Little Shop in Florence

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
Just off the luxury goods trail in Florence, Sandra's little shop beckons with hidden "treasures."

Just off the luxury goods trail in Florence, Sandra’s little shop beckons with hidden “treasures.”

Ferragamo didn’t need to open its Salvatore Ferragamo Museo just for me. I approach all the luxury goods temples—Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Bulgari–on Florence’s stylish Via Tornabuoni with a gaze-in-awe-but-don’t-touch reverence. Owning these baubles is not for me but I can admire the artistry as I would the masterworks in a museum.

So, imagine my surprise on a blindingly sunny morning in April when I wandered a few footsteps east of the Salvatore Ferragamo Museo on peaceful Via B. SS. Apostoli to discover a shop called Sandra.

Gorgeous globe artichokes fresh from Sandra's garden.

Gorgeous globe artichokes fresh from Sandra’s garden.

At 41r, tucked into a street level space no wider than a train car, Sandra was honoring her store motto: “di tutto un pò un pò di più” (a little of everything and a little more). Surrounding the entrance were crates of fruits, vegetables, braids of garlic, copper pots, painted wooden plaques, bunches of dried flowers. Sandra said she had plucked the artichokes from her garden that morning.

Stepping over the threshold was like entering a time machine back to Florence of 30, 40, or 50 years ago. On the shelves and from the ceiling were household items, oils, vinegars, herbs, jewelry, collectibles, petite chandeliers. Every centimeter offered a new treasure.

Sandra occupied the space behind the glass refrigerated display case at the back. It was stocked with salume and formaggi, no doubt to fortify serious Sandra shoppers who might want to inspect everything on the premises.

Wild fragolini and their hybrid cousins.

Wild fragolini and their hybrid cousins.

I wondered to myself how Sandra could afford the rent in this alta moda area given the price points of the merchandise. As I paid for my lovely little olive wood mortar and pestle and fragolini (tiny sweet wild strawberries—the only strawberries that would have been in a Florence market 30, 40, or 50 years ago), I said a silent “grazie” to Sandra for having di tutto up pò.

Sandra, Via B. SS. Apostoli, 41r, Firenze, (055) 28.34.10


October 2014 Tuscany Tours

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014
SimpleItaly's happy campers by the granaio at Fattoria Montestigliano where Villa Pipistrelli is situated.

SimpleItaly happy campers in front of the granaio at the Tuscan farm estate Montestigliano where Villa Pipistrelli is situated.

You can put yourself in this picture! Escape to the private Villa Pipistrelli this October for the next Tuscany Tour:  Harvest Celebration with SimpleItaly. Two different week-long itineraries are reserved for you to choose from: October 11-18, 2014 OR October 18-25, 2014. This intimate adventure is all about cultural immersion, relaxation, and good times. You’ll truly feel as if Villa Pipistrelli is your home because you’ll unpack once and “move in” for a week of wonders . . .

  • Sessions on making pecorino cheese, watercolor painting, pasta making, and more
  • Tours of wine estates
  • Magnificent medieval Siena–home of the Palio–and a private tour of a contrada museum
  • Gourmet evening meals prepared by a private chef at Villa Pipistrelli
  • Afternoon at a sagra, a local harvest festival, mingling with the locals
  • Free time to truly explore the natural beauty and experience the daily rhythm of Montestigliano, the 2,500-acre Tuscan estate on which Villa Pipistrelli is tucked away
  • Private meetings with English-speaking experts on the culture, cuisine, and lifestyle

Click here to read what folks are saying about our trips. Click here for the full itinerary to put yourself in the picture!

Italy . . . A Dream Come True

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Castello Civitella Ranieri, near Gubbio, is now a foundation for the arts.

By Patricia DeBellis

Italy, for me, has always been a catalyst for my dreams. I was a freshman in high school in California when I met my first foreign-exchange student and from then on my dream was to be a foreign exchange student.

This dream came true when–as an alternate for an American Field Service foreign-exchange summer scholarship (my classmate, Fred, had been picked to go to France)–I was told that an Italian family wanted a student. This was unprecedented.

