While I was at Pulicaro, I took a weekend trip to Firenze. It was even more beautiful than I remembered from my brief afternoon there about six years ago. I stayed with Federico’s friends Marianna and Enrico, a beautiful, free-spirited Italian couple who met while living in Portugal, and Marianna’s adorable seven year-old, Niam. With bright orange highlighting the walls, natural elements integrated into the décor, a yellow parakeet Enrico mysteriously encountered on the shore near Cecina and a steady soundtrack of African and atmospheric music, they managed to bring an island vibe to a small apartment smack in the middle of the city. They live in a market district, so I’d wake to the sounds of leather goods, scarf and trinket salesmen setting up shop below.
It was a weekend of little sleep, lots of wine, wandering and dancing. Mixed in there was a lunch with my grandfather, who was in Firenze for an afternoon of a Mediterranean cruise (you know, Floridians), a random Tricky concert, an incredible meal at the vegetarian restaurant where Marianna works – a colorful oasis tucked behind a health food store in the city outskirts, a 24-hour lawn in front of the Duomo and a very tired trip to the Uffizi.
And, I mustn’t forget, Gelataria Vivoli, easily one of my top five gelato experiences. A rarity, I wasn’t actually hungry or yearning for gelato when I went there, but since Marco and Chiara (Chiara of previously mentioned gelato heritage) said it was the country’s best, I was on a mission. A charming shop with cursive neon signage out front, it was bustling yet not overrun by tourists. Vivoli nails both the classic and innovative flavors. After considering a myriad of options from my safety, nocciolo, to caramelized pear, I selected a special flavor called festina lente, vanilla-based with ginger, alongside rice and millefiore (honey from “a thousand” types of flowers), a honey-infused flavor interspersed with flaky saltine bits.
I made a few more city stops after leaving Pulicaro. In Siena, I Couchsurfed with a houseful of anthropology students ten kilometers from Siena. Riccardo, Davide, Marta, plus a few others, live in an old farmhouse up a long, vineyard-bound road, so I felt right at home. My body felt like it was shutting down, so I let myself stay an extra night and spend more time in little Siena than big Rome. When the housemates’ cars were all in use and we missed the bus, we’d hitchhike to town (yes Mom, but just twice) and get dropped off outside the city walls. The concept of a walled city is visually and generally fascinating, and gives Siena a distinctly old world feel. The Sienese are all about the Panforte, or “strong bread.” More of a cake than a bread, this dense and chewy confection contains just a bit of flour, generally along with honey, spices, nuts and dried fruit, topped with powdered sugar. Most shops carry the classic Margherita, along with the Panpepato, similar to the Margherita but with more warm spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, Panforte Cioccolato and other flavor combinations like Noce e Ficchi (walnut and fig). I splurged on one pricey slice from Siena mainstay Nannini – a special flavor made with a layer of marzipan. It was worth the extra couple of Euros; a small cover charge for the party in my mouth.
Rome was Rome: big, busy and beautiful with a constantly stimulating contrast of new and ancient everywhere you turn. I can picture myself happy as a clam living there. My two days there were a whirlwind. Sometimes in the places that have the most, you end up seeing the least destination-wise because walking in circles is the most exciting part. That said, I know I walked through still-being-uncovered ruins, went to my first Couchsurfing bar night, ate chestnuts by the Trevi fountain, ate gelato at Giolitti (yes, just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday) and gawked for my second time at the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. I knew I’d be back, so I didn’t feel pressured to see everything at once.
Before heading to Sicily, I decided to spend an afternoon in Napoli and catch the night ferry from there. This was an excellent decision. Americans and Italians alike warned me about Naples: It was city gone wrong. I’d be mugged and left for the mafia within ten minutes of arrival, and using my camera in public was sudden death. Well, if Napoli is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Sure, there was a little trash piled up in front of the station and I got the vibe (albeit no major incidents to confirm said vibe) as I walked back to the station after sunset that maybe it’s not the best city wander solo after dark. But it’s alive. Alive with people who wanted to talk to me but didn’t speak English and who wanted to make sure I consumed what was quintessential Naples before I left.
I drank a delicious chocolate coffee shakerato of sorts at Caffè Mexico, served by a man in a cute diner style hat who let me photograph him with a smile and no mugging. Then I wandered into a church drowned in toothbrushes. A Scandinavian artist had filled it with sculptures made entirely from toothbrushes, including a sea of blue toothbrushes which wooden swimmer figures were diving into. I made my way to L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, a Napoli institution since 1870 and, as boasted in posters around the restaurant, the one where Julia Roberts ate in Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve heard that people wait for an hour outside during high season. When I asked for a number, the white-coated Antonio, one of the two brothers who run the shop their father founded, told me to stay inside by him and he’d find me a seat shortly. In ten minutes, he had me seated at a table with three 40 something Neapolitan sisters.
Like many of the world’s best eateries, Da Michele keeps it simple. The menu is such: Marinara (sans cheese) normal, medio and maxi; Margherita normal, medio and doppio. The increase for the Margherita isn’t so much in size as it is fior di latte cheese. The sisters ordered a normal Margherita and Marinara. I generally like a heavy tomato:cheese ratio, but I followed the waiter’s advice and went for the medio. I wasn’t going to take any chances skimping in the home of Margherita. The pizza was, no surprise, divine – the cheese warm, creamy goodness that was just runny enough; the tomatoes fresh and just sweet enough; and the dough thin of course, but notably softer than the prevailing thin crust pizza in America. By American standards, the cheese wasn’t too much, but if I lived close enough to be a regular, I think Margherita normal (con birra) would be my personal order. The sisters welcomed me into their crew, insisting we take a few photos together. They too, did not mug me; in fact, one sister insisted on paying for my pizza and beer. When I tried to refuse, the others literally pushed me out the door. “I love Napoli,” was all I could think.
I sauntered off my personal pizza along the city’s narrow market streets. It was amazing, especially with the holidays coming up. It was like I’d died and gone to kitsch/nativity scene heaven. I walked in a happy stupor, staring at the overcrowded store windows and stopping to pick up a few tchotchkes and the requisite sfogliatelle (hard, pleated crescent shell shaped pastry filled with light, sweet ricotta) and yes, gelato. Later, I dropped into another Caffè Mexico for espresso, this time helped by a bubbly girl who wanted to practice her English and ask me about the big homes are in Florida (her chosen subject for a school paper). An aggressive afternoon for the stomach, sure, but if I was in Napoli for only a day, this was my Last Supper.