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Why Alba Truffles Are the Culinary Diamonds of Italy

This article originally appeared in Wine Enthusiast Magazine, November 2017.

Underground rare treasures, Alba truffles are harvested with luck, persistence and the aid of well-trained dogs. Find out how they transform Italian cuisine.

In layman’s terms, the truffle is a tuber, a smallish, spongy subterranean lobe attached to tree roots. It’s technically a mushroom, but truffles are fungi grown symbiotically with rootlets of shrubs and trees like oak and hazelnut. A truffle spends its entire life underground until some lucky dog sniffs it out. Literally.

Italy is a playground for truffle hunters. There are 25 species found there, nine of them edible. None is more delicious, important and sought after than the tuber magnatum pico, the white truffle, known as the “Diamond of Alba.”

White truffles are found almost exclusively in the Langhe, Roero and Montferrato areas of Italy’s northern Piedmont region, and only from October to early December. They enjoy cult status among chefs and gourmands, as a few of their flakes can elevate any dish.

Since truffles are rare treasures, their market price is driven by very heavy demand. What happens when Italy has a dry summer? The average price, set daily at Alba Truffle Market, can skyrocket to more than $3,000 per pound.

If anything, to find truffles requires luck and persistence. In Italy, the pursuit is left to the trifolau, truffle hunters whose techniques are passed down through generations. A truffle hunt is not a social event. It’s a solitary endeavor that require long hours in the cold night guided by moonlight and the nose of a faithful dog.

Once the pup pinpoints the truffle’s location, the trifolau digs carefully around the area with a zappino (a delicate spade). They unearth the truffle, but leave a small portion in the earth to repopulate.

To the untrained eye, the white truffle is nothing special. It looks an unwashed potato, light-colored, lumpy and dirty with a slightly elastic feel. It’s only when you catch a whiff of its intoxicating, transcendent scent that you understand that it’s special.

There’s just one way to experience the sensorial pleasure of the white truffle: raw. Unlike the black truffle, whose flavor is unleashed when heated or cooked with other ingredients, the white truffle is best enjoyed shaved onto dishes like fried egg, tajarin pasta or beef tartare.

“You have to taste the white truffle raw and natural,” says Ezio Costa, a truffle hunter and owner of Tra Arte e Querce, his family restaurant 30 minutes southwest of Alba in Monchiero. “We shave it on hot and cold dishes to enhance them.”

Pairing Alba Truffles with Wine from Piedmont

For five generations, the Costa family has hunted truffles and shared them in simple, traditional recipes. Costa’s favorite is to add truffle shavings to a poached egg with melted fontina cheese. To accompany a truffle dish, he’s faithful to Piedmont’s red wines, particularly Barbera d’Alba, Barbaresco and Barolo.

Sandro Minella, a sommelier, takes a different approach. A member of Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufo, or “knights of the truffle,” a prestigious order in Alba with 300 members worldwide, Minella doesn’t hesitate to suggest a Piedmont white.

“The pairing is not with the truffle, but with the whole dish: sweet, savory, hot or cold,” he says.

With fresh, fried or poached eggs, Minella prefers a white and advises against “anything acidic.” His top choices are Malvirà 2012 Trinità Riserva Roero, Gaja 2007 Gaia e Rey Chardonnay Langhe and Poderi Aldo Conterno 2010 Bussiador Chardonnay Langhe.

To accompany risotto al tartufo or tajarin al tartufo, Minella chooses “something more structured, not too aged” like Scarpa La Bogliona Barbera d’Asti from 2010 or 2012.

Minella says that meat dishes like tartar require something “richer, with some aging.” He pairs Barolo and Barbaresco wines because “their tertiary aromas are reminiscent of truffle, and go so well with them.” Wines that work include Paolo Scavino 2011 Rocche dell’Annunziata Riserva Barolo , Elio Altare 2004 Arborina Barolo or 2008, 2004 or 1999 Bruno Rocca Rabajà Barbaresco.

Adding truffles to a dessert is not a traditional part of Piemontese cuisine, but chefs have been known to add shavings to handmade vanilla ice cream or a thinly gelatine persimmon purée.

When adding truffle, you want something harmonious, not too sweet or acidic, nothing extreme, something delicate and assertive,” says Minella, who suggests Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Autunno.

White truffles are difficult to grow outside of Piedmont’s soil. Their bounty completely depends on Mother Nature, whose recent whims include a summer drought, leaving dogs with less to find and higher prices. Though truffles from Alba remain the most coveted at all, not just for their flavor but also their elusiveness, the best way to honor them is the simplest: shaved over a modest plate of pasta, risotto, or eggs.

Umbria: 3 Picture-Perfect Day Trips From Rome

This article originally appeared in Forbes Travel, November 2017.

Perugia, Photo Credit: Erica Firpo

Rome may be the center of everything, but sometimes even the Eternal City needs a day off. When the air cools down and the colors ripen with autumn, the evergreen region of Umbria beckons with its beautiful countryside, art and cuisine. Take a step off the beaten Italian path and plan a day trip to one of these three picturesque cities.

Hop on the train for a scenic two-and-a-half hour trip to the center of the country. Not only is the historic city of Perugia the capital of the Umbria region, it’s also so verdant that the area is known as the “Green Heart” of Italy.

A former Etruscan settlement, medieval stronghold and Renaissance city, Perugia is one of those examples of architectural and cultural palimpsest — a site literally built upon layers of history. Imposing fortress walls surround a historic center, which in itself is a magnificent maze of medieval streets and beautiful palazzos. Buried below its charming surface is an incredible subterranean time capsule of Roman and Etruscan structures.

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What to do there
Explore underground Perugia, starting with a guided tour of the excavated portion of the city’s San Lorenzo Cathedral in the Museo di San Lorenzo. Follow the trail of Pietro Vannucci (aka Perugino), Perugia’s most famous artist and former mentor to Raphael.

The San Severo Chapel, in the Church of San Severo, features a fresco painted by both master and pupil while the city’s National Gallery of Umbria has several paintings by the duo.