Our local AFS chapter had never sent two students abroad. But, with the backing of my wonderful teachers and friends who contributed to the “Send Patty to Italy Fund,” off I went to live my dream!

This was only the beginning.

As an adult, my dreams continued to materialize. I was teaching Italian, French, and Spanish languages at Muhlenberg College when one semester I invited my French Civilization students to my house for croissants and cafe au lait.

Language professor Patricia DeBellis (left) savored 15 summers at a fifteenth-century castle in Tuscany.

Language professor Patricia DeBellis (left) savored 15 summers at a fifteenth-century castle in Umbria.

One of the students, Jennifer Downey, noticed a hand-painted ceramic plate in my kitchen. She shrieked with excitement and asked, “Is that a Rampini?” I said I wasn’t sure–I’d chosen it for its medieval knights design.

I wondered how a French major knew of this ceramics maker in Umbria. She explained that a friend had invited her for several summers to visit and stay in a fifteenth century castle not far from the small town where the Rampini family produce their maiolica.

The spring semester was ending and when Jennifer came to my office for part of the final exam, she brought a postcard of the castle and asked if I would like her to ask her friend to invite me and my husband! I gasped in excitement and said: “Is the Pope Polish?”

Jennifer Ursula

Student Jennifer Downey (left) pictured with Castello patron Ursula Corning, made Patricia DeBellis’ Italian dream come true.

In 1982 he was and we were invited!
 Our hostess was Ursula Corning, a delightful, intelligent, multi-lingual British-American who loved people and cats. Jack and I arrived at the fifteenth century Castello Civitella in time to celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary!

The cook, who every day rolled out the pasta on a marble slab, produced a beautiful cake with two entwined hearts. After a Spumante toast, we headed to nearby Gubbio (where the Rampini plate originated) where we attended a candlelight concert in the cloister of the thirteenth century church.

Patrizia Cicitella Road Sign

For Patricia DeBellis, Civitella Ranieri was the road taken.

This was the wonderful beginning of a fifteen-year-long invitation to a magical, artistic and educational summer stay. Is it any wonder that I love Italy?


Where did your Italian dream come true, or, where would you like it to come true?

Scoppio del Carro

Friday, March 29th, 2013
Image credit: Commune di Firenze

Image credit: Commune di Firenze

Back when I lived in Florence, I experienced the spectacle of Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart) one fine Easter morning. This centuries-old tradition of is said to have its origins in the Crusades. Thousands now cram Piazza del Duomo for the event.

As the bells peal in Giotto’s bell tower, a rocket in the form of a mechanical colomba (dove), lit by the Archbishop, flies down a wire from the high altar of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) to the 30-foot-tall 500-year-old cart outside, setting off the fireworks between the main door of the Duomo and the Baptistery.

Because it’s daylight, there’s far more smoke than sparkling lights. I just remember being thankful that
no one caught on fire. Spectators crush up really close to the cart to capture images.

Image Credit:

Image credit:

The part I liked most were the chalk-white Chianina oxen with crowns of spring blooms, who pulled the cart through the city streets. Sadly, I don’t have any photos from my viewing so I googled to find some.

I discovered a photo of the Chianina, a perfect crystallization of my recollection of these gentle giants, that led me to an Easter post on My Tuscan Journal, written by Lisa Brancatisano, an Italo-Australian who now lives in Tuscany. Along with a sweet personal report of her father visiting from Melbourne, she shares the tradition of the Scoppio del Carro in words and photos.

Grazie Lisa, e Buona Pasqua a te.

Offering of the Angels

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Treasures of Florence fly to Bucks County on the wings of angels.

Imagine possessing so many gems that there’s no more room in your jewelry case for a flawless gold and radiant-cut diamond necklace. You’re forced to stow it in a box in the attic.

No space, either, for the marquise-cut ruby bracelet. Upstairs it goes.

Those pear-shaped sapphire ear drops set in silver filigree? No spot for them in the case. A shame they’re out of sight.

More Offering of the Angels