Best Cheese Monger:
Marusco e Maria Enoteca, Pienza
Marusco showed us many types of pecorino cheese and let us taste several gems. You see, his shop specializes in sheep's milk cheeses. The word percorino is derived from pecora (meaning sheep). He also drizzled a bit of amazing balsamic vinegar on some cheese... thick like molasses. (We brought some home). Amazing flavors and smells in this shop, and the best part was Marusco, an older country looking gent that made us (and young foodie, Lucas) feel right at home.
Corso il Rossellino, 19, Pienza, Italy
We decided we needed to award the Finzi Family Best of Italy Awards! The voting was tough and competitive. There may have been some improper influencing. Under the table and back room deals were struck, but... here they are:
Best Hot Air Balloonist:
Stefano Travaglia, Idea Balloon
I'm so glad I picked Stefano for our hot air balloon ride in Tuscany. What sold me was, unlike other balloon "adventures" that pop up a folding table where you land and pull out the cheap Champagne, plastic cups and cheese, Stefano and his wife and partner balloonist Gianna take you back to their wonderful country home to feast on local breads, cheeses, salamis, honey, local Prosecco and more. We shared conversation, met their many dogs, and were welcomed in their 400 year old house (what a unique kitchen). They are genuinely sweet people with a master level of professionalism on their flights. Stefano has actually taught many of his competitors to be balloonists, speaks excellent English and loves life.
Cacciacavalo literally translated means "hunter horse". These cheeses are an unusual cu-pie doll shape. Horse or donkey riders would tie a rope around the cheese's "neck" and hang them from their horse. Easy way to carry around a snack. You might find it softer or harder--more aged. Great with fruit, pasta or even with a little honey on top. We liked it best with a crust of bread and some wine. Look around for it. You can find it in the States in specialty shops.
Primitivo is the most common wine in Puglia, an area which produces most of Italy's wine. (Who knew?) It's robust, spicy, bold like a Chianti and more important to us, affordable. A nice thing about Primativo... it's available here at home for well under $20 a bottle and always tastes great.
Gensola in Trastevere
This had the coldest air conditioning, the friendliest maid/caretaker, the cleanest bathrooms, the comfiest beds, the most TV stations (even a few in English), the fastest, most reliable Internet/Wifi, and a great location to explore from. If I were rich and wanted a little pied-a-terre apartment in Roma, I'd buy our little Gensola apartment. It was that perfect. BOOKING.COM
Best Hotel Host:
Hugo, Trulli owner, Trulli Gallo Rosso, Puglia
When we first met Hugo, we thought we were entering his home--because this is his home--he treats you as true house guests. First he gave us many brochures and maps of the area, being sure to point out things he thought WE would like. His breakfasts are amazing--all prepared by him in his kitchen. He even shared with us some specialties that were not on his buffet table... some sweet marinated orange figs and cheese, and some of the strong tasting--and smelling--ricotta forte. He made special hot chocolate for Lucas. He brought out some wine for us. His smile shows that he loves taking care of his guests. Bravo, Hugo!
Best Interaction with a Local:
Georgio, tobacconist/Hotel Desk, Al Duomo Molfetta
This was a quick meeting. I met Georgio when checking out of our Molfetta apartment. When he learned that my Dad was born there, he started talking about Hoboken, NJ (where many from Molfetta immigrated) and talked about the time he went to the U.S. to live for a while. He spoke English well and seemed to be a man of heart. When I talked about going down to the sea with Lucas to bless ourselves in honor of my Dad he put his hand to his heart, looked at Lucas and said, "Our fathers are always still inside us... part of us. They become part of who we are." His tall frame, balding head and dark skin reminded me of one of my uncles. You wouldn't expect such a huge brutish looking man to be that philosophical and tender. I'll always remember his face and his heart.
Best Restaurant/Best Meal:
Vinandro, Piazza Mino, Fiesole
This is a small place with a few tables outside and space for perhaps 10 people inside. We had the best meal in Italy here. Very authentic. Wild boar stew, mozzarella balls, gnocchi, vegetable risotto, and more. Great food. Authentic and rich. The staff and owner were very friendly and the location couldn't be better. Just up the hill from Florence, Fiesole is a great respite away from the crowds.