Perugia is also known as Chocolate City, home to Italy’s largest sweets manufacturer, Perugina. Plan to visit the Casa del Chocolate, a small museum dedicated to Perugina’s confectionary history and then live out an I Love Lucy fantasy with a chocolate-making class at the Baci Perugina School of Chocolate.

If your sweet tooth still isn’t satisfied, check out Eurochocolate, Europe’s largest festival dedicated to all things cocoa hosted in Perugia each fall.

Visit again just after the holiday season for the winter edition of Umbria Jazz, a world-renowned music fest (December 28 to January 1).

Between excursions, be sure to stop for a bite at Trattoria del Borgo, a farm-to-table restaurant that celebrates the best of the region’s local ingredients. Don’t miss the handmade strangozzi with pesto made with Umbrian wild herbs. Try to snag a table in the backyard — you won’t be sorry.

Situated just one-and-a-half hours outside of Rome (by train), Spoleto is quite possibly the most picture-perfect of all Umbrian hill towns. With the snowy peaks of the Apennine Mountains as a backdrop, the magnificent medieval fortress town cuts an imposing figure in the lush green hills. The beautiful city is an architectural composite of its millennia-spanning history of Roman ruins, medieval walls, romanesque churches and more.

What to do there
Bring your walking shoes — this is one town you’ll want to explore from top to bottom. Spoletium was a Roman colony as early as 241 B.C., and the town still has traces of its ancient history.

Magnificent stone structures dating from the 1st century B.C. stand miraculously intact, including an amphitheater and arches — in particular the formidable Arch of Drusus and Germanicus, anachronistically spanning a narrow medieval street.

You can examine more delicate pieces of the city’s Roman history at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Spoleto

Strolling around the walled town inevitably leads to the Piazza Del Duomo, a magnificent open space anchored by a beautiful, light pink stone cathedral. During the summer months, the piazza becomes the scene for Festival di Spoleto, a popular outdoor celebration of Italian music, dance and opera. (Now you see where organizers of the famed Charleston arts festival of the same name get their inspiration.)

Nature lovers will want to traverse the Bridge of Towers, a 775-foot-long and nearly 300-foot-high stone structure on the outskirts of the city connecting to Monteluco. Then follow the Giro dei Condotti on a short panoramic walk around the hill.

Often described as Umbria’s most beautiful city, Todi is spectacular from the moment you see it on the road during the under-two-hour drive in through the Tiber valley. Like other hill towns, Todi sits on a peak overlooking the countryside, but for some reason the light seems to cast a more heavenly glow on the mountainside here. Perhaps that’s why the Romans took over this Etruscan stronghold.

The town itself is a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets leading to the Piazza del Popolo, a caffe-lined square whose main building, Palazzo del Popolo, is one of Italy’s oldest public structures.

What to do there
For most, just walking around Todi and eating delicious Umbrian delicacies is enough, but if you crave a taste of history and culture, plan a visit to the Museo Civico di Todi. This local museum bursts with paintings and antiquities that trace the town’s story from its Etruscan origins through the Renaissance.

More active types will want to delve into the city’s history with Underground Todi, a fascinating subterranean tour of tunnels and wells from the Etruscan, Roman and Medieval eras.

But no matter your interests, you won’t want to miss the Tempio di Santa Maria Consolazione (the Consolation Temple), designed in 1508 by superstar architect Donato Bramante. His church is built in a symmetric cross, surmounted by a dome and unique to the era.

Unbelievable: Damien Hirst in Venice {Review}


A shipwreck.  A disaster.  A failure - that’s what the art world said about Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable , his mega-exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana double header.    Lighten up, this is Damien Hirst, YBA poster boy and mug shot.  And the Wreck is the kind of show where that only asks for a bit of humor as you enjoy the lavish fantasy and Palazzo Grassi’s gorgeous exhibition spaces.

A legendary exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable is a visual story about the discovery of an ancient shipwreck and its unfathomable cargo, a collection of monumental bronze and marble statues and gold coins and ingot, from Cif Amotan II, slave-turned-freedman.  It’s big, it’s extravagant, it’s over the top.  And it’s fun.  Best of all, it’s all Hirst, who bankrolled the research, discovery and subacquatic archaeological excavation of the 100 works of art which, um, he created. Yeah, you read correctly.  Hirst is behind all of it: from the production of incredible bronzes (seemingly distressed from centuries underwater) and the “contemporary reproductions” to the discovery backstory, images/videos and research collaboration with University of Southampton’s Center for Maritime Studies.  Kind of like having a dinner party with Steve Zissou, Jacques Cousteau, Indiana Jones and Marcel Duchamp, and Baron Munchaussen’s cooking.  In other words, eckless abandon.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana through Sunday, December 3.  Coming soon-  Darius Arya’s 360 video, Archaeologist Examines the Unbelievable.

And even more unbelievable: Venice is just a day trip from Rome.  For real.


Day Trip: Venice

"Where should I go for a day trip out of Rome?" That's probably the most popular question question people ask me when planning a trip to Italy.  Tivoli, Napoli, Cività di Bagnoreggio, Bomarzo, Caserta, Spoleto, Siena... so many sites, towns and cities up my sleeve and all within reasonable distance.  But here's one I never, until now, bothered to suggest:  Venice.

Venice? Impossible, you say.   Not at all. . .

Door to door Roma Termini- Venezia San Lucia is a 3 hour 45 minute train on the Alta Velocità (high speed) train times two which means 7.5 hours seated.  The best departure is 6.50am, with return departure from Venice at 7:25pm- which gives you eight hours on the ground to do whatever you want.  To sweeten the deal, Treni Italia offers a reduced fare Same Day Return A/R, a great incentive if you are competitive as well as thrifty, like me.  

Whether meandering or must-see, if you're really going to day trip to Venice, have a plan.  Or better yet, download a Google map for an idea of where you want to go and how you will need to get there- your choices are walking, water bus (see below) and water taxi.  If you want to be clever, customize a My Maps by dropping pins on cultural and food sites and download it onto your phone.  It's going to be a long day, so I suggest powering up on protein and excitement or coffee, and wear your most comfortable (and waterproof) walking shoes.    

