Top 5 Meals of 2015

It has become an annual tradition. Each year, I write a blog about the 5 best meals I ate. This is very hard to do since my job involves eating and traveling “for a living.” This year, I traveled to 14 countries and 5 states in the US. Needless to say, I ate a lot of good food!

After considerable thought, these memorable meals made it to my top 5 picks of 2015:

Machneyuda Restaurant in Jerusalem – This concept restaurant is run by three genius chefs – Yosef “Pappy” Elad, Assaf Granite, and Uri Navon. They run the business like a party. The quirky website and non-descript menu that offer dishes like “Entrecôte Django Unchained Style,” and “Lamb with lot of tasty stuff,” with pairings like “yummy stuff, some sauce” offer some clues. The waiters are not just friendly, they are singing, dancing and even doing shots in the kitchen…at work! The food is served in unpretentious sharing plates and is absolutely to die for. Ingredients are sourced from the surrounding Machneyuda market.

The biggest surprise for me was the dessert. Our server cleared out our table (we were 5) and laid out aluminum foil to cover it. On it, was orchestrated a symphony of cake, chocolate sauce, caramel, candies, nougats, cookies, ice cream and whipped cream – spread around the entire table within matter of minutes. It looked very haphazard as it was happening, but then appeared to be a delicious pile of artful looking happiness. We dug in with our spoons feeling like kids, and started dancing to the Israeli pop tunes.

Catalina Rose Bay in Sydney – Located on the world-famous Sydney Harbour, this family run restaurant is known for serving the highest quality meat and poultry sourced from all over Australia. Sydney Seaplane Highlights Flight Fly/Dine experience, included lunch at Catalina overlooking the Rose Bay. We start by enjoying fresh oysters on the shell paired with an Australia white that is produced not too far from the bay. The warm Sydney sun refreshed us as we watched the Seaplanes go by. I had the Poached Western Australian Marron Tail (something I had not had before), and the small sushi plate with delicious fresh tuna, salmon, prawn, kingfish, tataki tuna and Catalina roll. Dessert was caramelized fig with bitter caramel mousse, brik pastry and sugared pistachio. It was a memorable dessert, though the others I took bites off were pretty good too.

best seafood in Sydney

Boulanger Patissier Le Fournil Notre Dame in Marseille, France – My husband and I got to this bakery in the South of France early Sunday morning when the aroma of fresh baked goodies were oozing out of this tiny neighborhood bakery. There were sleepy residents, some still wearing pajamas, lined up to get bread, croissants, pastries, macrons, and Tropezian cakes. We got a few assortments to share with our cappuccinos. Till this day, we still talk about how the croissants flaked into a thousand pieces and melted the moment it touched our tongues. It was so good, that we had to eat another. Though so simple, it was by far the best breakfast I had this year!
best croissants in France
Marea in New York City – My close friend know that I am a big snob when it comes to Italian food. I can just about dismiss majority of the Italian restaurants in the U.S., but when I find a good ones, my heart melts into clarified butter. This is what happened at Marea, 2 Michelin star restaurant located on Central Park South. My friend and I had to wait for a long time to a spot at the bar (reservations few days in advance are highly recommended), but it was great people watching too. Everything at this high end Italian eatery boasted freshness of ingredients, integrity of flavors, and perfection in cooking. Some of my favorites were the tender Noca Scotia lobster and burro found in Astice; al dante and earthy Funghi Risotto; flaky and dressed Branzino: as well as the fried doughnuts dipped in lemon ricotta and dark chocolate Bomboloni. The portions are not small and you may end up eating 10k calories, but now you can die and go to heaven on earth.
best Italian in New York
Yachiyo Ryokan at Himeshima Island in Japan – It’s hard to imagine that one of my top 5 meals was at a 1-lady run Bed and Breakfast in a sleepy island off the coast of Kunisaki. I stayed at this beautiful family run 8-room inn surrounded by gardens, where we were served a delicious seafood dinner with ingredients that were probably swimming just a few hours ago. I had eaten a lot of good sushi throughout my stay in countryside Japan, but this was an unbelievable spread. Every inch of the table was covered with a fresh piece of fish or vegetable that was delicately prepared and artful served. The Japanese chefs take great effort in presentation as you can see from this picture. Unfortunately, this place doesn’t have a website and the manager, Michuri-San, speaks limited English, so good luck finding it.
best sushi in Japan

Top 5 Meals of 2014

Reminiscing the best restaurant meals of the year has become a tradition for me. In fact, readers request me to share my culinary highlights if they don’t hear from me by January, so here you are, with my top 5 meals of 2015….

