Homemade Ravioli

Usually, I have the TV on for distraction as I go about performing perfunctory household chores. This is how I discovered the Italian wonder known as Lidia Bastianich while folding laundry. Ms. Bastianich has a PBS series called Lidia’s Italy. What drew me in was her no-nonsense approach to food making. I loved the way she got into the food with her hands to prepare it, and how all her ingredients were so beautiful and fresh. She is not pretentious, did not add extra ingredients for show and is just so down to earth and likable. Fast forward a year and two cookbooks later and thanks to Lidia I now make my own spaghetti sauce, ravioli and fresh pasta.

Ravioli making is a labor of love. It is easiest made in advance and frozen; although, if you start early in the day, you can surely have fresh ravioli on the table by dinner. Four things you should always keep stocked in your (Italian) kitchen are: olive oil, garlic, San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil. These four magical ingredients serve as a base for so many delicious dishes. San Marzano tomatoes are essential. I have tried using regular tomatoes and it is just not the same. They are a little more pricey, but worth it. I order mine from Amazon. Carmelina is a good brand and is relatively inexpensive compared to the others. As far as fresh basil, in the summer, it is easy enough to have a basil plant in the yard or even in a pot on the patio. Basil is easy to grow, loves the heat and is a low-matienance herb. Or, you can just buy it fresh from the store, or if in a pinch, use dried basil. Tossing these four ingredients tossed together can make a wonderfully fresh ravioli sauce.

I have posted before how to make pasta dough, using a “flour bowl” on the counter and mixing everything with your hands. Lidia’s version is even easier, as she uses a food processor to mix the ingredients. Click here for recipe and instructions.


Once the dough is made, it must rest for at least 30 minutes. This is so it will hold its’ shape better during the rolling process. While the dough is resting, there is plenty of time to make the ravioli filling. I bought Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking. I felt this would be a good starter book for me. In addition to great recipes for pastas and sauces, she also has a killer apple cake recipe in this book, that even my sweet-hating husband devoured.

Ravioli filling:

2 bunches of chard, chopped (remove the stems and center ribs)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 pound of ricotta
3 large eggs, beaten
1-1/2 cups grated parmesean-reggiano cheese
IMG_7119To a large pot of boiling, salted water, add the chard. Blanch for 5 minutes, then drain well. I usually squeeze out the excess water by rolling it in a paper towel. Chop the chard very finely, and place in mixing bowl. add the remaining ingredients and gently mix. Cover and keep in refrigerator until ready to use.

IMG_7117It is helpful to get everything else prepared before you start rolling and filling. Line a few baking sheets with parchment paper. These are to be used to place the ravioli on once they are made. Attach your pasta roller and flour your counter or board and cutters or pan. Also, have a small cup of water ready with a pastry brush. You will need this to seal the edges of the ravioli together. I know this seems like a lot of upfront work, but it is really worth it and will make things go much smoother.

The next step it to begin rolling the dough into sheets of thin pasta. I use my Kitchen Aid pasta attachment for this, and it makes for relatively easy work. You must first knead the dough on a setting of 1. Roll the dough through once, fold it then roll it again. After the dough has been kneaded, it is time for the thinning out process. Start on 2, then pass the dough through the machine. Place the sheet on the counter so it picks up some flour then increase your setting to 3. Roll through the machine again and repeat. I usually go to about 4 or 5 when making ravioli. As far as molding the ravioli go, there are a few ways to shape them. I chose to use a mold that makes a dozen at a time. My daughter found this nifty little pan on Amazon and gave it to me for Christmas, and I absolutely love it. It makes for easy work when making lots of ravioli. I also like the size of the molds too. I am not fan of giant ravioli.

Flour your molds, then once the pasta has been rolled thinly, cut it in half and lay it on top of your mold. Then, push down into the mold a bit so there is more room for the filling. Make sure that the dough goes all the way to the edges of the mold. That way, you will be sure to get a nice seal. Fill each mold with ravioli filling (just a good teaspoon should do).


Then, take your brush and moisten all the edges. Place the other half of dough on top of this. My ravioli mold came with a perfectly sized rolling-pin. Use the rolling-pin to roll across the mold. this seals the edges and also cuts the pieces.

IMG_7136Invert the pan onto your already prepared baking sheet that is lined with parchment paper. Separate a little bit if needed. You don’t want to move the ravioli a lot once they have been inverted; otherwise, they will lose their shape and won’t look as good. Once I have done 2 dozen, I pop the whole pan into the freezer.

Ravioli’s that have just been inverted. I freeze them just like this.
Ravioli’s that have just been inverted. I freeze them just like this.
I freeze only until they are firm (no more than 2 hours) Then, I get out the seal a meal and freeze them in individual or family sized portions.

Now, all you have to do next time you want fresh, homemade ravioli is to cook those little wonders up. Top with your favorite sauce, sprinkle on some fresh cheese and a few shreds of fresh basil and enjoy!



