Our next stop on our tour around Italy was the historic city of Florence. Since we stopped in Arezzo the night before, the drive was short and picturesque through the Tuscan countryside. We were told by friends and magazines that we HAD to stop in Siena and so…we did! A quintessential Tuscan town. All the towns in Italy have ZTL (Limited Traffic Zones) so rather than driving in, you park outside the city and walk in and around the tiny streets. You can tell when the ZTL starts because there is a wall to stop invaders, tourists cars, etc. and Siena was no different. We parked outside and started our journey to the center, which is way more fun and a lot less headache than trying to fit your car through the narrow streets and find parking!
Siena has a huge piazza in the middle (like most of the other Italian towns) but what was interesting about this one was that it had a dirt ring around the perimeter that is used for horse racing. The Palio di Siena are the horse races that are held twice a year. On July 2nd and August 16th, ten horses and bareback riders race around the tight ring with spectators jammed in the center ring. The whole center is entirely surrounded by old fashion bleachers that sit in front of restaurants and store fronts. It was an awesome sight! The town was so picturesque with sweeping views of the countryside mixed in between all the classic Tuscan architecture.
We decided to stay at an Airbnb right outside the city of Florence and it worked out great. Free parking and a tram right across the street that takes you directly into the city for €1.20. We did that a few times! While we, of course, wanted to see the city of Florence, we mainly used it as a hub to see more of the Tuscan countryside. Our time was mixed between heading into Florence to see some of the main sights and doing some day trips. We wanted to see as much as we could! Our first night we went to the bridge in front of the famous Ponte Vecchio to watch the sunset, the brilliant sky turning every shade of red and orange and eventually fading into a pink and purple dusk. After sunset we walked to Ponte Vecchio and around Florence to see some of the famous architecture including the Duomo. It was interesting to see it both during the day and at night!
On our first full day, we hopped in our car and decided to drive through the Chianti region, known not only for the wine but for views of the classic Tuscan countryside. It was everything we pictured in our heads. Cyprus trees lining the roads throughout, hills filled with Tuscan homes with red clay tiled roofs, vineyards and a million shades of green. We spent the day pulling over at different spots, each more beautiful than the one before, snapping photos and uttering to each other “I totally get why everyone is so obsessed with Tuscany!” Fun fact, the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus has a “Tuscan” theme to its buildings. It reminded us a little bit of home!
The second day we decided to do a day trip to Pisa! We couldn’t be that close without our attempt at the famous picture trying to hold up the leaning tower! The ride was only about an hour and was the perfect activity for the rainy day we had. Not only was the ride super easy from Florence, but they have a free parking lot only a few minutes from the ZTL and only €1 per person round trip if you wanted to take a bus directly to the tower. It was so easy to get there and no headache trying to find and pay for parking. The rain also helped scare aware some tourists in the beginning, so it was no problem to get our classic photos, but as the clouds parted and the sun came out, we could see what this famous sight was really like… packed with people. The tower itself was fun to see, it really does lean quite a bit! You can go right up to it for an up close view if you want too! If you ever make the trip, take comfort in knowing that it doesn’t matter what you do or when you go… you will, without a doubt, have a million other people in your photo. You might even capture one with a stranger holding up the tower with you! FUN FACT: We learned a very valuable lesson here. As the photographer of this famous photo, it can get pretty frustrating trying to position your friend/spouse/family member and telling them to move their hand a tiny bit to the left or right, or stand just little this way or that way… instead of making them move to hold up the leaning tower… just have them get comfortable and move the camera for the perfect photo! We learned this about halfway through our visit, just as both of our annoyance level of trying to get the perfect photo was at its peak. It makes everyone (including the strangers waiting for you to finish to stand in your spot!) much happier!