Best pizza in Italy:
La Terazza, Polignano a Mare, Puglia
We weren't expecting such fantastic pizzas here... we'd been underwhelmed so far by pizzas in Italy. But this place was amazing. They make artisan pizzas with various authentic toppings. We had individual pizzas that filled our plates and our bellies. Lucas had one with hot sausage on it, Lisa's had eggplant and grana padano cheese, mine had sweet sausage, pesto and pignoli nuts. They also have incredible fresh seafood, pastas and amazing local pastries.
Via San Vito, right across from the beach cove in Polignano a Mare, Puglia.
Amalfi Coast (almost anywhere, but especially Ravello)
This was a hard one to decide on. We all had sort of a love/hate relationship with the Amalfi Coast, but then agreed that by far it gave us the most amazing views--not just view but viewS. Sure, we sacrificed near collisions just to be there, but we did it and those views are glued into our memories. Just about everywhere on the Amalfi Coast has dreamlike, mystical views. You'll start seeing them even as you start descending from the mountains above. Each town is unique but has something to see from every direction. The high vantage points look down toward the sea and the cliff towns. The low vantage points make you dizzy looking up at the cliff towns. It's a dream come true. If you drive the Amalfi Coast, stop as often as you can and look both east and west so you don't miss any of the incredible views (Lucas said, if you don't get run over by a bus, that is.) And if you are on one of those buses, relax and pity the poor car drivers...
Amalfi Coast on LONELY PLANET
By far, Pienza was the prettiest, most charming, beautiful village we visited in Italy. We think it would be a great place to live. It's a hill town, but in the old part of the village there really aren't any extreme hills like in other hill towns, so walking is easy. The food is great, it's a center for sheep's cheese and bread, and the views from the promenade along the south side are amazing. Exactly the kind of undulating hills you'd expect to see in Tuscany. It's also centrally located for a longer stay as a hub. Pienza was also a close second for Best Views.
Pienza, SI (Siena/Southern Tuscany), Italy
MORE about Pienza
Da Vinci Museum, Vinci
No, it's not the Vatican Museum. We chose the people and kid friend Da Vinci Museum. Museums should be a place to learn, be inspired and should display their exhibits well. This had it all and was very educational to boot. Lucas loved it. Lisa was surprisingly impressed with Da Vinci's inventions and me, well I was always a fan of his. Want to touch greatness? Go to Vinci.
Gelateria Dell'Olmo, San Gimignano
This place was the most creative we found in all Italy. Kiwi, mixed berries, mango, melon, fondant chocolate, coconut--you name it. All made in-house by artisan gelati makers. There is a restaurant too (next door), so if you are there for lunch or dinner, don't forget to have the gelato afterwards. If not, just get a cup or cone and sit on the cisterna steps in the middle of the piazza.
Piazza Della Cisterna 34, 53037 San Gimignano, Siena, Italy
Best Bread & Baker:
Altamura Bread, Forna Antica Sancta Clara
We did not like Tuscan bread. There is no salt in it which makes the crust and crumb very dry and tasteless. However, one taste of Altamura bread and we were hooked. It's huge, ugly and looks like a floppy chef's hat. It can only be called Altamura if it's made in Altamura. To tell you the truth, there are other breads in Puglia very similar in taste and texture, but they will correct you if you dare call them Altamura bread. The unique thing about this bread is it can stay fresh for weeks. Although I can't attest to that claim, one loaf we bought lasted from Puglia until Rome, about four days. We recommend getting yours at Forna Antica in Altamura. Ask for Vito. He makes the BEST Altamura bread. No lie.
Forna Antica Via L. Martucci 10, Altamura, Italy
In Matera we found a modern, casual restaurant in a sassi (cave) called Pannacotto. This was a pleasant surprise... great bruschetta, antipasto, but the amazing dish was the soup. A thick, stew-like mix of beans, sausage, ham, crusty bread and extra virgin olive oil. I've already made my version at home.
So, there you have it. What we consider to be the best of our experiences in Italy. Of course, to find out what are really the best things about Italy, we'd have to go back again, and again, and ancora, e ancora, a ancora...