Gas or no gas?

IMG_3926My last  post about Italy has to be about the food.   I am like my mother in that I believe love surrounds the table, and meals cooked for family and friends bring people together to create lasting memories.

There is a real difference in the way Italians eat compared to most Americans.  Do not expect to see any take-out restaurants or fast food chains, other than the occasional McDonald’s.    Eating in a space not designed for eating (such as on a train, bench, or sidewalk curb)  is frowned upon and is downright illegal in some cities.   A lot of restaurants do have hustlers outside who will try to entice you to come in.  DO NOT FALL FOR THEM,  NO MATTER HOW CUTE AND CHARMING THEY MAY BE!  In my experience, restaurants that were good had no need to hire hustlers.  Once you have found a restaurant and are seated,  a  waiter will come over to offer you some water, which is always followed by the question “Gas?  Or no Gas?”  This became a running joke in our party as we would say “Gas?  Or no gas?” in our best thick Italian accents.  What the waiters were referring to was whether you wanted carbonated or non-carbonated water. A word to the frugal:  charges are incurred for every bottle of water that is brought to your table.  You can ask for tap water, which is free, but the waiter will act like he doesn’t understand what you are saying, and it is more than likely that you will never see such tap water. Ever. Then,  you will have to quench your thirst with the wine, which isn’t a bad idea, unless you are dehydrated after a day spent sightseeing in the hot Italian sun.

My dehydrated husband, skipping through the streets of Assisi.

While in Italy, it was my goal to try as many different foods as I could. Dinners are served in five courses, and are purchased a la carte. I would usually order one course, which gave me lots of opportunities throughout our trip to try different things without coming home a blimp. The antipasto, or appetizer is the first course. First courses were things like salads, crostini, cold cuts and bruschetta. IMG_4711Salads in Italy are different than what I’m used to in that they are layered or clumped in the bowl and not mixed.    No dressing is needed, because the contents of the salad are so flavorful.  Hard boiled eggs, slices of moist mozzarella cheese (the real jiggly stuff) shredded carrots and wedges of sun ripened tomatoes add flavor and moisture.

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The next course is the primo course, which is where you will find pasta dishes and pizza. I did try pizza, and I wasn’t a huge fan.  Cheese was sparse and crusts were soggy.  I guess I’m used to American pizza.    I do love ravioli, and tried several variations while in Italy. IMG_4722IMG_3932 I also discovered the great combination of pasta with beans one day for lunch in Verona.  I vowed to try to make this at home. IMG_4737

The secondo course is where you will find chicken, meat and fish dishes. The contoro course is usually served along with this and contains vegetables.  Finally,  desserts are known as the dolce course.  For us, this meant nightly doses of gelato.  There are gelato cafes all over, and this is really the only socially acceptable thing to eat while you are strolling through the streets. The best restaurants I went to had menus entirely in Italian.  Most waiters were kind enough to translate and recommend great dishes. I had out of this world chicken in Siena, the best Cafe American and croissant in Lucca,  great appetizers in Tuscany, ravioli in Assisi, caprese sandwiches  in Cinque Terre and a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruit, croissants, meats and creme brûlée on a sunny balcony in Verona.  No matter what city we were in there was always good wine.


Coming back, we flew into Philadelphia before heading home.  I went into a bit of culture shock as I took in the fried foods, saw the huge portion sizes and watched people eat (gasp!) on benches and not at tables.  Not too long ago,  I was at the mall, and I watched  as a teenager chowed down on a full meal out of a styrafoam container while  waiting to see a store representative.   I think the Italians have it right here.   Meals are meant to be lingered over and enjoyed.  You should really taste what you are eating, and shouldn’t eat while you are rushing to get somewhere. Expect dinners to take two hours, and lunch at least an hour.  That being said, I did sneak a chocolate croissant while we were waiting to get into the Vatican.  I felt like one of my students, sneaking bites of food when it is not snack time, as I stealthily broke off bits of the croissant that I had hidden in my bag.

A common type of eatery you will see in Italy is a bar.  It is not the bar that we think of in America; rather these are multipurpose establishments and change throughout the day.  In the morning you will find coffee and croissants, at lunch you can get sandwiches and slices of pizza,  and after dinner these places are open for drinking, with  people spilling  out onto the piazzas to socialize.

When it comes to the check,  the waiter usually does not bring it until you ask for it.    Also, they are not quick to whisk your plate away. You know how if you are a fast eater and your plate gets cleared away and everyone else is still eating?  Well, you look like you’re either starving or a glutton, and it can be uncomfortable to not at least pretend that you are scraping up that last bit of food with your fork, while your companions finish their meals.  In Italy, they wait until the last person is done, and may not even clear the table before you leave.  Once you have your food, waiters leave you alone to enjoy your food and companions.   If you need something, it’s relatively easy to flag someone down.      After the meal is done, you sit.  there is no rushing you out so someone else can have your table.  And tipping is not necessary.    It is customary to only round up to the next euro.

