Category: Italy


Roaming around Rome

Being a Gemini, my world is comprised of two opposing forces: one that knows I have to get the job done and one that just likes to have fun. You can read more about my writing life and other musings on my writer’s blog. But here … we travel, meet amazing people, eat great food, drink tantalizing wine and eat the best chocolate you will find anywhere on the planet. So … on to the next adventure.

It’s hard for me to write this post as it is the final jaunt on last fall’s tasting extravaganza. What a trip that was! Virginia and I had spent 2 weeks making our way through Holland, Spain and Italy in search of the best chocolate. And then we had one day in Rome before flying back across the pond to Canada.

Good thing she’s organized! We managed to do a whirlwind tour of the Coloseum, Venice Square, the Fountain of Trevi, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square. Whew! It’s amazing how we managed to at least see all of those landmarks in a mere 7 hours!

So I won’t get into any kind of analysis here on those. And as you know, my mind is primarily fed by the sensual pleasures of food, wine and chocolate. Historic landmarks might be nice to see, but for me, do not a visit make.

Rome is great for daytripping. You can leave your luggage at the train station for a fairly reasonable fee. It cost us 15 euros each to store 3 bags each for roughly 7 hours. But beware! They only take cash for this service. No credit cards.

The Coloseum was remarkably close (via The Metro) to the train station, and after getting rejuvenated with yet another amazing Italian meal, we strolled down Via Di S. Gregorio and happened upon Biodomenica, an organic farmer’s market with so many wonderful local things to taste.

your tastebuds can’t help but be tempted at Biodomenica

After retrieving our luggage, we took the airport train from the Central train station to the airport. We conveniently had booked the Rome Airport Hilton Hotel which is connected to the airport terminal by moving sidewalks, so as tired and loaded down with luggage as we were … we managed to get to the Hilton where we could crash for the night and rise early for our overseas flight. They have a good restaurant on-site, and the rooms are spacious and comfortable. Highly recommended if your flight times are less than convenient as ours were.

Please share your thoughts on Rome and this post.  And please join us back here the week of March 28th, when we’ll discover some amazing chocolate makers in Florida. You’ll be surprised. The Old World has trained the New World well, just as with wine makers. New and innovative can be equally as enticing as tried and true.

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Visiting Pisa as described in my last post wasn’t what it was all about for me. Yes, I totally enjoyed the local culture and cuisine, and learned much visiting the historic relics. But I was there for the chocolate. And I was not disappointed.

We were lucky with the timing of our visit in that we were in Pisa for dolce Mente, a festival of sweets. The man I was looking for was to be there. I had come a long way to meet him, but somehow knew it would be worth the effort. I was so right.

We entered the festival in time to see Dutch-born chocolatemaker, Paul de Bondt, stirring up a pot of what looked like dry ice, causing considerable smoke and excitement in the room. Turns out he was making a very special and delicious gelato.

Paul de Bondt making his very special chocolate gelato

Paul de Bondt and his Italian wife, Cecilia Iacobelli are the dynamic duo behind de Bondt Cioccolato Originale. Spending two hours with this chocolate master was all I needed to help me tighten the focus for my chocolate book. He enabled me to get inside the mind of a chocolate master.

“It’s the small details that make the big differences, so we really put a lot of attention to the small nuances of flavours,” said de Bondt. I totally understood what he was telling me, and tasting his chocolate brought it all together for me. It made me realize we are cut from the same cloth. We are chocolate purists, and although we may appreciate the excitement that can come from adding fruits, nuts and other enhancements to chocolate, it is the quality of the cocoa beans that is of utmost importance to the final chocolate product.

some of Paul de Bondt’s chocolate barks — all awesome

I could tell you much more about Paul de Bondt. And I will. In my book. Chocolatour is on its way to becoming a reality, and by the end of this year I hope to be toasting Paul and Cecilia at the Italian launch of the book.

