

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that’s a pretty serious rolling pin

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After ever so carefully rolling the dough thin enough so that you could read a recipe from underneath it, and without creating a single rip, tear or fold, it was time to cut, stuff and fold.  This is the point (hours in), that you start to feel the tiredness of making homemade pasta in your back.  After hunching over the table for a few, your body starts to wear out a little. (How do all of these Nonna’s do it everyday!?!)

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But since we were in the homestretch, Maribel popped a bottle of wine, poured us hearty glasses, and brought chairs for us to sit around the table as we carefully cut and stuffed our teeny tiny tortellini.  Truly, if you have not been to Bologna, you have never seen such delicate little creatures.  Just a bit bigger than the top of my thumb, these are the cutest little tortellini.

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But with some Italian Opera in the background, a nice glass of wine and good company, the time passed quickly, and we were able to whip out a batch of tortellini before it was even time to refill our glasses.

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With all of our pasta making done, it was time for the moment we had all been waiting for, eating.  Maribel drained the broth a few times to make sure that it was perfectly clear, then brought it to a boil and dropped in our beautiful tortellini.  Just mere minutes later, and it was feasting time.

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I have never before had tortellini in brodo, and it was truly a heavenly experience.  Every morsel is exploding with flavor.  Perfectly al dente, perfectly tiny and perfectly delicious in every way.  They were absolutely worth every hour that we put into them.

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On a dreary, rainy day in Bologna, there is truly nothing better than tortellini in brodo to warm you up.  Thank you for a beautiful day Maribel.

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All That Glitters is Gold

After yesterdays full day of feasting, I woke up today ready to do a bit more exploring than fooding.  (But don’t worry, there will be food!)  Today was planned to be yet another rainy day, so I figured it might be a good reason to get out of the city and do a little day trip.  I had secretly been hoping that I might have the time to sneak away to Ravenna, and luckily this turned out to be the perfect opportunity.

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I planned to get an early-ish start, since Ravenna is about 1 1/2 hours train ride from Bologna.  But to be honest, it was a bit of a struggle to get moving, as I found myself in a serious food coma this morning.  But after a little tea in my room and a little business (ordering my TEP for Sicily), I headed out for a cappuccino and croissant (see, already some food) on my way to the train station.

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Although Ravenna is more of a hike than other day trips from Bologna, with the beautiful and changing countryside, the time passes super quick.  So…why Ravenna?  What is in Ravenna?  How did I decide on Ravenna?  Ravenna is an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the most beautiful and glittery mosaics that can be found in 5 different churches and buildings throughout the town.  Some say that it has the most beautiful mosaics in the world, and so I was very excited for the opportunity to see them in person.

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Ravenna itself is such a cute little town; cobblestone streets lined with designer shops and restaurants, very clean and pretty, an enjoyable stroll on my way to see the mosaics.

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Since I was on a little bit of a time schedule, because there are limited trains on Sundays, I made my way directly to the ticket office to start my tour.  I worked in the order that was suggested on the ticket, essentially starting with the largest church, and weaving my way around the city back towards the train station.

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mosaic tiled floors

When you walk in, it is simply breathtaking.  Glittering, pristinely delicate and patterned mosaics adorning the entire church.

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They were absolutely beautiful, there is no other way to describe them.  Everyone basically takes the same stance in front of the mosaics: head tilted up, jaw dropped to the floor.  You just stand there and take it all in.  You could spend hours just standing and staring at the same piece of mosaic, noticing the different nuances and intricate patterns.

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As my time was quickly escaping me, I moved ahead, visiting the remaining sites with the same awestruck feeling at each stop.

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With almost no time left, I noticed a sandwich shop where I was able to quickly grab a piadina (local homemade bread stuffed with almost anything you want) and a glass of wine to go (I love you Italy!).

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As I left the shop, I bit into my still warm, homemade piadina, and tasted something so delicious and simple, that it could truly only be found in Italy.  Although Italians definitely have a knack for over the top, they equally have a knack for simplicity.  Mozzarella, arugula and prosciutto stuffed into a warm bread pocket.  The perfect way to end my adventure in Ravenna.

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And now here I am, back on the train, and once again watching the rain pour down.  I am feeling so lucky to have missed the showers today, and so blessed to be enjoying this Italian adventure.  Life is good.

 

Light Lunch

I woke up this morning bright and early with the birds, eagerly awaiting my pick-up for what I almost knew for sure was going to be a great day.  I had arranged to go on a food tour with Italian Days, but the only thing I really knew about it was that breakfast was going to be Parmigiano Reggiano and Lambrusco (local sparkling dry red wine).  With that kind of start, how can you go wrong?

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I was picked up and joined by two other travelers in my van, and we trekked out into the countryside to a Parmigiano Reggiano factory.  We were met by two other vans, but maybe only totaled 12 people, which was a nice size group.  Before we could officially start eating, we were to tour the factory and learn the cheese making process.  We all got suited up and headed in.

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our amazingly enthusiastic and hilarious tour guide #dop

The whole point of us waking up so early was to make it to the cheese factory while they were still making the cheese.  What I didn’t know about the making of Parmigiano Reggiano is that by law, it is only allowed to be made once a day, very early in the morning when the milk arrives fresh.

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And that was just the start of so many cool things we learned about the cheese making process.  And even better, we literally got to watch every step.