If there was anything I learned about food in Italy it is this.  Make it fresh.  Linger over it and enjoy it, and be willing to have an adventure as you seek out and try a variety of food and establishments.



Romeo? Juliet? Wherefore art thou?


In every city and village that we visited,  we noticed a nightly progression.  In Italian, it is called la passegiata. Couples and families get dressed in their finest and walk around the main streets of town and through piazzas.  It is a time to see and to be seen and to socialize. I loved this time of night.  La passegiata usually occurs before dinner, between the hours of 5 and 8.  I saw couples, both old and young, families, and generations of families, strolling leisurely through town. My favorite memory was when I saw a couple walking through the marbled streets of Verona.   They were slowly pushing whom I assumed to be their elderly mother in a wheelchair.  Everyone was decked out, and it was sweet to see them leaning in, pointing things out along the way. The matriarch of this family happily looked around and soaked everything in, surrounded by love.

Love.  That is what Verona is and reminds me of. This fair city is infamously known for the setting in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Great Bard set a lot of his plays in Italy–The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and Winter’s Tale, all have scenes in this great country. So it is not surprising “In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” that this came to be a destination for tourists to connect with these two star-crossed lovers. There is a crowded atrium, where people go to visit “Juliet’s house”, which is not really her house at all, because uh…it’s fiction, and is really just a tourist trap. It is on Via Cappello, which I guess is close enough to Capulet. There is a balcony, but it was added to a medieval building in 1936.  Nevertheless, it looks like the balcony that Shakespeare describes in the play. As I looked up, I could imagine how the scene could have played out hundreds of years ago, with Romeo decked out in his medieval finest, standing, right where I was, while he called up to Juliet and implored her to come down. IMG_4825 Thousands of tourists flock to this area each year. There is even a bronze statue of Juliet in the center.  Tourists rub her left breast to bring good luck.  While I did not rub her breast,  I did write a note to her and placed it in a well in the atrium. The well and surrounding walls are full of notes and locks from people all over the world, professing their undying love. The note I wrote wished for my three teenagers to someday find true and soul-fulfilling, everlasting love.

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Adding to the romance of this city is the location itself. A river runs through the city, and the setting is beautiful.


We were there on a Saturday, and saw brides and grooms, wedding parties and decked out cars.

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Via Mazzini

Verona’s main shopping  street and the street most crowded for shopping is Via Mazzini and really is paved in marble.  In contrast to the shops of Assisi, most of these shops are higher end; although, there are some affordable shops mixed in.  I loved wandering through this area, and I found some great clothes to bring back to my own brood at home.

Verona has some of the best piazzas in Italy.  The two main ones are Piazza Bra and Piazza Erbe. Piazza Bra, near the ruined amphitheater, attracts the elderly and families. IMG_4751Piazza Erbe, around the corner from the marbled Via Mazzini, attracts the younger, hipper crowd, and has a really hot nightspot, evidenced by the crowds and music that spilled outside.

Cafe by day, happening spot by night


Piazza Bra

We could not leave Italy without having seen an opera, even though it really is not my cup of tea.   We went to see what it would be like, having found affordable nosebleed seats outside in an ancient Roman arena.


We sat high up, with the rest of the heathens,  where no dress code was required. I  looked down on the floor and squinted to see people dressed up in tuxedos and long gowns.


I was glad, though, to be on the stone steps, taking it all in from a bird’s eye view,  even though my butt was sore from sitting on ancient rock for over two hours.   Afterward we went across the way to a restaurant an dined al fresco. We looked up suddenly when we heard cheering.   Walking by was the orchestra, led by the conductor, who was shouting and gesturing something in Italian. I could only make out the words  “Bravo!  Bravo!”  The orchestra  passed the tables, and as they did, with the ruins of the amphitheater behind them,  everyone would break out in cheers and  begin to clap. It was like  a mini-parade, except the participants had just gotten done playing exquisite music and were carrying glasses of wine that they raised in toast in the warm midnight air.


We stayed at Hotel Aurora, which is right above Piazza Erbe.  It is a wonderful bed and breakfast place, where you can go out to a sunny balcony overlooking the piazza for breakfast, afternoon drinks and snacks and just to relax. The staff is friendly and helpful and it felt like home. Verona is a beautiful city, and it makes for a great stop on any tour of Italy.



Home in Assisi


After Rome, we took the train up to Assisi. From the train station,  a bus takes visitors to the top of a hill where a ruined castle  stands guard over this quaint little village.  Upon entering, I realized that this is the place that I had been searching for during my entire trip.  It is the quintessential Italian town.  The streets are narrow and winding and lead to all sorts of neat surprises. Churches and bells abound, and local artisans sell their one-of-a-kind wares in well-kept shops. Best of all, Assisi is clean, graffiti free, and full of friendly people.

