Italy

5 Gems in Salento

In Baseball, you bring the all dependable closer to finish the game. It doesnt have to be necessarily the best player, but one with just the right skill set for the job. Similarly, in travel, you often find just the right place to add to the itinerary, that seals the deal. It doesnt have to be the highlight, but one that checks the rest of the boxes. Salento is the Mariano Rivera of the travel closers. The plush white towns of Valle d’Itria, and the atmospheric Matera will make you want more. While the spectacular Salento coastline, and Florence of the south, Lecce, will finish the job.

There’s only one little problem with Salento. Its not exactly know for its food. The Florence of the south thing, has nothing to do Bisteccas. But the heel of the boot is not exactly lacking in quality ingredients. You got some of the finest tomatoes in the world, fantastic seafood, top tier olive oil, and splendid local Cheese you’ll find everywhere. But for some reason, its not known for a wealth of great dining destination, at least compared to the rest of the country. Maybe its a misnomer, or entirely wrong conclusion on my part. Either way, have no worries folks. Uncle Z is here to help. Here are five places that may perk your interest.

Trattoria La Puritate (Gallipoli) – Trattoria la pure joy. As beautiful as Gallipoli is, to me this is one of the reasons to visit. The famous Gallipoli shrimp baked in salt, and plated table side was unlike any shrimp dish I ever tasted. Stellar pastas like Linguine with shrimp, with fish and turmeric, or with Bonito. You cant go wrong with either of the three, or a fresher than fresh simply grilled Amberjack. Puritate is a bit old school, but comfortable and inviting. One of the most memorable meals of the entire trip.

SoFish (Otranto) – I’ve already written about this gem in the Otranto post. As the name implies SoFish is a hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. Note “Quick” in Italy is roughly an hour. It appears that this is a relatively new fast spreading concept, started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare. Although more of a restaurant this is a sound alternative to your usual bready quickies.

The menu features a nice selection of seafood sandwiches, salads and excellent craft beer (Reminder: Italian craft beer is most underrated in the world). While everything we tried was good, the lobster roll is worth a dedicated blog post. Its one of the most outrageous Lobster Rolls I ever had. Pricy (for Puglia) but once you get it you see why. More like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top.

400 Gradi (Lecce) – Highly acclaimed Neapolitan, and arguably the finest pizza in Puglia. According to this well regarded list, one of the best in the world. Delicious, perfectly chewy crust, with top notch, zero km ingredients. And I suppose I reached the pivotal point in my life where I had to try pizza shaped like a star and the one here, with Ricotta filled sun rays didn’t disappoint. Its a bit outside the closest old city gate, and quite popular with the locals. So come as soon as they open or be prepared to wait.

Ristorante Blu Notte (Lecce) – If I have to pick one must on this list, this is the one. In fact I started writing a dedicated post on this one, before I quickly realized I dont have enough pictures and material for a full story. Its a relatively unknown place that I havent seen mentioned anywhere. We come from NYC where much of the seafood is imported, and so we go abroad with a certain appetite, sometimes even in areas not known for seafood (eg Bologna). Blu Notte satisfied the urge and then some.

But the best part is that we stumbled upon it by pure luck after two other places I marked were closed during lunch, and the skies were getting angrier. We watched the old streets of Lecce practically get flooded within minutes. The house antipasti alone here is worth the “price of admission”. A dozen or so land, sea, and street food delights. But the pastas weren’t too shabby either, especially the outstanding Seppia with shrimp. Fantastic homemade desserts and really a flawless meal from start to finish.

Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone (Galatina) – In Lecce and much of Salento you’ll see these pastries called Pasticciotto everywhere. You’ll find them in every bakery, B&B, and featured in every food tour. Eat them at your own risk, since once you’ll try them at this Pasticceria where they were invented, every other Pasticciotto will taste pedestrian. Tour buses including week long food tours make the pilgrimage to this place. Smart to build an impressive 15th century Basilica nearby, with some of the most stunning frescoes you’ll find anywhere.

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This is Polignano a Mare

Volare, oh-oh. Cantare, oh-oh-oh-oh. Everybody!

When you stroll the winding streets of Polignano a Mare in Puglia, one of the first things you’ll notice is that everyone is humming the same song. Everyone except the locals that is. They still wont forget that Volare singer Domenico Modungo who left Polignano a Mare as a child never mentioned the city much as an adult. Maybe the reason the residents turned his statue around to face them, instead of the sea, was to throw produce at him on occasion. They probably do it with Calabrian tomatoes as they are very proud of their own. My youngest will be the first to tell you that we couldn’t get enough of Puglia tomatoes.

Nel blu dipinto di blu. I wish there was a way to embed videos here. Wait… Googling… looks like not only there is, but I’ve done it before.

