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


A Break with Nespresso

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
Nespresso's pop-up caffe at Manhattan's Grand Central Station is the ticket to a genuine Italian coffee experience.

Nespresso’s pop-up caffe at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station is the ticket to a genuine Italian coffee experience.

By Tess Sanders

Today I was transported within the walls of legendary Grand Central Station. No, I was not catching a train for a beach getaway. I traveled briefly to Italy with Nespresso.

Until June 6, Nespresso is offering complimentary cups of their pod-brewed beverages to celebrate their new home brewing machine, the VertuoLine.

Amidst the bustle of New Yorkers and tourists alike, I met with Nespresso demonstrator Fabio Ferrari (yes, his real name) who told me the company’s cross-cultural origin story, a Swiss entrepenuer who became enamored of Italy. Watch the video story here.

And that signature Italian crema? Ferrari tells me that after countless Nespresso customers asked for it, the company delivered with the new VertuoLine: a pod system that brews an American size cup of coffee with the delicate flavor of crema, the creamy foam that crowns genuine Italian espresso.

As Ferrari—a Modena native—sees it, coffee preferences reveal cups-full about cultural proclivities.

“Italians socialize around food… The espresso signals that food is over and it’s time to get back to work.” Compare that to Americans who “invented fast food” and use coffee, instead of meals, to socialize.

The VertuoLine allows users to taste it all, brewing both espresso and coffee. In the time it took me to enjoy a cappuccino and begin a coffee, I’d learned Ferrari’s story (a “caffeine-crazy boyfriend” introduced him to Nespresso and he left his life “in a golden cage” as a 9 to 5er to begin demonstrating for the coffee company).

My only complaint about the cappuccino: it was prepared with 1% milk instead of the full-fat stuff. The coffee was the most flavorful pod-brewed I’d ever sipped. The head is lush, rivaling a Guinness!

My tastings were prepared after three staff members consulted about my preferences (the more bitter, the better if you’re wondering—though only in matters of chocolate and coffee), and the three-on-one consultation was a delight. You can revel in Nespresso’s escapism all week at Grand Central.

If you’re lucky you’ll meet Ferrari, who, in his own words, will lure you into the world of bold flavors and won’t contaminate the experience with a sales pitch.

Gelato in Florence

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014
Gelato maestro Toni Cafarelli churns out sweet memories at Il Re Gelato.

Gelato maestro Toni Cafarelli churns out sweet memories at Il Re Gelato.

On my recent three-day stay in Florence, I sampled a pair of artisinal gelaterie that I’ve been hearing about. Years ago when I lived in Florence in the Santa Croce quarter, there was only one choice. Vivoli was our spot—superb gelato five minutes away from our apartment. It remains a fine gelateria but these days the number of gelato shops in Florence is expanding faster than a kid’s wish list in December.

Il Re Gelato

Sicilian Toni Cafarelli is the gelato king as far as I’m concerned. He appears on Italian TV and gained major press for his olive oil gelato. The pistacchio and cioccolato fondente we sampled were intensely flavored and caressed our tongues. The fiordilatte (flower of the milk), flecked with candied orange peel, was like eating specks of sunshine.

Located on the busy ring road Viale Strozzi near the Fortezza da Basso and the train station, the shop was filled with locals. In fact, we were the only foreigners. A selection of Sicilian pastries is also on offer. You can try a freshly baked brioche stuffed with gelato in the southern style.
Viale Strozzi 8/r


Like buried treasure, the gelato at Carapina is kept under cover.

Like buried treasure, the gelato at Carapina is kept under cover.

Another ultra artisanal shop, Carapina breaks with the tradition of displaying mountains of gelato on trays set in glass cases (visual stimulation=increased sales). Instead, the gelato is kept in stainless steel tubs covered with stainless steel lids to keep out air and light, and thus maintain freshness. 

The flavors we tried–cioccolato fondente, crema, and caffè–were all smooth and lovely. We visited the Via Lambertesca location tucked between Piazza della Signoria and the Arno River. The main shop is on Campo di Marte and there’s also a Rome location.

Via Lambertesca 18r
Campo di Marte, Piazza Guglielmo Oberan 2r
Camp de’ Fiori, Via de Chiavari 37/37a (Rome)

For more tempting gelato spots in Florence, check out Toni Lydecker’s article in the Tampa Bay Times and Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog post.

What do you say is the best gelateria in Florence?

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!

Foraging for Greens in Tuscany

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014
According to our edible wild plants expert, Marta, the delicate white blooms of the wild garlic in the foreground are only good for looking not eating.

According to our edible wild plants expert, Marta, the delicate white blooms of the wild garlic in the foreground are only good for looking not eating.

“Mother Nature gives us what we need every day,” said Marta, l’erborista, as she greeted our SimpleItaly Adventure in Tuscany tour group on a recent blindingly bright spring morning in the piazzetta at Montestigliano agriturismo.

We passed around her information sheets as she explained that her grandfather, Alterio, educated her in plant foraging when she was a child. An “Italian cowboy” who owned a big farm in the Maremma, she would scour the fields and woods with him to identify and pick wild herbs and mushrooms that her grandmother would transform into good things for the table.

“Wild herbs are great fortune for us. . .for the health of the earth and biodiversity,” said Marta, who is affiliated with an erbandano cultural association that conducts foraging tours in the area southwest of Siena.

“My grandfather said, ‘Open your heart in nature but be careful. Open your eyes. Mother Nature has two faces, one beautiful, one dangerous,’ ” she said, then advising us to watch out for snakes, spiders, and toxic plants. (Her warnings did not go unheeded. I doubt that few in our intrepid band would have had the courage to forage without a Marta leading the charge.)

She led us to a nearby low stone wall where she opened a meticulously annotated reference book with scans of numerous edible plants. Then it was off to the nearby olive grove with our plastic tub for gathering the ingredients for our lunch. The undergrowth was much more lush than typical for the season due to heavy late winter rains. Marta pressed down the high grasses to look for the herbs.

Quicker than a suburban lawn warrior can say Weed B Gon, Marta spotted tarassaco (dandelion), crepis (hawk’s beard), stellaria (stitchwort), papaver (poppy—only eat the leaves!), calendula (marigold), nepeta (catmint-for funghi and pomodori), sonchus (sow thistle), and cicoria (chicory).

When she found the first tender leaves of piantaggine (plaintain) she held two leaves to the crown of her head to mimic their nickname “ears of the hare.” She resembled a woods sprite.

Marta led us to a different olive grove where behind an old stone farm building, she found a flourishing ortica (stinging nettle) plant. She assured us that the prickly leaves would be tasty when we cooked. In fact, they are inedible raw.

“Ortica is the queen of the wild plants,” Marta said. “It’s good for the liver. The cooking water is good for the hair.” In past times, the peasants would weave storage bags from the fibrous stems.

Next stop was the kitchen where, with Marta’s tutelage, we’d cook Mother Nature’s gifts.

To be continued. . .