Assisi is home to St. Francis,  a friar who lived simply, frugally and with love for all mankind. It is by example that he taught those around him, and there is something simple, humble and loving to the town of Assisi. The Basilica Di Franscesco is beautiful, and like all the churches in Italy, it contains wonderful artwork. Like the man himself, the church named after St. Francis is simple in form and decoration. This is especially noticeable, having just seen the extravagance of St. Peter’s Basilica.


Assisi is a hilly town, so wear good walking shoes when exploring.  This town has some of the best artisan shopping around.  Items made from olive tree wood, handcrafted shoes, bath and soap items and hand embroidery can all can be found here–and at reasonable prices too.   If you’ve been saving up your money, this  is the place to drop your euros.

Assisi overlooks the Umbrian Valley, and the views are gorgeous. We stayed at Hotel Minerva a wonderful bed and breakfast place that is above a restaurant.  Our windows opened onto this view:


View from our table during wine tasting

Late one afternoon, we stopped at a bar and went wine tasting.  Our Romanian sommelier was down to earth and friendly as she enthusiastically told us about the fresh Italian cheeses, meats, and breads that were accompanying the bottles of wine we had ordered.   We sat outside in an alleyway, and watched as a mother pigeon bought food and straw to her babies in a nest high above.  It was quiet, as most of the tour buses had left for the day, and I got a real neighborly feel for the place.   Assisi is like Cinque Terre, in that it is a great place to slow down and relax and take in all the beauty that surrounds you.

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Rome with Rick


After all that medieval goodness in Siena, we took the tracks down to Rome.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like Rome.  It’s just big, crowded and very overwhelming.  Rome is good for seeing the sites, then getting out of dodge.  There is a lot to it, and of course we couldn’t see it all. Our Rick Steves’ guidebook was never far from our side. Two highlights of our time there were the areas near the forum and the Sistine Chapel, both of which were enhanced through Steves’ audio tour.  We started out at the colosseum,  and listened to his informative and funny narrative as we walked through, then continued our way through the ruins.  I loved hearing the stories and seeing where so much history  happened.  I was standing at the place where modern civilization started and I was in awe.




At St. Peter’s Basilica,  we saw magnificent pieces of artwork and went underground  where we saw papal tombs.  Above ground, we saw  The Pieta.


Michaelangelo’s  sculpture of Mary, holding Jesus’ body after he was crucified is heartbreaking.  The way Jesus’s head is cradled in Mary’s arms and how his arm hangs limp bought tears to my eyes.   Sadly, a crazed Austrailian geologist came in with a hammer in 1972 and  began destroying it. Now the sculpture sits behind bullet-proof acrylic, where it will stay protected for years to come.  After seeing the immense Basilica, we headed over to the Sistine Chapel. To see the Sistine Chapel, you buy tickets to the Vatican Museum and work your way through to the end, where, down an endless hallway you will find the chapel.   Allow yourself plenty of time,  because there are several rooms in the museum with beautiful artwork to look at, and the endlessly long, light and airy hallway that leads to the chapel is a piece of art itself.   Lining part of the hallway are beautiful, colorful maps.  Replicas of these maps can be bought at a gift shop nearby.


Once inside the chapel, I realized that this really should be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Words defy it’s beauty, precision and magnificence. So I’ll stop now and just say I could have stayed there for hours.


All I wished was for everyone else to leave so I could lie down on the floor, look up, and take it all in. But, the crowds were thick,  people were being ushered through and a distractingly handsome guard was politely telling some teenagers to stop taking pictures.  Every time I began to get lost in thought, I was startled back to reality by  hordes of people.

After all this, Way, way, way above ground we saw Rome from a bird’s eye view. We did the dome climb. 551 steps above the earth, we could see it all.

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At night, Rome is very nice, especially near the Pantheon neighborhood.  The air is electric, the streets are crowded with shoppers, diners, and tourists and it’s fun. We sat outside at a cafe and drank wine in front of the Pantheon, and marveled at this magnificent structure.  In fact, during our whole trip to Italy, we only ate or drank inside on a few occasions, and it was usually at breakfast.  We dined al fresco, soaking up the  sultry Italian air.

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One night, we went to a restaurant that was recommended in our Rick Steves’ guide.  Yes, they had hustlers outside, trying to entice people to come in.  We took the bait, and it did not disappoint.  It was good, and we had tables that faced the crowded  street in the open air.   The place was called Ciccia Bomba, I got a kick out of watching the hustler try to get people to come in and dine.


You’ve got to have a thick skin with all the people declining what you have to offer. We sat down and  a waiter  came up and started talking to us.  He noticed our guidebook and proceeded to tell us a story. He said a while back, a group of people were eating and he heard some commotion coming from their table.  He thought that something was wrong, and that they did not like their meal. He went over to their table to check on things. Well, apparently the commotion was cause for excitement.  The group was ooing and aahhing over just how good the food was. A man in the group introduced himself as Rick Steves.   The waiter introduced himself and then  Rick Steves said his name again.  Again, the waiter, not knowing who Rick Steves was said his own name again.  Finally,  Rick Steves held up his own guidebook, pointed to his face and the guidebook and the waiter finally made the connection.   Sure enough, the restaurant was included in a subsequent edition.