Volare means to fly. And Polignano a Mare, with its limestone cliffs, and majestic balcony views will make you wish you could. You can see what inspired Modungo within minutes of your arrival. Just 30 minutes from Bari, and a short drive from Monopoli, another stunner, Polignano is one of Puglia’s biggest gems. Its not exactly a secret in Europe these days. But in the US, pretty much anything outside the Rome-Florence-Venice express is fairly unknown. Polignano a Mare is exhibit 1-A why it makes sense to veer off the route, or come back to see the rest.

You can start your flying lessons by diving from those cliffs as many do. Polignano after all is home to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. For American readers, this World Series involves athletes and teams from all over the world. A curious concept. The beaches here are rocky, but the water is crazy inviting. We opted for a swim in one of the many caves off a boat.

I’m not necessarily advocating to stay here for a few days. I havent done it so I dont know what its like. But Polignano is as touristy as they come, for good reason. Exploring it on one day, and from the water on another, would compliment your Puglia adventure nicely. Doing both on the same day is a tough task, especially if you want to include a nice seafood fest at the excellent Antiche Mura. Or if you are strictly after a setting like no other with no budget in mind, you got the famed Grotta Palazzese and its cave restaurant.

You will also want to spend some time in San Vito, where most of the boats take off. Easy to get there with a car or a short Tuk Tuk taxi from Polignano. The San Vito Monastery, beach and picturesque port will make you stick around a bit, while waiting for a Dorino boat. Seeing the cliffs, the mesmerizing caves, and swimming within one is an experience you wont quickly forget. The slightly X rated Dorino stories can only add to the experience. This is a great way to see Poligano a Mare from the water

San Vito

You can easily get lost in the old town, but keep going until you reach yet another terrace. You will take the same pictures again and again, and be thankful for all those photography classes you took. I didnt as you can see. Your best bet is to stop reading immediately, and look at Google. In my defense, I didnt know I will resume blogging when we visited Puglia. In my defense when I used to blog, shaky hands, excessive drinking.

After lunch at Antiche Mura, you may want to visit Super Mago del Gelo Mario Campanella, or Super Mario in short. Skip the hyped ice cream in favor of the specialty coffee with lemon and Amaro. Turns out we’ve been drinking coffee wrong for centuries.

Another tip: Combine Monopoli and the boat tour from San Vito on one day, and spend a day in Polignano on another, for a more leisurely visit to the coast. Or consider staying in Monopoli for a few days, especially if you are not driving. Not only more subdued, but positioned well for day trips, and beaches.

In closing I should mention that my thoughts are with the residents of Fort Myers and area. Although we lived through Sandy, and even lived in South Florida briefly, I cant even begin to imagine what they are going through. Its really tough to watch, and scary that Ian is regaining strength and about to strike again. In the small chance you are reading this from Ian’s path, I hope you stay safe.

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Four Gems in/near Alberobello

Lets get the puns out of the way. The Trulli town of Alberobello is truly magnificent. The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of Puglia’s main selling points. After the initial shrug of “why Puglia, what’s there”, all you need to do is show pictures of some random Trulli, followed by pictures of Polignano a Mare, followed by a church in the shape of a Trullo, and before you know it, she’s shopping for yellow dresses.

Spending two nights in Trulli Disney in a Trullo was an unforgettable experience. The only thing we forgot was Mrs Z’s (and mine) favorite bra hanging behind the bathroom door. But the touristy nature of the town made it a bit more challenging to find good food. Unlike food heaven Ceglie Messapica, I did not get the sense that Alberobello is known for its cuisine, hence half of the places mentioned here are actually in the nearby town of Noci.

Al Boschetto in Noci – Fantastic find. We stopped here for lunch on the way from Matera as I was looking for a safe place to park with luggage. Unfortunately in Italy you have to think about that. A sprawling, old school, formal without the formal prices type. We were the only tourists in a packed house on a Monday afternoon, with clientele ranging from the business type and nonnas who lunch. They had an American celebrity spotting not too long ago and I swore not to tell. Frankly I forgot who it was anyway.

This is where we started questioning the amount of food we ordered the rest of the trip. One needs to come to Puglia just to experience the thrill of the house antipasti, an array of 6 to 20 small plates that most restaurants we visited offered. Here it was a brilliant combination of all sorts of salami (Martina Franca Capocollo of course), cheese, fried goodies, marinaded veggies and more. Extra brownie points for offering us to half the pastas when the waiter noticed we were making funny full noises, which we gladly accepted. Tagliatelle with seafood was the undisputed winner among the Primis. Highly recommend.