The Food in Florence:
It was delicious! We can’t remember the name of the place we ended up at, but the mission here was the famous Bistecca Fiorentina for Dean. A 1kg (2.2 pounds) T-Bone steak from the Chianina breed of cattle. It comes only one way, seared one each side for 2-3 minutes and very rare, cool in the center. Our restaurant served it sprinkled with massive amounts of sea salt, oven roasted potatoes and lemons. Amazing! Since I don’t eat beef, I ordered Penne Arrabiata, spicy tomato sauce on pasta! So simple, yet so delicious. The best part about me not eating beef was that we had meal prep for the following day! Dean was able to indulge yet again and made my one of my all time favorite dishes for me, Chicken Parmesan! It just tastes much better when made in Italy, using their tomatoes, the Mozzarella di Bufala and when served with scratch made polenta that Dean made with cream and Parmigiano Reggiano, pair all that with seared Italian zucchini and our night in rivaled any restaurant. Plus, the massive amount of polenta left over made for a great vessel for some sunny side up eggs in the morning!
After Florence we headed further north to the city of Bologna in the Emilia Romagna region. This area acted as another hub for us as the entire Emilia Romagna region is known not only for all its foodie amaziningness, but many other fun sights as well! Bologna is known for mortadella (That Oscar brands Bologna is a far cry from the real thing!)
Bolgnasese meat sauce and stuffed pastas like tortolini. About an hour away is Modena, for balsamic vinegar and and Lamburusco wine. Near there is Maranello, the home of Ferrari, and an hour north is Parma, known for the famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma (dry cured ham) and the home of Barilla! We gave ourselves 5 nights here, so we needed a solid hotel. We hopped on Hotels.com through Ebates (click our links to sign up and make a purchase so we get credit!) and found ATAHotels Bologna, an amazing 4 star business hotel that had a great room, great breakfast and it was close to town and close to the autostrada for our many day trips we had planned. If you’re in Bologna we honestly recommend this hotel!
First stop was a day filled with cars and vinegar. We drove to Maranello to see the home of Ferrari. They’re everywhere! Prancing horse statues in the middle of traffic circles, benches that have Ferrari frontends and the famous Ferrari museum. A Ferrari lovers dream. There were many different test drives you could go on as well, but at €1800 for an hour and a half on the track, we decided to save it for another time (when we have some expendable money!). It was still amazing to see the place where such a beautiful and advanced car comes from!
After Ferrari we drove to Modena, the home of balsamic vinegar. Since Dean is a chef and I’m a foodie, this was way more exciting to us than driving on a track. (Mostly, given the chance, I think Dean would have rather driven that Ferrari!) We checked out the city and also managed to secure a tour at a classic Balsamic Producer, Villa San Donnino. At first glance it looks like you’re just heading into someone’s home. Most of the classic balsamic producers are like that, the small producers are our favorite! We learned all about how the vinegar is made and the different levels of quality. First is IGP, which is the quality that most people are familiar with and what we normally think of when we hear of Balsamic Vinegar. IGP quality is much more acidic and is usually used to dress salads and make dressing out of, and it must be aged 60 days in wooden barrels. The next level is IGP Aged, this is the same quality but must be aged 3 years, so it’s a little thicker and less acidic. Finally, the good stuff, the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, also known as DOP. For this quality, the entire process is done in this area, and it there are different levels of aging to produce different textures and flavors. The youngest DOP vinegar, must be aged at least 12 years, it has a great balance of sweet and sour and is the color and consistency of molasses. The silver label is aged for at least 18 years and gold label must be aged at least 25 years, from there it can be aged for any length of time. The longer it ages, the thicker and sweeter it gets. This producer even had some 100 year old that was found hidden away! You could buy it for €200 if you really wanted though. They also had a barrel from the 1500’s still in use! It shows that the barrels can be used for any length of time for balsamic, unlike those for beer or wine. There is a whole process with different woods and types of grapes that must be used for DOP, and it can only be in one type of bottle, a small bulbous bottomed glass bottle. We loved learning all about all the details of balsamic!