So yes, there is a lot to Rome.  With all the history, dining, shopping, churches and museums, it’s a lot to take in.  Oh Rome.  Should you find your way into this lovely city, make sure to give yourself extra time and plan accordingly.  This is one city that warrants sticking to a tight schedule.

Tribal Warfare in Siena

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Medieval culture is just so cool, and it is especially so in Siena, Italy. Siena’s roots in medieval times are grounded through its architecture, food and customs.  You see, there are neighborhoods in Siena, or districts that are  represented by flags.  These flags are everywhere.  They are beautifully displayed in the cathedral, they mark the neighborhoods you are about to enter, and, of course  they are for sale through street vendors.


This tribal stuff culminates two times a year in a horse race called the Palio. Ten of these districts are chosen to compete against each in July and August.   The build-up to the race is a little crazy, the race, even crazier.  For instance, even if a rider falls off the horse,they can still win. Riders ride bare back, and they merely drop a rope that has been placed in front of the horses to signal the start of the race.  Oh, and did I mention this all takes place in the town square? For a video of this craziness click here. When horse racing is not present in Il Campo, as in the case when we were there, this piazza makes me think of Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park.   Not because of how it looks,  but because of what people do there. It is like a playground of sorts, only that it is paved with cobblestone and surrounded by towers and turrets. Il Campo is where kids chase pigeons and eat gelato, groups of teenagers pose for selfies, and couple linger and converse. The square is lined with restaurants, and we could hear eager Coumbians in yellow jerseys cheering for their team during the World Cup. Like Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, it’s a great gathering place to relax and just be.


Siena is also the city where we had, hands down, the best meal while in Italy. We were tired and hungry, and without consulting our guidebook, we left our hotel, walked around a few corners and found La Taberna di Cecco. IMG_4324We found a table outside in the alleyway, and I instantly knew this was going to be good because the menu was entirely in Italian.  Our kind waiter translated for us and recommended a few dishes. We were bought this appetizer that was out of this world.  I’m pretty sure it was crostini, and we scooped it out of a bowl and onto chunks of bread.  It  was spicy, flavorable, and so very good!   The waiter told us  it was his mother’s recipe.   While we were pouring wine out of old stone pitchers,  I looked up the street and saw flagbearers. I thought they were  practicing for the horse race which was coming up in a few weeks, so I left the table  and walked to the corner to watch. I soon realized that they were part of a beautiful and very reverent religious procession to the cathedral.  Priests, nuns, various other clergy and  finally the congregation were all making their way down the cobblestone streets. The clergy could be heard chanting over a small speaker that the procession carried. Incense was being waved through the air and Italian voices were singing as they walked along. It bought tears to my eyes.  When I got back to the table, I could hear the church bells happily clanging, signifying the procession had reached its destination.  I looked around at the ancient buildings, saw the glow from the medieval torches that lit the streets, looked around at the red geraniums in baskets and thought Damn. This place is cool.  Really, really cool.

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The Best-Laid Schemes O’ Mice an’ Men

      It all began with a late train that caused us to miss our connection back to Lucca.  We ended up having to pool our remaining cash and take a taxi.   Then, because we returned so late, we decided to sleep in a bit and take a later morning train to Florence, not realizing that there were no connections during the afternoon siesta hours. My original plan to take a cooking class was scrapped too, due to conflicting schedules.

     This is how we found ourselves with an open  day in Lucca, after our best-laid plans had gone awry. We finally decided to  take a train to Montecarlo to go wine tasting, upon the recommendation of the clerk at the apartment we were staying at. A word to the starstruck: Montecarlo, Italy  and Monte Carlo, Monaco  are two very different places. We were told that once we got to the train station in Montecarlo, that the wineries could be accessed via a short taxi ride.  Well, we got off the train and there was nobody around.  It was deserted.  

IMG_4247 We could see a bell tower at the top of a hill in the distance and what looked like a castle, so we decided to walk.


It felt like an adventure. It was quiet, there were no cars around and it was well, really, really, hot. We began to sweat as we walked by olive groves, vineyards and adorable houses-any one of which I could easily live in.


 We continued up a narrow, treelined path and finally got to the top. We walked though a stone arch and were instantly transported back in time to a medieveal town.


This is what I was talking about in a earlier post about veering off the beaten path.  There were absolutely no tourists, it was quiet and beautiful.   We were looking for a winery to go wine tasting, but weren’t having much luck. We wandered by an artisian hard at work.


 We walked by an abandoned building, and could hear the buzz of thousands of bees.  I could only imagine the honey that was dripping from inside.  We decided not to venture in to find out. 