L’antica Locanda in Noci – This is a popular “Slow Food” legend that required me to reserve well ahead from home, via phone. Parking was a little challenging in Noci, especially with two cars in our case, but we managed. The town seemed quite busy with a picturesque square and a tourist free old town. You know there are no other tourists by the “are you lost?” stares.

While we were eating, heard some fireworks nearby, probably to commemorate Johnny Depp’s court win. Or maybe I just heard them in my head after tasting the pear, ricotta, rum dessert. A deadly combination and solid contender for best dish of the night. The Plin-like Raviolini was exceptional, as were the scrumptious meats. A very solid meal all around probably deserving its own dedicated post.

Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello – I suppose it should not surprise anyone that most places on this post arent in tourist central Monti area, the busiest of the two Unesco zones in Alberobello. Il Guercio is located in the newer part of the city. We noticed that after the day visitors are gone in Monti so is the electricity. The evenings are as dead as the current Nasdaq bounces (trying.. not… to… look). Il Guercio on the other hand, got fairly busy after 9 pm, so make reservations or come as soon as they open.

The specialty here is “Pinsa”, one of several Roman style pizzas. It’s a long oval shape, thicker but fairly airy dough. Its not terribly different than pizza to be called something else (same goes for New Haven Apizza) but I can see why they would. It features a quality crust and top notch ingredients including of course Martina Franca Capocollo. We had to order it because the stand alone Capocollo (Gabagool in “Brooklyn Italian”) we had every other day was not on pizza.

La Lira Focacceiria in Alberobello – People often ask on the boards what else is there to eat in Italy besides pasta and pizza. Well, lets see, there’s also Focaccia, Trapizzino, Puccia, Pinsa, Lasagne, Calzone.. La Lira specializes in Focaccia and Puccia, another form of a pizza sandwich, the Puglia answer to the Roman Trapizzino.

Out of the Puccia we tried in Puglia and Matera this was the best one. Though the stuffed focaccia sandwiches were even better. Another reason to come for this busy take-out is for the animated owner.. “Now wait outside until you hear Puccia!! Like this… PUCCIA!!!!”. No tables outside means “trully” take-out. Ok, I’m done.

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This is Otranto (and Coast)

Variety, the most important attribute in picking destinations for this author (Still me, Ziggy). Something I gathered from experience, and TikTok. I would like to see and experience not only “different”, but all kinds of different. Different foods, nature, monuments, and anything unique that’s hard to classify (mechanical elephants anyone?). This explains why I like spending time in supermarkets in foreign cities, sometimes until closing or they call the cops, whatever comes sooner. On vacation I consume sodas, junk food and other things I dont usually eat at home. Old and new habits, like no longer eating something sweet in the morning, are out the window when I’m in Italy or elsewhere. All for the purpose of trying something different.

I had forgotten how easily I digress and start writing about food even when I dont plan to. The sad reality is I think about food even in inappropriate moments, like funerals, and sex (sorry honey, family), so this is not much of a stretch. But the point I’m trying to make here is that Italy has the type of variety we cant find anywhere else (Spain, Portugal come close). And Otranto, sitting on the heel of the boot, along with that entire Salento Adriatic coast stretch is an excellent example of that. While not exactly known for it’s cuisine (here we go again), its incredibly rich in man-made and natural beauty. You want to see pretty things, and take selfies near pretty things, you are in the right place.

This is why our day in/near Otranto was one the most memorable days of the trip. It had a little bit of everything. Jaw dropping scenery, beaches, great architecture, good food, and sunshine. What else do you need? Maybe rainbows and puppies (for the remaining TCI readers). Its a popular destination in the summer, but also an easy day trip from Lecce. Here’s a nice and easy day itinerary:

Cava di Bauxite – A beautiful quarry lake. Not a must as you can find similar quarries all over the world, but its quite picturesque and so close to Otranto, so might as well.

Otrano – Italy’s easternmost town is another white stunner. Its a popular beach destination for Europeans, but it wasnt overly busy when we were there. Otranto features an imposing castle, port, beach, a striking church, and a charming and clean old town. The problem with planning a day with multiple sites is that you dont get to fully enjoy the ones you want to stay longer. Otranto is exactly the type that makes you want to stay longer and explore.

SoFish in Otranto – One of the joys for me is finding exceptional food in places not known for it. Easier to do in Italy. For some reason Otranto, as with much of Solento (the greater bottom “heel”) is not really known for great food. Yet, we somehow managed to have some of the best meals of the trip on this leg. SoFish as the name implies is a hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. It appears that this is a relatively new fast spreading concept, started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare.

The menu features a nice selection of seafood sandwiches, salads and particularly craft beer (Reminder: Italian craft beer is most underrated in the world). While everything we tried was good, the lobster roll is worth a dedicated blog post. Its one of the most outrageous Lobster Rolls I ever had. Pricy (for Puglia) but once you get it you see why. More like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top.