1. Restaurant Ulo at Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Greenland – Located 280 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, this may not be the obvious choice for one of the best meals in the world, but it actually was! Fresh seafood caught from Disko Bay each morning, combined with the finess of award winning Chef Jeppe Ejvind Nielsen, at one of the finest kitchens in the country, results in the perfect 11-course wine paired dinner. The view was unforgettable from the restaurant, and the scallops carpaccio, smoked halibut, fresh crab salad and reindeer mousse – flavors I cannot find anywhere else. Read 5 reasons to visit Ilulissat

hotel arctic greenland

2. Gu’s Bistro, Atlanta – I reviewed this family-owned Szechaun restaurant for my column Ethnic.City in Creative Loafing newspaper. Buford Highway is a famous street in Atlanta, known for Asian and Latino restaurants, and I have managed to make my rounds through them. Unlike other Szechaun restaurants I have tried, I found the food at Gu’s to not hold back on authentic flavors, at the same time not scaring off the novice spice eater. While my tastebuds crave for Gu’s dumplings, Chengdu cold noodles, and crispy fried fish, there is hardly a dish here I won’t eat again.

Gu's Bistro Atlanta

3. Coco Bistro, Turks and Caicos – While most of the food on this heavenly island was very good, the cuisine focused on fresh seafood and international styles of cooking. The 24 year old Coco Bistro is a popular spot among locals and tourists, serving some of the best seafood in the world. My favorites were melt in your mouth Tuna Tataki served on a fried wanton with shredded cabbage salad and spicy mayo; as well as Lobster and Avocado Rolls with spicy duck sauce. Make sure to get reservations in advance and ask to be seated outdoors, as the gardens are elegant and romantic. Read more about my reviews in TCI.

coco bistro TCI

4. Palazzo Donati, Italy – This was a special meal prepared by a group of nine men, who call themselves Accademia del Padlot, meaning the academy of “a giant ladle that is used to pour wine.” The volunteer group came over to the renovated 18th century palace where I was staying and cooked an elaborate meal from scratch. On the menu was Charcuterie, Bruschetta, Torta pascuela, Coradella (lamb’s liver), Goletta con salvia e aceto o vino bianco (pig’s jowl), Spezzatino di Cinghiale (wild boar stew), Tagliatelle pasta, Radicchio rosso in graticola, Patate Sotto il Fuoco, Crostata, and endless bottles of wines. It was not just the delicious homemade Italian food, but the fact that we were eating it by a fireplace in an Italian home located in a tiny village, along with these local people, that made it even more memorable. Read more about eating and drinking with the Padlots in Italy

academia de padlots, italy

5. Rivea at Hotel Byblos, St Tropez – Critically acclaimed Chef Alain Ducasse, French Riviera charm, seasonal ingredients and Mediterranean style tapas – whats not to love about this place? I started with a French Rose at this elegantly decorated restaurant and made my way through marinated white fish, sardine toast, eggplant dip, arugula pizzetta, ratatouille, blue lobster, and the most amazing Tropézienne on the planet. No visit to St Tropez is justified without eating at Rivea! Read more about Hotel Byblos

hotel byblos st tropez

Read my Top 5 meals in 2012

Read my Top 5 meals in 2011

How to Make Gnudi

Gnudi means “naked” as in an inside out ravioli. While a typical ravioli is filled with spinach and ricotta, gnudi is made entirely of the filling mixture, held together with a little flour. Its a great alternative to eating pasta, especially for those who are gluten free! Serve it with a sage-butter sauce as a delightful appetizer.

The recipe below is very easy to make. You don’t want to make gnudi day before as it may dry out.

gnudi recipe

Ingredients for Gnudi:

  • 1.5 cups Ricotta cheese
  • 1 lb. fresh or frozen spinach
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 egg yolks (leave out if vegetarian)
  • pinch of ground nutmeg
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup 00 pasta flour (more for dusting)

Ingredients for Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 8-10 fresh sage leaves

Steam the spinach leaves in a large pot until they are fully cooked. Drain the spinach using a sieve and allow for all the water to soak through. The spinach should be cool and dry before its ready to use. If there’s water remaining, then the gnudi will not hold together. Chop the spinach roughly and keep aside.

In a large mixing bowl, add spinach, ricotta, nutmeg, parmesan, eggs, flour and salt. Mix well until the dough is of uniform consistency. It will be soft to touch. Using your hands, take a walnut size pinch of the dough and shape it into a ball. Sprinkle flour on your hands and the gnudi if it starts to feel sticky.

Keep aside the gnudi balls and sprinkle more flours.

In a large pot, bring water to a boil ( same way you would make pasta) and drop in prepared gnudi gently. The balls will be cooked once they rise to the surface of boiling water (about 5 minutes). Remove with a strainer spatula and keep aside. Make sure the excess water is drained.