We were able to taste many different varieties here which really gave us an insight as to how it changes over time! First was the grocery store variety which was very thin, poured out of the bottle very quickly and was very tart! Next was a special variety that this particular producer made as a substitute for the grocery store stuff. They called it Nero. Nero is aged for 6 years and made with different grapes and aged in different wood than the traditional variety. We even tried it over ice cream which turned out to be pretty delicious! We then tried the first level of DOP, the 12 year balsamic and then a 25 year DOP. Overall it was a fun day, the owner Davide was nice and greeted us with espresso which is always a good touch. At the end, we couldn’t leave without buying quite a few bottle of his vinegars to treasure back in the states.
Since the Republic of San Marino and the Adriatic coast of Italy was only an hour and a half from Bologna, we thought it would be fun to make another day trip out of going to that area of the country! Sitting right in the middle of Italy, San Marino is it’s own little principality. As you entire San Marino, the roads start to incline and you realize it’s all built up on top of a mountain! News to us! As we continued to drive up and up, we saw lines for a cable car and knew immediately taking that up instead would be way more fun and much easier! The return ticket cost only €4.50 and the ride up was incredible! At the top was the town of San Marino with amazing views at every turn, medieval looking towers, tiny picturesque streets running throughout and a 360 degree view from the deep blue Adriatic Sea to the emerald green hills of Italy. Totally worth the trip!
After San Marino, we took the quick 20 minute drive to Rimini on the coast and dipped our feet in the Adriatic before having some of this areas famous flatbread type Piadina sandwiches to fuel us for the ride home.
Our last day trip in this region was to learn about the famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham (more on that later) in the Parma region. The city of Parma is also known as the home of Barilla Pasta and we were excited to check it out! Are we missing something? We parked at the “Barilla Center” and were expecting to enter a play land of pasta. A marketing dream. Boxes of pasta everywhere, photo ops and cooking demonstrations. What we got was a shopping center just like any other with H&M, shoe stores and other clothing boutiques. If you didn’t know the name of the center you’d never know it had anything to do with pasta. It turns out, the old Barilla factory was turned into a mall with The Barilla Academy here too. We figured that maybe if we headed there we’d get what we were in search for. Nope. A plain, nondescript building with nothing more than a tiny plaque on the side saying what it was. Disappointed, we headed into the city of Parma, sure that we’d be more impressed and that our senses would be overwhelmed with the smell of ham and cheese. Another disappointment! A bigger city than Modena, but small than Bologna with great shopping and some restaurants, but not the Italian food lovers dream as we had hoped.
While the city of Parma was a huge letdown, we did manage to secure a few tours outside the city that more than made up for it. Dean tried and tried for weeks ahead to get us a tour at a Prosciutto producer, but many emails were left unanswered, and if they were answered, the price was astronomical, €70 per person for a tour? No way! If we had that kind of money to burn we would’ve been test driving a Ferrari a few days prior! Finally, one great producer that answered us was a culatello maker. Say no more, we were on our way! Brè Del Gallo is located north of the city. Again, it was another feeling of being in someone’s home, and this time, we are pretty sure that is actually true! Culatello is different than traditional prosciutto. It is air dried like Prosciutto, but it comes from the towns around Parma, not the high dry mountains. It is also boneless and aged in the bladder of the pig. All of this gives the ham a different texture and flavor. Now, at this point in following our journey you probably know that I am a picky eater who doesn’t eat any red meat or pork and my diet mainly circles around chicken. I’ll try some of Dean’s food sometimes but given the situation, I figured I’d try this on my own. I loved it! Melted in your mouth like butter. How could I actually be enjoying meat?! Because it’s SO GOOD! If I was feeling this way, imagine how Dean was feeling! Ham heaven! He was loving every minute! It was softer in texture than prosciutto and not quite as salty. An upscale version if you will. They also made salami here which we were given to sample along with some bottle fermented red wine that was made with the grapes from the property. As we were leaving, the owner and amazing culatello maker also gave us a parting gift of a bottle of white wine also made from their own grapes. So nice and so delicious! It really is a shame that this quality of air dried, cured hams cannot be imported to the States. The taste and quality of the small time producers we sampled throughout Emilia Romagna were great, honestly something you can’t find in the states.
