When we were mapping out our travels we planned to only hit new countries and cities that we haven’t been to together.
But then we spent 6 weeks in Asia, eating fried noodles & rice everyday.
Picture this: we’re in Vietnam, sweating about 95% of the day, eating Pho in the muggy heat, changing our clothes approximately every 4 hours. The majority of our conversations started to be about what food we’d die to eat, how we can’t wait to move to Chicago and be cold, and where we should go in Europe from May through September.
What food were we dying to have, you ask? Mostly pasta, duh. For anyone that knows me they know that my weakness is pasta. All kinds really. Penne a la vodka, linguine with clams, spaghetti bolognese, you name it!
So, it was over one of those steaming hot bowls of soup in central Vietnam, sitting on a tiny stool, that we decided that we HAD to spend some time in Italy. We both have been separately as well as together, but that didn’t matter.
Italy is one of those countries that I plan to go back to over and over...and over again. It will never get old. The food all over Italy is absolutely mouth wateringly (is that even a word?) delicious, the people are so friendly and it feels cozy no matter where you are.
We planned out the places we wanted to hit and agreed on; Florence, Montepulciano, Bologna, Venice & Sicily.
In case you were wondering, the entire 12 days we were in Italy I ate pasta for every single lunch and for every single dinner. I intentionally didn’t write “we” there because on day 6 or so Andy started making comments about he was feeling “loose” from eating pasta every day and he started to occasionally eat salad for lunch. I couldn’t be bothered with that. When in Italy, you eat all the pasta, despite the LB outcome. Come on ANDY- get with it 😉
Florence was our first spot and we settled here for about 5 days. We both had been before but agree that it’s one our favorite cities in Europe. We decided to stay on the other side of the Arno River, which is definitely more of a local feel. It was only a 15-20 minute walk anywhere we wanted to go and we actually prefer living a walk away so we get our steps in everyday. In Colombia and in Asia we had gyms which was a major part of our daily routine but from May-September we were mostly Airbnb hopping and had to get our exercise in some other way. We average walking 9 miles per day in Europe which sounds hard to believe but the Pacer app is spot on and tracks our steps accurately. The Type A in us tested it, just to make sure.
Back to Florence.
Our first order of business when we landed was food, obviously. Our Airbnb host suggested Trattoria La Casalinga and somehow we snagged the last table before all of the bookings strolled in. SCORE. We both opted for the spaghetti bolognese and it was simple, but bursted with flavor, freshness and just the right amount of “al dente”.
Over dinner, I told Andy about the best lasagne of my entire life, bold statement but God’s honest truth, was consumed in Florence. I told him I was on personal mission to find it and inhale that piece of heaven once again. I ate it back in the day when I didn’t write down restaurant names (my amateur travel days) but I remembered I found it in more of a local neighborhood, the menu was handwritten in cursive and it was cash only.
The lasagna Gods, travel Gods or some sort of guardian Angel must have heard my mission from above because we left that restaurant, took about 100 steps, and suddenly I got an overwhelming sense of familiarity. I knew this spot. It was deja vu in its strongest form. I glance at the menu plastered to the wall. Handwritten, cursive. My heart and belly, bursted with excitement when I saw the words spell out, Homemade Lasagne.
I just finished an entire plate of Bolognese, a shared platter of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto but somehow a crevice of my stomach immediately became painstakingly starving for this slice of lasagne.
Funny how that happens, huh?
Without hesitation, I ask for the Homemade Lasagna for take away and we ate it in the square which was crowded with locals and tourists. Our host said the Santo Spirito area is the only place in Florence where the two crowds mix at the same restaurants.
Well clearly, because they all must know this is the square where they can eat the most amazing thing of their lives.
I open the plastic container and there she is, exactly how I remember. Slightly crispy on the top, layered perfectly with the most proportionate amount of cheese, sauce and meat. There has to be a magic ingredient in here because it melts in your mouth, literally, M E L T S in your mouth. My dad’s famous lasagne, which is the 2nd best I’ve ever had, but can’t compare to this. You need to come try this for yourself Dad then you’ll believe me, my mouth is watering typing this. Andy agreed with me that it was indeed, the best lasagne he’s ever tasted (he says, “sorry Gare!”), and it did in fact live up to the hype. Mission accomplished. In case you’re wondering, the restaurant name is Gusta Osteria, you must go.
Now that I’ve dedicated a paragraph to describing a slice of lasagne, let’s move on.
Over the course of the next few days we did a lot of walking, eating, wine drinking and finding the best vantage points of this beautiful city. Because we have both been before we didn’t feel stressed to go to the museums, or do the touristy things. We just wanted to feel like we lived in Florence and do like the locals do, hang out.