To make the sauce, heat the butter in a fry pan. Once the butter starts to brown, add the fresh sage leave and cook them for 2-3 minutes until fried. Pour over the gnudi and serve immediately.

Here is the original recipe for GNUDI in Italian courtesy of Luisa Donati, at Montestigliano Società agricola s.r.l.

INGREDIENTI PER 4 PERSONE

  • 350g di ricotta
  • 1 kg di bietole o spinaci
  • Parmigiano grattugiato q.b.
  • Una spolverata di noce moscata
  • Sale q.b.
  • Farina q.b.
  • 40g di burro
  • Qualche foglia di salvia fresca

Lavare accuratamente le verdure e bollirle in poca acqua salata per circa 10 minuti.

Scolarle bene e lasciarle raffreddare nello scolapasta affinchè si elimini tutta l’acqua in eccesso; quindi strizzarle con cura fra le mani e tritarle grossolanamente con un coltello.

Mischiare in una terrina le verdure con la ricotta, aggiungere la noce moscata e il parmigiano, aggiustare di sale; deve risultare un composto omogeneo e abbastanza asciutto.

Formare con le mani infarinate delle polpettine grandi come una noce, infarinarle bene e posarle in un piatto spolverato di farina.

Palio Obsession in Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy is known for its landmark, Piazza del Campo, a famous town square and a UNESCO world heritage site. I take a behind-the-scenes tour of Bruco Contrada, or the Caterpillar District, which is one of the 17 Siena wards that takes part in the Palio (race).

Up until now, I am unfamiliar with the contrada culture and how dynamic it is. A contrada is basically like a district, often made up of nothing but a few streets. Established in the Middle Ages for military reasons, now the contrade are simply areas of localised patriotism, celebrations of every important event including baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories at the Palio, even wine or food festivals.

caterpillar contrada siena

One has to be born in a contrada to be a member of it. Someone who buys a house, gets married or moves, does not get a membership into the contrada. This can be confusing because, say if you were born in the caterpillar contrada, your wife was born in the giraffe contrada, and your child is born in dragon contrada, then all three of you have membership to different communities. The members of the contrade meet weekly, so each person has to celebrate important events (like deaths, births, etc) only within one’s own contrada.

Each contrada is named after an animal or symbol and has a long history, and complicated set of heraldic and semi-mythological associations. We enter the home of caterpillar contrada, which looks like another home from the outside. A newly renovated establishment with modern decor, looks nothing like ancient culture to me. However, there is a chapel, museum, garden, kitchen and hall.

Bruco (Caterpillar)

600px Giallo e Verde listati di Azzurro con quadrato Rosso.PNG Bruco is situated to the north of the Piazza del Campo. Traditionally, its residents worked in the silk trade.
Bruco’s symbol is a crowned caterpillar crawling on a rose. Its colours are green and yellow, trimmed with blue.
Bruco is one of only four nobile (noble) contrade; its title was earned in 1369 by its people’s bravery in helping to defeat Charles IV, and consolidated in 1371 when they led the revolt to replace the Sienese council with a people’s government.
Its Sede is at Via del Comune, 44.
Its patron Saint is Madonna (Visitation of the Saintest Mary) and the Titulary feast is on 2 July.
Its motto is “Come rivoluzion suona il mio nome” (As revolution sounds my name).
It is allied to the Istrice, Nicchio and Torre contrade and not officially opposed to any other contrade since its animosity with neighbouring Giraffa (giraffe) ended, formally, in 1996.
Last victory- 16 August 2008. It has 37 official victories.

palio costume

One of the members, Dario, gives me a tour of the community center which houses the Bruco’s Palio trophies and costumes. He gives me a brief history of how the Palio came about and why the Italians are still so passionate about it. We touch upon every detail about the horse racing culture: horses are assigned by lottery; jockeys are hired based on their desire to win; each new costume designed is worth 5,000 euros; money is raised by the residents of the contrada; transactions are made offline; and parties are thrown all week. It is incredible to realize that there are millions of euros and years of planning that go into a 90-second race.

siena palio

The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is not just a horse race, it is an annual event which involves the entire community’s hearts, minds and preoccupations for years. The race is actually held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, located in the heart of Tuscany. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, who has a church in Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary. 

palio of siena italy

Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The race itself, circles the Piazza del Campo, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. Crowds cheer and emotions run high. From children to seniors, everyone in the contrada is rooting for his jockey to win.

palio silk painting

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade. More than the palio, the bragging rights against the economy contrade, calls for weeklong celebrations. The winning ward hosts a nonstop party with free wine, food, and music.

