The Meal We’d Been Waiting For

Dinner on our first night at the Borgo Argenina was absolute magic. Elena (the owner) gathered us all (8 other guests) in the kitchen to cook dinner together. She poured us all some of her house wine from a gigantic cask, and I swear it was the best wine I have ever tasted.

Elena and a bottle of her Chianti Classico from her "special reserve."

Everything you can conjure up in your imagination about a rustic, Tuscan farmhouse kitchen, complete with good-natured dogs and cats underfoot — take all that, and triple it.

Pasqualina patiently waiting for her chance to taste the pork tenderloin.

Jars of Mischief waiting to be played with.

Peppers and Garlic

Brooke & Mike helping Elena prepare dinner.

The fireplace in the kitchen

The view outside of her kitchen-sink window, a freakin’ vineyard!

Squirrel using Elena's antique food processor.

I would write myself in circles trying to help you plug in to that night. Maybe the pictures will help capture it. It was as ideal as you can possibly imagine. That evening was one of those beautiful nights we are given on this earth, where things don’t even seem to be real.

Our first course — pasta — was a homemade lasagna with béchamel and Bolognese.

Lasagna

Elena regaled us with stories of her newest project — a smaller bed & breakfast — while she built layer after layer of lasagna goodness. We watched, drooling. And drinking. 😉

Elena's next restoration project!

For our second course, she braised pork shoulder in cream, vin santo, olive oil, herbs, and a soffrito, all in a pressure cooker.

Prork Tenderloin

Both dishes were so blissfully delicious — the lasagna so rich and yet so light, the pork so tender and infused with the flavors of her garden. It was the food we had been dreaming of and searching for since coming to Tuscany. It was a perfect meal, in a truly perfect and magical place.

The whole gang at dinner.

Before sending us off to bed, Elena gave us a map, and pointed out a month’s worth of must-see villages, churches and wineries. It was so wonderful to have someone like her to point us in the right direction. Our eternal thanks, Elena. 😉

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The Tuscan Tour Begins…

Before we began our tour, we decided we’d go for a Tuscan Run. It was rocky, muddy and treacherous, but running through a vineyard was pretty damn cool.

Sorry, CMT, but this beats the views in Crestline.

For our first full day in Tuscany, the weather was perfect. Our first stop was just minutes from our bed & breakfast, a little cluster of houses named Monti. A quiet, seemingly empty country church which we tiptoed cautiously around.
(Seemingly) abandoned house/church

After that, we went up to an castle of sorts, which was converted into a winery. More quiet meandering. In America, you would call it trespassing; in Tuscany, it’s just what people do.

Winery

Oh, and apparently, castles are a big thing in Northern Italy. Fortresses, to be exact. In my mind, castles were things for England, France, and Germany, but apparently the feudal system was a pretty big deal in Italy, too. Duh. We went to one huge castle, Brolio, where we met up with the newlywed couple from our B&B, Brooke and Mike.

Brolio Castle/Winery

Squirrel in timeout.

We walked around the castle grounds, then went to lunch together at a little restaurant below the castle. That’s where I had the Rabbit with Truffles. It was an odd little dish, but the menu said truffles, so I was in. I also had Italian Onion Soup…chunkier and more rustic-tasting than the French version.

After that, we went to the Brolio Enoteca, which we figured out was a wine tasting room/shop.

Brolio wine tasting and gift shop.

Our wine tasting hostess.

We tasted several wines, and about 13 varieties of local honey. I got some chesnut honey, which was very rich. Our wine tour guide there was actually from Chile, and gave us lots of insights into Italian politics. Not your average wine tasting!

After that, we split up, and David and I went in search of Dievole Vineyards, one that Elena had recommended. After many detours down gravel roads and winding around Tuscan foothills, we stumbled upon Aviolo Winery. We stopped mainly for the bathroom, but decided to taste some wines in case Dievole remained elusive.

We later referred to the Aviolo tasting lady as “Bitter Italian Grandmother.” She just croaked out the name of each wine, and stared at us while we drank it. It was pretty awkward, so I bought a bottle out of guilt. They also had a sparkling wine, which we did not taste, but bought anyway. More on that later. We also bought a bottle of chianti vinegar, as a memento of her lovely personality.;)

Back in the car, more winding, and then we finally found it — Dievole!