We stopped at Antico Noe, arguably the best sandwich shop in the city, thanks to Andy, Jared, and Gabrielle’s recommendation, it really was the best. Small shop, a handwritten board with over 25 sandwiches to choose from. We ordered a couple sammies and walked over to Giardino delle Rose to picnic. Found a spot in the shade, next to a bunch of rose bushes and enjoyed the views of Florence in the distance.
Another day in Florence was spent leisurely weaving in and out of the winding streets, headed to Mercado Centrale. On the first floor there’s a stand that has a long queue. For a reason. Stand there. Order the chef’s recommendation, tortellini olio e formaggio. Yet again, simple but perfect. Italy: 1, Andy and Sam’s waist line: 0.
Back in Santo Spirito, our favorite square in Florence, after a few Aperol Spritz’s, enjoying the ambiance and endless people watching, we noticed that hoards of people were lining up on the corner at a pizza spot called Gusta Pizza. 3 doors down from my beloved, Gusta Osteria. For 5 euro you get an oversized personal pizza. There were about 6 different pizza options but we opted for the traditional Margherita. A supposed fan favorite, stated all of the signs in the restaurant. With over 10,000 5 star Trip Advisor reviews, at least 100 people packed in this tiny spot waiting for their pizzas and the square filled with people holding their pizza boxes & wine to go. Gusta Pizza lives up to the reviews, that’s for damn sure.
Piazza Michaelangelo or Giardino delle Rose were our favorite sunset spots in Florence. Grab your bottle of wine and go enjoy golden hour over the most magical city. You will not be disappointed.
Minimum 5 lbs heavier each, our bellies satisfied but still ready for more, we were headed to Tuscany. Montepulciano to be exact.
An easy train ride later, we arrived to the most charming little medieval hilltop town. Filled with character, some of the best wine we’ve ever had and warmest people, this small town certainly left a mark on us.
As soon as we arrived we stumbled upon this winery, Gattavecchi, that was only open for another hour longer. We grabbed a bottle of wine for 4 euro, their house specialty, and headed to their terrace that had sweeping views of Tuscany.
We must have been thirsty because we finished the bottle within 20 minutes and were suddenly drunk in love with Montepulciano. We went inside to pay and became friends with the owner who closed up the shop but offered us to stay and sample their best wines.
4 purchased bottles later, we stumbled upon a cafe that had more gorgeous views, ordered another bottle and devised our plan to purchase a house in Montepulciano.
I’m pretty sure I texted Barb & Dave (my travel loving in-laws) and they agreed to buy a house in Scotland and us in Italy so just like that our future family was going international!
Still drunk in love, we strolled through the streets of Montepulciano, stopping every 2 seconds taking pictures of the scenery, cobblestone houses and flowered stoops. I’m normally a little awkward and shy taking photos, if other people are around, but this Tuscan red wine gave me a confidence like none other. I felt like a runway model as Andy went to work, snapping away. Seriously though, here’s proof (see pic below). In this moment, Andy was shouting “oh yeah, one more for the camera, over the shoulder, head tilted, yessss” it made me pee my pants laughing.
We found a restaurant that was on ‘my list’ and literally as they opened the doors for the night (5PM I believe) we were ready to fill our wine bellies with some much needed food pasta and enjoy an early bird special. So much in fact that after our first plate of pasta, each, we ordered a second round of pasta, each. Italy: 2, Andy and Sam’s waist line: 0.
We HIGHLY suggest also having lunch at Gattavecchi, we went back the next day and were treated like celebrities since we were best friends with the owner at this point. The homemade gnocchi is to die for and the fresh tomato bruschetta is so juicy and set up like some sort of masterpiece that you feel bad biting into it.
We relished in our “future” hometown, took it all in and promised each other we’d be back.
Onto our quick stop in Bologna.
Bologna is known for their pasta. LOL. I thought all of Italy was?! I mean it is, but I guess this city specifically is.
We only had 24 hours here so we walked around, stumbled upon a really cool alley way of bar & food stands with edison lights (I’m a sucker for good outdoor lighting) and live music.
My friend Clea dubbed Vicolo Colombina has best lasagne she’s ever had in HER life, so we had to go try it. Got to be honest, not my favorite. Maybe I’m just jaded because Gusta Osteria stole my tastebuds and I’m not giving it a fair shot. It was a White Lasagne, meaning no sauce, now I’m not a professional food critic but a lasagne is MEANT to have sauce, am I right?! At least in my opinion, it should. It was good, it was really good, but Gusta Osteria really fu*cked me up. Thanks for the rec though, Clea, love ya!
