Italian Iter | Florence

Giotto's Tower
We arrived on a bustling Saturday when Florence’s narrow streets were particularly packed with leather hand bags and tour groups. I had forgotten about transportation on wheels. Suddenly surrounded by growling motorcycles and careening bikes, I had to remind myself how to share the streets after Venice’s pedestrian paradise.

We stayed a short walk east of the Duomo on a street where every door and window was shuttered, save for the corner convenience store where John bought a shaving razor. The street may have been unwelcoming, but we loved our AirBnb, a sunny, spacious, top floor apartment.

Food and Drink

We ate very, very well, but there were some awkward moments. At Vivanda (listed below) we had a 7pm reservation, but were told multiple times that we needed to finish by 9pm even before we had ordered. We wanted to say: We’re American; we can eat and be out of here in 30 minutes if necessary! Also, at the Florentine happy hour buffets, it’s either buffet or nothing. At one such place, when we really wanted to rest our legs and have drink, the woman behind the counter politely asked us to leave since we weren’t planning to eat. I’m always fascinated by the protocols of food in other cultures. In the US, everyone wants to make a buck; we’ve never been turned away from a mostly empty restaurant or bar.

A directory of favorites:

Mercato Centrale – Downstairs is a traditional market, where John had a boiled beef sandwich at Il Nerbone — definitely worth the long line. Upstairs is a food hall, very New York. At Marcella Bianchi’s Il Vegetariano e Vegano, we had phenomenal veggie burgers, like one with eggplant and spicy mayo. We ate food from a few of the stalls and everything was excellent. No pressure, no reservations, but there is always a line for the bathroom.

All’ Antico Vinaio  – This sandwich spot has opened up three storefronts on the same street to accommodate its steady business. John loved his porchetta sandwich, and while there was no stated vegetarian offering, a man begrudgingly made a sandwich for me with artichoke spread, roasted zucchini and eggplant.

Eby’s – Because sometimes you just want sangria and empanadas.

Archea Brewery – Great selection of house brews and guest beers with friendly bartenders.

Gosh – Visit this bar for the fabulous flamingo themed wallcoverings.

Il Santino – One side is a formal restaurant and the other side is a winebar, which is where we went. We had a delectable Tuscan cheese plate and tried different wines. From our seats at the tiny bar, we watched three women handle the orders coming in; they’d chop herbs, pour wine, use a hand-turned slicer on cured meats. The best of kind of theater!

Vivanda – At this tiny vegetarian-friendly spot, the server might tell you to hurry up at first, but eventually she will relax, smile, and leave you alone. We had an excellent dinner — pea fritters, asparagus ravioli with sausage, farro bowl with pesto.

Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina Across from the Pitti Palace, this winebar offers exquisite food (scallops; crustless zucchini tart) and wine (an orange pinot grigio). I really only want to return to Florence so that I can eat here again.

Recipe – Farro Salad

Inspired by Vivanda:

Mix warm cooked farro with pesto — any pesto whether made with basil, radish greens, beet greens, etc. Throw in chopped walnuts, olives, and grated Parmesan to taste.

For a more substantial salad, add sauteed zucchini, beans, chopped tomatoes.

Recipe – Olive Caprese Snack

Inspired by Il Santino:

Chop a tomato. Toss with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Slice a loaf of good bread. Smear olive tapenade, like Divina Kalamata Olive Spread, on a slice. Top with the marinated tomatoes. Pull apart a ball of buffalo mozzarella and arrange the pieces on the tomatoes. Garnish with shredded basil, salt, and pepper.

Top Five Sites

I visited Florence for two days back in March 2006 on a college trip. This time, I had the chance to explore much more of the city. John and I especially enjoyed:

Seeing the most magnificent sculpture on Earth. We also visited the Medici Chapels, but beware:  the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a scam. Go to the back — not to the church entrance! Otherwise you’ll have to buy two separate tickets.
Basking in the gold of Botticelli’s luminous paintings at the Uffizi. Photo source: Wikimedia, Google Art Project.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Walking along the verdant, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli and Viale Galileo. We started at the Pitti Palace and walked up and around to peaceful San Miniato al Monte, where the monks were singing. Our excursion ended with this splendid view from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Firenze street art
Celebrating the work of living artists. Blub always depicts his iconic subjects underwater. We loved Florence’s playful street art, which gave the city a little edge along with its awesome vintage stores and hip arts center in an old prison near Sant’Ambrogio market. We also enjoyed exploring traditional workshops, like I Mosaici di Lastrucci (inlaid stone mosaics — no grout used) and L’ippogrifo stampe d’arte (etchings and prints).
Blessing the vines
Sampling the bounties of Tuscany! Through Viator, we signed up for a half-day tour of two wineries: Tenuta del Palagio and Famiglia Mazzarrini – Poggio Amorelli. At the tastings, we enjoyed not only Chianti Classico, but the more experimental “Supertuscan” wines along with aged balsamic vinegar, olive oils, pecorino cheese, and bread. It felt great to ride in a bus and let someone else make all the decisions for us!
Toilet Troubles