We walked by a courtyard that looked out over the valley below. There was also a fortress, built in the 13th century. Finally, after walking around a corner we found this:




They let us in, and we sat outside on the patio, drinking wine and talking,  all the while soaking up the beautiful view. 


 Walking down the hill was much easier in the twilight hours, warm from the wine and cooler from the shade created by the setting sun. On the way back to the train station, we walked by an abandoned mansion for sale and peeked in the windows and wandered around the grounds. 

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“Knock-knock-ding-dong! Anybody home?”

  I can only imagine how beautiful this place once was.

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     I don’t think this would have been nearly as fun if we had a map. 

     Veering off this beaten path happened again in Siena.  We rented a car and drove through absolutely stunning countryside.  We never could have seen this from a train. We were driving along S-222, which we found about in our RIck Steves’ guide.  We walked around a deserted village, and took some  pictures. 

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We could hear voices from across the road, where the winery was. We walked over, only to find out it was full for the next few hours.  Undeterred, we drove down the road till we found a restaurant. There were only a few other people inside,  and the food was fantastic. They served this:


 Italy’s version of potato chips.  Thin slices of French bread drizzled in olive oil. 

We happened to drive by this resort, and made a mental note to stay here if we ever find our way back to Italy.


We were in search of an open winery, and finally found one,  only to find out it  was closed for a wedding.  Foiled again, or so it seemed until we drove on down the road.  We had once last chance before we got back to Siena.  We drove up, and a very nice lady walked to the end of the drive and greeted us.   We were thinking she was going to tell us to go away, but she was welcoming us in.  We were at Il Castagno, a boutique hotel, restaurant, winery and olive oil mecca.   Bonanza. The staff was very accommodating and so very nice.  We sat down at a table and ordered wine and appetizers. Our waiter, who spoke English, began to tell us about Tuscan wine. 

 “It is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family,”  he began,  “over conversation.”  He paused and added in a voice thick with an Italian accent “and with lovers.”   He told us that he could not understand why people drink alone, or why they come home from a long day’s work and drink in the kitchen. He said that is when problems start to happen.  And to think this beautiful place is  only a five minute drive from  Siena. 

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So sometimes when those best laid plans go awry, go with it.  Stop. Explore. See.  You may just be surprised at what you discover.


Pushing Boundaries in Cinque Terre

All I wanted to do was to lay on the beach and soak up the  warm, Mediterranean sun.

I shook out my little hotel towel, sat down, and began to breathe in the fresh, ocean air.

I was interrupted  mid-breath by a lady selling massages.  I politely declined.

Once again, I took a deep breath, looked out into the ocean and marveled at how beautiful this place was.

Then, a man selling sunglasses blocked my view, asking if I wanted to buy.

“No thanks,” I replied.

These propositions did not stop.

A  man came by  selling beach blankets, and then another came by peddling bracelets.

I had refused all until I saw the man with the beach blankets.

Shifting around uncomfortably on my hotel towel,  I asked,  “How much?”

“Thirty-five,” he said.

Still reeling from overpaying in Venice for those whirly-gig toys,  I told him no, then asked if he would take ten.

He looked at me with mock incredulousness, then said “twenty-five.”

I  shook my head and tried not to make eye contact.

He started to walk  away then turned around and asked, “fifteen?”

I told him no again, narrowed my eyes, and repeated my number.

He smiled and said “OK.  Ten.”


I was in Monterroso al Mere, one of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre (The Five Lands). While we only did a day trip from Lucca to this region, It is worthy of two days and a night. Worthy not because of museums and churches and art, but just to relax and be present in all that is Italy. We started at this northernmost town and worked our way south by boat.   Each of these five towns can be accessed by train or on foot.  Hiking paths that vary in difficulty, and trains with village stops, connect the Cinque Terre to the outside world.  We decided that traveling by  boat was the best way to go.  Unlike trains, the boats were timely and it only took 5-10 minutes to get from town to town while breathing in the fresh, salty air.  Besides, the view from the boat was breathtaking.






Each of the villages in the region have their own unique stamp. I Loved Monterroso because of the wide, sandy beaches and shallow waters.


I loved Manarola because of the quiet, hilly streets that began at the dock and passed by churches, gardens and homes.   I found that the higher we climbed up the hill along the streets, the more local it seemed.


We walked into this peaceful church,  and heard the bells ring forth.

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We could feel the fresh breeze coming off from the ocean below.


I loved Riomaggiore  because of what I learned there.  While we were walking up the dock toward the village, we saw several people swimming out to rocks that were about 30 feet high.  They were jumping from them.


We stopped and watched for awhile, as one by one they gathered up courage to jump into the clear, aqua seas.  A girl approached our group and asked one of us to video her jumping.    She joked that her mom was not going to be happy when she saw the video, because the last thing her mom said to her was, “Now be safe and don’t do any thing crazy!”   She handed us her phone, swam out to the rock and climbed to the top. She was visibly nervous, and she kept telling herself aloud that she could do this.  Finally, she jumped.  She had conquered her fear and done it.  Everyone was cheering and clapping.  She came over to us to get her phone, giddy and shaking with excitement and adrenaline. I was proud of her, and I learned that  we all need to push our own self-imposed boundaries sometimes  to see where it may lead us.