More on that to come. But before we go, I have to take a step back. In my last post I neglected to thank our wonderful guide in Pisa, Vincenzo Riolo. He’s the same guide who showed American travel writer, Rick Steeves, that Pisa is so much more than the Tower. See both of them in this pic. I must say that in each of the European cities we have visited, it has been the knowledge and insights of our local guides that has made the visit much more than a superficial fly by. Vincenzo is truly a master of his profession. You can reach him via the Pisa Guides website.

If you plan to visit Pisa, right now is a very good time! The weekend of March 25-27, 2011 will be filled with events through Pisa province, with special tours, and yes … a Chocolate Festival to be held in San Miniato e Tirrenia. More on this month’s events at: http://www.pisaunicaterra.it/en/Focus/pisas-new-years-day.html.

Be sure to join us back here on the blog the week of March 14th, when we’ll wrap up our visit to Italy with a whirlwind tour of Rome.

I hope you’ve been enjoying our Chocolatour through Europe. Our next stop is Pisa, Italy.

I must say Pisa really surprised me. I expected only an old dilapidated  Leaning Tower. I didn’t know that the Leaning Tower is part of a large grouping of impressive historic buildings and that the Leaning Tower is far from being dilapidated. It has recently been cleaned and is almost sparkling white! Much restorative work has been done to many of Italy’s historic treasures and a trip to Pisa is sure to please.

there are a number of beautiful historic buildings nestled into the square where you'll find the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The food is amazing. What else is new?  Good food and libations is always top of my list. No wonder I love Italy!

So we were very grateful at the choice of hotel that Fabrizio Quochi, our friendly contact at the Pisa Tourist Board had made for us. The NH Cavalieri is literally across the street from the Centrale train station and is a surprisingly lovely place with a terrific restaurant. I liked the Tuscan pasta with olives so much I ordered it twice during our stay! It was excellent. The feather-light pasta was served with black olives and a delicious red sauce with plenty of fresh parmesan cheese.  Served of course, with a local hearty Chianti Classico. Magnifico!

the wonderful meal I had (twice!) at the NH Cavalieri Hotel

Later, we enjoyed the local specialty, Cecina, a chickpea pizza cooked in a wood oven. Have it with Spuma, a favourite Pisan soda (much like Mountain Dew) to really feel like you’re enjoying life like a lucky resident of Pisa. You can get both at Pizzeria Filippo, just a short walk from the NH Cavalieri.

The nice thing about Pisa is that is has a terrific location with easy accessibility  by air, train, bus or sea. Ryan Air has an increasing presence in Pisa, so you can fly directly there from a number of destinations. And just 45 minutes south of Pisa, we were able to gain access to a wonderful beach in Tirrenia, where we could stroll and swim. For just two Euros, we took a public bus from Pisa to the beach and spent the day just enjoying the sun and surf and watching the local fishermen.

enjoying a view of the beach in Tirrenia at a Tuscan restaurant

Please come back the week of March 1st for the next post on Pisa. And yes … there WILL be chocolate!

I’d heard that Tuscany has what is called “The Chocolate Valley” as there are so many chocolate makers in the area. We didn’t have time to visit them all, so Paulo took us to “Le Golosità,” a gastronomical delight, where you can purchase the best chocolate, wine and other confections of the area.

Paulo and Virginia on the chocolate trail

Roberto Catinari’s chocolate is heavenly and makes me long to go back to Pistoia. A specialty is the chocolate-dipped chestnuts. This shop is a must for any chocolate-loving visitor to Pistoia.

We also had the pleasure of meeting Giorgia Corsini, whose great grandfather started Bruno Corsini Industria Dolciaria back in 1918. The company is an all-woman operation — highly unusual in the male-dominated chocolate industry. Corsini takes great pride in its wide variety of “confetti,” a white hard candy of various interesting flavours such as coriander and fennel. But without question, my favourite Corsini treat was the Panforte Glacé al Cioccolato, a dark chocolate-covered fruit cake containing only almonds, hazelnut creme, vanilla beans, chocolate mass, cocoa butter and candied cedar fruit found exclusively in the south of Italy.  An absolutely amazing blend of pure flavours.