La Tagliatella Provides an Italian Option for Vegetarians

I recently attended a blogger dinner hosted by the Association of Food Bloggers in Druid Hills, GA. La Tagliatella is an Italian chain restaurant based out of Europe with locations in many different parts of the world, including Spain, France, Germany, China, and the United States. The Emory Point location has been around for couple of years, and features a nice outdoor area that provides a great atmosphere for cool summer evenings. The restaurant boasts that it’s food is an authentic representation of Italian cuisine, although I’m not sure if I agree with that assessment.

First, the restaurant served its version of a Caprese salad as a Buffalo, Mozzarella and Tomato Carpaccio, which consisted of grated fresh tomatoes dressed with black olive pate, and topped with buffalo mozzarella and anchovies. The main difference between a traditional Caprese salad and this dish is that the tomatoes were served grated instead of sliced, to the point that it was almost like eating fresh salsa. It sounds weird, but I actually loved it. I don’t normally enjoy eating tomatoes, but the way they combined with the buffalo mozzarella, made this a delightfully fresh dish, perfect for summertime.

caprese salad

Next was Tagliatella pizza, which consisted of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and fried eggplant slices, drizzled with honey and balsamic glaze, and topped with freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The crust was rolled out very thin, into an almost cracker-like consistency, which I’ve been told is typical of authentic Napolitano pizza. This was by far one of the most unique pizzas I’ve ever had, mostly due to the honey, which added a sweet component to an otherwise savory dish. While it wasn’t necessarily a bad combination, it wasn’t something I would normally expect on a pizza. Overall I enjoyed this particular dish, but I don’t think it’s something I would order, unless my sweet tooth was having a serious craving.

tagliatella pizza

The main course consisted of three different pasta dishes. The Cuore Pasta in Pesto Rosso Panna, was stuffed with butternut squash, served in a light cream sauce with Sole di Puglia tomatoes, pine nuts, and Grana Padano cheese. The light cream sauce combined well with the butternut squash, was light and flavorful, and didn’t leave me feeling like I needed to run 10 miles after eating it. This was my favorite dish of the night by far.

Cuore Pasta in Pesto Rosso Panna

The second pasta dish, Tortellone pasta in Quattro Formaggi, consisted of round, green pasta stuffed with mozzarella, tomato, and basil, served in a cream sauce of Grana Padano, gorgonzola, gruyere, and emmental cheeses. The amount of cheeses in this alone was more than enough to get me excited. However, I found that the combination wasn’t as stellar as I had hoped. Triangle di gorgonzola pasta in pesto was the downer of the night. This pasta was triangle shaped, stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and pear, and served in an olive oil based sauce made of basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  Maybe it was the pesto paired with the gorgonzola, or the fact that the pasta was undercooked, that left a bad taste in my mouth. Whatever it was, it definitely didn’t work and I would suggest skipping this dish.

pesto gorgonzola

A Bocconcino custard and cheesecake drizzled with salted caramel, with a wafer on the side was served for dessert. A shot of Limoncello di Capri paired well as an after dinner drink. This dessert proved to be the perfect ending to a refreshing meal. The bulk of the dish consisted of a light and airy lemon-flavored custard, with a slight cheesecake consistency. I couldn’t stop eating it. Normally after any sort of Italian meal, I’m so stuffed that the prospect of eating anything else is unappealing, but this dessert was light enough that I had no problems eating more than my fair share.

Bocconcino

About halfway through the evening, someone commented that the meal seemed to be heading down a strictly vegetarian route. To be honest, I hadn’t realized that all of our courses were vegetarian until someone mentioned it, which surprised me considering how much I love meat. I typically run from the word “vegetarian,” due to the picture of a vegetable garden, and the meals I used to make for my late rabbit, Snowball. However, I’m glad this meal turned out to be vegetarian, as it gave me a different view on what a vegetarian meal constitutes. For vegetarians, I think this restaurant offers some great options that would also please meat lovers like me.

~ By Allie Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. Allie explores her passion for food, travel, and learning about different cultures though her internship with Go Eat Give.

Discover Artisans and Food Traditions in Le Marche, Italy

Many visitors to Italy have enjoyed the wonders of Tuscany, but relatively few have discovered and experienced the unique charms of neighboring Le Marche.

Le Marche is the region in east-central Italy nestled between Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. Our destination is the bustling village of Mercatello sul Metauro, located at the foot of the Tuscan-Umbrian- Apennine mountains, only a couple of hours east of Florence.

Luisa Donati invites you to share a week with her at Palazzo Donati, her family’s home, which dates to the 1700s. Situated on the main square of Mercatello sul Metauro, Palazzo Donati is a private home upgraded with modern amenities.

Luisa opens the doors to her family’s Palazzo and invites you to enter the peace and authenticity of a by-gone time. You’ll discover and experience a way of life which preserves the grace and culture of the Renaissance, in a small town largely undiscovered by tourists.

Here are some of Luisa’s favorite things that she will share with you. . .

