Eat, Walk, Love: Our Italian Honeymoon (Part I)

PART ONE: EAT

Italy. The place is as romantic as it sounds. Someone told me it was “heaven on earth” and to be honest, I don’t think they were wrong.

On a cold, blustery day in November 2018, Chelsea and I took the leap and purchased plane tickets to whisk us to Florence and then back from Rome. Italy had been on our minds for a while; it was at the top of our bucket list travel destinations, and subsequently, a top choice for a honeymoon destination. Plus, it was Cyber Monday and we were able to purchase our tickets for at least 50% cheaper than the going rate. We booked through Delta and we were giddy with joy.

Admittedly, my primary motivation to travel to Italy (cultivated around the age of 12 when I did a school project on the country) was food. The cheeses, the pastas…THE CHEESES. As I grew older and developed a strong dose of wanderlust, I was struck by the country’s variant climates, robust selections of wines, and plethora of historical landmarks, stories, and structures. Truth be told, I daydreamed about visiting an Italian winery – that is how badly I wanted to go. Then, my aunt told me a year or so prior to our wedding that one of the most beautiful places she had ever been was the Amalfi Coast. We googled pictures and there was no turning back.

When asked about our honeymoon upon our return, I found a way to succinctly put it:

“You could literally go to Italy and just eat and you would be perfectly happy.”

Chelsea puts it slightly differently, but still echoes a similar sentiment, “of all the places I have traveled, this would be the one where food could be the primary factor for your trip.”

Of course, there is so much to see and do. So much so that you could probably spend years in the country and not do it all. So, for two weeks, we did as much as we possibly could and we ate as much as we could, too.

FLORENCE & TUSCANY

Dreary and bagless (I was forced to gate check my bag in Denver and it didn’t arrive until day three of our trip) we were not deterred to start our culinary exploration with a bang. Meandering the curvy, narrow streets of Florence we were able to find a cute outdoor restaurant (Ristorante Celestino) that served up one of my favorite dishes to cook – risotto. Chelsea and I also shared a three-glass bottle of wine (smaller than what you typically find in our liquor stores). Exhausted from travel, our meal was short and sweet, but also absolutely delicious. The risotto was slightly al dente (as it should be) and served on a traditional red and white tablecloth. More than the food, though, this restaurant provided wonderful people watching opportunities in the square where we sat. We watched as people ascended on the cathedral for evening mass and as people gathered for dinner. We ate early so the crowd was small – Italians tend to eat later (and for longer) and so we were part of the first wave of diners.

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The following day in Florence was filled with adventure and activity. With a bike ride scheduled in the late afternoon, we roamed the city both in rain and shine. We stopped for lunch at I Fratellini and my oh my, if you find yourself in Florence you MUST stop here. We read the rave online reviews and decided to give it a go. For about €4 (equivalent to around $4.50) you can get a sandwich with a glass of wine. Most customers grab their sandwich, sip their wine, and place the glass on a counter on the outside of the stall. Because, yes, that’s how the sandwiches are served – essentially from a stall! I suppose that is what is meant by the term fiaschetteria (a wine tavern). I ordered a truffle and sheep cheese arugula sandwich; Chelsea ordered a turkey sandwich. Nothing (I mean, nothing) beats the magical flavors of cheese and truffle.

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After our bike tour and with an early morning the following day, we finished our day with a four-cheese pizza from Biancazerozero. We ordered the pizza for takeaway and comfortably ate it back at our cozy Airbnb flat so we could rest up for the journey ahead.

In the morning we had all the good vibes. My bag arrived, we caught our bus on time, and we were well on our way to the land of wine: the Tuscan countryside. We booked a rural Airbnb for this leg of the trip, staying just a little outside of Castellina in Chianti. Fortunately, our host was able to pick us up from a nearby bus station and take us to our castle-like home for the next few days. Our stay in Borgo Sicelle (the name of the little village) was highlighted by the fact that we were surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards, and olive groves. We ate at the one restaurant in town (Ucia & Bottega) multiple times and adored the cozy, quirky vibe. Chelsea nearly cried when she ate their version of Tiramisu and I nearly cried when we were given grappa and limoncello for “digestive purposes” at the end of our meal. The liquor was strong, and I was not expecting its potency.

 

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The highlight of our time in Tuscany was the wine tour we booked. Along with eight Australians, we visited two wineries, Lilliano and Rocca, and partook in some of the best wine we have ever had. We learned how Sangiovese grapes (and others, like Merlot) are processed, fermented, and prepared for bottling. Lucky for us, tastings were not your typical 1-ounce portion. Instead, you will be given a half-glass per tasting. Our lunch was prepared by Nona, the mother of our tour guide, Martina. Martina’s winery is a family run business and has been for many years. It was an honor to eat their food.

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When we left the Tuscany region to head to Naples, we stumbled upon a quaint, unassuming coffee shop (Café Italia) in a small town named Tavarnelle Val di Pisa. When we entered, I noticed an oversized canvas hanging from the wall, as if it were the wallpaper. On a closer look, I noticed that it was of a couple’s wedding – a lesbian couple’s wedding – and that one of the women was working the coffee bar at the same time. Poorly, but somehow still effectively, we were able to communicate that we too were a couple. It was a nice, small moment. But one that goes a really long way when traveling in a foreign country. We are not alone.

That reminds me – the espresso in Italy is impeccable. The smooth, strong taste of espresso (priced at only €1 to make coffee accessible to everyone) was truly unforgettable. We happily added “drink espresso” to our daily routine – sometimes stopping two or three times throughout the day to imbibe.