Margherita, a confectioner in training, welcomes us to a tray of Panforte Glacé

I can assure you that if I had the financial resources, I’d be on a plane next month to attend Cioccolosità, the three-day chocolate festival held in the neighbouring village of Monsummano Terme from March 11-13, 2011, where I have no doubt I’d meet the illusive Mr. Catinari.

Join me back here the week of February 14th, where we’ll have a sweet tour of Pisa just in time for Valentine’s Day.

I’d never even heard of Pistoia before, and suddenly I found myself spending two days there. All in the quest of tasting the finest chocolate in Italy!

the Romanesque style of architecture is prevalent in Pistoia

Pistoia is a small Tuscan village highlighted by Romanesque buildings of the 12th century. That’s about all I’m going to tell you about the history of Pistoia, as everyone who knows me knows I’m not a history buff. I’m there to meet the people and to taste the local specialties: the food, the wine, and of course … the chocolate. I was not be disappointed!

We ate some of the best meals of our journey while in Pistoia, thanks to the culinary talents of Renzo and Laura, the charming couple who run the Toscanelli Ristorante, where we enjoyed two sumptuous meals. Having grown up indulging in the best of Italian cuisine at the home of my dear friend, Maria (and the homes of her extended family members in Winnipeg) I really knew my Italian favourites, and I can assure you, Laura and Renzo did not disappoint.

Renzo welcomes you to Toscanelli's with a complimentary champagne cocktail

At Toscanelli’s, we enjoyed fabulous wine and olive oil made by the owners at their nearby home. We ate local porcini mushrooms that had been picked that day. And squealed at the flourless chocolate lava cake (called chocolate pie on the menu.) We were truly in heaven.

Laura’s attentive service and bounty of fresh produce are two more reasons to visit Toscanelli’s Ristorante

Our friendly and knowledgeable guide, Paulo Bresci, also referred us to Aoristo Ristorante on Via De Buti, where we had a fabulous view of the historic skyline, personalized service by one of the partners and top-notch Tuscan cuisine paired with some amazing local wine. In totally chic surroundings. What’s not to like?

amazing flavours were present in every offering at Aorista Ristorante

Pistoia may not be Venice, Florence or Milan, but it provided us with an authentic taste of Tuscany without the crowds, the high cost or the crime associated with larger centres. Many thanks to Rosy of Verde Paradiso B&B who hosted us during our stay. Although we couldn’t converse too deeply due to a language barrier, we knew we were truly welcome, and felt very safe and comfortable during our stay.

Verde Paradiso B&B is a clean, friendly and safe place to stay while in Pistoia

I’m heading off to Florida from January 21-31 (yes, more chocolate tasting!) and so may be slow in responding to your questions or comments. But please keep them coming!

Look for the next post on Pistoia during the week of February 1st. Ciao for now!

Turin/Torino is famous for a lot of wonderful flavours, probably the most popular of which is Bicerin, a hot drink made with chocolate, coffee and steamed cream. Almost every establishment you visit will make it slightly differently and will tell you that they like to keep their recipe a secret, but this hot delicacy is not to be missed by any visiting chocolate lover.

the Bicerin drink shown with chocolate pasta

We tried the traditional version at CaffèAl Bicerin in the Piazza della Consolata. This establishment was founded in 1763, and claims to have invented the drink. They do a great job at it, as I found their Bicerin to be less sweet and less heavy than those sampled at other places. You can even buy chocolate pasta here! We tried a trendy new variation of the Bicerin called the Espressone Chocolate Mousse at Lavazza Espression on Via Garibaldi. It was a real taste treat that is eaten with a spoon as it’s ultra thick and super smooth. (Travel secret: if you take your Espresso or coffee drinks standing, establishments charge you much less than if you sit down. Many coffee bars only charge 1 euro for an espresso served to a standing customer.) You choose!