Most importantly, know where you're going to eat.  For the daytripper, my only suggestion (and latest mantra) is get thee to a few baccari..  Baccari are those  no-frills bars overflowing with people queued up for cicchetti, whimsical appetizers like creamed cod, pickled onions or braised artichokes on a bread, usually accompanied by a glass of wine. Service is quick, once you are front and center at the counter, and the cod (bacalà mantecato) is an excellent protein solution to fuel you through Venice.  My go-tos are Da Fiore (San Marco/San Stefano), Cantine del Vino già Schiavi (Dorsoduro) and Osteria da Carla (San Marco).

And the best tip? Keep spare euro in your pocket for cicchetti and also the vaporetto, Venice's water bus public transport system.  The 1-Day fare costs 20 euro, while a single 75-minute fare is 7.50 euro (and can be bought on board). Again, cash is king and makes everything go faster.

Is a day trip to ambitious and frivolous? Yes, just like Venice and at times, just like me.

La Biennale is the perfect excuse to visit Venice for the day. A heptathlon of cultural events, the Biennale's big draws are art, architecture and cinema. Every odd numbered year, the islands are inundated with contemporary art  for the international art festival, a six-month art fest from  May through November.  Architecture and design lovers head to Venice in even number years as the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale transform into the very cutting edge for the Architecture Biennale May through November.  At the end of every August, Venice's Lido island illuminates with a galaxy of silver screen stars at the annual Film Festival, an eleven-day affair which is both the both the worst and best time to book a reservation at a five star hotel.

My latest day trip to Venice was an intense attempt to visit all 120 artists and 86 country participants in the *57th International Art Exhibition - Viva Arte Viva in less than 8 hours. My take? Christine Macel's curation for Viva Arte Viva was more introspective, and had more humor and human interaction than biennales past.  The Italia Pavilion was finally something to talk about and at times, amazing like a Neil Gaiman story, whereas Russia was a disappointment. The USA Pavilion was somewhere in between, but that was artist Mark Bradford's point.  The Biennale's roster of artists was solid-  enough new entries to make you feel like the art world's wheels are moving more aggressively.



There's Something About Florence

A version of the article appeared in Forbes Travel, October 2017.

There’s something about Florence.  Birthplace of the Renaissance, Dante’s hometown, font of the Italian language, and constant ranking in the top three places to visit on the Grand Tour, or better yet, the Bucket List.  Florence has had it going on for centuries, and it relishes in its rep as the Cradle of Modern Culture for nurturing homegrown artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as earning the title as the fifth fashion capitol thanks to bi-annual Pitti Uomo and several pioneering tech meets fashion/luxury summits. Maybe it's the proud Roman in me, but for years, I've written off Florence as a "mausoleum" or "cute tourist town", a necessary stop on your whirlwind Italy tour and a great place for a photo op, giving it only a bit of cred for its awesome art collection. Lately, however, I''m thinking otherwise-  Florence is fabulous. 

What changed my mind? Well, a little bit of handholding by local champions Georgette Jupe-Pradier, GirlInFlorence and Coral Sisk, CuriousAppetite, and here I am,  celebrating the town the Medicis built because of its, here we go, 21st century incarnation.  To the visible eye, nothing has changed in Florence but what is makes the city so invigorating is its community of artists, makers, creators and entrepreneurs who are putting a new perspective on a charming town.  According to Jupe-Pradier, who dedicates her blog GirlInFlorence  to the city’s contemporary stories and makers, there is a palpable city revival the “celebrates the past with a willingness to evolve and inspire especially in new contemporary spaces and artisans”.  Is it a 21st century Renaissance? I don't know but I'm liking the vibe.

Window Shopping

It took me a while to learn that Florence is far more than Via Tornabuoni and the Ponte Vecchio.  Jupe-Pradier's favorite area of the city is her backyard-  the Oltrarno, the river Arno’s left bank.  Ever since she started her blog, she encouraged exploration of the literal “other side” and her Oltrarno love concentrates around San Frediano which she brought to the pages of Lonely Planet as one of the world's coolest neighborhoods. I tagged along as she made afternoon rounds, stopping in to personally talk with every shop owner and artisan in the area.  Favorites include & Company a beautifully curated boutique for design lovers where you can find vintage furniture, hand-crafted stationery, Blackwing pencils and original creations by calligrapher and co-owner Betty Soldi.  Officine Nora, a working studio for a collective of jewelry makers where I picked up a handmade silver necklace by Valentina Carpini whose filigree work is divine,  Il Torchio- bookbinder studio and shop filled with luscious handcrafted books, restorer Jane Harman's  eponymous boutique Jane H where she features her original wood designs , and Albrici, a decades-old antiques shop with wing devoted to vintage clothing and accessories.

Earthly Delights

Catherine de' Medici, the woman who upgraded French cuisine by introducing Italian, in particular Florentine,  recipes and the fork to France, would be proud of her native city.   A collection of sturdy stalwarts, including  Cibreo and the century-old Trattorio Sergio Gozzi, are stewed in Florentine tradition, as long as you can get a table.  Perennially positive Jupe-Pradier loves the family Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano, Oltrarno for its sixty-year-long dedication to serving seasonal, local dishes. .

Tradition aside,  intrepid food writer and culinary guide Sisk says “the city is responding to a demand for a more dynamic food scene”.  Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo ranks high on her list of Florentine eateries for its strong ethos on ingredient sourcing and traditions. And she loves modern bistrot-bar Zeb Gastronomia for its daily home made pastas and cool modern design, while her contemporary/creative dining picks are Michelin starred Ora d'Aria and Cibleo, Cibreo's Asian-Tuscan fusion.

For a taste of Florentine luxury, Il Locale is the spot- a restaurant and bar in a Renaissance palazzo designed as a modern Medici court with decoupage walls and velvet damask, sandstone columns in sandstone, vintage design pieces and contemporary sculptures. (Note:  I had great drinks but service was delayed, so I opted out of dining.) Charming Bar e Cucina is modern retro.  Designed by Paolo Capezzuoli, (aka Zero T, who collaborated the  Rock Steady Crew!), the vibe is a Golden age diner meets Florentine caffè, the perfect pit stop during those days at Pitti Uomo.