A very quirky washer/dryerIn Florence my misadventures did not concern a toilet, but a different piece of hardware in the bathroom of our AirBnb: the combo washer/dryer. Although our host had given John a thorough orientation and even supplied us with the manual, we still missed an essential step. For the thing to dry, it must be on “1/2 load”. We thought we’d run it over night and wake up to dry clothes. Instead we stayed up half the night wondering where the machine was in its endless 14-step cycle. Fed up, we found a huge drying rack and used that instead. However, for the second load, we used the proper setting. The clothes turned out to be about 40% dry. Better than nothing! It was worth it to have clean clothes!


Social Encounters

Another restaurant anecdote: We arrived at the exact same time as another couple. Although all the tables outside were empty, we were seated next to each other. They were mid-20s; he was American, she was South African, which we deduced from her accent and stated dislike of Afrikaans rap. In such close quarters, just a few inches apart, John and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and, of course, judge. The other couple closely followed the art market, but neither were artists — she was on break from law school; who knows about him. He was trying to remember the name of the artist whose painting recently sold for more than $100 million. I can’t remember what clues he gave, but John said “Basquiat” out loud. He said it again louder. They ignored him.

Notes for Next Time

Take the train in for the day and go all out for the prix fixe lunch at Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Stop at Mercato Centrale and buy a bunch of goodies to go. Escape to the Tuscan hills.
Chianti country viewContinue reading: Rome 


Month of Travel: New York, Part 1

In 2011, I attended the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, but have never been able to return due to work…until 2017! At last! The festival was just one of many delights during four days in New York.

Three days after arriving home from Toronto, John and I load up the car for New York. The drive up couldn’t be easier, especially now that we don’t have to stop for tolls. I simply chant “EZPass EZPass” and clap as we go through the express lanes.

In Brooklyn, Cousin Deanna stands in a parking spot and flags us down. Christmas trees lie on the sidewalks and it smells wonderful. For lunch, Deanna takes us to her spot, Le Paddock, where we all go nuts for deviled eggs.


Day 1: World Trade Center to Greenwich Village

John and I head to Lower Manhattan for a hedonistic walking tour. We start at Le District, part grocery store, part French-themed food hall, to enjoy a red from Vacqueyras and a white from Savenniéres at the wine bar. A scoop of espresso ice cream follows for me! From there, we follow the Hudson Greenway bike path north to Greenwich Village.

Tribeca at dusk

We wander through narrow, quiet streets and spot one restaurant. From the corner, it beckons us with its multi-pane windows and the candlelight within. We see people inside and decide we should be early diners too. Sitting at the bar of the Little Owl, truly little with barely 10 tables, we drink Mondeuse and Falanghina, while I eat delicious Eggplant Parmesan.

From there, we stop at Employees Only, a cocktail bar that routinely lands on lists. The friendly doorman draws back a black velvet curtain and we find ourselves in the 1920s. The only anachronism is that the bartenders wear chef’s coats. John has the Billionaire’s Cocktail — bourbon, lemon, grenadine, absinthe bitters —  and for me, Besos Calientes — tequila, grapefruit, lime, habanero bitters. For the two of us, it’s such a relaxing moment. We haven’t seen each other much the last few weeks and tonight we are finally catching up.

On Bleecker Street, we look at the shops and ponder why a crowd is peacefully dissenting “Let her go! Let her go!” outside a police station. (One person across the street tells us a woman put a poster up where she wasn’t supposed to have, but how does that warrant arrest?) Like good Americans, we quickly forget justice and start shopping. John almost buys a vintage vest, but it is too small. Then, I spot the rainbow-colored storefront of David’s Tea and buy two small bags: Turmeric Glow and North African Mint. Good stuff! We take a whirl around Murray’s Cheese.

John hasn’t eaten much and when he spots the word “tacos” across from Murray’s, his hunger suddenly reveals itself. At garage-like Tacombi, we’re lucky to get seated right away. I move to non-alcoholic drinks and have a super sweet horchata. John tries almost every kind of tiny taco they have — fish, beef, pork, all delicious — and I eat two of the sweet potato-black bean tacos. With corn on the side, we are so content. It’s a short walk to the F train. And what do you know? We home in Brooklyn at 9pm.