As the sun set on Cinque Terre, and we boarded the train back to Lucca, I  thought what a wonderful place this “five lands” is.  Each village is just waiting to teach the visitor a thing or two about beauty, boundaries, and life.


Sounds of Lucca and Pisa

     Quaint shops carved into medieval buildings, homes splashed in color with potted geraniums, twisting, cobblestoned streets,  and an ancient  Roman amphitheater mark the city of Lucca, Italy.

     Lucca is a walled city, and it is no wonder that this place has been  protected  for the last 2,000 years. The wall that surrounds Lucca is fortified with brick and topped with a  2 1/2 mile dirt path, and is wide enough for walkers, strollers, bikers and joggers to easily traverse without bumping into each other.  Back in the day, the city could be closed up through gates and drawbridges, and several ramparts are still here that jut out from the path.  These ramparts (pictured below) served as lookout areas, where the calvary could go to see if intruders were coming.


View from outside the walls.

Lucca’s well-preserved wall is the only wall in Italy that can be biked, walked or run upon.

     While here, we stayed at B&B Anfiteatro, which is within the city wall.  The building that our apartment was housed in was hundreds of years old.  It came with a fully stocked kitchen, a washing machine, a roomy bathroom, a living room area and a separate bedroom. I felt like a local, as we rode bikes,  cooked dinner, strolled the streets and dined al fresco. There are bars where you can get croissants and coffee in the morning, foccacia in the afternoon and wine and gelato in the evenings.

Fresh bread delivered every morning to doorsteps. Wow!


I love the screenless windows in Italy.  It seems like every town has them, and whenever I opened my windows in Lucca, I could hear  sounds of happy, busy lives.  Clanking dishes, sizzling pots, engines from tiny cars and motorcycles and the thump of soccer balls were all mixed in with conversation, laughter and  bells.   Italy’s church bells ring all the time, and it adds a nice touch to any moment throughout the day.  Whenever the bells began,   I would try to stop and look around at my surroundings and soak it all in.

     If you look up while in Lucca, the first thing you notice is an abundance of towers.  During the 1300’s, families built towers atop  their homes as  a symbol of prestige and status. You can climb one of these towers- the Guinigi tower- to get a good view of the city.

View from Guinigi Tower

I recommend climbing to the top of any available tower in whatever Italian city you are in.  It is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the layout of the land, and to marvel at the wonder of it all.

     The main piazza, and the largest in Lucca is Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.  It is built upon the ruins of a Roman ampitheater.  Restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating line the edges, along with souvenir and nick-nack shops.  Summer concerts are held here as well, and it’s a great place for people watching.

Part of the ancient Roman amphitheater is still visible at one of the entrance to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.


Lucca has good shopping too, with trendy stores alongside boutiques. We were lucky that our trip coincided with an annual antiques market.  Vendors came from all over Italy to sell their treasures. If I only had unlimited funds for purchases and shipping, I could have gone hog wild.

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     One night we decided to take advantage of our kitchen and eat in, so we stopped at a deli to try our hand at Italian cooking.  We got noodles, tomatoes and olive oil, but were in need of more things that the deli did not have out for sale.  A very kind deli worker sold us things from behind the counter so we would have a complete meal.  In regards to cooking, if instruction is desired in this area, chef Paolo Monti’s has a cooking school called Cucina Italiana. Half-day classes are only $20 euros, which is a bargain, considering you get to stuff yourself with whatever you’ve cooked. A half-day class goes from 10am to 3. It’s a good choice for something to do during a day when you are tired of traveling around and need some downtime.

     Lucca is really close to Pisa.  A bus took us from the center of town to Pisa in about 20 minutes.  We viewed the Leaning Tower of Pisa,  took dorky pictures,  and wandered around the grounds. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bell tower, and it began to lean during construction in the year 1173, due to the soft nature of the ground upon which it is built.


     Perhaps the  neatest thing we did was this: we went into the Pisa Baptistery of St. John.  We wandered into it by default really, because the duomo that we wanted to go into was closed for mass.  The Baptistery is a domed building, and every half hour, one of the guards  sends three notes into the stratosphere.   The notes echo back and a beautiful symphony is created.  It was the coolest thing!  Click on the video below to hear the sounds of the baptistery.

     Lucca is a delightful city and serves well  as a jumping off point to many other places in the area.   It’s  close to Florence, Cinque Terre and the Tuscany region and is decidedly non-touristy.

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Venice


I recently got back from my first trip abroad.  We spent nearly three weeks exploring Italy, beginning in the city of Venice.  Even though Venice is touristy, it still has lots of old-world charm. There are narrow, winding streets that spill out onto piazzas, and canals are at every turn,  filled with singing gondoliers.  It’s a happy place.  No cars are on the island itself, and you have to walk the narrow, twisty streets in order to get around.  Starting out in Venice was great, because I  realized that everything I needed to know about Italian life could be learned here.