Just desserts at Trattoria Sabatino.

Eye Candy

Along with the usual suspects (we’re looking at you, David), Florence likes to keep you entertained with exhbitions and museums that traipse between traditional and unexpected.  Opened in 2005, Palazzo Strozzi, a fabulous example of 15th century palazzo architecture is a dynamic cultural foundation whose exhibition line up includes the ongoing Radical Utopias (design and architecture movement from the late 1960s), as well as previous blockbuster ringers like Bill Viola, Ai Wei Wei.  A blast from the past and my personal meditation is Museo di San Marco, a former Dominican convent now museum with the most extensive collection of in situ Fra Angelico frescos, and Jupe-Pradier loves the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art.

Radical Utopias, courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi.

View from the Hotel Savoy.

Pillow Talk

Where you rest your head in Florence is just as important as what you do. For a stunning Renaissance-meets-modern stay, head to Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. This gorgeous urban resort complex features two refurbished buildings in which you can drift off to sleep — the 15th-century Palazzo Della Gherardesca or the former 16th-century convent, the Conventino.  For center stage its Hotel Savoy is Florence’s grande dame, whose timeless elegance yet au courant chicness redefines the meaning of “historic.” Savoy’s enviable Piazza della Repubblica location puts in the very center of everything.  Hotel Brunelleschi captures the best of Florentine architecture in a labyrinth of Renaissance-era palaces and medieval towers. And if it’s good enough for an overnight stay for Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s prolific The Da Vinci Code protagonist, it should be an adventure.

Weekender: Lisbon

Requisite, shameless Lisbon self-portrait.

Lisbon, it’s about time.  Over the past few years, I’ve heard so much about Portugal’s capital - from its food scene and azulegos to its 2017 title as Ibero-American Capital of Culture, that I finally booked a flight for a long weekend.  I had a pretty good idea I would like the city, but I didn't expect I would fall head-over-heels in love.

The City of the Seven Hills, Lisbon is an easy like.  Cascading hills with beautiful architecture, an incredible history thanks to the Age of Discovery history, and its sunshine- Portugal’s capital has the most optimal number of daylight hours in Europe.  Lisbon is so easy to like.   And then add its uncanny similarities with twin city, San Francisco- west coast, hills, waterfront, suspension bridge, cable cars and an epic earthquake that transformed the city.  But to love Lisbon?  For me, it was all down to the small details - the expected like the azulejos (color, patterned ceramics) decorating buildings in every neighborhood, the obvious like the vintage trams, and the subtle like the art nouveau leftovers, forgotten 1960s and 70s neon signs and the sweet yellow mustard on the bifana sandwich. 

With only 72 hours to get to know Lisbon, we had to have a plan, and over the years, we perfected our version of a great weekender: Choose Your Own Adventure, i.e. pick a monument, neighborhood, food, and see what happens.  Lisbon is perfect for that mentality.  It's a puzzle of neighborhoods built into the hills- filled with colors, history and great smells.   For the map-curious: we chose the historic Avenida da Liberdade, a long and luscious boulevard spanning 1100 meters across the old city to water, as home base and reference since the Avenida is visible from any high point.

Roterdao (Cais do Sodré)

Roterdao (Cais do Sodré)


Castelo de São Jorge, an 11th century castle and fort in Alfama, one of the oldest areas of the city.  The Castelo is prime lookout over the entire city-  the entire city is laid out at Alfama's feet the east, a cascade of red terracotta roofs leading down to the glassy Tager river.  From here, you can snake your way down through Alfama - camera ready, of course, for its gorgeous Gothic churches, azulejo-tiled buildings and vintage trams (yes, they are part of public transportation) - to Baixa. Redesigned after the 1755 earthquake, Baixa is an easy grid, a tic-tac-toe of long boulevards leading to Praca de Comercio, the enormous waterfront plaza with even more monumental arc.   Pay attention as you may your way to the Praca and you'll find art deco and art nouveau signage and storefronts decorating new shops as well as some vintage finds.  There are sardine shops designed as 1920s boutiques and yesteryear caffes selling pastel de nata,a yes-you-must-eat pastry, as well the gambit of shopping- contemporary stores with early 1920s die cute lettering from boutiques past.  In Baixa center is a 45-meter-high and very elaborate wrought iron elevator, Elevador de Santa Justa, a panoramic from the 19th century.  Perfect for people with patience and looking for a Pay-Per-View.  If not, skip past and walk up Rua do Carmo, a shopping street, to the Bellalisa elevator for a great short cut to Carmo Convent, the ghostly remains of a 14th century gothic church destroyed in the earthquake. 

Monuments come in so many forms. Be on the look out for the Ponte de 25 Abril, a Golden Gate lookalike (and ironically built by the same team behind the Bay Bridge), and Ponte Vasco de Gama, a futuristic cable-stay bridge that sneaks up on you.

Ascensor da Glòria (Baixa/Bairro Alto)


So many neighborhood to explore, so once you've walked Alfama, your next stop should be Bairro Alto and Principe Reale, two pocket neighborhoods on the western overlooking hills that will eventually lead you down to Chaido, Baixa and the rest of Lisbon.   Calm and collected, Principe Real is an easy hike from Avenida, serpentining past small parks and crumbling azulejos-decorated buildings to the park itself, a green square with playground, caffes and weekend street market.  The area is a Pandora's box of local flavor.  Hidden in the park is an underground museum-  Museo del Agua- an octagonal reservoir that was the city’s water source, while facing it is Embaixada, a concept store featuring local designers in a neo-classical Arabian palace.  The Rua Dom Pedro V is lined with boutiques, eateries and bars.  You'll have your choice for whatever your flavor but be on the look out for Solar, a family-run antiques store with catacombs of authentic azulejos, and Pastelaria Padaria Sao Roque, an art nouveau coffee shop.  Bairro Alto is where you'll want to make sure you have your back up battery- this is where you'll find in situ azulejos on decadent, abandoned and recycled buildings and inside churches.  Make three wishes when you stop in Sao Pedro de Alcantara, Sao Roque and Santa Catarina- beautifully decorated churches worth stepping into.   Short cut to Baixa with Ascensor da Gloria, a vintage tram whose single route it's a straight shot up and down a steep incline.  Or keep walking, you'll find yourself in Chaido, where the relaxed pace of Bairro Alto moves into more frenetic rhythm with its shops, cafes and businesses.  Meander and you'll find MAAT, the contemporary art museum and eventually Cais do Sodré, the former red light district close to the water. In the daytime, it's simply another charming distressed neighborhood with street art, great late 60s/70s signage, and everyone's favorite canned fish and aperitivo at Sol e Pesca, and at night, it's a scene- more hot pink, than red light.

