Asolo, Italy

I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have two parents hailing from opposite ends of the same country. The north and south of Italy couldn’t be more different, and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to see both. Mum’s side of the family are from the north, up near Venice, so I really wanted to show some of the little towns and villages in the area that most people who visit Venice never get to. While the island is obviously incredible, I wonder how many people would kick themselves if they knew what they were missing on the mainland…

Asolo is one of those little towns up in the foothills of the Dolomites that you picture when you think to yourself “how gorgeous it must be to hire a car and just drive and explore little medieval cobblestoned villages.” Dating back to pre-Roman times, Asolo has been around for a very long time, and hopefully won’t be going anywhere soon. And getting there is as easy as leaving the Venice islands for the mainland and hiring a car.

With cobbled streets, creeping greenery, delicious food in windows, remainders of medieval buildings, and seriously stunning views, it’s easy to see why so many artists and writers find their way there. Dame Freya Stark, explorer, traveller and writer, was one of those – she visited Asolo for the first time in 1923, eventually retired there, and passed away a few months after her 100th birthday there. That’s her villa in the photo below…

Asolo is one of those towns that managed to retain all of its old-world charm while Venice was being slowly commercialised and destroyed by tourism. They don’t get a heap of visitors, comparatively, and it’s so much more beautiful for that (so if you visit it, please do so respectfully!) – it’s the sort of place you want to find a little table balanced on cobblestones to sit at while you drink wine, a place you’d want to visit with a sketch book and pencil, even if you can’t draw. The fact that there isn’t a heap of big tourist attractions to see and do there is what makes it such a great place to visit as a break from the chaos that can be Venice.

Advertisements

Stay here: The Art Inn, Florence, Italy

The Art Inn
6, Piazza di San Lorenzo, Florence
http://theartinn.com

Once we realised we’d be in Florence for New Year’s Eve, husband and I thought we’d better to book our accommodation in ASAP – it’s not the biggest city in the world, but young people from all over Tuscany come flooding in for it and we didn’t want to miss out on somewhere to sleep!

We vetoed Airbnb and decided to treat ourselves to an actual hotel to ring in the new year. A bit of searching and comparing prices led me to The Art Inn, and I was super sceptical – it seemed too cheap for what t promised. Turns out my scepticism was completely unfounded.

The Art Inn brand is only a few years old, starting in 2013 in Lisbon, and having expanded now to Florence, Seattle and Rotterdam. The concept is boutique hotel specifically located in an area of the city central to both major attractions and public transport, and decorated with art work inspired by the city. Florence is home to some really beautiful art, so it seems like an obvious choice to set up one of their hotels there. So why stay there?

Location. Unbeatable. A few minutes walk from Florence’s main train station and right on the doorstep of the San Lorenzo Market and Il Duomo.

Room size. Enormous! After spending the last several weeks in tiny European apartments and hotel rooms, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we were taken to our room. Very spacious, every room has its own unique pieces of art to admire. And the space doesn’t stop in the room – bathrooms are massive, too..

Amenities. Free wifi, an excellent breakfast included at a cafe a few doors down, in room mini bar, complimentary bottle of water, tea and coffee, tv, iPod dock, toiletries hairdryer. And there’s an absolutely beautiful library/reading room for guests to relax in.

Service. Every email was answered within a few hours, and no question was too silly. We were greeted with a smile and a “hello” every time we left and returned . And when we realised the week before visiting that we had no restaurant reservation for New Year’s Eve dinner, I emailed the hotel, and we had a table at one of the best restaurants in town half an hour later.

Value for money. We stayed for 3 nights over the New Year’s period, with a cafe breakfast included every morning, and paid around AUD $650.00.

Eat here: Flavio Al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy (Italian)

Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Via di Monte Testaccio 97, Rome
http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/en/home

In Rome’s Testaccio district, the ex-garbage dump of the ancient Romans (literally, there’s a hill around the corner from here that we found while walking around to kill time before lunch that was made from broken Roman terracotta), where the tourists rarely venture, is a bowl of pasta that is the stuff of legends.

It’s a dish that’s just now gaining momentum and becoming trendy (god help us), and it’s so simple it sounds downright boring, made with only three ingredients: pasta, cheese and pepper. Seriously – that’s it. Well, it’s not, there’s a real art to it, and Elizabeth will explain it to you better than I can if you want to take a quick detour to her blog.

I knew we were eating cacio e pepe when we visited Rome, and there’s only one person I trusted to recommend the right place to eat it – and Elizabeth Minchilli didn’t let me down. Having seen a ridiculous number of bowls of this dish on her Instagram account in the year leading up to our trip, all from the same restaurant, it was decided we’d make the trip out to Testaccio to visit Flavio’s.