Hooray!!

After all of the meandering, we were ready for something fantastico, and to our delight, we had an amazing experience.

Our wine person at Dievole was also named Elena, but she was much younger. She was knowledgable without being pretentious, and walked us through the intricacies and history of the Chianti classico story.

Elena & Squirrel

Note: If you see a Chianti bottle with a paper band on the neck that bears the emblem of a black rooster, it’s a certified, genuine Chianti Classico. Just like Champagne must be from France, Chianti Classico must be from this region, and follow specific and rigid guidelines, ingredients, and grapes.

After our wine tasting we ordered a couple of glasses to help the clock tick faster toward dinner.

So of course we bought more wine, and added some olive oil, too. After that, we parked in the wine bar while we waited for dinner, and I penned down these thoughts for the day. They brought us some whites and rosés to try, and brought out some cheese and olives, just for fun. It was one of those “I love Tuscany” moments.

We wandered around the vineyard, exploring before dinner, then had a great meal. I had a wild boar Bolognese with fresh parpadelle.

Wild Boar Papadillio-yo

Maybe just one more glass.

And of course we had some good Dievole wine. Good times. We drove home slowly and carefully under the Tuscan moon, and slept very well.

Tuscany: Tourist Traps and The Italian Wal-Mart

Our target for this day was San Gimignano, the city of beautiful towers. We almost experienced a major fail right out of the gate. We were on the way when I spied a walled city on the hill with towers. Possessing an inherent distrust of GPS accuracy, I said, “David, there it is! Stop!” The book we had said you had to park outside the city, so I figured this was a good spot. We fought for a parking spot, wrangled with the meter, and headed off on foot…into an Italian ghetto.

SO not San Gimmy.

After 20 minutes, David was like, “OK, this is NOT it.” And it wasn’t. So we headed back to the car and consulted Kevin. Yeah, we were still 15 minutes away. Navigator of the Year — right here, folks!

When we finally got there, we found parking fairly easily, if by easily you mean on a 45-degree slope on a hairpin curve with Fiats and tour busses whooshing and zipping by.

Crossing the palazzo to the city gates, we spied the walls of the city — they were HUGE.

San Gimignano exterior wall

San Gimignano was a hilltop fortress town, one entry before us, barely wide enough to drive a car through. The city was unlike any place we’d been (well, almost…more in a minute) in Italy. Very well preserved, no grafitti, beautiful stonework. Amazing attention to detail, everything from doorknobs to hinges to knockers — there was no sense of anyone just scraping by.

I fell in love with all of the different doors in Italy.

The main thoroughfare was lined with shops, peddling leather goods, wild boar products, wine, jewelry, etc. Seemed like every five doors there was a stuffed wild boar in the doorway wearing a sign that said, “DO NOT TOUCH!” which was very hard to obey, by the way. 😉

The roads in San Gimmy were very, very steep.

San Gimmy side-street

We climbed and meandered, peeked into doorways, snapping pics on a whim.

"I think this offers the best angle."

One other whim we followed was a trip to the “Torture Museum,” which displayed all manner of devices used during the Middle Ages and the Inquisition to pry confessions from the Devil’s so-called minions. It was a truly horrifying place! Totally regret going there.

It wasn’t until we left that awful museum that David nailed a dead-on description of San Gimmy. “It’s like an Italian Gatlinburg,” he said. He was SO right. From the rows of overpriced shops to the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” Torture Museum, it was totally a place to squeeze Euros out of busloads of Germans.

All that aside, I wouldn’t skip it. It was so well preserved, and there was so much beauty to take in, with its soaring towers and innumerable exquisite architectural details. Even on a cold and cloudy day, it was an amazing place.

We finished up our day with a visit to the Italian Wal-Mart to buy groceries.

Maybe we should rename Wal-Mart Betty?

I’ll go into more detail on Kitchen Mischief, but for now, let’s just say I had a little mini breakdown in the market, brought on by weigh-it-yourself produce. The tantrum culminated with me turning to David and saying, “This is NOT how I envisioned my Tuscan cooking experience!” After I calmed down, we worked it out, and dinner ended up being a blast. And purple. More on the Mischief. 😉

NOTE: Not all trees in Italy are olive trees as Josh discovered only moments before popping this lovely (not an) olive in to his mouth.