If you want to flip the script on traditional, take the metro to Parque das Naçoes, a modern microcosm that requires only a 30 minute metro ride to Lisbon's northeast.   Designed and constructed for 1998 World Fair, Parque das Nacoes is a Portuguese Gattaca of wide streets, slick architecture and rectilinear design. From the moment you step out of Oriente Station, you get the vibe. An eco-concerned (and friendly) Lisbon Future where organization, intellectual stimulation and perhaps even art are paramount.  Large maps line the boulevards detailing public art and architecture. And accenting the grid of museums (science, Oceanarium, et cetera), parks and playgrounds, are environmentally-forward projects including public bike stands and recycled waterfalls. This is where you bring kids like me.

Oceanario (Parque de Naçoes


It's always good to have goals and mine are double the fun- pastel de natas, that delicious egg tart, that if slightly singed makes my heart sing, and bifana, a braised pork sandwich garnished with a sweet mustard.  Make it easy by starting in Baixa and follow your nose around Praca Rossio, a large square in Baixa where there are several pastry shops and caffes.  Chances are you'll find pastel de natas and more, and it can't hurt to try them all. In fact, my rule of thumb is no matter where you are in Lisbon, if there is a pastel de nata, eat it.  (For the serious foodie, you can take a 3O metro ride from Rossio to Pasteis de Belem, considered the very best pastry in Lisbon and located near national monument Belem tower).  Bifanas require more foot work and on hand cash.  Baixa is also ideal for bifanas since it always has the most concentration of people and these no frills sandwiches are best enjoyed at no frills caffes, aka cheap.  East of Pracas Rossio is Casas das Bifanas, aka the home of the pork sandwich, and around the NW corner of Pracas Rossio is Cafe Beira Gare, a stand up bar with table service and barely any elbow room.  Though I enjoyed several a bifana, I was completely captivated by its beef counterpart-  the prego, marinated beef strips on bread bun.  Bar tab: 4 euro, sandwich and beer.   No, we did not just snack. Cataplana, a traditional seafood dish from the Algarve region, should be Unesco recognized.  If it's not, we recognized it, as with the rest of Lisbon's seafood.

Prego at Cafe Beira Gare (Baixa)

Tips and Tricks

GUIDE: Lisboa Autentica is a grassroots organization of Lisbon academics who organize tours- walking, biking, around the city- themed and bespoke.  They love Lisbon and it shows. We spent a few hours walking from Principe Real to Chaido with Davide.  Tell him we said hello.

GETTING THERE: Easy.  National carrier TAP Air Portugal dominates the skies.  From Rome FCO, it’s an easy 3-hour direct flight. The planes were modern, the staff young and very friendly. TAP flies non-stop from New York JFK ,and London (along with British Airways.  We hired a car but getting from the airport to the city center is as simple as a metro ride, taxi or bus.

SLEEP: We rested our heads at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade- a reboot of what may be an Art Deco palace on the very posh Avenida da Liberdade, a long, tree-lined boulevard with public squares decorated with monuments and caffe chiosks, while shops with the occasional art deco facade flank.  Avenida's lobby set the stage for what we considered the best weekend ever: luminous, lush couches, vintage decor, contemporary art and an incredible floral arrangement.  Our rooms were modern minimalist, in other words, sleek and spacious, perfect meditation after a long day walking around. Avenida's best kept secret is not only the rooftop Skybar and Terrace restaurant (which is pretty amazing with that all encompassing view) but the backyard pool and spa, a seemingly private piscine (totally round!) surrounded by monumental magnolia trees and azulejos tiles.

EAT: You eat well in Lisbon and quality is priced well.  Along with Tivoli's terrace, think about 100 maneiras, Peixaria da Esquina, Tasca da Esquina  .  And peruse Nelson Carvalheiro's Lisbon-centric website.

5 Places For An Unforgettable Aperitivo

When Forbes Travel (October 2017) asked me to find great Italian aperitivi around the world, here's where I found myself barside. . .

The St. Regis Bangkok’ s Jojo, Photo Credit: The St. Regis Bangkok

Everyone loves a good happy hour, but no one does it quite like the Italians. Meant to cleanse the palate before dinner, drinks like a Negroni (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth) or an Aperol Spritz are light, refreshing and popular worldwide for their simple, classic flavors. Here are five stops to make for your own global apertivo adventure.

The Mediterranean comes to Thailand with Aperol evenings at Jojo, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The St. Regis Bangkok’s elegant Italian restaurant. The eatery’s terrace location is the spot to enjoy the futuristic and ever-changing Bangkok cityscape while imbibing Italy’s best cocktail-hour export, the Aperol Spritz — prosecco, Aperol and soda water.

To accompany your signature sip, chef Stefano Merlo has created perfectly paired cicchetti (traditional Venetian aperitif snacks).

When in Milan, the fashion forward flock to Four-Star Hotel Principe di Savoia and its iconic Principe Bar. Come aperitif time, this sultry hangout comes alive with signature martini cocktails (try the Raspberry Filtering, a sweet sip made with raspberry-infused vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice and a splash of champagne), a DJ spinning Italian tunes and canapés, in case you start to feel peckish.

Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, Photo Credit: Four Seasons Hotel Firenze

Take the fast train to Florence and the Atrium Bar at Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, one of the prettiest places for an aperitivo. This elegant bar is old school — a Renaissance-era court with an enclosed skylight ceiling, whose design recalls vintage libraries and lounges of a bygone era.