Next up, Venice.
I may be ruffling some feathers here but I’ve got to be honest. Neither Andy or I like Venice. It’s our 2nd time back, we both went separately before and I can’t remember if I felt the same way the first time or not but this will be our last time to this famous city.
We really only stopped here to make our way to Rovinj, Croatia which is only a 3 our ferry ride from Venice and thought it would be nice to make our own memories here. It’s just SO overrun by tourist traps and the vibe comes across as disingenuous. Don’t get me wrong, you can get lost in the windy canal zig zagging streets and I highly suggest you do. But there’s a reason why only 55,000 locals live in Venice when 30 years ago 120,000 people did.
The restaurants, especially near the squares are SO overpriced it’s insane, and the food just isn’t as tasty like the rest of Italy. To get a boat ride on the canals is a complete rip off, 100 euro for 20 minutes or something absurd like that. I did it before and yes it’s romantic and yes it’s a great way to see the city built on canals, but when there are lines of boats in front and behind you the entire ride, it just doesn’t feel romantic.
I’m not trying to be a hater and I’ll stop my rant, but I’m being real and sharing my opinion. A lot of you probably think every destination we go to is perfect with rainbows and butterflies but it’s not.
We did find a couple spots that we really liked. Climb the stairs & go up the elevator to Fondaco Dei Tedeschi, for the best view in Venice, overlooking the famous Rialto Bridge. Get lost in the Jewish Quarter (thanks Amity!) and have espresso at one of the stands over in that area. It definitely feels more authentic over there.
Like I said earlier, we hopped the ferry over to Rovinj, Croatia next, which was so easy and a great scenic way to get over to the neighboring country. More on this destination in a later blog post, I want to keep this one solely for our Italy spots.
After Croatia we went directly to Sicily. We stayed one night in Palermo to break up the travel day and the rest of our time on the northern coast in a small town called Cefalu.
It was love at first sight in Cefalu. For both of us.
We were warmly greeted by our hosts that owned the 3 story old building on a side cobble stone street in the heart of the town. Absolute prime real estate this Italian couple had. We entered the building and were pleasantly surprised, it was completely renovated and air conditioned.
If you’ve ever traveled in Europe in the summer before you know that air conditioning in apartments in a scarcity. When our budget allowed, we scored some apartments that had it and were always in a better mood when that happened. Typically when we stay in coastal beachy towns I always try really hard to make sure AC is in the picture.
The jovial Italian husband and wife walked us up the steep stairs to the “pent-house suite” AKA our 3rd floor walk up apartment that we’d spend the next few days. It was absolutely stunning. The interiors were on point, decorated with teals and blues that were very fitting since we were in a beach town. Those cuties even laid out jams, croissants and local delicacies for us in the kitchen. Our balcony had a great view of the streets of Cefalu with the castle on the hill and the ocean in the distance. I must have said “oh my god, this apartment is so cozy, oh my god, I need to live here, oh my god I don’t want to leave” over and over again. On my last day, I wasn’t drunk in love like I was in Montepulciano, I was dead sober, and enquired about a long term rental to the Italian couple. Let’s just say, it’s in the works. Montepulciano is in the past, Cefalu is now our future.
We were told many times to try the Arancina balls in Sicily. So, like all of our Italy destinations our few days were centered around the food. The couple told us where to find the best arancina and we opted for the original, filled with rice and meat sauce. The ball is the size of your hand and every bite just gets better and better as you find your way to the center with the oozing cheese and juicy meat. My pants were getting tighter and tighter by the minute but I couldn’t care less. Wedding in September?? Who cares!!! These balls are AMAZING!
Cefalu has an old city wall that lines the beach and from the outside, looking back on to the city with the castle on the mountaintop makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time to medieval, fortress town.
You can climb the wall on the ocean edge for a great unobstructed sunset view. Bring a bottle of wine and some cheese up there like we did and you got yourself a date night!
Another Sicilian delicacy you have to try is rigatoni alla norma. We got it from Tinchite and it did not disappoint! Comes in a sizzling hot ceramic bowl, straight from the oven, topped with melted cheese, fresh roasted eggplant and ripe tomatoes in a red sauce. Delectable.
Another night we went to Le Chat Noir and now that I think of it I’m almost positive I ordered the rigatoni alla norma again. We had the best timing because as soon as our meals came a local trio band set up in the corner by our table to sing. They were so great and finished their set as soon as we signed our bill. Lucky us!
We’re just about done with our time in Italy, sadly, and as I finish this blog post I’m already planning my return trip in my head.