Baia dei Turchi – We opted to skip this beautiful secluded beach in favor of another one. But worth mentioning

Torre Sant’Andrea – Perhaps the jewel of the Adriatic coast in Puglia. Stunning white rock formations off beautiful, crystal clear water where you can swim. You want to spend some time here, and view the rocks from different angles.

Torre dell’Orso – While the best beaches in Puglia are on the opposite side of the heel, closer to Gallipoli, like Punta Prosciutto (make it stop!), you can find some gems here, with Torre dell’Orso perhaps the most famous one. We drove all over the coast from Bari to Otranto, and this was by far the most Caribbean-like sand and water we’ve seen. We ended up at Baia D’oriente to be precise with fairly easy street parking nearby.

Cave of Poetry – An enchanting natural pool where you can bring out your inner diver. After one dive however, I decided to retire my inner diver once and for all.

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Cibus – Slow Food City

I’m one of those who doesnt subscribe to the idea of asking locals for food recommendations. This is popular advice that works for many people, and in some places like small villages. But if you ask my neighbor in NYC for food recommendations, she would send you to the nearest Olive Garden branch. Personally I prefer to get acquainted with the local a little to make sure their tastes align with mine to some degree. Our host in Lecce gave us fantastic sounding seafood recommendation, until I learned the next day she doesn’t really eat seafood, her favorite exotic foreign food is hamburger, and she likes her steak well well done (chills). While this distrust can be a blessing and a curse, a serial food researcher like myself usually arrives at the destinations with not only an arsenal of possibilities but the knowledge of what to order in each one. Good or bad, that’s how I roll.

With that said, it didnt take long to learn that Pierluigi, our host at the splendid Masseria Spetterrata is the sort of food and wine enthusiast I can trust. When he talked to us about cities we should visit, I started finishing his sentences. “… and if you into food you should go to Ceglie Messapica and…”, me: “Cibus!”, “Oh… you know Cibus? You are the first guest that knows Cibus”. A surprising comment considering the legendary status of the place. But the way his eyes started to bulge, I figured the dude got more fine picks up his sleeves, or he has some sort of a thyroid issue. Later on I gladly accepted his more local recommendations, with Ristorante Mezzofanti in Cisternino being the most successful of the bunch.

Cibus was just shy of flawless, but had all the triumphant qualities you’d expect from a Slow Food legend. Cibus was in fact the first Puglia establishment to receive the Snail designation in the 90’s. But the first thing you should know about Cibus is that its located in Ceglie Messapica, the proud food capital of Puglia. A sleepy gem almost as striking as the much more touristy white towns of Ostuni, Locorotondo, and Cisternino. In fact when we strolled around the old city, we were practically alone in some corners. It is believed that its impossible to eat badly here. Yet, many establishments that struggled mightily during the pandemic, had to shut their doors.

As with most restaurants we visited in Puglia, the menu usually starts with one item, perhaps the most important one, Entrata di piccoli antipasti del territorio, a selection of small local appetizers. This is not your typical selection in a restaurant in Italy. Compared to the rest of the country, in Puglia, its often an eye popping tour de force selection of local cold cuts like Martina Franca Capocollo, cheeses, cooked or raw seasonal veggies, fried goodies, various salads often featuring more local cheeses, and pretty much anything and everything you can fit on a tapas size plate. Before you know it, you are showered with small plates covering the entire table and you start questioning “what have I done”.

You essentially have an environment where every place tries to outdo its neighbors in quality and quantity (number of plates). The “Antipasti for two” you’ll see in most menus is really for two to four depending on the place. This created an ordering challenge for much of the trip as we would often get full even by the Primi course. In Puglia, sharing is caring and key, and skipping the antipasti course could lead to hot flashes and sleepless nights.

In Cibus, the said antipasti course is a feast to all senses. A shockingly earthy baked eggplant that tasted almost like a mushroom. A stringy Stracciatella with black truffles. Zucchini flowers with ricotta and toasted almonds. Giuncata, a soft, ricotta like cheese made from various milks topped with jam. Wheat salad, and more. Just when you think they stopped and its safe to take a photo, here comes more.

The oohs and ahhs did not stop there. Orecchiette with Stracciatella, cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and Cegliesi almonds was a pleasant reminder that you are in Puglia, in the summer. Lasagnariccia, a perfectly deconstructed Lasagna offshoot with eggplant is the best eggplant parmigiana you will ever eat. And just when you thought you’ve seen every pasta shape, comes Sagnapenta, a chewy, slightly thicker than Bucatini, with aged ricotta cheese and fried breadcrumbs. This was enjoyable but the strong cheese a bit overpowering for some of our palates.

