When planning our trip Scott wanted to learn all about the history and see the sights, I on the other hand think that is what Google is for and I wanted to eat, eat, and eat some more. Most importantly I didn’t want a vacation boot camp experience that was constant tourist attractions, bad food, and no time for leisure to feel like an Italian. We booked the Italian Dream tour through Trafalgar tours, so that we could visit multiple locations and have our lodging and transportation arranged for us. Dominic our tour director is Scottish and he is hilarious! I’m glad he wasn’t Italian because those British accents are so charming and his constant use of the word brilliant and lots of sarcasm and humor made us laugh nonstop. We also had a great group to travel with; I was expecting a bunch of elderly folks but most everyone was around their 50s (which is the new 30, so technically they were in our age group) and liked to have a good time. Also surprisingly everyone on the tour except for one lone traveler was from the US or Canada, so it was great to also learn about different states and regions in North America. We bonded with two couples from Charleston that were very fun and became our drinking buddies.
For starters all the food and wine was delicious. We are fairly knowledgeable about California wines but know nothing about French and Italian wines. We went with the house or local wine everywhere and never had a bad glass and added bonus it was super cheap!
Rome: Saturday—Day 1
Our flight arrived in Rome at 8:30 am and we met our new friends from Charleston while waiting for the bus to take us to the hotel. We decided to call our new formed group “the troublemakers” since we were determined to have a good time with lots of vino. We dropped off our bags at the hotel, freshened up, and found our way to the metro. Thanks to Rick Steves we had bought our tickets online for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel so we headed that way. With our fabulous guidebook, we stopped to grab some pizza to go from a Pizza Rustica place a few blocks from the Vatican. Believe it or not this is the only time I ate pizza in Italy. The rest of the days were filled with pasta, prosciutto, gelato, and vino! Anyway back to the pizza. The pizza rustica places have giant rectangles of different pizzas, you chose the one you want and they cut it according to the size you request. The pizza is warmed up to crisp the crust and then folded over much like a Panini, then wrapped in paper and napkin so you can eat it on the go. I opted for the zucchini blossom pizza since that is something that would be difficult to find on a menu in Houston, and it was so yummy! Plus I love a crispy crust!
It took us about an hour and half to get through the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. Unlike the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museum is just the right size, well organized, not rooms of repetition, and had just enough variety to hold my attention. When we arrived at the Sistine Chapel we listened to Rick’s podcast, which conveniently also showed the images that were being discussed—this was very helpful since there is artwork everywhere.
That evening we went out with our tour group for a night stroll through Rome to see the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, some Cathedral I can’t remember the name of, and the Piazza Navona.
Rome: Sunday—Day 2
The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica
The Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica
Afterwards we went to check out the Coliseum and Roman Forum. It was a bit crowded so we didn’t get to go inside (we’ll save that for our next Italy trip).
We walked around and then wandered around to find another Rick recommendation for lunch the Caffé Dello Studente. We were given complimentary outdoor seating and campari spritzers just for having Rick’s book. I had a very yummy sandwich called the Regina which was filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, and arugula.
After lunch we travelled outside of Rome to Tivoli to see the gardens of the Villa D’Este. The grounds were beautiful and all the fountains were amazing! We wrapped up the afternoon with some gelato (lemon and mixed berry) on the square.
Rome to Venice: Monday—Day 3
This was a long travel day on the tour bus but it was also our first autogrill experience. An autogrill is basically a glorified truskstop that is like a Bucees’ with a mini Luby’s inside, except that Luby’s buffet is yummy Italian food and they even have wine to enjoy with your meal. The scenery on the road was beautiful, travelling through Tuscany and seeing the grape vines, olive trees, and old hilltop towns. When we reached Venice, we immediately had a gondola ride to relax and take in the city. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Venice since I’ve heard mixed reviews. Upon arrival we were in love. And it does not smell! Everything is so quaint and picturesque.
After lunch we walked through St. Mark’s Basillica and then raced back to the market and wine shop and did a little divide and conquer to get our happy hour goodies…we ended up with delicious assortment of cherry tomatoes, raspberries, bread, prosciutto, salami, cheese, red wine, and some dessert treats.