Mixologist Edoardo Sandri expertly curates a cocktail menu that goes far beyond a quality aperitivo. Though you can’t go wrong with a classic Negroni Sbagliato (which swaps in sparkling wine for gin), a favorite sip here is the light and fresh cucumber martini.

New York City
Head to Four-Star Langham Place’s iconic Fifth Avenue address and walk up the grand marble staircase to Four-Star Ai Fiori’s bar for a little taste of Italy in Midtown Manhattan. Bar Fiori specializes in seasonal aperitivi, including a spicy twist on the Aperol Spritz — the Autumn Thistle features cardamom-infused Cynar (a bittersweet artichoke-based liqueur) and Cider du Vulcain Premiers Emois hard cider.

Chinotto Cobbler, Mattiussi Fizz and Americano in Paris all offer herbal and floral variations of their classic namesake sips, and each comes with a skillet of housemade popcorn.

Hotel Eden’s La Libreria, Photo Credit: Hotel Eden

When in Rome, it’s all about the view, and there is no other perch quite like the open-air terrace at Il Giardino atop Five-Star Hotel Eden. Take in a sweeping view of the Eternal City from the historic center toward Michelangelo’s Dome as barman Gabriele Rizzi creates signature, seasonal cocktails like his Grande Bellezza — a pink vermouth martini — accompanied by chef Fabio Ciervo’s artful hors d’oeuvres and cicchetti.

Here’s a secret: the ground-level gilded lobby lounge, La Libreria, has a hidden bar with a private barman. So, if you find yourself in need of an afternoon aperitivo, grab a spot on one of the velvet divans and wait to be served.

Making Contact in Rome by using Contactless

Baci e abbracci, I love Italy because Italy literally loves me.  Every time, I meet up with a friend, new or old, The conversation begins with a hug and a kiss.  And when it’s over, well, we hug and kiss again with a little more fanfare.  Close contact and intimacy are part of being Italian and living in Italy.  Whether hugging friends, taking public transport or standing at the local bar, personal space is a state of mind, which is why the idea of being contactless in Italy seems a bit farfectched. In actuality, contactless in Italy has nothing to do with space, and everything to do with your wallet. It’s a simplified payment system that is making my mornings at Caffe Roscioli  easier and faster.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, it's about time to follow my Instagram stories.  

Almost every morning, you’ll find me at Caffe Roscioli for the daily latte macchiato and granatina (a small Roman pastry).  Fun fact: Caffe Roscioli is the best thing that’s happened to Campo de’ Fiori in recent times.  Almost two years ago, bakers, delicatessen owners and brothers Pierlugi and Alessandro Roscioli took over a run down local bar and turned into the morning destination by upgrading the coffee drinks with Giamaica caffe, the relatively exclusive Italian torrefazione, and making all the sweet and savory confections on site- traditional and vintage pastries, delicious sandwiches, and hiring architects/designers to create a very modern space.  A long and narrow corridor with high ceilings, light hues and beautiful photography hanging above industrial coffee machines as the small of toasted sugar feels the air, the vibe is futuristic art gallery meets pastry shop.  There is, however, one downside-  the corridor, aka the main area is a tight squeeze for space at the counter and the cashier (niched at the entrance), and an uncomfortable wait when it comes time to pay.  Here’s how I make my life just a little bit easier -  by being MasterCard contactless, in other words, I make the payment part of my morning ritual a ten-second turn-around - five seconds for the cashier to key in the amount, five seconds for processing. . .

All the questions I asked myself as I tested out Contactless in Rome:

What the heck is a contactless payment?  A secure payment method (via debit, credit or smartcards/chip cards) using near field communication NFC, essentially digital communication protocols allowing two electronic devices to transmit to each other.  Or, as I like to say, an intimate, finite conversation between your card and a point of sale POS terminal.

How do I know if I have a contactless credit card? Take a good look at your Mastercard, and any other card you have in your wallet. If there is a symbol in the upper right corner - four frequency waves - you've got contact, or better yet you have a contactless-enable card* and can make contactless payments

How does it work? Next time you are about to make a payment, whether at Roscioli or anywhere else, look closely at the POS terminal for the Contactless symbol and then let the cashier know you will use a contactless-enabled card.  Once ready, bring your card within very close proximity to the POS terminal and wait for the beep. Payment is automatically transmitted. No need to insert, no need to sign. Best of all, your card never leaves your hand, and encryption protects your data.

If my card is "communicating", does that mean once I make a payment it will automatically communicate with other devices like what sometimes happens when I use blue tooth? Nope, communication is secured, encrypted and limited to POS terminal and your card, nothing else.

Is it true that there a maximum or limit to what I can purchase contactless? 25 euro is the maximum amount before the POS requests additional security, i.e. signature or pin code. In my experience, whereas many Rome-based vendors are aware that contactless payments can still be processed for amounts superior to 25 euro by simply asking you to sign or enter pin without physically taking your card out of your hand, there are still some vendors who don’t understand how Contactless works.  These vendors will either tell you that contactless does not work for amounts superior to 25 euro or will ask you to submit your card to them, and then process payment in the traditional method.  It may be up to you to educate the vendors on how contactless works with amounts more than 25 euro.

Where can I use it and what if my card is not Italian? Can I use my card in other countries? I’ve had a lot of fun researching this because there is no definitive answer that I can find on the internet which meant I visited all my favorite bars, asked a lot of questions and had a lot of great drinks.  The result of all this practical research?  My cards worked, and it seems that any contactless-enabled credit card (regardless of country of origin) should be accepted where ever there is a POS with the contactless symbol. No matter what, I suggest you confirm with your issuer prior to traveling. Source: UK Cards Association

What if I don’t have a Contactless-enabled card, can I pay using my phone?  Yes. You can. And there are a few options.  iPhone users who use Apple Pay may use it with contactless POS and so can Android users who have Android pay.  *Italian Android users should check with their card provider for coordinated set up.