The restaurant itself is one of those you’d-miss-it-if-you-weren’t-looking-for-it kind of places. No big flashy signs out the front, no neon lights in the shape of pasta bowls, just a little gated courtyard with the name clearly printed above it.

We rolled in right on opening time, because we heard it got busy fast – it did. The place is surprisingly big inside, with several dining areas seperated by walls and corridors. The tables were laid with crisp white linen, and the staff gave the immediate impression of being a very well-oiled machine, to the point of being almost mechanical – I’m guessing the Roman regulars have a bit of a warmer welcome, though.

I knew what I wanted to try well before I saw the menu – cacio e pepe, obviously. A deep fried artichoke. And pasta carbonara. Oh, and a bottle of wine, because, when in Rome…

I’m used to my family’s artichokes, which are marinated in oil and herbs (and are very good), so a deep fried one was very different – and so, so good. The petals were like salty little artichoke chips, and the heart was still soft and sweet underneath all that crunchiness. Perfect starter, clearly, because every other table in the room had one, too.

Then came the pasta – the tonnarelli (like fat spaghetti) cacio e pepe did not disappoint. Perfectly al dente pasta smothered in cheese and pepper is a thing of beauty. Husband said it was the best bowl of pasta he’s ever eaten. Again, a clear winner, because every table seemed to have at least one bowl of this.

The other bowl of pasta I chose was rigatoni carbonara. This is one of my favourite meals, but I don’t order it at home, because most restaurants don’t know how to make it. Contrary to popular belief, carbonara is not made with cream; it’s made with eggs. So when restaurants make it with cream and call it “authentic Italian,” it makes my blood boil. But here, they make it right, with eggs. And guanciale (cured pork jowl, one of my favourite meaty things). And more cheese. And let me tell you, even though it may not look like much, that was the best bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Nonna).

We washed it all down with what was left of the bottle of wine, used the contents of the complimentary bread basket to mop up what was left of the sauces, rolled out the front door and continued to talk about lunch for the next three days. If you’re only going to eat pasta at once place in Rome, make sure it’s at Flavio’s. And that’s coming from an Italian.

Eat here: S.Forno Panificio, Florence, Italy (bakery)

S.Forno Panificio
Via Santa Monaca 3r, Florence
http://t.ilsantobevitore.com

My auntie is a wonderful artist; she often travels to Italy to paint (because it’s impossible to not be inspired by such a gorgeous country), which means she has plenty of opportunities to find some real hidden gems. When I told her we’d be visiting Florence again, she told me I had to go to S.Forno. She was right.

The beautiful little bakery we found actually looked like it’d be more at home in Fitzroy or Collingwood than a tiny side street in Florence, but the retro decor and feel isn’t just fabricated to be reminiscent of the past. This is actually an old bakery that’s been rescued from certain doom by an enterprising  group of people…

The space has been a forno (bakery) for over 100 years. For the past 40 years, baker Angelo has walked into the store every morning to prepare freshly baked bread for the local Florentines. But something happened lately. After years of 7-day weeks and 18-hour days Angelo needed time beyond the bakery business and local restaurant team behind the successful Il Santo Bevitore came to the rescue. Partnering with Angelo, they have brought the business, but kept the baker, to ensure its place in the neighbourhood is secure for the future.
                                                                            – Lost in Florence

The daily offerings were written up on a chalkboard behind the counter, and assorted baskets were filled with loaves of bread. The front counter’s display case was filled with a mixed bunch of cake trays topped with an assortment of sweet treats, and the air smelt like freshly baked bread. Heaven. Husband and I were told the food was delicious and it didn’t disappoint; we ate cauliflower quiche and a prosciutto-topped slice of foccacia for lunch, and they were divine. While we ate, we watched customer after customer come through the door and leave with arms full of fresh bread.

We weren’t ready to leave after lunch; the atmosohere and people watching was too good. Sitting in there felt like total immersion in Florentine life, and we couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of it. Also, the sweets looked too good to leave without sampling.

Just to be clear, this is not a coffee shop. There’s no fancy espresso machine or 2 page caffeine menu. The focus is on the dough. But they are kind enough to offer some self-service, stock-standard American coffee and boiling water for tea, so we grabbed some of that and chose two typically Tuscan desserts – a baked rice cake, and a piece of castagnaccio, made from chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and raisins.

Don’t be fooled by the nondesctipt façade; the service and atmosohere are both so warm and welcoming, and the food is some of the best in the city. It seems that they’ve arrived at the perfect balance between old traditon and new innovation, and that should earn them a visit when you’re next in Florence!

Through my eyes: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk upon cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes 🙂

Shop here: Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice, Italy

Libreria Acqua Alta
Where? Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5176/B, 30122 Venice
When? Open daily 09:00 – 20:00

If you’ve ever been to Venice in the colder months, you’ll have no doubt seen what looks like trestle tables stacked up in random corners of the city (go on, Google it – I’ll wait). The city is not perpetually prepared for a giant street party; it’s ready for acqua alta.