the modern version of espresso at Lavazza Espression

Continuing our exploration of Torino’s sweet scene, we stopped to enjoy another variation of the Bicerin at Gertosio Pasticceria, a business originally founded in 1880 by master chocolate maker, Pietro Viola. In 1961 the Gertosio family took it over and now have a father, mother, son and daughter-in-law team bringing taste sensations to everyone who walks through their welcoming doors. The Gertosios offer the il Sabaudo, a delicious drink of hot chocolate, coffee, crushed nuts and whipped cream.  All I can say is … Wow! Truly decadent. They have plenty of amazing chocolate creations to take away, too, but you’ll have to wait for my book, Chocolatour, to hear more about those. Take a peek at this page on my website for more on that!

Pretty much every chocolate maker in Torino offers the city’s special creation: the Gianduiotti, three-cornered chocolates made of cocoa and hazelnuts. They are a bit sweet for my liking, but very smooth and creamy.

Torino's famous gianduiotto chocolates are seen in windows everywhere

Cioccolato Peyrano offers a Torte Peyrano that is to die for: a dense dark chocolate cake made with hazelnuts and orange jam and covered with a layer of thin dark chocolate. A 600 gram Peyrano cake is pricey at 29 euros, but worth every cent. The flavour is truly out of this world. But don’t take my word for it, plan a trip to Torino!

Torino is one of three Italian cities (Rome and Florence are the other two) that will be celebrating Italy’s 150th anniversary this year, from March 15 until November 15, 2011. With any luck, I’ll get back there in time to help them celebrate!

Join me back on the blog the week of January 17th for a post on our next stop: Pistoia.

Virginia is right. She did have to (practically) drag me kicking and screaming into the cab as we left Barcelona to continue our chocolat-tour. I really loved that city and didn’t want to leave the W! (What a hotel!) But we both knew we had many more good times to experience, and much more fantastic chocolate to taste and analyze as we continued the research for my upcoming book, Chocolatour. Once enroute to the train station, I slowly turned my attention to our next destination: Torino/Turin, in northern Italy.

we found it quite pleasant riding the trains in Italy

We had an overnight train ride to Turin, and arrived there after breakfast — just in time for our first day of touring. (Our guide was unaware of our delayed arrival and was waiting for us in the lobby of the NH Ambasciatori Hotel, as we arrived.) The hotel is conveniently located in the business district of the city and a short walk from the Gallery of Contemporary Modern Art.

Known in Europe as Torino, and to English speaking North Americans as Turin, this Italian city is a must for any chocolate lover, and anyone who has a great appreciation for history and architecture. I didn’t know what to expect other than what I had seen on television during the 2006 Winter Olympics: Torino is situated close to the Alps and has a semi-alpine persona. Our visit was at the end of September, so the weather was slightly cool (a light jacket was necessary for the mornings, but the afternoons warmed up nicely.)

The city proper has just under 1 million residents, and has a population of 2.2 million if you include the entire metropolitan area. It didn’t feel that big to me. What did feel big was its sense of humble pride. (I hope that’s not an oxymoron, but to me, it means being proud without shoving it in your face.)

Turin was Italy’s first capital city (losing its capital standing in 1864) and boasts the country’s third strongest economy, after Rome and Milan. Local literature tells me that the per capita income for the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwestern Italy is 20% higher than the European average. Torino is the capital of the Piedmont region, so for the most part, its citizens are enjoying a very good standard of living.