Escape Lisbon at Sintra's Fairy-Tale Palace Hotel

When Lisbon starts to feel too much like a city, head to Sintra along the coast for palaces, parks, and a little R&R.   This article first appeared in Fathom, September 2017.

Your palace awaits.  Photo by Erica Firpo.

SINTRA, Portugal – We asked for a fairy tale, and we definitely got one. For a long weekend away from busy Lisbon, we went to the wooded mountainside of Sintra because it is home to a bounty of castles and palaces representing architecture and history spanning millennia. Perfect for hiding out. From medieval to Art Deco, our goal was full fairy-tale immersion in the UNESCO cultural landscape that is said to have inspired Walt Disney’s famous castle. Our hotel, the romantic era Tivoli Palácio de Seteais fell right in line with the fantasy.


Rates start from $490.

Salao Nobre at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais.

Salao Nobre at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais.

A room at the hotel.

You will feel like royalty.


A standalone palace set in the higher foothills of the Sintra Mountains, where the entire expanse of the Sintra-Cascais National Park is at your feet and the romantic Palácio Nacional da Pena and the medieval Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) sit high on the rocky peaks above. The hotel is walking distance to the town of Sintra, and taxis are on call.

Hotel Style
The late 18th-century neoclassical palace is a period piece, a Portuguese Downton Abbey with elegant period furniture and decor that immediately transported me out of the 21st century. Though it is a palace with regal sprawl, the experience is incredibly personal and intimate. In spite of crashing a christening party, we felt the manor was ours and ours alone.

This Place Is Perfect For
Couples seeking a discreet and gorgeous weekend getaway. Groups (weddings!) wanting a full-service sojourn with lounging, spa, photo ops, and Michelin-worthy meals. And flawless families clad in luxurious linen who need a few days off.

But Not So Perfect For
Families with small, active children who may not appreciate antiques.

What's on Site
Seteais is a micro kingdom, a stately palace with gardens, tennis courts, a 19th-century topiary maze, a beautiful pool, and a wood-slat terrace. The two-wing palace is divided by a neoclassical arch, a historic monument immortalizing Prince Regent John VI and Princess Carlota Joaquin. Sitting rooms, dining rooms, and salons network the ground and bottom levels; guest rooms fill the ground and first levels through both wings. The bar extends to an open-air terrace decorated with fruit trees. The former dovecote is now a tiny and delightfully tranquil spa.

View of the Garden Maze. Photo by Erica Firpo.

View of the Garden Maze. Photo by Erica Firpo.

Swim or rest by the pool. Photo by Erica Firpo.

A Romantic Meal for Two.

Food + Drink
We had brunch and dinner at the Palace restaurant, and both were rich in taste and design. But our favorite meal was lunch from the bar on the terrace overlooking the pool and valley — an amazing and light sopa de peixe (fish soup) and a tiger prawn risotto. The setting was magical. (I can only imagine what it must be like caught in a rain storm during tea time). In the late afternoons, we enjoyed lemonade and ices freshly made from Seteais’ own fruit trees poolside.

Number of Rooms
Thirty period piece rooms and suites. Our ground-level room faced the entrance courtyard, which gave us a front-row view to the mist over Palácio Nacional da Pena. The garden and valley views are even more spectacular.

In-Room Amenities
You had me at queijadas, those tiny egg pastries made with fresh cheese that appeared every afternoon alongside a bottle of port. We only glanced at the mini bar filled with local snacks, water, and beverages, and the de rigeur Nespresso machine. My daughter entertained herself with domino and Spillikin sets from the Tivoli Kids welcome bag, and we caught up Disney’s Soy Luna in Portuguese on the flat-screen TV. My favorite Elemis products were in the bathrooms.

After enjoying a cornucopia of a Sunday brunch, the weekday breakfast was a bit weak.

Standout Detail
Palácio de Seteais has decidedly maintained its late 18th- and early 19th-century architectural history, from the original royal arch to the garden maze. Thanks to the unique microclimate of Sintra, Palácio de Seteais is incredibly atmospheric — foggy in the mornings, sunny midday, chilly by late afternoon, and cozy cold in the evenings.

Palazzo Pena, the castle that inspired Walt Disney. Photo by Erica Firpo.

The stunning views from the Sintra mountains. Photo by Erica Firpo.


Sinatra is a beautiful, walkable town with lots of boutiques and restaurants, set in the green hills of the Sintra mountains. The area is great for laid-back walks or more strenuous hikes through the Parque de Sintra and visits to the numerous historic castles (from early medieval to romantic to 20th century) that hide in the hills. In 1992, the entire area became the first UNESCO cultural landscape. In other words, you can get your nature and culture on at the same time.

What to Do Nearby
The historic center of Sintra is a labyrinth of boutiques, wine bars, and restaurants. Souvenir shops abound, but the Sintra Bazar is a hub of traditional crafts. For culture vultures, plan to spend the entire day in the Parques de Sintra exploring fantasy Palacio de Pena, the medieval Moorish castle, a quirky chalet, a convent, and more. Then visit the eclectic Quinta de Regalieria, a turn-of-the-century architectural folly. My restaurant favorites are both set into the hills of historic Sintra: Tascantiga, a small tapas spot with a 21st-century vibe that definitely requires a reservation in the summer, and Tacho Real, an historic home with outdoor street seating, live Fado music, and traditional Portugese dishes.

Good to Know
Bring great walking shoes and a scarf. Plan to arrive early at Palacio de Pena (no later than 9.30 a.m.) for the ticket queue. You’ll want to buy the combined Pena/Moorish Castle ticket or, for the more ambitious, the five-park ticket. 

What I Didn’t Do But Wish I Had
A horseback riding trail tour through the park.


How to Get There
Lisbon International Airport (LIS) is 20 miles (a 35-minute drive) from Sintra. The airport is served by flag carrier TAP Portugal, along with US airlines American, Delta, and United, as well as most major European carriers like Alitalia, British Airways, Turkish Airways, and Air France.

Getting Around
You will need a car to get there, but not once you are there. There are buses, taxis, and tuk-tuks, but the entire area is walkable.