Since we somehow managed to miss Bombette (stuffed meat rolls) in the Bombette capital of Cisternino even though we were there on two evenings, I had to order the mixed meat platter with veal Bombette and sausages. While the Bombette were solid, I kept reaching for the splendid sausages. The ultra tender donkey stew you can cut with a hard stare was another winner. Its cooked for 10 hours, but tastes like 20. Scrumptious desserts sealed the deal, leaving you in a food euphoria for the rest of the day. Just what the doctor ordered for our anniversary. That and some antibiotics after a mouth surgery.

This is why we travel.

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10 Tips for Matera

Guess who is back? Its me Waldo! After MUCH deliberation, I decided to start blogging again, for now. I have no idea when I’ll get bored again. After hearing one too many times from people that miss my posts (such as wife, kids, etc who probably want me busy doing something else for a change), I decided to give this thing another go. Much has happened to me during the last few years, but instead of boring you with all of that, I’m going to bore you to death with some Matera tips and the amateur photos you so badly missed and didnt even know it. Note: Not writing for a few years has probably left me with the writing skills of a 10 year old. The site tagline, “Dining Well, Spelling Pourly” therefore remains.

Matera, simply put, is one of the most fascinating places we’ve ever seen. A movie set city, a la Dubrovnik. As you walk the streets and its cave dwelling areas (Sassi), it almost feels like you need to watch out for James Bond speeding by a side alley. They really need to start ticketing the dude before he kills someone. One thing you dont have to watch out for is poop. The city is incredibly atmospheric, and surprisingly remarkably clean for one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Not surprising, Matera has been UNESCO’d since 1993. But being designated as the European capital of culture in 2019 really put it on the map, even though its been on the map for 9000 years. While its located in the region of Basilicata, for the purpose of this blog, I’m putting Matera in Puglia since thats where most visitors pair Matera with.

I therefore present Ziggy’s 10 bathroom friendly, obvious and not so obvious, but mostly obvious tips for Matera.

Stay a little longer. So many just do day trips from Puglia, or an overnighter, but I highly recommend staying for at least two nights. Three nights is ideal. Not only you’ll experience the city in all its glory in the morning and night multiple times, but you’ll also have time to hike the fantastic Murgia Materana park. A longer stay will enable a visit to the Crypt of the Original Sin (need to reserve), and/or a full day visit to the spectacular Castelmezzano.

Take a tour. Some places require tours more than others. The complex long history, and geopolitical situation, makes Matera a strong candidate as a city best served by a tour. Might as well make it with a fun local like Alessio Leardi (alessio26@gmail.com).

Reserve your secured parking spot. Probably not necessary for most, as your host will be able to assist you with the parking situation. But in our case this was an unexpected necessity, as PARCHEGGIO NICOLETTI MICHELE was booked solid after we reserved our two spots. You cant park in much of the Sassi areas, and Matera is getting more and more popular, especially after the latest Bond. Just watch the first 20 minutes, and skip the rest of the dullest Bond ever.

Stay at Dimora Santa Barbara. Nicely situated Apartments/Hotel near the Duomo area. Spectacular views from the shared terrace. Some rooms are nicer than others (I think we liked ours the best, at the end of the terrace, I believe its room 1). There are many other interesting places to choose from. Many bloggers will suggest sleeping in a cave hotel. We found most of them much more expensive, and while it may be a fun and fitting experience, it just wasnt for us.

Hike the Murgia. Goes hand with hand with the first bullet, but it seems most people overlook this. The hikes can be as strenuous as you want them to be, but at the very least simply cross the valley and the rope bridge, and hike up on the other side to see some very cool caves and Matera from a different perspective. This is where you’ll get a chance to take that classic shot.

Try the Pane. If you love bread, you are at the right place. Just don’t mention Altamura to anyone as the locals are very sensitive and protective of their bread too turns out. There are quite a few Matera specialties but if I have to pick a must try food here it’s the often oversized, misshaped bread you’ll see proudly displayed in front of restaurants and bakeries. The appropriately named Crapiata and other local specialties were good but to me not as special or unique as the bread. Very hard exterior will almost feel like they sold you yesterdays loaf, but once you start ripping you’ll understand.

Eat at Soul Kitchen. Maybe the 5th time in my life I hugged the chef. One of those meals, that will be featured here at some point in detail. Just get the Podolica Ribeye, and call me in the morning.

Dont ignore rain warnings. If the forecast suggests possible rain, but you want to make a quick harmless Focaccia run, dont leave without an umbrella. When it rains, it pours here, and before you know it, a flash flood will make you look for an arch wide enough to keep you dry. I’m one of those that dont like to walk with umbrellas, and got punished for it here.