Verona: Wednesday—Day 5
This was another day on the road with quick stops in two towns on the way to Florence. Our first stop was in Verona, and began at Juliet’s balcony. Then we headed to the Roman Arena and checked out the inside which is still relatively intact and is still used for concerts and other events. Scott and I did part of Rick’s self guided walk starting at the Arena, walking past the devotional column, and around to Porta Borsari and Corso Porta Borsari which was the main entrance to Roman Verona and functioned as a toll booth. We made a quick detour into Enoteca Oreste and had a glass of wine with the owner, who only spoke Italian and talked to us about his wines and pointed to various items with his cane, so we sort of figured out what he was trying to say. Then we made our way through the Piazza Erbe on our way back to our meeting spot.
Prior to the trip I really expected Florence to be my favorite city, but it was my least favorite (not that I didn’t like it, l I just liked all the other cities more). Maybe it was because it was one of the last places we visited so I had too much to compare it to, maybe it was because it felt more cramped and crowded, or maybe it was all the blog posts I read prior to the trip of people enjoying many a delicious meal so this is what I was expecting to be the culinary mecca…unfortunately I wasn’t there long enough to eat my way through the city but I ate as much as I could during the few hours I was there. We of course saw the David, he is so much taller than I had expected and even more perfect that he looked on Google Images. After the David it was time for me to begin my brief culinary experience. Scott and I went to the big market aptly named Mercato Centrale or Central Market. Since Central Market in Houston is my favorite upscale grocery store I knew this building had delicious treats inside. All the booths of meats, cheeses, pastas, and wine, all looked amazing, and it was a maze, very easy to get lost. I purchased four pastas while here to take home with me and was thankful I had packed the recyclable shopping bag to assist with transport since I was determined not check any bags at the airport…oh so back to my pasta purchases. I bought 3 flavors of tagliatelle: truffle, arugula, and plain, and then one package of saffron spaghetti.
Thanks to one of the bloggers for sharing her Rick Steves’ recommendation we lunched at a darling little place called Trattoria Icche C’e C’e. We enjoyed a bottle of the house white wine, and for antipasti Scott had a caprese salad and I had some melon with prosciutto. I never knew cantaloupe could be so tasty and juicy, it was seriously the best cantaloupe I’ve ever had. I can’t remember what Scott ordered I just remember being disappointed he didn’t order some pasta with boar since boar meat is very popular in the area, but he liked what he ordered so I guess that’s all that matters. Per the blogger recommendation I ordered the truffled cream tagliatelle which was every bit as delicious as it sounds. When the waitress first brought it to the table I sat there for a minute just wafting the savory truffle scent into my nose before digging in. There is a similar recipe in the Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook which I have made at home, so it’s good to know that with a little truffle butter from Central Market, I can go to Florence any time I want.
Scott and I walked around a bit after lunch and then made our way across the Piazza della Repubblica to enjoy a glass of wine at Osteria la Congrega. This fun little spot has a variety of indoor, covered, and outdoor seating. We enjoyed the patio while sipping our vino. Then we stopped by Festival de Gelato to get my daily gelato fix (one of the goals of the trip was to eat gelato everyday).
Assisi: Friday—Day 7
Assisi is another picturesque tiny town and the home of St. Francis. With my various European travels I really thought once you’d seen one Cathedral you’d seen them all, but the Basilica of St. Francis I found to be the most interesting since it had so many levels and worshiping spaces, and not to mention amazing panoramic views! After strolling through all the facets of the Basillica, Scott and I strolled into town to find a spot for lunch and were on the hunt for a little deli type shop called La Bottega dei Sapori. We got some delicious sandwiches; mine was on a rosemary foccacia with arugula, salami, and cheese. And one thing shocked me, they had bagged salad greens just like any grocery store in Houston. I thought “oh my they are cheating!” The owner let us sample various “salsas” and pestos with a variety of truffle and mushroom combinations. We bought a tiny jar of the black truffle salsa which is amazing! We would have bought a larger jar but were worried about our limitation of the airline mandated quart sized ziplock bag. Hopefully I can find more of this amazing stuff at Central Market or Spec’s. We of course also got a bottle of wine to enjoy with our sandwiches.