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NAPLES & AMALFI COAST

Our journey from the Tuscany region to the Campania region (where Naples is located) took a bit of time as it covered nearly 300 miles of distance. Thus, when we arrived at the birthplace of pizza, Naples, we were hungry. We found a pizzeria nearby (Pizzeria de Atelio) and finished our night drinking a cheap but delicious local wine and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Our travel day had been long and so we needed some laughter. We ordered three pizzas (margherita, marinara, and four cheese) and they were all delicious. Much like we had read about, the center of the Neapolitan style pizza was slightly wet, and the crust was charred and thin, with some puffs from air during the baking process. Each pizza was baked in less than a minute and a half. The classic pizza Napoletana is simple and straight-forward: dough, tomatoes, mozzarella (specifically Buffala), basil, and olive oil.

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This pizza was just the beginning. Our next night, we waited for almost two hours to dine at the famous (and Michelin-star award winning) L’Antica Pizzeria da Michelle. This shop, opened in 1870, is well-known for its Neapolitan-style pizza. Rumor has it that this is where pizza began. Once we sat down to eat, we had two options (marinara or margherita) for pizza and just a handful of options for beverages (wine, beer, or water). Surrounded by strangers, the atmosphere was crowded but strangely communal. Our pizzas arrived swiftly, and I was struck by how complex a relatively simple dish could be. We noticed the abundance of photographs of Julia Roberts at the restaurant and realized that this was the place that Elizabeth Gilbert visited and then wrote about in her book, Eat, Pray, Love. If in Naples, this spot is a must-see.

 

Our time in Naples was rather short – our principal reason for venturing to this part of the country was to spend time in the Amalfi Coast. We stayed in the quiet, cliffside village of Ravello and truly, this was one of the best places I have stayed. EVER. Our Airbnb included an elegant terrace that overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our host recommended a visit to La Vecchia Cucina and it was the most excellent of recommendations – we ended up going twice. Here we fell in love with the romantic ambiance, the prosecco, and of course, the pizza. I also indulged myself both nights with the addition of a caprese salad and it made for the most perfect of meals. On the first visit, we also shared a plate of baked gnocchi and the flavor combinations reminded me of how often, the simpler the flavor, the more powerful it can be.

 

Our second day in Ravello was spent walking around town. In between, we stopped multiple times for espresso and most certainly, gelato. In each town, we indulged ourselves with various flavors of gelato (stracciatella was our favorite) but in my opinion, it was best in Ravello. The gelato was smooth, refreshing, and much denser than ice cream. This was a regular part of our diet while in Italy and I already miss the ability to walk outside and find a shop nearby.

Our last day in the coastal region was spent on a boat. We booked the boat cruise through Airbnb (they now offer “experiences” in addition to accommodations). With only two other guests, we cruised around the Amalfi Coast for six hours, stopping for lunch at the famous town of Positano. Here, we had our least favorite meal (an overpriced sandwich for me and a very questionable hummus taco for Chelsea). Even in culinary paradises, it is still very possible to have a less than stellar meal. We finished the evening again at La Vecchia Cucina and packed our bags for our final destination: Rome.

 ROME

Full of history, a country inside the city, and plentiful attractions, we were delighted to finish our trip in Rome. After taking a bus, ferry, and train from the coast, we welcomed our arrival. Hungry, our host recommended a nearby restaurant: Cacio e Pepe. Translated literally to “cheese and pepper,” this popular restaurant serves up pasta dishes, especially their featured menu item: cacio e pepe. The dish includes pecorino, freshly-cracked black peppercorns, butter or oil, and fresh (homemade) pasta. We dug in and my, it was good. Everything about the dish was fresh, comforting, and savory. The pasta was so fresh that it was clearly handmade less than an hour beforehand. Paired with a glass of house red, we were truly living our best lives. This was the best way to start our time in Rome.

 

Chelsea didn’t feel well the following day and so our adventures were fairly low-key. We did make it out for a dinner together, but much like our stop in Positano, the meal was underwhelming, largely (we think) because we got stuck in a tourist trap. We meant to eat a local Risoterria (risotto restaurant) but the restaurant was unexpectedly closed. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant we ended up eating at, but we do remember being told that the bigger the menu, the more touristy it may be, and the less authentic the food could be. We also realized that the better translated the menu, a.k.a. the more “Americanized” it was, the more generic and less traditional the food was. This seemed to be the case for the evening.

However, our final meal in Rome did not disappoint. We did make it to the risotto restaurant (La Risotto Melotti) that featured a menu of only risotto ingredients. The restaurant has several locations (one in a rural part of Italy, one in Rome, and interestingly, one in Manhattan). We had a polenta for our appetizer and various cheese risottos for dinners (YUM). My selected dish was a cacio e pepe risotto and I ate every last bit. Chelsea had a rosemary parmesan risotto that tasted like a grown-up mac ‘n’ cheese in all the best ways. I would highly recommend visiting this establishment. As with many of the places we visited, it is family-owned and family-run, still sourcing directly from their family farm. To top it off, on one of our last nights in Rome, we visited Coming Out, an LGBTQ+ bar near (like across the street) the Colosseum. We felt at right at home and celebrated with a couple of cocktails.

 

To say the least, our culinary experiences at each point in our trip were meaningful, memorable, and exactly what we had hoped we would find in Italy. In fact, it was even better than I could have imagined as a young girl. The food was more than just food, it was an experience filled with culture, love, and community. In Italy, I was reminded of the bonding nature of food, that it can bring us together in a multitude of circumstances, and it’s a sort of take on food that I’d like to impart on our family someday, too. Food is to be shared, to be enjoyed, to be celebrated. And certainly, we did that and more during our two-week honeymoon.

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