Visit the Cathedral. It was easy for us as we stayed right near it, but it could be a schlep depending on where you come from. But its totally worth seeing the 13th century Duomo partly due to its position overlooking the spectacular Sasso Barisano.

Prepare to get physical, physical. When I asked my family during dinner if they have any tips for Matera (tbh, I didnt really have 10 tips on the top of my head ;)) they said two things. Watch the rope on the Murgia bridge (as you climb to it, your instincts will make you extend your head, and your forehead will get hit by an unexpected hard rope. Even some of us who expected this, got hit. Ok, it was me). The other thing they said was to prepare for a workout that wont be very kind to your knees and feet. The numerous layers of the cave dwellings may mean a record breaking number of blister breaks.

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A Day in Cinque Terre

IMG_0671This is it folks!  The moment none of you have been waiting for you.  Fresh, off the boat, Cinque Terre pictures that look the same or worse than the millions of CT pictures out there.  It took me 8 trips or so to finally see the famous five villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, Rick Steves, Monterosso.  Its not official yet, but as you can see, there’s a strong push to rename one, so I’m just one step ahead.

But in order to combat the Rick Steves fan club, and fully appreciate the villages, one needs to stay here for at least a few nights.  And since driving inside the National Park is extremely limited, its better to stay outside, in places like Levanto or Porto Venere.  Consider Hotel Abetaia, near Levanto.  Comfortable, quiet (in the middle of the woods, but modern), good food.  And they set you up with a parking permit in Levanto.  Consider staying at least 2 nights in order to have a full day at the villages.  Here’s a full day sample itinerary:

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Park in Levanto by the train station

Take train to Monterosso al Mare

Hike to Vernazza (Moderate.  Wear appropriate shoes, otherwise they will stop you and turn you around.  We witnessed it)

Have lunch at Il Pirata delle 5 Terre.  Sicilian brothers making all sorts of seafood magic.  Try the tuna.  You may experience heaviest crowds at this village

Take a boat to Riomaggiore to see the village from the water.  Explore Riomaggiore – walk up to the church and Castello.

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Take train to Manarola.  Make sure to take the correct scheduled train that will stop at Manarola.  Not every passing train does.  We initially got on the wrong train and quickly came out,

Have an early dinner at the awesome Cappun Magru and have the namesake dish.  Its the perfect place with the perfect opening hours for this itinerary.

Explore Manarola including a walk on top by the vineyards to see Manarola from above.  Then see the Sunset from the Manarola Scenic Viewpoint (see Google Maps).  This is why you are here.

Take train to Levanto

Write thank you note, or name first born, Ziggy

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Enoteca L’Alchimista – Food Magic in Montefalco

IMG_1384When you visit Montefalco, a medieval stunner, smack in the middle of landlocked Umbria, it wont take you long to see which is the star restaurant.  About 5 minutes in fact after you enter the main gate.  30 minutes if you get distracted by more truffle sauces and hanging grandpa’s balls (Palle di Nonno).  Its the one in the main square with all the happy people occupying every inch of the space.  Some of the happiest ones are munching on pigeon done five different ways.  And while the star restaurant does not always deliver the results you’d expect, this one shines.

At the helm is Patrizia Moretti, the alchemist, the magician, and local legend, who runs a tight ship along with daughter and daughter’s partner.  L’Alchimista doesnt have the look and feel of a small mom/pop Trattoria but of a sprawling, busy, well run establishment with a traditional yet refined menu.  Delicate flavors so on point, you hear angels sing with every morsel (We did eventually asked them to lower the volume when it got annoying).  Facing one of the most atmospheric squares in Umbria doesnt hurt.

The only thing better than a restaurant with a signature dish is one with two.  Onion Parmigiana may not sound too enticing but here you get sweet protected onion from nearby Cannara that sings with that cheese.  Burrata with 24 month Norcia Prosciutto we couldnt get enough in Umbria was spot on, and so was the delectable ravioli with goat cheese.  Tenderloin, marinated with the local Sagrantino red, so tender you can cut with car keys.  The remote square ones, not the one you ignite with.

IMG_E1383But the undisputed shining star, and a dish of the trip nominee is the pigeon.  Just like Onion Parmigiana, pigeon just never jumps out at you when you read a menu as such.  But then we recall the tasty pigeons of nearby Tuscany, especially the one made by another female magician 100 km away.  This bird comes in a variety of ways – pigeon breast, pigeon sausage, pigeon liver, and pigeon stuffed with more pigeon.  Its outstanding.  The only thing left to do is finish with a proper Tiramisu, and its indeed fantastic here.