I learned that the deeper you go into a city,  the more authentic it becomes.  Veer off the beaten path.  Take that turn up the hill or around the corner to see where it may lead.  Chances are, you will run into less tourists and more locals, and may discover something new and exciting while exploring.


I discovered that public transportation can be slow and hard to navigate at times.  This is especially true of the train system.  Make sure you know when and if there is a train change.  It is helpful to take a picture of the stops/changes that you need to make from the kiosk, as train changes are not printed on the ticket itself.


I learned that it is easy to get lost in these twisty windy streets that are not clearly marked.  I have a horrible sense of direction, and really did not wander on my own until I got to Verona, where the streets have signs on the corners and are straighter.


I stumbled upon  the trash problem in Italy.  There is a lot of trash, and granted it is hard to collect.  They either have to cart it off by boat or by small trash trucks.  These trucks are just a bit bigger than a golf cart with a dumpster attached.  Then, they have to navigate around the old cobblestones streets of Italy to collect the trash.  Not much at a time can be collected, so trash can pile up and blow around in the meantime.

Trash collection boat in Venice

 Sadly, the graffiti problem in Italy is hard to miss. It is everywhere.    Graffiti even covers buildings that are hundreds of years old.

I learned the difference between caffe and coffee.   During our first morning in Venice,  we wanted to get a cup of coffee.  We ordered a caffe, thinking that was the Italian word for coffee. Our caffe came in a tiny cup, similar to the sized cups I would drink out of when my girls were little and we had tea parties. It was filled with this thick, dark, undrinkable liquid, and no matter how much milk and sugar we put in, it did not make it taste any better.  We finally realized that we had to order a Caffe Americano, which is espresso mixed with hot water, and if they put steamed milk and cream in, it was perfect.


I realized that if you see something you like and want to buy, get it. Don’t think that you’ll come back, because  you might not be able to find the store again, or you might not have time.  I could kick myself for not buying Murano lace and Burano glass while in Venice.  We kept thinking we would have to time to go to these islands on the way out of Italy, but did not.  I walked by plenty of shops selling these things, but didn’t buy.

I learned that shoulders must be covered when going into churches; otherwise, you will have to wear a silly looking paper shawl that looks like this:

I feel like such a dork. I should have remembered my jacket.

My best advice is to bring a scarf (or buy one from one of the many vendors) to cover your shoulders with; that way, you aren’t lugging around a jacket on a hot sweaty day.

I learned that Italians take their mealtimes seriously.  Meals are meant to be eaten slowly, lingered over and enjoyed.  It was quite nice sitting around outside for two hours eating, drinking, talking and people watching during the evenings. Oh, and wine is a perfectly acceptable beverage anytime after 11am.


I learned about time management while in  Venice.  We were traveling with lots of extended family members, and we realized we had  to plan out the night before as to what we all wanted to  see and do so we could be on the same page the next day.   There are some places that require advance reservations, especially the museums in Florence and Rome. So plan in advance if you want to see sites you know you will need reservations for.

We learned not to eat on the street of Italy.  In fact, it is against many city ordinances.  The first day we got to Venice, we got a slice of pizza, because, that’s what you do for your first meal in Italy–you get pizza, right?  Well, it was in a cafe, and there were no places left to sit and eat (we had ordered at a counter) so we sat on the sidewalk and ate.  I kept wondering why we were getting the stink eye from so many people.  It was only the next day when I realized why.  While I was in St. Mark’s Square, waiting to go into the church, I was reading a sign posted with rules.  One of the rules said that eating in public spaces not intended for eating was illegal.  Lesson leaned.

We learned about tipping, or I should say not tipping in Venice.  Tipping is not necessary.  It is only customary to round-up to the next euro.

I learned about bidets, foot pumping sinks and bathrooms in Venice.   Many bathrooms in restaurants are down narrow stairs, deep in basements.  Some sinks have to be turned on by a foot pump, and we ran across a few bathrooms that did not have a toilet seat per se, just a hole in the floor.

Yes, these were in every bathroom. Still not sure as to the purpose of the unit on the right.

I learned that a lot of people smoke in Italy.  Sometimes this can get annoying, when sitting in the many outside restaurants.  You just have to try not to sit downwind or next to a smoker.

I learned my lesson about restaurant hustlers.  If a charming gentleman is outside a restaurant and is trying to get you to eat there, chances are,  it’s not a good restaurant.  And while you are eating, you will be accosted by a variety of peddlers selling their wares.  Be wary of them, and don’t pay a penny more than what you think the item is worth.  More  about this in a later post.

We paid 20 euro for these stupid light-up whirly gig toys to bring back to the kids. Ugh!

Next up: Lucca, Pisa and the cities of Cinque Terre