People don’t always associate steak with Italian cooking, but in fact, one of the glories of Tuscan cuisine is a simply prepared Porterhouse steak , grilled rare, over a wood fire: bistecca alla fiorentina, or literally Steak Florentine. The dish is so typical that if you ask for a fiorentina in a restaurant, without saying more, this is what you will be served.
However, this ‘steak’ is not just your ordinary cut of meat. Let’s start with the quality of the meat In Italy, a true bistecca alla fiorentina is made with Chianina beef raised in the Chiana Valley. Chianina cattle are huge white oxen raised in the Tuscany region's Val di Chiana valley, near Arezzo. The region’s Chianina breed are prized for their tenderness and flavor. In typical Italian style, simplicity rules; little more than olive oil, rosemary and salt are needed to highlight the rich flavor of the grilled meat. A bistecca alla fiorentina must be cut thick, at least 1-1/2-2 inches but even better at 3 inches thick. This allows a nice crust to form on the outside of the steak while the inside remains rare. A fiorentina is never, ever served well done.
Those who will be joining us next September for our Villas of Italy: Tuscan Adventure will experience bistecca alla fiorentina for dinner one evening at the villa. Buon Appetito!
Perhaps it is the contrast between the mountains and the sea, lapping against a cresent coast which forms the fabulous Italian Riviera, the most visually appealing feature of Liguria - my families ancestral home. Located in north-western Italy, bordering with France in its westernmost point, Liguria is a land of towering mountains and rolling hills covered by Mediterranean scrub overlooking the high and rugged coastline of the Ligurian Sea.
The most impressive stretch of this coastline is of course the world-famous Cinque Terre, which, along with Portovenere, Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto, have been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. In the Cinque Terre, colorful houses and vineyards cling to steep terraces where Sciacchetrà wine is produced; walking paths, local trains and boats connect the villages of Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, historic and colorful ‘borghi’ in spectacular seaside locations.
The Gulf of La Spezia nearby, also known as the Gulf of Poets, is the stretch of coast closest to Tuscany, and takes its nickname from the many writers who chose it as their residence, including British poets Byron and Shelley. Some sights not to miss here include colorful Portovenere, and the island in front of it, Palmaria, and a visit to the Blue Cave; Lerici and its castle; and Tellaro, considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Moving westward along the coast, you’ll soon find glitzy Portofino, the picturesque former fishing village turned into glamorous international destination, with luxury yachts anchored in the small harbor. Sit in the piazzetta for an aperitivo to soak in the atmosphere. Take the 20-minute boat trip to the tiny island of San Fruttuoso, an isolated village of fishermen with a small beach and a Benedictine abbey. The best way to reach Portofino? By driving the old coastal road Via Aurelia, which starts at Nervi and passes the towns of Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Chiavari and Sestri Levante, affording great coastal views. If you decide to spend a few days in this area Santa Margherita Ligure is much more affordable and literally a 10min. bus ride along the same bay as Portofino.
Towns worth a stop include Santa Margherita Ligure (a great place to stay while in the area - less expensive than Portofino and literally a 5min. bus ride away), which features an elegant seafront promenade lined with shops, bars, restaurants and more yachts; Rapallo, with the Sanctuary of Montallegro for a beautiful view; Chiavari, with its old streets and the Basilica dei Fieschi; Sestri Levante, with a picturesque port called the Bay of Silence. Climb to the Parco dei Castelli at the top of the cape for a beautiful view of the Ligurian coast.
Genoa, the capital of Liguria, divides the coast in Riviera di Levante (Eastern Riviera, described above) and Riviera di Ponente (Western Riviera). Genoa was for centuries a powerful maritime republic and its close relationship to the sea is still strong today. The birthplace of Christopher Columbus and Niccolò Paganini, Genoa has been nicknamed la Superba (“the Proud one”) because of its glorious past and impressive landmarks. Part of the old town of Genoa, with its characteristic ‘carruggi’, narrow alleys, was inscribed on Unesco World Heritage List in 2006. Part of the Unesco inscription are also the Palazzi dei Rolli, extraordinary palaces built in the 16th century to host visiting politicians and noble personalities. Not to be missed in Genoa is the Aquarium, the largest in Italy and second largest in Europe.
West of Genoa is the Riviera dei Fiori (the Coast of Flowers), best visited by driving along the old coastal road Via Aurelia. Explore Albenga, known for its towers and historic monuments; Alassio, with a little church that has a prime view of the town below; Taggia, where you can admire the houses dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries; Sanremo with its elegant Corso Imperatrice promenade, a casino and the medieval neighborhood of La Pigna; and Bordighera, which has a magnificent seafront promenade and old town area.