  • Tasting of Le Marche wines
  • Renaissance ceramics in Urbania
  • Lunch at Isabella’s organic farm, “La Pieve del Colle” with a view of the landscape depicted in Piero della Francesca’s painting “I Trionfi”
  • Cooking class using local wild herbs and flowers
  • Hands-on class in the traditional art of fabric painting
  • Clara, Princess of Carpegna, hosts a private tour of her palace
  • Feast prepared by members of the Accademia del Padlot, a fraternity of nine men dedicated to food preparation, wine tasting, and good times
  • Tour of the stunning underground caves at Grotte di Frasassi
  • Shopping for foodstuffs at the market followed by cooking class taught by a local mama
  • Visit to the paper-making museum in Fabriano and a workshop on the ancient craft of making paper
  • Plenty of free time to shop, meander, and day-dream

To book, contact Luisa Donati:  info@palazzodonati.com; Skype: luisadonats; Mobile +393394016247 to inquire about this tour.  

 

 

Mediterranean Oasis: The Grand Hotel Miramare

When deciding where to stay in the Italian Riviera, think like a real estate agent, “location, location, location.” Imagine standing on a private balcony enjoying the cool sea breeze of the Gulf of Tigullio and the panoramic views of coastal Italy. Picture waking up and walking out onto a terrace to see Mediterranean style buildings, fisherman preparing their boats, million dollar yachts in the port, and families playing on the beach. Take a breath of fresh air, mingled with the aromas of caramelized Italian cappuccino and homemade marmalade filled croissants. Welcome to The Grand Hotel Miramare!

Santa Margherita, Italy The Grand Hotel Miramare is a historic award winning 4 Star Hotel, in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy. Your imagination becomes reality as the Italian word miramare means panoramic view. The white fresco building, dating back to 1904, with aqua marine shutters, can be seen for miles off land. The front façade and its floral décor are not the only features that leave a lasting impression; the engaging staff, elegant accommodations, delicious meals, and a strong historical presence make this hotel the preferred lodging location in the area.

Hotel Miramare: Pesto alla GenoveseTemperate weather of the Mediterranean brings guests to the city of Santa Margherita Ligure, a seaside resort in the Province of Genoa. Located in Northwestern Italy, foreign visitors are drawn by its geographical proximity to popular locations in France and Tuscany. Locals and visitors from afar come to Santa Margherita Ligure, which is easily accessible by car, train, boat, and plane. Clientele of The Grand Hotel Miramare visit the Basilica of Santa Margherita that dates back to 1968, and the neighboring city of Portofino; they attend cultural events, and jazz and classical music festivals. Water lovers jump into sailing, rowing, boating, and diving into the fabulous emerald green waters of the area. Then, if time and energy permit, there is walking, hiking, running, horseback riding, tennis and golf as well. The hotel staff is certain to recommend the Circolo Golf and Tennis Rappallo, one of the finest golf courses in all of Italy.

Hotelier, charming gentleman, and city socialite, Andrea Fustononi, stops by the front desk and greets guests “Buongiorno!” creating an intimate family hotel atmosphere. It is inspiring that this highly successful owner of one of the oldest grand lodging destinations on the Italian Riviera, preserves the intimacy and charm of the family owned hotel by personally greeting his guests.

When the activities of the day draw down, weary tourists and sports enthusiasts return to the care of the resort’s personnel, who greet them by name and immediately propose a relaxation filled evening of pampering and in-house dining sure to give the mind, body, and palate an unique and pleasurable experience.

Hotel Miramare: RestaurantTrust the gentle hands of the professionals at e’SPAce, a richly jewel hued indoor full service spa retreat. e’SPAce also extends massage services to clients in a peaceful outdoor gazebo retreat in the Great Park, amid the lush greenery, oleanders, camellias, lavender and other aromatics. Ready to wind down, but still awestruck by the outside views, then dress appropriately, that would be swimwear, and stroll to the Mediterranean Garden, where the patron, spellbound by the views of flora, fauna, mountains, and the gulf, favor unwinding in a poolside lounger, while sipping a refresher from the pool bar, or taking a dip in the saltwater swimming pool.

Conclude the day with an enchanting dinner at Ristorante Les Bougainvillées. The stark white stucco against the contrast of intricate fresco paintings on the ceiling creates a classical Italian aura. The dining room is a formal setting, but diners may choose to dress at a level of formality that suits their style. Regardless, the service of the wait staff is warm and diligent to all guests. The menu of Les Bougainvillées features the traditional cuisines of Ligure including Trofie pasta, Focaccia Recco and the exceptional Pesto alla Genovese, made with the light buttery tasting olives of the Ligure region.