When the tide rises, the waters of the Adriatic Sea come roaring in, and poor little Venice dips even further under water for a while! Those trestle tables go up to be used as elevated walkways (called passarelle), and everyone tries to keep their belongings and merchandise dry.

Luigi found a novel solution for the bookshop he named after this natural inconvenience, which he opened in 2004 – he put his books in water proof bins, small boats, bathtubs, even a gondola, parked in the middle of the store. When you open a store full of books on an island that’s slowly sinking, you have to take some extreme precautions!

It’s a haphazardly arranged shop with both new and old tomes, a fire escape that leads to a canal, and a stairway to heaven made of old books with one hell of a view from the top. The staff member I spoke to, while not terribly friendly, did speak English and was able to point me in the right direction. There are some books in English, French, Spanish – mostly they’re in Italian, though. There’s really not much else to write about this place that other bloggers haven’t already So, here’s another set of photos from this little piece of heaven, because how could you possibly get sick of looking at these?!

Eat here: D.O.C. Pizza & Mozzarella Bar, Melbourne (Italian) – V.2

D.O.C. Pizza & Mozzarella Bar
295 Drummond St, Carlton
http://docgroup.net/

Following on from Friday’s not-a-Valentine’s-Day post, I thought I’d keep going with lunch. While we often go out for lunch or dinner on weekends, it’s usually pretty simple and inexpensive stuff; a bowl of noodles from a local Vietnamese place or a burger off the back of a truck, or maybe a nice little breakfast or brunch.

We don’t really spend money on extravagances – I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought full price clothing, let alone designer stuff, I paint my own nails instead of getting a $40 manicure every week, I work out at home instead of paying for a gym membership, and I’ve happily had the same car since my 21st birthday. We’ve learnt recently that we put a lot more value on experiences rather than material stuff, and we’ve been a lot happier since we started really prioritising that. And with all that saved money going straight into our travel fund, every now and then, we don’t feel too bad about treating ourselves. Last Sunday (and yes, it was Valentine’s Day!), we decided to treat ourselves.

After a lovely morning tea and coffee stop at Juno & May, followed by a good trawl through Camberwell Market, we  made our way into Carlton. I always like to drop into the Reading’s book shop when I visit Lygon Street, so we stopped by there and picked up another few travel books. When I blogged about our first visit to D.O.C, I mentioned that I had some crazy travel ideas floating about in my head. Like the fact that I’d already plotted out the next few years worth of travel in my head. The thing to know about me is that while I’m not at all a competitive person, I am incredibly stubborn and head strong. If I decide I want to make something happen, it’s happening. Like the Egypt/Europe trip. And the 6 week USAdventure. A logical, reasonable person might have thought hey were impossible tasks; challenge accepted. The next big trip is going to make those two look like cake walks. We have a few smaller trips between now and then, but, as per our last discussion at D.O.C., this next big one is going to involve a good chunk of time in Italy, a hire car, and some little towns that I visited many years ago and want to go back to. Towns like Asolo. Bassano del Grappa. San Gimignano. Lucca. Vinci. Cittadella. Oh my God. I CANNOT WAIT! So, with our travel books and dreams in hand, we enjoyed another amazing D.O.C. lunch while taking another step in turning this next “dream” into reality.

Lunch was amazing, though, as expected. First up was the mixed antipasto platter, with all of my favourites, including bresaola, artichoke, rockmelon with prosciutto (if you’re not Italian, this is going to sound weird, but I promise it works), grilled fix stuffed with gorgonzola, … all of the good stuff! It was a perfect starter to share, and deceptively filling.

When it came to picking a pizza, it was the San Daniele, again. Because it’s the perfect pizza for us. The perfect pizza dough topped with sweet San Marzano tomatoes, melt-in-your-mouth San Daniele prosciutto and those incredible chunks of mozzarella, drizzled with oil… Can’t get better than that! We also thought we’d throw in a salad (not realising how big or filling the antipasto board would be) and went with the pesto smothered baby spinach with pine nuts, bocconcini and cherry tomatoes. Perfect match with the pizza.

It’s places like this that combine friendly service and the absolute best produce in a simple way that make me so proud to be Italian  : )  I’m also really thankful to have found someone who loves and appreciates my heritage, too. It’s something that’s a big part of me, and I really feel honoured to be able to share it with my husband in ways as small as sharing a meal like this, and in ways as big as being able to travel with him to the beautiful country where so much of my family still live. If you’re looking for a little taste of Italy this week, it’s probably time to visit D.O.C… And if you can recommend any other places that do “your” food particularly well, please share!