To the south of Siena is a classic fairytale hilltop town, set within a full circle of fortified walls and watched over by a mighty castle of medieval perfection. Montalcino, west of Pienza, is a beautiful village immersed in the breathtaking Val d' Orcia Natural Park, renowned all over the world for the production of its precious Brunello red wine. The town has scarcely changed in appearance since the 16th century. Once you get up to the town, a magnificent spectacle unfolds for your eyes: rolling sunny hills dotted with yellow and red flowers, ancient oak trees, picturesque olive groves, scenic country roads winding through perfect vineyards and isolated cypress trees atop hills.
The town has been made incredibly rich and famous by its Brunello wine, one of the world's best and most appreciated Italian wines. Montalcino was already well-known for its fine red wines during the 15th century. However, the precious formula of the fantastic Brunello was invented in 1888 by Ferruccio Biondi Santi, who first had the idea of leaving out the grapes used in the traditional Chianti recipe, such as Canaiolo and Colorino, and using only the Sangiovese variety. Before the Brunello is ready, it must age for a minimum of 5 years, 2 of which must take place in oak barrels, while the Rosso of Montalcino is ready after only one year of aging. Amongst the many renowned wine producers in the area you will find Biondi-Santi, Schidione and Banfi.
Montalcino is not just wine, it is also very rich in artistic treasures. The historical center is dominated by the mighty and imposing Rocca or fortress built in 1361 to mark the passage of Montalcino under the domination of Siena. The views from its ramparts are spectacular, stretching towards Monte Amiata, across the Crete to Siena, and across all of the Valdorcia and the hills of Maremma.
The fortress has remained practically intact since the Middle Ages and often becomes the special setting for festivals, concerts, and events, such as the famous Jazz & Wine Festival held in July each year, where you might combine the pleasure of listening to fine Italian and international jazz music with that of good drinking!
Another landmark of Montalcino is the tall and slender clock tower that graces the Palazzo dei Priori, the city's town hall, while below lies the main square known as Piazza del Popolo with its characteristic Gothic loggia. Also worth visiting are the Palazzo Vescovile and the churches of Sant' Agostino, Sant' Egidio and San Francesco.
Also a visit to the Museo Civico and Diocesano di Arte Sacra, hosting notable religious paintings and sculptures, and the Museo del Vetro(Glass Museum) that tells the history of glass making is worth the time. The museum, inside the lovely castle of Poggio alle Mura, hosts an interesting collection of glass and instruments from Egyptian to Roman times up to the great Venetian masters.
The streets of Montalcino with their stone pavements are truly enchanting and the village is a wonderful place to stroll around among the labyrinth of charming arts and crafts shops, cafes, restaurants and wine bars. If you wish to take home a bottle of superb wine, this is the right place to take advantage!
Take some time to fully enjoy the special medieval atmosphere of this magnificent Tuscan hilltop town. Walk slowly through its narrow and characteristic alleys offering extraordinary views over the underlying valley, and then sit and relax while tasting a glass of this delicious red wine.
Walk into Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and it feels like a theme park. But it wasn't so long ago the picturesque area was considered one of Europe's most interesting, especially with its fiery, and violent, history.
“Trastevere” is short for “attraverso il Tevere” (across the Tiber). It is across the river from Centro Storico which was the nerve center of Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire. This boat-shaped Tiberina Island, the longest continually inhabited island in the world is only 900 feet long and 220 feet wide. In the middle of the Tiber between Trastevere and Centro Storico, it dates back to the 3rd century BC when a plague hit Rome and the city built the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Today, symbolizing the island’s history of caring for the sick, is the grandiose Ospedale Fatebenefratelli.
It wasn’t so long ago when Trastevere was one of the most charming, interesting neighbourhoods in Europe. I was lucky to wander through in 1978 just after graduating from college. In the 1970s, Italy was plagued by social unrest. The communist Red Brigades clashed with fascists and the government. After being warned by my Italian relatives not to travel to Rome (why not I’m young, strong and immortal?) I boarded a train and arrived in Rome shortly after they kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, twice a prime minister who wanted to include the communists in the government for the first time. The Red Brigades wanted nothing to do with Moro or compromise. Well, when I arrived I walked out onto the top stairs of Roma Termini took a panoramic look around thinking ‘what’s the problem, bright sunny May day, an ancient bustling city, this is great’ just as a small Fiat parked across the street blew up in a huge ball of flames as I hit the ground thinking, ‘maybe I should have listened to my relatives!?' (Never told my mother this story!) In less than an hour the Red Brigades was claiming responsibility for the explosion.