Although I’ve had Enoteca L’Alchimista on my radar, I was not expecting this level of cooking, and an impeccable attention to detail.  Neither should you.  It helps when you go anywhere with low expectations.  Or lower than the enthusiasm you get from such blogs.  Different tastes, off nights, and just picking the wrong items to match your palate means way too many variables involved to guarantee anything.  But for us, on this particular night, it was flawless.

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A Day in Chianti

IMG_0884When was the last time you did the chicken dance?  They still do them in weddings and  events all over the continent as far as I know.  Legend has it, the first chicken dance was in Florence in the 13th century when Florence seized control of much of Chianti from rival Siena (more on that later).  So in order to give the proper homage to this famous wine region, and unless you’ve been to a Bar Mitzvah lately, start practicing that ancient dance.  You will see that famous black rooster all over Chianti, sometimes proudly presented as larger than life statues.  Wish to visit Chianti on a day trip from wherever (I recommend basing in this town)?  Follow me on this chicken route…

Start your morning with a visit to the Castello di Verrazzano, one of the oldest (over 1000 years) and most respected wineries in Tuscany.  Its educational, but the history, place and location offering some magnificent vistas, is what sets it apart.  Its a great place to visit even if you are not into wine.  The 10 am visit (there’s also a 3 pm) Classic Wine Tour ends with a tasting.  You can also visit the store, have a nice long lunch, or book other experiences.  But we have more to do…

A short drive away is Greve in Chianti.  Visit for one of the most striking squares in Tuscany, which all but disappears on Saturdays when the market takes over.  Its a catch 22 since the market is interesting as well, and you can still visit some of the square stores.  Like the ancient, well respected Antica Macelleria Falorni where you can buy some high quality local salami and where Beef Tartare is treated as fast food.  And if you are from NYC dont forget to take a selfie with homeboy Giovanni da Verrazzano whose statue dominates the square on non market days.

Speaking of Johnny, here’s a little tidbit.  On October 1st, 2018 NY governor Cuomo signed legislation to correct the spelling of the VerrazZano-Narrows Bridge, adding that all important extra Z missing since 1960.  The Z-gate feud between the one Z supporters, and two Z supporters that spanned decades, finally came to an end.. for now.  While Google and all electronic signs reflect the new spelling, none of the old 96 signs reflect the name change. With that said, if you take the tour at Castello di Verrazzano, you can find an ancient barrel that shows ancient spelling with only one Z.  And will New Yorkers ever change the pronunciation (ZZ is “TS”, like Pizza).  The great explorer Verrazzano of course discovered the Bay of NY, before being eaten by Cannibals in the Bahamas.  Thats why we go to Turks and Caicos.

Its almost lunch time, but before that there’s one more stop.  This centers around a man as well, except that this one is very much alive.  Panzano is home to the most famous butcher in Italy, maybe the planet, Dario Cecchini.  Dario is an eighth-generation butcher born and raised in Panzano.  He owns a butcher shop (Antica Macelleria Cecchini), a few restaurants, and is essentially the main attraction in this town based on the number of people and energy that usually surrounds his shops.  He is the only butcher featured on Netflix’s Chef Table.  Dario doesnt speak much English, and my Menu Italian wasnt strong enough to carry a conversation.  You can have your Bistecca alla Fiorentina at Dario’s house.  Or…

IMG_0861Head to Osteria Le Panzanelle, 5 km south of Panzano, with reservations in hand of course.  Its an institution, popular with locals and visitors alike.  Start with the luscious eggplant Involtini and/or green bean flan.  Move on to the fresh, eggy Papardelle with a wild boar ragu that carries some serious depth.  Then your choices are an excellent fried rabbit and chicken, or the very fine, and surprisingly affordable Bistecca.  This place is popular, so it may take some time.  So stay, relax, and.. sigh.. check in with social media.  But take turns.  Dont be that table! 

By now you must be wondering whats the story with this black rooster that you see on every Chianti Classico and all over the region.  The legend of the Gallo Nero came from medieval times when Siena and Florence decided to settle their territory feud once and for all.  Two horseman would leave early in the morning from each city, and when they’ll meet, that spot would serve as the border.  But since the Iphone wasnt invented yet, they used the rooster crow as the signal for the start.  The Florentine starved their black rooster, while the Sienese fed their white rooster plenty, thinking he’ll wake up early and energized.  But it was the black Florentine rooster that woke up too early, starving and crowing, while the white rooster slept well.  That meant an early start for the Florentine horseman who got within 12 km of Siena, essentially seizing control of Chianti.  Hence the symbol.

IMG_9875After lunch, your options are to head to the nearby hamlet of Volpaia, and/or perhaps skipping the next destination, but I suggest not.  Castello di Brolio is yet another stunner.  You can participate in more activities and tours, a la Castello di Verrazzano.  But for the purpose of this post, we’ll just pay the entrance fee, walk around the castle, enjoy the views, and read about the history.  This one feels more subdued and isolated, adding about an hour of travel time overall.  You are entitled to a glass of red on your way out, but then you have more driving to do and its getting late.  Safety 6th is the motto of Eating With Ziggy Tours.