Patrons retire to the comforts of their private space decorated in hues of pale white, blue and grey. Renovated old world luxury waits in the oversized rooms showcasing delicate refined furniture and minimal fanfare. Unwind after the nightly turn down preparations have been completed and slippers set out.

Hotel Miramare RoomWhat makes The Grand Hotel Miramare so special? It is an exquisite establishment perfectly positioned in a stunning location. Genuine conversation with management and personnel exemplifies unwavering commitment to excellence in the patron’s experience. Get superb recommendations from Andrea Fustononi about anything in the city, whether local attractions or a community staple, like Seghezzo, the 100 year old family owned grocery store. Guests are impressed by the personal attention and consideration given to them, and like countless other annual lodgers, look forward to their next stay at The Grand Hotel Miramare.

~ Words & photos by Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious. Follow her on Instagram@jadenlie

10 Things You Must Eat at Your Tuscan Villa

Last week I wrote about staying at a Tuscan Villa in Italy where I enjoyed very authentic meals using ingredients that were grown on the farm or sourced from nearby villages. During the one week stay, I was able to get a glimpse of what Italians eat and the proper etiquettes to eat them. I was also dining with the locals during all of the meals, so it was easy to verify the technique of cooking and eating these dishes. Some of the recipes are available on Go Eat Give.

1. Prosciutto and Cheese: A Tuscan meal starts with Salumi and cheese platter. An appertivo cocktail, prosecco or Rose wine accompanies it. Besides your table cheese, you can also serve rich cream of pecorino and sheep cheese from Sardinia.

cheese tasting Italy

2. Raw Fava: Whole raw Fava beans are generally stacked in the middle of the table for everyone to share. You are suppose to grab a few strings, peel them, dip the beans in a little salt, and eat with bread and cheese. The beans are hard and dry so much of the flavor comes from the salt.

fava beans with salt

3. Olive Oil: We always had generous portions of salad, generally served toward the end of the meal. This simple salad of rugola (arugula), black olives, chopped tomatoes, red bell peppers and shaved pecorino cheese is dressed with Montestigliano brand olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. All the olives are grown and pressed at the farm, and has a spicy sharp flavor. I highly recommend doing an olive oil tasting so you can distinguish the color, fragrance and taste of different kinds of olive oil.

Mediterranean salad

4. Spianata: Hearty foccacia is cooked in the oven with a hint of salt, rosemary and olive oil. I especially liked Spianata al forno a legna con ciccioli di maiale (flat bread with pork fat made in a wood oven) which had a flaky buttery texture.

Spianata al forno

5. Farro Salad: Grains are a big part of the Italian diet. The farms grow and harvest wheat, faro, arborio and store them for year round consumption. Farro salad with roasted red peppers,  chopped parsley and olive oil served on a baby bib lettuce makes for a visually appealing yet healthy side dish.

farro

6. Conchiglie al Forno: During one of the al fresco lunches, I had baked conchilie pasta al forno, pasta shells cooked with zucchini and benchémel sauce, sprinkled with pecorino cheese and baked in the oven till light brown. It was garnished with fresh basil leaves and tasted divine!

Conchiglie

7. Pinolata Senesce: For Easter dinner, the family prepared a special treat – pinolata senesce or Tuscan pine nut cake from Siena. The creamy cake had a light flaky crust and soft jam center. It was dusted with powdered sugar and lots of toasted pine nuts.

Pinolata Senesce

8. Torta Budino al Cioccolato: This was not your ordinary chocolate cake, as the bottom was a little soggy and bursted with strong dark chocolate and orange flavors. I pleaded the chef to tell me what was her secret ingredient – vanilla, orange liquor, rum? Find out for yourself as she grudgingly shared her recipe.

Torta Budino al Cioccolato

9. Crostata: I ate a lot of crostatas during my week in Tuscany. A crostata is an Italian cross between a tart and a pie. It is a rustic pastry made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs and filled with  whatever fruits that are available in the season. Apricot jams, apples, plums, elderberries, tomatoes and nuts are some of the inspiring flavors for the crostata. It was served for breakfast, dessert and snacks, but I’m not complaining!

Crostata

10. Cantucci: Otherwise know as almond biscotti or Italian cookies, the only way to eat them is by dipping in Vin Santo dessert wine. The hard biscotti become moist and sweet after a few seconds in the late-harvest wine. It melts in your mouth with a delicious alcohol kick to it. Please do not dip cantucci in coffee or order a cappuccino after a meal as this is a no-no in Italian culture!

CantucciI went for a food tour of Tuscany as a guest of the Donati family. You can book a similar trip directly through Luisa Donati. Rent one of the villas located on the family farm, Montestigliano. During your stay, visit the bio gas station, do a blind olive oil tasting, talk to local producers, go Truffle hunting, learn to make pasta, have a home cook prepare your meals, and dine with the locals.