Well, things got better, no more explosions and when I made my way to Trastevere I was enchanted
by its Bohemian character prompting me to learn more about this section of Rome that travelers seldom ventured into, perhaps due to its tumultuous past. You see, in Ancient Rome, the city had 300,000 slaves. After 10 years cleaning vomitoriums (not what you think, a vomitorium is a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance) and alleys, the slaves became freemen. They all moved to Trastevere which was inhabited mainly by sailors and fishermen. It soon became home to Rome’s first community of Jews who came to Rome with Pompeii the Great after he conquered Judea and Syria. In the 1st century BC, the Jews moved across the river just south of Centro Storico. To this day, the Jewish Ghetto is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
During Ancient Rome one of the street gangs’ favourite crimes was arson. Street fires were frequent and easy. The wood tenement housing went up like campfires. It was also a bit risky. The penalty for arson in Ancient Rome was to cover the arson in oil and light him on fire like human torches. Emperors would hold the executions in the Colosseum or Circus Maximus during gladiator battles and chariot races. Fighting fires back then, the city had 7,000 firefighters, many of them freed slaves. Their method of stopping fires was smashing the building to smother the flames. In the 1st century B.C., a wealthy, corrupt politician and general named Marcus Crassus invented the world’s first fire brigade. They’d race to a fire but before going to work he’d tell the owner, distraught with his building turning into kindling behind him, he’ll charge the equivalent of €5,000 to put it out. When the owner tried to negotiate down, Crassus raised it to €6,000. When the building finally became rubble, Crassus paid the owner €1,000 and built an apartment house with 100 apartments where he fleeced tenets for outrageous rent. He soon became the richest man in Rome. It is said, “He invented the fire brigade with 100 employees, ninety were firemen — and 10 were the best arsonists in town.”
(A side note to Crassus’ fate: He built an army of 60,000 to invade the Persians who saw him as no more than a greedy slumlord. When they killed 30,000 Romans and captured him, they told him, “So you like our gold, huh?” and filled his mouth with molten gold. That would hurt. The Persians cut off his head, put it on a spear and paraded it through Lebanon, Syria and Persia.)
Piazza Navona in Centro Storico is famous for being the site of staged naval battles during Ancient Rome. Under Trastevere’s Piazza San Cosimato are the remains of a stadium that in the 1st century A.D. held 20,000 spectators. An aqueduct brought tainted water from a lake near Bracciano outside Rome into the stadium. One time Caligula, Rome’s worldwide gift to sexual perversion, held a battle during the winter when a storm hit. About 25 spectators drowned. After that little PR disaster, they held battles only in the summer. To keep the overflowing Tiber from flooding Trastevere, they opened a channel to the stadium. Emperor Claudius held the greatest naval battle, using 19,000 convicts, on Lake Fucino in neighborhood Abruzzo. He told them they’d earn their freedom if they survived. He just never told them how long the battle lasted. After 10 hours, only 50 of 19,000 were still alive. You see back then the vast majority of Romans could not swim.
Trastevere was also the birthplace of Franco Giuseppucci, one of the founders of the Banda della Magliana (Magliana Gang), a ruthless fascist gang tied to the murder of Aldo Moro. Giuseppucci worked in his father’s Trastevere bakery and grew up clinging to the barrel of Italy’s fascist guns. He even had a bust of Mussolini in his home. He transformed the Banda della Magliana from a group of petty thieves into a major criminal organization that monopolized Rome’s crime scene in the 1970s. He was eventually killed in 1980, at age 33, when a man on a motorbike shot him, launching a gang war that covered all of Rome.
Today, naval battles, arson and kidnappings have given way to parties, souvenir shops and street performers. Trastevere is a short 20-minute walk from the Pantheon across Ponte Garibaldi and worth a visit. The back alleys are dotted with romantic eateries and cozy wine bars known only to the residents in the surrounding alleys. Stop off for a glass of wine and cheese plate at one such place. Take your time, good wine, quiet streets. warm nights . . . but keep your eyes open for anybody lighting a match (just kidding).
Villas of Italy specializes in all-inclusive superior villa vacations. We've designed our adventures so Italy can be experienced in intimate tour groups, Tourneo Custom air-conditioned vans, and one-of-a-kind Villa estates. Immerse yourself in Italy's picturesque towns and villages while enjoying exquisite cuisine, vibrant culture, and the spirit of Italy.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.