Tuscany: Drunk Monks and More Mischief…

We were scheduled to check out of our B&B and rendezvous with David’s parents in Rome the next day, but persistent communication difficulties (most of them my fault) and our general TERROR at the prospect of driving in Rome led us to stay an extra day in Tuscany. My eternal apologies, Patricia & Barry!

Elena was delighted, of course. She decreed right then and there, “You must go to Crete!” I was like…uh, isn’t that like, near Greece? Turns out they have one in Tuscany, too. Except it was not-so-much Mediterranean island and more idyllic farmland. The hills here were deeply rolling, covered with the brightest green grass. We kept trying to figure out what they were growing, and then it dawned on us — hay! These were the signature golden hills of a Tuscan fall, just wearing a young, verdant coat. The statuesque conical Tuscan cedars and gnarly olive trees were stitched across the landscape (Thanks, Emily Saliers)… it really was like a living quilt. All of this, and it was drizzly and gray outside, by all accounts a dreary, miserable day. All that could not eclipse the simple, powerful beauty of this beautiful place. [sorry, looks like i didn’t save any pictures of this day. way to go, Ace!]

Our first man-made sightseeing stop of the day was Monte Oliveto Maggione. I’m not 100% sure, but I think this was a working abbey/monastery. Either that, or we wandered into a commune of transvestites with a fondness for Jesus. 😉 I say “working” monastery, because these monks make wine all day. Hell yeah, that’s my kind of sacrifice!

Monty Python Monkery and wine bar

Sadly, we were 10 minutes too late to see the inside of the church, so we settled for a tour of the wine cellar instead. It was awesome! Dark, cavernous, huge archways, gigantic oak barrels…so cool.

Squirrel portions of wine.

Their wine...The Squirrel bought some (out of guilt) 😉

The guy manning the wine shop was not a monk. His name was Lucca (he did not live on the second floor). He spoke English with a curious Australian accent. He told us all about raising/hunting wild boar, and about his love for the Big Bang Theory (the show, not the physics).

At his recommendation, we ate at a little restaurant up from the monastery. On our way there, we followed a gnarled rooty path up a hill to a tiny little chapel. The woods were eerily silent, but then I heard this sound coming from the building. It was chanting! The building couldn’t  have been more than 10 feet x 10 feet, and monks were crammed in there, chanting. Cool. And creepy! So we ran off to the restaurant.

It was great — very casual, very family-owned feel. We had a really good spicy penne pasta, watched some Italian TV, and took in some interesting family interactions. A small boy came in with his dad (maybe the owner?) and all of the staff just fawned over him, like he was the center of the universe. It was a really nice slice-of-life kinda moment.

After that, it was off to Montalcino … you guessed it — another hilltop town! This one was actually really awesome. It would have been even better if it weren’t so damn breezy! It was like San Gimignano, but not as overtly touristy.

Montalcino.

Just a street I liked.

I liked the sky in this shot.

On the way out, Kevin (GPS) took us on a crazy detour, first deep into the winding streets of the city, where we had to back up, uphill, to escape an ambulance, then went the wrong way down a one-way street and were yelled at by an Italian policewoman. Then he lead us down the mountain on a dirt road to certain death. More reversing and cursing Kevin.

After that, we went to yet another Tuscan grocery store, this time faring a bit better. Bolognese was my menu, so I didn’t feel so scattered…and I had “mastered” the weigh-your-own produce thing.

We were on our way home when we realized Siena was like five minutes away. David suggested we just hit it real quick, which we did. Siena in one hour. It was really a cool place. Apparently Florence kicked its ass back in the day, and then restricted development and progress there as a form of subjugation. Tell you what, Florence did Siena a favor. It felt more like a genuine Italian town than its former oppressor. Less development, grittier, maybe. Less New York, more Italy.

Siena

Saint OMG Another Church of the Immaculate Constitution or something like that.

Totally worth a visit. That night, I managed a pretty decent Bolognese, and we went to bed quite happy and relaxed.

A quiet night at home.

Good night, Tuscany (good night, josh & david)

Sorrento or Bust

We were sad to leave Tuscany with the blue sky bright and the sun shining, but we had a boot to travel, so we packed up the wine and zoomed off to Sorrento.  It took a few days to get settled enough to start writing again. We had some hiccups our first days, but finally got into the swing of things after cresting the learning curve.