Read more about my travels in Italy.

A Week at a Tuscan Villa

Have you dreamed about renting a villa in Tuscany or going on a food tour in Italy? Both of these have been on my bucket list for quite sometime and it was a dream come true when I received an invitation from Luisa Donati and Nancy Krabill, who run tours in Tuscany and Le Marche, Italy. More details about the tour in another post. Here I share my experience staying at a real Tuscan Villa.

tuscan villa Sienna

I was picked up from Maria Novella, the main train station in Firenze and we drove off into the Tuscan countryside. We passed by Chianti area, stopped for a brief look at San Gimignano (a small Medieval town), and went through beautiful hills of Siena. An unmarked sign led us into Montestigliano, a privately owned farm estate spread over 2475 acres. We drove into a long narrow pathway with cypress avenues, olive groves and fig trees till we reached Villa Pipistrelli.

Villa Pipistrelli is a magnificent 17th century Tuscan farmhouse restored with modern day amenities while maintaining the architectural integrity of Tuscan countryside architecture.

Villa Pipistrelli Tuscany

The ground floor of Villa Pipistrelli has a cozy living room, dining room, spacious kitchen, two master bedrooms with attached baths and a laundry room. Staircases lead up to the second floor which opens up to another sitting area and three more rooms with baths and a balcony overlooking the olive groves.

room at villa in tuscany
The two large master bedrooms seemed perfect for couples as they had king size beds, high ceilings, wood floors and oversized tubs. I stayed at the smaller one in the corner which had exposed beam ceilings, lime washed walls in soft colors and  touches of modern Italian design in the bathrooms. It felt like I had stepped back in time sleeping on  antique carved bed adorned with floral bedsheets, yet having the luxury of modern living.

The living area is the communal gathering place where guests enjoy a glass of prosecco, chat about their day and connect home with WiFi internet. A fireplace constructed from the original rocky foundation of the home becomes the cherishes spot on chilly nights.

Our meals at the villa reflected home cooked Tuscan cooking using only farm fresh ingredients. We had a local lady come in to cook breakfast, lunch and some dinners at the villa’s rustic open kitchen.  Handmade tagliatelle Bolognese, spinach and ricotta nudi, baked ziti, tiramisu, crostata and other specialties cooked with olive oil, pecorino flour and ham sourced within 0 kilometers enhance the flavors of simply prepared dishes.

breakfast at Villa Pipistrelli

We would enjoy breakfast of fresh baked pastries, eggs, fruit and coffee indoors and lunch al fresco in the patio.

dining room at Villa Pipistrelli

There is nothing more relaxing than enjoying a delicious authentic Italian meal during pleasant spring time temperatures on a quiet farm in Tuscany. One of the aspects I liked most about this trip was that the members of the Donati family (including Luisa, her brother and her daughter) would join us for the meals. It was a more personal experience to eat with the locals and be able to talk to them about everyday life in Italy.

dining area at Villa Tuscany

Outside the villa is a quaint garden and infinity pool (open seasonally) with a backdrop of rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eyes can see. In fact the nearest village is about 30 minutes walk so its not likely you can see or hear any traffic during your stay.

morning mist at tuscan villa

There are plenty of paths to go walking, hiking or biking though. Some of the gusts would wake up early morning to take photos of the rising mists in the hills. I enjoyed long evening strolls trough the canopies of trees and often got lost on the lush property.

walking in Tuscan CountrysideI walked through the olive groves and tasted the Montestigliano brand of olive oil in the food I ate everyday. It was spicy and rich, unlike any other table olive oil I have cooked with before. The olives start growing in the summer and in November, guest can help with harvesting. If anybody is interested in learning more about the working of the farm, Massimo Donati, the family farmer, is eager to give lesson and even host a blind olive oil tasting at the farm’s granary.

Montestigliano olive oil

Montestigliano has several other properties right on the property that were a few steps away from our villa. At one time, the entire place was a working farms and the Donati’s had the farmers living in these homes. Now the homes have been renovated and converted into property rentals. There is Villa Donati  – Casa Luisa – Virginia 1 – Virginia 2 – Casa Marta – Casa Adriana – Ropoli Sopra – Villa Pipistrelli, each of which is equipped with multiple bedrooms, private baths, living rooms, kitchens and lots of view of the Tuscan countryside. You may rent a room, a villa with your friends, or the entire estate, as people do for weddings and special events.

pizza dinner in TuscanyThe common kitchen also prepares special dinners, happy hours and pizza nights where one can socialize with other vacationers. I happen to be in Montestigliano during Easter so the family prepared a special meal for all of the 80 guests staying on the premises that weekend.

family dining in Tuscany

How much does a villa rental in Tuscany cost, you may ask. Prices start at only 700 Euros per week (2 bedrooms at Casa Damiano). A total of 70 beds are available at Montestigliano, and the prices differ by the size of the houses. Villa Pipistrelli rents for 7,400-9,900 Euros per week and accommodates 10 people.