Our last stop is the ancient Castellina in Chianti, arguably the most picturesque village in the region.  You can visit and climb the all important Rocca, and see the unique underground tunnel that is essentially a street today with wine shops.  Wine and food is the theme in Castellina.  Like the Montalcino of the north.  A great place to just hang and people watch.  End this journey at Gelateria di Castellina.  Not a personal endorsement, but… Gelato + Tuscany = Safe Bet.

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10 Genoa Tips

IMG_0474Ahhh, Genoa!  The name that triggers no emotion, confusion, and even anger sometimes.  Why is this guy writing about Genoa now.  What happened to Venice, Rome, and that Cinqua Terras place that he supposedly visited and only wrote about one dish so far.  Isn’t Genoa a working town?  What is there to do for three full days (said Mrs Ziggy when I first pitched the idea).  Plenty, turns out.  Genoa surprised me with its cultural depth, cuisine, attractions, and fashion.  Yes, I said fashion.  This post is not supposed to reinvent the wheel and offer you a complete Genoa guide (plenty of sources out there), but offer you some tips that may enhance your Genoa holiday.

Stay for a while – “More Than This” is the Genoa slogan you’ll see everywhere.  Either Genoa has much to offer or they are just huge fans of Brian Ferry.  But you can very easily fill three days in Genoa alone, and even do some day trips to Boccadasse, Anita Garibaldi Passeggiata, the stunning Camogli, Portofino, and more.  A week doesnt sound too long in Genoa once you factor all day trips and all the Focaccia you can eat.

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Make Pesto with a local – Pesto, like jeans, originated in Genoa.  Book a Pesto making class with Enrica from A Small Kitchen in Genoa.  Enrica is a publisher, food blogger, Pesto championship finalist, and just a delight to be around.  This experience, that ends with lunch at the beautiful terrace of Enrica’s apartment will probably be your most memorable.  You can also take a food tour and book other food experiences with Enrica.  My friends are still thanking me for this.

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Visit Staglieno Cemetery – My apologies to Enrica for following her with well, death.  But if you havent quite made the connection between a magnificent old cemetery to local history and culture, this is a good start.  Staglieno is arguably the most important or at least most beautiful cemetery in Italy.  An outdoor museum like no other.  But it helps to do a bit of research (you can start here), and spend at least 2-3 hours here.  Reading about the monuments will bring some of the stories to life.

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Do some Rolli palace homework – Its almost impossible to come to Genoa and not visit the Rolli Palaces, but its important to arrive with at least the basic understanding of the system of the “Lists” and how it got UNESCO’s attention.  This is what makes Genoa so unique.

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Dont overlook the Royal Palace – A most underrated stunner.  The Palazzo Reale, or Palazzo Stefano Balbi is just a little out of the tourist way.  And I can see how it can be skipped on a short visit.  A mini Versailles in Genoa that was shockingly empty when we visited.  I could practically walked the hall of mirrors naked, with only one or two people marveling watching.  This is also a good place to see the Ligurian pebble mosaic style called Risseu.

See Piazza De Ferrari at night – This is why you need to stay overnight.  Its the same story as many Italian towns.  The difference between a rushed day trip and an overnight stay is, well, day and night.  Seeing the families come out, the lights, fountain, with the palazzos in the background including the magnificent old stock exchange, all add up to quite the atmospheric square.

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Ok, trust me, there was atmosphere 😉

See the old town, but be prepared for some ‘Grit’ – Like many such towns all over Europe, Genoa has a distinct personality.  Genoa’s old town is fascinating, especially to the culinary minds.  But it’s not the most attractive.  Dont be surprised to see graffiti, and prostitutes in some corners.  Maybe thats what they mean by “More Than This”!

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Stay at So&leo Guest House – A well maintained, comfortable, quiet accommodations right between the port area, and old town.  Just a few minutes from Focaccia e Dintorni and many more

Get your Focaccia at Focaccia e Dintorni – The Genoese eat Focaccia for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as a late night snack.  On my morning walks, I must have tried around half a dozen different places, and Focaccia e Dintorni was the clear winner.  Try the Farinata, soft chickpea flatbread a la Cecina.

Eat at Cavour 21, and Trattoria Rosmarino – These were the best meals.  Cavour, old, no frills, no nonsense institution I already wrote about.  Rosmarino, a dazzling Slow Fooder by Piazza De Ferrari.  Who knew Lasagna’s biggest problem was tomato sauce.  Get the Lasagna.

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