We also managed to secure a tour at Giansanti Di Muzio, a Parmigiano Reggiano producer. This was one of the best stops in this region by far! The cheese making happens every day, with skimmed milk from the night before and fresh milk from the morning. To be real Parmigiano Reggiano, it has to follow strict rules. The cows must live and eat only in the region, they can only eat natural feeds and the cheese can only contain the milk, rennet and salt. The process is a complicated, but here is a quick run down. The milk is heated, rennet is added and the curdled milk is cut into small curds and put into giant forms weighing up to 60kg. It is aged for a day, and then the famous mold goes on to imprint the name. The cheese is left to harden a few more days and is then it is dunked in a super saturated sea salt bath. From there it goes onto aging where it turns from bright white to a pale yellow after 12 months (minimum, Red Label) to a goldenrod like color at the 24 month mark (Silver label/Vecchio) and the turns to a straw color after 36 months (Gold label/ Stravecchio). After it has aged the appropriate amount, an inspector coles out and tests each wheel with a special hammer, listening for the perfect sound, meaning it’s the perfect cheese. If all goes well, it gets the stamp of approval and is good to go. If not, the wheel can not be certified and will either be sold for less, made into grated cheese or thrown away if the defect is large enough. After the tour and seeing the aging room it was time for tasting! The red label was very grassy and herbal and more creamy. The silver label was a great balance of saltiness and nuttiness with still a hint of creaminess. The gold label was much more dry and very nutty, great for eating small bites of with traditional balsamic vinegar. Such a fun day learning and tasting the foods of this region!
The Food in Bologna:
There were a few things on the food bucket list that were ticked off here. The first being Pasta Bolognese! Fresh Tagliatelle pasta tossed in a meat ragu. It was nothing like the beef meat sauce most pass off as “Bolognese”! This was slow cooked beef, pork and pancetta with mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) and a hint of tomato! It wasn’t a big, heavy sauce poured over pasta, but instead a balance between meat and pasta with very little sauce. Dean had it a few times and it was great each time, not thick and gloppy, but coated just enough and so rich and meaty!
Another must have was tortellini en brodo, or “in broth”. Hand made meat filled tortellini happily bobbing in an amazingly deep complex broth made from capon (a castrated rooster). The pasta was perfectly al dente and the rich beef flavor balanced with the deep chicken flavor of the broth, another win!
For me, it was great to see so many tortelloni (bigger than tortellini) filled with herbed cheeses or pumpkin with an array of sauces from butter and sage to Gorgonzola cream. One of the best meals I had was a pumpkin tortellini with butter and sage. The pasta was perfectly cooked and the sweetness of the pumpkin with the richness of the butter and herbiness of the sage was incredible!
The biggest miss was at a highly rated restaurant in Bologna when Dean ordered Lasgne Bolognese and I ordered Tortiloni in Gorgonzola cream. Both were way over cooked, the lasagne looked as if it had been sitting in the oven on low for 6 hours and my pasta was mush! Luckily we told them how awful it was and left before our second bite. If you see Trattoria Anna Maria pop up, skip it!
Luckily we found an Irish pub just down the street and our disappointment immediately turned around! Chicken burger for me which actually turned out to be quite amazing after a few weeks of pizza and pasta! Dean scored and found a porchetta sandwich from Puglia was packed with flavor and totally hit the spot! Not to mention, we saved about €30 by going there instead of Anna Maria Tourist Trap.
We also found out about Tigelleria, small sandwiches made on flatbread about the size and shape of a silver dollar pancake, filled with all sorts of items. Dean got the Classiche assortment with Mortadella, Prosciutto, Salami, Pancetta and his favorite a whipped pork lard with grana padano cheese! I got the vegetarian selection with tomato and pesto, Gorgonzola and walnut, ricotta and rocket and other cheese selections. At the end, we shared some dolce sandwiches with blueberry and mascarpone cheese and one with chestnut cream and mascarpone! Yum!
Phew! That was a lot to pack into one blog post! We hope you’re keeping up! Next up, we finish Italy with the cities of Venice, Verona, Genoa and Milan.