Overall, I found Torino to be a prosperous Italian city and a very pleasant place to be. It is quite clean and safe, is relatively easy to navigate, and has good public transportation. Its people are friendly and don’t seem as stressed out (rushed) as I have seen in other European capitals. English is spoken and understood by the young. Not so much by anyone over 40. In fact, the use of English was diminishing in our travels. Common in Amsterdam, less so in Barcelona, and even less so throughout Italy.

the entrance to the Royal Palace in Torino

The evidence of past glory is prevalent in Torino, with a royal palace, many ornate churches and monuments to behold. In some ways, it reminded me of our visit to Brussels. There is an unstated sense of modesty — a quiet calm, that sometimes leaves it unnoticed by travellers looking for a more showy, flashy or boastful city.

We enjoyed our two days in Turin under the wing of our most knowledgeable guide, Antonella Viano, whose stamina and brisk walking pace sometimes left me wishing I was 10 years younger — or that at least I was wearing track shoes!  Our first day was spent touring churches and briskly walking the streets looking at the architecture. It was the next day, that we slowed down and walked along the beautiful River Po, strolled through the Parc Valentino along its banks, and then met a selection of amazing chocolate makers. Let’s just say Day 2 was much more to my liking than Day 1!

the beautiful River Po

Tune into the blog during the week of January 3rd for more on that. In the interim, if you’re looking for more info on Turin, visit Piedmont’s official tourism website.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and that you will welcome 2011 with exuberance. I hear it’s going to be a really great year!

Since I’d rather be tasting (chocolate, wine, great cuisine …) than typing while overseas — and can you blame me? … I’m posting the end of the month entry now, and will post again after October 5th, on my return.

Quite a few of you have asked for details about our itinerary. There are a few small details still being ironed out, but here are the confirmed stops we’re looking forward to:

September 20: Fly via British Airways from Toronto to London, and on to Amsterdam. We’ll be staying at the Hotel King’s Villa, a Hampshire Classic Hotel, from Sept 21 until the morning of September 24th. Check out the hotel at: http://www.kingsvillahotel.nl. We’ll be meeting plenty of chocolate makers and discovering the sweet side of this fair city.

September 24th, we fly via Iberia Airlines from Amsterdam to Barcelona. I’ve flown Iberia before and had no complaints. In fact, their business class is awesome! And a 2-hour flight beats 16 hours on the train when you have limited time to play with. Barcelona will be a real treat.  We’re staying at the amazing W Barcelona, one of Starwood’s chic new hotels.  It doesn’t get any better than this. http://www.w-barcelona.com/. A couple of days in Barcelona will give us time to check out the Chocolate Museum, meet a prominent chocolate maker and have some fun.

September 26 will be a day of transition, as we make our way from Spain to Turin, Italy, the birthplace of  hot chocolate and the Italian city that most strongly identifies itself with chocolate. Take a look here and tell me it doesn’t look inviting: http://www.turismotorino.org/interna.aspx?idA=47.

On Sept 29 we head south to Tuscany. We’ll be staying in and around Florence for a couple of days, and then head to Pisa for a chocolate festival called Dolcemente. Looking forward to discovering Pisa and enjoying the hospitality at the NH Cavalieri, an “NH Hotel.” I’m not familiar with this chain, but it certainly looks welcoming and well-situated, as it’s close to the train station and also the site of the festival . Take a look at: http://www.nh-hotels.com/nh/en/hotels/italy/pisa/nh-cavalieri.html?action=search&type. If the rest of Pisa’s residents are as friendly as those I’ve met so far via e-mail, I know it will be an amazing visit.

Then on to Rome on October 3rd for a quick day of discovery before flying home to Canada. We’re looking forward to the convenience of the Rome Airport Hilton as our flight leaves at 8 am the next day and it will be great to have a short walk to the terminal instead of trying to fight traffic getting to the airport. There’s no doubt we’ll be sharing a “Goodbye Europe” toast in the hotel’s bar shown on this page: http://www1.hilton.com/en_US/hi/hotel/ROMAPTW-Hilton-Rome-Airport-hotel/index.do.

Back to Toronto and on to Winnipeg on Oct 4th. We’ll be thinking about you, and wish that you could all be along with us as we take the next installment of the Chocolatour.

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