Cheat Sheet: Day Trip from Lisbon
I stayed overnight, but Sintra is an easy day trip from Lisbon, accessible by local trains, Uber, and taxis. (The locals prefer Uber to taxis.) For a perfect day, wake up early and catch an Uber to Sintra. Start with a visit to Palácio Nacional da Pena, where the exterior is more interesting than the interior, and doesn’t require waiting on an insane line. Next stop, the less crowded Castelo dos Mouros, where the interiors and exteriors are both outstanding. Then go to Tivoli Palácio de Seteais for a long, leisurely lunch on the outdoor patio, followed by a stroll around the hotel where you should totally pretend it’s all yours. From there, walk to Quinta de Regalieria and wander for hours around the Game of Thrones castle through the grounds and turrets, pausing for pictures at the subterranean tower. The only reason to leave Quinta is because you're tired of walking. From here, it’s a 20-minute walk back to the shops and cafes in town for souvenirs and refreshments and to catch the train back to Lisbon.

SLO down in California's Central Coast

Left Coast, Best Coast, Central Coast.  In the very middle of California is a gorgeous 350 mile stretch of coastline, countryside and mountains known as the Central Coast, an area of four regions and six, count'em, six counties linked together by a ragtag band of beach communities, old mission and university towns, and farmland, all tricked out with Mother Nature's very best from blazing sunsets and wintergreen peaks to mammoth-sized seals, cuddly otters, blue whales and herds of Hearst zebras.  Forget the panning, the Central Coast is true California Gold.

And in the center of it all, and almost equidistant from the California you and I know, is the old Spanish mission town San Luis Obispo.  Just as chill as its acronym, SLO is laid back, a home grown college town with a population of 47, 000, where A-Frames, Victorians, and Craftsman bungalows surround the agro-tech Cal Poly State University.   In the center of it all is San Luis Obispo de Tolosa,  the 18th century mission, the core to a network of coffee bars, vintage boutiques, pyschadelic donut shops, a Farmer's Market, and local businesses, in postcard perfect classic California style.  It's a slice of Americana pie, so picturesque that it's been a movie set back drop. In fact, when I was returned this past August for our annual family meet up, we bumped into Keanu and Winona in downtown SLO.

SLO, like most towns in California, is one of those place where it's easy to chill, to hang out, to get out.   Walk, run, hike, surf, zipline, sky dive, air balloon, ski, kayak. . . every outdoorsy adventure you want to have is right in front of you and under that gorgeous California sun. Each time I visit, it's like I am living the Nike slogan all the time- I just do it.  I've learned how to surf at Morro Bay and then spent a few hours watching the otters sunbather near by; rode some trails through the Oceano Dunes, the largest coastal dunes left in California- and backdrop to a Star Wars film, and zip-lined through the wineries

Everyone will tell you that the Central Coast is California's best kept secret.  It's beautiful, "real" California. The colors are intense, and so is the diversity of the terrain.  You can hike the foggy foothills in the morning, and lose yourself among the dunes in the same afternoon.  And there is no doubt that the sunsets are the best in the world, especially when watching the Pacific Ocean go technicolor.  Even more amazing are when California's incredible wildlife make guest appearances.  In my last visit, I tried whale watching, spied otters and elephant seals sun bathing, and caught up with the zebras running through Hearst ranch.  Next up: bird watching.  California keeps me outdoors more hours than in, and that's all I need.

No matter what, my favorite Central Coast moments, and there are so many, have been just taking in the panoramas and turning off, or better yet, putting down my phone.  Ironically I noticed something just a little different about SLO on this last trip- it was cash free and easy to be contactless.  I know, I know, contactless is the norm nowadays, except in Rome where cash is king and hovering a credit card or smart phone over a reader is ridiculous.  But in the Central Coast, contactless is just how things are done.  Take my morning zip line adventure at Margarita Adventures for example:  I signed the liability release, and then zip-lined over vineyards.  I spent what felt like hours picking out the prettiest tie-die donuts from SLO Donut Co.  My surf lesson with Trevor? That incredible clam chowder in a sour dough bowl at Tognazzini's Dockside?  Those tickets at Hearst Castle? Yep, I did it all.  


More favorites on the Central Coast:

Just an hour drive north up the coast to San Simeon and Hearst Castle, William Randolf Hearst's mountain top getaway -national landmark and true California history.  After the tour, look out for Hearst's zebras on the ranch, and then head to Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals up close and personal.

Closer to SLO is Morro Rock, a humongous volcanic plug in Morro Bay, where you enjoy the otters sunbathing, or get your sea legs in a whale watching adventure with SubSea toursWavelengths is where I signed up for surf lessons, while my sister kayaks the bay.  We make pit stops for clams and chips and fried oreos at Giovanni's Fish Market, and barbecued oysters and clam chowder sour dough bowl at Tognazzini's Dockside.  

For laid back days, Pismo Beach and Avila Beach are two of many great seaside communities where you can pretty much just hang out, catch sunsets and live the beach life.  I'm pretty partial to the cuban sandwich at Paradise Beer Garden.  For more hands on adventure, Pacific Dunes Ranch has trail riding through the Oceano Dunes Reserve where you can race dune buggies around the largest beaches I've ever seen . .  .


How to get to San Luis Obispo

Whether from San Francisco or Los Angeles, coastal or inland, the lead up to SLO is beautiful. Drive north on the 101and you're drifting through seaside communities,  take the Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner** from Los Angeles and you're crossing through the very best of California terrain- red rocks, mountains and coast line.  Head south on the 101 (or north on the 5) and you're driving through FarmVille.  Every frame is an old Sunset magazine editorial spread, and every town is a movie backdrop with houses like Mitch Ever's ranch in the Parent Trap, the House of Seven Gables and Grandpa's house in The Lost Boys.  No matter what, when planning out a drive on the 101, keep an eye on current and up-to-date weather-related traffic conditions.  You don't want a landslide stopping your flow.

** Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight both take about in about five to six hours between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.  Though the trip is about twice as long as the drive, it's very scenic and the National Park Service is on board sharing regional heritage for Trails & Rails.