Receive 30% off 1 week and 50% off 2 week rentals at select properties in Tuscany with discount code TUSCANVILLA. For more information or to make a reservation click here

Read This Before You Rent a Car in Europe

Securing a vehicle for ground transportation at my destination is something I have done numerous times.  I research the rental companies as well as third party offers through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and other online agencies.  Careful consideration is given to selecting the appropriate pick-up location, the dates the car is needed, best amenities, and best price; and then, finally, I book a car.  Very soon the confirmation is delivered to my inbox.

Now, most people would put a check mark by “rental car” on their to-do-list.  I put a check with another date, because a few days before the trip, I will call the rental agency to make sure everything is in order.  Oh, I do not expect any problems, but I just like to make sure. With that said, I had obviously never tried to rent a car internationally, until preparing for my recent trip to Europe.  Renting a car for my stay in Italy proved to be time consuming, nerve wracking, and an oddly rewarding learning experience.  Here are 6 important things I learned.

Italian Car Rental

1. Choose stick or automatic:  The first and most formidable obstacle was the scarcity of rentals with automatic transmissions.  Availability and the best prices await travelers who can drive a stick.  Manual transmission vehicles rent at a significantly lower rate than their automatic counterparts.

2. Begin your search early:  If you are like me and a stick is out of the question, I would strongly encourage you to begin looking for a rental car at least two months in advance.  What I have learned is that only in the United States, Canada, and Australia do automatic transmissions reign supreme.  Not to worry though, a limited number of rentals with automatic transmissions are in stock for us Americans, but when they’re gone, they are gone.  The ambience of casually touring the Italian Riviera will not be the same from the backseat of a taxi or from a tour bus.

3. Understand insurance coverage and options:  The next lesson I would learn was the difference in the rental insurance requirements and mandates.  In Italy, Collision Damage Waiver Insurance is mandatory.  It is almost always included in the rental price quote.  If this insurance is not a part of the quote, it will be added before payment is made.  It cannot be declined.

Excess Insurance is an optional insurance to cover payment of “excess damage assessments” should dings, dents, scratches, or any other type of damage be found outside of what is included in the Collision Damage Waiver Insurance.  This is the insurance we never really think we will need, but we are afraid not to get.  For this trip the optional insurance was purchased, but not through the car rental company.

4. Shop around for optional coverage:  Many car rental companies will try and convince buyers that they will not accept third party excess damage insurance.  Do not fall prey to this tactic.  Third party companies such as iCarhireinsurance.com sell this optional insurance at a much cheaper rate.  Frequent road warriors may purchase it annually and their coverage is available globally.

After much back and forth deliberation, I booked an automatic transmission vehicle, which was covered by the mandatory CDW and the optional Excess Insurance through the third party company, rentalcars.com.  Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief, feeling empowered with the accomplishment of navigating an international car rental.  I could just picture us cruising along the Italian Riviera.

5. Check for holidays that may affect your visit:  A few days before leaving the United States, I contacted rentalcars.com to verify the booking.  Everything was confirmed, the reservation had been booked with Thrifty and I was told there was no cause for worry.  Despite this assurance, I felt very uneasy, I tried but I could not shake the feeling that something might go wrong.  Not having a car in the US is one thing, but to be without a car, or without one with an automatic transmission on a foreign continent would be a disaster.  Perhaps my tension was further fueled by something I have not mentioned.  The day we were to pick-up the car was a national holiday and most major rental outlets and other businesses across the entire country would be closed.

6. Confirm your reservation with the pick-up location:  I needed relief from the awful feeling within me, so I called Thrifty and to my dismay the representative informed me that there was nothing in their system for me.  After countless hours on hold, more than four representatives, and several transfers, not one representative could find my booking.  Panic set in, but I quickly called rentalcars.com and explained the situation.  To my relief, a very knowledgeable agent told me exactly why there was no need for all my anxieties.

To get the best prices, rentalcars.com collaborates directly with the car pick-up location.  Therefore the confirmation number was specific only to the Thrifty location in Florence, Italy, where I would receive the vehicle.  In my final attempt to be assured that we would not be on foot during this vacation, I loaded $10 onto my Skype account and called the Thrifty pick-up site in Florence, Italy.  When I asked about a reservation for Kaylah Burks, I heard the sweet sound of, “Si, Signora Burks, we have your car rental reservation in our system.”

For more information on international car rentals, check back for my next article featuring great tips on must have gps options, the pick-up process and pumping gas.

~ By Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious.  Follow her on Instagram @jadenlie