Day 2: Upper East Side

For today we have two goals: see art and explore another food hall. On 58th Street, we strike out at Fika, a Swedish coffee shop that by 10am is cleaned out of every last morsel. But with a short walk east, we find heavenly croissants at Plaza Hotel’s Food Hall. We scope the place out and confirm our plans to return for lunch.

Plaza Hotel

In the shadow of Trump Tower, we walk to an unremarkable office building. In search of Galerie St. Etienne, we mistakenly press the elevator button for the 4th floor. The doors open onto a bizarre scene: in a cavernous space, white and purple lights flash and sputter. We can’t see anyone and there’s an accompanying sound, reminiscent of the blaring noises in Mad Max: Fury Road. We know it’s some kind of art installation, but we’re desperate to get away. On the 8th floor, however, we find the Galerie, tucked amidst doctors’ offices. The exhibit “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party” brings us here. Hugo Gellert and Sue Coe are two artists whose work strikes us.


At the Society of Illustrators, a few blocks north, we check our coats and settle into exploring this institution, which exhibits art, holds competitions, and offers workshops for artists. We see work by the most talented illustrators living today in the exhibit: “Illustrators 59: Uncommissioned, Institutional, Advertising”, an annual juried show. Then on the upper floors, John and I marvel (har-har) at the work of comic book illustrator Tony Harris. Still yet on the third floor, we see a Norman Rockwell mural and wonderful work by artists who designed covers for classic magazines like Woman’s Home Companion and Redbook. For John, this is a pilgrimage. Next time, he’ll go to one of their themed sketch nights!

For a break, we walk over to Central Park where the sun spills over the rocks and the wind can’t reach us.

View from Central Park

Then to lunch at the Plaza Food Court! Seats may be hard to come by, but we eventually get a spot where we have no choice but to listen to a younger woman describe to an older woman, a family friend it seemed, every step in her thought process about whether to move in with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, my broccoli and feta sandwich from No. 7 Sub is fantastic, while John’s fennel sausage from Todd English hits the spot. While I finish up, John decides to find dessert; he comes back with a bag of hot cinnamon and sugar doughnut holes from the Doughnuttery. I buy a small canister from Kusmi tea and then we pick up a kouign amann pastry to eat later. Oh heaven!

Inspired by our visit to the Society of Illustrators, we set off for the St. Regis Hotel, where a Maxfield Parrish mural of “Old King Cole” dominates the bar. In San Francisco, we paid a pretty penny to sit beneath Parrish’s “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” at the Palace Hotel. The drinks cost even more here! But the little bar snacks are delicious.


For the last mural of the day, we take a short subway ride up to the Met. In 2013, we went to the AXA Equitable Tower only to learn that the Thomas Hart Benton mural, American Today (1931), had been moved! Now, in 2017, we see it in its new home — a custom room where one can sit surrounded by the 10-canvas panorama!


While at the Met, we also see an exhibit about Max Beckmann, a German artist who moved to New York in the late 1940s. He apparently spent much time at the St. Regis Hotel and the Plaza Hotel — exactly like us!  And I finally get to the Costume Institute!

A happy day of art and with so many lifelong dreams met, John and I board the subway back to the Brooklyn.

Now with Deanna, we head to dinner at Le Paddock and then on to Golden Fest at Grand Prospect Hall. The festival has gotten bigger, but the wine is just as strange and the music just as brilliant! I know to strip down to a tank top and jump into the circle. Deanna and John join me off and on, but mainly I am left to swirl in a sea of sweaty hands and nimble feet. I give myself over to the arrhythmic beats and bilateral dancing patterns.


When I can dance no more, I go upstairs to the balcony to watch from above. Here one can easily spot the factions, the dancers out of sync, the knowledgeable dancers doing some trickier variant. It’s a marvelous chaotic soup.

Following tradition, we three must have pizza after Balkan Fest! No one remembers where we went six years ago, so Deanna and John do some searching and decide on American Cheez, a bar that serves free pizza when you buy a drink. Really? Yes! The owner treats us like he’s known us forever; 70s rock plays; the women’s bathroom is plastered with old John Travolta photos; posters everywhere; a few TVs — one showing an old movie. The owner gets down his Trump and Ron Burgundy figurines and puts them in all kinds of compromising positions. We love the whole spirit of the place. And truly, there is nothing better than pizza at midnight, but really I’m exhausted and ready to sleep.

Continue to Part 2