Again, Italy has defied our expectations. We wound our way into this cliffside town expecting quaint, secluded, quiet. Instead, we found tourist central! But we got accustomed to it.

The drive down and around to Sorrento was beautiful, with Vesuvius hovering menacingly in the hazy background.

Vesuvius

Like Florence, the buildings here aren’t more than three or four stories tall, but they’re more brightly colored and less fortress-like. The town seems to rush to the cliffside, then stop abruptly, perched over the sea, the plunging cliffs holding development at bay. Three hundred feet below, the sea laps a narrow strip of pebbled beach.

Sorrento

It was too cold to get in, but not cold enough to explore. The locals seemed to be getting their modest beach facilities ready for the summer, so David snuck around and snapped pictures, while I combed the beach for jewels (i.e., sea glass). Look, I know it’s probably just 10-year old scraps of beer bottles, but who knows? It could be shards of an ancient Roman bottle. As David says, “One man’s trash is another Squirrel’s treasure!’

Beachside dressing rooms

Beach combing Squirrel

Squirrel jewels

Prepping for the season

Birthday Dinner (Thanks to Baby Jesus & The Woo Girls)

No, I did not have birthday dinner in a laundromat. Thank God.

The next day, my birthday, we decided to play it easy and recharge from our travels (i.e., tackle a week’s worth of dirty clothes). We scoped out a laundry mat, and fed euros into the machines until all of our clothes were clean. I was SO happy to say “Ciao!” to my dirty jeans smell. We got hungry waiting, so I got us a pizza — arugula with tomatoes. Kinda plain, but the crust was really good. After a day of exploring, we went out in search of a special place for my birthday dinner.

Our apartment managers recommended one restaurant, but on our way up its steps, a descending British woman muttered (it sucks, don’t go!). We took that as a sign and went in search of something better. Only we couldn’t decide! Bordering on starvation (and breaking our newly made rule), we decided to go back and give it a try. This is when Baby Jesus intervened once again, this time by sending in the big guns — The Woo Girls.

As we rounded the corner back to the original restaurant, a group of girls was taking pics of each other. I offered to take one of them all together, and we began talking. They asked if we had been anywhere great to eat yet, and we mentioned we were looking for somewhere fun for my birthday. They lit up and immediately and enthusiastically recommended a restaurant, which we thankfully were able to find. And it was AWESOME. Taverna Allegra. If you go to Sorrento, you must go.

Sorry for the blur, this was taken after the festivities...

First, they immediately brought us prosecco. Score. Second, they brought us cheese and olives and bread. Double Score. Plus, they had a crazy old Italian man in a rhinestone cowboy hat who would randomly decide to sing along  with the guitar player. So funny.

"When the moon hits your eye..."

Oh, and the food was delicious! I had a seafood risotto, and it was divine. Mussels and clams, baby! We were having a blast, laughing at the performers and the other guests, including the Jersey Housewives, sitting behind David.

New York? Riiiiight.

We had so much fun we ordered another bottle of prosecco and just hung out. That’s when David told them it was my birthday. Not only did they serenade me in Italian, they brought out a dessert with firework in that shot sparks three feet in the air! It was so out of control! It’s the kind of thing that just wouldn’t happen in America. Viva Italia!

Baby you're a firework!

As you can tell, it was quite a night. Not a bad place to turn 33. Not bad at all!

Great birthday — thanks, Baby!

The Best Food in Sorrento

The next day, we slept late, then decided to relieve ourselves of our rental car. After that fiasco (which resulted in me using my driver’s license to rent a car for an American couple who had forgotten their license!) we had another AMAZING meal, this time at L’Antica, a beautiful wisteria-covered, geranium-decked restaurant that was noticed by David and turns out was Michelin-rated and Rick-Steves approved.

L' Antica

It was VERY FINE dining, which started with sparkling rose, fresh flatbreads, and olives.

Prosecco!!

The food was art, from David’s fried, stuff radicchio with a sweet, syrupy vinegar reduction, to my fried red prawns with sardine sauce, to the most HEAVENLY ravioli with shellfish I could possibly imagine…it was so ridiculous and so good.

Lemon Parfait type thingy

After dessert...DESSERTS!!