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the master cheese maker, checking the cooking process

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The amount of work that goes into making a block of cheese is amazing.  I definitely have a whole new level of appreciation for what I so quickly sprinkle on top of my pasta.

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fresh cheese getting ready to age

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my cheese dreams come true

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the most patient man ever…he literally rotates every. piece. of. cheese.

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After our cheese tour, it was time to eat.  We headed back outside to an amazing spread that was ready and waiting for us.

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Of course there were two kinds of Parmigiano Reggiano for us to taste, strawberries (to taste with the cheese, my new favorite combo), and a bunch of local breads and pastries – foccacia with mortadella and salame, a local pizza bread, brioche galore…you name it, they had it.  Washed down by a refreshingly cold glass of Lambrusco.  By this point, we all knew that today was going to be something special.

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After finishing up all of the cheese and sweets, we packed back into our vans for a short drive to Modena, where we would be touring the home of a Balsamic Vinegar producer, and of course, tasting it.

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Again, I was blown away by the amount of work that goes into making DOP Balsamic Vinegar.  To make a long story short, it takes 10 years to make 1 Liter of Balsamic Vinegar.  10 years.  1 Liter.  I think that my jaw literally dropped to the floor.  Our guide explained to us that this is about family tradition, and is a labor of love; not a means to make money.  Without a doubt, he is right.  Definitely a labor of love.

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the balsamic vinegar aging in the attic

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the oldest barrel (still producing balsamic vinegar!) dated 1512

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When it came time for the tasting, we all headed outside and received our spoons to begin the process.  We started with the youngest balsamic and tasted up to a 25 year old Balsamic Vinegar.  The flavor difference between each aging is amazing, the balsamic gets more and more thick and less and less acidic.

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balsamic jelly with fresh that day ricotta from the cheese farm

With even more food in our tummies (on top of the straight balsamic tasting, we also had the cheese, ice cream, and strawberries topped with Balsamic Vinegar), it was time for us to head to our final tour of the day.  This drive was a little bit longer than the others, but so beautiful.  We drove up into the mountains of the Bologna countryside, where green pastures, blue skies, and cured meats awaited us.

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i love how excited they both are about cured meats!

Our final tour was again, fabulous.  We toured a factory that is curing different cuts of meats to turn them into the prized Prosciutto di Parma, Pancetta, and…well, so many other cured meats that I can’t even remember them all.  But trust me, if you are into cured meats, this is your stop.

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To say that we were all a bit eager to get to the tasting room is an understatement, including myself.  And when we showed up, we were not disappointed.  A long table lay filled with freshly sliced cured meats and local wines, accompanied with our own private meat slicer; what more could you ask for?

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This tasting was so much fun, the wine and the sliced meats did not stop!  Our whole group had a great time laughing and joking around with our guides, and definitely stuffing ourselves with delicious cured meats.  But wait, this has all just been a warm up, or perhaps the appetizers to our “light lunch.”  Yes, if you thought that there could be no more food, then I am sorry, because you were wrong.  Although our touring was done for the day, our final stop was at a nearby Agriturismo, where we would enjoy a “light lunch.” 

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the lively and fun dining room, with beautiful large windows letting the sunlight pour in, and giving us the chance to enjoy the countryside

After getting seated, and immediately having our glasses filled with their homemade wine, the food started rolling in.  I have to completely laugh that the description of the tour literally calls this a “light lunch,” as it was nothing but.  However, it was some of the best food I have eaten anywhere in Italy, and one of my most memorable meals.

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our first course: crespelle stuffed with fresh herbed ricotta, smothered in mushrooms (think Italian crêpes)

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as you can tell, I did not like them at all

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homemade spinach tagliatelle bolognese

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homemade bucatini in a spring vegetable ragu

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our palate cleansing course: homemade gnocco fritto (fried pasta dough)…

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…served with homemade ricotta, strawberry jam, mostarda, pecorino, and mortadella mouse (which I seriously need the recipe for!)

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clean plate = happy tummy

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our final course, chicken stewed with peppers and cherry tomatoes

Each course was truly better than the last.  How I had the room to eat this all still baffles me, but every bite was perfection.  I could taste the love in each dish, and I feel so grateful to have been able to have such a special experience.  On top of the 3 amazing tours, ending with this lunch was the icing on the cake.

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the breathtaking views

But just when I thought that we were all done eating for the day, dessert arrived.  Of course they weren’t going to leave us without something sweet to end our meal – and very appropriately accompanied by their homemade Grappa.  (As a side note, have you noticed how many times I have written homemade?  Literally everything was homemade and fresh from their garden, even the chickens came from their farm!)

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homemade chocolate cake, mostarda tarte and fresh strawberries with marscapone cream

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We all relaxed and enjoyed our dessert, sharing our final thoughts about the day.  Aside from all of the amazing food, the hilarious moments with our guide, and the beautiful countryside, I realized how wonderful it was to be on a tour that did not rush us along.  At no point did I feel that we were on a schedule of any sort.  They truly made sure that everything moved as fast or slow as it worked for the group.  Including our hours long “light lunch.”

After returning home (almost 12 hours later) I am still in amazement of the journey that I was on today.  Not a food tour, a food journey.  And if you are anywhere close to Bologna, you would be crazy not to give yourself the amazing opportunity to experience the region and the “light lunch.”

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 :)

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